When an honest comparison and contrast is performed between the big three worldview options (naturalism, pantheism, and theism), theism easily comes out on top as the superior worldview.
Imagine a person examining a buffet holding several different “foods,” each one in a large container. One of them is full of cement casserole. Another has dirt pudding. Still another has macaroni and cheese, but it is old, stale and has green cotton-like mold growing on it. Finally, there is a container with hot and fresh lasagna. If the observer of the buffet had to make a choice about which food to eat for dinner, and must choose only from the options on the buffet, then his choice would be obvious. A comparison of the “foods” would make it apparent that the hot and fresh lasagna is the only real alternative, far superior to the other selections.
The same thing happens when we compare and contrast various religious and philosophical systems. It will become clear as we put them side by side that Christian theism stands alone as far superior.
Every person has a worldview. All people are wearing philosophical “sunglasses” that tint the way we interpret the world around us. Though many people are oblivious that they even have one, it is possible to be keenly aware of our worldview. In fact, we can apply certain tests to it in order to see if it is true. We can even change it, if the evidence leads us to do so.
But there is a problem. In attempting to choose a worldview, people have a tendency to grow frustrated, because there seems to be so many worldview possibilities. A person can choose from atheism, agnosticism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Scientology, Mormonism, deism, or hundreds of others. How do ordinary folks weed through all these options and make a decision, especially about a matter as important as this? How does a person choose his religion, or choose not to have one at all?
It is not as difficult as it may seem. It might surprise you that there are essentially only three broad worldviews categories on the buffet. All available religious and philosophical options can be listed underneath one of them. This really simplifies the process. So let’s move into an examination of these three categories.
The Big Three Worldview Categories
First, there is naturalism. You probably already know that naturalists contend that the only things that exist are natural things; there is nothing other than the physical. They do not believe that there is a spiritual realm: no angels, no spirits, no souls, no god(s), or anything else that is not composed of matter and energy.
The second major category is called pantheism. There are many religions and philosophies that are defined as pantheistic, the largest of which is Hinduism. Pure pantheists are the opposite of pure naturalists, stating that only spirit exists. They combine the concept of “god” with creation itself. So they look at trees and say trees are god, or at least an extension of god. They look at rocks and rivers and say these too, are a divine spark of god. They look in the mirror and say that ultimately they themselves are god, exhibiting the essence of the divine. Hence the name pantheism; “Pan” means all and “theism” means god.
It is important to note that pantheists do not believe that “god” is what Christians say God is. The pantheist maintains that god is just a word to describe the indescribable. To them “god” is an impersonal thing, more of a force than a personality.
We see a clear picture of their views in the Star Wars movies, where the Jedi hope the “force” is with them. What is this force? It is not a person, but just a movement – a connection of life forms. Pantheists believe that all things are connected to this god-like force.
The third major worldview category is called theism, which is the belief system that says there is a creator God who is separate from his creation. He is not a tree, rock, or planet, but he made trees, rocks, and planets, and he is above and separate from those things.
Different Types under the Big Three
Every belief system can be classified underneath one of these big three worldview categories, or some combination of them. However, it must be repeated for the sake of fairness and clarity, there are many different types of worldviews under each category, some of which have considerable overlap. Just as there are many different types of dogs (i.e., dachshunds, cocker spaniels, and border collies) and yet all of them are essentially dogs, so there are many different types of naturalists, and yet all of them are essentially naturalists. The same is true for pantheists and theists.
For example, many Buddhists are pantheistic and so are many Hindus. But they would describe their pantheistic beliefs in different ways, sometimes extremely different ways. Yet at the core, they are both pantheistic religions.
Likewise, there are many different types of theists. Christians are theists, believing in a creator God, separate from creation, but so are Muslims and Jews. These religions are all different expressions of the theistic worldview category.
