Many people are perplexed, even troubled, by the fact that God (if such there be) has not made His existence sufficiently clear. This fact—the fact of divine hiddenness—is a source of existential concern for many people. That is, it raises problems about their very existence, particularly its value and purpose. The fact of divine hiddenness is also, according to some people, a source of good evidence against the existence of God. That is, it allegedly poses a cognitive problem for theism, in the form of evidence challenging the assumption that God exists. (Here and throughout we speak of “God” as broadly represented in the historic Jewish and Christian theistic traditions.)
Human talk of God is often cheap and easy, and self-serving too. It thus leaves us with a god unworthy of the morally perfect title “God.” This book takes a different route, in order to move away from counterfeits and toward the real article. Our expectations for God, if God exists, often get in the way of our receiving salient evidence of God. We assume that God would have certain obligations to us, even by way of giving us clear evidence, and when those obligations are not met we discredit God, including God’s existence. This is a fast track to atheism or at least agnosticism. We need, however, to take stock of which expectations for God are fitting and which are not, given what would be God’s perfect moral character and will.
How should we understand biblical texts where God is depicted as acting irrationally, violently, or destructively? If we distance ourselves from disturbing portrayals of God, how should we understand the authority of Scripture? How does the often wrathful God portrayed in the Old Testament relate to the God of love proclaimed in the New Testament? Is that contrast even accurate? Disturbing Divine Behavior addresses these perennially vexing questions for the student of the Bible. Eric A. Seibert calls for an engaged and discerning reading of the Old Testament that distinguishes the particular literary and theological goals achieved through narrative characterizations of God from the rich understanding of the divine to which the Old Testament as a whole points. Providing illuminating reflections on theological reading as well, this book will be a welcome resource for any readers who puzzle over disturbing representations of God in the Bible. ~ Synopsis
In October 2001 there was an incident reported in the local news that tipped my perspective farther from deism toward an atheistic-leaning agnosticism. A driver struck a pedestrian on a freeway in Fort Worth and continued the journey home, parking in the garage with the victim still on the hood of the car. The victim was conscious and pled for help, but the driver simply left him there for four days until he died, then with the help of a friend, dumped the body in a local park. The universal reaction to this incident was one of shock and outrage. Yet as I considered the millions of children who have died of starvation, wasting disease, and natural disasters, knowing that an omnipotent god could have come to their rescue in response to their pleas but did not, it was difficult not to see a parallel between God and the negligent driver. The more I contemplated the world in which we live, the harder it became to identify any clues that a benevolent, omnipotent Personality intervenes and orchestrates any of the events in our lives.
Three questions motivate this book’s account of evidence for the existence of God. First, if God’s existence is hidden, why suppose He exists at all? Second, if God exists, why is He hidden, particularly if God seeks to communicate with people? Third, what are the implications of divine hiddenness for philosophy, theology, and religion’s supposed knowledge of God? This book answers these questions on the basis of a new account of evidence and knowledge of divine reality that challenges skepticism about God’s existence. The central thesis is that we should expect evidence of divine reality to be purposively available to humans, that is, available only in a manner suitable to divine purposes in self-revelation. This lesson generates a seismic shift in our understanding of evidence and knowledge of divine reality. The result is a needed reorienting of religious epistemology to accommodate the character and purposes of an authoritative, perfectly loving God. An interview with Moser is available on the Evangelical Philosophical Society blog.
Humility is a virtue which concerns one’s assessment of one’s own merits and defects in comparison with others. The virtues, as Aristotle taught us, concern particular passions; they assist reason to control these passions. The relevant passion in this quarter is the raging tempest of self-love: our inclination to overvalue our own gifts, overesteem our own opinions and place excessive importance on getting our own way. Humility is the virtue that counteracts this prejudice. It does so not by making the judgment that one’s own gifts are lesser than others, or that one’s own opinions are falser than others — for that, as St Thomas says, would often lead to falsehood. It does so, rather, by making the presumption that others’ talents are greater, others’ opinions more likely to be right. Like all presumptions, the presumption of humility is rebuttable; it may be that for a particular purpose one’s own gifts are more adapted than those of one’s neighbours; on a particular topic it may be that one is right and one’s neighbour wrong. But only by approaching each conflict of interest and opinion with this presumption can one hope to escape the myopia that magnifies everything to do with oneself by comparison with everything to do with others.
