The so-called problem of divine hiddenness has apparently gained currency among skeptics as not only an interesting question, but an affirmative argument for atheism. The argument goes something like this (as Michael Murry describes John Schellenberg's forumlation in Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason):
1. If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
2. If a perfectly loving God exists, then no one could be a reasonable atheist.
3. But there are people who are reasonable atheists.
4. Thus, no perfectly loving God exists.
5. Thus, there is no God.
There are, of course, variations of the argument and more detailed explanations of each point. You will often hear, for example, Nos. 2 and 3 are phrased in terms of "inculpable disbelief" or "reasonable unbelief," the idea being that there are people who reasonably or justifiably conclude there is no God based on the evidence, or lack of evidence, available to them. The argument does not deny the existence of reasonable belief, but contends that the mere existence of any reasonable unbelief disproves the existence of God. The focus is usually on God's desire to have a relationship with all of those creatures who are capable of having such a relationship and that a lack of belief in God is a barrier to such a relationship. If God really loved people, He would give enough evidence to each of His creations capable of relating to Him to ensure such a relationship.
I have not found this argument persuasive, much less compelling. There are too many unknowns and too many questionable value judgments to be made. The reality is, however, that this argument describes what can be very troubling for some Christians going through a "crisis of faith" and are desperate to combat the doubts and emotions that beset them. They fear losing their faith and want some sign, some irrefutable argument, something more so that they can retain their belief. This post, therefore, opens a discussion of divine hiddenness and will likely be followed -- as time permits -- by additional, related posts.
One of the first questions that arises from divine hiddenness is what does it mean to be "perfectly loving"? And does it distort the analysis to focus on one attribute of God? Would it not be more accurate to describe God as "perfectly loving, perfectly righteous, and perfectly just"? To note also that he is a "jealous God" and is, to be blunt, judgmental as well as forgiving? My parents, for example, were quite loving but also disciplined me. Ah, you might say, but they disciplined out of love. Yes, that is true. But the use of the one word (love) and exclusion of others (justice, righteous) does paint a different picture does it not? And while my parents disciplined me out of love, it was not divorced from a sense of justice. A father who is, for example, also a police officer and finds that his son has stolen something from a local store has a duty to turn him in not only to "teach him a lesson for his own good" but also because he is charged with enforcement of the laws and owes a duty to the store owner and the public at large. So, could it be that all this argument proves is that a God that fits our preconceived and limited notions of what it means to be "perfectly loving" does not exist? Very possibly.
How about Nos. 2 and 3? Is it true that God would not allow any reasonable nonbelief? Is reasonable nonbelief even possible? There are scriptures that suggest perhaps not. After all, according to the Psalmist, "The heavens declare the glory of God." Ps. 19:1. The first chapter of Romans also suggests that God has revealed Himself to humanity but has faced rejection. Vs. 18-23. Perhaps it is to take these verses too far to glean from them the conclusion that there is no reasonable unbelief (or at least no nonculpable disbelief, which may not be the same thing). But what if the biblical evidence is clear that reasonable unbelief or nonculpable disbelief does not exist? The issue then becomes, what role does Biblical revelation have in the analysis? The skeptic may claim to know that there is reasonable or nonculpable disbelief, but must the Christian concede the point? The Bible instructs that the human heart is deceitful. Christians value human reason but also value revelation, understanding that human reason can be flawed or corrupted by our own nature.
Further, the Christian may have good reason to trust the Bible on this account due to their own experiences. Even apart from the Bible, a person may have good philosophical, experiential, or scientific reasons to believe that God had made His presence obvious to all who are open to His existence. Belief in God is widespread. Over 90% of Americans believe in God for example. Even in Russia, belief in God has climbed back up to over 80% despite years of official indoctrination of atheism. This raises the question again of what constitutes "reasonable" or "inculpable" unbelief. There seem to be a number of ways that unbelief could exist in otherwise reasonable people but not be reasonable itself:
First, I might culpably fail to gather grounds for theistic belief. The possibilities here are legion. I might fail to look for evidence, or bias the evidence I consider. I might ignore or suppress an inner prompting to believe, neglect spiritual disciplines, want theism to be false for various reasons, and so on. Second, I might culpably fail to assess my grounds properly. Perhaps I culpably fail to appraise my epistemic standards, or I culpably hold theses unfriendly to theism (e.g., meaning verificationism or radical constructivism).
Daniel Howard-Snyder, "Review of J.L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason," in Mind 2005.
Further, as Michael J. Murray notes, the logical sequence above omits an important step or two. He reformulates it this way:
1. If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
2. If a perfectly loving God exists, then there would not be reasonable atheists unless God has some good reason for allowing there to be reasonable atheists.
3. There are people who are reasonable and who are atheists.
3+. There is no good reason for God to allow there to be such atheists.
4. Thus, no perfectly loving God exists.
5. Thus, there is no God.
Murray, "Why God Doesn't Make His Existence More Obvious to Us?" Passionate Conviction, eds. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, page 45 (emphasis added).
