Is there anybody out there?
For nearly half a century a privately funded project has captured the imagination of millions of people all around the world. SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) was launched in the hope of detecting messages from alien civilisations in outer space, but it ties in with deeper questions that human beings have been asking for thousands of years – are we alone in the universe? Are we the most intelligent creatures in existence? Is there a cosmic life force? And if there is, can we get in touch with it?
Frank Drake, the American astronomer who launched SETI in 1960, gave it an added dimension when he said that the project was really a search for ourselves – who we are and where we fit into the cosmic scheme of things. Yet for countless people, the search points to an even more fundamental question: Does God exist?
Some ask the question out of philosophical interest, some merely out of curiosity. Others ask it only when a major catastrophe occurs or when they themselves are gripped by pain, insecurity, depression or despair.
Whatever the trigger, it is no exaggeration to say that every question about human life or death – or about the universe in which we live and die – ultimately revolves around it.
Is anybody out there? We need to know.
Ticking the box
Opinion polls on everything from politics to pop music usually offer a box labelled ‘Don’t know’. This can be used to register genuine uncertainty but it can also be an escape hatch to avoid commitment one way or the other.
Those who tick the ‘Don’t know’ box in answer to the question ‘Does God exist?’ are known as agnostics, and many who do this feel they have successfully dodged the question. But have they?
Agnostics come in two brands. The soft-core agnostic says, ‘I don’t know whether God exists’ and seems to have wriggled out of opting for anything. But because the issue is so serious this approach is hardly sensible.
The question of God’s existence is unlike any other. For example, theories about the existence of the Loch Ness Monster have been circulating for over 1,300 years, but I remain an agnostic about the existence of the beast. Fortunately, my agnosticism has no relevance to my life, my death, or what happens to me after I die.
The question of God’s existence, on the other hand, is dynamically related to all of these. That being so, does it make sense to tick the ‘Don’t know’ box and leave it at that? Is it wise to leave such vital questions about life, death and eternity hanging in the air?
The blind alley of agnosticism
Cecil Rhodes, who was powerfully influential in the development of Southern Africa, once said, ‘I’ve considered the existence of God and decided there’s a 50-50 chance that God exists, and therefore I propose to give him the benefit of the doubt’.
By contrast, the soft-core agnostic gives the benefit of the doubt to his doubts. This is a wishy-washy kind of response, considering that countless millions of people throughout history have testified to the transforming power of God in their lives!
Would it not show more spine – and more sense – to examine the evidence and see where it leads?
The hard-core agnostic goes much further than his soft-core cousin and claims it is impossible for anyone to know whether God exists. This seems to show more conviction but logically it can never get to its feet. Regarding God’s existence, the hard-core agnostic says that the only knowable truth is that there is no such thing as knowable truth – in other words, that there can be no agnosticism about agnosticism. Does this make sense?
Far from being reasonable, this kind of agnosticism turns out to be exactly the opposite. How can anyone say it is impossible to know if God exists unless he himself knows everything?
Hard-core agnosticism is self-defeating because it assumes knowledge of ultimate truth in order to deny the possibility of knowing ultimate truth! It may sound like a comfortable option but it leads nowhere. It is a blind alley.
The desert of atheism
What about atheism? French philosopher Etienne Borne observes: ‘Atheism is the deliberate, definite, dogmatic denial of the existence of God … It is not satisfied with approximate or relative truth, but claims to see the ins and outs of the game quite clearly – being the absolute denial of the Absolute’.
Yet dogmatic assertions cannot disguise the fact that atheism is itself simply a belief system – and one that in the absence of evidence calls for a gigantic leap of faith. When atheism is pressed to its logical conclusion, it emerges as a bleak and barren desert devoid of life-giving water. Here are some examples of the way atheism comes up empty:
1. It offers no coherent commentary on the existence of the universe. It has to settle for philosopher Bertrand Russell’s view – ‘The world is simply there and has no explanation’. This kills off discussion but hardly satisfies the serious thinker.
2. It cannot point to any meaning for life. Atheist Peter Atkins says, ‘We’re just a bit of slime on a planet’. But if life is just the chance result of impersonal forces, we are stranded without hope in an absurd and meaningless world. None of our thoughts or beliefs have any significance – not even a belief in atheism!
3. It can give us no secure basis for objective and stable moral values – there can be no way of knowing the difference between right and wrong.
4. It can bring no comfort to the sick, the homeless, the starving, the hurting or the traumatised. French atheist Jacques Monod asserts that we are ‘alone in the unfeeling vastness of the universe’.
5. Denying God’s existence provides no guarantee that good will ever triumph over evil. In the absence of a transcendent God there is no possibility of life after death, of judgement and reward.
The truth of the Bible
All major religions base their teaching on ‘sacred’ writing of some kind, but one text transcends all the others – the Bible. No other book has been so viciously attacked – with many of its translators imprisoned, tortured or murdered, and untold millions of copies destroyed. Yet it remains a global best-seller, available in over 2,000 languages to 90% of the world’s population. Why is this so?
1. Its text is more accurate than that of any other ancient book. Archaeologist Sir Frederic Kenyon, one-time director of the British Museum, concluded, ‘The last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures came down to us as they were written has finally been removed’.
2. Its history has proved impressively reliable. It records hundreds of national and international events, gives details about centuries of rulers and specifies the exact location of numerous towns and cities – and wherever its statements have been tested they have been found to be true. With over 25,000 sites now examined, Dr Nelson Glueck, the world’s top biblical archaeologist, claims that ‘no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference’.
3. None of its prophecies has ever proved false, even though some 25% of the biblical text consists of history written in advance.
4. Its moral principles are without equal. No other literature can match its standards of truth, love, honesty or humility; its opposition to injustice, racism, oppression and greed; or its concern for the sick, the weak, the homeless, the poor and the dying.
5. Its teaching powerfully meets the deepest needs of human nature and experience. An untold number of people alive today testify to its transforming influence. German thinker Immanuel Kant was forced to admit, ‘The existence of the Bible is the greatest blessing which humanity ever experienced’.
Christ is the key
But the Bible is not just about ancient history or moral instruction – above all it is about Jesus Christ. All the Old Testament prophecies pointed to him and the New Testament explains why!
Human beings are by nature estranged from God by their sin and rebellion against him. But ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).
Christ came into this world to seek and to save those who were spiritually ‘lost’ – and that includes every one of us. He is the only way that sinners can be reconciled to God, for he alone has made atonement for our sin.
He came to Bethlehem 2000 years ago, but he still comes in saving power to all who repent and believe in him as the Saviour of the world.
An adapted extract from the booklet Is anybody out there? by John Blanchard, published by Evangelical Press (ISBN 9780852346167). Obtainable from bookshops or www.evangelicalpress.org.