By Blake Giunta| If a perfectly loving God existed, then wouldn’t that God have made sure no one is an atheist or agnostic? After all, choosing to be in relationship with God is an impossibility for them, and as philosopher J.L. Schellenberg asks:
“What loving parent would ever willingly allow this possibility [of personal interaction] to be taken completely away? Parental love will not permit this to occur when it can be prevented.” [“What the Hiddenness of God Reveals,” Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (Cambridge, 2002), 24.]
Over the past 20 years, literally hundreds of peer reviewed sources, books and articles, have been published on this topic by philosophers who are working to explore every nook and cranny of the debate. (See BeliefMap’s bibliography of about 50 of those sources here.)
What follows is a simple outline of some responses for the reader to dig into, with hyperlinks to allow easy access for more details. The reasons for why God might not bring all to belief can perhaps be sorted into five categories.
Reason #1: Some would just reject relationship
Some resistant non-believers, upon coming to belief in God, would just immediately reject loving relationship with Him. We know this because many testify that they would resist and many historical examples exist. This is relevant because God’s specified motivation to ensure that everyone believes is to allow for relationship, and that motivation just doesn’t exist for God when it comes to non-theists who would immediately reject relationship.
I attended a debate in Dallas recently between Dr. Justin Bass and Dan Barker, a very prominent atheist and founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Towards the end of the debate, Dan Barker was adamant:
“even if I agreed with [Dr. Bass] 100%, …, I would still reject that Being as a Lord of my life because I’m better than that…I cannot accept Jesus as Lord…”
As James 2:19 reminds us, “the demons also believe.” So why again would a loving God ensure that Dan Barker believe? No relationship comes from it. In fact, if God does get Dan to believe at this time, it might just solidify Dan in his decision.
Reason #2: Some would enter into an improper relationship
Some non-believers, at least in their current state, would just form a perpetually improper relationship with God. For example, upon coming to believe that God exists,…
Proper relationship involves loving and worshipping God, rather than one’s own sin. We read from the Christian tradition, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24)
It has also been argued that in order to make union with God possible, one needs to be internally integrated around the good, and that this requires a willing process of sanctification where God can transform us to be like Christ. If one would not be open to moral transformation, then plausibly one is not open to a proper relationship with God; proper union is precluded.
Proper divine-human relationship involves seeing God as the ultimate good. However, some non-believers have testified that they will never see eye-to-eye with a God who, for example, allows so much suffering, regardless of God’s reasons—it’s a difference in values. Individuals like this who also refuse to submit their moral development to God may just never be able to be in proper relationship with God.
One can be confronted with God’s awe-inspiring and humbling greatness, a power and greatness God deliberately refrains from extensively sharing with them. In the Christian tradition, Satan resented God for reasons akin to this (Isaiah 14:12-14 is often interpreted this way), and Satan himself enticed Adam and Eve to similarly hope to match God in a capacity (Genesis 3:4-5). By contrast, for proper relationship, see the attitude one ultimately needs to have in Philippians 2:5-8, the attitude displayed by Christ.
Appropriate divine-human relationship displays what philosopher Paul Moser calls “cognitive modesty”; the human needs to have a humility before God, as the rightful chooser of God’s own self-revelation. For some individuals, if they came to belief in God, they would only consent to doing so having condescendingly sent God through impersonal hoops of their own making, like a circus animal.
Making God submit and cow to their demands could permanently and negatively affect the divine-human relationship. As noted by Paul Moser and Daniel Howard-Snyder:
“[Possibly] God hides and thus permits … [some] nonbelief because, if He were not hidden, humans would relate to God and to their knowledge of God in presumptuous ways and the possibility of developing the inner attitudes essential to a proper relationship with Him would be ipso facto ruled out.” [“Introduction” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (eds) Moser & Howard-Snyder (Cambridge, 2002), 10.]
• … some would perpetually lack right desire for God (e.g. praising/praying to God for wrong reasons).
Such a situation could be disastrous for the development of proper relationship, an intuition which seems widespread. As put by one early Muslim mystic, Rabia Basri: “O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.” Consider some of these in turn:
‣ Praising/praying just for gifts. For example, a happy life in heavenly paradise could be something that someone is simply using God to obtain, while having no actual love or desire for God.
‣ Praising/praying just to escape punishment. Some may feel what seems to be a divine gun at their head, knowing they are guilty and due for just punishment for their sins. They may then simply seek to pray and worship in hopes of escaping the punishment they are due.
In the Christian tradition, God does not ask us to love him in order to escape punishment. Rather, salvation is already offered freely to those who align themselves with God, and God generally woos them over time with realization of the greatness of salvation already offered, along with growing awareness and insights into His character.
‣ Praising/praying just for religious experiences.
For example, some atheists report attending church services to delude themselves momentarily, simply to obtain these kind of spiritual feelings and experiences. Simply using God to pleasure yourself in this way, whether God is actually involved or not, may be analogous to trying to use someone for sex, without having any real love for the person.
So many non-theists, upon becoming convinced of God’s existence, would just enter into an improper relationship with God. This is relevant because an improper relationship could be so sick and disastrous to real relationship that it would have been better for it to have never existed.
Reason #3: Some would later abandon proper relationship
Some non-believers, if they became theists, would enter proper relationship with God. However, they would also subsequently abandon it later in life. This is relevant because if God knows the relationship is just going to be abandoned later in life by the free agent, then plausibly that relationship holds no value to God.
