Our lives and this world could be completely random, the unintentional products of an accidental combination of elements assembled in the universe.
But do you find the idea that your existence is merely a coincidence neither likely nor satisfying? You’re not alone. Many believe there must be some kind of being that transcends humanity—a God of some sort.
Simply put, “God” is the English word used to refer to the supernatural being believed to be responsible for creating and sustaining the universe. But who is that? Who is God?
Some of the oldest works of literature in existence include vivid explanations of a world run by a collection of selfish and even reckless gods.1 In these early accounts, most descriptions of the world include a whole host of gods or divine beings who caused, or at least influenced, people’s experiences.2
These polytheistic worldviews (or religions) dominated culture until the rise of Judaism and the other monotheistic religions.
In Judaism we see the first widely recognized explanations for the world’s existence as attributed to one divine Creator and Sustainer. Christianity built on this monotheistic foundation after the death and alleged resurrection of Jesus around 33 CE. More than half a millennium later, after word of Muhammad’s revelations began circulating around the Arabian Peninsula, Islam became the third major monotheistic religion in the early seventh century.
Today, 31 percent of the world’s population identifies themselves as Christian, 23 percent as Muslim, 15 percent as Hindu, 0.2 percent as Jewish, and 16 percent as unaffiliated. The remaining 15 percent is comprised of mostly Eastern religions including Sikhism, Shintoism, and Buddhism.3
In monotheistic religions, God is a singular deity; in polytheistic religions, multiple gods function in various capacities to oversee the world.
Saint Anselm, an eleventh-century Benedictine monk, defined God as “the greatest possible being we can conceive.”4 Subsequently, most people attribute the following characteristics to God: omniscience (all-knowing), omnipresence (present everywhere), omnipotence (all-powerful), and perfect goodness.
Theists—those who believe in a God or gods—would suggest to varying degrees that God is somehow involved in the world. In most religions, though he is invisible, God is still perceivable through prayer, sacred texts, and even through his creation.5
In fact, to validate their experiences, many philosophers and theologians have set out to prove the existence of God. Likewise, some have sought to disprove it.
While there have always been people who doubted or denied the existence of a higher power, they have been, relatively speaking, a quiet minority. Looking at things historically, one of the more surprising statistics noted above is the high proportion of agnostics in the world today.
Just a century ago, Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, gave voice to a growing disdain for God, religion, and religious people when he declared, “God is dead!”6 In recent years, this trend has accelerated. In fact, according to The American Religious Identification Survey, “none/no religion” is the fastest growing religious segment in the United States by far.7
An emerging group of scholars, scientists, and philosophers—labeled New Atheists—have taken up this cause with zeal. Their assertion is that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.”8
Richard Dawkins, one of today’s leading atheists, does not mince words about God. “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”9
Many within these ranks agree with Dawkins and will be content only when God is eliminated from our vocabulary and consciousness.
Others argue that this is an impossibility, instead siding with C. S. Lewis’s famous statement, “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.”10 And while many atheists might disagree, most people acknowledge this kind of insatiable desire.
Consequently, humanity will always be searching for, trying to connect with, and finding God. In fact, recent data is evidence of this developing trend. Dinesh D’Souza notes, “The world is witnessing a huge explosion of religious conversion and growth. . . . People are seeking a revival of religion—perhaps in a new form—to address their specific concerns within a secular society.”11
Some describe religion as humanity’s effort to reach God. Many religions also teach that their God or gods act in ways so as to be known and found by those who search for them.
While Christianity is unique in many ways, its uniqueness is best understood as God’s effort—through the person of Jesus—to reach and restore humanity. While Jesus’ followers often fail to extend God’s loving grace to a wanting world, nonetheless, God is resilient and determined.12 He extends his unconditional, unmerited love to every human being in an act of immeasurable grace.
Moreover, Judaism teaches that we can come to know who God is by simply seeking him.13 King David stated: “If you seek him, he will be found by you.”15
What seems clear is that to discover who God is we must start by seeking to find him. That’s part of why you and I are here right now—we’re on this journey together.
- For one example, see the interaction of the gods and people in The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by Andrew George (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003).
- The collective group of the officially recognized gods of a culture is referred to as a “pantheon.” E.g., The Greek pantheon includes Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Ares, Artemis, Apollo, and Athena, among others.
- “The Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, December 18, 2012, http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/.
- Anselm of Aosta, Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm with the Proslogion (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), p. 79.
- Incidentally, the male pronoun is used by all three major monotheistic religions. However, most theists would admit that God, an immaterial being, is neither male nor female in the literal sense.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (New York: Vintage, 1974), p. 167.
- “U.S. Public Becoming Less Religious," Pew Research Center, November 3,2015, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/11/03/u-s-public-becoming-less-religious/. Also see Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Most Religious Groups Have Lost Ground, Survey Finds,” USA Today, March 17, 2009, http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-03-09-american-religion-ARIS_N.htm.
- Simon Hooper, “The Rise of the ‘New Atheists,’” CNN, November 9, 2006, http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/europe/11/08/atheism.feature/index.html.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 31.
- C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 2001), p. 136.
- Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity? (Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), p. 3.
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, 1 Timothy 2:3–4. “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
- Ibid., Deuteronomy 4:29. “If from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.”
- Ibid., 1 Chronicles 28:9.
- Photo Credit: mezzotint / Shutterstock.com.