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Aug 30

The Problem of Divine Hiddenness

I like to think of The Problem of Divine Hiddenness as atheism’s version of the Fermi Paradox. If God exists, where is he? If God is real and honestly wants me to come to know him, then he would give me the evidence I need to believe. Or, at the very least, he could have given me better evidence when I actually did believe so that I would not stray (the bar would have been much lower then).

An atheist might say it’s reasonable to think that God could show up in human form for everyone to see, proclaim himself to be God, and perform wonders to make us believe. Since he doesn’t, the reasoning goes, this counts as disconfirming evidence. Consider the following argument:

 

1. God desires as many people as possible to come to him (Christian premise).

2. God is omniscient and omnipotent to know how to reach non believers and is able to accomplish it (Christian premise).

3. There are numerous reasonable unbelievers who would accept sufficient evidence.

4. No evidence is presented to these unbelievers, and they do not come to God.

5. Therefore, either God does not exist or one/both of the first two premises are false.

 

The most popular Christian response[i] here is to say that our first premise is wrong. They would revise it to say:

 

1`. God desires as many people as possible to freely come to him.

 

The implication of this is that God revealing himself in such a direct way would be coercion, thus, we would not be making truly free choices. It’s kind of like that movie A Cinderella Story (don’t judge me). Hillary Duff just wanted to be liked for who she really was—not for the dolled-up version of herself at the ball. If she had revealed her secret, she wouldn’t know if he really wanted to be with her or was just smitten by their one magical night.

So, they conclude, God would not reveal himself in the way I described. This is a major component of Plantinga’s free will theodicy and other arguments that rely on a non-coercive or non-invasive God. They may phrase it in terms of free choices, soul-making, character-building, etc.

But wait. There is a serious problem here for Christians. Let’s construct a new argument that assumes this defense is true:

 

1. God desires as many people as possible to freely choose him. (restated from 1`)

2. God would not perform an act that would interfere with this free choice.

3. Therefore, God would not show up in person, proclaim himself to be God, and perform wonders so that we might believe.

4. Jesus showed up in person, proclaimed himself to be god, and performed wonders.

5. Therefore, Jesus was not God.

 

Now that can’t be the desired result for Christians.

 


[i] There are other responses, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll only tackle this one for now.

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  1. Ryan

    How is God revealing itself a form of coercion? No one’s freedom is restricted. Upon witnessing God, one could presumably still reject it and pursue a sinful life. Is the idea that one would never choose the sinful life because of the fear of eternal suffering? That’s not a problem if God can see our reasons for obeying. Anyone who obeys simply out of the fear of Hell could be punished while everyone else carries on. Or is the idea that God’s very presence compels obedience? In that case, there’s no need for God itself to show up; it can simply perform miracles when people ask for them.

    Here’s another problem: what about the Christians who do believe that there is physical evidence for the existence of God? Do the philosophers you bring up here agree with us that such Christians are crazy (or at least misguided)? Or do they think that there is evidence, but the evidence is not coercive? If that’s the case, we have to ask: where do we draw the line between what counts as coercive evidence and what does not? And along with the problem that Jesus presents, I seem to recall a certain burning bush…

    But perhaps the biggest problem with the Christian reply to your argument is the matter of how we construct our beliefs. If we do not have evidence, on what do we base our beliefs? Belief and faith are not inherently good; there is nothing true or valuable or praiseworthy about, for example, the belief that invisible pink unicorns are all around us. So what makes the Christian belief system so special that faith is enough? And what in particular rules out all other belief systems?

  2. Mike

    On the coercion point, I’m not sure if I’m the right person to defend it because it doesn’t ring true to me. Maybe I can find a specific article by a theist that discusses this. I would say, given the consequences (Hell), why wouldn’t we want all the information possible to make our decision?

    Imagine you’re in a room with someone on the 14th floor of a building. For some reason, this person lacks any sort of counterfactual knowledge. This means they do not know that if they jump out of the window, they will die. If the person walks over to the window and says they are going to try jumping, should you not tell them what will happen? They can still freely chose to jump, but now they truly understand the consequences.

