A sermon by Michael Jensen
It really was one of the most interesting and dramatic confrontations in human history. The apostle Paul, learned Jew and champion of the new faith of Christianity, stood in the Areopagus in Athens – that famous blend of parliament and philosophy club in the centre of the city – and addressed the learned Greeks on the subject of God.
It’s not as if the Greeks had not thought about God before: in fact, they’re very religious. He recites the words of the pagan poet-philosopher Epimenides, in vs 28:
‘For in him we live and move and have our being’.
Belief in a God is a point of common ground for Paul and his audience of Greeks.
Today things are quite different. While belief in God is still running at something like 70% of the population, writers like Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have mounted a savage attack on God. Their claim is that belief in God is simply not something that rational, 21st Century human beings need. Belief in God ‘poisons everything’ as Hitchens says. As the author Sam Harris writes:
‘While religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are’.
So that’s the claim: that belief in God is a gross form of stupidity in the scientific age, and that belief in God causes us to do bad things. We’d be better off with him.
Now, it may not surprise you that I think we’ll be able to see that belief in God is entirely reasonable, and even compellingly so. There are good reasons to think that there’s a supreme creator being, like the ones Christians believe in.
The first reason is because the universe and all that is in it has all the hallmarks of being the product of a mind. That the universe is like it is, is so highly improbable – and I mean really improbable – that the best explanation for it is that it’s designed by a designer.
Now, we need to give this idea a bit of nuance, because the rise of the theory of evolution is claimed to have trumped the idea that God designed the universe. But even evolution, which supposedly operated by chance to bring about swordfish and giraffes and human beings and the self-consciousness of human beings, operates according to precise laws and constants – principles that seem to make it really good at producing life in extraordinary abundance.
The process of evolution is highly improbable, and consists of a long chain of massively improbable events – starting with the obvious fact that the planet on which we stand is neither too hot nor too cold.
As Professor Keith Ward of Oxford University says: ‘It is because the set of ‘might-have-beens’ is so immensely long that the existence of intelligent life on this planet seems so immensely improbable.’ Now, improbable things can happen. But they are…well, by definition, improbable!
The existence of a God seems offer an explanation for us that chance really can’t. God seems a pretty good explanation of the data – certainly more likely than chance alone.
The second good reason to believe that there is a God is that God gives an explanation of the cause of things. Everything in the physical world is caused by something else. And that something else was also caused by something else. But where does it end? We cannot imagine a chain of causes reaching back infinitely, like our reflections in a double mirror.
Logically it has to end somewhere – and God, as the first cause of everything, is a hypothesis that fits that logic. Now everyone from a clever six year old to Richard Dawkins will of course pipe up at this point and say ‘yes, but who made God?’ But if we understand what we are talking about we’ll see that the question is absurd. God is by definition uncaused and unmade. He has no beginning: he IS the beginning. That’s something we say about physical things: which is why the beginning of all things must not be itself a physical thing. It has to be something that is not itself subject to physical causes – like God.
A third good reason to think that there’s a God lies with morality. There are good atheists, let me be clear about that. But it is interesting to note how difficult atheist thinkers find it to give a rational explanation for good and evil.
If there’s only chance, then the consistent position would be to say that good and evil are simply human dreams, or convenient agreements between people. Yet there seems to be a widespread agreement amongst human beings that there is ‘good’ and ‘not good’. And this ‘good’ that we recognise transcends individuals and communities.
We simply can’t imagine a world in which we cannot say ‘what Pol Pot did in Cambodia in the 1970s was a monstrous evil and he should be punished for it’. How can we judge him, if there’s no big idea of what is good? And if there is such an idea, then it makes perfect sense for us to think of it as coming from a same mind that made the universe as an ordered place that makes sense.
You can be good without believing in God, but when you do good, it’s doing what God wants.
These three good reasons to believe that there is a God are matched by the fact that there are good reasons to think that materialism, which is the main alternative to belief in God, doesn’t work.
Materialism is the belief that ‘there is nothing but the physical’. What you see is what there is; human beings are nothing but the products of a vast chain of physical forces. Now, there are highly rational and very clever people who are materialists; nevertheless, materialism is a faulty explanation.
A materialist has to believe that human beings, including their minds and the things they believe, are the result of purely physical processes. This means: the things we believe about the world will be those things that help us survive, not those things that are actually true. They may be true, but we have no way of knowing that they are, since the just serve us in the game of survival. Reason itself is simply an illusion that keeps us alive. This means that the whole idea of an objectively ordered and understandable universe itself falls apart, if we accept that there is nothing but the material universe.
So, it is, I think, completely reasonable to think that there is a Supreme Being, who designed and caused the world, and who gave it a good and beautiful purpose. The world is as ordered and delightful as we experience it, because it is the product of a mind which we can recognise as something like ours, only infinitely greater.
As the apostle Paul said to the Athenians: ‘in him, we live and move, and have our being’. And more than that: ‘he is not far from every one of us’.
But do we know him? Where is this God, if he is so wise, and powerful, and good?
Paul wanted to tell the Greeks about Jesus Christ: for in him, the Supreme Being, the maker of everything that is, the one who is beyond is in power and knowledge and goodness, revealed himself to us.
In Jesus, God showed that he was not just a philosophical argument, but a person. With Jesus, the Lord of space and time, who stands outside of space and time, became part of space and time. The one who is perfect Spirit took on solid flesh, and trod on the dusty ground, so that human beings like us could be able to see him and known him with our own limited, human minds.