This is my third post on the issue of divine hiddenness. The first post laid out the so-called problem of divine hiddenness, flagged some of its limitations as an argument against God's existence, and offered a number of suggested answers to the objections usually associated with divine hiddenness. One of those suggestions was:
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.This post expands on this point.
A recurring theme throughout the Old Testament is that human beings cannot stand the full presence of God, at least not in their current condition. In Exodus 3:5-6, God revealed himself to Moses through a burning bush, but even so, Moses "hid his face" because he was "afraid to look at God." Later, when Moses was apparently more sure of himself, he asked to see God's full glory. In response, God said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." Exodus 33:20. Nevertheless, God allowed Moses to get a sheltered, partial glimpse. "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen." Ex. 33:21-23.
God hid his full glory from Moses as a mercy, to protect him. Yet God understood Moses' request and did not reject it out of hand. God revealed enough of Himself, but not too much. Notably, when a time of judgment comes, people complain about experiencing too much of God's presence, not divine hiddenness. From Revelation 6: 16-17: "They called to the mountains and the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?'" The problem at this point was not insufficient evidence of God's existence, but the association of God's presence with judgment.
This association of God's presence with judgment as well as with God's limiting of His presence are linked in that God may limit His presence for our own good. This can, admittedly, be a fine line, weighing the amount of faith more evidence may generate (acknowledging as we noted in the last post, that evidence is not necessarily the solution to doubt or rebellion) with the potentially undesirable effects -- at least undesirable at a given particular point in time -- such an increase of the powerful presence of God may bring. Such balancing is more properly within the realm of an omniscient God than more limited, finite beings looking to second guess God.
One of those potentially undesirable effects is an increase in God's judgment; in temporal proximity or severity. In James 3:1, the author warns of the consequences of increased knowledge that is presumably associated with being a teacher: "Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly."
This point is made even more explicitly in Matthew 11:20-24 (and, to an extent, in Luke 10:12-15).
Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.In this passage, the rejection of Christ after receiving such overwhelming evidence regarding His identity will result in a more severe judgment. The emphasis on this point may be overlooked, but Jesus' emphasis is made clear by his reference to Tyre and Sidon. As Robert H. Gundry explains, “OT prophets regularly condemned Tyre and Sidon as typical heathen cities (see Isaiah 23; Jer. 25:22; 27:3; 47:4; Ezekiel 26-28; Joel 4:4[3:4]; Amos 1:9-10; Zech 9:2-4).” Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art, page 214. As Ben Witherington puts it, "these cities are more culpable for hearing, seeing, and rejecting the good news and the Dominion than even those profligate infamous sinners in Tyre and Sidon . . . who had never had the benefit of seeing a miracle of Jesus....” Ben Witherington III, Matthew, page 236. This is similar to the point Paul makes in Romans 2, that sinners are condemned by their sin and have some knowledge of God through general revelation, but those who have more revelation through the law will be judged by the higher standard.
Another commentary puts it all together well:
This passage vividly illustrates the simple truth that the greater the revelation, the greater the accountability. This is a principle encountered elsewhere in the NT, for example, in Rom. 2:12-16. The cities of Galilee were especially privileged. A great light had shone in their midst (cf. 4:15-16), yet they refused to acknowledge that light. They accepted neither the message of the kingdom nor the messenger of the kingdom. They are accordingly more culpable than those who, though very wicked, had less clear evidence of the will of God. The reality of their future judgment points inescapably to the supreme importance of the mission and message of Jesus. This is the truce center of the passage. The meaning of the failure of Jesus’ mission to Israel will remain unclear until his disciples are forced to grapple with the problem of the failure of their mission to Israel (see esp. Rom. 11:11-12, 25).Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, WBC, pages 314-15.
We are not, in our current condition, able to handle God's full presence. Moreover, the more of His presence and revelation (i.e., evidence) we get, the more prompt or severe God's judgment may be. God, at times, may choose to reveal less than His full presence, less than the total evidence possible, as a merciful act. It buys time, delays judgment, brings less judgment than otherwise might be experienced.
This is one facet of the explanation for God's so-called hiddenness, or epistemic distance as I prefer to call it in that I do not think that God's existence or basic nature is hidden from humanity. I believe it may mesh with other proffered explanations, such as "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," or other explanations noted in my first divine hiddenness post.