By Vince Vitale, Director of the Zacharias Institute
When I was young, I thought faith had to be blind. I thought you couldn’t give reasons for God. I thought belief was something you simply had or you didn’t. I didn’t become a Christian until university, and that was partly because, for the first time in my life, friends were able to show me that their faith was not blind – that they had strong reasons for believing in God.
Admittedly, Christianity asks us to believe some extraordinary things: the entire universe was created by an invisible, immaterial being; that being then intricately designed the universe, so that human life would be possible; then that being came and lived among us as a human being, he died, and three days later he literally physically rose from the grave, and then for weeks afterwards he appeared to hundreds of people.
Christianity makes some big claims but here’s a phrase I want you to remember: criticism without alternative is empty. If someone wants to say your faith is blind or based on ignorance, ask them in turn what they believe in; ask them if they live by a better alternative for making sense of the world. At which point, you can put the alternatives side-by-side and see which beliefs make more sense.
In this article, I’m going to lay out four reasons why I believe in God, and then I’m going to place these reasons side-by-side with alternative beliefs, so that we can judge what is most reasonable. We can see these reasons for God by looking back, looking up, looking down, and looking in, the focus of this first article will be ‘looking back’ and ‘looking in’.
Let’s look back, all the way back to the beginning of the universe. A hundred years ago, most scientists assumed that the universe had no beginning – that it had just always existed. But one of the most significant developments in Science in the last 100 years is that the majority of scientists have now come to believe the universe had a beginning. Scientists are now able to detect that the universe is actually expanding in size in all directions. The picture that results from this, if we trace back the expansion, is a universe that began with an utterly dense point, and then, like a firework, exploded into the universe at the Big Bang. The Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking said this:
‘All the evidence seems to indicate, that the universe has not existed forever, but that it had a beginning, about 15 billion years ago. This is probably the most remarkable discovery of modern cosmology. Yet it is now taken for granted…’
The universe had a beginning. As a Christian, I think that beginning is explained when I open my Bible and read, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1).
If you don’t believe in God, what is your alternative? The alternative is to say that the universe just popped into existence from nothing, for no reason whatsoever. Here’s one depiction of it that I saw recently:
ATHEISM: The belief there was once absolutely nothing. And nothing happened to the nothing until the nothing magically exploded (for no reason), creating everything and everywhere. Then a bunch of the exploded everything magically rearranged itself (for no reason whatsoever), into self-replicating bits, which then turned into dinosaurs.
That’s having a bit of fun, but it’s also making a reasonable point. Things don’t just pop into existence out of nothing and for no reason. If the universe began to exist, there must be an explanation for its existence. And the best explanation on offer is that God created it.
For the second reason for God, let’s look up. And what we find is that the universe is incredibly finely-tuned for life. Imagine you take out a deck of cards and start playing poker with Amy Orr-Ewing. In the first twelve rounds, Amy gets twelve straight royal flushes. (If you’ve never played poker, that would be like winning the lottery twelve times in a row). What should we think? That’s right…Amy’s cheating! Why? Because even if she’s a very honest woman, it’s so incredibly unlikely for someone to get twelve straight royal flushes just by chance that someone must be messing with the cards.
Over the last 35 years, the Fine-Tuning Argument has suggested that we should come to a similar conclusion with respect to God. The universe we live in could have taken many different forms, and scientists are in agreement – not just Christian scientists, but scientists in general – that there are dozens of features of the universe that needed to be precisely as they are for life to be possible…not just life on the planet Earth or life as we know it, but any form of life anywhere in the universe.
To take just one example, the explosive force of the Big Bang had to be within 1 part in 10^60th of what it actually was. In other words, the percentage difference that you could have while still accommodating the possibility of life is a 0, followed by a decimal point, followed by 59 zeros, followed by a 1. If the Big Bang had been even the slightest bit weaker, gravity would have made the universe collapse back in on itself almost immediately, far too quickly for any form of life to develop. If the Big Bang had been just the slightest bit stronger, particles would have dispersed into thin air. They would have dispersed so quickly and wound up so far from each other that all we could have got would have been cold, simple molecules, nothing like the sort of complex chemistry required for any embodied form of life. That’s just one example, and there are dozens more.
How are we to explain this amazing ‘coincidence’? How are we to explain the royal flushes turning up hand after hand throughout the universe? We should come to the only rational conclusion:
‘The universe is not the result of randomness. Someone ordered the cards; someone designed the universe.’
And this is just what the Bible claims in Romans 1:20:
‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.’
We’ve looked back to the beginning of the universe; we’ve looked up at the design of the universe. Now let’s look down. And what I want you to see is an empty tomb – a tomb that’s empty because Jesus miraculously rose from the dead.
Before I was a Christian, I just assumed that there was no way there could be evidence for such a thing, but when I finally looked into it, I couldn’t believe how strong the evidence was. Richard Swinburne, one of my colleagues at Oxford University, is widely considered the best British philosopher of religion of the last generation. In his book, The Resurrection of the God Incarnate, he concludes that, on the historical evidence, it is 97% probable that Jesus truly and miraculously rose from the dead. Why can Swinburne claim that, and have it published by Oxford University Press?
