I’VE THOUGHT OF A LOT OF OBJECTIONS SINCE OUR LAST MEETING, and it seems to me that they punch big holes in belief in God. Not only that, I think they do so whether or not you're right about how to define religious belief, and even whether there are people who experience biblical teaching to be self-evidently "the truth about God from God"!

You do admit that an intuition of self-evidence needs to be integrated into the rest of experience in order to stand up, right? It has to lack significant conflict with other self-evident or well-established beliefs, and has to contribute to making sense of our total experience?


Well, belief in God fails to pass that test in a number of ways. So you should conclude either that you're wrong about its being self-evident or that your experience is one of the cases in which self-evidence proves its fallibility.

First, the source for the content of the Theistic idea of God, the Scriptures, won't survive scrutiny as to their reliability. I'm starting with Scripture because you emphasized that it's the record of God's revelation - of the covenants God is supposed to have made with humans. You call those covenants the biblical "message" and say it's what looks to you to be the truth about God from God.

I've done some reading since our last meeting that convinces me your attitude toward Scripture isn't idiosyncratic; it's widely shared in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, and in mainstream Christianity and Islam, each of which anchors its beliefs in what it takes to be divinely inspired Scripture (Muslims even refer to Jews and Christians, along with themselves, as "People of the Book"). So, wouldn't you agree that if Scripture turns out to be unreliable, so does its ''message" and so does belief in the God who is supposed to have revealed it?

Yes, I would.

Second, the belief fails to stand up because it conflicts with the way we find the world to be. I know this is an old objection, but it still looks good to me: Because there's so much suffering in the world, God either doesn't have the power to prevent it or has the power but doesn't use it. If God has the power but doesn't want to prevent suffering, God is not good; if God wants to prevent suffering but doesn't have the power, he's not all-powerful. Either way God can't be what Scripture "reveals" him to be.

Finally, I'm going to come back to the point that the appeal to self-evi­dence equally supports incompatible -  and even crazy - beliefs. That shows we can't trust self-evidence when it comes to what's divine the way we can for axioms or for perceptions. Unless there are very convincing reasons to think none of these objections has any merit, I'm not about to admit that the account you've given so far is even a possible one. In that case I'm not about to try some "experiment" to see if God is real - any more than I would to see if Santa Claus is real.

For sure, your objections all deserve discussion; a large number of thinkers have written tons of books on each of them. So before I take them on, you must understand that each of them by itself would require a book-length discussion for adequate treatment. Since we can't do that now, the best I can do is begin an answer to each of them in such a way as to indicate the lines along which a fuller answer could be developed had we the time to pursue it more thoroughly.

Fair enough. Let's start with the simplest objections to Scripture and work up to the more serious ones. First, it's not clear that there is a "biblical message" that is just obvious to any reader. Aren't there many interpretations of Scripture? Don't they differ radically? Look at all the denominations of Christianity, for example. Aren't they products of conflicting opinions as to what the teaching of Scripture is?

It may surprise you to hear that most of the denominations that divide the Christian church are not the product of different interpretations of Scripture. Many denomina­tions arose over what language or form of worship to use, loyalty to an individual leader or even because of secular political hassles. These don't represent any important disagreements about what the "biblical message" is, let alone whether we can say there is one such message at all. In fact, a recent comparison of the creedal statements of every major branch of Christianity showed that their creeds agree on 98.5 of doctrine! This includes all the major points of the creeds, including the creation of everything other than God by God, the human fall from God’s grace, God's re-offer of love in his covenants, God's incarnation in Jesus Christ the Messiah, whose life, death, and resurrection fulfilled that covenant on behalf of everyone else, and the guarantee that the final destiny of all humans is to be resurrected as Christ was.1 This is not to say that there are no doctrinal controversies in Christianity; of course there are. There are controversies in every major religious tradition; Christianity is no exception, and some of the divisions in the church have been caused by disagreement over the less than 2 percent of doctrine that remains controversial. Most of that small percentage concerns how to organize the church itself and how to understand the sacraments.

Even if you are right about that, there's another real problem with thinking that Scripture's "message" really came from God. It's one even Sunday-school children often ask about: How could Abraham or Moses or Jesus, or anybody else, know that it was God talking to them? I sure don't know that it was, and I don't see how they could have either!

Here's the same question from another angle. How can you dismiss someone today who claims God is speaking to him? Wouldn't you have to take seriously all claims of revelation from God on your view? But if so, they're all equally unpersuasive, since the contents of these alleged revelations are inconsistent with one another!

You just described two different objections that are closely related but not identical, so let's take them one at a time. As to the first question (how could those to whom God spoke know it was God speaking?) I think the position I've already sketched for you in our preceding talks answers this beautifully. The experiences that people had of God's revelation included that it was self-evident that it was God who was revealing himself. I pointed out earlier that even though nothing in the universe just is the uncreated Creator, God can still make himself known by mediating revelation of himself through things, events, and persons created for that purpose. So no matter how God's revelation came, or whatever else accompanied it, the experience of it always included the quality of its being self-evident that it is the truth about God from God. That is exactly what Thomas Hobbes missed in his sarcastic quip that "when a man says God spake to him in a dream he says no more than that he dreamed God spake to him." Those are not the same experiences, the difference being precisely that the first has the quality of self-evidence that the second lacks.2

I take your second question to be about the differences among those who believe in God: Jews, Christians and Muslims. Their disagree­ments concern the right way to stand in proper relation to God, and they are disagreements that stem from what each tradition takes to be genuine revelation from God. The Jewish Scriptures are accepted by them all; Christians add the New Testament to the Jewish Scriptures and Muslims add the Qyr'an to the New Testament. This difference, concerning which writings are genuine revelation, turns precisely on which writings contain teachings that are experienced to be self-evidently the revelation of God. That is why after centuries of debates they've never made any progress toward persuading one another. Does that answer your question?

