I’m sure most of those who frequent the internet have come across something like the following: A picture or comment made which either explicitly or implicitly compares some sort of god (like Zeus, Thor, etc.) with the God of theism (and usually the God of Christianity in particular).
Usually these are found in (supposedly) comical depictions of Greek gods – followed by a comment that applies whatever was said about these gods to the theistic or Christian God. In other words, the two are conflated and the same ridicule is applied.
I think, for the most part, the fact that these are so common (I’ve seen many – especially on sites like Facebook) demonstrates that the common person just has absolutely no understanding of the most basic theological, philosophical, and historical concepts. It’s just simply a basic fact that the Greek gods, for example, are in a wholly different class of entity as the God of the Bible or a theistic God.
All one has to do is read the first lines of the first book of the Bible. “In the beginning God created . . .” In other words, God existed before the beginning (of time) and created the entire cosmos (which would include the physical dwelling place of the Greek gods, if they exist). So clearly, there is a difference between these two entities. God can create gods (theoretically), but gods cannot create God (ever).
One could also read the first few lines of the most popular Gospel – John – and derive from it (according to the biblical text and it’s basic concepts) that the early Christians held the belief that all things which were made – that is, that had a beginning or that had come into being at some point in the past – have their existence in virtue of God’s either direct causation or sustaining of the cosmos and all reality outside Himself.
Verse 3 in John’s Gospel says, “All things were made through Him, and without Him there was not one thing created that was created.”
This explicitly states that God is not a created thing – that is, not a thing that has come into being at some point in the past. A being without a beginning. Since, logically, God cannot create Himself (nothing can create itself), God must simply not be a created thing.
So by a simple reading of two of the most common and popular verses from the biblical text it’s clear that the Christian view of God is nothing like that of “gods.”
I’d like to make a few more points from a more philosophical vantage point.
Even if we didn’t have, let’s say, the biblical text, would the same apply? Is there a difference between just a theistic God in general and something like the Greek or Ancient Near East gods?
Throughout the years, a particular definition of God has stuck in theological and philosophical circles. Originally it comes from Anselm (and clearly doesn’t have to be derived from any religious text) and it’s the definition that God is the greatest being possible. Properties that this being would therefore possess are things like being able to do anything logically possible (omnipotence), having knowledge of all true (and thus also false) propositions (omniscience), being the paradigm of goodness and the moral law (omnibenevolence), etc.
So, for example, God wouldn’t be a being that just happens to be the most powerful being that exists, He would be the most powerful being that could ever exist! God wouldn’t just happen to possess the most knowledge possessed by all beings, He would have the most knowledge that is logically possible to have by any being!
I hope the distinction between this sort of being and the “god” concept is clear.
But there’s one last distinction that is perhaps the most important. In order to be the greatest being possible, one of the qualities or properties that this being would possess is that of necessary existence. That is, this being’s existence is logically necessary. This is a difficult concept for many to understand, but the basic distinction is between contingent entities and necessary entities.
A contingent entity is one who either could exist or could not exist. There’s nothing about the kind of entity that requires that it exist at all. For example, people, trees, televisions, etc. are all contingent things. They in fact do exist, but, logically speaking, it’s possible that they could not exist.
On the other hand, something that necessarily exists is something that logically must exist. It’s not possible for it to not exist. Some philosophers say that numbers (like the number 2), the laws of logical inference, etc. are necessary entities. That is, these things could not not exist. Now, whether these things just mentioned actually do exist (called abstract objects) and how they are grounded is itself quite a complex and extensive debate, but I mention those to just demonstrate the idea of necessary existence.
God would be like that. He cannot not exist. This also implies that this being is self-existent. This being doesn’t exist because something else brought it into existence or because something else sustains its being (like all contingent things), but simply exists by the necessity of its own nature.
So, are the Greek gods and all other “gods” this kind of being? Clearly not. But here’s the final rub. Even if we compare the theistic concept of God (greatest being possible) with that of any “god”, one might object and say, “What if there were many ‘gods’ that always existed?” That is, what if God isn’t the only being who didn’t come into existence?
The first question to ask is “Who sustains who?” That is, those eternal “gods” would still be contingent. That is, they have always existed but do not do so by logical necessity or by the necessity of their own nature.
In conclusion, the difference between the Christian or theistic concept of God is wholly different from the Greek or “god” concept that is usually conflated with the former. Here are a few of the points already made:
- The “gods” are not necessary beings – they are contingent.
- They are usually described as being physical beings – God is the source of all physical reality itself
- The “gods” are really powerful – God is the most powerful being that could ever logically exist.
- The “gods” depend upon something else for their existence – God has no such dependency as He exists by the necessity of His own nature.
- If the “gods” didn’t exist, this wouldn’t affect the state of reality much – if God (properly understood) didn’t exist, then nothing would ever be able to exist at all.
If someone is going to discount the “gods” – for whatever reason – they still have some work ahead of themselves when faced with the theistic concept of God. Do away with all the “gods” and we still have to ask questions like:
- Why does anything exist at all?
- What caused the universe – that is, all physical space-time reality (not just our local part of the multi-verse, if there is one) – to come into being?
- What grounds the moral law?
- Why are the physical constants of the universe so exquisitely finely-tuned for the existence of embodied conscious beings?
- Where did the laws of physics themselves come from?
A simple Google search for “Does God exist?” would be enough to show one that the above questions are answered rationally by many people with the answer “God.” But I think we’d be hard-pressed to find someone use the answer “a god.” The “gods” would require some sort of space-time reality to exist. God, properly understood, would not. The difference is in the “G”.