Objections To Belief In God (part 3)

November 26, 2007     Time: 00:23:45

We want to continue our discussion of objections to belief in God. We’ve been looking for the last few weeks at epistemological objections. We talked the first week about verificationism which said that believe in God is impossible because beliefs that cannot be empirically verified by the five senses are simply meaningless – they have no truth value and therefore such beliefs are not really beliefs about facts at all but just expressions of emotive feelings. The second time we looked at the so-called presumption of atheism which held that in the absence of evidence for God one is justified in believing that God does not exist. You will remember the bottom line of that discussion was that even the atheists recognize that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence only in the case that two conditions are met. First of all, that the thing that we are dealing with is something which would be expected to leave more evidence than we actually observe; and then secondly that we have thoroughly surveyed the field where we should find such evidence and found none at all. Unless the atheist can demonstrate those two points then there is no reason to think that mere absence of evidence implies that God does not exist.

Both of these objections – verificationism and the presumption of atheism – are, I think, today obsolete. Rather, the debate among philosophers on epistemological concerns about God has moved on to a discussion of the so-called hiddenness of God which is closely related to the presumption of atheism and the absence of evidence. The basic thrust of the objection called the hiddenness of God is based upon the conviction that God’s existence is not as obvious as it could be or as one might desire. The atheist objects that if God existed then we would expect to see more evidence of his existence than what we do have. There is a probability that if God were there that he would disclose himself in some way so that his existence would be more obvious. Given that God is hidden, so to speak, that his existence is not obvious, this counts as evidence against God’s existence.

One’s perspective on this problem of the hiddenness of God cannot but be influenced by your assessment of natural theology. Remember natural theology is the project of trying to show that God exists without appealing to biblical revelation. Rather, you appeal to reason and to evidence in order to show that God exists. If you think that the project of natural theology is successful, that is to say that there are good arguments and evidence for the existence of God, then you are apt to be skeptical of the atheist’s claim here that God’s existence is so hidden. You will be skeptical of his claim that if God existed we should expect to see more evidence of his existence than what we do have. You will remember that this was a point that I raised in the debate with Austin Dacey where I argued that there is absolutely no basis to think that if God existed that we should have more evidence of his existence than the origin of the universe out of nothing a finite time ago, the incredibly improbable fine-tuning of the universe for the existence of intelligent life, the existence of a realm of objectively existing moral values and duties, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, and the experience in our immediate personal lives of God’s presence. It is hard to understand how one could claim that if those arguments for God’s existence are cogent that God is, in fact, hidden.

Michael Scriven, whom I quoted when we talked about the presumption of atheism, at the end of the day held that we are justified in rejecting the existence of something only if the claim that it exists is wholly unsupported.[1] That is to say, there is no evidence at all in favor of this thing. There is no particular evidence for it, and it is not even supported by sort of general considerations in its favor. On the basis of this criterion, Scriven advocated that we should be merely agnostic and not disbelieving about even such entities as the Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman! He thought that in those cases – the Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman – these beliefs were not wholly unsupported, they were not wholly lacking in either general support or in some particular evidence. But surely any unprejudiced inquirer will discern as much evidence for the existence of God as for the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman, in which case the so-called hiddenness of God simply doesn’t prove, or give evidence or reason to think, that God does not exist.

So one can question the basic assumption of the hiddenness of God that the existence of God is wholly unsupported. The theist can, and I think should, rightly maintain that we have considerable evidence for God’s existence and that therefore God is not so hidden after all.

But other atheists are unsatisfied even with the evidence that we do have. They’ve taken a more radical, more extreme, position. They’ve argued that if God existed he would actually prevent the world’s unbelief by making his existence so starkly apparent that everyone would believe in him. There would be no unbelief. For example, God could have inscribed “Made by God” upon every molecule in the universe. Or he could have put a neon cross in the sky with the words “Jesus Saves” or something of that sort in which case everyone would recognize his existence. So some atheists actually try to blame God for the unbelief in the world. They say that if God existed there shouldn’t be any unbelief in the world because God would make his existence so starkly apparent that everyone would believe in him. Therefore, the fact that there is unbelief is really God’s fault or rather goes to show that there is no God because if there were a God there would be no unbelief.

