Anderson’s stated aim in this work is to defend what he calls ‘The Principle of Clarity’. In his own words, ‘this principle states that if the failure to know God (unbelief) is inexcusable (culpable ignorance), then it must be clear (readily knowable) that God exists’ (2). Anderson also asserts that he aims to establish that The Principle of Clarity is, necessarily, ‘a presupposition to the redemptive claims of Christianity’ (20).
Anderson holds that Christianity teaches that unbelief is culpable ignorance; indeed, he goes so far as to claim that this is Christianity’s ‘central truth’ (201). Moreover, he claims that Christianity teaches that unbelievers need redemption precisely because they are guilty for their unbelief (3). According to Anderson, unbelief is ‘… the central sin for which Christ died’ (2), ‘… the sin that results in all other kinds of sin, … the “root sin”, … “the original sin”, … “the first sin”’ (42). And he claims that ‘if it is true that unbelief is inexcusable, and justice demands payment for wrong, then the suffering and death of Christ … can be understood’ (79).
Apart from an introductory overview (Chapter 1: ‘Inexcusability, Redemption and the Need for Clarity’) and a brief epilogue (Chapter 10: ‘Conclusion: Where do we go from here?’), the book divides into two main parts. The first part, Chapters 2–7, is a discussion of the ways in which, hitherto, the Christian tradition has either failed to recognize the need to prove that there is universal general revelation of God’s existence and nature, or else has fallen short in its attempts to establish that this is so. (Chapter 2: ‘Attempts to Avoid the Need for Clarity’; Chapter 3: ‘Attempts to Avoid the Need for Arguments’; Chapter 4: ‘Theistic Arguments before Hume’; Chapter 5: ‘Enlightenment Challenges to Theistic Belief’; Chapter 6: ‘Victory over Theism?’; Chapter 7: ‘Theistic Responses to the Challenges of Hume and Kant’.) The second part, Chapters 8–9, gives an outline of the way in which Anderson supposes it can be proven that there is a universal general revelation of God’s existence and nature, together with what Anderson supposes is an adequate proof of the very first step along the way: a proof that there is a universal general revelation that there is something that is eternal. (Chapter 8: ‘The First Step toward the Clarity of God’s Existence’; Chapter 9: ‘Historical Overview of Being from Non-Being’.)
Anderson’s account of what it is to be inexcusable in belief plays an important role in both parts of his discussion. According to Anderson, one is inexcusable if: (1) one’s beliefs are contradictory; (2) one does not have integrity; (3) one does not know what is clear (and, in particular, if one does not know what is basic); (4) one denies that there are clear distinctions (3, 141). Anderson makes it clear that these conditions come with a rider: one is not inexcusable if one could not have avoided one’s plight ‘through a reasonable amount of effort’ (3n.4). However, Anderson nowhere states clearly whether he intends these conditions to be individually sufficient for inexcusability or whether he supposes that they are only jointly sufficient for inexcusability.
Anderson’s account of inexcusability in belief relies on a prior understanding of what it is for a doxastic item to be clear, and of what it is for a distinction to be clear. While he does tell us that ‘since thinking is presuppositional (the less basic assumes the more basic), if anything is clear, the basic things are clear [and thus] one is inexcusable if one does not know what is basic’ (3, 141), this further claim only sheds light on his understanding of what it is for a doxastic item to be ‘basic’. I don’t think that Anderson provides any further clarification of what it is for a doxastic item to be ‘clear’; however, since the book has no index, it is hard for me to be very confident that this is so. In any case, it is worth noting that it is highly controversial to suppose that ‘thinking is presuppositional’ in the way that Anderson takes it to be: if, for example, there are no basic doxastic items, then questions concerning one’s inexcusability in failing to know what is basic do not even arise.
A propos the clarity of distinctions, Anderson tells us that ‘Clarity requires distinguishing between a and not-a. An example of a basic belief that is clear is the distinction between being and non-being. There is no excuse for failing to distinguish these because their distinction is the foundation of all thought—to give an excuse requires a distinction.’ (3) This is all rather muddy, though susceptible of clarification. I sketch the barest rudiments of the requisite clarification here. On the one hand, at the level of words, we have names and predicates. If ‘a’ is a name, and ‘F’ is a predicate, then the sentence ‘Fa’ is true provided that ‘a’ refers to something that falls under the predicate ‘F’. If ‘F’ is a properly functioning predicate, then the following two things will be true of it: first, there is no name in the language for which both ‘Fa’ and ‘∼Fa’ are true (where ‘∼’ is negation); and second, there is no object such that, if a new name—say ‘b’—were given to it, then it would be that both ‘Fb’ and ‘∼Fb’ were true of it. If ‘F’ is a properly functioning predicate, then, a fortiori, there is a clear distinction between ‘F’ and ‘∼F’. Given this account, we can suppose—if we wish—that ‘exists’ is a properly functioning predicate. For any name ‘a’ in any natural language, we do not have both that ‘a exists’ is true and that ‘it is not the case that a exists’ is true. Moreover, for any object, if we give the name ‘b’ to that object, we do not have both that ‘b exists’ is true and that ‘it is not the case that b exists’ is true. The foregoing account can be accepted by those who accept, and by those who deny, that there are non-existent objects. Moreover, the foregoing account can be strengthened—if desired—to entail that it never fails to be the case that at least one of the sentences ‘a exists’ and ‘it is not the case that a exists’ is true. However, it is simply not obvious that we have a clear distinction between ‘being’ and ‘non-being’ only if we adopt this strengthening. (Should we say that there is no clear distinction between ‘red’ and ‘not red’ because there are some borderline cases?)
