Why Isn’t God More Obvious?

TRUTH, obvious, God, evidence

Why isn’t God more obvious? This is a fair question. Large parts of the Bible evade our understanding. Many people lack any recognizable experience of God. If God wants everyone to believe in him, why doesn’t he have better marketing? This line of questioning attacks the coherence of the Christian worldview. God should provide more/better evidence, but God doesn’t . As a Christian, I have to acknowledge that this seems problematic. Here’s how I might represent the problem: (skeptics, tell me if you think I’m getting this wrong)

  1. If God simply wants more people to believe that he exists, then he should provide better evidence.
  2. God simply wants more people to believe that he exists.
  3. So, God should provide better evidence.

I’ve formulated it as a valid argument. So the only thing I can quibble with is whether the first 2 statements are, in fact, consistent with the Christian worldview. If #1 and #2 are part of the Christian worldview, then this argument succeeds in casting serious doubt on Christian coherence. (Which indirectly casts doubt on the truth of Christianity.) But if either of them is not consistent with Christianity, then the argument fails. (See footnote 1)

program, logic, God, obvious, evidenceNow, let me just admit up front that asking “Is such-and-such a statement consistent with Christianity?” is an extremely difficult matter. People will ask, “which version of Christianity?” or “on whose interpretation of the Bible?” Fair questions. Do I need to defend the coherence of all possible versions of Christianity?

Suppose we have 10 versions of a computer program, and we suspect some or all of the versions contain bugs. If I find a bug in one, that doesn’t mean I should throw out the other 9. I have to check them all. By analogy, if 10 different versions of Christianity exist and we don’t know which of them is the “correct” version, then proving one of them to be incoherent won’t prove that Christianity itself is incoherent. (I apologize if skeptics feel I’m saddling them with too large a burden, but when a worldview hangs around for 2,000 years, it’s bound to spawn lots of variations.) On the other hand, all the Christian needs is for one of the versions to come out coherent to refute the charge that Christianity is coherent.

So how do we select a target? Well, as I play the role of the critic here, I’ll focus on what seems to be the most pared-down and basic version of Christianity. And I’ll try to appeal to beliefs that are common to nearly all major versions. I’ll also try to take an interpretive approach to the Bible that is common to scholars representing the major denominational groups–Main-line protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, etc. (I’m also going to assume evidentialism.)

What Is the Christian God After?

demons believeI’m going to skip discussion of premise #1 and so straight to the real crux of the matter: #2. Is it true, according to standard, orthodox Christian doctrine, that “God simply wants more people to believe that he exists?” I don’t think so. The apostle James reminds us in his letter that mere belief isn’t all that great. “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder” (James 2:19). So, the implication here is clear. God is interested in more than simple belief, that is, more than mere assent to a proposition.

In fact, very rarely does the Bible say anything like, “believe that God exists!” However, Hebrews 11:6 does say, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” So, it seems that belief in God is a necessary condition for “pleasing God,” which means that God certainly wants people to believe in his reality. But is belief in God’s existence a sufficient condition for pleasing him? Well, if the demons believe, then I guess not. What this means is that God is after more than mere belief in his existence. So premise #2 above is false.

A Better Skeptical Argument?

Maybe the argument I gave fails, but is there a better version? Well, we do have a lot of talk in the New Testament about believing in Jesus. Belief in Jesus does seem to be a really important part of what God is after. So consider this argument:

  1. If God simply wants more people to believe in Jesus, then he should provide better evidence.
  2. God simply wants more people to believe in Jesus.
  3. So, God should provide better evidence.

J. S. Mill, utilitarianismThis, to me, seems a much stronger argument. For a response strategy, I’ll borrow a page out of J.S. Mill’s Utilitarianism. Mill claimed that what makes an action morally right is that it tends to promote pleasure and/or the absence of pain. His critics replied, “You make us out to be mere swine by saying that pleasure is all that matters to us!” Mill’s response: ‘pleasure’ has more than one meaning. There are lower and higher pleasures.

My response to the argument above parallels Mill’s: ‘believe’ has more than one meaning. If believe means ‘assent to the existence of Jesus’ or ‘accept that Jesus is the Son of God,’ then premise #2 is false, according to standard Christian theology. Even demons achieve such ‘belief’ in Luke 4:34 (“you are the Holy One of God!”). But if we mean something richer, like, ‘trust that Jesus, as God’s Son, will give you eternal life in God’s Kingdom,’ then #2 is probably true, according to standard Christian theology. And lest you think I’m reading this definition into the text, consider what St. John says: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn. 20:31) Many other passages corroborate this (very standard) view. Let’s call this sort of belief, “BELIEF.”

