Bertrand Russell, the late atheist and author of the book, “Why I am not a Christian,” is quoted as saying that though the claims of Christianity could be true, it lies outside the realm of knowledge to know for certain, and so is pointless to try. How different this is from my experience and those I know who have come into, and even now maintain, a personal relationship with Jesus.
But Russell should not be dismissed lightly, nor misunderstood. He is not glibly stating it is too much work to figure out if there is a God or not. Rather, he is saying it is impossible to know. That is, Russell is stating that knowledge of God, at best, could be no more than supposition.
From the standpoint of the rational mind, this is certainly true. There are many things we can know by our intellect, even regarding the possibility, even probability, of God’s existence. Throughout history in fact many scholars have put forth compelling arguments for God’s existence. I love the following article by William Lane Craig that recaps the most popular of those here. These go a long way to establish the rational basis for a belief in God. But the point is, none of these arguments will bring you into a state of certainty concerning God’s existence. That is, they won’t get you from believing that there could be a God to knowing that there is a God. And this is Russell’s point.
But what Russell lacks is the imagination, or perhaps willingness, to consider that God may choose other means than man’s rational faculties to make Himself known. Let’s assume for a moment God exists and that He desires that man know this, even to the point that man’s ultimate happiness is at stake, as Christianity affirms: Does it make sense to assume that he would leave man to figure it out on his own? Is it reasonable to assume that man, and not God, would be the initiator of such knowledge? How then is the assumption that man’s intellectual ability is the only way to knowledge of God convincing? To be sure, if there is no God, then our reasoning faculty is all we have. But if there is a God, such an assumption is unwarranted. Russell’s declaration therefore is not a statement of fact but a decision.
From a Christian perspective, the notion that God would only be known by the powers of reason is not only not necessary but somewhat puzzling. For though the Christian may also determine the possibility of God through reason, ultimately his certainty in God’s existence is established through an entirely different faculty. It is called faith.
Now it is really important we be clear here as to what we mean by faith. Contrary to rampant misconception, faith is not a decision to affirm something as true without evidence (or even despite evidence to the contrary). In fact, it is not a decision at all. If it were, it would be no more than an arbitrary act of the will. In which case, we would have to agree with Russell here that such a decision would be meaningless.
In fact, I would go further and say that faith as mere decision is not only meaningless but impossible. I can say that I believe in unicorns, but that does not mean that I do. Even if I tell others that I believe in unicorns, start a bring-back-the-unicorns movement, seek out others who also believe in unicorns, or publish my statement of belief in unicorns, that will not change the facts about what I believe. This is because belief ultimately requires evidence. And when it comes to belief in God, that evidence must come from something beyond what the rational mind — or I would argue, even scientific discovery — can supply.
Imagine that someone came up with a logical proof for God that was airtight. Would we believe it?
Or, imagine for a moment that science proved the existence of God. Through empirical, airtight investigation, it was discovered with certainty that God existed, and he existed in the person of Molech, the ancient Semitic god, who requires child sacrifice. Would we believe it? Perhaps. But a more likely scenario is that the scientific findings would be discredited. The instruments used would be deemed faulty. If it was determined that the scientific instruments were without flaw and reliable, the underlying scientific principles of the experiment would be discounted. And even if the underlying scientific principles passed muster — that it was determined in order for the findings to be false, the basic laws of Newtonian/Quantum physics would have to be violated — we would most likely be reminded that science, despite its benefits to mankind, does not deal in absolute certainty. We might even go so far as to question the underlying philosophical assumptions of science and point out that its goal is to gain understanding of the material world concerning causal relationships and to make predictions, but is not necessarily able to determine what is ultimately true.
And who knows? We might even decide that science, after all, was not the best means of confirming the existence of God, and conclude that when it came to such matters, no one could be absolutely certain, and that it was nonsense even to talk about science being able to prove God in the first place. And we would go on with our lives.
The point is, when it comes to such weighty matters as God’s existence and the personal ramifications it might entail, even science is not sufficient to the task. It requires something beyond it. It requires not man trying to figure out God, but God reaching out to man. This is what the Christian calls faith. For the Christian, truth is not ultimately confirmed through analysis, but by relationship.
As a concluding thought: To our hypothetical scenario, someone may be quick to point out that it is preposterous to think that science would ever be able to confirm the existence of God in the manner described. And that, indirectly, is precisely the point: Of all the cognitive faculties in the heart of man, isn’t it interesting that in deciding a basis for what is ultimately true, we have chosen the one that guarantees us both the greatest autonomy, and least accountability.