If a loving god exists, and wants to be known, why have so many people down through history not believed in a supreme being? Theologians such as Anselm of Canterbury and Martin Luther developed the idea that the Judeo-Christian god is a hidden god, or one that does not reveal itself to all persons. There is even scriptural support for this view. “Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself,” Isaiah 45:15 states, while Psalm 22:2 reads, “My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer”.
The 17th century French Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal comments on the significance of this doctrine:
If there were only one religion, God would be clearly manifest. If there were martyrs only in our religion, the same. God being therefore hidden, any religion which does not say that God is hidden is not true. And any religion which does not give us the reason why does not enlighten. Ours does all this… If there were no obscurity man would not feel his corruption: if there were no light man could not hope for a cure. Thus it is not only right but useful that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his wretchedness as to know his own wretchedness without knowing God.1
God is not doing all he could be doing to make his presence known. Rather, it often seems as if some men and women are actively prevented from seeing the truth. “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts,” John 12:10 says, “so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts”. Would a god who wants us all to be in a loving relationship with him be closed off to us or intentionally prevent some of us from finding the truth?
As we will see, divine hiddenness can serve as a powerful argument against the existence of God.
I. The Argument
In his 1993 book, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, J.L. Schellenberg introduced the problem of divine hiddenness under the argument from reasonable non-belief. The reality of non-belief, he proposed, is evidence that a perfectly loving god does not exist. Theodore Drange refined the argument in 1996, suggesting that a god who wants all humans to believe in it, and has the ability to make this happen, cannot exist due to the fact that not all humans believe in this god.2 Although both formulations deal more with non-belief than divine hiddenness, the existence of non-believers implies that God is hidden from some people, and this poses a challenge to explain how this is the case on a theistic worldview that posits a loving and good god.
One important clarification here is that non-belief does not equate to atheism. A state of non-belief should not be confused with disbelief, particularly since non-belief historically precedes the conceptual emergence of monotheistic gods. There have long been those whose non-belief is due simply to unfamiliarity. It would be disingenuous to pretend these individuals did believe “in a way,” when many of their religious traditions did not have high gods, let alone gods that can be called loving, good, or all-powerful. Throughout this article, I use the capital-G word for God to denote the orthodox monotheistic idea of a deity, because this is the god-conception that is under challenge from the hiddenness argument.
As Drange explains, the hiddenness argument rests on two primary questions which can apply to nearly any monotheistic religion. Firstly, can God do something that would cause everyone to believe that he exists? If this god is omniscient, then he knows what it will take to convince any given person on Earth. If this god is omnipotent, then he has the power to convince any given person on Earth. The second question is, does God desire that we all believe in him? If this god wants everyone to believe in him, then he has the motivation to use his power and knowledge to convince every person on Earth. All of this should mean that non-resistant people will all believe in God, though this is not the situation we find in the world.
In response, the theist might say that what stands in the way here is not actually God but the non-believer herself. Perhaps she has hardened her heart and would not believe even if God were to appear to her. However, it’s quite a stretch to imagine that everyone who is in a state of non-belief must be so because of resistance. This does not accord with how many non-believers do say they would believe under different circumstances. Nor is this in line with the nature of reflective doubt, which is based not in resistance to God but in things like the introduction of new information and contemplation of it. Those who deny that there is non-resistant non-belief are forced to argue that all non-belief is non-reflective, which makes for a tremendous presumption that is extraordinarily difficult – likely even impossible – to demonstrate.
Philosopher Stephen Maitzen has pointed out that this presumption implies some very problematic things about the demographics of theistic belief, too.
Nearly all Afghans are theists and nearly all Cambodians are not. Now there’s no reason I can think of to suppose that Cambodians are inherently less capable of relating to god than Afghans are. So to my mind the lopsided distribution of theistic belief around the world is much easier to explain in social scientific or historical and political terms than it is to explain by reference to a loving god who wants to relate to all of his human creatures. I think the clustered distribution of theism makes the argument from hiddenness much harder to rebut than it would be if theistic belief were uniformly distributed around the world.3
Of course, other objections have been raised to the argument that are less fantastical. In the following sections, we will consider a few of these.
