Kurt and I were recently involved in a discussion with some atheists on an atheist’s blog comment thread, which I might add does not seem to be an optimal place for thoughtful interaction. By that I mean comment threads, not atheist blogs necessarily. Before you know it, there are too many people involved, each one trying to pull the conversation in a different direction. It can become mind-boggling to keep up with very quickly. However, one issue that was raised by the atheist was that if we Christians want to discuss God’s existence, we had to first define what we meant by “God”.
Some of the atheist objections were things like “God is a meaningless word” or “God means whatever you want it to mean”. At first glance, the notion that we must define God seemed to me absurd. Surely everyone knows what is meant when someone talks about God, right? Well, this has really got me thinking the past couple of days. Do we as Christians need to define God before we can discuss God?
I’d venture to guess that many atheists use this tactic to stop the conversation from ever progressing beyond mere drivel, and that even if a definition is given then more often than not, you will spend a vast amount of time splitting hairs about the definition than discussing any actual evidences for God. The idea that God is a meaningless word and needs to be defined was a notion that was expressed in the 1920s and ’30s and is known as verificationism or positivism. This ideology died out over 50 years ago due to verificationism not being able to meet it’s own standard. Verificationism couldn’t be verified with the five senses and was therefore self-refuting. William Lane Craig talks more about that here for those who may be interested.
Of course, I think as Christians, we must understand who God is and therefore give a proper definition when asked to do so. It’s also a good idea when discussing God to first define the God you will be providing evidences for. This can be especially helpful when, as Christians, we may only be aguing for the existence of a theistic God, and not the Christian God in particular. This will keep counterarguments against the Chrisitan God, or even a pantheistic or a deistic god to a minimum.
Furthermore, there have been many concepts of a theistic god throughout history and several mischaracterizations of the Christian God in popular culture, especially today. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear nonbelievers refer to God as an invisible old man in the sky, a bearded sky daddy, or as a magic sky fairy. This bearded old man in the sky imagery can be seen on the TV show “The Family Guy” and you can hardly have an internet conversation with an atheist without hearing the term “Sky Daddy”. Unfortunately, there are probably even people who call themselves Christians who hold to these silly and erroneous views of God.
So, what would be the correct way to define God in a classical Christian sense? Richard Swinburne offers a definition of God in his book “The Existence of God”. He defines God as “a person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who necessarily is eternal, perfectly free, omnipotent, omniscient , perfectly good, and the creator of all things”. I think this is the traditional definition of God in western philosophy and theology.
Another definition that captures the essence of God would be the one William Lane Craig offers in his book “Reasonable Faith”; “a beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful cause of the universe.” I think another exceptional definition is the one offered by St. Anselm and used frequently by William Lane Craig. St. Anselm defined God back in the 11th century as “the greatest conceivable being”. If you could think of anything greater than God, then that would be God.
It’s also important to point out that, at this point, we haven’t made a case for Christianity at all. All we’ve done was define what we mean by God. It still remains to be asked whether such a being actually exist and only after having established that can we move on to discussing whether or not Christianity is true.