Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser
Many people are perplexed, even troubled, by the fact that God (if such there be) has not made His existence sufficiently clear. This fact—the fact of divine hiddenness—is a source of existential concern for many people. That is, it raises problems about their very existence, particularly its value and purpose. The fact of divine hiddenness is also, according to some people, a source of good evidence against the existence of God. That is, it allegedly poses a cognitive problem for theism, in the form of evidence challenging the assumption that God exists. (Here and throughout we speak of "God" as broadly represented in the historic Jewish and Christian theistic traditions.)
1. Existential Concern
The existential problem often takes the form of a crisis of faith, sometimes leading to a collapse of trust in God. Jewish and Christian theists have committed themselves to the God who, they believe, loves them perfectly. They expect to find their greatest good, their ultimate fulfillment, in personal and social relationship with God. In the Jewish tradition, this general idea finds elaboration in God's entering into a covenant relationship with the people of Israel, who are to respond to God in faithful obedience. In the Christian tradition, the idea sometimes takes a more individualistic turn. To be sure, God enters into covenant relationship with a "people"—namely, the Church inaugurated by Jesus Christ—but Christians often emphasize the importance of each person’s entering into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. There are, of course, differences in interpretation and emphasis between and within the distinctive traditions of Judaism and Christianity. Nonetheless, the general initial expectation remains the same: God's reality, including His love for people, will be made sufficiently well known precisely because He loves them, and their flourishing as persons created in the image of God depends on their relationship with Him.
The potential for crisis arises here. Jewish and Christian theists believe that their flourishing as persons depends on their being in a personal/social relationship with God. For many such theists, however, there is no such discernible relationship. God is hidden, if not in fact at least in their experience. Perhaps their existence has no personal guidance from God after all. Perhaps their lives simply blow with the winds of an impersonal nature. If God exists, God seems not to care for them. God seems too hidden to care at all. So the world appears as an uncaring, inhospitable place. Despair over life itself is, then, a natural result of divine hiddenness.
The Hebrew psalmists lament as follows:
But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:13-14, NRSV).
The subject of God’s hiding is no merely theoretical matter in the Hebrew Psalms. It cuts to the core of the psalmists’ understanding of God and of themselves. Thus at times it prompts sincere lament from God’s people. Isaiah 45:15 likewise sums up a central Jewish view of God: "Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior." God's hiding is sometimes a response to human disobedience and moral indifference toward God (Deuteronomy 31:16-19, 32:19-20; Psalm 89:46; Isaiah 59:2; Micah 3:4), but this is not the full story behind divine hiding. The Jewish-Christian God hides at times for a range of reasons, not all of which seem clear to humans.
Saint Anselm, eleventh-century Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the famous ontological argument for God’s existence, complains to God as follows:
For many theists, the sense of God's hiding is no fleeting affair. Even devout mystics of Jewish and Christian persuasions languish in what Saint John of the Cross (d. 1591) called "the dark night" of the soul. In a similar vein, many post-Holocaust Jewish writers speak intensely of "the silence of God," something their biblical ancestors experienced painfully. (See, for instance, the Hebrew prophetic literature, particularly Isaiah, on divine elusiveness.) For many Christians, the difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that their Lord has promised, "Seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you" (Matthew 7:7). Having sought and knocked (and knocked again and again), they still fail to find, and no one answers the door for them. Resisting the natural slide into despair, priests and pastors counsel, "The Lord did indeed promise us, but we must...." Well-intentioned counselors promptly fill in the blank with various provisos: for instance, we must wait patiently, or we must be more attentive in a certain manner, or we must change certain questionable conduct. Even so, attempts to fill in the blank often seem lame, if not contrived. Sometimes they lead to further frustration and, eventually, to bitterness and despair. Trust in God then crumbles, along with any hope anchored in God’s providence. Giving up the struggle to trust the hidden God often seems the only reasonable option as well as the only avenue to psychological well-being. Hence, even devout theists can face an existential crisis from divine hiddenness.
2. Evidence Against God’s Existence?
Many nontheists regard the hiddenness of God as salient evidence that the Jewish-Christian God does not actually exist. Friedrich Nietzsche considered the matter in the following light.
A recent, detailed defense of atheism on the basis of divine hiddenness is J.L. Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Cornell University Press, 1993). His core argument is straightforward. If there were a perfectly loving God, He would see to it that each person capable of a personal relationship with Him reasonably believes that He exists, unless a person culpably lacks such belief. But there are capable, inculpable nonbelievers. Therefore, there is no perfectly loving God.
Schellenberg does not demand an undeniable proof that God exists. His demand is more lenient :
The constellation of attitudes, passions, and actions comprising the existential problem of hiddenness differs from the ingredients of the cognitive problem. The existential problem calls for the sort of expertise found in a skilled and experienced pastor, priest, or spiritual director, one well-acquainted with the turbulent ups and downs of the spiritual life. The cognitive problem calls for the sort of expertise one finds in a skilled and knowledgeable philosopher or theologian, one acquainted with the complex ins and outs of assessing evidence and implications. While recognizing the difference between these two problems, we also acknowledge that they often come together in the life of a single individual. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like for one to feel frustrated in one’s attempt to find God unless one expected certain things of Him and reflected on the reasonableness and implications of those expectations. Those expectations are the main premises of arguments against theism from divine hiddenness, and those reflections are implicit assessments of those arguments. Hence, the existential problem seems naturally rooted in the cognitive problem. This book focuses largely on the cognitive problem.
