One of my all-time favorite movies is “Elf.” Our family probably watches it three or four times every Christmas season. The child-like naivety of “Buddy” the elf is more than enough to make anyone smile. He believes in Christmas. He most certainly believes in Santa. It takes us back to the time when we, who’s parents introduced us to the Jolly man, anticipated his coming every Christmas and defended his existence on the playground. There is one scene in Elf that I really love (okay, there are a hundred that I really love!). It was when Buddy was being told by Santa that many people did not believe he existed. An astonished Buddy does not know how to respond (as if it is the first time he ever considered that people might not believe in Santa). First, he wonders who they think brings all the gifts. After Santa says that there is a rumor that it is the parents, Buddy says, “That’s crazy. What about Santa’s cookies? I suppose parents eat those too?” Don’t be too hard on Buddy. He is just trying to find a sufficient explanation for the presents and cookies.

Many times when I am talking to atheists about the Christian faith they bring up their graduation ceremony from believing in Santa. As they graduated from a belief in Santa, so they say, they have also graduated from a belief in God. While this has an emotional appeal and seeming parallel, it does not really work. In fact, it works in favor of theism more than atheism.

The reason why people believe in Santa is not simply because their parents tell them he is real, but because parents tell them that Santa is the explanation for a phenomenon that happens every Christmas morning. Santa is the one who brought the toys and ate the cookies. When the kids wake up Christmas morning and see all the new toys (at my house the ones from Santa were unwrapped) and ask, “Who got me this?”, they are asking a very reasonable question. They are seeking to find the cause behind the presence of their new toys. It’s the whole cause and effect thing. If the new toys were not there, there would be no reason to ask such a question. Therefore, the presence of Santa is invoked by a need to find causation for their Christmas morning joy associated with the toys.

Therefore, Santa is, by definition, the cause behind the effect of the toys and cookie crumbs. When people quit believing in Santa, they don’t quit believing in a cause, they just change the association behind the cause. It is not as if one day kids come of age and realize that the toys magically appear every Christmas morning with no explanation. It is not as if they believe that given enough time, chance will produce a situation where every year on December 24th you can place a plate of cookies by the fireplace and expect that they will be gone the next morning without explanation. You see, Santa just changes names. No one quits believing in the agent (whatever the name may be) responsible for the presents and the cookies. They just no longer believe that the agent’s name is “Santa.” Therefore, in a very real sense, no one quits believing in Santa (the cause of the toys and eaten cookies).

When it comes to God, the situation is the same. Existence itself demands a causal explanation. We are an effect, looking for the cause. God, by definition, is that cause. Just as we cannot say that there is no cause for the toys under the tree Christmas morning, you cannot say that there is no cause for all of existence. That is why R.C. Spoul has said that the best argument for the existence of God is this: “If something exists, God exists…Something does exist, so God does exist.”

“If toys are under the tree, someone must have put them there…Toys are under the tree, so someone put them there.”

Considering this, while we could not say that the parallel between God and Santa works for atheists (for it is simply a slight of hand illustration), it does work for theists because it illustrates that effects always need an explanation. Just changing the name of the explanation does not in any way do away with the need for a cause. Santa (the cause behind the toys) is still needed. God (the cause behind existence) is still needed. No one graduates from either, even if they change their names.

Buddy’s conclusion may have been misplaced, but his logic was sound: “That’s crazy. Who do you think is responsible for eating the cookies?” Who do you think is responsible for existence? Whatever your answer, that is your God.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    38 replies to "Why the Santa/God Parallel Does Not Work for Atheists (But Does For Theists)"

    • Mike B.

      I hope you can see how Sproul’s ridiculous “syllogism” and the child’s inference are not even remotely equivalent. In the second statement, you have merely asserted that “someone” must have put the toys under the tree. In the first, you have jumped to the conclusion that it must be “God.” How? With what justification? Moreover, the child is discerning which known (or believed) agent is responsible for a particular effect. He can’t make any inference without a certain amount of background knowledge about the way the world works. Whereas with God, you haven’t demonstrated the existence of the cause you are proposing. How can you say that God created “something” unless you know that there are such things as gods who can create “somethings?” God is one of the premises, not the conclusion.

