THE PROBLEM OF DIVINE HIDDENNESS AND SKEPTICAL THEISM

Abstract:

In this paper, I will first be explaining, in detail, J.L. Schellenberg’s argument from divine hiddenness (also known as the argument from nonresistant nonbelief). Schellenberg’s argument is commonly misunderstood, as such, I want to do the best I can in understanding his argument correctly, not only for my sake but for the sake of everyone involved in the discussion of his argument. Secondly, I will be offering replies against a few objections that have been raised against Schellenberg’s argument. One particular objection I will be focusing on is known in the literature as “skeptical theism”. There have been many papers written on skeptical theism as it relates to the argument from evil, but there has not been as much written on skeptical theism as it relates to the argument from divine hiddenness. Because of this, I will offer a summary of the recent insights (papers) by proponents of skeptical theism who are seeking to apply skeptical theism to the argument from hiddenness. Finally, I will be offering critiques of these skeptical theists’ position as it relates to applying skeptical theism to the divine hiddenness argument. Particularly, my objections will be influenced (at the very least) by Schellenberg himself.

Divine Hiddenness and Skeptical Theism

The traditional Achilles heel to belief in the God of classical theism is commonly thought to be the problem of evil. There is, however, another problem that is very serious as well if not more serious to theism than the problem of evil.   The problem is known as the hiddenness of God or the problem of divine hiddenness.[1] This argument, a philosophical argument, is not about some theological problem from hiddenness; it is not about some existential crisis (for example, depression or sadness in certain religious believers, resulting from not feeling God or something similar to that effect. This ‘crisis’ is commonly referred to as the ‘Dark Night of the Soul.[2]). For Schellenberg, the problem is alleged to be that there is an inconsistency in God existing and nonresistant nonbelievers existing, which is to say that if God exists, then nonresistant nonbelievers do not exist.[3]

But, what exactly do we mean by “nonresistant nonbelief”? Simply, these are people who do not believe in God, but these people nevertheless want a relationship with God (they are open to a relationship). Their nonbelief is not a result of some resistance to a relationship with God or God Himself. Rather, they doubt that God exists because of the evidentiary situation they find themselves in. Indeed, we can understand these people as wanting to be in a relationship with God, but they cannot just will themselves to believe that God exists. As Schellenberg puts it, “But what exactly is this ‘nonresistant nonbelief’ to which I have referred, and why should we suppose that it exists? The basic idea here is the following: that there are in the actual world persons who do not believe that there is a God, and that in at least some of these people the absence of theistic belief is not in any way the result of their own emotional or behavioral opposition towards God or relationship with God or any of the apparent implications of such a relationship”.[4] I think all of this is enough to sum up what we mean by, “nonresistant nonbelief”.

When Schellenberg first came out with the argument he spoke of nonresistant nonbelief in terms of “reasonable nonbelief” (or “inculpable nonbelief”)[5]. Schellenberg decided that the term “reasonable” seemed to cause a lot of confusion, and as a result, Schellenberg has now abandoned using the term in the hiddenness argument. I too find “reasonable nonbelief” to be a little confusing or ambiguous, so I will, like Schellenberg, be using the term “nonresistant nonbelief” instead.

Now that we got that out of the way, let me clarify what type of “relationship” Schellenberg is talking about in the argument. He is talking about a relationship in terms of a conscious, reciprocal, and meaningful relationship.[6] This means that one needs to be aware that God exists in order to have this sort of relationship. The relationship is a two-way street and not a relationship where God is aware of us but we are not aware of him.

More importantly, we can see that the argument does not say that God’s existence is incompatible with mere nonbelief[7], but that God’s existence is incompatible with nonresistant nonbelief (nonbelief + nonresistance). All it takes is that there exists one single person in our world (the actual world) who is nonresistant and does not believe that God exists (any nonresistant nonbelief). Hence, we can also see how Schellenberg’s deductive argument is, in many ways like the deductive (or logical argument) from evil; that argument says that God’s existence is incompatible with any evil.

And here is an expanded version of the argument[8]:

1) If a perfectly loving God exists, then there exists a God who is always open to a personal relationship with any finite person.

2) If there exists a God who is always open to a personal relationship with any finite person, then no finite person is ever nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists.

3) If a perfectly loving God exists, then no finite person is ever nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists (from 1 and 2).

4) Some finite persons are or have been nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists.

5) No perfectly loving God exists (from 3 and 4).

6) If no perfectly loving God exists, then God does not exist.

7) God does not exist (from 5 and 6).

The overwhelming discussion of Schellenberg’s deductive argument from nonresistant nonbelief has revolved around premise 1 (but that is not to say that we should never look at the other premises of the argument). Also, this will be expanded later, but one of the key components of the argument is the concept of divine love (premise 1) and what follows necessarily from this; hence, the fact of nonresistant nonbelief in the world is rendered as evidence against God because of God’s perfect love.

In addition, we can see how this argument is concerned with a certain definition of “God”, which means the argument is not concerned with certain god concepts or god hypotheses, such as the existence of “Zeus”. Instead, the argument is concerned with God as God has been traditionally defined, the God of classical theism (a being that is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent). Given the classical definition of God, Schellenberg argues that it is not at all controversial that we should add the attribute of “perfectly loving” to such a being. Schellenberg rightfully points out that we can see how being “perfectly loving” follows from being omnibenevolent.[9] Schellenberg also defends God being perfectly loving by using Anselm’s definition of God which defines God as, “That which none greater can be conceived,” but if God is not perfectly loving then we can imagine a being that is greater than God, but we cannot imagine a being greater than God; therefore, God is perfectly loving.[10]  It should also be said that one of the main points that this argument stresses is the concept of God being “open” to relationship. The basic idea is that if a relationship is not going to take place between God and a certain human, then the blame is going to fall squarely on the human who is resistant to God. God does not want to coerce a human into a relationship with him, so he will respect the resistant nonbeliever.