There are a number of reasons, but let me focus on just one of them. Here is a passage written by the Apostle Paul in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:
‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, 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….’
Experts have come to agree that this passage is the first known summary of Christian beliefs. Many scholars date the creed to within a couple of years of Jesus’ crucifixion, meaning that the beliefs contained within the creed must go back even further than this. Thus, almost immediately after Jesus’ execution, there were many people who were utterly convinced that they had spent time with Jesus after his death.
Even the threat of torture and murder could not make them change their minds. Pliny the Younger was a Roman Governor in the first century who was persecuting Christians, and he wrote this:
‘I ask them if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution.’
Those who walked this earth with Jesus went from mourning that their leader had been defeated and being too scared to even be present at his crucifixion, to accepting their own deaths by torture and execution rather than deny that Jesus is God. What can account for this? How could every one of them be so utterly convinced that this dead man on a cross (Jesus) was worth dying for? The Christian response is that there was a miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It takes three generations for any significant legendary development to make its way into a text
If someone doesn’t want to accept that explanation, what are the alternatives? Could Jesus’ resurrection have developed as a legend over time? No one takes this theory seriously anymore. Studies show that it takes about three generations for any significant legendary development to make its way into a text, but the passage from 1 Corinthians 15 shows that almost immediately after Jesus’ death his followers believed that he had risen from the dead and spent time with them.
Could it have been a hallucination? No. Multiple people don’t see the same hallucination (let alone 500 people), and there were far too many appearances of Jesus in far too many places for this to be at all plausible.
Could it have been a big conspiracy, an elaborate lie? Not a chance. People lie when they are getting something out of it. People don’t lie when they are being tortured and killed for it. The disciples saw something and it transformed their lives. What did they see? My answer is this: ‘God has provided confirmation for all by raising Jesus from the dead’ (Acts 17:11).
We’ve looked back to God’s creation of the universe; we’ve looked up at God’s design of the universe; we’ve looked down at the grave that Jesus rose from. Now let’s look in. A friend of mine once said to me, ‘Vince, do you think we can know God?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ But he wasn’t satisfied. He said, ‘No, do you think we can really know God?’ What he was asking was, ‘Do you think we can know God personally? As a Father? As a friend? Do you think we can know not just about God, but God himself?’
There are many things in life that cannot be known from a distance. Some knowledge requires direct experience of the thing known. My wife, Jo, and I recently spent time in Florence, and we had the privilege of seeing Michelangelo’s famous statue of King David. We almost didn’t bother; it was pouring outside, there was a long queue, and we had already seen the statue countless times on postcards and documentaries. But when we directly experienced the David up close, we were so grateful we did. Only then did we know what all the fuss was about. We knew something by experiencing that piece of artwork firsthand that simply could not be known from a distance. I think this is also true of knowing God.
Let me tell you a story of someone I met recently who came to know God, not just because of the evidence and the arguments, but because she realised that God was personally involved in the details of her life. She realised God wanted her to give up her distance, and to live life together with him.
Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow
I was giving a talk at a university, and a Chinese girl showed up and said her name was Alba. One of my friends said, ‘You have an interesting name; what does it mean?’ And Alba said, ‘It means “by grace washed white as snow.”’ My friend’s eyes went wide, and he asked if she was a Christian. She said, ‘No, not at all.’ Then my friend said, ‘Do you realise that your name is basically the heart of the Christian message?’ And she had no idea. She had just chosen her English name, because she liked the sound of it. My friend began to explain to her the Christian message – that Jesus loved her so much that he couldn’t bear to see her punished for the things she’s done wrong, and so on the cross where Jesus died, Jesus took our punishment for us, and, as a result, all of the bad things we’ve done are washed away; they are washed white as snow.
Then my talk started, and halfway through the talk I quoted a verse from the Bible, and I put it up on a PowerPoint slide. This was the verse from Isaiah 1:18:
‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow.’
My friend tapped Alba on the shoulder, who looked astonished, and he said, ‘I told you; that’s your name!’ At the end of the talk, my friend continued to explain to Alba the love that God has for her and the sacrifice that he made for her. And that night, for the first time, Alba decided she wanted to know God. She wanted to be in a real relationship with him.
There’s one more detail to the story that I find so amazing. My talk for that night was already written and printed a week in advance, and the PowerPoint was done. But at lunchtime of that same day I had this strong sense that something was missing from the talk, and so I rushed home after lunch and added just one additional page to the talk, and just one additional PowerPoint slide. What did that slide read? Isaiah 1:18: ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow.’
God beautifully crafted all the details of that day, so that he could reach into the heart of that one girl named Alba. The Christian promise is that you can really know God, in the deepest possible way – not just about God, but God Himself.