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The Hiddenness of God: Notes on Schellenberg and Drange

Humorist Leo Rosten once posed a hypothetical question to agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Let us suppose, sir, that after you have left this sorry vale, you actually found yourself in heaven … [and] before your very eyes was God. What would you say?” To which Russell replied: “I would probably ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?'”[1]

According to Russell’s view, then, there is not sufficient evidence to infer the existence of God. But might we not infer a stronger conclusion—to wit, that this insufficiency of evidence actually implies the nonexistence of God? Those who press the problem of the hiddenness of God assert just that.

In this brief essay, I’ll focus on an argument that purports to show that God’s “hiddenness”—i.e., the fact that God’s existence is not obvious—is inconsistent with God’s existence. First, I’ll recount J. L. Schellenberg‘s hiddenness argument (discussed in his book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason[2]). Then, I’ll recount and evaluate objections that Theodore M. Drange offers to this argument in his Secular Web essay “Nonbelief as Support for Atheism.”[3] This prompts me to offer a revised version of the hiddenness argument that incorporates Drange’s constructive criticisms. I conclude with some further speculation on the hiddenness of God problem(s).

I. Schellenberg’s Argument and Drange’s Critique

At issue is Schellenberg’s hiddenness argument (HA):

(HA1) If God exists, then He’s perfectly loving.
(HA2) If a perfectly loving God exists, then reasonable nonbelief does not occur.
(HA3) Reasonable nonbelief does occur.

From these premises, it immediately follows (from the last two premises and modus tollens) that:

(HA4) A perfectly loving God does not exist,

and thus, by premises (HA1) and (HA4) and modus tollens again, one concludes:

(HA5) God does not exist.

Now, Drange’s critique is three-fold:

  1. First, he avers that Schellenberg’s opening premise is false, since “there are theists who do not view God as perfectly loving.” It’s difficult to fault Drange’s objection—after all, the generic name “God” might refer to solely a Creator-deity (à la Enlightenment deist Benjamin Franklin[4]). Hence Drange’s constructive suggestion that Schellenberg’s first premise requires, in its antecedent, the assumption of “some specific deity (e.g., the God of evangelical Christianity) rather than God in general.”
  2. Likewise for Drange’s objection to (HA)’s second premise: “There is nothing in the concept of love itself that would warrant the inference” that such a loving deity would necessarily reveal his existence to a disbeliever. After all, as Drange points out, there’s no contradiction in the concept of “loving from afar.” In order to move from antecedent to consequent in premise (HA2), Drange notes, we need to go “beyond the concept of divine love, perhaps making an appeal to Scripture or some additional properties of God.”

    Drange’s suggestion seems a constructive one. If we restrict our attention (as he suggests) to the God of “evangelical Christianity,” then it’s easy to find such “additional properties”—the properties of omnipotence and omniscience, for starters, and the more specific property that God wants a relationship with all people (conducive to their salvation). Such a property is made explicit by Christian scripture: “I exhort … that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men,” urges one Pauline epistle, “[f]or this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour … who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1,3-4 KJV [emphasis added]). Other properties, cited by both Schellenberg and Drange, include (respectively): (a) God’s desire of a personal relationship with his human creations (which clearly requires that such creations believe that God exists)[5] and (b) that God desires that his human creations love him—a desire that is made biblically explicit in the book of Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (6:5).
  3. Drange offers another suggestion regarding the appearance of the adjective “reasonable” in the second and third premises. In Drange’s view, this qualification is unnecessary, for even if a person’s nonbelief were “unreasonable” (based, say, on ad hominem prejudice against Christians), Drange wonders why a loving God wouldn’t “set vindictiveness aside and still want to help nonbelievers … by supplying them with evidence of His existence … [such as] some spectacular miracle, or … a religious experience.” For the record, I’m sympathetic to Drange’s suggestion here—the (generous) forgiveness such a deity would be granting even “undeserving” nonbelievers is reminiscent of the (generous) forgiveness we find in the famous parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

Would a loving God forgive “unreasonable” nonbelief? While I’m inclined to agree that he would, I’d like to table this matter in the present debate. After all, if Drange is correct, Schellenberg’s argument is still sound—it’s just weaker than it could be.[6] And even if Drange is incorrect, Schellenberg’s argument can still be sound. So the soundness of Schellenberg’s argument doesn’t require us to take a position on Drange’s suggestion.

