Agnosticism varies from the more dogmatic claim that “the existence of God cannot be known,” to the “kinder and gentler” version that alleges a lack of evidence to either affirm or deny it. At first glance, these claims appear as simple acknowledgments of the limitations of human knowledge. On closer inspection, however, they say a great deal about God and the entire universe. For instance, they say that God does not exist, or if He does, He is either unable or has chosen to not make Himself known, either of which asserts something about the nature or intentions of the God who agnostics say cannot be known (more about this later).
Also, claims that the existence of God cannot be known or that the evidence is lacking imply that nothing in the known universe bears the clear marks of divine origin--not Christ, Scripture, consciousness, conscience, reason, love, no law of physics and biology, etc. They also imply that all the “miraculous”1 beauty and design of the universe give no evidence of the greater wisdom of a designer. The intended or unintended claims of the agnostic are far more comprehensive than they first appear. They concern the nature of everything that exists or has ever existed, and assert what can or cannot be true concerning ultimate reality. And while agnostics admit ignorance of many things, they know for sure that nothing in the known universe gives evidence of the nature or existence of God.
In addition to sweeping assertions concerning the nature of God, mankind, and reality, agnostics imply similar claims with respect to the nature of knowledge, truth, and ultimate authority. As agnostics claim that they exist independently of God, or at least that God is not necessary for their existence and knowledge, they believe they can observe, interpret, and make true statements about the ultimate nature of the universe apart from God’s explanation of it. In other words, one can possess true knowledge, absolute truth, and ultimate authority to know and speak the truth without any dependence upon God.
Like the atheist, the agnostic denies the need for God’s explanation of the source and nature of reality. Despite considerable human limitations, he presumes his own ability to know and explain the ultimate nature of the universe. Thus, in declaring the existence and nature of God as unknowable, and therefore unnecessary for a proper explanation of reality, agnostics declare their own opinion or interpretation of reality as true and ultimately authoritative. Few would be so brash as to declare their own interpretation of reality the ultimate determiner of truth, but that is exactly what agnosticism implies. As God’s explanation of the universe is deemed unnecessary, the limited vantage point of the human interpreter functions as the ultimate position of authority, whether or not this is admitted by the agnostic. And while agnostics freely admit their ignorance concerning many things, as do atheists, they nevertheless remain quite certain that God has not or cannot reveal His existence and nature to humanity. Reality has no necessary need of God’s power for its beginning and continued existence. It bears no marks of His design and creative activity, and the limited vantage point of a finite human being is sufficient to make such statements as authoritative and true.
What justification the agnostic has for making such claims will be discussed later, but note well the scope of his claims. They not only concern God, man, and reality, but extend as well to knowledge, truth, and ultimate authority, despite assertions to the contrary.
It follows, then, that if the agnostic is the final arbiter of the nature of God, mankind, and reality, as well as knowledge, truth, and ultimate authority, he or she is therefore the ultimate judge of right and wrong. If we cannot know the nature of God, or even be sure of His very existence, what claim could such a God (if He exists) have upon humanity? To what higher authority can mankind look, or to what standard of morality is mankind obligated, if the existence and nature of God is unknown? Absent the love and fear of God, the agnostic, along with the atheist, is free to do whatever seems right in his or her own eyes. Even when a “god” or higher being is viewed as a necessary (though imaginary) basis of morality, mankind remains the ultimate moral authority. And if no higher authority can be known, no ultimate accountability for one’s actions can be known. Again, this is not to say that all agnostics live outwardly immoral lives relative to Christians. It is just to say that the dogmatic assertion that the existence and nature of God cannot be known is a claim of independence from the laws and ultimate judgment of God. The claim that God cannot be known implies no ultimate standard of right and wrong, no ultimate accountability, and no ultimate judgment. Thus, the claims of the agnostic are comprehensive in their ethic, as they extend to the moral government of the universe, the ultimate destination of humanity after death, and the existence of ultimate accountability in the hereafter for bad behavior in the present life. To say that the existence and nature of God cannot be known is to say a great deal.
