If God exists, why has no one ever proved it to the satisfaction of all? Of course, most people have not needed proof – the vast majority have always believed in a God or gods. But if God really exists, shouldn’t it be possible to prove it to people who do require proof, to agnostics and atheists? Other disputed facts – that the earth is round, for example, or that germs cause disease – have been proved and the naysayers have been silenced. Why is that so difficult to do when it comes to God?
It is important for believers to acknowledge the reality of the difficulty, rather than just shout out proofs with ever-increasing volume. It is also important for atheists to admit that their arguments have failed to carry the day, and fall short of anything like conclusive proof.
One of the reasons irrefutable proof of God’s existence (or non-existence) is elusive is that God belongs to a different class of being than those with which we are familiar. Proving God’s existence is a different thing than proving the earth is round or germs communicate disease. He is not contained in our cosmos the way earths and germs are. Asking for proof of God’s existence is like asking a character in a novel to prove the existence of the novelist. She can look and look without finding any, unaware that she herself is the proof.
There is another reason why irrefutable proof is difficult: proving to his creatures that he exists is not one of God’s priorities. Proving that he exists does not bring God closer to realizing his purpose in creation, and could even frustrate it. Would God be satisfied because a person, perhaps grudgingly, admits his existence? No, not any more than a dad would be satisfied because his philosopher-student son said, “Old man, after long study I have been forced to conclude the reality of your existence!”
Nietzsche complained that an all-knowing and all-powerful god who did not make his creatures understand, but left them to linger in doubt, could not be a good God. But Nietzsche set the stage and arranged the props to serve his own storyline. Contrary to Nietzsche, there are legitimate reasons why a good God would not force his creatures out of their doubts against their will; when doing so would harm them and undermine the good plans God has for them.
If this is true, a God who hid himself might be both good and wise, which is precisely how St. Paul thought of God’s decision to remain hidden. He wrote, “In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom.”
A serious study of Scripture will lead to the conclusion that God values human freedom and stubbornly resists the violation of people’s free will. In practice, this must be a remarkably complicated procedure because God – for lack of a better way of putting it – is so big and humans are so small, there is a constant danger he will overwhelm them. Preserving human self-determination in the presence of God is like preserving a butterfly’s flight in a hurricane. Yet God has designed the world of matter and energy so ingeniously that he is able to do it.
To maintain human free will, God makes himself avoidable. He either hides us, as he did with Moses in the cleft of the rock, or he hides himself. When God comes to humanity, it is in a modest and remarkably resistible fashion: through a still, small voice; in the form of a baby; and, when that baby grows up, through parables people can receive or ignore, as they so choose.
God does this because free will is more than an arbitrary prerequisite to human fulfillment; it is integral to the entire process, from beginning to end. Nietzsche seemed to think a good God would, in humanity’s best interests, suspend human freewill. What he didn’t realize is that, were God to do so, humans would no longer be human. Were God to make himself unavoidable, as Scripture promises he will do someday, the process of human development would end immediately.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/23/2017
Once again, thank you Shayne, for this provocative piece on the nature of “God”.
What mystery we encounter. Who can know God, the mind/intent of God? True that we see him in human form, other than God yet revealing the character of God. What we do with “others” is what we do with God. The “otherness” of self, God, is the mystery. That we can come to “see” God is truly a miracle. Or, to “know” God. What does “see” mean? And what is it to “know”?
Paul said it best: “I know in part. Someday I will know in full, just as God knows me completely” (I Cor. 13). Best to you my colleague. JRK
Good word, my friend. I often tell people something like, “You are surrounded by mystery. You can’t escape it. There’s no place to run from it because you are yourself a mystery!”
When God reveals the mystery that is us, what a shock – and a glory – that will be!
There are many things about this essay that strike a chord with me personally: the fact that it’s a philosophical subject, the way you handle it, the metaphor of people as characters in a novel and God as the novelist. I especially like your view of how God defends our freedom of choice. But I wanted to share one thought that came to mind as I read this.
Although we philosophy professors like to hope otherwise, it seems to me that most of us (and I’m including philosophy professors here) do not arrive at our beliefs after a careful weighing of the arguments. I thought of this when you said that atheists should admit that their arguments “fall short of anything like conclusive proof.” It isn’t proof that moves us, ultimately.
I’m not saying that we simply jump to conclusions. I do believe that thinking people tend to consider new data, and we feel the pressure of facts that seem to disconfirm our current beliefs. But I don’t think it’s proof that moves us.
I think most of us on either side of this issue are impressed most of all by what philosophers call “inference to the best explanation.” Of course, there are all kinds of evaluative judgments crammed into that word “best.” There’s no algorithm that you and I must both use, forcing us to accept the same conclusion. Within a particular scientific community, there are indeed a whole set of shared assumptions and values that make it possible for members of the community to form decisions as a group, but I believe that this “inference to the best explanation” is in play, although much more loosely, in the lives of individuals as well.
If a lamp is lying broken on the floor and the cats are running amok, we don’t require proof that the cats are responsible, even though there is a slight possibility that they might be innocent. If we come to a traffic jam, we infer that either construction or an accident is the cause, even though there are occasions when there seems to be no cause. All of us “infer to the best explanation” all day, every day. It’s a knee jerk reaction for us.
It seems to me that a person’s belief or disbelief in God (or any kind of god) has largely to do with what makes sense to them, all things considered. We all have our own unique view of the world, which we can either articulate at will or are only vaguely aware of — an assortment of attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that we bring to each new moment of our lives. Some people’s worldviews are naturally amenable to the existence of a higher power (which they may or may not acknowledge as God), while other people’s worldviews leave no room for such a thing. (And of course there are lots of possibilities between these two extremes.)
From within each of these worldviews, people assess the “proofs” for God’s existence by inference to the best explanation, where “best” means (among other things) how it fits with everything else in their worldview. That’s why people are usually not convinced by arguments or “proofs,” even though they may pause to appreciate an argument’s strength: because we tend to do our thinking in a more holistic way, and if the conclusion of the argument doesn’t fit into our current worldview, then we will not change our minds even though we might be stymied by the argument.
Augustine’s Confessions are an excellent example of God’s strategy for reaching people. It shows us how Augustine’s overall worldview was called into question over a long period of time. When he finally did come to the point of turning his life over to Christ, it was not because of a single argument or a battery of arguments; it was because his entire view of the world had slowly shifted in that direction.
That’s one of the reasons why I talk so much about God being involved in all the subplots of our lives — because it seems to me that that’s where changes actually take place, not only in our thinking and choosing but also in our living. And the God who created us to be free is constantly meeting us in all those little subplots, inviting us to make choices that will align us more closely with Him.
This is very helpful, Ron. I may, if it is alright with you, borrow from it in the future (with permission). Or I may use it, forgetting where the idea came from and assuming it was my own! In that case, I apologize in advance!
I appreciate how you always ask permission, but you are very welcome to use it!