I was echatting with an atheist today. “You have to admit,” he said, “that if your god wanted people to acknowledge him, he could easily reveal himself in an undeniable way. For example he could appear to us, move mountains about, give us scientific information about the world that we could not possibly get from other sources. Doing so would not in anyway mess with our free will; God appeared to Adam and Eve and numerous other characters in the Bible and, I assume, you do not believe their free will was compromised.The fact that all this god’s direct involvement in human affairs took place before we had reliable historical information, whereas he now relies on a book written in other people’s handwriting, intermediaries very much like you, as well as on a host of subjective, non-verifiable experiences in order to reveal himself, gives us reason to suspect this god of yours is imaginary, just like all the other gods people believe in. Just have him show himself to us.”
“And then what?” I said. “You would do a 180 and obey Him? Willingly? Not just because of His power? You would obey like the OT Hebrews that kept disobeying even after all the miracles they witnessed? Or like Adam and Eve, who would go for walks with God every day and yet didn’t trust His advice?
We should consider that God has tried to reach humans throughout history, using all possible avenues, to prove to them on judgment day, that He did all He could, and that we have no excuse. We have the laws of nature, the moral law written in our heart, and historical and archeological records. The information is out there and in here.
I don’t presume to know why God is not showing Himself to us today, but I have an idea; with His apparent non-communication, He is respecting our free will. He knows what’s best for His creation, but is withholding what philosopher Isaiah Berlin termed as positive freedom, an active form of the will that might encourage a tyrannical government; through his exercise of positive freedom, in fact, a wiser leader might force less wise subjects to follow his will, thus exercising tyranny over the subjects’ will. Berlin explained: “To manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you, the social reformer, see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.”
This respect of human freedom shows a God that is the opposite of the tyrant depicted by Christopher Hitchens (RIP) in his 2009 Does God Exist? debate with philosopher William Lane Craig. In this debate, Hitchens described God’s government as a sort of eternal North Korea from which you cannot escape, not even through death.
But if God exists and is the God accused of not intervening in human affairs, isn’t that exactly what He is allowing men to do? Isn’t He respecting their will (thus denying Hitchen’s North Korea accusation) by withholding His positive freedom and allowing them to do what they want? And if He’s doing so, doesn’t that at least provide a theoretical, intellectual answer to the question of why He’s not showing Himself to us? Isn’t He allowing us (and the rest of the universe) to freely reach His conclusion that He’s right and we’re wrong, using this planet’s own history as a universal schoolmaster?
This concept of positive freedom also provides an answer to the common accusation levied against God about the problem of evil; atheists argue that the existence of evil is strong proof that God does not exist or, if He exists, He’s not worthy of worship and praise. This is debatable, and theists have good philosophical arguments to support their position: in the debate mentioned above, for example, Dr. Craig presents a good intellectual argument for the compatibility of evil and a loving God, to the point where even Hitchens looked impressed.
Now, atheists at this point retort that, if theists think that we need to believe in someone who will punish us for all eternity, or cause us to lead a damned life without him, then we are acting not out of love, but out of fear. Fear of punishment is not something to be proud of. One can choose to be a good person and live a moral life respecting others without having to believe that there will be pain and suffering otherwise. We can do it out of the goodness of our heart. No God required.
This argument might be true, as I will mention in a future post about Christianity and Euthyphro’s dilemma — even though I could argue that obedience to a government out of fear is still wiser than disobedience, and this is true even for earthly governments — but, as an argument, it shows a basic misunderstanding of what God is trying to achieve here; He’s withholding His presence for the very reason that He wants us to agree with His moral laws not out of fear, but out of love.
Think about it. God could show a perennial image of Himself or of a scary angel (Isaiah 37:36) that constantly reminds us to obey His law or else! And we would obey. We would. But to what gain? That would be compulsory obedience. No wise ruler wants that.
He wants His subjects to agree with Him that obedience to the moral law is the only way for the universe to function. He himself obeys it. He’s not above the law. (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2).
“Yeah, but if you disobey Him, He’ll send you to hell forever! Some God!” you might say.
And here’s the thing I find it interesting; how’s it that 21st century people take advantage of 21st century knowledge in all their endeavors, yet still look at the Bible through the lens of medieval theology? Or use the works of Dante and Milton to judge what it says about this life or the next? As if the Being that created the universe and stars and beauty and children and love and sex were a cosmic Oliver Cromwell or a capricious Zeus that will torment you forever if you don’t obey Him.
There might be something Freudian in such behavior. As if we wanted God to the such a petty character as an excuse to reject Him and act according to our lust du jour.
So why doesn’t God show Himself to us? Because He loves us enough to respect our freedom to choose good or evil.