What is reality…what is really real? If one is serious about defending their faith, then they need to wrestle with this issue. Though there are innumerable variations in the answers to this question, they can all be subsumed under one of these four answers. Reality is:
1. An illusion
3. Self-existent and eternal
4. Created by self-existent, eternal God
How do we explain the world that we experience and perceive on a moment by moment basis? In this blog we’ll consider the explanation that the world is an illusion.
My presupposition is that the Triune God exists and has spoken to us in His Word. Hence, intellectual autonomy is foolish, self-destructive, and leads to irrationality. Intellectual autonomy is the view that people have the right to examine and define God’s world/reality without being subject to God’s revelation. How can anyone imagine that ignoring the Master of created reality could be a wise decision? It only leads to profoundly unreal views of reality.
In Proverbs 1:7 (the organizing principle of Proverbs) we are told that we must fear the Lord (loving reverence)if we are to be able to attain a correct understanding of God’s reality/world. Lack of this fear will lead to folly and unreality. Knowledge and wisdom are closely related but there is a distinction: knowledge is a correct understanding of the nature of the world (reality) and our relationship to it and God as creatures of the great King. Wisdom is the acquired knowledge of how to live in God’s world in a way that is pleasing to Him, and that includes right thinking. A teachable heart before Yahweh as the only God is the key to growing in both knowledge and wisdom.
In the Matrix movies, especially the first two, an obvious theme is that of illusion and reality. This is not a movie review, so I’m not going into detail regarding it but only mention it because it was enormously popular and borrowed themes that have become popular in recent days.
Neo discovers he is living in an illusory world, and it raises important questions: is what we perceive really an illusion? Can we trust our perceptions?
It seems that the movie series borrowed heavily from Gnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Neo-New Age ideas which have become ensconced in our culture. There are variations in their conception of reality being illusory but the main theme is that mankind has become ignorant of our true condition. We have become ignorant of our inner divinity, and the goal is not salvation but enlightenment. At the risk of over-simplification (because each of the religions mentioned above has a different idea of how this illusion started and the specifics of the illusion) each one does see life, in some sense, as an illusion.
Let’s not miss the forest for the trees: the consistent theme between all the worldviews mentioned above is the denial of the distinction between the transcendent Creator God and His creation. Instead, in one form or another, they affirm that whatever divinity exists is entirely immanent—coextensive with the universe…to the extent that it really exists. Again, the variations are so mind-boggling that it’s difficult to know where to start. So, let me quote from Walter Martin:
“Illusion or Maya….The material world to monists and pantheists is not real in the sense that it is a lower form or low vibration of the Higher Existence (God) or the Highest Vibration (Spirit). If all is God or all is One, then what we think is reality is said to be an illusion of Spirit; it is a slow vibration of the same substance which then takes on the illusionary (solid form). If we speed it up, it would disappear as spirit.” (W Martin, The Kingdom of the Occult, pg 210).
Some go so far as solipsism which is the view that only my mind is real and all else is a dream or illusion. One problem with this “game” (and I don’t know anybody who seriously believes this view) is how you express this view to another ‘person’? You HAVE to assume another person/mind exists outside your own. Forgive the crudity, but when I first heard this argument as an 18 year old philosophy major, I thought to myself: “Well, a good swift kick to the shin would show the utter stupidity of that game!” I stick by my initial, crude reply…it doesn’t pass the existential test—what we know intuitively about reality.
So, how does a Christian respond?
1. First, with Jeremiah (ch 9:1) we should weep for our generation that has become so lost that it has become unhinged from reality as a result of jettisoning God; they deny the very reality in which they live. What a horrible mess our quest for autonomy has brought about.
2. If one states that all reality is an illusion, then that assertion is itself an illusion, and therefore not true.
But what does a biblical worldview say about reality being an illusion?.God does not have to have “His papers stamped” by us, so I humbly presuppose that the Triune God exists and has spoken true truth to us about Himself and HIS reality. There’s plenty of evidence to support Christianity, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog.
3. Genesis 1:31 is God’s perspective on His material creation. Despite the invasion of sin later (ch.3) the creation retains its goodness (1 Timothy 4:4)and reveals God’s attributes Romans 1:18ff). This verse states that God looked at ALL he had created and declared it “very good”…there is a sense of wonderment and delight in all that God had created…physical and spiritual. Space and time was created first and then the rest of universe, with the earth as His temple. So, you have an objective reality being created in the finite past, AND God rejoicing in His objective creation. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, God is transcendent: the Creator is distinct from His creation. Distorted views of reality begin by confusing this crucial distinction—creator and creation become co-extensive, and the fundamental duality (not dualism) at the heart of reality is lost. In the biblical view there is God, and everything else…the universe. In the biblical view, God is both transcendent and immanent—the Holy Spirit and supremely in Jesus Christ.
In many Neo-New Age ideas, there is a primacy of the spiritual; in some sense it is more real…or the material is altogether illusory.That view is on a collision course with the Genesis account of the creation of reality. Even some Christians view the spiritual realm as more important, but that’s not the biblical view.
As C.S. Lewis said: “God must love matter because He made so much of it!” How true!
