"God, I would believe in you if…"

November 16, 2006 | Atheism, Struggles | 12 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about a discussion that resulted from a post I wrote last month. A very brief summary is this:

I asked: “I don’t understand how Jesus’ death has to do with me since it wasn’t my sacrifice to give. What’s my ‘action item’ here?”

A Catholic-turned-atheist responded: “Your action item is to attend Mass — which is like being at the Crucifixion — and receive the Perfect Lamb sacrificed to God the Father for our sins.” But he added that he is no longer a believer, in part because of questions like, “If Jesus loved us enough to suffer and die for us then why didn’t He love us enough to stick around and tell us about it? Why would He zip up to heaven after only 40 days?”

Ersza responded: “Why doesn’t Jesus go door to door? Because no matter how much proof we had, how many miracles, people will refuse to believe….Miracles are only a temporary proof, and fade away. What happens if you have a miracle today. Will you believe today? How about tomorrow? Do you need another miracle tomorrow? And the day after? No, that’s not how it works…If we base our faith on miracles and ‘proof’ then we have to believe he only loves the ones who get the ‘proof’ or we have to demand, like spoiled children, that each of us get the exact same amount of ‘proof’.” [This is an excerpt. I really encourage you to go read her whole answer, which is excellent.]

I’ve been thinking about the points that were brought up here quite a bit. My first thought when I read Anon’s question was that it’s a mystery. We don’t always understand the mind of the Creator. But, the more I thought about it, I realized that most of the “If God exists why doesn’t he do XYZ to prove it?” type questions are really not that much of a mystery. In every example I could think of, once I thought through it, it was clear why God did not do that.

Using myself from a few years ago as a test, I tried to think of what God could do to prove his existence to Old Jen. I realized that the only thing that would have cut it is if, say, on demand I could ask for something amazing. If, for example, I had said, “God, I’ll believe in you if I float up into the clouds right now!” and I had actually started levitating, it’s safe to say I would have believed. (For a couple years until I started second-guessing my memory, anyway.)

The other thing that would have been good is if I could have asked him to reveal to me some sort of knowledge that only God would know, like perhaps explaining some of the mysteries behind quantum physics.

But if God did this, if he indulged our requests that he act like a birthday party magician and do tricks for us on demand, each individual would have the powers and knowledge of God, accessible by the magic words, “God, I would believe in you if…”

After the whole floating in the clouds experience faded from my mind and I wrote it off as a sleep deprivation induced delusion, like Ersza predicts, I would start doubting again and demand something else. After I told myself that my subconscious just came up with those great insights on wave-particle duality because I’m a genius, I’d demand more knowledge to quench my doubts. I’d become like some supervillian from a sci-fi movie, wreaking havoc on the world as I grew more knowledgeable and powerful by controlling God with my doubts. I’d become more and more like God, but without the all-good nature.

Needless to say, this wouldn’t work. If God’s policy were to do whatever it takes to prove himself to each individual, he’d essentially become a slave to humans, moving heaven and earth depending on our whims.

And since he can’t go this route and become the tool of humans given his supreme and all-good nature, he has to draw the line somewhere. If he wants us to know him he would reveal just enough evidence and then step back and let us do what we will. And the more I look around the more I think that the evidence is all around us. It might not be exactly what I would choose, but it is enough.

12 Comments

  1. Jeff Miller

    Reading the stories part of the Exodus you see again and again even when the miraculous is done on a daily basis – people still disbelieve and fall into sine. The Israelites saw the parting of the sea, the Pillar of Fire, the Manna, and countless other miracles and yet there was still so much disobedience and they even turned to worship other gods in Moses absence.

    In my atheists days something miraculous happened to my wife and I refused to believe it and doubted the testimony of her and my children and explained it away with natural events. The miraculous does not force belief it is only faith through grace and our cooperation that does so.

