One challenge from an atheist friend that had me a little stumped some years ago was something like this: How can God be thought of as just and reasonable if he promises to pass an eternal judgment upon us, and the criterion on which we’re judged is whether or not we believe in an allegedly resurrected God-man called Jesus, who’s existence we cannot prove. In fact, God asks us to believe on the basis of an old book of unconfirmed miracle stories, and He refuses to make Himself openly perceptible. Yet if we’re not convinced by this sort of thing, He consigns us to eternal punishment. As my friend insisted, God really ought to be trading in more certainty than all that, given the consequences. Faith is no basis for such an important relationship.
Should God be doing a better job of revealing Himself?
It’s easy enough to propose reasons why God should not be expected to jump through hoops in order for us to believe in Him. Saying that God should be doing a better job of convincing us that He exists assumes that God desperately wants to be found. On the contrary, a central tenet of Judeo-Christian faith is the idea that our spiritual rebellion against God has estranged us from Him. In fact, we’re so alien to God that we’re described as dead to Him. This might merely mean that we are now no longer attached to the source of life and will die, but it’s probably that and more. Surely it means that we’re spiritually cauterised too, and so lifeless that we’re insensitive to God, to ourselves, and to anything else of a spiritual nature. While I accept that this is a convenient argument (‘you’d see God if you had the eyes for it’), it at least provides a reason why God is not duty bound to come grovelling after us. If we have been punished with death to God, and if our rebellion and impurity really is as bad as He says it is, then His avoiding us is part of our sentence.
Is faith is reasonable basis for a relationship?
An answer (of sorts) to my friend’s core objection only occurred to me the other day. How can God require faith as the criterion on which our eternal destiny rests? The answer I think is that everything in life that is important works in just the same way. Faith is after all a relationship (not a willpower substance), and all of our human relationships work similarly. When we begin thinking about marriage, and when we find someone in whom we’re interested, we have a short period of investigation into what the person is like, whether or not we share passions, and so on. After a little time a pattern of character and trustworthiness emerges, and on that extremely flimsy basis, we plunge into an exclusive, life-long partnership with that person. You receive no guarantees the the future will be whatever you imagine it to be, but you exchange promises to live in accordance with the trust that you’ve grown in your courtship. So on the basis of meagre investigation and very little certainty, you sign your life over to someone else.
Just as marriage also requires you to radically alter how you live, and to now consider the needs and preferences of someone else in whatever you do, Christianity is also a complete reshuffling of priorities, and a restriction of personal freedom. But similarly to marriage, life with the relationship is usually better than life without, in spite of the new restrictions.
So, no, God does not offer total certainty in the promises that He’s given, except in so far as He has proven trustworthy. But what relationship does offer certainty? Would anyone get married if the criterion was certain happiness? Would anyone have kids if you had to be certain that they aren’t going to hate you when they grow up? And yet nearly everybody does get married and have kids.
You might object that you can at least see your spouse. God doesn’t give us much more than testimony. Granted. So maybe Christianity is like getting married to a pen pal. Such relationships can still be very real (and you certainly don’t get to meet your kids first, yet we still do that). In the end, we’re left saying that Christianity places demands on us that are not vastly different from every other relationship that we enter by faith. Faith isn’t an unrealistic criterion upon which to base a relationship, it the only one we ever use.