So what is the main support that Schellenberg give to support, premise 2, that, “If there exists a God who is always open to a personal relationship with any finite person, then no finite person is ever nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists”? Schellenberg first notes that in order for someone to have a meaningful (and conscious/reciprocal) relationship with God, one must believe that God exists, which means believing that God exists is a necessary condition to be in a relationship with God; indeed, it is hard to have, for example, a meaningful and reciprocal relationship with a parent if you do not actually believe that the person exists in the first place. Schellenberg then adds another piece of the puzzle in support of the premise, which is the idea we do not choose our beliefs because belief is involuntary. One cannot just choose to believe the claim/proposition that God exists any more than one can just choose to believe that they have fifty trillion dollars in their bank account. With all this in mind, as Schellenberg has made clear, most objections to the argument are really challenges to premise 1 of the argument.

With premise 1, the main premise of the argument, Schellenberg brings home the point that a perfectly loving being desires a relationship for its own sake, as an end in itself. It is true that there are certain extrinsic goods that can be had in the relationship that affect God’s creatures, but the point still stands that God would desire a relationship mainly because it is itself good. God would never put the relationship at stake or sacrifice it. Schellenberg tries to give an analogy. He says, “The perfectly loving parent, for example, from the time the child can first respond to her at all until death separates them, will, insofar as she can help it, see to it that nothing she does ever puts relationship with herself out of reach for her child.” This means that the only time the relationship will be out of reach is if I (the creature) make it so. I could resist a relationship with God because maybe I do not want to submit to him, or maybe there is some other reason. Because of this, God is not going to just force himself upon me, instead, God would respect my right to refuse him.

And, because God is going to respect my right to refuse him, it would not be surprising that he would reveal himself to me, such that, I would believe that He exists. It would not be surprising, because just believing that God exists is not sufficient to be in a relationship with God, and if I am going to just keep resisting God even when I know that he exists, then me knowing that he exists is not really valuable in the relevant sense; we could also see this as God punishing someone who is resistant to him, and he is pronouncing punishment by not showing himself to the resistant person.[11] Thus, if someone is resistant to God, it is far from obvious how God could be at fault if he did not reveal himself to that someone.[12] And it also seems obvious that God, given his nature, is not just going to force himself upon someone or force a relationship to take place. Not only that, but it also seems hard to make sense of a conscious, meaningful, and reciprocal relationship that is forced (would that be akin to a square-triangle?). In sum, the point is the following: if a perfectly loving being exists, then God’s creatures, who are nonresistant, then God’s creatures are able to do so by just trying.[13] If the creature wants to be in the relationship with God, then the creature can and will be able to be in a relationship with God; God will always be open to a relationship.

However, one thing that is not at all clear, is whether Schellenberg is casting his argument as a logical argument from hiddenness or evidential argument from hiddenness.
He says it is evidential but, as Sokoloski says:                                                                       This brings into focus the ambiguity of Schellenberg’s argument from divine hiddenness as to whether or not it should be considered a logical argument or an      evidential argument. Schellenberg and others have all considered his argument to be an evidential-styled argument. However, Schellenberg repeatedly responds to his     critics that, when they are considering his argument, they are forgetting his deeper       claim that it is motivated out of divine love. Such a response indicates that             Schellenberg considers his argument to be a logical argument from divine love, even            though he says otherwise, since he continues to rely on his conceptual claim when      challenged.[14]

Certainly, the argument from hiddenness can be formed in an inductive/abductive manner, and it has been formulated in that matter. Perhaps, we can understand Schellenberg as saying that there is one premise of his argument that is evidential, which is the premise that nonresistant nonbelief exists. After all, all his other premises are formulated as necessary truths. As with the logical problem of evil, we grant that evil exists, but I do not think we would call the logical problem of evil an evidential argument because of the empirical premise which states that evil exists. We cannot know with absolute certainty that suffering exists, but neither can we know with absolute certainty that nonresistant nonbelief exists; Schellenberg himself, as well as myself, see it as obvious that nonresistant nonbelief exists. Nevertheless, I will not be focusing very much on the evidential premise, if it is an evidential premise. I will be focusing on the most controversial premise of the argument, which is cast as a necessary truth. Like the logical argument from evil, we can see how logical possibilities can come into play, insofar as it is easier to come up with a logically consistent explanation than a probable explanation (for why evil exists or nonbelief), but this will be further explained later.

Hence, I really think Schellenberg needs to call his argument a logical argument from hiddenness (and not evidential). And this makes sense in light of him emphasizing deductive arguments and necessary truths in those very same papers where he talks about his argument, in fact, he labels his argument a deductive argument. Schellenberg talks about how his argument, if sounds, establishes a really strong conclusion, but he is not talking about ‘strong’ in the sense of an inductive argument; rather, he is using the term to describe how much the argument establishes (decisively) if sound, and this can only make sense in terms of a deductive argument (and many are skeptical about there being a successful deductive argument for or against God’s existence). This all might sound like we are splitting hairs, but this could not be further from the truth! Why? Because if one claims that God’s existence is logically incompatible (impossible) with nonresistant nonbelief, then that would be different from someone claiming that nonresistant nonbelief render’s God’s existence unlikely. Hence, we would have to respond to each type of argument in a different manner, so one’s objections to the logical argument from nonresistant nonbelief need to look different than one’s response to an evidential/probabilistic argument from nonresistant nonbelief.

On a similar note, Schellenberg’s argument does seem to have a strong premise, premise 2, which is, “If there exists a God who is always open to a personal relationship with any finite person, then no finite person is ever nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists.” Essentially, the claim is that there will not be a single person at any time who will be nonresistant and unaware (not believe) that God exists. At face value, the claim does appear to be somewhat implausible. But, for instance, if we think back to the logical argument from evil we will remember that the argument states that there will never be any instance of suffering. Put in this light, the conclusion might not seem so implausible. Furthermore, we can recast the argument to establish a more modest conclusion. The premises could lead to the conclusion that, “If a perfectly loving God exists, then no human person is nonresistantly unaware that God exists”. This would mean there could exist a time where a nonresistant nonbeliever exists. Jones is a nonresistant nonbeliever. But for the time being, God has not revealed himself. But just because God has not revealed himself yet does not mean he will not eventually reveal himself to Jones.