  2. Tracy

    Yes, so true, Jeff. Another thought I have is that even if perhaps a person could be convinced on the basis of a miracle *alone* then free will would, in effect, be taken away. “God gave us a free choice, because there is no significance to love that knows no alternative” -James Dobson

  3. Eric

    I’m always trying to use my marriage and family life to understand more about God and this is one of those instances where it has helped me. The question of ‘Why doesn’t he just sit down and explain it all to us’. is a bit like me asking my wife to make me understand her. Let me tell you, after 10 years, I’ve discovered it ain’t going to happen. But every day, I discover a little bit more and experience a little bit more and I love her a little bit more.

    And that’s what we are striving for with God. To know him and to know His love and return our own little feeble love.

    I don’t know if that makes sense, but that does help this old agnostic at some points in my belief rollercoaster.

  4. M_David

    Jen, forgive me, but you seem a bit simplistic here. You are starting out with these postulates:

    1) God made you and everything else.
    2) God could have made you in such a way you would believe in God more than you believe in your own existence! It’s easy for someone who can create the universe 🙂
    3) God could leave you as you are, and still show you evidence you couldn’t ignore – he could turn the world green, dunk the US under water for 10 minutes, erase the sun for weeks, you name it. Trust me, he could. He’s God!

    So, we can forget that God lacks the ability to prove himself to us.

    We have only two options: God doesn’t exist, or God meant to leave us guessing. Personally, as a believer, there are plenty of reasons for the latter that make sense.

    First: it’s true free will – in a sense, we get to decide if we want God as part of our life. If we don’t, he gives us that freedom. And the only way to do this is to hide.

    Another possiblity: God used to walk with us in the garden of Eden. He left after we sinned. God is Holy, Holy, Holy. The world is full of sin. In a sense, our lack of physical contact or proof could very well be what we’ve earned.

    Another: we cannot become fruitful until we are left on our own…we gain more merit, or bear more spiritual fruit, when we must seek God.

    God Bless!

  5. Dennis

    Something I don’t think was mentioned in the previous post was a response to the question “Why didn’t Jesus stick around?”

    The Fathers of the Church (which ones I’m not sure because I’m not such a good scholar), contemplating their experience of the risen Lord, and their experience of the Holy Spirit active in the Church, thought about it this way.

    Jesus ascended, drawing into heaven what he took on. “He was in the form of God, but he did not deem equality something to be grasped at, rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness” (Phil 2:6-7). In his ascension, the divinity that had emptied itself to become human drew his humanity, unstained by any sin, into the Godhead.

    The great mystery of the Ascension is that, within the eternal exchange of love between the persons of the Trinity, there beats a fully human heart made of real human flesh.

    It was only by the divine taking humanity into the divine existence that any of us has hope of resurrection.

    The Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost as confirmation and consolation. And the Holy Spirit is still alive and active in the Church.

    If Christ had stayed behind, what would we have? We would have one person, who exists in one point in physical space, in a real human body. This means that access to him, and that being in his presence, would require physical proximity. Only a small number of people would ever have an encounter with the risen Lord.

    But Jesus established the Church, and filled her with his Holy Spirit, and now, everywhere the Church is, there is Jesus. And not just that, but everywhere there is a church building, at least in the Catholic or Orthodox world, there is the tabernacle, with the Real Presence of Jesus.

    If Jesus had stuck around, faith in Jesus would be localized around wherever he happened to physically be. But after the Ascension, though he is still incarnate, he is everywhere.

    (If anything I said is heresy, I accept correction willingly, but I think what I have said is orthodox.)

  6. Renee

    Most people have a hard time understanding a perfect God, when we live in an imperfect world. I think people are a little upset why we have to live on Earth before getting into heaven. People always ask me, if God exists why is there so much evil.

  7. Anonymous

    The Lord told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

    In the context of 2 Corinthians, Paul is talking about the sufficiency of grace that God gives to us to bear our burdens, but this sufficiency extends to faith itself. We recieve sufficient grace to believe, and then we make a choice. Only God knows how much grace is sufficient for each individual. Oddly, in choosing faith we gain the grace to see miracles. In choosing skepticism, we continue to bar ourselves.

