The Christian faith claims to answer a lot of tough questions about life, the universe, and everything. For most of life’s dilemmas, the bible seems to present what it considers to be definitive, complete, and clear answers. Such world view questions, often unanswerable by science and reason, as “Where did we come from?”, “What is God like?”, “What’s wrong with the world?” and “Where do we go after we die?” seem to be addressed copiously.
But many people may be surprised to find that on at least two questions, after some explanation, the Bible resorts to what is known as “the appeal to mystery” – that is, God says “Trust me, it’s true, you just can’t understand it.”
Of course, to the rationalist, this is a cheap copout, one often used by the religious as an escape from reason on more than just the two topics I am about to reveal below. And I would agree with them. But not on these two issues.
The Limits of Finite Minds
If we have finite minds, it means that there will be some things that are beyond our grasp, logically speaking. But what could such things be, and how could we recognize them? And if we find such ideas, concepts, or objects, does that mean we can’t apply any of our powers of reason to them?
The answer to that last question is “No” – just because certain concepts are beyond our full fathoming doesn’t mean that we can’t wade in as far as we can. We just need to admit that for certain entities with incredible depth or complexity, we may NEVER fully understand them.
Not only do our limited intellectual capabilities mean that some topics may be outside of our grasp, reason and science themselves are limited in what they can elucidate. When it comes to moral and spiritual truth, the empirical method and reason can help us, but they can’t ever go the whole distance – in fact, reason itself can not justify it’s own trustworthiness – as Philosopher and Christian apologist William Craig has written:
…Scientism is self-refuting. Scientism tells us that we should not believe any proposition that cannot be scientifically proven. But what about that very proposition itself? It cannot itself be scientifically proven.
The Characteristics of Impenetrable Mysteries
But what typifies such deep and complex subjects, and how do we identify them? I would offer these attributes – deep mysteries have one or more of the following:
1. A Metaphysical component
Anything that has to do with the human mind or spirit, or with God, will defy mere empirical and physical quantification. Not entirely, but in great part.
2. A Historical Component
Entropy wreaks havoc on historic evidence, and the further back we look into history, the harder it is to find remaining evidence. As the greatest example, cosmologies attempting to describe the beginning of the universe require a LOT of assumptions, and have absolutely NO eyewitnesses. This is why arguments over creation, evolution, the Big Bang, and string theory may languish on forever – because they can’t be empirically observed, and the models, though they may fit the data better or worse, are still only imperfect models.
3. Paradoxical Components
Many of the world’s greatest truths appear in paradoxical pairs – the relationships between, for example, love v. justice, legalism v. licence, enjoyment v. asceticism, or faith v. responsibility. The actual truth is somewhere in between the poles, even if simple reason says the two seem mutually exclusive.
The Two Great Mysteries of the Bible
So what ARE the two great mysteries of the bible? They can be identified by this factor – they are the only two subjects on which the Bible, after providing some ample explanation, retreats to the appeal to mystery – that is, the Bible explicitly says something akin to:
“You can’t understand it, and who are you to continue to pester God on the issue, blaming him of injustice for not making you understand?”
1. The Problem of Evil and Suffering
This is probably the greatest challenge to the Christian claims about the goodness, omnipotence, and omniscience of God. The objection is common written this way:
If God is all good, all knowing, and all powerful, why did he create and allow a world with evil and suffering?
Interestingly, from a logical philosophic position, this Logical Problem of Evil has an internally consistent and logically possible solution, and many philosophers believe that Alvin Plantiga’s solution has pretty much resolved this controversy.
There is, however, the Evidential Problem of Evil, which states that even if it is logically possible for the Omni-god to exist in a world with evil, it is very unlikely.
But rather than attempt to combat that argument, which I admit is a good but unresolvable one (we’re talking about probabilities, after all, not certainty), let me move on to my most important claim – the Bible addresses the reality of suffering head on, offering hope, explanations, and then, an appeal to mystery when we find the explanations unsatisfactory.
God’s Answers in the Story of Job
The Biblical character named Job is remembered for his intense and undeserved suffering – in a very short number of days, he lost his wife, his children, his home, his wealth and livelihood, and his health. He had painful oozing itching sores all over his body, and appealed to God to explain why he was suffering such things.
In the story, Job’s friends offer him two typical explanations of how a good God could allow such things – either Job was suffering for his sins, or God was wanting him to learn something. But in the end, there was as third possibility.
When God finally answers Job’s pleas for explanation and vindication, God explains to Him that he will not be able to understand the final mysteries behind suffering – with a display of His power in a whirlwind, and during a long series of ironic questions highlighting God’s power and knowledge, and Job’s comparative lack, God responds with this challenge:
“Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” (Job 40:2)
“Will you discredit my justice and condemn me just to prove you are right? Are you as strong as God? Can you thunder with a voice like his?” (Job 40:8-9)
Job, realizing the hubris of blaming God for such mysteries and difficulties, comes to the conclusion that we must as well – admitting our own ignorance and inability to fathom the mystery of suffering:
“I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you.
You asked, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’ It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about” (Job 42:1-3)
2. Predestination and Free Will
The second mystery to which God’s ultimate answer is “Who are you to question the great and powerful Oz?” is the question of God’s selection of whom He will have mercy on, and whom he will not.
Interestingly, not only has this debate been going on for centuries in Theology, it is also a hot topic among modern scientists – some argue that we have free will, while others argue that, if we are merely physical organisms with no mind independent of our biology, then all ‘choices’ we make are merely chemical reactions that we don’t really have a choice about – we are just responding in a fashion determined by our biology (biological determinism).
The passage in scripture that best describes this dilemma and the biblical answer is from Romans 9:9-23:
For God had promised, “I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
This son was our ancestor Isaac. When he married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”
Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,
“I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”
So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.
For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.
Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”
No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory.
These two topics are the only two in scripture where we are instructed that our knowledge, perspective, and reasoning powers are insufficient to figure out reality, and if our choice is to blame God, he challenges us with a reminder of his Omni attributes – all powerful, all knowing, all good. We can attempt to solve these mysteries, but at root, they are not entirely solvable, and any solution that puts blame on God – well, you’re on your own with that conclusion.