A Quest for God, Part 1
Youth is a stage where we evaluate life’s presuppositions and begin to question the world around us. We’ve all been young (and in many cases still are!), and we are familiar with the well-reasoned questions that frequently cause the abandonment of faith, or simply prevent entry into the life of faith.
Recently, we became aware of an email conversation between two young persons: one a young physicist and a deeply committed Christian named Aron and the other, Josh, a person who at least at the time the conversation began was a skeptic. The exchange is so rich that we’ve asked for permission to post it here.
As the exchange draws to a close, we’ll refer you to Aron’s webpage where you can read and listen to more of his ideas. At this point however, we want to post the exchange in a serialized five part series. We hope you find it as informative and intriguing as we have.
In the Biblical worldview that I had, God is omnipotent, omniscient, loving, perfect, and joyfully made a great sacrifice by dying on the cross in order to redeem mankind, of which all members are sinful and deserving of death. Repenting of sin and believing that Jesus was the Son of God and that he would save was the way to forgiveness and eternal life in the presence of God. God longs to have a relationship with people, to the extent that he died on the cross in order for people to have a chance to have their sins paid for and come to Him. Many verses, some in the words of Jesus, teach that prayers by believers will be answered. The first problem, originating from such promises, is the problem of unanswered prayers. It is obvious that God does not always give what people ask for. Additionally, when He does not, He does not always clearly say no or give a clear reason. The entire communication with God is blurry compared to communication with a fellow human being. Given that God is omnipotent and omniscient, it is not clear why the communication cannot be clearer; if communication with another human being can be clear, why is communication with God, a superior and infinitely more powerful being, not as clear? Jesus said that he would send the Holy Spirit to be with believers. There is no warning that the presence of the Holy Spirit will be much different in intensity or quality than the presence of Jesus the man, but quite the contrary, the Holy Spirit is described to be very close. The sincerity of God is therefore suspect.
The second problem is that there is carnage and devastation all over nature and in human societies, which He allows if not causes. A typical Christian teaching is that death and suffering comes from sin. There is also the teaching that imperfection can be used by God to ultimately bring glory to himself, and that suffering can be used to refine a believer's character. The exact nature of this glory is not well-defined, so the teaching about imperfection being used to bring glory to God ultimately amounts to hand-waving. Also, although it is reasonable to view suffering as an opportunity to practice perseverance, not all suffering achieves such a purpose. Regarding why a loving, omnipotent, God would allow suffering and pain, it is argued by Christians that love entails allowing freedom of choice, and freedom of choice entails the possibility of causing suffering. However, it should be noted that not all suffering is man-made. For example, natural disasters are beyond human control. Regarding why God causes natural disasters, the Bible hardly attempts to give any answer. This is also highly suspect for a rational observer.
Thirdly, God blames people for a condition they cannot help that he himself is not subject to. He calls them sinful and condemns them to hell. People are vulnerable, do not know everything there is to know, especially the intentions of others, and yet have the will to survive. Beings with these limitations and desire naturally engage in destructive competition and aggression, which God views as sin. God is not subject to these limitations and it is not fair for him to blame these people for the limitations.
I think I'd like to start out by discussing your first paragraph. I'm keeping in mind the other issues you wrote too, but I think this one is the most important. The other issues may come up naturally as we discuss this one.
Why does God not communicate more clearly? This is not just an important question from a theological point of view, it is also of practical spiritual importance. People talk easily about spiritual experiences in church, but I remember all of the times when I was distressed and begged God to speak, but he stayed silent. I think that almost all Christians have had similar experiences, but they mostly don't talk about it, so they can't help other people. The question is why God remains hidden sometimes, even usually, when it would be very easy for him to communicate.
But I think it is important to ask first, WHAT is God trying to communicate? If God's primary goal were to communicate a simple factual message, and the only thing important to him was that everyone knew it, then everyone would know it. But is God's message primarily facts? The gospel message, as I understand it, is that what God wants to communicate is himself, not facts. What we believe can be important, but God isn't primarily concerned with that so much as he wants us to get to know him.
Have you ever known anyone who talks all the time, but almost always about things other than himself? There is a certain sort of shyness many of us feel when we share about ourselves. The reason is not that we don't want to communicate who we are, it's because we don't want to communicate the wrong idea of who we are. We would rather not communicate a wrong impression of ourselves. Now, it's the same for God. God isn't just interested in us knowing that there IS a God; he wants us to know what his personality and nature are like. But this means that he can't just communicate in any old way, because that wouldn't communicate who he was. He has to communicate in a way that reveals himself most clearly.
