Probably the most disturbing fact about evidences for the existence of God is the element of mystery. Why is it not more clear God exists, if he does? If God does not exist this would be a good reason the evidence is not better. One cannot prove non-existence so it is inappropriate to expect an atheist to disprove God exists. The absence of proof something exists makes it at least more reasonable to doubt it exists unless some positive evidence is forthcoming.
We can see our way around this difficulty for God’s existence by recognizing he forms one of the only two possible explanations, metaphysically. Even if God gives no other evidence to prove his existence than the basic facts of reality in its details, we can reasonably conclude he likely exists. But God could give more evidence, evidence to satisfy the more specific existence claim, if he were there. Of course there are many cases where he is said to have done so. The Bible alleges many revelatory acts of God in history, both to individuals and to groups. These acts seem to be exceptions. Not everyone has religious experiences of God of such a nature to eliminate doubt and constitute sight. There still seems to be a sense in which most believers “see through a mirror dimly.” Why is this so?
Some have argued such “sight” would be the elimination of free will. In this life men are in a probation period, to determine their final destination in spiritual terms. It is argued if men were so aware of God to have no doubt regarding his existence, they would face no genuine moral choices. If it were clear God existed, men could not choose to disbelieve. They must have this choice if their destiny is to be genuinely theirs to choose.
This view has been presented in three forms, the first claiming mystery is necessary so one can choose to believe, belief being seen as an irrational commitment and acceptance of facts in spite of insufficient evidence; the second claiming mystery is necessary so one can choose to believe, belief being intellectual conviction regarding the truth of Christianity based on sufficient evidence not readily available but requiring effort to obtain it; the third claiming mystery is necessary so one can choose to believe, belief being seen as trust in God that cannot be exercised if one is sure God is trustworthy.
Although the argument mystery is necessary for freedom is a common response to a genuine philosophical problem, it fails as a solution. The first version recognizes Biblical faith involves commitment but fails to recognize commitment requires a solid basis if it is to be morally obligatory. The second version recognizes commitment must have intellectual convictions upon which it is based but confuses Biblical faith with these convictions. The third version correctly defines Biblical faith as trust, but like the first version fails to recognize the need for a solid basis for this trust and in the end evaporates into the first version.
The distinguishing of these types of belief will make their error clear and open the way to an explication of the true reason mystery is a part of God’s creation. As can be seen faith is an idea whose definition fails of universal agreement. Such disagreement has resulted in varied definitions that share the same label. What must be recognized is how the label of faith is used when scripture calls us, through an act of our will, to exercise faith.
In our century faith is often perceived as believing something for which one has inadequate evidence. This view is known as fideism, the “leap of faith.” It was advocated by Kierkegaard as a necessary response to the failure of philosophical evidences for God’s existence. It is similar to Pascal’s call to wager God exists and seek belief, since we have everything to lose if we do not believe, and discover we are wrong. The problem for all such “leap” views of faith is if evidence is irrelevant, its very lack being the reason for the leap, then why does one take the Christian leap, and not some other leap? Fideists have no argument that would not constitute some evidence and consequently deny a leap is what is called for. Without such evidence one cannot know how to leap, but if evidence for the particular leap can be given, it ceases to be a leap since evidence of the truth of the particular view now becomes the real reason for preferring it.
There are those who would say some knowledge has always been an element of fideism. The first view that freedom requires mystery takes this form. Only when you cannot know something is true can you hope to choose to believe it intellectually and commit to it. The fideist believes God calls men to choose to believe that for which they cannot have sufficient evidence. Besides the above problem that there is no basis for choosing one leap over another, it seems morally questionable God would hold people accountable on pain of eternal death for not taking such an irrational leap. In addition, as the next view of faith will show, while one can commit to something one does not have evidence for, it does not seem one can choose to be convinced it is true. In the end the fideist view must be that faith is sheer commitment for no good reason.
The second view of faith is it is intellectual conviction. If you believe, you are convinced of the truth of the view in question. It seems undeniable men are called to believe certain facts about God. The fideist recognizes this. Can the call to such convictions be distinguished from the fideist view above? Significant writers have denied such faith could be voluntary in the fideist sense. A person does not appear able through choosing to be convinced something is true. Such conviction seems to be a causal result of convincing evidence being presented to our minds. When someone presents us with evidence for some view, we can choose to deliberate on it or not, but we do not choose whether we are convinced. This is something which “happens” to us.
This kind of faith, a faith of conviction about truth, is the reason the second form of argument for the necessity of mystery arises. While the fideist must be wrong in believing we are called to choose our intellectual convictions, which is impossible, and Biblical faith could not require commitment without conviction, it is true that if the truths of God were completely obvious, no one could fail to “have faith” in this sense and he would be left with no choice but to believe.
The element of mystery does make obtaining this kind of faith conditional on one’s effort to examine evidence. One can choose not to do so, which makes obtaining such faith a result of a moral choice. Here the freedom would not be freedom to choose to believe something is true without evidence, as in fideism, but freedom to become convinced something is true, since this conviction can only come through the choice to examine the evidence or not. This is a moral choice one can be held accountable for and mystery is necessary for this moral choice to exist.
