It is not uncommon to hear skeptics claim that believing is God is not justified. God isn’t an old man in the sky that we can point to. You cannot find on some mountain in the Middle East today a firestorm with a voice the sounds like thunder speaking intelligible human speech that could be recorded and transmitted to the world through TV and YouTube. The claim is that God is a no-show, so why shouldn’t we just live our lives as we wish? Many people today find this line of argumentation compelling.
The Visible World A Product of Invisible Diety
There is of course another side to the story, its most famous articulation written by the Apostle Paul.
Romans 1:20 (NET)
20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.
Again, a skeptic might call this hogwash and claim there is no evidence, but I would assert that every skeptic I know accepts considerable evidence from human testimony. No skeptic has the time or ability to personally research all of that they believe nor be able to demonstrate empirically everything they believe, most of what they believe they accept on the basis of human testimony.
If you rely on human testimony then suddenly Paul’s statement has a lot going for it. The vast majority of human beings throughout human history HAVE in fact believed that the visible world is the product of an invisible god or group of gods and that this is a natural and justifiable way of thinking about the world.
The Problem of Diversity in Deity
A skeptic could easily retort that if this god is so manifest why are opinions about the divine so diverse? If deity is so obvious why can’t people agree on the details of the deity or divine and why can’t they come to agreement on what the divine wants from us?
This is actually an excellent question and I believe this question deeply gnaws at the faith of believers and people who were raised in the church but wrestle with whether not only believing in God makes sense but also in the particular teaching of Christianity, the church and other religions as well.
Beliefs Beneath Our Doubts
The dilemma of diversity of beliefs seems to be a crippling argument against belief until we begin to realize that there are beliefs beneath the doubts.
We might be assuming that receiving information about God should be a simple task. I don’t doubt the existence of my mother and father. I had plenty of experience with them. Most families do. Wait, however until after the death of a parent and then try to hold a conversation with family members about any inheritance money and ask “what would Dad have wanted done with his money?”
Now everyone might have thought they knew “Dad” pretty well but when it comes time to render an opinion about Dad’s preferences, especially in a context where there are different people’s opinions involved about “what ought to be done with Dad’s money”, suddenly there can be a difference of opinion about “what Dad would have preferred”.
We see this in fact in politics, in science, and in just about every area of life.
Jonathan Haidt, an atheist who writes how we come to believe what we believe describes us this way:
“We think we’re scientists discovering the truth, but actually we’re lawyers arguing for positions we arrived at by other means.”~ @JonHaidt
The Apostle Paul asserts in fact that we are not simple truth observers but we have all sorts of layers that impact what we believe and what we understand as the truth.
Romans 1:18 (NET)
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness,
The Apostle Paul asserts that we have a filter problem when it comes to God. We can come to see and know the truth, but we don’t want to hear the truth. Is this valid?
CS Lewis’ Illustrations of the TAO
At the conclusion of his book The Abolition of Man CS Lewis added an appendix of what he called the Tao or Natural Law. He attempted to illustrate that in fact across cultural boundaries people actually have broad agreement on how we should be have towards one another. He sites similar laws in diverse ancient documents.
- Law of General Beneficence: Be good to people in general
- Law of Special Beneficence: Be good to your own family
- Duties to parents, elders, ancestors
- Duties to children and posterity
- Law of Justice: don”t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness
- Law of good faith and veracity: don’t be treacherous
- Law of mercy: look out for the poor
- Law of magnanimity: don’t be small or petty
Some like Sam Harris, a well known atheist who is often anti-religious, argue today that these ideas are backed into us through evolution because they somehow “work”.
“I don’t need a God to be Good”
Skeptics will also, often claim that they don’t need a god or a religion to teach them right from wrong or to be good. This then becomes a point of pride. They are proud that they have a sense of right from wrong. They are proud that they can do good things.
So we are to understand that good is obvious, obviously better than evil and people can do it simply by doing the reasonable thing by choosing it. Why then IS there so much evil? Who of those who steal don’t know that stealing is wrong and that nearly everyone agrees that stealing is wrong? Who of those who kill don’t know that killing is wrong and that everyone agrees that killing is wrong?
If good and evil are so obvious to recognize in the world and doing good is simply a matter of choosing the good, why is there so much evil? Why isn’t there more good? Why is there evil at all? Why isn’t there only good?
For both people who believe that assignment of good and evil comes from god or the divine and those who believe it is simply backed into a godless world the one position we cannot embrace is that people do evil because they simply lack the information. While often we may do things with bad consequences out of ignorance, for these most basic things like we find listed in the 10 Commandments or CS Lewis’ Tao, people do wrong for darker, murkier reasons.
We Lose Our Bearings
In Romans 1 the Apostle Paul in fact asserts that not only do we suppress the truth, not only have we messed up our truth finding faculties but that this leads us into a condition where we in fact lose our bearings and continue to do evil, harmful, wrong things and think them to be good and right.
