In “Does God limit evidence to protect human freedom?” I critiqued Gerald O’Collins’ claim that God limits the evidence for his existence to protect the freedom of humans to choose to believe in him. David Evans responds: “O’Collins seems to be saying that God always leaves room for a reasonable doubt as to His existence. But He also wants us to love and obey Him.” He then asks:
“Isn’t that strange? How can one love someone whose very existence is open to doubt?”
You’re not going to find me defending the strangeness of a voluntarist approach to belief. And thus I’m not that interested in defending what seem to be the more peculiar aspects of O’Collins’ formulation. However, I would like to address the specific question of whether it is possible to love somebody who might not exist.
In fact, I see no problem here at all. To begin with, it is possible to believe somebody exists who might not exist. Consider Eleanor Rigby who one day joins a dating website in a vain attempt to cure the loneliness that The Beatles capitalized on at her expense (and she never even received any royalties!). She reads the profile of Bob on the website and sends him a note. Soon they are conversing regularly by email and text. Eleanor believes Bob exists even though she recognizes that he might not exist (after all, “Bob” could be simply an identity invented by one of Eleanor’s many cruel tormentors).
And if it is reasonable for Eleanor to believe Bob exists (even though he might not), it is also reasonable for her to experience a range of emotions toward Bob, including love. So it is indeed possible to love a person that you believe might not exist.
Admittedly, it is not possible to love a person if your doubt that the person exists reaches a critical threshold. And insofar as O’Collins is committed to saying that the divine concern for human freedom obliges God to keep all people below that threshold then that would be a critical problem for O’Collins’ view. But so long as the doubt does not reach that threshold it remains possible to love those you believe might not exist.