This page in brief
If you love someone, you generally want to be close to them, to please them, to be in relationship with them. You wouldn’t hide from them. So surely, if there’s a God and if he loves us, he wouldn’t hide from us, but would want us to be close to him?
But there are some people who don’t experience God that way, even though they want to. So doesn’t this show that a loving God doesn’t exist after all? Except maybe God has other reasons for remaining hidden, which we might guess at, or may have no idea about.
It seems that an argument along these lines asks some interesting questions. But how strong is it?
God isn’t obvious to most of us
Some mystics or gurus may tell us they have seen or experienced God in some deep way, but most of us have not. In fact, it is obvious that very few people in the world “know God” in any way like how we know people. God is hidden from the five senses of most of us.
The hiddenness of God to most of us is the basis of an argument against the existence of a loving God that has come into prominence more in recent years.
The argument has been developed by Canadian philosopher John Schellenberg, as follows (simplified slightly), where God is as usually defined (i.e. powerful, loving, all-knowing, etc – I will use both male and female pronouns):
- If a loving God exists, everyone who wants to be in a relationship with him or her will be able to do so.
- No-one can relate to God without believing that she exists.
- There are people who would like to believe in God and relate to him, but are unable to, because they don’t see sufficient evidence, or they have no direct experience of God.
- Therefore a loving God doesn’t exist.
Justification of the premises
The argument is logically valid, so if propositions #1 to #3 can be justified, then the conclusion #4 can be considered proven, or at least shown to be very likely.
If God is loving, she will want the very best for all her creatures. For humans, who are (it is generally believed by theists) capable of relating to a personal God, knowing God would be the ultimate human experience. Just as a human lover wants to be close to and to please their loved one, so would God. Nothing God has done would ever be a barrier to belief. The only barrier there should be, it is argued, is one that human beings may choose to erect to avoid contact with God, and God may respect that.
Premise 2 seems obvious. How can anyone relate to God if they don’t even think he exists? For if God communicated to me in some way, I would have to believe he exists or I wouldn’t recognise such a communication as being from God.
Premise 3 is a little harder to justify. That there are people who don’t believe in God or relate to her is obvious. But how do we know whether they want to?
Schellenberg argues that while there may be many who are responsible for their own unbelief, by choosing not to believe, there are at least some others who want to believe, but cannot. For example, there are christians who find they are struggling to continue to believe, whether because of difficulties in their lives or reasons and arguments that suggest God’s existence is extremely doubtful. These people may often go through a period of intense struggle as they try, and pray, to “feel” or “hear” from God, but to no avail.
Further, it is argued, there are many people in the world where theism has never been a “live option”. They were brought up in an atheistic or polytheistic culture, and the idea of a single, all-powerful loving God has never entered their heads.
Thus it seems that there are at least some people, quite possibly very many, who demonstrate the truth of premise 3.
Thus, it has been shown that a loving God would want all people to believe in him and relate to him, and thus be a recipient of his love, but many do not, through no fault of their own. We can only conclude, it is said, that such a loving God doesn’t exist.
Many theists have presented objections to this argument, offering different reasons not to accept the premises.
Most theistic objections aim at this premise. And most of these objections come down to the same thing – God must have some reason to not make himself too obvious. Several possible reasons are offered:
Freedom of choice
It is often argued God wants to give us freedom to make our own choice, and not coerce us. If he was too obvious, we would be virtually forced to believe, whereas he wants people who truly want to be in relationship with him. He is looking for a response out of love, not out of fear. This accords with Jesus’ saying that “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)
Schellenberg counters this by saying that God should be able to provide enough evidence to make it possible to believe, without compelling belief. Theists say there is indeed enough evidence for people to make a response, but while this is true for many people, Schellenberg argues (see premise 3) it isn’t enough for all.
God has other goals
Perhaps God wants us to cultivate character in us, and this world is a way of doing that. Or perhaps he wants us only to come to him with pure motives such as love for him, and not with “impure” motives such as pride or personal gain. These, and many other possibilities, are discussed in the references.
Pascal wrote: “Thus it is not only right but useful for us that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness as to know his own wretchedness without knowing God.”
But do we know that God doesn’t accept people with “impure” motives? Many christians would say that God’s grace is such that he accepts us regardless if we come to him seeking his forgiveness. On the other hand, what if we come to God unrepentant, does he still accept us? So it is arguable, but not at all certain, that seeking purity of motives is part of God’s objectives.
Schellenberg’s response to this idea of other goals is to argue that surely knowing God is a greater good than any other good that God may want to accomplish, so why would God withhold the greater good to achieve a lesser good?