When we examine worldviews, we certainly want to be fair to each type, and respect the differences between them. But since we can group every type under one of the big three categories, it does simplify the process of testing worldviews to see which of the big three is superior. To this testing process we now turn.
Testing the Big Three
What is involved in taking tests in school? Questions! When you take a test in your science class, you have to be able to answer the questions your teacher asks. This is easier for some people than others. Some people study hard and can provide the right answers, or at least better ones. But other folks, particularly those who watched TV until two o’clock in the morning, rather than reviewing their study guide, supply wrong or inferior answers.
In the same way, some worldview categories can answer questions better than others. So let’s ask five of the most important test questions we can think of, and see which worldview category – naturalism, pantheism, or theism – answers the questions best.
Question 1: What Is Really Real?
This question is perhaps the most basic question of all, and it takes us to the Cosmological Argument. It is basically the same question as, “What is the first cause?” James Sire, in his book Discipleship of the Mind tells the story of an eternal Elephant to help us understand the question better:
One day a little boy came to his father and asked, “You know, Dad, our teacher just showed us that the world is really round and that it is just out there alone. Gee, Dad, what holds it up?”
His father, thinking his son would be satisfied with a child’s answer, said, “Well, son, a camel holds the world up.” His son, always trusting his father, looked puzzled but walked away satisfied – for a while.
The next day after he thought this over, he came back to his dad and asked the obvious question. “Dad, you know, you said yesterday the world rests on a camel. But what holds the camel up?”
His father, a bit perplexed, quickly thought, “You know, this kid’s got a good question. I don’t know the answer to it, but I’d better make up one – and fast.” Like most fathers he knew instinctively that a quick answer turneth away further questions. So he said with confidence, “Son, a kangaroo holds the camel up.”
So his son went away but returned a short time later and said, “Hey, Dad. I’ve still got a problem. What holds up the kangaroo?”
His father was now desperate, so he thought quickly and figured he would make one last try. So he searched his mind for the largest animal he could think of, and he put a capital on it and said loudly (if you shout, people believe you): “An Elephant holds the world up.”
“Come on, Dad,” his son said, having now caught on that his father was not getting to the bottom of things, “what holds up the Elephant?”
So his father came back in an exasperated stroke of pure genius, “Son, it’s Elephant all the way down.”
The little boy in this story wanted his dad to get to the bottom of things. For the dad, the Elephant is uncaused and is the foundation for everything else that exists! So the really real is that which is eternal and upon which everything else rests. It is ultimate reality, or the first thing. And as Sire’s story helps us see, there must logically be something that holds everything else up. Different worldviews disagree on what this first cause is. Let’s see how each of the big three categories defines the really real.
The Answer of Naturalism
Naturalists hold that the really real is matter and energy – stuff like atoms, molecules, dirt, dust, and the like, which forms into bigger things like stars, planets, and people. Lifeless matter and energy is ultimate reality, the cause of everything else that exists.
But there are many major problems with believing this. First, matter and energy are not eternal. It seems totally illogical to hold that dirt has no beginning and no ending, and there is certainly no proof of this. But whatever is really real has to be eternal, because it cannot be caused (or else whatever caused it is really real).
Secondly, this view is insufficient as an explanation for life and intelligence. It is inconceivable that matter and energy, without any help from a designer at all, designed living and intelligent things. But we know that there are living things, some which possess high degrees of intelligence. John Piper articulates the position of naturalism well:
Here is the great division between the atheistic worldview and the Christian worldview: For the atheists, everything begins with inanimate matter and energy. It’s just there. Since there was nothing there before to make it what it is, it could have been anything. It could have been Life. But atheists choose to believe that in the beginning was matter and energy. They don’t know this. They guess. They say that impersonal matter and impersonal energy are original. They are absolute. They are ultimate.
