Is Faith in God a Crutch?
Is faith in God a crutch? How can I believe in a God I can’t see, hear, touch, or smell? If Christians claim God is everywhere, do they believe God is in every person, as well? Apologists and Drs. Vince and Jo Vitale discuss questions from podcast listeners on the belief in and existence of God, and what Christians claim makes God distinct.
Have a question you want the Ask Away crew to cover? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #askrzim on Twitter.
Don't miss another episode, subscribe to the podcast on: iTunes or Google Play Music.
Follow the Ask Away crew on Twitter:
Vince Vitale - @VinceRVitale
Jo Vitale - @Joanna_Vitale
Michael Davis - @mdav1979
Want to listen to this later?
Note: Ask Away is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Micheal Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. Oh, the depths of the riches of both the wisdom and the knowledge of God. How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways? The sin of those who have rejected God is the choosing to worship a god made in man's image rather than the God as he has revealed Himself to be in scripture. With God's immensity, finite people on their own are ill-equipped to understand who God is and what He has done. That is why it was pure grace that God would give us His scriptures. How can we properly express who God is as revealed in the Bible when so many have chosen to worship a hybrid god of their own making? Before we get started, Vince, could you tell our listeners a little bit about RZIM and why they should prayerfully consider partnering with us and our mission?
Vince Vitale: It would be my pleasure to, Michael. One of the taglines for RZIM is helping the thinker believe and helping the believer think. Just yesterday I was talking to a guy who said, "I think the challenge for Christianity nowadays is that so many people, and especially young people, think it is irrelevant." It's not that they think it's false, it's that the conversation doesn't even get started because they just don't think it's relevant. One of the things that we do here at RZIM one of the reasons I was first attracted to RZIM, one of the reasons that RZIM played a role in my own coming to faith and my early discipleship is because it starts with peoples' questions. It starts with the real concrete, tangible felt needs and questions of where people are at, and from there shows that the gospel is relevant to what people are actually dealing with. I think it's a ministry that really does meet people where they are and the deep questions that they feel, the things that are relevant to their life and shows that Jesus can respond to those questions in a way that no one else can.
Micheal Davis: If you guys want to find out how to support us and how to partner with us, just go to RZIM.org. Let's go into the first question. This is from Andrew A. "Is faith in God a crutch? How can I believe in a God that I or anyone can't see, hear, touch or smell?"
Vince Vitale: That's a great question, Andrew. It's one that we've heard many times from people and also one that I think often times people have but they're not willing to voice. It's great that you bring it up. I don't know, Jo, if you might respond differently to this question, but my first instinct was just to say, you bet it's a crutch and it's a really good one. I really need one.
Micheal Davis: That's right.
Vince Vitale: There's nothing wrong with a crutch if you need a crutch. Sometimes I find it so interesting that if someone is broken or hurt physically, we think it's totally normal to look for a crutch, but do we really think that we're morally, emotionally and spiritually so strong that we don't need a crutch? To me, if anything is the illusion, that seems like the illusion. There's probably several ways to answer this question, but in one sense at least I'm happy to say, yeah, it's a crutch and it's actually more than a crutch and it's one that I need.
Jo Vitale: Hmm. Yeah, I think that's where you get, I think part of the impetus behind the question is this idea that we don't want to admit weakness. I think another part of it is that I think we, we can fear our desires and we sort of questioned them and I think it was Stephen Hawking who said that faith was a fairy tale for those who are afraid of the dark, to which John Lennox sort of half jokingly responded that atheism is a fairy tale for those who are afraid of the light. And it's kind of a slightly facetious remark, but actually I think what he's getting at here is a really good point. That desire, it actually works both ways. So someone will say, well, this belief in God is a crutch. It's essentially like Floyd's idea of divine wish, fulfillment. We long fare as sort of eternal life.
We long for a father who take care of our needs and so we wish God into existence because we can't cope with that with the hardship of life and the darkness around us. But of course it works the other way, as well. I know plenty of people who you might say their divine wish fulfillment is not that God would exist, but that he wouldn't because they don't want there to be a god because it gets in the way of being your, your own god. So the problem with this argument is, is people use it against Christians, but they didn't realize it cuts just as easily. And the other way, I had a friend, a close friend to you from a young age has always believed in God, but they will say really struggled with that. Precisely because they don't actually want to be a Christian.