Not exactly. I didn't mean to ask only about why each of those traditions disagrees with the others, but also how they could deal with anyone who ever claimed or now claims that God is speaking to him. Obviously, you believe in God. But can you honestly tell me that you take seriously a guy who says God told him to run naked through the town and camp out on your lawn? No, you think he's crazy! So why do you and other theists take seriously Moses and the Jewish prophets, or Jesus and his disciples, or Muhammad, but not the guy who pitches his tent on your lawn?

Well, it would be presumptuous of me to answer that question on behalf of Jews and Muslims. No doubt they have their own ways of dealing with it and are far better qualified than I am to say what those are. So I will speak to this point only as a Christian.

The Christian answer is easy, since the New Testament explicitly deals with your question. One text in particular addresses it, though the fact that it does isn't obvious from most English translations. So here's a more precise translation of its wording. The text is Hebrews 1: 1-2: "God, who at various times and in different ways began and continued to talk to our ancestors by prophets, has in the latter part of these days finished talking to us by a Son… " 3

On the basis of this and other New Testament teachings, the doctrinal position of every major branch of Christianity is that direct revelation from God has ceased until the return of Jesus Christ. This doesn't mean that God can't make himself known in the ways we discussed at our second meeting, of course. Nor does it rule out occasions on which God's Spirit illumines the Scriptures to believers so that we see truths we had not fully grasped before. Neither does this doctrine rule out the experience many believers have of God's guiding their judgment in a way that produces in them a conviction of his will for various matters in their lives. What has ceased is new information as to the terms and conditions of God's covenantal requirements for standing in proper relation to him.

Moreover, this answer is not unprecedented or ad hoc on the part of Christianity, but fits with the pattern of God's revelation as recorded in the Jewish Scriptures. Throughout history there have been periods of time in which God gave direct revelation in order to establish or administer his covenant, which were followed by periods of silence. For example, early in the story of the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 3:1) there is the remark that the word of the Lord was rare in those days because there was no ongoing revelation. The story then describes how God renewed direct revelation through Samuel. This pattern of alternating revelation and silence is also evident from the record of the way God made covenants with Adam and Eve, Noah and Abraham, as well as the one with Moses. From the Christian point of view, each succeeding covenant built on the previous ones in a way that was progressive and cumulative, until they culminated in the covenant mediated by Jesus the Messiah which included the promise that he will return to establish God's kingdom on earth. That is why Christians regard the New Testament (or new covenant) as the last revelation we can expect from God until Christ returns for the Day of Judgment. 4

On that ground, I am bound to reject any and all claims of new revelation. This applies to the claims made by Muhammad, Joseph Smith, and Sun Myung Moon, as well as to the guy who pitches a tent on my lawn. The last people who can justly claim to have had such direct revelation, according to the New Testament, were Christ's own apostles.

By the way, in the light of this doctrine it's significant that the vast majority of people since Christ's apostles who report having experienced God in a perceptual way (by voices, visions and so on) do not claim to have learned any new doctrine. Even the calls to action they sometimes report are rarely anything more than what is already contained in Scrip­ture, such as "Pray for peace."

But this position seems to mean you are accepting the teaching of Scripture on the say-so of its writers. Aren't you then taking someone else's experience as authoritative far you? Isn't that the reverse of your appeal to self-evidence?

Let me put it this way: does each and every teaching of Scripture taken by itself appear to you self-evident? Surely you don't claim that! But if not, you're taking whatever doesn't appear self-evident on someone else's authority. And that goes far the claim that revelation ceased with Jesus' apostles. It may have been self-evident to whoever wrote it that it's "truth from God," but is that claim, all by itself, as self-evident to you as the axiom of equals? If not, you're in the position of needing evidence far the honesty, reliability and divine inspiration of whoever is your source far that belief. This difficulty is com­pounded by solid evidence that certain sections of Scripture were compiled from many sources, had more than one author or were written by unknown authors. If you can't even know who the writers were, how will you check up on their reliability?

What is worse, these points apply to the allegedly historical events recorded in the Scriptures as well as the doctrines built on them. How can you believe those documents to be accurate in the face of all the historical and textual criticism showing they're not? Why should the scriptural accounts of, say, the Exodus or Jesus' life be taken any more seriously than the legends about King Arthur?

Taking biblical teaching on the say-so of others is just what the appeal to self-evidence avoids! Yes, the recording of the occasions on which God revealed himself depends on there being people to write it; God didn't write the Scriptures himself. But although the writing depends on there being writers, my believing what they wrote to be true is not a matter of my blindly trusting them to have been accurate, unbiased and inspired.

Nor do I need somehow to prove they were accurate, unbiased and inspired. The truth and inspiration of the parts of what they wrote that are not self-evident are commended to us by the parts of their message that are self-evident. This point is a bit tricky, so it needs explaining.

Go ahead.

