CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

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.

15 comments:

The first thing I notice about your post is that it relies almost entirely on accepting the NT. This is not exactly what goes on in academic philosophy of religion, and for good reason: if God doesn't exist, there's no good reason to accept NT theology as telling us what God would be or do if he existed, and the argument from divine hiddenness attacks the proposition that God exists. So I think your points fall pretty flat.

Putting that complaint aside, I think your "protective hypothesis" (that it's a mercy for God to spare us from glimpsing his glory) and "severity hypothesis" (that it's a mercy for God to give us a chance not to believe in him) aren't convincing, and for the same reason. Schellenberg's point is, firstly, that there are non-believers who believe inculpably, i.e., they want to and would believe if they had just a little more evidence - a voice calling back from the darkness, as it were, instead of just silence. Secondly, that a loving God would give them that tiny epistemic nudge in the right direction (which hardly requires a paralyzing manifestation of divine glory). He doesn't deny that there are culpable non-believers even if God does in fact exist, nor does he say God would have to appease their high epistemic standards.

Mark,

I think you misunderstand how the argument from divine hiddenness is supposed to work. It generally goes like this: if the biblical God existed, due to his love he would make his existence more obvious. But he doesn't, therefore he probably does not exist. Notice the 'would' in that argument? How would Schellenberg or any other advocate of the hiddenness argument know to expect God's existence to be more obvious? They are taking for granted the Western classical conception of God, developed over centuries in dialogue with and reflection upon Scripture. Divine hiddennness is only a problem for certain conceptions of God, and the the conception of God targeted by Schellenberg's argument is the biblical God. Since Schellenberg has to rely upon this picture to figure out what God WOULD do if he existed, it is perfectly appropriate to look to the Bible for clues as to why God WOULD not make his existence obvious to all. The use of would in both arguments is exactly the same, and draws on similar sources.

As to your second point, remember that Chris says the severity argument explains a FACET of divine hiddenness; it is not the complete explanation, and perhaps it does not apply to everyone's experience of hiddenness. Remember also that one's relationship with God is diachronic: just because one is in a state of doubt now doesn't mean that one will be in a state of doubt for the rest of one's life, or that God will always be silent. I highly doubt that there are many people who search diligently for God all of their lives, making the kind of moral changes necessary to be receptive to God's presence (Paul Moser's The Elusive God should be consulted on this point), who will never experience even an inkling of His presence. God works in people's lives at different times and in different ways, so it is hard to generalize.

Sorry JD, but I'm afraid it's you and Layman who've misunderstood Schellenberg. Schellenberg isn't arguing that God would make himself obvious to everyone or eliminate non-belief. He's only arguing that God would eliminate inculpable non-belief. This could mean transforming inculpable non-believers into believers, but it could also mean transforming them into culpable non-believers.

Notice the 'would' in that argument? How would Schellenberg or any other advocate of the hiddenness argument know to expect God's existence to be more obvious?

Because of God's love towards those who actively want to be in a relationship with him, and the nature of the parent/child relationship. Are you going to try to defend some form of skeptical theism here, whereby we're never in a position to be confident about what God would or wouldn't do? I think that's going to cause many more problems for traditional theism than it solves.

They are taking for granted the Western classical conception of God, developed over centuries in dialogue with and reflection upon Scripture. Divine hiddennness is only a problem for certain conceptions of God, and the the conception of God targeted by Schellenberg's argument is the biblical God.

Divine hiddenness is a problem for any conception of God on which God is omniscient/omnipotent and wants to be in a personal relationship with those who actively seek him. If that kind of God doesn't exist, the NT is a poor guide to what attributes such a being would have. Thus to invoke the NT as a guide to what God would or wouldn't do is to assume from the outset that this sort of God in fact exists, which is to beg the question.

Mark,

If one uses an argument to claim that the God articulated in the NT does not exist because he should or would do this or that but in fact has not done this or that, then it is hardly an error -- whether philosophers of religion would follow this path or not -- to look to the characteristics of that God as defined in the NT in addressing the argument.

You and Schellenberg appear to be attacking a particular understanding of God and saying that this particular understanding of God cannot exist in the face of divine hiddenness. The argument seems to leave open the door that some other conception of a powerful divine being may be possible despite this argument. But then you turn around and say that we can't inform our understanding of the God you are attacking by the most basic articulation of His characteristics -- the ones in the Bible. How can you claim that Schellenberg disproves the God of the NT when you won't let us use the NT to inform as to the nature of that God?

