Wrestling with the Hiddenness of God

It is sometimes asserted that God, if He exists, is not obvious. Some atheists will say that they would happily believe in God if (and really only if) God made Himself directly evident to them. The bold thought seems to be that it should be no problem for God, being all powerful, to make Himself known in a way that would make belief in Him more compelling. These thoughts can be formalized into the so-called problem of divine hiddenness.

    1. If God existed, then God would make His existence more obvious.
    2. God is not obvious.
    3. Thus, God does not exist.

    In addressing this challenge, I think we should agree with the atheist that, at least in a certain respect, God could be more obvious in revealing Himself. I’m not sure about you, but God has never gotten my attention via a burning bush, as He did with Moses, and Jesus never blinded my eyes to make His point that He is who He claimed to be, as He did Saul of Tarsus. God clearly has the ability to rend such events actual in all of our lives; and if He did, He would be more obvious. Most people in the history of the world have not had their lives interrupted with an extraordinary and manifest appearance of God, and thus God is, in this sense, veiled.

    Now this is a limited concession since I also think that there is a real and obvious sense in which God makes His existence abundantly clear to all people. In fact, on my view, God has created the world replete with revelation of Himself that can, as Paul says, be “clearly seen” in creation. It seems to me that there are a wide variety of phenomena that cannot be explained well (if at all) without positing the existence of God, a God that’s at least consistent with the Bible. These phenomena include the existence of the universe itself (rather than there being nothing at all), the pervasive design and fine tuning of the universe, the objectivity of morality, consciousness (rocks are not conscious, why should grey matter be?), the richness and the radical authenticity of Scripture, to name just a few.

    Is God obligated to make Himself more obvious than He has?

    But the complaint seems to be that God, since He could do more (which I am conceding), He should do more (which I will be taking to task presently). In wrestling with this challenge, it is important to ask whether God is obligated to make Himself more obvious than He has. The only way that this is a formal problem here is if God’s being able to make Himself more obvious morally obligates Him to do so. In other words, just because God could do more, why think that He should do more? This is something that proponents of this problem rarely argue for. We might wish or prefer that God would be more obvious, but nothing interesting follows logically from unmet wishes or desires.

    Do we have reason to think that God lacks this obligation? So long as one thinks that humans are imperfect, I see no reason to think that God is obligated to make Himself more obvious than He has. I find that most people readily admit that they are imperfect and sometimes downright immoral in their actions or at least have been at one time or another in their life. This is a characterization that fits all too well my own life. Despite your and my best effort, we all fall short in a variety of ways. Sometimes this is unintentional but, at other times, we have freely planned out our moral infelicities in painstaking detail. We’ve turned away; we’ve rebelled; and we do so all the time. I don’t have space here to fully develop this point, but if this is our moral condition and God is a holy judge, then it seems to me that God has no obligation to make Himself known at all, much less obvious in any kind of extraordinary way.

    I think it is a mistake to believe that some display from God would really make all the difference in the world for most people.

    Furthermore, I think it is a mistake to believe that some display from God would really make all the difference in the world for most people. I once heard a prominent atheist say on national television that he wouldn’t believe in God even if God Himself spoke to him. He would instead check himself into a mental hospital. What this atheist got right is that experiences can be very powerful, but the utility of an experience largely has to do with how we interpret the experience. Without the proper lens of interpretation, miraculous events are only marginally helpful for bringing about the sort of response for which God seeks.

    Let’s be honest, we all want some special effects to accompany our dealings with God. The problem is that these elements often distract us from seeing our sin and even distract us from seeing God Himself. The nation of Israel had witnessed many supernatural events throughout its history. Many times the miraculous events did not bring about the sort of life change one would expect (see, for example, the generation of Israelites who were a part of the exodus from Egypt but in the end failed to trust God, in Numbers 13-14). Jesus also provided many miracles but was often selective as to when He would perform them. There were many contexts where these supernatural events were not going to produce the sort of faith and humbleness of heart that Jesus sought. People had a tendency to seek the miracles themselves as if they were some sort of parlor trick rather than seeing these as pointing to a further reality, the reality of our need for God.

    God could, to be sure, cow all of us into frightful submission. If this is what God wanted, then I think it is safe to say an all-powerful being could bring this result about, and we should shudder at the possibility. But God is good. He is not interested in your frightful submission. He’s also not interested in your devotion only for what you get out of it (parlor tricks, eternal paradise, or whatever else). God is interested in a humble heart that responds in worship to His greatness and goodness (see Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 for a good example of this). If God is after this specific heart response, then it may be that God’s degree of obviousness is perfectly calibrated with the accomplishment of this sort of response.

    If God is after this specific heart response, then it may be that God’s degree of obviousness is perfectly calibrated with the accomplishment of this sort of response.

    One last thing, God is also interested in using us, as His instruments, in bringing about this heart response in others. God could announce the Gospel through other means, but He chooses, according to His plans and purposes, to use us in missionary and evangelistic efforts across the world. This is our commission. As we are brought to a place of worshipful response, we are to share the good news of this abundant life with the world. Again, God could communicate the Gospel in more plainly supernatural ways, but there is something about using us that best fits God’s purpose.

    This of course does not solve all issues in connection with God’s so-called hiddenness. We should continue to wrestle. The hope here is that this would provide some direction to help guide our thinking on this matter.

    Travis Dickinson

    Travis Dickinson

    Associate Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
    Dr. Dickinson serves as Associate Professor of Philosophy and Christian Apologetics in the School of Theology. He is married to Shari and they have four children: Kaelia, Delaney, Emery, and Kade.
    Twitter: @TravDickinson
    Website: www.travisdickinson.com
    Travis Dickinson

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