Desire as Argument for God

By Paul Copan:

If humans are multi-dimensional, faith and apologetics must be too.

This final point gets important reinforcement in philosopher Clifford Williams’ excellent and accessible book Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith.[6] I highly recommend it. Williams argues that we are right to emphasize existential human longings and needs, not simply “reason” or “evidence,” as traditionally understood. Indeed, it is easy for Christian apologists to overstress “reason” and underemphasize “need.”  Yet both are important and are part of a holistic gospel message; both are factors in unbelievers coming to faith.  According to Williams, need is a “triggering condition.”  So no wonder the Jesus’ words reach the very depths of our being when he calls himself the bread of life (Jn. 6:35); when he promises to give “water of life” so that we will never thirst again (Jn. 4:10; 7:38); when he tells those who are weary and burdened that, if they come to him, he will give them rest for their souls (Mt. 11:28-30); when he claims he has come to give the fullest life possible (Jn. 10:10).

Furthermore, as C.S. Lewis argued, it would seem strange that we would have hunger or thirst if no food or water were around to satisfy it.  Likewise, it would seem legitimate to consider our deepest inner needs as well.  What if our deepest needs actually point to an ultimate source of satisfaction beyond the this-worldly?  In the spirit of the philosopher Blaise Pascal (famed proponent of the “wager argument” for belief in God), Clifford Williams lays out the argument this way:

  1. Humans have an indefinite and intense craving for true happiness.
  2. Only faith in God satisfies this craving.
  3. If only faith in God satisfies this craving, then we are justified in having it.
  4. Therefore, we are justified in having faith in God.

While not arguing that the Christian faith is true, this “existential” argument asserts that faith in God is justified or legitimate to have since “it brings about the satisfaction of the indefinite and intense craving mentioned in the first premise.”[7] We have been created with certain crucial needs, and it makes sense God alone would be capable of fulfilling them.


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  • Tim

    The only quibble I have with Williams’s four points is that I think the Bible teaches that it is a relationship with God which satisfies, not the faith that is a necessary component of that relationship.


  • Appealing to the authors of the false trilemma and a false dichotomy is not an auspicious start for Paul.

    I first encountered this argument in Lewis’ formulation. As with all of C. S. Lewis’ apologetics, it is appealingly common-sensical. Yet, as with all of C. S. Lewis’ apologetics, something just doesn’t smell right. It is like standing before a facade of a castle but detecting only the whiff of new paint instead of an aura old stone. I sense that there is a glaring counter argument but it has remained just out of reach. Until this feeling resolves itself, I think that I can safely ignore this kind of metaphysical pseudo-psychology.

  • Luke Allison

    I guess my only problem with this line of thinking (and Keller’s reformulation of it in The Reason for God) is that I don’t frequently feel any sort of ultimate satisfaction in my relationship with God. If anything, becoming aware of Jesus’ existence has made potentially more anxious and unsatisfied with the mundanities of life.

    It’s one thing to suggest that God CAN satisfy those ultimate longings, it’s another to suggest that he WILL or DOES. I operate in the belief that endurance despite the hidden face of God is the proper mode of “faith” (the substance of things unseen).

    Frankly, the hiddenness of God has been far more of a constant for me than his satisfying presence. Of course, I haven’t done a great deal to cultivate a hunger for that presence either.

  • Scott Gay

    Please read the essay “The Anti-Purpose-Driven Life” by Lincoln Swain(pseuodonym) for the existential 101 position on happiness.

  • MatthewS

    Luke, your comment resonates more or less with much of my experience as well.

    FWIW, I don’t see this line of reasoning to be an invitation, “come to Jesus and be completely happy.” Rather, I see it as an investigation into the results of “He has also set eternity in the human heart…” My dog and cat suffer very little existential angst. But it is part of the human experience to have a certain existential restlessness. We dream about better things, better even, than our experience on this earth will ever realize. How is it we know to long for more than our experience warrants? Where does this searching, this desire for beauty, art, justice, happiness, significance, purpose in life – where does this come from?

    I see it more as a consideration of the desire itself than of a promise of fulfillment in this life.

  • Luke Allison

    “I see it more as a consideration of the desire itself than of a promise of fulfillment in this life.”

    Agreed. I just like to talk about the existential aspect more than the concept itself. How does this idea get played out in real life if it’s really true?

    I’ve heard many rhetorical presentations (sermons, lectures) that use this concept as a silver bullet of sorts. The speaker rarely goes as far as you have gone in explaining it. Why? Because very few people will make an emotional decision on the spot based on the consideration of a desire. But many people will do so based on a promise of fulfillment in this life.

    Good thoughts, brother.

  • I think Williams is spot on to identify this ‘God impulse”. It is not just hypothesis, rather a widely discussed phenomenon. Here are few authors that tend to agree with this analysis:

    We are made in such a way as to be worshipfully inclined. ~ Christopher Hitchens

    The desire for immortality is an unfathomably deep urge – so deep and powerful and primal that it can best be considered as a basic component of the human psyche. ~ Robert Buckman

    The religious impulse, the quest for meaning ant transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity. ~ Sociologist Peter Berger

    I think the strength of this argument for the “God impulse” is best contrasted with a materialistic worldview. If evolutionary development is purely a design of survival, then there is no logical explanation for a ‘God impulse’. Early attempts to dismiss a ‘God impulse’/ Axiomatic Impulse through a materialistic world included blaming it on a ‘glitch’ in brainwave functions. The thought was that individuals who had this ‘glitch’ were given more drive to survive and thus reproduced on a greater scale than those humans with out the glitch. Recent developments into neuroscience tend to disagree this working hypothesis around the ‘glitch’ in the human brain. The best availible research on the human brain suggest that there is no such biological/neurological evidence. The brain is just not that simple.

    I encourage you to check out “The Spiritual Brain- A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul”

  • John Inglis

    Note that Copan writes “true happiness” and not “mere / superficial happiness”. The former is more existential and the latter more feelings based. This would account for feelings of satisfaction without having what the world teaches us to believe is happiness.

    Eventuallly, when Jesus comes again and reigns in full, we will have both existential satisfaction and proper feelings of happiness. Until then we only get tastes of both as part of the inbreaking of his comming kingdom.

    For my part I experience what Copan writes about, and so get what he’s saying. Thus I disagree with those who do not find Copan persuasive because they don’t personally experience what he writes about.