The Theism-Atheism Debate: God and the Problem of Divine Hiddenness

The argument from God’s divine hiddenness asks the question as to why God is not more obvious. Why can’t God make his existence known to all, so that all can know the truth? 

This question is especially worth asking because human eternal destiny hinges on belief in God and specific acts of God. In the form of an objection, the following stipulation is helpful:

P1. If there is a God he is perfectly loving.
P2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur.
P3. Reasonable non-belief occurs.
P4. Therefore, no perfectly loving God exists.
P5. Therefore, there is no God

The claim underlying the argument is that if God exists there should be no reasonable non-belief. God’s existence should be apparent enough that reasonable non-belief is impossible. But because there is reasonable non-belief, the skeptic argues that one can conclude that God does not exist. Theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig, a critic of the argument, identifies the general contention as follows,

“The basic thrust of the objection called the hiddenness of God is based upon the conviction that God’s existence is not as obvious as it could be or as one might desire. The atheist objects that if God existed then we would expect to see more evidence of this existence than what we do have. There is a probability that if God were there he would disclose himself in some way so that his existence would be more obvious. And given that God is hidden, so to speak, his existence is not obvious and this counts as evidence against God’s existence” (1)

In other words, God should provide enough evidence for each person so that he can at least know God exists. This evidence need not be forced on a person or prevent their freedom, but many people cannot seem to make a reasonable choice whether to follow God or not. Many cannot discover God and believe in him because he seems to hide.

Critical Responses to the Argument From Divine Hiddenness

The argument has not gone uncontested and there are several criticisms theists have forwarded. Returning to the syllogism, it is uncontroversial to say that theists will accept P1 that there exists a perfectly loving God. They will, however, object to P2 and P3. The theist maintains that “reasonable non-belief” is possible but temporarily so. At some point in a person’s life, God, who is loving, will reveal himself to the individual. Craig explains it this way,

“At some point in the process, God will bear witness to himself to that individual in such a way that unbelief that separates one from God would become unreasonable. So if he says reasonable unbelief exists, I could be happy to say, yes, temporarily. But ultimately persistent unbelief is not reasonable and that is because of the inner witness of God’s Spirit that he bears to his own reality. It doesn’t need to be through external evidence and argument. Certainly many people are born into situations in the world where they don’t have the advantage of argument and evidence that tips the scales in favor of Christian belief. But I don’t think that is necessary. For an omnipotent and all-loving God it would be easy for him to provide inner witness of his reality to persons such that if they persist in unbelief until death they are doing something quite unreasonable” (2).

There is, on this view, ultimately no justified “reasonable non-belief”, at least not beyond mere temporality in moments of Earthly existence. At best, reasonable non-belief is merely illusory, according to theists like Craig. 

Further, the theist might object that one needs to weigh other candidate arguments for God’s existence before accepting the conclusion to the argument from divine hiddenness. These candidate arguments appeal to evidence for God usually from nature and philosophy, such as the origin of the universe, the reality of supernatural miracles, a realm of objective moral values and duties, or the fine-ruining of the universe, and so on. If these candidate arguments are compelling, which many theists maintain they are, it offsets the objection from God’s hiddenness. The arguments would constitute sufficient proof that God exists even though he seems to be hidden in his presence. To such a theist, one needs no more evidence for God than he already has. 

For the argument from divine hiddenness to be compelling, it would require that one possesses no candidate evidence at all for God, or if God’s existence is not supported by general considerations at all. But because one does have candidate evidence for God (the argument from fine-tuning, the origin of the universe, etc.), he ought to be agnostic about God’s existence before weighing the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate evidence. On such an approach, not even belief in, say, the existence of the Lochness monster has necessarily been without candidate evidence and therefore unjustified. For example, there have been numerous sightings and photos of the Lochness monster and although these turned out to be without substance, they yet constituted candidate evidence for the creature warranting agnosticism.

Some atheists and skeptics have made a bolder argument, which is that if God existed he would prevent the world’s unbelief by making his existence so obvious and apparent that everyone would believe in his existence. The skeptic might posit some scenario; for example, God inscribing in the moon or on molecules the statement “There is a God and I exist!”

But several responses by theists are forthcoming to challenge this bolder form of the argument. In particular, there is the issue of free will. Many theists have argued that for God to allow free will, he has chosen not to overwhelm human beings with the apparentness of his existence.

Should God have given a revelation of himself so irresistibly overwhelming that everyone came to believe in his existence, this would override human free will. But by keeping himself at an arms distance through putting, according to the theist, just enough evidence of himself in the world, God has chosen to preserve human free will. The evidence is therefore not overwhelming or irresistible yet is not insufficient enough to make belief in God unreasonable. Christian theists contend that this makes sense in their worldview. The Christian God desires that human beings seek him because they want to seek him, not because they have no choice, are forced to, or do so out of fear. 

Another criticism is that the argument from divine hiddenness seems to make too much of the person’s ability to reason accurately. It is not necessarily obvious or clear that if God provided human beings with enough or overwhelming evidence of his existence, that they will decide that he exists. This is because human beings have all sorts of reasons for holding to certain beliefs and rejecting others. Some people believe what they want or desire to be true and if one does not wish for God to exist, it would not matter how much evidence God provided that person. In other words, it is not at all obvious that if people had the right or overwhelming amount of evidence for God’s existence, that they would come to believe in God. One might see something of this attitude in the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel who remarked,

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time” (3).

Skeptical Responses 

Atheists and skeptics will maintain that the candidate arguments for God’s existence are unconvincing and, as a result, do not offset the argument from God’s divine hiddenness. The atheist can also provide a set of candidate arguments for his atheism, such as from the problem of evil or the fact that there exist so many religions, that seem to suggest there is no God. Arguably which side (theism or atheism) the reader will agree with will depend on his engagement with the candidate arguments elsewhere and how convincing he finds them. 

The skeptic further contends that there are non-believers who are non-resistant to God and who are earnestly seeking him. These non-believers really want to believe in God and might even be desperate to, but cannot find themselves doing so given the available evidence. It might also come across as offensive for the theist to say that all non-believers resist believing in God for reasons other than intellectual, or that non-believers are necessarily opposed to believing in God, especially when the theist hasn’t walked in the non-believer’s shoes.

Regarding the free will defense, the skeptic can argue that to demonstrate one’s own existence would not violate free will. Similarly, God demonstrating his existence to human beings, perhaps by introducing himself to all of us, would not violate free will. But perhaps this misses what the theist is contending, which is that God doesn’t want to put so much evidence of himself in the world that it makes belief in him irresistible.

References

1. drcraigvideos. The Hiddenness of God (Why isn’t God more obvious?). Available.

2. Craig, William Lane. 2009. Questions About God’s Hiddeness. Available.

3. Nagel, Thomas. 1997. The Last Word.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 130-131

2 comments

  1. “The basic thrust of the objection called the hiddenness of God is based upon the conviction that God’s existence is not as obvious as it could be or as one might desire.” [It’s quite the opposite: there is NO “obvious” characteristics of any god’s existence, there is simply NO evidence whatsoever.]

    “The atheist objects that if God existed then we would expect to see more evidence of this existence than what we do have.” [AGAIN: “More evidence than we do have?” We have NO evidence, ZERO, NONE]

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