Following his debate on The Big Conversation, Dr Peter J Williams...
Joshua Parikh tackles the tricky question of why God's existence isn't more obvious to nonbelievers
The so-called hiddenness of God has been an existential problem for believers and non-believers alike for thousands of years. Job laments that “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him”, in one of the oldest books in the Old Testament, echoing the cries of many throughout history. This perceived absence, and the consequences of such absence, in widespread non-belief, have been deep existential problems for many hundreds of years.
Increasing attention has been applied to this in the philosophical sphere over the last 20 years, following the development of JL Schellenberg’s argument from divine hiddenness. Schellenberg focusses on the idea of a perfectly loving God and argues that love entails continual openness to relationship. However, given the existence of non-believers who seem non-resistant to relationship with God, Schellenberg argues that God cannot exist. I want to provide some reflections on this argument from a Christian perspective.
Philosophical theorising is not always helpful, and what may be better is a listening ear, a cup of tea and a hug. What follows is an intellectual take on the above question along with three things to bear in mind. Nonetheless, I’m not convinced that there is a strong dualistic division between the two approaches. Philosophical reasoning should be a mishmash where our emotional reactions inform our rational judgments, and vice versa.
1. The context of hiddenness
If you flip a fair coin 100 times, then you should end up with 50 heads and 50 tails. If you were to focus in on only the results which bring out heads, you might conclude inaccurately that the coin has a head on both sides. By failing to examine total evidence, you therefore come up with a result that does not accurately capture the true picture.
The flipside of considering the silence of God is to consider the situations where God looks very much present. Here, widespread reports of miracles are very interesting to show the intervention of God, and are being paid increasing attention. Highly regarded scholar Craig Keener’s exhaustive 1200-page work Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts documents many miracles both in history and throughout the world today, based on very thorough investigation and strong evidence (he explains some of this here). This includes amazing healings from blindness, terminal diseases, the lame walking, the dead rising-events crazy in a purely physical and closed world. Instead, they point to something breaking in from the outside, and when considering God’s apparent hiddenness, we should also remember the times when he reveals himself to understand the full picture.
2. The problem on our end
Given Christian teaching on the universal sinfulness of humankind, which is continually reflected in our own lives, there is a more widespread resistance to God and relationship with God than it first seems, and this is even compatible with many signs of the active pursuit of God- as Jesus quotes from Isaiah, “They honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8) Isaiah 53:6 talks about how “all of us have strayed away like sheep - we have left God’s paths to follow our own”, bringing out a universal idea of straying away from the way that God commands us to go, as an active move, to follow our own desires aside from God.
This does not mean non-believers are more resistant than believers- indeed, it is “by … undeserved grace” (Acts 15:11) that Christians are saved, rather than those who are more spiritually sensitive, intelligent or moral. But if the argument is that non-resistant non-believers exist, then this is not obvious.
3. What God’s hiddenness brings
In looking at hiddenness, it’s vital to also put forward the positive reasons that God allows hiddenness, and not just to focus on the issues at our end- much like the problem of evil, one must look at human sin and God’s wise and good plans. Here are a number of possible goods that are possible through hiddenness:
- Hiddenness can allow for character development. The process of hiddenness plausibly provides a situation in which one can develop certain character traits that one couldn’t acquire without such hiddenness- and from experience of relationships in the world, though character is sometimes developed within relationship, we know that absence is often necessary to ensure character development too e.g. breakups due to an immature partner. Looking at St John of the Cross, he talks of how “a person at the time of these darknesses…will see clearly…how secure he is from vainglory, from pride and presumption, from an empty and false joy, and many other evils.” Character is also often damaged within a relationship, if the relationship is entered into selfishly, or without proper commitment to the other person, so God may also be hidden to prevent improper relationships.
- Hiddenness can allow for cooperation with God in evangelism. As Concordia University Professor Travis Dumsday says: “Among the most important tasks that could be undertaken in this life is that of introducing people to God, bringing them to a knowledge of His existence and nature, thus enabling them to choose whether or not to enter into a relationship with God”, and without some hiddenness, it is plausible that such a responsibility could not be shared with humanity. In order to inspire desire for evangelism, it may also be necessary for hiddenness to seem either particularly gratuitous or widespread - Paul talks about his “unceasing anguish” (Romans 9:1) for the Jews, whom he longs to be saved.
- Hiddenness can allow for a full expression of God’s attributes. The Bible does not merely describe God as love, but describes him as just, holy, merciful and much more. In order to allow for a fuller expression of his attributes, God may require hiddenness. Looking at God’s mercy, for example, perhaps God wishes to make “the riches of his glory known” (Romans 9:22) by limiting the way in which he shares mercy, maybe by showing a contrast with other attributes, or to ensure that it isn’t taken for granted. Equally, Travis Dumsday argues that God may be lessening people's culpability for sin by withholding revelation- “To whom much has been given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). By giving these persons less revelation, it’s possible that God allows them to avoid a degree of future punishment.
For more answers, I recommend Blake Giunta’s excellent website BeliefMap.org, but I think these all point to a story by which Christianity can fully answer the difficult question of why God remains apparently hidden, however troubling it may seem.
Joshua Parikh is a student studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University
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