The cognitive problem prompts examination of whether a certain sort of argument against theism succeeds. It is sometimes helpful to describe the allegedly problematic phenomenon —divine hiddenness— in terms that do not presuppose the existence of God. Talk of "inculpable nonbelief," for instance, is useful at times. The idea is that there are people who lack belief that God exists and do so through no fault of their own. It is perhaps noncontroversial that infants and certain mentally impaired adults, for example, fall into this category. Some philosophers contend that a large number of normal adults are included as well. The latter claim is, however, controversial among philosophers of religion. Our talk of "inculpable nonbelief" does not presume that this controversy has been settled.
Several noteworthy themes have emerged in discussion about the argument from divine hiddenness against theism. We mention the following, in no particular order of importance.
1. The cognitive problem of hiddenness has various connections with the more popular, traditional problem of evil. Analogous practical and theoretical problems of evil have emerged. The latter consists in an argument to the effect that the Jewish-Christian God does not exist, since He would not permit any evil and suffering or at least evil and suffering of the sorts, magnitude, and distribution found in our world. Indeed, one might even think of inculpable nonbelief as a certain sort of evil or suffering —a bad state of affairs— that would not exist, if there were a loving God. We might, however, distinguish the problem of evil from the problem of divine hiddenness on the ground that we can imagine scenarios in which each might arise even if the other does not. In any case, even if they are logically distinct problems, they resemble each other in certain respects.
For example, the ways to structure an argument against theism from inculpable nonbelief parallel the ways to structure an argument from evil. We commonly distinguish "logical" ("deductive") arguments from evil from "evidential" ("inductive," "probabilistic") arguments from evil. A logical argument from evil affirms of some known fact about evil that it is incompatible with theism, while an evidential argument does not, either because it affirms that the fact in question is not known but only reasonably believed4, or because it affirms that the fact in question is only improbable given theism, not incompatible with it.5 We can easily distinguish arguments from inculpable nonbelief along the same lines as well.6
Similarly, the ways in which one might respond to an argument against theism from inculpable nonbelief parallel the ways in which one might respond to an argument from evil. Of course, one might respond by accepting the conclusion. If we do not accept the conclusion, however, we shall likely respond in one of several ways.
At one end of the spectrum, we might suggest that the concept of perfect love used to get the argument going in the first place must be revised. For instance, we might revise this concept in such a way that our expectation of a loving personal relationship with God is refined somehow. (Analogously, some process theologians have revised their expectation of what God can do in terms of eliminating evil by revising their concept of the power of God.) In addition, we might take the argument as an occasion for a more radical reconstruction of our concept of God. For instance, we might infer that the assumption of a personal God is ultimately at fault. Alternatively, we might say that just as the "grammar of God" does not allow for evidence against a perfectly loving and just God, so it does not allow for evidence for Him.
At the other end of the spectrum, we might deny the allegedly troubling phenomenon in question, inculpable nonbelief, just as Augustine denied the real existence of evil. A more familiar kind of response (one that parallels a certain response to arguments from gratuitous evil) would be to hold that God would indeed prevent inculpable nonbelief (as He would gratuitous evil). We thus might contend that since one’s evidence for theism is significantly better than the evidence for inculpable nonbelief (or gratuitous evil, for that matter), there are, contrary to initial appearances, no inculpable nonbelievers (or gratuitous evils). We might thus try to identify a basis for culpable nonbelief in normal adults.
We can see another way in which certain versions of the evidential argument from evil have been connected with divine hiddenness by reflecting on William Rowe’s evidential argument against theism.7 Rowe asserts that there is no reason for God to permit certain horrific instances of intense suffering. Defending this assertion, Rowe says that, so far as we can tell, there is no such reason (or at least no reason we know of) that involves a good state of affairs weighty enough to justify permission of those horrors (or one that requires their permission). Rowe’s inference begins with a claim of this form: ‘so far as we can tell, there is no X’, or ‘there is no X of the sort in question that we know of,’ and then moves to" ‘there is no X’. Some such inferences can be reasonable, but only under certain conditions. It is reasonable to draw this sort of inference only if the following proposition is acceptable:
If there were an X, then we would likely know of it.
In that case, Rowe must be assuming that the following proposition is acceptable:
The previous assessment of Rowe-style inferences is too quick. It does not take into account the likelihood that we would know of God’s reason indirectly. This is where divine hiddenness might come into play. It seems that if God’s reason for permitting a person to suffer horrifically is not discerned by that person, God would make it clear to the person that there is such a reason by assuring the person of His own love and care. By analogy, a loving parent would assure a young child of the parent’s love in similar circumstances, especially when the child cannot understand why his or her suffering is being permitted. For many victims of horrific, intense suffering, however, no assurance is forthcoming. God is silent, so to speak. Regardless of whether the latter claims are true, this is one way that divine hiddenness has been linked to the evidential argument from evil.8 It allegedly provides a context in which the alleged defeater of Rowe’s inference has no force; or, alternatively, it allegedly provides a reason for thinking that Rowe’s assumption is correct. 9
2. We have suggested that the argument from divine hiddenness is rooted in our expectations regarding God, specifically how a perfectly loving being would reveal Himself. Different expectations may be motivated by different analogies. People who emphasize that God would do whatever it takes to prevent inculpable nonbelief frequently regard God’s love on analogy with parents who wish to comfort their young children in distress. Others, however, see God’s love by analogy with familiar adult love, where the lover primarily wants certain attitudes and behavior to accompany any reciprocation of love on the part of the beloved. Any old reciprocation won’t do. Those pushing the latter analogy will focus on different kinds of human attitudes and motivations that God, in His unsurpassable love, might wish to promote or to prevent prior to bringing the nonbeliever to belief. On this view, it is not belief that God exists per se that is primarily important but rather the attitudes and motivations that accompany belief. On this view, the loving thing for God to do is to bring the nonbeliever to belief in such a way that serves these ulterior divine purposes. If their fulfillment is not in the offing now, God may patiently wait until they are before bringing the nonbeliever to belief.
