The following presentation was given by Pastor Brian Watson to students involved with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Bridgwater State University on October 4, 2016.
Who Is God?
I saw something interesting this past week. 25 percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation. Among 18–29-year-olds, that number is 39 percent. That means that about four out of ten people in your age range don’t claim any particular religion. Some people see that a dismaying figure. I see that as an opportunity. I think it’s an opportunity to reintroduce people to who God is.
Here’s what I’m convinced of: despite all the churches in America, despite the billions of Bibles we have in this country, and despite all the God-talk in our society, we don’t really understand who God is. That’s because the vast majority of those Bibles collect dust. And a lot of churches don’t even bother much with the Bible these days. When they do, it’s not uncommon for churches to misinterpret the Bible. And despite all the references to God in America, most of it is vague. Our money says, “In God We Trust.” The Pledge of Allegiance mentions “one nation under God.” But who is that God? People talk vaguely about prayer or faith, but they usually don’t talk with any specificity. If we’re going to know who God is, we have to move past sound bites, clichés, and memes.
Tonight, I’m going to try to lay some groundwork for us to understand who God is. That’s really hard to do, because there is so much to say about God. Often, when people are talking about theology (which simply means “God words”), they focus on his attributes. That is, they talk about how God is eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, holy, righteous, wise, good, loving, and so forth. We could talk about God that way. Or we could look at a particular story in the Bible that shows something of God’s character. Both would be good places to start.
But tonight, I want to take a little bit of a different tactic.
To understand who God is, I want to compare the story that the Bible tells with two or three other stories about God. And I’ll say this up front: I think all stories outside of the Bible that concern God tend to reduce him to something less than he actually is. The word for this is reductionism. And the problem with all other God-stories is that they end up ignoring very real and important things that we all care about.
The Story of Atheism
So let’s start with one very prominent story. This is the story of atheism, which says there is no God. This worldview is sometimes called naturalism, which means that nothing supernatural exists. Sometimes it’s called materialistic naturalism, which means the only reality is matter. In this story, the universe is either eternal and has been continually expanding and contracting (each “Big Bang” is followed by a “Big Crunch”) or it somehow emerged out of nowhere. And everything in the universe has evolved with no overarching plan behind it. It isn’t designed; it only appears that way. It’s not the product of a superintelligence such as God. And everything in the universe, including us, is the result of a blind, unintelligent, purposeless process of evolution. In essence, we’re a cosmic accident. Our lives have no inherent meaning. We’re simply here right now. Many people who believe in this story say that we don’t even have free will. No, all our thoughts are simply the byproducts of chemical reactions in our brains. We don’t actually choose anything; it just appears as if we do so. And after we die, that’s it. There is no God and no afterlife.
That story reduces reality to one in which God doesn’t exist. And if we take God away, we end up taking away any objective meaning to life, any objective moral law, and any hope for an afterlife. Without God, there is no purpose to life. Don’t take my word for it. Here is what Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist and atheist says: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of life, has no purpose in mind.” If there is no creation of the universe for a certain purpose, there simply is no purpose. And, worse than that, there’s no justice in such a universe. This is what Dawkins says elsewhere:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
I hope you see that such a view of reality is problematic. We are conscious, intelligent beings who act with purpose. How can we arise from an unconscious, unintelligent, and purposeless process? We long for justice, yet in a world without a moral law and a judge who will make sure that all crimes are paid for, there is none. We think that certain things are good and other things are evil, but according to Dawkins, that really isn’t the case. There are many philosophical and scientific problems with this view.
The Story of Pantheism
So, that’s one view of the world, where the only thing that exists is “not God.” Another view of the world is pantheism, where everything is God, or God is in everything. This is the view of the world that some eastern religions possess. It’s also the view held by New Age spirituality. In this view of reality, God is reduced to a spiritual force or energy. At its worst, it says that we are gods. I didn’t think that many people believe in this sort of thing, until I met a young man on an airplane earlier this year. He and I sat next to each other and he started a conversation that lasted nearly four hours. He asked me what I was reading, which was a book that dealt with God. We then talked about God, the meaning of life, and other things. He said he thought he was God. About a month ago, I met up with him again and had lunch. Again, he wondered if maybe he is God. I don’t think he was joking, either. He had been exposed to a long strange, New Age views.
