When I read that songwriter Michael Gungor told his wife, Lisa, “I don’t believe in God anymore,” I experienced a familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was the same one I’d had a couple of years before when Nick, a 20-something leader in our church, called in a panic. He was having doubts and wanted to talk. I spent hours with him, listening as he poured out his questions and fears. Over the months that followed, I prayed God would reveal himself to Nick, but his doubts hardened into unbelief. He began telling people he was an atheist.
Nick and Gungor seem to be following a well-beaten path to atheism: cognitive dissonance over the church’s stand on sexual orientation and gender; outrage over pain and injustice; doubts regarding the authority of Scripture; and an embarrassing feeling that science has rendered belief in the Bible’s claims ridiculous. If there are reasonable explanations for these conflicts, why doesn’t God just show us? Why doesn’t he come out of hiding? Why doesn’t he come out of hiding and reveal himself to my child, to my friend? Or, if he has, to where can I point them? The various doubts that tripped my friend before he fell into atheism were all situated on the bedrock of the hiddenness of God. His thinking went like this: Christians say that God requires people to believe in him or they will be eternally condemned; God, if he is good, would assist people in forming that belief by revealing himself; God does not reveal himself; therefore, God is either not good, or he does not exist.
Michael Gungor and my friend Nick are hardly alone on this path to atheism. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, Protestantism is no longer a majority religion in the US, and 18 percent of adults raised in a religious tradition now consider themselves either atheists, agnostics, or unaffiliated—a shift driven largely by millennials. As far as many of these young adults are concerned, the burden of proof is on God. If he exists, he’s going to have to prove it.
The hiddenness of God, which was once a problem for philosophers and theologians, is now a reason for millennials and their older counterparts to reject the gospel. Christian parents and leaders can help them work through this, but they must be able to offer reasonable answers to two questions. First, why would a God who insists that we believe in him not give us more evidence—why would he hide? And second, where would he hide? One would think that the God described in the Bible would be hard to miss.
So Where Does God Hide?
Take the second question first: Where does God hide? That he does hide is clear. Jesus repeatedly referred to God as “the one in secret.” Poets and prophets agonized over this, and Isaiah exclaimed, “Truly you are a God who hides himself.” But where on earth (or elsewhere) is there a place roomy enough for God operate and yet secret enough for him to remain hidden?
Such hiding places abound. God built them into the universe when he designed it. Creation is like a palace, built by an ancient king, filled with secret rooms and moving walls. The King can stay in the palace and yet remain out of sight.
In Quantum Uncertainty
Quantum uncertainty is one of those secret rooms built into creation, and the scientists who have tried to learn all the secrets of the King’s palace have been confounded by it. David Snoke, a University of Pittsburgh physicist, says that “given our present theories of quantum mechanics, some things are absolutely unpredictable to us … hidden behind a veil we can’t look behind.”
Snoke is thinking about a theory called observer effect. On a quantum level, the very act of measuring a system changes the system. We cannot push Snoke’s veil aside, no matter how quick or careful we are, without changing what is going on.
Even apart from observer effect, uncertainty is inherent in all quantum objects, which is to say, in all physical reality. Yuji Hasegawa, a physicist at Technische Universität Wien in Austria, reminds us that “the uncertainty does not always come from the disturbing influence of the measurement, but from the quantum nature of the particle itself." Advances in technology may someday minimize observer effect but cannot remove indeterminacy on the quantum level.
Similar hiding places exist in the macro-world. Even systems that are fully deterministic— weather systems, for example—remain unpredictable because we can never have a complete knowledge of initial conditions. Snoke points out that this kind of unpredictability holds for quantum systems as well.
In the Unknowability of the State of Matter
We cannot see into the smallest places dues to quantum uncertainty and observer effect, but neither can we see into the largest places. Even apart from quantum uncertainty, the universe is simply too large for us to understand. Both the initial state of any system in the universe and its current state are beyond our grasp.
