Existential Apologetics

Clifford Williams
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
Trinity College

Deerfield, IL 60015

Cornerstone Festival
Bushnell, Illinois
July 5, 2012

Existential apologetics: showing that people are justified in believing in God because doing so satisfies certain needs. “I believe because I need to.”

The basic form of the existential argument for believing in God:

1. Humans possess “existential” needs.

2. Faith in God satisfies these needs.

3. Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God.

Three examples: (1) “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). (2) “Many Christians . . . love God’s will in the abstract, but carry great burdens in connection with it. From this also there is deliverance in the wonderful life of faith. For in this life no burdens are carried, no anxieties felt” (Hannah Whitehall Smith, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life). (3) “It is the ardent longing that there may be a God who guarantees the eternity of consciousness that leads us to believe in him” (Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life [Dover Publications, 1954], p. 186).

Evidential apologetics: producing evidence for the truth of Christianity, giving reasons to believe that Christianity is true. Some commonly given reasons: miracles, prophecies in the Old Testament, the character of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the complex order in nature. “I believe because there is good evidence for doing so.” Nearly all Christian apologetics has been evidential.

Evidential arguments based on need or the satisfaction of need:

1. There must be a God because humans would not have certain needs unless there were a God who created humans with them. “The Christian story . . . offers itself as the explanation of the voice whose echo we hear in the search for justice, the quest for spirituality, the longing for relationship, the yearning for beauty” (N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense [HarperSanFrancisco, 2006], p. 55).

2. Christianity is true because it correctly describes certain human needs. “Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness” (Pascal, Pensées, p. 76, section #149).

3. Christianity is true because people will have certain needs met if they have the right kind of faith.

C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire is an evidential argument: “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction of those desires exists. . . . If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (Mere Christianity, [Harper Collins, 2001], pp. 136-37).

None of these evidential arguments are the same as the existential argument for believing in God, because they try to show that Christianity is true, whereas the existential argument does not.

Some existential needs (self-directed and other-directed):

1. A craving to know God “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself” (Pascal, Pensées, p. 75, section #148).

2. A longing for heaven “There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have never desired anything else. . . . All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Ch. 10, “Heaven”).

3. A desire to worship “This need to kneel” (Denise Levertov, “Of Being,” in Denise Levertov, Selected Poems, p.144).

4. A desire for “fullness of life,” an abundance of good “This need to dance” (Denise Levertov, “Of Being”). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

5. Cosmic security We want a foundation that will keep us secure even if the weather turned terrifying, the sun grew dim, or the Milky Way galaxy unraveled.

6. Awe “An emotion in which dread, veneration, and wonder are variously mingled: as fearful reverence inspired by deity or by something sacred or mysterious, wondering reverence tinged with fear inspired by the sublime”

7. Defeat of death “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, p. ix).

8. Meaning and purpose If we thought that nothing matters we would live in abject desperation or kill ourselves.

9. Absolution of guilt We sense, independently of biblical truths, that something is wrong with ourselves, and we want to know how it can be made right.

10. To be loved We would shrivel up and die if we knew that no one loved us or that there was no hope of anyone ever loving us.

11. To love “To love and be loved is the delightful purpose of all human life” (Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love).

12. For justice and fairness

13. Delighting in goodness

Two questions:

(1) Is evidential apologetics enough?

(2) Is existential apologetics enough?

“Need without reason is blind, but reason without need is sterile.” “The ideal way to acquire faith in God is through both need and reason” (Existential Reasons for Belief in God, p. 12).

Four objections to the existential argument for believing in God:

(1) The existential argument for believing in God does not guarantee truth. It is like arguing that it is legitimate to believe that Invisible George accompanies us wherever we go because doing so satisfies our need to feel secure. Just because our existential needs are satisfied by believing in God does not guarantee that there actually is a God. This is the Freudian objection.

(2) The existential argument justifies belief in any kind of God. If the existential argument for believing in God were sound, a person would be justified in believing in a cosmic torturer if their need for people to be hurt were satisfied by believing in such a being.

(3) Not everyone feels existential needs. Not everyone feels a craving to know God or has a longing for heaven or needs to feel that death is defeated or desires an abundance of good.

(4) Existential needs can be satisfied without faith in God. They can be satisfied in nonreligious ways or in religious ways not involving faith in God, such as by practicing Buddhism or Hinduism.

A reply to these objections:

These objections do, indeed, undermine the existential argument for believing in God as it stands, that is, as a pure satisfaction of need argument. However, the existential argument can be supplemented with reason in various ways: (1) We may come to believe in God by means of evidence and subsequently be drawn to God by the satisfaction of needs. (2) There are reasonable criteria to judge the acceptability of needs and desires. (3) There are ways of discovering that we feel the existential needs, ways involving thinking, remembering, clarifying, and conceptual probing. (4) There are tests by which we can determine whether faith in the Christian God best satisfies the existential needs—the restlessness test, the obstacle test, the value test, and the satisfaction test. (Existential Reasons for Belief in God, pp. 144-45)

The objections and replies are drawn from Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (IVP Academic, 2011).


Existential Apologetics: A Survey

Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (IVP Academic, 2011)

"Need As a Reason to Believe in God"A talk given by Clifford Williams at Wheaton College

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