Divine Hiddenness and Free Will

Atheists (and theists) wonder why — since it is the case that theists profess God wants everyone to believe he exists – God simply doesn’t unequivocally reveal himself so that persons can ‘enter into a relationship’ with God, no longer doubt, stop fighting one another because of religious differences, and go to Heaven. An all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing god should have no problem revealing himself to persons and should want to do so considering he is all-loving [he wants persons to avoid Hell and enter into Heaven]. Why, then, doesn’t God just stop playing hide-and-seek and reveal himself?

‘Free will defenses’ are typically given to explain divine hiddenness. Some variations of free will defenses to explain divine hiddenness and other ideas worth considering are as follows:

  • (1) Humans would not have free will if God unequivocally revealed himself.
  • (2) If God provided too much evidence to attest to his existence, persons would not be able to enter into a union with God properly because persons would be compelled to believe.
  • (3) Faith is important and is only possible if God doesn’t unequivocally reveal himself.
  • (4) If people unequivocally knew that God existed, they wouldn’t make morally significant decisions; people must choose good over evil rather than being compelled to do so.
  • (5) God can’t intervene often because there would be no stable natural regularities. (Swinburne argue this although this is probably more relevant to natural and moral evil theodicies).
  • (6) We can’t know the mind of God. God has some reason to remain hidden, but we are simply not aware of it.
  • (7) Why expect God to reveal himself? It is the responsibility of humans to find God, not God’s responsibility to reveal himself to humans.

I will respond to these six defenses and note further problems that theists face in which they simply can’t ‘have it both ways.’

Defense (1): Humans would not have free will if God unequivocally revealed himself.

Defense (1) is probably the most common defense that is given to explain divine hiddenness. Theists maintain that free will is supremely important and that this must be maintained no matter what. This ‘free will defense’ is also commonly given to explain moral evil even when, for example, someone’s free will is being ‘violated’ by the actions of others. For instance, if someone is being raped, God won’t intervene, the theist says, because the free will of the rapist is important to maintain. All of this aside, let’s consider this defense more thoroughly.

Is it really the case that persons would lose free will if God unequivocally revealed himself? I’m quite skeptical. Many persons today will profess that God does exist and really do believe. Some, for whatever reason, will attest that their belief in God is warranted, profess belief in Heaven and Hell, and believe that their sins could result in eternal torment. Despite all of this, theists who profess very strong beliefs continue to sin. While God hasn’t unequivocally revealed himself to everyone, these people will believe that God has revealed himself through the ‘design’ of the universe, an answered prayer, or something else…and they still sin. Additionally, these people, theists will allege, still have free will. It seems that defense (1), then, fails.

Would people suddenly be physically or logically unable to perform certain actions if God revealed himself? What good reasons do we have for believing this? Theists may argue that some behavior [or all behavior] may change, but I am quite skeptical of this. I’m additionally quite skeptical of the idea that such behavioral changes would not be the result of free choice. (Let’s assume, for sake of this argument, that theistic definitions of free will are tenable.)

Perhaps the theist, at this point, will argue “Even though these people profess belief, it’s not a belief that is the result of an unequivocal revelation of God. If God unequivocally revealed himself, the world would be a much different place and persons would not freely believe in God.” While it would very likely be the case that many non-believers (and/or persons who are theists, but don’t really seem to care about adhering to ‘God’s law’) would believe that God existed if he unequivocally revealed himself, I doubt that the believers who are currently really, really, really confident that God exists would act much differently. ‘Free’ or ‘not free,’ it seems that the behavior of those who are really, really, really confident that God exists would remain the same. Are we to believe that these people are simply ‘faking it’ and don’t really believe as they profess (or something else)?

I and many other atheists are aware that even if a, say, 400 foot Jesus were to march through the skies and mountains were to spin around in the sky, there would still be reasons to be skeptical. Perhaps some advanced alien technology that we are unaware of is causing us to imagine that the event is happening or the display itself is the result of such technology. If I were to see something that did not seem to adhere with what I currently know about the universe, I wouldn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that God exists. I’d approach this matter very carefully and would not jump to conclusions. If I were to believe in God after the result of a careful process and investigation, would the theist [who believes in free will] honestly say that my belief was not a result of free choices?

Defense (2): If God provided too much evidence to attest to his existence, persons would not be able to enter into a union with God properly because persons would be compelled to believe.

Defense (2) is quite suspect primarily because believers believe there is currently enough evidence to believe in God (thus they believe). What, exactly, is ‘too much evidence,’ anyway… and how is that different than enough evidence? Believers will point to the currently available evidence as ‘overwhelming’ by noting that the universe seems designed by God (look at the trees, stupid!), the resurrection of Jesus happened and there is historical information to attest to this, God answers prayers, the universe is fine-tuned, other miracles occurred, etc. Are we to believe that this current ‘evidence’ compels people to believe when many people simply are not convinced by it?

This idea of entering into a proper union with God, in this light, is interesting. Apparently, since an overwhelming amount of evidence currently exists, according to theists, no one is able to properly enter into union with God.

Perhaps to be more charitable, let us assume that some theists admit that the current evidence for God is not overwhelming (or not even convincing enough to believe) and belief is had only by faith. This would be quite an awkward admission because the belief, then, would only be justified (somehow) because of faith. On the theist’s own admission, there is no evidence sufficient to warrant belief. If this is the case, what sort of evidence that God can produce possibly warrant belief? Why would ‘the game’ suddenly change if God were to produce the evidence?

