Ever since college, I have been on a mission to understand, as best as I can, what ultimately is true. It seems to me that this quest is the beginning point for making a life commitment, which everyone does, either intentionally, as I hope to do, or unintentionally. As I have deliberated on these matters, I have noticed that most people do not have good reasons for investing themselves in their worldview. Many, for instance, will say that they believe in God because they have “faith,” because they were taught to believe by their parents or community, or because they believe in the Bible (but then don’t have good reasons for believing in the Bible). This seems insufficient to me. In the end, it seems that a person should have solid reasons for believing whatever they believe is most important in life.
In my journey over the past 20 years or so, I have changed how I have approached this issue. In the beginning, I was much more focused on intellectual reasons to believe. As time has went on, and as I have become more acquainted with the limitations of intellect, however, I increasingly have relied on psychological reasons. I discuss each of these below.
Intellectual Reasons to Believe
For me, trying to figure out whether I believe in a Creator God has been the starting point. As I have thought about this, I have returned time and time again to the question: What best explains the origins of reality as we understand it? Let me frame this question further by describing some aspects of reality, as I see it. Based on everything I understand, the universe is incredibly complex, yet also full of order. This is what allows mathematics to have utility, as everything about the universe basically can be explained by fairly simple (some say beautiful) mathematical formulas. Also, the universe consists of matter, living beings that can reproduce to create other living beings, and human beings who clearly are conscious and some might say also are free, creative, loving, moral, relational, and potentially rational.
An atheist must explain all of this by saying that it all happened by time and chance alone. For example, matter somehow was created by non-matter, life somehow was created by non-life, and consciousness was created by non-consciousness. I find this implausible. In particular, I find it hard to believe that living organisms could have developed into different genders that then can combine to create new life through such random factors.
The only way I can make sense of reality as I observe it is to posit the existence of an eternal Being that possesses similar qualities and thus must have guided the process along. In my mind, it is entirely reasonable, then, to assume that there must have been a Being who is complex, ordered (some say beautiful), conscious, free, creative, loving, moral, relational, and rational who ultimately is responsible for reality as we understand it. I think it takes much more of a “leap of faith” to believe in time and chance alone as an explanation for reality than it does to believe in a Force with these properties.
Occam’s Razor is a principle that often comes up in this kind of context. Basically, this is the principle that, all things being equal, the best theory is the theory with the least assumptions necessary. Typically, this principle is used to suggest that belief in God is a worse theory than non-belief. However, to be honest, given reality as I described it above, I think it takes considerably more assumptions to believe in time and chance alone (or in the existence of different universes, as some have more recently suggested) as explanations of reality than to believe in a Supernatural Force. Occam’s Razor, in my view, actually favors the existence of God. For example, think of how much of a leap it really takes to accept the idea that reality evolved by accident. Compare this with the Supernatural assumption, which has been accepted by every culture throughout history. Personally, it seems to me more likely that a Supernatural Force was responsible for reality as I observe it than to assume it all happened to come about by time and chance.
Given my belief in a Supernatural Being, the next question for me has been what form It might take. As I suggested above, I think reality suggests that God has certain properties (i.e., complex, ordered, conscious, free, creative, loving, moral, relational, and rational). This by itself actually leads to a fairly refined portrait of God.
For better or worse, I have been raised in a predominantly Christian culture in a Christian family, and this has led me to consider the claims about Jesus Christ being Divine. An analogy has been influential in my thinking. Specifically, the early Christian church might be likened to a wildfire in that it grew almost exponentially after the death of Jesus. Similar to what I wrote above, an important question is: What best explains this? It doesn’t seem that the followers of Jesus were intentionally lying because many of these people died for their beliefs. So, this leaves us with two reasonable explanations: Either Jesus really was the Son of God or His followers were somehow psychologically influenced to believe that He was (while, in fact, He really wasn’t).
I always have found it important to refer to the best information possible on the issue which, almost everyone agrees, are the Biblical documents themselves, considered to be (more or less) reliable historical documents (as far as historical documents are reliable anyways, given that they are written a generation or two after the relevant events). In particular, I find it intriguing that Jesus was noted by so many authors as rising from the dead within a few generations after His death. As one important example, consider 1 Corrinthians 15:5-8, where Paul writes: “. . . he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.”