If the facile approach I described above were true, that we somehow simply know the truth, the good and the right and simply have to choose it, how do you explain huge episodes of human history where people as societies have done horrendous evil all the while thinking they were doing a good thing?
In American history the vast majority of society believed that it was good and proper to subjugate other human beings on the basis of their African heritage. This wasn’t simply a Christian position, the few atheists and deists around like Thomas Jefferson defended it as well.
For centuries in Europe hating and oppressing Jews was seen as the moral and Christian thing to do. Killing the Jews in Nazi Germany was the patriotic thing to do. Killing enemies of the state in the USSR and China was the patriotic thing to do. Ending inconvenient pregnancies for economic or the gender of the fetus is a common thing around the world today.
We think nothing of burning petroleum to satisfy our wants and desires regardless of the amount of CO2 we put into the atmosphere. Will future generations curse us as moral monsters for this or will they say “that’s just what they did in the early 21st century before the icecaps melted.”
At the Foot of the Mountain
The story of the recently freed Hebrew slaves of Egypt meeting their god at Sinai has them speaking to them from the mountain. His existence to them would be self-evident. The laws he decreed for them were not entirely unique nor unexpected to a people of that time and place. Most of them in fact fit quite nicely with CS Lewis’ Tao and many would be excepted without protest today. I imagine if you had polled the children of Israel at the foot of the mountain you would have found huge majorities in favor of the commands that God had given to them. We should imagine cheers after commands.
God: “You shall not kill”
They might even like more specific information while he’s at it.
You’d think they would say something like “thanks for the freedom, we’re grateful for the personal appearance, we’ll keep what you say. We’ve got a number of other issues we’ve been talking about and while Moses has given us his opinion we’re really like to hear from you on them just to be sure.”
If contemporary Americans would be at the foot of the mountain we likely imagine that we’d bring questions to this god and he would answer them for us and that would settle that.
Christians and believers of other faiths might, in the words of the bumper sticker say “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
This is how we think we are, but are we really?
Exodus suggests that nothing could be further from the truth.
Exodus 20:18–21 (NET)
18 All the people were seeing the thundering and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and saw the mountain smoking—and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance.19 They said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you so that you do not sin.” 21 The people kept their distance, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.
A Testimony in Reverse
Andy Crouch is an editor at Christianity Today. The first article he wrote for the magazine years ago is called “A Testimony in Reverse“. I read this article years ago and it has always stayed with me.
During my senior year of college, I was precariously in love. After a few intense months of courtship, my beloved moved to Boston, and I was desperate to follow her. Good Christian that I was, I decided to pray for guidance. As I sat on my bed with my eyes shut tight, two words formed insistently in my brain: “Don’t go.”
What was this? Clearly, I thought, fears of romantic commitment were welling up from my subconscious. And why would God say, “Don’t go,” without saying where to go? I decided to pray more intently. “Lord, I really want you to lead me—”
Interrupting my prayers, I heard two and only two words: “Don’t go.” The voice, entirely clear though not physically audible, was neither harsh nor yielding.
I stopped praying, since the truth was I had already made up my mind. I moved to Boston. A few weeks later, I walked out of my beloved’s apartment into a driving snowstorm. Wisely, she had ended our relationship.
In an interview about his relationship with the 19 year old daughter of his girlfriend Mia Farrow Woody Allen famously said “The heart wants what it wants.” This is the human condition.
A standard question in the Christian apologist’s repertoire today is “what would it take for you to believe there is a God.”
If God rearranged the stars and addressed you personally would you believe? Some honest atheists demure even at this suggestion.
If they’ve asked me what it would take for me to believe, I’ll use a variation of American physicist Lawrence Krauss’s example in his debate with William Lane Craig: if I walked outside at night and all of the stars were organized to read, “I am God communicating with you, believe in Me!” and every human being worldwide witnessed this in their native language, this would be suggestive (but far from conclusive as it’s a perception and could be a delusion).
Boghossian, Peter (2013-10-26). A Manual for Creating Atheists (Kindle Locations 1428-1431). Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition.
On Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher has a humorous response to what it would take for him to believe: Jesus Christ coming down from the sky during the halftime show at the Super Bowl and turning nachos into bread and fish.
Boghossian, Peter (2013-10-26). A Manual for Creating Atheists (Kindle Locations 1832-1834). Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Here’s the irony. We ask for public evidence but any public evidence we receive we can dismiss as delusional. Most people believe on the basis of private evidence, something personal and unique. They experience something that convinces them personally but this doesn’t really translate to others.
Even when we do come to a place, like the vast majority of human beings where we say “God exists” and “God wants this and doesn’t want that” and even when we can agree in broad strokes we discover not only don’t other people follow the obvious rules perpetually finding justification for their own evil but if we have any honesty at all we begin to discover we do the same thing.