According to Anderson, ‘if unbelief is inexcusable then arguments are not just for some—they are necessary for all humans as rational beings who wish to make sense of the world’ (124). Moreover, according to Anderson, successful demonstrations of the clarity of a given claim must establish ‘the impossibility of alternatives’ and ‘show that [alternatives are contradictory]’ (139). Given these standards, it is not surprising that Anderson finds that Christian tradition has either failed to recognise the need to prove that there is universal general revelation of God’s existence and nature, or else has fallen short in its attempts to establish that this is so. However, it is perhaps somewhat more surprising that Anderson supposes that he has the wherewithal to meet this supposed shortcoming in the Christian tradition, and perhaps no less surprising that Anderson doesn’t spend more time worrying about whether Christianity really is committed to the inexcusability of unbelief in the way that he supposes that it is.
Anderson’s reasons for supposing that Christianity really is committed to the inexcusability of unbelief in the way that he suppose that it is essentially turn on a particular interpretation of Romans 1:20. (‘For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.’) While Anderson also cites other passages from the Bible—including second hand citations via a direct quotation from J. I. Packer’s Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Belief, Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001)—his reading of Acts 14:17, 17:28, Hebrews 11:1, Isaiah 6:3, Matthew 6:9, Psalms 14:1, 19:1 and Romans 1:32, 2:4, and 2:14 are all pretty clearly dependent upon his interpretation of Romans 1:20. Moreover, as Anderson himself implicitly acknowledges, this interpretation of Romans 1:20 is very controversial. (At 72, Anderson shows that he is aware that Aquinas did not accept his interpretation; at 117, he shows that he is aware that Barth did not accept his interpretation.) Speaking for myself, I can’t see that there is particularly strong support for Anderson’s reading of Romans 1:20. I think that it is not at all clear that the occurrence of ‘they’ in this passage refers to all human beings, past, present and future. In Romans 1:18, we are told that ‘the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness.’ And in Romans 1:21, we read ‘Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imagination, and their foolish heart was darkened’. At the very least, it seems not implausible to take the occurrence of ‘they’ in Romans 1:20 to refer to those who, despite having had the benefits of special revelation, fail to accord proper respect to God.
Anderson claims to be an adherent of ‘Historic Christianity’. He tells us that this is ‘the worldview expressed in such creeds as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicean Creed, and the Chalcedon Creed. Historic Christianity is theistic, holds that scripture is divinely inspired and that salvation is necessary for all persons and is available only through the atoning work of Christ.’ (17). Moreover, he claims that Historic Christianity ‘is based on a worldview which is being developed over time through working our implications and growing in consistency. … [I]t is called Historic Christianity not necessarily because it has been held by the majority at any one time (although throughout the centuries it is the majority position), but because it is the most consistent with the scriptures and the presuppositions of Christianity from general revelation.’ (9) However, on his own acknowledgement, many of the major figures in the history of Christianity are not adherents of Historic Christianity. In particular, while Anderson takes Historic Christianity to be committed to his own views about general revelation and inexcusability, he admits that those views are not shared by, for example, Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, and almost every significant figure since the Enlightenment. The sober truth is that Anderson’s ‘Historic Christianity’ does not have the historical and scriptural support that he takes it to have, though it cannot be denied that Anderson’s views have some historical antecedents (e.g., in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in those Protestant denominations that are wedded to the Larger and Shorter Catechisms).
How does Anderson suppose that it can be proven that unbelief is inexcusable? In rough outlines, his ‘program’ is as follows:
- Show that there must be something eternal by showing that the claim that nothing is eternal is contradictory.