In illustrating the common assumptions underlying both agnosticism and atheism, we return to our ongoing conversation between Mr. Christian (“C”) and Mr. Agnostic (“A”), who has since exchanged his profession of atheism for agnosticism.
A: Greetings, Mr. C, I have good news for you!
C: Greetings to you, Mr. A, I am anxious to hear it.
A: I am no longer an atheist and I owe it all to you!
C: I am thrilled, Mr. A. Will you be coming to our Bible study this Thursday?
A: Oh, no, Mr. C, nothing like that. Our discussions on atheism convinced me that I do not possess the omniscience necessary to declare God’s nonexistence, for after all, I am only human. How could one with mental and physical limitations possibly know enough of every aspect of the universe and beyond to declare that God does not exist?
C: Excellent, Mr. A.
A: Yes, Mr. C, you have convinced me to be an agnostic.
C: A what?
A: You know, an agnostic. Your arguments were so convincing that I was forced to admit my limitations as a human being. Constrained by these limits, I cannot possibly know whether or not God exists, and it is sheer arrogance for anyone to claim such knowledge, don’t you agree, Mr. C? After all, God is so much higher than us, is he not? Did you not say so yourself?
A: I was arrogant, but I have been humbled. I was unreasonable in presuming to know what I could not know, so I am now being reasonable in admitting my limitations.
C: That sounds like quite a transformation, Mr. A. Can I ask a few more questions?
A: Please do. Perhaps this time you will convince me to be a Buddhist with your erudition.
C: Humble indeed, Mr. A.
A: I jest, do ask your questions.
C: Do you claim it is impossible for any human to know whether or not God exists?
C: Are you also saying that no human could possibly know what God is like, even if He did exist?
A: That is correct. It is reasonable that we cannot possibly know what God is like and whether or not he exists.
C: If God did exist, could he make himself known to His creatures?
C: I thought you said we cannot know what God is like?
A: We can’t.
C: So why are you now telling me what God is like?
A: I am not telling you what God is like.
C: You are telling me that either He does not exist, or if He does, He either lacks the power or wisdom to reveal Himself to His creatures, or He willingly chooses not to do so. How do you know this?
A: Because He has not revealed Himself.
C: How do you know He has not, or could not reveal himself?
A: I know where you are going with this, Mr. C. Okay, I am unable as a finite human being to know for sure that God could not reveal himself, and that he cannot possibly be known. I would need to possess knowledge about God to say such things, and I have already said we cannot know God. I get it, I am contradicting myself, being reasonable and unreasonable at the same time. Is that where you are going with this?
C: Correct, and then some. To claim that God can or cannot do something is to claim knowledge of God of whom you say we cannot have knowledge, a contradiction. And what would someone have to know to legitimately claim what a transcendent God could or could not do, apart from God telling him?
A: I guess He would have to be God Himself, how else could he know everything about what God could or could not do?
C: Correct. As we discussed before, to say what God can and cannot be and what He can and cannot do, apart from His revealing it to you, is to place faith in your own opinion concerning the ultimate nature of God and the universe. We are finite and ill-equipped to say such things, at least with legitimate authority. You have again made yourself the final authority with respect to interpreting the nature of God and the universe while not possessing the ability to do so.
A: Who said anything about the universe?
C: By saying God cannot reveal Himself, you have essentially said that nothing we know of the universe gives evidence of His existence, or displays anything of His nature.
A: Okay, it does not.
C: But how do you know?
A: Because I look at the universe and I do not see any evidence for God. I get your original point that I cannot say God cannot be known, because that is contradicting myself in saying what God is like when I said he cannot be known. It is making myself like God in defining the ultimate nature of God in what he can or cannot be or do, even though I do not have the capacity to do so. So I am now revising my position.
C: Okay, let’s hear it.
A: Maybe he does exist, maybe he doesn’t, I just don’t know. I won’t venture to say whether or not he can be known, or what he can or cannot do, as I am in no place to do so, and I would only be contradicting myself if I did. Therefore I will say this, I just don’t know.
C: Are you saying there is no evidence?
