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Non Sequitur: If God showed himself, faith would be nullified

May 13, 2010

There are some theistic arguments that I just do not get. Often, I have heard atheists raise, “Why isn’t there more proof of God?” or “Why doesn’t God show himself?” Isn’t it kinda strange to have a deity who wants people to trust in him and believe in him based on doubtful evidences?

The answer I have heard in these cases is strange. People point out that God requires faith. Yes, ok, faith, but what does that have to do with this?

Well, if God gave incontrovertible proof of himself, then there would be no need of faith. (This issue is touched upon a bit in this blog entry.)

I believe that God does intervene in history — but only in a manner by which he can preserve “plausible deniability.” If miracles were frequent & obvious enough that a reasonable person paying attention would conclude that divine intervention were more likely than not to be occurring, then this life would no longer be a test of our hearts, proving to God (or, more likely given God’s wisdom, to ourselves) that we love God and righteousness for their own sake. It would only show that we could be bought.

Really? I don’t think that is the case. I think the issue is that “belief in god” and “faith in god” imply something a little more than what people often want it to mean.

I think the scriptures even point out the distinction. See, when someone uses the above argument, then they seem to mean that what it means to believe in god is to believe he exists. According to this argument, if you believe in God (the right one, supposedly), then that is the prize.

But is that the prize?

No. As James 2:19 points out, even the demons believe that there is a god (and apparently, they believe in the right one). But do demons have the prize? No.

The issue is that believing in the existence or nonexistence isn’t the critical distinction. Rather, I think that belief and faith in god entails something more substantive…something like a trust in his ways and laws. Obedience to him. The following of him.

In this way, I don’t think that if God showed himself, faith would be nullified. Instead, if this life were a test to see who would follow and who wouldn’t, we would be on equal footing (because we would know that god exists) and the only thing that would matter is whether we would follow or not.

…I do often face another challenge at this point, though, but it makes me shudder at the character and personality of those who raise it.

These people say, “But if you knew God, wouldn’t you follow him no matter what? After all, you would know hell exists, and you would do anything to avoid that, right?”

This kind of thought process makes me shudder. Do people have integrity? Do people have authenticity?

I try to raise a thought experiment in counter.

OK, so let’s imagine that there is a god, and he has made himself clear. We know his ways, his rules, and we know what we are asked to do. We know that we will have heaven if we follow him, and hell if we do not.

But. There is an issue. Think of a most despicable act. God’s commandment of us incidentally requires us to do that despicable thing.

Do you do it? You must surely realize that God is perfectly good, and yet you can’t shake the feeling within yourself that what God commands is despicable. You wrestle with him, but you cannot grasp his calculus. It makes you despise the commandment even more to see a glimpse into his eternal calculation. You even come to the realization that between you and God, you‘re the one who is wrong. Yet, you can’t alleviate the nausea.

Do you do it?

…I think the way people answer is very telling. Some people insist that they would nevertheless do it. They are obviously wrong in their moral calculus and God must be right. Heaven will make it better. Hell is never worth it.

When I have thought of this question, I have always thought differently in my answer.

Throughout all of this, there is one thing I will have to live with. That is MYSELF, my internal state, my mind, what you might say is my “soul”. And this is what I realize…no matter what God’s plan, what I will live with is myself. If heaven was gotten through despicable means, then heaven won’t wipe away the blood. Instead, I feel that if I were to “sell out” in such a way, then what would happen is I would be confined to an eternity of “heaven”. A heaven where I despise, every day, what I did to get there. A heaven where I despise, every day, the being who planned such a way to get there. A heaven where I feel utter alienation from the others who reside there. Because here’s the thing — while I am frying inside, I will realize that some of my fellow heaven denizens gladly performed the task. They agreed with God and agreed with the act. How can I relate to this? Or I will have to realize that some of my fellow heaven denizens had the same doubts that I did…the same reservations…the same sickness welling at their stomach…but they gladly abdicated their responsibility to god in the name of “faith.”

So often, we assume that following God will be “easy.” That in the end, we will understand (and be at peace with) his ways, his ideas of morality, and goodness. That, even in this life, if we can but overcome the “sinfulness” of ourselves, we can understand that God’s will is good. So I find that people who make the argument that faith would be nullified if God gave incontrovertible proof of himself either believe that God’s goodness would be apparent…or note that they would abandon any personal sense of morality for that of the most powerful deity.

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15 Comments
  1. Why is faith so important to God? Why does he work so hard to make sure there’s such an excess of it in the world?

  2. Shouldn’t you be answering that for me, Chris? :3

  3. It’s because if people don’t have faith in a certain god, that god dies. So of course faith is going to be principle numero uno for a supernatural being — it’s ensuring its own propagation.

