Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

Why doesn’t God show us more evidence for his existence?

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:

  1. God is all powerful
  2. God is all loving
  3. God wants all people to know about him
  4. Some people don’t know about him
  5. Therefore, there is no God.

You may hear have heard this argument before, when talking to atheists, as in William Lane Craig’s debate with Theodore Drange, (audio, video).

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.

More of 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:

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9 Responses

  1. Homer says:

    To give more evidence is to destroy the foundation of faith which is an essential corner stone of the christian faith. The evidence as is available challenges the mind and spirit and makes life more interesting. What yould your prefer? If your only communication with someone was by means of letters, would you prefer the reader to believe in your existence by revealing his physical attributes, or by means of your letters?

  2. Richard Ball says:

    Three quick points.

    1. Romans 1:19-20 — It’s not 50-50 between God being hidden and obvious. Romans makes it clear that fallen man suppresses the evident and obvious truth of God’s existence.

    2. Look what happened when God came out of hiding with the Israelite theocracy — his holiness clashed with our sinfulness so much that Israelites either got wiped out by God or walked on eggshells lest they offend the Consuming Fire.

    Thank you, God, for withdrawing your presence to allow us time (via grace) to get our act together and repent.

    3. Since many/most are in a state of persistent rebellion against the Holy One, if God were to reveal himself fully, those who are in this intransigently rebellious state (see Revelation “yet they repented not”) would be quickly driven mad by the knowledge of their offensiveness to the holy One and their pending doom. Once again, thank you God, for graciously withdrawing your obvious presence from us, to, as St. Peter said, give us time (and room) to repent — not at our leisure, for our situation is perilous, but earnestly.

    Thank you, God. As the first of the 39 Anglican Articles says, God is all-good, all-powerful, and, wait for it, all-wise!

  3. Desmognathus says:

    I like that summary of Dr. Murray’s answer!

    Good points, too, Richard.

    Thanks, guys.

  4. Ben says:

    Basically you are painting a world where we are on our own, morally. And that’s exactly the secular humanist niche. So the excuse here to explain away the evidence justifies secular humanism and undermines the moral integrity of Christian theism. We are not free to believe in God because we actually know it is true. This violates the free will of those who wish to believe with integrity, if God actually exists.

    And as Richard Ball points out, accepting that there is a problem of divine hiddeness is a refutation of Paul that says we’re all without excuse. If we are without excuse, then how can we have been free to make our own choices in the sense being described in this post of yours?

    God doesn’t want us to follow him because of retribution? How is it moral to have such an extreme punishment coming our way and not definitively know about it? Is that really responsible on God’s part? Hardly.

    Eleven out of 12 disciples who supposedly experienced the kind of evidence in person atheists typically ask for didn’t seem to have any of these contrived moral problems. Two thirds of the angels who were in direct confrontation with God’s presence didn’t seem to have a problem either. People respond better to evidence. This is true in any venue of life. Religion and meaningful relationships with God should be no exception. Whatever supposed cost there may be to divine obviousness can’t outweigh the facts of human psychology that we are more confident and able to function in emotionally edifying ways when we know what the deal is in a straight forward non-convoluted way. Christian theism does not offer that.

    I could go on and on about how much this backfires for Christianity, but I’ll stop here.

    Ben

  5. Desmognathus says:

    I don’t think that “divine hiddenness is a refutation of Paul that says we’re all without excuse.” As Richard pointed out in his first point, there is more evidence for God’s existence than against – but man “suppresses the evident and obvious truth.” That bit of space between the amount of evidence that we have (which is adequate) and God-thundering-in-your-face-all-the-time is the degree to which He is hidden. That space is enough to allow people to suppress or deny His reality if they wish.

    I don’t agree with all of Murray’s possible explanations, but I do think that God giving us a bit of space to exercise free will is valid. Like a parent finally trusting a teenager to be responsible, He gave us plenty of evidence to make the right decision – but if He were always visibly looming over our shoulder (for example), we would never have the opportunity to make a real decision.

    The apostles did actually have this dilemma, too – remember, it took them a while to understand and accept who He really was. Even face to face with the Saviour, people sometimes have a hard time accepting Divine reality. Is it so surprising that it is still the case?

    I certainly don’t think God is entirely, or even mostly, hidden. However, atheists have fixated on the lack of evidence in that real space between “enough evidence” and “no way to avoid Him” and chosen not to believe. Whether we think that that space is large or small, not engaging their question won’t help.

    • I think that the point about evidence is key. For people who DON’T KNOW how the universe began, and DON’T KNOW about the fine-tuning and DON’T KNOW about the origin of the simplest living cell, etc., then agnosticism is perfectly rational. What it takes to be a Christian is to puzzle about these things. You have to have the will to use some of your time to search these things out when God draws you to him. He will give you things to look into. Most people will not allow the premises that emerge from the evidence to affect their reasoning, e.g. – “the universe began to exist” – a premise supplied from the progress of science. If you don’t KNOW THAT for certain, then it’s harder to be a Christian. I understand that other people believe for other reasons, I am talking here about skeptical people who won’t apply their intelligence to see if these things are really true.

  6. Desmognathus says:

    Maybe I’m just saying that the balance between God’s hiddenness and evidence is not all-or-nothing, so there is no real conflict between the hiddenness question and Paul’s “without excuse.”

  7. Ben says:

    If it can make sense for many people to be an agnostic, as WK says, that sounds a whole lot like people are “with excuse” contrary to Paul.

    Not everyone is a philosopher, historian, and/or scientist and has time (or even the mental ability) to reasonably discern these matters.

    To say people are actively repressing this “adequate knowledge” is an explicit claim about nonbelievers’ mental states. That’s ideology talking, and not your own experience. I’ll bet you both live in the same world I do where there are struggling Christians who want to be more confident in their beliefs, where there are Christians who freely sin and do not attempt to disown Christian theology, and there are nonbelievers who really do want to believe and are simply unable to, and who desire to live moral lives, but see no necessary connection with even a watered down version of Christian theology. So if we argue from this immediate evidence, rather than Christian ideology, it is clear that Paul is wrong. And the best explanation of Paul’s commentary on the matter is his own theological and moral bias and lack of willingness to see things from other people’s perspectives. That’s a very common human trait.

    So the moral of the story is that people clearly have excuses to not believe that God exists. The Bible says the opposite. Hence, the Bible is wrong. Christianity (at least the inerrantist variety) is falsified by some very ordinary evidence anyone can understand without a masters degree.

    And not that it matters too much but I did make a few other points that didn’t get addressed. *shrug*

    Ben

  8. [...] papers by philosopher Michael Murray (HT: Wintery Knight):  “Coercion and the Hiddenness of God“, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 30, 1993; [...]

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