II. Freedom and Belief
What if God remains hidden so as not to violate our free will? The argument we are considering does not demand that God force us all to convert by magic or by any other means. Likewise, it does not expect that a relationship with God should be desired, but just that this is an open option and not a closed one. The kind of relationship at issue need not be a warm and fuzzy personal one, but can take the form of gratitude, a seeking of God’s will, and so forth. Though a conscious, reciprocal relationship is what matters. This leaves us with a range of potential interactions that could exist between God and human beings, and few, if any, of them look as if they necessarily involve compulsion.
According to the Abrahamic faiths, God revealed himself to Moses, Paul, and Muhammad, and yet his interactions with them are not viewed by most believers as any infringement upon the free will of these men. The free will objection seems to surmise that were all the relevant facts disclosed to us, we would lose our free will because the truth would become so clear that we’d then be forced to believe. But this does not seem to be how the human mind works, and the Bible even speaks of many people who chose to rebel, even after seeing miracle upon miracle. Knowledge, it can be said, does not negate choice.
Giving someone something to base their decision on is not a violation of free will, but we might recognize that there are circumstances where good, kind people do not stubbornly refuse to help those who resist them. Anyone who has struggled with a suicidal friend or family member will be familiar with this. It raises the question of what exactly it might mean for God to remain open to relationship with us and vice versa. A loving being like God would arguably not just sit idly by waiting for us to acknowledge it, especially when it knows our lives would be better if we were in some sort of relationship with it. Even in our finite relationships with other people, there may be instances where loved ones can’t be present for one reason or another, yet the thing we do when we love others is that we work towards reaching that state where such a relationship can happen.
This illustrates the complexities of the issues we deal with in the hiddenness argument. There does appear to be good reason to think that some people are, or would be, able to exercise their free will just fine even while in the presence of God. What the free will objection proposes, though, is that there are other people for whom God’s presence would interfere with their free will. Are non-resistant non-believers like this? I would be willing to grant that some of them are, but it’s not clear that this can explain all non-resistant non-belief, and there’s an open question as to whether or not these kinds of people – those who would have their free will violated by being in God’s presence – are the kinds of people God would create. We might concede that they probably do exist in the world we live in, yet we can’t just assume the world we live in is the world God has created. That is, in fact, what arguments like the hiddenness argument are asking us to reconsider.
Schellenberg provides a few examples of how he thinks non-resistant people could believe in God in a world where God exists and inclines them to belief:
Evidence of events from around the world that seem to everyone who nonresistantly considers them to be, on balance, best explained by the activity of God could be made universally available. This would not be psychologically intrusive even when effective in producing and maintaining belief in God. Or everyone everywhere could be gifted with a continuing, quiet sense of God’s existence on par with belief in other minds or belief in an external world… This wouldn’t need to be intrusive or constantly in the forefront of one’s awareness any more than is the belief in God of people today in regions or households (like my own growing up) where the existence of God is just taken for granted, along with the existence of trees and horses and people. Belief could of course also be produced through a more direct experience of God. One can imagine, for example, a powerful initial experience of God’s presence that everyone has followed by a lingering background awareness. And of course religious experience is the sort of thing that could be modulated by God to fit people’s circumstances as they changed… for those who are especially sensitive or vulnerable to moral influence, the sense of God’s presence could recede or even be withdrawn altogether in moments of temptation. The possibilities here are indeed limited only by the imagination.4
III. Relationships and Goods
Freedom of choice is a good that might serve as a reason for why God chooses to hide from some people. We have just seen some problems with this objection, but there are others like it. Non-resistant non-belief is what we should expect, they claim, if God exists, because it helps to realize certain goods that wouldn’t otherwise be realized. In this respect, according to these objections, hiddenness does not constitute a successful argument against God’s existence. Let’s look at a couple of additional examples.
Certain people react negatively at certain times when belief in God is made available to them. Out of a desire to avoid this reaction, it could be argued that God chooses to hide rather than to show himself in a way that might actually harm the prospects for developing a relationship later on. This makes a kind of sense, because it is thinking in terms of what a loving god would do, and we can probably recall instances when we ourselves have forgone pursuing someone because we know the timing isn’t right. On the other hand, we may just as easily think of how loving parents have responded to rejection from their children. Instead of hiding or leaving, they search for ways of changing or avoiding the reaction from within the relationship they have with their children.
