Not long after christianity began, a critic named Celsus argued that Jesus couldn’t have been divine, for he missed the opportunity to prove his divinity by disappearing from the cross.
I find this an unsatisfactory argument, because it assumes that Celsus knew what God’s purpose was. And I find similarly unsatisfactory arguments being used today.
Seeking signs of God’s presence or absence
The reasons most people give for believing or disbelieving are based on (allegedly) factual things in the world which are argued to be inconsistent with God existing, or cannot be easily explained except by God’s existence.
For example, believers will point to the apparent ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe and ask how this could happen unless God designed it? Or non-believers will point to the pain and suffering in the universe and ask how this could happen if God exists?
A reasonable basis?
The strength or otherwise of these arguments depends in large part on the reasonableness of their starting “facts”. The fine tuning argument is strong because it begins with well established scientific facts. The suffering argument is strong because we see the suffering and feel for those who suffer.
But other arguments don’t have nearly so strong a basis
Celsus and unstated assumptions
The ‘factual’ basis of Celsus’ argument is an assumption of what God would do, or what God is aiming to do. He assumed that high on God’s agenda would be demonstrating Jesus’ divinity. This is clearly a poor basis for argument for several reasons:
- How would Celsus, or anyone else, know what God’s reasons are unless this is revealed to them?
- The gospels show that Jesus specifically rejected doing something spectacular to get noticed. God had other plans.
- Christians believe God has revealed his purposes that (1) Jesus would die for the sins of the world, and (2) people are given a free choice and not forced to believe. These make Celsus’ suggested miracle impossible.
So Celsus’ argument might be strong against belief in some types of God, but is a poor argument against belief in the christian God.
Why is God so hidden?
One of the most used arguments against the existence of the christian God is the fact that he remains quite hidden – he cannot be touched or seen, some say he cannot be heard, and some say he never actually does anything. But if he exists and is good, it is argued, he would do a far better job of making himself known.
There are however a number of questionable hidden assumptions in this argument, which can be easily seen if we write the argument out in a formal way. It would go something like this:.
- If God is good, he would want people to know him.
- Therefore, if he exists, he would reveal himself clearly.
- But God’ is not apparent to our senses, and his existence cannot be verified by empirical means.
- Therefore a good God doesn’t exist.
A christian might contest or query all three of these premises, claiming that they are based on wrong and unstated assumptions about how God ‘should’ act.
On the face of it, all christians would accept this premise as it stands. But most christians would say that it is an incomplete statement about God’s purposes. For example, God may wish to create beings with free will, or beings who will learn moral values. Some christians (not me) believe God’s main purpose is to glorify himself. All of these and more need to be considered along with God’s purpose of people knowing him
Some christians might say that while God wants to know us in the afterlife, his purpose may be to test us on earth, and that may not involve knowing him. So there is also an unstated timing assumption in this premise.
This is a very vague premise (how clearly? what constitutes “clearly”?). Some atheists say they would be convinced if God did something spectacular (e.g. their name appeared in the sky with a message from God), so we may agree this is “clearly”. But we it isn’t certain whether less spectacular revelation can be called “clear”.
This premise also tacitly assumes that:
- knowing him in this life is necessary for salvation – but inclusivist and universalist christians don’t think this;
- we don’t get a ‘second chance’ in the afterlife – but many christians think we do;
- he doesn’t have other purposes that are more important than this one, for example, to allow us freedom to choose without being overwhelmed by him;
- he should reveal himself in spectacular or undeniable ways rather than subtle ways.
So if this premise is interpreted to mean God should reveal himself in overwhelming ways, there are many reasons to question this. If it can include more subtle ways, then christians may accept this premise also.
Christians believe that God has revealed himself in many ways – through the Bible, through Jesus, through the world and universe around us, through our experience of being human, through people experiencing healings, visions and supernatural visitations and guidance, and ultimately through the Holy Spirit impressing himself upon us.
Proponents of the argument would say this isn’t enough, but this means they are interpreting premise 2 in a strong way, which we have seen is quite questionable.
The argument makes too many assumptions
Thus the argument implicitly assumes that the stakes are so high in this life that God should morally give us more to go on. So it may be convicning for someone who insists on a powerful revelation and is willing to assume they understand how God ‘should’ behave, and it may cause trouble for a certain type of christian who accepts that implicit assumption.
But it is quite unimpressive to anyone who doesn’t make all those assumptions, and to any christian who believes God has revealed himself in ways that don’t fit the sceptic’s assumptions.
The argument revised
If we revise the argument to take account of these objections, it comes out something like this:
- If God is good, he would want people to know him in the next life.
- Therefore, if he exists, he would provide a way for people to enter the afterlife with him.
- That may require us to know him enough to respond to him in this life.
- But God is not apparent to many people’s senses, and many people believe his existence cannot be verified by empirical means.
- Therefore those who expect an impressive revelation may conclude God possibly doesn’t exist.
It’s not very impressive, but I’m honestly not sure how to improve the argument. I invite readers to have a go, keeping in mind the objections.
Variations on a theme
Several other arguments are variations on this theme.
Some sceptics say if God really wanted to communicate to us through the Bible, he’d have made it amazing, accurate and obviously supernatural. Others say the same about Jesus’ ministry – that if he was truly the son of God, he would have done more to demonstrate it beyond doubt.
But both arguments meet the same objections – they assume God ‘should’ act in a certain way, based on an implicit assumption of God’s objectives.
I believe God judges us according to the light we have been given. Knowing him in this life is a great blessing, but those who don’t know him will be judged fairly, and Jesus can ‘save’ them too (just like he could ‘save’ Old Testament Jews who had never heard of him).
I believe there is plenty of evidence for those willing to consider it, and the Holy Spirit can convince people whose hearts and minds are open. Jesus suggested we may be surprised at who we see in heaven, so we cannot write anyone off.
God’s hiddenness is out of respect for our autonomy. I must admit I often wonder why God doesn’t do more to reveal himself in particular people and situations, but I cannot know how much or little he has done. So while I am occasionally troubled by God’s apparent inaction, this is no reason for me to doubt he’s there.