One of the more challenging arguments against the existence of God by atheists is the one which comes from the problem of divine hiddenness. From the claim of theism is the belief that God exists as all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. Yet with these attributes of God, the skeptic to theism would point to the seemingly uncomfortable issue of the presence of evil in this world which God has created and continues to be responsible for. This issue is like a giant pink elephant in the room, argues the atheist, demanding that the theist give an account for it. Along with this difficulty, the skeptic points to a related issue which further compounds the problem of evil, which is the apparent silence and hiddenness of the Creator. It would certainly seem, says the atheist, that if He is indeed all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, then He would speak up and do something to stop it.
Much has been written by theists and philosophers over the years in order to answer the skeptics regarding this issue, which would seem on the surface to give credibility to their atheistic position. One such person is Michael Rea, who is the professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and author of the beneficial article, Divine Hiddenness, Divine Silence. In this essay, Rea’s article will be given a fair, accurate, and brief overview of its logical structure, along with several key points favorably supporting the strength of his argument, and then closing with a few personal observations which will hopefully serve to contribute further to the development and movement of Rea’s argument in order to help skeptics understand that the seeming problem of divine hiddenness is not a very strong argument against the existence of God at all.
An Assessment of Rea’s Article
First, in order to answer the protest of some which the supposed problem of the divine hiddenness of God presents to God’s existence, the article by Michael Rea needs to be given fair and objective consideration. In order to do this, the rational thought of his argument must be understood, which consists of a warm-hearted introduction to the problem of hiddenness, its problem in the world, and three strategies toward a resolution of the problem.
At the outset of his article, Rea provides a compassionate and fair assessment of the difficulty that our human perception of the silence of God can bring. He uses the example of Mother Teresa, whom much of the world would agree was a person close to the heart of God. But in this example, he points out that it was revealed in some of her private writings published in 2007, that she struggled deeply with a sense of silence from God. She writes, “Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of your love – and now become as the most hated one – the one You have thrown away as unwanted-unloved. I call, I cling, I want – and there is no One to answer – no One on Whom I can cling, no, No-one. Alone.” (Kolodiejchuk, 2007). This example from Mother Teresa serves to help identify the topic and present it in a very sober light.
Rea goes on from here to point to divine hiddenness as ammunition used by atheists, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, to support their skepticism and rejection of Christianity. But even though this experience, or rather lack of experience with God, may seem to support their rejection of the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God, Rea asks the question, why is hiddenness incompatible with the existence of the God of the Bible? As he unpacks his argument, he begins with the supposition that God exists. With the supposition that God exists, further assumptions are understood, namely, that from a metaphysical perspective it means that eventually mankind should encounter the God who is, at one level or another. Furthermore, these encounters it would be assumed should be vivid and tangible (Rea &Pojman, 2015).
This stands in contrast to the problem of the hiddenness and silence of abstract characters, such as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Their hiddenness and silence is not a problem at all since they are imaginary creatures and are not expected to reveal themselves in vivid and tangible ways. Why do parents have to pretend to respond to letters written by little children to Santa Claus to cover up his silence? The reason is because Santa does not exist. Rea then argues rationally that since God is not imaginary, mankind’s experience with Him should have conclusive evidence, or that such attributes of God’s love and presence should be widely available, since after all, He is real and omnipresent, not like the imaginary ubiquity of Santa Claus who supposedly traverses the globe in a single evening. But, for the skeptic, they see no contrast in this comparison because in the face of very real and present evil, desperate suffering, and personal struggle, there seems to be the conspicuous absence of a God who should be speaking and doing something about it, but yet, He seems to be silent. Or is He?
To answer the problem of divine hiddenness, Rea provides three strategies to resolve the dilemma. The first strategy is entitled, Conclusive Evidence, which argues against the idea that God is mostly silent and hidden from mankind. Quoting from Romans chapter one, Rea points to the clear ubiquity of God seen through creation and through mankind’s conscience. Furthermore, he points to the apostle Paul’s observation that the true problem is not insufficient evidence of God’s existence, but rather it is the sinful heart of mankind, which strives to suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-22). Therefore, based on conclusive evidence for the existence of God which has been clearly given to all of humanity, this first strategy points out that the problem of hiddenness does not lie with God, but with man who, like an alcoholic in denial, “want so badly not to see the truth that you suppress it and convince yourself that things are how you want them to be” (Rea & Pojman, 2015).