    Dennis wrote,

    “If Christ had stayed behind, what would we have? We would have one person, who exists in one point in physical space, in a real human body. This means that access to him, and that being in his presence, would require physical proximity. Only a small number of people would ever have an encounter with the risen Lord.”

    To add to his excellent point, if Christ remained to exert his directly influence in the temporal realm, it would remain temporal influence, and that would belie His own nature as well as the promise He offers. He is not of this kingdom, and if we cling to Him here, we miss who He really is.

  8. Becky

    I tend towards the Catechism when looking at these types of questions. Part one of the Catechism deals with this topic (to me). It starts with our profession of faith, “I Believe” – “We Believe”. What I get from this chapter is that man has sought God through out time and history, page 14, section 28. It explains it better than I can.

    What it means to me is, even without any church, man, by his nature, has sought for a god.

    So, Jesus or no Jesus, Catholic Church or no church, I believe we would all still be searching for an understanding of a god and thus our faith would begin, even if we question our faith from time to time.

    Becky

  9. ELC

    Cardinal Newman addressed a related question at length in Witnesses of the Resurrection:

    “…. But even without insisting upon the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom, which seems to be the direct reason why Christ did not show Himself to all the Jews after His resurrection, other distinct reasons may be given, instructive too. And one of these I will now set before you. This is the question, ‘Why did not our Saviour show Himself after His resurrection to all the people? why only to witnesses chosen before of God?’ and this is my answer: ‘Because this was the most effectual means of propagating His religion through the world.’ ….”

  10. Anonymous

    I am the Catholic-turned-atheist who wrote the post that Jennifer is referring to. One poster, M_David, expressed my thoughts exactly when he wrote, “He’s God! So, we can forget that God lacks the ability to prove himself to us. We have only two options: God doesn’t exist, or God meant to leave us guessing.”

    I wholeheartedly agree. I choose, with great sadness, the first option. The second option doesn’t make sense, especially for a Christian. God loves us so much that He becomes man so that He can suffer an excruciating and humiliating death stripped naked on the Cross to atone for our sins. And then He leaves us guessing about who He is and what He did?

    When Thomas was told by the other apostles that Jesus rose from the dead he refused to believe them. And Thomas knew these guys!!! He knew them and he knew Jesus and he refused to believe their story. So Jesus appears before Thomas and now Thomas believes because Thomas has proof. Thomas didn’t believe because he had faith. Thomas believed because he had proof. Just as the other apostles had proof. They didn’t have faith. They had proof.

    If Thomas didn’t believe the eyewitness accounts of his fellow apostles how can I be expected to believe hearsay that is a million times and 2000 years removed from its source?

    Surely it is within God’s power to provide me with whatever evidence is necessary to permanently convince me that He exists and that the Biblical accounts are true. How would this take away my free will? Adam walked with God and Adam had free will.

    As to the broader claim that the world around us provides us with evidence of the existence of God, I must strongly disagree. The world is 4 1/2 billion years old, not 6000 years old as the Bible led us to believe. The sky is an infinite expanse, not a solid dome to which the sun, moon, and stars are attached. Rain is caused by the condensation of water that evaporates from surface water here on earth. It is not caused by God opening up windows in the solid-domed sky so that water held above the solid-domed sky can fall to the earth. The earth revolves around the sun, not the sun around the earth.

    To those who claim that the Bible was misinterpreted I ask, “Was God incapable of writing a Bible that would be properly interpreted?”

    To those who claim that that God wrote the Bible in such a way that it could be understood by men who lived in ancient times I ask, “Was God incapable of writing a Bible that would ring true for all time?”

    The “mystery” of why God does not prove His existence to us is no mystery at all if we just accept the most obvious answer: There is no God.

  11. SteveG

    I am the Catholic-turned-atheist who wrote the post that Jennifer is referring to. One poster, M_David, expressed my thoughts exactly when he wrote, “He’s God! So, we can forget that God lacks the ability to prove himself to us. We have only two options: God doesn’t exist, or God meant to leave us guessing.”

