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What Divine Hiddenness Reveals, or How Weak Theistic Evidence is Strong Atheistic Proof


John Schellenberg

I start with a disclaimer. To be persuaded by my argument, readers need not first accept that the previous arguments of the debate have left us with a draw, with both sides–theism and atheism–about equally well (or ill) supported. Given the banner of ‘faith and uncertainty’ that flies over the present section of this debate, one might be forgiven for having supposed otherwise. However, the point about evidence relevant to theism on which I will depend is not that the arguments it generates on one side can all be matched by arguments on the other side, but rather that whatever the objective force of the arguments, they leave room for nonresistant nonbelief in relation to the claim that God exists–the claim that the ultimate reality is an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good and loving creator of the universe. (That such is the case is what each of the terms ‘divine hiddenness’ and ‘weak theistic evidence’ should in this essay be seen as pointing to.) Nonresistant nonbelief clearly can occur even if previous arguments of this debate leave the evidence objectively tilting towards theism. What is more, it may itself function as powerful evidence pushing things decisively back the other way or, if the evidence tilts towards atheism, a good deal further in that direction. Now of course, perhaps my readers will include individuals who do upon reflection feel that previous arguments have shown nothing, finding themselves just as undecided about God’s existence as when the debate began. If you fit this description, then the message for you is that your very condition of reflective uncertainty is connected to another argument you ought to consider, which you may well find more convincing!


But what exactly is this ‘nonresistant nonbelief’ to which I have referred, and why should we suppose that it exists? The basic idea here is the following: that there are in the actual world persons who do not believe that there is a God, and that in at least some of these people the absence of theistic belief is not in any way the result of their own emotional or behavioral opposition towards God or relationship with God or any of the apparent implications of such a relationship.[1]

This claim is not hard to substantiate, and is not itself resisted by many. As support, consider those who have always believed in God and who would love to go on believing in God but who have found, as adults, that serious and honest examination of all the evidence of experience and argument they can lay their hands on has unexpectedly had the result of eroding their belief away. These are individuals who were happy and morally committed believers, and who remain morally committed but are no longer happy because of the emotional effects of an intellectual reorganization involving the removal of theistic belief. Perhaps they will be happy again, but the point is that for the time being, it is the removal of theistic belief that they are inclined to resist, if anything.[2] For they were still on friendly terms with God and benefiting in a variety of ways from what they took to be contact with God when their belief in the existence of such a being was whisked away. (Since by ‘belief’ I understand an involuntary tendency to see the world a certain way–a ‘seeing’ that involves being passively represented to instead of actively representing the world to oneself by imagining or picturing it a certain way–what we are talking about here is something that can be ‘whisked away’ when the evidence no longer seems to support it.[3])

Perhaps even more convincing support for the existence of nonresistant nonbelief is provided by all those–both at the present time and throughout the past–for whom theistic belief has never been a live option. In some such individuals, quite other beliefs, supported by authority or tradition or experience, have held sway instead of theism. In others, the basic conceptual conditions of so much as entertaining the idea of a being separate from the physical universe who created it, and who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good and loving in relation to it, have never been satisfied.

Given these different forms of support, it would take something like willful blindness to fail to affirm that not all nonbelief is the product of willful blindness (even if some of it is). Being a generous sort, I will assume that none of my readers is willfully blind and accordingly take it as having been established to everyone’s satisfaction that there is nonresistant nonbelief.


So where can we go from there? Well, an argument can be developed for supposing that nonresistant nonbelief would not exist if there were a God. Let me set out the argument as clearly as possible, and then we can discuss its nature and its force.

  1. If there is a perfectly loving God, all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God are in a position to participate in such relationships–i.e., able to do so just by trying to.
  1. No one can be in a position to participate in such relationships without believing that God exists.
  1. If there is a perfectly loving God, all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God believe that God exists (from 1 and 2).
  1. It is not the case that all creatures capable of explicit and positively meaningful relationship with God who have not freely shut themselves off from God believe that God exists: there is nonresistant nonbelief; God is hidden.
  1. It is not the case that there is a perfectly loving God (from 3 and 4).
  1. If God exists, God is perfectly loving.
  1. It is not the case that God exists (from 5 and 6).