This conclusion is more modest, but for the sake of how Schellenberg has formulated his argument, this paper will be focused on his stronger conclusion. After I thought of the strong implications of the argument, I found out that Schellenberg actually anticipated this objection, and he has in fact given a response to this when he says, “There evidently is (and often has been) nonresistant nonbelief: God is ‘hidden’ in that sense. Of course, only one instance is needed. If that seems implausible – how could a single instance of nonresistant nonbelief prove the nonexistence of God? Consider the analogy of Divine honesty: how could a single tiny lie on the part of some otherwise amazing being prove that it is not God?”.[15]  Well, it does not seem to make sense to say that God can lie (and/or “unjustified lie”) because by definition God cannot do an immoral action, which would also, and obviously, include immoral things like murder (unjustified killing).

But why did it take so long for the hiddenness argument to develop into what it is today? This include the enormous amount of literature now being written about the argument. Well, Schellenberg notes that the problem has been present for hundreds of years, at least back to the time of Pascal and Butler.[16][17][18] What Schellenberg notes is that the formalized version of the argument, Schellenberg’s argument, is the one that is very recent in history. Schellenberg speculates why this might be, although Schellenberg is quick to tell the reader that much of what he says can be seen as guesswork. One possibility for why it took so long for the formal version of the hiddenness argument to be developed is because of the problem of evil. After all, the problem of evil is given a lot of attention in philosophy and philosophy of religion; indeed, it is usually seen as the main obstacle to belief in God.[19]

What Schellenberg is saying here is that philosophers and philosophers of religion have mainly just wanted to address the argument from evil, whether the problem of evil is addressed in books or lectures. Schellenberg has also noted that a particular kind of divine hiddenness has come up in discussion of the problem of evil itself, which has led to the confusion that divine hiddenness problem just is the problem of evil.[20] Schellenberg is also saying that there has also been the wrong tendency to say that divine hiddenness is an evil, which means that the problem is just another form of the problem of evil, and this explains why divine hiddenness had not been formalized into an argument.[21]

What other explanation might there be for why it took so long for divine hiddenness to become as popular as it is now? What Schellenberg wants to make known is the concept that we as humans have evolved socially, morally, and theologically/philosophically.[22] Socially we have evolved in a way where we no longer, according to Schellenberg, take for granted the notion that it is just okay for a father to be distant if he is working for the common good. This has obvious implication for the hiddenness argument as it relates to what we would expect God to do. Morally, we have evolved in such a way that we now grant that there are nonresistant nonbelievers in the world. To say otherwise (to say that there are no nonresistant nonbelievers) might in fact actually be what is seen the true moral vice, according to Schellenberg. Theologically/philosophically, we are much more likely to view God as more personal and loving than we did before. Furthermore, theologians are much more apt to deny that there are nonresistant nonbelievers; Schellenberg himself claims that the view that there are no nonresistant nonbelievers can be seen as even “cultish” in many theological circles.[23]

 

Misconceptions about the argument

There have been a lot of misconceptions around Schellenberg’s hiddenness argument, and Schellenberg has responded to a lot of them while also making clear that there are irrelevant objections and objections (among these misconceptions) that should not be taken very seriously. I do think Schellenberg is fairly clear in his writing and has written a lot of material on the argument, so I do not want to blame him for these misconceptions. And, I agree with Schellenberg that we need to make a distinction between good objections and objections that are just bad or irrelevant. These misconceptions could be for a number of reasons, but we need to look at the misconceptions themselves and address them. We need to address these misconceptions because they are so common, and because one needs to have an accurate conception of an argument if they are going to do an argument justice.[24]

One misconception states that Schellenberg’s argument is asking for God to perform miracles and give us wondrous signs like writing his name in the sky or speaking in our ears.[25][26][27] His argument does not say this, however. Schellenberg has made it very clear that he is not saying this. In fact, according to Schellenberg, there are many ways God could reveal himself to each single person so that the person would believe that God exists; it is not as if there is “one-size fits all” approach when it comes to people believing that God exists (the idea here is that some people might need more evidence or different types of evidence). Furthermore, Schellenberg talks about how we cannot just choose to believe certain things, instead, we believe in light of the evidence. Because of the plausible assumption that people do not choose to believe certain propositions (or at least, we do not choose to believe the vast majority of propositions that we do), and in light of people needing different types of evidence, it seems that God will provide the quality and quantity of evidence needed for someone to believe in God (i.e. belief that God exists). So as long as someone is not closed to God, God will provide this evidence.[28] And, even if there are some propositions that we can choose to believe, most of our beliefs are obviously not chosen; hence, unless there is some reason why belief in God would be different (i.e. a choice), we should conclude that belief in God (belief that God exists) is probably not a choice at all. Therefore, the nonbeliever is not putting some sort of demand on God when it comes to the issue of evidence. If anything, the nonbeliever is asking God for help. And it is hard to see how the nonbeliever is putting demands on God because the nonbeliever in question is a nonresistant nonbeliever. If the nonbeliever were resistant than maybe they would be putting demands on God, but remember that Schellenberg’s argument is not concerned with nonbelievers who are resistant.

Another misconception says that Schellenberg’s argument is essentially making is to where God is coercing us into a relationship or coercing us into loving him, but Schellenberg replies, “But a close look at the argument shows that I have not suggested that God would bring us into divine-human relationship, only that God would put in place the conditions necessary for us to be able to bring ourselves into such relationship, if we so choose.”[29] Therefore, there is no coercing going on—quite the opposite. If someone does not want to have a relationship with God, they do not have to have a relationship with God. And because they do not have/want a relationship with God, they do not need to believe that God exists (believing that God exists is necessary in order to be in a meaningful and reciprocal relationship with God). For those who want to have a relationship with God, God is not infringing on their free will by making it clear that he exists.

