Lay Reader = Psalm 19
1The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. 2Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. 3There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; 4yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, 5which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. 6Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat. 7The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; 8the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; 9the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. 10More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. 11Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. 12But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. 13Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. 14Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
We are in the second week looking at some of the most frequently asked questions about our faith. Last week we asked if life has a purpose, and we learned from Solomon that the only way to fill that void in your heart that longs to be fulfilled is to seek God’s purposes alongside others. Solomon tried everything else and it didn’t work.
This week we are asking what is fundamentally the foundational question – does God exist? Most cultures throughout human history have assumed that answer is yes, though there are very different ideas on who God is. But we can’t ask who God is unless we first determine that God does, in fact, exist.
So we’re going to get to some of the reasons people believe God doesn’t exist in future weeks. For instance, suffering is one of the frequent reasons people give for believing God doesn’t exist. That gets its own sermon. We’re not going to tackle that too much here because suffering actually doesn’t tell us anything about God’s existence or non-existence. After all, maybe God does exist but allows suffering for some reason, right? Maybe you don’t like God, but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist. Again, we’ll take on that one next Sunday. Stay tuned!
This week, we are just looking at one question – is there a Creator? In other words, are we designed or accidental? And since I’m a geek, get ready to get your science on! Some of you just perked up at that and some of you I think just decided to embrace narcolepsy. I’ll try to make this approachable even if you don’t care if light is behaving as a particle or a wave at this particular instant, even if you don’t know who Schrödinger was and why he had a cat.
We’re going to look at Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In this section he’s taking up some questions that were being debated by the Roman church. Was God the God of the Jews, or the God of all? Is being born into a Godly home enough to be saved? What about those who have never heard about God as we know God? Why should we care what God thinks about our life choices?
1Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 6For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.11For God shows no partiality. 12All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
OK to Doubt?
Children are great. Not all the time. But they’re great sometimes. And they are especially great when they’re asking questions that adults are too afraid to ask anymore. For instance, here are some letters children wrote to ask God some questions.
Dear God, I read the Bible. What does “begat” mean? Nobody will tell me.
God, I bet it’s very hard for you to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it.
Dear God, are you really invisible or is just a trick?
And here’s child with some advice for God. Dear God, maybe Cain and Abel wouldn’t kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother.
I love it!
Last week I shared how our society has changed so much that we can no longer assume people know what our faith has to say about life, and death, and everything between (and after). But I also believe it’s useful to ask these questions together because even people of faith doubt and wonder and debate.
Every once in a while I am gripped with the terrifying thought, “What if God doesn’t exist and I’ve given my life to a lie?” Now I’ve seen enough and experienced enough in my life that the terrifying thought only lasts about one second, but it still happens every year or two. Hopefully the Personnel Committee doesn’t dock my pay for that.
I think it’s OK to have doubts. To still be in process instead of having arrived in faith. “Weep With Me,” the song I just sang, says “You know I believe. Help my unbelief.” That’s taken from Mark 9 where a father is out of options. He says his son has an evil spirit that causes seizures. As you might guess, this is a part of the Bible I have become VERY familiar with since Charlie developed seizures.
So not even Jesus’ disciples can cast out this spirit. He begs Jesus, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us!” Jesus replies, “If you are able?!? All things can be done for the one who believes.” And the father cries out helplessly, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief!”
Jesus doesn’t chastise him for that statement. Jesus doesn’t ignore him for that doubt. Jesus doesn’t punish the child because his father doesn’t know if there’s really any hope left. No, Jesus commands the spirit to leave and never come back, and he takes the boy by the hand and lifts him up to stand on his own two feet. It’s OK to doubt. It’s OK to cry out to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
But how do we really even talk about whether God exists or not? God can’t be seen. Jesus was tempted to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt who he was, but he declined the option and asked us to have faith instead. How do we have a conversation about whether God exists or not?
Only What I Can See – God is Invisible
Well why don’t we take this in reverse? Let’s look at some of the reasons why people say they don’t believe in God.
One common claim is that we should only believe in what we can observe and measure. If my senses or the senses of our technical instruments can’t observe it, it doesn’t exist. That seems compelling, right, because God can’t be seen directly.
I can say that I infer God’s existence from his impact on me and the world around me. When a name pops into my head and I text them and it turns out they’re going through something difficult right then, is it God or coincidence? And those who believe in the non-existence of God have us on that to some degree – we can’t prove it was divine intervention. It requires faith.