According to Randy Isaac, former executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation and VP of Science and Technology at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, the universe is so large and there are so many variables, we can only know it on a statistical basis. Isaac points out that one mole (a standard measurement equal to the number of chemical units found in 12 grams of Carbon-12) of a substance – that is, 6 x 1023 – “is so inconceivably vast that there is no hope of knowing the attributes of each molecule in even a minute but macroscopic amount of substance.”
If there is no hope in knowing the attributes of each molecule in a minute amount of substance, what can be said about every molecule in the known universe, which is currently estimated to be about 46 billion light years across? There are hiding places everywhere.
Perhaps time is the most mysterious hiding place of all. Saint Augustine mused: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” Time is a mystery that is as close as our beating hearts. We live in it (at least we think we do), but we cannot say what it is. Time—our subjective experience of it, at any rate—potentially provides massive cover for God.
Paul Davies, Regents' Professor at Arizona State University and director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, says that before Einstein, “space and time were simply regarded as ‘there’—an immutable eternal arena in which the great drama of nature is acted out. Einstein showed that spacetime is in fact part of the cast. Like matter, it is dynamical—it can change and move and obeys laws of motion.”
Davies goes on to say that “intervals of time can be stretched by motion or gravitation.” This is the orthodox view of time held by physicists. It tells us something about what time can do but nothing about what time is. For that we must turn to the philosophers, who have struggled to understand the nature of time since pre-Socratic days.
Bertrand Russell argued that time does not flow; it simply is. The flow of time, or our movement through it, is an illusion. His colleague at Cambridge, J. M. E. McTaggart disagreed. It is not the flow of time or our movement through it that is an illusion; it is time itself. It does not exist. The contemporary philosopher William Lane Craig believes Russell and McTaggart are both wrong. Craig believes there is a time that transcends time, a God-time by which all other time is measured.
The Australian philosopher J. J. C. Smart argues that such a view of time leads unavoidably to an infinite regress. If we measure our time by a transcendent time, then we need yet another measuring rod against which to measure that time, and another by which to measure that time, ad infinitum. Rejecting this, Smart believes that the universal human sense that time is passing is an illusion “arising out of metaphysical confusion.”
Time, and our place in it, is a deep mystery. Philosophers cannot see into it and we can’t see through it. This makes time the perfect hiding place for God, providing him with limitless room to act while remaining perpetually out of sight.
The legendary British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle believed that God secretly acts at the indeterminate quantum level to direct the world to the future state he desires. In other words, God uses the hiding places of both time and quantum uncertainty to interact with the world.
But Why Would God Want to Hide?
But why would God want to hide? Is he just waiting to jump from his hiding place in quantum uncertainty and shout, “Surprise!”? Does he want to astonish us by the revelation that he has been here all along, working in our lives and our world, turning evil to good, and making all things serve his incomprehensible purpose?
Perhaps. God, as the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon once pointed out, loves throwing parties: “Creation is not ultimately about religion, or spirituality, or morality, or reconciliation, or any other solemn subject; it’s about God having a good time and just itching to share it.”
Yet there is more to this than God’s love of a good party. Earlier, we saw how it is impossible for humans to see what’s really going on in the world, particularly the quantum world, because of observer effect. Perhaps something like observer effect might explain why God keeps his presence a secret from us so much of the time. He cannot enter our reality without changing it. Once he pulls aside the curtain and steps into our space, we will inescapably be changed, overwhelmed, and deprived of autonomy.
C. S. Lewis addressed this dynamic in Mere Christianity: “God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. … For this time it will God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not.”
The God of the Gaps
Quantum uncertainty, the vastness of creation, and the inscrutable nature of time present unbridgeable gaps in human knowledge. They are not gaps for which God supplies a ready explanation but gaps in which God remains an endless mystery.
Trying to find God in the gaps is problematic. If he is hiding there, we will never find him. If he is not hiding there, science will eventually close the gap, God will cease to be a credible explanation, and the faith of struggling believers will be needlessly shaken.
If humans are going to find God, it will not be where he has chosen to hide but where he has chosen to reveal himself. It is not in quantum uncertainty or statistical analysis that God is discovered. We will not find him in a gap but on a cross. It is here in the most unexpected of places that we discern, as Stanley Hauerwas has put it, “the grain on the universe.”