How do we know God exists? The go-to Sunday School answer is faith, but is that really a legitimate way to know? Is there any difference between having faith in the God of the Bible or faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Is faith just choosing something to believe in even if there is no evidence or logic to prove it? These and similar questions are often posed as a challenge to Christianity. To answer these questions, I want to go behind these objections and begin by tackling the underlying question: how can we know anything? Many men and women have wrestled with this question throughout history. Generally speaking, responses can be lumped into one of three categories.
1. “Seeing is Believing”
One of the most common views on how we know is called empiricism. It is the belief that we only know through our senses. If we can’t see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, or feel it then we simply can’t have knowledge about it. In fact, if we can’t experience it, then it isn’t real. Many who hold this view understandably conclude that God does not exist. If the only way to know is by experiencing and you have never had an experience of God, then you can’t know if God exists. The fact that you have no evidence of God’s existence means that it is most likely that God isn’t real.
However, there is a problem with making sense experience the foundation of knowledge: we cannot prove our sensory perceptions are reliable by using our senses. Allow me to unpack exactly why that is an issue for empiricism. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the only way to know the truth is through our senses. Now let’s ask the question: how do we know that we can only know through our senses? We have already said that sense perception is the only way to know, therefore our answer to the question must be based on evidence from our five senses. Here is the rub: the empiricist must prove that only the senses give knowledge, but in order to demonstrate that proposition is true, they have appealed to the very thing they are trying to prove. It is a self-defeating circle! They are assuming the senses are reliable and lead to true conclusions in order to prove that the senses are reliable and lead us to true knowledge about the world.
This leaves us with a choice. We can jettison the senses as a means of arriving at knowledge. If we cannot prove the reliability of our sight, touch, taste, smell or hearing, then we can just stop trusting them. The other option is to trust our senses. We can’t prove our senses are reliable just by using our senses, but we can believe they are reliable. We can have faith that they represent the world as it is and lead us to true conclusions about reality.
2. “I think therefore I am”
The second commonly held answer to the question of how we know is Rationalism. This philosophy argues that we can know only through logic and reason. We must be able to prove anything with rational argumentation in order to say we actually know it. If we examine this claim closely, we find the same problem of circularity that empiricism faces. Here’s what I mean: let’s assume it is true that we can only know truth through reason. How do we know that proposition is true? According to the premise, the only way to know is by giving a reason, but we can’t do that because doing so assumes the truth of the premise we began with. It is a self-defeating, circular argument. We can try to base all our knowledge on logical arguments, but this philosophy of knowledge crumbles when we examine its foundation.
Once again we are left with a choice. We can conclude that reason is “out” as a way to know. We then might conclude that we can’t know anything at all! On the other hand, we could assume that reason and logic are trustworthy tools for acquiring knowledge. In other words, we can have faith that logic and reason can lead us to true conclusions about the world.
3. “Assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”
It seems that, try as we may, we cannot escape from faith. At a fundamental level, everyone has to have faith in order to have knowledge. We trust our senses, and we assume that logic leads us to true beliefs. All of our knowledge about the world ultimately comes by faith. It turns out that the Christian isn’t odd or idiotic for claiming that they know God exists by faith because all knowledge rests on that very foundation.
It is important to note that the faith Christians place in God is not blind. Faith is not an act of intellectual suicide in which one throws off any logical thoughts and “just believes” no matter what. The object of our faith is proven to be reliable through experience and logic.
Think about it this way: Imagine stepping out onto a frozen lake. You are putting your trust in the ice. You may start off slow and cautious, but as long as there is no cracking or shifting, the further you go, the more comfortable and safe you feel. Your experience and reason tell you that the ice can support your weight; your faith is strengthened as you discover more and more that the object of your faith is actually worth your trust. However, if you begin to inch your way out onto the lake and you hear cracking or your foot goes through the ice into the frigid water, you will immediately head back to the shore! Your experience and reason have shown you that the object you put faith in (the ice) was not actually strong enough to hold you.
I’m sure this analogy breaks down at some point, but the idea is simple: we know by faith, but faith is validated or invalidated as we learn more about the thing we have trusted in. Christians believe that their faith in God is validated by experience and reason. There is evidence of God’s existence in the world around us and in the Bible. These two things can be observed, examined and studied. Christian faith in God is validated when experience and reason line up with what find in the world as well as what the Bible teaches about God.
A Challenge to the Challenger
If you are an atheist, or someone struggling between belief and doubt, first of all, thank you for reading this far and taking time to hear, think about, and evaluate my claims and arguments. If I may, I would like to go a step further and issue a challenge to you. Don’t discredit Christianity because it is based on faith. Recognize that everyone puts faith in fundamental—we might even say common sense—facts. Evaluate what you have put your faith in. Does it truly stand up to scrutiny when it is put to the test? Do experience and reason validate or invalidate your beliefs? Then, I challenge you to evaluate the claims of Christianity. Do they hold up if you put your faith in them? Or do they crack and break-up under examination, like thin ice under a two-ton elephant? Whatever you do, don’t fool yourself into thinking that you aren’t putting your faith in something. We are all walking on ice.