How can desire lead one to conclude that God exists, beyond wishful thinking? Initially, this argument may sound like a stretch, but it’s actually quite powerful once you see it traced out. What’s more, as human beings, we are creatures of desire. So, this argument speaks to something we experience day in and day out. C. S. Lewis articulates this argument succinctly in his chapter on “Hope” in Mere Christianity:
Lewis directs our attention to everyday desires and that which satisfies them. Yet, as he notes, there is a desire that virtually everyone in the world has that cannot be satisfied by anything in this world. Attempts at satisfying this desire with the things of the world ultimately lead to disenchantment (e.g. boredom), despair (e.g. nihilism), depression, and death. The soul becomes starved because it lacks the only thing that can sustain it – God.
The Argument Stated More Formally
Let’s take a closer look at this argument by way of syllogism:
- Our natural/inherent desires have a corresponding object that satisfies them, such as food for hunger and knowledge for the mind.
- There exists in us a natural/inherent desire for the transcendent that nothing in the material world can satisfy.
- Therefore, there exists something beyond the material world that can satisfy this desire, who is God.
As Paul Gould rightly assesses, the transcendent object that we desire cannot be something like Plato’s impersonal forms, or the finite and fickle pagan deities, or pantheism, as that would essentially amount to trying to find satisfaction in the material world. No, this longing of the soul, what we can call the faculty of desire, can only be satisfied by something personal, loving, and ever abiding. Augustine was on point when, in his book On the Happy Life, he articulated the following line of thought, here summarized in my own words: The object of our happiness, if it is to be true and abiding happiness, must itself abide forever and not be subject to change. God is eternal and ever abiding, not subject to change. Therefore, he who has God, is truly happy.
Further, there is a correlation between the thing desired and the faculty or organ doing the desiring. The stomach desires food and is satisfied by the consumption of food; food exists. The mouth desires water to quench its thirst and is satisfied by the consumption of water; water exists. The mind or intellect desires knowledge and is satisfied by knowing things via abstraction to universals; truth exists. What is the faculty or organ of desire when it comes to the transcendent? It cannot be anything material, such as the stomach for food, because there is a corresponding relationship between that which is desired and the thing doing the desiring. So, that which desires the transcendent cannot be physical or material (naturalism fails). Therefore, this desire for the transcendent – for God – must be from something that transcends the physical body – namely, the soul. So, in a sense, this argument is both an argument for the existence of God, as well as the existence of the soul. The soul desires God and is satisfied by tasting and seeing that God is good (Ps. 34:8); God exists.
Responding to Anticipated Objections
Following are a few anticipated objections with brief responses.
“Not everyone desires God or the transcendent.” I would argue that everyone does, at some point in their lives, have this desire. Note that not everyone necessarily voices this desire throughout their lives. For example, the grumpy attitude of staunch atheists, who believe that when they die they will forever cease to exist, is evidence that they long for something more; they long for the transcendent. Desires can be suppressed, but suppression assumes there is something to be suppressed. Just as we tend to get “hangry” the longer we go without eating, so our souls become “hangry” the longer they go without God, or the more we seek to suppress the knowledge of God. Additionally, I would say that this desire is virtually present in all children, but the more that they are discouraged from indulging in this desire – “God doesn’t exist. He’s just a fairytale for children. It’s time to grow up.” – the more disenchanted they become with the world and try to satisfy this desire with temporal pleasures.
“But people desire things that we know don’t exist, such as unicorns.” First, the argument from desire rests on universally held desires, not individually held desires. It is the universal phenomenon of human desire for the transcendent, and the fact that all the other shared desires, such as the desire for food and knowledge, have an object for which to satisfy the desires, that constitutes the force of the argument. Second, even though unicorns do not exist, they still correspond to something that does – namely, horses. Lastly, while humans share this desire for the transcendent, it does not mean they all associate it with the proper object. As Gould says, “We may misidentify the object of our natural longings, but it does not follow that we lack a corresponding object to satisfy our natural desire, including our longing for God.”
“The desire for the transcendent is just a product of evolution to enhance our fitness for survival.” The arguments against evolution aside, at least one major flaw in this response is that it fails to give honest consideration to the fact that religious conviction and devotion actually makes people willing to die. For instance, many Christians throughout the centuries have willingly and joyfully embraced martyrdom for the sake of the gospel. Why? In short, because the realization that there is more to life than the material world, and that ultimate fulfillment is found in God, leads people to not cling to the temporal pleasures of this world. They are instead willing to make sacrifices for something beyond themselves.
Herman Bavinck captures this deepest desire that human beings have, this desire for something beyond the physical world. He notes well this relationship between the physical and the transcendent, and the inability of the physical things of this world to satisfy our deepest desire, causing us to look up and beyond what is seen to the unseen:
Rather than suppress this desire for the transcendent, as so many in our day and age are telling us to do, embrace it; it’s real. Rather than try to find satisfaction for this deepest longing in the material and transient things of this world, look to Him who does not change and is ever abiding; He who made it all. As the psalmist says of God, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). These pleasures at the right hand of God are blood bought pleasures, for it is Christ, crucified for sinners, who sits at the right hand of the majesty on high (Heb. 1:3). Look to Him, and your desire shall be satisfied.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (NY: HarperOne, 1952), 136-137.
 This is a slightly modified syllogism from Paul Gould’s in Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (MI: Zondervan, 2019), 77.
 Gould, 75-76.
 Augustine, On the Happy Life, 2.11.
 This refers to the nature of things, such as treeness for trees, or catness for cats.
 Gould, 77.
 Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God (PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 2.