Weekend Broadcast

The Illusion of Descartes

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Some people claim that reality is an illusion, and that we can never really “know” anything because our thinking is nothing more than a biological process. Rene Descartes was a French philosopher who famously made the claim, “I think, therefore I am.” In this lesson, Dr. R.C. Sproul explains how Descartes’ logic can help us defend the reality of our own existence and lays a foundation for Christian truth.

From the series: Defending Your Faith

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Creation Ex Nihilo

  2. article

    Existence in God

  3. article

    Faith and Reason

Creation Ex Nihilo

Derek Thomas

No sentence is more pregnant with meaning than the opening one of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). It tells us several things all at once, four of which are worth reflecting upon: First and foremost, it tells us that God is the ultimate Being. Before there was a universe, there was God. He exists independently of matter and sequence of time. God transcends space and time. He is not limited by spatial considerations (He is everywhere in His fullness continually). Nor is He locked into the present in any way. It is not strictly accurate to say that before the universe was created there was “nothing,” for this, too, is a spatial and temporal idea: before the created universe existed, there was God. Theologians speak of God’s immensity, infinity, and transcendence to describe this and our minds race at the thought of it, unable to take it in. All we can do is acquiesce and worship.

Second, everything that exists originates from God. Genesis employs a special Hebrew verb for the act of creation (bārā') the subject of which is always God. No other subject is employed or implied. Man, too, “creates” (poetry, music, literature, architectural wonders, for example) but not in this sense. “To create” is exclusively an act of God, and by employing it in the first and last verse of the creation story (1:1 and 2:4), the writer is employing something that looks like “bookends” that encase the central idea that God is at work. Easy as this is to write (and read!), try to imagine the power it takes to bring into existence the entire cosmos!

Third, He creates “out of nothing.” A grammatical possibility has given rise to at least one translation of the opening verses suggesting that when God began His work of creation, matter already existed: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void” (nrsv). Contrast that with the English Standard Version: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void.” The point of this second rendition is to emphasize a crucial issue that God created out of nothing (ex nihilo). Other ancient Near Eastern creation stories (from Egypt and Mesopotamia, for example) assume that their gods worked with material that already existed. However, biblical testimony here and elsewhere insists that at the point of the beginning there was nothing apart from God (Heb. 11:3; Rev. 4:11), and what exists apart from God was brought into being by Him.

Fourth, and this is particularly interesting, that which He initially creates is not its final form. He creates in order to employ further artistry and design. Beginners in Hebrew at seminaries can often be heard repeating a phrase from Genesis 1:2: “The earth was without form and void.” What God initially brought into being was “tōhu vabōhu,” “formless and empty mass.” Initially, the created universe had no distinctive shape; its structure would be formed by the artistry and design of God. In this sense, we are like God. We, too, fashion and mold and make things that are often beautiful. It is, in part, what Genesis 1:26–27 means by saying that Adam was created “in the image of God.” Man, too, creates, or better, re-creates, shapes his environment in such a way as to reflect something pleasing and good. Once man fell, this capacity became as much a liability as a blessing: his capacity to fashion became a means to idolatry.

What should we make of this? Again, several responsive features are worth consideration, but two will suffice here:

In the first place, God is to be worshiped as the Creator; creation is to be viewed as a reflection of the signature of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps. 104:24). We live out our lives in a world that He has created and sustains. All around us and within us there are fingerprints betraying His handiwork. Knowing this (as we do whether we acknowledge it or not) should make us live dependently, reverently, and expectantly.

In the second place, creation is never to be viewed as inherently evil (as some philosophies have taught). God intends in His plan of salvation to re-create this fallen world and provide for His redeemed children “a new heavens and new earth” in which to live. Even now, the present creation waits (8:19) — subjected to futility as it has been by sin (Rom. 8:20) — groaning in sounds that resemble childbirth (8:22), for the “new world” (Matt 19:28), the home of the righteous (2 Peter 3:13). The resurrected redeemed will thus dwell in a (transformed) physical universe in union and communion with their resurrected Lord. This strand of biblical teaching ensures that we never view creation (and our physical bodies) apart from God’s claim of ownership and demand for holiness. We are, as Paul insists, to present our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” as an act of “spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). The story of creation signals that we are God’s handiwork — made by Him and for Him and that (through redemption) forever.

