Existence of God (part 30)

May 08, 2011     Time: 00:28:16


Belief in God as Properly Basic.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ VI. Properly Basic Belief In God
Lecture 5

We have been talking about belief in God as properly basic. You will remember that simply because a belief is properly basic doesn’t mean that it is indefeasible. There can be defeaters that are brought against that belief. If you should be confronted with a defeater of one of your properly basic beliefs, you need to come up with a defeater-defeater – something that will defeat the ostensible defeater – if you are to remain rational.

We saw last time that what Plantinga suggested is that in some cases the original belief itself can be so strongly warranted that it becomes an intrinsic defeater-defeater. This seems to be the case with respect to belief in the great truths of the Gospel as attested by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. God, through the witness of the Holy Spirit, especially for those who find themselves in evidentially challenged situations, can so warrant basic Christian belief that it becomes an intrinsic defeater of the defeaters that are brought against it.

What About Other Faiths and Their Claim of Religious Experience?

Some people would disagree with what I have said about the role of argument and evidence in confirming Christian belief but not being used to judge it. They would advocate a view that would see a more magisterial role given to reason. Here is an objection that will often be made against the notion that Christian belief can be properly basic or even an intrinsic defeater-defeater. They will point out that Mormons, for example, also claim to have an inner witness of the Holy Spirit – a “burning in the bosom” that they feel when they read the book of Mormon. And on the basis of this burning in the bosom, this inner witness of God’s Spirit, one can know in a properly basic way that the Book of Mormon is true. Similarly, Muslims will sometimes claim, especially in the more mystic traditions, that they have an inner witness of God’s Spirit that tells them the truth of Islam directly. We (Christians) do not regard those experiences as veridical, that is to say, as authentic and as really giving them the truth of Mormonism and Islam. So Christian claims to a subjective experience of God’s witness seems to be on a par with these other experiences. Doesn’t the presence of these other non-Christian claims to an inner witness of God’s Spirit somehow invalidate the claim that we Christians know the great truths of the Gospel in this properly basic way through the witness of the Holy Spirit?

Let’s think about this objection together. How can the fact that other people falsely claim to have an inner self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit be even relevant to my knowing the truths of the Gospel through the Holy Spirit’s witness? Suppose that there is a genuine and authentic witness of the Holy Spirit to the great truths of the Gospel that I experience. Does that imply that nobody else can falsely claim to have such an experience? Obviously not! People can say anything they want. How does the fact that other people claim, falsely, whether sincerely or insincerely, to have a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit do anything to invalidate the authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit that I enjoy? Why should I be robbed of my joy and assurance of salvation and of the truth in the Christian faith just because somebody else falsely claims to have a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit? If the Mormon or Muslim falsely claims to have an inner witness of the Holy Spirit to the truth of Mormonism or Islam, it seems that that does nothing logically to undermine the veridicality of an authentic claim to the witness of the Holy Spirit.


Question: If the skeptic is an outside observer to all three individuals – Christian, Mormon, and Muslim – and places no special weight on anybody’s claim, what they are saying is, why should they take the Christian’s claim to be any more authentic than the other two?1

Answer: We are not looking at this from the skeptic’s vantage point. We are looking at this from the first person standpoint of a Christian and asking, “Should I give up my Christian faith, or am I somehow irrational in believing Christianity, because other people claim to have a witness of the Holy Spirit?” And I do not see any reason to think that. You could be quite right that from the third person standpoint of the skeptic, they might all appear equal, and he wouldn’t know which one is authentic or veridical, though, as I said, I do think that the Holy Spirit has a special ministry to the unbeliever as well. But we’ll leave that aside. That is just not germane to the question we are asking now – is this a defeater for me of my properly basic belief in the great truths of the Gospel? I can’t see that it is.

Followup: Then what we would have to explain to the skeptic is that this doesn’t really have apologetic value for them. It is not going to convince them one way or the other, but it is how we Christians can have assurance of our own belief.

Answer: Right. This is not intended to be, as you say, a way of showing Christianity to be true. We are talking here about how we know Christianity to be true. My argument that I am presenting in this section of the lectures is that we are not dependent upon the arguments of natural theology to know that God exists or on historical evidence to know that Christ has risen. As Christians, we have another source of warrant by means of which we know Christianity is true. You are quite right; it is a very different question to ask how you show somebody else that it is true. That is a different issue.

