Is the Argument from Hiddenness a Stronger Challenge to Theism than the Argument from Evil?

I’ve been teaching some philosophy of religion to my intro to philosophy students over the past couple of weeks. We’ve had some great discussions, especially about the natural theological arguments and the problem of evil. Also, because the textbook has a focus on Canadian content, it presents an atheistic argument from Canadian philosopher J.L. Schellenberg, the argument from divine hiddenness.

Recently, I’ve come to believe that J.L. Schellenberg’s argument against God’s existence from divine hiddenness is a better atheistic argument than the argument from evil (logical or evidential). I’ll defend my reasons for believing this shortly. First, let’s look at Schellenberg’s argument. It goes like this:

1) If no perfectly loving God exists, then God does not exist
2) If a perfectly loving God exists, then there is a God who is always open to a personal relationship with each human person.
3) If there is a God who is always open to a relationship with each human person, then no human person is ever non-resistantly unaware that God exists.
4) If a perfectly loving God exists, then no human person is ever non-resistantly unaware that God exists (from 2 and 3 by hypothetical syllogism).
5) Some human persons are non-resistantly unaware that God exists.
6) No perfectly loving God exists (from 4 and 5 by modus tollens).
7) God does not exist (from 1 and 6 by modus ponens).

The only candidates for premises we might deny are 2 and 5. But these look very defensible. And this is why I think that the problem of hiddenness is a more serious challenge to theism than the problem of evil: the most common strategies employed against the problem of evil are not as plausible with respect to hiddenness.

For example, one might use the ‘greater good’ strategy in denying premise 2. One might say that God isn’t always (at every time) open to a personal relationship with each human person because God can only achieve certain goods if some persons lack explicit awareness of His existence (at least for a time). Again, this ‘greater good’ strategy is a common approach to the problem of evil. But what would a candidate for such a greater good be in the case of divine hiddenness? As with the problem of evil, sometimes freedom is suggested as the greater good that divine hiddenness serves to accomplish. Perhaps if God’s existence were too obvious, that would compromise our moral freedom; we’d do things or refrain from doing things because Big Brother is watching. However, this move doesn’t seem as plausible with respect to hiddenness as it does with respect to evil. God doesn’t have to reveal Himself in earth-shattering Hollywood fashion; He could simply give every non-resistant person a profound religious experience such that they were assured of God’s presence. Certainly some people claim to have such experiences, and it’s not obvious that such experiences would obliterate moral freedom. So why not give everybody such an experience?

Some have suggested other goods that might obtain from divine hiddenness, such as deep awareness of our spiritual deficiencies or cooperation with a spiritual community in seeking knowledge of God. But it seems as though those goods could be acheived in the context of awareness of God’s existence. Sometimes it might be necessary for a person in a relationship to withdraw for a time, and the same might be true of God (what Christians sometimes call a ‘dark night of the soul’). But that is compatible with an awareness of God’s existence, even if His immediate presence is not felt. So it seems that any good God could achieve through hiddenness, could be achieved in some other way. Again, I find the argument from hiddenness to be stronger than the argument from evil on this point.

Some theists would deny premise 5. Although a minority position among philosophers, this is probably the majority response among ordinary believers. Popular theology tells us that we all resist God. Maybe the people who are unaware of God’s existence are resisting a relationship with God. Maybe God is open to relationship, but they are not. I find this line of reasoning implausible. After all, most believers would acknowledge that the evidence for God’s existence falls far short of what it would take to convince a neutral audience. Some would cite the cognitive effects of sin here, but if God can open the eyes of some, why not all? (Calvinists give a very implausible answer to this question in my judgment.) Moreover, it seems that there are many people, Schellenberg included, who have done their homework on this issue and very much wish a loving God  existed. In other words, some unbelievers are emotionally open to such a relationship, but lack the evidence to believe. Are all of these people just culpably dishonest? That strikes me as implausible.

A parallel can be drawn here with respect to the problem of gratuitous evil (evil which seems to produce no greater good), except the epistemic burdens of  believers and non-believers are reversed. In the case of allegedly gratuitous evil, believers can opt for skepticism: we can’t know for sure that evils that appear gratuitous really are gratuitous, but the non-believer has to say, at the very least, that it’s implausible to deny that they are gratuitous. It’s difficult in this case (at least for me) to assign the burden of proof. In the hiddenness case, however, it’s much easier. The believer has to claim that he knows, or at least that it’s implausible to deny, that persons who appear to be non-resistantly unaware are actually resistant. Whereas all the non-believer has to say is that we can’t possibly know that, and judging from appearances, it’s unlikely to be true — an added advantage that the theist doesn’t have in the case of gratuitous evil since appearances in that case favor the atheist. In other words, this looks much less like a stalemate than the gratuitous evil case, which is another reason why I think the hiddenness argument is stronger than the problem of evil.

One more reason why I suspect that the problem of hiddenness is a more serious challenge to theism than the problem of evil: hiddnness is a more fundamental problem than evil. What I mean by this is that the problem of evil gains much of its purchase from the fact of hiddeness. While they are separate problems and, as we have seen, strategies for dealing with one don’t necessarily work for the other, evil would not be an epistemic problem for belief in God’s existence if God’s existence were more obvious. If that were the case, we might still have the question of why God allows certain evils, but evil would not be a barrier to belief in God per se. The more basic problem, then, is the hiddenness problem. While both evil and hiddenness are formidable challenges for theistic belief, I’m beginning to think hiddenness is the stronger of the two.



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2 responses to “Is the Argument from Hiddenness a Stronger Challenge to Theism than the Argument from Evil?

  1. Ju

    I hope to get some Schellenberg to read soon but in the meantime can I please ask about the argument structure 1 – 7 above – you have said where 4, 6 and 7 come from so what about the other four? I think that # 5 is a claim about what is found in the world and so would come from observation of the world. It can be observed that “Some human persons are…unaware that God exists” but what kind of argument would be needed to establish the “non-resistantly” bit? I think 1, 2 and 3 are conditional statements but if these conditionals are not accepted by your opponent what kind of arguments would be required?


    • Premises 1, 2, 3, and 5, as far as I can tell (the formulation is Schellenberg’s) function as premises and do not follow from anything. They are stated as premises and conclusions (4,5, and 6) are drawn. Since they are premises, they can be denied, as you say. In the post, I tried to deal with objections to 2 and 5, which I think are the ones most theists would deny if pressed. I don’t find the objections to these premises plausible and offered arguments to that effect. The claim that there are ‘non-resistant’ unbelievers is an observation about the world. It’s not necessary that all unbelievers are non-resistant, just that some are. I find this claim plausible, but the theist might deny it. Thanks for your comment.

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