So I want you to consider the image above for a little bit. What is it?
It is an image of something with which everyone capable of reading these words is familiar. As I am looking at it, what it is seems rather too obvious. In order for this post to get across the point I want to make, it needs to be completely obscure to you what exactly is in the image until I tell you what it is. And yet I am afraid that the image is just too obvious . . .
Now when I first saw this image, I thought it would be an excellent way to point out the limitations of reductionism. The idea was to demonstrate that drilling down into the image was fairly useless in terms of understanding what the image was. The only way to understand the image is to view it holistically. The whole image gives you enough information to understand what it is and understanding what the image is tells you what the constituent elements are. Looking at smaller pieces in a reductionist way removes information vital to understanding the image. Below is a blown up portion of the image. Does this help tell you what it is?
But my purpose in using this image in this essay is different and has nothing to do with reductionism. What is the point of using this image? It started when I wrote a brief essay responding to a YouTube video made by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
In that video, Dr. Tyson goes through the scientific evidence to show why he thinks the universe has no purpose. The universe is very big and most of it is unsuitable for life. The universe has been around for a long time and human beings have only been around for a tiny fraction of that time. The universe is hostile to life and most of the species that have ever lived are extinct. Given these facts, how could one believe that the universe has a purpose?
The Hidden Things of God
Now the response that I wanted to make to Dr. Tyson was going to be straight from the Bible. I was going to argue that one of the purposes of the universe requires that purpose to be hidden from hostile observers. If the purpose of the universe is supposed to be hidden, then one cannot take the evidence for purposelessness presented by Dr. Tyson at face value. Consider the following verses from the Bible:
At that same time Jesus was filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit, and he said, “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, thank you for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike. Yes, Father, it pleased you to do it this way. (Luke 10:21)
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field (Matthew 13:44)
“Then He said, ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; For they are a perverse generation, Sons in whom is no faithfulness. (Deuteronomy 32:20)
In all of the above verses, the Bible speaks of things that are “hidden”. The father hides the truth of his word from those who “think themselves wise”. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. God hides his face from those “in whom there is no faithfulness”. Given that the Bible speaks so often of God “hiding” things, can we so easily dismiss the idea that the universe has a purpose? Maybe the purpose of the universe is hidden?
The Virtue of Seeking Truth
These verses are strengthened by the verses that tell us to seek out the hidden things of God:
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings. (Proverbs 25:2)
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7)
Come now, let us reason together (Isaiah 1:18)
These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11)
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; (1 Peter 3:15)
These verses clearly extoll the virtues of those who seek for truth. God calls those who seek what he has hidden “kings”. He tells us to “ask”, “seek” and “knock”. He invites us to reason things through. He says that those who “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” were noble. He says that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Is the purpose of the universe obvious if so much “asking”, “seeking” and “knocking” is necessary? God does not tell us that we must be able to expound the “obvious truths of his word”, but says that we must be able to “defend the hope that is in you”. This is clearly a lower standard that implies that the truth will be difficult to discern.
A Significant Roadblock
Yet as I was writing the essay above wherein I argued that the purpose of God was hidden, I kept running across a significant roadblock.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:18-20)
These verses are a veritable smorgasbord for people I disagree with. “God’s attributes” are “clearly seen” and “evident”. Anybody who denies this is “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness”. These truths are so obvious that everyone is “without excuse”. These verses are a huge problem for me in a number of ways.
The first problem is that it calls into question the entire notion of Christian apologetics. If everything is so obvious, what need is there for me or anyone else to try and show it to people? There are no apologists for the fact that the sky is blue and that the sun shines. Why do “clearly seen” truths need someone to explain them? This verse is the basis for the presuppositional school of Christian thinking. “We don’t have to demonstrate the truth of God’s word, they already know it.” Truthfully, this verse is one of the most discouraging verses in the entire Bible for the work that I have done on this site and elsewhere.
The second problem that I have with this verse is that it is one of the most difficult verses in the Bible from my personal experience. It reminds me of a line that used to be common in my college algebra textbook. “From this set of propositions, it can be easily demonstrated that <insert algebraic truth here>”. Whenever I saw those words, I thought to myself, “Great . . . what they mean by ‘it can be easily demonstrated that’ is that it took someone six months to write the paper that contained the proof and they don’t want to reprint the paper in the text book because it is too long and complicated.” I have spent an enormous amount of time trying to understand the truths that some people think are “clearly seen” from these verses.
The third problem I have with this verse is that it seems to make everything so simple. No need to “ask”, “seek” or “knock”; just look up at the night sky and you know everything you need to know instantaneously. There is no hard work involved, it is all obvious. This verse encourages a simplistic approach to interpreting the Bible that I find noxious and toxic. Moses was righteous and perfectly obedient, Adam was good in the Garden of Eden. Everything is easy to understand, just read the Bible.