Here we have stepped into another challenging issue: How confident are we that we can figure out all of the reasons God may allow reasonable disbelief and, even more challenging, how he would weigh various goods against each other? As Murry notes, probably one of the least helpful places to look for an answer to such questions "is in the introspective consciousness of the atheist." Id. at 46. The ability of finite, created beings to figure out all of the reasons for actions and value judgments of an infinite, eternal, omniscient being has to at least be left as a valid question. God may have some reason or reasons we cannot understand or relate to in our present state of being.
Nevertheless, many philosophers have postulated reasons why God may permit reasonable unbelief. Two of the main themes underlying many explanations is the necessity of some "epistemic distance" between God and humans to permit the level of free will desired by God and the necessity of such distance for "soul-making," the process whereby humans grow, learn, and mature. For example, Blaise Pascal argued that God lets people experience separation from him, at least for a time, to demonstrate the anguish choosing distance from God will bring. Thus, God seeks to motivate people to repent of their sin and seek closeness with God.
In his textbook on Apologetics, James Taylor gives a summary list of other suggested reasons:
[O]ther specific ends God might try to bring about by hiding from an individual are (1) to make sure that a person does not respond to God in faith for the wrong sorts of reasons (e.g., a fear of hell); (2) to make sure that the inividual's attitudes about God and his or her knowledge of God are appropriate (e.g., humility rather than arrogance, seriousness rather than flippancy); (3) to encourage passionate faith through a sense of risk that would be diminished if there were more and better evidence; (4) to make it necessary for people to rely on one another in beginning and cultivating a relationship with God so that the second Great Commandment is more likely to be fulfilled by human beings; (5) to make it impossible (or at least difficult) for people to have a sense of being in complete control of their lives and destinies so that they need to depend on G0d in faith; and (6) in general to facilitate the acquisition and development of the virtues of faith, hope, and love and other more specific related virtues such as patience and compassion.
Taylor, Introduction to Apologetics, page 166.
Calvinists would respond to the problem of divine hiddennesss by saying that God reveals enough of Himself to convince -- indeed, compel -- those with whom He wants relationship to believe. It is just that God does not want relationship with everyone for His own purposes.
Setting aside Calvinism, middle knowledge may offer some insight. Perhaps God provides what He knows to be sufficient evidence to draw those to Himself whom He knows would freely choose to love Him. Perhaps such a process is necessary to ensure that those who come to God in faith will perservere as sinless through all eternity. Or perhaps the "epistemic distance" is in fact a mercy. That the more clear, the closer, is God's presence to humans the closer and swifter his judgment must be. God is, after all, an "all consuming fire." Heb. 12:29. Perhaps God has balanced the level of evidence of His presence with His desire to give more time for the spread of the Gospel before His judgment must come.
Unfortunately, these discussions tend to take place in a vacuum. One logical extension of the argument from divine hiddenness is that it would compel 90% of Americans to conclude that they are mistaken that God exists because 5% of their fellow Americans do not know either way and another 5% conclude God does not exist. The 90% would have to concede to the 5%, no matter how reasonable their belief or compelling the evidence at hand! This is surely wrong. It means that the argument from divine hiddenness is a license to ignore the existing evidence irrespective of its strength, merit, and persuasive value. It is perfectly conceivable -- and in my experience true -- that whether or not I can discover a reason for God's purported hiddenness from others that it is reasonable for me to believe God exists based on other data, information, and experiences.
[W]e might have good reason to think that, given what other things we reasonably believe, it would not be surprising at all were God to be privy to reasons to permit inculpable nonbelief, reasons that properly outweigh His desire to relate personally to us, reasons we weren't aware of. In that case, even though we rightly believed that God had a desire to relate personally to us, our total evidence would not be sufficient to conclude that God would prevent inculpable nonbelief.
Howard-Syner, op. cit., page 2.
If a Christian has searched earnestly for relationship with God and reasonably concluded that God exists and he has a relationship with Him, then is it reasonable for that person to take the word of another -- whose experiences and motives cannot be as well known to the Christian as his own -- and conclude that despite the evidence and experiences and reasonable conclusions he has reached that he must nevertheless agree that God does not exist? Must one person's genuine reasonable belief always yield to the purported reasonable unbelief of another?
Finally, a note on timing. You may have gone through a hard time of doubt and feel at the end of your rope and that God surely could have just given you more of a nudge than He has. I can relate. I've been there too. But God did provide, though not in the instance of my cry. Although some may argue that the problem of hiddenness means that God would not allow a moment of doubt or disbelief, that turns what is in my opinion a doubtful argument into a very far fetched one. A moment, a month, even years of doubt or disbelief can be remedied in a moment, or over a time period. C.S. Lewis, Anne Rice, Nicky Gumbel, A.N. Wilson, Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, William J. Murray (Madalyn Murray O'Hair's son) all disbelieved in God's existence and later came to know Him.