If the biblical God wants everyone to believe in him and potentially come into a saving relationship with him, then why does he seem—at least for some people—to be absent or hidden?
As I’ve reflected about this claim that God is hidden, I think we can frame the issue as either a fundamental problem for the sender (God) or for the receiver or specific receivers (particular nonbelieving human beings). That is, to use a baseball analogy of pitcher and catcher, has God as the pitcher failed to sufficiently deliver the pitch (communicate the message about his existence and intentions for human beings)? Or have some human beings as catchers failed to receive the pitch (seek, accept, and receive God’s message and intentions)? As a young man I played baseball and, having played the position of catcher and having caught many pitchers, I can tell you that good pitchers and good catchers are both active in their engagement with each other.
Let’s consider divine hiddenness as either a fundamental sender or receiver failure.
Biblical Theism: Divine Hiddenness as Catastrophic Receiver Failure
Scripture indicates that the basic problem of divine hiddenness lies with the receiver. For God has unmistakably sent his message by various means. He has unveiled himself (in the created order of the cosmos, in the human conscience, in the history of Israel, in the historic life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in Scripture (see “Is God’s ‘Hiddenness’ a Rational Objection to Christianity?“). Moreover, God has equipped human beings by creating them in the divine image, which grants them reliable cognitive faculties and sensory organs to be able to rationally track and logically infer his existence and interpret his intentions (see “How to Respond to the Challenge That God Is Hidden“).
Yet human beings have misused their freedom to rebel against God and—apart from receiving God’s saving grace—they naturally suppress the truth of God and their moral responsibility before him. So biblically speaking, the denial of God’s existence is not because of God’s absence or hiddenness but rather from a moral and spiritual obtuseness resulting from humanity’s fallen and spiritually resistant condition (Psalm 14:1; Romans 1:18–21; 5:12, 18–19).
Atheistic Naturalism: Divine Hiddenness as Catastrophic Sender Failure
Some leading atheist philosophers contend that the basic problem of divine hiddenness lies with the sender. For example, philosopher John L. Schellenberg in his influential book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason,argues that if an all-powerful and perfectly good God existed then every reasonable nonresistant person would have come to believe in God. In other words, if there is a God who is always open to a personal relationship with each human being, then no human being is ever nonresistantly unaware that God exists. God’s unsurpassable power and love would necessarily ensure that anyone truly open to God would discover his existence. Yet, there are reasonable nonbelievers who don’t seem to resist God but who nevertheless remain unconvinced of his existence (called nonresistant nonbelief). Therefore, this God of unsurpassable power and love necessarily does not exist. Thus, certain atheist philosophers insist that divine hiddenness serves as a defeater for the sender—the God of Christian theism.
We can state the issue in the form of a syllogism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers this summary of Schellenberg’s argument:
- There are people who are capable of relating personally to God but who, through no fault of their own, fail to believe.
- If there is a personal God who is unsurpassably great, then there are no such people.
- So, there is no such God (from 1 and 2).1
A Biblical Response to Schellenberg’s Nonresistant Nonbelief
Various factors influence a person’s beliefs about reality and truth—some of the factors are rational (consistent with reason), some irrational (in conflict with reason), and some nonrational (not based upon reason). Just because a person is not persuaded by a given argument doesn’t necessarily mean that the argument is defective logically. Personal and subjective elements (nonrational factors) can deeply impact the process of persuasion.
It isn’t easy to separate one’s analytical reasoning from emotional and relational issues. At times, nonrational influences can benefit one’s thinking through legitimate assumptions, insightful intuition, or a depth of conceptual vision. Other times, however, nonrational elements can produce negative side effects, such as ignorance, bias, or pride. The personal dimensions of life may stand in the way of understanding and feeling the full force of a powerful argument and, thus, being persuaded by it. A person’s noetic (belief-forming) faculties are seldom as neutral, detached, and coolly objective as many people—including intellectuals and atheists
However, the biblical doctrine of original sin means that sin runs deep in human beings.2 Christian theologians talk about the noetic effects of sin that negatively affect and undermine the human mind and intellect along with its accompanying reasoning and beliefs. These negative effects do not totally undermine the human mind but biblically speaking, they seem most prominent in one’s knowledge of God (what John Calvin called man’s “sense of divinity,”3 see Romans 1:18–21) and are far less prominent in other domains of human thinking and belief.4
Blaise Pascal, mathematician-physicist-logician, thought that the issue of God’s existence was a matter of the “heart,”5 meaning that our most basic beliefs are at the level of the nonrational (involving assumptions, intuitions, pre-commitments). Yet one of the pernicious aspects of sin is that it blinds people from seeing their spiritual and moral failings and their accountability before God (Psalm 14:1; Romans 1:18–21). As the rhetorical biblical proverb asks: “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’”? (Proverbs 20:9) The obvious answer is no one. It is therefore hard to see how Schellenberg’s nonresistant nonbelief (through no fault of their own some people fail to believe in God and are fully rational in that position) can be consistent with what Scripture says about the detrimental noetic effects of human sin.
