Probably few questions have been asked – and answered – as much as this one. Many of these answers have been ‘yes’—from ancient philosophers to modern thinkers. However, there have always been those who expressed skepticism and doubt in the existence of God. Atheism indeed has grown rapidly in the developed world in recent decades.
The belief in the existence of God is not primarily the product of a proof or demonstration. People from all walks of life have believed in God without any proof at all. On top of this, many believers say that proof is what a believer does after she or he has come to faith in God. St. Anselm, who lived in the eleventh century in England, put it this way: faith seeking understanding. Although he set out two different ways to prove God’s existence, they each sprang first from faith…and then came the understanding.
We each grapple with this question in different ways. Most of us never really bother to get into a line of thought about God. The existence of God just seems obvious, from the beauty of creation to the intricacy of the human body. Some approach the issue in an intellectual way – reading books and taking classes.
But doubts about God hinge on two things.
The first is what we mean by God. God is far from the ‘straw man’ that atheists often imagine – a version of God as a creature more or less modeled on us, who arbitrarily decides things in some magical way, goes into pouts when angry, and showers blessings when pleased.
This is far from what the deepest and most solid Christian thinking says: God is the ground of all being, infinite love and grace, the mystery behind everything that is, the font of goodness toward which everything is moving. The Christian God is not the Divine Meddler who snaps his fingers and, presto, things happen. The Christian God, rather, is Goodness itself. God is personal love, in a way far more infinite than we can ever be loving persons. When hearts are open to God, people feel an abundance of grace and love.
In this way, God is rather like the way we think about the sun: the light is there, it pours forth. It’s our choice to stay in the shadows.
The second issue is whether our hearts are open to mystery, to something beyond what we can feel, see, and measure. Science has certainly made huge advances in understanding the material world. We can see this every time we visit the hospital or turn on our smartphone. Science works!
Yet we have a choice of staying with this level of existence—atomic, molecular—or of acknowledging that, within and beyond this level, there exists other dimensions of life which are also real. Such as? Art, music, human interaction, language, thought.
The word “mystery” doesn’t only refer to something that Sherlock Holmes dealt with; it means the deepest layers of existence, hinted at in every moment, seen like illuminations at various moments in our lives, and the foundation of everything else we experience. Mystery is a way to point to the unexplained graciousness of existence—in spite of moments of pain and fear. Our world is, first of all and surprisingly, gracious.
Why is love prior to hate? Truth prior to deceit? Life prior to death? Because we instinctually understand love, truth, and life as the components that ARE, and hate, deceit, and death as absences, as holes, as negatives. God is the reason that what is most real is what is positive—good, true, beautiful, alive.
God’s goodness is there in spite of evil, pain, and death. People say: “If God is omnipotent and good, God would not permit suffering and death.” But God’s omnipotence respects the freedom and laws of nature that God has brought about in creation. Jesus’ death shows us how God’s love works beyond even the greatest showing of evil.
Believers are people who, looking at and interpreting their lives, need a word to describe this mystery. The word for this is “God.”
Believers find in revelation a confirmation of this sense of mystery. God appears to Moses saying: I am who am (Exodus 3: We see Abraham enraptured when he experiences God (Genesis 15:7-17). Isaiah sees God and quakes (Isaiah 6:4-5); Ezekiel, in exile, see God in a fantastic vision of electronic lights (Ezekiel 1:4 ff.). Jesus talks about the finger of God coming among us (Luke 11:20) and ultimately says his destiny is to show us what God is like (John 14:9).
A few of us may get into the intellectual questions. There are many guides for these avenues because many believers have been privileged to put their minds to the service of their faith. Most of us will get there by attending to those luminous, sacred moments that come into every life. It is these—revealed in awe, truth and, most of all, love—that get us in touch with God.