How do we know God is real? Questions children ask

How do we know God is real? Questions children ask May 31, 2017

questions children ask when learning the Bible“How do we know God is real? How do we know he’s not someone that because we are little you tell us he’s real but then when we’re older we find out he’s fake?”

Children ask the darndest questions!

I confess: my child-rearing philosophy was along the lines of “benign neglect.”  I sought to resource my three sons with all they needed for life and health and mental, physical and spiritual stimulation, but then pretty well got out of the way, interfering only when necessary.

They all grew up to be wonderful men, and this method, which forced them to be creative and resilient, probably helped.

My kids have long lived far away. But last year, my middle son, his lovely wife and their four New York City born children returned to Texas.

For the last several months, while house-hunting, all six of them have been living with my daughter-in-law’s parents. What’s really cool is they are all still sane and friends. And a lot of that comes from their simply superb skills as parents, far surpassing anything I could ever muster.

For the record, my husband and I offered for them to stay with us, as our house is somewhat more spacious. However, to say that our residence is not child-friendly could possibly qualify as the understatement of the year. With their decision to decline our invitation, we all stayed friends.

The children and their mother engage in daily devotions, learning to read the Bible and pray together.

Recently, the five-year-old daughter, asked, “How do we know God is real? How do we know he’s not someone that because we are little you tell us he’s real, but then when we’re older we find out he’s fake.”

From the mouths of babes . . .

So, yes, how can children know God is real when, among other things, we routinely lie to them about such magical figures as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy?

The Santa/Jesus conundrum

I admit it. The Santa Claus stuff drives me nuts. Why? My mother once told me that when she found out that Santa Claus, represented to her as real, was just a story, her childhood faith in God evaporated. Although she stayed a church-goer and passed out goodness and generosity to everyone she met, she found no comfort or hope or sense of meaning in what had become irrevocably for her the magical Santa/God continuum.

Look carefully at the words to Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

“You better watch out, you better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is comin’ to town

He’s making a list and checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is comin’ to town

He sees you when you’re sleepin’
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

I once asked my Confirmation Class (early teens) to exegete those words, draw out their meaning. As they read and talked, several said, “This is really spooky. I don’t like this at all. Why is Santa in my bedroom? Does he watch when I go to the bathroom?”

The girls were particularly troubled by the idea of this bearded man leering at them during their most private moments.

The thing is, when I decided to push the youth on this question, I felt it necessary to first check with the parents to make sure none of the students still “believed in Santa Claus.” God forbid that I should be the one to accidentally disillusion a child from believing in something that is patently false.

Unfortunately, adults often present God as a celestial Santa: some sort of white bearded male who constantly spies on us, arranging for punishment when we are bad and showering rewards when we are good.

Theological shallowness infects most of US Christianity

This kind of theological shallowness infects most of US Christianity. We’ve imposed a “This is what I want, and yes I have been good so give it to me” on a “Be holy because I am holy” Creator and Cosmic Lover of all that creation.

But at some point, the real world intrudes.

The world where good people too often suffer and the bad get rewarded.

The world where ruthless murderers mow down young girls, innocently enjoying a concert.

The world where some truly evil people get richer and richer and many of the decent find themselves crushed under the expensive and exclusive shoe leather of the uber-and-uncaring-wealthy.

The world where millions are starving and parents sell their daughters to buy food?

How do we fix this?

How do we help our children escape those theological shallows and teach and model the reality of God?

Start by carefully helping our children see fun and wonder and play and make-believe as good gifts from God.  At the same time, offer them a deep holiness of head, hands, and heart by overt actions that show care for the least among us and create a willingness to stand firmly against evil, even when it costs us.

Having said that, almost all young people experience a shipwreck of faith sometime during late adolescence and early adulthood. It’s normal and healthy. Give them space to doubt and question without the fear of condemnation. Their minds are also gifts of God to be cherished and nurtured.

And the darndest question for next week?  “How do we know that the Bible is true because all that you’re telling this is from the Bible?”

The Thoughtful PastorNote: A version of this column is slated to run in the Denton Record-Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column and would especially like questions your children/grandchildren/students ask. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions.

Photo Source: © Thefreemangroup |, modified by Christy Thomas
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  • Will Barton

    More and more of us in recent years have experienced that shipwreck of faith, only to learn that, even without God, we could still act in ways “that show care for the least among us and create a willingness to stand firmly against evil, even when it costs us.”