Yet while I think Schellenberg’s category of nonresistant nonbelief is unbiblical and doesn’t correspond to reality, I want to encourage people who are open to God and his rich grace but struggle with doubt. Keep calling upon God, for as Jesus Christ promised: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7–8).
A Possible Reason Why God’s Existence Isn’t Too Overt
While from a historic Christian (biblical) perspective God’s existence is not hidden or absent, it nevertheless doesn’t appear to be so apparent as to coerce a person’s belief. In other words, God may be modulating his existence in order to preserve people’s volition and to allow them to consider seeking him. But if so, such acts are always directed by his sovereign grace (Acts 13:48; 17:27).
In this regard, consider Pascal’s provocative perspective:
“Willing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from him with all their heart, God so regulates the knowledge of himself that he has given indications of himself, which are visible to those who seek him and not to those who do not seek him. There is enough light for those to see who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.”6
If God did make himself totally obvious it wouldn’t guarantee that people would come to love and trust him. As the Book of James notes: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19). God doesn’t want begrudging belief. He wants his people to come to love and trust him through a life of faith that may involve times of doubt and challenge.
A Different Kind of Hiddenness: Deus Absconditus (Latin: “The Hidden God”)
There is a sense in which God could be said to be hidden. But it is different from the atheist claim that there is a lack of evidence or viable arguments for God or that God has somehow failed to reveal himself adequately. This hiddenness is when God seems silent or distant from his people. Consider Isaiah 45:15: “Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself, the God and Savior of Israel.”
How are we to understand this passage in light of the various verses that speak of God liberally revealing himself? Well, first of all, God’s people must be aware of the importance of seeking the Lord with a humble and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17; Luke 18:10–14). But, second, because God is infinite and eternal and humans are finite and temporal then God and his ways are, by necessity, deeply mysterious. As a transcendent divine being, God’s attributes elude the full grasp of finite creatures. So it may be that when God seems silent or distant, the problem lies with our finite limitations of being rather than with God’s actual absence.7
Takeaway: Fallenness and Finitude
While the God of historic Christianity is not hidden as some atheists insist, he may sovereignly regulate the knowledge of himself, as Pascal proposed, to reward seekers and confound the proud. So when nonbelievers complain of God’s hiddenness, a Christian anthropology holds that nonbelievers are hampered by their fallenness and finitude in failing to detect God.
Yet there’s good news for those who place their faith in Christ. God’s children will sense, at various times, that God is silent or distant. During such difficult instances we need to remember that God is mysterious and yet, as a loving father, he always keeps his promises (James 1:12).
Reflections: Your Turn
How do you explain God’s alleged hiddenness? Have you had occasions when God seems silent or distant?
- For further discussion about God’s revelation, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions.
- For a discussion of some of historic Christianity’s greatest thinkers and their arguments for God, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction.
- For evidence and arguments for God and Christianity, see Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.
- For a book-length treatment on the topic of divine hiddenness from a Christian philosophical perspective, see Michael C. Rea, The Hiddenness of God.
- For a series of essays on divine hiddenness from various perspectives (Jewish, Christian, atheistic, agnostic), see ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul Moser, Divine Hiddenness: New Essays.
- Daniel Howard-Snyder and Adam Green, “Hiddenness of God,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta ed., last modified December 2, 2016.
- See my article, Does Original Sin Explain the Human Condition? Reflections by Ken, December 22, 2020.
- I discuss John Calvin’s idea of the sensus divinitatis (sense of the divine) in chapter 7 of my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction.
- Theopedia, “Noetic Effects of Sin,” accessed March 15, 2021.
- Kenneth Richard Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction, 155–56.
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 430, p. 144.
- Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined: Is It Rational, Relevant, and Good? (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), chapter 5.