Why could an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being not do the same? Would it not have loads more resources and options available to it than we finite beings have? The Abrahamic religions speak frequently and in great detail of the amazing and wonderful consolations God brings to his people. It’s tough to see how hiding could be a better alternative here to working with a person, from within even a fledgling relationship. The latter just will be more effective in developing and achieving a healthy and lasting relationship than the former, particularly when we appreciate the value of fidelity to relationships in general.
A more interesting objection concerns the role that hiddenness might play in fostering a longing for God within a person. Some individuals need space, as this claim suggests, in order to really grow spiritually. There is a lot going for this, since we all know that relationships that are too involved and don’t leave much room for each person to have their own sense of independence can be stifling and probably won’t last long. We also can recognize the importance of stepping back from things at times with the goal of figuring out what we really desire the most. However, balance is usually just as crucial as distance. Pulling back too far can harm the chances for growth in a relationship.
Schellenberg has written on the familiar motif of “the dark night of the soul” as an example of how distancing can still occur to one’s benefit within the confines of a spiritual relationship. Those who have talked about going through such an experience very often mention coming out stronger on the other side, with a deeper appreciation for the divine, a better understanding, and a more intimate connection to God. In these cases, there is a feeling of absence and abandonment, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for the kind of hiddenness that can play a part in non-resistant non-belief. The dark night of the soul describes something that is painful largely because one does believe in God, yet it feels as if he has retreated from his beloved. What this example means for our purposes is that it’s possible to feel that distance and absence even within a relationship with God, and so this is a good that does not need non-resistant non-belief to be achieved.
Why is it important that goods like these can be met within a relationship? In his work on the hiddenness argument, Schellenberg explains that if God embodies ultimate value, and if he is the ultimate good every finite good is said to reflect, then a relationship with God will always be a better guarantee of the finite goods we encounter in life. Furthermore, because God has created the world, along with creatures in it that are capable of love, and he decided how to set things up from the very start, it should stand to reason that God will only pursue “relationship-compatible” goods.5 Thus, any finite good that might seem to require hiddenness should also be achievable within a relationship. And if that’s the case, then we have no reason for supposing that hiddenness is truly necessary for realizing the goods God would want to realize.
There are a number of different arguments from hiddenness that have been written about and discussed. Some of the reasoning behind these arguments dates back many centuries. Unfortunately, then, it’s not uncommon for confusion to ensue in debates over this topic. The form of the argument I’ve laid out and covered here takes a ‘top down’ approach, beginning with considerations about the character and actions of a god that is alleged to be like the god of classical theism. It asks why, if this god exists, it doesn’t seem to be the case that all who are non-resistant will believe. According to the argument, the answer to this question is that a god so conceived does not exist.
Other versions of the argument have proceeded from a ‘bottom up’ approach, taking facts about the experience of divine hiddenness as their basis. These arguments are problematic and unconvincing, I would say, and it’s worth explaining that they differ from the hiddenness argument Schellenberg and company have defended. Nevertheless, some apologists and philosophers still sometimes treat this stronger argument as if it can be dismissed on the same grounds. But the hiddenness argument does not make claims about the personal feelings, intuitions, or experiences of non-resistant non-believers. This is also why it can’t be brushed off as just another version of the argument from evil, since the perceived badness of hiddenness is not any part of the argument.
In a few ways, this is an argument that can engage in some surprisingly deep diving into some of the more mysterious and complex ideas we have about God, human beings, and personal interaction. It asks us to seriously reflect on a lot of the thoughts and assumptions we might have about love, growth, relationships, value and virtue, and how these differ between the finite and the infinite scales without being so radically different that all correspondence between them is lost. One of the questions that has long tormented missionary religions is why other people, seemingly good and reflective people, do not believe and may even lack any awareness of notions like the “one true god.” The hiddenness argument articulates a strong challenge to theism built up on these and other considerations.
1. Blaise Pascal, “Nature is Corrupt: On the Falseness of Other Religions,” Pensées.
2. Theodore Drange, The Arguments From Evil and Nonbelief, Infidels.org (1996). Retrieved Mar. 8, 2011.
3. Stephen Maitzen, CPBD 025: Stephen Maitzen – Can Theism Ground Morality? Common Sense Atheism (Mar. 7, 2010). Retrieved Mar. 8, 2011.
4. J.L. Schellenberg, The Hiddenness Argument (New York: Oxford, 2015), p. 66-67.
5. Ibid, p. 46-47.