    • I know. And sometimes it is far healthier to do this outside a life within a church that does not teach truth to the littlest of these. Would you be willing to say more about your own shipwreck?

      • Will Barton

        Well, it was a shipwreck of faith in God, which can be jarring when you’ve spent your life imagining this omniscient being watching over you constantly, and when you’ve spent a great deal of time imagining an “afterlife” and worrying over the degree to which your current life will affect your “afterlife”.

        Now that I see all of the supernatural claims of religion as the unevidenced products of ancient religious cosmologies, a veil has been lifted from my eyes (one that I had been raised with from childhood), and it would be impossible for me to put the veil back in place.

        However, I haven’t lost faith in humanity, love, and friendship. And I do think that hints of good ethical behavior can be found in biblical texts, perhaps most obviously in the golden rule, which can be found in many ancient religions and philosophies. I’ve long since gotten over the initial shock of not believing in God, and have since found that healthy relationships with people provide just as much fulfillment as I had before, in fact more so, because those relationships are not muddied by the commandments and expectations of an imaginary being, especially the version of this being that found my life as a gay man an “abomination”.

        • I surely do understand the power of that shipwreck. Frankly, it sounds like a very healthy move for you, a major uncovering into a new and better reality. Thank you.

          • Will Barton

            You’re welcome. Thank you for asking.

          • Skeptical Realist

            You think there is more than one true reality?

  • AJ

    It is hard to break free from the Fairy Tale Christianity mindset that assures good people will live lives of sunshine and roses while bad people get lumps of coal, when in reality that simply isn’t true. Santa Claus God is an especially hard idol to stop worshiping, when said idol insists that instead of a lump of coal, you’ll be roasted for all eternity if you’re not on the “Nice” list.

    • Exactly. You’ve stated it very well. Thank you.

    • Linda Coleman Allen

      I was going to comment, but you have summed it up so well, that I can’t think of anything to add.

  • Chuck Johnson

    How do we know that God is real ?
    How do we know which God you are talking about ?
    There are as many Gods as there are Christians.

    There are as many Allahs as there are Muslims.

  • Clement Agonistes

    When I look back on what lead me to disbelieve in Santa Claus, it was his physical limitations. He lived at the North Pole, yet there was nothing there. He was fat, yet went down a chimney (we didn’t have a chimney). He wore a fake beard and my uncle’s shoes. I never made that link between Santa and God. They never shared a sameness.

    What keeps me coming back to God is that sense that everything will be set straight some day; that we are supposed to treat each other with respect and kindness, serving our fellow man.

    We all know that no matter how nice we are, this life will come to an end. If this is all that there is, then it also doesn’t matter how mean I am. Any meaning that I attribute to life is random; made up. All of those evil things that people do for their own benefit (wealth, sex, power) will still occur, only with no hope of true justice. It just … is.

    Simple evolution cannot explain our awareness of our own mortality. It cannot explain why we will sacrifice our own well-being when survival advantage goes to the selfish. Our own awareness of our existence and thoughts does not fit a godless universe. Mankind, from the earliest days, sensed that there was something more to this world than what we have physical evidence for. The alternative to God has to be more viable than God as an explanation for reality.

    For a child, especially one asking questions this deep, I think these are explanations which can be grasped.

    • jekylldoc

      We know there is a God because there must be one for life to be meaningful? Those are dangerous waters for anyone to go into.

      If we live materialistic values, then children will catch on that religion is a fable to drag out for particular situations. If we live spiritual values, then it will make sense to them that the people who take shortcuts at the expense of others are actually missing out on something.

      It’s worth asking what kind of outlook requires a Cosmic Accountant who will punish other people for “getting away with stuff.” And it’s worth asking what kind of outlook actually creates the institutions that protect us from human predators.

      • Clement Agonistes

        I think all of those questions are worth asking. We have institutions to grant justice. They cannot undo the damage that has been done to the victims, so half-failure is virtually guaranteed. Look at the examples Christy provided, and tell me those can be undone.