You're right that no one who believes in God sees each and every teaching of Scripture, taken by itself, to be self-evident. What is experienced that way is some cluster of teachings. The contents of that cluster not only vary from person to person, but also vary for the same person over time. That is, the cluster we see as self-evident can grow; teachings not at first seen to be true in that way can come to be seen that way later. On the other hand, some beliefs in the cluster may, over time, be lost from it. There are, however, specific teachings that all theists find included in their cluster (or presupposed by it), for example, God's reality and love. But it's always the case for every believer that there are teachings that appear self-evident and others that don't; some are in the cluster but most are not. The teachings that are not in it are accepted by the believer on biblical authority – that is, on the way the parts that are not self-evident are certified by the parts that are.

The connection between the experience of self-evidence and bibli­cal authority is, roughly, this: among all clusters of scriptural teachings experi­enced as self-evident truth from God, are those asserting that God is the Creator, the One who initiated and sustains the existence of everything other than Himself, and who continually oversees and tends His creation. This providential, loving, care is specifically said to include God's inspiring and preserving the written record of his covenant dealings with humans, ­the very record that the believer finds to contain self-evident truth about God. In this way, the idea of God that is part of every believer's self-evident cluster confers God's authority on those that are not in the cluster. In other words, since it is the truth of God’s reality that has become self-evident, and that truth is conjoined with other teachings, (and because the scriptures are the only place on earth that convey what has been experienced as the truth about God), it makes sense to see as part of the Creator’s providential care that He brought it about that the teachings that don't appear in the self-evident cluster were conjoined to those that do. So we take it that God intended for us believe both sets of teachings. From this standpoint, then, what the Scriptures teach has God's authority.

On this view, therefore, it doesn't matter to the authority of Scripture exactly what sources its authors or editors used, whether we can always be sure who they were, or who subsequently compiled Scripture texts. To be sure, the findings of textual and historical criticism can be valuable, at times, for understanding Scripture's meaning more precisely. But contrary to what some scholars have claimed, these rarely have any bearing on the truth of what it teaches,5 and we need not await the outcome of scholarly research in order to know what to believe.6

Of course, there are theories – hypotheses - proposed by textual and historical critics which, if correct, would certainly require Scriptural teachings to be doubtful or false. Many of these are guesses about who really wrote what, or about how history might have differed from what the Scriptures record. Some suspect that Bible writers may have had motivations that either tainted their accuracy or induced them to lie outright. But the evidence for these theories is not at all like the evidence that we have for theories in the natural sciences. For the most part, these theories are based on little more than suspicion and speculations derived from it. And in fact, it isn't difficult to engage in imaginative reconstruction to suit our suspicions concerning any historical event! But simply being able to imagine another way things might have happened is not a good enough reason to believe they in fact did happen that way. Besides, there is virtually no limit to the ways things can be imagined to have been, which is why there are literally dozens of contrary hypotheses on virtually any topic connected with the Scripture texts.7

In addition, we need to remember that (in my view) these theories, like all others, are formulated under the influence of whatever the thinker believes to be divine. It is no surprise, therefore, if scholars who do not find the biblical message to be true are inclined to invent alternative accounts that rule out teachings that Theists either experience as self-evident or hold on biblical authority. The fact that they can do this is no reason to take their guesses, however well informed, over what we directly experience as self-evident or as having biblical authority. This is a point that is naively put into practice by the majority of average worshippers without their being able to articulate it. It is for this reason the faith of ordinary folk has proved impervious to critical theories, although the critics find such faith to be ignorant and stubborn in contrast to their own sophistication.

I see I'm not getting anywhere with this line of attack, so I'm going to go on to my next objection, which I think is the strongest. Surely you can't deny that the Scriptures say God is good, and you've already admitted that they teach God can act in the course of history. So what more do you need to see? Either God doesn't care enough to stop the suffering caused by injustice and cruelty, or he does care but hasn't the power to stop it. This shows conclusively that there couldn't be any being that is both all-good and all-powerful, as the Scriptures say God is. Surely you can't elude this criticism by some clever construal of the biblical texts! You do admit that Scripture teaches God to be all-good and all-powerful, don't you?

That depends on exactly what you mean by those terms. Some writers have construed them in ways that are not even close to what I understand the Scriptures to teach. So we really need to examine some of the sections of Scripture that deal with the existence of undeserved suffering in the world.

OK. But before you do that, let me say that I've been reading up on this objection to belief in God and don't think the usual replies to it succeed; it may save us some time if I say right away why I think the replies fail. One standard reply is to say that God gave humans free will, that free will would be meaningless unless He let them exercise it, and that much of the suffering in the world is the result of human choices to do evil rather than good. As I see it, that reply doesn't succeed for several reasons.

First, even if it's true that people have free will, it doesn't explain why God didn't create them so that they also have entirely good natures and so always (freely) choose what is good. That has to be possible on your view, since the New Testament says Jesus was sinless (Hebrews 4:15,) and that in heaven everyone will be like him in that respect (Romans 7:7-8:30). So presuming that Jesus and the redeemed in heaven have free will, God can create people who are free but good. And if he's going to do that later, why didn't he do it from the beginning? Why doesn't he do it now?

Second, why doesn't God prevent (at least the worst cases of) the suffering that stems from the evil use of free will? It seems to me that it could be done without violating anyone's freedom. He could intervene to protect an intended victim or just cause the evildoer to drop dead! Hitler could have been run over by a beer truck in Munich before coming to power, for example, or Stalin could have choked on a fish bone.

