Divine Hiddenness: A Power Argument for Atheism?

Has there ever been a time in your life where God felt distant? A season when you could empathize with the Psalmist who said, "Why, O Lord, do you stand far away (Ps 10:1)?"

For most believers this feeling is a part of faith. The "nearness" of God, from our perspective, seems to ebb and flow during our lives. Of course, we may acknowledge his omnipresence, but when we speak of "nearness" we are speaking in terms of relationship.

That feeling, that divine hiddenness (DH), according to J. L. Schellenberg is not evidence of a temporary strain in the creator-creation relationship, but the absence of an eternal creator altogether. For Schellenberg, the feeling we get when we feel far from God is proof that God does not exist. It feels like he's not there for a good reason – he's not. This, according to Oxford University Press, is a "powerful new argument for atheism."[1]

On the OUP blog, Schellenberg summarizes his argument;

 "A perfect personal being (which God must be) would be perfectly loving toward all such creatures as ourselves, and so would be open to the relevant sort of relationship with us, and therefore would never allow the sort of nonbelief – completely nonresistant nonbelief – that flourishes on the planet."[2]

I would like to comment on this argument. And while I must admit that I've not read Schellenberg's recently released The Hiddenness Argument, he gives us enough to strike up the conversation in his OUP blog. Additionally, you can see the flow of Schellenberg's thought on DH in his Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason and Divine Hiddenness and Human PhilosophySo, I thought I'd share some reactionary thoughts on Schellenberg's divine hiddenness as I impatiently await the mailman to deliver my copy of his latest work.

I've divided my thoughts into two categories: general theism and Christian theism.

General Theism

First, I'm not sure why OUP (or whoever) considers DH a "powerful new argument" for atheism. It's not very new at all. Schellenberg himself outlined DH in 1993 (Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason). Wind the clock back further and we see the psalmists––and let's not forget Job!––wrestling with DH millennia ago in Christian scripture. They grappled with faith and doubt as a result of DH.

Additionally, DH is commonly categorized as a subtext to the larger discussion over theodicy, or the problem of evil. (If God is all good and all powerful, why does evil exist?) This argument is as old as humanity itself. It is certainly not new. Perhaps the way in which Schellenberg has framed his DH argument in The Hiddenness Argument is new, but the argument itself is very old.

Furthermore, the obvious must be point out––DH does not speak to all forms of theism. DH is ostensibly not an issue for eastern religions like Hinduism or Buddhism. Also, deism, the idea that God created the universe and walked away, certain takes no issue with a perceived absence of the divine. In fact, certain beliefs in the divine actually anticipate or even expect that the divine is neither personal nor present in the lives of its creation.

Where the atheist may see DH has a problem for God's existence, the theist may see DH as an issue of existential concern. The question isn't over why God is absent, but over what God's absence means for his character. For theists, then, DH speaks less to God's existence than it does to God's character. What is he truly like if he remains hidden from his creation?

Again, this does not affect all theistic belief, but it does touch on Christian theism in particular, which describes God much the same that Schellenberg has in his argument. So, Christianity should answer the question, "If God is omnipresent and all-loving, how can he also be 'hidden?'"

CHRISTIAN THEISM

I see DH within Christian theism as a problem within a problem because it is especially luminous during times of suffering. DH causes suffering more so in those already experiencing some type of suffering. For example, look back to Psalm 10 where the psalmist asks, "Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble (Ps 10:1)?"

Here, the psalmist is wrestling with theodicy ("times of trouble"). Adding insult to injury is his additional suffering from DH ("stand far away"). If God is good, why does he allow suffering and feel distant from those whom he loves? 

The psalmist answers his own question by noting that God "sees" mischief among the reprobate (Ps 10:14) and "hears" the desires of the afflicted (Ps 10:17). God continues to seek justice and the welfare of the afflicted despite his perceived absence. Clearly, DH is not a matter of lost faith to the psalmist.

But how does he come to this steadfast faith? I cannot help but imagine that the psalmist has already constructed a theological system through which he views DH. A system that incorporates the creation narrative of Genesis and prophetic revelation.

Perhaps, then, Christian theism reconciles--voids? answers?--the problem of DH by (1) recognizing that DH is a result of sin, not God's character, (2) pointing the blame for DH at the self rather than at God, (3) noting that God may be experienced in times of DH through scripture, and (4) looking forward to the eschatological, eternal abolishment of DH in the future.

