Divine Hide and Seek: Part 1

Throughout history, some atheists, like Friedrich Nietzsche, have objected to God’s existence because of his so-called “hiddenness.” If God exists, why doesn’t he show himself to humanity, and why doesn’t he show himself clearly so that there is no question that he exists?

The Yale philosopher Norwood Hanson is known for his objection to God’s existence based upon his hiddenness. Hanson admits that if God would just clearly reveal himself then he would believe in God. But Hanson has his own thoughts on what would constitute as God “clearly” revealing himself. Hanson envisions one great event in which the following occurs: an earth-shattering thunderclap, snow swirling, leaves dropping from trees, the earth heaving and buckling, buildings collapsing, the sky blazing with a silvery light, and the clouds opening up with a radiant-like Zeus figure appearing. Then God would boomingly say, “Humans, I most certainly exist! Believe in me!”

Hanson goes on to comment, “Please do not dismiss this as a playful, irreverent Disneyoid contrivance. The conceptual point here is that if such a remarkable event were to occur, I for one should certainly be convinced that God does exist. That matter of fact would have been settled once and for all time. . . . That God exists would, through this encounter, have been confirmed for me and for everyone else in a manner every bit as direct as that involved in any non-controversial factual claim.”

It is debatable whether Hanson would actually believe God exists if such an event were to occur. The sinful will of man, after all, can be quite obstinate. But the fact that God seems hidden is surely an observation worthy of consideration. Why is it that God often seems hidden to his creatures whom he loves and desires to have communion with?

Christian philosopher Michael Murray suggests that God’s hiddenness may be explained by the fact that God wants people to choose freely to love him or reject him (see his chapter “Why Doesn’t God Make His Existence More Obvious to Us?” in Passionate Conviction). For this to occur, humans must have truly free will and must exist in conditions that allow for them to exercise their freedom. One particular condition that would be required is the absence of pervasive coercion. If God were to do as some atheists desire (e.g., break open the clouds and speak with a booming voice), then God would be coercing belief rather than allowing one to choose freely.

Philosopher Paul Copan agrees with Murray but adds that God has given just enough evidence of himself to the one who seeks him so that he may find him (see Copan’s chapter on divine hiddenness in Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion). Copan, however, makes the observation that plenty of evidence will not inevitably lead to seeking God and thus result in a loving relationship with him. Many people know certain things they ought to do but don’t do it. Additionally, it is possible that the more evidence one has of God the more resentful he may be of God.

Finally, Michael Rea explains that God’s hiddenness may be due to God’s nature. Hiddenness may just be the way God is; it is his modus operandi. “Perhaps divine silence,” says Rea, “is nothing more or less than an expression of God’s personality” (“Divine Hiddenness, Divine Silence,” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 271). When we as humans react to God with questions like, “What’s wrong with God? Why doesn’t he talk to me? Doesn’t he care?,” we are interpreting God’s silence based on the assumption that silence means lack of concern. But, as Rea says, silence would be a lack of concern only if God has made no attempt whatsoever to communicate with us: “But as far as I can tell, we don’t have good reason for thinking that God has left us without any way of finding him or experiencing his presence” (272).

Although the foregoing explanations of God’s hiddenness may have some truth to them, it seems to me that none of them are quite satisfying as a full explanation. For one thing, the idea that God doesn’t reveal himself because he doesn’t want to coerce belief seems contrary to what is seen in Scripture. God didn’t appear to have much problem revealing himself directly to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not to mention the many other people throughout the Old and New Testaments, especially the prophets. God didn’t seem too concerned that too much revelation would coerce belief in him.

For another thing, it seems to me that a distinction ought to be made between belief in God and submitting to him. As Copan recognizes, even if God were to reveal himself in a dramatic, personal event, it does not mean that a loving relationship with God would be the result. One can believe that God exists without submitting to him. In fact, this is what we see with Satan and his angels (see James 2:19).

Moreover, if one believes that man has truly free will, then how could it be that if God made himself dramatically known to someone, then that person could not freely choose to still disbelieve? It seems to me that such a person could indeed still choose to disbelieve that God exists. Consider the words of the popular atheist Thomas Nagel: “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It is not just that I do not believe in God. . . . It’s that I hope there is no God! I do not want there to be a God; I do not want the universe to be like that” (The Last Word, 130-31). Would Nagel believe in the existence of God if God came to him in some event as described by Hanson? What kind of evidence would actually convince Nagel? It is difficult to say, but it seems reasonable in light of his comments that such a person may never believe—no matter what evidence may be put forth.

Furthermore, to say that hiddenness is just the way God is seems off the mark. Again, God didn’t seem to have a problem with making himself clearly known at particular times and places throughout human history. Scripture is replete with examples of God breaking into the human experience and revealing himself (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, etc.). If hiddennes is just the personality of God, then why did he make such dramatic revelations of himself at these particular times? Was God acting contrary to himself?

The question, it seems to me, that ought to be asked in this discussion is, “Is God actually hidden?” I will consider this question in more detail in the next post.

Grace,

Peter Jay Rasor II

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