This argument has been given a variety of labels in the literature since I first presented it a dozen years ago.[4] Here I will simply call it the hiddenness argument. It is evident that the hiddenness argument commits no error of logic–that is, each of its conclusions (3, 5, and 7) follows deductively from premises before it. Let me now identify a bit more fully and informally what those premises say and why we should accept them as true, and thus (given that its conclusions do follow from these premises) why we should accept the hiddenness argument as sound and hence its conclusion that God does not exist as true.

Readers will notice, first of all, a link being forged between perfect divine love and the availability of relationship with God. (Hereafter I will not always explicitly use the words ‘explicit and positively meaningful,’ but remember that they are there!) Some creatures in the world are capable of relationship with God (they have the equipment required to believe that God exists and trust in God and feel God’s presence, for example), and what I am suggesting is that there is something remarkably odd about the idea that, supposing there really is a God whose love is unsurpassably perfect, such creatures should ever be unable to exercise their capacity for relationship with God–at least so long as they have not got themselves into that position through resisting the divine in the manner earlier indicated. What sense can we make of the idea that capable creatures should be open to relationship with a perfectly loving God, not resisting it at all, perhaps even longing for it, and yet not in a place where they can have such a relationship, if there really is a perfectly loving God? I suggest that if we look carefully at the matter, we will not be able to make any sense of that at all. A perfectly loving God–if those words mean anything–would, like the best human lover, ensure that meaningful contact with herself was always possible for those she loved.

Notice how our everyday use of the language of love pushes us in this direction. The perfectly loving mother or husband or brother or friend will see to it that nothing he or she does ever puts relationship out of reach for the loved one. That is just part of love. A perfectly loving human being might, to be sure, occasionally stand to one side and let the loved one take some responsibility for the relationship’s development, and would want to avoid suffocating the loved one with attention, and now and then might even withdraw for a time to make a point. But it is important to notice that these are important moments within a love relationship. We might also reluctantly accept the fact that our loved one is (at least for the moment) unwilling to participate in relationship or has deliberately taken steps that (at least until his attitudes change) put it out of reach for him, respecting his decision. But insofar as we are truly loving parents or spouses or siblings or friends, we will never take such steps ourselves, and thus, if the object of our love takes no such steps, he will always (insofar as we are able to ensure it) be in a position to interact with us. As we might also put it, the possibility of some form of meaningful contact will always be there for him. Surely this is overwhelmingly plausible. What loving mother or husband or brother or friend would ever, for any length of time, allow this possibility to be taken completely away, if he or she could help it? And to this we must surely add, given that God’s love for us would have to be far more unremitting and indefectible than the best human love (and given that ‘if she can help it’ has no application to the divine): What perfectly loving God would ever allow this possibility to be taken completely away?

Now perhaps many of us are not accustomed to thinking of God this way due to features of our environment and of the religious teaching to which we have been exposed, all of which make it easy for us to go along with the idea of a God who is more detached and aloof. There are indeed many factors which may cause us to underestimate the force of love-based arguments like the one I have given. We have, for example, a tendency to think of God as male and father, and of males and fathers as forgivably distant. Perhaps more important, we have been influenced by the many attempts of theology to make God fit the actual world. Theology starts off by accepting that God exists and so has to make God fit the world: in a way, that is its job. But our job as philosophers, faced with the present topic, is to fight free from the distractions of local and historical contingency, to let the voice of authority grow dim in our ears, and to think for ourselves about what a truly ultimate reality that was fully personal and really was perfectly loving would be like. And I am suggesting that if we do so, a somewhat different picture of God from the one we are used to will emerge. When we think about the idea of God, we cannot assume that probably God’s nature is in accord with what the actual world is like, and so we cannot take as our guide a picture of God fashioned by theology over the centuries on that assumption. We must be open to the possibility that the world would be completely different if there were a God. For the properties we ascribe to God have implications, and these place constraints on what the world could be like if there were a being with those properties. If we recognize all this, perhaps what I have said about divine love and the availability of relationship, though quite foreign to the actual world, will come to seem perfectly natural and appropriate to us.