A: I know what you will say if I say there is no evidence. You will say I must be omniscient to say so, that I must know everything there is to know in the universe to say there is absolutely no evidence. So I will say this, maybe there is evidence, maybe not, but I have not personally seen any evidence of God’s existence, so I just don’t know.
C: I see.
A: Mr. C, at least take comfort in that you did not convince me to become a Buddhist. But it appears that I am still an agnostic, although a smarter and more reasonable one, thanks to you. Now, in all humility, I do not know that God exists, but I do know that the value of my house and the hard-earned favorable opinion of my neighbors will decline if I do not finish the painting I started this morning. Thank you again for your insights, Mr. C. Always a pleasure!
C: You are welcome, I think.
It appears things did not turn out exactly as Mr. C would have liked, though he did expose the initial dogmatic agnosticism of Mr. A as groundless, obliging him to revise his view. Also, Mr. C reiterated the principles that answered Mr. A’s former atheism, a foundation that will ultimately prove helpful in answering Mr. A’s new and improved agnosticism. We observed that the dogmatic assertion, “God’s existence and attributes cannot be known,” is based on the same flawed assumption of atheism that presumes the finite perspective of a human being as sufficient to know what omniscience alone can know. Moreover, Mr. A’s claim that the existence and nature of God cannot be known is actually a claim to know what God is able or willing to do (such as make Himself known to His creatures), though Mr. A claimed that God could not be known. This, of course, is a self-defeating contradiction, a claim to know what the agnostic says cannot be known. Moreover, in assuming the ultimate authority of God Himself in defining what God can and cannot be and do, Mr. A placed unjustified faith in his own ability to know what he stated could not be known (and could not be known apart from a direct revelation from God). Thus, in asking agnostics how they know what they say they know we see the unreasonable and self-contradicting faith assumptions underlying their claims. This renders worthless their best and most sophisticated arguments, since they are built upon these assumptions. To reiterate, how can one who does not know what is in my garage or rosewood box tell me what the transcendent God of the universe can or cannot be or do?
I previously mentioned two types of agnosticism, one that dogmatically asserts that the nature and existence of God cannot be known (the version addressed above), and a “kinder and gentler agnosticism” that merely admits to a lack of evidence. In the most recent exchange we watched Mr. A go from the former to the latter when confronted with the irrationality of his claim that the existence and nature of God cannot be known. Thus, Mr. A appears to have exchanged his dogmatic and unjustified agnosticism (that of defining what God can or cannot be or do) for an admission of his own inadequacy. He now admits that evidence of God’s nature and existence might exist, though he claims to have never seen it. Has Mr. A finally become reasonable in his assertions regarding God’s existence and attributes? Is his “kinder and gentler” agnosticism a reasonable form of unbelief? Does it more satisfactorily take into account the limitations of the human vantage point and knowledge? Let’s listen in…
C: Good morning Mr. A, your house looks great.
A: Thank you, Mr. C, you are a gentleman, even if you are a religious zealot. I am anxious to hear your response to my more humble and reasonable agnosticism.
C: You are too kind, Mr. A. If I understand you correctly, you now admit that evidence for God’s existence might exist, but you just have not seen any, correct?
C: So, it is possible that others may have seen evidence for God’s existence that you have not seen?
A: I do not think so, as we are human with similar experiences.
C: So there may be evidence, but no one has seen it?
C: If no one has access to any of the evidence, we are back to your original contention that no evidence for God exists. This could be because God cannot, has not, or will not reveal His existence. Or, if he has, He chose to not reveal it to us. You’re back to claiming what God can or cannot be or do, which you are incapable of doing.
A: Okay, maybe others have seen evidence, but I have not, and I cannot be convinced until I do.
C: Scripture tells us everything in the universe, including your consciousness, your conscience, the stars, a baby, and the food on your table, is clear and obvious evidence.
A: But I do not see anything as evidence for God’s existence. You say it is and I say it isn’t--it’s a draw. You have your opinion, I have my opinion. Who’s to say who is right?
C: I see, but ultimately my interpretation is based on Scripture’s testimony that all of reality bears the mark of God’s wisdom, design, and power, such that all are without excuse.
