Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Obscurity of God and the Nightmare Box

Original Posting

It’s something that goes beyond life-after-death. What’s in the box is proof that what we call life isn’t.

Our world is a dream. Infinitely fake. A nightmare.

One look, Rand says, and your life—your preening and struggle and worry—it’s all pointless.

The grandson crawling with cockroaches, the antiques dealer, Cassandra with no eyelashes wandering off naked.

All your problems and love affairs.

They’re an illusion. “What you see inside the box,” Rand says, “is a glimpse of the real reality.”

-Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Let me start with a statement that I shall make no effort to argue for or defend. If you disagree with this statement, there is no need to even bother coming up with a rebuttal, you can simply disagree and move along. The statement is, as you read this right now, being furiously debated all across the internet as it is.

Humanity, as a species, has no good evidence to support the belief that God exists.

Now, this is not necessarily evidence against his existence. If God is, as many theists believe, omnipotent and omniscient, then it would not be difficult for him to avoid providing us with evidence of his existence. Unlike natural forces like gravity or natural occurrences such as combustion, God would be capable of resisting observation and obscuring himself. Indeed, if you agree with my above statement, and also happen to be a theist, I do not see how you can avoid the conclusion that God is obscuring Himself.

God, if there is a god, is a reclusive god.

Now, you may object that God has not really been silent, but in fact has revealed himself to us at various times and in various ways, most notably through prophets and holy texts. Even if one accepts a particular sacred text as the word of God, the fact remains that it should not be very difficult for him to give each and every one of us a personal chat wherein he explains himself as best as the truths of his nature can be simplified for human language, the fact remains that it is not necessary for modern humans to rely on 2000 year old records if God is indeed omnipotent. In other words, it is possible for him to give each of us our own personal revelation, but instead we are expected to rely on the records of revelations he gave to long dead prophets and teachers.

Even if he does speak to us, he is only whispering. For what reason would God whisper, if that is indeed what he is doing? Or for what reason would God be silent, if in fact humanity has never received any kind of revelation? Disregarding the atheistic answer, which is perfectly valid but does not make for a very interesting discussion, the most likely explanation is that it is God's will that he not be clearly known or clearly grasped.

Which leads me wondering why God would not want to be clearly known or clearly grasped. What is it that God gains or avoids by keeping us in the dark about his existence? If God is obscuring himself, to what end is he doing it?*

God, in most traditional conceptions, has desires, but never needs. Humanity has needs, though. I have a suspicion that the obscurity of God is best understood as being for the sake of humanity instead of being for the sake of God. To flesh out my suspicion as to why God must obscure himself, I turn to a subplot of a book I really happen to like.

In Chuck Palahniuk's 2005 novel Haunted, one of the stories concerns a device called The Nightmare Box. The box ticks, and while it is ticking it is just an antique oddity. Then it stops ticking. When it stops ticking, a person can lean their weight against the box, move their left eye to a lens, hold onto two handles, and press a button. After that, your life no longer matters. You give up college, you give up your career, you take out your jewelry, you no longer care if cockroaches crawl through your clothes, and you no longer see the need to keep your long, pretty eyelashes. You give up on life. It is no longer worth the effort.


Because the Nightmare Box shows you a glimpse of real life. It shows you that there is a more real life, and it shows you that this life you are living in right now is an illusion. None of your struggles, goals, dreams, or fears have any real significance, they are all just a part of a make-believe world. They are fiction. So you just give up. You stop bothering to make anything of your life because, well, why try to build a life here in the world of illusions when there's a real world out there somewhere?

Now, this is fiction, and this is human motivation filtered through the mind of one particular author. You can decide for yourself; if you knew, not believed, that there was a real heaven out there and that our world and our existence was artificial and unreal, could you continue living as though life mattered? Could you continue valuing your education, your career, your home, your appearance, your art, or anything else that you believe makes your life worth living if you found out that your whole existence was the equivalent of a video game or a novel? Entirely fictional.

Maybe you could. Maybe you could not. That requires introspection to determine.

Even if you could continue living your life, though, it would never be the same. It is one thing to simply come to the conclusion that life is an illusion; one can cope with that by remembering that this would also make us an illusion, therefore the world is still real to us. It is another thing entirely to come to the conclusion that life is an illusion, but also have something real to compare your illusory life to. The world would begin resembling a cartoon, it would no longer create the sense of weight and significance necessary for us to continue seriously living our lives. Even if you could continue living your life, everyday would be a struggle to stave off a nihilistic infection of the spirit.

What does this have to do with the obscurity of God?