The choice is whether one wants to be in a relationship with God, not whether one believes that God exists. This means that God is not infringing on free will when God reveals that God exists to someone. In fact, plausibly, humans cannot choose to just believe most/any propositions (like “God exists”). And, according to the Bible, angels and demons believe that God exists, but are we to believe that God somehow is violating their free will? If he is not, then he would not be violating our free will either. If he is violating their free will, why would God not also violate our free will as well? If anything, if we really think about the concept of freedom, would someone not be making a freer choice to accept God if they really have a clear understanding of who God really is? And would this not also include the understanding that God exists in the actual world? It is hard to say that I have more freedom if I accept God (accepting a relationship with him) without actually knowing that God exists.

Yet, another misconception is that Schellenberg is saying that God’s presence would be felt by everyone or at least those who are nonresistant.[30] Rather, the argument is claiming that people who are nonresistant will believe the proposition, “God exists”, which is necessary in order to have a meaningful, conscious, and reciprocal relationship. None of this is to say that the issue of God not being felt (his loving presence being felt) by others is of no significance, especially when it comes to the problem of suffering[31]; however, this is to say that the point is a red herring.

It is also common for someone to say that you can have a relationship with someone without believing that they exist. Schellenberg has replied by noting that this is not the sort of relationship he is talking about in his argument. The objector here is thinking of a “relationship” in a very broad sense, not in the relevant sense. What Schellenberg is talking about having a meaningful, reciprocal, and conscious relationship. In fact, Schellenberg is using the term “relationship” as it is most commonly used, and it seems to be the most intuitive. Hence, the objection is really missing the point because it is misunderstanding how Schellenberg is using the term “relationship”. As touched on a little bit earlier, there has also been a confusion between Schellenberg’s argument from nonresistant nonbelief and just an argument from nonbelief (per se) that does not utilize the concept or idea of ‘nonresistance’. The latter claim tries to argue that nonbelief in any form (nonbelief by itself) shows that God does not exist, and/or the presence of nonbelief by itself counts as evidence against the existence of God.[32]

The misconception comes in the form of the objection that, “Maybe God does not reveal himself to nonbelievers because they would just choose to reject him anyway and choose to not enter into the relationship. What is the point of God revealing himself to some people if they are just going to reject him?”. But remember, the whole point of Schellenberg’s argument does not revolve around the concept of nonbelief per se. Rather, Schellenberg’s argument revolves around nonbelief that is nonresistant. Yes, the objection would make perfect sense if we are talking about nonbelievers who are resistant, but it does not make sense against nonbelievers who are nonresistant. Hence, the objection misses the entire point of Schellenberg’s argument by ignoring the concept of nonresistance that Schellenberg uses.

Furthermore, there is the misconception that the argument can come across as question begging. Why? Because the majority of people believe in God and even have an experience of God. How can we then claim that God is hidden? This really is a misconception because Schellenberg does not deny that most people in the world believe in some sort of god or spirituality, and Schellenberg does not deny that the majority of the world do not have some sort of spiritual experience. The problem, according to Schellenberg’s argument, is that there are any nonbelievers at all, at any point in time (nonresistant nonbelievers). In fact, for Schellenberg’s argument to work, there only needs to be on person in all of history who was/is a nonresistant nonbeliever; therefore, it does not matter if 99.9% of the world believes that God exists. When I say it, “does not matter”, I mean this in the context of Schellenberg’s argument. All that I have said here would also apply even if, contrary to what some have argued, belief in God is properly basic.[33] Even if most people have a properly basic belief in God, which means their belief in God is not inferred from other beliefs and is justified, we still have the problem of there being even one person who is a nonbeliever. What this would also mean is that I might have a properly basic belief in God, but the hiddenness argument can still act as a defeater to my belief when I become aware of Schellenberg’s argument.

Finally, there is a misconception about the word “hiddenness” as used in the argument. The argument is not using the word “hidden” to say something like, “Well, hidden implies that God exists. So, the problem is not whether God exists, but why God is hidden even though He exists.” In that case, we would have another problem on our hands and we could/would just label the problem something else altogether (e.g. problem of divine silence?).  Rather, the problem is that some people do not believe in God and are nonresistant—God is not present to them, and we would expect God (if God existed) to be present to them. This expectation of God being present arises out of the concept of divine love and God wanting to be in a relationship with his human creatures. Therefore, it might be more helpful to call the argument the argument from nonbelief or the argument from nonresistant nonbelief, but I think the opponents of the hiddenness argument also need to be charitable in how they interpret the hiddenness argument. So, divine hiddenness means that there are some people in our world that do not believe in God and are not resistant to God at the same time.

Similar to these misconceptions, there are objections to the hiddenness argument that do not misunderstand the problem, but they can still be seen as being bad objections. One objection that Schellenberg has called bad (in fact, he has called the objection “one grasping at straws”) is the objection that says God’s love is different from our love. The point that this objection is trying to drive home is that since God’s love is (supposedly) totally different from ours, we should not draw all these conclusions about what a perfectly loving being (God) would do, like always being open to a personal relationship. In other words, God is different when it comes to love.[34]

Apart from the objection coming across as a case of special pleading by saying “God is different”, the objection can really be seen as dishonest at the end of the day by trying to muddy the waters with the definition of love. We all know what the concept of love is and what the concept love entails. When the objector speaks of love and God’s love, she must be using the concept of love that we normally use. If this is so, then the objection falls flat on its face, and if it is not the case than it is a complete mystery what the person is getting at.[35] What this means is that we are going to have to be honest with our assessment of the argument from hiddenness by dealing seriously with it, and we should not try to just find any objection to be good. In fact, the objection we have been looking at here comes across more as sophistry than anything.