A: But I do not accept Scripture as true.
C: So we can now agree that we have different foundations upon which we base our interpretation of reality. My foundation is Scripture, yours is your own opinion. The issue is not my opinion versus yours, but your opinion versus God’s word. This is an important distinction.
A: But I don’t believe Scripture is God’s word.
C: So, again, you are resting your interpretation of all of reality, including your view of Scripture, on your own opinion, which we have already shown to be an inadequate foundation upon which to interpret the ultimate nature of God and reality. You can’t tell me what is in my rosewood box, but you know for sure that Scripture is not God’s word. So you are still functioning as the ultimate authority in the universe in your interpreting the nature of God and all of reality. By the way, how do you know Scripture is not God’s word?
A: It is full of fairy tales and myths, like Jonah in a whale. Even some of your own Christian scholars say it is full of myths.
C: Yes, some scholars appear to help you more than us, Mr. A. Yet it appears that your interpretation of Scripture is based on the presumption that God does not exist, for if He did, miracles would be reasonable and expected. To reject the Bible because you reject miracles is to presume God does not exist or, if He did, to presume what He could or would do or not do, which you admit you cannot know. We discussed this earlier.
A: You are frustrating.
C: My apologies. I see in everything evidence for God’s existence; you see none of it. I see my understanding as reasonable and you see your interpretation as reasonable. Correct?
C: So viewing the beauty, design, and “miracle” of the universe and seeing no evidence of God is reasonable, correct?
C: Allow me to tell you a story. Brothers Jack and George went to a museum and viewed beautiful sculptures and paintings, including Rembrandts and Monets. Jack exclaimed, “Oh the brilliance and skill of the artists!” To which George replied, “How do you know? I see no evidence of artists, let alone great artists in these works.” Who is reasonable, Jack or George?
A: Jack, of course.
C: The next day, while playing a sophisticated computer game, Jack exclaims, “The programmers of this are brilliant!” To which George responds, “Programmers? I don’t see any evidence of programmers!” Who is being reasonable?
A: Jack. To deny the evidence of programmers is silly.
C: Next they take a ski trip with their wives and see footprints in the snow saying, “Will you marry me, snuggle bunny?” Jack exclaims, “How romantic, a marriage proposal in the snow, and such a cute nickname!” To which George responds, “How do you know someone wrote that?” Who is more reasonable?
A: Of course, any reasonable person would know someone wrote that in the snow.
C: Would the evidence be more compelling if there were more intelligible words or less words in the snow?
A: More words. Maybe snow falling from trees could produce a word or two (though they were footprints) but regardless, the more words and complexity of the sentences, the greater the evidence that someone wrote it.
C: So, if an entire encyclopedia entry was in the snow, it would be greater evidence than a single sentence?
A: Of course.
C: So, a finger painting could be an accident, but a Mona Lisa requires a skilled painter?
C: If you took a trip to the moon and found a working computer on the surface, what would you conclude?
A: I was not the first one there, of course.
C: Could it have just happened over time?
A: A computer, programmed and working? Of course not, that would be an unreasonable interpretation.
C: Are you aware that a blade of grass is more sophisticated than anything mankind has yet to produce in all of its technological efforts?
A: Yes, I took biology.
C: That a single ant is more sophisticated than an F-22 fighter jet?
C: So tell me why it is unreasonable to deny that artists, programmers, or writers in the snow exist, but entirely reasonable to deny the designer and builder of an ant, a flower, a baby, billions of life forms, including trillions upon trillions of single cells, each more sophisticated than anything man has ever created? Are you more or less reasonable than George in his claim of no evidence for artists, programmers, and a potential groom? According to your own principles, would not greater sophistication and complexity be greater evidence of the genius of the designer?
A: Okay, but I don’t see the evidence.
C: You have an opinion, but how is it a reasonable opinion given the evidence? You may reject my interpretation, but my interpretation is reasonable according to your own criteria of what constitutes reasonableness. When it comes to the existence and nature of God, contrary to your own principles, you go from being reasonable to exercising pure blind faith in your own opinion.