Biblical faith does contain the element of intellectual conviction. We will see the confusion of Biblical faith with intellectual faith arises because trust itself contains an intellectual element, which is on a par with this kind of faith, and the existence of mystery does require one make the moral effort to examine evidence and come to certain convictions, just as the advocates of this view suggest. We will see however it also contains a voluntary element, which is not on a par with intellectual faith, but is a response to the intellectual element and is the voluntary act without which we are not exercising true Biblical faith.
We will see because of the element of mystery, Biblical faith includes a voluntary element before and after intellectual conviction. In the presence of mystery, both these voluntary elements are of the nature of a necessary moral choice, but the first one resulting in intellectual conviction is never complete without the second one entailing commitment to one’s convictions. The first one is only necessary because of mystery. The second element could be exercised even if mystery were not a fact. This second voluntary element is the true voluntary element of trust that constitutes Biblical faith. That intellectual faith alone could not be what we are called to seems clear from James 2 referring such faith to demons.
Faith as Trust
The final view of faith is that faith is trust. Trust is commitment and reliance. This is something one can choose to do. I may not be able to choose whether I think you are trustworthy, hence the intellectual element, but I can choose given my belief whether I will cast myself upon you in trust, the voluntary element. This seems to be what we are called to in scripture. We are called on to trust God, commit our case entirely to him. What does such trust require?
In the idea of trust we find the confusion of the third view that mystery is necessary for freedom. Advocates of this view say without mystery man could not freely choose to trust God because trust is relying on someone when there is some reason to doubt his reliability. Richard Swinburne gives as an example of what he considers trust: Loaning something valuable to someone who has proven himself careless with such things and relying in the face of this he will be careful this time. His view seems to be one could not trust God if it was clear he existed and was reliable, for then no element of question would remain requiring trust. You would not have to trust him, you would know he could be counted on.
Mystery Not Necessary For Trust
This is confusing the intellectual with the voluntary element of trust. It is true I cannot help believing someone is trustworthy if I am convinced he is, but I am still free to decide whether I will trust him. I trust him intellectually through no choice of my own, since my evidence tells me he is trustworthy, but will I place myself in this trust? It does not seem any amount of conviction a person is trustworthy forces me to place my trust in him. I may prefer to do something else. With God, I may be convinced he is reliable and what he says is right, but I may choose to disobey because I prefer to do something else. There may be some selfish indulgence I simply prefer, to obeying and trusting God in refusing it. Such an act is an act of voluntary distrust that I make, even though intellectually I trust what God says is true. It is making God a liar as 1 John says.
Such distrust can be committed in the midst of great light. Lucifer did. So did Adam and Eve. In both these cases God’s creatures fell into unbelief and made a moral choice not to believe or trust, even though they knew God existed and was trustworthy.
Faith and Sight
The confusion about what trust is, seems to stem from a common view of a contrast between faith and sight. Often scripture emphasizes how we walk not by sight but by faith. Hence faith and sight are thought by many to be opposites. Actually faith is an element of sight.
This can be seen by way of a normal illustration of trust. A child trusts his father. He knows he is reliable. Everything his father has done tells him this and through such a uniform experience of his father’s reliability his confidence in his father has developed. In a sense, he knows his father will do what he promises. Does this knowledge mean he does not entrust himself to his father? Not at all. Day by day he expects food on the table and a roof over his head. Nothing suggests to him this will not be the case. He trusts his father.
There may come times where question marks arise, like when his father promised they would go fishing and some friend of his father shows up Saturday morning shortly before they ought to be leaving for the lake. Now his faith becomes tested by a circumstance that appears to say there is “some reason to doubt” his father’s reliability. Here faith must maintain its trust without sight, in spite of sight. It is improper to say only now voluntary confidence in his father begins. It is his confidence developed through sight that helps him maintain when he cannot walk by sight.
In the first case his faith was active while he could see no reason to doubt. Now he must stand on what he knows while his circumstances throw his knowledge in question. He must continue to believe and trust. The reason walking by faith and by sight is contrasted is not because there ever can be a time where we do not have faith in God because we see, but because there are times where we must walk solely in this faith our seeing has helped us to grow. In the times of darkness this faith is all we have to go by and it becomes tested and strengthened. Hence, we walk by faith, not by sight.
Trust Made Stronger Through Evidence
Trust is relying on the veracity of someone’s character, which although it becomes more exercised in the midst of circumstances that call this character in question, exists even when such circumstances do not put it to the test. Those we trust the most are those who have given us the most reason to trust them. On Swinburne’s definition our child could not trust his father because he knows his father is trustworthy. If our child never found a reason to distrust his father, this would mean he did not trust him.
