Why doesn’t God make it unambiguously clear that He exists?

Q. I have a good friend who is a non-believer. I’ve been speaking to him, on and off, for many years, but he still questions God’s existence. During a recent email exchange, here is what he wrote. How would you answer his question?

“And then I say to myself, if there is a God, why wouldn’t he make his existence clear to all mankind in the present day? … What reason could there be to not show himself to mankind now in some unambiguous way??? A way that is not subject to a few individual reporters misstating facts or creating fiction?”

Actually, according to the Bible, God already has made His existence unambiguously clear. God has done this, for one thing, by imprinting evidence of his reality and character onto his creation: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” God has also made His existence clear by imprinting His moral laws on the human conscience. The Bible says, for example, that when people who do not have the law (that is, the Scriptures) “do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”

However, it is true that the witness of creation and conscience are not sufficient to convince a person of the existence of God if that person is relying on reason and empirical observation alone. The Bible says that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Faith is a capacity for knowing that requires trust. (The same Greek word is actually translated both as faith and trust in English New Testaments, depending on context.) I think God wants us to come to him by faith because He doesn’t just want us to affirm mentally that He is real; He wants us to enter into a relationship of trust with him. So God requires the first step to be something that will lead in the right direction. Gaining knowledge, by itself, can lead to pride, which leads us away from God; coming to understand through trust leads us towards God.

In one episode of the television series Bones, the character of Dr. Brennan, who is a skeptic, insists, “Faith is the irrational belief in something that is logically impossible.” Actually, faith is just the opposite. It is the reasonable belief in something that is quite possibly true, but which can’t be proved  through reason and observation alone. It is reasonable to believe in God; I would argue that it’s actually more reasonable than to deny the existence of God: All of our experience tells us that things don’t come from nowhere, they come from somewhere. Then where did we and the universe we live in come from? So God’s existence is certainly possible and it’s arguably reasonable. But it can’t be demonstrated the way we would demonstrate a natural phenomenon scientifically.

Nevertheless, faith is indeed a way of knowing. How, for example, can I be sure that my mother loves me? She fed and clothed me right from the time I was a baby—but maybe she just didn’t want to go to jail for child neglect. She says that she loves me—but maybe that’s because that’s just what mothers are supposed to say. The fact can’t be demonstrated empirically. But because I know my mother personally, I know that I can trust that these things truly are signs of a genuine love.

It’s the same way with God. Once we begin to approach Him through trust, we discover more and more that this trust is warranted. In fact, the trust itself is a gift from God to us to enable us to get to know Him: “We know  that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true.

So the next time you speak with your friend, you might suggest to him that faith is a way of knowing that will allow him to recognize that God already has made His existence clear, but that God has done this in a way that requires people to approach him through trust. Your friend might counter that God ought to reveal Himself in a way that is accessible to reason and observation, because that is what people can be sure of. However, to claim that there is nothing that can be known certainly apart from what reason and observation can reveal is itself a faith statement. It’s like claiming that there is no light beyond the visible spectrum because we can’t see anything beyond the visible spectrum with our eyes. Logically there still could be—and with more powerfully instruments it has been show that there is—light beyond that spectrum that we simply can’t see with our eyes. Similarly, logically there could be realities in the spiritual world that reason alone could not be confident of, but which could be (and indeed are) accessible to us when we use the faculty and gift of faith that God intends to be part of the way each of us knows, and trusts, and knows.

What is the Bible trying to say at the end of Hebrews 11?

Q. Hebrews 11:39,40: Please help me understand what God is telling us as the summation of this chapter. Appreciate this site so much. Thank you. Just ordered The Books of the Bible NT.

Thank you very much for your kind words about this blog. I’m  glad you’re finding it helpful. I trust you’ll have a great experience with The Books of the Bible.