    Is it that God lacks the ability to prove himself to us, or that we fail to accept it? You might suggest that this is simply a reformulation of God being unable to prove himself, but I think there is an important difference (and of course it is tied to free will-which we can get to later). Being that we are free to choose, there must be a point for each of us where we accept what’s offered or not.

    A person can be presented with all the evidence available that the earth really does revolve around the sun, but since none of us can actually have the perspective to observe that occurring, and it sure ‘looks like’ the sun revolves around the earth from our perspective, the most obvious answer is that the sun really does revolve around the earth. Why not just accept it? Well, because it doesn’t explain the whole picture of the solar system and all that we know about it beyond our personal subjective observation.

    So, at some point, the average person weighs all the evidence, the word of scientists who study what is occurring and have earned our trust on other issues (i.e. the fact that they can send a man to the moon and back), and make an informed judgment that indeed what is not personally provable is in fact reality.

    For the person who still insists on a geocentric universe, shall we say that science lacks the ability to prove to them that the solar system is heliocentric, or shall we put some responsibility on the person and say that they are being obstinate in their refusal to believe? If science had some way to ‘enforce’ its understanding of the nature of the solar rotations and imposed that on the dissenter, can we say that the person has really come to that understanding freely?

    I wholeheartedly agree. I choose, with great sadness, the first option. The second option doesn’t make sense, especially for a Christian. God loves us so much that He becomes man so that He can suffer an excruciating and humiliating death stripped naked on the Cross to atone for our sins. And then He leaves us guessing about who He is and what He did?

    I guess I have a difficult time relating to this because it’s based on a very Protestant understanding (and I see that throughout your comment) of what was left to us. We were not left with primarily a book (and in the beginning, indeed, no book at all) that we are supposed to muddle through to guess and figure out what it’s all about. Jesus left us the church itself, a living institution, with a chain of succession from Jesus to the apostles to the bishops to guide us in that endeavor.

    When Thomas was told by the other apostles that Jesus rose from the dead he refused to believe them. And Thomas knew these guys!!! He knew them and he knew Jesus and he refused to believe their story. So Jesus appears before Thomas and now Thomas believes because Thomas has proof. Thomas didn’t believe because he had faith. Thomas believed because he had proof. Just as the other apostles had proof. They didn’t have faith. They had proof.

    Jen has written on this before, but really for the person who comes at things with the presumption of skepticism, no proof will ever be enough, and oddly enough, despite your pointing out that they had so much more than we do, and that’s why they believed, the gospel itself tells us that even at that, they STILL doubted. This from Matthew 28 (post resurrection, pre ascension)…

    16: Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17: And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.

    …and as I said, it seems that for some, even if presented with the risen Lord Himself, doubt will persist. So this idea that if we just had enough evidence we’d believe is not only unrealistic, but contrary to even what occurred for those who experienced the risen Lord.

    Surely it is within God’s power to provide me with whatever evidence is necessary to permanently convince me that He exists and that the Biblical accounts are true. How would this take away my free will? Adam walked with God and Adam had free will.

    You seem to be offering contradictory arguments here. On one hand you are saying that all we need is enough proof and we’ll permanently believe (i.e. not doubt). But then here you give an example where the story indicates that Adam had absolute proof yet still doubted (I’ve shown another above).

    That was the very nature of the fall after all. That he doubted what God had told him and bought the lie of Satan. It wasn’t strictly speaking ‘doubt that God existed’, but it was doubt that God was who Adam had experienced in those walks (and accepting those smaller doubts as true is almost always the precursors to accepting the big doubt). It’s really not that different.

    So you yourself have shown that no matter how much proof we get, our free will still allows us to have the choice to doubt God (whether it be His existence, or His truthfulness).

    As to the broader claim that the world around us provides us with evidence of the existence of God, I must strongly disagree. The world is 4 1/2 billion years old, not 6000 years old as the Bible led us to believe. The sky is an infinite expanse, not a solid dome to which the sun, moon, and stars are attached. Rain is caused by the condensation of water that evaporates from surface water here on earth. It is not caused by God opening up windows in the solid-domed sky so that water held above the solid-domed sky can fall to the earth. The earth revolves around the sun, not the sun around the earth.