        My point about meaning is that if there is no God, then whatever meaning we attribute is random. Any values I choose are random. The “evil” person who is rewarded with riches will probably live a longer life than the people he abuses. His happiness is enhanced by the materialistic life he lives. To his way of thinking, spiritual people have brought unhappiness on themselves; he is not evil at all. He is not missing out on anything at all.

        If there is no God, telling a child there is a God (who has moral expectations) is no different than telling that child he/she should have spiritual values because that is the right thing to do. These are 2 equal propositions. One is no more a lie than the other.

        So, how do we teach a child right from wrong? It is with a combination of reward and punishment, right? Do the right thing, and you get a treat. Don’t do it, and you don’t get the treat. Hurt other people and you go to Time Out.

        • jekylldoc

          Actually, it’s best if Time Out is not explained as punishment. The idea is that the child is over-excited inside and having trouble doing what they know is the right thing to do, so we give them some calming time.

          I think there is a God, but God is only interested in the meaning that is truly meaningful to us. Things are not right and wrong because God arbitrarily says so (or “randomly” as you put it). We are meant to discern the right, just the way God does.

          Part of that is accepting that the Wise Guys in the mafia, who love that they get to call shots, they get drama and confrontation, they get dames whenever they want, are on the wrong track. They may think they are being rewarded, but they are missing out on the abundant life.

          Our main job with children is to model that. Not to spend our time in worry and regret over materialistic things we lack, nor to glorify celebrities and exciting entertainments, but to enjoy a life shedding the love of God in the world. Starting with them. We take an interest in them, in their thoughts, in their accomplishments, in their budding ambitions. If we are really living a life about caring, discernment, love and peace, they will see that the things which we find worth giving our attention to are actually interesting even if they aren’t “exciting” and important even if they aren’t “famous”.

          I used rewards and punishments with my kids. I understand that goes with the territory. But as much as I could, I clarified that the reward or punishment was about getting the specific action to happen, and teaching right from wrong was about understanding and putting myself in the other person’s place. I never had any doubt that my modeling spoke much louder than my words or my incentives.

          • Clement Agonistes

            Just to clarify my point, it is only if there is no God that everything (including belief in God) becomes arbitrary. If there is a God, and God says something is right or wrong, then it is no longer arbitrary.

            The “abundant life” cannot be explained to those who have not experienced it. As far as they are concerned, they are already living the abundant life. You can’t miss something if it was never a part of your life to begin with.

            I think it is fantastic that such a young child is asking these kinds of questions. It has took me decades to even start asking them, much less giving them the kind of serious thought they need. How exciting to have the opportunity for this kind of discussion. I would go as far as the child wanted to go with it.

          • jekylldoc

            I think I understood your view of God and meaning. I agree that God does not give arbitrary (or random) pronouncements about good and evil, and therefore I believe it is not God’s pronouncement which makes a thing right or wrong – rather it is a kind of verification. Obviously we don’t have a lot of ways to know what God has said was right or wrong, which was very likely intentional as it pushes us to develop our own sense of morality.

            The main difference, and the source of ideas like “without God, meaning is random”, is the human talent for self-justification. The hardest thing about morality is not really the discernment of it, but the admitting to oneself when an inconvenient principle indicates one is doing wrong. God is a good reference point, because God is never acting (or speaking) from selfishness at the expense of others. Interestingly, atheists do not seem to be any worse at admitting their own transgressions than religious people are. I don’t think they arrive at random principles.

            I also agree with you that the abundant life cannot be explained to those who haven’t experienced it. I would take it a bit further, because in my experience it is even difficult to remember the strong sense of how wonderful love is when I am in the middle of a spell of doldrums or am feeling frustrated in my projects. It is as if I have stepped out of C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe and the marvels of Narnia seem quite alien. Excitement and status appear to give a solution to that sort of thing, but down the road the person who chose them finds themselves craving more and more. We are wired that way, but God cares enough about us to seek us out with the experience of losing the self in love.

  • Skeptical Realist

    I’m still wondering how you answered your five year old grand daughter. Please share.

    I noticed you counselling an atheist who lost his faith here that his new reality is a better one for him. When did Christ ever give any hint of such a ministry? What does the Bible say about those who say “there is no God”?

  • Brandon Roberts

    knowing whether god is real or not is an impossibility imo with all due respect

  • Ivan T. Errible

    And, once again, you didn’t answer the question.
    Because there is no answer.