None of this is to say that there are not objections that need to be more taken seriously/seriously, because I (and Schellenberg) do think there are objections that need to be looked at and responded to in an adequate manner. Schellenberg notes that a common theme among these serious objections has to do with the idea of greater goods that God has is mind, and that God might want to allow nonresistant nonbelief for these greater goods. These greater goods can consist of things like character building, free will, intellectual curiosity, discovery, etc. (we can see that this approach is a very similar approach to responding to the problem of evil). In this way, we can see how the argument from evil, specifically the logical argument, has a lot in common with the argument from divine hiddenness. Thus, the greater goods defense is aimed to defeat the main premise of the argument about God always being open to a relationship with His creatures, because God might have a good reason to be closed to a relationship for a period of time. As said before, this premise is where most of the debate is and where I am focusing on.[36]

In regards to the greater goods response, we can think of it in two ways. One response is theodicy, which seeks to give a good reason for why God probably allows nonresistant nonbelief; this good reason is probable/plausible, not just possible. Indeed, coming up with a good theodicy is going to be very hard. The greater goods response can also be cast in terms of a defense. A defense only seeks to give a possible reason for why God allows nonresistant nonbelief, so this reason does not have to be probable. The defense approach (good reason that God allows suffering that is possible) will suffice against Schellenberg’s deductive argument, specifically the premises that are in fact necessary truths like the main premise of the argument about God always being open to a personal relationship.

One of the main challenges to Schellenberg’s divine hiddenness argument comes in the form of appealing to great goods that God might have in mind, and these greater goods existing justify God in allowing for there to be nonresistant nonbelief (i.e. these goods justify God in being closed to a personal relationship with His creatures for a period of time). So, God would not and could not allow nonresistant nonbelief in any possible world, unless he had a good reason to allow it to be the case. Or similarly, that God desires a relationship for its own sake but he might have good reasons to allow someone to not be in a relationship with him (or in the relationship for a period of time) for the sake of some other good like character-building.

So how does Schellenberg respond to the greater good defenses? The first response that Schellenberg has is what he called the “accommodationist” approach, which says that the greater goods that the objector to the hiddenness argument points out can actually be had within the relationship with God, so these goods do not even require the existence of divine hiddenness at all.[37] So, consider a good like character-building; Schellenberg notes that this sort of good can be had in a relationship with God. It is not as if we cannot continually build character once we believe that God exists, nor once we enter into a relationship with God. This becomes clearer when we think of Christians who are in a relationship with God (or what they take to be God). Christians know that God exists and they are in a relationship with God, yet they continue to build character and go through hardships but by mainly walking with God through it. So, if anything, this great good is better in the context of a relationship with God. Character building (a type) is a good that can be instantiated in a number of ways, (tokens). So, character-building in a relationship with God might not look the same as character building outside of a relationship to God, but these are still great goods that exemplify character-building! (a type). Hence, once again, this great good of character building can be had whether one is in a relationship or not. Free will can also be had in a deep and meaningful relationship with God, and once again the good of free will might look different, or is different, in the context of a relationship with God.

What about potential goods like the testing of one’s faith or other goods that might seem like they can only be had in the context of God being hidden? Schellenberg responds by saying that God can withdraw within the relationship.[38] The person still believes that God exists, but God’s presence is not felt. An example would be the testing of one’s faith. One is still in a relationship with God, but they are being tested because God is not felt. Perhaps, God is not being felt because the person has become arrogant or for some other reason if there be such a reason. The point is that there is a type of hiddenness within the relationship, an emotional type of hiddenness, that produces various goods that can also be had outside of the relationship. One example I gave was the good of testing one’s faith, which can happen in a relationship with God and outside of a relationship with God.

What other responses does Schellenberg have to the people who endorse the ‘greater good’ objection? Schellenberg notes that if God exists, our greatest and deepest good is to be in a relationship with God. God himself is the greatest good; God is goodness itself. Since being in a relationship with God is our deepest good, why would God prefer greater goods over a relationship? It does not seem that God could value something like courage more than being in a relationship with humans. If all this is true, the greater good response is in serious trouble as it stands. Schellenberg grants that these greater goods are of course good, but he does not grant that they could be greater than our greatest good. Courage is a great good but it is hard to see how it could be our greatest good.

Skeptical Theism

So where are we at now? Well, in the neighborhood of the greater good defenses, there is another sort of “defensive” move, which is known as skeptical theism. Skeptical theism was first utilized as an objection against the argument from evil (the evidential argument from evil in particular), and there are many papers still being written today on the merits of skeptical theism. Skeptical theism is mainly only thought of in terms of the argument from evil. But, recently there’s been more discussion on skeptical theism as it relates to the argument from hiddenness.

But what exactly is skeptical theism? Well, the label itself might be misleading[39], but there is a meaning to it. According to Justin McBrayer, skeptical theism is the notion that, “…we should not grant that our inability to think of a good reason for doing or allowing something is indicative of whether or not God might have a good reason for doing or allowing something.  If there is a God, he knows much more than we do about the relevant facts, and thus it would not be surprising at all if he has reasons for doing or allowing something that we cannot fathom.”[40] So, I might not see a good reason for why, for instance, God allowed Jones to miss the bus to work on Tuesday; however, just because I cannot see a good reason for why God allowed this, does not mean there is not a good reason. Hence, the fact that I cannot see a good reason, does not mean there is not a good reason. Similarly, suppose, for instance, that Robert recently broke his arm. In addition, Robert is coming into his senior year of playing quarterback. Because he broke his arm, Robert is going to be out for the whole season. What good reason does God have to allow this? Just because I cannot see a good reason, says the skeptical theist, does not mean there is not one.

It is important to notice that skeptical theism is not attempting to give a likely good reason (theodicy) or even a possible reason (defense) for why God allows suffering, but what it is saying is that there are reasons for all we know. As McBrayer puts it, “First, notice that the skeptical response to the argument from divine hiddenness is importantly different from the theodicy or defense strategy. The theodicy attempts to tell us what the compensating good actually is. The defense attempts to tell us what the compensating good might be.”[41] By “good reason” the skeptical theist is referring to goods that God has in mind, but these goods can only be brought about by the presence of suffering. A formulation of skeptical theism is the following: Just because we cannot see a good reason for why God allows X, does not mean there is not a good reason for X. Now X typically refers to some instance of suffering when we are talking about skeptical theism. But how does this relate to the hiddenness argument?

Well, in light of skeptical theism, just because I cannot see a good reason why God would allow there to be some nonresistant nonbelief (X) in the world, does not mean there is not a good reason.[42] God might have reasons for allowing there to be some people who are nonresistant nonbelievers. There might be greater goods that God has in mind, even though I do not know what those are, and these greater goods might only be able to be had with the presence of some nonresistant nonbelief. We can see that when we substitute “nonresistant nonbelief’ in place of “suffering”, that skeptical theism still looks very similar in both formulations.

