In a very thoughtful comment to one of my prior articles, atheist Jack Schifflett raised a series of questions about God that I think most reasonable people have wondered at one time or another. I myself (you will no doubt scoff at my implied association with reasonable people) have certainly wondered them. I encourage you to read his full post (I will not do it justice here), which is comment #2 on this link. In summary, he asked “why would a good God leave room for doubt about His existence? No good parents do that to their children. Isn’t it more reasonable to conclude that God doesn’t exist and we’re just trying to explain how He might exist after the fact?”
In case you’re concerned that if you continue reading a lightning bolt from Heaven may be in your future, let me say that I’m quite sure God isn’t afraid of us asking such difficult questions. Indeed, we are in good company when we do so, as three of the most heralded people in the Bible wondered why for all to see: King David, Job, and yes, even Jesus Himself.
So, now that we’ve dispelled our fear of lightning: What are we to make of doubt? First, some ground-clearing. Some folks have used this “doubt” that most people occasionally feel about God as an argument that He exists. (They exclaim with glee: “It’s exactly what we’d expect from God, crazy fellow that He is, and therefore He must exist!”). Jack thinks this line of argumentation silly; and I completely agree. To my knowledge, I haven’t used (and don’t plan to use) the “room for doubt” angle as an argument for God’s existence. The existence of doubt is rather an intellectual obstacle to be overcome by Christianity, and not a positive statement in its favor. So when I talk about the room God left for doubt on this cite, I am merely stating what I think to be an obvious if-then statement: If God exists, then He left room for doubt about His existence. This is just plain common sense: If there is a God, it must be true, since almost everyone I know has doubted God’s existence at some point – including myself. It is simply one of the facts on the ground that we do, in fact, sometimes doubt. Any scheme must account for it (just like any scheme must account for the fact that most people in most places have experienced something in their lives that they thought was supernatural). But I don’t think it is an argument in favor of Christianity; that would be like arguing that because I can’t see peaches in a dark room, I am sure they exist. The darkness does not disprove their existence; but of course it doesn’t prove it either.
In fact, I think the relationship between the two things is entirely different. I don’t believe in Christianity because I can doubt it (I can hardly think of a sillier argument in the universe if I tried), but rather I believe Christianity on other grounds entirely and then try to explain the universe through that lens. And one of the questions that needs explaining from that lens is precisely this: Why does doubt about God exist at all? To return to our rather bizarre and obtuse “room full of peaches” analogy: Even though I can’t see them, I may still reasonably believe there are peaches in a dark room — because I can smell them (say) or feel them (say) — but that still leaves me with a perfectly reasonable question: Why is the room dim? The owner of the house may have reasons for creating uncertainty about the peaches, but I’d like to know what they are. I think that’s the state of things here. I believe in Christianity, not because of the darkness of doubt, but on other grounds. And then I further ask: Well, why is there any doubt at all?
So, then, why is there? And the best answer is: I don’t know. (Anyone that knows me knows that when I say “I don’t know” I actually mean “I think I know but I don’t think the argument is very good, yet all the same I’m going to spend an hour explaining it to you” — so consider yourself forewarned, dear reader). The first and most obvious reason would be free choice. Christianity teaches that evil exists because God offered humans free choice, and we chose badly. Now one possible explanation for why doubt exists runs like this: We could not have completely free choice without some possibility of doubt. And I think in one sense that is probably true. Doubt almost by definition increases the freedom of choice; uncertainty (doubt) means more than one thing is possible. It is probably not a coincidence that in the Genesis accounts of the first sin, Adam and Eve doubted God.
But the Genesis story also illustrates the problem with that argument. Adam and Even didn’t doubt God’s existence, which is what we are talking about here. They doubted God’s word. Thus, I think the argument from free will is, in the end, partly right, but hardly intellectually satisfying. There is no reason that I can see that God could not have created a universe where we were all absolutely certain about His existence, and yet we still were offered a choice between good and evil. I mean, in my own world, the moral choices I make — between selfishly satisfying my own ego versus loving others — are not dependent on my doubting the nature of the choice, or the origin of the choice, or anything, really. Doubt often facilitates choice or follows as a consequence of choice – but it hardly seems logically necessary for the choice itself to exist.
Yet the argument has another element. Christianity says that God has a quality that we don’t have – or at least I don’t have! — He is so beautiful that His very presence directly inspires praise, the way a beautiful painting directly inspires praise; praise is the natural response to it. I cannot drink a Decaf Iced Caramel Macchiato with Whipped Cream (don’t even talk to me without the Whipped Cream – I mean, what’s the point, really?) without enjoying it. My enjoyment of it is spontaneous. I may or may not “choose” to drink it; but I don’t “choose” to like it; I just like it. But when God appears there is a very real danger that He is forcing us to drink the Macchiato and thus forcing our admiration. Thus, every time God shows His full love and glory in a direct way, our natural response is awe; and I think doubt may be God’s way allowing us something more like true freedom. (It is interesting to note that God’s direct presence seems to be “away” from Adam and Eve during the key choice in the garden). He wants us to want Him even when He isn’t present, even when the whole world seems a cold, Godless grey sky. Do we love Him even when we don’t feel Him – even when He seems “distant?” In this way, I think the possibility of doubt helps facilitate the kind of choice God wants.
