No fewer than three times in the last fortnight, I’ve been asked a variation on the following question:
‘If God is both kind and competent, why has he not simply appeared across the world to every person and, given he hasn’t done this, how can he hold us to account for not responding to something recorded a long time ago, and transmitted, by fallible human beings.’
The assumption behind this question is that if God were clear to us – or to me in particular – I would respond in an appropriate way, and so a failure of God’s clarity is his responsibility and his failure, not mine. In other words, God has obviously failed to be clear, since there is a widepread failure to believe.
The problem with this is that it presumes that when God is clear, humans will always respond rightly. This could not be more wrong.
At the heart of the Christian narrative is the good news that the Son of God became the man Jesus Christ in order to bear our sins on the cross and purchase a people out of a slavery that is spiritual, moral and psychological. The consequence of slavery to sin is holistic. It affects every part of our nature. This is most clearly seen when the religious leaders of the first century, presented clearly with the Son of God himself, did not glorify him but rejected and crucified him.
Theologians, when speaking of the effects of sin, include what are called the noetic effects. ‘Noetic’ comes from the Greek word nous, or ‘mind’, and simply means ‘of the mind’. Our rebellion against God has a consequence for our ability to think rightly about the truths with which we are presented. This shouldn’t be controversial: we know that when we are in a state of dispute or enmity with someone, our ability to consider reasonably anything they may propose is substantially diminished.
In other words, at the very heart of the Christian message, and coherent with its overall worldview, is the claim that there is no guarantee that any human will respond rightly to even the clearest of God’s truths.
This disposes of the force of the claim that God has clearly not been clear.
However, secondly, the biblical claim is that God has in fact been as clear as necessary – in fact, in love, has gone beyond the call of any moral duty – so that there is sufficiently clarity to hold us to account for our failure to respond, if not the kind of clarity we would like to require of God.
Frequently, it’s argued that God should simply appear universally and in a sudden convincing display. There are two problems with this, too.
Firstly, it – unsurprisingly – reeks of the extraordinary hubris typical of the modern West. We are the ones to whom God ought to prove himself. We are the generation with the tools and the intellectual capacity and integrity to assess and report on what we have seen. Of course, if history tells us anything, it tells us that a generation from now our children and grandchildren will look back on our science with warm-hearted scorn. Instead, God entered the world in the man Jesus Christ before humble, trustworthy people, at a time when the Roman Empire had made possible the transmission of news from Asia to Europe, and they died rather than withdraw their testimony to what they had seen before their own eyes. It is not technology, but history – a tool accessible to every generation – draws us into his presence.
And technology brings its own issues, too: the capacity for something to be convincingly faked and widely dispersed without dependence on trustworthy relations is a recurring challenge in our time. An ‘appearance’ of God could be just one more Nigerian 419 email scam.
The second issue with the demand for a universal epiphany is one to do with the knowledge of God. If God appeared before us in a mighty display of power, we would still be left with the fundamental question: beyond his sheer awesomeness, what is God like? Is he good? Is he kind? Is he faithful? Is he merciful?
These are the questions which online debate tends to sweep under the carpet, looking instead for a binary answer to the ‘is there something else?’ issue. But the problem is that God is not a something but a someone, and so his character is the most important question at hand. And character is something we learn not in a moment, but through history: through observing how someone deals with life, with challenges, with rejection and with grief. And given that the fundamental invitation of God is for us to love him and find in him a consummation of all our longings and desires and cherish in him a forgiveness of all our sins, nothing is more important for us to know than God’s history with us.
And this is the content of the biblical revelation: a saga of God’s love for and patience with humanity; a narrative of his deep anger against the harm humans do to themselves and to each other; a shout of joy as he joins us in our broken world in the person of Jesus, travels with us, shows himself to us, and then bears our sins to the cross where their power is utterly exhausted.
There is a wonderful exchange that occurs in Prince Caspian, in the Narnia series, between siblings Peter and Lucy. Aslan, the great Prince, has returned to the forest, but only Lucy – who sought him out – has laid eyes on him.
Peter: You’re lucky you know.
Lucy: What do you mean?
Peter: You’ve seen him. I wish he’d just given me some sort of proof.
Lucy: Maybe we’re the ones that need to prove ourselves to him.