In addition, I can’t help but offer a semantic quibble: what are the necessary and sufficient conditions of reasonable belief (as opposed to nonreasonable belief)? In the interest of clarification, I would suggest that “reasonable” belief amounts to a well-established ordinary concept: the concept of intellectual honesty. Specifically, we might distinguish between:

  • intellectually honest nonbelief in God, i.e., nonbelief that is the result of an intellectually honest inquiry, obeying (what we might call) principles of epistemic virtue—open-mindedness, a desire to discover the truth, etc.[7]


  • intellectually dishonest nonbelief in God, i.e., nonbelief that is engendered solely by emotion (e.g., rebellion against the idea of God), or that brazenly takes epistemic shortcuts to its conclusion—employing wishful thinking, ad hominem, or other fallacies.

The foregoing trio of qualifications, I suggest, strengthens Schellenberg’s original argument. In light of points (A) and (B) above, the revised hiddenness argument’s (RHA’s) first premise becomes:

(RHA1) If the God of evangelical Christianity exists, then He’s perfectly loving, omnipotent, and has a strong desire that people have a (“saving” and/or “loving”) relationship with him.

Further, in light of points (B) and (C), replace Schellenberg’s second premise with the following:

(RHA2) If such a God existed, then there would be no intellectually honest unbelievers of God’s existence.[8]

But, alas, it doesn’t take much inquiry to discover the following:

(RHA3) There are intellectually honest unbelievers in God’s existence.

From this it follows that the God of evangelical Christianity does not exist. Q.E.D.

II. Further Facets of the Hiddenness of God

One way of understanding the hiddenness of God problem is that, for many of us, nothing in our experience—our worldly experience, our psychological experience—cries out for theistic explanation. As philosopher David Hume pointed out long ago, anthropological accounts of miracles need not be accepted at face value; they are (at least) as plausibly explained by the excess of human credulity in the face of fantastic stories.[9] Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman points out, too, that Gospel accounts of the Resurrection need not be taken at face value; they are (at least) as plausibly explained by embellishments made in the decades of oral tradition that preceded the Gospels being written down.[10] And as contemporary psychology posits, feelings of existential forlornness are (at least) as plausibly explained by natural disruptions of a person’s human relationships (and/or their serotonin levels), rather than estrangement from a supernatural deity.[11] In sum, if there had existed a Judeo-Christian God eager for the salvation of human beings, well… wouldn’t that omnipresent Creator and redeemer’s fingerprints on creation and our hearts be more conspicuous and unequivocal?

Perhaps, then, it’s more apt to speak of the problems of the hiddenness of God (in the plural), for there are a host of aspects in which divine absence is surprising and befuddling. In that spirit, I suggest two further bits of speculation that spring from aspects of divine hiddenness:

(A) Anselm’s Argument: “The fool in his heart says there is not God,” reads the well-known verse from the Psalms (14:1; see also 53:1).[12] Intriguingly, medieval philosopher Saint Anselm understood this verse literally: “Why,” he asked, “has the fool said in his heart, there is no God…, since it is so evident, to a rational mind, that you do exist in the highest degree of all? Why, except that he is dull and a fool?”[13] We can put this proposition in compact premise form:

(Ans1) If the Judeo-Christian God exists, then there’s a sound argument for his existence that only a fool (dullard) would deny is sound.

And, being a traditional theist, Anselm also believed:

(Ans2) The Judeo-Christian God exists.

From this, by modus ponens, we get the Anselmian corollary:

(Ans3) There’s a sound argument for God’s existence that only a fool (dullard) would deny is sound.

Now what, pray tell, would such an argument look like? In light of the centuries of dispute occasioned by the cosmological (“first cause”) argument and the teleological (“design”) argument, it’s unsurprising that Anselm bypassed these routes and sought a novel form of argument. Instead of relying upon abstruse notions of causation, eternity, infinity, and cosmic design, Anselm cleverly sought proof of God’s existence in the most immediate place—believing that the proof of God was hiding “in plain sight,” as it were—in the very idea of God. “[W]e believe,” he writes:

that [God is] a being than which nothing greater can be conceived. Or is there no such nature, since the fool has said in his heart, there is no God?… But, at any rate, this very fool, when he hears of this being of which I speak—a being than which nothing greater can be conceived—understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding…. And assuredly that than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater. Therefore, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality [emphasis mine].[14]

Now Anselm deserves praise for the innovation and elegance of this “ontological” argument. Yet, paradoxically, while he aimed to frame an undeniable proof of God’s existence, Anselm’s argument is notorious for the fact that practically no one grants its soundness! (As for why such an objectionable argument has such staying power in the annals of philosophy, this seems to derive from the fact that everyone rejects it—but disagrees about the reason(s) for rejecting it.[15]) But the fact stands: once scrutinized, we find nonfoolish reasons for rejecting the soundness of Anselm’s argument.[16] And, more generally, after millennia of philosophical and theological effort, it seems safe to conclude that no such obviously sound argument exists. (It would be quite paradoxical to claim that the soundness of the proof that makes God’s existence obvious is, itself, unobvious!) Or, to put the point compactly, we have the negation of premise (Ans3):

~(Ans3) There’s no sound argument for God’s existence that only a fool (dullard) would deny is sound.