But believers have two counters to this response:
- How do we know that knowing God is the greatest good in God’s eyes? It seems possible that offering us freedom is a greater good. (“If you love someone, set them free.”) Alternatively, it could be argued that love necessarily entails freedom to respond, or not.
- Schellenberg’s response can only be persuasive if we can say certainly that, if there was a reason why God makes himself less obvious, we would know it. Clearly we cannot plausibly claim that, so it remains quite possible that God may have reasons which we cannot imagine.
A matter of time
Another objection to premise 1 is that it only addresses the here and now. The balance sheet of benefits is only considered in the present, and doesn’t take account of the future. But isn’t it possible that God has a reason to defer revealing himself to us more fully for a time?
For example, there may be circumstances where a relationship with God needs to be deferred until a person reaches a certain level of maturity. A baby in its mother’s womb may be an analogy – the direct maternal relationship is deferred until birth to allow further growth and maturity.
Or perhaps this physical world, which serves other purposes God has in mind, makes it harder to enter into a deep relationship with God – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
Most theists believe in an afterlife, so if we experience God’s love in full measure in the afterlife forever, then any lack of that experience now is merely a temporary blip in the timescale of eternity. As Paul says in Romans 8:18: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
So how does premise 1 stand?
It seems there are a lot of uncertainties about premise 1. There are plausible objections to it, and it seems difficult to maintain Schellenberg’s view with confidence.
Some theists argue that people can relate to God without knowing he exists, but living according to their conscience.
While it may be true that people may please God by obeying their conscience, even if they don’t believe in him, this doesn’t address the argument, which talks of knowing God in a personal, loving way.
It is common for christians to say that it is only our sinfulness that causes us to disbelieve, and thus to not be in relationship with God.
But this response also seems to fail to address the argument. Again, it may well be true that all of us are capable of responding to God in some way, whether through belief or through living in a caring and ethical manner, but this isn’t the same as living in relationship to God.
And it remains true that even some strong believers don’t feel God’s presence in a way that we could call “in a relationship” – they believe he’s there because of the evidence, not necessarily because of their experience.
It seems then that premises 2 & 3 are most likely true, but there is significant doubt about premise 1.
Schellenberg cannot show that, if God had a good reason to remain less obvious, we would know it. And he doesn’t seem able to show that the temporary lack of a close relationship now is very important if that relationship is experienced in full in eternity.
I think too that he doesn’t really address why God created a physical world in the first place. If God’s purpose was really to be in close personal “face-to-face” relationship now, it seems he would never have created a physical world that makes any relationship with a non-physical God less direct. But granted we live in a physical world that makes God less obvious, allows each of us more opportunity to chart our own destiny and develop our own character, it seems reasonable to conclude God had a good reason.
It does seem strange, and perhaps unjust, that some people seem to experience God in a more definite way than the rest of us, and some struggle to believe but seem unable to. If our gaining eternal life was dependent on feeling we were in relationship with God in this life, then we might conclude there is a serious injustice here, but if eternal life is not dependent on our experience of God here, but on other factors (e.g. belief, good intentions, or ethical actions), then any lack of relationship here and now would be relatively unimportant.
A personal assessment
I have never felt that this argument was at all convincing, and reading through the arguments for and against has highlighted this for me.
I conclude that we might reasonably wonder why God doesn’t make himself clearer to some people, and why he has created such a convoluted way for us to know him – by being born in a physical world, living a life that may end in the womb or last 100 years, then being judged whether we will receive eternal life on the basis of what we believed or did in that life. Perhaps that sense of this life’s strangeness may be a reason to doubt God.
But it hardly amounts to a strong argument.
How to respond?
I think the real question is not “Why did God do it this way?” but “Where does the evidence point?” and “Am I open to God revealing himself to me?”
God’s hiddenness is part of that evidence, but it doesn’t change the probability much for me.
Several other arguments are sometimes associated with the hiddenness argument, but I haven’t addressed them here (I will be addressing them sometime):
- The problem of evil is a strong argument against the existence of a loving God, but it is a different argument.
- The demographics of belief and non-belief show that theists and non-theists tend to cluster in different cultures, arguably showing that upbringing may be more important than evidence or experience in determining belief. However it seems that christianity is gaining ground in non-christian countries and losing ground in traditionally christian countries, so that somewhere between a third and a half of all christians today are converts out of a non-christian background.
- Natural non-belief: it is argued that non-belief is the natural outcome of evolution. (1) Apparently studies show that primitive humans lacked a concept of a good creator God, and (2) there are several evolutionary explanations for religious belief. But it is also true that we have evolved now so that religious belief is very natural, perhaps the default for children until and if they are educated otherwise.
The hiddenness argument
Objections to the argument