Challenge: God Should Make Himself More Obvious

Posted: July 12, 2011 by Amy Hall in God is Real, Weekly Challenge

When we asked for your ideas for challenge questions a while back, Adrian suggested one on God’s hiddenness: “Why is God so hidden? I’m a rational unbeliever, so if God really wanted to be in a loving relationship with me, He’d make himself a lot more obvious.”

Along these lines, here’s a formal argument from reasonable nonbelief from J.L. Schellenberg’s 1993 book, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason:

1.  If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
2.  If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.
3.  Reasonable nonbelief occurs.
4.  No perfectly loving God exists (from 2 and 3).
5.  Hence, there is no God (from 1 and 4).

So this week, let’s take on Schellenberg. How do you answer this challenge? We’ll hear Brett’s response on Thursday.

  1. Adrian Urias says:

    Something is wrong with either premise 2 or 3. I once told an atheist guy that there is no reason to not believe or reject Christianity, that he is rejecting something quite rational, and he got super offended. It got a lot deeper than that, but I think we both walked away with a feeling that I was calling him a liar (which I guess that means I was denying premise 3 in that case). Which made us both uncomfortable. Really didn’t like biting that bullet. So I look forward to some of the responses.

  2. Sam says:

    I’d challenge the second premise. It doesn’t follow that because God’s love is perfect that he therefore loves all people the same. All that follows is that there’s no deficiency in the love he shows to those he chooses to love. Love, after all, isn’t am emotion that God feels (although there may be emotions that are associated with it). Love is what God does. In my reading of the Bible, which turns out to be Calvinistic, God saves everybody he intends to save, and he does so perfectly. That’s my basis for saying that God’s love is perfect. It doesn’t fail to do what it sets out to do. Schellenberg’s argument may refute SOME idea of God, but it doesn’t refute the God I believe in.

    But I would argue that even if Calvinism is not true, it’s a weak argument. The only way to defend that second premise is to say that “God is perfectly loving” somehow contradicts “Reasonable unbelief occurs.” One could use something like Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense to show that these two claims are NOT contradictory.

    First, there’s no explicit contradiction. There’s no formal contradiction. The only possibility is that there is an implicit contradiction, and it’s up to Schellenberg to come up with the necessary premise to render the set contradictory. In the meantime, we can show it’s NOT contradictory by coming up with a possible state of affairs under which both statements would be true. If it’s even possible that both statements could be true under some conditions, then the statements are not contradictory, and the second premise is false. All that’s required is that it’s possible that God has some non-arbitrary and morally justifiable reason for not making his existence known to all people. If that’s the case, then it would follow that even though a perfectly loving God exists, not everybody would know about it.

    • Adrian Urias says:

      How would one use the free will defense?

      • Sam says:

        I didn’t mean you could use the free will defense. I meant that you could use something LIKE the free will defense. Plantinga showed that “God exists” was compatible with “Evil exists,” by coming up with a possible state of affairs under which both would be true. He suggested the possibility that “God created a world containing evil and had a good reason for doing so.” To show that that was possible, he gave a scenario under which people have free will and go wrong with respect to morality.

        What I’m suggesting is that one could use the same reasoning to show that “God is perfectly loving” is compatible with “Unbelief occurs.” You just have to come up with a possible state of affairs under which both would be true. It doesn’t have to be free will.

  3. Amy Hall says:

    Sam, I agree that premise 2 would be the first one I’d go for. But I think there are things wrong with 3, and even 1. I think there’s a hidden assumption behind #1–that is, love is all God expresses. In order to understand people’s unbelief, we also need to understand God’s holiness and justice. But #1 assumes God only desires to save every person, but perhaps God also desires to express His justice and righteousness against people who are in rebellion against Him.

    • Sam says:

      Amy, I know it’s not your intention, but when you point out that love is not God’s only attribute, it almost sounds like you are saying God’s attributes are incompatible with each other, and that some attributes prevent him from fully expressing other attributes. God CANNOT be perfectly loving if he’s also just, for example. I’m just pointing this out because although I agree with you, I think it would be very easy for somebody to get the wrong idea about what you’re saying, and some clarity would help.

  4. Albert says:

    More obvious? He wrote 66 books that included him in them. He came to earth and died on a cross for us and then raised again so that we will be saved. He has shown himself historically for all to see. The changes in the apostles, the number of people that radically changed over to Christianity in such a short amount of time. The amount of evidence that shows the bible to be reliable.
    The idea that nature shows a first cause agent. The complexity of the DNA strands in all things. The human eye showing that there is design behind what seems to be a simple thing.

    I think there a tons of ways that God has shown himself to us. We, as sinful humans, choose to not see it because it makes us feel uneasy.

    And I guess the most interesting part about this is, if he stood right in front of us and said, “I AM!” would we still choose to follow him with the free will he has given us?

