The Hiddenness of God, Part 3

Nov 19, 2019

The hiddenness of God is a perennial question, particularly in apologetics circles. Though the issue is frequently explored in philosophical terms, Scripture has a great deal to say on the matter but it frames it in surprising ways. In this series, we’ll explore God’s hiddenness under three headings: mystery, foolishness, and expectation. This episode focuses on the category of mystery and argues for a more holistic understanding of the word.

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Transcript



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Cameron McAllister: Hello and welcome to the vital signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in today. Well, this is the concluding episode in a three part series where we've been exploring the hiddenness of God. And so for the sake of context, you can go back and listen to the earlier episodes, but I want to catch you up a little bit just to fill you in on this final section. So we've been exploring this topic, the hiddenness of God under three headings, mystery, foolishness, and finally expectation. So today we'll spend the lion's share of the time talking about expectation. Now I'm aware that these three categories sound somewhat surprising, and this is not usually the route we take when we talk about the hiddenness of God. But I think it's important to really set this up because we need to recover, I've been arguing, a biblical understanding of what it means to talk about the hiddenness of God.

So for instance, when we talk about mystery, and once again you can go back and listen to those episodes. But really when we talk about mystery, we don't mean something that is completely inscrutable, something that's beyond our reach, something that we can never figure out or something that has just a neat solution. So the phrase that I've been using here to encapsulate this kind of understanding of mystery, is that a mystery in the full sense, it's neither solvable nor inscrutable sounds, a little sort of...It runs the risk of sounding a little bit kind of baggy at times. But what we mean there is that it's not...A mystery doesn't function like a murder mystery where you've got a clear solution at the end. If you put all the pieces together, you follow all the clues. Rather it is something that actually exceeds our understanding.

So in this sense, we can talk about the revelation of Jesus Christ, that he is a mystery. He is the infinite God. He is very God, very man, fully God, fully human. And there's been no end of writings on the subject. There's been no end of very articulate people who we'll talk about Christ's incarnation, and yet it's an inexhaustible reality. We can't plumb the depths there. And another aspect of mystery, which I actually didn't mention on that episode, but really we can't have a complete discussion unless we mentioned this involves that word revelation that I just said. And so in this sense, in Christian terms, the ultimate example of this is the Trinity. The fact that God is Father, Son, and Holy spirit.

Theologians will tell you this is not something that we reason our way to. We don't figure the Trinity out from the ground up. Rather, this has to be revealed to us. And this is revealed to us in the twin missions of Jesus Christ and then his Holy Spirit, which has given to us at Pentecost. So this is the sense in which we're talking about mystery.

And we mentioned this is important to remember and have before our minds, that when we talk about the hiddenness of God and the fact that he's just not as obvious as he needs to be. The famous example here would be the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, a journalist was asking him "If you die, and it turns out that God is real, Christianity is true. What would you say to God?" And his answer was fairly typical of his philosophy and his really his overall approach to life. And it was, "Well, why didn't you make yourself more obvious?"

But the point that I've been making and the point that the Christian Church will make and that the tradition of Christianity has always made is that actually the problem isn't that what we mean by hiddenness of God doesn't mean that he's invisible to us. That he hasn't revealed himself to us after all, if Christianity is true, he has decisively revealed himself to us.

I've actually heard skeptics say to me before as "Well why can't Jesus write his name in the sky? Why can't he give us some exotic kind of miraculous display of his power so that we will know once and for all that he is real." And on the one hand, what you can say to that is, "Well, even if there were some sort of quote, miraculous display of power, that's no guarantee of belief." After all, if you look at even the stories of the Old Testament, the nation of Israel, they see miraculous event after miraculous event and often their hearts remain unmoved. But also in our own day and age, we have this incredible ability to explain a way just about every phenomena.

So there would definitely be, I think, an explanation immediately forthcoming talking about it as an illusion. But the greater reality here is what most of these requests amount to. I think the real question behind the question there is “Why can't God reveal himself to us in our own terms?” Why can't he meet us where we are, so to speak? And the answer is, he has—in Jesus Christ. It doesn't get much more on our own terms than that. The living God takes on flesh, becomes human. And so there's nothing overtly hidden about that. Nothing hidden about that. And you can say, "Well wait, Jesus Christ is not here right now." Yes, but like any historical personage or any historical person, he's not here right now. Of course George Washington's not here right now, but most of us don't have a skeptical attitude about him. Caesar is not here right now and we don't have a skeptical attitude about his existence.