      Santa only gets into the child’s equation because he thinks he has it from a good source that such a being exists. Religious thought is very similar in this respect.

    • C Michael Patton

      Mike, I see no evidence you really read the post. I mean, it seem like you have some of my same concepts, but you don’t get the argument at all. Probably my fault.

      As I said, “God” is simply the name we give the the causation of existence. I am not trying to accomplish too much here. I am not even trying to say that this proves it is the Christian God. I am simply saying that the definition of God is the “first Cause” of all things. We, like the situation with the toys under the tree, understand that something (i.e. God) must have caused all that there is. We don’t say “chance is responsible for the toys and cookies” do we? We just change the name of Santa, but his necessity is always there. Same with God.

    • Daniel McCrory

      I’m sorry but I think this post is just a way for you to “prove” that playing Santa is ok for Christian parents. Yes, I know you are making a deeper point but come on, i’ve read a past post where you defend your right to be Santa Claus. Do you feel it is necessary to defend yourself in this? I disagree with your position (on Santa’s place in the Christian home). My wife thinks I am a scrooge and maybe I am but she submits to my authority on this. Here is why I say no to Santa…He steals the show! He captivates the hearts and minds of children! How can a sweet child born of a virgin on such a Magical, Mystical, and World Changing night come close to a shiny red bicycle and new basketball left in the middle of the night by Santa Claus? That may sound silly but it is so true. I’ll stop here because I’m running out of characters, I do enjoy your writing, but I can’t disagree with you more on this topic.

    • Val

      “If something exists, God exists…Something does exist, so God does exist.”

      So, we are not really talking about God here, but a creator or creative force.

      There are many more people who believe in a creative force in the Universe than believe in a god or God or Christianity (Jesus is God).

      You are actually making a great argument for agnostics – ” I used to believe in God because my parents told me that was how we began. I know something created this earth and us, but nothing has proven itself to me, therefore, I will continue to remain skeptical of religion (which, like it or not, Christianity has become) but accepting of a universal creative force. (que Star Wars music…)

      Sorry, but this is an agnostic argument, not an atheist/theist argument.

    • Seth R.

      Michael, I don’t really wish to wade in on your basic dispute with atheism.

      However, since I belong to a religion that believes the universe to be co-eternal with God and uncaused by God (in the absolute neo-Platonist sense), and still worship God the Father, I have to take personal issue with your post here.

      I believe the universe to be in some sense eternal and un-caused. Yet I still worship the personal God found in the Bible. I simply consider him to be in perfect harmony with the self-existent principles of ordered reality.

      I’ve had Evangelicals, upon hearing this, accuse me of then “worshiping the universe” – and this is simply unfair and untrue.

      I do not worship the universe or natural law, or whatever. I worship a person who loves me – God the Father. Period.

      So as a personal matter, I cannot share your conclusions here.

    • Seth R.

      Forgot to email subscribe to the thread. Doing that now. Sorry.

    • Ed Kratz

      Daniel. I don’t tell my kids there is a Santa. Please know this has no slant in the Santa/no Sants Christian debate. It is only concerning those who say believing in God is like believing in Santa.

    • Ed Kratz

      Seth, thanks for the comments. Don’t want to go in that direction here. while there are implications indicting the Mormon worldview, this is written as a response to atheists who use an argument against God that does not work.

    • Seth R.

      I don’t want to go there either Michael.

      I’m just saying that my worship of God is not based on whoever has the biggest Aristotelian stick.

      And despite your rhetoric in this post, I doubt yours is either.

    • bethyada

      I think you have demolished the false atheist analogy rather well here Michael.