Another analogy sees God as a benevolent reconstructive surgeon. As such God will not aim to bring one to belief unless one’s volitions are in line with God’s purposes in one’s believing in the first place. Specifically, God seeks a human’s willingness to obey, to serve, and to trust Him, as seems fitting for His being the Lord of all. Mere curiosity, or double-mindedness on the matter of giving oneself humbly and obediently, will not do. Only those prepared to respond appropriately to personal divine revelation are its genuine recipients. For all that, God may well give general revelation sufficient to move people to query about one’s relationship with God, but even here volitional matters enter into the picture. The unduly skeptical as well as the modestly indifferent may not appreciate what divine light is given them, owing to their resistance or apathy. Passionate striving and setting aside all else for the pursuit of available divine light are mandatory. God will not trivialize the supreme value of divine light.
In reply, those emphasizing the parent analogy will submit that a perfectly loving God would empathize with the plight of those who seek Him but who through no fault of their own come up empty-handed. Would it not be in the very context of an ongoing, developmental relationship with the seeker that God’s redemptive purposes are best fulfilled, as in the case of a mother and child? At any rate, we can see that one’s operative analogies can make a big difference in what one expects of a perfectly loving being.
3. We have suggested that a response to the argument from inculpable nonbelief might deny that God has failed to make Himself sufficiently known. "What do you mean God is hidden? Just look around you and at yourself. What more could you want?" This response might seek inspiration from some biblical sources. "The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork," declares the psalmist (Psalm 19:1, NRSV). The apostle Paul remarks: "Ever since the creation of the world [God's] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made" (Romans 1:20, NRSV). Aside from what the psalmist and Paul actually had in mind (itself a matter of ongoing debate), if God is evident through creation, we need an explanation of why many normal people fail to believe that God exists. Some theists recommend their theism with arguments to the best explanation that have to do with historical events, like the history of Israel or the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Still others insist that God makes Himself sufficiently well-known through more internal means, such as one’s conscience.
If God is sufficiently well-known in any of the ways suggested, we need an explanation of why so many people fail to believe. A traditional answer is that, generally, failure to appreciate the evidence of creation and history or to hear the internal witness of conscience is a consequence of a person’s sinfulness.10 This could be taken as a denial of the premise of the argument from hiddenness implying that some people fail to believe inculpably. The thesis would be that every (normal adult) nonbeliever culpably fails to believe. Exactly how sin enters the explanatory picture here will vary, some emphasizing volitional vices, others cognitive. An explanation emphasizing one thing may apply to one person but not to another. In addition, different explanations may apply to the same person at different times, and several explanations may apply to one person at one time. Naturally enough, those who find such explanations unconvincing think charges of culpability are best laid elsewhere.
Another suggestion is that every human being can believe that God exists, by implicitly believing in Him, even though one does not know that this is what one is doing. This can be done by pursuing a moral life and thus relating to God by way of relating to His chief attribute, goodness. Alternatively, one can implicitly believe by acting as one would if one were explicitly to believe in Him. In these ways, one can enter into a developmental relationship with God that will become more fully realized and explicit in the future.
4. Some people grant that God fails to make Himself sufficiently well-known, and that nonbelief cannot be written off to human sinfulness—nonbelief is at least frequently inculpable. The goal, then, is to explain inculpable nonbelief, the fact that many fail to believe through no fault of their own. The general strategy here is to articulate the benefits of God's causing or permitting inculpable nonbelief, as against the benefits of belief that God exists and the attendant availability of a personal relationship with Him. Variations on this strategy include developing and defending one or more of the following:
6. One might grant that God does not make Himself sufficiently well-known (especially to inculpable nonbelievers) and admit that we do not know of any good explanation for why He would do that. Perhaps there is some reason we do not know of. Indeed, when we are dealing with the purposes involved in divine permission of some (bad) state of affairs, this seems to be a plausible option, not just some remote possibility. Evidently, it would not be surprising at all if we were unable to explain God's not being more forthcoming about His existence. (The book of Job seems to make an analogous point regarding the existence of evil.)
3. Summaries and Questions
The contributors to this book discuss many of the themes identified above. In this section we briefly outline their contributions to the discussion.
Peter van Inwagen, in "What is the Problem of the Hiddenness of God?," distinguishes the problem of divine hiddenness from the problem of evil by imagining scenarios in which the one but not the other arises. Clearly enough, the world could be such as it exactly is with all its horrors, with the exception that in addition things are as proponents of the argument from inculpable nonbelief say that it should be. For example, prior to the death of every person God could make Himself evident to all by some miraculous vision; this could be a well-known fact about human experience and as such would render the problem of hiddenness moot. Still, the problem of evil would remain. On the other hand, imagine a secular utopia in which no one suffers but the slightest. It’s hard to see how the problem of evil could arise here, but, amongst such a people, theists might maintain that there is a God and nonbelievers might query why He hasn’t made Himself known.