Third, evil free choices don't explain the suffering caused by natural disasters - earthquakes, droughts, epidemics, tidal waves and so on. Not only are these not the products of any creatures' exercise of their free wills, but your Scriptures say God causes them himself (Is 45:7; Mt 10:29)!

In addition, there are choices that are not evil that result in suffering, which could have been avoided had anyone had the knowledge and power to stop them. For example, not long ago someone had a heart attack at the wheel of his car and crashed into another car, killing an entire family. You and I might have prevented that from happening had we only known of the impending heart attack. But if God exists then he did know of it, did have the power to stop it, and yet did not! For all these reasons, even if free will is a fact, it doesn't explain God's not preventing undeserved suffering.

I could say at this point that God does prevent a great deal of suffering; in fact, he probably prevents far more than he allows. Notice that your own way of putting the accusation accepts that God is sovereign over the whole of creation, which is why you see God as responsible for the undeserved suffering that results from both free will actions and natural causes. But that same point would also mean that every time someone could have suffered but didn't, God is responsible for that too. And surely it is no exaggeration to say that there are hundreds of possibilities for suffering by every person on earth every day that do not ever occur. That amounts to hundreds of billions of prevented occasions of suffering daily.

Cold comfort to those who suffer!

No doubt you're right. I didn't mean to sound uncaring about those who do suffer. I was simply pointing out that every one of us has far more for which to be thankful to God than we ever realize. But that's not what you're interested in at the moment.

No, I'm not, and for good reason. If you say that God sometimes prevents suffering, then you're admitting that God has the power to do it all the time. So I'm asking: what about the other times?

OK, I think I understand your position.

I'm not sure you do. You phrased this objection as questioning how there can be undeserved suffering in the world, but it's not only the undeserved suffering that's the problem. So let me restate the objection by repeating a point I made in connection with free will but this time giving it a wider application. According to your Scriptures, God will one day bring heaven to earth. Life in God's kingdom will be everlasting and will be free of wrongdoing and suffering because those who inherit that everlasting life will be given natures that are good. They will live lives of happiness and love, at peace with God and their fellow humans, right?

If that's true, then it shows that God can make humans who have free will but are good and thus can make a life for humans that's entirely happy. So there won't be any suffering, period. No one will deserve any, and God will prevent there being any that is undeserved. But if that's possible, then why didn't God do all that from the beginning? Why doesn't God do it now?

I don't see how anything you can say is going to get you out of this dilemma! Either God can do it or he can't. If God can't, he's not the Creator on which everything other than himself depends. If God can but won't, then how can he be good?

That's why I'm convinced that if it's really true that it’s part of the meaning of the term “God” that any such being would have to be maximally good as well as maximally powerful and all-knowing, there can be no getting around the point that such a being would prevent (almost all) the terrible suffering that ravages the whole world every day. Since that doesn't happen, there is no being that has all three of those qualities. Since your Scriptures say God has them all, they lie.

You've certainly posed this objection as forcefully as I've ever heard it put! Moreover, I think you're right about the usual replies to it. Although it is appropriate to mention human free choice in certain contexts, or point to God's having reasons for allowing specific sufferings such as using suffering to produce greater good, you have pressed the issue to its most profound level by asking why God made the world and humans the way he did. At this most basic level the straightforward answer to your questions is that there is no answer. But although we don't know why God made the creation as it is, his having done so does not make him evil. My position is that what the Scriptures say about God entails that it is beyond our ability to judge God when it comes to why he made the world the way he did.

Let me start with an important point. You have been speaking of God's goodness in a way that is importantly different from what I find in Scripture. You're understanding it in a way that derives from the ancient Greek philosophical idea of perfection, which is not what I find to be the biblical idea of what it means to say that God is good. For Plato, a "perfection" is the infinite mode of some admirable quality such as goodness, justice, mercy or whatever. And many theologians have jumped on that idea and have identified it with God. God, they say, is the being who is the unity of all the perfections and only the perfections. This is what you assumed when you said God would have to have perfect goodness to be God.

But Scripture never speaks of God in that way. And, indeed, doing so would compromise the doctrine that God has called into being everything found in creation, including goodness and all the other admirable qualities that creatures have or lack. According to Scripture, God created every­thing whatever – “visible or invisible” (Col. 1:16) - so that would include goodness. This means that God's goodness is not a perfection that God can't help having and which compels Him as to how he treats humans. It is instead a quality attaching to how God freely relates to us as revealed by the covenant he offers us. In order to make his covenant with us, God established relations to creation in which he is loving, just, merciful, forgiving and so on, and has promised to remain in those relations to His creatures everlastingly. But there is nothing in those created relations that could oblige him to create the world one way rather than another.

I admitted that my position on this was very different from the usual answers so, as you can imagine, it would take a lot of time to lay out even the major points of the arguments for and against it. All I can do now is summarize it in a bit more detail so you can see how it contrasts to the answers you found unconvincing.

Go ahead

God is the only absolute being, the only reality that is self-existent and the one on whom all else depends. According to Scripture, God called into existence everything found in creation with no exceptions. In that case, God is the Creator not only of every individual thing and every event, but also of every property and kind of properties they have, and every law that governs creatures. This means that God transcends time and space and is above all laws. That is not a widely held view in western theology. Most theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, have defended ways of understanding the biblical doctrine of creation so that it doesn't regard God as the Creator of every kind of property and all laws. The reason for this is that accepting the doctrine that God created everything found in the universe means that the uncreated being of God doesn't have to have any property or kind of them found in creation. This is why when Scripture says that God is personal, loving, just, forgiving, all-knowing and so on, it doesn't say he must have those characteristics to be God or that he just can't help having them. On the contrary, the doctrine that God brought into existence everything found in creation strongly suggests the reverse.26 So I take it that the attributes ascribed to God in Scripture, which he shares in common with creatures, are created qualities God has taken into himself in order to relate to us.

