Why doesn’t God make his existence more obvious to people?

Have you ever heard someone say that if God existed, he would give us more evidence? This is called the “hiddenness of God” argument. It’s also known as the argument from “rational non-belief”.

Basically the argument is something like this:

  1. God is all powerful
  2. God is all loving
  3. God wants all people to know about him
  4. Some people don’t know about him
  5. Therefore, there is no God.

In this argument, the atheist is saying that he’s looked for God real hard and that if God were there, he should have found him by now. After all, God can do anything he wants that’s logically possible, and he wants us to know that he exists. To defeat the argument we need to find a possible explanation of why God would want to remain hidden when our eternal destination depends on our knowledge of his existence.

What reason could God have for remaining hidden?

Dr. Michael Murray, a brilliant professor of philosophy at Franklin & Marshall College, has found a reason for God to remain hidden.

His paper on divine hiddenness is here:
Coercion and the Hiddenness of God“, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 30, 1993.

He argues that if God reveals himself too much to people, he takes away our freedom to make morally-significant decisions, including responding to his self-revelation to us. Murray argues that God stays somewhat hidden, so that he gives people space to either 1) respond to God, or 2) avoid God so we can keep our autonomy from him. God places a higher value on people having the free will to respond to him, and if he shows too much of himself he takes away their free choice to respond to him, because once he is too overt about his existence, people will just feel obligated to belief in him in order to avoid being punished.

But believing in God just to avoid punishment is NOT what God wants for us. If it is too obvious to us that God exists and that he really will judge us, then people will respond to him and behave morally out of self-preservation. But God wants us to respond to him out of interest in him, just like we might try to get to know someone we admire. God has to dial down the immediacy of the threat of judgment, and the probability that the threat is actual. That leaves it up to us to respond to God’s veiled revelation of himself to us, in nature and in Scripture.

(Note: I think that we don’t seek God on our own, and that he must take the initiative to reach out to us and draw us to him. But I do think that we are free to resist his revelation, at which point God stops himself short of coercing our will. We are therefore responsible for our own fate).

The atheist’s argument is a logical/deductive argument. It aims to show that there is a contradiction between God’s will for us and his hiding from us. In order to derive a contradiction, God MUST NOT have any possible reason to remain hidden. If he has a reason for remaining hidden that is consistent with his goodness, then the argument will not go through.

When Murray offers a possible reason for God to remain hidden in order to allow people to freely respond to him, then the argument is defeated. God wants people to respond to him freely so that there is a genuine love relationship – not coercion by overt threat of damnation. To rescue the argument, the atheist has to be able to prove that God could provide more evidence of his existence without interfering with the free choice of his creatures to reject him.

More of Michael Murray’s work

Murray has defended the argument in works published by prestigious academic presses such as Cambridge University Press, (ISBN: 0521006104, 2001) and Routledge (ISBN: 0415380383, 2007). The book chapter from the Cambridge book is here. The book chapter from the Routledge book is here.

Michael Murray’s papers are really fun to read, because he uses hilarious examples. I should mention that I disagree with his view that God’s work of introducing biological information in living creatures has to be front-loaded.

Here’s more terrific stuff from Dr. Murray:

Is there any evidence of God’s existence?

Yes, just watch this lecture by Dr. William Lane Craig. It contains 5 reasons why God exists and 3 reasons why it matters.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

13 thoughts on “Why doesn’t God make his existence more obvious to people?”

  1. Thank you so much for this!

    I have never been able to explain it quite as well when talking to atheists at the university.

    God bless you, Annette

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  2. Great article! Wintery, I thought that you would get a kick out of this video by Victoria Osteen saying how God wants us to be happy lol. Someone in my womens small group sent me this.


    Can I suggest some topics for you to talk about? I would love to hear some of your responses to some of these topics since you give logical advice.
    _Doing what we love to do(career/people who tell us that we should do what we love)
    _Going into ministry jobs within the church(career/should Christians take this path)
    _Christians who think we apologists are harsh and cold
    _Beginner resources to get into politics

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  3. Hiddenness? You don’t have to hide from the blind, they can’t see you. If someone refuses to look, they can’t see you either.

    God’s not hidden, but people either can’t see (blind) or refuse to see (volition).

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  4. Great post! It’s hard to imagine though how obvious God would need to make Himself to be acknowledged by some. There was a time in the OT when God’s voice and presence was a bit louder and there was still widespread unbelief.
    Abraham to the rich man in hell:
    ““He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” (‭Luke‬ ‭16‬:‭31‬ NIV)

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  5. So in your view, there is no such thing as reasonable non-belief? Your (Murray’s) view entails that everyone has enough evidence to reasonably believe in the existence of God, but that seems to me incorrect; there do seem to be people that are honestly in a state of non-belief. Surely there are some philosophers that have looked at the evidence and said it is not enough to move them from, say, agnosticism to theism? At least, it should be obvious to say where non-believing philosophers have gone wrong.

