IntroductionFinding the Box Top to
the Puzzle of Life
"One who claims to be a skeptic of one set of beliefs
is actually a true believer in another set of beliefs."
-Phillip E. Johnson
The university religion professor gave his wide-eyed undergraduate
class a clear warning the very first day of the semester. "Please leave your
religious beliefs at home!" he demanded. "As we look at the Old
Testament, I may make some observations that will run contrary to what
you've been taught in Sunday school. It's not my purpose to offend anyone,
but it is my purpose to be as objective as possible in analyzing the
That sounded great to me. After all, I (Frank) enrolled in that class
because I was in the midst of a spiritual search. I didn't want any religious
party line. I just wanted to know if there was a God or not. What
better place, I thought, to get some objectivity about God and the Bible
than a secular school like the University of Rochester?
From the beginning, the professor took a very skeptical view of the
Old Testament. He immediately affirmed the theory that Moses did not
write the first five books of the Bible, and that many of the Bible's supposed
prophetic passages were written after the fact. He also suggested
that the Jews originally believed in many gods (polytheism), but that one
God ultimately won the day because the final editors of the Old
Testament were "religious-fanatic monotheists."
Most of the students had no trouble with his analysis, except one
young man a couple of rows ahead of me. As the semester wore on, that
student became visibly more agitated with the professor's skeptical theories.
One day, when the professor began to criticize sections of Isaiah,
the student could no longer moderate his displeasure.
"That's not right!" he blurted out. "This is the Word of God!"
"That guy's too religious," I quietly whispered to the person sitting
next to me.
"Look," the professor reminded everyone, "I told you all at the
beginning that you must leave your religious beliefs at home. We will not
be able to be objective if you can't do that."
"But you're not being objective," charged the student as he stood
up. "You're being overly skeptical."
Some in the class began to heckle the student.
"Let the professor teach!"
"This isn't Sunday school!"
The professor tried to defuse the situation, but the flustered student
stormed out and never returned.
While I had some sympathy for the student and could see that the
professor had his own anti-religious bias, I also wanted to hear more of
what he had to say about the Old Testament, and particularly about
God. When the semester ended, I was somewhat convinced that the professor
was right-the Old Testament was not to be taken at face value.
However, I still didn't have an answer to my most basic question: Does
God exist? I felt completely unfulfilled when the last class ended. I had
no closure, no answer. So I approached the professor, who was surrounded
by students asking final questions.
"Professor," I said, after waiting until just about everyone else had
left, "thanks for the class. I think I've learned a new perspective. But I
still have one huge question."
"Sure, go ahead," he said.
"I enrolled in this class to find out if there really is a God or not.
Well . is there?"
Without a moment's hesitation he snapped, "I don't know."
"You don't know?"
"No, I have no idea."
I was stunned. I felt like scolding him by saying, "Wait a minute,
you're teaching that the Old Testament is false, and you don't know
whether there's a God or not? The Old Testament could be true if God
actually exists!" But since final grades were not in, I thought better of
it. Instead, I simply walked out, frustrated with the entire semester. I
could have respected a qualified "yes" or "no" with some reasons given,
but not "I don't know"-I could get that from an uninformed man on
the street. I expected a lot more from a university religion professor.
I later learned that my expectations were too high for the modern
university. The term "university" is actually a composite of the words
"unity" and "diversity." When one attends a university, he is supposed
to be guided in the quest to find unity in diversity-namely, how all the
diverse fields of knowledge (the arts, philosophy, the physical sciences,
mathematics, etc.) fit together to provide a unified picture of life. A tall
task indeed, but one that the modern university has not only abandoned
but reversed. Instead of universities, we now have pluraversities, institutions
that deem every viewpoint, no matter how ridiculous, just as
valid as any other-that is, except the viewpoint that just one religion
or worldview could be true. That's the one viewpoint considered intolerant
and bigoted on most college campuses.
Despite the denials streaming from our universities, we believe that
there is a way to discover unity in diversity. And if one were to discover
such unity, it would be like seeing the box top of a jigsaw puzzle. Just
as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are difficult to put together without the
picture on the box top, the many diverse pieces of life make no sense
without some kind of unifying big picture. The question is, does anyone
have the box top to this puzzle we call life? Many world religions claim
that they do. Are any of them correct?
Religion and the Box Top
World religions are often attempts to provide a box top that allows you
to see how the many pieces of life's puzzle make a complete, cohesive
picture. This picture usually-and for good reason-begins with some
sort of claim about God. What someone believes about God affects
everything else that he or she believes. When Mortimer Adler was asked
why the "God" section was the largest in the Great Books of the
Western World series (which he edited), he insightfully observed that
it's because more implications flow from the subject of God than from
any other subject. Indeed, the five most consequential questions in life
1. Origin: Where did we come from?
2. Identity: Who are we?
3. Meaning: Why are we here?
4. Morality: How should we live?
5. Destiny: Where are we going?
The answers to each of these questions depend on the existence of God.
If God exists, then there's ultimate meaning and purpose to your life. If
there's a real purpose to your life, then there's a real right and wrong way
to live it. Choices you make now not only affect you here but will affect
you in eternity. On the other hand, if there is no God, then your life ultimately
means nothing. Since there is no enduring purpose to life, there's
no right or wrong way to live it. And it doesn't matter how you live or
what you believe-your destiny is dust.
So which world religion, if any, answers the God question correctly?
Does any religion provide the true box top for life? The common wisdom
says no, for a number of reasons.
First, many say it is unreasonable to believe that one religion could
be exclusively true. If one religion were really true, it would mean that
billions of religious people from every other religious faith are wrong
today and have been wrong throughout the centuries. (And that's a big
problem if Christianity is true because Christianity seems to teach that
non-Christians are going to hell!) There's also the not unfounded fear
that those who think they have the truth will be intolerant of those who
won't accept it.