Question: Do you see the scope of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit as encompassing things like the assurance that God exists, Jesus is God, and that Jesus died and rose for my sins and things like that? Is it all of that or is it just that God exists?

Answer: This is a good question. I think that the boundary lines here are very vague. What Paul says in Romans 9 is that when we cry, “Abba! Father!” the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God and therefore heirs of God. So I take it that this fundamental assurance of salvation is what the Holy Spirit gives. He gives you the knowledge that “I am reconciled to God through Christ. Through him I have forgiveness of sins and eternal life.” That in turn entails truths like “God exists,” “I am redeemed through Christ,” and “I am forgiven by Christ.” So I think that what this provides is a sort of fundamental assurance of what Plantinga calls the great truths of the Gospel. But it is not going to help you to differentiate between Calvinism and Arminianism, or sacramentalism and non-sacramental views of the Lord’s Supper and eschatology or things of that sort.

Followup: The timing is the other question. Does the inner witness occur after you have come to the faith or can it help you come to faith?

Answer: This goes back to an earlier section of the lectures when I talked about this. This witness of the Holy Spirit is primarily in the life of the believer (this should be the inheritance of every born-again or regenerate Christian). But remember we looked at John 16, where Jesus talks about a ministry of the Holy Spirit which is not directed toward the church but toward the world. He says when the Spirit comes he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment. “Concerning sin because they do not believe in me.” Here Jesus seems to envision a special ministry of the Holy Spirit toward the unbeliever to draw him to Christ. There, timing may well be critical. When somebody says to me, “Well, I haven’t experienced any kind of convicting power of the Holy Spirit,” I will often say, “Hold on, keep searching, and keep seeking and continue to pray and read, and it will come.” It may not be that this is something that happens constantly throughout the unbeliever’s life. It may well be delayed and come at a different time. In God’s providence, he knows when this convicting and drawing work should come in the life of the unbeliever, and we shouldn’t presume that it is going to be there in an equal obviousness all the time.2

Question: We are concluding “drawing” is always positive. I think Jesus does draw men to him, but sometimes the Spirit draws them and brings them to salvation, but in some cases they are drawn to him but reject him and use him as an object of derision, but they do take him seriously.

Answer: That is a good point. Through God’s common grace that is shed abroad among all persons who have heard of Christ, there is a kind of drawing that takes place. I think you are quite right in saying that this can be in ways that, given our human proclivity to rationalize sin, the unbeliever may not even be aware of the drawing of God’s Spirit on his heart, if he would just attend to it rather than harden his heart to it.

Somebody might insist at this point, “How do you know that your experience isn’t also spurious? If you say the Mormon’s and the Muslim’s experience of the Holy Spirit is spurious, maybe your experience is, too. How do you know that your experience is not inauthentic?” I think I have already answered that question in explaining the view. The genuine and authentic ministry of the Holy Spirit is self-authenticating for the person who really has it. The Spirit-filled Christian can know immediately and confidently that his claim to the Spirit’s witness in his life is true despite being confronted with false claims that are being made by people in other religions.

What is the most plausible spin that we could put on this objection? The most plausible way to take this objection could be as follows: You could say that the presence of false claims to the witness of the Holy Spirit ought to undermine my confidence in the reliability of my cognitive faculties in forming religious beliefs because apparently those faculties go wrong so often. Look at all the people in the world whose cognitive faculties have gone wrong in leading them to think they have a witness of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The fact that so many people apparently sincerely and yet falsely believe that God’s Spirit is testifying to them of the truth of their religious beliefs ought to make us suspicious of our own experience of God.

As I said, I think that is the most plausible spin to put on this objection. But I think there are two things wrong with this construal of the objection.

First of all, the Christian does not need to say that all non-Christian religious experience is simply spurious. We are not committed to saying that all religious experience outside of Christianity is just spurious. It may well be the case that adherents to other world religions do enjoy a veridical experience of God in some measure. For example, as the ground of all being – as in Eastern religions – the ground upon whom we all depend as finite creatures. Or maybe an experience of God as the moral absolute from whom all values are derived. Or maybe even a veridical experience of God as the loving Father of mankind. We are not at all committed to the view that people’s cognitive faculties for experiencing the divine are simply unreliable. I think that there can be genuine experiences of God in various ways in different religions.