  4. It does seem that a god which expects unsubstantiated faith instead of informed belief is going at wrongly. Rather than testing whether humans will, when given the choice, choose “good” over “evil”, that god is testing whether, given an universe that seems utterly devoid of all things supernatural, and where everything has a natural explanation, people will be blind, stubborn, and sometimes stupid enough to ignore all the evidence staring them in the face, and have faith in beings and ideas for which there is no available evidence or support.

    And if that’s really what god wants out of us – for us to ignore our intellect and consciences, then I argue that’s a god not worth worshipping nor worthy of respect.

    Andrew, to answer your question, whether if it were obvious that a god existed and s/he expected us to do something which violated my conscience, would I do it?

    I certainly hope not. Based on my having followed my conscience and rejected the expectations of god(s) in this reality, I hope I’d have the strength to do the same in that one.

    @Chris
    What do you mean?

  5. Chris permalink

    Good insights! This might be off-topic but I think you allude to a person’s motivation when you question if people have integrity or authenticity. It’s interesting to think about the motivation people use to do good – to gain heaven, to get blessings, to avoid hell…. I always thought that the Mormon motivation was kind of weird. In Mormonism, you are basically automatically rewarded with some kind of glory for simply choosing to follow God’s plan in the pre-existence (except for sons of perdition). So you even Hitler, after the 1000 years of temporary hell, will receive glory because of that one decision he made in the pre-earth life. But then in church, you often hear that the terrestial and telestial kingdoms would be a hell because they would know what they are missing out on. But is this doctrine? Or is this a way for Mormons to further justify to do what’s good? The reward of the Celestial Kingdom isn’t enough? They have to make the telestial and terrestial kingdoms seem less desirable so that it’ll motivate people to keep the commandments.

    I know some of my motivation to do various things is simply to avoid pain.

  6. While I have heard such things (e.g., the terrestrial and telestial kingdoms will feel worse off because people would know what they are missing on), I have also heard competing ideas. For example, a man would kill to reach the telestial kingdom, because it is still far better than this earth. (But this is definitely a distorted/falsified quote).

    Or, alternatively, every person reaches his level in the kingdom, and is ultimately satisfied with that level.

  7. Fantastic post, Andrew. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  8. Dan permalink

    Something I’ve wondered that’s related to this:

    Mormon theology teaches that 1/3 of God’s children rebelled IN HIS PRESENCE and had to be cast out before The Plan ever got off the ground, yet God thought that separating the rest of us from his presence and influence would be necessary for us to choose the right?

    If he lost 1/3 while he was with us, isn’t it likely that he’ll lose MORE than a third to “sin” when he’s not? Wouldn’t it be probable, then, that more than 2/3 of Gods own children will NOT make it back to him, under the current plan?

    Makes absolutely no sense.

  9. Dan,

    That’s a REALLY good point, one that I had never thought of before (because for a lot of people I know who use the argument [who are not Mormon], mentioning the premortal existence would not move the conversation forward.)

  10. Chucky permalink

    Thank you for commenting on my blog. I agree with you about faith. Generally I’ve heard atheists, more often than Christians, offer that definition. I tend to think it makes no sense at all in a Biblical context.

    And its certainly true that even though he does do miracles then people don’t necessarily believe, eg. John 12.

    I don’t think that it is the reason that God does not appear – doing miracles and the like – to all of us everyday. I’m not really sure why anyone should expect he would, you’ll have to flesh that out more. Personally, I am already grateful and I’m not into demanding/expecting that God appear to me, or give us even more than we have already!

  11. Chucky,

    I guess one would expect that God would be more apparently active in today’s world because 1) that’s how the scriptures seem to imply the past was, 2) the kind of god that the Judaeo-Christian God seems to be does not seem to “fit” well as a behind-the-scenes, “set-it-and-forget-it” kind of guy. And FINALLY, if God wants us to worship him, then I don’t see how it would be outlandish to expect that he would also do something that makes many people seriously doubt whether he even exists (or doubt in what capacity he exists, what number, gender, etc., [e.g., the multiple religions and concepts of god]).

    I guess I can’t speak for people who “expect” stuff of God. From my perspective, his track record (if he exists) leads me not to expect much, if anything.

    • Chucky permalink

      Hey Andrew,

      I’m still working my way through your comment…

      One reason why I don’t expect the same today is because Jesus signs had a specific purpose – they showed us who Jesus was (as for example, John writes in chapter 20). So I don’t see that just because they happened in the past that they should necessarily happen again the same today.

      • actually, I could go off that point too. Jesus’s signs don’t show *us* who Jesus was. They showed *guys back in the past* who Jesus was.

        Every generation since has had several hurdles. Not only is the “goal” hurdle (do I follow Jesus or not?), but there is the additional hurdle (is the Bible reliable and accurate?).

        Now, people’s salvation status isn’t just dependent on whether they will follow or not, but on other peripheral issues, like whether they will find the Bible compelling.

  12. Yes, non-sequitor describes all the assertions made by religion.

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  1. Unrepentant Sinners and Mormon Grace « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

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