Today I want to address another set of objections to Christian belief: “If Jesus really was raised from the dead, why didn’t he appear to everyone? Why didn’t he remain visibly present in the world instead of ascending to heaven (Acts 1:9-11)? Why didn’t the kingdom come in its fullness (Mark 9:1)? Why hasn’t he returned yet? Why do we have to “believe” instead of seeing?”
It seems to me that these questions arise from a sense of tension between the idea that Jesus’ resurrection is of universal significance and importance and two facts: (1) that it can be known today only indirectly, that is, by believing the written word of apostles and (2) that its impact on the world is much less obvious and universal than one would expect from such a dramatic divine act.
Of course these questions do not have to be taken as objections. They could be serious enquiries from people of faith seeking further understanding of the significance of what they believe. But the questioner could be implying that there are no answers and that the lack of answers disproves the fact-claim of the resurrection or at least that we must doubt the fact until we find satisfactory answers. Let’s deal with the challenger first and then we will address the serious enquirer.
We need to take the form of these objections seriously. They don’t make direct fact-denying assertions. They don’t ask “How?” or “Whether?” They ask “why?” When we ask why we are asking for the purpose or end for which someone has done something. If I ask you “Why did you do that?” I could be simply expressing my curiosity, or I could be making an accusation of wrongdoing. If I see you digging in your back yard or climbing a ladder toward your roof or writing a letter, the question of why or to what end immediately arises in my mind. If you suddenly shove me to the ground, unless the reason for your aggression becomes immediately obvious, you won’t be surprised when I ask you why you did it. The act provokes the question because we assume that people don’t do things without an end in mind.
But suppose I never discover why you were climbing a ladder or why you pushed me to the ground. I do not conclude from my lack of knowledge of the purpose for your action that you didn’t do it. Indeed acts are always done for purposes, but we can know that an act was done without knowing why the actor did it. My knowledge of a fact rests on the evidence of my having experienced it or on believing the report of someone else who experienced it. Hence knowing the purpose of an act and knowing the fact of the act can be separated. With this distinction in mind, let’s return to the objections to faith with which I began.
As the New Testament recounts and reflects on the course of events after the resurrection of Jesus, it addresses the most pressing and essential questions. Why did Jesus die, and why did God raise him from the dead (See Acts 2:22-36)? Much of the theology of the New Testament is concerned to answer these questions. Of course these answers do not fully satisfy and leave us longing for deeper understanding. But the New Testament rarely addresses questions like those in our first paragraph. (2 Peter 3:3-13 is the most direct instance.) Such questions could be multiplied endlessly, for we can always speculate about why events didn’t happen in a different way or didn’t produce different results.
Many questions about Jesus won’t be answered fully until the end of history, because the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection concerns the whole human situation and all of human history. But our inability to find satisfactory answers to all of our why questions about the resurrection does not defeat belief in the resurrection itself any more than my ignorance of why you climbed a ladder yesterday defeats the fact of your climb. As long we keep our focus on the testimony of Paul, Peter, James, and the rest of those to whom Jesus appeared alive after his death, we need not let our many unanswered questions rob us of assurance of the fact of the resurrection.
Despite our inability to answer definitively the “why” questions in the first paragraph, I do not believe we are forced to remain completely silent in response to them. Some speculation, even if it is finally unconvincing, may increase our confidence that there are answers to these questions, even if we don’t know them. For nearly all human beings who have ever lived, God has been mysterious and hidden, unknown by clear sight or unambiguous demonstration. But God has always been somewhat knowable by faith and reason through creation and conscience. We know that we are not our own creators and lawgivers (See Rom 1:18-32). Divine hiddenness creates an opportunity for faith, free decision, moral courage, and virtue—and their opposites.
In Jesus Christ, God becomes a factor inside human history in a new way, as a human character in the story. Critical questions about why Jesus didn’t show himself to everyone and didn’t end history fail to understand that Jesus Christ didn’t enter history to end it. He came, rather, to save it, redeem it, and redirect it to its divinely appointed end. Even as God becomes in Christ a new factor in history, God remains hidden under the sign of the cross and in the foolishness of preaching (1 Cor 1:21). He does so for the same reason that God has always remained hidden, for the sake of faith, freedom, and virtue.
It would be strange to argue that God’s work of salvation and redemption contradicts or undoes God’s work in creation and providence. Apparently, God wants to accomplish his purpose for creation through its history and through human action. After all, creation is saved and perfected by the work of Jesus Christ whose action is both divine and human. And consistent with the mysterious ways of the Creator, Jesus’ divine action as Lord of All is hidden in his humanity and the humanity of his people.
I think you did a decisively good job in make a response to the Hiddenness Objection, exposing the level of entitlement implied and imposed on God by sceptics who believe that God simply *must* make Himself more plain to all, not just in His existence but also in His character. I remember hearing an Atheist speaker claim that if even one rational person can believe that God does not exist, the fact would count as weighty evidence against God’s existence on the basis of the Hiddenness Objection. This attitude, it seems to me, is the definition of obtuse.
However, there is another issue that I find perhaps more salient raised by the post’s title and opening paragraph. One can shape the question of “Why hasn’t Jesus Returned Yet?” not as a why question but as an actual defeater of certain statements in Scripture. The thought would be something like the following: 1) Jesus and Paul made claims that indicate (explicitly or implicitly) that Jesus’ return would be in the lifetimes of the first generation Christians; 2) Jesus’ return was not in the lifetimes of the first generation Christians; 3) Jesus’ and Paul’s aforementioned claims were false. This would either be a defeater of Scriptural inerrancy or authenticity (depending on one’s Hermeneutical views) or, worse, a defeater of Christ’s omniscience.
I have heard many attempted ways of reconciling Jesus’ apparent statements of His swift return with the delayed Parousia, but it seems to me that the only response that does not have some ad hoc elements is Dr. Craig’s scepticism response, namely: “We don’t know what Jesus meant by those statements, but we know He couldn’t have meant that He knew His return would be in the hearers’ lifetimes because He says clearly that nobody knows the day nor the hour of the return, not even the Son, but only the Father.” Would you be satisfied with this sort of sceptical response in interpreting the passages in question, or is there more that we can say about the meaning of Christ’s and Paul’s claims? I have always found this vaguely dissatisfying as an explanation, and the delayed Parousia is a much more unsettling problem than any other objection that I have heard levied against Christian doctrine to me..
You bring up an important point that I did not address. I left it out on purpose because I wanted to keep the focus on relationship between fact and end. I think most discussions focus on the question you raised. Now it is interesting that Jesus’ statements such as that made in Mark 9:1 were preserved and written down in Mark. If the church had wanted to hide a mistaken prediction it could have easily suppressed these sayings. We should also ask these questions: “why would Paul and the others expect Jesus to return within short order unless they were persuaded that he had been raised? And why wasn’t the delay a defeater for them?” I can’t find any post-resurrection statement that does more than express an expectation or hope for the early return. I do not find a dogmatic statement that would make the delay a defeater for the resurrection faith. Clearly, it did not defeat Paul’s faith. His belief that he experienced the risen Jesus was incorrigible. More needs to be said but not now.