Third article in the series “With Good Reason”
by Keith Bassham
In my last article, I explained that I would not begin the section on the existence of God by using the classic formulations (for instance, explaining the teleological argument, the anthropological argument, the cosmological argument, etc.). My reasons were basically two. First, these articles are intended to give some guidance to the average Christian for defending his or her faith in ordinary life situations, so I’m less interested in the jargon and more interested in how the arguments work.
And in the second place, I want to leave room for a Christian apologetic that demonstrates God. After all, the goal is not to win a debate about whether God exists, but to show Him to others as One who deserves their faith and trust. In other words, our apologetics should ultimately be God-glorifying. Paul writes to the Colossians, “Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.” (Colossians 4:5-6)
Also in the last article, I referenced to Tim Keller’s idea of a ladder with three rungs, a ladder that takes someone from unbelief to belief. A person on the first rung will realize that it takes faith to disbelieve as well as to believe in God. A person on the second rung in the ladder sees that it takes more faith to disbelieve than to believe. And the third rung is where personal commitment leads to certainty of belief.
Before, we showed that the common arguments against the existence of God are not so hard to overcome, and that underlying them is the hidden assumption that believing in God is a matter of faith while disbelieving is a matter of science, or reason, or intellect, or whatever one may want to use as an antonym of believing. The idea there is that it is unreasonable to have faith in God when there are so many “proofs” against His existence. The representative “proof” arguments we looked at — the presence of evil, the misbehavior of believers, and the lack of proof certain — were answered. Further, we discover that a good many scientists believe in God or some other higher power, indicating that science and technology have not ruled out belief in God. So if all the science and technology human intellect has gathered in the past six millennia have not effectively ruled out the existence of God, disbelief is just that — a matter of faith.
But how much faith does it take to disbelieve? Keller says it takes more to disbelieve than to believe. Why is that? Okay, here we might allow for a little jargon and introduce the term the anthropic principle. What that means is that it looks like the universe, or at least the part we know best, has been designed to produce and sustain humanity, and Christian apologists and scientists alike sometimes refer to the “fine-tuned universe.”
Let’s look at the problem from the other side, and assume for now God does not exist. Without God there is no Genesis creation, but somehow you have to explain how the universe came to be, and more importantly, you have to explain how we came to be.
The materialist’s answer is chance. Random events. Everything we know about the universe — galaxies, stars, planets, and other astronomical phenomena — and everything we know about the earth — gravity, light, heat, life forms — all that we acknowledge to exist is here because of a series of random natural events.
So, what are the odds that this planet containing these life forms flourishing in these physical circumstances arose by chance within this universe? I will allow Sir Roger Penrose, an English mathematical physicist and Emeritus Rouse Ball, Professor of Mathematics at the Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford, and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, to give the numbers (I included all the curricula vitae so you would know he was not a Vegas bookie, by the way). In his book, Large, Small, and the Human Mind, he says, referring to the so-called Big Bang, “What is the probability that purely by chance the universe had an initial singularity even remotely as it does? The probability is less than one part in 10 to the 10th power and this 10th power to the 123rd power. Where does this estimate come from? It is derived from a formula by Jacob Beckenstein and Stephen Hawking…. What does this say about the precision that must be involved in setting up the Big Bang? It is really very, very extraordinary…. If I were to put one zero on each elementary particle in the universe, I still could not write the number down in full. It is a stupendous number.”
Charles Edward White, professor of Christian thought and history at Spring Arbor University in Michigan, gives a few concrete examples of the problem:
“The fine-tuning of the universe is shown in the precise strengths of four basic forces. Gravity is the best known of these forces and is the weakest, with a relative strength of 1. Next comes the weak nuclear force that holds the neutron together. It is 1034 times stronger than gravity but works only at subatomic distances. Electromagnetism is 1,000 times stronger than the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force, which keeps protons together in the nucleus of an atom, is 100 times stronger yet. If even one of these forces had a slightly different strength, the life-sustaining universe we know would be impossible.
“If gravity were slightly stronger, all stars would be large, like the ones that produce iron and other heavier elements, but they would burn out too rapidly for the development of life. On the other hand, if gravity were weaker, the stars would endure, but none would produce the heavier elements necessary to form planets.
“The weak nuclear force controls the decay of neutrons. If it were stronger, neutrons would decay more rapidly, and there would be nothing in the universe but hydrogen. However, if this force were weaker, all the hydrogen would turn into helium and other elements.
“The electromagnetic force binds atoms to one another to form molecules. If it were either weaker or stronger, no chemical bonds would form, so no life could exist.
“Finally, the strong nuclear force overcomes the electromagnetic force and allows the atomic nucleus to exist. Like the weak nuclear force, changing it would produce a universe with only hydrogen or with no hydrogen.
“In sum, without planets, hydrogen, and chemical bonds, there would be no life as we know it.
“Besides these 4 factors, there are at least 25 others that require pinpoint precision to produce a universe that contains life. Getting each of them exactly right suggests the presence of an Intelligent Designer.” (“God by the Numbers,” Christianity Today, March 2006. The article is available at www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/march/26.44.html.)