In other words, because it is God who called these qualities into existence, we should not suppose that any of them are automatically true of God's uncreated being. Nor should we suppose that any law governing creatures must apply to God. Rather, God's having the attributes he reveals Himself to have is the result of his accommodating himself to us so as to enter into the loving relationship he wants to establish with humans. The same is true for the way any law found in creation applies to God: while it doesn’t automatically apply to God, He can freely abide by it for the sake of relating to us. On this position, then, God became for us personal, loving, wise, just, merciful and all the other attributes that constitute the nature he reveals himself to have.

The view I just described is not the prevailing view found among (Western) theologians. So let me cite a few other Christian thinkers who have taken this position, lest you think it a totally idiosyncratic idea with no precedent. The Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century - St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gre­gory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his sister, Macrina, - held that God's originating being is "incomprehensible to human reason" and that "all that is rational belongs to creation."27 They explicitly deny that God’s being is to be identified with His attributes thought of as Platonic perfections,28 and insist instead that, creation aside, the being of God is altogether "free of quality."29

Luther and Calvin took the same position in the sixteenth century. According to Luther,

God does not manifest himself except through his works and Word, because the meaning of these is understood in some measure. Whatever else belongs to the Divinity cannot be grasped and understood...  such as being outside time. 30

Now God in his own nature and majesty is to be left alone; in this regard we have nothing to do with him, nor does he wish us to deal with him. We have to do with him as clothed by his word, by which he presents himself to us.31

We know no other God than the God clothed with his promises . . . . When he is clothed with the voice of a man, when he accom­modates himself to our capacity to understand, I can approach him.32

And likewise, Calvin:

There is nothing more peculiar to God than eternity and self-exist­ence.33

Every perfection [ascribed to God in Scripture] may be contem­plated in creation so that... in the enumeration of his perfections, he is described not as he is in himself, but in relation to us.34

More recently Karl Barth has taken a similar view, contending that the only way there can be intercourse between God and creature is by God's "entrance into [the creature’s] form of existence."35 Barth takes God's freedom - God's not being bound by laws of creation - to mean that God has freely taken into Himself the nature He reveals himself to have. On this view God really has the attributes and really stands in the relations He reveals to be true of Himself, and He promises to remain so forever. But He was not bound by them prior to creating them, nor are we entitled to suppose He had to take to Himself the infinite mode of every attribute that constitutes his nature.

I'm not sure it makes sense to say God took on obligations if he wasn't already bound by moral laws. When you and I make promises, they're binding because we're already under moral obligation, no?

On the view I just sketched, that could still be true of God's obligations. God could have taken on a created nature in order to "enter into the form of existence" of creatures in such a way as to freely abide by moral laws in just the ways he wished, and then have made his promises. Or he could have freely subjected himself to those laws and made his promises simultaneously. Either way, his abiding by them is limited to exactly the ways and to the extent he specified.

But where is all this going? How does it supply an answer to my objection?

It answers the charge of inconsistency between the goodness of God and the existence of undeserved suffering, since God is not mandated by his own nature to be maximally good – that is, as good as possible to as many people as possible. His creating and taking on the characteristic of being good to us means he is good in just the ways he promises to be, not in every way we can wish or imagine. Chief among the ways he swears to be good are the covenant promises to forgive those who turn to him and to grant them his love, his fellowship, and everlasting life. (Of course, we can observe that he is also good to those who stand outside his covenant in ways he is not obliged to be by those promises. As Scripture says, he “sends the rain on the just and the unjust.”)

But nowhere in Scripture does he promise to be as beneficent as possible to as many people as possible. He does not promise to prevent all suffering or alleviate all pain. Since He never promised any such things, He is not obliged to do them. In short, Scripture never claims that God is maximally perfect in the sense that Sts. Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and other theologians adopted from the pagan tradition of Plato.36 So the fact that God made the world and humans the way he did does not show that he isn't good in the senses and ways Scripture asserts him to be, nor is the way he made the world inconsistent with that goodness.

I know I've been a bit long-winded already, but let me briefly refer to the way the biblical story of Job confirms the view I just stated. In the Bible, Job is a man who loves God and is good to other people; nevertheless, God decides to test him. God allows Satan to bring a series of disasters on Job. He loses his fortune, his children are killed, his wife leaves him and, finally, he is put under quarantine for coming down with a terrible disease. Three old friends then come to visit him and offer their advice. Their conversations go through several cycles of repeating basically the same things in different words. They admonish Job to confess to God whatever wrong he has done, so that God will restore him to health and happiness. Job denies any wrongdoing; they say they know Job must have done something wrong because God is perfect and so couldn't allow him to suffer unless he deserved it. Job again denies any wrongdoing, and the cycle starts anew. After a number of rounds like that, Job wishes aloud that God were present because he'd tell God to his face that he has nothing to confess. Then he adds that it would have been better had he never been born.

