When you think about God, who or what do you understand Him to be? Maybe you doubt His existence? The existence or nonexistence of God will fundamentally affect our understanding of the universe, this world and ourselves. Author, John Blanchard, presents the issue with clarity in the preface of his book - Does God Believe in Atheists?
Yet, so many people treat this fundamental question as irrelevant and inconsequential. The attitude evident in modern society could be summarized as follows - 'Even if God does exist, so what?' Partly responsible for this situation is religion itself. People are put off by the conflicting messages of differing religions which claim to know and speak for God. Take the competing claims of the two largest religions in the world - Islam and Christianity. Both claim to be serving God, yet clearly it’s not the same God. The God of Islam is not the God of Christianity; they do not, and cannot equate. So, how is someone to know which of these is right?
Also, the voices of atheism aggressively propagate their ‘godless’ message loud and clear without favour or respect. Professor Richard Dawkins of England, wrote The God Delusion in which he attacks all gods in general, and the God of the Bible in particular. His is not merely the presentation of an alternative view to theism, rather he is engaging in an all-out war against any belief in a supreme being. Professor Dawkins denounces the ‘God of the Old Testament as arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction’, rubbishes the accounts of the four gospels, and audaciously pronounces that ‘God almost certainly does not exist’. Hard hitting stuff indeed.
For many, any understanding they have of God comes from sources other than the Bible. They hear what atheists say. They listen to the voices of religion. They watch television and the films of Hollywood. They are informed by a secular media. Within all of these sources there is so much misinformation and misrepresentation abroad that people can only end up with a seriously flawed understanding of God and a characterization of Him that is far from the reality of who He really is.
It is only when we turn to the Bible and honestly consider what it actually says about God and what God says about Himself that we will begin to gain a right perspective as to who He really is, and what this means for us. The Bible is the ‘fact checker’ and the standard by which we judge all else that is said and claimed.
The Sovereign Creator
When Paul briefly visited the city of Athens around A.D. 49, he found a culture steeped in idolatry. Athens, the cradle of democracy, had a glorious history of art, literature, oratory and philosophy but what Paul encountered did not provoke his admiration rather it stirred him in his spirit to earnestly share the light and truth of the gospel amid such darkness. The Athenians were always open to some new idea and soon Paul was given the opportunity to address the Areopagus or Mars’ Hill, the name of the noble Athenian court, derived from the location where it originally met. This important body represented, and was comprised of the citizens of Athens with jurisdiction in matters of religion and morals. Paul was not there on trial rather the Athenians wanted to know the meaning of his preaching concerning ‘Jesus and the resurrection’ (Acts 17:18).
Paul spoke with directness and clarity. He had observed, among the many representations of idolatry, an altar bearing the inscription – ‘TO THE UNKNOWN GOD’ (Acts 17:23), and he used this title as the starting point for his address to his distinguished audience. Paul unhesitatingly and unequivocally identified this ‘UNKNOWN GOD’ as the Creator of everything and the Sovereign of the universe:
“Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:23-25).
The Athenians believed in gods. They were even careful to have an altar dedicated to a god they did not know. They were aware of His existence, but not His identity. Paul, doesn’t mention any of their other gods, he doesn’t need to. Using as a basis for his message the inscription from this altar he tells his audience of the one true and only God and Creator. The truth will always expose the false. Whether people believe the truth as opposed to the false is another matter. Paul at least had a starting point on which his audience agreed – God exists. Generally in western society today God’s existence is no longer believed or accepted. Paul introduced his audience to God the same way the Bible introduces the reader to God - as the Creator. The Bible opens with the words: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1) and Paul begins: “God, who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24).
Paul, as does the opening words of the Bible, assumes God’s existence. The Creation account of Genesis offers no explanation as to the how and why of God’s existence and neither does Paul. He simply asserts as does the first verse of the Bible that God was there before Creation and is the cause of it. Of course Paul is not trying to prove God’s existence to his audience, rather he is concerned with His identity. Paul is stating how that as Creator God is the source of everything and as Lord of heaven and earth He is sovereign over everything. Paul wants his audience to understand that God is the giver and sustainer of life and as Lord of heaven and earth He is no way confined to the temples of men nor is He dependent on receiving anything from them. Rather, man is dependent upon Him.