Existence in God

Burk Parsons

Recently I visited a member of our congregation who was in the hospital. After leaving his room, I stepped onto the elevator and noticed two women standing quietly at the back of the elevator. Each was carrying a bag that displayed a local Buddhist temple. Politely, I said to the woman standing closer to me: “Hello, I see the bag you’re holding with the Buddhist temple on it — are you a Buddhist?” With some hesitation in her voice, she responded, “Yes, I am.” Having received her affirmative response, I asked another question: “I have studied Buddhism and the teachings of the Buddha, and if you don’t mind me asking — do you believe the traditional teaching of Buddhism that all of life is suffering?” Before she responded she looked at me, looked at her friend, and then looked at me again and said, “Yes, we believe that.” I replied with a simple, though intentionally provocative, “thank you, have a pleasant day” as they stepped off the elevator. I was left standing with two innocent bystanders who were forced to endure the conversation I initiated in their presence, and I thought I would provide some sort of conclusion to the “religious” conversation by saying, “Well, I suppose it is appropriate that they, believing all of life is suffering, are in a hospital.”

The orthodox Buddhist teaching called “dukkha” is the first principle in the fourfold path. Buddhism affirms that suffering is caused by desire, and in order to overcome the suffering we face in all of life, we must eradicate desire from our lives by following the “middle way” (magga). The middle way consists of the “noble eightfold path” through which the Buddhist attains nirvana, a condition beyond the limits of one’s mind and feelings in which one is enlightened to a state of personal bliss — and Buddhists admit that there are very few who have ever reached the state of nirvana.

The first principle of Buddhism is consistent with its denial of a creator. In Buddhism there is no single, almighty God who created the world. It is completely appropriate, then, for Buddhists to assert that all of life is suffering. Indeed, without the existence of God, not only would all of life be suffering, life simply would not be. For the Buddhist, truth is found in himself as he tries, with all his might, to attain nirvana. He has no foundation of truth, nor does he have a way of confirming that which he thinks is true. Rather, only those who, by selfish desire, try to reach nirvana so they that can do away with desire so that they can do away with suffering, can be sure of the fact that truth is definitely uncertain. Such confusion is not exclusive to Buddhism. Indeed, any system of thought that is devoid of God Almighty as the Creator and Sustainer of all things, has no foundation and, therefore, no place for truth. Those who affirm such a system must necessarily admit that, without God, all of life is suffering. For without God in one’s understanding of life and the after-life, the reason for existence itself is vague, at best.

At the outset of God’s special revelation, God Almighty establishes the fundamental truth that He is the Creator of all things. With magnificent simplicity, we read these words in the opening lines of Genesis: “In the beginning, God….” And just a few lines later, we read the repeated refrain: “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).

In glorious splendor, the eternal God of glory spoke the heavens and the earth into existence — light and water, plants and animals, the moon and the stars. Where nothing existed, God manifested His sovereignty and created life. Carefully forming human life, the Lord God omnipotent breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (2:7). The covenant God of creation gave man dominion over all the earth, and He blessed man with the gracious mandate to be fruitful and multiply. He placed man in the bountiful garden of Eden, surrounded by God’s provisions of splendor and beauty. Indeed, all of life was good. However, that all of life was in fact “good” was not a diagnosis made by created man. It was good precisely because God said it was good.

By virtue of being created in the image of God, man knows inherently that God is the foundation of all that is good. Moreover, man knows inherently that God is the foundation of all truth. Before suffering entered the world as a consequence of the fall, God created life and proclaimed all of life to be good, indeed “very good” (1:31). As a result of the sin of Adam, sin flooded the world through the minds and hearts of those made in God’s image. Without question, in this fallen world, as a result of sin, we suffer in this life, sometimes miserably. Nevertheless, if fallen man knows God, he knows the truth, for the Word of God is truth (John 17:17). And if we know the truth of God and abide in the truth as defined by God ­— not defined through our own enlightened pursuit of self-maintained truth — the truth shall set us free (John 8:32). Though we will continue to live with hearts and minds corrupted by the fall until Christ returns and establishes the new heavens and new earth, we will live as a free people in Christ our Savior, our great Shepherd, who came and gave His life for us so that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

Faith and Reason

Keith Mathison

It has been said that he who defines the terms, wins the debate. Skeptics know this and take advantage of it. Witness some of the famous definitions of "faith" provided by unbelievers. Mark Twain, for example, quipped, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." Closer to our own day, the atheist author Sam Harris defined faith as "the license religious people give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail." Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous atheist of our generation, claims: "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

The one thing all of these definitions have in common is the explicit or implicit idea that faith is in conflict with reason. Unfortunately, some Christians in the history of the church have said things that have provided support for this view of the relationship between faith and reason. Martin Luther, for example, made very strong negative statements about reason, many of which are quoted by skeptics in their attempts to prove that Christianity is inherently irrational. Luther called reason "the Devil's greatest whore." He said in a number of different contexts that reason should be destroyed. The context is crucial, because in these instances Luther was talking about the arbitrariness of unaided human reason to discern divine things. Still, his tendency toward hyperbole has played into the hands of skeptics.

