Divine Hiddenness: Is God really Hidden?

Divine Hiddenness is one of the most common objections to God’s existence, following variations on the problem of evil. Divine hiddenness isn’t a problem for the Christian since we find God’s presence personal and unmistakable. Even so, it may be a problem for those we hope to reach, so we should be ready to respond to it.

I found an argument from Schellenberg that seems to summarize the issue as I’ve seen people present it. I’ve modernized the language, but Schellenberg’s essential point is as follows:

The key term here is “non-resistant.” Schellenberg refers to unbelievers who are not “culpable” for their unbelief. The label implies a recognition that if someone is resistant to God, their unbelief cannot be God’s responsibility. Since it is a crucial term in the argument, we first want to drill down on what they mean by it.  

I suspect that they do not mean “non-resistant.” If someone is non-resistant, then they have no resistance at all. We can tell them, “I know God and Jesus, and I can tell you that God raised Jesus from the dead. Would you like to accept him?” They should immediately accept the offer. After all, they have no resistance, right? Probably not, because they don’t mean “non-resistant.” They mean something like “justified resistance.”  

This clarification shows the first weakness in the argument: it is circular. The argument means to justify unbelief, but you can only accept the first premise if you already believe unbelief is warranted. Perhaps the argument can make someone who is already an atheist more atheistic, but it cannot justify atheism. It cannot justify the claim that God does not exist.

Setting that aside for the moment, we run into a second problem in the argument: it supplies the tools to dismantle itself. Consider that the argument’s core reasoning is the conviction that God and non-resistant unbelievers cannot coexist. We can use this conviction to reverse the strength of the argument as follows:

Notice that this new argument relies on the same conviction at the central premise as the original argument. The critical difference is in which of the following one finds more probable:

We have independent arguments for the existence of the maximally great being we call God. Are there independent arguments for the existence of non-resistant unbelievers? The critic may just incredulously insist that there must be such people, but can he offer more than his incredulity? Answering that question leads us to what I call the “selection problem.” How do we find these non-resistant unbelievers?  

We can’t very well ask them. What percentage of unbelievers will say that they are resisting God? Putting it another way, what percentage of unbelievers will take their unbelief to be justified? Probably all of them. Everyone thinks that they are rational in their beliefs, whether or not they really are. The critic’s argument relies on the actual existence of non-resistant unbelievers, not merely the fact of those who claim to be non-resistant unbelievers. The critic has to show that people really are justified in their unbelief. Here again, we see the argument’s circularity: the critic must first show that unbelief is justified before he can run his argument to justify unbelief.

Finally, we have a ready counter-argument that we can submit:

This argument points out that God’s existence is not inconsistent with the so-called non-resistant unbelief. If God has morally sufficient reasons, then he may remain all-good and permit non-resistant unbelief. What are those reasons? The burden of proof is on the critic to show that God cannot have such reasons, not on the theist to supply them. Even so, one scenario comes to mind.

Remember that all of our circumstances are connected. God can’t make it such that world history is different for different people. We all share the same set of circumstances that God brings about. It may be the case that the scenario in which one person is saved is the exact circumstances in which another is lost.

If we simplify things and consider the two worlds above, we can see how God may have morally sufficient reasons to bring about World A rather than World B even if Edward is lost. These sufficient reasons may hold even if Edward is a non-resistant unbeliever in World A.

The critic may object, “Yes, but how is Edward held responsible for his unbelief in that case!” Edward might not be held responsible for his unbelief in World A. It may be that Edward is held accountable for the moral evil he has done but that God does not count his unbelief against him.  

Even if you don’t find the scenario plausible, the point remains that God may have morally sufficient reasons to allow non-resistant unbelief. Therefore, we cannot take non-resistant unbelief as a reason to disbelieve in God.

In summary, the argument from divine hiddenness suffers from three fatal flaws:

  1. The argument is circular since one can only believe in the first premise if one already believes that unbelief is justified.
  2. The argument can just as easily show non-resistant unbelievers do not exist as it can that God does not exist.
  3. God and non-resistant unbelievers can coexist if God has morally sufficient reasons to permit non-resistant unbelief.