Why is evidence for God so sparse? If God wants a relationship with us and knows that hell awaits those who don’t know him, why doesn’t he make his existence obvious? I’ve always found this Problem of God’s Hiddenness to be the most powerful argument against Christianity.
Does God’s revealing himself intrude on our free will?
The Wintery Knight blog cites Prof. Michael Murray, who argues that God’s hands are tied. He just can’t reveal too much:
God places a higher value on people having the free will to respond to him, and if he shows too much of himself he takes away their free choice to respond to him, because once he is too overt about his existence, people will just feel obligated to [believe] in him in order to avoid being punished.
But that’s not how belief works. There might be benefits to belief, but that’s not why you believe. You believe if and only if you have convincing evidence. When you’re convinced, then you believe. This, by the way, is the failure of Pascal’s Wager (“I’ll believe in God, just in case, so that if he exists I’ll go to the Good Place when I die”).
Murray claims that God wants us to desire to know him and then reach out to connect rather than act out of fear of what will happen if we get on his bad side (which sounds like a tricky juggling act).
If it is too obvious to us that God exists and that he really will judge us, then people will respond to him and behave morally out of self-preservation.
Help from an unexpected source
On this topic, Christian apologist Greg Koukl is an unlikely ally in our fight for reason. He rejects this argument from free will by noting that in the Bible, God did appear to people, precisely what apologists like Murray say God refuses to do. God appeared as smoke and fire to the Israelites during the Exodus. Jesus did miracles, he healed people, he multiplied food, he controlled nature, and he raised the dead.
And consider the apostles—did witnessing the miracles of Jesus make their belief and love counterfeit? Did Paul’s Damascus road experience disqualify him from being a proper believer? (If not, then how about some of that evidence for us today?)
Because of Jesus, was the free will of everyone in Palestine violated, with many turned into mindless robots who said nothing but, “I . . . love . . . Jesus”? No, the Bible makes clear that belief in God doesn’t coerce one to follow God. John 6:66 says, “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” Or consider the authorities who acknowledged that Jesus raised Lazarus—they still plotted to kill him. All the angels believe in God, and yet a third of them rebelled.
The Bible itself makes clear that being convinced of God’s existence and being compelled to worship him are two very different things. And the problem of God’s hiddenness remains. Clearly free will and overwhelming evidence can coexist.
Introducing today’s contestants
That was a long introduction to the third and final question raised by skeptics and posed to Koukl on a podcast of the Unbelievable? radio show (audio here; go to 45:50). Previous questions were about prayer and the Atonement.
The free will argument above was just a tangent to the main question, raised by skeptic Matt. Here is his version of the Problem of Divine Hiddenness: nonresistant unbelief exists. This is unbelief by honest seekers who are eager to know God but reject God’s existence for lack of evidence. Assuming that God desires to have a relationship with us, merely knowing that the other person exists is the mandatory first step in a relationship. God’s existence should be obvious to these seekers and yet it isn’t. This is easily explained by concluding that God doesn’t exist.
Why should God bother?
Koukl pushed back by observing that, in his Bible examples, not everyone believed. People had miracles done in front of them, and yet they still didn’t believe—so much for the compelling power of evidence.
First, let’s clarify what “believed” means. According to the stories, everyone believed that miracles had been done, so Koukl presumably means that not everyone became a Christian. Let’s then be careful to distinguish these two very different kinds of “believe”: “I accept that God exists” vs. “I worship God.”
Second, he’s probably right that not everyone would believe if God made his existence plain today, but that’s a helluva lot more evidence than we have now. Maybe not everybody, but surely millions or even billions more would be convinced and believe if God made his existence clear. Matt’s argument about nonresistant unbelief would be gone, but God apparently has no interest in making that happen.
Koukl complains about what would happen if God made himself plainly known, but God already has made himself plainly known (just not to everyone), according to his own argument. Jesus did miracles to prove his divinity, and Koukl will tell you he has gotten compelling evidence of God’s existence. Sounds like more souls for God, so how can he defend God not showing himself? This looks much more like God isn’t there rather than that he’s just playing games we can’t understand.
Apologists are burdened with a Bible that is no more convincing than other ancient religious writing. If God made himself apparent so that Christianity were the only religion backed by a real god, you can be sure that Christians’ pious handwaving about the importance of faith would go out the window, and they would gleefully point to the only obvious deity—theirs—that proved that they had been right all along. It’s not that Christians dismiss evidence; it’s that they don’t have any to speak of.
Let’s make clear what compelling evidence for God would look like. This wouldn’t simply be the clouds parting one day just as you wondered if God existed. It wouldn’t be unexpectedly coming across a photo of a beloved relative who had died and feeling an emotional connection. I’m talking about something really compelling—something like everyone in the world having the same dream the same night in which God simply and clearly summarized his plan. Could that be dismissed as alien technology or mind-control drugs rather than God? Perhaps, but this evidence would be vastly more compelling than the feeble arguments apologists must work with today.
Koukl complains that this wouldn’t be a perfect plan, but what does he propose that’s better? The skeptic’s demand for evidence is quite reasonable.
In part 2, Koukl presents what he thinks is a reasonable request for evidence.
the existence of Christian apologetics.
— commenter T-Paine
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/10/16.)