In light of skeptical theism, let us now consider a particular nonresistant nonbeliever, James. James used to be a devout Christian; he went to church regularly, prayed every day, and read his bible daily. In other words, James had a great relationship with God.  But one day James started having doubts about God’s existence. James started dwelling on questions like, “If God exists, then why is there so much suffering?”, but at the same time, James continued to try and work through these doubts in the relationship with God. James noticed that his relationship with God started eroding because James was now doubtful about whether God existed in the first place, and it is hard to be in a meaningful relationship with somebody when you do not know whether they exist. It is not as if James is resisting God and wants nothing to do with God, instead, it is quite the opposite because James wants to be in a relationship with God; however, James has found himself in an evidentiary situation where the proposition, “God exists,” seems to be false or not obviously true.

But why would God allow this to come to James? Why would God allow this instance of nonresistant nonbelief? According to the skeptical theist, there might be good reasons for why God is allowing James to remain a nonresistant nonbeliever.[43] For all we know, there are various goods that can only be had in the world if James goes through a period of nonresistant nonbelief. We are, according to skeptical theism, in no position to say that God does not have morally sufficient reasons for allowing James to go through a period of nonresistant nonbelief, and just because we cannot see a good reason does not mean there is not a good reason. We might not be able to actually list a possible reason or plausible reason for why God allows nonresistant nonbelief to take place in James. For skeptical theism, however, we must remember that this is not necessary.

The case with James is just one type of nonresistant nonbelief (being a former believer). Schellenberg notes that we can have religious persons who are nonresistant nonbelievers, particularly Buddhists. We can also have people who have never even come across the concept of a being that is perfectly loving. Hence, there are various types of nonresistant nonbelievers, but what all these nonbelievers have in common is that they are not closing their hearts to God (or, at least, they have some moments in their life where they are open to God)[44].

So what are some of the problems with the skeptical theism approach, insofar as applying it to the argument from divine hiddenness? For one, Schellenberg already noted that God would not sacrifice our deepest good for the sake of greater goods. Given this, it seems like the skeptical theist response misses the point. Even if we grant that, “for all we know there are goods that can only be had outside of a relationship with God,” it does not matter if such goods do exist because God, once again, would not sacrifice a relationship with him for such goods. God desires the best for his creatures (the best for God’s creature is being a relationship with God) and because of this God will not settle for anything less. The skeptical theist could move their skepticism up a level and question whether we are in a position to say that the greatest/deepest good for human beings is being in a relationship with God, but would any Christian want to say this? But, also, the objection can come across as question begging because Schellenberg has already argued why the deepest good for human beings is to be in a conscious, reciprocal, and meaningful relationship with God.[45]

The skeptical theist also says that it is possible that God is not just interested in humans. God could have goods in mind that do not have to be related to his creatures. But Schellenberg already anticipated such an objection and had a response to it. By way of analogy, when a mother has a child she does cannot just go about doing whatever she wants and seeking other goods at the expense of the child. No. The mother has a responsibility to take care of the child to the greatest extent possible. Once you enter into a relationship with someone you commit to pursuing them for their own sake and treating them as ends in themselves..[46] So, the skeptical theist could say that the greatest good for human beings need not be the greatest good in all of creation, which is true; however, the analogy I gave demonstrates why this is a problematic reply. Not to mention, presumably, God is the greatest good that there is because God is Goodness itself. Would any Christian want to deny that God is the highest good?

The skeptical theist also could not say that, “For all we know there are goods that can only be had for those in a relationship with God, thus having a greater relationship, by having some people not being in a relationship with God, (nonresistant nonbelievers)” because this is just flat out inconsistent with God’s loving nature. God would be using some people as pawns. Imagine a father has two sons and one of his sons, Jim, does not have a relationship with his father because he has never met him even though he really wants to. Jim does not know whether his father loved him, whether his father was loving, whether his father was something more than a one-night stand with Jim’s biological mother, etc. Hence, Jim does not even know whether he had a father in the relevant sense, which is the sense of a person that cares and was not just a person that got another person pregnant. The father does, however, have a good relationship with Tyler, and he never got to develop a relationship with Jim because Jim got kidnapped when Jim was 4 months old. The father one day discovers where Jim is, but decides that he can have a better relationship with Tyler if he ignores Jim. Having the better relationship with Tyler can be accomplished by never revealing himself to his lost son Jim. The idea is that revealing himself to Jim will take time away from his relationship with Tyler. Nobody would take seriously the suggestion that the father has not done something unloving.

But the skeptical theist still could say that, “For all we know, there are goods that can only be had in a relationship with God that would make the relationship better in the future when the relationship begins, but these goods could only be accomplished by God allowing the person to go through a temporary period of nonresistant nonbelief.” So in a case like this, we have a situation where the person is going to end up having a better relationship with God over the long term because of having gone through a period of nonresistant nonbelief. But remember, according to Schellenberg, we can have God withdraw in a relationship to promote these sorts of goods that supposedly can only be had by God being withdrawn outside of a relationship. However, would not the skeptical theist challenge this claim? Are we in a position to say that any goods that can be accomplished by God allowing nonresistant nonbelief can also be had by God withdrawing within the relationship?

It might be said that of course God can accomplish this because God is omnipotent. But, being omnipotent has never implied being able to do that which is logically impossible, and according to the skeptical theist it is not clear that nonresistant nonbelief is not required in order to obtain some greater goods that contribute to a future divine-creature relationship that is better overall.[47] Schellenberg does say that in an important sense, “…all goods are in God.”[48] There are goods like courage, which require some suffering. Would we say that the good of courage is “in God” in the relevant sense? Schellenberg notes that courage is a token of a type of good that is in God.