So what if God exists. So what if he says “do this” and “don’t do that” and so what is most of us agree to these things in the abstract. We can’t even control ourselves! Even the act of God telling us what we mostly believe drives us away. Our selves are fragile, emotional burn victims hyper reactive to any form of admonition or judgment.
CS Lewis describes our crisis this way.
Now what was the sort of ‘hole’ man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—that is the only way out of our ‘hole’. This process of surrender—this movement full speed astern—is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person—and he would not need it.
Lewis, C. S. (2009-05-28). Mere Christianity (pp. 56-57). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
In the Christian story it is Jesus’ death and resurrection that achieve our rescue and deliverance. How can this accomplishment be received?
We run into the same two dilemmas. Right away we might imagine people would say (and do say) I don’t care what happened to Jesus. I don’t want him doing anything for me, putting me in his debt so that I would somehow HAVE to live a certain way. I find such assertions an offense to the freedom I demand.
We hear this in Thomas Nagel in his very honest assessment of his emotional reaction to religion in general.
Thomas Nagel “The Last Word” pg. 130
In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility towards certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper– namely the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. This cosmic authority problem is not rare and I doubt that there is anyone who is genuinely indifferent as to whether there is a God.
The second dilemma is the dilemma of private information. Jesus was crucified, died, buried and after he arose appeared to a people but those people are only a portion of all of humanity. Those people speak different languages. Those people have not only the human opposition to the imposition of God but also the common barrier of time and space. All of this God would have to overcome!
Even the group of people that witnessed Jesus crucifixion and resurrection seemed remarkably inept. Peter, their leader had cursed Jesus in his denial of him. Judas, one of the twelve was the betrayer. This group of about 120 people who remained loyal to Jesus waited in Jerusalem for Jesus to do something they could not expect or imagine.
Acts 2:1–21 (NET)
1 Now when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And tongues spreading out like a fire appeared to them and came to rest on each one of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven residing in Jerusalem.6 When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Completely baffled, they said, “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language?9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia,10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome,11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!”12 All were astounded and greatly confused, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others jeered at the speakers, saying, “They are drunk on new wine!” 14 But Peter stood up with the eleven, raised his voice, and addressed them: “You men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, know this and listen carefully to what I say. 15 In spite of what you think, these men are not drunk, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.16 But this is what was spoken about through the prophet Joel: 17 ‘And in the last days it will be,’ God says, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. 18Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19And I will perform wonders in the skyaboveand miraculous signson the earth below, blood and fire and clouds of smoke. 20The sun will be changed to darknessand the moon to bloodbefore the great and gloriousday of the Lord comes. 21And then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
From this point forward the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection and its impact in people’s lives would be carried by people moved by the Holy Spirit. It wouldn’t be smoke and thunder on a mountain, it would be God’s movement through the myriad of times and places and cultures.
Is this an upgrade?
I can easily imagine the complaint that this personal method with private evidence doesn’t help anything. Wouldn’t it be better for Yhwh to again make an appearance, this time with video cameras and YouTube?
The Christian church asserts that Jesus will in fact return in a public way that will also be universal, but until that point the Holy Spirit’s plan seems to be to work on us through each other. Judging from the relative outcomes of the Sinai episode verses the spread of the church since Pentecost I don’t think I need to justify one of the other.
As to the point that one shouldn’t need religion or a god to be good I’d suggest that the point is made out of pride. It is easy to identify selfishness as a source of the evil that we do. It is harder to recognize that in fact it is often pride beneath our choosing that moves us to live our own well-being at the expense of others.
The Christian faith says that the best obedience is free obedience. If we recognize that we are deeply flawed and sometimes even the best things we do are motivated by a desire to move ourselves ahead of others, maybe then we can see our need of intervention. God initiates. God sends Jesus. Jesus relinquishes his life to us and for us. God raises Jesus and God sends the Holy Spirit.
What all of this should do is motivate us in gratitude, where we don’t do things because we are afraid of punishment nor do we attempt to manipulate God or put him in our debt, but we respond to God and each other with generosity and favor.
This is a far more attractive goodness than either the pride induced or fear induced goodness we commonly see.
Beauty Over Compulsion
The evidence demand is ironically a command to be compelled by another. Our hearts bristle against this because of our pride turning us to the kinds of creatures that will resist believing or admitting no matter the evidence. We see this played out every day.
How the Gospel woos us by the Holy Spirit’s work of generosity in the hearts of others is by the beauty of the gift. Where evidence within a system of proof and justification attempts to compel us to lay down our arms, beauty invites us to surrender our arms and our hearts.
Would you rather be forced to surrender at the point of a gun or a sword, or invited into the arms of a lover?