Jesus is a historical person and interestingly enough, if you press into the best scholarship on the matter, including scholarship from some of the most skeptical voices out there in biblical criticism and historical criticism, they'll tell you that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person and he was in fact executed on a Roman cross. So the living God has decisively revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ, but he is very God and very man. This is what I suggest to you. This is what I say as a Christian and so there's where mystery comes in. This is something that absolutely exceeds our understanding. It's not inscrutable. He can be known and reveals himself to us. Again at the risk of repeating myself any yet we can't plumb the depths.

But then let's revisit a little bit the second heading here in our exploration of the hiddenness of God, foolishness. So why does this remain so difficult for us? Well, I've already mentioned it because, as a Christian, I don't simply insist that Jesus was a historical figure. I think these days that's a relatively uncontroversial statement. Even though there's still a proliferation of television programs that tried to suggest otherwise. And there are alternate theories and there are sort of conspiracy theories that circulate. But most people would agree, "Okay fine, I can grant you that. He's a historical person."

Where I begin to lose people is the same place where the apostle Paul loses people in Acts 17. It's when I started talking about Jesus as the son of God. It's when I started talking about Jesus as the resurrected Lord, that he was crucified, dead and buried. And then that on the third day he rose from the dead and he ascended into heaven and we are awaiting his return to judge the quick and the dead and to make all things new. That's where we run into trouble.

And so that's where the word foolishness comes in. And the word foolishness here. I think I use it advisedly. I use it, I'm borrowing it actually from Martin Luther, the reformer because after all, Luther sets up this really interesting picture. And I'm sorry if this comes by way of repetition, but we need to hear it again because it's so important for us today. Luther sets up this very striking contrast between what he calls a theologian of glory and a theologian of the cross. And a theologian of glory basically extols human achievement and human ingenuity and power and it comports really well with our understanding of power. It comports really well with our understanding of how essentially achievement works and how the world works.

A theologian of glory would, for instance, have a lot of respect for scientists, very successful people who have really attained a lot of wealth and success and fame and fortune. We recognize that. That's a picture of earthly glory, but the theologian of the cross is following Jesus is following the path of Jesus all the way to the cross. We are told to take up our cross and follow our Lord. Now that is a pattern of behavior that looks like foolishness to the world. It really does. And it's the wisdom of that way of life is veiled to the world.

And this is where I often say one of the most powerful forms of evidence that I think is on display in scripture is the fact that no human imagination would have conceived that an instrument of torture would be ultimately converted into an instrument of victory. That Jesus Christ would conquer not only the world, but sin and death itself through his own death on a cross. This is just something beyond human conceiving and it does look like foolishness on the one hand and yet that is the way of the cross. And this is, and this is the foolishness aspect, this is really what scripture often is talking about when God remains hidden to people.

Because for those outside of the church, this mode of behavior looks very bizarre and it looks very foolish because after all, you are living in a manner that is totally self-sacrificial. Everything else around you, including your own instincts by the way, is going to tell you to prioritize your own needs. And yet Christians will tell you that you need to take up your cross, surrender completely to the living God, give yourself totally to him and then serve others.

That is really a very strange mode of existence. And that's why the apostle Paul frequently talks about boasting in his foolishness, one of the hallmarks of this in scriptures is 2 Corinthians Chapter 12. He talks so much about boasting in his foolishness and he's talking...And Paul, by the way, is the poster child of this mode of behavior before he was a Christian he was a man of tremendous influence and power. He was a Pharisee with an amazing education, left most of his contemporaries in the dust in that regard, and he was persecuting the church. He was really a man of tremendous power, a man of tremendous learning and influence and he becomes a Christian and all of that. He trades that all in for an extremely difficult life where he's repeatedly persecuted by the authorities of his day. He's beaten these flogged and eventually executed.

Now that's a way of life. Too many people on the surface that just looks like sheer lunacy. You give up this brilliant career, this brilliant way of life, and now this is the way you're going to live your life. What are you doing? And yet that is the way of the cross and it looks like foolishness and it's that's a kind of veil that really hangs over a lot of Christian behavior and cloaks it.