    All that being said, this response doesn’t seem to convince many theists (even though I think it’s a good one). So, that’s why I tried the different route to accept the reasoning and see where it leads.

    Along those same lines, here’s another interesting problem for fundamentalist Christians who believe in a literal Satan. If intimate knowledge of God impairs freedom, then how is the devil’s fall from grace explained?

    As far as what philosophers think, it’s hard to say. I’ve heard Wiliam Lane Craig use versions of this free will defense, but at the same time he argues that there is good evidence (namely, his arguments for God). So, it’s a confusing stance to take. It does seem incompatible to me.

  3. Mike

    By the way, a I noted in my footnote, there are other popular responses. One of them is to say that there really is good evidence for God. But that topic is too broad; it’s essentially what the blog as a whole is about.

    And here is a reference for the coercion defense: https://edisk.fandm.edu/michael.murray/Hiddenness.pdf

    This is a paper by philosopher Michael Murray on how direct knowledge of God would take away the freedom that makes moral decisions valuable.

  4. Lee

    I like to separate the idea of knowing he exists, and coming to freely choose to enter into a love relationship with god (craig’s formulation). I don’t see how knowing he exists would then coerce us into such a relationship. I know at least 100 people exist, all of whom I’ve had the pleasure, or displeasure, of conversing with and getting to know. At no point in my discovering their existence did I feel coerced into a “love relationship” with them. I feel like this is a case of the christians wanting to have their cake and eat it too. They want divine hiddenness to be justified by free will, but they want to say non-believers have been given sufficient evidence by god and have simply chosen not to love him as the pious have.

    This contradiction has, I presume, led philosophers like William Lane Craig to adopt trans-world damnation, where his god basically knows who would enter this relationship, and then reveals himself only to them. Of course, the prima facie question-begging nature of this argument is concealed with a lot of intellectual hand-waving and shifting of the mighty burden. One thing to note, however, is that if this is true, isn’t it a case of selective coercion? Is god just a pragmatist? only utilizing coercion where it is guaranteed to work? How does that solve the conflict between free will and compelling information? It would seem to me to just compound the problem by saying not only that he uses his revelations to compel some believers, but he damns the rest of us to hell for eternity based on a choice we were never offered!

  5. Mike

    I totally agree. And I’m going to throw one more log on this fire. How the hell do they explain Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus?!? That’s certainly more coercive than other evidential paths available.

  6. Matt DeStefano

    One Christian responses I’ve heard to a formulation of this argument at my own blog was: God doesn’t want as many people to come to him, and actually demonstrably acts with favoritism through out the Bible.

    I’m not sure this is a happy resolution, but it certainly puts a fly in the soup of this argument.

  7. Udaybhanu Chitrakar

    God of the Gaps Argument-From a New Perspective
    Or
    God’s Hiddenness Justified