Then for billions of years, with no creator, no intelligence, no design, no purpose, no plan, there emerges from mindless, lifeless, random matter and energy not only the irreducible complexities of interdependent biological structures, but also this glorious thing called living personhood. That’s their account of life. (From Piper’s sermon “In Him was life“)
The verdict is in: the answer of naturalism to the question “What is really real?” does not seem to be a very good answer at all. However, if a person artificially removes God (or at least spirit) from the picture as a possible explanation for the existence of things, this is the only alternative with which he is left.
The Answer of Pantheism
Pantheists believe that what is really real is the divine universe itself. Everything is divine, therefore everything is ultimate reality. A pantheist should feel comfortable saying, “You and I are the cause of all things.”
But there are many problems with pantheism. First of all, it totally contradicts itself. Many forms of pantheism, for example, state that all things are an illusion. But if all things are a mere illusion, then the statement, “All things are an illusion” is just an illusion also. Why should we trust a statement that is only an illusion? This is self-defeating, like shooting oneself right in the foot.
This leads to a second and greater problem for pantheism. On what authority should a person believe any pantheistic teaching? Who says the universe is divine, that reincarnation is reality, and that we are all waiting to be absorbed into nirvana or Brahman? Why should people believe the gurus and teachers of these doctrines?
Pantheists say that their gurus are enlightened and that is why we should trust them. But how do we know this? As Christians, you see, we can look to Jesus, who proved that he was enlightened by his miracles, fulfilled prophecies, perfectly consistent teaching, and ultimately by his resurrection from the dead. What have these pantheistic gurus done to prove their position is true? Especially when they hold many contradictory beliefs and pretend that it is okay to do so. A person should not feel comfortable trusting their eternal destiny into the hands of someone who holds a self-defeating belief!
The Answer of Theism
Of course, theists believe that God is the really real – the Elephant that goes all the way down. God is the Maker and Designer of all things. He is the source from which all other things flow, who is himself eternal and uncaused. His existence explains and upholds our existence. This is one of the facts God taught Moses at the burning bush:
Exodus 3:14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'”
It seems strange that God declares that his name is a verb of being. But the point is clear. God has no beginning and no ending, no past or future. He simply is. He is the existing one, the Alpha and Omega, from which all other things derive their existence.
Theism is not free from its own problems, however, but theism does make the most sense in answering this question of the really real. A personal, conscious, and intelligent being is the best explanation for a planet full of personal, conscious, and intelligent beings.
Question 2: How Do We Come to Know Anything at All?
This is the next question we ask of the big three worldviews. How do human beings acquire knowledge? How is it that we come to know things? How does information get inside our heads so that we can say things like, “I know grass is green,” or “I know that I live on a planet called earth,” or “I know that roses are red and violets are blue?”
This may seem like a tough thing to consider, but we encourage you to trudge through these next paragraphs. You can get this!
The Answer of Naturalism
Naturalists say people acquire knowledge through either their senses (eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, nerve endings, etc.) or through logical deduction (figuring things out in our minds) or some combination of both of these.
Some naturalists say seeing is believing. If you can sense it, then you can know it. Other naturalists say figure it out. If you can deduce it logically, then you can know it, like 2 + 2 = 4. Again, other naturalists combine these two approaches.
What is important to note is that these are the only two ways that pure naturalists allow for knowledge to be acquired. If information does not come through the senses or through deduction, then it will not usually be allowed as true knowledge.
This means that if a Christian says, “I read in the Bible that I am a sinner,” then the naturalist would probably reply: “The Bible claims supernatural origin, but the Bible cannot be verified as supernatural by either the senses or deduction, therefore the information it contains cannot count as knowledge.” So in a word, naturalism limits the scope of what can be included in the category human knowledge, and generally, information supposedly presented by God doesn’t make the cut.
The Answer of Pantheism
Pantheism also has an answer to how humans come to knowledge. It all begins with a clearing of the mind. Clear your mind of all the things you think you know, and search deep within yourself to come to an understanding of the divine essence. As one pantheistic source puts is:
The Transcendental Meditation technique allows your mind to settle inward beyond thought to experience the source of thought — pure awareness, also known as transcendental consciousness. This is the most silent and peaceful level of consciousness — your innermost Self. In this state of restful alertness, your brain functions with significantly greater coherence and your body gains deep rest.