But also I think on a deeper level we can see that it makes so much sense of reality when we move beyond the glittering surface. And so now let's talk about expectation. And so now we come to the final heading in our exploration of the hiddenness of God. So expectation, let me start on this note. For a long time when I finally...I was a very, very unambitious student growing up. I didn't care about school at all. In fact, the only thing I cared about really it was music for a while and I devoted all of my energy, all my resources to playing music. And that was it.

But when I finally experienced what I could only call as a sort of intellectual awakening and this intense thirst and curiosity and hunger to know more. That happened when I was about 17 years old. And then I went from nothing to just full bore, dove right in and started reading Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard and all of these really gloomy, existentialist kind of writers. And as I read people especially Camus, Camus and William Faulkner, we'll talk more about him in a second. There was this kind of cognitive dissonance that crept in because I thought, "All right, they're giving these very sad and very dark pictures of life." They're presenting the world as in Camus's case, absurd or very hollow, very empty of meaning, of ultimate significance and of meaning.

And this rings very true for me. But thought young Cameron to himself, “How can that be?” Because we know that there is ultimate significance, that there is the living God who made everything. He made us and he made everything in the world and it's all charged with God's grandeur to borrow a phrase from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Of course if you read on in Hopkins's own poetry, by the way, he had very, very dark poems as well that take a look at this aspect of reality that I'm talking about.

And so, but I thought why is this the case? I remember very clearly one day sitting in a church service with my parents and then having this very typically kind of existentialist mindset come over my head here. If you're not familiar with the literature there is kind of trope in a lot of the existential like novels particularly that gives you the faithless priest. The priest who carries on for the sake of his congregation and tries to hold their beliefs intact, but in his own heart, doesn't believe and shoulders this tremendous anguish in his soul.

So I had that playing in my mind and I'm sitting there and I thought, "What if all of this were was just an empty pageant? What if it was all just a farce, just an empty show, and in fact, we're singing all these songs, reading all these verses and all of it means absolutely nothing in the end, we're just as insignificant as cosmic dust."

I remember thinking that and thinking there's something that rings very essentially true about this. Well, as it turns out, I should have just been paying attention to scripture. I should've just been reading my Bible because the book of Ecclesiastes, you know what, it beat the existentialists to the punch here. I've talked about this before on the Vital Signs podcast, but really what, what is being described in so much of this is life under the sun. In Ecclesiastes is you have this contrast between life under the sun and life from the standpoint of heaven or from the standpoint of eternity. So you have an eternal perspective contrasted with life under the sun. And if we limit our gaze to just life under the sun, then I think things do begin to look very barren and very hopeless. Yes, we have great days. Yes, there's a lot to celebrate in this world. Yes, there's a lot of beauty, but in the end there is an essential hollowness to it. There is an alienating aspect.

Because we know that the shadow of mortality hangs over everything. Our universe, our lives, all of our efforts, everything ultimately is consigned to the dust. If we just look at life under the sun. And that's when you see more and more tragedies, you see more and more... More and more that the more attached you become to people and to places and to things, the more you are destined for real and serious grief because all of it will come to an end. This is where, by the way, a little side note, we've talked about this on the Vital Signs podcasts before, but you can see there's some very grave, very powerful and barren spiritually wisdom I think in the Eastern tradition that maintains at its heart, think of Buddhism here, that life is pain and that the solution comes in detachment. In breaking away from all of those attachments. And eventually ridding yourself of desire.

I think that's a spiritually devastating answer, but it's a very powerful answer. And if we just look at life under the sun, I think it's incredibly compelling. I think one of the more powerful depictions of life under the sun comes to us from William Faulkner. Now I know you probably didn't expect to hear a Faulkner reference out here on the Vital Signs podcast. And I don't know if you're an English major, you may be familiar with this, or maybe if you were ever an AP English class and you had a really ambitious teacher, maybe he or she inflicted this text on you.

But this comes from his book, The Sound and the Fury. And of course that phrase, “The Sound and the Fury” is lifted from Shakespeare's Macbeth. Where we have that one really powerful statement we get "Life is a tale told by an idiot filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing." So this'll give you a glimpse into the somber mood of Faulkner's book. That's where he gets his title, The Sound and the Fury. So the opening chapter of The Sound and the Fury, we are in that opening chapter, we are in the head of a character named Benjamin Compson. Benji, as he is called. And Benji is a man with significant mental disabilities.