    I will begin this article with two suppositions: 1) God has created this universe; 2) He has brought man in this universe with some purpose.
    I am not claiming here that these two suppositions are true, or that I can prove them to be true. But I want to show here that if these two suppositions are true, then God will always be the God of the gaps. Anyone who will be reading this article should not forget that there is an “if” clause in the last sentence.
    Now I begin with the supposition that God has created this universe. If God has created this universe, then He could have created it in four different ways: 1) He created it in such a way that there was no necessity for Him to intervene in it after creation, 2) After creation He intervened in it, but these interventions were a bare minimum, that is, He intervened only when these were absolutely necessary. In order to clarify my point here, I will say that He intervened only when He found that without His intervention the universe would come to a standstill, 3) He created the universe in such a way that in order to keep it going He had to make very frequent interventions in it, 4) God’s total intervention after creation.
    If it was the purpose of God to keep mankind crippled in every possible way, then He would have adopted either the third or the fourth way while creating the universe. This is because in these two cases man, in spite of his having sufficient intelligence and reasoning power, will fail to unveil the secrets of nature, because in almost every phenomenon of nature that he will decide to study he will ultimately find that there always remains an unknown factor, for which he will have no explanation. For him the book of nature will thus remain closed for ever. But if it were God’s purpose that man be master of His creation, then it is quite natural for Him that He would try to keep the book of nature as much open to him as possible, so that with the little intelligence he has been endowed with man will be able to decipher the language of nature, and with that acquired knowledge will also be able to improve the material conditions of his life. In that case God will try to adopt the policy of maximum withdrawal from His creation. He will create the universe in such a way that without His intervention the created world will be able to unfold itself. However that does not mean that He will never intervene. He will definitely intervene when without His intervention the created world would become stagnant. In such a scenario man will be able to give an explanation of almost all physical events in scientific language. But in those cases where God has actually intervened, he will fail to do so.
    So I think there is no reason for us to be ashamed of the “God of the gaps” hypothesis. Yes, if God has created the universe, and if God’s purpose was that man be master of His creation, then He would try to keep as little gap in His creation as possible. But the minimum gap that would be ultimately left can never be bridged by any sort of scientific explanation. God will also reside in that gap. Why should we be ashamed of that?
    The whole matter can be seen from another angle. Those who strongly believe that God has created this universe also believe that He has created it alone. Now is it believable that a God, who is capable of creating such a vast universe alone, is not capable enough to keep a proof of His existence in the created world? So I think it is more reasonable to believe that while creating the universe God has also kept a proof of His existence in something created. This proof is open to us all, but we have not found it, because we have not searched for it. So even if it is the case that God has never intervened in the created world after its creation, still then there will be a gap in this natural world, purposefully left by God, for which science will find no explanation. This will be the ultimate gap that can only be filled up by invoking God.
    So it is quite logical that a God who will create man with some purpose will always prefer to be the God of the gaps. Yes, if we were really created by some God, and if it was not God’s desire that we be some sort of semi-savage beast, then it makes quite a good sense if I say that in that case God would try to keep the book of nature as much open to us as possible (policy of maximum withdrawal). In such a case man will also be able to explain almost everything of nature without invoking God. But then this “ability to explain almost everything of nature without invoking God” will not prove that there is no God, because it might also be the case that this ability itself is God’s design, God’s plan.
    Here I will give an example in order to make my point more clear: Let A be one most obvious fact of nature, and let D be one natural phenomenon that follows from A. Let us also suppose that D does not directly follow from A, but there are some intermediate steps. A causes B, then B causes C, then C causes D. In order to be more precise here let us say that A means dark clouds gathering in the sky, and that D means lightning. We know very well that lightning does not always take place whenever there are dark clouds in the sky. So we will modify the above chain from A to D in this way: A causes B, but B does not always cause C. Instead of C, it sometimes causes C1. When B causes C1, there is no lightning. But when B causes C, in that case only lightning occurs. Now it might be the case that there is a God, and that after creating the universe He has not intervened in it at all. So all the processes from A to D will be natural. In that case if man wills then one day he will be able to understand the whole natural process here. He will understand what lightning is, how and when it occurs, and with that knowledge it can be hoped that one day he will also be able to protect himself and his property from lightning. Now let us suppose that after creation God has frequently intervened in his creation, but his intervention was not total, but only partial. Let us also suppose that God has chosen the above case of lightning for His intervention. That means lightning can never take place unless He wills. When He decides to punish mankind by sending lightning, then only B can cause C, otherwise in every other case B causes C1. In this case the whole chain from A to D will be broken at B. Man will never understand how B can naturally cause C, and so he will never understand how D naturally follows from A. So lightning will forever remain a mystery to him. Now let us suppose that God’s intervention in this universe is total, that is, behind every natural phenomenon there is hand of God. In that case man will understand nothing of nature, and he will remain as ignorant as a savage. In this world his fate will be no better than birds and beasts, and his condition will remain as miserable and helpless as those birds and beasts in the face of natural calamities. But if God wills that man be almost equal to Him in the knowledge of things in nature, and if He also wills that man live in this world with some dignity and not just like birds and beasts, then He will create the universe in such a way that almost all the phenomena in nature can take place naturally without His intervention. In that case He will adopt the policy of maximum withdrawal. He will intervene only in those cases where His intervention is absolutely necessary. One such case is genetic code. Genetic code is information code, and those who believe that there is a God try to make a point here. They say that information code cannot naturally arise from space, time, force, field, matter, energy. Some intelligence is required, and nature does not possess that intelligence. Only God possesses that intelligence, and therefore only God can generate information code. If what they are saying is true, then I will say that man will never understand how information code can arise from space, time, force, field, matter, energy. It will forever remain a mystery to him.
    My thesis presented here has at least one merit. It can successfully explain as to why nature has opened her secrets to man, whereas proponents of accidental origin of man cannot give any reason as to why nature has done so. If their theory was correct, then man also could have led a life just like other higher primates, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutangs. That man has not done so and that instead he has been able to raise a civilization and lead a life with some dignity and self-respect shows that nature has taken a special care for us and equipped our brain accordingly.

