More on this, in effect.
Are there any atheists in the Old Testament? The fool hath said in his heart there is no God, perhaps; but fools aside—how could Adam, Enoch, Abraham or Moses deny the existence of God? In their world he was a straightforward presence, one more actor on the world stage. Or to put the question another way: if we read through the Bible as a narrative (which exercise, however distorting it almost certainly is, has been the pastime of millions of believers) we see not so much a gradual withdrawal of God—from another body in the garden, to a burning bush, to spiritus sanctus--but rather a breach, or break. Who is the first atheist? Which is to say: who, taking Old and New Testament together, is the first figure in the Bible to doubt what everybody else takes as manifest and self-evident, the presence of God in the world? Surely the answer to that question is: God himself, incarnated as Christ, with his cry from the cross that God has withdrawn from him. This, to be sure, is not an assertion of Dawkinesque atheism (which would be: there is not and never has been a God); but rather the infallible assertion that where God was once a part of the world he now no longer is. Adam and Eve are banished from proximity to the divine into the world, but that world is one in which the physical reality of God is still a part: God is glimpsed, or manifests Himself in natural phenomena—or supernatural ones, indeed. The God of the Old Testament, taken in terms of the internal logic of the world-building of those texts, is a certainty; and opposition to such a God can only be a matter of obstinancy, pride, or idiocy. Individuals who deny Jahweh are on a par with flat-earthers, or individuals suffering from hysterical blindness.
Not so the New Testament. Here we see the same broad premise as the Old Testament, the presence of God in a fallen world, in a completely different light. God’s incarnation is also the occasion for Him to forsake the world. The crucifixion, via a complex process of reiterated incarnation and ascension, destroys the body of God. God himself, on the cross, proclaims atheistical doubts about the presence of God. Of course it is true that after his heartfelt cry of loss-of-faith, why hast thou forsaken me, God himself passes back into faith; and the last of the seven utterances from the cross (into your hands I commend my spirit) functions as a pure and indeed moving article of faith. But the language is not that of certainty—as it might be, ‘now that it is finished, I go to my certain reward’. It is, on the contrary, the language of uncertainty, of hopeful but unsure self-commendation. The truly strange portion of this is, to resume the Chestertonian point, this is both Christ, a man who has been tortured horribly to death, hoping that he will be reunited with the heavenly God’ (a very human thing) and God, omniscient and all-powerful, who has freely chosen passivity—hence ‘passion’—in the teeth of human persecution. When we start to consider how it might be that God can consider God has forsaken Him, or how He can talk with anything other than certainty about what happens next, we may find ourselves coming to the conclusion that the real subject of the Passion is, precisely, doubt. Death, the one thing certain for all mortals, becomes the aperture through which doubt enters the world; both in the sense that we do not know when it is coming for us, or what happens after, and in the sense that it is death—transience, annihilation—that is most forcefully at odds with the spiritual narrative of immortal souls created by an immortal gods. This is why it is after the crucifixion that Doubt becomes the tenor of the human encounter with the divine, and the new subject of the Bible. Peter’s triple denial of Christ; doubting Thomas, Paul’s sermonizing on the valences of faith instead of proof—this is all part of a new pattern. Once God has withdrawn himself physically from the world, doubt becomes the necessary currency of belief in Him. The mood shifts from imperative to subjunctive.
This is, I suppose, has some relationship to Karl Barth’s celebrated argument that ‘metaphysical absolutes are an abomination unto the Lord and abolished in Christ.’ That, in other words, one of the points of the divine principle supplementing itself (as it were) in Christ is, once and for all, to introduce a saving doubt as the ground of individual faith. Barth objects to all attempts at ‘proof’—St Anselm’s, or St Aquinas’s—as misunderstandings (more precisely; he argues that subsequent thinkers have mistaken the grounds and purposes of these ‘proofs’) of the nature of the way that lies between God and man. In The Word of God and the Word of Man: ‘there is no way from us to God—not even a via negative—not even a via dialectica nor paradoxical. The God who stood at the end of some human way would not be God.’ If that looks as though Barth’s beef is with a human arrogance and superbus in thinking we can define, or determine, or in some sense fix God, that’s actually only part of it. For Barth, the point is as much that positive assertion as to the existence of God is replaced, theologically speaking, with a mystic negation of the human. In crude terms, the road does not run from man to God; it runs from God to man. This is also the thrust of that splendid though rather under-appreciated piece of creative theology, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The babel-fish knows the truth. Once we accept that proof denies faith, we find ourselves in the situation where any absolute certainty as to the existence of God would be precisely the grounds on which God ceases to exist. ‘Proof denies faith’, here, means something more than ‘proof would tend to degrade or corrode faith’. It means, more starkly: proof and faith together constitute a zero-sum game.