But secondly, notice that the objection unjustifiably assumes that the Christian experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit is indistinguishable experientially from other religious experiences. In fact, that is just not true. It is not true that Christian religious experience is not distinctive compared to the religious experiences of other religions. For example, Buddhist or Hindu religious experience is very different from Christian religious experience. The Buddhist or Hindu typically has a religious experience of a sort of loss of self and a loss of sense of distinctness from the All, a sense of being subsumed in the All or the totality of things. That is very different from Christian religious experience of being related to a loving and personal God. So why should I think that when they have their religious experience that it is the same as mine and that mine isn’t distinctive? When a Mormon claims to have a burning in the bosom that attests to the truth of the Book of Mormon, why should I think that his experience is exactly the same as mine?3 When I have an experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit, I don’t see any reason to think that these non-veridical experiences in other religions are indistinguishable from Christian experience.

One way to get some empirical evidence for this would be to ask converts from Islam and Mormonism to Christianity, “Is your experience of God, now that you are a Christian, different then it was when you were a Mormon or Muslim?” I hazard to say that the vast majority will say, “Yes, it is very different – I never knew Christ in a personal way as a Muslim or as a Mormon – my religious experience of the witness of the Spirit is very different than what I knew as a Mormon or as a Muslim.”


Question: Satanic counterfeits. We know from the story of Ananias and Sapphira, that Satan has the ability to put something in your mind. He could possibly put in an emotional/religious kind of perception.

Answer: Certainly, it is legitimate to think there could be satanic counterfeits of the witness of the Spirit. In Voodoo, for example, there is a religion that invokes satanic spirits and could well have some sort of demonic experience. But I think you would probably agree that that doesn’t give me any reason to think that therefore I might be having a satanic experience and that my experience of the Holy Spirit isn’t veridical.

Followup: I am offering it up as a possible explanation on how all these millions of people have what they think is a meaningful experience.

Answer: That is certainly possible, though I would prefer to give a little bit more sympathetic and charitable spin to these other religious experiences like Mormons and so forth. But, as I say, in certain religions, like Voodoo, I don’t have any problems in what you are suggesting.

Question: In those other religions, particularly Islam, is there any promise in the book of Islam of something comparable to the Holy Spirit like there is in Christianity?

Answer: I am not aware of anything in the Qur’an like that. Having read it and studied it, I am not aware of anything like that. But there are mystical Muslim traditions like Sufism, for example, which is very experientially oriented, and certainly Sufis would claim to have this kind of immediate mystical experience of God.

Followup: But the experience of the Holy Spirit combined with the promise in the Bible that there is such a Holy Spirit that will dwell within us seems to me to confirm that that is a bit more verifiable.

Answer: I think you are right. In particular for traditional Islam, Qur’anic Islam, God or Allah is so far removed from human beings that you couldn’t have an experience of him because he is utterly transcendent. I think that it is difficult to square that with your more traditional Islam, but I was thinking of Sufism when I made my comments.

Question: I work with Hindus and Muslims, and I cannot help but wonder every day why do these people continue to believe in what they believe in. When I was a young man, while growing up, I thought I was a Christian; then realized I wasn’t a Christian, and I walked away from it. How can millions, perhaps billions of people, year after year, generation after generation, continue in their practices if they are getting nothing out of it? You have spoken to that, perhaps they are having a genuine experience based on the fundamentals of “God is” and they are connecting somehow with God, and God is allowing them because of his grace to all man to experience something. Maybe Satan is having some demon communicating with them?

Answer: There are deceiving spirits. And certainly, in a religion like Hinduism, which is so idolatrous that it’s filled with gods and goddesses and various forms of idol worship, one could well imagine that what Paul said about the pagan deities of Rome and Greece would be true of these deities of Hinduism.4 Paul said that when these pagan Greeks and Romans offer worship to God, he says they are worshiping demons rather than Christ. That is why he forbad Christians to have table fellowship with these Greco-Roman pagans in the temples. They weren’t to go to the feasts. He said, “I do not want you to be partners with demons.”5 Although it was very politically incorrect, that was clearly Paul’s attitude toward the polytheistic religions of his day in the Greco-Roman world – he thought they were demonic. With a religion like Hinduism, it would be very easy to see how there could be demonic influences. In addition to that, of course, we should not underestimate the incredible factor of just socialization. The socialization that goes on within Mormonism and Islam is so deep that to become a Christian is to leave that culture and to deny virtually your whole identity. We know how difficult it is to break free of that socialization that comes from being raised in a Muslim culture or a Mormon church. When Jan and I were in Turkey last year and we would walk about in Istanbul and we’d see these giant mosques on every other corner and you would hear the call to prayer go out constantly, I just thought, How could anybody raised in this culture not think Islam is true? It is just so overwhelmingly powerful and in your face – of course, you would think it is true just in virtue of being raised in that culture. That, in addition to spiritual factors, would provide a sociological explanation to explain why it is difficult to break free.