And the way they would describe it as they'll say, well, I can't figure out if, if I believe in God because I grew up in a Christian family and I was just brainwashed as a child or if I believe in God because he's actually there. And it's true. And so I think there's something important about just being honest about where we're at when we come to the table and we're looking at faith and acknowledging our desires. Either way, really examining our hearts and asking ourselves the question, do, do I want God to exist or don't I want God to exist? Because either way it'll say a lot about our heart. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't, but then once we identify that design, we recognize it, then I think we can in a sense, put it down for a moment and say, okay, let's just set desire to the side for a moment and ask ourselves the bigger question, which is regardless of what I may or may not want, is it actually true?
Micheal Davis: Yeah. I think Jo's right, and so sometimes it's not just about whether or not Christianity is a crutch, but it's also about whether it's an illusion, whether it's just wishful thinking and a lot of people nowadays think it's just the product of evolution. It's in some ways helpful for our survival and there is something, therefore it's something that just becomes a cognitive illusion that we have. A couple of things I would say about that. One is if that's true, if evolution is just producing in us the illusion that God exists, well, there's no reason to not think just as strongly that evolution is also just producing in us in an illusory sort of way, the belief that Christianity is an illusory belief. So it doubles back on itself and actually undermines the initial concern. Secondly, I would want a question that a contention that Christianity just as Jo already has, we can think about it historically as well.
You know, is Christianity wishful thinking? Is it good for one's survival? You can come up with cases where that's true, but you can also come up with many cases where that's not true. I think of Jesus himself, you know, the life that he lived was not good for his survival. You think of the early church and the persecution that they underwent. You think of many Christians throughout the centuries and the way they engaged in selfless acts that actually led to them not surviving often times so that others could survive. We think of some of our colleagues in other regions of the world who deal with the serious threats of persecution and the vulnerabilities and the risks that they're, that they and their families deal with on a daily basis. So sometimes it's too quick to just say, well this is just something that you want to believe because it's good for you. It makes you feel good, it's good for your survival. Actually all of those things can be called into question quite seriously.
Jo Vitale: It's true on some levels. If, if I was just going to pick a religion for the sake of what made me feel most comfortable, I'm not sure Christianity would be the one that, that I would have gone for. And I mean it's an interesting question, isn't it? Cause we've wrestled with that idea of desire, but actually it also makes sense if God does exist, that he would have implanted desire within our hearts for him. You know, we would live with that sense that we were made for God, as Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him. And I find it interesting the way C.S. Lewis said it. He said, "If I find within myself desires that nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical conclusion is that I was made for another world." So it raises a really interesting question about our desire is, is our desire for God's existence just an evolutionary produced desire for some kind of survival beyond, or is it the desire put there by the Creator, Himself?
Vince Vitale: Yeah, that's good. And sometimes people think, well, I have this desire for there to be God. Therefore that must mean that God doesn't actually exist and that I'm just projecting him into existence. But it's really a bad philosophical argument because if God does exist, those very desires are exactly the ones you should expect. If a relational God exists, he would give you desires that would only be fulfilled by coming to know Him. So it's not something that points against God. It's actually something that points towards Him.
Micheal Davis: Well, that kind of leads to the point, but why should you believe in a God that is not completely and totally obvious as, as Andrew said, no one has seen, heard, touched or smelled God.
Vince Vitale: Now I appreciate that, Andrew. I feel the force of, of this objection because it's just not your normal relationship. You know, I'm in a friendship with Michael. I'm married to Jo, you know, I'm seeing them right here. I'm hearing them, you know, I'm not smelling them thankfully, but I, you know, I could. You know, these are, these are normal, normal concrete, normal concrete, tangible relationships.
Micheal Davis: Yet at the same time I then doubled back on myself and I think to myself, wow. Well what an amazing response that the Christian God gave Andrew to your question because He did actually come physically and people actually touched Him and ate with Him and, and heard from Him and the Christian promises that one day we're going to be together with Jesus again and we're going to be there and He's going to be in His redeemed body and we'll be able to touch Him. And I think of that verse that I've mentioned before in revelation where He's going to wipe the tears from our eyes. There's going to be that intimacy even of touch and of hearing from one another. So I think that's an amazing response to your question and one that we don't get in other worldviews or other religions.