But when we couple this with premise (Ans1), we deductively conclude:

~(Ans2) The Judeo-Christian God does not exist.

Anselm’s modus ponens [(Ans1), (Ans2) | ∴ (Ans3)] has fallen in the wake of a more forceful modus tollens [(Ans1), ~(Ans3) | ∴ ~(Ans2)]—an argument that infers God’s nonexistence from his hiddenness (nonobviousness).

(B) Psychological Hiddenness: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord,” wrote Saint Augustine in his Confessions, “and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Now, who does Augustine’s pronoun “our” refer to? Presumably, Augustine meant everyone. After all, suppose God created human beings, consistent with the Christian plan of desiring a (“saving”) relationship with everyone.[17] Then it stands to reason that human beings would feel incomplete or unsatisfied (or “restless,” in Augustine’s wording) if they lacked a relationship with the Christian Creator-God[18] Or, put more briefly:

(Psy1) If the Judeo-Christian God exists, then all unbelievers would feel “restless” (dissatisfied with life).

But even a cursory survey of actual human psychology fails to unearth such existential dissatisfaction as a universal pathology among non-Christians. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, for instance, has devoted a his rich career to scrutinizing the lived experiences of apostates[19], secularists[20], and post-Christian Scandinavian societies.[21] He concludes that secularism is consistent with a rich satisfaction with life—that fulfillment emerges, not necessarily from a relationship with God, but with our bonds with people:

Community is more important than faith. Belonging is more important than belief. Gathering is more important than God. As the similar findings of American social psychologists Jesse Graham and Jonathan Haidt have confirmed, bonding with other humans is the driving engine of increased charity and generosity, not believing in a deity.[22]

All of this strongly evidences the following premise:

(Psy2) Some nonbelievers don’t feel “restless” (dissatisfied) with life.

But the foregoing two premises entail (by modus tollens again) that

(Psy3) The Judeo-Christian God does not exist.

Once again, we’ve inferred some divine fingerprints that we’d expect if the Judeo-Christian God existed (in (Psy1)), observed that these fingerprints are absent (in (Psy2)), and thus concluded that the best explanation for the absence of these fingerprints is that (contrary to the popular song) God doesn’t “have the whole world in his hands.”

III. Conclusion

If the evangelical Christian worldview were true, then we should find unequivocal evidence galore of God’s existence. No intellectually honest inquirer would remain a nonbeliever (according to the Schellenberg–Drange argument); in fact, only a dull fool would fail to infer God’s existence (according to Anselm’s premise, (Ans1)). Moreover, nonbelievers would suffer conspicuous psychological distress caused by their nonbelief—namely, an existential “restlessness,” or dissatisfaction with life (according to Augustine’s premise (Psy1)). Yet none of these corollaries are true—which invites the inference that God does not exist.

But suppose—just suppose—that an unbeliever died and found herself in Heaven, face to face with the Almighty. What then? Well, this brings us full circle: the surprised unbeliever would be well within her rights to take a page from Bertrand Russell and ask: “Ma’am, why did you not give me better evidence?”[23]


[1] Leo Rosten, “Bertrand Russell and God: A Memoir.” The Saturday Review (February 23, 1974): 25-26, p. 26. Kudos to Anthony G. Flood for his detective work in tracking down the original source for this oft-cited Russell anecdote: “‘Why did you not give me better evidence?,’ the atheist would ask God, as though his demand for evidence were not itself evidence.” See Flood, “‘Why Did You not Give Me Better Evidence?,’ the Atheist Would Ask God, as Though his Demand for Evidence were not Itself Evidence” (August 6, 2020). Anthony G. Flood: Helping you Navigate this Dispensation’s Last Days blog. <https://anthonygflood.com/2020/08/why-did-you-not-give-me-better-evidence-the-atheist-would-ask-god-as-though-his-demand-for-evidence-were-not-itself-evidence/>.

[2] J. L. Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993). It’s worth noting that Schellenberg initially presented his argument in the spirit of a “Devil’s advocate.” Specifically, his aim was to show that the inference from God’s nonobviousness to God’s nonexistence is not a spurious argument, but rather an argument deserving of attention—”there is an argument here,” he declares, “an argument of considerable force” (1993, p. 12). From this, it does not follow that Schellenberg actually believes the atheistic conclusion—this “is not an accurate representation of my intent” (1993, p. 12), he writes.