So much for a clarification and initial defense of premise 1 of the hiddenness argument. (Notice that if what I have said about it is right, then it expresses a conceptual truth about divine love and thus is necessarily true.) That first premise is the critical one. If you accept it, you will find it easy to go the rest of the way with the argument. For the belief that God exists is obviously and necessarily one of the aforementioned conditions of being in a position to exercise one’s capacity for relationship with God–how can I hear God speak to me or consciously experience divine forgiveness and support or feel grateful to God or experience God’s loving presence and respond to it in love and obedience and worship if I do not believe that there is a God? That gets us premise 2. And because belief is one of those conditions and because God in willing a certain state must obviously will all of its conditions, we may quickly infer from 1 and 2 the further claim (3) that, if there is a perfectly loving God, creatures capable of relationship with God who do not resist God will always be in possession of such belief. The presence of God will be for them like a light that–however much the degree of its brightness may fluctuate–remains on unless they close their eyes. But just by looking around us with our eyes open, we can see that this state of affairs does not obtain. As noted earlier, there is plenty of nonbelief in the world that does not reflect free resistance of God. Much nonbelief, as we have put it, is nonresistant nonbelief. So we have the additional premise, 4. But from 3 and 4 it clearly follows (5) that no perfectly loving God exists. Now it is surely a necessary truth that if God exists, God is perfectly loving. How could a personal being of the sort worshipped by Western theists be unsurpassably great, as the Western God is said to be, without unsurpassable love? That point gives us 6, another premise. But by 5 and 6 we are clearly led–at 7–to the final conclusion of the argument: God does not exist. What careful reasoning and consideration of the heart and soul of love combine to show is that nonresistant nonbelief itself provides a basis for drawing a conclusion in the debate over whether God exists in the actual world, and that conclusion is atheism.


So how forceful is this argument? In particular, does it have the resources to meet and defeat objections? Let us first set aside some misguided attempts to defeat the argument.

There is, for example, a failed attempt to make a connection between the hiddenness argument and the problem of evil. The suggestion here is that, since the problematic nature of divine hiddenness consists in the suffering that uncertainty or the loss of theistic belief may sometimes involve, and since there are far worse forms of suffering than that, which discussion of the problem of evil has shown can be handled by theists, the so-called problem of hiddenness may safely be ignored. I hope it will be obvious that this approach is misguided. For one thing, as suggested above, there are plenty of types of nonresistant nonbelief that do not involve regretted doubt or loss of belief and so cannot be linked to suffering in the manner imagined by the objection. But more fundamentally, it is not the anguish of doubt and the empathy of God that, in the first instance, should lead us to wonder why there are nonresistant doubters. It is rather the natural inclination of any loving parent (and so of any loving Parent) to make relationship with herself possible for her children–for their sake, certainly, but also for its own sake, and even where there would be no pain and suffering if it were not made available. The Divine Parent’s motivation to make divine-human relationship possible therefore includes much more than do the motives to which we appeal when we argue, if we do, that God would prevent pain and suffering.[5]

Other misguided moves may be dispatched more summarily. It has been said that a God shouldn’t be expected to entertain us with spectacular cosmic performances or overwhelm us with miracles. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how nonresistant nonbelief in its various forms might be prevented through–for example–the provision of more subtle and interesting forms of evidence, such as religious experiences whose character and force are modulated according to our intellectual and moral needs. It has also been said that God would not force us into relationship or coerce our love. But a close look at the argument shows that I have not suggested that God would bring us into divine-human relationship, only that God would put in place the conditions necessary for us to be able to bring ourselves into such relationship, if we so choose. Another criticism we may immediately reject is one claiming that a relationship with God of some unnoticed or implicit kind is perfectly possible without explicit theistic belief: this simply overlooks that I have been talking about explicit, reciprocal relationship, or else presupposes rather than proves that a perfectly loving God would be content with a more distant and ‘second best’ mode of relating. Yet another point that would miss the boat makes the question-begging judgment that a God might for all we know be distant, thus ignoring what I have had to say about the nature of love, which if forceful entails the falsity of that judgment, and ignoring as well all the factors in our culture that would conspire to make such a judgment tempting even if (as I have argued) it has no plausibility. Setting all such shortsighted objections aside, what are we left with in the way of objections to my argument, and can they be convincingly answered?