Traditional Christian theology has been based upon the proofs for the existence of God. The presupposition of these proofs, psychologically if not logically, is that God might or might not exist. They argue from something which everyone admits exists (the world) to a Being beyond it who could or could not be there. The purpose of the argument is to show that he must be there, that his being is ‘necessary’; but the presupposition behind it is that there is an entity or being ‘out there’ whose existence is problematic and has to be demonstrated. Now such an entity, even f it could be proved beyond dispute, would not be God: it would merely be a further piece of existence, that might conceivably not have been there — or a demonstration would not have been required. ¶ Rather, we must start the other way round. God is, by definition, ultimate reality. And one cannot argue whether ultimate reality exists. One can only ask what ultimate reality is like — whether, for instance, in the last analysis what lies at the heart of things and governs their working is to be described in personal or impersonal categories. Thus, the fundamental theological question consists not in establishing the ‘existence’ of God as a separate entity but in pressing through in ultimate concern to what Tillich calls ‘the ground of our being’.
With the publication of J.L. Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddeness and Human Reason, in recent years philosophers of religion have focused their attention on the problem of the “hiddenness of God”, the evident fact that, if God exists, he is not as overtly obvious as he could be. The psalmists and prophets often lamented this apparent absence of God. And Bertrand Russell, imagining a possible meeting with God in the afterlife, famously said he would explain his atheism by the lack of sufficient evidence. A good place to start exploring the problem is in a recent collection of essays: Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. On a more pedestrian level, Phillip Yancey has wrestled with this question at length in his typically poignant and honest style. See his Disappointment with God and Reaching for the Invisible God.
We cannot foreclose on the question of God’s willingness to disclose himself and his purposes in some concrete, particularized way without first looking into the evidence for the authenticity of an alleged revelation from him; even if a quest for some particular truth of the matter is scandalous by today’s ephemeral standards, It will hardly do to accuse God of hiding from us if we have not sincerely sought him in appropriate ways, or if we have insisted on prescribing for God the conditions under which we would approve a revelation of himself.
Since experiences of God are good grounds for the existence of God, are not experiences of the absence of God good grounds for the nonexistence of God? After all, many people have tried to experience God and have failed. Cannot these experiences of the absence of God be used by atheists to counter the theistic argument based on experience of the presence of God?
For the first time I thought seriously about God. Between sobs I told Bessie that if God could do things like this to people, then God was hateful and I had no more use for Him. ¶ Bessie told me about the peace of Heaven and the joy of being among the angels and the happiness of my father who was already there. The argument failed to quiet my rage. ¶ "God loves us all just like His own children," Bessie said. ¶ "If God loves me, why did He make my father die?" ¶ Bessie said that I would understand someday, but she was only partly right. That afternoon, though I couldn’t have phrased it this way then, I decided that God was a lot less interested in people than anybody in Morrisonville was willing to admit. That day I decided that God was not entirely to be trusted. ¶ After that I never cried again with any real conviction, nor expected much of anyone’s God except indifference, nor loved deeply without fear that it would cost me dearly in pain. At the age of five I had become a skeptic . . .
I’ve seen too much of hospitals to relish any idea of collective punishment. But, as you know, Christians sometimes say that sort of thing without really thinking it. They’re better than they seem. [Father] Paneloux is a man of learning, a scholar. He hasn’t come in contact with death; that’s why he can speak with such assurance of the truth — with a capital T. But every country priest who visits his parishioners and has to hear a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence. If [I] believed in an all-powerful God [I] would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God. And this was proved by the fact that no one ever threw himself on Providence completely. [S]ince the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?