 

Better Evidence Required?

open, evidence, ground beliefSo now what? To avoid the fallacy of equivocation, we must use the same meaning of ‘believe’ in premise #1. But this makes premise #1 rather ill-fitted for the standard Christian view. God’s desire for more BELIEF doesn’t guarantee that he should change the current available evidence in some way. BELIEF, according to most Christian theologies, is a function of evidence and receptivity. Think of receptivity as not merely being willing to BELIEVE, but someone who’s heart is ready to obey God (Jn. 7: 17) and enter into a love-relationship with God (Jn. 15:1-11), should the right evidential opportunity arise. More or better evidence (whatever that might be) simply won’t help someone who is not receptive. And since receptivity could explain why so many people do not BELIEVE, we shouldn’t automatically think that God needs to provide better evidence.

Jesus seems to corroborate this in multiple teachings. In his parable about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), he suggests that more evidence won’t help some people. Lazarus dies and finds himself with Father Abraham in the hereafter. The “rich man” dies and is tormented in Hades, but he pleads with Abraham to get a message to his brothers so they can escape his condition.

‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

Too Skeptical?

They already have sufficient evidence, Jesus says. Other places, Jesus chides his listeners for demanding a sign, presumably for the same reason (Mk. 8:11-12; Jn. 4:48). There is such a thing as being too skeptical. We can be so “closed” to an idea that no amount of evidence will persuade us. If you’re a skeptic of religion, then you’ve witnessed this in people who deny various scientific discoveries. But it can happen to non-religious people just as easily.

empty, tomb, rising from the dead, JesusAnd how much better could the evidence get than someone rising from the dead? Even that, Jesus says, won’t be enough for some. So it doesn’t seem to be “better evidence” that is needed, according to the Christian view, but improved receptivity. So premise #1 is not a tenet of Christian theology, meaning that the argument fails and Christian coherence is preserved. (This is all a bit quicker than I’d like, but space prevents more detail.)

The Truth Is Out There

truth, obvious, GodIn sum, Christianity claims that God has provided plenty of good evidence. Written and spoken testimony, inferential arguments, religious experience, the indirect evidence of nature, etc. Of course, that doesn’t mean you HAVE the evidence, any more than the fact that there are plenty of fish in the sea means that you have one on your plate. You may need to go out and seek it. But it’s out there. God is obvious enough for seekers to arrive at the right sort of belief.


1  Defending coherence is different than defending truth. Imagine assembling a collection of puzzle pieces that all fit nicely together, but don’t actually form the picture on the box. That would be coherence without truth. All the defender of coherence must show is that a particular puzzle piece fits nicely with the others in the collection.

The Special Significance of Testimony in Christianity

doubting thomas, evidence, belief, testimonyImagine the scene: you’re standing around at party with your friends, and out of nowhere, Jesus appears! And this isn’t the first time, either. But Tom missed all the parties where Jesus showed up, and he thinks you’re all having alcohol-induced hallucinations. This time, however, Tom sees Jesus himself. He reaches out and touches him to be sure. Then Jesus says, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (Cf. John 20:29)

People puzzle over this strange statement. Critics quickly take it to mean that Christian faith means believing without evidence. Even some Christians interpret Jesus as saying that people should “just believe” and stop asking questions. Take the proverbial “leap of faith,” even if it makes no sense whatsoever. They pair Jesus’ words with Paul’s frequently abused assertion, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” Is this “blind faith?” Is that what Jesus and Paul meant? (1) If so, this strikes a blow against the view that Christianity is a rational worldview! Thankfully, we can make sense of these statements in a way that doesn’t require abandoning coherence. 

Seeing vs. Evidence

kermit, testimony, evidenceThe main mistake we make here is in thinking that “seeing” and “evidence” are the same thing. But evidence comes to us in several forms, only one of which is sight. Epistemologists, who study how beliefs relate to evidence (among other things), agree that there are five primary sources of belief and justification (this includes evidence): perception, testimony, inference, memory, and introspection.(2) For our purposes, we can roughly equate sight with perception–that is, gathering data through the five senses. So, what Jesus and Paul might be saying is this, “It is better not to limit your yourself to the evidence of (physical) perception,” or even, “You should prioritize non-perceptual sources of evidence.” If I’m right, this supports the coherence of Christianity as a rational worldview. 

One question we might ask in testing this hypothesis is, “Why would Christianity favor the other four sources (esp. testimony) over perception? I mean, isn’t perception the best and most reliable way to gather information and evidence?” Well, let me offer two reasons in favor of this favoritism, and one response to the claim that perception is the best of the five sources.

