The question of belief in God is the question of questions, for it underlies all other questions. Is the human race alone in this universe, or is there an infinite Person above and beyond us? Is life really worth anything? Is there really a life after death? The answers depend on whether we believe in God. Belief in God is the foundation of all our religion, all our hopes, all our ethics.
We may think it strange that men hold so many false ideas about God, their Maker. Certainly the prevalence of false beliefs about God shows the effect of sin on the mind and heart of humanity. When the human race fell into sin back in the garden of Eden, this not only affected our moral sense and made us wicked; it also affected our thinking, and made us foolish, so that we could no longer “think straight.” The result was the great array of mistaken ideas about God. We shall mention the principal false theories about God.
“The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God” (Psalm 53:1). The Bible rates atheism, or the denial of God’s existence, as the religion of the fool. There are two kinds of atheism, which we may call crude atheism and refined atheism. Crude atheism is the brand propagated by the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism, that organization of scoffers which holds that the idea of God is just a superstition which intelligent people ought to give up as they have given up belief in witchcraft and “spooks.” Crude atheism is a scandal and a disgrace to our country, of course, but it really is not very dangerous. It does not gain many converts. For the crude atheists are perfectly frank, and do not hesitate to call a spade a spade. Since their brand of atheism is honestly labeled, it is not hard to see through their kind of propaganda.
Refined atheism is much more subtle and more dangerous. It is not propagated by communists, but mostly by ministers and professors in theological seminaries, all highly respectable people with a reputation for sanctity. What is refined atheism? It is belief in a finite at limited God. The Bible teaches that God is almighty, infinite, eternal and unchangeable. But today men in pulpits and seminary classrooms are saying that an almighty God is no longer popular; they prefer a more democratic type of God, a limited God. Bishop Francis J. McConnell of the Methodist Church said the following in a book entitled Democratic Christianity:
“How then must we think of God whom men are freely to crown Lord of all? If present day tendencies are to give us any clews we cannot think of God as absolute in the old sense. The only absolutes we can respect are the absolutes of the moral realm. We are in protest against absolutism in rulers. The call of men today is for a limited God.”
Do you get the drift of these words by a leader of the Methodist Church? “The call of men today is for a limited God.” That is atheism; not crude atheism, but a refined, subtle kind of atheism; yet atheism it is none the less. For a limited God is not God at all in the Christian sense of the term “God.”
Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Pastor Emeritus of the Riverside Church of New York City, also objects to the idea of an almighty God. He has said this: “If God is an omnipotent monarch who can do anything he pleases, he has no business to please to do some things he does, and permit some things that he allows.” Blasphemy, do you say? Yes, it is blasphemy, but it is more. It is atheism, refined atheism, advocated by one of the most prominent and popular preachers of recent years.
Polytheism is a belief in many gods. The heathen are polytheists. This is not exactly the same thing as idolatry, which is the worshipping of any god, true or false, by means of images. To attempt to worship the true God by images, as the children of Israel sometimes did, is idolatry. The heathen, however, are commonly both idolaters and polytheists.
Pantheism is the belief that everything is divine. According to pantheism, nothing exists except God. God is just another name for the universe. Sometimes he is called the “soul” of the universe. The most basic distinction of the Bible–the distinction between Creator and creation—is wiped out by pantheism.
If pantheism is true, then we ourselves are divine, for we, too are parts of God. Pantheism makes belief in a personal God impossible, and reduces prayer to self-hypnotism. If “God” is just another name for the sum-total of things, then God cannot be a person, but only a thing; the greatest of all things, no doubt, but still only a thing.
At the present time pantheism constitutes a far greater threat to Christianity than does atheism. Pantheistic views of God are at the bottom of a great deal of modernistic religion and theology. Pantheism saturates and poisons some of the most beautiful poetry in the English language. Tennyson’s poem, Flower in the Crannied Wall, is an example of this:
“Little flower—but if I could understand What you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what God and man is.”
Beautiful, but terribly false! For this poem implies the essential sameness of flower, man and God. It disregards the distinction between persons and things, and the still more basic distinction between Creator and creatures.
Swinburne’s Hertha is another example of pantheistic poetry:
“I the grain and the furrow,
The plough-cloven clod
And the ploughshare drawn thorough
The germ and the sad,
The deed and the doer. the seed and the
sower, the dust which is God.”
