As the Christian theologian Luigi Giussani so eloquently stated, “A human being faces reality using reason. Reason is what makes us human. Therefore, we must have a passion for reasonableness.” (Religious Sense, 1922) I couldn’t have put it better myself.
One of the things which theologians as well as nonbelievers agree on is that if God existed in reality, then it is by our capacity to reason by which we would be capable of detecting him, or it. Although there have been hundreds of arguments for the existence of God, some of the most familiar being the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and so on and so forth, it seems that the atheistic arguments against the existence of God are rarely ever given a fair shake. This is why I like the Problem of Divine Hiddenness, or the Argument from Non-Belief as it is also known. It’s a strong argument against the existence of a theistic God, and one which I think most believers ought to contend with if they truly want their beliefs to hold any meaning.
Anslem of Canturbury was one of the first theologians to grapple seriously with the Problem of Divine Hiddenness (PODH for short). As Anslem observed, we have never seen the physical presence of God. And if seeing is believing, then wouldn’t be nice if our doubts could be put to rest if only he made a simple appearance? After all, Jehovah did it for Moses, why not do it again for us?
In this essay, I will examine why I believe the Problem of Divine Hiddenness is a sturdy argument against the commonly held belief in the existence of the Christian God, why it complicates the general belief in a theistic God, and why it is a strong argument for atheists since it validates non-belief in most theistic God concepts.
The idea behind the argument is this, if God would put our doubts to rest then there simply would never be any doubting Thomases, nonbelievers, or different religious faiths. All belief in God, including religious belief, would be universally the same since they would all be able to (independently) study the same God instead of different interpretations of various, often times diametrically opposed, God-concepts.
In his article on the Problem of Divine Hiddenness, Cristofer Nobel Urlaub offers the PODH in the form of a syllogism. This is a good way of framing it, so it’s worth repeating here.
1. If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable non-belief does not occur.
3. Reasonable non-belief occurs.
4. No perfectly loving God exists (from 2 and 3).
5. Hence, there is no God (from 1 and 4).
He goes on to add:
“Not many theists would argue against the first premise. Many theists describe the God of the Bible as a personal God of unconditional love. In addition, no objective person would deny the existence of reasonable non-belief. Theists may not agree with atheists, but one must admit that some of their arguments are, at least, well thought out.”
I have to give Cristofer some much deserved credit, for he isn’t just beating around the bush, but he’s giving some serious thought to the issue. I hope to compel him to think perhaps a little more upon the subject before simply coming to any set conclusion.
The very existence of non-belief, and I would add contrary beliefs as well, all contradict the hypothesis that God is all-loving. Why? Because as Cristofer points out, “a perfectly loving God would want everyone to know he exists, in order to be saved, and would also have the power to bring about a situation in which everyone knew he existed.”
The question which arises is this: if there is a loving God, then why are there non-believers?
Not only atheists, mind you, but those who believe in different gods, goddesses, spirits, and supreme beings, or even new age magic? Why are there polytheists and pantheists for that matter? Why are their wiccans and Scinetologists? All forms of divergent-belief, or non-belief, in God signify that God has, in most cases, not made himself known to the majority of the human race.
It was Friedrich Nietzsche who once observed that “a god who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who does not even make sure his creatures understand his intentions—could that be a god of goodness?”
Indeed, this seems to be a direct consequence of PODH. God, if he exists, in all probability isn’t a loving being. Like Nietzsche pointed out, if God was indeed all-loving, then he must, by his very nature, be compelled not to sow confusion and doubt in the minds of others. Was it not St. Paul himself, who in the presence of the Spirit, proclaimed “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33)? Allowing for atheists is one form of confusion.
Allowing for those who profess belief in a DIFFERENT god is a type of confusion. It’s not only a confusion, but also it follows that variant belief systems create doubt as you have to ask which, if any, is the correct belief? Soon you have believers doubting themselves. Maybe I’m wrong? Maybe that guy over there is right? Or maybe that guy? Multiply this confusion by the number of different god beliefs there are, have been, or ever will be along with the number of non-believers which exist, and this creates one undeniably massive amount of confusion.
God, by his loving nature, however, would not want his creatures to be so confused that they stopped believing and worshipping him. Certainly not the Christian God, who invented Hell especially for those so confused, which, when you think about it, denotes an underlying malevolence (but I digress). Through love, God would be compelled to reveal himself to us in a way which would diminish all doubt. I am the ONE true God—and I love you—so I shall prove it! Tah-Dah! But, no. God does not make himself known to us in a way whereby we might share a universal experience of him. And this is a huge problem for theists.
If we could all see the elephant in the room there wouldn’t be different forms of God-belief. All peoples, all religions, would unanimously agree on the same God as we would have a common denominator of experience to relate back to, and therefore belief in God would be universal and the same. There wouldn’t be many variant, dissimilar, or divergent religions, no, there’d be just the one! If God were real, there’d be the ONE religion based on the ONE true God. Furthermore, there wouldn’t be non-believers, since, knowing the existence of God would be like knowing the existence of apples. We’d just accept it as something which existed beyond a reason of a doubt and move on. But the opposite seems to be the case. Non-believers exist, variances in God belief are so superfluous as to be ridiculous, and the only thing which is certain is nobody can be certain about anything when it comes to the existence of God. There is confusion. And this denotes a less than loving God or no God at all.