Is (Physical) Perception the Best Source of Evidence?

forensic evidence, testimonyIn some contexts, I think we would say “yes.” Physical or forensic evidence can be more reliable in a murder case, for example, than testimonial evidence. (I’m no legal scholar, but this seems a safe assumption.) But what about outside the courtroom, in everyday life? Is there any reason to favor the evidence of my five senses over the evidence of testimony, inference, etc.? All five sources are vulnerable to error, and no single source can be set as judge above the rest. They must work in cooperation.

Why can’t I endorse one source as preeminent? The minute I try to set one source above the others, I run into problems. First, by what process did I determine that my preferred source is more reliable than the others? Whatever process I employ, it must, by necessity, involve the use of inference (one of my sources). And if it is inference (reason) that I set up as judge, then who evaluates the process I used to decide that? Reason? Ha! Circularity ensues. If some other source, then inference is no longer King. They must all be taken as a team, serving as checks and balances.

Why Would Christianity Favor the Other Four Sources?

So why would someone be “blessed” by relying on non-perceptual sources of evidence? Simply put, the fundamental beliefs of Christianity traffic in non-physical or abstract entities. Perception just isn’t very helpful in coming to know about such things. And this isn’t just true in religion. It’s true in mathematics, philosophy, ethics, cosmology, human value, and other areas. 

trinity, testimony, evidenceConsider some of Christianity’s most basic claims. God exists, God is a trinity, Jesus is God-incarnate, there is life after death, there are objective moral values and duties. Physical perception won’t (directly) tell you any of these things. So it’s no wonder that St. Paul, in the context of discussing life after death (“walk by faith” 2 Cor. 5:7), says that we can’t rely on our five senses to provide evidence of such things. This doesn’t mean that physical perception doesn’t play a role in faith–it can. Hundreds of people confirmed the physical resurrection of Jesus by empirical observation: sight, touch, sound, maybe even smell! Nature itself indirectly points to God’s invisible attributes. But non-perceptual sources, especially testimony, open to door to so much more. 

Blessed Testimony

family, relational, testimony, loveThe Christian faith favors testimony as a mean of transmitting belief and knowledge because, unlike other sources, testimony usually requires human interaction and is thus a relational means of knowledge transmission. The Christian God seeks to create a community of believers, not merely a mass of isolated individuals. By working through human relationships and conversation, God can establish bonds of trust and love between people, forming the basis of community. People can and do come to believe without relationships, but those who already have a connection to another person in the church will experience the benefits of belonging to a community of love. By analogy, imagine if babies just appeared in the world via magic, rather than through human reproduction! The sense of belonging and obligation created through reproduction in the human family provides far superior conditions for new humans. “Spiritual reproduction” via testimony also creates more “blessed” conditions for new believers. (Testimony also confers benefits on the messengers, but I’ll save that for another time.)

Back to Thomas

So I hope I’ve made some sense of Jesus’ words to Thomas here. By opening ourselves to other sources of knowledge, we increase the potential for a deeper experience of God and human community. We can experience the comprehensive revelation of God: written word, philosophical argument, inner awareness of moral conviction, indirect evidence through nature, etc. Testimonial conversations usher us into the Kingdom both spiritually and communally. Jesus’ words (“blessed are they . . .”) speak to all those who ponder the truth of Christianity, but who simply don’t have the benefit of Thomas’ proximity to the physical Jesus. Even Thomas might have been more “blessed” had he believed based on the testimony of his friends.


(1) For a careful look at the biblical context, see this excellent blog post.

(2) For more, see Robert Audi’s Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, Routledge, 2000.

Hearing from Jesus?

Jesus Christ, hearing GodIn the wake of recent noise about Mike Pence and his alleged conversations with the Son of God, I though I’d offer an epistemological perspective. How do we evaluate claims like “God spoke to me?”

Some Guidelines

First, these claims can only be evaluated inductively. That is, we can’t “prove” them true or false. We can only gather reasons and evidence for or against the claim, and then see where these reasons point us. The evidence may point so strongly in one direction as to virtually settle the matter, or it may be closer to 50/50. I’ll discuss what reasons for or against might look like below.

Second, claims about hearing from God can’t be evaluated without first assuming either that God exists or that God does not exist. So which assumption should we make? The far more interesting discussion arises from assuming God exists. If we assume the opposite, then the debate is over — Pence is kidding himself. Given that neither assumption is proven fact, and the vast majority of people in the world affirm some sort of god, it seems better to start with theism. (If you’re an atheist, this may annoy you. Your time might be better spent debating the existence of gods, rather than the veracity of heavenly messages.)