Through an imaginative dialogue between an atheist and a theist, van Inwagen argues that the problem of hiddenness comes to a cluster of questions having to do with why we do not see certain things that we do not see if there is a God, e.g. signs and wonders. "Can one rationally believe in God in a world devoid of signs and wonders?; under what conditions would it be rational to believe a story that reports signs and wonders?; could any possible sign or wonder or series of signs and wonders make it reasonable to believe in a necessarily existent, omnipresent, omnipotent Creator and Sustainer of the world of locally present things?"
Van Inwagen suggests that theists should meet the challenge of the absence of signs and wonders in a fashion familiar to those who work on the problem of evil. Tell an internally consistent theistic story that is not known to be false that entails the absence or rarity of signs and wonders. Van Inwagen does not construct such a story but rather offers two pieces of advice to those who do. First, he notes that God’s desire for why people believe in His existence may well be much more important to Him than that they believe in Him in the first place. It may well be that God wants people to believe in His existence for certain reasons and not for others, that He prefers that they do not believe at all if the only option is to believe for the wrong reasons. Second, van Inwagen suggests that Christian philosophers who attempt to tell such stories reflect on two texts: Luke 16:31 ("If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead"), and John 20:29 ("Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are they who, not seeing, believe").
Van Inwagen’s emphasis on miraculous "signs and wonders" is arguably misplaced. After all, none of us knows that there are other human persons by way of "signs and wonders". So why couldn’t God bring about reasonable belief in His existence and love in such ways, ways more suitable to developing relationships with God? As for van Inwagen’s cluster of questions, suppose we answer ‘yes’, ‘none’, ‘no’. Isn’t there a problem of divine hiddenness that remains nonetheless?
J.L. Schellenberg, in "What the Hiddenness of God Reveals: A Collaborative Discussion," articulates and defends a concise argument. The first premise is:
The crux of the matter seems to be P1. Schellenberg regards it as a necessary truth, reflecting part of the very meaning of ‘God exists and is unsurpassably loving’. What does he have in mind, however, when he writes of (a) "relating personally to God," (b) being "capable" of such a relationship, and (c) being "in a position to" to have it? To relate personally with God is to interact with Him in the various ways that theistic religious traditions describe: on the divine side, God’s guiding, supporting, and forgiving us, for example, and on the human side, our trusting Him, showing gratitude, and worshiping Him, among other things. It would also involve an explicit consciousness of His presence and interaction with us. This relationship is to be conceived of developmentally, and not as something that comes complete and mature. To be capable of a personal relationship with God is to have the cognitive and affective equipment required to hold the attitudes and to perform the behavior involved in such a relationship, and to possess the concept of God, or at least the materials from which it can be constructed. To have the capacity to relate personally to God is not the same thing as being in a position to relate personally to God. To be in a position to relate personally to God is to have it within one’s power to do so just by choosing.
With an understanding of its key terms in place, why suppose that P1 is true? Schellenberg argues that it follows from the nature of unsurpassable love, and can be supported by analogy with the best sorts of human love as well. An unsurpassable lover would seek a kind of close, explicit participation in the life of her beloved for its own sake, as well as for the sake of her beloved, so that he could draw from it what he needed to flourish. This would be especially true in the divine-human case. A close, explicit interaction with God would bestow moral benefits. For example, it would enable one to more easily overcome character flaws and it would provide one with a model for other relationships. Moreover, it would bestow experiential benefits, such as peace and joy, security and support in suffering, and the pleasure of companionship. Of course, God would not force Himself on us, as that would make the relationship a sham. He would leave it up to us to enter into it. This —our own free choice in the matter, as well as the consequences of prior free choices— would be the only thing He would allow to prevent us from entering into a relationship with Him and interacting with Him. Otherwise, He would always be available.
One might argue that while a perfectly loving God would certainly strongly desire a personal relationship with each capable person, it is not at all clear that, barring individual culpability, He would do everything in His power to bring it about, as P1 implies. Schellenberg argues that He would on the grounds that one who is unsurpassable in love would seek a personal relationship, while respecting the beloved’s freedom. But here a question arises: does one’s seeking a personal relationship with another imply one’s doing everything else in one’s power to bring about the relationship? Well, no. As Schellenberg notes, unsurpassable love will constrain its pursuit of a personal relationship by respecting the beloved’s freedom. Are there other ways in which it might constrain itself? Perhaps. Can’t there be inculpably acquired attitudes, feelings, dispositions, and habits a perfectly loving response to which is to postpone doing all one can to maintain a personal relationship and to wait for further development, encouraging it in various ways? Analogies with adult love —including the sort of so-called "tough love" recommended by support groups related to Alcoholics Anonymous and the like— support this view. If it is not unloving sometimes to withdraw from a personal relationship in order to facilitate and confirm beneficial change in the beloved, then it need be no spot on one’s love if one refrains from starting a personal relationship for similar reasons. So it is, one might argue, that there is conceptual space for a perfectly loving God to seek a personal relationship with a capable person even if He does less than He could do to bring about that goal, provided He has taken or is taking significant steps in that direction. Schellenberg discusses this and other objections in his essay.
In "Deus Absconditus," Michael Murray defends a "soul-making" response to the argument from divine hiddenness. Suppose that God were to reveal Himself (and the fact that He rewards those who seek Him and punishes those who do not) to capable persons so that reasonable nonbelief was impossible. In that case, these people would be coerced to act in accordance with the revealed information, resulting in good choices and ultimately good characters for which they are not responsible. This flies in the face of God’s aim for persons to make free choices toward the development of their characters.