The vast majority of Christians throughout history, however, have not rejected the right use of reason. This stems from their attempt to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture, which itself provides reasons to believe. John wrote his entire Gospel to provide reasons to believe that Jesus is the Christ (John 20:30–31). John, Peter, and Paul appeal to evidence for the claims they make (1 Cor. 15:5–6; 2 Peter 1:16; 1 John 1:1–4). All human beings believe certain things based on the testimony of others. Christians believe what they believe based on the testimony of the Apostles. Such faith is a gift, but it is not divorced from reason.

If we are going to understand better the relationship between faith and reason, we must have a clearer understanding of these two words. The word faith is used in several different ways by Christian thinkers. It can refer to the beliefs that Christians share (the "Christian faith"). The word faith also can refer to our response to God and the promises of the gospel. This is what the Reformed Confessions mean when they speak of "saving faith" (for example, the WCF 14). This faith involves knowledge, assent, and trust. Finally, many philosophers and theologians have spoken of faith as a source of knowledge. As Caleb Miller explains, "The truths of faith are those that can be known or justifiedly believed because of divine revelation, and are justified on the basis of their having been revealed by God."

The word reason also has been used in different ways. It can refer to our human cognitive faculties. The relation of faith to reason in this sense involves asking whether Christian beliefs are reasonable. In other words, did we properly use our cognitive faculties in evaluating these beliefs? We can also use reason to refer to a source of knowledge. In contrast to the "truths of faith" known by divine revelation, the "truths of reason," in this sense, are truths known through natural faculties such as sense perception and memory. A conflict between knowledge derived through natural human faculties and knowledge derived from divine revelation occurs only if an apparent contradiction arises. Finally, in the narrowest sense, reason can be used to refer to logical reasoning. Christians should never argue that there is a conflict here because this faculty is part of who we are as human beings created in the image of God.

Most of the contemporary discussion about the supposed conflict between faith and reason has arisen in the context of discussions about science and religion. Space constraints prohibit a full discussion of this issue, but a few general points should be made in order to help us understand how to think about any alleged conflicts that arise. In the first place, we must acknowledge with Augustine, John Calvin, and many others that all truth is God's truth. That which is true is true because God revealed it, created it, or decreed it.

HE REVEALED IT: All that God reveals, whether through general revelation in His creation or through special revelation in Scripture, is necessarily true. It is impossible for God to lie.

HE CREATED IT: When we learn something about creation that corresponds with what God actually made, we have learned something true. God is the source of these truths by virtue of the fact that He is the Creator.

HE DECREED IT: God is the one who has decreed whatsoever comes to pass. When we learn something about history that is in accordance with what actually happened, we have learned something true to the extent that our knowledge corresponds with what actually happened, and what actually happened only happened, ultimately, because God decreed it.

A second major point that must be made is this: If all truth has its source in God and if all truth is unified, then one thing we know to be certain is that if there is a contradiction between an interpretation of Scripture and an interpretation of what God has created, then one or both of those interpretations is incorrect. They cannot both be correct. Christians must recognize that the conflict may be due to a misinterpretation of creation, to a misinterpretation of Scripture, or to a misinterpretation of both. This means we need to do a thorough and careful examination of both the scientific theory and the biblical exegesis to discover the source of the conflict. We must make sure we are dealing with the actual teaching of Scripture as opposed to a mistaken interpretation of Scripture. And we must examine the evidence for the scientific theory in question to discover whether we are dealing with something that is true about God's creation or something that is merely speculation. All of this hard work takes time, and it means that we do not jump to hasty conclusions.

God created us in His image as rational creatures. Our cognitive faculties were distorted by the fall, but they were not destroyed, and even unbelievers can use these faculties to discover truths about earthly things—as opposed to heavenly things, about which they are completely blind (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.12–21). We do not fully comprehend God, but this is because we are finite and God is infinite. Faith and reason, rightly understood, cannot be and are not in any real conflict.

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