    • Mike B.

      Michael: In response to your response: You can give the cause of existence whatever name you like. It doesn’t mean that you know what it is. So I think that arbitrarily calling it “God” is misleading. Moreover, my comment about background knowledge still stands. The child knows from experience that presents do not randomly appear under trees without someone putting them there. And he knows that similar configurations do come about as the result of the action of persons. It is experiential induction, not logical deduction. For existence itself, we can say none of these things. We have no background knowledge about how matter comes into existence, or even if it ever does come into existence! This is why the analogy doesn’t work. Not only do we have no information that suggests a personal agent at work, but we don’t even have enough information to know that a cause is even necessary. This is simply speaking, beyond our ken.

    • Detroit

      Mike B.,
      You don’t have to believe in a Christian God or God at all, but when you make statments like these, “we don’t know if matter ever does come into existence” that’s a little far out. I mean what are we all doing if we aren’t existing? Maybe I can’t comprehend the concept that your putting out there, that we don’t come into existence, but that just seems to be a stretch.

    • David T.

      Yeah the santa comparison is terrible, assume someone is sure that Santa does exist, then from what he knows there could be an exploration to the North Pole or even satellite images of the entire north pole to determine if there is even such a thing there, sure this isn’t 100% conclusive (perhaps its there but hidden some way). Of course the presents being put there by parents gives a much better explanation.

      As for the God part, we can’t just check a north pole to determine if God exists. There is no concrete, physical evidence that he exists or doesn’t exist. There is creation, but an agnostic can just as easily believe that there is no creator, that evolution and random chance are responsible for us being here and this could be true, but its also likely there is a God and we are created by him (regardless of his methods being evolution or something else).

      We can’t prove or disprove the existence of God, I can prove the presents under the tree came from my parents.

    • Mike B.

      Detroit: I didn’t say that matter does not exist. I said that we do not know if it comes into existence. We know a lot about what it takes to make toys, boxes, wrapping paper, etc. Heck, we even know a lot of what it takes to make trees. But we know nothing about what it takes to make matter. We do not know if it has to be made or if it just is. Simply speaking, we know nothing about what it takes for “something” to exist. We don’t even know if it is possible for “nothing” to exist. The information required to draw the kind of conclusions that Michael is claiming are common sense is simply not available.

    • Luke b.

      Mike b.
      While we may or may not understand all that goes into matter, we have demonstrated the connection between matter and time. Time, by its very definition must have a begining, which means matter must have a beginning. Eternal matter is logically unattainable.

    • John Lollard

      Mike B.,

      What are you talking about? We know TONS about what it takes to make matter: namely, that it never happens. “Stuff” converts pretty freely from matter to energy, but it is fundamentally impossible to make more of it. We know that very well and it is attested to more the further we study physics. It doesn’t happen. All the matter was made once and we’re stuck with what we’ve got for as long as the Lord tarries.

    • Mike B.

      In response to John Lollard: I fail to see how your point supports your position. Indeed, the total amount of mass and energy in the universe remains constant. All of our observations tell us that it can neither be created nor destroyed. But then you assert that it was created, by God. So according to you, there is a way to make matter, and you know what it is. My point is simply that we don’t actually know the first thing about any of this, that the creation or non-creation of the initial energy of the universe is beyond our ability to know, at least for now. As your observation shows, it actually is rather strange to suggest that some cause must have brought existence into existence when everything we know suggests that this is impossible. Your point works against the argument of this post

    • Mike B.

      In response to Luke B. Our usual observations about the way time and space behave break down before 10ˆ-43 after the big bang. If you could travel back in time towards infinite curvature of space and time, you would never actually reach the singularity. You’re progression would be asymptotic. All this to say that as contrary to common sense as it may seem, we don’t know if time had a beginning either. And if you think about it, we don’t really have the linguistic tools to deal with this either. What happened “before” the beginning of time? At some point, this linear conception of time has to be abandoned. Yes, time, like space, is probably finite. But just because it is self-contained does not mean that there has to be anything outside of it. We simply do not know if there is. This has gone way past the realm of Santa Clause, but I think these are the real issues behind what seems at first to be a very basic discussion. Signing off…

    • John Lollard

      Hey Mike,

      Maybe I’m confused.

