This question suddenly occurred to me as I was reading an interview between Sam Harris and Tim Prowse, a Methodist minister who recently lost his faith and left the church. As a set up for one of his questions, Sam mentions his debate with Rick Warren, in which the latter claimed that he would no longer be able to behave ethically if God disappeared.
This has always struck me as an odd claim. Not only does it rely on this strange relationship in which ethical behavior can only be carried out in God’s presence, much like a toaster can only work if it’s plugged into a power outlet, but it begs the question: How would you even know if God disappeared?
Even the word “disappeared” itself suggests how problematic the concept of God disappearing is. The word essentially means to “un-appear”, to become invisible. Yet God has never been visible in the first place, so how can he disappear? More generally, how would we know if God ceased to exist?
The root of the problem, of course, is that it’s essentially impossible to tell if God really exists, in which case it must also be impossible to tell if he ceases to exist. There is nothing that goes on in everyday life that can be expected to cease occurring if God disappeared. The laws of physics have everything covered. Indeed, in the deistic framework, in which God set everything in motion and then stepped back from the controls, we wouldn’t expect to notice any changes if God were to vanish.
But most Christians are not deists. They believe in a personal God who regularly intervenes in their lives. So what changes, exactly, would they expect to detect if God suddenly disappeared? Would prayers feel any different? Would worship on Sunday mornings feel any different? (Would pastors’ sermons get even more boring?) Or would it be like Warren suggests, namely a sudden urge to commit all sorts of crimes? Such scenarios seem vastly implausible to me.
In fact, God may already have disappeared long ago. Who’s to know?