So as the pantheist meditates, he believes he is coming to knowledge essentially by forgetting everything he knows. He must “settle inward beyond thought.” As Yoda informed Luke, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” All knowledge lies within your own essence, since you are a spark of the divine.
Interestingly, the naturalist says you can only use sense perception or deduction to obtain knowledge. The pantheist, on the other hand, says you must forget them both! Surely, there is a better answer than either of these two extreme alternatives.
The Answer of Theism
The naturalistic and pantheistic answers are both terribly insufficient. The naturalist limits the scope of how knowledge might be obtained, and the pantheist moves against all logic to “know” something that is not even real.
But theists think much differently. They believe that God created us in his image, with the capacity to find knowledge. They agree with the naturalist, that our senses are one way of coming to know things. If you see a tree, and you have good reasons for believing your senses are functioning properly (that is, you are not hallucinating), then you can rationally know the tree is there. They also agree with the naturalist that if you can properly deduce something in your mind, you can also know it is true. If a person can deduce that Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, then he can know it is true, even though he has never personally seen it.
But theists add one more thing that the naturalist leaves out – revelation. If God exists, and the theist knows that he does, then he has every reason to hold that God might communicate to humanity. Theism is not closed to the possibility that someone outside of the natural realm may be interested in us. The Bible is the definitive and permanent word of God, given to humanity as a revelation of himself to us. Thus, it counts for true knowledge.
Theism again provides the better answer. It does not deny possible revelation from God as a means of knowledge, like naturalism. And it does not deny that knowledge comes through the senses and logical deduction, like pantheism.
Question 3: What Is a Human Being?
This question is major because your answer to it will determine how you treat other people and how you expect to be treated. Your answer will reveal whether you think of humanity as just another animal or something else – something special. Which of the big three worldview categories gives the right answer?
The Answer of Naturalism
No doubt, naturalism falls short of providing a sufficient answer. Naturalists believe that human beings are merely the highest evolved animal on planet earth. They believe that there is nothing special about people. Homo sapiens were not designed or created. Rather they are cosmic accidents that so happened to develop into introspective high primates, but who will cease to exist very soon, never to be remembered again.
This sounds terrible! Naturalists agree. Some of them simply ignore the horrors of this belief and pretend that it isn’t so bad. Other naturalists are more honest, and say that we must bite the bullet and accept this horrible future for the human race, because we can do nothing to change it.
Of course, if the naturalist is correct about what a human is, then ultimately nothing we do matters! You might save a person’s life who is about to be hit by a truck, but so what? Who cares? That person and you will soon die and never be remembered again. Your bodies will both return to dust and fly in the wind, so it doesn’t matter if you save another person’s life or not!
In fact, if naturalism is true, it would be totally idiotic to save another person’s life, if your life were risked in the process. If you truly believed that once you died it was all over, then you would be out of your mind to do anything at all for the benefit of others, if that action was risky to your own well-being.
Naturalism, as a worldview, offers no sufficient and objective basis for treating people with dignity and respect. It is a worldview that, if truly believed and followed consistently, leads a person to pure selfishness.
The Answer of Pantheism
Pantheists believe that human beings are extensions of the divine essence and are not true selves. In other words, if you think you are an individual person, then you are wrong. For Mel Gibson to say, “I am Mel Gibson,” is a serious error. Personal identity, according to a pure pantheist, is nothing more than an illusion.
One day, when “Mel Gibson” is absorbed into the eternal and infinite divine essence, which is Brahman, he will not be called “Mel Gibson” anymore. In fact, he will be one with the absolute and will cease to exist as an individual person.
