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Universalism and Nonresistant Nonbelief

December 14, 2023

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While the problem of evil is undoubtedly the most famous argument for atheism, a related argument from divine hiddenness has, in recent years, also been quite prominent. The argument from divine hiddenness has been articulated by the philosopher J.L. Schellenberg, and a number of prominent atheist YouTubers such as Alex O’Connor, Justin Schieber, and others have appealed to his argument to argue against the existence of God. Schellenberg’s argument hinges on the notion of so-called “nonresistant nonbelievers”—i.e., people who are open to belief in God but yet do not believe in him. I will outline the argument in one of its popular forms and examine it in light of the question of universal salvation.

The Argument

Alex O’Connor, in a recent debate, put the argument like this:

  1. If God exists, he is all-loving.
  2. If an all-loving God exists, nonresistant nonbelievers would not exist.
  3. Nonresistant nonbelievers do exist.
  4. Therefore, an all-loving God does not exist.
  5. Therefore God does not exist.

Clearly, premises (2) and (3) are the key ones in this argument. For the sake of this discussion, we can grant the truth of (3) and focus on some reasons why (2) might be false. That is, why an all-loving God who wants relationships with his creatures would allow nonresistant nonbelievers to exist. We will examine this in light of the question of universalism—i.e., the belief that all human persons will ultimately be saved by God. By looking at both a positive and negative answer to the question of universalism, we can see some plausible reasons God would allow for nonresistant nonbelief.

The true force of the argument comes by means of the eternal significance of having a relationship with God.

If Universalism Is True

Suppose for the sake of argument that universalism is true—that is, all human persons will ultimately come to share eternal life with God and enjoy the beatific vision. If universalism is true, then ultimately, all people do come to know God and come to be in a loving relationship with him. Thus, ultimately, there will be no nonresistant nonbelievers even though, per our concession, some exist at present. In this case, what is the force of the argument from divine hiddenness? It seems to me that the only way the argument can succeed is if the atheist insists that, for any person who is open to belief in God, God must, at that very instant, bring it about that the person believes in God. If God waited even five seconds to make the person a believer, it would somehow contradict his loving nature.

This suggestion seems altogether implausible to me. Surely in his infinite wisdom, God has reasons for allowing someone to remain in unbelief for a short time. And since we are considering universalism, all of our temporal lives are, in comparison with eternity, very short. We can plausibly hold that God has reasons for allowing someone to persist in unbelief. It requires little effort to come up with at least a few reasons.

Here is just one possible set of reasons:

Virtually everyone would agree that it is good for people to go through trials and struggles in life and in relationships in particular. Perhaps by allowing us to remain in ignorance of his existence for some time, we are forced to reflect more deeply on our lives and the world more broadly and to seek God more closely than we would have if his existence were more obvious to us. Such a search might develop certain virtues in us like perseverance. It may also make us better evangelists to others who themselves struggle with doubts and disbelief. Even our belief in God might be stronger than it would have been otherwise, since we would have gone through a more rigorous search for him. If even one of these is plausible, the argument from hiddenness has problems.

In summary, if universalism is true, there are ultimately no nonresistant nonbelievers. Even if such people exist for a period of time in their mortal lives or even all of their mortal lives, this short period where they struggle in the dark can be a means to goods they would not otherwise have experienced. Thus, it seems, if universalism is true, the argument from nonresistant nonbelief has little to no force.

If Universalism Is False

On the contrary, suppose that universalism is not true and that at least some or all nonbelievers fail to be saved and spend eternity separated from God. I believe this is an implicit premise in arguments from hiddenness, which transforms the argument from divine hiddenness into a specific case of the argument from evil: Why would God allow the seeming injustice of allowing nonresistant nonbelievers to be separated from him for all eternity?

Obviously, much could be said about the Catholic Church’s teaching on salvation regarding non-Catholics, but we can put that aside for this discussion. Let us just assume for the sake of argument that nonresistant nonbelievers cannot be saved and that their nonresistant nonbelief is sufficient for separating them from God for eternity. In this case, the stakes for the unbeliever are much higher than in the case of universalism since their ultimate destiny depends upon putting their faith in God. In this case, surely, the atheist might argue, God would instill belief in these nonresistant nonbelievers.

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But even here, I think the atheist is plausibly wrong. Let us consider John, a nonbeliever who is open to belief in God but nevertheless lives a life far from God’s law and thus receives his just reward at the end of his life. Wouldn’t it have been better if John had believed in God? Perhaps . . . but perhaps not.

Suppose that God chose to give John greater evidence for his existence such that John came to believe that God existed. Suppose further that John, despite knowledge of God and perhaps basic knowledge of God’s commandments, lived the same kind of life as I described above. In this case, God’s judgment on the believer John would be more severe than on the nonbeliever John per the principle that God judges those in accord with the revelation they have received. God then might know the following possibilities:

  1. Create John who as an atheist sins and receives judgment.
  2. Create John who believes that God exists but nevertheless sins and receive a more severe judgment because of increased culpability.

Since in neither scenario does John come into a loving relationship with God, option (1) would seem to be the better since the judgment in (1) is less severe than the judgment in (2). Thus, if God is all merciful as Christians hold, God would plausibly prefer (1) to (2). Thus, on account of God’s mercy, plausibly, there are nonresistant nonbelievers.

Conclusion

It is helpful to examine the argument from divine hiddenness in terms of salvation because it seems that the true force of the argument comes by means of the eternal significance of having a relationship with God. However, when looking at the argument either under a universalist framework or under a non-universalist framework, the argument from divine hiddenness has plausible defeaters. If universalism is true, the argument’s force is significantly reduced because in the end, there are no nonresistant nonbelievers. If universalism is false, then God might plausibly want a person to not come to believe that he exists, if such belief would not lead to further conversion. In this case, such belief would merely increase the person’s culpability for their sins and thus merit more punishment from God. If God is merciful, as the defender of the argument holds, then the existence of nonresistant nonbelievers is not surprising or contradictory with God’s nature. Much more could be said about the argument.

What is presented here briefly are just two possible answers to this question of which there are many more. Some prominent historical Christian writers who have wrestled with this problem are Blaise Pascal and Søren Kierkegaard, whose insights are invaluable.

More recently, many other Christian writers such as Travis Dumsday have written extensively on this topic responding directly to J.L. Schellenberg. A very recent and much longer video discussion on this topic was recently done by the Protestant thinker Gavin Ortlund, which I would recommend: