Tag Archives: Bertrand Russell

“Who Made God?”, Part 1

Bertrand Russell in 1924

Have you ever heard the objection, “Oh yeah? But who made God?” The answer, of course, is that nobody made God, but this has still been a stumbling block to a lot of people, so let’s work through that today.

Let’s start by looking at this question as famed atheist Bertrand Russell posed it in 1927 in his “Why I Am Not a Christian” speech. Next week, we’ll take a look at Richard Dawkins’ recycling of the question in 2006. First, let’s hear from Russell, considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, in his own words:

“I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography,  and I there found this sentence: ‘My father taught me that the  question, “Who made me?” cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, “Who made God?” ’ That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument.”[1]

To speak of God (at least, in the Christian understanding of the title) as needing a cause, is to speak irrationally. That is like asking “Who moved this unmovable object?” Or ” When did this beginningless entity begin to exist?” If the terms are correctly understood, they are understood to be contradictory and the question invalid. For part of being “God” is being eternal and possessing necessary existence (i.e. He always existed, and He has to exist for anything else to exist). If you’re thinking of any entity that could be “made”, you’re simply not thinking of God.

Consider the following scenario. A clever young man gets an idea for a truly useful gadget that everyone will want. He starts making them in his garage, but quickly outgrows that, and soon he is forming a company and building a factory. More hiring, more expanding, and soon the company has grown and has to have several layers of management at multiple factories. Now several years after that humble beginning in a garage, Billy, a new worker at the newest factory is going through employee training. He learns who will be his Line Foreman, and Shift Supervisor, and Department Manager, on up the chain of command until finally, it stops at President and Owner. Now, young Billy raises his hand, and asks, “Who’s his boss?” Nobody… he’s the owner,” comes the answer. But Billy persists, “Yeah, but who appointed him owner?” The trainer responds, “Nobody appointed him owner; he’s the original owner… he founded the company. It wouldn’t even exist without him.”

Now, was the company trainer trying to trick Billy when he said nobody needed to appoint John as president because he founded the company? No, of course not. Founding a company necessarily means you exist before the company you found. But what if the “company” is, instead, all of reality? And the founder is God? His pre-existence means there can be no other entity around to appoint Him or “make” Him, and this stops the infinite regress of the causal chain that concerned Russell.

The fact that people ask “Who made God?” is actually a testament to the self-evident nature of the law of causality; we instinctively recognize the relation of cause and effect and look for it everywhere. But this also demonstrates the common misunderstanding of it that Russell also fell prey to: people tend to think that this principle states that every effect has a cause. If that really were the case, then “Who made God?” might be a legitimate question. But here’s the problem: it’s a sloppy sentence – a shortcut that doesn’t always work. While we can be intellectually sloppy like that in our day-to-day observations, applying any statement universally requires more intellectual rigor. To correct the statement, we need to say, “everything that begins to exist has a cause.” Something without beginning would not require a cause, nor could it have a cause. Russell does acknowledge this as a possibility in the last sentence quoted above, but then assumes that the eternality of the physical world (or universe) is just as adequate an explanation as God, which is his second mistake.

Most people can be excused for thinking “everything must have a cause” because everything we observe did begin to exist at some point, so the shorter wording appears to apply universally; but a philosopher of his stature should not be caught by such careless wording. Granted, he fell for this when he was young, learning it from an author he respected, but to continue to believe that confirms something observed elsewhere about the skeptic: though portrayed as intellectual rejection of God, their reasons are very often emotional or volitional instead [2]. The tragedy here is that John Stuart Mill would come to such a bad conclusion, not seek out a better explanation, promulgate his error, and that it would be picked up by someone like Russell and passed on to succeeding generations. Folks, I don’t mind if you question Christianity, and you’re certainly not going to come up with a question that’s going to stump God; so by all means, test everything and hold on to what’s good, as Paul would say [1Thes 5:21]. But don’t forget to question your skepticism too.

