The 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume is noted for his empiricism and general skepticism, especially concerning the supernatural basis of religion. Like many of our friends and neighbors, Hume thinks it is vain to attempt to prove that God exists and that there is a future world of reward and punishment. In a lively reading from his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), we find Hume playing the role of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, defending himself before an imaginary Athenian council:
But what must a philosopher think of those vain reasoners, who, instead of regarding the present scene of things as the sole object of their contemplation, so far reverse the whole course of nature, as to render this life merely a passage to something farther; a porch, which leads to a greater, and vastly different building; a prologue, which serves only to introduce the piece, and give it more grace and propriety? Whence, do you think, can such philosophers derive their idea of the gods? From their own conceit and imagination surely. For if they derived it from the present phenomena, it would never point to anything farther, but must be exactly adjusted to them. That the divinity may possibly be endowed with attributes, which we have never seen exerted; may be governed by principles of action, which we cannot discover to be satisfied: all this will be freely allowed. But still this is mere possibility and hypothesis. We never can have reason to infer any attributes, or any principles of action in him. . . .1
According to this view, it is impossible to correctly reason from our observation of nature to the conclusion that God exists; nor can we reason from nature to the conclusion that God has any particular attribute. In short, nature does not refer us to God at all.
Now, Christians have always admitted the difference between (1) God’s general revelation, in which God creates a natural, observable world, and (2) God’s special revelation, in which God provides more specific information at a particular time and place. We learn details about God’s moral character only through special revelation. Even if we never had such special revelation, we would still have His general revelation in nature. What does this general revelation teach us?
The apostle Paul certainly thought that general revelation teaches something. He wrote: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:20). Paul says that it is legitimate to reason from our observation of nature to the conclusion that an all-powerful, eternal being exists.
How does this reasoning work? There are at least three arguments for the existence of God that have always been available to the honest mind:
- The cosmological argument. This argument leads to a first cause, or an uncaused cause. God is the condition that makes all of the states of affairs in the world obtain. He is the final answer to the question, “Why?”. The cosmological argument is the fundamental philosophical argument for the existence of God, and does not require special revelation.
- The teleological argument. This argument leads to a designer for those objects that seem to be designed, and which could not have evolved in some process that is consistent with the regularities we observe in nature. According to teleology, God is the final answer to the question, “How did all this come to be as it is?”.
- The moral argument. This argument leads to an agent who introduced morality into a natural order that does not otherwise exhibit morality. God is the final answer to the question, “Where did right and wrong come from?”.
Admittedly, no one observed first-hand the creation and design of the cosmos and the introduction of morality. Yet the world is a sign that points to God, and thus it is reasonable for philosophers to do precisely what Hume decried: We “render this life merely a passage to something farther; a porch, which leads to a greater, and vastly different building; a prologue, which serves only to introduce the piece, and give it more grace and propriety.”