To respond to your question, Hebrews 11 ends this way: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” What God is trying to tell us through this becomes clear at the beginning of the next chapter: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In other words, we would expect that all the heroes described in what is sometimes called the “Hall of Fame of Faith” would already have been richly rewarded by God. Instead, we discover that they have not yet received their rewards. This might not seem fair to us, and so we ask why they haven’t been rewarded. The reason, we learn in these concluding words of the chapter, is that God wants all the faithful people down through the ages to receive their rewards together—perhaps as a single company united across time by their devotion to God through uncertainty, difficulty, and persecution. And that is supposed to inspire us to live up to the example of these faithful and courageous people ourselves. And just in case we need any more inspiration, the author of Hebrews describes Jesus in the same terms as the heroes of the faith who came before him, but also explaining that he is the one who  set the entire company in motion and who is the ultimate example of its character (“the pioneer and perfecter of our faith”).

So once we finish reading about all these faithful people, we’re not supposed to say, “Well, good for them.” We’re supposed to say, “God is counting on me to be like them!” And with the same kind of faith, we can be.

I can’t resist noting that this is a place where the traditional chapter divisions of the Bible, which were added many hundreds of years after its books were written, do us a real disservice in understanding its meaning. There’s not supposed to be any gap or break between “God is waiting to reward them and us together” and, “Therefore, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” As you experienced, it’s hard to understand the first part without the second part. But the way we typically approach the Bible (a chapter at a time in sermons, study groups, or private devotions), we might not hear the second part until a day or a week later. In fact, we might never hear it at all if we’re in a topical study that has chosen Hebrews 11 for “faith” and will move on next to 1 Corinthians 13 for “love.”

So I commend you for puzzling over what really is a puzzle without what comes next, and for reaching out to ask about it. I also commend you for ordering a copy of the New Testament that doesn’t have any chapters or verses!

What does it mean to “love God for his own sake”?

Q. I recently watched a video on hell where a Christian philosopher asks “Why are [people] being good?” Then he goes on to say that people who preach about hell and incite fear in people are not creating a heart that will love God. He calls this “being good for your own sake.” I know the Bible says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Yet, Jesus warns in Revelation that the church in Ephesus needs to “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Jesus is using fear as a motivator here.

I do not see how you can love God for His own sake and not your own. You have to be thankful for something He does for you. What is genuinely best for you is to serve and love other people. Yet it is still all for your own sake because when you do something for another’s sake, you decide that sacrificing something “for their sake” is actually what is best for your sake! So we always should seek to do what is best for us, yet many people, like the aforementioned philosopher, view external motivators as impure. In light of this, what does it mean to be selfish from a biblical point of view? And, what on earth does it mean to love God “for His own sake?”

Actually, I understand what this philosopher is saying. Perhaps a helpful analogy might be to ask why we love our parents or our spouses. Is it only for what we get from them? Or is there something noble and excellent that we recognize in them that makes us love them independently of anything they might do for us? (With Valentine’s Day coming up, let me warn all of my readers: Don’t give that special someone in your life a card that says, “I love you because of everything I get from you”!)

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Jonathan Edwards, and in his work on The Nature of True Virtue, he defined it as a “disinterested general benevolence” that does “not properly arise from self-love.” Disinterested means without being in it for what we can get out of it ourselves, and benevolence means acting in goodness in the best interests of others. I think the philosopher on the video you saw was arguing in this same tradition.

I don’t believe that Jesus actually is using fear as a motivator when in Revelation he warns the church in Ephesus that if it doesn’t recapture its first love, he will have to take away its lampstand (that is, its very existence). Letting someone know the consequences of the course they’re on is indeed a vital warning, but it’s not designed to motivate them by fear. That would not be a lasting motivation; emotions always wear off. Rather, the person is supposed to be motivated by recognizing the difference between where they are heading and where they could and should be heading. The difference may represent a loss to themselves, but it is also a loss to others, and ultimately it is a failure to be a good steward of all the gifts and opportunities that God has so richly provided us so that we can fulfill our purpose. In that sense it is a failure to love God.

