Wed 26 Dec 2012
Many people believe that God exists (or believe God might exist) but object to the idea of a “personal” God. This would be more akin to deism rather than traditional theism, and would rule out the God described by most of the world religions a priori.
However, here are six reasons why I think that it’s reasonable to conclude that God is, in some sense, personal. The first three are philosophical reasons, one is a sort of thought experiment, one is historically based, and the final reason is personal.
The video embedded below the six arguments is a YouTube clip from the debate between William Lane Craig and Lewis Wolpert; the full debate between Craig and Wolpert is also available on YouTube. (See also Craig’s discussion of God’s personhood in the article Personal God on his website.)
1) The cause of the universe must be creative, which implies personhood
Craig notes in his Personal God article that all of the traditional arguments that he uses for God’s existence “imply the existence of a personal being” although he does not really describe why. The cosmological argument, for example, shows that the universe has a cause. This cause created the universe, including material, space, and time itself. To create requires creativity, and creativity requires several other qualities including intelligence, a purposeful intention to create, knowledge of how to create, and the ability (power) to actually bring this knowledge and intention into fruition. To call an entity which possesses all these properties anything less than personal would seem rather odd. Positing some sort of magical computer (a position atheist scientist Lewis Wolpert is forced into, see video below) is bizarre and unnecessary.
2) The universe’s cause is beyond space and time
The first of two arguments given by Craig in the video below, this one is also noted in his Christianity Today article “God is Not Dead Yet” and quoted from the article here:
[A]n external cause of the universe must be beyond space and time and therefore cannot be physical or material. Now there are only two kinds of things that fit that description: either abstract objects, like numbers, or else an intelligent mind. But abstract objects are causally impotent. The number 7, for example, can’t cause anything. Therefore it follows that the explanation of the universe is an external, transcendent, personal mind which created the universe, which is what most people have traditionally meant by “God.”
3) The only way to get a temporal effect from a timeless cause
This argument seems a bit tricky to me, so I’m just going to transcribe Craig’s statements from the video below rather than try to paraphrase it myself:
How else could a timeless cause give rise to a temporal effect like the universe? If the cause were an impersonal set of necessary and sufficient conditions, then the cause could never exist without its effect. If the cause were permanently present, then the effect would be permanently present as well. The only way for the cause to be timeless, and the effect to begin in time, is for the cause to be a personal agent, who freely chooses to create an event in time without any antecedent determining conditions.
(My note: The cause exists ontologically prior to the event rather than temporally, since time came into being in the creation event.)
4) The scale of personhood
This thought experiment is adapted from a book by Brian McLaren, whom I don’t generally endorse, but I think this particular point is interesting.
Consider a slug. A mollusk has very little, if any, of what we might term “personality.” Now think of a frog. You may not have known many frogs, but you can probably imagine that a frog might have a little more personality than a slug. Now thinking of a parrot, we would find a still more personal being, and moving up the “scale” of personality we would find a dog, a chimpanzee, and finally to a human being. As we move higher up the scale, we encounter more and more personal beings; we add more depth and fullness while subtracting previous limitations.
Now consider what we would need to say if God were impersonal: We’d need to conclude that God is on the same level of personality as a slug, or worse, perhaps a rock, or some other non-personal object. But this seems to be an inane conclusion: First, that the creator of these personal beings would be impersonal, and second that the God which created the universe would (if impersonal) be lower on this scale than that which was created. Therefore, because we cannot accept such a conclusion, we must accept that God is in some sense personal, and in a way that is even far beyond the way that human beings are personal. Of course, the difference between God’s level of personality would not be comparable between a frog and us, it would be a billion times or more higher. Yet it seems as though we’re led to the conclusion that God must be personal.
5) The God of the Bible and the historical Jesus
This argument is simple to state but rather lengthy to justify. In summary, it’s impossible to read the Bible without noticing its claim that God is personal. In particular, in the incarnation of the Son of God, fully God, into the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, God entered into the world He created in the most personal way. Therefore, if we have good reasons to trust what the Bible says (I think we do, see my free ebook The Historical Reliability of the New Testament) then we also have good reason to believe that God is personal. If God is personal, we would expect God to reveal this characteristic, and the Bible provides a record of some of those revelations.
6) Personal encounters
Experiential arguments are problematic, since they are essentially subjective. Although I can describe my experience to you, the experience itself is private to me and cannot be empirically shared. I can share my own story of when I met God personally, but such a story could be dismissed as mistaken, lying, crazy, or contradictory to the experiences of others. But even though the knowledge attained is not transferable, that does not make it an illegitimate source of knowledge. Many of the truths we claim to know most confidently were attained primarily or entirely through personal experience. Therefore, a personal encounter with God is a means of knowing that God is personal.
What does it look like to deny that God is personal?
As noted above, during philosopher William Lane Craig’s debate with biologist Lewis Wolpert, the biologist objects to the personal nature of God, but ends up pretty much affirming God under a different name! See the following video, which begins with Craig’s two philosophical arguments for a personal God (#2 & #3 above) then the brief discussion with Wolpert after the debate:
If you are still wondering if God is really personal, and actually does care about you and has been seeking to begin a personal relationship with you, here’s what I would suggest: Be open to encountering Him. Pray honestly, and as much as possible, humbly. Consider reading the writings He has given us to know Him. Explore the life of Jesus Christ. Learn what the good news, the “gospel,” really is all about.