Several questions arise for this view. First, unless we know with certainty that a coercer exists and will carry out his threat (reward), we cannot be coerced to behave accordingly. So, if God informed us of His existence and moral will with something less than certainty —say, in a way that merely prevents reasonable nonbelief— wouldn’t there be enough room for soul-making? Second, human experience tells us that divine punishment and rewards are not systematically meted out in the here and now but rather (if at all) in the afterlife. Consequently, wouldn’t the motivating effect of belief in punishment and rewards fail to be sufficiently coercive to undermine soul-making? Third, couldn’t God make His existence sufficiently clear while keeping the facts about divine punishment and reward under wraps? If so, then belief in God’s existence alone would not coerce one into making only good choices. It seems that Murray’s explanation must be augmented. Fourth, even if some nonbelievers would lose their prospects for soul-making upon coming to possess evidence that put God’s existence and the facts about reward and punishment beyond reasonable nonbelief, why suppose that every nonbeliever would? After all, believers who assume that their grounds for believing in God and the facts about reward and punishment render nonbelief unreasonable retain the ability to shape their souls. So, at best, Murray’s soul-making explanation is incomplete. Murray responds to these and other objections by showing the relevance of different elements involved in coercion.
In "St. John of the Cross and the Necessity of Divine Hiddenness," Laura Garcia sketches and defends John’s perspective on the relationship between faith and divine hiddenness. In the main, faith is a volitional surrender of one’s will to God’s will, in which union with God primarily consists. Because of original sin and our own sins, however, the union of our wills with God’s will is also a process of purification, of renunciation and self-denial. Purification is not a matter simply of giving up what is seriously sinful and obviously bad. Rather, one must give up created goods, thus coming to prefer God and His will to any created good. This process takes place in three, sometimes overlapping stages. The first stage —"the dark night of the senses"— involves the voluntary, active mortification of one’s natural appetites, which tend to interfere with the goal of detaching oneself from created goods. The second stage —"the dark night of the soul" —involves the voluntary, active detachment from our cognitive faculties, which tend to supplant full submission to God with an attempt to understand His nature and ways. So it is that one must give up one’s desire not only for sensory goods but for spiritual goods as well. The aim is to concentrate one’s appetites and faculties solely on God in such a way that one is not satisfied with any other object. This third and final stage, of concentration, is wrought by God in the willing soul. Then, and only then, will one be in a position to love God as God wants to be loved. Divine hiddenness figures in the process as a way in which one must humbly accept God’s will without being able to understand it. The goal is to eliminate our taking pride in what we have achieved and forming a new attachment—this time to a spiritual good, the presence of God—that interferes with a complete surrender to God’s will.
John of the Cross assumes that his audience consists of believers who accept the teaching of the Church. Might what he says be extended to nonbelievers? Garcia argues that it can be, at least in part, and takes on several objections to the contrary.
In "Jonathan Edwards and the Hiddenness of God," William Wainwright defends Edwards’ rejection of this premise: if a perfectly loving God exists, He would ensure that persons capable of a personal relationship with Him who don’t resist it would possess sufficient evidence to bring it about that they believed in His existence and love. That is not to concede that there isn’t sufficient evidence. On the contrary, according to Edwards, God has provided adequate objective evidence "in the effects and external expressions and emanations of the divine perfections," as well as through direct revelation of "divine things" to the ancient nations and the Jews, which are contained in the Jewish-Christian scriptures. Moreover, God has endowed human beings with the faculties to discern, appreciate, and weigh this evidence, but those faculties work properly only if they function in accordance with "true benevolence," which consists mainly in an intense desire for truth about God and for true holiness. So, while there is plenty of evidence, some are not in possession of it because they lack true benevolence.
Aren’t there nonbelievers who are truly benevolent, in Edwards’ sense? No, says Edwards. Since the Scriptures say that there is "sufficient light for the knowledge of God," nonbelievers must fail to believe "divine things" owing to "a dreadful stupidity of mind, occasioning a sottish insensibility of their truth and importance." This insensibility consists in a "proneness to idolatry" and a "disregard of eternal things" —dispositions to ignore familiar and obvious considerations, to be swayed by ridicule and deference to people in authority, to prejudice against religion, etc.— which impair our ability to reason properly about God. We bring such impairments on ourselves. One might object that since belief in God is so important and our faculties so impaired, God should increase the evidence. Edwards replies that what is needed is not more evidence but a change of heart, and that without the latter the former would be inefficacious.
Some pressing questions arise about Edwards’ position. First, Edwards fails to appreciate the evidence for there being nonbelievers who do earnestly seek the truth about God, who love the Good, who are judicious, and who, if anything, display a prejudice for religion, not against it. Consequently, a lack of true benevolence leaves unexplained a good deal of divine hiddenness. Second, why would God permit people to blind themselves this way in the first place? Third, what can we do to get out of our miserable position, especially in light of Edwards’ insistence that true benevolence is, ultimately, a gift of God’s bestowed on some and not on others? Fourth, Edwards says the nonbeliever is to blame for her nonbelief. This seems at odds with his insistence that whether one is truly benevolent is up to God and with the fact that our dispositions to belief and holiness are almost entirely a causal upshot of our childhood upbringing and education, and thus outside our voluntary control. Wainwright addresses these and related questions in defending what comes to a modified Edwardian position.
