Where is God? The Problem of Divine Hiddenness
by Matt Nelson
Filed under The Existence of God
If God exists, where is he?
Moreover if God is all-loving and all-powerful why hasn’t he shown himself to the world? He’s all loving: why would he leave any room for doubt? He’s all-powerful: why not reveal himself in the most spectacular of ways that would make unbelief impossible?
I’ll start by admitting that the argument from the hiddenness of God is a reasonable objection; and I’ll also admit that there are days when I wonder to myself in exasperation, “God where are you?” I think it’s a fair question; but just because a question is fair does not mean it’s irrefutable. Good questions often have good answers; and I think this particular question of God’s hiddenness has, in return, some reasonable answers.
This is really an objection regarding an absence of evidence for God. Surely you’ve heard it said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; but this isn’t always true. Absence of evidence can be good evidence of absence if:
1. We should expect more evidence than we find (Should there be more evidence?).
2. We exhaust all possible ways of investigation for evidence (Have we done enough looking around?).
But my contention is that (1) God has provided sufficient evidence for reasonable belief (2) thorough investigation reveals good evidence for God’s existence. In other words, the obscurity of God’s presence in the world is not sufficient evidence to prove that God does not exist.
Here are a few points to consider:
First, God is not entirely hidden. He just doesn’t appear today in a way directly accessible to the physical senses, as your friends, spouse or boss do. But discovery by bodily experience is only one way to learn truths. We can also learn things by logic and reason.
At the end of the day, something is convincing people today of God’s existence, and has for the last twenty centuries. Growth in education and scientific advancement has not put a damper on the life of the Church (on the contrary, growth in education and science can historically be attributed largely to the Church). Christians, by and large, don’t just put blind trust in the notion that God exists; they are convinced. This conviction is what drives evangelization (inviting non-believers into the fold), debate, radical life changes at times of conversion, and most impressively, martyrdom. The religious conviction of Christians does not happen coincidentally; reasons drive conversion and belief.
Second, God is all-knowing and we are not. We can think like God, but not as God. Consider the following argument:
1. If God exists, then he would do X, Y, and Z.
2. But he doesn’t do X, Y, and Z.
3. Therefore God does not exist.
The problem with the major premise is that it assumes we can know exactly what it’s like to be God; and more specifically what it’s like to reason as God. But to think with omniscience and act with omnipotence as the eternal Creator is outside of our limited human experience (imagine an ant trying to understand quantum mechanics). We cannot fill God’s shoes. Nor can his “brain” fill our heads. As G. K. Chesterton remarks in Orthodoxy:
“The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
God may have good reasons for his “hiddenness” that we just don’t see. But this doesn’t mean we can’t make logical inferences and get part way to a good explanation. We just can’t arrive at a full explanation apart from God’s direct revelation.
Third, God desires man to seek him. We know this because he said it:
“Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matt 7:7-8)
This is not a direct promise from God that he will grant everything at our immediate request, like a genie in a bottle. But God promises providence to all who acknowledge him with trust – like a father to his child – that he will give us what we ask for (provided that we ask for what is good for us).
A 12 year old atheist might pray a desperate prayer to God in hopes that God will reveal himself – but in the end may not “find” God until he is 86 years old and minutes away from physical death. Another 12 year old atheist may pray the same prayer and be knocked onto his knees at the moment he says “Amen”. Why God seems to answer some prayers immediately, and not others, is a mystery. Likely it is often ourselves – and not God – who stand in the way of God’s immediate “delivery of the goods”. Or it may be that God desires for us to struggle for a while – perhaps for a long while – that we might grow or be improved in some way.
God is not interested in numbing us from all pain and suffering in this life. Christianity is not a get-out-of-suffering-free card. God is interested in granting us eternity, free of all suffering and pain and illuminated by unimaginable joy, in the next life: in life after death in heaven, andlife after life after death at our bodily resurrection.
The more we seek God, the more he’s likely to reveal himself. The more he reveals himself, the more we’ll come to know him. Remember Aslan’s words to Lucy in Prince Caspian,
“Every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
Fourth, it may be that God desires only those who seek him to see him. This was Blaise Pascal’s best guess. God has revealed himself in such a way, posits Pascal, that those who seek him sincerely will indeed find him, but those who do not seek him will not. He writes:
“It was not, then, right that He should appear in a manner manifestly divine, and completely capable of convincing all men; but it was also not right that He should come in so hidden a manner that He could not be known by those who should sincerely seek Him.