As for what it means to “love God for his own sake,” in his Treatiste Concering Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards wrote, “The first objective ground of gracious affections [i.e. those that arise from the saving work of God in our lives], is the transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things as they are themselves; and not any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest.” In other words, just as I suggested that we should be able to recognize something noble about our parents or spouses that would lead us to love them apart from anything we might receive from them, in an even greater sense, we should recognize that God is “transcendently excellent and amiable” [i.e. to be loved], and love God for that inherent excellence.

If these ideas are all new to you, and you’re puzzling over them, I would simply say that you have some great discoveries ahead of you. God did not create the world to be a place where everyone was inherently motivated by self-interest. Instead, it’s supposed to be a place where free giving out of love can flourish, creating more of itself until people delight to be a blessing to others far more than they desire to have things for themselves. So I guess I’d say … keep in listening to videos by that same philosopher!

Why wasn’t Daniel’s name changed like that of his three friends?

Q. Why was Daniel’s name allowed to remain ‘Daniel’? His trio of friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah had their names changed to ones in the Babylonian language. Curious to learn. Thank you.

Actually, Daniel was given a Babylonian name himself at the same time as his friends. The book of Daniel tells us that when these four  were brought to Babylon and enrolled in training to become servants at the royal court, the official responsible for them “gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.”

However, the book of Daniel does treat its central figure differently in this regard from his three friends, and that’s probably what has struck you. It continues to call him Daniel in its own narrative, though it does note in three places that he was “also called Belteshazzar“; the Babylonian characters in the book also address him by that name. By contrast, the book calls his three friends by their Hebrew names only in the first episode and at the beginning of the second one; after that, even in its own narrative it uses their Babylonian names.

It’s not clear why this is the case. It’s possible that the third episode, in which the three friends are the central characters (it’s also the last one in which they appear), is based on a Babylonian source, which would have used their Babylonian names, and they have simply been carried over. While the second episode does use their Hebrew names at the beginning, it uses their Babylonian names at the end; this might be to help create continuity leading into the next episode. Daniel, on the other hand, might have been known so well by that name by the book’s intended audience that the authors or compilers might have supplied his Hebrew name when their sources said Belteshazzar, but kept the Babylonian name in an “also known as” parenthesis. However, this is speculative; we don’t know for sure.

Whatever the case, these names are not just a matter of historical curiosity. They have something to teach us about faithfully following God in our own day. As I observe in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

– – – – –

Daniel and his friends had to decide how much of the Babylonian
culture they could adopt without fatally compromising their faith. They
didn’t take an all-or-nothing approach. They didn’t say, “You’ve got to go
along if you want to get along,” and agree to everything the Babylonians
expected. They also didn’t say that everything Babylonian was evil and had
to be rejected. They diligently studied the “language and literature of the
Babylonians,” even though this literature centered around the exploits of
foreign gods. They also accepted new names that praised these gods instead
of their own God:

• Daniel (“God is my judge/vindicator”) became Belteshazzar (a
name that invoked the Babylonian god Bel);
• Hananiah (“Yahweh is gracious”) became Shadrach (“companion
of Aku”);
• Mishael (“Who is like God?”) became Meshach (again invoking
Aku); and
• Azariah (“Yahweh is my help”) became Abednego (“servant of
Nebo”).

Somehow these young men determined that what they were studying,
and the new names they were given, didn’t compromise the essentials of their faith. But they drew the line when it came to eating foods that God had told the Israelites, in the law of Moses, not to eat, because they had a distinct identity as his people.

– – – – –

After those observations, I pose the following questions for reflection and application in the study guide:

What kinds of situations might a person encounter today that
would challenge them to compromise their values and beliefs?

How can a person know where to draw the line in these situations,
so that they cooperate where possible but never compromise
essentials?

I hope these questions are of interest and use to you, and I thank you for your own question.