What is clear from scripture is that Creation itself is the evidence for the existence of God. The universe and everything in it points us back to Him. Moreover, not only is He the source of it all, but He had purpose in bringing all things into existence. He created to reveal Himself both by His creative work and in the sphere of His creation. This world is the place where He has made Himself known in person and the intended recipient of this revelation is man who He created in His image and with the capacity to relate to Him. This is why, despite the fact of man’s rebellion and alienation from Him, God has ever wanted men to enjoy and experience relationship with Him. The whole purpose of His revelation and ordering of the nations, Paul says, is “that they may seek God; if indeed they might feel after Him and find Him, although He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27 Darby Translation).
It is important to understand that relationship with God begins with faith. The manner in which God has revealed Himself demands that we first and foremost believe and accept the fact that He exists. How and why is not for us to know, the issue is, ‘are we prepared to believe the revelation God has given of Himself?’
The accusation is often made against Christians that their faith is unreasonable and unenlightened. But not only is it reasonable to believe in God as Creator because the universe and life point us to an intelligent cause, it is also reasonable to believe in God because of the revelation He has given of Himself both in Creation and history. Faith and knowledge are at the very foundation of Christianity and are in harmony with each other, not conflict. The basis of faith is knowledge. Not knowledge that comes through independent human reason, but knowledge that comes by divine revelation. Human reason and divine revelation are not in conflict either. God has given revelation that makes sense to human reason and which is absolutely sufficient for faith in Him. Moreover, God not only created man a physical and spiritual being, He also made him an intelligent, rational and moral being. Therefore God intended that man would use his intelligence to discover things for himself about the world and develop in his knowledge, but not independently of God. The many fronts of human progress and ingenuity are not reasons to abandon God and assume that we don’t need Him. Rather, human creativity and development are instead evidence that man was made in God’s image distinct from all other creatures (Genesis 1:26-27). Our accumulating knowledge does not replace the need for faith; rather it ought to strengthen and confirm it as we see the wonder of God, who is the source of all true knowledge, and His power and glory reflected in His creation.
It is therefore a fallacy to assume that advancement in knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, is a cause for dismissing the Bible and debunking faith. Here are two reasons why: firstly, it is a mistake to assume that all we know about God is all there is to know. As we have already said, we are not told the how and why of His existence. While His revelation is sufficient to know Him we must remember that He Himself is eternal and infinite. There is so much we do not know and cannot know about a being who’s created universe men have not fully comprehended never mind the Creator Himself! Secondly, true science and Biblical revelation are not enemies but friends. We must not confuse the theories of men, which stand in opposition to scripture, with true science that complements scripture. Science that assumes a naturalistic evolutionary framework claims there is no way of proving God’s existence or empirically demonstrating the validity of a past Creation by His word. However, they cannot prove the macro evolutionary theory they posit and assume. It is neither observable nor provable. Claiming that it took billions of years for life to move from simplicity to complexity proves nothing neither does it explain how a primitive life form moved from singularity to the variety of multiplicity evident in the world never mind the origin of life itself.
Paul, having stated the fact that God is the Sovereign Creator, he then assures his audience that this does not mean He is distant and detached from His creation. God did not merely create the world only to let it take its own course or leave it to its own fate, rather He is actively near in time and space as Paul declared: “And has made of one blood every nation of men to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, having determined ordained times and the boundaries of their dwelling, that they may seek God; if indeed they might feel after Him and find Him, although He is not far from each one of us: for in Him we live and move and exist; as also some of the poets amongst you have said, ‘For we are also His offspring’” (Acts 17:26-28 Darby Translation).