      According to physics, matter can neither be created nor destroyed. The universe is full of matter. One possibility is the universe has always been full of matter. For other reasons we know that the universe began quite some time ago an all this stuff just showed up.

      So somehow, we got presents under our tree. Some cause must be attributed to it. We would love to say a natural cause (ie our parents), but natural causes are ruled out because naturally the universe is an impossible pipe dream (our parents couldn’t have done it). We must appeal, as Hawking does, to something outside of space and time and nature. This something is called in the usual parlance, and among physicists, as “God”.

      Does our existence mean that God also was incarnated from a virgin in the 1st century? No.

      I’m not sure where I might have become confused, but that seems pretty air tight to me.

    • Mike B.

      I had hoped to leave this comment thread, but I suppose one more remark wouldn’t hurt. You say that “For other reasons we know that the universe began quite some time ago an all this stuff just showed up.” That’s not quite true. We know that a rapid expansion of space time occurred just short of 14 billion years ago. We can even construct models of what happened beginning at 10ˆ-43 seconds after this expansion began. However, as for the energy within that singularity that expanded to form the matter we currently have in the universe, we have absolutely no idea where that came from. We don’t know if it “just showed up,” or if it was always there (if we can even use a term like “always” when space-time is infinitely curved).

      Also, Stephen Hawking, whom you mention is notorious for the fact that he does not appeal to something outside of space and time to cause the universe.

    • John Lollard

      Mike B.,

      Thank you for responding, I’m afraid you might need to comment again to correct my misunderstandings.

      I was under the (maybe mistaken) information that Hawking’s latest book explains the origin of the universe as being the necessary consequence of physical laws in some other universe. Am I incorrect in this?

      The universe is finite in space. Space and time are a Lorentz transform away from one another (I dunno if they call a ‘Lorentz transform’ something more fancy in curved spacetime or not). My point is the difference between time and space is a metric coefficient that changes with the observer’s velocity. If you want to argue infinite time, it would seem (and maybe you’ve had a more advanced GR class than I have – mine was at the level of Hartle’s book) that you must also argue infinite space.

      Maybe it’s the crowds I run in, but I have never met a physicist who denies that energy came in to existence at the big bang. I guess I could ask my profs?

    • Boz

      “Existence itself demands a causal explanation.”

      This is not true. A wooden table does not demand anything. Humans demand things (while banging their fist on the table!)

      This statement should read: “I demand an explanation”.

      “Just as we cannot say that there is no cause for the toys under the tree Christmas morning, you cannot say that there is no cause for all of existence.”

      This is the composition fallacy.

    • Richard R

      I see cut ‘n paste Boz is back.

    • Boz

      I’ll have you know that I typed all of that!


    • John From Down Under

      Boz would it make more sense if the statement read like this?

      Existence itself presupposes a causal explanation.

      In other words, when you look at the watch you’re wearing, you would have no touble believing that somebody made it by putting thought, design and manufacturing effort in it. Same goes for a car, a chair, a spoon, a pillow etc.

      Looking at a single tree or a rock you may not think that, but when you ponder at the created order collectively (universe, earth, humans, variety of wildlife, plants etc), with all its intricacies, mind puzzling detail and precision, how can you come away concluding: “yeah, it all got plonked here by itself”

      Is this not a logical incongruity or a non sequitur?

    • Boz

      hi John, I am from Australia. Maybe you are too. The same response applies.

      “Existence itself presupposes a causal explanation.”