A: Why would I do that, Mr. C?
C: Scripture says we sinfully suppress the obvious truth because we are unrighteous and hostile to God.2 The existence of artists does not have ultimate moral implications for our life, so we easily admit their existence in the face of the evidence. But God’s existence requires our sincere worship and obedience to Him, the proper response to our Creator. His existence dethrones our assumed position as captain of our own ship, as ultimate interpreter of the nature of God man, reality, knowledge, truth, authority, and ethics. No one can approach the existence and nature of God with the neutral objectivity of approaching a painting in a museum. People who like to call their own shots have a compelling (though unreasonable) interest in denying God. Would this not account for the fact that they lay aside their usual reasonableness and question God's existence in spite of the clear, conspicuous, comprehensive, and compelling evidence to the contrary?
A: So, are you saying I am willfully denying the obvious because I desire my own way and refuse to worship God?
C: Yes, and that is the same reason why people deny the Bible is God’s word. The evidence that the Bible is God’s word is just as clear, conspicuous, comprehensive, and compelling as the evidence that God created everything in the universe, but people willfully reject it.3 Those who view the clear fingerprints of God in the beauty and order of the universe and deny God as the Creator will always deny the beauty and excellence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Bible as God’s written revelation.
A: So you are saying I am not neutral and objective in interpreting the evidence, that I have an ax to grind?
C: Yes. Mr. A, do you know why Christ said, “He who is not with me is against Me”?4
A: No, why?
C: Because He is God in the flesh, and you cannot be neutral to the One who created you, gives you all good things, to whom you owe all love, honor, and obedience. We are all created by God to enjoy Him and give Him glory. To be “neutral” is to suppress the clear knowledge of God in sinful ingratitude, to reject His purpose and treat Him with contempt. Sometimes to ignore someone is greater hatred than active opposition. “Neutrality” toward God is contempt for the moral obligation to love, honor, and obey one’s Creator. No middle ground exists for the creature.
A: My garden needs watering, so I must go utilize the wisdom bestowed on me by, well, who knows?
C: Well, I leave you to “who knows.” I will go thank God and my wife for the steak that will be waiting for me when I get home. God richly provides for His creatures, just as He provides for you and gave you wisdom to care for your garden. Indeed, “He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”5 Indeed, He has provided for you a Savior to deliver you from the penalty for your willful sin of ingratitude.
A: Please tell me more…
C: In John 3:16 it says…
A: Just kidding! See you later; I am off to cultivate my garden!
Having “progressed” from his more strident agnosticism that claims God cannot be known, Mr. A took refuge in the “kinder and gentler” agnosticism that merely claims a lack of evidence. In making the switch, however, Mr. A did not change his unreasonable blind faith in his own opinion concerning the ultimate nature of God and the universe, but only changed its facade. To claim no evidence is to assume knowledge of the entire universe and assert that either God does not exist, or, if He does, He cannot or will not make his existence and attributes known. But to make such a claim, one would have to know of the existence and attributes of the God that cannot be known. To allow for the possibility of evidence, but deny access to such evidence, is little different from claiming no evidence. In either case, all of the “miraculous” beauty and design of the universe is interpreted by Mr. A as bearing no evidence of God.
This very claim is contrary to the agnostic's own principles. It unjustifiably assumes that a finite human being is capable of having the necessary knowledge to make such an interpretation as authoritative and true. The agnostic readily admits to the artist behind great art, the programmer behind the computer program, and the writer behind the proposal in the snow, all the while affirming that greater design and complexity give greater evidence of a designer. At the same time, the agnostic claims that the greatest design and complexity give no evidence, contrary to his own principles. Why does the normally reasonable and logical agnostic become so unreasonable and illogical with respect to the existence and nature of God? Because to admit of God’s existence is to admit one’s own liability to thank, worship, and obey God as creator and provider, to admit liability to judgment for not doing so, and to deny one’s own presumed authority and independence. To admit that the Bible is God’s word is to do the same. And so it is that no one approaches the issue of God’s existence and attributes with a detached objectivity, and so it is why a normally reasonable person will go to such great lengths to deny the obvious. To borrow a quote from Irving Kristol, “When we lack the will to see things as they really are, there is nothing so mysterious as the obvious.”