Go read your Bible, and you will find a description of a God who oftentimes simply appears to be a human writ large. He is an almost relatable figure, although He is often offensive to our modern sensibilities. Nonetheless, in the Bible, God cares about the things that human beings tend to care about. He provides a code of laws, he gets involved in warfare, he gets involved with politics, he is jealous, he seeks glory, he has an opinion on good sex as opposed to bad sex. This is a God who is very concerned with what we concern ourselves with.

Now ask yourself if this sounds right? Are we not told that God is beyond humanity? Transcendent? Almost incomprehensible to us?

Imagine if you met that incomprehensible God. That God who is so far removed from what we care about, that he would make our entire lives seem insignificant by his presence. There is the first real entity you have ever encountered, and he simply is not concerned about the petty problems and your petty values that you concern yourself with. There He is: a Nightmare Box for the whole world.

Why do I say that he would be a Nightmare Box for the world? Because after being in His presence, it would be impossible for you to continue caring about anything in your life. How can you submit taxes after having an encounter with God, with all his apathy toward taxes. How can you form a relationship with another person, they are bound to seem like a shadow or a parody of a personality after having encountered God. How can you keep working your mundane job, knowing that it will not get you any closer to that extraordinary real world?

You may here object that I have fallen into utter speculation. After all, how do I know that God will not care about taxes? And how do I know that God's personality would be so deep as to make all other personalities appear shallow as a puddle? And how do I know that you would not be able to keep working because your only concern would be to grow nearer to that real world?

To this I would simply say that the search for meaning and the search for significance and value is one of humanity's most basic drives. To encounter something (someone?) who is literally more real than our world would cause our hearts to pour out. In our lives, as I believe I have discussed previously, we are responsible for creating our own meaning and our own value. In the presence of God, there would be no need for such an act of the will. The sense of meaning would be drawn out of us as soon as we see how fictional our world seems in comparison to Him. We may not all love Him, but it would be impossible to deny his significance. Although, I must admit that it is possible that he would be concerned with taxes, I suppose I just really hope that he is not.

And then what would happen?

I think humanity would screech to a halt. With such certain knowledge of God, all we would ever be concerned with would be God. We would all become like monks, devoting our lives to this entity, because nothing else would seem to be worth our time. Everything earthly would feel like trudging, we would feel like we were just playing a role or playing make-believe. Nothing would be able to create a sense of importance or significance in us. Once you encounter something that matters as much as God does, it would be impossible to feel that anything else matters.

Our earthly life would wilt.

So, if God is obscuring himself, I think that it is because he wishes to preserve this human world. He is obscure, so that by remaining mysterious he keeps us able to regard our own world as being worth living for.

*It should be noted that I am here making the very unwarranted assumption that God must be acting toward some end. This is an anthropomorphism. We believe that humans act toward some end, which causes us to impose that human trait upon God. My other presupposition is that, if God is working toward a goal, that goal is something that human beings would find valuable. It is possible that God's true end would simply be baffling to us because we would never think it worth seeking.


  1. I've read this (while being more awake) and was actually able to understand it. I think you make some valid points -- that life would be completely different if everyone knew that God existed.

    However, I think the reason God does not show himself to others is less to preserve humanity as we know it but rather as a means to weed out those who have faith in Him vs. those who do not. God gives humans free will because he wants us to have a choice to love, follow and honor Him, because it is only out of the freedom of choice that true love and adoration can exist. Love wouldn't be genuine if there is no other choice. As such, I believe He shields His glory and His heavens from the world now because to show such a thing to us would be infringing upon that free will--people who would normally turn their cheek to religion would be swept up in the fervor of amazement and join in on the worship because they can't deny Him then. Free will, and therefore the ability to love and honor God willingly, is taken away.

    In my opinion, if a person can't love God without there being some kind of proof that He indeed exists, than that person is incapable of loving in the first place. Love is all about chance and taking a leap. There are far too many "coincidences" in life for me to believe that there isn't a God. Far too many things that can't be explained by science or fancy words.

  2. In a past life I made a similar argument.

    I do have a question, though, purely a question of opinion.

    Let's say that there is a man who is willing to serve and submit to God and is also willing to love and worship God. The only thing keeping him from doing so is that he cannot believe in God, whenever he tries he is plagued by doubt, he can't peacefully and confidently believe in the Lord.

    Is this man in defiance of God? Or should he just be considered deficient (as in his inability to believe should be considered a weakness or something to be overcome, though his will is good). Or what would you say of this person, as he relates to God?