[3] Theodore M. Drange, “Nonbelief as Support for Atheism” (August 1998). The Secular Web. <https://infidels.org/library/modern/theodore-drange-nonbelief/>.

[4] Thomas S. Kidd, “How Benjamin Franklin, a Deist, Became the Founding Father of a Unique Kind of American Faith.” The Washington Post (June 28, 2017). <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/06/28/how-benjamin-franklin-a-deist-became-the-founding-father-of-a-unique-kind-of-american-faith/>.

[5] Schellenberg, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, pp. 18-29.

[6] By “sound argument,” I mean the logician’s familiar meaning of this phrase, that is, a deductively valid argument with all true premises.

[7] “Intellectual honesty combines good faith with a primary motivation toward seeking true beliefs” (Wikiversity, 2022). “Intellectual Honesty” (January 9, 2022). Wikiversity. <https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Intellectual_honesty>.

[8] The logic behind this premise is clear. Use the familiar schema of conditional proof:

Given the antecedent of (RANB2),

(RHA2a) The God of evangelical Christianity exists.

we can infer two premises:

(RHA2a) God wants to make obvious his existence to everyone who honestly inquires into his existence (in light of his desire for a “saving” or “loving” relationship with his human creatures);

(RHA2b) God can make obvious his existence to all who honestly seek him (in light of his omnipotence).

The following proposition is a necessarily true claim about omnipotent agency:

(RHA2c) God does what he wants if he can do it.

Thus, by the foregoing three propositions:

(RHA2d) God does make obvious his existence to all who honestly seek him.

But, clearly, the following is necessarily true:

(RHA2e) If God makes obvious his existence to all who honestly seek him, then there would be no intellectually honest unbelievers of God’s existence.

But the consequent of this last proposition (which follows from the above two premises and modus ponens),

(RHA2f) There are no intellectually honest unbelievers of God’s existence,

is the consequent of (RHA2). Thus, by conditional proof, (RHA2) follows.

[9] David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1777), §10.

[10] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), chapter 5. See also: “The Problem with Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” (January 17, 2013). The Bart Ehrman Blog. <https://ehrmanblog.org/the-problem-with-liar-lunatic-or-lord-for-members>.

[11] For an attempt to incorporate the evangelical Christian God into human psychology, see Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr., Effective Biblical Counseling: A Model for Helping Caring Christians Become Capable Counselors (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977). For my review and critique of this book, see: Timothy Chambers, “Crabb’s Model of Christian Psychology” (September 15, 2020). Timothy Chambers’ Book Reviews blog. <https://timothychambersbookreviews.blogspot.com/2020/09/crabbs-model-of-christian-psychology-by.html>.

[12] Other scripture passages in a similar vein include: Psalms 19:1-3 (“The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, And night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, Where their voice is not heard”) and Romans 1:20-22 (“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools”).

[13] St. Anselm, Proslogium, chapter 3.

[14] Anselm, chapter 2.

[15] For a helpful primer, see: Graham Oppy, “Ontological Arguments” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2019 edn.) ed. E. N. Zalta (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2019). <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2019/entries/ontological-arguments/>. For my own take on the issue, see: “On Behalf of the Devil: A Parody of St. Anselm Revisited.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (New Series), Vol. 100 (2000): 93-113.

[16] For a valiant (if abstract) attempt to “rationally reconstruct” Anselm’s reasoning that “to reject the existence of God lands one in a foolish position [not just a mistaken one],” see R. L. Barnette, “Anselm and the Fool.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion Vol. 6 (1975): 201-218.

[17] “I exhort … that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men,” urges one epistle in the Christian Bible, “[f]or this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour … who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1,3-4 KJV [emphasis added]). Consider also the oft-quoted verse from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”

[18] What might such “restlessness” be like? Perhaps Augustine has in mind a sense later described by Schopenhauer in his essay, “The Vanity of Existence”: “[A] man never is happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something which he thinks will make him so; he seldom attains his goal, and when he does, it is only to be disappointed; he is mostly shipwrecked in the end, and comes into harbour with masts and rigging gone” (Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism: A Series of Essays (London, UK: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1893), p. 35.

[19] Phil Zuckerman, Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[20] Phil Zuckerman, Luke W. Galen, and Frank L. Pasquale, The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[21] Phil Zuckerman, Society without God (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2008).

[22] Phil Zuckerman, What It Means to Be Moral (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2019), chapter 1.

[23] I thank an anonymous referee for helpful critique and suggestions on an earlier draft of this essay.

Copyright ©2022 Timothy Chambers. The electronic version is copyright ©2022 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Timothy Chambers. All rights reserved.

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