When I was about 14 years old, I approached my father to ask him a theological question. I had, ever since I was little, been taught God was omnipresent (that he was everywhere at once). But on this particular day I was taking stock of my beliefs and ensuring that my beliefs were not man-made. I went to my father and asked “What evidence is there that God is omnipresent?”
My father didn’t answer me, instead (to his credit), leading me down the stairs and over to the bookshelf, he pulled out a thick volume on systematic theology and flipped the pages open to where the author defended the Latin attributes of God (omnipresence, omnipotence, immutability, etc). I looked over the verses, and the results were shocking to me. The evidence for omnipresence just did not exist. Omnipresence was being forced into verses that had nothing to do with omnipresence. To top it off, the text quoted a traditional hymn and cited the author’s assurance as evidence of its truth. I had been wrong, and worst of all I had trusted human beings over the clear text of the Bible.
Omnipresence is one issue in which I have changed my mind based on the evidence. Most Christians believe God is omnipresent, although the evidence is scant. They might point to a passage such as Psalm 139:
Psa 139:7 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
Psa 139:8 If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
The most straightforward meaning is that God is with David during the bad times and the good. But they will ignore any other alternative than “God is physically present everywhere.” You could point out that it is poetry, that David is not emphasizing God’s location but David’s personal relationship with God (he was God’s anointed). You could point out the Fallacy of Composition. You could point out that “presence” has a host of meanings that do not have to be physical location. You could point out the same word for presence is used when Cain left the “presence” of the Lord and moved to another land (Gen 4:16). In fact, the same passage is filled with idioms from David. He talks about “hands” leading him and “holding” him and being wrought in the “lowest parts of the earth” (a figure of speech for “womb”). The passage is about God being with David, not God metaphysically inhabiting every molecule in the universe. You could point out that Omnipresense is a Platonic concept that is utterly foreign to the Bible.
But mentioning these facts in polite conversation will lead to social ostracization. Why do Christians reject this evidence?
Bryan Caplan points out that human beings are “rationally irrational”:
There is a market for “irrationality”. Some beliefs are very costly. Caplan uses the belief that “one can fly” as an example. He says: “how many kids say that they believe they can fly. How many of those kids proceed to jump off the roof”. A false belief that you can fly is very costly. He says “if you believe you can fly, you will not believe that for very long.”
But some irrationality is practically costless. He then goes on to point out: “there are many beliefs where you can be completely wrong about them for your entire life and nothing will ever happen to you.” He uses an example of someone believing kidney sales are wrong. Although an individual might or might not think kidney sales should be legal, there is zero chance that one individual’s opinion will affect public policy. Someone can change their mind about kidney sales, but their life will not change in the least.
“Rationality”, on the other hand, is sometimes costly. One such cost is that no one likes changing their mind. He cites the book “The God That Failed” (autobiographies by former communists). Changing their belief to a true belief cost them mental anguish, it cost them their friends, it cost them their social standing, and it cost them suicidal thoughts. There was a high personal cost to being rational. Irrationality would have shielded them from intense costs. Some wished they never came to the truth.
Real people respond to incentives. When the cost of rationality is high and the price of irrationality is low, people demand irrationality. Caplan cites “religion” as one such area in which a person “can neglect a world of data and nothing will ever really happen to them”. (as a disclaimer, Caplan is an atheist, and has not responded to my email asking him to read the TheologyOnline debate on the topic.)
The apostle Paul understands rational irrationality. Paul understands the basic economic concept that people respond to incentives. He uses these principles to argue in favor of his sincerity and authority. In Galatians 1:14 he talks about his life before Christianity being “zealous” for the law and then being converted by Jesus. His point is that his life change is evidence of his authority. After all, why would a zealous Jew who was a leader suddenly uproot his life and change? There was something to incentivize him to uproot his life: it was the truth.
Elsewhere, Paul points out because of circumcision he is persecuted (Gal 5:11). His point is that all he would have to do to stop being persecuted is preach circumcision. If he was not sincere about circumcision, a simple change could save him a world of trouble. Elsewhere, Paul lists the terrible things that have happened to him (2Co 11:25). He is pointing out what he is saying is true, because he has no reason to invent lies and every reason to preach something else. Paul’s ministry was not for personal gain or convenience, it cost him dearly. He could have been rationally irrational if he wanted to deny the truth. The great personal cost was evidence of his truth.
One way to confront rational irrationality is to create more cost on irrationality. Economist Bryan Caplan points out that one way to make a costless belief have actual cost is to place a bet:
1. My rational irrationality story. A bet instantly raises the marginal private cost of error, which leads to a sharp increase in rationality. Faced with financial consequences, people suddenly – if temporarily – admit to themselves that they know a lot less than they like to believe – and bet accordingly.
Caplan cites “financial” consequences, but the bet does not have to be financial. While playing a board game with my sister, after a disagreement of the rules I offered a bet on the stake of a “Facebook apology”. Naturally she declined to bet and still insisted she was right even after getting online developer clarification. A bet is a way to test sincerity.
To the horror of Calvinists, God places a bet on Job with Satan (Job 1:9). What was Satan thinking when he bet against God? Calvinists are lost for words.
The biggest problem with betting is that “it is like pulling teeth” to get irrational people to bet on their beliefs.
One personal story: A Christian told me that in Acts 15:2, all the pronouns (them, they, them) referred to “the brethren that were taught” and did not include the “men from Judea”. He doubled down and said it was “obvious”, so I suggested we bet. We could test how obvious it was by asking random people at the mall to tell us who they think the pronouns describe. The Christian looked at me with an odd look on his face; he had no interest in testing how obvious his “obvious” claim was. He was under the strange impression I should just accept his “trust me” argument over the text of the Bible. Putting a cost on his belief froze him in his tacks and he didn’t know how to respond.
When someone holds a costless belief (like Omnipresence) whose alternative is very costly (like denying Omnipresence), they should be taken with a grain of salt. When someone holds a costly belief whose alternative is cheap (like Paul’s costly gospel), they are more likely to be trusted. When someone does not have an example of a costly change of mind (like Paul’s costly conversion), this might indicate intellectual dishonesty. Human beings default to being rationally irrational.