What is God? What do we mean by the word “God”? Is it a personal name, like “Jim,” or the name of a species, like “sheep,” or the name of a universal principle, like “justice”?

This is the most basic question in theology. Everything else we believe is based on our answer to this question. If we have a wrong conception of God, then all our other doctrines will be built on an unstable foundation. In fact, I have become persuaded that a number of confusions and disagreements we have today, both among Christians and non-Christians, come from a flawed grasp of who and what God is.

In this post I want to offer some analogies to help us think about God and how he relates to the world. Each analogy is imperfect by itself, but corrected by the others.

This post is in four sections:

  1. God is transcendent
  2. God is the source of reality
  3. Common mistakes from forgetting this
  4. The limits of this way of thinking

1.   God is Transcendent

What does “transcendent” mean? Originally it simply meant “beyond.” But in philosophy it now means “beyond our own physical Universe.” How can we conceive something beyond our Universe? We can perhaps use an analogy.

Analogy 1: Flatland

For this analogy we need to imagine a two-dimensional world, completely flat, without any concept of thickness. The only directions are left, right, forward and back. There is no up and down. There are no spheres, only circles. There are no cubes, only squares. The creatures who inhabit this world are also 2D, incapable of moving or thinking in 3D. For them, a line is an impenetrable barrier. If a square is drawn around one of them, then they cannot escape it by going over or under it, because there is no such thing as “over” or “under” in that world.

Now let’s imagine how a 3D creature, like you or I, might interact with these 2D “flatties.” We could step over walls (lines) with ease, or even see both the inside and the outside of a locked room at the same time. If we touched a part of their world with our finger, it would seem to them that a circle had appeared out of nowhere.

How could we explain to a flatty that we inhabited 3D space? The words “up” and “down” would have no meaning. We’d have to use words they already know to explain that we were beyond their world in a way they could never fully understand, at least not while they remained 2D.

Notice also that flatties could never prove the existence of “thickies” – 3D creatures – to one another. The only kind of evidence they can show is 2D evidence, which by its very nature misses the reality they want to demonstrate.

Now, God is transcendent in the same way that a 3D creature is transcendent to a 2D world. He is beyond our Universe altogether. His existence cannot be proved on the basis of 3D evidence because by his very nature he is beyond what that 3D evidence can show.

2.    God is the Source of Reality

But transcendence isn’t the only definition of God. Many transcendent creatures might exist, but they wouldn’t be what we mean by “God.” The name “God” also denotes the source of our reality, the Creator of our Universe. But to get this idea across we need another analogy.

Analogy 2: Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books.

J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books.

The Harry Potter books were written by J.K. Rowling. In them she describes a fantasy world, where wizards and witches can cast magical spells and perform miraculous feats with their power.

The most powerful evil wizard is Lord Voldemort, who is the main bad guy in the whole Harry Potter series.

But is Lord Voldemort more powerful than J.K. Rowling? Could he ever defeat her in a one-on-one battle?

Lord Voldemort, the main bad guy of the Harry Potter books.

Lord Voldemort, the main bad guy of the Harry Potter books.

Of course, the answer is no. Why not? It’s not just that J.K. Rowling is more powerful than Voldemort. The truth is more absolute than that. Voldemort doesn’t have any power of his own that J.K. Rowling didn’t give him in the first place. In the Harry Potter Universe, Voldemort could never possibly defeat Rowling by virtue of the relationship between Rowling and the Harry Potter Universe. Why? Because she is its creator. She decides the rules, what magic spells work and don’t work.

Also notice this: no one could ever find out more about J.K. Rowling than she chooses to reveal to them. If Harry Potter finds a spell that can enable him to communicate with her, this is only because J.K. Rowling has decided that such a spell exists. Everything lies on her initiative.

God relates to the Universe the way an author relates to a book, as its Creator. Now to say that God is the creator doesn’t only mean that God kickstarted the world and then left it to go its own way. An author of a novel doesn’t only write its first line. The world couldn’t possibly go its own way for a microsecond without God continuing to “write” it. The Christian doctrine of creation has nothing to do with whether Genesis 1 should be taken literally or not. It is far more fundamental than that. It says that there is no particle, no law of physics or nature, no moment in time, that is not 100% dependent on God for its very existence.

The Ontological Difference

The word “ontological” means “type of reality.” For example, if I have a dream in which I am the King of Sweden, the dream is real, but it’s only real as a dream. Its reality is ontologically different from waking life. In fact, its reality is dependent on waking life, because if I did not inhabit the real world, I could not be dreaming.

In the same way, God is ontologically different from our Universe. He is real in a different way than the Universe is real.

3.   Common Mistakes from Forgetting This

Atheist Mistakes

Both believers and atheists often forget these definitions of God, and thus start saying things that couldn’t possibly be true if God is the transcendent source of reality. David Bentley Hart puts it this way:

The most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God … is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically.[1]

One example of this mistake is what Richard Dawkins says in the following:

I have found it an amusing strategy, when asked whether I am an atheist, to point out that the questioner is also an atheist when considering Zeus, Apollo, Amon Ra, Mithras, Baal, Thor, Wotan, the Golden Calf and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.[2]

This involves an understandable but unfortunate mistake about the difference between capital “G” God and lowercase “g” gods which is not the plural of “God.” “gods” means supernatural beings who live inside the Universe and are part of it  in the same way we are, whether they exist or not. The Bible itself, even though it is a monotheistic book, uses the term “gods” in this way (for example, Psalm 82, 86, 98).

