Time and again, we’re told that God wants us to believe in Him. Yet it must be admitted that God does not make Himself obvious to all of us. In response, it can be said that God is not a physical being and therefore does not exist at a particular location and is therefore not naturally visible to our eyes or audible to our ears. However, that is inconsistent with the claim that if God so chooses (for example, on this occasion), He is capable of revealing Himself visibly and audibly, as one would expect from an omnipotent being.
Furthermore, focusing on eyes and ears just dodges the broader question. If God wants us to believe, why does He not provide any sort of compelling evidence of His existence? It’s not hard to think up ways that God – even without being visible or audible – could convince most, if not all, unbelievers of His existence (along with whatever commandments or facts about His nature that He might wish to convey). A couple of suggestions that have been offered (found them here) are inscribing “made by God” on every atom, or placing a giant neon cross in the heavens with the message “Jesus Saves”.
The objection of insufficient evidence is not just a modern criticism against Christianity. It would be incorrect to paint Man prior to the scientific revolution as a gullible fool, ready to believe any superstitious notion or miraculous claim. Skepticism has existed hand-in-hand with faith from the beginning. The problem of insufficient evidence is raised even within the texts of the Gospels. The most famous case is that of the apostle Thomas, who doubts the testimony of the Resurrection until physically touching the risen Jesus. There are numerous other cases as well. We read about two of them in Luke 23, involving Herod and the thief on the cross. Everybody wants the kind of direct proof that comes from experiencing a miracle, but Jesus is selective about how, when, where, and for whom (and even secretive in some cases).
The selectivity is not just a matter of one generation seeing Jesus directly while the rest of us have to take their word for it. Jesus was selective in revealing Himself even in His earthly ministry, so I suppose it is not surprising that He would be selective today. I have met people who are absolutely convinced that they have experienced a miracle, an experience having no other explanation than God. I personally have not, so I am left (like many) to wonder whether those who did are mistaken in their recollections or in their interpretation of their experiences, and why God has chosen not to approach me in this way. I still wrestle with doubts about my faith, occasionally even doubts of God’s existence. I can relate to the man who said to Jesus “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (and also to the man who made that the title of his blog).
It is clear that Christianity proclaims a God that remains hidden, or at least partially hidden, from many people. But like God Himself, the reasons why He hides (and is resistant to convincing proof) are also hidden. Even if we have plenty of good reasons to believe, as well the inner voice of conscience, circumstantial evidence, etc., we are left to speculate why God is, for lack of a more reverent term, playing an elaborate game with us. (In this light, it is at least consistent to find Jesus behaving inscrutably in the Gospels… revealing himself to some but not others… healing one blind man, but not curing all blindness.)
I suspect that one reason God remains partially hidden is His nature as a God of love. The New Testament proclaims that God is love, and Jesus taught that loving God and loving our neighbor are the totality of what we are being called to do. I suppose belief is important in that without believing in God, you can’t fully love Him. Faith is important in that without trusting in God, you can’t fully love Him. And both of these are important in that without loving God, we can’t really love our neighbor (or vice versa). But God does not simply want belief for its own sake, as pointed out by St. James.
Once God is understood in these terms, one starts to get an inkling of why a “neon cross in the sky” approach might not fit His plan for us. I would imagine that direct revelation of God’s existence would have a powerful effect on a person. For a sufficiently analytical person, even an indirect chain of reasons that qualified as irrefutable proof would have a similar effect. It would certainly inspire reverence, obedience, and fear in addition to belief. But it might not inspire love. Now of course, Christianity makes use of reverence, obedience, and even fear as motivating factors to wake up a soul that has strayed from the healthy path. But it does so in the way a loving parent disciplines a child – as part of a complex, long-term plan to help the child grow into someone who loves doing right for its own sake, and thus lives more abundantly. And the techniques themselves cannot force “true love” to happen on anyone’s artificial timetable. I think even God in His omnipotence has invented it as something even He cannot force (see my post about Jesus and the burrito).
Furthermore, if the love God has in mind is not just one on one, but all of us to one another, like a family, then that might be related to why God chooses to reveal Himself to different degrees to each of His children. Something about the message passing person-to-person, not just God-to-person, might strike, in His wisdom, just the right balance (analogous, perhaps, to the “best of all possible worlds” approach to the problem of evil, see here). In my own life, I know that Mom and Dad rejoice most when the whole family is together, interacting not just with them but with one another.
If the way I’ve phrased it, or the scriptures, or the soaring language of George MacDonald (see links three paragraphs ago) do not make the point clearly enough, perhaps one might consider spending an entertaining 97 minutes with Eddie Murphy. In the 1988 film Coming to America, we are told the story of a king of splendid wealth and power from a faraway African land, who seeks only one thing – true love. Yet he chooses not to present himself to the world as a very eligible bachelor, fearing someone might love him not for his title, or what he owns, but for what he is. Instead, he comes to inner-city America and rents a rat-infested apartment and works in a fast-food restaurant. Eventually, he finds true love and only at the end does he reveal his true identity to his beloved. The movie is by no means explicitly (or even intentionally) Christian, but the basic story does remind me a bit of a certain 1st century Jewish carpenter. And the desire to be loved for who one is – which could be contrasted to wealth, beauty, youth, intellect, title, power, or anything else – is something we can all relate to. Perhaps it’s because we are made in His image, made to love Him and one another and to find our highest fulfillment in that. And perhaps making that happen in a genuine way between the Creator of the universe and creatures such as ourselves requires some complicated dynamics, that may look a bit like hide and seek.