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What Is God Like?
IN THE MIDST of the knowledge explosion of the past half century, it is astounding how many have forgotten that the greatest knowledge they could possess is the knowledge of God. Suppose inhabitants of other planets were discovered; this would not be as great as knowing about the one who inhabits heaven. The fact that we have sent men to the moon is not so amazing as sending men to heaven. The knowledge of God is certainly top priority.
DOES GOD EXIST?
Traditionally there have been two lines of argument used to demonstrate the existence of God.
The traditional line of proof is philosophical and may or may not satisfy an unbeliever. But the arguments go like this: The first is an argument from cause and effect and simply reminds people that everywhere they look in the world around them they are faced with an effect. In other words, the natural world is a result or an effect, and this forces them to account for that which caused such an effect. Actually there are two possible answers. Either (1) nothing caused this world (but the uncaused emergence of something has never been observed), or (2) something caused this world. This something may be an "eternal cosmic process," or it may be chance, or one might conclude that God was the cause. While we have to admit that this cause- and-effect argument does not in itself "prove" that the God of the Bible exists, it is fair to insist that the theistic answer is less complex to believe than any other. It takes more faith to believe that evolution or blind intelligence (whatever such a contradictory phrase might mean) could have accounted for the intricate and complex world in which we live than it does to believe that God could.
The second philosophical argument concerns the purpose we see in the world. In other words, we are not only faced with a world (the first argument) but that world seems to have purpose in it. How do you account for this? The nontheist answers that this happens by chance and/or through the processes of natural selection (which are by chance too). The question remains, however: Can random "by chance" actions result in the highly integrated organization which is evident in the world about us? To say it can is possible,but it requires a great deal of faith to believe. The Christian answer may also involve faith, but it is not less believable.
The third argument concerns the nature of man. Man's conscience, moral nature, intelligence, and mental capacities have to be accounted for in some way. Again the nontheist answers that all of this evolved, and he has proposed very elaborate explanations of how this has happened. A tendency today seems to be to consider man as a biological or organic and cultural or superorganic creature and to account for the evolving of both these aspects totally by chance. But does this explain conscience or that reaching out for a belief in a higher being which seems to be universal (though terribly defective as far as understanding what that being is like)? Or does the very existence of man point to the existence of a personal God? Paul put the question this way to the philosophers of Athens: "Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver, or stone, graven by art and man's device" (Ac 17:29).
In connection with this anthropological argument, the moral argument is sometimes delineated. It poses the question, How did the idea of good and bad, right and wrong ever come into human culture? Man seems to have a sense of what is desirable as opposed to what is not. Where does this sense come from, and on what basis does man decide what ought to be desired or what ought not to be? Some argue that man's recognition of good and his quest for a moral ideal point to the existence of a God who gives reality to that ideal. Others have emphasized that the ethical systems advanced by philosophers always contain contradiction and paradox if Christian theism is left out, which argues for the necessity of theism to explain satisfactorily man's idea of good and evil. For instance, the humanist declares that he does not accept any absolute standard, yet in the next breath he exhorts you to do better.
A fourth line of reasoning seems much more sophisticated and much less easy to comprehend. It is called the ontological argument (from the present participle form of the Greek verb "to be"). The idea is that God has to be since man commonly has the idea of a most perfect Being and that idea must include the existence of such a Being. The reason is simply that a being, otherwise perfect, who did not exist would not be so perfect as a being who was perfect and who did exist. Therefore, since this concept does exist in the minds of men, such a most perfect Being must exist. Or to put it another way, since God is the greatest Being who can be thought of, He cannot be conceived as not existing; for if He could, then it would be possible to conceive of a being greater than God who does exist; therefore, God must exist. Many (including Immanuel Kant) do not feel this argument has any value. It originated with Anselm in the twelfth century.
One has to face the fact that these philosophical arguments do not of themselves prove the existence of the true God. But we do not minimize them. They may be used to establish a presumption in favor of the existence of the God of the Bible, and they produce sufficient evidence to place the unregenerated man under a responsibility to accept further knowledge from God or to reject intelligently this knowledge and thus to relieve God of further obligation on his behalf. You may find that using these lines of reasoning may trigger the thinking or open the way to present the gospel more clearly to a fellow student or friend.
The entire theistic world view has come under massive attack because of the rise of mechanistic science and its questioning of the possibility of miracles and because of the popular acceptance of evolution. Evolution is discussed in chapter 7, but a word about miracles is in order here.
