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Philosophy Questions: Who/What Is God?

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for Renew.org as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). His books include the Popular Handbook of World Religions (general editor), Real Life Theology: Fuel for Effective and Faithful Disciple Making (co-general editor), Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and The Atheist's Fatal Flaw (co-authored with Norman Geisler).

Who/what is God? Although there have been prominent atheistic philosophers throughout history, many philosophers have speculated that there must be a deity of some kind. For some, god is in eternal process of growth (process philosophy), or is an “unmoved mover,” is synonymous with the universe, or is the one who took the already-existing material and formed it into the world (the “demiurge”). Many philosophers, medieval and contemporary, are monotheists, believing in one God who exists outside the world and intentionally brought it into existence.

We see this philosophical wrestling about what god must be like within ancient Greek philosophy. A prominent philosophical thread traced from Socrates to Plato, and then to Aristotle, and even these great fathers of philosophy held divergent views on who/what god is. Then one of Aristotle’s students, Alexander the Great, became one of the world’s great conquerors, with an empire that spanned from Egypt to India. Along with Greek politics and language, his empire spread Greek culture, including Greek philosophy and its philosophical categories of thought.

And not only would Greek philosophy expand its boundaries as the Greek empire extended across the globe, but Greek philosophy would continue to expand its options. In addition to the schools of Plato and Aristotle, for example, new schools of Greek philosophy continued to spring up. A couple deserve mention because of the wide appeal they carried in their day: Epicureanism and Stoicism. They explored the question “Who/What Is God?” and arrived at opposite conclusions.

Epicureanism

In Athens, Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) taught that everything that exists can be reduced to “atoms.” Because nothing comes from nothing, he reasoned, the atomized universe had to have always existed. Aristotle had explained the motion in the universe as the work of his version of god (the “unmoved mover”), who actualized the world’s potentialities. But, according to Epicurus, all that exists are atoms.


Who/what is god? “According to Epicurus, all that exists are atoms.” 


It is true that Epicurus did not rule out the possibility of gods, but even these gods, according to Epicurus, would have to themselves be made of atoms as well. So, here is how Epicurus explained all the change and motion in the universe: an infinite supply of atoms fall through space, and once in a while collections of atoms swerve and collide with each other, creating the changes we experience. Clearly, there wasn’t going to be any real need for a god of any stature in Epicureanism.

Epicurus taught that the problem of evil disproves any all-powerful or all-good deity, souls don’t survive death, and morality is explainable in terms of pleasure and pain. He formulated an argument still widely used today: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”[1] Epicurus himself advised moderation in pursuing pleasure (because immoderation in pleasure can lead to much pain), but some later Epicureans distorted his message into one of licentiousness.[2]


Who/what is god? “Epicurus taught that the problem of evil disproves any all-powerful or all-good deity, souls don’t survive death, and morality is explainable in terms of pleasure and pain.”


Stoicism

Whereas Epicurus was a precursor of today’s atheists, Zeno (334-262 B.C.) most resembles today’s pantheists (the belief that god is indistinguishable from the universe so that all physical reality is a manifestation of god). Zeno taught that god was a creative fire, an ether, a principle of reason throughout the cosmos. In short, all is one (i.e. monism).

Zeno lectured in Athens on a porch decorated with paintings. This porch was called the “Stoa Poikile,” from which Zeno’s students derived their name, “Stoics.”

While Epicurus was cynical about the divine (recall that it was he who gave a prominent anti-god argument from the problem of evil), the Stoics’ view of their god was as optimistic as the Epicureans’ perspective was pessimistic.

  • The earth is the center of an orderly universe infused with providential goodness.
  • Humans have this goodness within, often called the “spark of the divine.”
  • History endlessly repeats itself, and, rather than trying to kick against what is immutable, one might as well accept reality as it comes.

Who/what is god? “The Stoics’ view of their god was as optimistic as the Epicureans’ perspective was pessimistic.”


Thus, Stoics sought to align their desires and actions according to the providential pattern of the divine cosmos. They hoped to achieve this alignment through virtues such as intelligence, bravery, justice, and self-control. Many famous Stoics—such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius—popularized Stoicism through its 500-year history.[3]

Skeptical Philosophy

In these articles thus far, we have mentioned Platonic, Aristotelian, Epicurean, and Stoic philosophy. Obviously, Greek philosophy is multifaceted. And these are just some of the major schools; many more schools could be mentioned.