In "Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding," Paul Moser argues, among other things, that divine hiddenness is no evidence at all against Judeo-Christian theism. In fact, divine hiding is to be expected once the loving character of the Jewish-Christian God is properly understood. God, in His love, would primarily seek what was morally best for us, and therefore would give us an opportunity freely to achieve a sort of moral goodness apt for us, one characterized by unselfish love for others and obedient trust in God. If one’s believing that God exists on the basis of adequate evidence would not promote such moral transformation, then bringing one to believe on the basis of such evidence would not serve God’s purposes. So, in general, God would manifest His perfect love by refusing to bring people to belief unless they were sincerely open to such moral transformation. We have reason, therefore, to expect that God would hide from us.
Who is the "us" here? It is at least people who resist the moral transformation in question. Aren’t there nonbelievers who do not resist, who are open to the sort of transformation in question? If there are, suggests Moser, they will not insist on a kind of evidence irrelevant to transformation toward God’s character. Part of what it is to be open to such moral transformation is to trust God and to let God decide how He will bring one toward Himself. For one to insist otherwise may involve a sort of idolatry, "cognitive idolatry," whereby one exploits evidential standards that amount to refusing to let God be the Lord of one’s life, at least regarding proper ways of knowing God.
Two questions arise. Suppose that to insist on miraculous signs and wonders or one’s favored style of argument is to make an idol of one’s preferred evidential standard, and hence constitutes a failure in the sort of openness that God seeks. First, so long as the cognitive idolater is otherwise open to a morally transformative personal relationship with God, would it not serve God’s purposes equally well to make Himself known to her and then in the context of that relationship try to bring her to repentance? Second, consider one who is open to God and who has no expectations as to how He might wish to make Himself known. Might such a person nevertheless properly expect God (if such there be) to make Himself known in God’s preferred way at some time? Certainly. (Such expectations cannot be written off to "cognitive idolatry" as they do not consist in a specification of a certain kind of evidence without which one refuses to believe, and they are encouraged by the Jewish-Christian view of God’s love as well.) What about now? After all, she is open to the divine challenge of transformation, and on this account there is nothing else to explain God’s refraining from manifesting Himself. Moser addresses these and other questions in his essay, in connection with a discussion of theodicy and evidence for God.
Proponents of the argument from divine hiddenness against theism tend to pose the argument as an "epistemic problem" for theistic belief. That is, they tend to regard divine hiddenness as having sufficient evidential force to move a rational person from theism to agnosticism, or from agnosticism to atheism. In "Divine Hiddenness: What is the Problem?," Jonathan Kvanvig examines this claim. He argues that on a subjective coherentist epistemology, which he is inclined to endorse, just about anything —even belief in scissors— can diminish the epistemic status of belief in God, provided the rest of a person’s belief system connects the two in the appropriate way. Likewise, just about anything —including belief in divine hiddenness— can be in good epistemic standing with belief in God, provided that it is embedded in a belief system that connects the two appropriately. Are there any such belief systems adequate to the task? Kvanvig claims that there are many. One that he sketches explains how God is perfectly loving and yet hidden by reference to the Fall, according to which, ultimately, there are no inculpable nonbelievers since each person rejects God in one way or another. Any such belief system that also recognizes the evidence for inculpable nonbelief can reduce the tension by just adopting skepticism about that evidence, for example, by saying that apparently honest seekers of the truth who are agnostic are self-deceived or possess inflated epistemic standards.
Kvanvig further argues that no factor involved in the hiddenness of God can change the epistemic standing of theism when an objectivist epistemology is assumed. We begin with the assumption that the evidence is counterbalanced between theism and atheism. There are only two accounts of the quality of the evidence on such an assumption. Either (1) what is proffered for or against the existence of God is not really objective evidence at all or (2) there is equally good, defeasible objective evidence for and against the existence of God. If (1), since evil would not be evidence against theism, neither would inculpable nonbelief be evidence against theism. If (2), evil is defeated evidence against theism (otherwise the total evidence would not be counterbalanced), and so since inculpable nonbelief is a special instance of the problem of evil, the latter of which has already been factored into the total evidence, inculpable nonbelief is not additional objective evidence against theism. If one insists that inculpable nonbelief constitutes a problem of a different kind from the problem of evil and inculpable nonbelief is undefeated, then the sorts of considerations that in the counterbalanced scenario defeat the evidential power of evil against theism cannot defeat the evidential power of inculpable nonbelief. This scenario, however, is impossible; that is, it is impossible for there to be a situation in which evil is defeated but inculpable nonbelief is not. So on the only two accounts of the quality of the counterbalanced evidence, hiddenness is not objective evidence at all.
We might question Kvanvig’s somewhat cavalier dismissal of the evidential value of hiddenness given a subjective coherentist epistemology. It’s not as though the premises of arguments like Schellenberg’s and the evidence he adduces in their support are on the periphery of the typical believer’s web of belieffs; and whether one’s web can survive theodical tinkering at the center will have to be determined on case-by-case basis. Kvanvig’s example is a good case in point. His recommended theodicy of the Fall implies that there are no inculpable nonbelievers, which arguably flies in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. Whether the implications of the skeptical attitude latent in rejecting that evidence will adversely affect the rest of one’s system of beliefs must be assessed.
