The argument from divine hiddenness is perhaps the second most commonly used and most powerful argument against the existence of God. One form of the argument appeals so so called “non-resistant” non believers, i.e. people who lack a belief in God not due to self deception and often in spite of honest search. An example of this argument can be found on the Real Atheology youtube channel here. A typical argument might go as follows:
- If an all loving God existed, he would want to bring all creatures into loving relationship with himself.
- Believing in God is a necessary condition for being in a loving relationship with God.
- Thus, if an all loving God existed, he would want all creatures to believe in him.
- If the creature were open to believing in God and God wanted the creature to believe in him, the creature would believe in him.
- Thus, if an all loving God existed and there were creatures open to believing in God, then such creatures would believe in him.
- But there are creatures open to believing in God who do not believe in God.
- So an all loving God does not exist.
Seems reasonable enough. However, as I will argue in this essay, once one considers God’s middle knowledge, God’s mercy, and God’s justice, it is plausible to think that 3) is either false or needs to be qualified. That is to say, there are reasons why God would prefer a creature be an atheist than be a theist. If so, then the Christian apologist has at least one explanation for the existence of some non-resistant non believers.
Keeping the Goal in Mind
As the above listed argument noted first, God’s desire is to bring all creatures into a loving relationship with himself. This is important to keep in mind as sometimes in discussions of divine hiddenness, the goal is set at mere belief in God rather than true relationship. It seems, at least on the surface to be rather implausible that an all powerful God could not convince seemingly open minded non believers to at least believe that he exists. We can grant this point. We can also assume for the sake of this discussion that belief in God is a necessary condition for relationship with him (premise 2 above).
As a brief aside, Joe Schmid, an agnostic young philosopher, has noted some interesting counterexamples to this premise e.g. the existence of a loving relationship between a mother and the child in her womb despite the latter not recognizing the former’s existence. We will leave aside any discussion of such examples and simply assume that in general, to come into loving relationship with God requires belief that he exists.
The important point here is that someone can belief that God exists without coming into relationship with him. This has major implications for whether God would want them to believe in him or not. Let us turn our attention then to premise three of the argument and see why considerations of mercy, justice and middle knowledge might cast doubt on the premise at least as it is used in the argument.
It is a clear principle of Scripture that God judges people fairly. More specifically, God judges people on the basis of the revelation they have received. Jesus gives a clear instance of this teaching when he rebukes the city of Capernaum in Matthew 11 when he says,
Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.Matt 12:38-42
Jesus warns the people of Pharisees that because they have received greater revelation from God than the people in Nineveh or the Queen of Sheba, their judgement will be more severe. Let us then apply this principle to a present day hypothetical non believer.
Non-Resistant Non Believer Scenario
Let us consider Adam, a non believer through no fault of his own but nevertheless who lives a life far from God’s law and thus receives his just reward at the end of his life. Wouldn’t it have been better if Adam had believed in God? Perhaps…but perhaps not.
Suppose that God chose to give Adam greater evidence for his existence such that Adam came to believe that God existed. Suppose further that despite knowledge of God and perhaps basic knowledge of God’s commandments, that Adam lived the same kind of life as I described above. In this case, God’s judgement on the believer Adam would be more sever than on the non believer Adam per the principle that God judges those in accord with the revelation they have received. If then God has middle knowledge he might be presented with the following scenarios:
- Create Adam and leave him as an atheist and sin and receive judgement
- Create Adam and lead him to believe but nevertheless sin and receive judgement
Since in neither scenario does Adam come into loving relationship with God, 1) would seem to be the better since the judgement in 1) is less severe than the judgement in 2. Thus, if God is all merciful as Christians, hold, God would plausibly prefer 1 to 2. Thus, on account of God’s mercy, plausibly, there are non-resistant non believers. Let’s sum up this reasoning into a more formal argument.
- God has middle knowledge i.e. knowledge logically prior to his decree to create the world of what free creatures would do if placed in various circumstances
- There exist persons who if presented with more evidence of God’s existence who would come to believe that he existed but not enter into loving relationship with him
- People are judged in accord with the revelation they have received. A person who knows of God and knows of his law and who breaks it is liable to greater judgement than one who is ignorant.
- Thus, if a person who described in 2) were given more evidence of God, they would be liable to a greater punishment than if they weren’t given such evidence (3).
- If God is all merciful, he would, all else being equal, desire to punish a creature less
- From 1) and 4), God knows that the non resistant non believer would be punished more if he were given more evidence of God’s existence than he would be otherwise.
- From 5) and 6) God would then not give them evidence of his existence.
Our conclusion here contradicts or at least requires premise 3 of the original argument to be revised. It is not universally true that God would always prefer the non-resistant non believer to come to belief. Rather, because of his mercy, God might prefer in some instances to allow the person to live in ignorance for their own sake. While God wants the person to come into relationship with him, God knows that even if they believed that he existed, they would fail to do so. Thus, on account of his mercy, he leaves them in unbelief.
Much more could be said about divine hiddenness, non-resistant non belief and how God sovereignly works to bring about salvation. Nevertheless, I think I have shown here a plausible scenario in which God, in virtue of his mercy, would prefer the existence of a non-resistant non believer to a believer. If the reasoning above is correct, this helps to diffuse this type of divine hiddenness argument.