Daniel and his friends refusing to eat the King’s food, “early 1900s Bible illustration,” courtesy Wikipedia

Two questions from starting to read through the Bible in a year

Q. I just started reading through the Bible in a year with my church. There are things that have stuck out that I am needing to have answered. It’s like God is having me answer harder questions or address them.

1. At the beginning of Genesis, it says that the earth was formless and void and the waters … wait … the earth was there? Formless and void, and there was already water? Can you talk to me about this?

2. And what about when Jacob was fighting with the angel or God, and he couldn’t win, and then he wrenched his hip?

First, I commend you for going on the adventure, with others in your church, of reading through the Bible. I’ve heard other people say similar things when they’ve started reading continuously in the Bible: They notice all kinds of things they never saw before when they were taking a verse-at-a-time or chapter-at-a-time approach, and this has raised all kinds of new and challenging questions. But these are the kinds of questions that really help us go deep in our knowledge of God and his word.

In fact, my motto on this blog is, “There’s no such thing as a bad question.” (That’s why I call it Good Question.) So thank you for asking your questions here. Let me refer you to some other posts I’ve written that offer some thoughts in response to similar questions that others have raised.

1. Regarding your question about the water in the opening creation account in Genesis, please see this post:

Does the creation account in Genesis begin with matter (in the form of water) already existing?

In that post I suggest that we need to appreciate that for the ancient Hebrews, the watery ocean was the equivalent of “nothing.” Because they were not a seafaring people, they considered the sea a place of unformed and unorganized chaos. It was constantly shifting shape; nothing could be built on it; no crops could be grown there; and no one could survive for long on its waves. “The great deep,” the ocean depths, was the equivalent for them of “the abyss” or the pit of nothingness. So even though the concept is expressed from within a different cosmology, when the Genesis author says there was nothing but the waters of the deep, this is the exact equivalent of someone today saying that there was nothing, period.

As for your question about the earth, let me refer you to a post on one of my other blogs, Paradigms on Pilgrimage:

Day 1 according to ancient cosmology

There I suggest that saying that the land had no shape or contents is equivalent to saying that it had not yet been differentiated from the waters. It’s a kind of verbal shorthand, in which something the listener already knows to exist is described before it existed. It’s like saying, “The New York Yankees were called the Highlanders for the first few years of their franchise.” The “Yankees” were not really called the “Highlanders” then, because there were no “Yankees,” and never had been. What is intended is this: “The team that eventually became known as the Yankees was at first called the Highlanders.” In the same way, the Genesis account begins by explaining that what would eventually become the land had not yet been differentiated or populated. The case is the same with the sky, which will eventually separate the “waters above” from the “waters below.” Right now it’s just “waters” – “the deep,” covered in darkness But the Spirit of God is hovering over it all, sizing up the possibilities and making a plan.

2. Regarding Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord (who in some way seems to embody a manifestation of God on earth), please see this post:

Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?

In that post I suggest that God was trying to demonstrate something in this wrestling match by limiting himself to human powers. When he blesses and renames Jacob he says, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” So he had probably been giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout 20 difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him.

The thoughts I’ve shared in summary here are developed at more length in the posts I’ve provided links to.

Once again, I commend you for stepping up to the challenge and adventure of reading through the Bible. Hang in there, keep reading, keep asking your questions, and keep looking for the answers to them!

How can honestly seeking Christians come to different answers on important questions?

Q. How can two Christians honestly seeking God’s will come to two contradictory answers to questions about things like the age of the earth or whether women can be pastors?

Followers of Jesus who are people of good will and who have equal commitments to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures may still come to different conclusions about what the Bible teaches if they have different interpretive presuppositions or if they follow different interpretive methods.

