Of all the apologetic arguments for the existence of God, the type that is probably least persuasive to skeptics (though most philosophically compelling for believers) is ontological arguments, a category of philosophical arguments that rely on the nature of being.
Although such arguments may be of limited value in convincing atheists, they may be of more value in literary criticism and interpretation. The reason they can be useful is because they establish that the God of the Bible exists within the structure of every narrative and story that has ever been told.
Depending on your perspective this may be an absurd claim or a banal truth.* But before you dismiss it as either, let’s consider what that means and how it can illuminate literature.
Why God Must Exist in All (Possible) Worlds
(Note: Ontological arguments are a bit complicated and aren’t always easy to follow. If you get bogged down trying to make sense of this section, try skipping ahead to the end of the article and then coming back to this part later.)
The acclaimed philosopher Alvin Plantinga formulated an ontological argument that relies on modal logic and the concept known as possible worlds. As Wikipedia explains:
Those who use the concept of possible worlds consider the actual world to be one of the many possible worlds. For each distinct way the world could have been, there is said to be a distinct possible world; the actual world is the one we in fact live in. The modal status of a proposition is understood in terms of the worlds in which it is true; thus:
• True propositions are those which are true in the actual world (for example: “Richard Nixon became President in 1969.”)
• Possible propositions are those which are true in at least one possible world (for example: “Hubert Humphrey became President in 1969.”)
• Contingent propositions are those which are true in some possible worlds and false in others (for example: “Richard Nixon became President in 1969,” which is contingently true, and “Hubert Humphrey became President in 1969”, which is contingently false.)
• Necessary propositions are those which are true in all possible worlds (for example: “all bachelors are unmarried.”)
• Impossible propositions (or necessarily false propositions) are those which are true in no possible worlds (for example: “Melissa and Toby are taller than each other at the same time.”)
The main concepts to pay attention to in this list are “necessary” and “impossible.” These are propositions that either must be true or must be false in any and all possible worlds
Plantinga uses the concept of possible worlds in his case for the existence of a “maximally great being” (i.e., a being who has such qualities as omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection). A maximally great being would also be a necessary being (i.e., it must be true that the being exists). One version of his argument is as follows:
1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.
2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
Note the key premise (“It is possible that a maximally great being exists”) is a metaphysical claim (i.e., relating to the fundamental nature of being) rather than an epistemic claim (i.e., relating to what can be known). Ontological arguments often try to use the establishment of the metaphysical claim (i.e., that God’s existence is an ontological necessity) to convince people of an epistemic claim (i.e., we should believe that God exists). But I want to use it in a slightly different way that is directed toward Christian theists.
‘God in All Stories’ Theorem
Christians do not need to be convinced that God exists. We know that he exists and that he exists in this world, the actual world, the world he created. What the ontological argument helps us to establish is that God must also exist in any world in which we can imagine. The argument could be outlined as:
- By definition, only one maximally great being can exist.
- God is a maximally great being that exists in the actual world.
- If a maximally great being exists in some actual world, then that same being must exist in all possible worlds.
- Stories and narratives, whether fictional or true, are set in either the actual world or some possible world.
- Since God exists in both the actual world and all possible worlds, he necessarily exists in the world of every story or narrative (even if he is not directly acknowledged in the literary structure).
This means that, whatever the authorial intent, there can be no stories in which a writer or artist creates an imaginary world in which God—the real God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—does not already exist. By the rules of logic—which even nonsensical worlds must follow to some degree—the story cannot exclude necessary truths or necessary beings, such as the God revealed in the Bible.
Whether this “God in All Stories Theorem” has any substantial importance for literary criticism is something I’ll leave to qualified scholars of literature to ascertain. But I think there is at least one way it may prove useful to lay critics and ordinary readers of imaginary fiction.
As a reader of fantasy and sci-fi novels I tend to be drawn in by works that express a high degree of verisimilitude, or likeness to the truth. A story can have unusual or fantastical elements—such as talking animals—if it makes sense within the possible world. That is why stories that attempt to be atheistic, such as Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, don’t resonate with me. The creators of such stories are trying to camouflage the existence of the Ultimate Creator within their sub-creations.
In contrast, stories such as C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and even George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series**, seem more true because they are clearly set within a possible world that acknowledges the existence of the undeniable fact that we all know the one true God (Rom. 1:19-20). Even imaginary worlds populated with talking horses, wandering hobbits, and flying dragons feel more real because they are imbued with a tacit recognition that they are in a universe made by our God.
In this way these stories set in alternative “possible worlds” are similar to the American South as portrayed in Flannery O’Connor realistic fiction. As O’Connor once said,
[F]rom the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.
The ontological argument may not help you win over an atheist. But it can help us understand why stories are, as O’Connor might say, all most certainly Christ-haunted.
*On reflection, this idea seems obvious, which leads me to assume I wasn’t the first to think of it or develop it as a concept. If you know of someone else who has previously made this type of claim or argument, please let me know.
** Throughout the series most of the characters appear to be polytheists or henotheists. But in the fourth novel, A Feast for Crows, it becomes clear that the characters merely have a heretical view of Trinitarian monotheism:
“There is no cobbler above [referring to the Cobbler God],” Podrick protested.
“There is, lad . . . though you may call him by another name. Tell me, which of the seven gods do you love best?”
“The Warrior,” said Podrick without a moment’s hesitation.
Brienne cleared her throat. “At Evenfall my father’s septon [i.e., priest] always said there was but one god.”
“One God with seven aspects. That’s so, my lady, and you are right to point it out, but the mystery of the Seven Who Are One is not easy for simple folk to grasp, and I am nothing if not simple, so I speak of seven gods.” (p. 369-370)