Easygoing Americans are more apt to believe that no religion is the
truth. This sentiment is often illustrated by the favorite parable of many
university professors: the parable of the six blind men and the elephant.
This is where each blind man feels a different part of the elephant and
therefore reaches a different conclusion about the object in front of him.
One grabs the tusk and says, "This is a spear!" Another feels the trunk
and says, "This is a snake!" The one hugging the leg claims, "This is a
tree!" The blind man holding the tail thinks, "I have a rope!" The one
feeling the ear believes, "This is a fan!" And the one leaning on the elephant's
side is certain, "This is a wall!" These blind men are said to represent
world religions because they each come to a different conclusion
about what they are sensing. Like each blind man, we are told, no one
religion has the truth. No one religion has the complete box top.
Religions are simply different paths up the same mountain. This, of
course, greatly appeals to the broadly tolerant American mind.
In America, truth in religion is considered an oxymoron. There is
no truth in religion, we are told. It's all a matter of taste or opinion. You
like chocolate, I like vanilla. You like Christianity, I like Islam. If
Buddhism works for you, then it's true for you. Besides, you ought not
judge me for my beliefs!
The second major problem with truth in religion is that some pieces
of life seem to defy explanation-they don't appear to fit any religious
box top. These include the existence of evil and the silence of God in the
face of that evil. These are especially powerful objections to anyone
claiming that an all-powerful (theistic) God exists. Many skeptics and
atheists argue that if one true, powerful God actually exists, then he
would intervene to clear up all the confusion. After all, if God is really
out there, then why does he seem to hide himself? Why doesn't he just
show up to debunk the false religions and end all the controversy? Why
doesn't he intervene to stop all the evil in the world, including all the religious
wars that are such a black mark on his name? And why does he
allow bad things to happen to good people? These are difficult questions
for anyone claiming that their theistic religion is true.
Finally, many modern intellectuals imply that any box top based on
religion wouldn't be legitimate anyway. Why? Because, they say, only
science yields truth. Not only has evolution removed the need for God,
they say, but only what is testable in a laboratory can be considered true.
That is, only science deals in matters of fact, while religion stays merely
in the realm of faith. So there's no sense trying to muster evidence or
facts to support religion, because that would be like mustering facts to
prove that chocolate ice cream tastes better than vanilla ice cream. You
can't prove preferences. Therefore, since they insist that religion is never
a matter of objective fact but merely subjective taste, any box top
derived from religion couldn't provide the objective picture of life we're
So where does all this leave us? Is the search for God and for life's
box top hopeless? Should we assume that there's no objective meaning
to life, and each invent our own subjective box top? Should we be content
with the professor's "I don't know" answer?
We don't think so. We believe that there is a real answer. And despite
the powerful objections we have identified (which we will address in
later chapters), we believe that the answer is very reasonable. In fact, we
believe this answer is more reasonable and requires less faith than any
other possible answer, including that of an atheist. Let's begin to show
you what we mean.
What Kind of God?
Before we go any further, let's be sure we're clear on terminology. Most
of the world's major religions fall into one of these three religious worldviews:
theism, pantheism, and atheism.
A theist is someone who believes in a personal God who created the
universe but is not part of the universe. This would be roughly equivalent
to a painter and a painting. God is like the painter, and his creation
is like the painting. God made the painting, and his attributes are
expressed in it, but God is not the painting. Major theistic religions are
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
By contrast, a pantheist is someone who believes in an impersonal
God that literally is the universe. So, rather than making the painting,
pantheists believe God is the painting. In fact, pantheists believe that
God is everything that exists: God is the grass; God is the sky; God is
the tree; God is this book; God is you; God is me; etc. Major pantheistic
religions are of the Eastern variety such as Hinduism, some forms of
Buddhism, and many forms of the "New Age."
An atheist, of course, is someone who does not believe in any type
of God. To follow our analogy, atheists believe that what looks like a
painting has always existed and no one painted it. Religious humanists
would fall into this category.
Here's an easy way to remember these three religious worldviews:
theism-God made all; pantheism-God is all; atheism-no God at all.
In fig. I.2 theism is depicted as the hand holding up the world, pantheism
as the hand in the world, and atheism as nothing but the world.
One other term that we will use frequently is agnostic. That's someone
who is unsure about the question of God.
So now that we've defined our terms, let's get back to this issue of
faith and religion.
Faith and Religion
Despite its apparent persuasiveness, the claim that religion is simply a
matter of faith is nothing more than a modern myth-it's just not true.
While religion certainly requires faith, religion is not only about faith.Facts are also central to all religions because all religious worldviews-including
atheism-make truth claims, and many of those truth claims
can be evaluated through scientific and historical investigation.
For example, theists (e.g., Christians, Muslims, Jews) say that the
universe had a beginning, while many atheists and pantheists (e.g., New
Agers, Hindus) say that it did not (the universe is eternal). These are
mutually exclusive claims. They can't both be right. Either the universe
had a beginning or it did not. By investigating the nature and history of
the universe, we can reasonably conclude that one view is right and the
The alleged resurrection of Christ presents another example.
Christians claim that Jesus rose from the dead, while Muslims say that
Jesus never even died. Again, one of these views is right and the other
wrong. How can we know which one is right? By evaluating each of
these conflicting truth claims against the historical evidence.
Notice that not only do different religions attempt to answer these
questions, but scientists also have something to say about these matters.
That is, science and religion often address the same questions: Where did
the universe come from? Where did life come from? Are miracles possible?
and so on. In other words, science and religion are not mutually
exclusive categories as some have suggested.