Divine Hiddenness

The argument from divine hiddenness contends that if God did exist we would expect to see more evidence for his existence than we do. A perfectly loving God would make his existence, intentions and demands clear, especially if he is going to send people to hell for not believing in him. Popular atheists like to get creative here and say things like “Why doesn’t God write in the air in front of me right now that he exists, or why doesn’t God just appear to us now in the middle of a debate about his existence to settle it.” Such demands are ultimately facile, since if there is good enough reason for God’s existence independent of such fulfillment of atheist demands, then you would be irrational to deny God’s existence even if he does not fulfill your demands. In addition, if the Christian God does exist, there is good reason to think that he will not fulfill the mocking requests of someone who does not want to believe in in him in the first place.

It is firstly important to note that the strength of this argument rests in its appeal to Christian doctrines. If God did not require us to believe in him, then he would have no reason to make his existence evident. In Christianity, belief is a necessary condition on salvation. So, if successful, this argument would only imply the falsehood of a very particular religious doctrine, not the falsehood of the existence of God or even the falsehood of Christianity. As William Craig points out, this objection implies Trinitarian Universalism, not atheism. If you remove the concept of eternal hell (Universalism), then you can avoid this objection. So this objection does not come even close to implying atheism – it does not even falsify Christianity if successful. The strength of this objection clearly depends upon how much evidence you think there is for the Christian God. Of course, if you’ve diligently studied natural theology and Christian evidences (which the most aggressive atheists clearly have not done), I’m sure you would come to the conclusion that the evidence for the Christian God’s existence is not nearly as paltry as depicted in Youtube comment sections or Reddit forums. In fact, the evidence is abundant, of good quality, and far outnumber the positive arguments for atheism or naturalism. But, it is obviously also possible for the evidence to better. The question then becomes: would it have been better if God had made it even clearer? Should the evidence be coercive to an extent that only the mentally handicapped or the insane would not believe in the existence of God? It seems to me that the evidence is such that those who are open to Christianity and don’t have an attitude of animosity against it, would come to believe its truth if they studied the evidence. Why is this? Let’s look at two reasons.

Crucially, the argument from divine hiddenness appeals to a scenario that we are ultimately ignorant about. That is, it assumes that a world where God’s existence is clear in an absolutely coercive way, that this would result in more genuine faith – that is – it would result in more genuine piety and thus salvation. When the New Testament proclaims that we are saved by faith, this is not referring to simple assent to a couple of propositions about God. It obviously includes that, but that is not all there is to it. The biblical notion of faith is both belief in and trust in God, that results in good works and obedience to the commandments of Christ. So, if everybody on earth believed in the truth of a basic outline of Christian doctrine, would this result in more genuine Christians?  The fact is, we don’t know whether basic doxastic assent will translate into trust in God and good works. After all, there are many people living today and many who have lived in Christian societies historically, who took the truth of Christianity for granted, but it seemed to have no impact on their lives and who lived as though it were not true. There are many people today who live as nominal Christians. They believe the basic Christian metaphysics, but it means little to nothing to them. In short, belief in the existence of the Christian God does not imply genuine faith  (i.e. genuine Christians). This is why the scenario appealed to by the argument from divine hiddenness is inscrutable. We can’t claim to know whether such a world would result in more genuine faith, and thus more salvation, than our own world. Or as the apostle James puts it, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!”(James 2:19) Mere belief in the existence of the Christian God can be, and is often enough, spiritually meaningless.

Secondly, we can respond to this argument by pointing out that if the evidence were absolutely coercive, this would interfere with our free will, or our capacity to freely reject God. If it were the case that belief in the existence of God always ,or mostly, implied genuine faith and piety, then evidence that made it close to impossible for people to deny God’s existence, would interfere with their free will. They wouldn’t have free will in any significant sense, because it would be practically impossible for them to reject God. Richard Swinburne expresses this point well in an analogy. He says that a boy will not hit his brother when his mother is present – he will only do so when she has left or when it seems to him that she is not looking. In other words, the fact that you can, without much obvious irrationality, convince yourself that God does not exist, allows your real motives and the type of lives we really want to lead, to come to the surface. A lack of coerciveness to the evidence for the existence of God, allows us to make a significantly free and therefore valuable choice that we will choose God and not our own devices. If we did not have this freedom, our choice to follow God would not be valuable. The potential for spiritual greatness requires the potential for spiritual death.

Lastly, this objection presupposes that a significant cause of lack of belief in Christianity is lack of evidence in favour of it. Some atheist activists claim that they would like to be Christians but they just don’t find the evidence compelling. The fact that most public atheists are aggressive toward Christianity, mock it and otherwise deride it puts the lie to this claim. Frankly, the notion that most atheists really yearn to be Christians but just also enjoy mocking it and breaking it down, seems absurd. It is clear as daylight that they enjoy their atheism, they want to be atheists, and they emphatically don’t want to be orthodox Christians. Atheism is often portrayed as the unattractive position bravely adopted only because it is true. This is false. Yes, there are things, which make atheism unattractive (a lack of objective purpose and existential security) in the same way that there are unattractive parts of orthodox Christianity (difficult moral rules, an omnipotent being who holds you accountable for violating them, and let’s not forget hell). But there clearly are attractive elements of both Christianity and atheism. For Christianity, this is the idea that an omnipotent being loves us, looks out for us, and the promise of eternal heaven. For atheism, the attraction is autonomy – the opportunity to live like you want, decide for yourself what is right, and make available to yourself pleasures which are forbidden or restricted by (orthodox) Christianity. In other words, the claim that atheism is less emotionally attractive than Christianity is false, especially for certain types of people. People who want to be atheists, generally are atheists, and people who want to be Christians, generally are Christians. Atheists and agnostics will always have non-rational wellsprings of unbelief. There is a simple and compelling reason for this. Human beings are incapable of being completely, or even mostly, dispassionate with regard to a truth that will significantly affect their lives (as both atheism and orthodox Christianity does). In other words, the claim that most atheists would be real, obedient, servants of God simply because they are coerced into belief in God by its self-evidence, is not true at all. Once again, it is plausible that those who are open to Christianity and do not have a subjective resistance or animosity against it, will come to believe its truth when they consider the evidence. This need not be open aggression against Christianity or God. It can be much more subtle. It can be a part of the atheist’s life that they don’t want to abandon and which they would be required to reject if they became Christians. It can be a general dread of the idea of God – a being who has them completely in his hand, can do whatever he wants with them, and with regard to whom they have absolutely no privacy. This is a being before whom they are completely and utterly helpless in every way. The human ego dislikes this idea instinctively, some possibly more than others. Whatever the cause, I don’t think it is implausible to suggest that every non-believer has at least some subjective resistance to Christianity or the idea of God, especially a personal God who is always watching.