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.

General Theism (Part 6): Evil

If God is omnipotent and benevolent, why is there such tremendous evil and suffering in the world? This oft-asked question lies at the heart of the Problem of Evil, which many theists regard as the strongest objection to the existence of God. Recalling our Bayesian statistics from the previous post, the atheist’s objective here is to demonstrate that evil is much more compatible with atheism than it is with theism. As a theist, I don’t need to show that evil is more probable on theism than atheism – there can be evidence against a true fact. I just need to show that the expectedness gap isn’t as large as it would need to be to outweigh the positive evidence for God’s existence.

So just how big is the explanatory gap between atheism and theism when it comes to evil? Historically, many atheists have tried to argue that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with theism (i.e. the probability of God and evil coexisting is 0) – if they were right, this objection would singlehandedly end the discussion. Fortunately for the theist, this ambitious form of the objection has been largely abandoned due to the work of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (who’s definitely worth reading, particularly if you’re interested in the theory of knowledge). But we aren’t out of the woods yet – even if the probability of evil given God’s existence is nonzero, it could still be so low that evil counts as devastatingly powerful evidence against God.

The argument will hinge on a single question: how likely is it that God has morally justifying reasons for permitting the evil we see? The atheist typically answers that they don’t see any morally justifying reasons for permitting, say, a child getting run over by a car. This is colloquially called a “noseeum” argument, and noseeum arguments vary significantly in power. If I use a noseeum argument to back up my assertion that there isn’t an elephant in the room, I’ve got a solid position; if I use one to argue that there’s no flea in the room, I’m on much shakier ground. So are morally justifying reasons more like elephants (we’d likely see them if they were there), or are they more like fleas (they’d be hard to see even if they exist)?

To argue that they’re more like fleas, the theist can provide sample explanations for why God may permit evil (called theodicies) that would be hard to see in particular cases. For example, suppose (as Christianity maintains) that knowing God is an incommensurable good, meaning that it’s worth anything we could give for it. Then a world with more evil and pain could still be better overall if more people came to know God as a result. But how plausible is it that the worlds in which the most people come to know God have as much suffering as we see in ours? Actually, quite! Many Christians can personally attest to the fact that they’ve come to know God as a result of disaster or pain, and this anecdotal trend has been well-substantiated statistically by analysis of the growth of evangelical Christianity during immensely painful periods in a nation’s history (ex. China, El Salvador, Ethiopia). So it seems plausible that if Christianity were true, God may permit some instances of evil and suffering so that a maximal number of people come to know Him. (There are many proposed theodicies that complement each other – you can see 10 more at
https://beliefmap.org/god-exists/pain-unjustifiable#theodicies.)

Theodicies are further complicated by the so-called “butterfly effect”; a single event can have its first major consequence many years and miles away from its occurrence. Even if permitting an act of evil results in tremendous good 150 or 15000 years from now, we may not be able to determine that from our perspective, which is limited to a very small region of time and space.

So while the theist acknowledges that evil exists and that God would not permit evil unless He had morally justifying reasons to do so, the theist can maintain that we simply don’t have the ability to confidently conclude that such reasons don’t actually exist – like fleas, they may just be incredibly hard to see from our vantage point. Since the atheist is the one mounting the objection, this rebuttal suffices to ward off the force of the objection without major damage to the theist’s position.