Also, you know, it's, there for, not that we don't see, hear, touch or smell God or interact with Him with our senses. It's just that we, some of us, most of us haven't up until now. Therefore, if we're gonna say we should not believe in anything that we have, have not to this point seen or touched, that's going to be far too high of a threshold. There are all sorts of things that to this point we haven't seen or touched or interacted with, with our senses, but on good evidence, on good tradition, on good passing down of facts. We believe those things and we believe them because of the trustworthiness of those that we have heard them from.
So it's not the case in the Christian faith that you can't touch or hear from God. It is the case for most of us that we haven't had that experience up until now. But if that's the standard in order to believe in something rationally that you have to yourself have touched or heard from it physically, that's going to be far too high a standard. And there's going to be all sorts of things that we do believe rationally, justifiably that we shouldn't.
Jo Vitale: So the, the part of the reason Vince can't smells is cause he has a deviated septum. Too much boxing. Thankfully. Yeah. Do have a running joke in our house, cause I'm allergic to dust mites so I don't have a good sense of smell either. So we may actually smell pretty bad right now. We just wouldn't have a clue. Sorry that was a total tangent for you, but thanks. Thanks. An uncomfortable silence in regards to Vince, but we'll get one.
In terms of thinking about the senses, I think this is such a key question for our generation. I've been listening recently to the song by Coldplay called Something Like This, and to me it's so sums up the feeling of so many people. I think the lyrics basically say I've been reading books of old, the legends and the myths, Achilles and his gold, Hercules and his gift, Spiderman's control and Batman with his fists. And I clearly don't see myself upon that list. And then it goes on to talk about a relationship he's in with someone who says, but I'm not looking for somebody with superhuman gifts, some superhero, some fairytale bliss to something I can turn to, somebody I can kiss.
Basically implying, you know, let's not look beyond for God or bigger stories or be explanations. What we really want is someone to have and to hold onto, you know, for this life. Let's just find hope and meaning in the people around us, the things that we can see and touch and smell. But the problem with that kind of perspective is as much as it's great to have something to hold onto and someone you can relate to and it is very meaningful, those things are transient too, and those things ultimately can't satisfy you.
Yes, for a time, but that's not going to do it either. And so I think the, to me, the beauty of the Christian faith is God knows that we need something to, to kind of hold onto, to get to grips with. But He also knows we need something more than that. And to me that is exactly what the incarnation is to us. It's someone we can relate to, a God who is, who is there physically with us, who walked on this earth, who is someone just like that, but also someone who's bigger, who's beyond. He's more than just this kind of corporeal, physical flesh that we live in, that that ultimately is going to decay and dissolve and die. And so I think, I think you find both in the Christian faith, and I think it's also, I don't know, I used to struggle with this a lot cause I to, I wanted to see Jesus right in front of me and I was like, why can I be one of the people on the earth then?
Why can't I experience Him in that way? But there's something so beautiful to me about the Holy Spirit and what that promise means for us as Christians that God is actually here with us. And in a sense I would say closer and more meaningfully even in something that I can touch and see and smell that the Holy Spirit actually lives within us. And there's an intimacy to that that I would say is bigger even than the relationship that I could have with another physical person. It's closer.
I also see the Holy Spirit at work in ways that I would say are very real in the world, are ways that I can see and touch and smell. And here I see Him at work through other people. I see Him at work in my own life in answered prayer and in everyday things.
I mean it's such an overused example, but you know, it kind of like gravity. Like I can't see gravity, but I clearly see the impact of it all around me all the time or the wind or you know, all these kinds of examples that we use. To me it's so, it's so beyond just this kind of spiritual immaterial thing that you can't get to grips with, but something very tangibly real and at work in our world and I'm very thankful for both of those things, for Jesus incarnate and the Holy Spirit. Even more deeply present within every one of us.
Vince Vitale: That's great. I just wanted pick up on that example of gravity as well because I think sometimes people think it's very abnormal to believe in an immaterial thing, but the reality is that all of us believe in all sorts of immaterial things. We believe in numbers and colors and sentences and moral truths and truths about the past and gravity and information and the list goes on and on.