    It’s so surprising to me that an obviously educated, intelligent, and thoughtful Catholic could read the bible with such a fundamentalist mindset. This is not the way that Catholics read the bible.

    St. Jerome in the third century was already saying that it was obvious that Genesis was written in mytho-poetic style to convey underlying truths about the creation and fall of man.

    To object to the bible on these grounds is to cede the point that the bible must be read literally in all cases. This is simply not necessary, and is extremely unwise to do with a book that really isn’t a book, but many books written over many centuries, by many authors, in many different literary modes, in varying language, in varying cultures (and vastly different than our own).

    To those who claim that the Bible was misinterpreted I ask, “Was God incapable of writing a Bible that would be properly interpreted?”

    And again here you are objecting to a Protestant mindset and doctrine (Sola Scriptura) that Catholics don’t hold to. The bible was never meant to be what Protestantism has tried to turn it in to. Scripture is the sacred writings/record of the Church, not the private playground of the individual believer.

    To those who claim that that God wrote the Bible in such a way that it could be understood by men who lived in ancient times I ask, “Was God incapable of writing a Bible that would ring true for all time?”

    Incapable, of course not, but your real objection here is that He didn’t do it in the way you think would have been best. What he did do was provide us with the Church to take those ancient writings and help us to understand them and allow them to ring true for all times. That’s the method he chose whether we like it or not.

    I’d also like to ask if you could elaborate on exactly what this writing that you envision would look like? Would the text miraculously change language, punctuation, and context to meet the reader? Would we see it changing before our eyes?

    What if we read it out loud, would it be heard differently be each hearer so they all understood the words and meaning equally well?

    When I see this claim about what could should/could have been done, I often wonder if the objector has really thought through what they are suggesting. I honestly would like to know how it’s being envisioned, and if it seems 1) moderately reasonable and 2) in keeping with how God has been claimed to interact with man in all other circumstances (assuming for a moment God exists).

    Finally, I really think that you would enjoy and benefit from going back to Jen’s old site at The Reluctant Atheist ) and following some of the discussions we had on these very topics. They start around September/October and you might find them interesting.

    In particular, these three in particular…
    A Deal Killer?

    Time To Go To Church

    Faith In Humans

    …might be helpful in allowing us to move forward and discuss this without those of us holding to Catholic understanding having to contend with objections that are really only relevant to Protestantism.

    NOTE: With regard to the issue of absolute proof, I have to ask exactly what that is. It seems that the only reasonable definition of that is that we would have the ability to objectively observe God and verify his existence. But to do that, we would have to be something more than God Himself. Could God create something that is more than Himself? Since God can only due what is logically possible, it is in fact incorrect to state what m_david did that ‘we can forget that God lacks the ability to prove himself to us’ in any absolute sense.

    Omnipotence in theological terms has never been understood to be the ability to do anything, but the ability to do anything that is logically possible and conceivable (see Saint Thomas Aquinas).

    God can not create a square-circle because it is a nonsensical challenge. One can not even conceive of a square-circle, but is simply stringing words together in order to make a nonsense word to hold up as an objection. True/Objective/Absolute proof of God (as I’ve described it above) is likewise not really a meaningful phrase as God creating something more than himself is something that is not conceivable (how does one conceive of something more omni than omni).

  12. Kevin

    Why did Jesus on stick around for 40 days after His resurrection? Simple: he had one very important task left to do. He had to re-open paradise for human flesh. It had been denied to us since Adam & Eve’s sin, after all. But the New Adam ascended into Heaven, reigning there in both His Divinity AND His Humanity as King.

    That’s the answer you get from Luke & Acts. For John, it’s to send the Holy Spirit to us. For Matthew, Jesus never left. Instead, for Matthew, Jesus is STILL Emmanuel, God-With-Us.

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