- Show that not everything is eternal by means of the following:
- Show that matter exists by showing that the claim that matter does not exist is contradictory (contra spiritual monism and idealism)
- Show that matter is not eternal by showing that the claim that matter is eternal is contradictory (contra material monism)
- Show that the soul exists by showing that the claim that there are no souls is contradictory (contra material monism and Advaita Vedanta) d. Show that the soul is not eternal by showing that the claim that the soul is eternal is contradictory (contra Advaita Vedanta and other forms of spiritual monism)
- Respond to the problem of evil (both moral and natural)
- Respond to natural evolution (vs. uniformitarianism and materialistic reductionism) 5. Respond to theistic evolution (the original creation was very good—without evil) 6. Respond to deism (the necessity of special revelation)
- Show that there is a moral law that is clear from general revelation. (140/1)
Anderson claims that this ‘program’ is based on S. Gangadean (2008) Philosophical Foundation: A Critical Analysis of Basic Beliefs, University Press of America (a work that he mentions repeatedly, even though it is not listed in his bibliography, and even though he does not actually cite from it: see, e.g., xvii, 140, 142, 197).
Even allowing for the ‘sketchy’ nature of this ‘program’, it is hard to see how one could think that it will be adequate to the task. True enough, if you accomplish 1 and 2, then you have ruled out all views but those that allow that some things are eternal and some things—including matter and souls—are not. But how are we supposed to get from there to the claim that it is contradictory to deny that the Christian God exists and possesses the various properties affirmed of Him by ‘Historic Christianity’? There is not even the slightest hint in the rest of the ‘program’ that indicates how all of the remaining alternatives to ‘Historic Christianity’ might be shown to be contradictory.
Skepticism about the viability of Anderson’s ‘program’ is only increased when one considers the details of his attempt to carry out the first step, i.e., the details of his attempt to show that the claim, that nothing is eternal, is inconsistent.
Here is how Anderson begins: ‘In Historic Christian theism, God is a Spirit who is infinite, eternal, and unchanging in being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. Unbelief is the denial that this God exists, and the affirmation that something else is eternal (has existed from eternity). If clarity is to be established, it must be proven that only God is eternal, and all other claims about what is eternal are contradictory. It requires showing that there is a clear distinction between eternal and non-eternal. … The alternative to this is that there was an uncaused event in which being came from non-being. …The following two chapters are going to consider this possibility in order to argue that it is clear that something has existed from eternity. To do this requires clearly defining what “being from non being” and “uncaused event” mean. … This analysis will help to show what is meant in saying “it is clear that something has existed from eternity”, and that the alternative to clarity is a self-contradiction which ends in silence. One must be silent when one’s assertions are self-contradictory and thus are not about anything. They are about nothing.’ (140).
Much of this is bizarre. Why should unbelief be committed to the claim that something other than God is eternal? Why is the only alternative to the claim that something is eternal the claim that something came from nothing? And what are we to make of the strange claim that contradictions lead to silence? It is the plainest commonsense that I can make contradictory claims about one subject matter without making contradictory claims about other subject matters. If I contradict myself in my account of what I was doing this morning, then my contradictory assertion is plainly about something: namely, what I was doing this morning. Moreover, rather than shut up, what I ought to do is to revise what I say so that it is no longer contradictory.
At 146, Anderson says that ‘“eternal” means what is without beginning and therefore changeless (either no change or changeless in the sense of recycling the same changes)’. But, on this understanding of “eternal”, it seems straightforward to model a world in which there is nothing that is eternal, and yet in which there is no point at which something comes from nothing: all we need is a beginningless infinite sequence of pair-wise distinct things, each of which goes out of existence when it brings the next member of the sequence into existence. Since we can model this scenario, it is not logically contradictory (as even those who suppose that such a scenario is not really possible acknowledge).
Anderson thinks that he can show that the claim that ‘being from non-being’ is contradictory on other grounds. First, he argues as follows: ‘[Being from non-being] can be shown to be a strict contradiction by considering that all “from” claims presuppose being. Obviously, “from” in “being from non-being” is not a spatial term, such as “I came from Phoenix”. Nor can it be a term denoting origination such as “that noise came from me”, since non-being cannot do anything. Upon analysis, all uses of “from” involve being, and it can never be used with non-being.’ (151) Here, the obvious response—which Anderson notes elsewhere—is to deny that ‘being from non-being’ is anything other than a metaphorical restatement of ‘uncaused existence’. Given that ‘from’ does not appear in the literal statement, Anderson’s contestable claims about the use of the word ‘from’ are simply irrelevant. (His claims are contestable because there are acceptable uses of the word ‘from’ that don’t conform to his strictures—e.g. in discussion of the possibility of particles ‘coming from infinity’ in Newtonian mechanics. Since there are models of Newtonian mechanics in which particles ‘come from infinity’, there is plainly no logical inconsistency involved in this use of the word ‘from’. Or—to take a more mundane example—consider the sentence ‘Bilbo Baggins is from Middle Earth’. Since there is no such place as Middle Earth—i.e. since Middle Earth does not exist—this sentence clearly involves a use of ‘from’ that involves non-being: but it is a perfectly proper use of ‘from’ nonetheless. Suppose that someone says to Anderson: ‘This artefact is from Atlantis’. Will he seriously respond: ‘I cannot tell whether your use of the word ‘from’ is grammatically appropriate until I determine whether or not the term ‘Atlantis’ is a denoting term?).