People who hold this view think that they can create their own reality. They think that if they think something and really believe it will come true, it will happen.
There are a number of problems with this view. The most basic problem is that it doesn’t line up with reality. We can’t create reality. It exists. Period. We can work hard and do good things, of course, but there are limits to what we can do. And we’re not in control of life. Any one of us could die tonight in an accident. Any one of us who contract a disease and die at a young age. What is certain is that all of us will die. It’s foolish for finite, mortal creatures to believe they are God.
A Third Story
We’ve briefly considered the story in which everything is “not God” and also the story in which everything is God. Here’s a third story: there is a God who made the universe. God is not the universe and the universe is not God. God has always existed. He has no beginning and no end. The universe, however, came into existence at a certain point in time. It is a created thing. And the universe is sustained at every moment by God. He is the reason for why the universe is well-ordered. He is the reason for why there is beauty. He is the reason why there is an objective, transcendent moral law, one that we can discover but not one that we can create. He is the reason why we love and value relationships. He is the reason why we are intelligent beings who can make choices. He is the reason why we long for justice and why we long for a better world.
This is the story of God that is told in the Bible. But before I continue, I want to say this: our tendency is to think that God must be like us, or that God must always agree with us. In other words, our tendency is to make God in our image and likeness. But that’s not reality. The truth is that God has made us. We have no right to tell God how his universe should go. What we can do, however, is learn about God, have a relationship with him, and live according to his design. When we do that, we have meaning in our lives. We have peace. We can have real freedom. And we can have hope.
In order to know God, we need to let him speak. After all, I couldn’t really know any one of you just by looking at you. I could know some things about you by observing you or digging up information on you. But if I were to really know any of you, I would need for you to talk to me. You would need to reveal yourself to me. How much more is this true of God? After all, God is immaterial. He doesn’t have a body. He is the not the proper study of science. Science can’t observe or experiment on God. And even if it could, we would still need to have God speak to us to tell us what he’s really like. So, we must let God speak. And God speaks to us through his word, the Bible.
It may seem odd that God speaks to us through a book. Why doesn’t he just speak to us individually? Well, think about the advantages of a book. It’s objective. We can study it together. I didn’t make it up and neither did you. Now imagine if God spoke to us individually. What if we thought that God was telling us different things? Imagine that one of the men here said to one of the women here, “God told me that I should ask you out.” Now imagine the woman saying, “That’s funny, because God told me to reject you, because you’re creepy.” Who would be right? We need something objective, something outside of me and you, to tell us.
God Is “I AM”
I want to touch on just a few passages in the Bible to show what God is like. The first passage is from the book of Exodus. About four thousand years ago, God had spoken to a man named Abraham, and he promised to make a great nation out of Abraham’s descendants. Fast forward a few hundred years later and Israel had become a large nation. But there was a problem: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. When they were oppressed, they cried out to God and God responded with a plan to rescue the Israelites. He did that through a man named Moses.
When God first appeared to Moses, he told him that he would send him to the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, and say, “Let my people go.” Then Moses says, “Who am I that I should be able to do such a thing?” And God says, “I will be with you” (this is a paraphrase of Exod. 3:10–12).
Then Moses asks this question, which is followed by God’s response. I’ll read Exodus 3:13–15:
13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
I want to focus on what God says about his name. He says it is, “I am who I am.” What does that mean? This could be translated, “I cause to be because I cause to be.” What God seems to be saying is, “I exist. Period. I don’t need any explanation. I have always existed. And I cause everything else to exist.” No one made God. He didn’t make himself. He has always existed. And he is the Creator of everything else. So, there’s God and there’s “not God.” Unlike the story of atheism, where everything is “not God,” and the story of pantheism, where everything is God, the story of the Bible says that there are two basic types of things that exist: God and everything else. Those two things shouldn’t be confused.
In all of this, we see that God is personal. He is a God who speaks and who reveals himself. He is powerful. He is ultimately the Creator of everything else that exists. And he’s one of a kind. Only God exists without any other cause.