For example, if their presuppositions are that the Bible should be interpreted literally, this may lead them to conclude that the earth is much younger than the scientific consensus suggests. On the other hand, if their presuppositions are that the Bible should be interpreted literarily, this may lead them to believe that an earth that is billions of years old can be accommodated within a belief that God created the world as described in the Bible. (Full disclosure: I am of the latter persuasion, as is clear from various posts on this blog and from all of my other blog Paradigms on Pilgrimage.)

Similarly, if a reader of the Bible believes that the propositional statements within it have universal force, then they may see Paul’s comment to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man,” to be definitive on the question of whether women can be pastors. On the other hand, if a reader of the Bible believes that propositional statements should be understood and interpreted within their historical contexts, they may consider that such statements apply directly only to their original audiences, and that they must be applied to other contexts by inference and analogy. They would be read on a par with narrative and other genres, and not privileged because they are propositional. (Once again in the interests of full disclosure, I should make clear that I personally do not believe there should be any limitations on what women can do within the community of Jesus’ followers, simply because they are women. See the series of posts that begins here.)

So is there any hope that followers of Jesus who hold divergent interpretive presuppositions or who follow different interpretive methods can ever be brought to agree? Stated briefly, yes, I think that can happen. Specifically, I believe that over time our experience of God’s work in our lives and in the lives of others can make us uncomfortable with some of our previous conclusions, and this can challenge us to re-examine the presuppositions and methods that led us to them. In such a case we will ideally realize that it was not so much the Bible itself, but the way we were interpreting it, that led us to these conclusions, and we will continue to look to the Bible as a source of divine instruction, but we will do so in a new way. This has happened to me many times myself, and I’ve seen it happen for many others as well. Once this has happened, we not only come to see some things differently than we did before, we are also more accommodating of others who see things differently than we do now, and we can recognize more common ground between once seemed like contradictory views.

And while all of us are in this process, I think a good motto—found earliest in the writings of Archbishop Marco Antonio de Dominisis: “In essential things, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; in all things, charity.” (And if two interpreters disagree over whether something is essential or uncertain, well, that’s where charity comes in.)

Did God give the command not to eat from the tree only to Adam?

Q. Did God give the information about not eating of the tree’s fruit to just Adam, or was it for Adam and Eve? Or did Adam give the information to Eve after God created her?

As I read the narrative in Genesis, it seems pretty clear that God gave the command just to Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and that Adam passed this command along to Eve.

Specifically, it was only after God told Adam not to eat from this tree that God then said to himself, “It is not good for the man to be alone, I will make a helper suitable for him,” and God created Eve. There is no subsequent record of God repeating the command to her. But when the serpent asks her what God said about this tree, she doesn’t respond, “This is the first I’ve heard anything about that.” She knows that they’re not supposed to eat from it. We can only infer that Adam told her this.

Significantly, it appears that Adam actually added something to what God said. God only told Adam, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” But Eve tells the serpent that God said, You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it.” This is admittedly speculative, but we may infer that Adam was so concerned about the consequences of disobeying God that he figured, We better not even touch the fruit, and so that’s what he told Eve.

Later in the Bible there are warnings not to add anything to what God commands, and we can understand why. God gives us the grace to obey all of his commands so that they are not burdensome. But anyone who tries to require people to do more than God commands is asking them to do something they aren’t being given the grace for. Then it’s only too easy for someone else to come along and persuade them that they don’t have to do that. This was actually the serpent’s strategy—to persuade Eve that God had asked too much of her and that she didn’t need to obey. He just had a different version of too much,” initially. He asked whether God had really said, You must not eat from any tree in the garden.” Eve knew that God hadn’t said this, but she didn’t realize that He hadn’t actually said that they couldn’t even touch the fruit. And this gave the serpent something that could legitimately be contradicted, with tragic results.

So one lesson we can take from the story is that those who have the responsibility to communicate God’s commands to others need to be careful not to add anything to them. We may have a good motive, to keep people as far as possible from disobedience. But God’s grace can keep willing hearts obedient without that kind of assistance.