And so as you enter into this mindset, this is really a pretty colossal achievement on Faulkner's part. It's going to take you a while to adjust to the ways in which Benji experiences reality. Essentially he thinks in many ways like a child. He doesn't have a clear concept of time or chronology. And this is actually one of the really powerful insights in this chapter because as a father of two young children, one who is almost three, I can tell you, and when you deal with children that my son has not yet made the sad discovery that he is in a chronological prison. That he is a prisoner of time. For him, everything is just immediacy. The immediacy of experience. So he'll talk about an event that took place six months ago as though it has just happened.

And it takes me a second to realize, Oh wait, we're making another chronological leap. But for my son, it all flows together in an instantaneous kind of mix. And that's the way Benji experiences time. And at the beginning, this is a very famous scene. He's watching people swinging sticks. This is how he describes it. And eventually as you read on, it's a convoluted novel and you have to piece it together yourself. This requires a lot of participation on your part. But you realize, oh, he's watching people playing golf. Okay. And every time they yell caddy, he starts to cry. He starts to weep. And so now you're, so you figured out the golf part, but you're now you're confused again. Why is he weeping every time he hears the word caddy? But then as you continue on in his chapter, you find that caddy is also the nickname of his sister and his sister was the one... And her real name is Candice. His sister is the one person who has loved him more than anyone and who has taken care of him.

And now she's had a baby out of wedlock and she's runaway with the man and now she's gone and she's never coming back. And Benji is walking around with this inchoate heartache all the time. And he's always expecting her to come back. So he's got this broken sort of inarticulate sense of expectation all the time. And every time he hears her name, the word itself, the name just breaks his heart all over again. And it's just that same raw wound every time. So his heart is being broken every day, multiple times a day over and over again. And it's a powerful picture because I think there's a little bit of Benji in all of us. When we think about our world and we look at our life under the sun. Yes, we grow up and went. Time management is one of our biggest sort of ambitions these days.

We always want to schedule the heck out of everything and figure everything out and have a life hack for just about everything and getting more done and being more productive. And yet there's a sense in which this life hits us with an immediacy of have experienced. I don't know if I'm alone in this, but I don't always experience time in a linear fashion. It's often the case where something that happened years and years ago, especially a painful or a sad or traumatic event will hit me with full force all over again. And I'll think, "I thought I was over this and I'm not." And so often we're walking around with this with...We're walking around like Benji with broken hearts and we can barely articulate why much of the time. And sometimes all it takes is a certain name and it just, all of a sudden it floods in, the sorrow floods in and our hearts are broken over and over again.

Well, if Christianity is true when we are outside Christ and we were outside the church, that's what's happening to us. And I can tell you from a lot of experience now traveling around and speaking to people. When I bring up the name of Christ, for many people it's like Benji hearing caddy. Suddenly they find themselves brokenhearted and they can't even understand why. And so many of us are walking around with this sense of expectation. We want something, we want someone and we're waiting and waiting and waiting. We just don't really know how to express it. And then in the world of music, there's all sorts of songs that hang on this theme in the world of art. There's all sorts of stuff that commemorates this. I think about Samuel Beckett's famous play Waiting for Godot, but we're all waiting for something. We're waiting for someone. And that inarticulate sense of heartache, you just see that that's widespread.

I'm very, very grateful for...I'm very, very grateful for all of the breakthroughs that we've made when it comes to the world of therapy and psychiatry and psychology and for mental health professionals of every stripe. And I think that there are issues here when it comes to mental health, for instance, that are very, very complex and require careful training and professionalism. With that said, I also want to venture what I think is an accurate statement. On the one hand we're more comfortable, we're more affluent than we've ever been and yet our mental health is plummeting. Why? Well, may I suggest to you that we often talk about we've got to help people get the right perspective, but it's been increasingly...I think it's increasingly the case that many people who are struggling mightily with the of life and existence are actually gaining a very accurate picture of one facet of reality.

And that facet is what scripture calls life under the sun. Because human beings require a greater hope than this world. It's interesting. We talked about this a little bit, Nathan Rittenhouse and I did on the Thinking Out Loud podcast. And Rittenhouse brings out this really interesting conclusion that Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist draws in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. And in The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt, who is himself, not a Christian, points out that from a psychological standpoint, human beings need have a real psychological need to acknowledge a higher power of some kind, something larger than themselves, something greater than their lives. And people are desperate for that. And I think that's very attached to this sense of life under the sun and the emptiness of it, the bareness of it.