This is the crux of the Problem of Divine Hiddenness.
Now there are several considerations we could assume in light of the above realization that there does, apparently, seem to be confusion as to the existence of God and there does seem to be a rather problematic implication that God may not be all-loving.
These additional considerations are:
1) Either God is not all-loving because he authors confusion by not making himself known.
2) Or God is not all powerful as he continually fails to reveal himself to us.
3) Or God may be indifferent and indistinguishable from a naturalistic universe with no God.
4) Or finally, God is altogether non-existent.
Let us look at these considerations in more detail, shall we?
So why do people believe in different Gods? Why not the same God? Well, it seems it is because they are confused as to the truth of which God is the real God. Holy Wars have been fought over this. People have died! Would a loving God allow such atrocities?
If you believe in an all-loving God, then your answer would have to be: no. So why has God still not revealed himself in a way which would make himself perfectly known to all those who are afflicted with confusion and doubt as to his existence? Wouldn’t this resolve all the conflicts and turmoil generated over the question of his existence?
As Cristofer Noble correctly states, “This argument is similar to the problem of evil because it claims the idea of God is inconsistent with what we observe in the world. In fact, since ignorance of God would seem to be a natural evil, many say that the problem of divine hiddenness is an instance of the problem of evil.”
But like the Problem of Evil, the consequences are less than desirable for the theist. God is either malevolent, since he allows evil, or indifferent, because he allows evil, or non-existent.
The Philosopher Stephen Law has posited the Evil God Challenge to believers based on this precise revelation. He comes at it strictly from the problem of evil perspective, evil exists, and therefore evil God must be an equally valid assumption as good exists, therefor loving God. I’ll let you be the judge of whether his arguments are convincing.
Perhaps God is all-loving, and would like to reveal himself to all, but due to whatever limitation, simply cannot. Maybe God isn’t all-powerful.
Suddenly we have to re-evaluate what the theologians have said about the properties attributed to God. If an all-loving and all-powerful God existed, then the answer is yes, he would have the power to bring about a situation where everyone came to know him. It would simply be in his nature to do so, and having the capacity to do so, he would do so.
Not having done so, as is our observation, we have to ask which of the properties might be wrong? We’ve already considered option A, that God might not be all-loving, so that leaves us with options B and C. B being God might not be all-powerful.
So although God could very well be all-loving, he simply may not, as Cristofer says, “have the power to bring about a situation in which everyone knew he existed.”
Actually, I should point out that most naturalistic arguments against the existence of God can often reduce themselves to the Problem of Evil or, at least, relate back to it. This is because in a naturalistic universe, the random and arbitrary amount of suffering looks indistinguishable from a universe governed by a malevolent and capricious God.
Another way of stating it would be: A universe created and governed by an evil God would contain more or less the exact same amount of suffering and evil as we already see, so whether the universe is created by a God or not, the very indifference of the universe could reflect the precise indifference of God.
This would mean that God is super-hidden, because we would have no way of discerning his acts from the natural world, and if this be the case, theology is a waste of time as nothing could ever be definitively known about God through his actions, or rather lack thereof.
This one seems fairly straight forward. If God didn’t exist, we would still have all the same amount of confusion regarding him, but this confusion would be predicated on confused terminology, competing God concepts, and the untrustworthiness of human experience and our habitual capacity to continually be mistaken in these experiences. Meanwhile, the universe would behave naturally, and be indifferent in its actions, as it always has.
So the above four considerations all fall out of the Problem of Divine Hiddenness.
Some, like Alvin Plantinga, have postulated that we may simply not know, or understand, the reason for why God allows confusion, suffering, or evil. In other words, it may be beyond our comprehension.
This line or reasoning, however, pushes God dangerously to the edge of no longer being a Personal being. It is for the theist to tread dangerously close to deism only to salvage the belief in God because, well, the atheistic argument was just too good.
I don’t think I really need to attack such a position, because to me it seems to be a defensive one that is admitting that God is not exactly like we have imagined, therefore we throw our hands up in the air and say, oh well, we give up. We couldn’t possibly understand, so instead of demanding to *see proof of God, we’ll just accept it on faith that he is beyond our comprehension. But if so, how could we ever comprehend enough about God to supply a definition? On faith alone?
I’m sorry, but I find it a weak and defeatist position. So I don’t necessarily feel I should devote too much time trying to rebut it.
Another possibility for why God might stay hidden is that his deliberate attempt to demonstrate his own existence would impeach everyone’s free will, and if God has designed us with free will, he cannot contradict his own unimpeachable laws.
Actually, I find this rebuttal extremely unsatisfactory. If free will at all existed as theologians describe, then we would still have the free-choice to deny the existence of God in the face of overwhelming evidence.