Anderson’s most developed argument for inconsistency in belief in uncaused existence is contained in the following passage: ‘a and non-a is an absolute distinction. While being from non-being follows this formally, it is different from all other distinctions between a and non-a. All other such cases are cases of beings. “Table” falls into the category of “non-egg”, and yet both are beings. … Behind all of these is the distinction of being and non-being, and the reality that in causal relations being is only related to being. If being could come from either being or non-being, then on this point the two are not different—they are not a and non-a on this point, just as table and egg are not a and non-a with respect to the category material objects. Here then is the contradiction: if being can come from either being or non-being, then on this point they are not different, which is to say that being is non-being. Tables are equivalent to eggs with respect to being material objects. But being and non-being are different on all points and in every respect, which means if being comes from being, then it can never come from non-being. This holds true for whatever sense of from that one wants to hold, and for the example where a series of changing and dependent events is preceded by nothing.’ (152/3)
Suppose one thinks that there are just two different kinds of things (or states, or events, or whatever): those that are essentially caused, and those that are essentially uncaused. Suppose, further, that one supposes that essentially uncaused things (or states, or events or whatever) are essentially temporally prior to all other things: essentially uncaused things cannot begin to exist at moments of time that are preceded by other moments of time at which they do not exist. Finally, suppose that all essentially uncaused things are contingent existents. Given these three assumptions, it follows that, for each essentially uncaused thing, there is some other thing that causes it, but that, for each essentially uncaused thing, there is no other thing that causes it. Does this set of assumptions somehow erase the distinction between being and non-being? I can’t see how. Of course, in the case of an essentially uncaused contingently existing thing, there is no thing that is causally related to it: but it does not follow that we therefore have a case in which causation relates being to non-being. What is true, on the given assumptions, is that essentially uncaused contingently existing things do not have causes (whereas all essentially caused things do have causes). If we insist on talking the way that Anderson does, then what we need to say is something like this: cases in which being comes from being are essentially different from cases in which being comes from non-being. But, once we say this, we take away any force that attaches to Anderson’s suggestion that, if we say that being can come from either being or non-being, then we are obliged to accept the contradictory claim that being is non-being.
Even setting the above considerations aside, it is not clear that we should agree with Anderson’s claim that being and non-being are different on all points and in every respect (unlike table and non-table, which can both apply to material objects). As we noted earlier, at least inter alia, Anderson provides no theory of fictional objects. Should we say that being and non-being can both apply to ships (e.g. the Queen Mary and the Argonaut, respectively)? Should we say that being and non being can both apply to people (e.g., John F. Kennedy and Slartybartfast, respectively)? If we should say these kinds of things, then we have good reason to reject Anderson’s claim that being and non-being are different on all points and in every respect. And if we should not say these kinds of things, then we need to be told a lot more about the ways in which Anderson proposes to regiment the language in which his views are being proposed and defended.
Even if detailed examination did not point out the problematic nature of Anderson’s ‘program’ and his attempt to undertake its ‘first step’, there are pretty strong independent reasons for being skeptical about the prospects of defending the claim that unbelief is inexcusable (in the sense in which Anderson supposes it to be). Anderson is at pains to emphasize that ‘all humans’ who fail to believe that God exists and conforms to the details of the general revelation prescribed by ‘Historical Christianity’ are inexcusable. (See, e.g., 4, 8, 10, 11, and 24.) Moreover, as we noted above, Anderson thinks that ‘all humans’ who wish to make sense of the world need to be able to discover and follow the arguments that prove that God exists and conforms to the details of the general revelation prescribed by ‘Historical Christianity’ (124). However, given these two constraints, there are obvious difficulties that arise. On the one hand, given that Anderson insists that he cannot be satisfied with ‘a sound proof that is extremely difficult to understand and that is knowable by only a few’ (123), it seems clear that his ‘program’ is bound to fail: for surely it is London to a brick that, if his ‘program’ could be successfully carried out, it would yield a proof that is ‘extremely difficult to understand and knowable only by a few’. (Certainly, as things now stand, what he says in Chapter 8 is very hard to follow: no one could plausibly claim that he has given a ‘clear’ demonstration that it must be that something is eternal). And, on the other hand, given that he is looking for a proof that will be accessible to ‘all humans’, it seems unlikely that any proof— no matter how simple—could meet that standard. For, surely, there are many human beings who are simply unable to comprehend any proofs. Consider those who die in infancy. Consider those who are born with hideous cognitive deformities, and who never learn to communicate at all. Consider those who fall into unending comas in early childhood. Consider those who are simply not very bright, e.g. those whose mental age never progresses beyond that of a typical three-year-old, or a typical six year-old, or a typical nine-year-old. What sort of proof is going to be accessible to these human beings? How could anyone suppose that there is a general revelation of the existence and nature of God that is available to human beings that fall into these categories? And how could anyone suppose that a perfectly good, perfectly wise, and perfectly powerful God could make a world in which salvation is simply denied to human beings that fall into these and similar categories?
