Yesterday, today, and foreverFebruary 28, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
I’m taking a certain amount of heat for declaring, as undeniable fact, that God does not show up in real life. That’s a good thing, because it promotes debate and discussion, and I’m prepared to show some easily verified reasons why I can legitimately and objectively make that claim. One of those reasons is the impact God’s absence has on Christian theology.
In his response to the post on Santa, Nessie and God, Jayman writes:
DD, I see the argument that you’re trying to make but I doubt it rings true to many Christians for two main reasons. First, your interpretation of the Bible and the motives you ascribe to God are not in line with the beliefs Christians actually hold. This means your arguments come across as attacking a straw man argument. Second, your appeal to real world truth back fires when it is made to people who believe they have experienced God in their lives. Such an appeal essentially disproves your argument in their mind.
We’ll deal with point two in a future post. Meanwhile, let’s look at the argument that Christians do not believe God ought to behave the way I say, and let’s throw in an earlier comment by cl:
Although I can’t speak for DD, from what I can glean of his writings in this series, any miracle can be relegated to ignorance – unless of course, God actually manifests and takes credit for the miracle – but even then, how do we know the being which manifests to take credit for the miracle is actually God?
These comments are related: they both have to do with the theology of what it is reasonable to expect God to be willing and able to do in real life.
I’ll get to my analysis in a moment, but first, let’s add a few more comments to our list to demonstrate something of the nature and extent of the impact God’s absence has on Christian theology. For example, this comment from Jayman:
DD, we’re in agreement that if god wanted to show himself to everyone at this very moment then we’d all know of his existence. But that’s the only kind of god you’ve disproven. You haven’t ruled out miracles from a different kind of god.
Hebrews 11:6 does not say that God wants to reveal himself to everyone at this very moment. Full participation with God is for the next age, not this one. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, DD is attacking a strawman god.
As I pointed out in an earlier post,
Each one of those links points back to a New Testament verse, typically quoting Jesus, in which God is described as having the characteristics, abilities, and motives I’ve listed. Since truth is consistent with itself, these alleged facts about God ought to enable us to make some reasonable predictions as to what we ought to see Him doing in real life. We would not, for example, infer that a God like that would send all Christians to Hell and cackle wickedly about how easy they were to deceive. These are ideas with predictable consequences, and therefore we ought to be able to make real-world observations that would tell us whether these consequences (and thus the premises that implied them) are really true.
These consequences, however, are not what Christians actually believe. Strange, but true. It’s not because there’s anything wrong with the consequences themselves: if we described a human father who was loving and kind and intimately involved in the lives and development of his children, we wouldn’t find anything strange at all in that father showing up and spending time, in person, tangibly present, in 2-way, face-to-face interactions with his children. But believers already know that God does not show up in real life. God’s pervasive and consistent absence puts severe constraints on what Christian theology is permitted to ascribe to God, and forces the present-day concept of God into a box so small as to exclude virtually anything that requires objectively-real existence on God’s part.
We can see this by comparing the Christian theology of God’s behavior in the present day versus His predicted behavior in the apocalyptic future. Christians know, here and now, that God does not show up in real life, leading to a constrained concept of what God can be expected to do. In the apocalyptic future, which no one has yet experienced, these constraints do not exist. Christians are free to envision God’s future behavior in a way that is finally consistent with the characteristics listed above—and they do:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away…”
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.
Notice there are no objections here like, “How will we be able to be sure the photographs of New Jerusalem aren’t fakes?” or “How will future skeptics know these two glorious beings are the real Lord God Almighty and the Lamb?” There’s no question about “What do God and the Lamb need to do to prove, under these circumstances, that miracles are genuine?” In the future, God is supposed to be free to show up, and does show up, and therefore the evidentiary requirements of the most critical skeptic are easily satisfied. Nobody argues about which star in Orion’s belt is our sun once the real sun rises.
So in fact, there’s nothing unchristian or unbiblical about my assessment of what sort of behavior ought to result from the characteristics and motives the Bible ascribes to God. Even Christians describe God as showing up in unmistakable ways once the constraints of His known absence are removed. In the real world as we observe it today, however, God does not show up in this way, and His absence is so pervasive that it dictates strict limits on Christian theology. There’s no good reason for God not to show up, except for the fact that everybody already knows He does not, and therefore Christians have to retrofit their theology to conform to real-world constraints.
This is where the field of apologetics comes from: the need to rationalize theology in order to make the contradiction between dogma and reality less apparent. If we use forward-thinking (observing what consequences ought to result from God’s character and motives), we come up with a list of consequences that falsify Christian beliefs, because we don’t observe them in real life. Apologetics is backwards thinking: starting from the known conditions, and reasoning backwards to try and find some plausible-sounding scenario that reconciles the original premises with a reality in which God consistently and universally fails to show up.
Apologetics, consequently, results in a limited theology of God’s behavior that allows Him to be “real” in ways that don’t involve actually showing up in a Biblical sense. If God did show up in real life, such limitations would not only be unnecessary, but insulting to God. Jayman is right: modern Christian concepts of what it is possible for God to do are different from the consequences you would expect based on Biblical descriptions of God’s nature and desires. And they’re different in ways that are mandated by the undeniable fact that God does not show up.
So whenever we hear complaints like, “It’s too hard to know what a genuine miracle would look like,” or “How could we know it was really God even if He did show up?” it’s because God’s universally known, experienced, and verified absence is forcing theology to have those weaknesses and limitations. It’s an undeniable fact that even Christians cannot avoid.