  5. Adam Tucker says:

    I agree that premise 3 is questionable, but it’d be hard to make a solid case for. Premise two contains the assumption that a perfectly loving God would overwhelmingly show himself to everyone. This is an assumption that Schellenberg would need to defend. Richard Carrier makes a similar argument. But there are several problems with this. First, what does “overwhelming” mean exactly? It could be taken to lead to the old “extraordinary claims/extraordinary evidence” problem. If it’s taken to the extreme, then free will would be violated, which I’m sure the atheist would have a problem with. More practically speaking, since we’re saying what God would/should do if He exists, then I think, for the sake of argument, we can assume the Bible is true for the moment. In this case, I would look to the Israelites as a case study to see if overwhelming evidence actually convinces everyone. The life of Jesus and His contemporaries would be another case study.

    The most devastating problem with this line of reasoning is, as I mentioned, the atheist presumes to know what God would/should do in order to reveal Himself to everyone. But how could the atheist, or anyone else, know such a thing? We can imagine what it’d be like to have God’s power, but we can’t imagine what it’d be like to be all-knowing. We’d have to first be all-knowing in order to imagine that! So if the atheist can’t presume to know exactly what God would/should do in this case, he’d have to try to argue that there’s no good reason for God not to overwhelmingly show Himself. But again, how can the fact that they cannot think of a good reason possibly support the premise that there are no good reasons? Perhaps their mind is not the proper place to look for such a reason. As it stands, I think the argument is unsupportable.

    Of course there are still existential problems associated with divine hiddenness to which I think there are reasonable responses. The most common is that God partially hides Himself to allow us to make morally significant choices. That’s good as far as it goes, but Adam and Eve’s free wills weren’t overwhelmed by special appearances of God (given that they did not see God in all His glory, a.k.a. the beatific vision believers will have in heaven). I think the most fundamental reason for God’s hiddenness is the result of sinful man living in a fallen world, and that God’s main reason for showing Himself in special ways (i.e. theophanies) is to bring about the Messiah and His death and resurrection. I don’t think the individual appearances/manifestations of God were simply for the benefit of the one having the appearance. It was ultimately to bring about the possibility of salvation for everyone (think Moses at the burning bush, set aside to free Israel, who were set aside as God’s people, through which He’d bring the Messiah, through which everyone could be saved). At least that’s my two cents, or possibly three, based on what I’ve studied and read. Thanks!

    • Amy Hall says:

      The most devastating problem with this line of reasoning is, as I mentioned, the atheist presumes to know what God would/should do in order to reveal Himself to everyone.

      Exactly. And what’s interesting is that we see people doing the exact same thing in the Bible to prove Jesus isn’t the Messiah. Paraphrase: “If you were the Messiah, God would save you and you would come down from the cross. But He’s not saving you, therefore we don’t believe you’re the Messiah.”

      The only way we can get an idea of what God would do, or why He has done something, is by knowing His revealed Word. But atheists are usually unwilling to ask if the Bible is consistent with its explanations of God’s character and actions. Instead, they imagine what they think God should be like, find their ideas to be contradictory, and conclude God must not exist.

  6. Could anyone clarify point one for me: I’m not sure how it follows that if there is a God, he is perfectly loving. That seems like an unjustified premise. It seems ironic to me that the whole argument is that God should make Himself more obvious and the first premise is an assumption about God’s character. Where does the information come from the God is loving? Do they accept from the Bible that God is loving?

    The whole argument seems to hinge on our assumptions of what God desires and it seems that without revelation from God it would be impossible to know what God desires.

    • Sam says:

      I think the first premise is just a definition. He’s trying to disprove the existence of a perfectly loving God.

      • Is it fair game to attack the first premise/definition? And secondly would it be a good tactic?

        From my point of view, if an argument starts with an incorrect or, in this case, incomplete definition of God it would seem like a weakness in the argument.

      • Sam Harper says:

        I think that depends on how you go about it. If somebody defined God in such a way that the God they are defining is not the God you believe in, you could just respond by saying, “Well, that’s a fine refutation for that kind of God, but that is not the kind of God I believe in.” Or you could say, “Your argument doesn’t apply to my God because my God doesn’t fit the description in your first premise.”

        But I don’t think you should say, “Your definition is wrong.” I mean if you wanted to refute a particular KIND of God, then you’d begin by defining God in that particular way. For example, if you wanted to refute the existence of wooden gods, your first premise would be, “If God exists, then God is made of wood.” That wouldn’t be a WRONG premise because it’s just a definition. It just stipulates the particular kind of God you’re attempting to refute.

        Another tactic might be to say, “I couldn’t agree with that first premise unless we qualified it or made it more precise. I do believe my God is a loving God, but he’s more than just loving. He’s also just and holy, and these things play a roll in how he acts just as much as his love plays a roll in how he acts. We have to take that into consideration and not take one of his attributes in isolation.” That’s essentially how Amy responded above.

