Is there just one God? Or are there many deities, both personal and impersonal?
Take a moment to consider what you know of the major worldviews. What do you notice, no matter how limited your knowledge may be? They’re all different.
Each religion or philosophy provides different answers to the basic big questions of life: What is true? Why are we here? What happens when we die?
And, of course, each worldview has a different answer to the question of God—or is it gods? How many are there, anyway? One? Three? One hundred? Six thousand?
Philosophy—as the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence—tries to help us make sense of these worldviews. Logic helps us organize our observations and pay attention to defining our terms. On the subject of deities alone, we step into a realm of intricate terms. “Monotheism” seems simple enough: monos (single) + theos (god) = monotheism, a belief in only one God.
But the “-isms” don’t stop there.1 When we’re finally done just defining terms, often only cynicism remains.
In his essay on pantheism, one philosopher refreshingly admits that it’s complicated.2
Another has found it expedient to distill worldviews into three distinct groups: 1) those who believe all that exists came from absolutely nothing; 2) those who believe existence had some kind of impersonal beginning (like mass, energy, or motion); and 3) those who believe in a personal beginning to all things.3
But even these attempts to simplify serve only to make us more aware of the complex nature of this topic.
At a Glance
The five major worldviews—religions or philosophies—are atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Below is an outline of each worldview’s general conclusion regarding God or gods and the nature (or purpose) of existence.
Atheism states that the origin of existence is impersonal. No personal being, such as a god, caused any part of the material world to exist; there is no spiritual world. This system of thought is not a religion, and no set practices or specific texts define this worldview. Rather, the various philosophers and scientists who hold to atheism help to give it a recognizable shape. Atheists generally regard the world from a purely material or naturalistic standpoint, often arguing that there was less-organized matter (or energy or motion) that gradually became more organized and complex, thus creating our world.4 The impersonal caused the personal (e.g., humans now have a self-will).
According to Buddhism, our existence will be characterized by suffering as long as man has desires, which are functions of the ego or the individual, subjective person (a trait of the personal). For his suffering to end, man must escape the personal and achieve Nirvana. Nirvana is a state of complete loss of self and connection to all things in the universe: one is all and all is one. The origin of life is impersonal, as is its end goal of Nirvana. Buddhism is known as non-theistic.5
One of three prehistoric religions still practiced in modern times, Hinduism reflects the very nature of the culture to which it belongs.6 The Hindu worldview reveres unity amidst diversity, and it has happily absorbed gods, practices, and insights from other traditions.7 It blends aspects of the personal and the impersonal. Hinduism is a polytheistic worldview with a pantheon of gods (which rank as greater and lesser gods, incarnations, and manifestations)—all expressions of Oneness.8
The belief in one eternal, omnipotent, transcendent God (Allah) is the foundational tenet of Islam. “Muslims believe in one God who created the universe and has power over everything within it. He is unique . . . [and] cannot be compared to His creation. . . . The ultimate purpose of all creation is to submit to Him. The Islamic understanding of God is distinct from all other religions and beliefs in various respects since it is based on a pure and clear understanding of monotheism.”9 While the Qur’an mentions other “gods,” these are understood as wholly undeserving of worship; they are manmade rather than truly existent. Islam claims to be the purest form of monotheism.10
The most pervasive organized religion, Christianity has its roots in Judaism. Deuteronomy 6:4—a verse of scripture within both Judaism and Christianity—states, “The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” As in Islam, within Christianity, God is revealed as preexistent, self-existent, eternal, holy, omnipotent, and transcendent.11 However, Christianity—which identifies as a monotheistic religion—adds a unique understanding of the way God reveals his character and nature: the Trinity. According to the doctrine of the Trinity, God is three-in-one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through this display of his relational nature, God reveals his immanence (ability to be experienced or known). God is therefore both personal and knowable.12
The Trinity: The Mystery of Christian Monotheism
The mystery of the Trinity seems to defy all logic and reasoning. How can anyone be both three and one? Many attempts have been made by theologians to illustrate the concept. The Trinity is like a clover, one has said: three petals, one stalk.13 Another illustration is attributed to C. S. Lewis, who said the three dimensions of space—length, width, and height—which all exist in the same space, yet are distinctly different illustrate this mystery more clearly.
Even in logic we have a way to describe this conundrum. To understand the type of unity that exists in the Godhead, we would realize it is not 1 + 1 + 1 = 3, but 1 × 1 × 1 = 1. But we need more than just logic and reasoning to convince us.
Another mysterious tri-unity may be found in man himself: the inextricable natures of mind, heart, and body. The Christian God meets us in each of our human dimensions. The Christian God is the only God who has revealed himself as relational in his essence; as another author wrote, “God is love.”14
When we look at the Bible, we see the relational history of God and man. God created man in his image.15 Man, when given a choice, rebelled.16 God’s nature (love) compelled him to restore the relationship with man through the most famous redemptive act of all history.17 He willingly tore himself apart, defying all reason, to reconcile his people and his creation to himself.
Though transcendent (far and beyond knowing), he allowed himself to draw immanent (near and knowable).18 The apex of the Christian story is the sacrificial work of the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, and the ultimate sign of his divinity—the resurrection. In this story, God himself suffered death in order to break its power.
It is a good exercise of the mind to try to discern the nuances of meanings and the cognitive facts regarding the supernatural. Our minds hunger for reason and explanations—understanding is deeply satisfying, and logic is a tool we can use to gain that understanding.
But it is not cool logic alone that wins us over. It is not merely a study of probabilities that convinces us. It is relationship, founded on the work of redemption. This haunts both heart and mind, giving each personal journey—as well as all of history—great purpose and meaning.
It is the God of the Bible who speaks to the deepest needs of heart, soul, and mind. The personal, loving God of Christianity reaches out to each of us individually, offering us a personal, direct relationship.
Ultimately, neither you nor I can prove or disprove the existence of the Christian God or any of the gods espoused by the various religions. We can only continue to pursue knowledge and understanding. We must follow the evidence we encounter with an open mind and an unassuming heart in the strong hope that “truth will out!”19