The exchanges between Mr. C and Mr. A are designed to illustrate certain principles and techniques of apologetics, and should not be viewed as typical discussions between a believer and unbeliever. To the contrary, the dialogue includes a fair amount of exaggeration in that it went as long and far as it did, as cordially as it did, and in the amount of ground Mr. A was willing to concede to Mr. C. Most Christians have experienced the difficulty of disabusing unbelievers of their notions of God and the universe, and realize there is no way to predict how a given conversation will go and end. Unbelievers will concede a great deal regarding non-essentials. But when they sense that their ultimate object of faith, their most deeply held assumptions or presuppositions about God and reality are about to be exposed and shown for the unreasonable sin that they are, they will change the subject, quit the discussion, call you names, ignore you, persecute you, or otherwise avoid the exposure of their sinful assumptions and hostility toward the God of the Bible. While many issues concerning God and the universe are fair game for discussion, the unbelievers’ ultimate object of their deepest held faith, the central and most important issue of their belief system, is strictly off limits. Indeed, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, any true presentation of the Gospel, including a call to repent from unreasonable and idolatrous faith to faith in Christ alone, will always be strenuously resisted and rejected. The power of God alone can bring someone to true faith in Christ. Nonetheless, we are called to proclaim and defend the Gospel to unbelievers, leaving the results to God.
We have seen that the critique of agnosticism closely resembles that of atheism, for contrary to the view that agnosticism corrects the inherent problems of atheism, the faith assumptions upon which they make their arguments are virtually identical. In fact, the same assumptions underlie all unbelieving arguments against the God of Scripture. Thus, in understanding the unreasonable blind faith underlying atheism and agnosticism, the reader will be better able to identify and expose the faith assumptions behind all unbelieving arguments.
Like the claims of the atheist, the agnostic’s claims that “the existence of God cannot be known” or “the evidence for His existence is lacking” are actually sweeping assertions about the ultimate nature of God, man, reality, knowledge, truth, authority, and ethics. In highlighting the sweeping scope of these claims, we observed how ill-equipped the agnostic is to make them.
In examining the authority to make claims about the ultimate nature of God and the universe, we asked the simple question, “How do you know what you say you know?” Like atheism, agnosticism rests on faith in unwarranted human opinion. We again saw that a finite being, constrained by five senses, three-dimensions, and seventy or so years on earth, is not equipped to make dogmatic, comprehensive, and trustworthy statements about the ultimate origin and nature of God and the universe. Without revelation from the God that “cannot be known,” or for whom the “evidence is lacking,” agnostics are as ill-equipped as atheists to make dogmatic assertions about God and the universe.
Lastly, we noted that a “kinder and gentler” agnosticism that alleges a lack of evidence to either affirm or deny God’s existence operates on the same faith assumptions of the more dogmatic variety. Also, an appeal to “a lack of evidence” is contrary to the agnostic’s own principles of interpretation and knowledge. Reason quickly becomes unreasonable in the face of the profound implications of God’s existence and authority upon the unbeliever’s life. In defense of their assumed independence, Scripture tells us the agnostic and all unbelievers
suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.6
And so it is that the agnostic and atheist deny the obvious. Unwilling to relinquish their assumed place of authority and independence to acknowledge their complete dependence upon their Creator, they define Him into obscurity or out of existence.
© Craig Biehl, 2011
1 A favorite description of the universe and its contents used by unbelievers.
2 See Romans 1:18-21, John 3:19-20.
3 Unbelievers sinfully suppress and reject both general and special revelation. See Luke 16:31; John 1:9-14; 5:36-40, 46-47; 8:34-47; 10:1-16; 1 Corinthians 1:18-24; 2:6-16; 2 Peter 1:20-21.
4 Matthew 12:30.
5 Acts 14:17.
6 Romans 1:18b-21 (NAS).