At that point God does appear to them all, and gives Job a good tongue lashing. But he berates Job only for saying it would have been better had he never been born, not for saying he'd done nothing to deserve to suffer. God says that Job's remark about it being better if he’d never been born was incredibly presump- tuous because it meant that he knew better than God what should have been. It is interesting that God does not indict Job for any wrongdoing; he lets Job's protest of innocence stand. More than that, God expresses great indigna­tion at the advice of Job's friends! He orders them out of his sight, tells them to offer sacrifices and ask to be forgiven, and then adds that he will not forgive them until Job prays for them.

So, what is going on here? Why is God angry with Job's friends? What did they say that was so bad? The answer, I believe, exactly coincides with the point I have been making. They were regarding God as good in the sense of completely conforming to the rules that bind humans. God simply couldn't be allowing Job to suffer unjustly, they said, so Job must be deserving of his suffering. No doubt they considered their belief to be pious; after all, they were defending God, weren't they? But God saw it differently: They were regarding him as one more creature in the universe subject to its laws rather than the Creator of all its laws. The position of Job's friends required that if God allowed unjust suffering he would be unjust himself, so that's exactly what the story of Job teaches to be false! God is not whatever we want him to be, but whatever he has freely become toward us. It's He who must tell us what that is, not we who get to tell him what we want Him to be.

The upshot is that we cannot judge God by the standards that apply to us.37 God allows Job to suffer. If you or I did that when we could have prevented it, we would be evil. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. If you or I did that, we would be evil. God has determined the time and cause for the death of every person. If you or I did that, we would be evil. (Notice what Job said in regard to the death of his children: “The Lord gave and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”) God says that he "sends a strong delusion" to those who oppose him "to make them believe what is false" (2 Thess. 2:11 RSV). If you or I did that, we would be doing something evil. Ditto for God's not preventing all the suffering that results from evil choices, natural disasters, or accidents resulting from heart attacks. But God is not bound by the laws of morality in the ways that bind us, and God's goodness does not consist in doing what we would have to do to be good. Since God is the Creator of the norms of ethics and justice, they do not apply to him except insofar as he has freely bound himself to them by making covenant promises.

The greatness of God's goodness, then, does not consist in His perfectly conforming to the norms of justice and morality or in having the most beneficent character possible, but in the fact that although he was not obligated to us at all, He in fact made wonderfully loving and merciful promises to us anyway! Promises aside, He would owe us zilch. But He freely made the promises when under no obligation to do so, and so now has just the obligations He has sworn by Himself to uphold. So can you see how wildly off it is to suppose that God can't be real if there's undeserved suffering in the world?38

This still doesn't explain why God doesn't stop more of the suffering if he has the power to do it. Even if he doesn't have to do it to be good in the ways he has promised, it still seems to me that he should do it.

I'm afraid I can't help you with why he doesn't. That's not something God has let us in on, so I have no answer. But notice that when you say that God should do it, you are once again applying to God the standards that apply to us. Like Job's friends, you are reducing God to the status of being one more creature in the universe subject to the same laws we are. That's just what angered God about Job’s friends’ advice to Job. You and I may not like it that God hasn't made the world a better place than it is; in one sense that's a natural thing to wish for, and the Psalms frequently express the same yearning. My point is only that we have no intellectual right to extend that wish into an indictment of God or a rejection of his reality on the ground that God is obliged to be and to do what we would like. And in that case, this objection does not succeed in defeating belief in God; it is not good evidence that the experience of the biblical message as self-evident is a spurious one.

Well, this doesn't make me any happier with belief in God, I can tell you! Your reply may remove the logical conflict between belief in God and the reality of suffering, but what kind of God does it allow far? Why would anyone worship a God who made this world?

The Scripture's own answer to that is "we love him because he first loved us." God made a world that is often a harsh place, yes. But he has also made himself known to us, offered his love and forgiveness and promised us everlasting life. From the Christian point of view, he also came into His creation incarnated in Jesus Christ, and shared with us the sufferings of this life. To those who encounter him in their own experience, that encounter brings self-evident knowledge of God's love. That's more than enough to induce our thanks and praise.  

Besides, it sounds to me as though your last question still assumes that we can judge God by our standards. You are not fully grasping that we're talking about the transcendent Creator, who would be quite beyond anything we could conceive had he not freely entered into created relations to us that we can under­stand. In that case the only judgments we're entitled to make about God concern whether he has kept the promises he has made; moreover, those promises are more than enough to counterbalance the worst sufferings that people can endure.39 The New Testament puts it this way: "What God has planned for people who love him is more than eyes have seen or ears have heard. It has never even entered our minds." (1 Cor. 2:9 CEV), and "I am sure that what we are suffering now cannot compare with the glory that will be shown to us." (Rom. 8:18 CEV). God promises to stand with us in our suffering, and He experienced one of the worst forms of suffering in Christ's passion. But in the final analysis it's God's offer of everlasting love and happiness that answers how - and in what sense -- God can both be good and not prevent all suffering.

Of course, that doesn't explain why the world is constituted so that there is such a thing as suffering at all. You may not find that palatable, but how does that affect its truth? I'm not trying to sell belief in God by making it look more attractive; I'm trying to answer your question as to how and why anyone can believe in God. Those of us who believe do so because we've encountered God, not because everything about what God has revealed is so pleasant that we would simply prefer to believe it.

You just spoke of "encountering God" when all along I thought you'd been saying that nothing in creation is the uncreated God, so that what people experience is something God created to reveal himself So which is it?