The objections worth taking more seriously all have this in common: they refer to some reason God might have–some great good God might seek to realize–in virtue of which God might possibly permit nonresistant nonbelief for some or all of some individual’s earthly career, despite the divine motivation to make divine-human relationship at all times available to individuals. Now various goods we know of might be enumerated and discussed in dealing with this objection–such goods, for example, as moral freedom, serious responsibility (both intellectual and nonintellectual), the cultivation of character, a choice of destiny, cooperation with others, spiritually efficacious revelation of moral/spiritual deficiencies, nurturance of a deeper spiritual maturity, and occasions for meaningful investigation and intellectual debate. But discussing all the issues that arise in connection with such goods would obviously take a great deal of time. Fortunately, there is a way around that. First, let’s notice that if the most fundamental spiritual reality is a personal God, then all serious spiritual development must begin in what I have emphasized–namely, a personal relationship with God. Second, such relationship with an infinitely rich personal reality would have to be the greatest good any human being could possibly experience, if God exists. But then why this talk of some other good, for the sake of which God would sacrifice such relationship?

Perhaps it will be replied that God only sacrifices some time in the relationship, not the whole relationship, and that what is gained thereby may contribute to the flourishing of a future relationship with God. But it is hard to see how someone who is not resisting God, perhaps even seeking God, could possibly be in a state such that the belief that God exists would inhibit or prevent the success of the relationship in the long term, as this point requires. Indeed, such an individual would seem to be in just the right position in this respect–certainly their state is no less appropriate to relationship with God than that of many who would be declared by theists to be enjoying it already.

Consider also, in this connection, the infinite resourcefulness of God, and again–but in a slightly different way–the infinite depth and richness of God. If God indeed possesses these attributes, then there must at any point in time after the commencement of relationship with God be literally an infinite number of ways of developing in relationship with God and experiencing wonderful new goods. Given the richness and multileveled nature of any personal relationship with God, there must always be more to discover and overcome. Indeed, at virtually any stage along the way, there would be new opportunities for the exercise of moral freedom and responsibility, the cultivation of character, choices affecting one’s destiny, cooperation with others, and meaningful investigation and intellectual development, not to mention the need for awareness of one’s moral/spiritual deficiencies and for the nurturance of a deeper spiritual maturity! In light of this fact, it seems extremely odd that anyone should think it possible that, on account of reasons of the sort we see in this list, some creature should be prevented by God from so much as seriously beginning the spiritual journey. And yet this is what the defenders of divine distance must make intelligible to us!

One particular form the exercise of God’s resourcefulness might take may be highlighted here. Strange as it may seem, there is an important form of ‘hiddenness’ that is quite compatible with–and indeed requires–a situation in which God is revealed to everyone. To see this, suppose that God exists, and that there are no nonresistant nonbelievers. Indeed, go further and suppose that every capable creature responds to her belief by entering into personal relationship with God, ‘conversing’ with God in prayer, feeling God’s presence, living her whole life in the context of divine-human communion. (Notice that we need not suppose that these ‘capable creatures’ include the human beings who actually exist: there is no reason to suppose that a God would antecedently find our existence preferable to the existence of any of an infinite number of collections of other creatures.) Suppose also that some of these creatures subsequently lapse into some inappropriate state–say, arrogance or presumption–or more generally that one or other of the goods that have been mentioned as providing reasons for divine hiddenness becomes a divine desideratum in relation to them. What can God do? Well, there is still the possibility of a sort of divine withdrawal within relationship. What I have in mind here is analogous to what has traditionally been called ‘the dark night of the soul’–a state in which there is evidence for God’s existence on which the believer may rely, but in which God is not felt as directly present to her experience, and may indeed feel absent. While not removing the conditions of relationship, such a ‘withdrawal’ would severely test the believer’s faith, and clearly would provide an occasion for the realization of any goods (if such there be) that are easier to acquire given withdrawal. In other words, it would be capable of accomplishing everything that theists sometimes say the other sort of hiddenness is designed to do! But if this sort of hiddenness can produce the goods in question and is compatible with God having been revealed to the nonresistant, what possible reason could we have for insisting that God would leave anyone in doubt and nonbelief in order to further those goods?