There are all sorts of things, which are a functional part of our everyday lives that are immaterial and that we believe in. And so once you realize that, it then raises the question of whether the bias is really against immaterial things in general or whether it's more specifically against God. Sometimes I also think people think it's really odd for an immaterial being to have a material effect. The idea of an immaterial God actually creating a physical universe is sometimes really difficult to get our heads around as well.
But again, I don't actually think that's so odd to our everyday experience. I mean many people, perhaps most people throughout time have thought of human persons as being essentially immaterial. Yes we have physical bodies, but many people have thought of us as ultimately being souls and there are different reasons for that. But just a quick thought on it, if I ask you to do a calculation in your head, if I asked you to do seven times eight equals 56, you have just moved one part of your brain. And then if I ask you to reflect on like your best memory from last week, you have just moved a different part of your brain.
That's really interesting. Like what is this you that can impact different physical regions of your brain just by willing to, and most people throughout time have thought, well that's your soul. That's actually an immaterial being that's you, that has power over this physical region, which is your body. And if that's a theory which has been a really plausible and sustained one throughout time and philosophy and history, even with respect to us, we'll then again, that's not that odd to think similarly about God. Actually God's an immaterial being, but His power is over a much bigger physical region, the entire universe, not just a specific body.
Micheal Davis: Let's get into the next question, and this is from Eric. I would like to know why Christianity does not agree that God is in every person and everything since He is omnipresent.
Jo Vitale: All right. This is a great question and you're really getting to the heart of what is the difference between a Christian worldview and a pantheistic worldview and just to break it down for people, pantheism is a term, literally pan means all and Theos is God. So the idea is all is God. Essentially, this idea that everyone and everything is made up of God. So for example, at the chair I'm sitting in is God and a mountain would be God. The universe is God. Michael, here is God. The coffee I'm drinking is God. Everything is divine. I would be the perspective. Don't worry, I’m going to knock that down real quick, Micheal.
Vince Vitale: I'm uncomfortable right now. Everything seemed okay until it was you, Micheal.
Micheal Davis: I'm better with the chair being God than me being God. I'm going to put it out there.
Jo Vitale: Aren't we all, but don't worry? We're not going to stay there for long.
Micheal Davis: Thank you.
Jo Vitale: Anyway, essentially this idea that God and the universe that they're one in the same. So God permeates all things. He contains all things, everything is kind of connected to Him in this, in this, in this ultimate way. It's all one being, it's all part of one thing. In that sense, you might talk about creation as being like Ex Deo. It's, it's made of God from God. So that would be a pantheistic perspective.
Christianity on the other hand, actually presents things very differently. Right from their first page of the Bible. It says. In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth and every time throughout scripture that God is talking about creation. It's talked about something distinct from Him, not something that is a part of Him. Now that's not to say that Christians like you, you've already mentioned don't believe that God is omnipresent.
We do. We believe that God exists everywhere, but we believe that there's an ultimate ontological, if you like, separation between who God is and who the rest of creation is. That creation cannot be mixed with God as if it were divine or part of Him. For example, one verse that that makes this clear is Isaiah 45, where it says, I am the Lord and there is no other besides me. There is no God. I equip you that you do not know me. Really emphasizing there the distinction between human beings and God. That we are not divine. We're not part of Him. It's not like we just need to look inside ourselves and we will find divinity as these things might be expressed, but actually that God is very distinct from us and I think that it's important we keep this distinction very clear in our minds when it comes to Christian theology because the implications are actually very big.
Vince Vitale: Right. That distinction is really important because as we saw in the first question, we do have this deep need. We have this need for not only a crutch but something much greater than a crutch and so we need something that's beyond ourselves, that's outside of ourselves. If we're truly going to be helped, if we're truly going to be saved.
Yet Eric, I also want to affirm in your question, this idea of there being a close linkage between the presence of God and each and every person. There is, I think, a glimmer of truth in that, that points us towards what God has for us. I'm thinking here of Paul speaking to the Athenians in Acts 17 and he says, "God is not far from any one of us." And then he quotes their own Greek poets and he says, "For in Him we live and move and have our being, we are his offspring."