If a miracle is defined (as Hume did) as a violation of the laws of nature, then, of course, the possibility of a miracle happening is slim if not nil. But if a miracle is contrary to what we know as the laws of nature, then the possibility of introducing a new factor into the known laws of nature is not eliminated. This new miraculous factor does not contradict nature because nature is not a self-contained whole; it is only a partial system within total reality, and a miracle is consistent within that greater system which includes the supernatural. It is true, however, that a miracle is something which nature, if left to its own resources, could not produce. If one admits the postulate of God, miracles are possible. If one adds the postulates of sin and salvation and sign-evidence, then they seem necessary.
The Christian does not view miracles as an easy way out of difficulties, but as an important part of the real plot of the story of the world. Most historians will not admit the occurrence of a miracle until they have tried every other possible and less probable explanation. But the admitted improbability of a miracle happening at a given time and place does not make the story of its happening untrue or unbelievable. It is improbable that you should be the millioneth customer to enter a store and thus receive a prize, but if you are, your friends should not refuse to believe that you were simply because it was unlikely that you would be.
The dimension of the supernatural is essential to Christianity and is often seen in history. Beware when considering specific miracles that you do not slip into naturalistic explanations for them. Remember, too, that to deny miracles is to deny also the resurrection of Christ, which would mean that our faith is empty.
The other line of proof is what the Bible presents, and this may be summarized very quickly. Often it is said that the Bible does not argue for the existence of God; it simply assumes it throughout. It is true that the opening words of the Bible assume His being, and this assumption underlies and pervades every book. But it is not the whole story to say that the Bible assumes but does not argue God's existence. Look at Psalm 19 and notice that David says clearly that God has revealed His existence in the world around us. Isaiah told backslidden people who were making and worshiping idols to consider the world around them and then think whether or not idols that they made with their hands could fashion such a world. The answer is obviously negative. Then he said, "Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things" (Is 40:26). The apostle Paul argued before a non-Christian audience that the rain and change of seasons witness to the existence of God (Ac 14:17). So the Bible does argue for as well as assume the existence of God.
HOW HAS GOD REVEALED HIMSELF?
Liberalism teaches that man knows God through his own efforts. In contrast to this, one of the "good" things that Barth did when he thundered on the world his new theology was to remind men that there can be no revelation of God unless God Himself takes the initiative to make Himself known. In other words, the question is the one which Zophar asked a few thousand years before, "Canst thou by searching find out God?" (Job 11:7). The liberal says yes; the conservative says no (this is not intended to imply that Barth was a conservative, because he also said no; his view of the Bible demonstrates that he was not one).
If God has taken the initiative to reveal Himself, in what ways has He done this? We may think immediately of Christ and the Bible as answers to this question. But there are other answers too, like nature and history. These latter two ways are obviously different from the former in that they do not tell us as much about God. In other words, there seem to be general ways and special ways in which God has revealed Himself; the revelation of God through nature and history is called general revelation, while other means are labeled special revelation.
What are the characteristics of general revelation? Look at Psalm 19:1-6. Verse 1 states the content of that revelation as being the glory and handiwork of God. Verse 2 affirms the continuousness of it—day and night (since the sky is always there for man to behold). Verse 3 states the character of that revelation in nature as being a silent revelation (the word "where" is not in the original text). Verses 4-6 tell that the coverage of that revelation is worldwide (v. 4) and to every man (note v. 6 which intimates that even a blind man can feel the heat of the sun). Romans 1:18-20, which is the other central passage on this doctrine, adds the fact that the revelation of God in nature contains a revelation of His "eternal power and Godhead." God's revelation of Himself through history comes in various ways. He gives all people rain and productive seasons (Ac 14:17); He especially revealed a variety of aspects of His being and power to the nation Israel (Ps 78 — His miraculous power, v. 13; His anger, v. 21; His control of nature, v. 26; His love, v. 38). In many ways the revelation of God through history is more explicit than that through nature.
Through Jesus Christ, God revealed Himself ("exegeted" is the word in Jn 1:18) in clarity and detail. The miracles of Christ showed things like the glory of God (Jn 2:11); His words told of the Father's care (Jn 14:2); His person showed the Father (Jn 14:9). The way to know God is to know His Son; and apart from the revelation through the Son, little is known of God.
