I must confess—Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God has always left me cold and confused. Here is one summation of the argument, from the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”:
St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived—i.e., God—exists.
The 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury has many erudite backers—and just as many critics—but I am less than convinced. While I’m all for philosophical arguments that prove God’s existence, I have yet to see large numbers of philosophers (or anyone else) converted by them. (But if they work for you, great!)
Theistic belief in the culture appears to remain relatively strong nonetheless. According to Gallup, about 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God or are not sure. Only about 10 percent flat out deny God’s existence.
Yet attitudes are shifting under the surface. Led by the growth of the “nones,” those who do not claim a particular religious group or denomination, American certainty about the Almighty has clearly softened. Between 2005 and 2017, the share of people who are convinced that God exists has fallen from 80 percent to 64 percent; who believe that God probably exists but have a little doubt has doubled from 8 percent to 16 percent; and who are convinced that God does not exist has surged from 3 percent to 7 percent.
And what kind of a God do they believe in, if they believe at all? Much has already been written about “moralistic therapeutic deism,” an increasingly popular approach that emphasizes a “God” whose main goal is to make people happy through their keeping of rules while He stays in the background, except when needed to solve a problem.
Concerning Jesus Christ, Barna Research notes, American thinking is even more confused. Only 56 percent believe Jesus was God. Meanwhile, 52 percent say He was human and committed sins like the rest of us.
The very word “God” means different things to different people, of course. Reflecting a secular perspective, author Sylvia Plath said, “I talk to God but the sky is empty.” Reflecting an Eastern approach, Swami Vivekananda asked, “Where can we go to find God if we cannot see Him in our own hearts and in every living being?”
For its part, reflecting a post-Christian milieu, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sweden has directed its clergy to stop referring to God with the words “He” or even “Lord.” A new prayer book, due out next year, will tell pastors to no longer begin services with “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” but instead with the “gender-neutral” phrase, “In the name of God and the Holy Trinity.”
The advent of Christ “for us and for our salvation,” however, has been called “the greatest story ever told,” and it doesn’t take a blind partisan to agree. More books have been written, songs sung, movies produced, hospitals built, slaves freed, and lives changed because of that story than any other. But the ancient Christmas narrative—of God the Son becoming perfect Man and entering our sin-scarred world to save us by dying on a Roman cross and rising again—is not only the greatest story ever told, it is also the truest.
People often wonder what God, if there is One, is like. The Christmas story tells us, in simplicity and power. Anselm’s God, however maximally great, comes to us in a neat little theorem. The God of the truest story ever told, by contrast, comes to us in a story, via a manger in Bethlehem. Can you imagine a personal, loving, omnipotent, omniscient, holy God greater than this One? And if such a greater Being existed who was not the mysterious, triune God of Scripture, would He not tell us?
To those who question whether God would ever communicate with us, consider: Creation is filled with beauty and awe, personality and communication—seen supremely in mankind. Does it make sense to believe that all these wonders emerged from a God who did not possess them Himself—or worse, from the cold hand of mindless, undirected evolution?
Common sense—the principle of sufficient reason—says no. Our shared human experience points back to a Cause sufficient to explain it—the God in whose image we are created. This realization can only lead to gratitude, and to belief. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.”
So if God is the only logical explanation for what we see all around us, what kind of a God is He? Contrary to popular belief, the options are not endless. C.S. Lewis said this a long time ago:
“I have sometimes told my audience that the only two things really worth considering are Christianity and Hinduism. (Islam is only the greatest of the Christian heresies, Buddhism only the greatest of the Hindu heresies. Real Paganism is dead. All that was best in Judaism and Platonism survives in Christianity.) There isn’t really, for an adult mind, this infinite variety of religions to consider.”
Because the “God” of Hinduism is ultimately impersonal (and our perceptions of human personality and individuality are held to be mere illusions), only Christianity’s story (unabashedly incorporating the Hebrew Scriptures) can adequately explain why we are here, what went wrong, and how to make everything right again. It God’s Story As Gregory Koukl writes in “The Story of Reality,” “It is a story so wonderful in some places—some might even say magical—and so frightening in other places, it is hard to imagine it can be true.”
But this story of “glad tidings” (to those who will receive it) is true—the truest story, in fact, ever told.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for Christianity Today and for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of God’s Story in 66 Verses: Understand the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book and The Seven Signs of Jesus: God’s Proof for the Open-Minded.