I used to talk with my grandson, who is now eighteen, about the question of whether God exists. He didn’t think so. Since this is one of those issues you can difficult convince another, I asked him the follow-up question: Are you sure? He had no good answer to that question. He could only bring up some authorities, like his father, who would feel the same way. To prove the existence of God with arguments is difficult. It seems a lot easier to prove the non-existence of God. Doing that is very fashionable nowadays. I’m surprised there are still people who think it’s necessary to do so. My impression is that these are mainly representatives of the generation who were brought up under a certain pressure from a religious institution and later discovered that their educators used God as a bogeyman to get them in their line. What a liberation if you can then declare God dead, and destroy the authority that educators and institutions have derived from this God! For them, God has gone through a kind of point zero. After all, instead of keeping God dead and just not talking about him anymore, they still want to kick the idea that God exists into the ground and ridicule him in order to free themselves from their childhood trauma. A world where people think God doesn’t exist is what the Apocalypse calls the danger of our Sardis culture: the denial of the spiritual world. Therefore, this is not an unimportant theme. But are the denials of the existence of god really about God? Isn’t it just about the narrow-mindedness of educators? Is God dead or is the church, the synagogue, the mosque dead? As a youngster I stood in front of my Protestant church in Schiedam, the Netherlands, demonstrating with a sign: The church is the tomb of God! Because in the church you would expect the living proof of God’s existence and I was most disappointed.
To the question if God exists, logically three answers are possible:
– I don’t know,
Of course, those answers depend on how someone sees God. I take as my starting point the image of God shown in the Apocalypse. Based on that starting point, we will reflect on the tendencies in our time to doubt, to hate and to fear the existence of God.
Who is God?
God is, as the name suggests, good. But is God good? Or is God good and evil at the same time? Is evil necessary to obtain good? That’s where the dilemma starts. Let’s take another word related to God: gold. As the medals on sporting achievements indicate, God is the noblest we can imagine. Gold also stands for something sustainable, something reliable, it doesn’t rust. When the stock market collapses, everyone flees into gold. If you have to flee you take your possessions in gold with you, I was told by an old Jew.
Perhaps we should also consider the concept of gods. As a rule, gods mean all beings developed higher in consciousness than the human being, who can express themselves in the material world, but don’t have to manifest themselves in a concrete physical body. According to mysticism, the gods closest to man are the angels. They have already purified their thinking and each one of them is helping an individual human being to realize its path of development. Above them are the archangels, the second hierarchy, who do not lead individuals, but peoples and language regions. And so, according to Christian mysticism, this continues up to the ninth hierarchy of higher beings, the seraphim. All these beings can be called gods. Above the highest hierarchy is the trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, if we still follow Christian mysticism. In other religions we find these beings under different names. In summary, God is generally understood to mean the trinity of Father, Son and Spirit.
In the Apocalypse, God is described as the omnipotent, who was and who is and who will come, who encompasses space and time and their evolution. The Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit consists of three equal aspects of the One, which become more comprehensible to us when we understand them as: the Will to create man, the natural kingdoms and the universe; the Love to save what is in danger of being lost; and the Thinking to discover the truth in outer creation and thereby to help find the way back from matter to the spiritual origin. These three qualities of God exist side by side at the same time.
In the conclusion of the Apocalypse (Rev. 21) the perspective is depicted that God will give man eternal life. He who overcomes will inherit everything. For this man he will be God and this man will be his Son.
God shows man in his aspect of the Son, the Christ, the Messiah, the Sun Child, man’s vocation.
I will use this image of God in the next considerations.