Again, there is no reason to believe these people were making this up, as they ultimately died for their convictions. So, either Jesus really did rise from the dead and really was seen by over 500 people or these people were experiencing hallucinations of some kind or were seriously delusional.
A hypothetical question to ponder. . . Imagine if a so-called Savior was alive today and claimed to be the son of God. Then, they died. Some said, though, that they rose again, showing their Divinity. As evidence of this, they wrote publically that over 500 saw this person raised. If this was a hoax, this quickly would be discredited and the movement would be isolated to a small cult. With Christianity, though, the movement spread like wildfire.
In other words, it seems to me that it is considerably more likely that Jesus rose from the dead than any other explanation. If this isn’t accepted, one must come up with a more reasonable explanation that fits the reality that the church grew like wildfire in the context of a public declaration that there were over 500 people who saw the risen Christ (some of whom were still living at the time of the letter) in a cultural environment where this was not expected.
Some options. . .
Could there have been some kind of mass hallucination? I guess anything is possible, but I’ve personally never heard of such a thing happening before. Hallucinations are experienced individually and not in a group, particularly in a group this size.
The best alternative explanation I personally can think of is that something like a cult developed where a social psychological process took over, suspending people’s rational judgment (think David Koresh). This also seems unlikely to me, though, given, again, the resurrection reports noted by so many, the desire to discredit this all from being true, the cultural context in which this took place, and the record showing that a number of people seemed to show critical thinking about these issues (for example, the doubting Thomas).
Psychological Reasons to Believe
Having said all this, I recognize that there may be many good, smart people who will disagree. One can’t prove what I’ve written above. For instance, I believe my logic is much better for the existence of God than the Divinity of Jesus (mostly because the latter relies on historical evidence, which always can be questioned). Given this, various psychological reasons to believe have become increasingly important to me to acknowledge.
It is obvious to me that I am personally very limited. Of course, my body and life clearly are limited in what they can do; for example, I will die someday. In my daily life now, though, I also clearly am limited. I lack security. I always seem to long for more and more. No matter how well my life goes, ultimately, I feel deeply incomplete.
Others seem to struggle with similar feelings. In fact, I am fascinated that almost everyone I ask, no matter what they believe, wishes that there was a loving God on whom they could depend. Generally, when genuine needs exist, there is a way to fulfill them. People thirst, but there is water. People hunger, but there is food. People crave sex and companionship, and there are other people. As C. S. Lewis concluded, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
But, of all the religious and spiritual beliefs that exist, why the Christian belief system? Again, to me, if I search out different ways to meet my needs for security, attachment, and completeness, the Christian story seems most fulfilling. In this story – more than any other (that I know of anyway) – there is a sense that there is a perfect Being passionate about being intimate with me to the point of great sacrifice. When I am really honest with myself, this is what I seek: “to know, even as I am fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).”
Or, as Timothy Keller wrote in “The Prodigal God:”
“In the beginning of the book of Genesis we learn the reason why all people feel like exiles, like we aren’t really home. We are told that we were created to live in the garden of God. That was the world we were built for, a place in which there was no parting from love, no decay or disease. It was all these things because it was life before the face of God, in his presence. . . The Bible says that we have been wandering spiritual exiles ever since. That is, we have been living in a world that no longer fits our deepest longings. Though we long for bodies that ‘run and are not weary,’ we have become subject to disease, aging, and death. Though we need love that lasts, all our relationships are subject to the inevitable entropy of time, and they crumble in our hands. Even people who stay true to us die and leave us, or we die and leave them. Though we long to make a difference in the world through our work, we experience endless frustration. We never fully realize our hopes and dreams. We may work hard to re-create the home that we have lost, but, says the Bible, it only exists in the presence of the heavenly father from which we have fled.”
Perhaps I am wrong about this. As I said, the best reasoning still leaves uncertainty. At some level, I think every honest and introspective person has to acknowledge some degree of agnosticism. And, being human, I am fairly certain I am wrong about some of my deepest convictions.
Having said this, when it comes right down to it, what I have written above makes most sense to me. During times of doubt, I continually come back to these reasons. I cannot get around their truthfulness and hold on my life. If I had been born in a non-Christian culture, maybe a culture where people didn’t believe in God, I’d like to believe I’d still believe what I do today because of the pull of these reasons.