The Gospel message in the Bible assumes the existence of God. So, is belief in God, in and of itself, meritorious?
Belief in God is basic to Christianity. The Bible never sets out to prove the existence of God — it assumes God’s existence. Yes, the apostle Paul in the book of Romans say that God’s existence can be seen from created things — but in a day and age when people talk and write (quite seriously) about self-organization in the universe, and the development of life from natural processes, this observation seems a bit less obvious than it did at the time it was written. The Christian Gospel of Jesus Christ has a lot of backstory to it. The Old Testament story of Israel is an assumption for the New Testament. The story of Jesus is understood against the backdrop of the previous story of Israel. And, what we have in the Old Testament is the story of Israel’s relationship with God. This growing and changing portrait of God lies behind all that Jesus says about his “heavenly Father.”
So, if belief in God is considered a disputed point, can the Gospel still be heard?
Or, looking at it another way: if faith in Christ is the basis of human salvation from sin and divine judgement (as generally regarded by Christians), and faith in Christ presupposes belief in God, then is belief in God itself meritorious?
Some people already believe that the issue of faith versus unbelief is the existence of God. They seem to think belief in the existence of God, per se, is the essence of Christianity — and that it somehow helps to make one a “good person.” I don’t know how many people really think like that — but it appears that some do. Yet, for Christians, the issue of faith is trust in Christ. We see Christ as being our way to understanding God.
Is belief in [a] God meritorious? I think the answer is No. My reasons follow.
1.) The Christian faith places a high value on what is true and real. It has sometimes been pointed out that Christian faith, in some ways, gave impetus to the rise of science — and scientific method. Certainly a Bible that contains such a passage as this:
“Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’” (John 8:31, 32 NRSV).
is also a book which is concerned about what is real and true.
For some people the question of the existence of God is a question about what is objectively real and true. Making it an issue of salvation (let’s say) or an issue of good and evil prejudices the question. And, it makes it seem like salvation from God’s judgement rest upon opinions only — which it certainly does not. Belief in God per se, is not, in itself, saving. As the letter of James reminds us: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.” (James 2:19 NRSV). There is obviously no merit in believing what one is forced or (eschatologically) threatened to believe — especially if it is something which we might otherwise think is false.
2.) It matters what kind of God a person affirms. There are toxic conceptions of God. If God is understood as being harsh and cruel, his followers tend to become harsh and cruel. An authoritarian God produces authoritarian disciples. God is the center of meaning and value. God gives direction to life. People, thus, become like the God they serve.
This is why Calvinism bothers some of us so deeply. This point of view seems to posit the existence of an capricious and monstrous God who (from before all time) chose some for salvation and deliberately by-passed all others. This is a God who certainly does not “love the world” — and all the people in it. Further, this point of view seems to see power as constraint — rather than self-giving love.
Thus, John Wesley says of the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination:
This is the blasphemy clearly contained in the horrible decree of predestination! And here I fix my foot. On this I join issue with every assertor of it. You represent God as worse than the devil; more false, more cruel, more unjust. But you say you will prove it by scripture. Hold! What will you prove by Scripture? That God is worse than the devil? It cannot be. Whatever that Scripture proves, it never proved this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning. Do you ask, “What is its true meaning then?” If I say, ” I know not,” you have gained nothing; for there are many scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense, than to say it had such a sense as this. It cannot mean, whatever it mean besides, that the God of truth is a liar. Let it mean what it will, it cannot mean that the Judge of all the world is unjust. No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works; that is, whatever it prove beside, no scripture can prove predestination. (Sermon #128 – Free Grace.)
This also may have been what was behind the recent controversies over “whether Christians and Muslims believe in the same God.” Obviously, there are similarities, but there are also differences. I guess some people think that the Muslim idea of God is necessarily war-like and cruel — and thus, Islam is necessarily war-like and cruel. It appears to me that there is reason to think otherwise — that many Muslims do affirm a God of love and justice — but, nonetheless, the issue of the character of God is not an irrelevant issue.
The character of God shapes the worshiper. In line with the Old Testament, Christians affirm a God who is “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”; a God who is “is good to all” and whose “compassion is over all that he has made.” (Psalms 145:8, 9 NRSV.)
I have often suspected that many people have resorted to atheism because they have come to see the idea of God as being the ultimate enemy of human freedom. (It always seemed to me that the atheism of Christopher Hitchens was of this type.) I have addressed this issue before. It seems to me, on the contrary that the idea of God is the basis for affirming human worth, human freedom, and human moral responsibility. When God is denied, political regimes are more likely to become unrestrained and oppressive. But, the objection makes sense to me — and no one can deny that religious oppression exists.
3.) The Bible and the early Christians never set out to prove the existence of God in the contemporary sense. The only passage in the Bible that comes close to trying to prove God’s existence is the (aforementioned) passage in the writings of the apostle Paul: Romans 1:18-23:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. (NRSV.)