[1] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”, speech delivered 3/6/1927 at Battersea Town Hall, England.
[2] J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity, (Colorado Springs: David C Cook, 2013), p. 132.  Also online here.

Hell vs Love

“Hell”, photograph by Robert Doisneau, 1952

Is the concept of hell as a place of eternal punishment incompatible with the concept of a loving God? I’m reading a couple of books right now written by atheists who both view hell not only as a moral outrage, but as contrary to the nature of God as loving. Are they right? Let’s dig in to that tonight.

Atheist David Madison wrote in 2016, “Hell and eternal punishment fall into the category of the cruel and unusual. Pain and torture that go on forever can’t be part of sound theology. ” [1] Eight years prior, Dan Barker wrote, “Love is not hatred or wrath, assigning billions of people to eternal torture because they have offended your fragile ego or disobeyed your rules….” [2] Of course, Richard Dawkins gave his own sensational statement on hell back in 2006: “I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.” [3] But this opposition to hell is hardly limited to the so-called “new atheists.” Bertrand Russell, back in 1927, stated that “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” [4]

With that brief survey of some of the objections to hell, lets consider a couple of responses.

  • Is damnation an act of ego-driven hatred masquerading as love, as Barker alleges? Actually, this has nothing to do with ego or hatred, for it is justice, not love, that condemns people to hell. Too many people construct a very one-dimensional image of God they can feel justified in rejecting, and this is just such a case. Yes, God is loving; but He is also holy, righteous, just. One might be tempted to say that the love of God should override this harsh justice, yet people don’t seem to approve if a human judge lets an unrepentant criminal go unpunished. But in God’s solution at the cross, love actually satisfied the need for justice rather than ignoring it. While God’s justice condemns us to an eternal punishment we all deserve, His sacrificial love offers us freedom if we’ll accept it.
  • Is the duration of the punishment unloving or inhumane? These skeptics, and many others, specifically object to the “everlasting” part of hell. There are two responses here. First, this objection stems from a lack of appreciation of the seriousness of sin – any sin – from the view of a perfect judge. We tend to excuse “little sins” and “white lies” and such, but anything less than perfection is a failing grade before a perfect God. True justice, when perfection is the standard, requires any infraction, no matter how minor in the defendant’s eyes, to be a guilty sentence. Another response to this objection is that the sin and lack of repentance of those condemned to hell don’t seem to stop once they get there. I don’t want to read too much into a story, but it is worth noting that in Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar [Lk 16:19-31], the rich man, while being tormented in hell, continued acting selfishly toward Lazarus, even as he asked favors of Lazarus. If one never repents of sin (i.e. turns from it), then one continues in sin, and therefore in condemnation. Thus, the eternal nature of the punishment may very well be due to the eternal continuation of the sin.

Does the existence of hell rule out the love of God? Not when understood in it’s context. As Douglas Groothuis points out, “The doctrine of hell does not stand alone as a kind of ancient Christian chamber of horrors. Rather, hell is inseparable from three other interrelated biblical truths: human sin, God’s holiness, and the cross of Christ…. Only by understanding hell can we grasp the immensity of God’s love…. This is a costly love, a bloody love that has no parallel in any of the world’s religions.”[5] The tragic fate awaiting so many is not something Christians relish. On the contrary, it is concern and love for our fellow humans that drives us to warn them of the disastrous path they are on. It is a love motivated by that costly love with which God first loved us. If you are one who has rejected God because of the offensiveness of hell, I ask – no, I plead – that you reconsider, and accept God’s free gift of salvation. For in the end, if you will not have His love, sadly, you will have His justice. Choose wisely, friend.

[1] David Madison, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), p. 277. Kindle Edition.
[2] Dan Barker, godless (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2008), p.89.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 358.
[4]  Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian”,  a lecture given March 6, 1927, to the National Secular Society at Battersea Town Hall, England.
[5] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011), Appendix 1: “Hell on Trial”, p. 658,660.