Hence, even if there are unknown goods (as the skeptical theist says) these goods would be mere tokens of a further type of good that is in God. This means that God does not need nonresistant nonbelief in order to bring about various types of good that are in God. It might be objected that the unknown goods could be types of goods in God instead of tokens. However, this would be to admit defeat because goods that are in God don’t require the existence of nonresistant nonbelief. It might also be objected that token goods are still good even if the type of good from which they derive can be had without nonresistant nonbelief. But, if a perfectly loving God can have a relationship with God’s creatures and have (for all we know) relationship goods that require God’s obviousness, how could God not prefer this over a situation with people who go through periods of nonresistant nonbelief that might lead to some relationship goods down the road? With nonresistant nonbelief, you have periods of time where people miss out on their greatest good possible, which is relationship with the greatest being possible. Without nonresistant nonbelief, we have a world where people do not miss out on their greatest good for any moment, and we have the potential of other various relationship good tokens that require God’s obviousness. The upshot is that a world where there are zero nonresistant nonbelievers is a world where the greatest good is exemplified, and God can accomplish various relationship good types (not relationship types or good tokens) without nonresistant nonbelief. Why? Because all goods are in God. Indeed, for all we know, there are various unknown relationship good tokens that can only be accomplished by there being no nonresistant nonbelief.

It might be objected, “for all we know the (potential) unknown relationship good tokens that require God’s obviousness might be ‘worse’ than the relationship good tokens that require nonresistant nonbelief.” But we can already see that this objection, even if true, won’t be enough because we have already made the type-token distinction.

Though there is another objection that Schellenberg could make. Schellenberg has also brought up the idea of our greatest good (being in a relationship with God) when he has responded to objections regarding his argument from horrific suffering. I think what he has said there is relevant to what I am saying here, and as a result, I will use the words he uses there to apply them to the issue at hand. Schellenberg could challenge the notion of different types of relationship with God being “better” than other types of relationship with God (i.e. putting of a relationship until a later date because the future relationship will be a “better” type of relationship). What would it mean for one type of relationship with God to be better than another type of relationship with God? Does such an idea even make sense? In a relationship with God, we are coming to know God more and more, but we are never going to arrive at an exhaustive knowledge of God.  How can one way of reaching this knowledge be better than another way? Thus, it would not make any sense for God to put off a relationship to a future date with a certain nonresistant nonbeliever in order for the relationship to be better overall (once it starts).

On the other hand, one might wonder whether it is a good idea to even try and apply skeptical theism to the problem of divine hiddenness to begin with. After all, skeptical theism is already being used as a response to the problem of evil by many theists, if not most theists. Does the theist want to continue and play the skeptical card, specifically, applying it to hiddenness problem as well? The move might look somewhat ad hoc, such that, the result is that skeptical theism actually make theism look more improbable (not more probable) when used as an objection against problems like divine hiddenness. This would mean that even though skeptical theism is used to try and solve the hiddenness problem, it actually makes the situation worse by being an ad hoc explanation (or, put another way, the move of also applying skeptical theism to divine hiddenness looks like the person is “grasping for straws” so to speak).

If someone were to try and use skeptical theism against every argument against the existence of God, then yes, theism comes out looking like an unfalsifiable hypothesis; however, it is doubtful that skeptical theists are going to want to apply skeptical theism to every argument against God’s existence. Thus, the issue comes in figuring out when and where we are going to apply skeptical theism, if at all. For the reasons already given in this paper, skeptical theism faces specific challenges when applied to the problem of divine hiddenness, and these challenges are not quite the same as the challenges skeptical theism faces when it comes to the problem of evil. But, the purpose of this paper has not been to evaluate the merits of skeptical theism as a whole, but skeptical theism as applied to divine hiddenness.[49]

In conclusion, we have hopefully gotten a better understanding of what the hiddenness problem/argument actually is, specifically, J.L. Schellenberg’s argument from divine hiddenness. We have also looked into various misconceptions and objections of/to the argument proposed by Schellenberg. After that, we focused specifically on skeptical theism as an objection to hiddenness argument. The verdict on skeptical theism is that skeptical theism does not fare well against the problem of divine hiddenness, and ultimately skeptical theism is not a good objection against the argument from divine hiddenness. The skeptical theist might have a cogent response to what I have said here, (and what Schellenberg has said) but for now, I cannot see a cogent response. There has been a lot of literature written on skeptical theism as it relates to the problem of evil, but more literature needs to be written on skeptical theism as it relates to the problem of divine hiddenness, which could also go beyond just Schellenberg’s deductive argument and focus also on inductive and abductive arguments from hiddenness. Another reason for there to be further literature on skeptical theism as it relates to the problem of divine hiddenness is because I have only intended to provide a brief sketch of the issue here.

Bibliography

Butler, J., 1736, Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Nature, London: Knapton.

Drange, T., 1993, “The Argument from Nonbelief”, Religious Studies, 29(4): 417–432.

Dumsday, T, 2014c, “Divine Hiddenness as Deserved”, Faith and Philosophy, 31(3): 286–302.

Evans, C. Stephen. Natural Signs and Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 149-165.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel and Green, Adam, “Hiddenness of God”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/divine-hiddenness/&gt;.

McBrayer, Justin P. “Skeptical Theism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed November 28, 2016. http://www.iep.utm.edu/skept-th/.

McBrayer, J. and Philip Swenson, 2012, “Scepticism About the Argument from Divine Hiddenness”, Religious Studies, 48(2): 129–150.

Moser, P. 2004, “Divine Hiddenness Does Not Justify Atheism”, and “Reply to Schellenberg”, in Peterson and VanArragon 2004: 42–54, 56–58.

Pascal, B., 1670, Pensees, A. J. Krailsheimer (trans), New York: Penguin, 1995, revised edition.

Schellenberg, J.L., 1993, Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

–––, 2004, “Divine Hiddenness Justifies Atheism” and “Reply to Moser”, in Peterson and VanArragon 2004: 30–41, 54–56.

–––, 2007a, The Wisdom to Doubt, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

–––, 2010a, “The Hiddenness Problem and the Problem of Evil”, Faith and Philosophy, 27(1): 45–60.

–––, 2015, The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God, New York: Oxford University Press.