But on the other hand, if we look at life from an eternal perspective, then you can see this world in different terms. And this is also, this is why this is also numbered in the discussion here on the hiddenness of God. When you see the world from an eternal perspective and all of these three categories interpenetrate one another, they all flow into one another, but there's the mystery and then there's the foolishness, the apparent foolishness of following the way of the cross. But if you follow the way of the cross, then you recognize that the cross is necessary, that this world had to be saved, that we have to be saved, and that we cannot save ourselves. If you recognize that human beings cannot save themselves, then your whole view of human ingenuity, human achievement is turned upside down. It doesn't mean you denigrate human achievement, the natural sciences or athletic prowess or philanthropic efforts, ecological efforts, social programs. All of these are wonderful pursuits and they've yielded marvelous fruit, but it means that you don't see them in an ultimate sense.

It means that you don't think in the end, and all of this is going to hand all of the keys of the universe over to us. And one day we'll have a total, a theory of everything and a transcript of reality and we'll be able to solve everything and fix ourselves and rejuvenate human nature or even create humanity 2.0. You'll recognize that all of that is impossible. Because you'll recognize that there's an expiration date on even the most noble of human efforts. In the end, we have to be saved. And if you see the world from an eternal perspective, then you can understand that in this world we have powerful glimpses of the world to come. We have a light at the end of the tunnel so to speak. And I want to end on this note.

This is a scene from the Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan's, great spiritual classic. And I think this is really powerful. And you're actually, by the way, listeners, I don't know if you're aware of this. I'm at work with on a book with my dad right now. And you should be seeing that showing up here in the next year or so. But you're actually getting a little preview of the book because I'm going to draw on one little section here. But I think this is such a powerful and beautiful picture of the church. It's a very haunting picture of the church.

So in the Pilgrim's Progress Bunyan's character, his hero is called Christian. Rather on the nose you might say. But he's called Christian and Christian is on a journey from the city of destruction. And the city of destruction is a picture of our fallen world to the heavenly city. And that's a picture of his, of course, journey to the new heavens and the new earth.

And so as he's on this journey and it's a quite an adventure. He meets dragons and ogres walks to the Valley of the Shadow of Death, has to resist the temptations of vanity fair. But he comes to a place, a beautiful palace right by the highway side. And this palace beautiful is Bunyan's vision of the church. And so as Christian goes into this church, he experiences worship. He experiences...He's given a meal and it's clear that this is Bunyan's picture of the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, and then he experiences rest. He goes up to a chamber called peaceful.

But then and here's the really amazing section that I think is just very haunting and very beautiful. Then he's led up to the rooftop of Palace Beautiful by his hosts, and they point to him at a great distance. He can see the delectable mountains, that's what they're called, the delectable mountains of Emanuel's Land.

So he's getting a vision of the heavenly world awaiting him. But, and this is really interesting. This vision is available only from within the fellowship of the church, according to Bunyan. I think he's right. I think there's a sense in which with Christianity you can look at it from the outside, you can study it and you can read book after book. But in the end there's a kind of knowing that is only available through relationship, right? Knowledge by acquaintance. It's not knowledge about Christianity from the outside, it's actually stepping in.

And my challenge to you, if you are curious about Christianity or if you're skeptical or if you're a person who you've stayed away for a while, for a multitude of reasons, whatever they are, step back into a faithful. And see a vision that is only available from within it's precincts. Because this side of eternity, life under the sun, the church is your one true home. And within that fellowship alone, you can receive those glimpses, those heavenly glimpses that remind you of your true home, which is not this world.

Which is why Christians can see what's going on around us and we can be heartbroken. We can be sad, we can lament, but we are never without great expectations because after all to borrow us a phrase from the philosopher James K. Smith, we are the ones who are awaiting the King and our King is Christ our Lord. And we know that he is returning to wipe away every tear and to make all things new, and our hope, our ultimate hope is in him. It's not in this world which is passing away.

When we think about the hiddenness of God, we would do well to consider it. I would suggest to you under these three headings of mystery, foolishness, and expectations. So thanks for hanging with me through this series. I know there've been some interesting twists and turns, maybe some surprising material, which I hope was interesting to you, but I hope it was helpful to you. I hope there was good food for thought here, but more importantly, I hope that this really was a blessing to you wherever you find yourself. So thank you so much for tuning in.

This has been Vital Signs, podcast exploring signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer here at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

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