Perhaps the theist, answering this, might say, “I have granted that there is no current evidence to warrant belief in God, but there could be some evidence to warrant belief in God that God could produce. God revealing himself would be that evidence.” I still, though, don’t think that such evidence would compel people to believe or somehow take away their ability to disbelieve.

Defense (3): Faith is important and is only possible if God doesn’t unequivocally reveal himself.

Defense (3) assumes that faith is important and seems to assume that without faith, belief in God is worthless. Why is this the case? Is not belief the important thing regardless of faith? Are those who currently believe and do not profess faith (but rather profess that arguments alone are good enough reason to believe) somehow ‘doing it wrong?’ Will these people not enter into a proper union with God?

Defense (4): If people unequivocally knew that God existed, they wouldn’t make morally significant decisions; people must choose good over evil rather than being compelled to do so.

Defense (4) fails for some reasons noted above and namely because persons currently profess that the evidence of God is overwhelming…and these people still are able to make ‘morally significant decisions.’ Are we to believe that those who currently believe in God based on what they consider to be overwhelming evidence are being compelled to make certain decisions? A common idea that theists propose is that people would refrain from sinning if there were overwhelming evidence for God, but this obviously is not the case because people who believe there is overwhelming evidence continue to sin. Additionally, such persons who unequivocally believe note that ‘nothing will change their mind’ and that God’s existence is quite obvious; such persons believe God has already unequivocally revealed himself. Again, as I mentioned, I find great difficulty believing that the behavior of persons would not be the result of free choice [assuming free will exists] if God unequivocally revealed himself.

Defense (5): God can’t intervene often because there would be no stable natural regularities. (Swinburne argue this although this is probably more relevant to natural and moral evil theodicies).

Defense (5) is very suspect and ignores the fact that God is all-powerful and all-knowing. Why should we assume that there would be no natural regularities if God intervened in human affairs? Suppose that God were to strike down Hitler in order to prevent World War II (and such an action would indeed stop World War II). Would we then believe that this would suddenly entail that there would be no natural regularities? I don’t see any good reasons to believe so.

The idea of God’s intervention removing natural regularities (or, perhaps, to be more charitable, causing us to believe that some natural regularities might not be constant) seems quite funny [and leading to special pleading] considering that theists believe God has intervened in human affairs including but not limited to God raising Jesus from the dead. Some theists also believe that God answers prayers that would interfere with the free will of other persons. If theists maintain that Jesus raising from the dead and God’s answering of prayer doesn’t take away free will or natural regularities, how can they possibly maintain that God’s intervention in there here and now, the future, or even in the past (minus the miracles, of course) would take away free will or natural regularities? The theist, it seems, would be forced to argue — if he/she were to maintain that God’s intervention would not take away free will or natural regularities – that free will ‘works differently’ from time to time, God’s intervention in times past somehow did not take away free will, the free will of people in times past was not cherished like it is for people today, or something else.

Defense (6): We can’t know the mind of God. God has some reason to remain hidden, but we are simply not aware of it.

Defense (6) can always pop up in almost any discussion about God. This ‘mystery card’ claims that there is some unknown, undetectable reason that God might have for failing to reveal himself in this case. We can, though, think of many really good reasons God would have for revealing himself and see, when other defenses are presented, that such defenses do not give us reason to believe God has a good reason to remain hidden (and argue that lack of evidence, reason, and argument supporting God’s existence gives us good reason to not believe). Why should this ‘unknown, undetectable reason’ be permitted for the Christian god and not others? For all we know, every possible god for whom we currently have no good reason to believe exists has their own reasons to remain hidden. Who are you to question the minds of every possible god? I go into more detail with the ‘You can’t know the mind of God’ defense here.

Defense (7)Why expect God to reveal himself? It is the responsibility of humans to find God, not God’s responsibility to reveal himself to humans.

This objection largely misses the point of the problem of divine hiddenness to being with: if God is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful, why shouldn’t he reveal himself to humans? If the theist contests that it is the responsibility of humans to find God, this doesn’t address the problem, but only shifts the responsibility. Further, if humans are to find God, doesn’t this mean that God should have devised a more effective way of aiding humans to this goal? The ‘ball’ is back in ‘God’s court.’

Framing this in terms of responsibility might also be unhelpful. The problem really isn’t about responsibility, but rather is that God — since he is all-loving and all-powerful — has no good reason to remain hidden and has every reason to make himself known.

When we don’t find a good reason to believe a proposition, the proper response is to not accept the claim. If we can’t think of a possible reason for God not revealing himself (and additionally find no reasons to believe God exists), we’re quite justified in not believing that the Christian god exists. Even if we can devise a reason for God remaining hidden, this doesn’t, of course, mean that God exists. With lack of a reason for God to remain hidden and a lack of a reason to believe God exists, the theist faces two major problems.

The common defenses theists give to answer the problem of divine hiddenness fail. Theists believe that persons would lose their free will if God unequivocally revealed himself, but this simply is not the case. The variations of this free will response to the problem of divine hiddenness are not sufficient for one to believe that God has a good reason to remain hidden. Additionally, the idea that natural regularities can only be had if God remained hidden fails. Finally, the common ‘mystery card,’ if this works for the Christian god, would have to work for every other possible god.

My second post in this ‘series’ is here.