There’s No One Like Him
The reason I draw that out is because we need to know this if we’re going to know who God is. God created us in his image. That means that we reflect something of what he is like. In fact, God made us to reflect him and represent him in this world that he has made. But that doesn’t mean that God is entirely like us. The fact is, God is incomparable. There is simply no one like him (Isa. 40:18; 46:5). One of our major problems is to confuse God with something in creation. We end up making a false god who is like us or who is the way we think he should be.
Some of the clearest expressions of God’s incomparable nature come in another Old Testament book, the book of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet who lived roughly seven hundred years before Jesus. His job was to call Israel back to God. Israel had been worshiping false gods, or idols. This is what is said of Israel right at the beginning of the book:
2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
3 The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand” (Isa. 1:2–3).
Israel, like all human beings, rebelled against God. They were worse than animals, because they forget their owner. And when they did, they started doing some very unjust things. This is what God says about the city of Jerusalem later in Isaiah 1:
21 How the faithful city
has become a whore,
she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,
but now murderers.
22 Your silver has become dross,
your best wine mixed with water.
23 Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not bring justice to the fatherless,
and the widow’s cause does not come to them (Isa. 1:21–23).
If you find that language a bit shocking, you should read the other prophetic books in the Bible. Generally, they say things like, “Stop your whoring, you whores!” They say that because worshiping idols is like cheating on God. The relationship between God and his people is often likened to a marriage. It’s a relationship that is supposed to be exclusive. And when you ignore God and live life on your terms, you’re being a whore.
God cannot tolerate this situation. Later in the book of Isaiah, God makes it clear that he won’t share his praise with false gods. In Isaiah 42:8, he says,
I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.
There simply is no other God. We were made to worship God, but we give our time, our attention, our money, and our emotions to other things instead of God. We fall short of God’s standard for right living.
God’s standard for righteousness is rather high. And that is because God himself is the standard of righteousness. The reason that certain things are right and certain things are wrong is because God is the measure of what is right, and what is contrary to God’s character and God’s commandments is wrong. We cry out for justice because we realize that a lot of things in this world are not the way that God had originally designed them to be. A lot of things in this world are out of step with God.
The “I Am” Is a Savior
Notice that in Isaiah, God uses the “I am” language often. For example, here’s Isaiah 43:11–13:
11 I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.
12 I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God.
13 Also henceforth I am he;
there is none who can deliver from my hand;
I work, and who can turn it back?”
And a few verses later, God says,
“I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins” (v. 25).
Here, we see that there is only one God, but we also get a hint that he is a savior. He is the one who can reconcile us to himself. He is the one who can make all things right. We live in a broken world because from the beginning, human beings have rebelled against God. That’s when evil entered into the world. It is like a cancer that metastasizes, working its way through all the world and through our bodies and through our hearts and minds. But God promises to fix this broken world one day.
The story of Christianity is that God does that through Jesus. Jesus is God, yet he also becomes man without ceasing to be God. He entered into human history when Mary miraculously conceived him. But he has always existed as the Son of God. Jesus came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. He perfectly images God the Father and represents him. He always does what the Father wants. He is the ultimate human being.
God Is Triune
Now, at this point I’ve introduced something that may seem strange and mysterious. The God of the Bible is one God, yet he exists in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is a Trinity. How can one God be three Persons? It’s hard to understand this, and I don’t think we can understand it completely. That’s because there is no proper analogy for the Trinity. We can’t really compare God to something in creation. As I said, God is incomparable.
Even though it’s hard to understand the Trinity, here’s what is great about it: God has always existed as a community of Persons who love each other. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and they love the Spirit, and so on. The Bible says that “God is love” (1 John 4: 8, 16) because God has always been both lover and beloved. If God were one God who has always existed as one Person—and that’s what Islam says about Allah—then before creating the universe and before creating human beings, he would have nothing and no one to love. That would mean that God has not always been love. But the God of the Bible has always been love, and that is why we long for love. That is why we want deep relationships. We are reflecting the image of God when we search for love.