Look at it this way. The choice we face here is basically between (i) a picture in which the self-revelation of God is basic–God’s existence is beyond nonresistant nonbelief–and God withdraws if and when such withdrawal is needed to facilitate hiddenness-related goods but without ever removing the possibility of relationship with God, and (ii) a picture in which withdrawal is basic–God’s existence is not beyond nonresistant nonbelief–and God is selectively revealed to some individuals or to none at all, leaving many in a position where they are unable to enter into relationship with God, even if they should earnestly wish to do so. To which picture should we be drawn, intellectually speaking, in light of the divine bias toward relationship that anyone aware of the nature of divine love must acknowledge, and also the divine resourcefulness? If you were thinking about some other possible world in a manner uninfluenced by religious tradition, and were handed the description of the being we have been talking about (all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good, perfectly loving) as well as the two pictures, and asked which picture best represents what that world would include should the being in question exist in it, which picture would you choose? Obviously it is (i). Surely this is, in light of all we know about love and the greatness of any God there may be, a more adequate picture than one in which a personal God is presented to us as not naturally loving in the first place–too much of a ‘distant father’ to relate easily with children–or as suspicious and controlling or insufficiently equipped to satisfy both the impulse to make relationship possible and the desire to nurture the growth and flourishing of creatures. Indeed, the second picture has nothing going for it at all. But if so, then we must also conclude that objections to the hiddenness argument, requiring as they do a different answer, are unsuccessful, and that the weak theistic evidence of the actual world is indeed strong atheistic proof.[6]

Continue the Debate


[1] In previous writing I have spoken of reasonable or inculpable nonbelief, nonbelief that arises through no fault of one’s own, construing this as representing a sufficient condition of nonresistant nonbelief whose occurrence is fairly easy to establish. But as I have been (mis)understood to suggest that a general inculpability is not just sufficient but necessary for a situation in which God would–according to the argument of section II–be revealed to someone, I here speak otherwise.

[2] Notice that I am not introducing the unhappiness of these individuals as evidence that something bad has occurred (which might be turned into a variant of the argument from evil–more on this below), but only as evidence that they are not resisting God or belief in God.

[3] For much more on ‘belief,’ ‘faith,’ ‘skepticism’ and other such fundamentals, see my Prolegomena to a Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).

[4] See my Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).

[5] Perhaps the suggestion will instead be that the hiddenness argument is reducible to the argument from evil because the former, like the latter, is arguing from things bad. But even if in some sense the hiddenness argument can be said to be arguing from what is bad (and this is questionable), to say because of this that the hiddenness argument is reducible to the argument from evil would be like saying that because the theistic teleological argument, like the cosmological argument, argues from things contingent, the teleological argument is reducible to the cosmological argument; or that because the argument for God’s existence from religious experience, like the argument from miracles, is concerned with apparent terrestrial manifestations of Divine action, the argument from religious experience is reducible to the argument from miracles. Such claims are manifestly unconvincing, and so–for the same reason–is the reductionist claim about the relation between the hiddenness argument and the argument from evil. Whatever one’s view of the latter, the former will require independent consideration.

[6] The phrase ‘strong atheistic proof’ could give rise to endless discussion involving considerations of logic and epistemology and the philosophy of language. My use of it here should be understood by reference to the following. As I see it, atheists may appropriately use the hiddenness argument in defense of their own reasonableness as atheists, and they may also appropriately use it to convince others (whether wavering agnostics or previously convinced believers of one stripe or another–e.g., evangelical Christians), with some expectation of success where those others engage it responsibly, fulfilling all intellectual duties and contravening no relevant virtue. For if, as I have argued, the argument must be found in itself convincing, then one could reasonably be prevented from embracing atheism on its account only by some apparently equally strong and convincing evidence on the side of theism (even then agnosticism would be the rational result). And given that we are talking about a deductive argument here, ‘apparently equally strong and convincing evidence on the side of theism’ is a tall order indeed, one that not many responsible agnostics and theists will be in a position to fill.

There is also another level–I only have space to mention it–at which we might understand my use of that phrase ‘strong atheistic proof.’ For we might think of the hiddenness argument as a contribution to the perennial debate over theism (of which this Internet discussion is a part) that might conceivably lead to a consensus as to the falsity of theism and the truth of atheism among investigators who are seeking to establish the objective state of the evidence and the objective status of theism and atheism. In that context, one of the investigators–myself–is putting forward an argument, having experienced it as strong atheistic proof in the sense of the previous paragraph, and advertising it as ‘strong atheistic proof’ to his fellow investigators, seeking thereby to stimulate discussion and perhaps move things further in the direction of some consensus of the aforementioned kind. If that consensus came to be, and if it came to be because of the hiddenness argument, then of course we would be able to use the phrase ‘strong atheistic proof’ in yet another way, perhaps the strongest way of all! I am certainly not claiming that it can appropriately be used in that way now, but I do think it is appropriately used in the other two ways I have mentioned.

Copyright ©2008 John Schellenberg. The electronic version is copyright ©2008 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of John Schellenberg. All rights reserved.

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