God Does Not "Exist" — What Atheists And Christians Both Get Wrong About God

10/27/2016 06:57 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2016

The god most atheists think they reject is the god most Christians should. Atheists and Christians share a remarkably similar view of God. They think of God as a kind of big person, a category mistake which perpetuates misunderstanding.

There are two kinds of atheists. One rejects belief in God for lack of evidence. The other does not accept belief in God for lack of evidence. The distinction is subtle. The first is more active, making a choice not to believe, whereas the other is more passive, not making the choice to believe. Both are united in their view that something should only be believed if there is evidence. Far too many Christians agree.

A common Christian response to unbelief is apologetics. This is the “science” of “proving” the claims of the Christian faith. An apologist might, for instance, try to prove that the resurrection happened by pointing to eyewitness testimony or the violent deaths of the apostles (who would not have chosen to die for a lie). Apologists’ arguments for the existence of God involve totaling improbabilities, such as the chance that there would even be life at all, or that the distance of the sun relative to the moon could lead to the beauty of a total solar eclipse. Does this not prove the existence of a loving Creator?

It is all nonsense. Apologetics only convinces those already inclined to believe. It is good for making some Christians feel more “legitimate” but terrible at convincing atheists. Atheists are right to point out that question-begging eyewitness testimony, historically questionable martyrdoms, and the occasional celestial blindness trap hardly prove anything.

Atheists sit around asking why God does not prove God’s own existence. Apologists pace the floor insisting that God does. Both assume that such a thing is even possible in the first place.

If the creation contains evidence of the Creator, that evidence is not very convincing. So apologists are left saying that God wants us to have at least a little faith. And atheists rightly respond with, “Why?” Both are making the same mistake. Both are thinking about the Deity as if it were a more powerful kind of human, like Zeus or Superman. This god is like us, only stronger, and with X-ray vision. This god experiences time in the same way we do. This god has a past, present, and future. This god decides to do some things and decides not to do others. This god does a neat forced perspective trick with the sun and the moon, but opts not to come down out of the clouds and say, “Hey everybody!” What a cruel and stupid being. Atheists are right to be indignant.

But God is not a being. God is not the highest being. God does not, technically speaking, exist. You exist. I exist. Superman exists (in the imagination). Our ideas of God also exist. But God is not in those ideas. God is beyond human conception. That from whence existence comes must be beyond existence itself.

You cannot prove God exists because you cannot prove what is not true. Nor can God prove God’s own “existence” in a way that would satisfy either atheists or apologists. This is not because God is not all powerful. (And how very American, and male, by the way, to focus on God’s power.) It is just the nature of things.

God is not like us. God cannot, for instance, tell a joke. This is not because God does not have a sense of humor, which is clearly false (just look at the platypus). This is because the moment God says, “Your momma’s so fat,” your mom becomes HUGE!

God is. God does not have a mind, like we do. God is mind. God does not have a will, like we do. God is willing. God does not make decisions, as we understand it. God does what God has always decided to be in and for Godself. God does not have parts.

God creates not because God chooses to create. Rather, creation is the consequence of God being God (a God who relates). We human beings think about things, make up our minds, ask questions, and choose some options over others. For God, there are no options in any meaningful sense of the word. By way of analogy, one might say that God could have chosen not to create in much the same way that you or I could choose to eat a baby. Is it an option? Yes. Is it a live option? No! It is practically unthinkable.

”The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalms 19:1, KJV). There are vestiges of God in creation, but only for the eyes of faith. Creation is a kind of icon, a window to the divine. Faith is not reason. Nor is faith the opposite of reason. The Christian tradition has always taught that faith is higher than reason. Reason looks ahead and sees things in the distance. Faith tries to see just beyond the horizon. Faith is not belief despite evidence. Faith is falling in love. When you are in love, evidence is irrelevant. In this way, apologists do a great disservice to faith. You cannot argue someone into love.

The Christian theological tradition has always balanced the “cataphatic” with the “apophatic,” or “positive” and “negative” theology. Positive theology gives you an analogy upon which to stand. Negative theology pulls the rug out from underneath you. Positive theology makes an affirmation. Negative theology contradicts it. Positive theology calls God, “Creator.” Negative theology says, “God does not ‘create.’” Positive theology says, “God is your Father.” Negative theology adds, “and your Mother.” The balance between the two is like a koan in Zen Buddhism. They work to clear the mind of certainties and fixed concepts. They smash idols.

St. Anselm described God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” (Though Anselm is often accused of engaging in apologetics, recent scholarship convincingly demonstrates that he was engaged in something more like intellectual worship.) This “definition” is constantly shaking the branches upon which the mind may come to rest. An apologist/atheist might imagine a god who can offer indubitable proof of God’s existence. But theology conceives of something greater than that—a God so beyond human comprehension as to be be nothing but dubitable. This is not God’s “fault.” It is just the way it is.

How would you prove your existence to an ant? Can an ant conceive of you? You could step on it, but an ant could have no awareness of what smote it, only that it had been smote. We are simply too far beyond ants for them to make sense of us. Perhaps I could have a great machine that could turn me into an ant. I could become an ant and tell them about my true nature. But how do you explain who you are using nothing but your feelers and pheromones?

(Lest any guitar playing youth pastor be tempted to use that analogy to explain the incarnation, let me be clear that from the perspective of Christian doctrine, most of what I just said is heresy.)

The fact that I cannot offer indubitable proof of my existence to an ant is not the ant’s fault. Nor is it my fault. I am not limited. In a manner of speaking, the ant is. The distance between us is just too great for the ant to make sense of whatever the heck it is I might be.

Atheists and apologists both fix their minds on anthropomorphic ideas about God. Atheists asks, “Why can’t God prove God exists?” Apologists reply, “God does (mostly)!” But evidence of God is just not possible, not in any meaningful way. You cannot prove your existence if you are beyond existence itself. That is like trying to explain how a circle might have corners.

Atheists and apologists each claim to be more reasonable than the other, but neither is. Both make a “leap” of faith. Agnosticism is a philosophically defensible position. There is nothing wrong with not being able to make up one’s mind in the face of inconclusive evidence. But to believe or not believe in that which cannot be known? That is a decision. Neither the atheist who chooses not to believe in God on logical grounds, nor the apologist who tries to make a logical case for faith, has reason to fault the other. They are both wrong in equal and opposite directions.

I owe thanks to @jablomih and our refreshingly civil Twitter conversation. For more on God and existence see Jean-Luc Marion’s book God Without Being. You can follow me at @drdavidjdunn.

Michelangelo’s portrait of God the Father
Michelangelo’s portrait of God the Father