Given that these verses in Romans are extremely difficult to understand and reconcile with other verses from the Bible, how can we understand them? I alternate between two different approaches in my own thinking. Let us consider them one at a time.
The first approach that I have taken to this problem is that of personal revelation. That is to say, I believe it is possible that each person who is in the process of rejecting God and his love has had a personal experience with God. At some low point in their lives, God has come to them and shown them that he is good and that they have done evil in their lives. Maybe it was on a night when they were taking a walk in the woods, or maybe they were on a beach. Maybe they had just had a fight with a good friend, an argument with a parent or broken up with a former mate. At some point God went to them and showed them his loving nature and the evil in their own lives. They felt the awe of his presence by looking at his creation and knew that they were sinners before a holy God.
since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them (Romans 1:19)
Now these people may not retain any memory of this experience just as most of us have forgotten unpleasant experiences we had years ago, but God will be able to remind them of this visit when they are standing face to face with him.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God (Romans 1:28)
Now it is the nature of personal revelation that no other person can know anything about it. I do not know what you have experienced in your life and you do not know what I have experienced in mine. God knows, however, and he has made it plain to every individual in a very personal way at some point in their life. In my own life, this would be the night that I gave my life to Jesus Christ. In the life of an unbeliever, this is a forgotten night when spiritual realities were momentarily clear to them.
Obvious Yet Hard to See
The second approach I have taken to the problem presented by these verses in Romans is to say that it is possible for things to be simultaneously obvious and hidden. Think of camouflage nets used to hide things from aerial observers in warfare. From 10,000 feet up, the tank just looks like a patch of vegetation. From the ground, however, it is fairly obviously a tank with a net over it. The difference is the point of view.
If you are looking at reality as one looking for an enemy, you will only see randomness and chaos. If you are looking at reality as a person seeking a friend, on the other hand, then you might be able to see the camouflage net and perceive the reality underneath it. Atheists do aerial reconnaissance looking for an enemy so they can safely reject him. Christians look at reality seeking for a hope and a friend. To atheists it is obvious that God doesn’t exist and that there is no purpose to this life, to Christians it is obvious that God does exist and that life does have a purpose. How is this possible?
Did you see the cow in the image above? Go back and look again. It will help if you know the image is upside down and that the right ear of the animal is cut off on the left side of the image.
Still don’t see it? Try the labelled image below:
Now if this visual analogy works, you couldn’t tell what the original image was but now that you see the cow, it is quite obviously a cow. What was the difference? Me telling you what it was and what to look for and where to look for it.
In just this same way, I want to argue that the difference between an atheist looking at this world and saying that it is obvious that there is no purpose and a Christian looking at this world and saying that there is obviously a purpose is the Word of God. If you read the Bible seeking understanding, then God shows you the purpose of this world and what to look for and where to look for it. What was previously a hostile universe with no rhyme or reason becomes a universe where God is clearly struggling to show human beings their need of Jesus Christ. If you read the Bible seeking to reject meaning and purpose, then you ignore the instructions. Instead of looking at the whole picture, you drill down on some useless bits of information and convince yourself that there is nothing there. Does the small snippet of the photograph I showed above look like a pair of nostrils?
One way we can perceive the goodness of God and the purpose of this world is to look at our own hearts. Don’t look at the facts of nature, look at yourself. We know that we ought to be loving, patient, kind people who give of ourselves, turn the other cheek and forgive freely, yet when someone honks at us on the street or cuts us off on the highway we are more likely to give them the middle finger than forgiveness. Examining our own hearts and actions, our need of a savior should be completely obvious.
They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:29-31)
If it is obvious that we need a savior and, as we argued in a previous essay, the purpose of this world is to show us that we need a savior, then the purpose of this world is obvious. At the same time, it is hard to see. It all depends on your point of view.
When I wrote this post, I had the all the images of the cow used in an old folder that I had on a USB drive storing stuff from an apologetics website that I started ten years ago. As I had forgotten about where I had gotten the image, I took credit for having created it. As I reread the post recently, my memory stirred within me and I seemed to recall finding the image somewhere. Wanting to credit the right people, I edited this post to reflect the fact that I did not create the image and went looking for the source of the image so I could give credit where credit is due. I googled “Can you see the cow” and got the following website which does not credit the image as having come from somewhere else, so presumably they have the rights to the image and I want to acknowledge their work here:
or perhaps the image came from here:
I am deeply embarrassed that I originally took credit for the image. I remembered modifying the image by cutting out and blowing up the nostrils and adding the labels, but I did not create the image itself and I apologize for this plagiarism.