This sermon is part of the sermon series "Can Smart People Believe in God?". See series.
We've been in a series called "Can Smart People Believe in God?" Last week we had Dallas Willard with us to answer some tough questions, and I want to start with a comment he made in one service about how getting life right is surprisingly uncorrelated with having a high IQ. Dallas asked the question, "Did you ever notice that sometimes smart people do dumb things?"
That's kind of the human condition. You can just look around you to see really smart people doing really dumb things. So here's what I want to do as we bring this series to a close. In this message I want to talk about reasons why faith in God makes more sense than the alternative. Now I don't think these are airtight proofs for the existence of God, but the question isn't really, "Can you prove God beyond any shadow of a doubt?" but rather, "Does believing in God, faith, and trust make more sense than basing your life on the alternative that there is no God out there?"
I want to run through what you might think of as clues that point to God, but more importantly, I want to get to the best reason for believing in God, because the best reason is not reserved for people with really high IQ levels. It's as close as your heart. We'll start with this: What are some indicators that point toward God?
Indicator 1: The universe exists.
The first indicator is put in the form of a question: How did the universe get started? Why is there something rather than nothing? Now arguably the single most important discovery of the last century is this: that the universe had a beginning. It's popularly known as the Big Bang. In previous centuries—19th century and earlier—the vast majority of scientists did not believe that the universe had a beginning. There was actually, in fact, a great deal of resistance to the notion of the Big Bang. The general scientific understanding was that matter—the physical universe—had always existed.
There is a fascinating little book called The First Three Minutes that's about the very beginning of our universe. It's hard for me to wrap my arms around the idea, but physicists tell us that in the beginning all of the matter of the universe was compressed into a point of infinite density—what is spoken of as the singularity. Imagine the entire universe, I mean everything that is out there, existing as one tiny point, smaller than an atom. Then the universe had a beginning. It was not, and then it was.
Now here's why that idea points to something like God. It's a very simple argument, actually. Everything that has a beginning has a cause. Nothing just magically pops into being: cell phones, a new tree in the backyard—every object or event. That's a proof of God right there, isn't it? Everything that has a beginning has a cause. The universe had a beginning; therefore, something caused the universe.
Now think about the alternative. The alternative is that something can come from nothing. Again, the idea of nothing is very hard for us to grasp. Nothing would mean complete, blank emptiness. Try to imagine this for a moment: no space, no time, no matter, no energy, not even a void because a void connotes boundaries. Nothing. Then with no explanation, no cause, the universe pops into being. This could not work; you cannot get from nothing to something.
If you want to be an atheist, the existence of the Big Bang is what might be thought of as an inconvenient truth, for in that case, the physical universe must have been produced by something not physical. The existence of the universe itself points to the existence of something beyond the universe, something that does not depend on anything else for its existence, something of immense power, something that has a quality like what we think of as mind.
This is exactly what Paul was writing about 2,000 years ago to the Church at Rome when he said, "For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature [something capable of existing apart from depending on anything else], have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made" (Romans 1:20). So the existence of the universe is a reason for believing, but it's not the best one.
Indicator 2: The universe is fine-tuned to support life.
The second clue that points to the existence of a God is what a pastor named Tim Keller calls "The Cosmic Welcome Mat." Now The Cosmic Welcome Mat refers to an oddity about our universe that physicists, secular or religious, have come to call the anthropic principle. It's from the Greek word anthropos, which means man or human being. The universe seems to be fine-tuned to be the kind of place that can support life. It wouldn't have to be that way, but it is.
There are a striking number of conditions or contingencies in biology and physics that would have to be just right for life to arise from the universe. It turns out those conditions are just right. For example, the proportion of the mass of a neutron of hydrogen that's converted to energy during nuclear fusion is 0.007. If it were 0.006, the whole universe would be hydrogen, and there would be no life. If it were 0.008, there would be no hydrogen and therefore no life. The proportions that are are exactly what is required to produce life.
Water has a unique property. As water gets colder, it contracts until it freezes, and then it reverses course and expands. If it did not have this very strange property, oceans and lakes would freeze from the bottom up. They would freeze solid which would make aquatic life, and therefore life in general, impossible.
So this anthropic principle is an overarching name for the fact that there are dozens of variables—the strength of gravity, properties of carbon, the exact rate of the expansion of the Big Bang, and on and on—in the universe, in our planet, in biology that would have to be exactly fine-tuned for life to exist, and it turns out they are exactly fine-tuned. The precise orbit of the earth, its distance from the sun, the existence of a moon that keeps the earth tilted on its axis at 23.5 degrees makes a climate that can sustain life. In fact, physicists say that we live in the Goldilocks Zone. Not too hot, not too cold, just right.
