If God does exist, does it make sense to trust him? Most atheists would probably look at all the evil acts that God did in the Bible and say that it would be silly to trust a God like that. Most Christians would probably say that based on their personal experiences with God, they have come to trust him and that if he did everything the Bible says he did, he must have had good reasons. In a way this makes sense. If you trust someone deeply, you will give them the benefit of the doubt. And even if some of them sound implausible, Christians have come up with all kinds of different explanations for why God might have done the things the Bible says he did. So I think that any discussion of trust should start with how much trust God has actually earned. If there’s no reason to trust God to begin with, then you don’t even have to bring up his seemingly evil acts.
Suppose we know that God does exist. Suppose we know of good reasons why it was moral for God to do all those things he did. Suppose God communicates with us constantly and seems to do good things that make our lives better. Would it then make sense to trust God? Is it even possible for God to earn our trust? A while ago I probably would have said yes, but now I’m not so sure.
The first step is looking at why we come to trust people. It all starts with how much trust we have for people in general. If my experiences have shown that people are pretty trustworthy, I should trust a stranger more than if I thought that most humans were evil. But how much we trust someone depends on other things like the context that we met them in. We assign teachers, drug dealers, people in suits, and people who look like gang members different initial levels of trust based on what we think we know about the trustworthiness of these groups. While this can be a good thing, sometimes these biases are irrational. Many people are racist or xenophobic without any actual evidence supporting their biases.
What about God? For one thing, we have no experience with other all-powerful supernatural beings. Even if humans are trustworthy in general, that doesn’t mean that the same holds for supernatural beings. Given that there doesn’t seem to be any reason a priori to think a good God is more likely than an evil God, I don’t think we have an a priori reason for trusting him.
But as we get to know someone better, our level of trust changes. If someone tries to steal my wallet and is not a magician, I start trusting them less. But if I see someone giving up their time or money to help someone else, I start trusting them more. While this seems like a good way of figuring out whether someone is trustworthy, you have to be careful. If you ask an email scammer to send you $10 to prove he’s honest and he does, that doesn’t mean you should send him your life’s savings. While small selfless acts may cause us to trust someone, we still shouldn’t trust that person totally or we could be easily swindled.
So what has God sacrificed? Many Christians will say that he sacrificed his son/himself. But since God is all powerful, he could have brought about the same result without having Jesus die. It’s a little like if a judge stabbed himself in the leg with a pencil and then decided not to send someone to jail. The pencil has nothing to do with whether the act is benevolent. But also, if Jesus is God, he would be infinitely capable of dealing with pain and dying on the cross wouldn’t hurt him at all. Even if he could strip himself of his ability to deal with pain, his act would be no more benevolent than the judge’s self-mutilation. It would also raise the interesting question of whether God could take away all his powers and kill himself.
A Christian might say that it’s still benevolent because God forgave our sins. Laying aside the fact that most Christians think that this gift was conditional upon believing in God, this is still not the kind of self-sacrificing act that should make us more likely to trust someone. God is essentially giving up nothing of value, and then asking us to give up something we value very much: our ability to live our lives the way we see fit. So sacrificing to God would be worse than giving your life’s savings to the scammer. God has sacrificed less to earn your trust and is asking for more.
Certainly this isn’t the only way someone can earn your trust. If you get to know someone very well and you see what they’re really like, you might start to trust them. If you see someone at their most raw and uninhibited, you can get a better idea of whether they’re trustworthy. For example, if you meet a politician after he’s had a few beers you might get a better idea of what he’s like than if you listen to every single one of his speeches. While we can be easily fooled, this can at least give us some idea of how trustworthy someone is. This works because humans are not perfect at deception, as the success of poker players at reading tells demonstrates. But since God is all powerful, he is infinitely skilled at deception. So we could not tell whether our interactions with him show us what he is really like, or whether he is merely deceiving us.
One other good way of seeing whether we should trust someone is seeing what other people we trust think of him. At first this seems like it could be a good reason to trust God, but then you have to think about why other people trust God. If there is no good reason to trust God even in the best case scenario when God communicates with us constantly and seems to make our lives better, what basis do those people have for trusting God? If everyone I knew believed something but I knew that they had no good reason for believing it, that wouldn’t give me a reason to believe it. If everyone I knew trusted in the U.S. government, but I knew that the only reason they did so was they thought blind patriotism was good, that wouldn’t give me any reason to trust the U.S. government.
Yet even if you realize there’s no good reason to trust God, you could still say that if God rewards you for doing what he says, it makes sense to keep doing it. If God somehow demonstrates to us in an unmistakable way that he is rewarding us for our actions, then maybe this would make sense. If I gave a $10 bill to a poor person and then a $100 bill appeared in my wallet and God told me he’d keep doing that, I’d start giving out a lot more $10 bills. But God still wouldn’t earn my trust. I see trust as a confidence that someone is generally honest and a good person. There could be a practical benefit to doing what an evil dictator says, but that doesn’t mean you should trust him.
One final reason someone might trust God is for the psychological benefits. It seems like it would be disturbing to believe that God exists, but have no idea whether he’s good or evil. While there are probably cases where it could make you happier, trusting in people merely for psychological benefits can be very dangerous. Many people had a profound trust in Jim Jones and this may have made them happy, but this misplaced trust had disastrous consequences.
Even if God exists, and even if he does the things Christians claim he does, it still doesn’t seem like there’s any rational way to justify trust in God. God controls our reality, and if he wants to create a world in which he makes us think he’s nice in order to get us to do evil, he can do so without any effort whatsoever. So the question is not whether we can still trust God despite the genocide he ordered in the Bible. The question is whether there’s any good reason for trusting him in the first place.