I think this came out in the debate with Austin Dacey again. Dacey was not satisfied with the six arguments that I gave for the existence of God. He wanted to say that even though there might be that evidence it is not enough because there is still many people who don’t believe in God and that if God existed he would supply enough evidence so that everyone would believe in him.

What might we say in response to that? Would God make his existence more obvious if he existed than what we do see? Many theists have pointed out in response to this that God, in order to preserve human free will, has not simply overwhelmed us with the apparentness of his existence. God could have simply given a theophany of himself in such a way that everyone would have to believe that he exists. That would, in effect, override free will. Therefore, in order to make faith in God a free human decision, there has to be a sort of arm’s distance at which God has created us so to speak – a kind of epistemic distance as philosophers say, an epistemological distance at which God has created us that makes his existence not more obvious.

I don’t think this response is entirely adequate however because even if God made his existence absolutely obvious so that everyone could see that he exists, the question would still remain of whether or not we are going to place our faith in him in the sense of having a trust in God – a personal love relationship with him. So even if it were true that God’s existence was so apparent that everybody knew that he exists, that still wouldn’t remove the need for faith in the sense of personal commitment, love, and trust in God. So I don’t think that that answers the question adequately though it does make a good point that God doesn’t coerce us to believe in him. But I think the very fact that this reveals that God’s existence could be perfectly apparent and yet people might not yet believe in him or trust in him shows where the weakness of this objection lies.[2] Why, we might ask, would God want to make his existence as apparent as possible? Why would he want to put a neon cross in the sky that says “Jesus saves,” for example? As the Christian philosopher Paul Moser has emphasized, on the Christian view it is actually a matter of relative indifference to God whether or not people believe that he exists. I find that non-Christians have a great difficulty understanding this, but, in fact, that is the biblical view. For God it is relatively a matter of indifference whether or not people believe that he exists. Rather, what God is interested in is building a love relationship with us, a personal saving relationship. He is not interested in just getting us to believe that he exists. He wants us to believe in him, not just that he exists. The Bible says that even the demons believe that God exists, and they tremble because they don’t have any saving relationship with him (James 2:19). So there is a great difference between simply believing that God exists and having this personal relationship with him.

Of course somebody might say in order to believe in God you have to first believe that God exists. That is certainly true. But there is no reason at all to think that if God were to make his existence more evident, more manifest, that more people would come into a saving relationship with him than actually do. Mere showmanship won’t bring about a change of heart. Just getting people to believe that there is a supreme Creator and Designer of the universe won’t make them fall in love with him. I think it is very interesting as you read the Bible and the history of God’s dealings with mankind, you find that there has been a kind of progressive interiorization of God’s interaction with people. It began in the Old Testament with a very exterior, very external, sort of relationship involving miracles and a pillar of fire and smoke and so forth. But by the time you get to the New Testament there is an increasing emphasis upon the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, as Paul describes in Romans 8:16-17. In the Old Testament, God is described as revealing himself to his people in manifest wonders like the plagues upon Egypt, the pillar of fire and smoke, the parting of the Red Sea. But notice, did those manifest wonders produce lasting heart-change in the people? No! Not at all. Israel fell into apostasy again and again with tiresome repetitiveness. So in no way was making God’s existence manifest or obvious through miraculous signs a guarantee that people would come to a saving love relationship with God.

So if God were to, say, inscribe his name on every molecule or place a neon cross in the sky, people might believe that God exists alright. They might believe then that there is certainly a Creator and Designer of the universe. But how do we know that after some time they wouldn’t begin to chaff under the brazen advertisements of their Creator? They might even come to resent such effrontery on God’s part – thrusting his existence in their face. In fact, we don’t really have any way of knowing that any world of free creatures in which God’s existence is as obvious as the nose on your face that more people would come to know and love God and find salvation than do in the actual world. We have no way of knowing that or guaranteeing that at all. But then the claim that if God existed he would make his existence more evident simply has no warrant, or little warrant. That undermines the claim that the atheist makes that the hiddenness of God is itself in some way positive evidence that God exists.