It seems to me to be a very hard saying to claim that the central truth of Christianity is that unbelief is inexcusable. While it is understandable how a religion whose central claim is that we are all loved by our Creator—and that we are all destined to spend eternity in His embrace, having been forgiven for the many wrongs that we have done—has widespread appeal, I cannot see how a religion whose central claim is that unbelief is inexcusable could gain widespread assent. I think that the fact that there are so many people who claim to be Christians is overwhelmingly strong evidence that Anderson’s ‘Historic Christianity’ is not widely held. But, even if this were not so, it would remain that Anderson’s book does nothing to add credence to ‘Historic Christianity’; on the contrary, a careful reading of the book—along with the noting of the various difficulties that I have mentioned above, and the noting of many further difficulties that I am not able to discuss here—simply reinforces the conviction that his claims about inexcusability and redemption cannot possibly be correct.
Oppy’s newest book, Arguing About Gods, is essential for those interested in the Philosophy of Religion, Natural Theology, and the existence of God. It represents significant research and a robust acquaintance with contemporary and classical work about the existence of God. In an important way, this book is a modern-day application of David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which Oppy refers to as one of his favorites. While many defenses have been given in reply to Hume, what Oppy shows in his work is that these have failed to successfully modify the classical theistic arguments. Oppy applies Hume’s method to post-Humean modifications of theistic arguments and exhibits the same rigorous skepticism as the interlocutor Philo from Dialogues. Through an analysis of Oppy’s criticism and application of Hume, it can be understood that there are two reasons why post-Humean theists have not successfully responded to Hume (and why pre-Humean theists were unable to give a ‘Hume proof’ argument). These will become evident as Oppy’s criticisms are considered, as will a possible avenue for a successful proof, and the necessity of a proof for Christianity. The centrality of a proof, especially for Christianity, is based on the ought/can principle, making the need to show the clarity of God’s existence foundational to any other aspect of the Christian gospel.
The central thesis of the book is that there are no successful proofs for or against the existence of God. Oppy believes that there are rational persons who believe in God, and rational persons who do not believe in God. What is not rational, according to Oppy, is the claim that there are no successful arguments among those that have been proposed, and to believe that there are is irrational. For Oppy, a successful argument is one that would convince a rational person. This defines success in terms of changing the other person’s mind. There can be two types of rational persons who do not believe in God and at whom theistic arguments are aimed to convince: the person who does not believe that God exists, and the person who does not hold a belief either way. The difficulty in convincing a rational person who believes that God does not exist is that he or she believes that the evidence supports the atheist’s position. Therefore, what is necessary is new evidence, not an argument. There is the reality that people are not always rational informing their beliefs, and Oppy reserves a discussion of the ethics of belief for the last chapter.
Chapters 2– 4 consider the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments. The detail and refinement of these chapters cannot be duplicated here, and they can serve as a valuable resource for those interested in research about contemporary arguments for God’s existence. Oppy is fair and even-handed in his presentation of these arguments, but he concludes that no successful form of these arguments has been given to date. In some cases he revises his older criticisms, noting places where they were incorrect or could be made stronger.
Problems that keep the ontological argument from being successful include that it imports the idea of God into the premises (thus becoming circular), and that where it does not do so its conclusion is not equivalent to the God of monotheism. The cosmological argument faces not only this same problem (its conclusion is not equivalent to God), but also problems about the need for a first cause. Oppy critically analyzes the claim that there cannot have been an infinite past, and also rejects several forms of the principle of sufficient reason. PSR is either stated too strongly so as to be self-refuting, or it is so weak as to not be adequate in proving the existence of God. Oppy then suggests that perhaps the universe had no cause, having a beginning without a cause (in contrast to God, who is said to be uncaused in the sense of having had no beginning). The teleological argument is unsuccessful in that it has not progressed past the critique of Hume. Oppy considers the claim that irreducible complexity proves intelligent design, and argues that this is not really different than the traditional design argument, an intelligent designer is not the same as ‘God’, and the argument is invalid (what appears to be irreducible complexity can be arrived at apart from intelligent design).
