If I can’t find something I am looking for, does that mean it doesn’t exist?
In the context of searching for God, if I can’t “find God”, does that mean God doesn’t exist?
My inability to find something I’m looking for is not proof that the thing I am looking for doesn’t exist. Ask my wife. She will often describe an object to me and asked me to go retrieve it for her. I am reluctant to say how many times I have come back without what she sent me to retrieve. I might even be embarrassed to admit how many times I’ve wanted to tell her that the object doesn’t exist (before she walks right up to it and grabs it herself).
How many times have we said to ourselves when looking for something, “It isn’t anywhere!”? Do we mean, literally, that the object isn’t anywhere? Not usually. Intellectually we know that it is somewhere, but we just can’t find it.
Maybe I am looking in the wrong place. If I’m looking for an object I’ve never seen before, maybe I have the wrong picture of the object in my mind and I am not looking for the right thing. Maybe the object isn’t where I thought it was. Maybe the object is hidden and needs to be uncovered.
These examples are allegorical when it comes to the idea of searching for God.
This reminds me of an old joke. A guy is walking down a street at night and sees another guy looking intently for something on the ground under a light pole. Being sympathetic, the first guy walks over, studies the situation for a while and proceeds to get down on his knees and start helping with the search. After a while, he straightens up and asks, “What are you looking for?” The second guy says, I lost my car keys.” So, the first guy asks, “Where did you lose them?” And, the first guy says, “I lost them about 50 yards that way,” pointing with his hand, “but the light is better over here.”
Sometimes we can’t find something because we don’t know what we are looking for, or it could be that we are looking in the wrong place. The fact that I can’t find something does not mean that the particular thing does not exist, and not being able to find it isn’t proof for the proposition that it doesn’t exist.
Therefore, when atheists make the claim, the affirmative claim, that God doesn’t exist, they are not standing on solid ground. All they can say is that, if God does exist, they haven’t found Him.
I might also add that they probably haven’t really been looking for Him. And if they have been looking for Him, they are probably not looking in the right “place”. For instance, the materialist who assumes that space/time and matter are all the exists might look for God in the natural world. They will not find God in the natural world anymore than we might find a painter in a painting.
In this sense, they don’t have the right idea who God is or what He might “look” like. If God is transcendent, they might find some reflection of him in the natural world, just as a painting is a very limited reflection of who the painter is, but they will not find God, Himself, because they have the wrong idea of who God might be.
God may be hidden to them in that sense, and one might need to uncover the things that are hiding God to him. Our anger, desire to be left alone, misconception of what God is like, etc. are things that might hide God from us.
I don’t want to minimize or trivialize the idea of looking for God, but it isn’t as simple as finding an object. God isn’t like something we might be retrieving for our spouses. God is not a person like us who could be found as we might find a lost child.
If there is a God who created “the heavens and the Earth”, which is the Hebrew way of describing everything that exists, such a God would have to be transcendent. A God who created time/space and matter would have to be timeless, space-less and immaterial. We could not know God or “find” God quite in the same way that we might find an object or a fellow human being.
When my wife describes for me an object she wants me to retrieve, she has a good idea where that object might be and a good picture of it in her mind. She is usually the one who put it there. I can only try to picture what she sees in her mind from the descriptions she gives me. If I dare say it, her descriptions are often lacking in detail. (At least that’s what I maintain.)
Similarly, there are hundreds of thousands, and millions, of people who claim to have encountered God and claim to know God, who are able to describe encounters with God to people who have not had the same experience or encounter. But, those of us who have not had the same encounter or experience may have difficulty picturing what they are saying and understanding what they are describing.
On the other hand, those of us who have had an encounter and experience with God can identify with the descriptions other people give of the same type of encounter or experience. For the one person, the descriptions seem foreign, strange, and unfamiliar. For the other person, they ring true, familiar and affirming.
When I talk to someone who knows that a thing exists, like my spouse, I take it on faith that it does exist. (Though sometimes I would like to deny it!) The fact that someone else knows that a thing exists helps me when I go to look for it. I have some confidence that I will find it.
If I don’t believe a thing exists, or that it doesn’t exist in the place I am looking, my motivation will not likely be as high. I might not look as hard. I might be tempted to give up too early if I doubt the thing really exists or is where I looking.
I can relate this to fishing. There was a time in my life when I knew fish existed under the water that I could not see. I knew people could catch those fish. I had read articles about how to catch fish, the techniques and the lures to use, and the places to look for them, but, I had never caught a fish myself. Therefore, when I went fishing, I did not have a lot of faith in my ability to catch one. I did not fish very long before giving up. .
Over time and after some success, my confidence rose. If I fished with an experienced fisherman, I was buoyed by his experience and confidence. I had much more confidence after I had some personal success catching fish myself, and I had much more patience to stick it out when the fish weren’t biting. I know they were there!
The same is true of the subject of looking for God. There are millions of people over the centuries and even today who claim to know God, to have “found” God in some way. It’s very possible that one person may be mistaken, but the likelihood of millions being mistaken is less than when there are only a few who make this claim.
A reasonable person would have to admit that there must be something to this claimed experience that so many people have had. It may be that they only think that they have encountered Him. That is a possibility of course, but we should not dismiss it out of hand just like we should not dismiss out of hand the story of a person who throws metal in the water attached to a line and claims to catch fish, as incredulous as it may sound!
If not finding something isn’t proof that something doesn’t exit, and if millions of people claim to have had a personal encounter and experience with something they call God, keeping an open mind seems like a reasonable proposition. We don’t want to be like the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, who, upon returning from space, is alleged to have claimed he didn’t find God there. Why should God be found there and not on earth? What makes anyone think that God is more accessible to a cosmonaut than an ordinary person? Is God really to be “found” like a human being might be found?