I think it is you who have the base misunderstanding here. If you want to claim that Schellenberg disproves a particular view of God that is distinct from the NT -- as an abstract matter -- then have at it. I don't really care until your approach my territory, which is informed by the NT. You say that this disproves a God who wants a personal relationship and use the child/parent metaphor. Presumably you use these because that is part of what Christians and their holy books say God is like. You cannot use part of those beliefs and articulations and then say "we have proved this God does not exist" when there are other parts of the articulation of that kind of God that you refuse to consider, such as that God is Judgmental, a punisher of sin, an all consumer fire, a righteous God, etc.

As I stated in my first post on this issue:

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.

Also, Schellenberg may assume that all that is needed for vast numbers of inculpable unbelievers is "a tiny epistemic nudge" but why should the rest of us accept that is the case? Does he have peer reviewed psychological studies to this effect? What would such a study look like?

And while I do have Schellenberg in mind, he is not the only person I have in mind. Many people affected by what they see as divine hiddenness may well properly look to the NT to address the issue and they and others may not care what philosophers of religion have to say about this particular issue.

And though I disagree with you on this issue, I really do appreciate you taking the time to leave some comments.

Hi Layman. Thanks for your detailed response.

You're certainly free to develop any conception of God that you like. And it may very well be the case that the conception you develop is one on which divine hiddenness of the sort that Schellenberg takes issue is not unexpected. But a question nevertheless remains as to whether or not we may simply take that conception for granted.

Here's an analogy. Suppose I tell you that I'm actually the queen of England. That seems preposterous: what are the odds that the queen of England is posting on this blog? Quite high, I say: I'm the queen of England, and this is my favorite blog -- so of course the queen is liable to post on it! Well, maybe this really is the queen's favorite blog. But it's extremely unlikely that I know anything about the queen's blogging preferences unless I really am the queen, herself. So if you have doubts about whether or not I'm the queen, my assurances about my (the queen's) attitudes won't go very far toward settling them.

The same thing applies in the hiddenness case. According to Schellenberg, it's unlikely that a loving deity exists. Your scriptures, which purport to come from such a deity, give reasons for why the deity remains hidden. Even if the reasons are good ones, it's likely that a loving deity would have those reasons only if a loving deity exists in the first place and is responsible for those scriptures. Since Schellenberg denies that any such being exists (and hence can be responsible for anything), it's illegitimate to appeal to those reasons.

Also, Schellenberg may assume that all that is needed for vast numbers of inculpable unbelievers is "a tiny epistemic nudge" but why should the rest of us accept that is the case?

Because those people are pretty clear about how much they want to believe in God, how much suffering their doubts engender, and how desperately they wait for an answer to their prayers. See, e.g., those letters of Mother Theresa that were disclosed a few years ago. There are many, many people who undergo religious crises like hers that leave them faithless. I don't know if there are any psychological studies of them in the literature (I wouldn't be surprised if there are), but it's difficult, and more than a little suspicious, not to take at least many of their stories at face value.

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.

I'm not sure how this analogy is supposed to help. Clearly if there are any Christians at all, it's permissible for God to enter into a relationship with people who seek him. Why would his other attributes prevent him from relating to others seekers?

Schellenberg isn't arguing that God would make himself obvious to everyone or eliminate non-belief. He's only arguing that God would eliminate inculpable non-belief.

See my comment above on the diachronic character of a relationship with God. God may not reveal His presence on the timetable we expect, so it is dubious to isolate a person's orientation toward God at a certain point in time and draw conclusions about how that relationship will evolve over time.

Are you going to try to defend some form of skeptical theism here, whereby we're never in a position to be confident about what God would or wouldn't do?

On the contrary. The point of Layman's posts is precisely that we are in a position to be confident about some things that God wouldn't do, such as reveal Himself too soon to people who aren't ready. You seem to allow Schellenberg the right to be confident about what God would do if He existed, but not Christians the right to be confident about what God wouldn't do if He existed. I think that's rather unfair.

Thus to invoke the NT as a guide to what God would or wouldn't do is to assume from the outset that this sort of God in fact exists, which is to beg the question.

Not at all. We are still at the hypothetical level, asking how and on what terms such a God would reveal Himself, if in fact He existed. It's like scientists stipulating what characteristics a neutrino would have to have if it existed, in advance of experimental evidence that neutrinos existed.

See my comment above on the diachronic character of a relationship with God. God may not reveal His presence on the timetable we expect, so it is dubious to isolate a person's orientation toward God at a certain point in time and draw conclusions about how that relationship will evolve over time.

Do you have an argument against Schellenberg here or what? I'm not seeing it. Which of the two claims are you challenging: 1. There are inculpable non-believers; 2. Probably a loving and sufficiently powerful deity would prevent inculpable non-belief.

