The winds were roaring, the trees were creaking, and Hurricane Gloria was wreaking havoc with the backyard of my family home in rural Massachusetts.
Finally, one ash tree yielded to the winds and the four-story wooden behemoth came crashing down into the yard. At the time, I was 3 years old and I was terrified. My mother turned to me and assured me that Jesus was in my heart and that He would get us through this.
This was small comfort for me. “Well, He better get out of our hearts and do something about this!” I responded.
My statement belied a more fundamental question: Where was God in the first place? Why didn’t I sense His presence near me or see Him outside protecting our home from falling trees?
As Christians, we believe that God is mystically present everywhere. Theologians call this the ‘immanence’ of God. But we also know that He is not visibly present in the way that He was when God walked this earth in fully human form, as Jesus Christ, who we believe not only rose from the dead but also ascended to heaven. Why is God absent? Why did Jesus leave us?
Here are seven reasons offered by philosophers, theologians, and Scripture itself.
1. Freedom. In his book, The Resurrection of the Incarnate God, British philosopher Richard Swinburne says God’s absence is necessary to create what he calls ‘epistemic distance.’ Such distance is necessary, Swinburne says, in order for us to be able to really choose between good and evil. “God must stand back if we are to choose; just as the parent must leave the children in the nursery for a short while on their own if they are to form their own characters,” Swinburne writes. “While God will want to provide for those who have formed a good character the enormous reward of his everlasting friendship, the only way in which he can do so is to make the reward uncertain.” For that same reason, God became man just once, since repeat incarnations over time and in many places would reduce God’s epistemic distance, according to Swinburne.
2. Faith. Swinburne doesn’t come right out and say it, but God’s so-called epistemic distance is necessary for an even more fundamental reason: faith. Were God fully and undeniably present to us—Jesus in all His glory, the glowing cloud of lightning that appeared to the prophet Ezekiel—faith wouldn’t be necessary. This idea of belief in the unseen is crucial to the Church’s understanding of faith. As St. Paul wrote in Hebrews, Now faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not. As St. Augustine put it: “[I]f you see, there is no faith.”
This begs the question: Why does God require faith? The alternative is reason unaided by faith. In much the same way we infer the existence of a chair by sitting on it or solve an equation through a series of logical steps, we would also use our reason to deduce the existence of God.
But if we were able to find God through our own means wouldn’t that inflate our pride? Wouldn’t it also be kind of disappointing if some explorer was able to find God hiding under a rock on Mt. Everest or in the depths of the sea? Wouldn’t that undermine, in some measure, God’s greatness? Instead, it seems only proper that a being as great and wondrous as God would first humble us and only then reveal Himself to us, on His own terms. Reason will get us up only so far on the mountain, but it is only at the summit of faith that we meet God.
3. Grace. The Incarnation tells us two things about how God wants to save us. First, it indicates that He takes our sins seriously enough to make sure that the penalty for them was paid in full, instead of simply wiping them away at the wave of His hand, as St. Anselm explained so well in his treatise, Cur Deus Homo. This penalty was paid through the ultimate sacrifice, in which His son poured Himself out for us in a grisly and agonizing death.
The Incarnation also tells us that, in His desire that we have the fullness of redemption, God planned for us to cooperate with His grace in the working out of our salvation. In the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, we participate in His death so we have assurance that we will share in the Resurrection as well. As Christ Himself said, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. St. Paul and St. Peter called on us to be imitators of Christ and to “partake” of His sufferings. Paul even wrote that his personal sufferings fill[ed] up those things that are wanting of the suffering of Christ. This is the working out of the Incarnation over space and time. Of course, this presupposes an obvious fact: Jesus’ visible departure from our midst.
4. Heaven. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that He was going to His Father’s house to “prepare a place” for us. This house is not only the dwelling place of God, it is God Himself. “In this house, then, that is, in glory, which is God, are many rooms, that is, various participations in happiness,” Aquinas writes in his commentary on the gospel. “This is because one who knows more will have a greater place. Therefore, the different rooms are the various participations in the knowledge and enjoyment of God.” As troubling as God’s absence is, it’s certainly comforting to know that Jesus has gone ahead to ready a home for us in heaven.
5. Intercession. Scripture tells us that Jesus will be doing more than preparing a place for us in heaven. In Romans 8, Paul says that Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, where He intercedes on our behalf. The Epistle to the Hebrews elaborates, describing Christ as a high priest. Chapter 9 conjures up a dramatic image of Christ entering into the heavenly temple offering Himself in atonement for our sins:
But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be, passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation, he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. … For Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself, that he might now appear before God on our behalf.
6. The Holy Spirit. Jesus provides yet another reason for His departure near the end of the Farewell Discourse in John:
I tell you the truth: it is expedient to you that I go: for if I go not, the Paraclete [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.
Again we ask: Why? Why would the Holy Spirit not come if Jesus did not leave? Gregory the Great explains that Jesus had to visibly withdraw from us so that we could come to know the “Invisible.” And, indeed in Acts, the Holy Spirit descends in tongues of fire, accompanied by the sounds of a mighty wind from heaven.
This is the way it seems with God: at times we sense the overflowing presence of God in our lives, only to be filled with profound emptiness by His apparent withdrawal. This happened to Jesus too: after being filled with the Holy Spirit, He went into the desert for forty days, where He experienced hunger, loneliness, and temptation. On the cross, He cried out, asking why God had abandoned Him, only to experience the ultimate sign of divine favor—resurrection from the dead. This paradox of God’s continual presence and absence brings us to our last point.
7. God’s Love. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, God’s inexpressible infinity makes Him both “transcendent and completely present” to us, according to Spanish theologian Lucas Francisco Mateo-Seco. As beings made in the image of God, our “love and desire” for God are without limit. This means that we are perpetually ascending towards Him as He draws us ever closer to Himself: just when our desire is satisfied, it springs anew in our hearts. As Mateo-Seco writes, “The more one reaches it, the more one desires it. The desire for God brings with it the joyous paradox of reaching that which is desired, thus amplifying the capacity of a new desire.”
In a sense, this eternal movement of the soul towards God is reflected in the story of the Bible. After the Fall, men of faith are afforded only fleeting glimpses of God—the burning bush that accosted Moses or the gentle breeze that nonetheless rattled Elijah. In the Incarnation, God comes to us in the very flesh and blood—only to then withdraw again. In yet another twist, the Holy Spirit arrives on a heavenly wind and in the form of tongue-shaped fire. This is the adventure of faith—to know God intimately and yet to strive after Him ever more, over the mountains of faith and through the valleys of doubt.