      Presupposition(definition: a supposition made prior to having knowledge)

      Supposition(difinition: assumption; a hypothesis that is taken for granted; the cognitive process of supposing)

      Existence(definition: the natural world; our surroundings)

      Our natural surroundings (not humans) cannot presuppose. Our surroundings do not have a cognitive process. Our surroundings cannot hypothesise, they cannot think, they cannot make assumptions.

      Humans do all these things. Humans presuppose, existence does not.

      What do you think?

    • John From Down Under

      Fellow Aussie, yeae – G’day then.

      Let’s try it another way. “Existence itself assumes a causal explanation.”

      When you see an overweight person, you assume they eat a lot though you haven’t witnessed their eating habits. When you see a burn mark you assume the person has been burned, though you may have not witnessed the incident.

      When you see a car all crunched up, you assume that it got to that shape because of an accident, though you may have not witnessed the accident.

      In other words, the cause and effect relationship comes to mind with all those daily concepts and we arrive at them almost by a logical deduction.

    • Boz

      It’s the same issue. Our surroundings do not assume because they cannot think. Atoms and stars and empty space cannot think, humans can think.

      In both of your examples, it is a human doing the assuming, not our surroundings.

    • John from Down Under

      Boz I think you’ve literalized the phrase “Existence itself demands a causal explanation” too much because you’ve personified the word ‘existence’ by tying the verb ‘demands’ to it (as in ‘who demands? existence does’)

      The intent of Michael’s statement was not to suggest that the inanimate objects in existence have intelligence and will to ‘demand an existence’ (as in a piece of wood or rock). The statement was broad and metaphorical. I’ve never met anyone who hears the phrase ‘time heals all wounds’ or ‘justice cries out’ and thinks that time is a healing agent literally, or that justice is a being that sheds tears. People accept such metaphors as a given.

      I think once you get past this point my examples may begin to make more sense.

    • Curt Parton

      I really liked this, Michael! Very effective at making the point you intended.

    • John From Down Under


      The sentence was meant to read “The intent of Michael’s statement was not to suggest that the inanimate objects in existence have intelligence and will to ‘demand an explanation’ (as in a piece of wood or rock)”

    • Boz

      Thanks for the respons, John from Down Under.

      That’s fine for “Existence itself demands a causal explanation” to be a metaphor. Thanks for clarifying. What does the metaphor mean? What is it actually saying? Can you please transform it in to a statement that is not a metaphor?

    • John From Down Under

      Boz the simplest way I can explain it is that for everything we see around us we can legitimately ask “how did it get here?”

    • Boz

      Thanks, John From Down Under, i agree with that. (for everything we see around us we can legitimately ask “how did it get here?”)

      Putting it back in to the original argument:

      When it comes to God, the situation is the same. (for everything we see around us we can legitimately ask “how did it get here?”). We are an effect, looking for the cause. God, by definition, is that cause.

      That sounds very much like pantheism. God is a seed, which caused that tree. God is a photon, which caused that blade of grass to grow. God is a father and mother that had a child. God is gravity, which caused an avalanche and the solar system. God is stored elastic strain energy, which causes an earthquake. God is an electron. God is a rock. God is Kim Il-sung. etc.

      I agree that under the pantheistic definition of god, that god exists.

      Are you arguing for pantheism?

    • John From Down Under

      Boz no, I’m not arguing for pantheism. You’re now taking the discussion in another direction.

      I’m arguing for a personal creator whose handiwork is evident throughout the created order. I’m arguing that I find it impossible to watch David Attenborough’s ‘planet earth’ documentaries without been awestruck by the cosmic symphony of all the intricacy of detailed design, variety and function. To watch all of that and believe it came about by random causes requires a level of faith I don’t have.

      I can’t help but concur with the apostle Paul “since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Romans 1:19-20

    • Boz

      That’s an argument from incredulity(divine fallacy) and a false dichotomy(false dilemma).

    • God is Stupid

      Religion is really stupid. Anything good that happens with religion could be done without it

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