Doubting his existence
Thinking, as indicated above, is an important ability that we have at our disposal to distinguish between sense and nonsense, good and evil. Yet, thinking also has its limitations. Especially when it comes to testing whether God exists. Our mind will, after we have become conscious of all kinds of characteristics of the divine, test these characteristics against the perceived reality. Every human being examines whether what he or she sees happening in his or her surroundings also corresponds with the image he or she has made of God. The ‘golden god’ usually satisfies the characteristics that he can do anything, wants the good for every human being and society and answers our prayers. Here again we come up against the barrier of what is good or evil. Is what I see as good for my existence also good in the greater whole of mankind’s evolution? No one seeks sickness or misfortune for themselves, but if it has happened to you, can it always be qualified as bad for you? Whoever is searching for the meaning of what happens to you as a human being must assume that everything that happens has a cause and meaning according to certain cosmic laws that are ultimately anchored in God. If you do not see the righteousness of such laws, if, for example, a loved one who was only kind dies young, then it is easy to come to the conclusion that there are no cosmic laws, because you experience what happens as unjust and arbitrary. This is where God reappears beyond the zero point. After all, God cannot exist in our eyes if he makes something happen that the God we imagine would never allow to happen. Those who reason in this way are not yet beyond God, but disapprove of his actions or at least doubt his existence. And that doubt will persist as long as we try to form a judgment about the existence of God through our thinking.
Our thinking wants us to choose on the basis of a test we impose on God to determine whether God is good or evil. If God represents good, he may remain; if he allows evil, he may not exist. And because both good and evil happen to us, there is a large group of people who continue to doubt. And they continue to sow that doubt.
Moreover, doubt about God’s existence is an often-accepted attitude. When doubting Gods existence, you will feel in good company and you get the laughs on your hand. If your feelings flush away your self-confidence, doubting is the order of the day. And our foothold in a chaos of doubt can be humor. Something which the Dutch comedian Youp van ‘t Hek, for instance, likes to use.
‘What I believe? I don’t know. I don’t dare say there’s anything, nor do I have the arrogance to claim with certainty that there’s nothing. There’s only one person who knows if God exists and that’s God himself.’ (Youp van ‘t Hek, NRCWEEKEND, 10-11 January 2015, 36; NRC – Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant in 1844- is a large Dutch newspaper.)
If we take the idea of God more seriously than just wanting to be funny, you soon come across the towering expectations people have of God, even if they say they don’t believe in God. They know, even if God doesn’t exist, who he would be if he existed. A characteristic of a vision of God beyond the zero point. An example:
‘Death is inevitable. And then it is over. I don’t believe in anything. But if there would be anything, it could not be understood in any language.’ (Bert Kreuk, founder HSS International Inc., art collector, interview in FD Personally, June 8, 2013, 61; FD -Financieel Dagblad-, a large Dutch newspaper).
For a long time, I was more arrogant myself and reasoned: if there is an afterlife, I will see it when I am dead. That reasoning had to free me from the need to concern myself with this question. But it would turn out differently.
You can also make your profession of speaking at funerals and still not know if you believe in God. A fine quote from such a doubter:
‘I was raised in a non-believing family. My father was a Catholic by birth, my mother a Protestant. Friends had to go to church on Sundays. When I asked at home, “Which church do we belong to?”, my mother said, “None, we are nothing.” I’ve always found that a little bald. No, I’m not religious, I’m not a theist. But that doesn’t make me an atheist: I don’t like to derive a philosophy of life from the denial of something, that’s too negative for me.‘ (Ton Kelder, humanist funeral speaker in Rotterdam, NRCWEEKEND, 9-10 August 2014).
You can also come to a belief in God and at the same time claim that you don’t know. I see it as a still present form of doubt:
“Of course, God doesn’t play the role we’ve attributed to him for centuries. For believers, God was someone who regulated everything, a figure sitting on a throne with a beard. For the most part, we are over that. Not all believers, but at least I am. I see God as a source of inspiration. I believe in a reality as a universe. In that absolute infinity, we are just a fluff. That reality inspires us. And this reality, from which we have emerged, can be personified for the sake of convenience. You can call it God, but also Allah or Buddha. That’s fine and understandable. But what it boils down to is that we don’t know.’ (Rob Visser, city reverent in Amsterdam, NRCWEEKEND, 9-10 August 2014, 23).
As these examples illustrate, a human being does not really come closer through his or her mind to an answer to the question of whether God exists. Those who only follow thought, or are torn apart by conflicting feelings, arrive at doubt. We will come back to this when discussing believing in God.
Denial of God’s existence
In addition to the sympathetic doubters, there is nowadays in the media a fairly dominant group of deniers of the existence of God. Here too, there are gradations. Gradations in the feeling of sympathy for the idea of God. Sometimes you taste a certain melancholy for the time when they could still believe in God. Sometimes there is a fanatical tendency to stamp the idea of the existence of God deep into the ground. Then you feel the hatred for the idea of God leaping toward you. Usually, including all these gradations, there is a sense of arrogance in the judgment that God does not exist, that those who believe in God would be a stance of the dumb, the backward, the superstitious, those who no longer fit into our modern age.