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    1. jh, I really like your challenge here – this is a great question, and one I have not actually heard before! I hope that others more capable than me will make a good attempt at it. Here is my sorry try, FWIW.
      When I was an a-theist, I certainly believed that my position was reasonable. In fact, I was certain that it was a LOT more reasonable that those crazy Jesus freaks and Bible thumpers. I would have laughed out loud if one of them had told me “Someday, you will be one of us,” and then replied with a spew of sailor talk, I might add.
      Now, looking at it from this side of the fence (Door), I do really wonder how I could have held the view I held and not actually have been addicted to some form of illegal drug or prescription medication. :-) (I say this NOT to denigrate you, but to denigrate my former self.) I mean, I held the view that the universe miraculously popped into existence out of nothing, uncaused by anything, that life magically began when lightning hit some mud, and that apes, cockroaches, rats, etc were all my cousins, some distant, others near – plus a bunch of other fairy tales (from this side anyway).
      Why did I hold these views and why did I stay in them for so many decades? I think there are 2 reasons for this:
      1. I had been brainwashed (willingly) in “just-so” a-theism, where my idol Carl Sagan made, what now is obviously the most preposterously arrogant, crystal-ball-reading, blind faith assertion that “the Cosmos is all that is, was, or ever will be.” This was re-enforced in the liberal government schools by “just-so” science, which taught us what to think more than how to think – when it came to origins anyway. (We actually watched the entire series in one class.)
      2. I willfully chose not to question these “just-so” assertions, nor to investigate whether or not a Wizard was actually behind those origin curtains or not.
      I sincerely believe now that those are the two reasons behind my unbelief. As to why I did not take the necessary action in 2, I think it was an underlying emotional desire to remain in my sins and to not have to be accountable to Anyone bigger than me, partly and possibly because I had a very distant alcoholic dad, but mostly because I liked to condemn those “religious” folks and simultaneously not have to live up to any Standard myself. So, in short, I do not think that unbelief in a Creator God is rational, even though I did before, precisely because I think that to remain in unbelief requires one to turn off their skepticism, though amply applied to other worldviews, when it comes to their own naturalistic presuppositions.
      And, intelligence had nothing to do with it – in my case (4 degrees in engineering and math), in your case, in the cases of Bertrand Russell or Carl Sagan or all of the other very intelligent unbelievers. Don’t you think that Carl Sagan THOUGHT he was being 100% rational when he made the statement above?!? Yet, is there anything whatsoever rational in a scientist asserting, without evidence, that he knows everything (like God, maybe?) in the past, present, and future about the universe?!?

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  6. I realize that this is pre-sup, but the Book of John, in particular, has a number of instances in which Jesus (God) stood right in front of unbelievers and performed miracles (including raising a known dead man from the dead) and yet they still did not believe. Part of that was that they did not believe He was God, but I do think that this is one effective reply to the common challenge “If Jesus would just appear before me, I would believe in Him.” And, the chapters that eMatters references, as well as the comment by johnspenn, seem to support this apologetic.

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  7. Charles Taylor’s discussion of the shift to a disenchanted world may be instructive here. Westerners have been trained to not see God in nature, to see only natural forces. That many do see God while many don’t is an indication that the problem isn’t the evidence but the perception. So the problem may not be so much God’s hiddenness as our skewed thinking. Is the problem really God’s hiddenness or rather God’s choice to not force them to worship Him (in a full sense)? There’s a big difference between, on the one hand, being somewhat hidden so people may have a hard time seeing and, on the other, not forcing acknowledgement and worship. These require different responses.

    The problem, according to Scripture, is not that people don’t see God but that they suppress what they know, they refuse to honor Him and give thanks, they refuse to acknowledge Him. So is the proper response to stay within the parameters set by naturalistic thinking and try to explain why God hides Himself and then try to make Him “visible” in naturalistic terms? Who really bears the burden? God, to show Himself, or us, to acknowledge what we know to be true? The blame for not seeing God isn’t God’s but ours.

    I started by suggesting the situation may be explained, at least in part, by how we’ve been trained to see the world. Taylor’s discussion of the matter of disenchantment should be one for apologists to consider (as should the subject of imaginaries–social and cosmic–which should supplement discussions of worldviews). “A Secular Age” is a daunting read, but the index has numerous entries for disenchantment. And, while I haven’t gotten to Smith’s “How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor,” I see that he discusses disenchantment, too.

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  8. The theory that God remains hidden, as mentioned above, so he doesn’t take away our freedom to make morally-significant decisions, including responding to his self-revelation to us, is hogwash.
    The Apostle Peter walked with Christ, personally witnessed miracles, and yet denied him three times.
    Judas Iscariot knew Jesus was the Christ, walked and talked with him, also witnessed miracles, and yet betrayed him(a significant moral decision if there has ever been one).

    The reason why God remains hidden can be summed up as follows

    1. He’s chosen,for whatever reason, not known to us, to not show himself in our Dispensation.
    2. He’s left us on our own to do with his creation what we will, choose good or evil and reap what we sow at Judgment.
    or
    3. He doesn’t exist.

    Cheers!

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