When Copernicus demonstrated that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa, a number of people said in subsequent centuries, "Well the human race will just have to recognize that everything doesn't revolve around us. We're accidents in a huge universe." But instead, particularly in recent decades, we have discovered, in ways that previous centuries could not have imagined, that the universe looks strangely like it was designed precisely so that we could exist. A physicist by the name of Freeman Dyson said, "It's as if the universe saw us coming." So the anthropic principle is a reason for believing, but it's not the best reason.
Indicator 3: We have a hunger for meaning.
Another clue that points to the existence of God is our longing—our human hunger for meaning and worth. In the history of the church, birth is marked by christenings or baptisms or dedications.As far as I know, there are no atheist ceremonies to mark the arrival of a human life. Why is that? It made me wonder, What would get said to a little baby on such an occasion? "Little baby, you're a little blob of carbon, a random collection of molecules on a insignificant speck of a planet revolving around a minor league star that will soon burn itself out and destroy all known life forms. Long before that, you personally will have rotted and decayed and your momentary existence will be eternally unremembered and without meaning or significance. Have a good life." Hard to picture that catching on, isn't it?
A Yale professor by the name of Nicholas Wolterstorff has written a fabulous book about justice in the last couple of years. He raises this question: Why do human beings have dignity, worth, and rights? His book is really an attempt to found justice on the notion of human rights, which he believes are very important. In that attempt he poses this question: If children are beaten, if woman are marginalized, we all have the sense that that's wrong. Why?
It turns out that secularism has a very hard time establishing a foundation for human worth and rights. That's not to say that secular philosophers don't value human rights, because they certainly do, but it's hard to find something to ground them in. If you ground them in certain human capacities or abilities, then when those abilities diminish, to that same extent, those rights would diminish. But we have this sense that all human beings—whatever their IQ, whatever their capacities—have worth and rights. There is simply not a better foundation for this reality than that human beings are valuable to a Creator who made them and loves them; therefore, we are to value all people as well.
Over time, out of that notion, there grew an explosion of valuing human rights that has become so woven into our world today that we forget it has not always been apparent. There are these documents that say things like, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights …." Those are not just pretty words. They're not just political rhetoric that has carried on. Those are very serious ideas that human beings spent a lot of time thinking about and examining the implications of.
This fact that we hunger for meaning—for worth—does not prove that meaning exists. But we have a hunger for food. It would be a very strange world if no such thing as food existed. We have a thirst for water. It would be a very strange world if no such thing as water existed. We have an appetite for sex. It would be a very strange universe if no such thing as sexual activity existed. We have a hunger for meaning. It strikes me that it would be strange to have a hunger for meaning in a meaningless universe. So a hunger for meaning is a reason to believe, but it's not the best reason.
Indicator 4: We believe there is a moral standard.
Another indicator that points toward God is what might be called the argument for arguing. How many people here have ever been in an argument? Nancy and I sometimes argue about division of labor issues. The usual situation is that Nancy feels I do too much around the house, and she's concerned for my health and rest, so she'll jump in and that just leads to battling.
C.S. Lewis wrote wonderfully about arguing in his book Mere Christianity. When people are arguing, you almost never here them say, "Do what I want because I'm stronger and I can make you do it." When we argue we actually say things like, "But it's not fair. But it's not right. But it's not just." In other words, when we argue we betray the truth that we believe there is a moral standard, and it exists quite independently of our own preferences. We all exhibit this.
Now I know somebody might well claim to believe in relativism—that value is really just a matter of personal preference—but I'll guarantee you, if you attack one of their values, if you say, "I think prejudice is okay; I think racism is a good idea; I think exploiting children is fine," you will see that they don't think those are just personal preferences. They believe those things are morally wrong, independent of how anybody might happen to feel about them. Everybody knows there are transcendent moral realities. Now of course we are finite in our capacity to understand transcendent moral realities, but they exist independently of our personal preferences.
The apostle Paul wrote about this a long time ago. Paul says, "The requirements of the law …" that is, the right or wrong that God has woven into existence, " … are written on their hearts …" (he is speaking about humanity in general—you and me), " … their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them" (Romans 2:15). These are very central dynamics to the human condition. The fact that our knowing right and wrong is baked into our universe is a very powerful reason for believing in God, but it is not the best reason.
Indicator 5: The explosion of the early church
Another clue that points to God is what we might call the second Big Bang: the explosion of the early church in the first century. The primary reality we all live with is that one day we are each going to die. And the human race has always understood that dead people tend to remain dead.