The most melancholic deniers of God I know of, are Dutch author Connie Palmen and her beloved Hans van Mierlo, founder of Dutch political party D’66 (quoted in her bestselling book Logboek van een onbarmhartig jaar, 2011, Amsterdam: Prometheus). According to Connie Palmen, Van Mierlo had already announced in an interview with Bibeb in 1967 that he had said goodbye to faith in God at the age of twenty-one (p.23): ‘I was a little disappointed that it went so easily. I had imagined more of it, more literary adventure’. In other words, once again God did not live up to his expectation, not even when he said goodbye. A little later (p.81) Connie quotes Hans van Mierlo even more extensively on this point: ‘I miss God. I am so sorry that He doesn’t exist,’ says Hans. ‘I am angry with God because He does not exist.’ Do you want to get further past point zero? And then Connie Palmen realizes (p.220): ‘We need the illusion of infinity, otherwise life cannot be done’. To be consistent, she must call it the ‘illusion’. And if she feels even more lonely when her lover is dying, she prays (p. 229): ‘God gives that the doctors will live up to their oath and that they would not let him fight this fight if there was no chance of winning it’.
The denial of God’s existence often does not sound so passionate. Wim Pijbes, former head director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, puts it as follows: ‘I myself hope that a long life has been given to me. By whom or what, I don’t know; I don’t believe in anything higher. And if so, then I have no influence on that’. (FD Personally, 30 March 2013). His opinion is not so exceptional, rather common in intellectual circles. But as director of a world-famous museum, where a large part of the paintings is about the experience of the spiritual world, it is quite remarkable.
Our image of God, or rather our image of nature as a soulless, by chance created, material development process, does not satisfy many of us.
‘I think we are an accidental huddle of chemical building materials and death is death. I wish it were different, because it’s an unsatisfying worldview.’ (Bob van Dijk, CEO Naspers, NRCWEEKEND, 31 October and 1 November 2015).
A clear analysis of the inner process of people ending with the denial of the existence of God is given below by author Margriet van der Linden. This shows that fear of a wrathful God can turn into anger against God and that this can lead to the complete erasure of God’s role in one’s own existence:
‘I used to think of God as a sweet man, whose wrath I feared. As a grown woman, I was pissed off at the same figure of God… But pushing other software into it made no sense at all. It was more a matter of deleting everything. And when my image of God was erased, my anger was over.’ (Margriet van der Linden, NRCWEEKEND, 31 October and 1 November 2015, L8-9).
There is a great danger that those who do not believe in God will lapse into materialism and a life based on calculation. Ramsey Nasr (author and opinion maker, NRCWEEKEND, 24-25 October 2015, 26) concludes: ‘If you don’t believe in God, and you don’t want to fall into materialism or cynicism, then there is only the theory of evolution’. And this theory of Darwin tells us that everything is determined by ‘survival of the fittest’, even though life has no meaning. The driving force behind our actions then becomes the fear of dying and of having to enter into nothingness and oblivion.
Believing in God
Believing in God is not based on logical reasoning, although it may seem so. I myself followed for a while the reasoning that for everything man creates in the outer world, an idea, a plan must first be made before it can be realized. First the architect or inventor or product designer gets to work and then the builder. Why would it be different in nature? Especially if you look at the sophistication and order in the construction of nature and ecosystems and the universe permeate you. Strictly speaking, of course, this is not logical proof, but it makes it plausible that God exists by analogy.
Believing is assuming, or trusting, that an assertion is true. In believing, the logic of reasoning is not the reason to assume something to be true, but there is another cause. It can be a vague suspicion, an intuition. Or an intrusive personal experience can be the reason for believing in God. Such an experience is not transferable to others. The story can be communicated, but the experience cannot be shared. For the believer, after having yourself such an experience, there is no doubt about the reality of the experience, but for the listener there is. Believing in God is not transferable, as a logical reasoning is. In nature, God is not perceptible as a person to the physical senses, which does not mean that God cannot be experienced by man who can open up to the other dimensions. The Dutch painter Marlène Dumas (NRCWEEKEND, 24-25 May 2014, 17) also knows this:
‘I’m just talking. I don’t know either. (Experiences in) nature, I actually want to stay away from that. I understand God who says: you can’t paint me. Not that people should kill others when they do, but I get it. Within the logic of the concept of God, “He” cannot be depicted. “He”, of course, isn’t a man with a beard, it’s a metaphor”’.
