God and the IRS (part II)
I wrote this essay a few months ago and have been waiting for a sign (or wonder) that it was time to post it. Given that in recent days we have been discussing this very issue, “divine hiddenness”, and in honor of upcoming April 15th, it seems like this would be a good time. In order to avoid excess length this article has been split into two parts. Part I: Why doesn’t God make things clearer?
I begin by saying: if there is a God of evangelical Christianity, he would appear to be less capable than the IRS(*).
No one wants, in particular, to pay their taxes. Almost everyone would rather keep their money. Most people, however, do pay their taxes, and presumably there are a variety of reasons why. For most, it is simply the law and they are in a habit of obeying the law. For many, perhaps, there is also a conscious fear of the consequences of not doing so. A few noble souls may perhaps see that government, for all its flaws, nonetheless does some good, and requires money to run, and thus they pay taxes out of a sense of civil duty. Some attempt to cheat, a few succeed. But most everyone is highly motivated to minimize or avoid paying taxes, if possible. Most everyone would love it – love it – if the IRS just flat did not exist.
But equally, no one – and I mean no one – actually denies the existence of the IRS.
No one claims the US Tax Code is an outmoded, superstitious document, written by long-dead pre-modern farmers, which has no relevance for us. No one says IRS auditors are a myth, with no evidence to support their existence, and can be ignored. No one claims letters and phone calls to the IRS will always be unanswered “because there is no IRS”. To my knowledge, the IRS has never refused to pursue money owed it because “nothing would convince them anyway.” And no US citizen says, why yes I pay my taxes – to the One True Government, and then cheerfully sends his money to Mother India.
In short, the US government (for God’s sake) is apparently able to successfully, and rather effortlessly, convince the entire world that (a) it exists, (b) it has authority over its citizens, and (c) broadly speaking, what the rules are.
And it is noteworthy that a universal awareness of its existence does not in any way compel obedience. Many people, regularly, attempt to cheat, despite knowing the potential consequences. Moreover, there is no obvious virtue to be had in the IRS hiding its existence, making belief in it a matter of faith (or of a “sensus bureaucraticus”), and then punishing people for failure to obey the rules anyway. There is no distinction to be drawn between its past convincing people of its existence and its present convincing, because convincing people of its existence is not something it has to try to do in the first place. There is no IRS “Department of Existence-Awareness Maintenance”, so far as I know.
So for me, though I present this slightly flippantly, in the end this was an unanswerable question. There can simply be no compelling reason why the Christian God (or, at least, one who teaches damnation in Hell) would not set us all straight. He loses nothing by making the facts clear. We still would have a choice to follow him, or not to follow him. It might, perhaps, compel obedience from fear more than love, but that seems inescapable if he wishes to torture us in Hell forever for making the wrong decision. And surely, given Hell, it is more fair to be clear. And while there are no end of ways an omnipotent God could accomplish this – he could have each of us born with an organic copy of the New Testament attached to our umbilical cords (this is God we’re talking about) – in the end, how much effort would it really take? Ask yourself: how much time and energy do you spend trying to convince those around you that you exist, and what it is you want them to do? Don’t you just stand in front of them and talk?
What I have appreciated most about this question is it has formed an integral part of my ability to disengage from apologetics, even if I can’t answer their argument. I haven’t been willing to become an expert of ancient Near Eastern literature in order to refute every explanation of the Bible harmonizers, but with this argument, I don’t have to. For, in a sense, the more complex and involved an apologist’s argument is, the more it requires detailed knowledge of ancient languages, modal logic, or other highly technical disciplines, the more glaring my question becomes: why is it so complicated? Every starting burger-flipper at Dairy Queen, on his first day, very quickly gains a crystal clear and unambiguous awareness of the existence of his boss and a general understanding of the rules. He doesn’t have to get a Ph.D. in philosophy and Aramaic in order to know what happens if he’s late.
Can’t God do at least as well as that?
*[Note: for any non-American readers, who might be unfamiliar with this term, “IRS” stands for “Internal Revenue Service” and is the federal agency responsible for tax collection. April 15th of every year is the day person income taxes from the preceding year are due.]