  8. Mike

    Matt,

    That is a pretty interesting response. Admittedly, it would affect the deductive version, but I bet we could adapt an inductive version to still have force. I can’t imagine many theologians accepting that, though. Plus how many other arguments would that affect?

    Udaybhanu,

    I’m not sure if your comment is for real or just copied from somewhere. In either case, I’ll have to give it a closer read later.

  9. Mike

    Udaybhanu Chitrakar,

    I searched for your comment elsewhere and you apparently just go around the web posting the same thing. That leads me to believe you don’t actually want to discuss your argument at all.

    If I’m wrong, and you really are following this discussion, reply back and I’ll respond to your comment.

  10. Mike

    Matt,

    I know I already left this comment on your blog, but since it came up here too I figured I would duplicate. There are several verses in the Bible that explicitly say that God does not show favoritism. These are: Acts 10:34, Deut 10:17, Galatians 2:6, Ephesians 6:9, Collosians 3:25, and 1 Peter 1:17. Now, someone could then come back and point to other verses that contradict that. But I’m totally fine with them pointing out their own bible’s contradictions.

  11. ThePuppyTurtle

    I may make a YouTube video in response to this.

  12. Mike

    If you have some criticism, then just make it.

  13. Jack

    Wow. Such comments truly show the veil that is placed in front of reasoning when one rejects the obvious. First NO ONE didnt believe in God from the time period mentioned. God is obvious…so obvious every single culture on earth has deity in one form or another. The hiddenness question is about Christ…not if there is a God.

    Is Christ who he said he was..is there a punishment?

    God knows all facts and all counterfactuals, therefore he knows Paul will accept Christ. You cannot coerce a person who would accept you freely. It takes all of 3 seconds to solve this supposed puzzle but atheists dont want anything solved.

    Does God not know precisely what every single person who saw Jesus would think? Did they not kill him? Peter himself, who explained the death of Christ was an event weaved together, by God, using the free will actions of men, said those men would not have kill Christ if they knew he was God in the flesh. So the conclusion does not follow the premises.

    God knows the exact amount each individual needs to have their will subverted. Its different for everyone obviously. Read acts 17…God has placed each person exactly where they need to be to find him. Christ said no one who asks for Gods spirit through Christ will be denied. So YOU have not turned to Christ fully…period. If you had, God would place an undeniable fact that Jesus was exactly who he claimed to be. We dont pray to a God we think might be there. We Know. He knows who will Never turn to him and that might just be You. Christ said pathetic evil whiners will demand signs and even them they will find a way to be their own god. Those who desire Gods love turn to him in faith and that faith is rewarded with the truth. God has no interest in having people who will reject him pretend to follow him. All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved…it doesnt get easier than that. This insincere whining..as if you searched earnestly all your life for Gods truth is just the dishonestly and arrogance that causes unbelief in the first place. Its transparent, pathetic, and the work of those who, day in and day out, fight against God and teach other to do likewise. Oh how horrible a mistake this is. A person who thinks he can spit on God.

  14. Mike

    “Such comments truly show the veil that is placed in front of reasoning when one rejects the obvious.”

    So. Much. Irony.

    Based on your comments, I think the following are true:

    1. You overvalue the common belief in something divine during much of our past.

    2. You don’t understand the problem because when you say you can solve it in three seconds, you are talking about something else. This seems to be a recurring theme with you because you follow it with a diatribe of off topic rambling.

    Do you think the coercion response is the right response to the problem of hiddenness? That is the topic of this article. I have offered one reason why Christians would not want to use that response.

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