In fact, like a marriage ending in divorce, God might prefer for the relationship to have never existed.
Reason #4: Silence can bring greater relationship goods
Many relationship goods require, risk, or result in God’s existence, at least temporarily, not being clear to various persons. These are goods like…
As William Lane Craig explains,
“…for all we know, [ensuring a that a given non-theist becomes a theist] might result in circumstances in which another person would then not come to a saving knowledge of God, so that the overall balance of saved and lost would be worse! For all we know, in a world in which the existence of God were as obvious as the nose on your face, an even smaller percentage of the world’s population would come to know and love Him than in the actual world.” [“Middle Knowledge and Christian Particularism” at ReasonableFaith.org]
This isn’t just about appealing to the butterfly effect, although that is more than enough. There are actually very plausible scenarios and reasons for why more persons total might reject relationship if God were less hidden.
Everlasting quality could be improved in several ways which absolutely require God’s hiddenness. For example, God can bring someone through circumstances of non-belief in a way where, upon coming to belief, God is everlastingly appreciated more, or on the basis of reasons which are better for relationship quality, or a way which better fits God’s personality (which is inherently good for relating to God).
There are several ways in which relationship quality could be increased throughout the world. For one example, of several, there could everlastingly be more things to worship God for, ways which require God’s hiddenness.
For a single example of this, we might everlastingly worship God more because God allowed us to participate in the Divine work, the “Great Commission” of bringing people into relationship with God, as co-workers and friends of God. (In the Christian tradition, this is vital. See John 5:15, 1 Corinthians 3:9, and Philippians 2:13.) Philosopher Travis Dumsday writes,
“To be in positive relationship with God involves engaging in cooperative work aimed at the achievement of common goals. Therefore, to be in a positive relationship with God involves such cooperative work.” … “the greatest possible benefit that a human being could bestow on another human being would be to help that person achieve her highest good, consequently the greatest possible good that one human being can do for another is to introduce that person to God.” [“Divine Hiddenness and the Responsibility Argument” Philosophia Christi 12(2)(2010): 365.])
Reason #5: Divine silence can bring greater goods total
Greater goods around the world ultimately obtain with God’s existence being unclear to some non-believers. For example, a conjunction of the following goods, like…
• …more relationship goods. [See above]
• …more justice.
In the Christian tradition, sinners being punished to the right degree for wrongdoings is not a bad thing; justice implemented is a good thing. If God chose to deal with all men this way, it would be good. In fact, as a Calvinist might emphasize, dealing justly with all men is arguably just as good as showing mercy to all, or just as good as any combination of treating part mercifully and the other part justly.
So if instead of being hidden, God had ensured more people came to saving knowledge of him, it would come at the cost of no longer dealing with those persons justly. So hiddenness may cost opportunities to exemplify mercy and yet buy a corresponding amount of justice.
Hiddenness buys us more uncoerced decision-making, which is important for morally significant free will and the ability to cultivate our own character. Some humans (a small number or large), upon becoming aware of God, would too frequently face coercively overwhelming reason to choose morally right decisions.
They could be coerced by fear of punishment, enticement of reward, or maybe desire for God’s approval. You might ask whether morally significant freedom is valuable. There are several reasons to think so. Consider one: as noted by Aristotle, “we become just by [freely] doing just acts, temperate by [freely] doing temperate acts, brave by [freely] doing brave acts” [Nicomachean Ethics 1103b].
This is relevant because, this process of making free moral decisions, and freely forming our own character as a result, is a great good. The process, however, would be frustrated by an environment of overwhelming coercion to always do right. There are several other costs to such coercion as well. For example, it could suddenly be very hard to help someone for the person’s sake, as opposed to the coercion-based reasons listed above.
This would degrade the value of the act intrinsically. It could also degrade the possibility of deeper relationships formed when we know people acting charitable towards us always have highly motivating selfish reasons in the background, reasons which they either can’t ignore or would struggle to ignore.
Multiple essays could tease out these implications and how relinquishment of hiddenness right now could devastate relationships and freedom.
Consider that the seeking of God, as the highest good, would itself be a great good. After all, pursuing the good is intuitively good, but Biblical heroes who were arguably in communion with God also repeatedly testify both that seeking God is good (Dt 4:29; Ps 63:1; 78:34; 2 Chron 30:18-19) and that God arranges to be sought after (Jer 29:13; Acts 17:27; Heb 11:6; Ps 14:2-3).
Psychology studies, Biblical studies, and our own experience converge in indicating that we value most what we work for. Moreover, conscious awareness and appreciation has intrinsic value, the total value of which can continue to grow throughout eternity.
As things stand, is seems nearly impossible to run a powerful “divine hiddenness” argument against God’s existence because it is so hard to establish that even one non-believer exists who meets these criteria:
• Is truly non-resistant,
• Would enter into a proper relationship upon coming to belief,
• Would stay in proper relationship,
• Whose entering into proper relationship would bring more relationship goods total among all free agents (better total number and quality ratio), or more broadly…
• Whose entering into proper relationship would bring more goods total.
This means the major controversial premise that “God would ensure that non-believers know He exists” remains entirely unjustified. Moreover, given the complexity of the calculation required, prospects for justifying it in the future seem bleak indeed.