Why doesn’t God make things clearer?
I always find it interesting seeing what sorts of experiences and argument were most instrumental in moving a given person out of fundamentalist Christianity. For some, it is Biblical contradictions or Biblical atrocities. For others, it unanswered prayer. For me, it started with a kind of experience and ended with a question.
The experience was this: I moved away to attend school. I fell in with new friends there and, well, they weren’t evangelical Christians like me. Some were liberal or “cultural” Christians, some were outright atheists. In any event they totally disagreed with my view, on a pretty basic level, about Jesus, and salvation, and all the rest.
But the existence of disagreement, and especially of nonbelievers, has always required explanation in fundamentalism. This is because the “Truth” of Christianity is supposed to be obvious and unmistakable – indeed, virtually self-evident. Any fool can see it. After all, it is God’s own Truth. So, then, it stood to reason, to me, that those who didn’t see it had something wrong with them. And, really, there were only a couple of reasons why someone might not accept this obvious and self-evident Christian truth: he/she is stupid, or he/she is willful, unable, or unwilling. What other answer could there be?
But that wasn’t what I found. My new friends were decent and kind, thoughtful and compassionate people. That was, of course, why I liked them! They were as well or better educated (and better thinkers) than I was. They didn’t seem uninterested in truth, they just had reached – pretty reasonably and honestly, it seemed to me – different conclusions about what it was. So now, though, I had a dilemma. I was taught Christian truth was clear as the summer sun. But here were many people who did not think it was true, and yet were not stupid and who were not obviously wicked, or at least no more sinful than most Christians I knew. So now, a new option began to occur to me:
It is possible for reasonable, thoughtful, educated people of conscience, who are equally well informed about the facts, to nevertheless come to different conclusions about a given issue.
I began to realize that people who believed capital punishment should be outlawed – to pick an example – weren’t bad people; they were reasonable people with whom I happened to disagree. [BTW, I no longer believe this. I was much more conservative then!] There didn’t have to be a good guy and a bad guy. Just two humans disagreeing. There is nothing unusual about this; we see it and take it for granted everyday. (I have since come to believe that it is this, this dichotomous, black-and-white thinking, that is the heart of fundamentalism, not the particular beliefs. But that is another essay.)
So now my explanation for disagreement had changed. It wasn’t that the “Truth” that I believed was obvious, and those who didn’t think so had something wrong with them. It was that the “Truth” wasn’t as obvious as I had assumed.
So then I began to ask: why not?
This was a question for which no good answer was ever forthcoming. Because it just didn’t make sense to me. If there is an omnipotent, omniscient God, and this God has a single, vital message to us, why isn’t that fact any clearer? Why is it even possible for anyone to disagree about what the facts are?
I have since learned that this issue is known by the term “divine hiddenness”. A fellow by the name of J. R. Schellenberg wrote a book on it in the 1990’s and has invigorated debate in this area. (Wikipedia, by the way, has a fine article on it: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divine_hiddenness#Introduction_to_the_problem_of_divine_hiddenness.) A number of years prior, Carl Sagan had wondered why, if the Christian God exists, he didn’t carve the Ten Commandments on the moon. Moreoever, this argument also bears similarities to what is called the Argument from Nonbelief, both put forth by philosopher Theodore Drange (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/atheism/nonbelief.html).
Christian answers usually follow one of a few major lines. First, there is free will. We all have the free choice, not just to obey God, but what to believe about God – including whether he exists. It is presumed there is sufficient reason to decide to do so. We have “general revelation”, we have heard the Gospel message, we have the work of the Holy Spirit, we have a sensus divinitatus. Failure to believe Christianity is thus an issue of the will, not intellect. There is and can be no “incuplable nonbelief”, in Schellenberg’s terms, because everyone is culpable. . Failure to believe is thus said to stem from not wanting to believe, because we are enslaved to our sin and do not want to face our Judge. Thus, it simply is not possible to reach an honest conclusion that Christianity is untrue. Indeed, by this answer, there is no true “disbelief” at all, although the non-Christian may claim that; there is rather only failure to submit.
There are other, more minor arguments as to why God doesn’t make things clearer: i.e., that He did perform miracles, in the past, and that didn’t convince people, so why would we expect it to now? Or he wishes to have us struggle in uncertainty because it is salutary for us to do so, to build our faith and character (i.e., “soul making”). Some say that to make the evidence universally clear would, because of Hell, coerce obedience, and God wishes us to come to him from love, not fear. Each of these replies can be and has been addressed in this ongoing debate. But for me, and at the risk of being glib, all the relevant issues are brought together in the following analogy, for which the tongue is only partially in cheek. I shall call it The Argument from Taxation – or, for brevity, Argument 1040. (Continued in part II…)