But this view has many problems. Essentially, it makes people out to not be people at all. Rather than being human, and living as such, pantheists declare that through the process of Karma and reincarnation, people must cease to be people. What a mess! A person should not give up the reality of their personal identity without good reason.
So since naturalism offers such a horrific answer to the question, “What is a human being?” and since pantheism denies that humanity existences in any real way at all, then surely there is a better answer!
The Answer of Theism
All theists believe that God created humanity as a special type of being. Christian theists in particular believe that people share much in common with the animals, especially on a biological level, but human beings are not mere animals.
Genesis 1:26-27 declares that God created man “in his image.” Whatever else this might mean it certainly indicates that we share some important things in common with God, like the ability to reason through complex issues and communicate on a detailed level with one another. It also means that humans are created with built-in dignity. That means all people have value and should be treated as such. The bum on the street is valuable, not because of what he does or does not do, but just because he is human. He must, therefore, be treated with dignity.
Question 4: How Do We Know What Is Good and Bad?
From the answers given to the other questions above, you should have a good idea about what answers will be given to this one. What makes something moral? Other connected questions include: What is a right action? What is a wrong action? How do we determine when someone did a “bad” thing or a “good” thing? What is the standard of morality by which we measure actions?
The Answer of Naturalism
Naturalism offers very little here. Because they lack belief in God or any other transcendent being who holds people accountable, they believe that people are ultimately accountable only to themselves. That means each individual person determines what is right and wrong as they see it. After all, there is no God who will judge us. After we die, there is no everlasting soul and no reward in Heaven and no punishment in Hell.
This means if a nation passes a law that says, “Do not kill others,” a naturalist might feel free to reply, “Mind your own business. You have no ultimate right to tell me what to do!” Each person simply does what is right in his own eyes.
It gets worse. If naturalism is true then we cannot even reasonably use words like “right” and “wrong.” Why not? Because there is no standard definition to those words. If everybody defines “right” and “wrong” as they see fit, and there is no moral lawgiver to explain to us what these words mean, then my “right” is just as right as your “right.”
Hitler, who was a naturalist, believed that it was right to exterminate Jews, because he thought of them as an inferior race. If naturalism is true, nobody can legitimately say that what Hitler did was “wrong.” We might say, “I think that he was wrong based on my own definition of wrong.” But if there is no higher authority, who is above us all, then we cannot say, “Hitler was wrong.” We cannot say, “Hitler will be punished and pay for what he did.”
But surely Hitler was wrong! Even Naturalists inconsistently and hypocritically say that Hitler was an immoral person. Common sense tells us that killing six million people for no good reason is wrong. But if it is wrong, then somebody bigger than us is enforcing the rule, “Do not murder.” And this rule is much bigger than opinion.
The Answer of Pantheism
Pantheism maintains that good and evil do not actually exist, but they are only illusions. You have probably seen the Yin-Yang symbol. It shows black and white, intertwined and balanced. This means, according to many forms of pantheism, that good and evil balance each other out in the end, so that ultimately neither of them exists.
But if this is true, then we run into the same problems we find in naturalism. How can we say that something is truly bad, if it will eventually be cancelled out and cease to exist? The murderer could just plead with the judge to let him go free, after all, evil is not actually real.
What about good deeds? If pantheism is true, they are not really good, but just an illusion of good. That was nice that you helped the little old lady across the street, but don’t pretend that it was actually a good thing to do. It just seemed to be good.
But why in the world would we believe this? It doesn’t make any sense at all. Pantheists say that we have to trust gurus and “enlightened teachers” who say they have spiritually progressed enough to understand these things. But they don’t seem so enlightened, for to deny what is common sense – the existence of good and evil – is not enlightenment but rather irrationality.
The Answer of Theism
Again, theism wins the day. If there is a God who has made clear to us what is right and what is wrong, then we have an objective ethical standard. He has spoken and said, “Do not murder.” That means unjustified killing is wrong. We know it because he said it. Plus, he tells us that he will personally hold each of us accountable for obeying his commands.
