…We thus have good grounds for believing in the existence of an all-good, uncaused, timeless, changeless, immaterial, personal creator and designer of the universe, which is what most people mean by “God.” But what about people who lack the education, resources, or time to comprehend these sometimes abstruse reasons for the existence of God? Can they know that God exists wholly apart from arguments? I’m persuaded that they can, for God can be known through immediate experience. This was the way people in the Bible knew God, as Professor John Hick explains:
God was known to them as a dynamic will interacting with their own wills, a sheer given reality, as inescapably to be reckoned with as destructive storm and life-giving sunshine…. They did not think of God as an inferred entity but as an experienced reality…. To them God was not a proposition completing a syllogism, or an idea adopted by the mind, but the experiential reality which gave significance to their lives.
For these people, God was not the best explanation of their religious experience and so they believed in him; rather, in their religious experience they came to know God directly.
Philosophers call beliefs such as this “properly basic beliefs.” They aren’t based on some other beliefs; rather, they are part of the foundation of a person’s system of beliefs. Other properly basic beliefs include the belief in the reality of the past, the existence of the external world, and the presence of other minds such as your own. When you think about it, none of these beliefs can be proven. How could you prove that the world was not created five minutes ago with built-in appearances of age, such as food in our stomachs from the breakfasts we never really ate and memory traces in our brains of events we never really experienced? How could you prove that you are not a brain in a vat of chemicals being stimulated with electrodes by some mad scientist to believe that you are here reading this book? How could you prove that other people are not really automata who exhibit all the external behavior of persons with minds, when in reality they are soulless, robot-like entities?
Although these sorts of beliefs are basic for us, that doesn’t mean they’re arbitrary. Rather, they are grounded in the sense that they’re formed in the context of certain experiences. In the experiential context of seeing and feeling and hearing things, I naturally form the belief that there are certain physical objects that I am sensing. Thus, my basic beliefs are not arbitrary but appropriately grounded in experience. There may be no way to prove such beliefs, and yet it is perfectly rational to hold them. You would have to be crazy to think that the world was created five minutes ago or that you are a brain in a vat! Such beliefs are thus not merely basic but properly basic.
In the same way, belief in God is for those who seek him a properly basic belief grounded in our experience of God, as we discern him in nature, conscience, and other means. This has an important lesson. If, through experiencing God, we can know in a properly basic way that God exists, then a real danger exists that proofs for God could actually distract one’s attention from God himself. The Bible promises, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8 RSV). We mustn’t so concentrate on the proofs for God that we fail to hear the inner voice of God speaking to our own heart. For those who listen, God becomes an immediate reality in their lives.
Someone might object that an atheist or an adherent to some nonpersonal religious faith such as Taoism could also claim to know their beliefs in a properly basic way. Certainly, they could claim such a thing, but what does that prove? Imagine that you were locked in a room with four color-blind people, all of whom claimed that there is no difference between red and green. Suppose you tried to convince them by showing them colored pictures of red and green objects and asking, “Can’t you see the difference?” Of course, they would see no difference at all and would dismiss your claim to see different colors as delusory. In terms of showing who’s right, there would be a complete standoff. But would their denial of the difference between red and green or your inability to show them that you are right do anything either to render your belief false or to invalidate your experience? Obviously not!
In the same way, the person who has actually come to know God as a living reality in his life can know with assurance that his experience is no delusion, regardless of what the atheist or Taoist tells him. Still, it remains the case that in such a situation, although the believer may know that his belief is true, both parties are at a complete loss to show the truth of his respective belief to the other party. How is one to break this deadlock? We should do whatever is feasible to find common ground, such as logic and empirical facts, by means of which we can show in a noncircular way whose view is correct. For that reason, arguments such as I have given above are important, for even if they are not the primary means by which we know that God exists, they may be the means by which we can show someone else that God exists. We may know that God exists in a properly basic way, and we may try to show that God exists by appeal to the common facts of science, ethics, and philosophy.
In summary, we’ve seen good reasons to believe God exists, but that conclusion is but the first step, albeit a crucial one. The Bible says, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6 RSV). If we have come to believe that he exists, we must now seek him, with the confidence that if we do so with our whole heart, he will reward us with the personal knowledge of himself.
Norman Geisler and Paul Hoffman ed., Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 84-86.