In response to the question of whether or not science makes belief in God obsolete, Christopher Hitchens (who ultimately answers the question in the negative), suggested that, “It will not do to say, in reply to this, that the lord moves in mysterious ways. Those who dare to claim to be his understudies and votaries and interpreters must either accept the cruelty and the chaos or disown it: they cannot pick and choose between the warmly benign and the frigidly indifferent.”
Hitchens’ essential argument against theism is that the theistic explanation was conceived in the infancy of humanity during its most ignorant stages and that as humanity has matured somewhat, there are better (or at least equally plausible) explanations than to appeal to the divine. One of the problems Hitchens and others identify with theism is that they cannot justify the existence of evil with the existence of a good divine sovereign. In the above remark, Hitchens argues that the believer cannot appeal to the unfathomability of God as a blanket explanation for the behavior of God, suggesting that even “morality shudders at the thought of god.” In short, God allows (or causes) things that don’t square with Hitchens’ morality, and the oft’ repeated explanation by believers is that we simply can’t know God’s reasons. The appeal to God’s unfathomability is more or less an argument from silence. Thus some conclude that if He exists at all, God is a jerk. However, the problem that Hitchens and others identify is addressed by Paul’s doxological paradox in Romans 11:33-36.
In Romans 1-11 Paul explains in great detail the remarkable things God has done in order to save people. He introduces the “good news” in 1:16-17, describing it as His ability to save people of every ethnicity (notice the order of priority listed in 1:16) through faith or belief in Christ. Chapters 1-3:20 consider the universal need for God’s grace, as there are none righteous, not even one (3:10).
Beginning in 3:21 Paul explains that the righteousness of God has been revealed in Christ, as the Hebrew Scriptures had preannounced, and all who believe in Him are credited with His righteousness and are thus spared from the wages of sin. Romans 3:21-8:39 describes the implications of this salvation, noting that believers have peace with God (5:1), that this was provided for even when we were enemies of God (5:8), that because we are alive to God we are dead to sin (6:1-7) and thus we should no longer be governed by sin, that there is a conflict between the believer and his or her flesh (7:14-25), and that because the believer’s new position in Christ was accomplished by Christ there is no condemnation and there is an eternal security for the believer (e.g., 8:1, 28-30).
Chapters 9-11 illustrate that God is faithful by recounting His purpose and future plans for the nation of Israel. God made promises during Old Testament times, and He will keep them. Consequently, the church-age believer can trust Him when He makes promises to them.
As Paul concludes that incredible panorama of “the mercies of God” (Rom 12:1) throughout the first eleven chapters of Romans, he interjects a magnificent doxology in 11:33-36:
33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!
34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?
35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again?
36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
After spending eleven chapters mining the depths of the applied wisdom of God, Paul recognizes that there is a limit to what can be understood about God. It is as if he is saying in this doxology that the aspects of God that are revealed in these eleven chapters are just the tip of the iceberg and that there is so much more to God than what is revealed here. Still, revelation is the key. Recall that God’s righteousness has been revealed through faith (1:17), and these chapters of the Romans’ letter focus on what that faith means. These aspects of the revealed righteousness of God are incredible and elegant, and grounds for praising God. Paul’s response here is fitting.
Another important aspect of the doxology is the appeal in 11:34-35 to God’s sovereign rights as the Creator. As He owes no one anything, and is the sovereign Creator, He has the authority to write the rules and to apply His wisdom as He sees fit. Some of that He has chosen to reveal, some He hasn’t. Paul’s doxology provides a backdrop for the important truth that what God has revealed is knowable, but there is much He has not revealed. God is unfathomable to His creation (e.g., Is 55:8-9), yet knowable insofar as He has revealed Himself (Prov 2:6, Ecc 3:11). This is the beautiful paradox.
To assume that we can know enough of God to morally critique Him assumes also that we also have some base of moral authority from which to judge Him. Paul leaves no room for this when he reproves those who would judge God. He walks the critic down a Socratic path in 9:14-20: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!…You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?”… On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it?”
It is somewhat ironic that God actually uses human understanding of the science of the physical world as an example of His own superiority over humanity. For example, He asks Job, “Can you send forth lightnings that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’ (Job 38:35)?” Science has not made God obsolete until it provides humanity complete and total control of nature – including creating ex nehilo and having the ability to conquer death. When these conditions are met, then perhaps humanity will be in a position to stand as a peer to God, but until then, “who are you O man, who answers back to God?”
The beautiful paradox has significant implications. God is knowable insofar as He has revealed Himself, and He has the sovereignty to determine what to reveal and what not to reveal. Further, insofar as He has not revealed Himself, He is unfathomable, and infinitely beyond us. This is what makes the paradox beautiful: the transcendent Master of the universe has reached out to His creation, and is intimately involved in it. He revealed Himself in nature, in Scripture, and ultimately, in His Son.
It is no mere coincidence that Jesus Christ came demonstrating His power over nature to show that He had sovereign rights over His creation, so that when He said, “the believing one has eternal life” (Jn 6:37), we could have confidence not only in His word on its own merit (which would be enough), but also in the science that testifies of His authority to make such claims.