God Is Greater Than You Think

God Is Greater Than You Think

God Is Greater Than You Think

God is great. For Christians, that phrase is so axiomatic that it borders on banality. We frequently bandy the concept of greatness about while infrequently defining the word. What does it really mean for God to be great?

“Great” is a common term: I ate a great slice of pizza for lunch, heard a great song on the radio, and went to a great football game last weekend. Used in this way, the term “great” means that the noun it modifies—the pizza, the laptop, and the game—pleases me in some way.

When I say that God is great, I don’t mean that God pleases me and is thus great; God’s greatness is independent of how I feel about Him. God is great when I identify with David and say: “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.”[1] God, however, remains great when I identify with Moses and say to God: “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble.”[2]

When I say that God is great, I mean that God has certain properties and characteristics which together constitute greatness. For example, God is great because He is loving; the property of being loving makes something great. Imagine having an extremely annoying neighbor: Regardless of what you think would be more satisfying, would you be a greater person if you were loving toward them or if you killed their flowers while they slept? Obviously, you are a greater person if you show them love and kindness—especially if you don’t think they deserve it. The reason is that the property of being loving makes things greater. Similarly, God is great because He is merciful; the property of being merciful makes something greater. When I say, “God is great,” I mean that He has many characteristics which, considered together, constitute greatness. Greatness is thus somewhat of a shorthand way of speaking about God and His characteristics.

Though this is a relatively simple idea, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) used God’s greatness to argue for a huge conclusion. In his concise, understandable Proslogion, Anselm argued that God is so great that if you can think of God, then He necessarily exists.

To start off, Anselm defines the term God. What do you mean when you say God? For Christians, we mean that God is that “than which nothing greater can be thought.”[3] In other words, we mean that God is that being who holds all great-making qualities—such as being loving, merciful, kind, wise, compassionate, knowledgeable, fair, holy, orderly, eternal etc.—to their greatest possible extent. Not only is this what Christians mean by God, everyone, even an atheist, whom Anselm calls the fool after Psalm 14.1 and 53.1, understands this definition.

Since atheists understand this definition, Anselm says that God exists at least in their understanding. To help you get a grasp on the idea of existing in the understanding: Imagine writing a paper on your favorite book. Like any good writer, you know exactly what you want the paper to say before you write it. You understand the paper’s argument and form, premises and conclusions prior to writing. In a sense, then, the paper exists in your understanding prior to the writing process. Another example: A painter conceives of a painting before painting it. Before she paints it, the painting exists in her understanding alone; once she paints it, however, the painting now exists in reality to be enjoyed by everyone. With this distinction in mind, Anselm argues that if the atheist understands what Christians mean by God—that He is the greatest conceivable being—then God exists at least in their understanding.

Since God exists in the atheist’s understanding, the atheist has a problem: By definition, God is the greatest being. However, God would be greater if He existed in reality than existing only in the understanding. Here’s why: It is generally greater for something to exist in reality than to exist in the understanding. Imagine a work of art: Would Beethoven’s “5th Symphony” have been greater if he had left it in his understanding, or is it greater because He composed it for an orchestra? By existing outside of Beethoven’s understanding, the symphony takes on new qualities and is thus greater. Similarly, in God’s case, if God existed in my understanding alone, He would not be very great. He would, for example, lack the great-making qualities of independence, self-existence, and free will, to name but a few. Since God exists in reality, He is independent, exists by necessity of His own nature, and can do anything He wants, even if He chooses to do things that we don’t like. Existing in reality is thus essential to God’s greatness.

Here’s the problem: If the atheist thinks that God exists only in her understanding, the atheist is saying that the greatest being is not the greatest being, which is a contradiction. This is like saying that Jones is and is not mowing his lawn at the same time and in the same sense—it simply cannot be true. Since it is greater to exist in reality than in the understanding, God, who is the greatest being, must, by definition, exist in reality. To say anything less is to slide into irrationality through contradiction. Therefore, if anyone understands what we mean by the term God, then they are on the path to realizing that God “exists so truly that [He] cannot even be thought not to exist.”[4]

God has so many wonderful qualities that the only way we can explain them is simply to say: “God is great.” God is so great that if you can think of Him, it follows that He necessarily exists by virtue of His own nature.

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever!”[5]

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Notes & Sources

[1] Psalm 145.3, all Scripture quotations are NIV.

[2] Psalm 90.15.

[3] Anselm, “Proslogion,” in Proslogion: With the Replies of Gaunilo and Anselm, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001), 7.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] Romans 11.33-36.