Let me give an example. How might God make it totally obvious to everyone that he existed? Maybe every Sunday a large face would appear over the earth and say "I love you and want you to accept Jesus Christ. Also, obey my commandments". Then everyone would be a Christian—or would they? What they would actually be is idol worshippers, because God is not a giant face. But if God communicated in this way, everyone would think of him as a giant face, so actually it would not be communicating more clearly. It would be communicating less clearly. (Also, no one would have crucified Jesus.)
Or to make a more subtle example of the same thing, a lot of people think of the Holy Spirit as something like "a voice in my head that tells me what to do". If any time we had a question to ask God, a thought always immediately popped into our minds that seemed like an answer from God, then most Christians would probably be a lot happier. It seems like maybe you were expecting something like this. But the Holy Spirit is not a voice in the head. The Spirit can communicate in this way, and every now and again he does communicate to me in something like this way. But if he did so on demand, I would start to think of the Spirit as being a voice that speaks to me like another human being does. But this is not what the Holy Spirit is, or wants to be. You say, "The Holy Spirit is described to be very close". Since the Spirit doesn't interact with you in the way you expected, you think he is not as close as he promised.
But the Spirit doesn't want to be a voice in your head (at least not all the time), the Spirit wants to move through you and inspire your own activities, like the Spirit inspired the activities of Jesus. You won't notice when the Spirit is acting through you because it will feel like you are the one acting!—until you learn to recognize it gradually. This assumes that you are following Christ's commandment to love other people as he loved us. If you aren't trying to follow Christ's commandment, then the Spirit will not be acting inside of you, and of course that will make it impossible to recognize the Spirit's activity.
Now, this isn't just something I'm making up in order to explain why reality doesn't match the Bible. It's actually what the Bible says. You say, "There is no warning that the presence of the Holy Spirit will be much different in intensity or quality than the presence of Jesus the man", but actually Jesus does warn this. He says that like the wind, you cannot tell where the Spirit comes from or where the Spirit is going (John 3:8). He explicitly says that the condition for him sending the Spirit is that we keep his commandment of love, and that as a result the world is incapable of receiving, seeing, or knowing the Spirit (John 14:15-17, 21). When Judas son of James asks why Jesus is not going to show himself clearly to everyone, Jesus again reiterates that the necessary condition to know God is love (John 14:24). Why would Jesus need to reassure the disciples not to be sad at him leaving (John 14:1), and not to fall away (John 16:1), if the Spirit was going to be just as obviously present as he was?
So this is my suggested answer: love is what God is like, and therefore the only way of knowing God is through love. If we came to know God in any other way besides loving each other, then we might think he was being more clear, but he would actually be less clear because he would be revealing something other than what he is.
As for the Bible teaching that prayers by believers will be answered, many times it is stated explicitly that this only applies when the person asking has faith and does not doubt (e.g. Mark 11:20-25, James 1:5-8), and asks with the right motives (James 4:3, 1 John 5:14-15). Now I don't know how much faith exactly is needed here, but one thing that is CERTAINLY not faith is asking in order to test God to see if he really exists and cares. In fact, testing God is a sin (Deut 6:16, Matt 4:1-7, Matt 16:1-4). God wants us to gradually learn to trust him over the course of many years, so that our trust can be based on our character and not on things superficially going well. If God allowed us to manipulate him into revealing himself, this process would be short-circuited and we would always be immature, and never grow up spiritually.
You might ask, if we aren't allowed to test God, how are we supposed to know he exists and cares? The answer is that we are supposed to learn this on the basis of what he has already done in creating a beautiful world, saving Israel from Egypt, sending Jesus, and starting the Church. Once we learn to trust him, then he can act through us.
I am reminded of a story about Confucius: he once told his disciples that he was thinking of giving up speech entirely. The disciples were upset and asked what would be left for them to pass on. He said "What does Heaven ever say? Yet there are the four seasons and the hundred things coming into being. What does Heaven ever say?" Confucius understood, even without the benefit of the Bible, that God was speaking silently through the things that were made, and that this is always a call to change how we live. God is always speaking. But most of us are not good listeners.
Imagine how humble God must be! To create the whole world, to die for the people in it, and then when people complain and curse, not to lose his temper but just to wait patiently until they mature enough to understand and repent. This is the sign, not of an insincere character, but of a strong character. If God were proud and needed ego boosts you can be sure that there would be no atheists.
What do you think about this?
Aron Wall is a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at UC Santa Barbara. Before that, he studied the Great Books program at St. John's College, Santa Fe, and earned his doctorate in physics from U Maryland. You can learn more at his blog Undivided Looking.