God exists” could in principle be established for all factually — it just happens not to be, certainly not for everyone! Suppose, however, that next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear-shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls; leaves drop from the trees; the earth heaves and buckles; buildings topple and towers tumble; the sky is ablaze with an eerie, silvery light. Just then, as all the people of this world look up, the heavens open — the clouds pull apart ‚ revealing an unbelievably immense and radiant-like Zeus figure, towering above us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lightening plays across the features of his Michelangeloid face. He then points down — at me! — and explains, for every man and child to hear: “I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping and word-watching in matters of theology. Be assured, N.R. Hanson, that I most certainly do exist.” … ¶ Please do not dismiss this as a playful, irreverent Disneyoid contrivance. The conceptual point here is that if such a remarkable evert were to occur, I for one should certainly be convinced that God does exist. That matter of fact would have been settled once and for all time… That God exists would, though this encounter, have been confirmed for me and for everyone else in a manner every bit as direct as that involved in any non-controversial factual claim.
They had already seen children die — for many months now death had shown no favoritism — but they had never yet watched a child’s agony minute by minute, as they had now been doing since daybreak. Needless to say, the pain inflicted on these innocent victims had always seemed to them to be what in fact it was: an abominable thing. But hitherto they had felt its abomination in, so to speak, an abstract way; they had never had to witness over so long a period the death throes of an innocent child. In the small face, rigid as a mask of grayish clay, slowly the lips parted and from them rose a long, incessant scream, hardly varying with his respiration, and filling the ward with a fierce, indignant protest, so little childish that it seemed like a collective voice issuing from all the sufferers there. Paneloux gazed down at the small mouth, fouled with the sores of the plague and pouring out the angry death-cry that has sounded through the ages of mankind. He sank on his knees, and all present found it natural to hear him in a voice hoarse but clearly audible across that nameless, never ending wail: “My God, spare this child!” But the wail continued without cease.
Luke: Are you still believin’ in that big bearded Boss up there? You think he’s watchin’ us? Dragline: Get in here. Ain’t ya scared? Ain’t ya scared of dyin’? Luke: Dyin’? Boy, he can have this little life any time he wants to. Do ya hear that? Are ya hearin’ it? Come on. You’re welcome to it, ol’ timer. Let me know you’re up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it. … I’m just standin’ in the rain talkin’ to myself.
The prima facie evidence for a God may not be enough to decide the question; but it should at least decide man to entertain the question. To think upon how slight a variation either in man or in external nature, the whole difference between physical enjoyment and the most acute and most appalling of physical agony may turn; to think how delicate the balance is, and yet how surely and steadfastly it is maintained, so as that the vast majority of creatures are not only upheld in comfort but often may be seen disporting themselves in the redundance of gaiety; to think of the pleasurable sensations wherewith every hour is enlivened, and how much the most frequent and familiar occasions of life are mixed up with happiness; to think of the food, and the recreation, and the study, and the society, and the business, each having an appropriate relish of its own, so as in fact to season with enjoyment the great bulk of our existence in the world; to think that, instead of living in the midst of grievous and incessant annoyance to all our faculties, we should have awoke upon a world that so harmonized with the various senses of man, and both gave forth such music to his ear, and to his eye such manifold loveliness; to think of all these palpable and most precious adaptations, and yet to care not, whether in this wide universe there exists a being who has had any hand in them; to riot and regale oneself to the uttermost in the midst of all this profusion, and yet to send not one wishful inquiry after that Benevolence which for aught we know may have laid it at our feet — this, however shaded from our view the object of the question may be, is, from its very commencement, a clear outrage against its ethical proprieties. If that veil of dim transparency, which hides the Deity from our immediate perceptions, were lifted up; and we should then spurn from us the manifested God — this were direct and glaring impiety. But anterior to the lifting of that veil, there may be impiety. It is impiety to be so immersed as we are, in the busy objects and gratifications of life; and yet to care not whether there be a great and a good spirit by whose kindness it is that life is upholden. It needs not that this great spirit should reveal Himself in characters that force our attention to Him, ere the guilt of our impiety has begun. But ours is the guilt of impiety, in not lifting our attention towards God, in not seeking after Him if haply we may find Him.