It is because they really are pantheists that many modernists do not hesitate to say that Jesus is divine or “Jesus is God.” For if everything is God, then of course Jesus is God, too. But for a pantheist to say “Jesus is God” means exactly nothing. It is as meaningless as it would be to say, “A drop of water consists of water.” Pantheism is the blight of modernism. For pantheistic religion is not really religion at all. It knows no personal God, no redemption from sin, no real immortality. It is barren, sterile, hopeless.
Deism is belief in an absentee God. Deism holds that God created the universe in the first place, and since then has left it alone to run itself according to the laws of its being. The world is like a clock; God made it and wound it up, and now it runs of itself and will keep on running until finally it runs down. The deist believes in creation but he denies the reality of divine providence. According to deism, God has nothing to do with the world today. If deism is true, we can never really have any contact with God or know him personally. Deism uses God as a convenient hypothesis for explaining how the universe got started in the first place; having used God for that purpose, it has no further use for the idea of God. Deism, needless to say, is religiously bankrupt. It is devoid of all sense of need, and tends only to a smug, superficial, easy-going self-righteousness. The deist can never think of God as his God; to him God is only an abstract theory for explaining the origin of things.
How Can We Know God?
In the Bible we find the question, “Canst thou by searching· find out God?” The answer, of course, is No. God cannot be discovered; we can never know God except by his revealing himself to us.
Gcd has revealed himself to mankind in two ways. The most universal revelation of God is that in nature, which includes human nature. The wonderful universe about us, the starry heavens above, the world of nature in which we find ourselves, all speak of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” God’s natural revelation is also imprinted on our own heart and mind. By natural revelation men are told of God’s eternal power and divinity. We must remember, of course, that natural revelation alone was never sufficient for man’s religious need. Even in man’s state of innocence in the garden of Eden, before the fall, natural revelation was not sufficient; even before man sinned, natural revelation was only the background for the special revelation of God which came to Adam and Eve in the form of the Covenant of Works. Only by this special revelation and the provision of a covenant could man attain full religious communion with God.
Since man’s fall into sin, natural revelation is still less sufficient. For sin changed both man’s need and also man’s ability to interpret natural revelation aright. Man as a sinner needs redemption, concerning which natural revelation is silent. And man as a sinner has a clouded, darkened mind, which twists and warps the truth of God revealed in nature into all kinds of false ideas and distort.ions of the truth. Natural revelation is not sufficient for salvation, but it is sufficient to leave the sinner without excuse before God (Rom. 1:20).
God’s revelation in Scripture is much fuller than his revelation in nature. The Bible starts by assuming the existence of God: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Never does the Bible try to prove that there is a God by an appeal to human reason. But the Bible does reveal much about God. Scripture tells of God’s holiness, his righteousness, his love, his plan for the salvation of his elect, of our duty and of the life to come. In summarizing the revelation of God in Scripture we shall consider first the essential nature of God, and second God’s relation to his creatures.
The Essential Nature of God
1. Unity. There is only one God, a truth which is consistently taught throughout the Bible. If we affirm that God is the supreme Being, then of course there can be only one God; there could not be more than one supreme being.
2. Trinity. There are in God three persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that there are three Gods, or that God is divided into three parts. It means that the one God exists in three distinct persons, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.
3. God is a Spirit. We recall the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman: “God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” This is one reason why we cannot see God. We ourselves are composite beings with a body and also a soul or spirit. God, of course, has no body; he is a pure Spirit; therefore he is invisible to human eyes. Because God is a Spirit, all worshipping of him by images is wrong. No image or picture that man can make can give other than a false impression of what God is. Through the ages mankind has been trying to have a visible object of worship—trying to drag the spirituality of God down to the level of material things.
4. God is a Person. Many people today have given up belief in a personal God. They think of God as a kind of force or influence something like gravity, magnetism, electricity or atomic energy. But the Bible teaches us that God is a Person. We know at least a little of what this means because we ourselves are personal beings, created in the image of God.
When we say that God is a Person, we mean more than that there is a sense in which he is like ourselves; but we mean at least that. Because God is a Person, he could reveal himself to mankind by his Word; because he is a Person, we can address him in prayer.
