In his book, Contact, Carl Sagan satirically asks why God doesn’t place a glowing cross in the sky at night to serve as irrefutable proof of Jesus’ resurrection. One could just as well ask why God doesn’t set up a website, or place billboards around. Why must we read and understand an ancient book to know God? Bertland Russell, the famous British atheist, once was asked what he would say, if, after his death, he came face to face with the God he had denied in life. Russell’s response: “Not enough evidence”.
This is not just a question for non-believers. As Christians, surely we all wonder why the evidence for God can be denied. Doesn’t God want us to all know Him? Then why doesn’t He make himself more obvious? Why doesn’t he shout from heaven? We certainly agree with Moses’ statement, “You are a God who hides himself”, but we usually have no clue why.
I think the answer to that is in understanding the difference between faith and knowledge, and why God desires faith.
Briefly, knowledge is the intellectual knowledge of what is (yes, I am aware of the different debates about knowledge, but am not going to get into them here, as they do not affect my main point). Faith is a little more difficult to define. I define it this way: Faith is choosing, for good but not unassailable reasons, to believe something is true, and then acting on that belief. This seems to me the definition most inline with the New Testament word (pistis in Greek) which is translated faith, belief, or trust.
Notice a couple things about this definition:
First, it is a belief that has consequences. It is not a trivial thing, for this type of faith affects our choices (unlike, say, the belief that 2 plus 2 equals four, or that the sun is around a million times the size of the earth).
Secondly, it is based on reason and evidence, but it is not compelled by them. That is, it is not against reason or evidence, but may sometimes go beyond them. I believe my spouse is faithful to me, not because I can prove it by evidence (I don’t have her video-taped 24/7) but because it is consistent with what I do know of her and our life together.
Third, to some degree, it is a choice. I have no real choice in believing that snow is cold, or that the chair I am sitting in is black. Unless I want to deny my sense experience, the belief is forced upon me. Nor can my belief that two plus two equals four be a faith decision; it is self-evident and irrefutable. But faith is a flower that can only be cultivated in a soil mixture of doubt and knowledge.
Now, if this is so, then we may begin to see why God makes faith our only acceptable response to Him: Since faith is a choice, it involves moral, and not just intellectual, implications. That is, to some degree, I will choose not just whether there is a God or not, but if I want there to be a God or not. This is not to imply faith has no intellectual content, but to affirm that is also has moral content. Reason can lead me to the water, but it can’t make me drink. I still must choose.
This is then consistent with that, as C. S. Lewis said, hell is locked from the inside. The believer says to God, “I want you”, the unbeliever says, “I don’t want you”, and God says to them both, “Your will be done”.
Finally, we should also stop to ponder the question of what effect it would have on our faith if God was more obvious, and his ways shown with certainty to be true. For example, why doesn’t God automatically and visibly reward each act of faith and obedience? Every time I refuse some tempting sin, or every time I obey Him, why doesn’t He boom from Heaven, “Good job!”, and send down a twenty dollar bill (or solve whatever problem is bothering me)?
When put in terms like these, it is easy to see how this would distort our relationship with God. We would be treating Him as an object, something we manipulate for our own gain. Faith here would not only be stunted, but warped.
The example of Israel may be instructive here. If God was ever obvious, it was in His dealings with the Israelites, especially in the early years under the leadership of Moses. Just think: they saw the plagues on Egypt. They experienced the crossing of the Red Sea. They heard God thunder from the top of Mt. Sinai. In fact, the last verses of Exodus tell us that the visible sign of God’s presence was always with them:
In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud (representing God’s presence) lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if it did not life, they did not set out – until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels. (Exodus 40: 36-38).
God certainly could not have been much clearer than that. Yet, the faith and obedience of the Israelites in the desert was anything but exemplary. Philip Yancey notes:
I also noticed a telling pattern in the Old Testament accounts: the very clarity of God’s will had a stunting effect on the Israelite’s faith. Why pursue God when He had already revealed Himself so clearly? Why step out in faith when God had already guaranteed the results? …In short, why should the Israelites act like adults when they could act like children? And act like children they did, grumbling against their leaders, cheating on the strict rules governing manna, whining about every food or water shortage. (Disappointment with God)
On the contrary, when God wanted to raise up David as His ideal King (thus representing His people) He did so by often seeming silent and even unfair (just check out the Psalms).
In short, God knows what He is doing with us, and His silence and hiddenness have purpose.