The British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking summarizes the problem for non-believers in simpler language when he wrote in A Brief History of Time, “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe would have begun in just this way except as the act of God who intended to create beings like us.” (p. 127)
Granted, all this does not prove the existence of God, and in fact there have been several alternative explanations, some of which include alien activity. But then you have to explain where they came from and how conditions for their existence arose… plus if you have intelligent aliens coming to earth to engineer the planet in a precise way, you are making quite a case for Intelligent Design.
Alvin Plantinga, the philosopher I referred to in an earlier article, makes a gambling-related point. He says that if a poker dealer deals himself 20 straight hands of four aces, the other players are going to accuse him of cheating. It may just be barely possible that he dealt those winning hands purely by chance, but it’s a lot more plausible to believe that he is cheating. And in the arena of apologetics, the Penrose numbers and the Hawking summary make the existence of God a much more plausible explanation for the fine-tuned universe.
So who is taking a greater leap of faith, the believer or the non-believer? But before we answer, maybe we can turn our attention to something else difficult to explain without God — the sense of moral right and wrong.
William Lane Craig begins the argument, “In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the whole moral duty of man can be summed up in the two great commandments: First, you shall love the Lord your God with all your strength and with all your soul and with all your heart and with all your mind, and, second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On this foundation we can affirm the objective goodness and rightness of love, generosity, self-sacrifice, and equality, and condemn as objectively evil and wrong selfishness, hatred, abuse, discrimination, and oppression.”
The atheist or non-believer may counter this by saying that you don’t have to believe in God to have love, or generosity, or self-sacrifice, and so on. Actually, I agree. But the question is not, can you love or be generous or be sacrificial without believing in God, but is it possible for these qualities, and our judgment of their right-ness, to exist without God? In other words, why is it good to love rather than to hate another human? Why is it right to be generous and not selfish? What is the basis for our convictions about human rights? Nature observes the law of survival of the fittest — at what point and why did humans claim that nature’s law of fitness is inappropriate for us and decide that self-sacrifice (the exact opposite of survival of the fittest) was laudable?
The evolutionist might say that somewhere along the line, humans decided it was biologically worthy, and maybe even necessary, to be moral for the survival of the species, and they created customs and laws in response. One prominent civil libertarian distrusts all notions of authority, human or otherwise, declaring that human rights and a sense of justice is just “there,” and somehow the race has discovered it.
But is it possible to have a basis for right and wrong without God? Ethicist Richard Taylor is just one among those who say no. He wrote, “The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well. Thus, even educated persons sometimes declare that such things as war, or abortion, or the violation of certain human rights, are ‘morally wrong,’ and they imagine that they have said something true and significant. Educated people do not need to be told, however, that questions such as these have never been answered outside of religion. ….Contemporary writers in ethics, who blithely discourse upon moral right and wrong and moral obligation without any reference to religion, are really just weaving intellectual webs from thin air; which amounts to saying that they discourse without meaning.” (Ethics, Faith, and Reason, pp. 2-3)
The argument for morality that is just “there” to be discovered begins to sound like the notions of right and wrong arose from an “accidental” moral Big Bang. And if you abandon that proposal and try to fall back on another godless explanation, say, like biological evolution, you are no better off. Keller argues, “Today we believe that sacrificing time, money, emotion, and even life — especially for someone ‘not of our kind’ or tribe — is right.… How could that trait have come down by a process of natural selection? Such people would have been less likely to survive and pass on their genes.”
And finally, at the bottom of the equation, there is an abyss no one wishes to look into: if there is no God, there is no objective moral standard of right and wrong.
So here is the question. Is it more likely that these two facets of our existence, a fine-tuned universe and our sense of moral right and wrong, just happened?
Craig concludes, “If God does not exist, then it is plausible to think that there are no objective moral values, that we have no moral duties, and that there is no moral accountability for how we live and act. The horror of such a morally neutral world is obvious. If, on the other hand, we hold, as it seems rational to do, that objective moral values and duties do exist, then we have good grounds for believing in the existence of God.”
Good grounds? Laying the fine-tuned universe down next to the necessity of objective moral values, we have just examined two large pieces of evidence to make the existence of God plausible, evidence that philosopher and theologian R. C. Sproul says is so compelling that a person has to override the senses to deny Him. And that is precisely what the Apostle Paul says happened when he wrote in Romans 1:18 that humans “hold the truth of God,” meaning they “hold down” or suppress the truth of God.
That is Keller’s second rung: realization that it takes more faith to disbelieve than to believe in God, and yet a person will take that position all the while declaring that the believer is the irrational and unreasonable one.
But for those whose minds are open to the truth of the God who made us, there is the third rung of Keller’s ladder, the one that takes us beyond plausibility, beyond probability, and on to certainty. This only comes with personal faith.
We have all read and heard the ubiquitous sermon illustrations about faith. The chair we must sit in, the jet we must board, the branch we must cling to else we fall over the cliff… all pictures of faith in action, and all true; each one teaching us to “…taste and see that the LORD is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him.” (Psalm 34:8)
Acknowledging God’s existence is not the goal here. John 4:23 declares that God is seeking worshipers, not merely those who assent to his existence. And that is a partial explanation for atheism and agnosticism — it is an attempt to throw out God in order not to be under His authority, regardless of the evidence for His existence. New York University Professor Thomas Nagel wrote in 1997, “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.… It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want a universe like that.” (The Last Word, p. 130)
There it is. It comes down to a faith position on both sides, but which is the more plausible? You can believe in God, with good reason.