Sokoloski, Matthew R., “Divine Hiddenness and the Challenge of Inculpable Nonbelief” (2012). Theses and Dissertations. Paper 342.
http://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/342

Taber, Tyler, and Tyler Dalton McNabb. “Is the Problem of Divine Hiddenness a Problem for the Reformed Epistemologist?.” The

Notes:

[1] Or simply, “The Hiddenness Problem”

[2] Howard-Snyder, Daniel and Green, Adam, “Hiddenness of God”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/divine-hiddenness/&gt;.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J.L. Schellenberg, 2007a, The Wisdom to Doubt, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[5] Schellenberg notes that inculpable belief would be an instance of nonresistant nonbelief, but nonresistant nonbelief goes beyond just inculpable nonbelief. Hence, inculpable nonbelief is a sufficient condition for nonresistant nonbelief but not a necessary condition.

[6] J.L. Schellenberg, 2007a, The Wisdom to Doubt, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[7] Drange, T., 1993, “The Argument from Nonbelief”, Religious Studies, 29(4): 417–432.

[8] Schellenberg, J.L.,2015, The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God, New York: Oxford University Press.

[9] Schellenberg, 2015, The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God, New York: Oxford University Press.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dumsday, T, 2014c, “Divine Hiddenness as Deserved”, Faith and Philosophy, 31(3): 286–302.

[12] We could imagine God not revealing himself to a person that is a resistant unbeliever because of God’s love itself. Could it not be possible that God will annoy the resister even more if the resister always knows for a fact that God exists? Might it be a case that, in this case, that ignorance would be bliss for the resistant unbeliever?

[13]

[14] Sokoloski, Matthew R., “Divine Hiddenness and the Challenge of Inculpable Nonbelief” (2012). Theses and Dissertations. Paper 342.
http://scholarworks.uark.edu/etd/342

[15]

[16]Schellenberg, J.L. 2015, The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God, New York: Oxford University Press. 23-34.

[17] Pascal, B., 1670, Pensees, A. J. Krailsheimer (trans), New York: Penguin, 1995, revised edition.

[18] Butler, J., 1736, Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Nature, London: Knapton.

[19]

[20] Schellenberg, J.L. 2010a, “The Hiddenness Problem and the Problem of Evil”, Faith and Philosophy, 27(1): 45–60.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Schellenberg, J.L. 2015, The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God, New York: Oxford University Press. 23-34.

[23] At the very least, is it not more plausible that there exists one nonresistant nonbeliever in our world? It certainly seems that it is more likely than not that this is the case (if not incredibly likely that this is the case)

[24] The Principle of Charity is at play here, which means that we need to try our best to give the most charitable interpretation possible to the author of a claim, argument, etc.

[25] Schellenberg, J.L., 2015, The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God, New York: Oxford University Press.

[26] Moser, P. 2004, “Divine Hiddenness Does Not Justify Atheism”, and “Reply to Schellenberg”, in Peterson and VanArragon 2004: 42–54, 56–58.

[27] Schellenberg, J.L., 2004, “Divine Hiddenness Justifies Atheism” and “Reply to Moser”, in Peterson and VanArragon 2004: 30–41, 54–56.

[28] When someone is open to God they are choosing to not be closed to the evidence for God.  While someone cannot choose what they believe in a direct way, they can do so in an indirect way in the sense of choosing to investigate or explore an issue further, doing research, and not closing one’s mind to the evidence that they have been presented with.

[29] Schellenberg, J.L., 2015, The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God, New York: Oxford University Press.

[30] Schellenberg, J.L., 2015, The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God, New York: Oxford University Press.

[31] William Rowe wonders why God, if God exists, would not comfort humans more in instances of horrendous suffering. This reply was in response to the skeptical theism objection. If there are good reasons for why God allows suffering, would he not tell us these reasons when we are going through very difficult suffering? If we cannot understand these reasons, would God at least tell us that there are reasons? And would God not, at the very least, be there to comfort us in instances of horrendous suffering that seem pointless?

[32] In the same light, Schellenberg’s argument itself could be cast in an inductive manner or as an inference to the best explanation type of argument. (IBE/abduction).

[33] Taber, Tyler, and Tyler Dalton McNabb. “Is the Problem of Divine Hiddenness a Problem for the Reformed Epistemologist?.” The Heythrop Journal (2015).

[34]J.L. Schellenberg, 2015, The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God, New York: Oxford University Press.

[35]Ibid.

[36] There have been some who challenge the premise that there exists nonresistant nonbelief. I do not see any problem with the premise, and it seems obviously true. Schellenberg has dedicated time to defending the premise by giving analogies and noting the fact in history that many people did not even have a concept of an all-loving, all-powerful being. It certainly would be hard to show that there have never been any nonresistant nonbelievers.

[37] J.L. Schellenberg, 2007a, The Wisdom to Doubt, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[38] Ibid.

[39] One might get the false impression that a “skeptical theist” is a person that is a skeptical person, or that it is a person that is skeptical about the existence of God but nevertheless believes anyway.

[40] McBrayer, Justin P. “Skeptical Theism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed November 28, 2016. http://www.iep.utm.edu/skept-th/.

[41] McBrayer, J. and Philip Swenson, 2012, “Scepticism About the Argument from Divine Hiddenness”, Religious Studies, 48(2): 129–150.

[42]

[43] McBrayer, J. and Philip Swenson, 2012, “Scepticism About the Argument from Divine Hiddenness”, Religious Studies, 48(2): 129–150.

[44] Some might object that it is not obvious that an unbeliever can go their whole life without being resistant to God, but this objection is not applicable to the strongest version of Schellenberg’s argument. That version states that there will not be any nonresistant nonbelief for anyone at any point in their life.

[45] J.L. Schellenberg, 2015, The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God, New York: Oxford University Press.

[46] Ibid.

[47] We can think of the free will defense as an example. It is logically impossible for God to make someone freely do something (if one is being forced to do something, they have no choice or say in the matter!). By “free” we are speaking of free will in the libertarian sense of free will.

[48]

[49] There are many critiques against skeptical theism per se.

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