  7. bobby says:

    when you looking at a Deductive Argument like this one you would have to show why one or more of the pemises are false if you show are atleast one of the premise are false them the arguement crumbles – i reject premise 2 – “If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.” – a belife does not mean absoulte certaintly god could still be loving and perfect despite what people belifs are about him. For Example just becuase people belived that someone in a court of law is murder that dosent mean he/she is a murderer

    Belifs =/= Absoutle Certainly

  8. Chris Maness says:

    This is the excuse I used to become an atheist when I was 14. It made me angry that God did not reveal himself in a more obvious manner, and therefore faith was required. I was afraid that I was believing something akin to Santa Clause. Therefore, I rejected theism in favor of atheism. After about three years of atheism I began to notice that there were things that I could see happen in reality that were not explainable by atheism. I believe at that point I started wanting to believe by wishful thinking because I felt so alone.

    I had a Rastafarian friend in college that turned me on to prayer. I tried praying some very specific things and found that my prayers were answered. He also suggested I read the Bible, and I did for the first time as an adolescent, and I was BLOWN away by the personhood of Jesus. I was baptized into Christ six months later.

    I share all this because I do believe that some who hold this as a reason not to believe do so for a good reason. There is so much garbage out there that people try to get us to believe. I had a big fear (and still do to some extent) that I was just going to be had by some delusional thinking.

    Now, it seems clear to me, that my sinful desires precluded me from seeing the truth. I believe (Rom 1) that there is plenty of evidence for us to believe, but not enough to prevent God from handing us over to unbelief if we so refuse to follow and exercise our free will. I would also go after three, but I don’t think three is off limits. I would not have a problem calling someone on the fact that at some level they could be deluding themselves from seeing God as existing obviously. I think if God did not exist, then nothing would exist either. That seems pretty compelling.


  9. Jeff says:

    “God is the Lord and had revealed himself to us. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

    God is not hidden. He was revealed in Jesus Christ, the well-known God-Man. He left us with a Church which persists to this day.

    People cannot excuse unbelief on their part as oscurity on God’s part. Those with ears to hear, let them hear.

  10. 1. If poodles exist, they are perfectly cuddly and fluffy.
    2. If perfectly cuddly and fluffy poodles exist, poodle groomers do not exist.
    3. Poodles groomers do exist.
    4. Perfectly cuddly and fluffy poodles do not exist (from 2 & 3).
    5. Hence, no poodles exist (from 1 & 4).

    It’s a sound argument, but assertions 1 & 2 really need to be examined…

  11. Actually, I should say it’s a VALID argument, because the conclusion follows from the premises.
    It’s only a sound argument if the premises are also true.

  12. Neil Mammen says:

    This may answer part of that:

    One possible reason why God doesn’t just show Himself and be done with it?

    • Thanks for the article Neil, I read and really enjoyed it.

    • Amy Hall says:

      Thanks, Neil! I came to a very similar conclusion, as well (it’s up at STR Place, but we’ll feature it here on the blog next week). The real problem for atheists is not their lack of evidence for God.

  13. Elliot Neff says:

    Wow– a lot of responses already. That’s great, but it’s a lot to read through right now! I apologize in advance if I repeat something that was mentioned above, but here are my thoughts on the original objection.

    The hiddenness of God. That’s incredibly odd from a Biblical perspective, isn’t it? The famous agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell once remarked to a reporter that if God really did exist and he met him face to face and was questioned about his unbelief, he would simply reply, “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence.” That’s very interesting when the book of Romans tells us it is not the absence of evidence but the suppression of it that leads to unbelief.

    The ‘hiddenness of God’ argument seems to be more of a masquerade than anything else, but certainly not a serious objection which could stand up to any amount of philosophical scrutiny.

    In order to answer this question effectively, I think we need to consider God’s purpose in revealing Himself to others. I suppose God could (if He wanted to) write across the sky with magnificent, huge letters ‘I am God’ or ‘I exist’. He could arrange the stars or raise people from the dead.

    But God’s intention is not merely to make sure people know He exists, but rather to draw them into a loving relationship with Him. A bold, noticeable sign (like those mentioned above) might notify others that He exists, but would it draw them into a loving relationship with Him? I think we have serious reason to doubt that it would. In fact, it may have the adverse affect and scare people off. It may cause people to become even more rebellious, convinced that God is arrogant and a control freak.

    Also, it may scare us off. I wonder if we aren’t too presumptuous. If God suddenly made Himself known to us, I doubt that we could handle his holiness and cleanliness against our sin. It would be unbearable! Instead, God must approach us in a much more suttle and loving way. And He did– by humbling himself to the level of a human and submitting to death– even death on a cross.

    In addition to my comments above, I find it rather hard (in a way) to accept the grammar of this original question. ‘Hidden’ implies more of a Deistic God than anything else: a God who is there, yet far away from us personally. God may not be performing miracles every few centuries or so as He did in the days of the Old Testament, but in a very real sense He is at work in each of our hearts and lives. There is nothing less important or real about it.

    If we truly seek Him with an open mind and an open heart, then we will find the truth and the truth will set us free.

  14. 2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.

    Romans 1:20, NLT: For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.

    If Schellenberg created the heavens and the earth, he’d have more of a right to make his rule #2.

    Ecclesiastes 3:11, NLT: Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.

    So even if you’re in some remote jungle somewhere, you have the choice to believe or not what you see. Those that have God’s clearer explanation in the Bible have less excuse.

  15. God’s plan is to be made obvious by us.