It would make us willfully ignorant, sure, but this would be the basis of delusion. Once thing I do not think we can say is that all atheists and nonbelievers are delusional. After all, are they not the ones who are demanding to see the evidence? It seems to me, to truly embrace a delusion you would have to believe in something with unwavering conviction despite evidence to the contrary. And if this were true, then there wouldn’t be such a thing as a nonbeliever or atheist. So you see, the mere existence of atheists is a thorn in the theologian’s back-side!
There is a strange theological consideration dealing with accountability. Cristofer explains in detail:
“If the God of the Bible actually exists, and He made himself absolutely known to the entire world, then the entire world would then be held accountable for that knowledge. The idea that we are only accountable for knowledge we possess is shown in Jesus' saying to the Pharisees, in John 9:41, “... If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.”
“If the Biblical account is true, then the Christian God must be a reality. The infectivity of a personal appearance is then an indication that some people are prepared to accept this reality, and some, for whatever reason, are not. Those who are not able to accept this truth would then be subject to judgments that would not be just, or which could have been avoided if they had been allowed more time to prepare.”
Personally, I only see this as sort of a variant on God is not all-loving consideration, again. You see, the idea clearly entails that God would have to willfully dole out unjust deserts (judgments). A loving God could not do this, but a more sinister sort of God would have no such qualms. So I do not think presuming accountability is the reason God remains hidden nor is it adequate enough to resolve the issue, as it can once again point toward a less than loving God, and then we’d be back to one of the initial consequences of PODH.
So it seems we always come down to one of two assumptions. God is either not all-loving, or he doesn’t exist. One of the implications of PODH states that if God is not all-loving then he cannot be the God of Christianity. And this is true. But he could be a deistic entity and still exist. All it would mean is theologians are wrong about the nature of God. But still, the less confuddled scenario is that God doesn’t exist.
So the question then becomes, which of the two assumptions makes more sense?
Occam’s Razor suggests no God at all is the more probable of the two, and I tend to agree. Loving, or not, God concepts usually tend to be highly intricate. Ornate in their limitless possibilities, but very much unnecessary. It’s all fanciful imaginative decorations twinkling pretty, and although some people are attracted to such elaborate tinsel and trimmings, I tend to think that the truth, whatever it is, is rather more like the philosopher Wittgenstein proposed, namely that truth, in all its forms, is rather mundane. What could be more mundane than the answer simply being: there is no God?
Our observations, based in the natural world, contradict God as he is claimed to exist, and that by far is the greatest indicator that we are dealing with a theoretical concept and not an actual tangible entity. I could be wrong, however, but as an atheist I am still waiting for something compelling, some argument or form of evidence, and so far, I haven’t come across anything which could overcome extremely strong objections to God, like verificationism, justification, empiricism, and the Problem of Divine Hiddenness.
In his concluding statement Cristofer’s states:
“So to those who wonder why a perfectly loving, personal God does not make Himself known to us, I say that He is, though perhaps not in the way we might expect.”
Having re-examined the Problem from Divine Hiddeness a bit more thoroughly, I do not think we can be at all that certain. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that God is working in mysterious ways in which his conveyances are subtle, often unnoticed, or not fully understood, but if so, what, I ask you, sort of God is this?
It’s certainly not like the God of classic Christian theology. A God which keeps you guessing till the very end has more in common, dare I say, with Eastern religions than Western ones. In which case, I would caution, maybe it is high time theists start looking outside of their local God-concepts, which has for centuries been trapped in the tight confines of their established theology, and perhaps start looking for other signs of God.
Once we have applied reason and scrutiny to other competing God-concepts, let reason discern which God among a pantheon of gods seems most plausible. I for one, think you’d be hard pressed to prove any of them.
Ultimately, if you should, like me, look elsewhere for answers but continue to see the same problem of divine hiddenness, well, maybe then the idea of a non-existent God won’t seem so controversial to you. Maybe, just maybe, it will start to make a lot more sense.
 I frequently refer to God as a concept. This is because we live in a naturalistic universe which is governed by physical laws. Consequently, if there is no direct (tangible) or indirect (causal) evidence which can be measured and duplicated empirically by an objective third party, allowing God to be demonstrated as real, then in all likelihood we are dealing with a theoretical concept. It is alternatively called the God-hypothesis. In philosophy, anecdotal stories of experience, such as the personal witness of the Holy Spirit, are meaningless when it comes to proving the veracity of a belief proposition. Although I do not doubt the sincerity of most believers that claim they truly believe they have experienced the divine, there is a difference in the methodology of how one goes about formulating a belief and how one goes about demonstrating whether or not the basic assumptions of the belief are true. I am concerned primarily with systems which can demonstrate their claims, because if they cannot, then they are either merely theoretical or else false. As the God concept has not yet been fully demonstrated, we must overcome our religious biases and talk about God as a concept, something theoretically devised, but which may or may not really exist. To do what theists do and talk about God as real, without any rigorous demonstration, is to make a hasty generalization.