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August 2014 Issue

The Book of Acts: Mission through Church and Spirit

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Question & Answer

If God loves the world and wants each person to be saved, then why doesn’t He make this happen? For example, I have a friend who seems to sincerely search for God, yet he says that there just isn’t enough convincing evidence out there for him to make a choice for God. Why didn’t God provide more evidence? He certainly could have, if He wanted, right?

This question touches upon one of the most difficult issues in religious discussions today. Some atheists argue that the presence of unpersuaded genuine seekers of God is itself evidence that either God does not possess the power to make Himself more evident or that God does not truly desire the salvation of all. The common analogy used is of a child playing hide-and-seek with his mother. Somehow the child gets lost in the woods behind the backyard. He figures that sooner or later his mother will come searching for him out there. But after hours of wandering, his mother is nowhere in sight. When he cries out “Mom!” there is no response. Night time comes and still no evidence of Mom.

The parallels are obvious. God is the mom who desires to reach out and save those who are lost. While a human mom may have had a heart attack or gotten entangled in another part of the woods, a divine Father would certainly have the power to bring about a reunion. What are we to think of a Father who has the ability but does not seem to expend the energy necessary? Could it be that He doesn’t even exist?

Christian scholars have offered a number of responses to this argument. Some say that if the seeker was truly genuine and sincere, God would have revealed Himself to them. After all, Jeremiah promises that the one who seeks God with all his heart will find him (29:13). James seems to affirm this promise in the New Testament: “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (4:8). When someone wants to find God and know God, and not merely experience the benefits, then surely he will find God. Other scholars argue that if God reveals Himself without constraint, the individual would be so overwhelmed by His presence that his freedom to enter into a relationship with God would be negated.

While there may be something to both of these responses, there is another possibility. Evidence can come in several forms: arguments for God such as the complexity and specificity of life pointing to a designer; a miracle such as a resurrection or a healing; divine presence as in a dream or a visionary experience. But there is one more kind of evidence: divine presence in the church. What if the church is to show God to the world? The way the church lives out its own gospel would determine how much evidence there is for God’s existence. Jesus Himself said that if you love one another as I have loved you, the world will know that I have sent you (John 13:34–35; 17:23).

I have an atheist friend who believes that selfless acts of kindness can be explained by the evolutionary process. But that seems counterintuitive. Can you help me out?

This is a common response offered by atheists who want to provide some kind of naturalistic grounding for altruistic acts. Both the Christian and the atheist affirm the existence of selfless acts of kindness. Peter Singer wants Americans to give up Starbucks coffee and bottled water in order to feed the hungry children of the world. This is noble. But as an ardent atheist, how does Singer and others like him frame these suggestions so that they are not the mere opinion of an individual but an imperative with a moral force? If it is merely a suggestion, then it would be nice if Americans endured personal sacrifice for the needs of the world. But if it is a moral imperative, then there is a sense of “oughtness” that should leave the comfortable uncomfortable.

Many atheists turn to biological altruism as their source. We often hear stories of vampire bats who will regurgitate blood and donate it to members of their group who failed to feed that night, or individual Vervet monkeys who signal alarm at the presence of a prey to enhance the survival of the rest of the group while decreasing their own chances. Atheists say that such altruistic behavior is built into our genetic past. Members of a species will sacrifice their personal wellbeing to increase the survival of those who share their genes, as in a parent for a child (kinship altruism). Interspecies altruism is also found when there is mutual benefit (reciprocal altruism).

There is a problem, however. Both of these categories are ultimately selfish in nature. A cost/benefit analysis forms the basis for judging the worth of these actions (whether consciously or not). But the kind of selfless kindness that we deem moral functions in the reverse. The less benefit received, the more praiseworthy the act. Sacrificing your life for your child is one thing; for your enemy—that’s a whole new story.

Something or some event must transform biological altruism with its selfish aims into a moral altruism that is selfless. Atheist proponents of this view point to the rise of consciousness in our evolutionary history. A conscious, thinking being can choose to perform altruistic acts without considering the ultimate benefits to one’s self or to those who are close. But as soon as one proposes such an event, we are back to the original question. What is the basis by which a conscious being can proclaim a selfless kind of altruism as being morally superior to a biological form of altruism? Ultimately, evolutionary theories alone cannot explain human capacity for selfless acts of kindness.

By David Rim

David Rim teaches philosophy and apologetics in the theology department at Moody Bible Institute, and serves as the teaching pastor at New Covenant Presbyterian Church. He enjoys watching Jane Austen movies with his twin daughters, Rachel and Katie, and Maria, his wife of over twenty years.