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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

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.

26 comments:

I think the "Argument from Nonbelief" is an original argument from Theodore Drange. It's interesting, but it just makes too many unwarranted assumptions.

Very good reasoning and presentation. I doubt any would admit it, but I wonder how many skeptics assume there is no God simply because they don't feel his existence?

CallMeIrresponsible said...

Regarding the argument that God may allow for reasonable atheists for reason we can't fathom:

that's the same as saying that the reason that God allows reasonable atheists is unfathomable. The more rhetorical reading of that sentence, distinct from the literal reading of it, is my main point. We can find no rational reason why God would allow reasonable atheists, then it is not rational why God allows reasonable atheists. God's reason must be above rationality.

This comment has been removed by the author.

CIR,

Your point is not all that clear. God's rationale does not have to be "above rationality" by any means, it simply may rely on knowledge and information that we do not have or cannot understand at present.

I suppose if you define rationality to mean what humans can understand at any given point in history with limited information you might have a point, but then you are not really explaining anything you are just repeating yourself.

CMI,

Did you not notice that actually Chris gave quite a few potential reasons why God would allow reasonable unbelief?

Excellent piece, Chris. You've very effectively covered both the intellectual and pastoral dimensions of the problem.

Thanks a lot for this post Layman, I think you made some great points. For me personally, divine hiddenness hits at something emotional. I mean, it is bothersome to talk to God and not have him talk directly back.

But logically I think it's really not as big a deal as it's made out to be.

I particularly liked this comment:

"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."

That's a great point that I had never considered. And what's more it matches up with the Biblical accounts. If you look back in the OT when one might say the distance was a bit closer, the judgment was also swifter. I think this is perhaps the point Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25 - when God did it the way we seem to like, it didn't work out too well for us. And after all, Jesus himself made the point to the apostles that it would be more beneficial that he left. Perhaps this is part of it.

Incidentally, I heard Don Carson once talk about God's judgment and how people view it when comparing testaments. People often seem to think God is so angry in the OT, while he is soft and nice in the NT. His point was that the reason we think this is because we look at immediate and temporal consequences as great than prolonged and eternal ones. Understanding epistemic distance and its relation to God's judgment lends credibility to that explanation I think.

I don't know that it's a persuasive argument against God;'s existence, but I think the problem of hiddeness still presents some difficult questions for believers; I don't find any of your suggested reasons for such divine deceit very compelling. Arguments that rely on ineffable divine plans always leave me cold.

If separation from God is such a terrible thing then isn't God's decision to remain hidden from some who earnestly seek Him (as I did) a terrible thing for Him to do?

Should we conclude that the problem lies with the seeker; that we didn't "seek right" (as our friend Metacrock like to tell me)? It' possible I suppose, but that kind of answer sounds rather judgemental.

CallMeIrresponsible said...

Layman, I don't think it's proper for a counter-argument to merely reduce to "an idea may be correct." You could critique *any* claim with "the opposite may be true based on factors we don't know or can't understand." I'm saying that, given what we know and what is rational, God's hiddenness makes no sense. That does not directly contradict what you say, it just makes what you say irrelevant or meaningless because it always applies.

A Hermit,

I don't think God is hidden by any means. It is obvious that He could do more, but I think it is silly to assume that such steps would have no other consequences.

As for your earnest search, perhaps you gave it up too soon. Perhaps God will yet answer you. Perhaps it was not as earnest as you like to think. Perhaps it was.

I know that my earnest search found God and a relationship with Him.

CMI,

Since the argument itself is based on assumptions and hypothetical constructions about what God MUST do or what God MUST want, then a counter-argument based on other assumptions and hypotheticals is quite valid. Two can play at that game, so to speak.

"I don't think God is hidden by any means. It is obvious that He could do more, but I think it is silly to assume that such steps would have no other consequences."If He 'could do more" why doesn't He? What consequences does a God have to worry about?

"As for your earnest search, perhaps you gave it up too soon. Perhaps God will yet answer you. Perhaps it was not as earnest as you like to think. Perhaps it was."I know how earnest I was...( see what I mean about being judgmental?) ;-)

This is why I'm so unimpressed with these kinds of arguments; you can't give me an answer so you have to invent ineffable excuses for God on one hand and assume some inadequacy on my part on the other.

Hermit,

A) These were not ineffable excuses. An ineffable excuse would be just that - an excuse. If he said "well, God's just too great so we can't possibly understand and who am I to question?" then you might be correct. (Although even that I don't think should be cast off as easily as you seem to think.) But obviously that's not what he is saying here. He's saying that given the Christian God, there are a number of plausible logical responses to the question of divine hiddenness. We may not be able to nail it down per se, but that does not make it an "ineffable excuse." Just because you don't like the answers on a subjective level doesn't mean they are not solid logical responses to the question.