Kvanvig’s epistemic critique of the objective evidential value of hiddenness assumes that the evidence is counterbalanced. What if we don’t make that assumption? How would that affect his argument? Suppose we are unable to make with any confidence even a ballpark guess at the strength of any bit of evidence either for or against theism. In that case, we will not assume that the evidence is counterbalanced, nor will we assume that it is not. We will have no opinion on the matter. Might we not come nevertheless to view inculpable nonbelief as objective evidence against theism? That would be odd to say the least: to suppose that we are in no position to judge that evil is objective evidence against theism but that we are nevertheless in a position to judge that inculpable nonbelief is. There is another way, however, in which we might have no opinion about whether the evidence is counterbalanced. Suppose we can discern the approximate strengths of various pieces of objective evidence that support theism, on the one hand, and atheism on the other, but we are unable to judge which has the stronger support. In that case, couldn’t inculpable nonbelief be objective evidence against theism, even though we don’t assume that the evidence is counterbalanced? By way of reply, one might argue (as Draper does) that if we cannot judge which side has the stronger support, adding inculpable nonbelief to the pile will not appreciably change the situation and so will not change our overall epistemic situation.
According to M. Jamie Ferreira in "A Kierkegaardian View of Divine Hiddenness," many people read Kierkegaard’s Climacus writings as saying that God refrains from giving evidence that puts His existence beyond reasonable doubt in order to generate intense subjective passion in the pursuit of God or to prevent states that would inhibit such passion. There is in Kierkegaard’s writings, however, a more fundamental explanation of divine hiddenness, one that challenges the very idea that there could be evidence that puts the existence of a perfectly loving and just God beyond reasonable doubt.
Kierkegaard thinks that there is sufficient evidence for believing that God exists, where "God" is understood in religiously neutral terms ("religiousness A"), say, as that portion of "logical space (the qualitatively different) which the understanding reaches in its Kantian striving?to know." This is comparable, according to Ferreira, to what Aquinas takes himself to show to exist in his famous Five Ways. (See Summa Theologica, Question 2, Article 3.) Kierkegaard, however, argues that there could not be any evidence at all for belief that God exists, where "God" is understood in religiously relevant terms ("religiousness B"), say, as perfect in love and justice. Consequently, there cannot be evidence that puts the existence of a perfectly loving and just God beyond reasonable doubt. The reason is that the concept of God ("B", hereafter) is "absolute" —that is, a concept in which the modifiers "perfectly," "unsurpassably," and the like are understood— and "qualitative," not "quantitative" —that is, the concepts of perfect love, perfect justice, and more generally, perfect divinity, are not concepts of something that comes in degrees. Consequently, there cannot be a probabilistic or cumulative case for the existence of God "because there is nothing comparable in such a case to the way in which ordinary separate pieces of evidence can accumulate to make a case." There are no degrees of divinity or aspects of divinity that could be recognized independently of the others and so make the conclusion more probable. Furthermore, any items of which we might compose a case for, say, something’s being perfect in love, would already have to be an example of perfect love. Indeed, there cannot be an objective evidential case of any sort for the existence of God. After all, what would it be like for the absolutely different to reveal itself as such? What would it be like to have an experience of God presenting Himself to us? What sort of evidence could be non-ambiguous enough to make nonbelief unreasonable? The problem is not that an objective revelation of God by Himself would be misleading. Rather, the problem is that it would not be a revelation of God at all.
A few questions arise. First, are the objections to a probabilistic case for God’s existence even relevant to either arguments to the best available explanation or Bayesian arguments?11 If probabilistic cases of these sorts work in ways that are not countenanced by Kierkegaard, then the objections may be circumvented. Second, do the rhetorical questions about objective evidence for or revelation of God show too much? It might be argued that formally analogous questions that are equally difficult to answer can be asked about objective experiential evidence for anything and about any person revealing herself. This seems to be a consequence of the underdetermination of theory by perceptual data, not God’s being absolute or qualitatively different. Third, as for the rhetorical questions themselves, specific theistic traditions offer well-known answers in their historic narratives, and recent broadly reliabilist epistemologies offer alternatives to evidentialism of the sort in which the questions are framed.
In "The Hiddenness of God: A Puzzle or a Real Problem?," Jacob Joshua Ross follows the injunction "to take religious language seriously, but not necessarily literally." The evidential problem of divine hiddenness can be dissolved, says Ross, if we reject the "popular," "simple," "ordinary," "everyday," "literal," "anthropomorphic," ways of talking about God that underlie "a more emotional understanding of God’s nearness as representing a close personal relationship." Those ways of talking are a hangover from ancient polytheism according to which the gods were "something like animated beings or human-like spirits". Get rid of this last vestige of polytheism, says Ross. Stop thinking of God’s love and justice by analogy with human ideals of love and justice. Instead, adopt one of the more "judicious," "subtle," "sophisticated," "profound," "mysterious" theologies, old or new. Consider, for instance, the trend in Jewish mysticism that refers to God as "the great Nothing," or Maimonides’s "ineffable ‘One’" that has no personal attributes, or Vaihinger’s Kantian "as-ifery" according to which theistic theologies are nothing more than attempts to represent "the religious experience of teleological, meaningful order in the cosmos". And there are more options besides. If you take up one of them, then all the "inconsistencies and distortions" that attend such a "primitive and unsatisfactory religious conception" as "Biblical monotheism"—of which the problem of divine hiddenness is just another demonstration—will vanish.
What shall we say of this "purification of the idea of God"? True enough, those (alleged) inconsistencies will vanish. What, however, will we be left with? Something so content-free that it can be neither affirmed nor denied? (The Nothing?) Something worth worshiping? (The One?) Something that has a chance of sustaining hope and gratitude in the cancer ward? (Superstring Theory?)