Can you see what I'm getting at? It's a point I made very early in our discussions: how can any experience be of God if God transcends the world? If you say it's not of God but something God created to reveal himself, then you're admitting you don't experience God but some part of the world you take to be God's revelation. The problem is that you'd have to already believe God exists to believe anything could be God's revelation. So your claim begs the question.

The view of God I just sketched answers this objection, I think. No one experiences God's uncreated being, but they can and do experience Him as He has accommodated and revealed Himself to us through his Word and by the experienced presence of his Spirit. It is God's accommodation that makes it possible for us to encounter Him in the various sorts of religious experiences we've been talking about, including the simple intuitive experience of finding his word to be his word. When we experience the word-revelation of God as God's speaking to us, we have, indeed, encountered God. Let me explain this with an analogy.

If we set up a reflecting telescope and look at the moon, we can describe our experience in two different ways. We could say that what we're seeing is a tiny image of the moon on the surface of the telescope's mirror an inch or so from our eye. But we could also say that we're seeing the moon - a huge object that is 240,000 miles from our eye. I can't think of any reason to believe one of those is true and the other false; in fact, we can actually experience our act of seeing either way, depending on our own attitude. We can see it as the moon or only as an image of the moon.40

It's the same with coming into contact with God's Word. We can see it only as a set of stories and teachings collected in a book that is nothing more than the record of ways some ancients thought about the divine. Yet when that contact includes the quality of self-evidence with respect to its truth, in a very real sense we have experienced the One who intended to make himself known through it. For we then hear the message as God's speaking to us, and hearing someone speak is a way of experiencing that person.

Moreover, for that to happen we need not already be assuming the truth of what we hear the scriptures to say. On the contrary, when someone experiences the self-evidence of the biblical message as the truth about God from God, the resulting belief in God's reality is part of what is self-evident and so arises simultaneously with it. It is a Spirit-soaked self-evidence.

I see you have that one covered, so I'm going to go back to an objection I raised earlier but this time put it another way. I earlier asked: if you rest your belief in God on the experience of its self-evidence, what's to prevent anyone from claiming that virtually any belief is self-evident?

Your reply admitted that they could. You wanted to acknowledge self-evi­dence wherever people actually have it. But if so, doesn't that mean conflicting intuitions of it can't be knowledge? Since contrary beliefs can't all be true, they can't all be knowledge either, and that would mean your account (even if it's right) hasn't shown belief in God to be knowledge - which is what I thought you've been trying to do.

If you define "knowledge" as justified true belief, you're correct. But why is that the right way to define knowledge? After all, it's not the way we ordinarily speak of knowing something. In commonsense speech we say we know, rather than merely believe, something when we're sure (or nearly sure) of it. In other words, we say we "know" when we think we're justified in being certain.

The traditional philosophical view of knowledge you're invoking re­quires that for a belief to be knowledge it must not only have powerful or even overwhelming justification but also be really true independently of that justification. But that would mean that no matter how good our reasons are for a belief and no matter how certain we are of it, we're not entitled to say we know it unless we can find out whether it's true independently of our reasons for it. Do you see the problem? Since the only way a belief can be shown to be true is by its justification, then adding that a belief must be true independently of that justification is to insist on a condition no one can ever satisfy for any belief whatever! For if every belief needs to be true independently of our grounds for it in order for it to count as knowledge, then we can't claim to "know" we have evidence or grounds for a belief, any more than we can know the belief itself. So, short of claiming that either the belief or its justification was obtained in a way that just couldn't yield false belief (that is, by an infallible capacity or method), the additional requirement that the belief be true over and above its justifica­tion will never be fulfilled.

This is why I see the requirement that a belief must in fact be true in order for it to be knowledge as a legacy from the desire to have some capacity of ours turn out to be infallible. (This is what lay behind the three restrictions on self-evidence.) It's a way of saying that either we don't know anything at all or we have infallible truth! But those are not the only possibilities. We can have justification for a belief that warrants our being certain of it, without its having been obtained in a way that couldn't possibly go wrong. This is why it seems to me that if we take a fallibilist position about our belief-forming capacities, we also need to give up the insistence that a belief must really be true (over and above all the grounds we could ever have for thinking it is) in order to count as knowledge.

But doesn't your proposal create the paradox that knowledge can be false? You admit that we can have good grounds for a belief - even for being certain of it - and still be wrong. In that case you had knowledge that wasn't true! Isn't that a weird thing to say?

There's nothing weird about that from a fallibilist point of view. It only sounds odd because we're so used to Plato’s view that "knowledge" must be restricted to what's in fact true independently of our grounds for believing it. And that sounds far weirder to me! It has the paradoxical consequence that we can be absolutely sure of something for excellent reasons but not be entitled to call it knowledge. Does that make any sense?

Consider this analogy. Suppose we were to say that a perception is veridical (reveals a real object to us) only if that object is really there independently of any perceptions we could have of it. How could we ever claim to show the object is real aside from all perceptions of it, and thus to know it exists? With that requirement laid on us, we could never claim to know any perceived object is real because all we would ever have as grounds for believing its reality are more perceptions, each of which would have the same requirement placed on it. My point is that just as we can't step outside of our perceptual relation to objects to see if the objects really exist independently of our perception, just so we can't step outside of the relation of our grounds for believing and the beliefs they are grounds for. We can't check on truth from the standpoint of God's eye view.  