This is what I see atheists do a lot, and it bothers me. They ask a question, and then when they don't like the answers on some subjective level, they say there just aren't any good answers. Or, more accurately, they judge the answers to be faulty based on their preclusions. This is just what you are doing here:

Layman: "X, Y, and Z are all plausible logical responses to why the God of Christianity might hide himself in some way"

Hermit: "I don't like these, because God can't have any good reasons for hiding himself in any way."

That doesn't make any sense, Hermit. If you want to say these aren't good reasons, explain why they are wrong. Explain why God couldn't have any good reasons to hide himself. Explain why, specifically, Layman's responses do not work. Don't just make assertions about how you subjectively feel about God's presence.

B) Well, one of us has an inadequacy, right? You assume an inadequacy on the Christian's part. Layman is just stating the obvious - if the Christian God exists and yet you have rejected his existence, then you have done something wrong. It's not judgmental to state what would necessarily be true.

CallMeIrresponsible said...

Layman, my argument isn't about what God must do, it's about what would be rational.

A hermit,

Why are you asking a question that I proposed several answers to in the post without any acknowledgment of the contents of the post?

I do not think it is judgmental to say that I do not know how earnest your seeking truly was.

What is unimpressive is an argument that tries to guess what God would do and the precise values he would or would not place on things like free will, judgment, mercy, developing spiritual maturity and such things.

'Why are you asking a question that I proposed several answers to in the post without any acknowledgment of the contents of the post?"Because the contents of the post are, as I pointed out, mere speculation; you say you are unimpressed by arguments that guess at what God would do, but that;'s precisley what your own argument does. Worse it guesses that there is a God and that this God has a purpose and that this purpose must be something which must justify hiddeness (and pain and suffering, I should think). All it is is guesswork.

A Hermit,

What you are ignoring is that I'm the responding party here. If one party presume to guess what God would do then I'm entitled to respond in the same way am I not?

You seem to be saying only atheists can speculate about what God would do, when Christians respond they are just doing "guesswork."

And I actually don't think my responses are just "guess work," they are grounded in philosophy and theology.

You need to remember that we are discussing an intelligent actor here, not a mechanistic phenomenon. If you think that we can relate enough to that actor to speculate that he would have no reason to do what he does then you cannot foreclose others from doing the same. Just because they don't give up as easily as you doesn't make your point more persuasive.

However earnest your search may have been at one time, it is not reflected in these comments, AH. You are defending an argument against God's existence that you claim to not believe is persuasive.

Well the argument in the first place is a response to Christian claims that God can be known if we sincerely seek him, but I think if you go back and read my first comment you'll find that I didn't defend this as an argument against God's existence anyway; I said it raised a number of difficult questions for Christians; questions which you appear to be unable to answer with anything more than appeals to God's alleged ineffable purpose.

CallMeIrresponsible said...

I didn't catch this before. Layman wrote

"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!"

There is nothing in the argument from divine hiddenness that says that one must concede a belief despite reasonable and compelling evidence. The argument from divine hiddenness merely says that God's hiddenness is *not* reasonable nor compelling evidence for God's existence, and is actually quite the contrary.

For an excellent discussion on the argument from divine hiddenness by an atheist, go to
http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/burningbush.html#part3

AH,

The argument from divine hiddenness is not a response to the claim that God can be known if we sincerely seek Him. It is an affirmative argument that God does not exist. Some Christians -- Calvinists among them -- don't even think everyone is capable of sincerely seeking God.

And you have failed to highlight any questions or point out the deficiencies in my answers. Simply disagreeing with me is not a particularly compelling route to victory.

CIM,

Actually, the argument from divine hiddenness does trump any reasonable disbelief over all reasonable belief.

And who has argued that God's hiddenness is "reasonable" or "compelling evidence for God's existence." That makes no sense. The ADH is obviously an affirmative argument against God's existence.

Leslie,

Thanks for your comments about divine hiddenness as reflective of God's mercy. Its a line of reasoning I'd like to follow up on further.

CallMeIrresponsible said...

Layman wrote, "Actually, the argument from divine hiddenness does trump any reasonable disbelief over all reasonable belief. "

Can you explain this (again)? I've tried to tease apart an explanation of this sentence on my own and I fail every time.

Sorry I wasn't clear.

Those who make the argument from divine hiddenness tend to argue that any reasonable unbelief is sufficient to disprove God's existence. Thus, no amount of reasonable belief out there insulates the conclusion: no matter how many people reasonably belief in God the existence of those who reasonably disbelief means that God does not exist.

Layman, this is a great article, thanks.

My faith crisis actually led me to a deeper faith and hunger to know more about God. I wouldn't be where I am without it. It was painful, but I grew out of it.

CallMeIrresponsible said...

Thanks, Layman. I think the more interesting part of the argument from divine hiddenness is not whether any reasonable unbelief is sufficient, but thanks for the clarification.

Brad,

I grew out of mine too. It wasn't pleasant at the time, but neither was it debilitating or too long lived.

I know more Christians have come out the other side of such experiences. It might be helpful to some wavering Christians or others who've convinced themselves that they tried hard but could not find God, if those Christians would share more about their experiences.

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