Then thinking about in the New Testament, the whole theme of the Holy Spirit coming to dwell within the believer. The New Testament speaks of being full of the spirit, speaks of Steven that way or the spirit coming to dwell within us. So in a sense there's different types of presence of God within the Bible. There's the one sense in which you cannot get away from God's presence no matter what. Where should I go from your spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? Psalm 139 or Jeremiah 23: Can a man hide himself in secret places so that he can't see so that I cannot see him? Do I not fill heaven and earth, declares the Lord?
Yet there is this sense of fuller presence that comes with the actual ultimate aim in Tilos that we were created for when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within the one who's putting their trust in Jesus. And in some ways that's like relationships as well. Like in one sense, I can be present with Jo, if we're just sitting in the same room, we are present in the same place, but we might be doing two totally different things. I may not be paying her attention and yet there's a different sense in which we are fully present to one another when both people mutually are engaged in a way which is intimate and relational.
Jo Vitale: I think presence is a great word here because the point being the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us, but the Holy Spirit doesn't become us or we didn't become the Holy Spirit or you know, we're one in the sense of relationship, as Vince has said, but we don't become one and the same. We not sort of merged like you might see it in a sort of Hindu and it's understanding of creation where you know ultimately the purpose often multiple reincarnations is to become one with Brahma, to become one with God, like a kind of drop in the ocean and your self dissolves and you just become part of the great whole. Whereas with Christianity there's a distinct you as well as there being a distinct God and that's what makes relationship possible. A couple of the other implications for this kind of thinking that I think are really important are actually if God is everything, then you have real trouble explaining the problem of evil for example.
Because if we, if everything in the universe is God, then why is there evil and suffering and how do we account for that? From a Christian perspective, it's a problem and it's actually counter to, to the will of God. Evil is, is not of God, it's separate from Him. Whereas this, this kind of worldview would actually give you a hard time explaining where it comes from.
Another thing to say about it would be actually it has big implications for love. You know, the whole point, as Vince had been saying, is that relationship is dependent upon two distinct beings, in that sense. How do you have love existing? If you're all one in the same thing? Actually ultimately love would dissolve away like everything else. It also means that there isn't really a you, you're diluting yourself. If you think you have an individual identity, it also means that you become your own savior.
You know the way you save yourself is just to realize that you are God, which I think is just a really warped perspective of human nature in the reality of, of what we're like and the fact that actually, from a Christian perspective, we need saving. We can't. The whole point is we can't save ourselves and it also makes a big difference in terms of what we're headed for. An ultimate destiny.
Like I said in Hinduism for example, that you know, the most extreme understanding of pantheism is that you just dissolve into sort of the oneness of God. Whereas in Christianity there the differences, we believe in eternal relationship with God that will last forever. In the kind of beauty of that, that there's, you're still yourself and but you become your best self, the best self that God made you to be in the relationship you were made for, but you don't lose yourself. And I think there's kind of a beauty to that, that it's not that you're not changed, it's not that things didn't become perfect, but you, you never become God yourself. And therefore there's always the possibility of love and of growing and of learning and of meaningful and relationships.
Micheal Davis: Well guys, we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.
Vince Vitale: Great. Well, we've spoken in this episode, both about the transcendence of God, that God who's immaterial and yet also the imminence of God, that God whose a very concrete help in difficult times. We've talked about distinctness, but distinctness in perfect unity. We see that first and foremost in the trinity itself. And I think it's a beautiful vision for who God is and for what life is about. We are not meant to be creator, Savior, sanctifier. Those are not burdens that we are meant to carry on our shoulders. And I find it very relieving to know that that's not me, that I'm not divine. And I can look to someone who's so much better and so much bigger and so much holier than I am. And yet at the same time for that God to be one who wants to be intimate and close to me, it's an amazing truth.
And I just think of two verses here. A Psalm 145:18, the Lord is near to all who call on Him. To all who call on Him in truth. And then John 17:24 I desire that they also, whom you have given me may be with me where I am to see my glory that you have given me because you have loved me before the foundation of the world that the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.
So what an incredible faith this is and how it speaks to both of those varying intuitions. This sense that God has to be close to us, for Him to be a God worthy of worship, and yes, yet God has to be so other and distinct and transcendent from us in order for Him to be worthy of worship. Only in the Christian faith do we find both of those and that's why we believe the Christian God is worthy of our worship and praise.
Micheal Davis: Vince, Jo, thank you guys for joining me. Thank you all for listening and we will catch you next week.