5. God is Infinite, Eternal and Unchangeable. God said to Moses, “I am that I am.” The same truth occurs in the New Testament text which says of God, Who only hath immortality.” God is self-existent. We have a derived life, a life derived from God who created us and sustains us moment by moment. But God exists and has life of himself. Occasionally someone asks, who made God? Whence did God get his life?” The only true answer is that no one made God; God exists from eternity of himself. This idea barnes the human mind. No wonder it does. That only shows that the Bible is true in teaching that God is infinite and man is a finite, or limited, being. A God whom we could comprehend would not be God at all; such a “God” would be just like ourselves. We cannot comprehend God. He dwells in the thick darkness. He will always remain mysterious to us. The Bible teaches such a God, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his being and in all his attributes. Modern thought, on the other hand, worships, a manmade “God,” a “God” fashioned in the image of man, and therefore a finite “God,” who is really only a projection of the human mind. How wonderful, how mysterious, how truly to be feared, is the God of the Bible, in contrast to the puny manmade “God” of modern thought!
God in Relation to the Universe
1. God is the Creator of all things. Creation means making something by a word of almighty power, without the use of means or natural causes. Only God can create anything; the popular use of the term “create” has a different meaning, as when we read that some composer has “created” a new popular song or piece of music, or some fashion designer has “created” a new style of woman’s dress. This is a loose and really improper use of the word “create.” In the strict sense, only God can create.
The doctrine of creation is very important because our whole religion depends upon it. Among other things, our moral responsibility depends on it. If God created us, then we are responsible to him for our life and our acts. But if God did not create us, then we are not morally responsible, and we might as well do as we please; or perhaps, as the experience of society may prescribe. If God did not create us, then we are really the product of chance. Someone has said that if twenty million monkeys were to pound twenty million typewriters for twenty million years, in that time they would produce, just by sheer chance, at least one poem as good as Shakespeare could have-written! Of course, this is not true; monkeys could pound typewriters to all eternity and they would never produce anything except nonsense. Twenty million years plus chance will not produce out of monkeys what is not in them to produce. Yet modern unbelief holds that the world and all in it, including ourselves, body and mind, really came about in that way, just by chance. We believe and know, rather, that God created the universe, and all that it contains.
2. God is Everywhere in His Universe. “Do not I fill heaven and earth, saith the Lord?” God is everywhere present, and every pari of his creation depends constantly on his presence and power for its continued existence. The great Scripture proof for the truth that God is everywhere is found in Psalm 139: “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” Even a blade of grass could not exist if God were not in it. God fills every part of the created universe. The Bible calls God the one “that filleth all in all.” The pantheists are wrong in saying that everything is God. But it is true that in everything is God. In theology, this is called the immanence of God.
3. God is also far above all created things. The Bible expresses this truth by saying that God dwells “in heaven” or “on high.” God is entirely distinct and separate from his creation. Though he is in all things, yet he remains distinct from all created things. Everywhere in Scripture there is a sharp, clear dividing line between God the Creator, on the one hand, and all creatures on the other hand. God is always God; creatures are always creatures. This line can never be crossed. To all eternity, creatures can never become divine. Modern religion greatly neglects this truth that God is distinct from, and far above and beyond, all created things. In theology, this is called the transcendence of God.
4. God controls all Created Things.
“God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and govern ing all his creatures, and all their actions” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 11). The Bible teaches that even the death of a sparrow cannot take place apart from the plan and purpose of God. As for us, even the hairs of our head are all numbered. In God we live, and move, and have our being. There is no detail of our life that is not encircled by God’s providence. The attempt to be independent of God began long ago, in Eden. It is the great delusion that has cost the human race such awful misery and suffering through these thousands of years of human history. The truth is that mankind is a special creature of God, designed to know, love and serve him, and only in union with God can his true destiny be attained; only in union with God can real happiness be his. Only by walking the path that God has mapped out, and thinking God’s thoughts after him, can real happiness and welfare be experienced. Only the fool says in his heart, “There is no God,” but how often all of us, who really believe in God, forget about him and go our own erring way as if we could be independent of him! He recall the prayer of Augustine, truly a cry from a human heart drawn by God to himself: Fecisti nos ad Te et inquietum est cor nostrum, donee requiescat in Te (“Thou hast made us for Thyself, and restless is our heart until it. rests in Thee.”)