When presented with all these philosophical options, what is a person supposed to do? One can always join a school, but how is one to know that one particular school’s speculation is better than another’s? With so many options, it is not surprising to find an undercurrent of skepticism. Even from within Plato’s Academy, skepticism began to eclipse the metaphysical system Plato had devised.[4]


“With so many options, it is not surprising to find an undercurrent of skepticism.”


There even arose a philosophical school explicitly devoted to skepticism: the “Pyrrhonian School.” Students of the skeptical Pyrrhonian School didn’t go so far as to disregard the physical world around them (e.g., they would look both ways before crossing the street). But when it came to anything beyond immediate experience, they would refuse to take a position.

Perhaps the most famous of the Pyrrhonians, Sextus Empiricus (A.D. 160-210), taught a 3-stage process of skepticism.

  1. First, take the 2 sides being debated and set them against each other.
  2. Second, acknowledge the impasse and suspend judgment on the matter.
  3. Third, in the midst of the silence, enjoy the unperturbedness that comes from not being dogmatic.[5]

Now, it is easy to fault thinkers like Sextus Empiricus for taking the lazy route. They aren’t taking the risk necessary to discover truth. However, one can surely sympathize with them. Faced from all angles with nothing surer than speculation, multiplied by school after school, you can begin to appreciate the unperturbedness of non-dogmatism as an attractive option.

A New Kind of Philosophy in Town

After all, just how seriously should speculation be taken? In the Bible’s book of Acts, we meet up with some first-century Athenian philosophers—both Epicurean and Stoic. But they don’t appear to be diligently seeking truth so much as amusing themselves through speculation. The apostle Paul was eager to discuss with them the truth that had been revealed to him, and they were also eager—but not to hear truth so much as to leisurely discuss new ideas.

Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new (Acts 17:18-21).


Who/what is god? “This was not merely a new deity, but a completely new kind of deity.”


Fantastic! More speculation! Except this time was different. What Paul had to share was not merely a different idea, but a different way of thinking entirely. This was not merely a new deity, but a completely new kind of deity. Plato speculated that there must be some kind of abstract “Good” to unify the Forms. Aristotle speculated that there must be some kind of Unmoved Mover to unintentionally draw the various potentialities into actuality. Epicurus the atomist reasoned that, if there were indeed gods, they must themselves be composed of atoms just like everything else. Zeno the Stoic speculated that god must be a creative fire coexistence with the cosmos.

And so long as we are entertaining the various speculations, let’s enjoy the discussion. As the skeptics remind us, one can politely listen to a new idea without having to be perturbed by its implications. Academic speculation can be stimulating without being threatening. One can appreciate another’s speculation without feeling compelled to commit to anything.

Except this was not speculation.

Paul’s philosophic audience listened politely up until Paul mentioned Jesus’ Resurrection. This was a God who intentionally acts in history, just miles away and a few years back. This isn’t the kind of idea a philosopher thought up. Not being from “down here,” this new teaching didn’t share the same footing with other systems, a footing which typically justifies the casual way the philosophically minded tend to listen to new ideas.


Who/what is god? “This was a God who intentionally acts in history, just miles away and a few years back.”


Could God Be…a Person?

C.S. Lewis captures perfectly the dilemma the Epicureans and Stoics faced that day:

An “impersonal God”—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God!”) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?[6]


Who/what is God? “Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?”


What we have here is the unnerving notion of a God taking the initiative to reveal his truth in a most perturbing way: revealing it in Person.

What we discover in Christianity is something that can surely converse with philosophy, but can never be merely reduced to it.


[1] Voltaire quoted Epicurus as saying, “Either God can remove evil from the world and will not; or being willing to do so, cannot; or he neither can or will; or he is both able and willing.” But “if he is willing and cannot, he is not omnipotent. If he can but will not, he is not benevolent. If he is neither willing nor able, he is neither omnipotent nor benevolent. . . . if he both wants to and can, whence comes evil over the face of the earth?” See Norman Geisler, “Voltaire, Francois-Marie,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999).

[2] P.H. De Lacy, “Epicurus,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 3, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972), 3-5.

[3] Philip P. Hallie, “Stoicism,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 8, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972), 19-22.

[4] Richard H. Popkin, “Skepticism,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 7, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972), 449.

[5] Philip P. Hallie, “Sextus Empiricus,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 7, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972), 427-428.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Miracles (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 150.