Chapters 5–7 consider arguments from evil, Pascal’s wager, and miscellaneous other arguments that do not fit neatly into previous categorization. Much of the analysis of the problem of evil involves questions about free will and God’s purpose in creating. What becomes obvious in the discussion is the lack of a clear definition of the good. This especially becomes evident as Oppy considers appeals to heaven as justification for present evils. Many (most) current theistic solutions to the problem of evil rely on libertarian free will (I am free if I could have done otherwise). Similarly, many (most) current theistic solutions appeal to heaven where everything will be explained and the greatest good will be achieved. Oppy points out the following: if the explanation of moral evil is that it is due to freedom of the will, and God had to permit freedom to achieve the good of fellowship, then if the good of heaven is fellowship with God heaven must contain freedom, and therefore there can/will be moral evil in heaven. On the other hand, if freedom is not necessary in heaven, and the lack of freedom does not diminish the good of fellowship with God, then freedom was not necessary from the beginning, and lack of freedom would have not have diminished fellowship with God.
His analysis brings out a number of issues that can be useful in understanding why theists (particularly Christians) have failed to give a clear proof for God’s existence. By defining the good as fellowship with God that will be achieved in heaven, the focus becomes ‘how do I get to heaven’. Furthermore, this fellowship is understood as an immediate/intuitive relationship with God, or perhaps even a relationship where one can visibly see God. The result is that ‘proofs’ for God’s existence become useless for achieving the greatest good. One does not need to prove that God exists in order to get into heaven, and once in heaven, the immediate/intuitive perception of God removes once and for all any need for a proof. The only use for a proof is to help some philosophically inclined persons in this life, but even then these proofs are not seen to be much help since they are not necessary for achieving the good life but instead are a kind of distraction or hobby.
In contrast, if the greatest good is knowing God, and God is known mediately through his works (Psalm 19, Romans 1, et al.) not immediately in a beatific vision, then proof becomes essential to the good life. There are philosophical reasons to think this is a better understanding of the greatest good. In order to know God, one must first know if there is a God. This does not mean that fellowship is not the greatest good, but fellowship is based on knowing, and is a development of continued knowing. If the essence of God (in theism) is that he is a spirit, and spirit is nonvisible consciousness, then God cannot be visibly/directly seen, now or in heaven. Rather, God is ‘seen’ by understanding the works of God. There are also scriptural reasons to think this is a better understanding of the greatest good: Jesus said ‘now this is eternal life: that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’ (John 17:3 NIV); Paul said ‘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 men are without excuse’ (Romans 1:20 NIV). The implication is that both Jesus and Paul believed that humans ought to know God, and that they can know God in this life, and that this knowledge is ‘eternal life’, the greatest good.
But this leads to a significant problem for Christianity. If humans ought to know God then they must be able to know God. But if Oppy’s analysis is correct, and there are no successful proofs to date for God’s existence, then humans cannot know the first thing about God (if he exists). The implication is that humans cannot be held responsible for knowing God, and yet Christianity maintains that the failure to know God is a sin (according to Paul, the sin that leads to all other kinds of sins – Romans 1), and the failure to know God results in (or is equivalent to) the failure to have the greatest good. The onus seems to be on Christianity to either provide a clear proof for God’s existence or abandon its claims about unbelief as sin and the good life as knowing God.
Related to these considerations, in his chapter on miscellaneous arguments (Chapter 7), Oppy considers the argument from unbelief. Essentially, this argument states that if God exists then God would make his existence known, but since there are unbelievers God has not made his existence known, and therefore God does not exist. One can deny the first point but only if one also denies that knowing God is the greatest good, and humans are sinful if they do not know God. Consequently, it seems Christianity must affirm that if God exists then his existence is clear to everyone. One way this is done is by asserting that everyone already believes in God, but they are denying it. This is based on a reading of Romans 1:18–21, mentioned earlier. Here it says:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them . . . For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
The assertion is that here Paul says people both knew God (because God made his existence clear) and they ignored this knowledge and worshiped idols. However, notice that the suppression occurs due to wickedness, and the wickedness Paul indicates is exchanging God for something that is not God. The truth is suppressed by believing something false, namely, this idol is God. Paul is affirming that there are people who do not believe in God (although they did at one time), even though God has made his existence clear. The attempt to deny that there is unbelief (by asserting that everyone believes in God ‘deep down’) empties the distinction of all meaning: supposedly everyone believes in God, although they deny that they do, and although they attribute the qualities of God to something else. If someone who does these things can still be said to ‘believe’ the proposition ‘God exists’, then when does not someone believe a proposition? This same claim can be applied to any proposition, making the distinction between belief and unbelief meaningless.
The problem of unbelief cannot be solved by denying that God would make his existence clear (for Christians at least), and it cannot be solved by denying the reality of unbelief. If it is to be solved it must be solved by showing that it is clear that God exists, and explaining why people do not know God as they should. In other words, within Christianity, a theistic proof is necessary for the greatest good, and necessary to understand sin and redemption. But is there any hope that a proof can be given, especially after Hume and Oppy?
