What distinguishes a claim that an invisible God is present in the world from claims about the reality of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or a child’s imaginary friend? Is God real? If so, where is this God that people claim to know?
In 1952 the philosopher Bertrand Russell, a self-described atheist and agnostic, wrote an article for Illustrated magazine entitled “Is There a God?”1 In it, he introduced his famous “orbiting teapot” idea. Russell claimed that the burden of proof lies with those who make claims that cannot be verified scientifically:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.2
Russell suggested that believers must prove God’s reality rather than expect nonbelievers to disprove God’s reality. Some have even satirically applied Russell’s idea to those who believe in invisible pink unicorns and flying spaghetti monsters.3
Russell’s point makes some sense. Just because somebody claims that something is true doesn’t mean that it is true or that we should feel compelled to prove that it is not true.
However, the claim that God is real is a bit different from Russell’s teapot—and from the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus for that matter.
Physical or Spiritual?
We know things about the physical universe that would make the teapot claim seem unjustifiable. Teapots are, after all, physical objects. Based on our present knowledge of the laws of the physical universe, we have no rational reason to believe in an orbiting teapot.
On the other hand, most religions describe God as a spirit, not a physical entity.4 If this is true, it would put the reality of God and that of an orbiting teapot in altogether different categories.
Visible or Invisible?
Disbelief in the reality of God is also based on the fact that God is unseen. However, we believe in the reality of numerous things we cannot see. For example, we accept the reality of historical figures such as Plato and Socrates, although we’ve seen neither. Historical evidence points to their existence, so we accept them as real.
We deal differently with mythological characters such as Mickey Mouse or Superman. We reject them as fantasy because we have no evidence pointing to their reality. If someone denied the existence of Socrates, we would expect them to make their case for unbelief, whereas if someone denied the existence of Superman we would not demand a case be made.
At the same time, we accept other invisible, non-scientifically verifiable realities. For example, how can I scientifically prove that I love my children or my spouse? Yet I know without question that I do. Am I willing to label that knowledge as specious?
We cannot see wind, yet we know it is real based on how it affects the things around it. We cannot see odor or sound, but their reality is evident to all who can see, smell, and hear. Within our universe, reality is not demonstrated merely by visibility and provability, but also by affect, historical reliability, and plausibility.
So Is God Real?
Christian thinkers would answer yes, but we must be careful to define what is meant by “real.” Christians speak of God’s nature as being spiritual rather than physical.
Among the implications of this claim is the idea that God is neither bound nor described by the physical laws of this universe. God does not consist of matter.
Christians believe that God is present equally and fully in all the universe, and yet is also distinct from and lord over it.5 No place exists where God is absent; the entire universe reveals his presence and power.6
Dallas Willard, a philosophy professor at the University of Southern California, describes humans as “spiritual beings” with physical bodies. He observes, “You cannot find me or any of my thoughts, feelings, or character traits in any part of my body. Even I cannot. If you wish to find me, the last thing you should do is open my body to take a look.”7
In an analogous way (and all analogies break down), he says that God relates to space as we do to our bodies. God “occupies and overflows it but cannot be localized in it.”8 In short, God is everywhere, fully and completely.
The ancient Hebrew poet understood this of God and spoke of it in the psalms: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”9
If God is real, then we are faced with a more personal question. Can we know this invisible God? If the nature of spiritual things is that they cannot be perceived by the five senses—that they are non-physical realities—how does one find God?
The testimony of men and women who have staked a claim on the reality of God over the centuries is summed up in the words of the ancient Hebrew prophet named Jeremiah: “‘You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’” declares the Lord.”10
Christian thinkers have understood that human beings have a capacity for relationship with the God who created us. We, too, seem to have a spiritual dimension, a way of being that is more than the five senses. Perhaps it is the quest to know God that best puts one in a position to answer the question, “Is God real?”
- Bertrand Russell, “Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic? A Plea for Tolerance,” The Literary and Rationalist Review 64, no 7 (1949): 115-16. In this article, Russell describes himself as an atheist and agnostic.
- Bertrand Russell, "Is There a God?" (1952), The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell 11: Last Philosophical Testament (1943–68), ed. John G. Slater and Peter Köllner (London: Routledge, 1997), 543–48.
- Bobby Henderson, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (New York: Random House, 2006).
- For the Christian perspective, see The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, John 4:24.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Psalm 139:7–12. “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
- Ibid, 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.”
- Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, (New York: HarperOne, 1998), 76.
- The Holy Bible, Psalm 139:7–8.
- Ibid, Jeremiah 29:13–14.
- Photo Credit: mtr / Shutterstock.com.