But the whole idea that we should only believe what we can observe and measure – that worked better before 1998. You know how people who were alive when Kennedy was assassinated know exactly where they were when they found out? Or on 9/11 I bet you remember where you were – so shocking. Well for physicists and astronomers, they know where they were in 1998. That’s when they were flabbergasted to hear that the Hubble Space Telescope had discovered that the universe was expanding more rapidly today than it was in the distant past. This would be like throwing a baseball, and instead of falling back to Earth it just kept going higher and higher and faster and faster until it escaped Earth’s atmosphere and zoomed off to Mars. That’s how shocking this was.
So the hunt was on to explain it. Now I’m going to quote NASA on where we are today: “Theorists still don’t know what the correct explanation is, but they have given the solution a name. It is called dark energy. More is unknown than is known. It turns out that roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the universe. Come to think of it, maybe it shouldn’t be called “normal” matter at all, since it is such a small fraction of the universe.”
Why do I share all of this? Because someone who says they only believe in what we can observe and measure only believe in 5% of our universe according to science. If you say that you believe there are things that are inexplicable going on, unobservable, unmeasurable? Well 95% of the universe is inexplicable, unobservable, unmeasurable since that discovery in 1998.
And if someone wants to say, “well we infer the existence of dark energy and dark matter from their effects on what we can observe and measure,” well that’s what we do to infer God’s existence as well.
Marilyn Adamson was a long-time atheist who was inspired to rethink her belief in God’s non-existence because of the faith of one of her very intelligent friends. Over a period of years she observed her friend’s very real faith, and its very tangible value in her life.
So Marilyn decided to search for her own answers. She studied the great philosophers, attempting to synthesize the perfect life philosophy to give purpose and direction and guidance just as her friend experienced in her faith. But there was a big difference between how she studied the philosophers and what she experienced when she searched guidance from the Bible. When she sought direction and purpose from the philosophers, she had to study and cross-reference and search for the right sections. Whenever she prayed to God and then searched the answer from the Bible, she always found herself in the right place at the right time inexplicably. Ever experienced that? I have thousands of times. Her experience seeing how searching for God seemed to be so different than searching for truth in philosophy convinced her that God must exist. There was no other plausible explanation to fit her experience. Like Marilyn, we infer God’s existence through his impact on our lives and our world – subtle though they may be.
The psalm we read earlier says, “the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” – all of Creation points us toward the Creator.
Evolution – The Bible isn’t Scientifically Accurate
Another knock on God comes from the story of creation in Genesis. When we look at the fossil record here on earth, the order in which organisms seem to develop is different than the order of creation listed in Genesis 1. And how about the calculations that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, and earth is 4.5 billion years old, and that humans didn’t exist for much of that, and probably we’ve been around for something like 300,000 years? But if you add up all the years in the Bible and compare it with what we know in history, the earth should be about 6000 years old. How do you square that?
Well we can admit that those calculations of the age of the universe, the age of the sun, the age of the earth, the age of human fossils – all of that could be wrong. If 95% of the universe can’t be explained yet, let’s entertain that possibility. It’s not like we have a tree with 4.5 billion tree rings on it we can count. That would be awesome, by the way. Those numbers aren’t directly observed, they’re based on assumptions that could be wrong. True enough.
But I don’t care. Because it’s missing the point. Did you know that Genesis 2 also gives an order of creation. And guess what? It’s a different order than Genesis 1! Did the Jewish scholars just fail to notice that two chapters right next to each other differ in their details of how God created? I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure they noticed.
So, to me, that shows us that Genesis 1 and 2 aren’t meant to be a scientific treatise on Creation. It’s not about the “how.” It’s about the “who.” In both accounts, God created. That’s what’s important. Whether it took seven literal days or a 13 billion year process isn’t the point.
And speaking of time, Psalm 90 says “a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by.” So maybe we can take the six days of creation and get to 6000 years. Excellent math! But that’s not the point!
What if I told you there were a million reasons to love Colorado. Would you expect me to produce a tabulated list? No – it just means “a lot.” Many – not all – but many – most even – of the numbers in the Bible are meant to show scale, not the exact amount. In Revelation do you believe there will literally only be 144,000 people saved? Or was that meant to show 12, which means complete, times 12, so completely complete, times one thousand, meaning many. So will there be 144,000 people in heaven, or a great multitude that is completely complete in God’s eyes? It’s dangerous to do math in a sermon, so hopefully you’re still with me. Don’t get narcolepsy again.
