General Theism (Part 7): Divine Hiddenness

The other powerful objection to General Theism that we should examine is Divine Hiddenness – if your God wants me to believe in Him so badly, why doesn’t He try a little harder? (It should be noted that this objection isn’t maximally general since it assumes that God wants us to believe in Him – some forms of theism, like deism, aren’t committed to such a position. Nevertheless, since Divine Hiddenness is a problem for all evangelistic religions, it’s more general than an objection to, say, the reliability of the Bible.)

One common formulation of Divine Hiddenness is:
1. If God exists (and wants us to believe in Him), reasonable unbelief does not exist.
2. Reasonable unbelief exists.
3. Therefore God does not exist.

Why should we believe the premises of this argument? We accept 2 on the basis of atheistic testimony both past and present – when asked what he’d say if he died and found himself before God, atheist Bertrand Russell replied “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!” Indeed, even as a Christian, I can attest to the fact that I once had reasonable unbelief (more on that later). Denying 2 as it stands would force us to either accuse atheists of deliberately lying or else argue that they’re not accurately perceiving their own reasons for affirming atheism. The former is uncalled for, extremely uncharitable, and implausible; the latter is more plausible (human psychology is quite complicated) and, ironically, what atheists sometimes say about theists who claim to have reasonable belief. But if we can avoid speculating about the psychology of our opponents, I’d prefer to – so let’s start by inspecting premise 1.

What justification can the atheist give for premise 1? Usually, the atheist takes it as obvious that if God wants us to believe in Him, He’ll give us all we need to do so. But there are a number of ways to challenge such an assertion. First, is it truly necessary that God give such evidence of Himself at all points in an individual’s life? Here, I appeal to my own story as an example. In high school I had rational doubts and objections concerning Christianity that caused me to reasonably disbelieve it; later, however, I was exposed to additional evidence that changed my mind and led to (what I think to be) reasonable belief. It’s entirely plausible to me that God allowed me to reasonably disbelieve for a time because it was better that way – indeed, my own experience of doubt is a major reason that I’m now so involved in Christian apologetics, and so this very post is an example of something which never would have existed had my temporary unbelief been prevented. To deal with such a rebuttal, the atheist will usually adjust their premise to the more modest:

1*. If God exists, nobody will have reasonable unbelief for the entirety of their life.

But then, in order for their argument to remain valid, they must also adjust their second premise to

2*. People have reasonable unbelief for the entirety of their lives.

But 1* is still objectionable, at least in the Christian case. For the atheist’s starting assumption in this whole objection – that God wants us to believe in Him – is only conditionally true of the Christian God. The basic narrative of Christianity is that we’ve all broken God’s moral law; as a righteous judge, He cannot abide this and is thus relationally separated from us. But through Jesus’ death on the cross, we have an opportunity to be reconciled to God and be with Him forever. That story raises a host of other questions, but the important point for this discussion is that according to Christianity, God is interested in drawing people into loving relationships with Himself, not merely convincing them that He exists. This means that if someone would choose to reject a relationship with God even given more evidence of His existence, God has no obvious motivation to give them any more evidence than they already have. So the atheist must again modify his argument to:

1′. If God exists, no one who would enter a loving relationship with Him were they to have sufficient evidence of His existence goes without such evidence for the entirety of their lives.
2′. At least one person who would have entered a loving relationship with God were they to have sufficient evidence of His existence has gone without such evidence for the entirety of their lives.

Some theists would press even harder on 1′, but I’m content to accept it as stated. However, whereas premise 2 started off looking pretty defensible, our corrections to premise 1 have turned it into the much more dubious 2′. Why should I believe that such a person has existed? Indeed, in the lives of many particular atheists there seems to be evidence to the contrary. Richard Dawkins, for instance, calls the God of the Bible “the most unpleasant character in all fiction”; I suspect that more evidence would merely have resulted in the revised quote “the most unpleasant being in all reality.” Now if no context whatsoever were given to 2′, I’d still probably be an agnostic about it with a slight lean towards affirming it; that’s why Divine Hiddenness is a strong objection. But because I’m committed to 1′ and I have stronger reasons for thinking that God exists than I do for thinking that 2′ is true, the most rational thing for me to do is reject 2′. If I were extremely confident in 2′, I’d need to reject my belief in the existence of God instead; if I were moderately confident of 2′, I’d keep my belief in God but be noticeably less confident in it. In fact, though, I have little more than a vague suspicion that 2′ is true; hence, I have no qualms about rejecting it due to the force of the positive arguments for God’s existence.

I’d like to conclude my discussion of Divine Hiddenness with a personal challenge for my atheist and agnostic friends – be the counterexample! Be honest with yourself and examine whether you’d be willing to submit to God if you knew He existed. If you would be, keep your eyes open – you could even consider praying for God, whoever or whatever He may be, to reveal Himself to you. And if you live your entire life a genuine seeker and die without ever encountering God, you’ll honestly be able to say that God was hidden from you. But be prepared: if Christianity is true, as I think it is, that won’t be the way the story goes.