Pascal and Paul
Blaise Pascal was a remarkable scholar of mid-17th century France. Home-schooled by his father (his mother having died when he was three), he showed astounding intellectual skills as a youth. By the time he was twelve, he had figured out the equivalent of many of Euclid’s geometrical theories. At nineteen, he invented the first workable calculator. He formulated the “theory of probability.” In physics he set forth the concept that a fluid in a closed system exerts pressure equally in all directions. This is known as “Pascal’s Law.”
Eventually, Pascal’s interests in scientific matters waned, and he gravitated more towards religion. He commenced a serious study of the Scriptures and became convinced of the divine inspiration of these documents. When he was about thirty-five, Pascal began to prepare An Apology [Defense] for the Christian Religion. He died (at thirty-nine), however, before it was completed—leaving only a collection of notes. These were published after his death under the title, Pensees (“Thoughts”).
In these reflections, Pascal contemplated such matters as the misery of man without God, justice, morality, Bible prophecy, miracles, evidences for the integrity of Jesus Christ, etc. He argued that it is a safer proposition (a better “bet”) to believe in God and have the possibility of a blissful eternity, than to accept the premise of atheism—that there is nothing in eternity—and risk losing all. In its more elaborate format, this is known as “Pascal’s Wager.” Atheists have attempted to formulate a similar “wager,” though without any remnant of success.
Though Pascal did not exclude “reason” from arriving at faith in God, he did disdain the attempt “to prove Divinity from the works of nature,” suggesting that such was a very “weak” approach to theistic apologetics. The young man went so far as to claim: “It is an astounding fact that no canonical writer has ever made use of nature to prove God” (1941, 243). Voltaire, a French deist, was shocked at this claim. He wondered why, if “the heavens declare the glory of God,” anyone would “downplay the external evidence for God in nature” (Geisler 1999, 585). That is a legitimate question.
The fact is, it is not the case that the canonical writers refrained from arguing the case for God’s existence from the works of nature. One example will suffice for the present.
Near the commencement of his letter to the Christians in the city of Rome, Paul indicts the ancient Graeco-Roman world for its intellectual rejection of the world’s Creator. The apostle declared these rebels: (a) did not glorify God; (b) refused to give him thanks; (c) were vain in their reasoning ability; (d) had senseless hearts that were darkened; (e) were fools; and (f) corrupted the glory of God by their idol worship of the material creation (Romans 1:21-23).
As a consequence of this haughty and wicked disposition, they were “without excuse” (v. 20), and so God “gave them up” (vv. 24,26,28). Their disobedience was willful; they “refused to have God in their knowledge” (v. 28), and they were destined for “death,” i.e., the punishment of hell (cf. Revelation 2:11; 20:14).
The Rationale for the Indictment
The basis for Paul’s charge is that though these pagans had no formal written revelation from God (as the Jews did; cf. 2:12-16), they had sufficient revelation to “know” something of God that should have prevented their heathenish idolatry and the moral abandonment that characterized their lives. Here is his proposition:
For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity (1:20).
Let us give consideration to the constituent elements of this magnificent statement. There are four major areas of emphasis.
(1) There are qualities of God that are designated as “invisible.” This is consistent with biblical information elsewhere that affirms God himself is “invisible” (Colossians 1:15; 1 Timothy 1:17; Hebrews 11:27). One of Job’s frustrations, in making his defense of innocence, was that he could not confront God personally; he could not “perceive” or “see” him (Job 23:8-9). The fact is, no man has seen the “spirit essence” of the Almighty at any time (John 1:18).
The “invisible things” (aoratos) are the “attributes” unique to deity, e.g., his omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful) qualities. As the apostle later exclaims: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out” (Romans 11:33).
(2) While these divine attributes are not directly perceptible, nonetheless through the process of solid logic, they may be deduced. The paradox “invisible” and “clearly seen” is for the sake of emphasis. The term kathorao (“clearly seen”) is an intensive term that asserts God’s invisible attributes are “perceived with the eye of reason” by an examination of the components of the created universe (Danker et al. 2000, 493). “Perceived” (noeo) carries the idea of grasping or comprehending something on the basis of careful thought (Ibid., 674). The evidence, to the extent it is designed to take us, is so vivid that the one who refuses to draw correct conclusions stands “without excuse” before his Maker.
(3) The testimony of the intricately designed universe has been a revealing library of information available for human observation and analysis for millennia. In fact, “since the creation of the world.” The Greek preposition apo (“since”) indicates “the point from which something begins” (Ibid., 105). “Creation” (ktisis, derived from ktizo) signifies to “bring something into existence”—from nothing to something (Ibid., 572). The kosmos is “the universe,” the “sum” of all that has been created (Bromiley 1985, 462). Both expressions, “are clearly seen” and “perceived,” are present tense forms, thus indicating “the continued manifestation of the being and perfections of God, by the works of creation from the beginning” (McKnight 1960, 58).
As Professor Everett Harrison observed, there has been a “constant testimony” to humanity ever since the beginning of the creation (1976, 23). God has borne “witness” of himself in the benevolence of his creation (Acts 14:17). Incidentally, the text clearly testifies to the fact that humanity is co-existent with the commencement of the material universe—quite to the contrary of evolutionary chronological assertion that man is but a Johnny-come-lately compared to the age of the universe (see Jackson 2003).
(4) The created universe bears witness to Jehovah’s “eternal power and divine nature” (ESV). Paul’s argument actually is this: The material universe is not self-existent. It hasn’t the nature to design and create itself; it must have been brought into existence by something of the “supernatural” order, i.e., “divine nature.”Since it is orderly, it cannot have resulted from the chaotic. It is finite; it must have resulted from the infinite. It is characterized by dissipating energy; it must have been generated by an “everlasting power.” With a simple phrase, the apostle has constructed a basic argument with breathtaking implications.
Cottrell forcefully notes that Paul appears to be arguing
a basic form of what is called the cosmological argument for the existence of God . . . .The created universe consists only of contingent things, i.e., things that have a beginning and are perishable. From their existence we infer that their cause must be a Creator who is not contingent, and who is therefore eternal and imperishable (1996, 140).
From certain known facts relative to the universe, one may reason in an a posteriori fashion, i.e., from known effects to an unknown cause. If the universe is an effect, it must have had a cause. If matter is unable to create itself, it must have had an origin generated by an eternal creative force. If the universe evidences intelligent design, it must have had an intelligent designer. If the universe is characterized by a sense of morality, its source must possess a moral quality, etc.
The force of this argument, of course, is limited by nature of the data with which one has to work. One scholar has judiciously commented that this type of argument
is a limited testimony in that it reflects God in certain aspects only—namely, “his eternal power and divine nature.” One has to look elsewhere for the disclosure of his love and grace—i.e., to Scripture and especially to the revelation of God in his Son (John 1:14). Natural revelation is sufficient to make man responsible, but is not by itself sufficient to accomplish his salvation (Harrison 1976, 23).
Thus, as much as we may otherwise admire inventive genius and logical skill of the celebrated Pascal, he did “miss the target” when he alleged that the canonical writers never argued for the existence of God on the basis of the natural wonders of the universe.
Scripture references: Romans 1; Romans 1:21-23; Revelation 2:11, 20:14; Colossians 1:15; 1 Timothy 1:17; Hebrews 11:27; Job 23:8-9; John 1:18; Romans 11:33; Acts 14:17; John 1:14
- Bromiley, Geoffrey W., ed. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament – Abridged. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Cottrell, Jack. 1996. Romans – The College Press NIV Commentary. Vol. 1. Joplin, MO: College Press.
- Danker, F.W. et al. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Geisler, Norman L. 1999. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
- Harrison, Everett. 1976. Romans – The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 10. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Jackson, Wayne. 2003. Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth. Stockton, CA: Courier Publications.
- McKnight, James. 1960. Apostolic Epistles. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
- Pascal, Blaise. 1941. Pensees & The Provincial Letters. New York, NY: The Modern Library.