Oct 17

The hiddenness argument revisited (I) by J.L. Schellenberg

Graduate students in St. Louis have recently formed a reading group for philosophy of religion. Unfortunately for me, it conflicts with my work schedule, so I can’t join them in person. I’m going to read along, though, and I’ll provide a summary of each reading.

This week’s reading is “The hiddenness argument revisited (I)” by J.L. Schellenberg, a Canadian philosopher whose work on justifying skepticism has been very influential[i]. Schellenberg wrote an important book called Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason. This paper, done in two parts, is a response to critics of that book. In Part I—the focus of this post—he is responding to a group of criticisms that he views as irrelevant, and then in Part II he considers the “relevant” criticisms.

The Argument

Let’s begin by recapping the initial argument from his book. In this paper, Schellenberg does not provide a helpful numbered syllogism, but I think we can condense what he takes a few pages to say as follows:

1. There is a personal and perfectly loving God.

2. There are creatures capable of having a relationship with this God.

3. A perfectly loving God would not act to hinder this relationship.

4. Belief in God is a necessary condition for a creature to enter into this relationship.

5. Creatures capable of this relationship that do not resist God will always have this belief.

6. Yet, there exists reasonable non-belief.

Premise (1) should just be considered granting for the sake of argument that a traditional version of God exists with these properties. Premise (2) also ought to be granted by theists, as they probably consider themselves as having such a relationship.

Premise (3) is not suggesting that God would or should force a relationship, but that he would not prevent an honestly sought relationship. He supports this with a nice analogy: A parent may step aside and allow a child to take responsibility, but this is always done within the context of a relationship. The child knows they exist, they have had experience with the parent, and they know the parent wants the relationship to continue. Even if the child doesn’t want a relationship, the possibility of contact and restoration is still there.

Premise (4) seems reasonable to me, as well. I cannot imagine trying to enter into a relationship with someone or something I don’t believe exists. For example, let’s say you find out one day that a friendly colony of intelligent sea creatures lives under the ice of Europa. Would it make sense for someone to criticize you for not doing anything to help these creatures? No, you had no idea they existed, so what would prompt action on your part?

I think Premise (5) can be clarified to say that these creatures will always have sufficient evidence to produce a belief in God. Basically, Schellenberg wants to say that God would make this sufficient evidence available so that anyone honestly seeking it will find it. By that rationale, anyone capable of honestly seeking God will believe in God.

And yet, there are people who have honestly sought and have not found. Or there are people who have never heard of this God, so, while they have not sought, they have also not rejected. This does not mean that everyone must actually respond to this evidence and have a relationship with God. Schellenberg says, “The reasoning developed in support of the idea that God would facilitate relationship and (therefore) prevent reasonable non-belief leaves plenty of room for non-actualized relationship with God, claiming only that such relationship will be available in the absence of our culpable resistance if a perfectly loving God exists.” So, (6) does not depend on every non-believer being a case of reasonable non-belief. It merely requires that there is at least one case. Thus, to deny (6) strikes many people as implausible and would probably require one to beg the question. You might be able to paint a large group of non-believers with the brush of rejecting or hardening their hearts toward God, but could you seriously say that about every non-believer there has ever been?

If we work backwards, we can see the problem. If there are reasonable non-believers, then there is not sufficient evidence for belief. If there is not sufficient evidence for belief, then there is not a relationship-seeking, perfectly loving God.

Some Objections

Schellenberg considers several objections, but I’ll just outline a few major ones for the sake of brevity.

A: The first objection considered, and perhaps the most popular one, is that this is merely an atheistic demand for signs and wonders to be performed. I have argued before that such signs and wonders are actually quite prevalent in the stories of Christianity and other religions. But Schellenberg wants to simply dismiss the objection as irrelevant since the argument only requires evidence that will be accepted unless there is resistance. There is no need for burning pyres or changing the chemical composition of liquids, even though these things are alleged to have happened.

B: I’ll be honest that I don’t entirely understand the second objection considered. It says that God may have reasons for withholding evidence from inculpable non-believers. The argument claims that God waits for non-believers to show that they are well-disposed for belief prior to revealing himself. Schellenberg describes it as saying, “There may be inculpable non-believers who, embittered by suffering, would reject God if they came to believe that God exists.” Said in that way, I can see why he rejects it as irrelevant. The argument allows for people to reject God by their own fault, just as the father allowed his prodigal son to take his inheritance and leave. But God’s existence and his desire for the relationship should be made known, just as the same. The prodigal son returned, after all.

C: A third problematic objection says that belief is not necessarily strongly correlated with this type of relationship. That, however, is unimportant. The belief is used in the argument as merely a necessary, rather than sufficient, condition. There must be a belief, in addition to other things, in order to prompt the action of entering into a relationship.

D: A fourth objection seeks to equate God with an abstract conception of the Good and permit a sort of Universalist interpretation. This means that anyone responding to “the Good” is responding to God, even if they define it in some other way. Schellenberg says this criticism does not meet his criteria head-on, as he is talking about the type of reciprocal relationship many theists claim to have.

E: A fifth objection says that God is so incomprehensible that it would be impossible to completely eradicate reasonable non-belief. Presumably, there would always be at least one reasonable non-believer. Again, this argument is for a God other than the one defined by Schellenberg. He seeks to argue against is the traditional conception of God. Many people do think you can know this God well enough to enter into a relationship.


Schellenberg thinks, for the reasons given, that these objections do not really interact with the hiddenness argument as presented. They either provide objections that have already been considered by the argument’s phrasing and defense or want to defend a different conception of God.

So what objections does Schellenberg think are relevant and how does he respond? I’ll cover those next week when I discuss Part II.

[i] I’m not going to attach a copy of the paper to avoid any potential for liability. However, if you want a copy of the paper for personal use, email me using the contact form on this site.

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  1. Andrew Viceroy

    Great argument except for (5), which you clarified nicely. Curious to see the ‘relevant’ objections…

  2. Mike

    Thanks. I hope to get to it soon. I’ve just been swamped lately.

  3. Andrew Viceroy

    I’m sure one of them is that “too much evidence may not be good for us” (Swinburne and others). To that, I would say Rom. 1:20 says we know enough to already be “without excuse”- so why not go all the way and actually *live with us*, showing us by daily example WHY we should follow him (which is how we have evolved to learn morality)?

  4. Mike

    For anyone following these comments, I’ve now posted part II here: http://foxholeatheism.com/hiddenness2/

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