This is unacceptable. Trust is voluntary in that I can choose to act on my intellectual conviction of someone’s reliability. If I cast myself on someone whom I have reason to distrust, to that extent I do not trust him and this is not an act of faith, but of stupidity. Here we see the third view of faith evaporates into fideism. It is a commitment without evidence. Commitment it may be. Trust it cannot be. Just as we cannot choose to believe something is true because intellectual conviction “happens” to us when convincing evidence is presented to our minds, so also we cannot choose to trust someone against our evidence of her trustworthiness. The voluntary act of trust is based on the intellectual conviction of trustworthiness, which again cannot be chosen. The degree of trust seems dependent upon the degree to which I am convinced I can count on the person. I may trust in spite of counter evidence, but this is only because I believe the counter evidence to be mistaken.
The Bible is in complete accord with this view. The record everywhere calls us to see examples of God’s trustworthiness in order to give us the evidence we need to commit ourselves. Faith is grown through a history of experiences of God’s trustworthiness, progressively tested through experiences where we must rely on our past evidences of his character, while we cannot see them clearly in the present.
Faith Strengthened Through Mystery
This being the case, it is incorrect to say the element of mystery is necessary to the free exercise of confidence or trust in God, but correct to say mystery can be useful to strengthen faith. Mystery does not aid the initial development of the free choice to trust. The opposite would seem to be the case. The less we are convinced of the truth of what we believe, especially what we believe about God’s character, the less we can have faith. Mystery does force us to exercise the confidence such revelatory experiences produce. It also calls forth moral effort to obtain the initial evidence upon which such faith is based, since one must study to become initially convinced of God’s existence and trustworthiness.
We can see what faith is. It seems to involve belief that certain things are true, but such belief can be voluntary only because one can choose whether to put oneself in the place where evidence can convince one of its truth. We cannot choose whether we are convinced, but it takes moral effort to seek out answers and see if these things are so, since nothing is obvious. Most people would rather argue for the falsehood of theistic claims for the sake of a different lifestyle, or just because they are morally lazy.
Men are accountable for not believing to be true what they could and should have made the effort to research and discover. But each of us is confronted with different degrees of evidence. None of us will come to be convinced of all the same things. Here the central element of faith is seen to be trust. We may not all see the same things, and for many this is a voluntary failure by not seeking the answers out, but every one of us can commit ourselves and trust in what we do see and believe to be true. If we do not, if we stop short of commitment to perceived truth, then we stop short of true faith.
This is unbelief, and is the sin the Bible condemns as the source of all other sin. Failure, refusal, to love the truth. Failure to maintain confidence in the truth God has shown us. While the element of mystery does require the moral effort of seeking out answers and evidence, such mystery is not essential to true faith, since only when evidence is obtained does such trust become possible. If there is to be true moral accountability there must be light that is refused or loved. There cannot be total mystery. A person cannot be guilty for failing to do what she could not have done.
Then Why Mystery?
This brings us again to our original question. Since mystery is not necessary to the free exercise of faith, why is it not more clear God is there and is who the Bible claims he is? Although the previous arguments show how mystery strengthens faith by calling forth the moral efforts to see and to continue to trust amidst the storms of life, we have not yet seen why such tests of faith would be so necessary that God would veil himself, making this very faith he requires difficult to achieve.
The answer seems to be God has chosen to place his creatures under a probation, to ensure their future obedience in heaven. With the fall of Adam and Eve, two races of creatures had failed to maintain confidence in God, even in the best conditions of light about his trustworthiness. When God placed the curse on the creation to show his attitude toward his creature’s sin, he also veiled himself. Since that time each of us is born with a short period to determine our course and we begin without a clear picture of God’s existence and character. How great the mystery is, depends on the cultural environment we are raised in.
The purpose of the veiling was to establish a difficult probation that would take greater moral fiber to achieve holiness and the fellowship of God, in order to guarantee he would not have additional difficulties in the future. Confidence in God, faith, is precisely what failed both in the case of Lucifer and our human parents. If God is to secure the future state from rebellion, he must develop the faith of his creatures. Confidence in any government, human or divine, is the backbone of its success. Mystery makes this possible because it does make faith hard to achieve.
Those who achieve strong faith in an environment that makes its development so difficult will be much less likely to lapse into unbelief and sin when God removes this element of mystery in heaven. A person who is not serious about living by love and knowing God will not make the moral effort to grow faith, but will opt for the easy way of conformity and open himself to deception and rationalization. God promises to meet those who seek him with all their heart and to reward them with salvation. He hides his face from others.
The mystery is not impenetrable. With effort and a seeking with all our heart, we can obtain great insight into the knowledge of God. It takes effort and those who achieve this knowledge are a pleasure to God. They will be his delight forever. To trust God man must have evidence God is trustworthy, but man comes to this evidence by seeking in the mystery the signposts God has placed for genuine seekers. Mystery is not necessary so men can “choose to believe” but is a genuine hindrance to belief.
It is placed there by God to ensure the genuineness of the faith of those who seek him. They must work to “see” truth, and they must trust in the midst of the very mystery that threatens their confidence in what they have seen. Those who will do so will enjoy him forever. They will see his face and be glad. The evidence is not sufficient for those who seek escapes from the truth. For those who love truth, the signposts are set and they will find the city they seek.
Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (www.whatibelievethisweek.com)