Most of the numbers, and especially round numbers like 1000, are meant to make a point, not to be scientifically accurate. The point of Genesis 1 and 2 is that God created, not how or how long it took. If you want to believe in a 6000 year old earth, you can do that. But to say that everyone has to believe that and therefore that any scientific claim that disputes that is in opposition to God – that’s just not true. People of faith can believe that the age of the universe and the method of creation are just implementation details, and Genesis 1 and 2 show that there is a Creator who happens to love us.
Saying that the Bible isn’t scientifically accurate is a fair point. But it’s not trying to be. That says absolutely nothing about the existence or non-existence of God. I like to say that Genesis shows us the “who” of the universe – God created. Science is our attempt to discover “what” God actually made and “how” it works.
Right and Wrong – A Perfect God Wouldn’t Allow…
So that’s the science angle. But let’s go after God where it hurts. If God is perfect, and God is all-powerful, and God loves us, why do so many things in this world stink – figuratively and literally? Again, we’ll cover this in more detail next week, but let’s look at right and wrong. There are wrong things going on in our world, so can God really exist?
Dostoyevsky once said, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” In other words, there’s not a concept of right and wrong apart from the concept of a Creator with some kind of purpose or design. If there isn’t a direction to the universe, there’s no way to define right and wrong. It’s arbitrary.
In our text today, Paul talks about God’s judgment. He talks about God showing no partiality. He talks about God wanting to lead people to repentance. He talks about a day when all of the right and wrong will be sorted out by Jesus.
Given that humans in general desire to define what is right and what is wrong, and given that basically every religion has something to say about the right and wrong ways to live, I would say that we are designed to crave rightness. And that only makes sense if there is a Creator imparting a design and a direction on the universe.
This is an unanswered problem in science – why do people cooperate rather than just compete? Why do people have a conscience? There are scientists trying to answer that, but the papers I’ve read mainly just show the benefits and thus posit that they may have been selected for in our genetics because of the benefits. Maybe, but why don’t we see that in other creatures then? If it was genetically selected for in our evolution, it happens to be a pretty rare genetic road because humans don’t have a lot of company on that track.
So does God exist? I would say that the fact that almost every person on the planet has a sense of right and wrong is evidence of God. Paul says that non-believers can instinctively do what God desires because God has written it on the hearts of every person. There isn’t a need for that in an evolutionary sense. It has benefits, but plenty of creatures exist without it. That’s evidence for a Creator and a design for the universe.
Since today’s Fathers’ Day, let me close with an encouragement and a challenge to the fathers in our midst. I’ve spent our time this morning making the case that it’s OK to doubt, it’s OK to explore our questions rather than bury them or just accept dogmatic answers, God won’t disappear just because you aren’t 100% sure. We can say like the father who approached Jesus in desperation, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”
You know, the Bible talks about God in a lot of ways, but one of the most frequent images is “Father.” And because of that, a lot of people have their views of God somewhat intertwined with their views of their earthly father. I would rather have Charlie and Caleb not tie me too closely with God, because I’m not perfect. I’m sure I’m doing things that will make Caleb have to seek therapy some day. Not sure which things yet, but I’m sure it’s there.
But that means we as fathers have an opportunity and a burden. The burden is that our children are watching our faith very closely. The opportunity is that our children are watching our faith very closely. What will they observe from you?
If they observe that faith is all about knowing the right answers, what will happen when they have doubts?
If they observe that faith is something best left to the pastors, what will happen when they have to have faith on their own outside of your house?
What will your children observe from you? What will your children see about the nature of God and faith from you? How can you show them how to seek answers rather than spout them off by rote? How can you show them that it’s OK to doubt and wonder and still remain connected with God?
This challenge and opportunity actually applies to moms, too, but because of the number of times God is called “Father,” our experiences with our earthly father help or hinder us a ton of times when reading the Bible.
Sisters and brothers, I have walked through why I don’t buy many of the arguments made by those who believe God does not exist. But here’s something to think about this week. Why do you believe God exists? How have you observed him in your life and in this world? Why do you believe? If you don’t have a ready answer, I encourage you to actually write that down this week. You’ll be glad you did.