Let me proceed to one more variation on this objection. Somebody might say, “But aren’t neuroscientists capable of inducing artificially religious experiences in the brain that seem like the witness of the Holy Spirit? They can wire your brain with electrodes to make you have a religious experience. Doesn’t that show that this might not in fact be veridical?” In fact, this is not true, despite what you might have heard. It is not true. The sort of religious experiences that have been artificially induced by brain stimulus have been more akin to the experiences in pantheistic religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, where a person has a sense of oneness with the All – a sense of being united with the totality of all things. That kind of religious experience has been induced in people through artificial brain stimulus. But I don’t know of anybody who has been able to induce, artificially in the brain, an experience of God’s personal presence and love such as Christians experience in Jesus Christ.

But even more fundamentally, even more importantly than that, the fact that a non-veridical experience can be artificially induced does nothing to undermine the veridicality of an experience that you have which is not artificially induced. Otherwise, you’d have to say that, for example, your physical perceptions are all somehow in doubt and dubious because scientists can wire your brain up to make you have a sense of seeing or hearing something that isn’t really there. That would be obviously absurd. This would lead to total skepticism. Just because a scientist could wire my brain up to have an experience of seeing something that isn’t there doesn’t in any way prove that when I am not wired up and I see some people sitting here at the table that somehow that experience is non-veridical or illusory or even dubious. It doesn’t seem to me that simply because a neurologist could stimulate my brain to think that I am having an experience of God means that when I am not being stimulated by the neurologist that my experience is somehow invalid or somehow dubious.

Therefore, I do not think that the objection to the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit based upon supposedly comparable experiences in other religions does anything at all to undermine our trust or confidence in the deliverances of the Holy Spirit’s witness.6


Question: You were just talking about brain stimulation. Should we or should we not believe a testimony based on something like a near death experience?

Answer: I am not sufficiently expert in these near death experiences to make an intelligent judgment. I tend to be skeptical about these because one wonders if there isn’t still some sort of brain activity that is leading the person to have these illusions. On the other hand, there are those, like my colleague J. P. Moreland and Gary Habermas, that have related experiences where these people appear to know things that they couldn’t possibly have known during the time that they were comatose or were out. That would give some grounds, if those could be verified, that maybe there is something going on there. It is really hard to understand how a disembodied soul can float up to the ceiling like these people describe themselves having experience of. How can a disembodied soul have a visual perspective from the ceiling, since a disembodied soul doesn’t have eyes or retinas to have the photons impinge on them? One wouldn’t think they would have any perspective, much less one from the ceiling. So that is just very odd, and so I have an open mind about it and am willing to follow the evidence where it leads. I just haven’t cared to pursue it in any depth.

Summary and Conclusion

I have argued that the role of rational argumentation and evidence in knowing Christianity to be true is the role of a servant. The primary way in which we know that Christianity is true is through the self-authenticating witness of God’s Spirit, and while reason and evidence and argument can be used to confirm that conclusion, it cannot be properly used to subvert that conclusion. Therefore, while the arguments of natural theology that we’ve studied are very useful in showing another person that God exists, and in providing a double warrant for what we know through the witness of the Holy Spirit, it seems to me that one is perfectly rational and, indeed, warranted in believing in God even in the absence of such arguments on the basis of the witness of the Holy Spirit.

Next time we will look at objections to the existence of God. We have discussed reasons to believe in God, as well as knowing that God exists apart from argument and evidence. But, of course, there are arguments against God’s existence, predominantly the problem of suffering and evil in the world. Next time we will begin our section of the class discussing the principal arguments as to why God does not exist and see what sort of answer we might give to those arguments.7


1 5:04

2 9:55

3 15:10

4 20:12

5 cf. 1 Corinthians 10:20-21

6 24:59

7 Total Running Time: 28:16