Perhaps there is, and it might be that the avenue that can provide a proof will also help settle some other foundational questions, such as what is the good, and why is there evil. As has been noted, Christians have not been very motivated to give a clear proof because they have not focused on knowing God as the greatest good. While this is true in general, it is also true that within Historic Christianity there has been a focus on knowing God as the greatest good (chief end of man). The Westminster Confession of Faith begins by asserting that the light of nature, and the words of creation and providence, provide clear proof for God’s existence (1.1). The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins by asking ‘what is the chief end of man’, and answers ‘the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever’. This would be impossible if God cannot be known. In question forty-six it asks ‘what is required in the first commandment?’ and answers ‘The first commandment requireth us to know and acknowledge God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly. The parallel answer from the Larger Catechism says ‘the duties required in the first commandment are, the knowing and acknowledging of God to be the only true God, and our God’. Clearly, knowing God is essential to Christianity, whether it is Jesus and Paul, or Historic Christianity as affirmed in the Westminster Confession. Hume, raised in the context of the Church of Scotland, would have been personally aware of the claims made in the Westminster Confession. He would have been aware that if he is correct, and proof for God cannot be given, then Christianity is either false or must be modified in a way that would render it unrecognizable. To avoid this, it is necessary for Christians to show that it is clear that God exists, and perhaps the failure to do so is rooted in the very problem itself.
If Christianity is asserting that unbelief as a sin is the basic sin that leads to all other kinds of sin (the first commandment, Romans 1), then it should not be surprising to find that humans fail to give proof for God’s existence, and when they do this proof is insufficient because it is not aimed at properly knowing God. Specifically, God is defined as a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth (Shorter Catechism Q. 4). To prove that there is a highest being, first cause, or designer, is not to prove that God exists. To rest with such proofs shows that one does not know God as one should, that one has exchanged the eternal power of God for something else. What must be proven is that there is an eternal being, and that this being is as defined above, in contrast to all the other views of the eternal that have been held by humans.
Because this is not the common focus in theistic proofs, it is not surprising that it does not get much attention in Oppy’s book. However, the fact that it does arise is evidence of Oppy’s diligence and careful research. One important thinker does seem to make this the focus of his proof, and that is John Locke. Oppy considers Locke’s proof in his chapter on miscellaneous proofs. Locke begins his proof by arguing that there must be something eternal (without beginning). He then proceeds to argue that this eternal being is God. Here I want to focus on his first claim (that there must be something eternal), while recognizing problems in how he proceeds after that, and in his empiri cism which undermines much of what he wants to do.
Locke argues that there must have existed something from eternity because the alternative is that something came from nothing. Locke believes that the claim ‘something came from nothing’ is so ridiculous that no one can actually believe it. However, in a number of places through his book, Oppy contends that it is possible for there to be uncaused events, and that the universe came into existence from nothing without a cause (not creation ex nihilo where God is the cause). Can this basic point be agreed upon, and if not can anything else be agreed upon? I believe it can, and that it marks the first step in showing that it is clear that God exists.
Oppy correctly points out that from the fact that something has existed from eternity it does not follow that the same thing has existed from eternity. There may have been an eternity of impermanent beings, each giving rise to the next and then going out of existence, or there may be one underlying being that is eternal, or only some being that is eternal and other being that is temporal, or nothing that is eternal. But these are a limited number of options, and it seems that they can be narrowed down further. By eliminating the impossible (what is self contradictory), we can arrive at what is clear about the eternal.
For instance, is it meaningful to assert that nothing is eternal (all being came from non-being)? If the universe is all that is (there is no other being), and it had a beginning, then it came into being from non-being. When we say that ‘a’ came from ‘non-a’, we assume that these are both kinds of beings (such as a chicken and an egg). But ‘non-being’ does not refer to ‘a’ or ‘non-a’; to assert that being came from non-being is like asserting that ‘a’ came from neither ‘a’ nor ‘non-a’. This claim is meaningless, and empties the idea of ‘beginning’, or ‘starting’, of meaning.
Furthermore, it is a fundamental blurring of the distinction between ‘being’ and ‘non-being’; if being can come from either being or non being, then in this respect they are not different, the distinction is not being upheld. In the sense that being can come from either being or non-being, in this respect being is the same as non-being. Because this is a contradiction, the implication is that being cannot come from non being; if there ever was only non-being then there would still be non being. Or, if something now exists, then something has always existed. This does not rely on a form of the principle of sufficient reason, but only that being cannot come from non-being, and if the universe is all that exists and had a beginning, then it is being from non-being.