This means Hitler was wrong and must pay for his crimes in an ultimate sense, unless he received Christ’s forgiveness at some point before he died – an unlikely possibility. Theism sees “wrong” not just as an opinion. It is really wrong.
Theism also sees “right” as really right. If you obey God and do what he has required, then you have done something objectively right. If you love your neighbor as yourself, then you have been truly moral. Given theism, our moral choices actually count for something. Now we come to the last worldview test question:
Question 5: What Is the Meaning of History?
Why are we on this planet? What do all of our daily activities ultimately mean? Would it make a difference if I were not born? Is human activity actually going somewhere or are we just spinning around on our little planet for a few years until we die?
The Answer of Naturalism
The naturalistic worldview again falls flat upon its face. It is reduced to teaching that there is no ultimate meaning in anything at all. Humans are worthless and history is meaningless. After all, says the naturalist, within a few million years, the sun will burn out and the solar system will dissolve. At that point humans will cease to exist. There will be nobody around to remember history. Nobody will say, “Let’s study the Civil War.” The Civil War will mean nothing, nor will anything else.
This is why naturalists tend to focus heavily on the here and now. “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” is a fitting motto for naturalism.
Of course, if naturalism is true and there is no ultimate meaning, it follows that motivation to change society for the good disintegrates. Why should a person sacrifice his time, energy, money, or anything else to improve a society that will soon be destroyed and forgotten? Instead, he should use all of his resources to bring about the greatest amount of worldly pleasure for himself while he still has a little bit of time. Once it’s over, it’s over.
The Answer of Pantheism
As unusual, pantheism fares no better. Pantheism says the goal of history is to be absorbed into the divine essence and everything becomes one. At that point, there will be no individual identity, no memory, nothing at all.
So this means pantheists see history as essentially meaningless too. This is why they teach their followers yoga and transcendental meditation techniques, to enable them to elevate above all the stuff down here and tap into the divine essence.
The Answer of Theism
People should not be happy at all with living meaningless lives. Thankfully, we do not have to. Theism offers a far superior answer than the other alternatives. God created the heavens and the earth for a reason. So that he himself might be glorified in it. The goal of human history, therefore, is the glory of God.
This means that our lives not only have meaning for the here and now, but everything we do – everything! – is infused with deep and eternal meaning. For example, if we love our neighbor by sharing our money when he is in need, we are doing something that has eternal value to it.
Likewise, if we neglect the things that matter, this too has eternal effects. If we refuse to love our neighbor or share the gospel or worship God, then there is an eternal price to pay. These things have objective and real meaning.
Theism – The Superior Choice
This concludes our comparison of worldview-buffet options. What has our quiz shown? When the big three worldview categories are put to the test, it is obvious which worldview is superior. Theism answers more questions, and is more livable than either of its competitors. Naturalism and pantheism are incredibly weak options.
So theism is the hot and fresh lasagna! It makes good sense and makes the alternatives look very undesirable (like cement casserole and dirt pudding). But that leads us to a major problem. Which form of theism is correct? Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are all theists, and yet they teach totally contrary things about God, the world, people, and salvation. How do I know what is the one true theism? Well that is a question to answer in detail at another time. I’ll just state the correct answer like this: Theism is the superior worldview option, and Christian theism is the one true theism.
- Summarize how each of the big three worldview categories answers the question “What is really real?”
- Summarize how each of the big three worldview categories answers the question “How do we come to know anything at all?”
- Summarize how each of the big three worldview categories answers the question “What is a human being?”
- Summarize how each of the big three worldview categories answers the question “What is right and wrong?”
- Summarize how each of the big three worldview categories answers the question “What is the meaning of history?”
Note: This post was adapted from Contend: A Survey of Christian Apologetics on a High School Level, Chapter 11, “The Superiority of the Christian Worldview.” Contend was co-written with my good friend Bradley Pinkerton.