God not only made the world, He made humankind to dwell upon it. Man originated by an act of divine creation, and not a process of evolution. All men are created by God and descend from one ancestor, Adam – ‘one blood’. Racism is a sin against God. No race is superior to another either by nature or grace. The words of the American Declaration of Independence says it well:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Sadly sin has made it otherwise and the words of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns, are true: ‘Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn’.
God also determined the “ordained times and the boundaries” of nations, that is, when and where they would dwell. God has actively implemented throughout history what He had previously planned for the world as man’s dwelling place. The existence, duration and boundaries of peoples throughout the centuries has been by divine design and with a specific purpose in view – “that they may seek God”, who “is not far from each one of us for in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:27 Darby Translation). God is not distant and remote but near and present, and our very existence depends upon Him. Paul even quoted one of the Greek poets to bring home this fact to his audience.
The Almighty Judge
The identity of God as Creator is not just about creation. The abandonment of the one true God for idolatry and the battle against His existence are more about moral order than physical order. When the first man Adam sinned against His Creator, it was the deliberate rejection of His moral authority. God had set the limits to man’s liberty, with a moral obligation of obedience to His word, and He established the standard of His justice by warning of the consequences of disobedience. Adam learned that he was both responsible before God and accountable to Him, yet even with this knowledge he decided he would prefer his independence and so disobeyed God’s word by eating of the fruit of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (Genesis 2:16-17). Man rebelled against his Creator and continues in rebellion to this day, but the Creator has never, and will never relinquish His moral authority over man. Paul, before concluding his message at Mars’ Hill, reminded his audience of their and all people’s accountability to God:
“Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:29-31).
Long before the coming of Christ the nations were steeped in idolatry. God in judgment scattered the people of the earth, the descendants of the sons of Noah, as they attempted in defiance of His word to build a City and a Tower on the plains of Shinar in order to centralize government and religion in opposition to God (Genesis 11:1-9). Since that time the nations of the world willfully abandoned God for the folly of idols. Paul wrote elsewhere:
‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things’ (Romans 1:18-23).
Yet despite the perpetuating of this darkness from one generation to the next and the continuing cycle of rebellion right to Paul’s day, God as a faithful Creator still provided for the creature. Paul told the idolatrous people of Lystra: “God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16-17).
God’s wrath is ever revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men as Paul shows in Romans chapter 1 vs 18-32 part of which has already been quoted. But rather than wiping such sinners from the face of the earth in judgment as He did with Sodom and Gomorrah for the most part He overlooked the ignorance of the nations in that He allowed them to continue and exist by His mercy. Not that their sin didn’t matter, it certainly did, but He so acted in the hope that they might seek and find Him through the witness of Creation and the evidence of His goodness for as Paul reminded his audience, “He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27 Darby Translation). However, now that Christ has come things have changed. God with all His authority as Creator and Sovereign Lord “commands all men everywhere to repent” for He is now dealing with the world on the basis of the full revelation of the gospel, and therefore rebellion is not just against the revelation of Creation, but the full revelation of His love and mercy in Christ. The Cross has made all the difference. The way of salvation and reconciliation is clear for the gospel declares how ‘that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), and the Lord Jesus before ascending to heaven commissioned His disciples to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
God saves those who turn to Him in repentance and believe on the Lord Jesus, but those who don’t and who persist in willfully rebelling against His authority and rejecting both the testimony of natural revelation and gospel revelation; will face His judgment.
God is not threatening us rather He is warning that the Day of Judgment, the time of accountability is surely coming. The resurrection of Jesus provides the guarantee that God will judge the world. God’s sovereign and moral right to judge reside in the fact that He is both Creator and Saviour; no one can point the finger at God accusing Him of unrighteousness, for through His Son the Lord Jesus He not only made the world, He has also provided in Him salvation for the world! – “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17).
Paul concluded his notable message to the Athenian court and like any preacher, waited for the reaction of his audience. It is recorded that people responded in three different ways to the truth which they had heard from Paul: some mocked, others were indecisive, and some believed (Acts 17:32-34). What way will you respond? AJC