This line of thinking provides a first step toward arguing that it is clear that God exists in moving toward showing that only God is eternal (without beginning). The next steps involve asking what can be predicated of ‘eternal’ without contradiction. For instance, if being that changes toward an end contradicts eternality, then it is meaningless to assert that matter is eternal. Or if finite being that grows/increases contradicts eternality, then it is meaningless to assert that the finite self is eternal. The promise of this approach is: it correctly identifies what must be argued for in order to prove that God exists (namely, that only a specific kind of being can be eternal); there are only a limited number of options and each can be clearly identified; if this foundational ques tion cannot be settled (what is eternal?), then other questions which presuppose an answer to this question cannot be settled (it must be addressed on pain of global skepticism). Oppy says a few times that it might be the case that there are uncaused events, that the universe came into being from non-being uncaused, but if we accept this as a possi bility one time, it is unclear how we can deny it as a possibility other times (all the time?), and as pointed out earlier it blurs the distinction between being and non-being so that it is unclear how anything can be known that presupposes that distinction.
Furthermore, this approach also provides an answer to the problem of evil, and a solution to the question ‘why don’t rational people believe?’ If the greatest good is knowing God, and this knowledge is available through God’s works of creation and providence, then the existence of moral evil does not threaten the greatest good but instead deepens it. In its chapter about the fall (Chapter 6), the Westminster Confession of Faith says it this way: ‘This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory’. In permitting sin there is a further revelation of the divine nature, specifically in his justice and mercy in responding to sin, which deepens the knowledge of God. This same sin which deepens the knowledge of God also obscures it for those who are not seeking. A person who has the potential for rationality may not use it in the case of thinking about what is eternal and the implications of such beliefs. Nor does this undermine the need for philosophical dialogue on the topic because a person’s response (either coming to greater understanding of what they had previously ignored, or rejecting what is clear about the eternal) is a revelation in itself about the consequences of thinking or not thinking. In this sense it can be affirmed that nothing can keep the good from those who seek it.
To put this into Oppy’s definition for a successful argument, one must be able to show that only God is eternal in a way that would change a rational person’s mind. Oppy correctly points out that if all that is done is to give an argument without new evidence, the other person will most likely not be persuaded. Besides the requirement of providing new evidence (which Oppy correctly believes is not forth coming), I add the requirement of thinking presuppositionally about the meaningfulness of basic claims. The most basic claims that can be made are about being and eternality. Being is assumed in all other claims, and the eternal is ontologically and logically prior to all else. To successfully change a rational person’s mind about the existence of God, one must raise questions about this person’s own beliefs about the eternal. For instance, if this person believes nothing is eternal, and this is the same as claiming that being came from neither ‘a’ nor ‘non-a’, then their belief is meaningless. Presuppositional thinking brings what is often not seen to the forefront, and also addresses what is foundational first. This is necessary if agreement is to be had on nonfoundational issues.
It should be noted, however, that the fact that a ‘rational’ person has not been thinking presuppositionally about their own beliefs concerning the eternal raises questions about their rationality. Perhaps there are degrees or levels of rationality. While a person might be perfectly rational in their daily choices, or in interacting with others, they might be presuppositionally irrational. Because of the role that foundational questions play for the rest of one’s worldview, to be presuppositionally irrational may very well be the worst kind of irrationality. Oppy ends his book with a discussion about the ethics of belief, and that seems appropriate here as well. Oppy modifies Clifford’s famous principle in the following way: it is irrational, always, everywhere, for anyone to believe anything that is not appropriately proportioned to the reasons and evidence that are possessed by that one (p. 420). Applying the requirement of presuppositional thinking to this principle we can add at the end ‘at the most basic level’. This addition makes the principle universal (the same for everyone) because the most basic level of thinking about being involves the distinction between being and non-being, and what being is eternal and what being is temporal. Therefore, it is irrational for anyone to believe anything that denies the distinction between being and non-being, or predicates of the eternal something which contradicts eternality or makes assertions about reality without critically analyzing their presuppositions.
A number of issues have been explored in this essay that will hopefully provoke further thought and research. Oppy’s book is the catalyst for such activity as it candidly but provocatively explores the failings of theistic arguments. While Oppy is correct in his assessment of the traditional arguments, it has been argued here that there is hope for a successful argument. This comes in recognizing why the traditional arguments fall so far short, and in more clearly focusing on the characteristics of God that require proof. This also requires giving a deeper definition of ‘good’ that avoids the superficial nature of heaven as the source of the greatest good and a solution to the problem of evil. This involves thinking presuppositionally about the most basic questions that can be asked. If Christianity can show that it is clear that God exists, then its claims about the universal need for redemption from unbelief can be justified; if Christianity cannot show that there is clarity about God’s existence, then its other claims are in serious trouble. Either way, these are momentous problems that require attention.