An objection to an argument from divine hiddenness.

Jeffery Jay Lowder relates an interesting pro-atheist argument from J. L. Schellenberg:

(1) Necessarily, if God exists, anyone who is (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God is also (iii) in a position to participate in such relationship (able to do so just by trying).
(2) Necessarily, one is at a time in a position to participate in meaningful conscious relationship with God only if at that time one believes that God exists.
(3) Necessarily, if God exists, anyone who is (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God also (iii) believes that God exists.
(4) There are (and often have been) people who are (i) not resisting God and (ii) capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God without also (iii) believing that God exists.
(5) God does not exist.

I very much enjoyed meditating on the argument (and the parallel treatment of it here), though I suppose my role as a natural theologian commits me to making an objection, so here goes.

While Lowder anticipated objections coming from (4), which is what most of the commenters actually objected to, I’d rather respond to (1). To set up the problem, start by noticing that there are two ways which theologians claim make us “capable of meaningful conscious relationship with God”, (A) some sort of rational awareness or (B) by a free gift or revelation from God. Let’s take “rational awareness” broadly enough to include mystical or religious experience, which gives us three possible avenues to a conscious relationship to God:

A1.) By way of argument, say the cosmological argument.

A2) By way of mystical insight or religious experience.

B.) By the free gift of God revealing himself to us.

But none of these ways are such that we would expect a person to be able to establish “a relationship.. just by trying”.

To A1.) I am someone who is convinced that cosmological arguments work, and I suspect that something like the Ontological Argument works,* but I’d never think anyone could come to see God exists in this way merely by trying to understand the arguments. The arguments are difficult, the objections mount quickly, and it took me years of triumph and disappointment to get to the conviction I have now. I’ve also taught these arguments to a good number of students without having any confidence that they would understand them, much less that they could understand them just because they tried to do so.

In fact, if we mean any sort of rational approach to God, its hard to see how (1) makes any sense. No one thinks that a person would understand, say, physics or how to play violin just because he did not resist doing so and was capable of learning the subject matter.

To A2) Religious experience is essentially passive, and, at any rate, no one expects it to occur just because we don’t resist it and are capable of such an experience. To give a parallel example, assume that everyone at some point in their life is open to falling in love at first sight or developing an interest in the stars. Even under such an assumption, we certainly don’t expect everyone to fall in love at first sight or become astronomers. We need something more than capability (or even talent) and non-resistance to something happening.

To B) The whole idea of grace is that it is given to the undeserving. Contrary to both 1(i) and 1(ii), grace presupposes some sort of resistance and some degree of being incapable of relationship with God. There are elements of freedom as well, but the dominant note in the relation of grace will always be God’s initiative to the undeserving. Because of this, any claim to merit grace simply speaking, whether by one’s capability or non-resistance, fails to see the very reason it was called grace in the first place.

As a general response, I don’t think we have any idea of what would suffice for us to establish a relationship to another just by trying, as (1) speaks of. I’m not convinced I could establish a relationship even with an animal just by trying. I might be able to sketch out some prerequisites to relationship, and perhaps find a necessary cause or two, but relationships do not seem to be exhausted by meeting prerequisites – if it even makes sense to speak of establishing them in this way.


*I not only think they work, I think they establish some sort of relationship between God and myself. I’ve used the cosmological argument as a prayer before, and I think it gives a sort of color and structure to one’s relationship with God.



  1. November 25, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    I think this is quite right. I also think the problem you note becomes even more serious (especially for (A1)) when one recognizes that, because of the temporal modality in (2), the argument actually requires that “meaningful conscious relationship” arise immediately and be constant — it allows no room for inquiry or the idea that a “meaningful conscious relationship” could take time to develop, since (3) ends up having to be taken as true for any and every time. So the phrase ‘just by trying’ can’t even mean that if you keep trying you will be guaranteed at some point to have the relationship; it has to mean that the very fact of trying guarantees the “meaningful conscious relationship” the very moment you start trying.

    • November 25, 2014 at 4:36 pm

      I fiddled around with the idea that the argument might be flawed because it overlooked the possibility of development time, but I completely missed what you noticed about (2), especially in connection with (3) – which makes for a simply devastating criticism.

      As a much weaker variant on this, both this argument and the argument from evil make assumptions about history, i.e. they assume that history simply rolls on without any ultimate reckoning (whether personal or communal) and without any trans-historical reversal of temporal evil. For example, this argument doesn’t make much sense for one who assumes a final, definitive revelation, rewarding and condemning all according to their consciences. Choosing not to assume this is fine, but it rules out any critique of Christianity (and some forms of Judaism and Islam), which doesn’t leave a critique that actually critiques very much.

      • November 25, 2014 at 5:34 pm

        Yes, it’s kind of a weird feature of the argument that if everyone started out atheist and ended up theist, it would still require the same result, because we can identify some time when those theists were not yet theists but were nonetheless not resisting God and were capable of meaningful relationship.

        The issue of history and arguments from evil recently came up for me. A colleague was talking about how Descartes’ Fourth Meditation is in response (effectively) to arguments from evil, which is true, but he used a best-possible-world formulation of it (something along the lines of, but a bit more sophisticated than, ‘God would have to create the best possible world, but this being the best possible world was inconsistent with morality’). The obvious weak point is the notion of ‘best possible world’ but I wanted more to press the question of whether this was really the best kind of formulation for understanding Cartesian concerns, so I focused instead on whether the argument would make any sense of Leibniz’s account of a best possible world — richest effects with the simplest laws. One of the several points that came up is how one would rule out the possibility that richness, or simplicity, or both might require goods that take a very long time to develop, thus making the world as we see it only a best-possible-world under construction (and thus defective if considered only so far).

        I find with atheistic arguments (at least that appeal to some kind of evidence) that it’s often interesting to ask what kind of world they hold God would have to create. In this case, it would have to be a world in which everyone automatically was a theist in a “meaningful conscious relationship” with God at the very moment they were not resisting God and were in a position to participate in such relationship. I suppose there might be some wiggle room here in what is meant by “meaningful conscious relationship”, but it certainly doesn’t look like what we normally would give that label to.

      • November 25, 2014 at 8:12 pm

        I’m reminded of the old Catholic joke about Atheism: “Don’t worry, there are no Atheists in Hell”. That’s certainly one way to resolve the problem of divine hiddenness. The Warden-Inmate relationship is certainly a “meaningful conscious relationship”.

        I’ve been working on a similar idea about time and the perfection of the universe for a public talk next week. Naturalism is committed to claims about the totality of history (minimally, no eschaton) but it has no ability to judge this from reason alone. If all you have is reason, you can predict the future only by assuming the laws you have access to now won’t change, which is clearly an assumption that itself denies the eschaton; and so we can’t deny a term of history except by willful denial or affirm a term of history unless we are told about it by an intelligence that can comprehend the totality of time.

      • November 25, 2014 at 8:50 pm

        Naturalism is committed to claims about the totality of history (minimally, no eschaton) but it has no ability to judge this from reason alone.

        That’s a very good point. We usually think of the causal closure of naturalism in terms of what is happening now, but in reality it has to be total — there can be no place, no time, no state, no boundary with an exception, or naturalism is wrong. And actually establishing this on what we know is a tall order.

      • whitefrozen said,

        November 26, 2014 at 1:02 pm

        Building off this a bit – Christianity claims that not only is God hidden but actively hides himself – ‘he withdrew in order to test him’ – so it seems that the critique loses even more force taking that into account. The Psalms (and most of the great saints in church history) talk more often about Gods hiddeness and being absent than about his obvious presence.

    • Timotheos said,

      November 26, 2014 at 10:31 pm

      This whole general line of thinking reminds me of one of the problems I’ve always found with “arguments from evil”; they tend to presuppose that we think and make decisions just like angels do.

      Take any evil that you find especially gruesome, like murdering babies. Now suppose God just must be “benevolent” enough to not allow such a terrible evil. So suppose he does; there never was a world in which this happened, and so now you find a slightly better thing to be a “gruesome” evil that should never have been, and ad infinitum until we get to the all-or-nothing conversion style of the angel, where evil only happens to those who truely, fully, and always deserve the suffering they experience.

      And running this back into the topic of the OP, Lowder’s argument would work perfectly if we were discussing how God’s relationships with angels must be like, but it fails for humans, since we don’t and can’t make once-and-for-all decisions like that, because our minds naturally have a quality of mutability to them, at least in this life.

      On the other hand, I suppose there is some truth to it, insofar as our rationality approaches that of an angel’s as one imitates the instant of an angel’s thought by the whole of our thought expressed over the spread of our lifetime.

  2. ccmnxc said,

    January 4, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    I’m a couple months behind, but a couple things:

    1. I think (2) is obviously false. Take Anthony Kenny, for example. If we take him at his word (like we take those who fulfill (4) at their word), he does not believe in God, yet he lives as a Catholic (I think), still attending mass an all that. Or, as a simpler example, one could never have faith in God, yet be in such a distressing or dire situation that they call out to God for help in desperation, even without believing they will truly be heard. Imagine further, that God fulfilled the prayer (for lack of a better term), which I think can establish that there is a meaningful – if potentially temporary – relationship between God and said individual. They may come to belief through that, but the relationship precedes belief. Perhaps (2) can be reformulated somehow, and perhaps Schellenberg addresses my objection in his work, but as it stands, I think it is manifestly false.

    2. Somewhat OT, but I have seen formulations of the argument that pin divine hiddenness as some sort of evil, thus making a divine hiddenness/problem of evil hybrid. Does anyone know why anyone would advance a formulation that is open to objections from both the problem of divine hiddenness and the problem of evil? From a practical standpoint, I have never understood the move.

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