"Seeking But Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic," is Paul Draper’s account of why he is an agnostic and what that practically means for him. Naturalism —the view that nothing that is neither a part nor a product of the physical universe can affect it— is the only live alternative to theism for Draper. It implies that nothing supernatural exists; so evidence for it is evidence against theism. Draper holds that several facts are more likely to obtain on theism than on naturalism, and several facts are more likely to obtain on naturalism than on theism. Those facts favoring theism include the facts that the universe had a beginning, that there is intelligent life, that we are sometimes free in the incompatibilist’s sense (which doubles as evidence for substance dualism), that there is an abundance of beauty, and that powerful religious experiences occur. Facts favoring naturalism include the facts that humans hold neither a spatially nor temporally privileged position in the universe, that all relatively complex living things are the more or less gradually modified descendants of relatively simple singe-celled organisms, that conscious states are dependent to a very high degree on physical processes occurring in the brain, that pain and pleasure are systematically connected to the biological goal of reproductive success, that an abundance of tragedies occur, and that many people do not feel the presence of God when tragedy strikes. Draper does not think that these facts are unclear or that they support their respective positions equally. Rather, he is an agnostic because he finds it virtually impossible to determine which side is better supported by the facts in its favor.
Of special interest is Draper’s contention that, contra Schellenberg, agnosticism is a stable, reasonable position. Schellenberg argues that the ambiguity of the evidence is itself evidence for atheism, and against agnosticism. Draper holds that this would be the case "if it could be shown that, prior to considering the evidential significance of ambiguous evidence, naturalism and theism are equally probable." This, however, is precisely what Draper judges cannot be done, owing to the difficulty of comparing the strengths of the different pieces of evidence. Adding this new piece of evidence to the picture does not appreciably change things. Moreover, it is not at all clear to Draper that for some people, perhaps himself included, moral and spiritual development is better accomplished without belief than with belief. That is in no small part because, on Draper’s view, agnosticism has difficult practical implications. Since he regards God’s existence as a real possibility, he believes it is incumbent on himself to behave otherwise than if he were an atheist. He ought to pray, for example, and, more generally prepare for a relationship with God. He ought also to continue looking for new evidence and reexamining the old.
"Silence is of many sorts," begins Nicholas Wolterstorff in "The Silence of the God Who Speaks". The sort that is his topic is "biblical silence," "the non-answering silence of God in the face of those questions which take into account what God has already said," the non-answering silence of God which puts biblical faith at risk. One of the things that God has said of each member of the human species is this: may you flourish on earth in society until full of years. This Genesis benediction goes unfulfilled frequently. Some flourish but shortly; some live until full of years but fail to flourish; and some neither flourish nor live until full of years. Although there is a role for suffering within the life of a person who flourishes, suffering frequently exceeds its proper function and becomes unredeemable. So suffering and life-duration have gone awry with respect to God’s creating and maintaining intent. A simple question arises: "Why have they gone awry?? Why all this brevity of life and why all such suffering? But no answer is forthcoming. Listen as we may, we hear no further speech. Only silence. Non-answering silence."
Wolterstorff considers several popular theodicies but rejects each because it depicts God as intending to permit or cause the suffering and early death of one person for the sake of a greater good for another. This using of one person for the good of another, he says, is not answerable to the biblical speech of God, who says that He intends each and every human being to flourish until full of years. So the question persists as does the silence. How shall we live in such silence?, asks Wolterstorff. We shall remain devoted to God, join Him in protesting early death and unredemptive suffering, seize the opportunity to own our own suffering redemptively, and join the divine battle against early death and unredemptive suffering: disease, injustice, warfare, torture, enmity.
One who considers herself answerable to the biblical speech of God might reason that whatever God intends happens, and so if God intends for each person to flourish until full of years, then that is what happens. Clearly enough, however, that is not what happens. So God does not intend for each person to flourish until full of years. So God did not say that He intends for each person to flourish until full of years. As for the biblical text, don’t benedictions generally only imply that the benedictory strongly desires the content of her benediction to happen, not that she intends it to happen? If so, then the Genesis benediction does not imply that God intended the content of His benediction to happen; but, without this implication, what becomes of Wolterstorff’s particular critique of the theodicies he discusses?
1Anselm, Basic Writings, trans. S.N. Deane. LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1962.
2 Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R.J. Hollingdale. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982, 89-90.
3 Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 212-13.
4 Rowe, "The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism," American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979), 335-41.
5 Draper, "Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists," Nous 23 (1989), 331-50.
6 For more on the logical/evidential distinction, see Daniel Howard-Snyder, "Introduction: the Evidential Argument from Evil," in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. D. Howard-Snyder (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), xii-xvi.
7 See note 4.
8 See, for example, D. Howard-Snyder, "Seeing Through CORNEA," International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion 32 (1992), 25-49, esp. 40-46, and "The Argument from Inscrutable Evil," in The Evidential Argument from Evil, 286-310, esp. 305-307. Also see William Rowe, "The Evidential Argument from Evil: A Second Look," in The Evidential Argument from Evil, 262-85, esp. 274-76.
9 See Michael Bergmann, "Skeptical Theism and Rowe's New Evidential Argument from Evil," Noûs 35 (2001), 278-96, and William Rowe’s response to Bergmann, Noûs, forthcoming.
10 See Stephen K. Moroney, The Noetic Effects of Sin (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2000).
11 See, for example, Michael Banner, The Justification of Science and the Rationality of Religious Belief (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), and Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2d ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).