All the same, none of that changes the logical conclusion that God did not need doubt for this purpose. I can easily conceive of a universe where I did not doubt His existence and yet had free will. (In fact, the Bible itself hints at one such spiritual world when it talks about how devils are aware of God — and shudder. In other words, devils completely believe in His existence but choose evil all the same. They apparently don’t think He is as delightful as an Iced Coffee drink!). So while doubt does seem to be one of the ways in which God could have created or encouraged free choice, it does not seem necessary. But there is some fuzzy area in between free will and forced obedience that probably gets us (a little) closer to the mark. God doesn’t just want a cold hard choice under a Godless sky; He also wants genuine spontaneous love. In a sense, I think He wants both the genuine spontaneity of the Iced Macchiato and the hard bitter choice of faith under the Godless sky. He wants a choice motivated by genuine unforced relationship.
Consider a parable. My eight-year-old daughter, Autumn, is an extremely amiable person. But she is also the kind of person to get totally absorbed in whatever she is doing, to the exclusion of everything (and everyone) else. As a result, when I come home from work each day, she almost never comes to greet me at the door. The most common response I get from her, if I get anything at all, is something like “Dada, I’m reading, I don’t want to talk right now.” Not exactly the stuff of Leave-it-to-Beaver-family-idealism!
Now my daughter is a very obedient child, and if I ordered her to greet me at the door each day, she would do it. And that would be nice, but not super-nice…because it would not feel genuine. It would be great in that it would show her abstract devotion to me by sheer obedience, but it would not feel very…spontaneous.
So maybe you’re thinking: Instead of ordering her, why not just tell her it would make me happy if she would greet me at the door and ask her if she would do it? I’ve thought about that, too. Autumn is also extremely sensitive and thoughtful, and so she would almost certainly do that if I asked. That would be nicer still. It probably wouldn’t be as frequent as if I had ordered it directly, but she’d make an effort for sure, because she really is a kind-hearted soul.
But I don’t do either of those things. What I do instead is simply walk in the door. Why? The reason is simple. Because, about once every month or so, Autumn does run to the door, throw her arms around me and say “Oh, Dada, I’m so happy you’re home! I’ve missed you!” And when that happens, when she voluntarily throws her arms around me with genuine affection, it’s…magic. There is nothing like it in the known universe.
Do you see what’s happening here? By (in a sense) distancing myself from her – by letting her do her own thing without expressing my presence to her directly – I get both the wonder of her spontaneous reaction and the glory of her choosing on her own to love me. She doesn’t have to do it, so it’s a choice, but it’s also gloriously real. Now I want to be careful here not to be irreverent or arrogantly assert what even angels fear to say. I don’t know God’s motivations entirely. And God doesn’t need us. But, if Christianity is true, He does want us. And I suspect that part of His motive for not overwhelming us with His presence (and thus leaving room for doubt) is that He doesn’t want robots – He wants a real, genuine relationship. And real genuine relationships involve both real choices and spontaneous love.
Think about it. He could force Himself on us anytime He liked; He could order us to adore and obey Him. But what’s the point of that? I mean, is anyone really satisfied by that kind of forced obedience? Might as well draw a face on a rock, call it “Billy Ray,” and pretend it loves you. No; God wants your affection for Him to be both truly chosen and truly genuine. And catch this: To the degree that I tell Autumn what I want and I communicate my presence to her — to that exact same degree it in some way undermines the beauty of her spontaneous affection. It somehow makes it less genuine, less valuable.
Well, it’s a crude analogy where no analogy will do; but in a way I think that’s partly why the universe is how it is. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis: I think the real charge against God is that He is an inveterate gambler. He risked an awful lot so that He could have a real relationship with us. Don’t blame me if this bothers you. Talk to Him! There are many days I have wondered why He did it. Why He risked wars and pillaging and hate and racism and abuse and all that horrid stuff…for a genuine relationship. But, if you push me to brass tacks, I think the existence of doubt is probably one of the mechanisms He uses to ensure our hugs are real hugs, that our greetings are real greetings, and that when we say we really miss Him…we mean it. Doubt perhaps serves an intermediary function between two relationship goals; it helps ensure both that our choices are free and that they are genuine. (That last sentence probably isn’t true – but I’m leaving it in because if anyone ever scores this cite for complexity, it will increase my score considerably. You can’t buy that kind of irony!)
Of course, doubt is of little value in creating genuine love if God were never to show Himself. Autumn would not spontaneously show me affection if she didn’t know me at all. If I hid from her every hour of every day, there would be no point in discussing the value of my non-intervention in this one instance. Thus, in the Christian scheme, one might expect God to reveal Himself to people in short spurts, some of the time…to offer enough of Himself to create reasons for faith, but not enough to force constant spontaneous love. And I think that is more or less what I do find in my own reality. Reasons to believe in Him, glimpses of His love and glory, shining through – but not enough to convince me absolutely that He exists in every circumstance.
Is that a definitive argument? No. I can think of nothing more dreary than trying to use a definitive argument in an essay about why God allows doubt. Where’s the fun in that? The “genuine love meets free will” argument obviously suffers, under a slightly cleverer veil perhaps, from the same problem that the simpler free will argument does: It seems possible for God to have created a world where certainty in His existence is absolute and yet our love is genuine and freely expressed. I mean, Autumn doesn’t doubt my existence in the parable, and yet she still shows me genuine love.
So I freely admit that these arguments are merely speculative. I claim nothing more for them than this: They are enough to convince me that doubt can serve a plausible positive function in the Christian scheme. I do not claim them as positive arguments in the sense that they are reasons for my faith; rather, I claim them as plausible functions that doubt could serve. I smell the peaches in the room; and though I am not sure why the darkness exists, exactly, I can see that the owner of the house could have good reasons for sometimes keeping it dim.