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

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson about to do philosophy
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson about to do philosophy

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.

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.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

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

  1. Another argument is one of overpresence. Ask anybody with nosey or overbearing parent(s) and you might find there’s a drive to almost escape said parent(s). The other thing is there’d still be freewill to dislike, reject, or even hate. Just because people think there could be more of God, doesn’t mean that it will end up better for all.

    I’ll equate it to this: just because you get married doesn’t mean you stop pursuing your spouse. I’ve been a christian for a while and got into apologetics on a whim, but ever since then it’s driven me to pursue God more and more. I found a passion for talking about it and I hope I never give up that pursuit. I’ve lived with non-believers most of my life and found their philosophy and psychology don’t end up well. They still have to answer the bigger questions in life and all I’ve ever seen were anti-theistic pragmatic or emotive reactions to life’s circumstances.

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    1. Like you, I’ve found myself surrounded, primarily, by non-believers (although many have claimed to be Christian) most of my life. This is especially true now and I have virtually no one in my life that I can discuss the deeper aspects of our faith with, which, I too, am very passionate to do. I have the Internet (ugh) , radio and podcasts and church to a degree.

      Do you find yourself to be a loner in terms maturity and wisdom in our faith? Where do you turn?

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      1. I’m starting to feel the loneliness around friends more “fideistic”, but it also presents me the opportunity to share the things I’ve learned. Most of it goes over their heads but I just hope some of it sinks in. As to where I turn I haven’t figured that out yet. I’m in a super liberal progressive state and not a lot of options. I need to look into a Christian philosophy group or some other group of more intellectual Christians that can challenge me. No defenders here which really bummed me out. Never stop learning is all I can suggest.

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  2. Hi WK,

    Good piece, but I disagree with a few things. You wrote: “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.”

    Romans shows us that we all more than resist the revelation given, we suppress it in our fallen nature. So even the special revelation given to us in Scripture is suppressed. This is every person’s fallen nature to do so, showing that it truly is by God’s grace that we are saved. We are at enmity with God (Romans 8) and so the pursuit of God for those who are saved is by His eternal decree and grace.

    The author you quote also leaves out the reality that God does what He does for His own glory and those who don’t come to Him, will glorify Him in His judgment of them (Romans 9-11).

    In other words, I believe Murray makes a false assumption in his discussion. He is assuming that God wants all mankind, without exception, to be saved. God never says that, and when it is spoken of in the epistles, that is under the guise of the reality that those letters are two those who are saved, not the lost.

    OK, I’m sure there will be plenty who disagree with me.

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    1. Dear Calvinist, your “Oops, I got saved” theology is in total violation of the Scriptures. God does in fact want all of mankind to be saved (and says so repeatedly), but He leaves the choice to them. See:

      Ezekiel 18:23, 32
      Matthew 18:14
      John 1:7, 12:32
      Acts 17:30
      Romans 5:18
      I Thessalonians 5:9
      I Timothy 2:4
      Titus 2:11
      II Peter 3:9

      Your adherence to Augustine, Calvin, Piper, McArthur, and Sproul over the authority of the actual words of God results in your perverting of the gospel. GOD IS NO RESPECTER OF PERSONS. He omentions this fact 7-8 times in His Word. He does not choose some to salvation and others to hell without them having any say in it whatsoever.

      If God chose to make some people unable to do what He has commanded them to do (Acts 17:30), then He would be malicious and cruel. GOD’S CHARACTER IS ON THE LINE HERE. Is He truly loving, or is He cruel?

      Would you handcuff someone’s hands behind their back and then tell them, “Carry this grocery bag for me or else I’ll punch you in the face?” No? Why not? Because that would be unfair and illogical? If God is the source of fairness and logic, then do you really think He would adopt the same nonsensical offer?

      Hey, who needs the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15, and Acts 1:8, when those who are chosen are going to get saved anyway and they have no choice in the matter, and everyone else has been chosen for hell, and they have no choice in the matter?

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      1. Drew-

        The doctrine of election is there, laid out before us in the NT. What then do you do with it?

        God knows who are His (who will respond) since before Creation. We, however, do not and we are called to spread the “good news” I.e. participate in His plan of redemption.

        What then does Jesus mean when He says that ” no one comes to me unless the Father draws Him” twice in John 6?

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  3. I came to similar conclusions when I younger, and I do think it has merit. But I’ve never found it completely satisfactory.
    My issue stems from the fact that in our Judeo-christian tradition there was a time (Eden) when God was not hidden from us and there will be a time in the future when He will no longer be hidden from us. And this lack of hiddenness is the ultimate good.
    So it is best He is hidden now, but it is still better when He isn’t?
    This does seem slightly contradictory.

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