As a believer, I found it difficult to address or dismiss intellectual arguments for God’s existence, even when I doubted his presence. Though over time I did reject some of the arguments, I never did a systematic evaluation. I think I was concerned about whether I would get stuck: What if I couldn’t dismiss the intellectual arguments, but they didn’t help me recover my lost confidence?
One of the things that helped most to evaluate those arguments was a theory that I imaginatively call the “three gap theory”. It showed me clearly why common intellectual arguments couldn’t provide me all the certainty I needed to remain a Christadelphian.
Burden of proof
In doing this evaluation, I did not categorically deny that any god existed: all I asked was for was evidence that a god existed, because I sure wasn’t feeling it. This means that the burden of proof falls squarely on the believer.
(Note: If you are unable to accept that this is where the burden of proof lies, none of the rest of the argument will make sense).
Which god are we talking about?
As a properly brought up Christadelphian, I knew there was only one true God. As a result, any evidence for the existence of any god was obviously evidence of that one true God. This was why I was having difficulty rejecting the Christadelphian God: the slightest evidence for anything automatically confirmed all Christadelphian dogma.
The existence of an all-powerful god is an extremely remarkable claim, for which we would probably want extensive evidence. But I think there are three main gaps that need to be bridged before accepting the Christadelphian God (and associated Christadelphian teachings) I was brought up with.
Gap 1: A deistic god
Basically, to reach this level we need some evidence that some god, any god exists. This is difficult, because we don’t have a clear definition of what a “god” is. For this argument, I’m going to focus on one of the most common god claims: that a god created the universe.
To bridge this gap, we need some evidence that there is a god (or gods) who created the universe.
Gap 2: The Christian God
To reach this level, we need more than just evidence that some god somewhere exists. We need evidence that there is only one God and that this God is the Christian God. Since the main source of information about this God is through the Bible, we need to demonstrate that the Bible is a reliable source of information about him.
Of course, Christianity is not the only religion claiming a revealed god or specially inspired holy writings, so it’s not enough to just consider Christianity or the Bible in isolation. To accept the Bible, it must be better than other holy writings or revealed gods, and preferably significantly better.
To bridge this gap, we need to establish that there is one true God who is revealed in the Bible.
Gap 3: The Christadelphian God
To reach this level, we need more than just evidence that the Bible reveals God. We also need evidence that specific Christadelphian interpretations of the Bible are correct. Of course, no two Christadelphians will agree about every single point of Biblical interpretation, but we need to establish the truth of the “first principles” expressed in the BASF. When talking about God, the most important teachings are probably the unity of God and the rejection of both the Trinity and the supernatural devil.
As with the previous gap, it’s not enough to just consider Christadelphian teachings in isolation. Christadelphian teachings are considered heretical by mainstream Christian groups with different interpretations, and I can quote proof texts from either side with equal skill. We need to demonstrate that the Christadelphian interpretation is better than other interpretations of the Bible, and preferably significantly better.
To bridge this gap, we need to establish that the Christadelphian interpretation of the Bible is the correct one.
Why does this matter?
Being a Christadelphian required me to affirm a very specific set of beliefs, beliefs which differed from almost everyone in the world. This evaluation made it clear that even if I concluded there was a god or that the Bible contained truth, there were still more ways for Christadelphians to be wrong than to be right. I was happy to spend time working through my doubts, but I could no longer justify being a fully paid up Christadelphian just because I wasn’t certain God didn’t exist. The generic arguments for God I had relied on didn’t prove what I thought they did.
I think Neil Carter puts it well (from here):
It was as if they were switching gods on me mid-conversation, wanting me to accept the claims of a personal, interventionist God while appealing to some kind of non-interventionist god of Deism for the sake of argument. I don’t think people even realize how often they do this.
Do we have to bridge the gaps in order?
Not really, no. If we were starting from scratch, it would probably make sense to demonstrate the existence of a god before trying to discover too many details about that god.
However, most people worrying about this will have started with one particular God in mind, just as I did. And it would be reasonable to conclude that any evidence for the existence of that God also demonstrates that a god exists. The important thing is that it doesn’t work the other way round: Many of the conventional arguments for God make no attempt to bridge the second gap, let alone the third one.
Generalising the theory
I started with this theory applying to Christadelphian belief, since that was my background. However, while I am hesitant to generalise too far, I think it contains elements that can be applied to many different religious beliefs:
- The existence of gods: Most religions require belief in the existence of one or more gods. But how do they know?
- A divine revelation: Many religions claim a special divine revelation. This may be a text (like the Bible or the Quran), or it may be the teachings or actions of a specific prophet or leader. Can it be trusted?
- Interpretation of that divine revelation: In an ideal world, it would be completely clear what a religion’s divine revelation meant. However, the reality is that any message that is claimed to be a revealed message from a god will require people to accept and then interpret that message. History shows that often leads to division over differences of interpretation. Some groups will be more accepting of teachings that differ from theirs than Christadelphians are, but the question still remains: Has it been interpreted correctly?
So far, when evaluating religion this rings true for me: There may be some things you can point to as evidence that there may be a god. There may be other things which suggest that a specific sacred text or revelation comes from that god. What I think is much harder is finding external evidence that a particular interpretation of a sacred text is the one true interpretation. Really, it has to remain an internal matter: even if you can verify the text externally, you still have to interpret it.
Some early inspiration
Given I came up with this theory within weeks of reading Why I believed, I wasn’t surprised that the seed of the idea had come from there:
As I mentioned earlier, my focus in writing this book is not to convince my readers to become atheists. Though I presently do not believe the evidence warrants belief in God, I am far more open to the possibility of God’s existence than I am to the idea that the Almighty inspired the collection of books known as the Bible or that God displaced his wrath for us by sovereignly orchestrating the murder of his god-man son Jesus. It is not simply a small step between accepting God’s existence and embracing the tenets of a conservative Christian faith; a gaping canyon remains between the two.
As it turned out, I evaluated many arguments and came to the conclusion that none of them held sufficient weight. But I’m not sure I would have started the journey without realising that I could evaluate Christadelphian dogma and the Bible separately from evaluating the existence of God.
In the next few days I plan to illustrate how this theory applies to philosophical arguments for god (here) (mostly trying to bridge gap 1), and Christian arguments for the Bible (here) (mostly trying to bridge gap 2).