So the view I'm proposing is that when we have good grounds for certainty we have knowledge, and that a belief 's being intuitively self-evi­dent is one of the best grounds we can have for such certainty (provided it comports favorably with the rest of our experience).41 This is much closer to the commonsense use of "knowledge," and I'm taking that to be on the right track as opposed to the prevailing philosophical definition. It's why in ordinary speech we say things like, “As a youngster I just knew such and such was true; as I grew older, I found out how wrong I was." Similarly, we sometimes speak of a belief as something that was known to be true in an earlier century but is now known to be false. In each case it means a belief once had such strong justification that it was regarded as certain (or nearly certain) despite the fact that we now have even better grounds to say it was false.

The assumption behind our talking this way is that we regard a belief as knowledge depending on the degree of certainty we have for it - provided we don't mean only a feeling of certainty but rather a judgment about its justification. So I'm saying that what makes a belief knowledge is not whether it meets a condition we can never know any belief to meet, but whether we have such strong grounds for believing it that it would be unjustified to disbelieve it. On that ground, we may be either completely certain or very close to completely certain of any number of beliefs, so there is knowledge. (Of course, what makes the belief true is whether it corresponds to how things are independently of our believing so.)

For these reasons, I think belief in God can also be knowledge when it is founded on an intuition of the self-evident truth of the biblical message and confirmed by the way that message comports with the rest of our experience. It is then as certain as any belief we can have because it's completely certain. So we are entitled to say we know it even if someone else fails to have the same experience when reading scripture.

By the way, I should add here that being certain of belief in God is not required by God as a condition of being among His redeemed people. What God requires of us is that we love Him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Those who love God but feel uncertain about it because they have been confused by a theory or a criticism they are unable to answer, are still God’s people. It’s just a shame they feel uncertain when it’s not justified.

But this is the same as saying that many people's intuitions of self-evidence are wrong when it comes to what is divine! Is that really what you want to say? Are you really claiming that others don't see God to be the genuine and only divinity because there's something wrong with them? If so, why do humans have such a serious defect?

Yes, that is what I'm saying; your question shows that you've understood me correctly. In fact, it is a Christian teaching that humans are born with that defect; it’s called “original sin.” My explanation of that idea has been to liken it to a malfunction of the human “self-evidence antennae” concerning what is divine (unconditionally real).42

The fact is, some version of this answer is taught by every major world religion. Each says that the reason there are people who do not share its beliefs is that those people suffer from a spiritual (intuitive) blindness that prevents them from seeing the truth about what is divine. They further hold that only correcting that blindness will allow such people to see both the truth about what is divine and the truth about how to properly relate to the divine. Their accounts of the nature of that blindness, how it gets corrected, and the nature of the correction differ, but all give the same basic explanation for why people have different divinity intuitions.

At the same time, however, no one has any answer for your second question as to why humans are religiously blind and need to be enlight­ened. Even Genesis, with its account of God’s first offer of grace and the way Adam and Eve sinned against it, doesn't explain why God didn't make them with such a strong inclination to do good that they would respond to him as they should have. But this lack of explanation is not peculiar to Genesis. The question as to why people do not all share correct intuitions about what is divine is one with no answer from any point of view I know of.43

But the fact that no one can answer this question is beside the point of our discussion. My lack of an answer does nothing to make it any less worth your while to do what you can to put yourself in a position to have the sort of experience which alone can answer the question we began with.

It's bad enough that you leave religious beliefs hopelessly deadlocked this way, but that's not all you're doing. If the appeal to self-evidence is allowed, then why wouldn't that justify crazy beliefs? For example, why couldn't someone claim to know self-evidently that there is a great pumpkin that rises out of the pumpkin patch every Halloween and rewards all good boys and girls? 44

If you mean a real vegetable pumpkin that is spatial, physical, sensory and so on, and is supposed to do those things, then the first part of my answer is that such an object would be the sort of thing we should be able to perceive -- to see and touch. The fact that no one claims to have done so, or would fail to perceive it if they tried, disconfirms the claim there is such a thing. Of course, the claim is also prima facie absurd because of what it attributes to a pumpkin; in that respect, it's similar to someone's claiming to know of a rock that can speak or a tree that can fly.

On the other hand, if we take your question in the context of religious belief and think of a great pumpkin as the symbol of a divine power, then the answer is very different. There could indeed be a Great Pumpkin cult whose devotees wear little pumpkin images around their necks and on armbands called pumpkin patches. They could eat pumpkin pie as a sacramental meal and celebrate Halloween as their high holy day. If such a person told me in all sincerity that this idea of divinity looked self-evidently true, then I'd be perfectly willing to accept that as a genuine deliverance of his (malfunction­ing) intuitions about divinity. In fact, such a religious belief would not be very different from many that have existed or still do exist.45 So although your concern is well taken, it does not defeat the appeal to the intuition of self-evidence as the real ground of religious belief. It doesn't show that this account of it leads to any absurdity.

I'm not sure what to say to this except that I remain unconvinced. As I've said several times, I'm going to have to think about this at greater length. I know I don't like much of what I've heard; but as you say, that alone doesn't show it's not true.

Of course! Think it over. But I can tell you in advance that no amount of thinking it over will, all by itself, show you whether it's true. The experiment I described, however, can. Read the Scriptures with as open a mind as you can muster. Listen to them as written from a commonsense point of view and as possible records of God's encounters with humans. Attend worship and Scripture study with a congregation of believers. Give yourself the best possible opportunity to have the same experience that I and millions of others have had. Only if that happens will you know why we believe in God.

Last modified: Tuesday, May 12, 2020, 12:06 PM