In this interview, apologist and Word on Fire Institute Fellow Matt Nelson sits down with Dr. Travis Dumsday, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University of Edmonton, Canada. They discuss the problem of divine hiddenness as presented by atheists for proof of God’s nonexistence and how Christians might respond with clarity and logic to such a compelling objection to God.
Matt Nelson: What is the problem of divine hiddenness, and why has it gained so much attention in recent years?
Dr. Travis Dumsday: Going back to the patristic era, Christian thinkers have wondered why it is that God permits a state of affairs in which a great many people fail to believe in his existence, whether pagans or atheists or agnostics. Why doesn’t God just make his reality obvious to everyone, such that no one could rationally doubt or deny the truth of theism? That sort of question sparked a lot of reflection concerning the ways of providence and why God structured revelation in the way he did. Various Church Fathers talk about this issue, including Origen, Gregory Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, and Maximus the Confessor.
But this general sort of question can also be shifted away from being an in-house matter for debate amongst Christian theologians and toward something quite different: an argument for atheism. And that’s what the problem of divine hiddenness (PDH) has become in contemporary philosophy of religion.
There are lots of ways to sum up the essential line of reasoning, but here’s one simple way to frame it:
Premise 1: If God really existed, then there would be no blameless agnostics or atheists.
Premise 2: But there are lots of blameless agnostics and atheists.
Conclusion: Therefore, God doesn’t really exist.
By way of clarification, “blameless” here doesn’t mean “blameless in every way” or “sinless” but simply “blameless with respect to their agnosticism or atheism.” We’re talking about people who, through no fault of their own, fail to believe in God (or actively disbelieve in God).
The justification for P2 is supposed to be empirical observation. There seem to be a lot of people out there who fit that description. The principal justification for P1 is the idea that God is supposed to be perfectly loving, and love entails the seeking of open, conscious relationship. So if God were actually there, he would ensure that everyone able and willing to engage in a relationship with him would, at all times, be able to do so. But that requires awareness of God’s existence. So God would make sure that all such people always had a rationally indubitable awareness of his existence. (How? Who knows, maybe by way of widespread religious experiences or global miracles or some innate, unshakeable intuition of divine reality.) But that’s just not the situation on the ground, so to speak. So God isn’t real.
I think one reason why the PDH has gotten a lot of attention over the past few decades is that it was largely neglected in the analytic literature prior to the 1990s. Not entirely, but largely. There are multiple reasons for that neglect with a key one being the outsized role of logical positivism within analytic philosophy up through the 1960s. (Basically, while logical positivism is anti-religious, you can’t run the PDH on positivist principles. From a positivist perspective, the PDH is hopeless as an argument. So serious discussion of the PDH had to wait until positivism was thoroughly dead and buried, as it was by the early 1990s.)
Few Christian scholars have written more extensively on divine hiddenness than you. What is it about this topic that intrigues you so much?
One of the things that keeps me intrigued is my prior interest in what is (arguably) a correlative argument for theism: the argument from religious experience. Basically, one rational ground for believing in God is that lots and lots of sane, trustworthy people claim to have encountered him. You can forge a powerful argument for theism on that experiential basis, and there’s been plenty of great work on this in recent decades (e.g., by Phillip Wiebe, Keith Yandell, Richard Swinburne, William Alston). The PDH might be seen as almost the flip-side of this: What can we say to those who haven’t had that experiential contact, and who can’t bring themselves to accept the testimony of those who have? That is, what can we say to those for whom God seems hidden? And why are there any such people in the first place—why doesn’t God show himself to everyone unambiguously (if that’s possible)?
I’m not saying that the pro-theism argument from religious experience can’t be run unless we first have a solution to the PDH. But I think that the argument from religious experience is liable to be strengthened if we can come up with something at least semi-plausible to say in response to the PDH.
Is there a difference between the problem of divine hiddenness and the problem of evil?
There is some debate about this, but in my opinion, they are quite distinct. The problem of evil is the question of how a good, all-powerful, all-knowing God could justly permit the many kinds and degrees of sin and suffering we see in the world. Atheists claim that there can’t be any adequate justification for this permission (or, more modestly, that there probably can’t be any adequate justification). But the PDH can be considered independently of this. As Peter van Inwagen has pointed out, we can imagine a world where the problem of evil doesn’t obtain, but the PDH does, and vice versa. That is, we can imagine a world devoid of sin and suffering (a sort of earthly utopia) but where everyone lacks a belief in God, through no fault of their own. The PDH could be run in such a world—but not the problem of evil. We can also imagine a world filled to bursting with sin and suffering but where the existence of God was indubitably obvious to all. In such a world, the PDH couldn’t be run, but people might still wonder why God would permit all the sin and suffering. Anyway, it seems like the two arguments can be run independently of each other, and that’s enough to render them distinct.
What is the best response to the problem of divine hiddenness?
I am not sure whether there is a single best response to the PDH. There may, in fact, be multiple overlapping reasons why a good God permits widespread, blameless nonbelief. My own approach to the problem has been to explore a whole series of potential reasons, rather than focusing on a single strategy of response. (I suspect something similar may be obtained with respect to the problem of evil; there may be a whole variety of reasons why God justly permits various kinds of sin and suffering.)
Here is an example of a reply I’ve explored, one which has deep historical roots going back to the early Church Fathers I mentioned above: perhaps God refrains from granting us rationally indubitable awareness of his reality/presence because doing so would worsen our moral culpability. Sin is bad, but sin committed in a state of partial ignorance is less bad than sin in a state of full knowledge. The more evidence we’re given, the more accountability we have. Now, you might think that if God were to give us such evidence, if he were to manifest himself openly before us, then we’d shape up and stop sinning. Maybe. Or maybe the biblical records have a clearer perception of human nature.
Look at the book of Exodus. Think of all the wonders done before the eyes of the Israelites. And what followed shortly thereafter? The golden calf, and severe punishment. Maybe God grants most of us ambiguity because most of us are just like the Israelites: if we were granted an open awareness of the divine glory, we’d just heap further condemnation on ourselves by sinning openly in the face of that glory. In other words, we’re going to do nasty things either way, but at least in a state of religious ambiguity, we’re not racking up the same level of guilt as we would in a state of full knowledge. (For a relevant New Testament passage on this same idea, check out Matthew 11:20-24.) So divine hiddenness may be rooted in divine mercy.
Relatedly, I’m inclined to think that there are different levels of replies to the PDH where the levels may be more or less appropriate to more or less clear understandings of who God is. Some of us have very limited conceptions of God—perhaps not quite heretical but inaccurate because overly limited. Some replies to the PDH won’t make sense on such conceptions.
Besides the arguments from evil and divine hiddenness, are there any other arguments for atheism that also deserve our serious attention today?
Absolutely. I think the delayed life argument is quite interesting, for instance. (That is, if God supposedly created the universe and fine-tuned it for life, why was it set up in such a way that it took thirteen billion years for life to arise? And why is so much of the universe totally inhospitable to life?) I’ve done some work on that issue too, and it warrants further attention. There are also the perennial arguments regarding the coherence of theism, that God’s existence is impossible due to an inherent contradiction between essential divine attributes. Some of these arguments are quite clever, though they tend to carry less existential heft. The average person might have some sleepless nights wondering why God permits suffering or why God seems hidden, but they are less likely to get stressed out over whether atemporality is compatible with omnipresence.
Any book recommendations?
In terms of apologetics-type stuff, I just finished reading Joshua Rasmussen’s 2019 book with IVP Academic, How Reason Can Lead to God: A Philosopher’s Bridge to Faith. He does a nice job of rendering accessible what is really quite a technically sophisticated cosmological argument for theism. Definitely also check out Andrew Loke’s 2020 book Investigating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A New Transdisciplinary Approach. On another topic area, for anyone with an interest in culture-of-life issues, be sure to pre-order many, many copies of my Assisted Suicide in Canada: Moral, Legal, and Policy Considerations. It’s just about to go into print from the University of British Columbia Press. I’ve also got a completed book manuscript on Marian apparitions in the modern Coptic Orthodox Church, which is currently under review with one of the seminary presses. I’m hoping it will soon be accepted for publication and appear in print later this year. So if you’re interested in religious experiences, keep your eyes open for that one.