This is Dawkins’ own definition of God:

A theist believes in a supernatural intelligence who, in addition to his main work of creating the universe in the first place, is still around to oversee and influence the subsequent fate of his initial creation.[3]

Do you notice here how, in Dawkins’ imagination, God is inside our reality? He is not the creator of time, because he first created the Universe and now oversees it, as if the Universe could continue existing all by itself after God had created it, and as if God’s timeline were the same as ours.

Charismatic Mistakes

But believers have also made mistakes when talking about God. We forget these basic definitions whenever we say that God must “intervene” in our lives, or “interrupt” the natural order, or “break in” as if he were not always already there. Charismatic churches are especially guilty of this, when they suppose that God is only present in supernatural interventions, and completely absent from the natural order.

We make this mistake whenever we think of salvation as an escape from the natural order, rather than as a restoration of it.

We make this mistake whenever we think of “ordinary” as bad. For example, I remember one woman who thought she was paying Jesus a compliment when she said “Nothing, absolutely nothing about Jesus was ordinary!” But if we remember the above definition of God, then quite the opposite could be said. Jesus was the most ordinary human being who ever lived; he defines the standard for normal. It is we who are abnormal in our sin, until we are conformed to the image of Christ.

Open Theist Mistakes

Some Christian writers make mistakes when they discuss whether God “controls our circumstances” or not. I once read a book by John Boykin called Circumstances and the Role of God: How God Operates in Your Life.[4] The title already betrays the problem: circumstances are one thing, God is another, and God may or may not “operate” to take a “role” in your circumstances. For Boykin, the Universe can continue by itself without God’s involvement – space and time are realities apart from his sustaining power. Boykin argues that God does not normally (in his words) “tinker in your circumstances” – you’re largely on your own! Boykin’s understanding of God is more like to that of a lowercase “god” – a powerful being who might come in and do something, or might not,  a distant god who only occasionally takes the stage, nothing like the Reality, more real than anything else, who pervades every moment of existence and apart from whom there is simply Nothing.

Intelligent Design Mistakes

The Intelligent Design movement tends to forget this definition of God when it tries to prove his existence by pointing to gaps in our biological explanations of living things. This God is known as the “God of the gaps” in which God is used as an explanation for anything science can’t yet explain, like irreducible complexity in organisms. But as David Bentley Hart says,

In the light of traditional theology the argument from irreducible complexity looks irremediably defective, because it depends on the existence of causal discontinuities in the order of nature, “gaps” where natural causality proves inadequate. But all the classical theological arguments regarding the order of the world assume just the opposite: that God’s creative power can be seen in the rational coherence of nature as a perfect whole.[5]

There is no need to prove that God works in nature by pointing to things that “couldn’t” have happened naturally on their own. On the contrary, nothing happens naturally on its own; everything could only have happened because the Author of the Universe made it happen.

Barthian Mistakes

Followers of the great theologian Karl Barth sometimes make this mistake too. For example, I read a book by the Barthian scholar George Hunsinger called Disruptive Grace, which is about the way God comes down and disturbs the natural, sinful order in a radically unpredictable way.[6] Now of course, this rightly notes that God is not predictable, but wrong in its reasons. God is unpredictable precisely because he is transcendent, higher than our categories of reason. But God is not radically unpredictable: all his creation bears the imprint of the likeness of the creator. Just as a cube looks like a square in a 2D universe, and a square is similar to but greatly diminished from a cube, so the reality of God transcends without contradicting what we can see naturally. In general the Barthian position comes from a confusion between sin and nature, which comes from only seeing God in the supernatural and not recognising God’s presence in the created natural order.

4.   The Limits of this Way of Thinking

Interestingly, Richard Dawkins does believe in something like the foundational concept of God, but he thinks we shouldn’t call it “God”:

Time and again, my theologian friends returned to the point that there had to be a reason why there is something rather than nothing. There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name God. Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers).[7]

Dawkins’ problem only comes in after the most foundational definition. He doesn’t like the “baggage” that comes with the word “God.”

Because of course, no religion believes only in a transcendent source of reality. Christians, for example, believe many more things about God than this. They believe God is loving, righteous, compassionate, merciful, and that he came to earth in human form to save us from our sin (like a 3D creature becoming 2D to communicate with flatties, or like J.K. Rowling writing a book in which she enters the world of Harry Potter). But in order to explain how these things relate I will use one final analogy.

Analogy 3: Shadows and Objects

Consider the shadow of this cube.

If we couldn’t see the cube but only its shadow, what could we learn about the cube?

  1. We would know first of all that it exists. If there were no cube, there wouldn’t be any shadow.
  2. We would know a little bit about its size and shape, but not much.

If we then turned to see the cube, we would learn more about it than we could ever learn just from the shadow. But nothing that we learned would contradict what the shadow revealed.

Learning about God from natural reasoning is like learning about a cube from its shadow. We cannot learn very much at all, and we rely on God to reveal himself to us in order to learn any more.

Christians believe that God revealed himself in the events recorded in the Bible, and told us all kinds of things we could never have known otherwise. These things are built on the foundation of the above definition of God, and therefore they never contradict it. But they do go far beyond and above our natural reasoning processes. The truth is more wonderful, beautiful, and glorious than anything we could have imagined on our own.

[1] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale University Press, 2014), 32.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 1st Mariner Books ed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 2008), 77.

[3] Ibid., 35.

[4] John Boykin, Circumstances and the Role of God: How God Operates in Your Life (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1986).

[5] Hart, The Experience of God, 38.

[6] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, Revised ed. edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001).

[7] Dawkins, The God Delusion, 184–5.

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Barney is the lead editor for the site. A theology fellow at Oxford University, he also hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers.