Have you ever heard someone say that if God existed, he would give us more evidence? This is called the “hiddenness of God” argument. It’s also known as the argument from “rational non-belief”.
Basically the argument is something like this:
- God is all powerful
- God is all loving
- God wants all people to know about him
- Some people don’t know about him
- Therefore, there is no God.
Basically, the atheist is saying that he’s looked for God real hard and that if God were there, he should have found him by now. After all, God can do anything he wants that’s logically possible, and he wants us to know that he exists. To defeat the argument we need to find a possible explanation of why God would want to remain hidden when our eternal destination depends on our knowledge of his existence.
What reason could God have for remaining hidden?
Dr. Michael Murray, a brilliant professor of philosophy at Franklin & Marshall College, has found a reason for God to remain hidden.
His paper on divine hiddenness is here:
“Coercion and the Hiddenness of God“, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 30, 1993.
He argues that if God reveals himself too much to people, he takes away our freedom to make morally-significant decisions, including responding to his self-revelation to us. Murray argues that God stays somewhat hidden, so that he gives people space to either 1) respond to God, or 2) avoid God so we can keep our autonomy from him. God places a higher value on people having the free will to respond to him, and if he shows too much of himself he takes away their free choice to respond to him, because once he is too overt about his existence, people will just feel obligated to belief in him in order to avoid being punished.
But believing in God just to avoid punishment is NOT what God wants for us. If it is too obvious to us that God exists and that he really will judge us, then people will respond to him and behave morally out of self-preservation. But God wants us to respond to him out of interest in him, just like we might try to get to know someone we admire. God has to dial down the immediacy of the threat of judgment, and the probability that the threat is actual. That leaves it up to us to respond to God’s veiled revelation of himself to us, in nature and in Scripture.
(Note: I think that we don’t seek God on our own, and that he must take the initiative to reach out to us and draw us to him. But I do think that we are free to resist his revelation, at which point God stops himself short of coercing our will. We are therefore responsible for our own fate).
The atheist’s argument is a logical/deductive argument. It aims to show that there is a contradiction between God’s will for us and his hiding from us. In order to derive a contradiction, God MUST NOT have any possible reason to remain hidden. If he has a reason for remaining hidden that is consistent with his goodness, then the argument will not go through.
When Murray offers a possible reason for God to remain hidden in order to allow people to freely respond to him, then the argument is defeated. God wants people to respond to him freely so that there is a genuine love relationship – not coercion by overt threat of damnation. To rescue the argument, the atheist has to be able to prove that God could provide more evidence of his existence without interfering with the free choice of his creatures to reject him.
People choose to separate themselves from God for many reasons. Maybe they are professors in academia and didn’t want to be thought of as weird by their colleagues. Maybe they didn’t want to be burdened with traditional morality when tempted by some sin, especially sexual sin. Maybe their fundamentalist parents ordered them around too much without providing any reasons. Maybe the brittle fundamentalist beliefs of their childhood were exploded by evidence for micro-evolution or New Testament manuscript variants. Maybe they wanted something really bad, that God did not give them. How could a good God allow them to suffer like that?
The point is that there a lot of people who don’t want to know God, and God chooses not to violate their freedom by forcing himself on them. God wants a relationship – he wants you to respond to him. (See Matthew 7:7-8) For those people who don’t want to know him, he allows them to speculate about unobservable entities like the multiverse. He allows them to think that all religions are the same and that there is nothing special about Christianity. He allows them to believe that God has no plan for those who never hear about Jesus. He allows them to be so disappointed because of some instance of suffering that they reject him. God doesn’t force people to love him. If they don’t want to look into these things because they want to avoid having to care what he thinks, then he lets them think anything they want that “works for them”. What they think is false, but so long as they don’t investigate anything, then they can keep doing what they want and thinking it’s fine.
Michael Murray’s work
Murray has defended the argument in works published by prestigious academic presses such as Cambridge University Press, (ISBN: 0521006104, 2001) and Routledge (ISBN: 0415380383, 2007). The book chapter from the Cambridge book is here. The book chapter from the Routledge book is here.
Michael Murray’s papers are really fun to read, because he uses hilarious examples. (But I disagree with his view that God’s work of introducing biological information in living creatures has to be front-loaded).
Here’s more terrific stuff from Dr. Murray:
- “Who’s Afraid of Religion?“, Inaugural Lecture delivered March 30, 2006. Franklin and Marshall College.
- “Seek and You Will Find“, in God and the Philosophers. Thomas Morris, editor. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1994.