On the contrary. The point of Layman's posts is precisely that we are in a position to be confident about some things that God wouldn't do, such as reveal Himself too soon to people who aren't ready.

O.K., I find that interesting. But what about people who are not only are ready but also desperately willing...?

You seem to allow Schellenberg the right to be confident about what God would do if He existed, but not Christians the right to be confident about what God wouldn't do if He existed. I think that's rather unfair.

That's not what's going on. I am arguing that Schellenberg's argument bypasses the grounds on which you're trying to rest your claims about God's reasons. See my queen of England analogy above, which is probably the best I can do to explain my thinking here.

I know I'm the odd one out here, but I find the whole concept of "divine hiddenness" kind of silly. I mean, Jesus came back from the dead. This after having been a walking miracle-factory during his life even according to the non-Christian source of the Talmud. How much more obvious do you want?

People say they want to find God -- but then look the other way when they see that Jesus blows everybody else's claims out of the water. And then complain that God didn't make it clear.

No, if it's someone not making it clear, maybe it's us Christians being horrible witnesses of what happened, but it's not God.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Mark,

The Queen of England analogy would be more accurate if person X was saying that, due to principle set1, if the Queen of England existed she would act more on blogs than she is commonly perceived as doing, so that's evidence she doesn't exist; and person Y was saying that, due to principle set2, if the Queen of England existed she might in fact not act more on blogs than she is commonly perceived as doing.

Appealing to principle set 2 is not necessarily excluded simply by having a principle set 1 on the opposing argument. (The two sets might even share agreements on principles to some extent.) What counts is whether one set sufficiently countervails the other in various ways.

JRP

Mark: {{According to Schellenberg, it's unlikely that a loving deity exists. Your scriptures, which purport to come from such a deity, give reasons for why the deity remains hidden. Even if the reasons are good ones, it's likely that a loving deity would have those reasons only if a loving deity exists in the first place and is responsible for those scriptures. Since Schellenberg denies that any such being exists (and hence can be responsible for anything), it's illegitimate to appeal to those reasons.}}

So, to apply here: this looks like your rebuttal amounts to admitting that even if the reasons make sense they can't be true because God would have to be true for them to be true and Schellenberg argues that God (probably?) isn't true. So there! {g}

On the contrary, if principle set 2 properly (in principle!) countervails set 1, then a text advocating principle set 2 is in that regard (at least) closer to the truth than a text advocating only principle set 1.

The same would be true the other way around, of course, if principle set 1 properly countervails set 2. Which clearly you accept, since basically you're applying that argument (at least tacitly) in favor of Schellenberg's superiority in this matter.

But it still comes down to comparing the two principle sets to each other.

So for example, if your argument against the existence of a loving Queen is that a loving Queen would both want to and have the ability to correspond on blogs, yet this only seems to happen to some people not to everyone (even to people apparently serving the Queen very well) no matter how hard they want it; and someone points out that there may be other factors explaining why a loving Queen might not blog very obviously even with people she thinks is serving her well or who want to serve her... then the question is which of those two sets of explanations explains things more realistically.

If it's the latter one, then a loving Queen might still exist. (Not even counting other evidence or arguments in favor of her existence, or against. Which an evaluator might consider strong enough either way to countervail a successful result on this argument.)

JRP

Hi Jason. I'm not sure I really understand your response. What is this about "principle sets?" And the queen of England analogy was not intended to illustrate or directly support the case for divine hiddenness, just the error of taking certain claims about God for granted in responding to divine hiddenness.

Mark,

I think Jason has correctly summarized the problem I have with your response:

"this looks like your rebuttal amounts to admitting that even if the reasons make sense they can't be true because God would have to be true for them to be true and Schellenberg argues that God (probably?) isn't true."

This is like dismissing a defendant's alibi under the assumption that he or she is probably guilty, and therefore the alibi cannot possibly be true. This is not a very fair position to take.

Let me try another way. What are the grounds-independent of the hiddenness argument-for concluding that the Christian God probably does not exist, which would render the NT an untrustworthy guide to His character?

Hi JD. That was not a particularly accurate summary of my response. First, I never said that God's reasons can't be the ones Layman takes from the New testament; I said they're unlikely to be the ones taken from the Bible unless the Bible is divinely inspired or whatever. Second, as I stated in my response to Metacrock who makes the same error, I am not making the ridiculous argument that it's illegitimate to appeal to God's reasons since if God doesn't exist he doesn't have any reasons. I'm pretty sure I explained my actual argument quite well with my queen of England analogy, so I refer you once more to that.

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