The Comprehension Gulf

The Comprehension Gulf is the argument that God, if He exists, is infinite, and man, being finite, cannot possibly recognize or know Him. 1

This argument is easily dismissed but let’s give the atheists and agnostics a chance to explain.

The atheist Carl Van Doren (1885-1950) wrote:

There is no trustworthy evidence as to a god’s absolute existence. . . . Nor does the thing called revelation, as I see it, carry the proof further. . . . If belief in a god has to proceed from the assumption that he exists, belief in revelation has first to proceed from the assumption that a god exists and then to go further to the assumption that he communicates his will to certain men. But both are mere assumptions. Neither is, in the present state of knowledge, at all capable of proof. Suppose a god did exist, and suppose he did communicate his will to any of his creatures. What man among them could comprehend that language? What man could take that dictation? 2

Atheist Geoffrey Berg writes:

I suppose some people might like to counter this objection by insisting that it is an essential characteristic of a monotheistic God that he can be known by us and can communicate with us. However I think, that given it is impossible for the mortal to be sure of the immortal and for the finite to be sure of the infinite, that would be asking for the impossible. Yet it is generally not supposed to be one of God’s characteristics that he accomplishes what is logically impossible. 3

Both of these writers are willing to suspend their disbelief for a little while and imagine that if God existed He would be infinite or at least be as God should be in order to qualify as God. If He existed, then He would do so as the God He would have to be in order to be God. He would be “that than which no greater thing can be thought (Anselm).”4 Or as William of Ockham put it, “that than which nothing is more noble and more perfect.”5 But, according to the Comprehension Gulf argument, man, because he is finite, would never be able to discover, recognize, or know this infinite God.

Doren and Berg prove that they are capable of imagining what God would be like if He existed. But for some reason they have trouble going one step further in their imaginations, allowing for this infinite God to be so perfect and knowledgeable that He is capable of devising a way to speak to and communicate with finite man. The question becomes, “Could an infinite, all powerful, all knowing God find a way to reveal Himself to humanity if He wanted to?” If you say “No!” then you have not imagined God big enough. In fact, if I can imagine it, He is greater still! So, if one can imagine God big enough, he should also be able to imagine a God who could cross the gulf and communicate effectively to His creation.

Let’s go a little further. If an infinite God did span the gulf and communicate to His creation, how might He do that? Through His audible voice? By making an appearance? Perhaps He would send an emissary. Maybe He would come in a disguise so as not to scare us off before we could understand the revelation. Perhaps once He established communication with someone He would ask that person to share what was revealed with others by speaking to them or even writing it down. Hmm…imagine that?!

Berg makes a curious statement (seen above) when he writes: “Yet it is generally not supposed to be one of God’s characteristics that he accomplishes what is logically impossible.”6 Of course such a characterization of God is amazingly opposite to the truth. Doing the impossible is what God specializes in! Why? Because He is God! Because He is the only One who can and because it is one of His ways of bridging the gap between finite mankind and Himself. The Apostle Paul said it well when he described God as “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17).”

When she was just a little girl (4 or 5), my daughter Katie would imagine that she was the proprietor of a candy store. Of course, then, I would be one of her customers. I remember the first time we played that game. I ordered a certain candy and she said, “Sorry, we don’t have that kind of candy.” “Hold on a minute, ” I would say, “This is an imaginary candy store, why can’t you imagine the kind of candy I want?” She wouldn’t budge! She simply refused to imagine the kind of candy I wanted!

If one wants to disqualify the idea of the existence of God through various other arguments, OK. We can talk about those ideas as well. But one should not make the mistake of disqualifying God simply because his or her imagination is not big enough. Paul knew this:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us,to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21, NIV).

NOTES 

1 Geoffrey Berg, The Six Ways Of Atheism, (Self-published: 2009), 50.

2 Carl Van Doren, “Why I Am an Unbeliever,” published in, The Portable Atheist, Christopher Hitchens (Da Capo Press, 2007), 139-140.

3 Berg, 56.

4 Alister McGrath, ed., The Christian Theology Reader, Third Edition (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 12.

5 Ibid., 23.

6 Berg, The Six Ways of Atheism, 56.

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