He has willed to make himself….appear openly to those who seek Him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from Him with all their heart. He so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not.” (Pensee 430)
Fifth, there are sufficient reasons to believe in God despite his “hiddenness”. There are good reasons to believe in God and these reasons drive our hope. God is hidden now; but not forever, provided we persevere in faith and love to the end (see Mat 10:22, Matt 15:4-7; Rom 11:22).
St. Paul writes that “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). Vatican I confirmed that we can know God exists through reason alone. And the point is this: we cannot see God directly in nature – but we can see his footprints, as it were. St. Thomas Aquinas developed this idea and demonstrated the truth of St. Paul’s claim in the 13th century, particularly in his Summa Theologiae and Summa Contra Gentiles building upon the intellectual foundation of pagan philosophers like Aristotle and Plato.
If the universe had a beginning (as many scientists, both atheist and believer, are willing to grant), there are good explanations for it. The kalam cosmological argument and the Leibniz’ argument from contingency give air-tight philosophical explanations (using science to support their premises) for how the universe must have a cause that is eternal, spiritual, all-powerful and intentional. Furthermore, logical incoherencies of an actual infinity of past events make an eternal universe improbable. But even if the world was eternal, according to Aquinas’ arguments the world still needs and explanation outside of itself – an explanation that points to a being who looks very much like God.
Thus the origin of the universe (and the vastly improbable life-permitting universe we find ourselves in) give us good reasons to believe in an all-powerful Creator; and the argument from objective morality suggest that God is, in fact, all-good and the standard of all goodness.
God has given us good reasons to believe in an intelligent Creator; and indeed these reasons have convinced most through the ages. We might thus ask the atheist: On what basis should we expect more evidence from him?
Sixth, God may not want to “scare” us into belief. Perhaps God has given us just enough evidence of himself to keep us interested in him, that we might continually seek him. A direct revelation of God hat cannot be denied my just scare people into obedience. But God wants obedience from his children out of love, not out of fear. Seeing God is not have faith in him:
Remember the words of St. James: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (Jas 2:19)
Seventh, God’s hiddenness allows us to help one another to believe. This explanation has been proposed by philosopher Richard Swinburne. God has revealed himself enough so that many people have come to believe – the Church has not tired. But many people are tired because they do not have hope.
God’s hiddenness gives believers an opportunity to have compassion, and to grow in virtue, particularly towards unbelievers. It provides an opportunity to evangelize, to grow in patience, gentleness and reverence, and to grow in faith ourselves by responding to tough skeptical objections. If God’s existence was obvious to the whole world, apologetics and evangelization might look a lot different than it does.
Eighth, the testimony of miracles are temporary events where God does in fact reveal himself in a more accessible way. There are many miracles described in the Bible. But miracles – events in nature that require a supernatural explanation – are not a thing of the past.
David Hume believed that miracles were not part of human experience; but scholar Craig Keener begs to differ. Keener has assembled a massive two-volume work demonstrating that, in fact, millions of people even today claim to have experienced a miracle through belief in God (perhaps through prayer or some other religious means).
Of course, testimony itself doesn’t prove the validity of the claim, but based on the numbers it very well could be that at least one of these is a true miracle (indeed there are many accounts of atheist investigators, medical specialists for example, who are hired to investigate and become believers as a result of their findings).
It only takes one miracle to show God’s existence. And as long as God’s existence remains possible, miracles remain possible. I think there are good reason to believe God has revealed himself, time and time again through the ages, by miraculous intervention.
Ninth, an apparently supreme and undeniable manifestation of God’s existence may not guarantee “God did it”. A “sign in the sky”, for example, could be aliens playing a prank on us. Sounds silly. How would you know for certain it wasn’t?
A much more convincing manifestation of divine existence would be God actually dwelling among us in the flesh; but would this guarantee faith in those who encounter him?
Tenth, God has revealed himself to us directly. He did so in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was born of a virgin, possessed inexplicable wisdom (even as a child) that shocked the “educated”, turned water into wine, multiplied loaves and fishes, prophecied and fulfilled prophecies, calmed storms, performed exorcisms, restored the dead to life, triggered radical conversions, performed countless physical healings, loved like only God could love, died a terrible death on the cross after being scourged half to death, and finally – rose from the dead in a glorified body that could pass through walls yet still eat broiled fish.
Jesus claimed to be the one God of the Israel – the one God of the universe – and gave the people he encountered every reason to believe it. Yet people still disbelieved firmly; even firmly enough to execute him in the end.
Maybe God knows that a more obvious – even blatant – presence in the world right now wouldn’t be the “Ah ha!” moment many skeptics believe it would be.
Maybe God’s hiddenness is an act of mercy.
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! oe’r ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.
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