Why Unbelievers Wish It Were True

  • 4 July 2017

"The great question confronting modern humanity is this: Granted that the universe contains both persons (such as you and me) and impersonal structures (such as matter, motion, chance, time, space, and physical laws), which is fundamental? Is the impersonal aspect of the universe grounded in the personal, or is it the other way around? Secular thought generally assumes the latter-that persons are the products of matter, motion, chance, and so on. It holds that to explain a phenomenon in terms of personal intentions (e.g., “This house is here because someone built it to live in”) is less than an ultimate explanation, less than fully explanatory. On this view, an ultimate explanation, a fully satisfying explanation, requires the ultimacy of the impersonal (e. g., “The person built the house because the atoms in his brain moved about in certain ways”). But is that a necessary assumption? 

Returning to Scripture, the biblical writers do not hesitate to ascribe the events of the natural world directly to God. He waters the land (Ps. 65:9-11). He sends the lightning and the wind (Ps. 135:5-7). He spreads the snow, frost, and hail and then sends his word to melt them (Ps. 147:15-18). So the biblical view of the natural world is intensely personalistic. Natural events come from God. This is not to deny that there are forces in nature itself, perhaps even “natural laws” in some sense, though it would be hard to prove the existence of such laws from Scripture. But behind all the forces of nature itself is the force of the personal Lord.

Let us think think through the consequences of both views. If the impersonal is primary, then there is no consciousness, no wisdom, and no will in the ultimate origin of thlngs. What we call reason and value are the unintended, accidental consequences of chance events. (So why should we trust reason, if it is only the accidental result of irrational happenings?) Moral virtue will, in the end, be unrewarded. Friendsh1p, love, and beauty are all of no ultimate consequence, for they are reducible to blind uncaring process. No one was more clear-eyed and eloquent as to the consequences of this view than Bertrand Russell, who nevertheless upheld it as “the world which science presents for our belief”: 

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-...only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

But if the personal is primary, then the world was made according to a rational plan that can be understood by rational minds. Friendship and love are not only profound human experiences, but fundamental ingredients of the whole world order. There is Someone who wants there to be friendship, who wants there to be love. All the wonderful things that we find in personality - intelligence, compassion, creativity, love, justice - are not ephemeral data, doomed to be snuffed out in cosmic calamity; rather, they are aspects of what is most permanent, most ultimate. They are what the universe is really all about. Moral goodness is part of the great design of the universe. If personality is absolute, there is One who cares about what we do, who approves or disapproves our conduct. And that person has some purpose for evil, too, mysterious as that might seem to us. Beauty, too, does not just happen for a while; it is the art of a great craftsman. And if indeed the solar system comes to a “vast death," there is One who can deliver us from that death, if it pleases him to do so. So it may be that some of our thoughts, plans, trust, love, and achievements have eternal consequences after all, consequences that impart to all these things a great seriousness, but also humor: humor at the ironic comparison of our trivial efforts with “eternal consequences.” 

What a difference! Instead of a gray world of matter and motion and chance, in which anything could happen, but nothing much (nothing of human interest) ever does, the world would be the artistic creation of the greatest mind imaginable, with a dazzling beauty and fascinating logic. It would be a history with a drama, a human interest, a profound subtlety an allusiveness more illuminating than the greatest novelist could produce. That divine history would have a moral grandeur that would turn all the world's evil to good. Most amazingly: the world would be under the control of a being somehow, wonderfully, akin to ourselves! Could we pray to him? Could we know him as a friend? Or would we have to flee from him as our enemy? What would he expect of us? What incredible experiences might he have in store for us? What new knowledge? What blessings? What curses? 

I suspect that many who profess unbelief nevertheless wish that something like that were true."

John Frame, Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief, p35-36