Jesus, hearing Jesus speak, Mike PenceThird, even religious people will disagree about how to evaluate “God spoke to me” claims. Since the Pence discussion revolves around the Christian faith, we should start there. (Again, assuming Christianity is true, what should we make of Pence’s chats with Jesus?) At minimum, Christians should admit that divine communication is clearly possible. Multiple precedents exist in the Bible and in church tradition, after all. The details get sketchy, though. (Also see this web comic: Coffee with Jesus.)

I can’t evaluate Pence’s personal experiences, because I don’t have nearly enough details. All we have is a second-hand account that Pence said that “Jesus tells him to say things.” Such testimonial evidence wouldn’t even be admissible in court. So instead I offer some criteria for evaluating such claims, from a Christian perspective.

Criteria that Increase Likelihood of Veridicality

  1. Coherence: Is the content of the message consistent with itself and with the consensus* of Christian teaching? (*”Mere Christianity” as C. S. Lewis might say.) If the voice says, “Iggily biggily, gollygoops,” or “Hate thy neighbor,” I don’t think it was Jesus.
  2. listening, intellectual virtue, corroboration Corroboration: Do other Christians, after discussion and prayer, agree that this was God’s voice? Pence should seek out several wise and knowledgeable believers and share the details with them for evaluation.
  3. Clarity: Is the message clear or vague? Historically, quintessential instances of God speaking to humans occur in unmistakable fashion. Burning bushes, blinding visions, human-like manifestations, terrifying angelic messengers, etc. God also appears to speak in indirect ways, but those are harder to verify and distinguish from one’s own conscience or thoughts. The clearer the message and medium, the more confidence we can have that it is divine.
  4. Character: Is the person making the claim generally reliable and truthful? Are they prone to over-interpret their own thoughts? Have they made spurious claims of divine dialogue in the past?
  5. Better explanations: Assuming Christianity is true, is there a better way to explain the experience? Were you drunk or on drugs? Are you suffering from any diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness? Did someone plant a radio transmitter in your braces? (Here’s a great essay by Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrman explaining how to distinguish religious experience from mental illness.)

The Bottom Line

Whatever the case may be, we should avoid knee-jerk reactions to claims of hearing from God. Leave room for possibility. Investigate and reflect. It never helps anyone to mock or deride others for their beliefs. “The View” host Joy Behar reacted by suggesting that Mike Pence is “mentally ill.” If you think someone’s beliefs are bad, show their error with love and logic, not ridicule. Ridicule is the weapon of those who lack the ability to wield reason.

MLK, King, hearing JesusPerhaps the best argument for taking such claims seriously is this:

If you say that everyone claiming to hear Jesus speak to them is delusional, then you must call Martin Luther King, Jr. delusional. 

In a well-known story, King claimed to hear the voice of Jesus telling him to stand up for truth and justice. His neice, Alveda King, relates this in her response to Joy Behar here. And MLK isn’t the only credible or heroic person who claimed to hear from God. Have there also been frauds and crazies? Absolutely. But it seems hasty and unreasonable to dump every sincere “hearer” into the epistemic trash heap. 

 

The Epistemology of Christmas

wise men, epistemology, Christmas, JesusGod came quietly. The arrival of the divine on earth was much subtler and cloaked than most of us would expect, or demand. It’s worth asking, “Why?”

I could launch into a theodicy about the strategicness of God’s particular mode of infiltration. How God values seekers more than mere believers. In other words, if God just wanted maximal belief in his existence, he would have come differently. But the subtlety of his visitation leaves the path home only partially traversed. He waits for us somewhere in the middle, sending word of his presence. Only those who sincerely want to meet him and set out on the winding path will find him waiting, smiling.

Instead, I think it’s worth pointing out another reason for God’s humble advent. It seems to me that God didn’t want to resonate with the rich, powerful and famous. The Kings, Generals and Politicians.  He wanted to identify and clasp hands with the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. Jesus’ kin are those born as he was: in obscurity, in weakness.

Mary recognized this from the moment Gabriel came to her. The fact that God would send his salvation through her–a small, Jewish girl–instantly set the tone for God’s work. In her now-famous prayer, she highlights this tone:

“He has done mighty deeds with His arm; he has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent away the rich empty-handed.”

God’s Connection

So if you’re baffled by God’s seemingly counterproductive means of announcing his existence to humanity, then remember where God’s heart is–with the small and brokenhearted. He not only wanted to become human in order to connect with our humanity; he wanted to become poor to connect with our poverty, to become abused to connect with our suffering.

Perhaps you think “that’s nice, but he should have done more for the suffering!” I understand the frustration. But that is another discussion. I am only pointing out here that there is a beautiful reason for God’s unwillingness to trumpet his arrival among the rich and powerful, to take a throne rather than a cross. If you’ve ever felt disenfranchised, abused, or exploited, then you are Jesus’ brother or sister. He is nearer to you. Christmas is for you.