Idolatry is the issue the apostle Paul is addressing — not atheism as we know it today. My sense of this passage is that he is primarily concerned with moral issues. He is focusing attention on the moral effects of exchanging the “eternal power and divine nature” of God for “images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” This is hardly a dispassionate philosophical argument on the pros and cons of theism. His concern is the moral effects of idolatry. In a similar way the Psalms say that “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God'” precisely because “They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.”
The same can be said for the earliest Christian theologians. They did not set out to prove the existence of God — at least, not in the modern sense. Their arguments were intended to be a confirmation of God’s existence — or to be a way of better understanding the nature of God. Thomas Aquinas’s arguments about God were intended to confirm faith — not eliminate it. They were intended to show the reasonableness of faith.
But, of course, if we take a completely mechanistic view of the world, in which free will, moral responsibility, spirituality, and so forth are excluded from the outset, logical arguments for God are often going to seem unlikely — since the ground underneath them has been cut out to begin with. Faith can begin with a hunch that life is meaningful — and that we are all morally responsible for our acts. This “hunch” is natural to us. And, Christian faith (along with other world views) seeks to provide guidance for people following this hunch. Disallow the hunch and the answer doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
4.) God cannot be fully understood anyway. It is axiomatic (isn’t it?) that any God we could fully comprehend isn’t the Creator God.
Thus Thomas Aquinas says:
From effects not proportionate to the cause no perfect knowledge of that cause can be obtained. Yet from every effect the existence of the cause can be clearly demonstrated, and so we can demonstrate the existence of God from His effects; though from them we cannot perfectly know God as He is in His essence. (Summa Theologica Part 1, Question 2, Article 2, Response to Objection 3.)
And, he also points out that we cannot know what God is, we can only (at best) know what God is not. In introducing Part 1, Question 3 of the Summa Theologica, he writes:
When the existence of a thing has been ascertained there remains the further question of the manner of its existence, in order that we may know its essence. Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.
God is always greater than any mental or philosophical conception a human being could ever have of God. No image of God is ever fully adequate. One simply does not — and cannot possess — fully knowledge.
Faith in God (properly understood) excludes certainty.
5.) God is the center of a person’s understanding of meaning and value. It seems to me that this is the Least Common Denominator of belief in God — to believe that there is a grounding for meaning and value in life. Philosophical or traditional conceptions of God are secondary to this. A Theist is someone who believes that there is meaning to life — and that we bear some responsibility for the way we conduct our lives. Conceptions of God have changed over time — and (see above) none of them are fully adequate anyway. Some may be mistaken.
But, the human mind is naturally adapted to belief in God because it is always seeking to make sense of life. It asks what we ought to do — which is not necessarily the same thing as what is advantageous for us.
To follow this cue is to seek for something more than science can give us. And it is natural for us to seek answers in the company of others who have sought the same things. Here is the role of Scripture and Tradition to the life of faith. Living faiths fall back on what we might call Wisdom Traditions that inform and guide their thinking. Thus, canons and creeds and methods of interpretation arise to keep alive the contemporary dialogue with the voices of the past who have also sought out the meaning and purpose of life. In Christianity, the Bible and prayer and selfless service to others are the means by which our spiritual and moral lives are shaped.
This quest is not a rejection of science at all. Science has had great success in analyzing the components of the world and the processes of change and development in our world. But, to do its work, the questions of meaning and purpose must be left aside. Analytic scientific reasoning, by its very nature, excludes the spiritual quest of meaning and purpose and value, as a tacit first step in understanding the world. In order for things to be the object of scientific study they must be reduced to a naturalistic entities. This explains why science has such a hard time accounting for (or sometimes admitting the reality of) free will, or morality, or beauty, or spirit, or even God. These realities have been excluded from the outset, to make the matters being studied scientifically comprehensible.
This explains why Creationism continues to persist. People believe their lives are meaningful — they want their children to believe so too. Creationists are able to convince people that the concept of evolution is the enemy of meaning and faith and morality. They can produce quotes from noted evolutionary scientists to demonstrate their point. Science never stamps out the notion that life is meaningful — or that people are morally responsible for their actions — and it was never designed to do that anyway.
In an article I read recently, Dr. Tony Jack, a professor of philosophy and neuroscience, and director of the Brain, Mind and Consciousness Lab at Case Western Reserve University is quoted as saying:
Our dialogue around religion would be more productive if scientists respect the insights that religion can offer, and if religious individuals would respect the insights science can offer…. They are different kinds of insight, so there is really no reason for so much conflict to arise.
What would be the least a person would have to accept to hear the Christian message meaningfully? I suspect they would only need to accept the quest for meaning, purpose and value. This is the essence of Theism anyway. They would have to be willing to let the Christian story inform their worldview — and influence their life.
But, there is good reason to think that bare belief in God is not meritorious, in and of itself. What is right and true matters first. Conceptions of God may be authoritarian or oppressive or tyrannical or capricious — giving rise to behaviors that mirror those attributes. Any conception of God will be inadequate anyway.
The Christian Gospel addresses the perennial human quest to make sense of life and morality.