The other avenue of special revelation is the Bible. Today some are saying that the Bible is a lesser revelation than the Son, and to make too much of it is to worship the Bible (bibliolatry). But if we do not make much of the Bible, then we cannot know much of the Son, for our only source of information about the Son (and hence about the Father) is through the Bible. Furthermore, if the Bible is not to be trusted, then again we cannot know truth about the Son. Or if only certain parts of the Bible are trustworthy, we will end up with as many pictures of Christ as there are people picking the parts of the biography which they think are reliable. In other words, if the Bible is not completely true, we end up with either misinformation or subjective evaluation. Jesus Himself asserted that the Bible revealed Him (Lk 24:27,44-45; Jn 5:39). And, of course, the Bible reveals many other things about God. Think, for instance, of the many aspects of His plan which are known only through the Bible and which tell us about Him. You might say that the Bible is an inexhaustible source of information about God.
WHAT IS GOD LIKE?
With all these channels of revelation we ought to be able to learn something about what God is like. Traditionally, the characteristics of God stated formally and systematically are called the attributes of God; and traditionally, they have been divided into two categories. There are some ways in which God is like us (for instance, God is just, and man can be just too); and there are some ways in which God is unique (for instance, He is infinite, which finds no correspondence in us). However, these categories are not hard and fast, and some of the choices as to which attributes to place within which category are debatable. The important thing to study is the attribute itself to learn not only what it reveals about God but also what implications that it has for one's personal outlook and life.
1. God is omniscient. Omniscience means that God knows everything, and this includes the knowledge not only of things that actually happen but also of things which might happen. This kind of knowledge God had by nature and without the effort of learning. Jesus claimed omniscience when He said, "If the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes" (Mt 11:21). Here is a display of the knowledge of things that might have happened. God "telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names" (Ps 147:4), and "known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world" (Ac 15:18).
The practical ramifications of the omniscience of God are many. Think, for instance, what this means in relation to the eternal security of the believer. If God knows all, then obviously nothing can come to light subsequent to our salvation which He did not know when He saved us. There were no skeletons in the closet which He did not know about when He offered to give us eternal salvation. Think again what omniscience means when something tragic occurs in our lives. God knows and has known all about it from the beginning and is working all things out for His glory and our ultimate good. Consider what omniscience ought to mean in relation to living the Christian life. Here is Someone who knows all the pitfalls as well as the ways to be happy and who has offered to give us this wisdom. If we would heed what He says then we could avoid a lot of trouble and experience a lot of happiness.
2. God is holy. The word holiness is very difficult to define. The dictionary does not help much since it just defines holiness as absence of evil, and it is usually measured against a relative standard. In God, holiness is certainly absence of evil, but it must also include a positive righteousness and all of this measured against Himself as an absolute standard. Holiness is one of the most important, if not the most important, attributes of God, and certainly nothing that God does can be done apart from being in complete harmony with His holy nature. Peter declares that "he which hath called you is holy" (1 Pe 1:15), and then he goes on to state what effect that should have in our lives, namely, "so be ye holy in all manner of conversation [life]."
An analogy may help in understanding this concept of holiness. What does it mean to be healthy? It means more than not being sick. Likewise, holiness is more than absence of sin; it is a positive, healthy state of being right. This is what John meant when he said that God is light (1 Jn 1:5).
The ramification of this is obvious: "Walk in the light." A proper concept of holiness as a requirement for Christian living would end a lot of discussion about what is permitted to the Christian and what is not. It seems as though many are trying to discover how close they can come to sin without being cut off from their particular Christian group or clique instead of determining the propriety of things on the simple basis of "Is it holy?" Don't be tempted to be a leader in or follower of the "let's skate on as thin ice as possible" group; instead, be a leader in holiness. This will please God because it imitates Him.
3. God is just (or righteousness). While holiness principally concerns the character of God, justice or righteousness has more to do with the character expressed in His dealings with men. It means that God is equitable, or, as the Bible puts it, He is no respecter of persons. David said, "The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether" (Ps 19:9; see also Ps 116:5; 145:17; Jer 12:1).
Excerpted from A Survey of Bible Doctrine by Charles C. Ryrie. Copyright © 1972 Charles C. Ryrie. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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2. Is the Bible Inspired?
3. Jesus Christ the Lord
4. The Holy Spirit
5. The World of Angels
6. The Nature of Man
7. Christ's Salvation
8. What Is the Church?
9. What Does the Future Hold?