Believing in the existence of God knows in practice different forms of depth, of concreteness. It starts with a suspicion:
‘For me, God is a hero, an inspirer, who keeps nature developing. Yes, we also have the theory of evolution for that, but it is so long-winded, I don’t believe in that’. (Arne van der Bent, 24 years, from Bodegraven, cited by Sjoerd de Jong, NRC Ombudsman, 3-4 May 2014)
God can be seen as an inspirator of moral behavior, although this may be separate from any inner experience.
‘I was raised Catholic, there is a God, I believe. But I don’t go to church. God is much more an inspiration for me to behave to the best of my ability. Living with tolerance, honesty.’ (Dirk Lips, CEO Libéma, interview in FD personally, 27 April 2013, 16).
This experience of God becomes more concrete in the case of rabbi Marianne van Praag in Amsterdam (interview with Rinske Koelewijn in NRCWEEKEND, July 26-27, 2014):
‘I loved the traditions; we raised our children Jewish. But God, I couldn’t do anything with that, I didn’t utter the word…. In any case, God is not an old Jewish man in heaven… The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said: God is in the eyes of others. That’s how I see it. God is like a diamond. Every time I experience something essential in contact with another human being or otherwise, a facet of the stone is polished. That shines. That’s what I call a divine moment, that’s how I experience God.’
The Dutch writer Jan Siebelink (interview by Coen Verbraak, NRCWEEKEND, 31 May-1 June 2014, 31) goes one step further when he mentions a vision of his father. Here a direct experience of God is discussed, albeit indirectly and recorded at the same time disarmingly imperfect:
‘Sometimes I can be jealous of the vision of God that my father had one day in the nursery. I would like to have something of his rock-solid faith. Once that was in me. I remember my father being sent home to die there. Then I prayed passionately in church for a miracle. When I came home after that, my mother said, “Dad suddenly breathes more calmly. It’s as if God had appeared to him.” That made me feel that I had not prayed for nothing, and that God would be merciful to my father when he died. That question has been in there ever since: will there be mercy for me when I die too? I am so anxious to be judged. Have I actually accommodated the stranger? Did I give the poor a handout?… I hope he’ll say later, “Oh yeah, that Siebelink, I’ve seen his clumsiness a lot. But if I take his books into account, I’ll think: go ahead, let him in.’
It is difficult to describe those God experiences that lay a solid, non-logical foundation under people’s God’s faith. I myself have had such experiences and noticed, as said, that the usefulness of writing down and publishing them is limited. Because they cannot convince others as long as they themselves do not have such an experience. That is why the following quote is perhaps most appropriate in conclusion:
‘Aldous Huxley said that music comes closest to God after silence.’ (Johan Vriens, organizer of festivals, Het Zomergastengesprek met A.L. Snijders, NRCWEEKEND, 2-3 August 2014, 16).
Beyond doubt, hatred and fear of God
The purpose of this overview of opinions on the existence of God was to show that our mind does not help us in this challenge to penetrate to the truth. I have used a number of quotes that I found in my newspapers around the year 2015. I have described my own experiences in my book Vader (Dutch for Father; to be ordered by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org). Observing the events around us and the opinions of others, whether these are our educators, our family, friends or acquaintances, does not lead us to certainty about the existence or non-existence of God. Our mind provides us with a reliable compass of how to act in many matters of life. But in this matter, reasoning takes us beyond what I have called point zero, the certainty of knowing that God does not exist. We can only gain inner certainty by silencing our minds for a moment and opening our hearts. Then there can be room to experience how God acts. After all, God is a public secret. He stands in front of us and we do not ‘see’ him. Then in our anger or disappointment we throw out the baby with the bathwater. God does not make himself known by physical observations but is experienced when we can become silent and listen with new senses, that is my conviction. And one flash of experience of God is then enough as a guide for a whole life.