So how do you account for the explosion of the early church? There were many messianic movements in Israel around Jesus' time. In every case, the would-be messiahs were executed by Rome, and that was the end of the movement. Yet as a matter of historical reality, a massive community of a radically different nature springs up virtually overnight. How do you account for that? How did a group of deeply monotheistic Jews come to worship a human being as divine virtually overnight? How did Christianity explode so rapidly with such power as to overtake the Roman Empire in such a short period of time?
Virtually all the disciples and early leaders in the early church died for their faith that Jesus was the Messiah, and that he rose from the dead. The French thinker Pascal wrote, "I tend to believe those witnesses who get their throats cut." People simply do not die for what they know to be a lie. They might try to profit from a lie. They don't sacrifice their lives for it. So the explosion of the early church is a powerful reason to believe in God, but it's not the best reason.
Indicator 6 (the best indicator): Jesus shines through into our world.
The best reason to believe in God's existence—the main reason—is not an argument; it's a Person. I don't have a better way of putting it than this: Jesus comes shining through in strange places and unexpected ways. Through our inadequacy, Jesus comes shining through.
I know a sick old woman who has spent 20 years alone in a nursing home. She should be bitter and miserable. Instead, she glows with joy of another kind, and when asked of what she thinks about all day long, she replies, "I think about my Jesus. He's been awfully good to me, you know."
A very bright, wealthy, attractive young man loses everything and winds up incarcerated in San Quentin, and there in a prison cell, through a bunch of prisoners with life sentences, Jesus comes shining through, and this man finds a life that he never knew when he was in the penthouse.
A lawyer whose secret alcoholism finally becomes unmanageable and robs him of his career and possessions finds that Jesus, in the dingy basement of a rehab center in a circle of drunks, comes shining through.
It happened one day to a murderous, self-righteous Pharisee named Saul; to a scandalized, isolated tax collector named Zacchaeus; to a humiliated lawyer named Charles Colson; to a humble, little activist named Mother Teresa; to a little boy named Dallas Willard, who lost his mother when he was two years old; to a janitor with Tourette syndrome named Carman. Jesus comes shining through. In places of enormous human despair, gloom, and loneliness, through the unmatched beauty of Jesus' life, through the unrivaled brilliance of his teaching, the Man on the Cross calls out for us to join him once more. The Man of Sorrows meets people in their tears in ways no one else can. In the strangest places and most unexpected ways, the best reason to believe in God has a face and a name. Jesus comes shining through.
How do you explain the impact of Jesus' life on this world? Who else in history holds a place like him? What is it about this Man's life? No one group, church, denomination, or tradition can contain him. Willard says, "He is in his people but not boxed in by his people." That's good news. Sometimes he comes through Christianity; sometimes he comes in spite of Christianity.
In 1930 on an island in the Philippines, a missionary named Frank Laubach climbed to the top of Signal Hill. His spirit was crushed because he was disappointed at how his life was turning out. His career was a failure—he had wanted more than anything else to be president of a college but lost the position by one vote; three of his children had died of malaria, and so his wife and one remaining child lived 900 miles away; the people in the Philippines he was trying to help were rejecting him.
In despair, he sat on top of Signal Hill and tried to talk to God. The strangest thing happened in that place: Jesus came shining through. Frank had been a Christian—he was a missionary for crying out loud—but he had not known Jesus. On Signal Hill, Jesus came shining through, and this man came to understand that a living Person was inviting him to speak and listen and abandon and surrender and trust and live with Jesus each moment of his life.
For the next 40 years, Frank made his life an experiment in that way of living. This partnership with Jesus made him a blessing to the world. He became a leader of the World Literacy Movement. He became an advisor to U.S. presidents and helped shape U.S. foreign policy after World War II.
Here are some of Frank's own words:
The most wonderful discovery that has ever come to me is that I do not have to wait until some future time for this glorious hour. I do not need to wait for any grace. This hour can be heaven. Any hour for anybody can be rich as God. For do you not see that God is trying experiments with human lives? That's why there are so many of them …. And his question is, "How far will this man and that woman allow me to carry this hour?"
When we think of Christians, we often think of a religion or a subculture or organizations or certain beliefs, but knowing Jesus is entering into the reality of an interactive relationship with a living God. Anyone can have this. You don't have to be brilliant, in fact, having an actual relationship with Jesus begins with humbling yourself. This is what God said through the prophet Isaiah: "But this is the One to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit who trembles at my Word" (Isaiah 62:2).
Humbling yourself doesn't mean thinking you're not worth anything; it doesn't mean hating your existence. It means recognizing that you are broken. I am broken. It means repenting of sin and turning to pursue the life God wants for you. Through Jesus' matchless life and his brilliant teaching, through his death on the cross and his resurrection, Jesus comes shining through and you can know him. Even if you're really smart, you can know him.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.