I think we can reinforce this point by recalling what we talked about when we did the attributes of God and talked about divine omniscience. Remember we suggested that God may have middle knowledge. Middle knowledge is God’s knowledge of what any free creature would freely do under any circumstances God created him in.[3] That also means that God would know exactly how people would freely respond to his evidence in nature, the inner witness of his Holy Spirit in their hearts, and so forth. God would know what sort of evidence would be necessary to give to a person in order to elicit a free affirmative response to that person. The answer as to why God doesn’t make his existence more obvious may well be the case that he knows that it wouldn’t do any good – that it wouldn’t bring more people into a saving, personal love relationship with himself than is actually brought about in the actual world. God, in his omniscience via his middle knowledge, knows exactly what situations and circumstances to place people in with what types of evidence and what witness of the Holy Spirit in order to win a free affirmative response from the greatest number of people. So it may well be the case that God simply doesn’t care to just get people to believe that he exists. He wants to get people to freely come to know and love him and experience salvation. And via his middle knowledge he has provided just that amount of evidence and work of the Holy Spirit in order to do that in the lives of persons who would freely come to know him. God knows if he were to give more, while more people might believe that he exists, it really wouldn’t do any good in bringing more people to salvation.

Also, the emphasis on the interior way, I think, is an important one to capture here. Alvin Plantinga, a prominent Christian philosopher, actually agrees and argues himself that if there is a God such as is described in the Bible, then he would make his existence known to all people in such a way that they might come to know him and find salvation. But Plantinga therefore thinks not that God has provided evidence to everyone to help them come to know him, but that rather God has created us in such a way that we have a sort of innate faculty for coming to discern God’s existence when placed in certain circumstances. That would include things like the inner witness or conviction of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that when he went away he would send the Holy Spirit in his place, and that the Spirit’s role would be to convict the world of sin in righteousness and judgment. So, whereas evidence by its very nature will be limited in geography and history to certain times and places, the witness of the Holy Spirit is universally available to all persons at all times as God works and convicts in the heart of each person and draws that person to himself. So it may well be the case that a God who exists would want to make his existence known to people, but that doesn’t imply that he would do it by means of evidence. He might do it by means of this interior work of the conviction and drawing of the Holy Spirit. And he has done that. I don’t think that the atheist has anything more to say about that than simply that he, the atheist, hasn’t experienced such a thing. If the atheist does say that, you can simply respond by saying either that he is not truly searching for God, that this is available to anyone who will truly seek God with a sincere heart and mind, or you can simply say God has not yet tapped him in that way. But if he remains open to God in his heart and mind, then God will, in his providence and in the course of his life, speak to that person and draw that person to himself if only that person is willing. So ultimately, the onus is on the unbeliever himself. The unbelief of the world is not God’s fault. God has provided sufficient grounds for believing his existence, both in external evidence and also in the interior witness of the Holy Spirit. The unbelief in the world is the result simply of human sin and refusal to believe in the good evidence and interior witness of the Holy Spirit that God has provided.

For that reason, I don’t find the hiddenness of God objection to be a powerful objection either. I think first of all God has provided good evidence of his existence. Secondly, it is not at all clear that if God existed he would make his existence more obvious than the evidence and the witness of the Holy Spirit that he has given. Therefore, I find this objection to be inconclusive.

That concludes our discussion of epistemological objections to belief in God. These are the most important objections that are offered stemming from theory of knowledge today. I hope you will agree with me that these don’t really provide very powerful reasons to ground atheism. Next time we will look at more metaphysical objections to belief in God that are offered by atheist thinkers today.[4]

[1] 5:00

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:00

[4] Total Running Time: 20:33 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)