Divine Hiddenness Within Christian Theism

1. DH is a result of sin, not God's non-existence. The original intent behind God's creation of humanity was to establish an eternal, intimate relationship with them. This is seen in Gn 1:27 where God places his "image and likeness" on humans, or what theologians call the imago dei. The Hebrew words for image and likeness (selem and dumuth) evoke relationship terms between a king and his vassal stewards in the ancient near east. 

However, this unique relationship was severed in Gn 3 with the fall. Sin entered the picture and severely damaged the divine relationship between humanity and God. Therefore, from a Christian theistic perspective, the fact that we experience DH is proof of his existence. It is the residual effect of sin, not the result of God's non-existence.

In a way, DH is actually interwoven into the story of Christian theism and is to be expected. Thus, the psalmist can openly wrestle with DH without losing faith. Perhaps unwittingly, Schellenberg's argument aptly describes Gn 1 (divine personal relationship) while ignoring Gn 3 (sin's separation of God and humanity).

Instead, Schellenberg maintains that God should be open to a relevant relationship with us (which is true), but would never allow disbelief. That is to say, God should want a relationship with us so badly that he would protect it at all costs. In a sense that's true (consider the cross, atonement, glorification), but I suspect not to the degree that would satisfy Schellenberg.

2. God does not allow unbelief in us; rather, we willingly suppress the truth of his existence. Romans 1 offers a succinct Christian answer for DH.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Romans 1:18-23

Paul understands disbelief (and, consequently, DH) not as a result of God's absence, but of human rebellion. The fact of God's existence should be obvious, but, prideful as we are, we choose to honor ourselves by dishonoring the creator.

The fact that God allows us to willingly reject his existence is different from God allowing us to disassociate with him. Furthermore, if God restrained all of humanity from rejecting him, then the very nature of our free will would be so violated as to render it non-existent.

We have the ability to disbelieve in God's existence, but that does not necessarily mean God does not exist. And if we willingly choose to disbelieve God, it is no wonder the phenomena of DH is prevalent in the human experience.

3. Many Christian theists testify to "finding God" or "experiencing God" through scripture, even in seasons where he seems distant. Perhaps the chief example of this is Christ's famous quote from the cross of Psalm 22, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Reading a bit further into Christ's reference, the Psalm read, "Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer (Ps 22:1-2)."

Let me first point out the obvious, though mysterious, application from this verse. If Jesus Christ himself experienced DH, ought we (Christians) not anticipate such seasons in our faith?

It is interesting to me that Christ recites this particular passage from the cross, not least for the incredibly prophetic illusions from Ps 22 of his crucifixion. That Christ would acknowledge and experience DH as part of his humanity must count for Christianity's strongest acknowledgement of the phenomena. Yet, where Christ finds comfort (prayer and scripture) must also count for Christianity's strongest solution.

When Christ experienced DH, he found comfort in scripture. This must constitute the core of Christianity's answer for, at the very least, how one copes with DH. Admittedly, it does not answer why DH occurs.

Nonetheless, the fact that Christianity recognizes DH, so much so that Christ himself experienced it, speaks to the faith's resilience against this "powerful new argument" for atheism. Apparently, it's not all that powerful (nor all that new).

4. The grand promise of Christian eschatology is the abolishment of DH in glorification for eternity. Ultimately, this is Christianity's answer for DH – it exists, but it will not last forever. While this may not satisfy an atheist now, according to Christian theism God is under no obligation to confirm his act and character to meet our felt needs in such a relationship.

He can offer a solution at he leisure and according to his divine will and purpose. Christianity, it seems, sides with this explanation.

Final Thoughts

I look forward to reading Schellenberg's  The Hiddenness Argument, specifically to learn what makes it "new," at least according to OUP. Yet, as a Christian theist, I currently fail to see how this is a "powerful" argument for atheism.

Christianity has proved incredibly resilient to DH. It has readily acknowledged DH (Psalmists, Job, Christ), provided a method for coping with DH (scripture), and offers a solution for DH in its eschatology.

Thus, the Christian answer to the question, "If God is omnipresent and all-loving, how can he also be 'hidden?'" is simple. God isn't distant from us; rather, because of sin, we are distant from him.

Praise be to God that the Lord Jesus Christ is our way to eliminate that distance forever.