Jesus Is “I Am”
Here’s one more thing specifically about Jesus. Jesus, too, is the “I am” God of the Bible. In the Gospel of John, which is one of the four biographies of Jesus in the Bible, Jesus has seven “I am” statements. He is the bread of life (6:35, 48, 51), which means he sustains our lives in a way that literal bread cannot. He is the light of the world (8:12; 9:5), revealing truth. He is the good shepherd (10:11, 14), who cares for his sheep. He is the resurrection and the life (11:25), because after he died on the cross, bearing the punishment that we deserve for our rebellion against God, he rose from the grave in a body that can never die. That’s the end of the story of the Bible, by the way. When God makes all things new, he will restore the world and all his people will become alive again in bodies that can never die. And Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (14:6), the only way to be reconciled to God, and the only hope for having life beyond this life.
Jesus even says challenging things like this: “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). He means that unless you believe that he is God—and trust him, not just accept this as a fact—you will not have eternal life in a perfect world. Jesus makes it clear that he will evaluate everyone’s life. He is a savior, but he’s also a judge (John 5:25–29; 12:48).
Now, I realize that last bit may not sit well with a lot of you. The worst sin in the world, our culture tells us, is to be judgmental. Let me say this: first of all, everyone is judgmental. Look at social media. Look at the comments section of any article online or underneath just about every YouTube video. Think about all the times you have said, “He should do this,” or “She shouldn’t have done that.” Now, ask yourself, what would happen if you were judged by your own standards? How would you come out?
I think the reason we’re judgmental is because we are reflecting the image of God. He is the true Judge, and we are little judges. But our judgments tend to be off. They need to be corrected.
God Corrects Us
It seems like a lot of people want a God who won’t correct them. They want a God who says, “You’re amazing just the way you are.” That might make a nice pop song, but it’s not reality. Which one of you would bother to go to school here if every professor said, “You guys don’t need to learn anything. I won’t give you any exams, because you don’t have to prove anything to me. You’re amazing just the way you are.” If that’s how each class went, you wouldn’t spend four years of your time and thousands of dollars on tuition and fees.
And, honestly, any real relationship can’t work that way. Earlier, I said that the relationship between God and his people is like a marriage. If you honestly think your future spouse is never going to correct you, you don’t understand marriage. Just last night, my wife corrected me. She brought something to my attention that I need to work on. If my wife does that, how much more does God do that? My wife is an equal partner, another human being, but we’re not equal to God. So, if the human beings who love us correct us, the God who is love should correct us, too.
Now, there’s a lot more to say about God, but I think that is a start. God is the I am. He exists. Period. Without him, there would be nothing. He is the reason why we exist. I would encourage you to learn all you can about him.
- Robert P. Jones, Daniel Cox, Betsy Cooper, and Rachel Lienesch, “Exodus: Why Americans Are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back,” a survey conducted by the Pubic Religion Research Institute, September 22, 2016, http://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/PRRI-RNS-Unaffiliated-Report.pdf, accessed October 3, 2016. ↑
- Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (New York: North, 1987), 5, quoted in Richard Weikart, The Death of Humanity and the Case for Life (Washington, D.C., Regnery, 2016), 68–69. ↑
- Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85. ↑
- Interestingly, Dawkins knows that there are evils, even if he is wrong about what is evil. Elsewhere, he writes, “Faith is an evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006], 308). This shows that his worldview is false. Any worldview that excludes something that we know to be real is false. The person who must “cheat” on his own worldview by borrowing from another possesses a false worldview. ↑
- There are many books that address the problems of any form of Darwinism. I can personally recommend Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: Harper One, 2013); Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth: Five Principles for Unmasking Atheism, Secularism, and Other God Substitutes (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2015); Benjamin Wiker, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2002). ↑
- Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 121. ↑
- This is called “Two-ism” by the theologian Peter Jones, who calls other worldviews “One-ism.” See Peter Jones, One or Two: Seeing a World of Difference (Escondido, CA: Main Entry Editions, 2010). ↑
- I realize this is shocking, and perhaps offensive, language. But it’s the language of the Bible: Jer. 2:20; 3:1–3, 6, 8, 9; Ezek. 16:15–17, 26, 28, 34, 41; 23:3, 5, 19, 30, 43; Hos. 1:2; 2:4–5; 3:3; 4:10–15; 5:3–4; 6:10; 9:1. ↑
- The “I am” sayings in Isaiah include Isa. 41:4; 43:10–11, 13, 25; 44:6; 48:12. ↑