The second strategy which resolves the problem of divine hiddenness presented by Rea is entitled, Good Reason. Taking the proposition of the last strategy which places the burden of proof upon man and not God, Rea predicts a potential rebuttal by addressing the assumption that it is God’s responsibility to wake man up out of this rebellious blindness and deafness, therefore, why does He often silently allow men to continue in their Romans chapter one rebellion, thus reintroducing the problem of divine hiddenness and maintaining the skeptics argument that it still exists despite mankind’s responsibility. Rea provides two insights as to why God allows this and qualifies them further as good reasons, since after all, God is all-good even in the midst of evil and suffering. The first reason is man-centered and approaches the dilemma from the perspective similar to a loving parent who is training and educating their child toward the maturity and fulfillment of who they have been called to be as adults. Within God’s hiddenness, His good purpose for remaining silent at times is suggested by Rea as being fourfold: for personal freedom for growth by responding to what God has already specifically revealed and spoken, to develop a non, self-interested love for God so that He will be loved for the proper reasons and not because of selfishness, to develop the virtues of godly longing in the human soul in order that fallen man would reclaim the true-north perspective of loving God above all other things, and finally to teach God’s creatures that He is Lord of all and cannot be manipulated by lesser beings. In this way, Rea points to one of God’s good reasons for hiddenness as being man-centered.
The second good reason suggested is that hiddenness is for God’s sake which he develops in greater detail under its own title, The Personality of God. In this third and final strategy, he suggests that the silence of God is simply an expression of His personality. He develops this argument from the perspective that our interpretation of God’s behavior requires more information than merely our biases and assumptions about His character. Though there is much revealed about the Lord from Scripture which can be trusted, it is also taught that there is much we do not know about Him, nor can be comprehended from the human position of finiteness. Therefore, it would be dangerously presumptuous of humans to reach a conclusion that God does not exist based on unwarranted assumptions.
To illustrate this, Rea provides an example of a student who happens to be a genius and an introvert. For her, most of her time is pleasantly spent in analytical thought and intellectual pursuits. For these reasons, some of her fellow classmates interpret her lack of social skills to be a personality which is cold, distant, and even snobbish. But this would be a mistake if it was found out later that she is actually quite caring, compassionate, and conversational when given the proper social environment among peers of like-mindedness. It is just that her personality is different than what is considered to be normal. In this way, more concrete information is needed to reach a proper assessment of her true personality instead of assuming the least common denominator. Rea applies this example and its principles to the personality of God. Just because the Lord may seem to be silent should in no way force us to assume that He is uncaring, unfeeling, or inconsiderate. There could be, in fact mostly likely is, more information needed before an accurate interpretation can be achieved.
The human perspective regarding God often tends to fall into error because it forgets the position of humanity. Mankind has been created in God’s image, and not the other way around. God is a transcendent and supernatural being who has chosen to reveal Himself to mankind, yet He remains the One who declares, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Therefore, forcing God to conform to mankind’s assumptions and biases seriously damages the ability to accurately know God, which no doubt includes His good reasons for divine hiddenness.
Along with this, Rea again picks up on the principle established in the first strategy, namely, that God has chosen to reveal Himself with clear conclusive evidence which is further illustrated through often overlooked experiential means such as the liturgical practices of the Church. What mankind assumes and expects to be the only proper way for God to communicate can cause it to miss the greater privilege of communion with Him. In this final argument, Rea points out that what atheists are looking for in verbal communication, God has provided in spiritual communion which best represents His personality, perfection, and beauty.
