Is there anybody out there? What is there in this universe? Is there nothing more than matter and energy? What about you and me; are we nothing other than highly-developed, highly-evolved systems of matter and energy that happen to exist right now? Or is there, in fact, something more and something greater than us?
Tonight is the first of what will be a series of what we call ‘apologetics’ messages, once a month on a Sunday evening. By ‘apologetics’ we do not mean that Christians need to be ‘apologetic’ in the sense that we should be saying ‘sorry’ for Christianity. Apologetics is all about giving a defence of the faith; it comes from the Greek text of 1 Peter 3:15, which says ‘always being prepared to make a defence (Greek apologia) to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.’ These messages are addressed to people from the outside who have genuine enquiries about the Christian faith, but they are also intended to help and equip Christians to know how to make a defence of the faith.
And this is bound to be one of the first great questions that will be asked: is there a God? Is there, in fact, anybody out there?
1 We are facing the challenge of modern atheism
If figures are to be believed, atheism is growing. Something around 50% of people in this country would say they are ‘non-religious’ and approaching 20% would go so far as to say that they are conscientiously atheistic. In recent years we have had the so-called ‘four horsemen of atheism’ – Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, all of whom have published books and have quite a following, along with others like Stephen Hawking. We have had the atheistic slogans emblazoned on buses: ‘There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
And indeed the culture we live in, the assumptions that are made in the west, in the twenty-first century, are basically atheistic and materialistic – there is nothing but matter and energy. It is this that drives so much education, research, planning, politics and media. Any mainstream media organisation will be governed by an atheistic mind set. Wonderful BBC documentaries narrated by Sir David Attenborough or Professor Brian Cox are dominated by an atheistic agenda. The same is true, largely and increasingly, in schools and universities. I remember visiting a secondary school in rural Shropshire about six years ago and debating with a secular humanist and being rather struck, and saddened, by the fact that children in Year 10 seemed so sold on atheism.
But let’s come to this famous passage in Acts 17, and to Paul standing in the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, in the middle of Athens, with all these Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. What does he say to them? ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To the unknown god.”’
2 The image of God cannot be eradicated from the human psyche
Why are the men of Athens so ‘religious’? Why do they have an altar dedicated to ‘the unknown god’? What is going on here? The fact is that no human civilization, no matter how advanced or sophisticated it may become, can ever shake off the idea, indeed the need, for there to be a God who is to be worshipped. Athens, like the rest of ancient Greece, had its pantheon, it many gods, living on Mount Olympus – but there was in the heart of that people a recognition that there was one God.
Come back again to that slogan on the buses. It was worded ‘There’s probably no god.’ Even that is hedging their bets a little. Why didn’t they go the whole hog and sat ‘There’s definitely no god’, or ‘We can be certain that there is no god’? Because even Dawkins, like philosophers going back through the centuries, cannot completely rid themselves of the notion and indeed the need for there to be a God, somewhere. Why are Dawkins and others such angst-ridden people? Because they are arguing for a position which, deep in their human psyche, they can only be deeply uncomfortable with.
That is why it says in Psalm 14 and Psalm 53, ‘The fool says in his heart, there is no God’. The reason this is foolishness is because people who deny God are denying the one in whose image they are being made. When we, as Christians, think about God, we must begin with the fact that the Bible never proves the existence of God, or even tries to. The Bible assumes that God is, from the very first verse. Yes, there are places where belief in the existence of God is urged, perhaps the best example being Hebrews 11:6: ‘And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.’
But additionally, the Bible argues that belief in God is not only reasonable, but obligatory; that human beings have no excuse but to believe in God and to know that he exists. So we read in Romans 1:19-20: ‘For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.’
This is the point: if anyone looks into the night sky, or at the wing of a dragonfly, or witnesses a thunderstorm, or sees a stupendous view from the top of a mountain; if anyone does this and does not instinctively draw the conclusion that a great, wise, mighty Creator God made all this, then they are thinking perversely and rebelliously. They are giving evidence of their fallen mind. God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature’, seen in everything in creation, leave everyone without excuse. We have no right not to believe in God.
But someone might say, ‘that’s all very well, but how will that help me when I am trying to engage with my non-Christian friend?’
3 There are arguments for God’s existence that may be useful to us in apologetics
Over the centuries many different ‘proofs’ have been advanced to convince people that there is a God. And we can look briefly at the four main ones, before making some comments about these proofs. I venture on them with a little caution, and you will probably see some reason for my caution!
Ontological. This is the argument from Being. It says that God is a Being so great that no greater Being could be conceived of. Suppose the idea of such a great, perfect Being is in my mind as an idea. But if this great and perfect Being exists in my mind only as an idea, as non-existent, then there must be a Being which is even greater and more perfect, because it is existent, rather than non-existent! I would not normally recommend using this argument!
Cosmological. This is the argument from Cause. It says that everything we see around us must have a cause, an origin. A building had an architect, a machine was constructed by an engineer, and every single person has had parents. Nothing exists without a cause. And if we keep pushing the question further and further back, God himself is seen as the ultimate cause of everything. God alone is the uncreated Creator, the only Being who exists in a self-existent way, the First Cause, with nothing above him or behind him.
Teleological. This is the argument from Design. Do we not look around us and identify certain objects which have been designed by an intelligent person? We look at buildings, cars, clocks, iPhones and all the rest of it, and we know that no accident has produced them. They have been designed with a specific purpose or ‘end’ in view. Now then – we look at the ‘natural’ marvels of the earth and the universe, whether galaxies, cells or molecules, and we draw the conclusion that there must be a Designer.
Moral. This is the argument from Ethics. Why do we have a sense of right and wrong, a conscience? Why is a sense of morality found across the human race? It may vary in detail, but in general we find it everywhere. Why is this? It is because God himself is a God with absolute standards of right and wrong, and he has made human beings in his image.
Now although these arguments or proofs might be interesting to us, or even useful in debate with non-Christians, they have no absolute or ultimate value. What do I mean by this? None of them actually prove God. If they could be used as proofs of God; if God’s existence depended on these arguments, then there is some higher court of appeal than God himself. The argument I use might be seen to have a higher authority than God himself. But this cannot be true – it would make God to be less than God.
Instead we should say that these arguments or proofs may happen to be true or useful, because God is. God’s existence and being come first, these arguments come later. That is not to say that they may not be useful. But – there is a better way!
4 We proclaim Jesus Christ as God’s Son
The punchline of this passage is what comes at the end of verse 23. ‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’ And from this Paul goes on to speak about what God has done in time, in this world, how he has raised Jesus from the dead and calls on all people to repent.
We aren’t interested in proving to people that there is some God, a God, any God, this God or that God. We mustn’t be satisfied if people, like these Athenians, worship an ‘unknown God’. If someone tells us that they used not to believe in any God, but now they do believe in God, we are bound to ask them ‘which God’? The only God we proclaim to be true is this God, the Triune God, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, the God of the Bible. We do not simply want to see atheists become theists; we want them to become Christians. Even the demons believe in one God – and shudder; but only Christians confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, and dedicate their lives to him.
That is why the best kind of apologetics is evangelism. The kind of apologetics which stays with these arguments for God’s existence – ontological, cosmological, teleological and moral – is really pre-evangelism; it is philosophy. It is not necessarily wrong for us to use these arguments. Perhaps we can start here; even Paul started with the common ground that he could occupy with the Athenians. But it is better to rely on the Bible itself, and to move people towards Jesus Christ as he is set forth in the Bible. This is Paul’s method here. See that Paul moves decisively away from philosophy and speculation, from the many ‘ideas’ of the Athenians, to a gospel proclamation, to a summons and a command from God himself:
The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.
If we speak to people about God, we must speak to them about God’s Son – Jesus, sent from heaven, crucified and risen from the dead, the one before we will all appear for judgement. The one who is ‘out there’ is the Judge that no one will be able to look away from. We need to pray that God will cause people to be interested enough in our message, as these Athenians were, that we have an opportunity to speak about Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the final judgement. As with Paul, many will ridicule us. But if some wanted to hear Paul again on these subjects, we can reasonably pray that they might want to hear us too.