4. In a biblical worldview, the spiritual and material realms are both real and neither is more important, nor is either an illusion. The notion of the world as an illusion is utterly foreign to the Hebraic mindset and a biblical worldview. Moses was acutely aware of pagan distorted notions of reality and this creation account is utterly unique in the ancient world in its view of objective reality in relation to the transcendent God. Moses was educated in the myths and magick of ancient Egypt, and it was into this cultural setting which was steeped in paganism, polytheism, pantheism, ect that Genesis was written; to refute these demonic delusions and illusionary thought. Moses self-consciously wrote Genesis to show that the only Living God created all things and to clear up distorted views of reality.
5. Genesis 1-2 God presents the material world as objectively real, independent of our senses. What we see IS real because it was created by God, the author of all life. It certainly was not created by an inferior or even evil god. The first three chapters of Genesis provide the fundamental presuppositions of reality which the rest of the bible rests upon. So, it is no wonder that Jesus and Paul refer back to these chapters in dealing with controversies of their day, providing us with a model for dong the same.
6. The notion of the world being illusory undercuts the scientific enterprise. In Genesis 1:28 we are given the cultural mandate to have dominion as God’s image-bearers. We are to lovingly take care of God’s good creation and explore it. AN Whitehead and Oppenheimer, neither of whom were Christians, said that modern science could have only started in a biblical worldview/milieu because it assumes that a reasonable God created a reasonable universe which can be discovered by our reason. The notion of the world as an illusion, could never have given birth to modern science.
7. The entire drama of redemption was enacted in space and time on the earth. To assert that the material realm is an illusion is to imply that the cross of Christ was an illusion as well. Certainly that is a doctrine of demons.
8. Prophesied in Isaiah 65 and re-stated in Revelation 21-22, heaven will be here on a renewed earth. Hence, we see the eternality of the material realm is central to God’s plans for eternal glory. In Romans 8 the physical realm groans for freedom now, and since Jesus’ death was cosmic in scope, when He comes back the entire physical cosmos will be freed from the ravages of sin. Heaven is not an illusion—it is the dwelling place of God. And we shall see Him face to face forever here on this renewed earth. Praise God!
9. Basic reliability of sense perceptions:
I made the earth and created man on it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
and I commanded all their host.
For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it empty,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the Lord, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:12, 18)
Notice the train of thought in this text. First and foremost it is God-saturated! He states over and over that He is the One who created reality. We must perceive His creation through His eyes. There is an affirmation of the Genesis account of Yahweh as the Creator of the objective heavens and earth…which existed before any human perception of it—God’s perception is primary! Second, God states that He created this world so that it would be habitable and inhabited; especially by mankind who alone are made in His image. If God created the world specifically to be inhabited then that has enormous ramifications.
Yes, the world is fallen and full of sorrow and suffering, but the answer is not to deny the reality of reality or suffering, but to see it and weep, and seek to alleviate its effects.
From the outset, God created the world to be inhabited by all sorts of creatures but primarily by His image bearers. And as such He gave us our sense perceptions in order to function and relate to the world and to each other.
Are our senses reliable? If you place an oar in the water, it appears different than it is, but that is due to an optical illusion, and not an illusion at the heart of reality or a denial of what I call: THE BASIC RELIABILITY OF THE SENSE PERCEPTIONS.
Immanuel Kant asserted that we could only see the phenomena but not the real thing in itself (noumena) In other words, we can’t trust our sense perceptions to give us an accurate understanding of reality itself. How sad, but that is what happens in autonomous thinking—it leads to irrationality and unreality.
However, He who made the world and sees it, also made our eyes and all the five senses in order to function fruitfully in His world. And He also made the categories of our finite brains to correspond to external reality. Is that not what you expect God to do if He created us to live fruitfully on this earth? What we see with our eyes, and our brains process, does correspond to reality external to us. Why? Because God created the world to be inhabited.. Hence, He gave us the necessary tools to inhabit it fruitfully and to carry out the cultural mandate in Genesis. So, for Christians, there simply is no problem with whether we can trust our perceptions of reality. When God brought the various animals before Adam in order to name them, the assumption is that Adam saw God’s creation clearly and accurately enough to be able to taxonomize it. In order to till the garden and enjoy its beauty, then all five senses had to be functional.
God made our senses and so we can joyfully affirm and know that we can trust the basic reliability of the sense perceptions. God created them, so any notion of their unreliability would be impious. The same God who made all of reality, also made His image bearers to be able to accurately perceive and categorize external reality.
However, if we are random products of evolution, then all we are is matter/energy in motion, and our skulls filled with brain gas, leaving us with no basis to trust either our thoughts or our perceptions of the world. How can we know, in the macro-evolutionary scheme, that external reality conforms to our perceptions of it? We couldn’t.
Dear friends, the world is not an illusion. Not only did God create and rejoice in the material reality He created, but our eternal existence will be lived out on a new earth! (Revelation 21-22)
Jesus did not come to save us from ignorance relating to an illusion, but to save us from the wages of sin. The drama of redemption was accomplished in space and time on this objective planet. And Jesus died in order to set the cosmos free as well—all of created reality, (Romans 8) from the effects of the historical Fall. Thus, for followers of Jesus, the material realm is not an illusion to flee from but the renewed earth will be the arena in which we shall experience His goodness for all eternity! And that is no Matrix…it is utter, sweet, real, reality!
Read Part 2 here: http://eyeontheparanormal.blogspot.com/2017/12/what-is-reality-part-2reality-as-self.html
Mark Hunnemann is the author of Seeing Ghosts Through God's Eyes: A Worldview Analysis of Earthbound Spirits. It's also available in eBook format.