Strength of Argument, No Further Evidence Necessary
The logical, rational flow of thought presented by Michael Rea in his article gives one much to consider, especially for those who would attempt to use the concept of divine hiddenness as an argument against the existence of God. One of the strengths of Rea’s article is given in his explanation of what the human expectations are that should serve as God’s non-hiddenness. The Lord has revealed Himself in some very specific ways such as nature, the human conscience, Scripture, miracles, and personal testimony. But interestingly, many demand that there needs to be more evidence for His existence than what mankind has actually been given. But as Moreland and Craig argue, this should be rejected as fallacious logic which is based more on an imbalanced view of natural theology. Instead, they offer a more reasonable perspective, saying, “some atheists have argued that God, if He existed, would have prevented the world’s unbelief by making His existence starkly apparent. But why should God want to do such a thing? As Paul Moser has emphasized, on the Christian view it is actually a matter of relative indifference to God whether people believe that He exists or not” (Moreland & Craig, 2017). They go on to say, “there is no reason at all to think that if God were to make His existence more manifest, more people would come into a saving relationship with Him. Mere showmanship will not bring about a change in the human heart” (Moreland & Craig, 2017).
This is pointed out very well from the words of Jesus in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in the gospel according to Luke. The rich man who found himself in torment after dying is pleading to have someone sent back from the dead in order to warn his relatives and loved ones to repent because God is real, and His judgment is eternally just. But the response is very telling of God’s understanding of the sinful human condition of the heart which will not be swayed by more evidence than what has already been ordained to be given, namely, in this situation, the Old Testament Scriptures. Luke records the conversation like this. “‘If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:30-31).
Further Momentum and Final Plea
In addition to Rea’s argument, in an attempt to hopefully add forward momentum to what he has articulated so well, it seems that the sinfulness of mankind could be developed further within the context of the Christian worldview in order to provide further perspective for the one who is skeptical. Divine hiddenness assumes that God exists, and that He exists with the attributes of being all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. Within this lies the further assumption that there is an expectation that this God will experientially reveal Himself vividly and tangibly. This is all true and provides for strong argument. But what may be lacking at this point which the atheist has not considered is what if the problem does not lay with God, but with mankind? What if, as Scripture would teach, mankind is born with the prenatal (actually preconceptual) condition which is utterly sinful, wholly ungodly, and deceptively wicked? As a result of this, what if mankind has become dulled to the evidential revelation of God which would be described using such terms as blind and deaf? Furthermore, what if this blind and deaf condition of mankind also serves to feed a sinister deception in which mankind learns to simultaneously love its dark condition and fear its position in the scope of the created universe; thus, desperately desiring to subdue any attempts which threaten to pull it out of the darkness, including the clear conclusive evidence that God is not silent but instead is shouting through the means which He has already ordained that He exists and He is Lord? If such things were true, it would therefore place the responsibility and burden on the shoulders of mankind, not God.
In fact, this is exactly what Scripture teaches concerning mankind’s situation. The prophet Jeremiah teaches a very important point regarding the condition of the human heart. “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Therefore, in light of this, what may seem to the skeptic that God is hidden or silent, thus proving He does not exist, must take into consideration the deceitfulness of a sinful heart that may be missing or suppressing the obvious. Instead, it must be understood that God has clearly spoken to the world in the most incredible way possible through His Son, Jesus Christ, as Hebrews makes plain. “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:1-3). In all honesty, this in no way sounds like a God who is hidden nor silent.In this article, the supposedly difficult problem of divine hiddenness has been defined and discussed in light of Michael Rea’s argument and strategies to explain why it may seem that God is silent in the midst of the evil and suffering which infects so much of the world. While skeptics and atheists may try to deny God’s existence based on hiddenness, it has been shown that this assumption is not based on sound logic and indeed is actually quite dangerous. Instead, may those who sense a divine hiddenness from the Lord in their difficulties and trials seek to understand why it could be this way by asking hard questions about themselves. At the same time, may those who find themselves wrestling with the evil of this world and wondering why they feel so alone in it, realize with great joy that the greatest and most sufficient revelation pointing to the existence of the ever-present God has already been shown in Jesus Christ, who is Emmanuel, God with us.
Kolodiejchuk, B. (2007). Mother Teresa: Come be my light. New York, NY: Doubleday Publishing.
Moreland, J.P., & Craig, W. L. (2017). Philosophical foundations for a Christian worldview (2nd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. ISBN-13: 9780830851874
Rea, J., & Pojman, L. (2015). Philosophy of religion: An anthology. Stamford, CT: Cengage. ISBN 9781285197326-Custom