While the problem of evil is undoubtedly the most famous argument for atheism, a related argument from divine hiddenness has in recent years also been quite prominent. The argument from divine hiddenness has been articulated by the philosopher J.L. Schellenberg and a number of prominent atheist YouTubers such as Alex O’Connor, Justin Schieber, and others have appealed to his argument to argue against the existence of God. Shellenberg’s argument hinges on the notion of so called “non resistant non believers” i.e. people who are open to belief in God but yet do not believe in him. Below, I will outline the argument in one of its popular forms and examine it in light of the question of universal salvation.
Alex O’Connor in a recent debate put the argument like this
- If God exists he is all loving
- If an all loving God exists non resistant non believers would not exist
- Non resistant non believers do exist
- Therefore, an all loving God does not exist
- Therefore God does not exist
Clearly, premises 2 and 3 are the key ones in this argument. For the sake of this discussion, we can grant the truth of 3) and focus on some reasons why 2) might be false. That is, why an all loving God who wants relationships with his creatures would allow non resistant non believers to exist. We will examine this in light of the question of universalism, i.e. whether or not all human persons will ultimately be saved by God. I believe that framing the discussion around salvation is helpful and try to show that either a positive or negative answer to the question of universalism helps show plausible reasons God would allow for non resistant non belief.
If Universalism is True
Suppose for the sake of argument that universalism is true, that is, all human persons will ultimately come to share eternal life with God and enjoy the beatific vision. If universalism is true, then ultimately, all people do come to know God and come to be in loving relationship with him. Thus, ultimately, there will be no non resistant non believers even though, per our concession, some exist at present. In this case, what is the force of the argument from divine hiddenness? It seems to me that the only way the argument can succeed is if the atheist insists that, for any person who is open to belief in God, God must, at that very instant, bring it about that the person believes in God. If God waited even 5 seconds to make the person a believer, it would contradict his loving nature somehow.
This suggestion seems altogether implausible to me. Surely God in his infinite wisdom has reasons for allowing someone to remain in unbelief for a short time. And since we are considering universalism, all of our temporal lives are, in comparison with eternity, very short. We can plausibly hold that God has reasons for allowing someone to persist in unbelief. It requires little effort come up with at least some reasons. Here is just one possible set of reasons:
Virtually everyone would agree that it is good for people to go through trials and struggles in life and in relationships in particular. Perhaps by allowing us to remain in ignorance of his existence for some time, we are forced to reflect more deeply on our lives and the world more broadly and to seek God more closely than we would have if his existence were more obvious to us. Such a search might develop certain virtues in us like perseverance. It may also make us better evangelists to others who themselves struggle with doubts and disbelief. Even our belief in God might be stronger than it would have been otherwise since we would have gone through a more rigorous searching for him. If even one of these is plausible, the argument from hiddenness has problems.
In summary, if universalism is true, there are ultimately no non resistant non believers. Even if such people exist for a period of time in their mortal lives or all of their mortal lives, this short period where they struggle in the dark can be a means to goods they would not otherwise have experienced. Thus, it seems, if universalism is true, the argument from non resistant non belief has little to no force.
If Universalism is False
Suppose on the contrary that universalism is not true and that at least some or all non believers fail to be saved and spend eternity separated from God. This I believe is an implicit premise in arguments from hiddenness which transforms the argument from divine hiddenness into a specific case of the argument from evil i.e. why would God allow the seeming injustice of allowing non resistant non believers to be separated from him for all eternity?
Obviously much could be said about the Catholic Church’s teaching on salvation regarding non Catholics but we can put that aside for this discussion. Let us just assume for the sake of argument that non resistant non believers cannot be saved and that their non resistant non belief is sufficient for separating them from God for eternity. In this case the stakes for the unbeliever are much higher than in the case of universalism since their ultimate destiny depends upon putting their faith in God. In this case, surely, the atheist might argue, God would instill belief in these non resistant non believers.
Even here, I think the atheist is plausibly wrong. Let us consider John, a non believer who is open to belief in God 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 John had believed in God? Perhaps…but perhaps not.
Suppose that God chose to give John greater evidence for his existence such that John came to believe that God existed. Suppose further that despite knowledge of God and perhaps basic knowledge of God’s commandments, that John lived the same kind of life as I described above. In this case, God’s judgement on the believer John would be more sever than on the non believer John per the principle that God judges those in accord with the revelation they have received. God then might know the following possibilities:
- Create John who as an atheist sins and receives judgement
- Create John who believes that God exists but nevertheless sins and receive a more severe judgement because of increased culpability
Since in neither scenario does John 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.
It is helpful to examine the argument from divine hiddenness in terms of salvation for it seems that the true force of the argument comes through by means of the eternal significance of having a relationship with God. However, when looking at the argument either under a universalist framework or under a non-universalist framework, the argument from divine hiddenness has plausible defeaters. If universalism is true, the argument’s force is significantly reduced since in the end there are no non resistant non believers. If universalism is false, then God might plausible want a person to not come to believe that he exists if such belief would not lead to further conversion. For in this case, such belief would merely increase the person’s culpability for their sins and thus merit more punishment from God. If God is merciful as the defender of the argument holds, then the existence of non-resistant non believers is not surprising or contradictory with God’s nature. Much more could be said about the argument. A much longer discussion was recently done by the Protestant thinker Gavin Ortlund which I would recommend.