In speaking with an atheist acquaintance, it was suggested that the burden of proving the existence of God, or rather, of any god at all, rested with the believer. Believers are the ones making the claim, so it must be believers who provide the evidence therefore. Must it, though? Perhaps it would behoove us to consider this.
Which claim came first – that there is a God, or that there is not? This is not asked in reference to the conversation with the acquaintance, but in the infinitely grander picture. Reasonably it follows that in order for one to claim that there is no God, there must first be a God against whom such a claim can be leveled. One cannot contradict the claim of the existence of a deity if no concept of the divine previously existed. Thus, the first claim was that there is, indeed, a God.
Next, then, would come the accusation that there is no God. The burden of proof rests not with the claimant, but with the accuser, and so it is that the burden of proof lies with the atheist to prove that there is no God, rather than with the believer to prove that there is. Of course, he cannot do this, because God does not reside in the material universe. The accuser knows this, and so resorts instead to so much anecdotal evidence to instead chip away at the idea of God.
Why then, one might be asking, doesn’t the burden of proof rest with the believer? As surely it must be said that before the first man pronounced that there is a God, there was not belief therefore. In this way, the first proclamation would have been in a sense an allegation. I, as the proverbial first man, allege that there is a God where before there was not, so mustn’t the burden rest with me to prove that there is?
It is on this point that the entire debate turns and becomes murky water, as it rests upon the necessity of a common starting point. The Christian believes that his God is eternal – unmade, uncaused, and unchanging; “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, a world without end.” – and from this proposition it does not matter if every man or no man anywhere believes in Him. He exists, and His existence is not contingent upon our acknowledgement. Further, our acknowledging and proclaiming of his existence does not speak Him into being (in the metaphysical sense); it merely states what was already stated in other ways, namely the totality of existence. Acknowledging God is not to speak contrary to a previous state, i.e., the absence of God, precisely because there is no previous state to God – “… in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.” As the beginning of St. John’s Gospel proclaims, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Thus, in the beginning was God, and it is impossible for the beginning to be anything else except the beginning.
However, the accuser, i.e., the atheist, will likely not work from this starting point, either because he does not believe it, hence his atheism, or because it will appear to him as a sort of instant trump of any attempt at argumentative advantage. If he were to acknowledge that God has always existed, then he would also be forced to acknowledge that it was he who was making the comment in need of proof. Knowing that there is no such proof – proof being understood as conclusive evidence for or against a claim; and conclusive being understood as strong or thorough enough to form a conclusion – he would not be able to lambast the believer without acknowledging his blind prejudice.
It remains, however, a well-known fact whether one is a believer in God or not, that the Christian believes his God to be eternal, so any accuser to the contrary is once again indeed the accuser and thus the party responsible for the provision of evidence against. The Christian religion is a religion that worships a God – not a demigod, nor a man who was later made into or adopted by a god, but God. He believes that his God is one and everlasting, that He always has been and always will be. When Moses encountered God in the form of the burning bush, God spoke through the flame. When Moses asked Him, “Who shall I say it is who sends me?” God replies, “Tell them it is I AM who sent you.” Not “I WAS,” or “I WILL BE,” but I AM – a name of total constancy. Whether God is I AM in year one or year 10,000, He is I AM. There can be no real confusion, then, that when a Christian speaks of God, he speaks of a God outside of time, a God who transcends our own timelines, who sees them all as points on a piece of paper, rather than long stretches of human existence. It has been 2000 years since the Passion of the Christ, and to God it is one point of many, all of which can be easily spied as He resides over them. He is not a God of time, because he is the God of Time. It is His.
Ultimately, there is no debate to be had, because the Christian and the atheist argue from two completely different starting points, one that upholds the existence of a God both in and out of time, and another that denies the reality of anything but that which resides in time, and thus that if it cannot be materially proven, it cannot be. How does one bridge that gap? That is a question beyond the scope of this short burst of thought, but there is one thing we may all know for sure: if there is a God (there is), then there is no chasm too great to be overcome. It requires spiritual, moral, reasonable, and intellectual imagination, to be sure. God did not give man above all other creatures the ability for complex and abstract thought only to let our brains languish and turn to dust.
Ours is a time of deep loneliness, and in that loneliness there is a fear masquerading as anger. One sees it in the faces of our daily protests against this person or that cause One hears it in the voice of those who say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” The chasm between belief and unbelief is not as wide as it may at first appear. We are all humans, and we all are made for the same purpose. “You have made us for you, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” writes St. Augustine in his Confessions. Let us find what binds us all together and build upon that, rather than celebrating what drives us apart.