Excursus on Natural Theology (Part 29): The Hiddenness of God

June 08, 2016

The Hiddenness of God

We’ve been looking at epistemological objections to belief in God. Last time we examined the atheist objection that in the case of God there is no evidence for God's existence and therefore belief in God is unjustified. We should believe that God does not exist. There is a sort of presumption of atheism. Atheism is the default position unless and until there is adequate evidence to prove God's existence.

I argued that this mistakenly equates the absence of evidence with evidence of absence, and that you can't always do that. Indeed there are certain conditions that need to be fulfilled in order for the absence of evidence to count as evidence of the absence of something. Namely, the first condition we saw is that we have fully canvassed the area where the evidence ought to be found. Secondly, if the entity did exist then we should expect to find more evidence of its existence than the evidence that we do have. In order for the atheist to justify his belief that God does not exist, he would need to prove to us that both of these conditions are fulfilled. That puts a whole new face on the so-called presumption of atheism. We see now it is not a default position at all. Indeed, it would involve the atheist in some pretty heavy burden of proof. He would have to show that both of these conditions are fulfilled which I, at least, would argue he can not.

So the debate over the lack of evidence for God has morphed in recent years among contemporary philosophers into a discussion of the so-called hiddenness of God. This is in effect a discussion of the probability or the expectation that God, if he existed, would have given us more evidence of his existence than that which we have. It is an attempt to show that second condition is fulfilled.

Certainly God could have made his existence much more evident than he has. But the question here, I think, is going to depend largely on your perspective on natural theology. If you are convinced that God has left adequate evidence of his existence – evidence which is pretty convincing to an open-minded and informed person – then I think you are apt to be skeptical that we should expect to see much more evidence of his existence than the evidence that we do have. Indeed, when you read the people who push this objection based on the hiddenness of God, you will find inevitably that they just assume that there are no good arguments for God's existence. So it is no wonder that they think that God is hidden. They don't believe that any of the arguments of natural theology are any good. But if, as I've argued, we have good arguments for the existence of God then God isn't so hidden after all, and it is not so evident that if God did exist he would give more evidence of his existence than that which he has given.

Some atheists, unsatisfied with the amount of evidence that we have, have argued that if God existed then he would have prevented the unbelief of the world by making his existence just starkly obvious. For example, he could have inscribed on every atom in the universe “Made by God.” Or he could have placed a neon cross in the heavens saying “Jesus Saves.” In that case God's existence would be starkly apparent to everyone and thereby he would have prevented the unbelief in the world.

But I think we need to ask ourselves in response to this objection why God should want to do such a thing as that? Paul Moser is a contemporary Christian philosopher who has rightly emphasized that on the Christian perspective God really isn't all that interested in simply getting people to believe that he exists.[1] Rather, as Moser says, what God is interested in is building a love relationship with us, not simply getting people to add one more item to their inventory of what exists. The Bible says in James 2:9 that even the demons believe that God exists and tremble because they don't have a saving relationship with God. It is that saving, personal relationship with him that God is interested in building – not simply getting people to believe that he exists as the demons do.

Of course, in order to believe in God (that is, to trust in him, to know him) you've got to first believe that God exists. But if you reflect on it, there is really no reason at all to think that if God were to make his existence starkly obvious that more people would freely come to know him and his salvation than actually do. Mere showmanship will not bring about a change of heart. That is the lesson of Jesus' parable in Luke 16:30-31 where you will remember Abraham tells the Rich Man in Hades who asks him to send someone from the dead to his family members so that they will believe and not come to this place, and Abraham says, Even if someone will rise from the dead, if they won't listen to Moses and the Scriptures neither would they believe in that case. Just seeing a miraculous event isn't going to bring about heart change if these people are closed to God and his Word.

It is interesting as you read the Bible that it describes the history of God's interaction with humanity in terms of a sort of progressive interiorization (if I can coin a word) of God's interaction with people with an increasing emphasis upon the work of the Holy Spirit in our inner-person. For example, in Romans 8:16-17, Paul says, “When we cry 'Abba, Father!' it is the Spirit himself who bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” So there is this progressive interiorization of God's interaction with humanity. In the Old Testament, God is described as revealing himself to his people in manifest wonders – the plagues upon Egypt, the pillar of fire and smoke that followed Israel, the parting of the Red Sea. But did these wonders produce lasting heart-change in the people? No! Israel fell into apostasy again and again with tiresome repetitiveness.

So if God were to inscribe his name on every atom in the universe, or place a neon cross in the sky, people might well believe that he exists, but how can we be confident that this would lead to a greater love of God and knowledge of God? Perhaps over time people would begin to chafe under these brazen advertisements of God's existence and even come to resent him for such in-your-face effrontery. In fact, we just don't really have any way of knowing that in a world of free creatures in which God's existence is as plain as the nose on your face that the number or the percentage of people who come to love him and to know and experience his salvation is any greater than that in the actual world where, remember, the actual world includes not simply the past and the present but also the future. But then it seems to me the claim that if God existed he would make his existence more evident or starkly obvious just has little or no warrant. That undermines the claim, I think, that in the absence of such evidence that is itself positive evidence that God does not exist.[2]


Student: Throughout Scripture we understand that God is concerned with free will so I think that when we talk about this we have to assume that God in some way makes a careful balance. Because he wants there to be enough evidence that people can accept him with their own free will, but also he doesn't want to make it necessarily as plain as day so that people can reject him. I think the only reason why it is not more evident than it is is because the only way that God could make it more evident than it already is is that he would in some way have to interfere with free will.

Dr. Craig: This is a reply that is often made to the hiddenness of God. I think there is truth in it. Obviously any revelation of God's existence would have to be freedom permitting if he is not to turn us into puppets or robots. That is why I said that it is not clear that in a world of free creatures that even if God's existence were as manifest as the nose on your face that more would come to know him and love him. I do think that it would be consistent with human freedom for God to make his existence more obvious than he has. In the Old Testament the revelations in parting the Red Sea and the pillar of fire and smoke and the other miracles that Israel witnessed didn't remove Israel's free will. That is evident from the fact that they continually apostatize. But neither were they effective in winning the love and the heart commitment of the people. So while God needs to be hidden enough that he doesn't overwhelm our free will – I think that is quite right. . . . that may happen in heaven when we have the vision of Christ and we no longer see through a glass darkly. But in this world, God's existence needs to be hidden in such a way as to be consistent with human freedom. But I would also say he could still make his existence a lot more obvious than he has if he wanted to that would be consistent with freedom. But what the atheist doesn't know (and cannot provide any reason to think) is that in such a world there would be a greater degree of people who love and come to know God than in the actual world.

Student: I am very loathe to disagree with you, Dr. Craig.

Dr. Craig: Oh! I hear a “but” coming!

Student: The Scriptures plainly say that from Nebuchadnezzar to Paul human freedom does not enter into when God wants to make known himself to people. He overrules whatever it is that they thought they knew or believed to the point where maybe God's hiddenness is his purpose to reveal himself to certain people in his own timing rather than if I revealed myself to you, you might reject me. Because in no instance in the Scriptures . . .

Dr. Craig: Wait. You said, If I revealed myself to you, you might reject me. So you are saying then it is consistent with human freedom.

Student: No, no. That is what I am objecting to. I am saying that instead he is revealing himself to people in the time that he purposes because, in my reading of the Scripture, at no time has he revealed himself directly to someone and they've rejected him.

Dr. Craig: Well, what about Israel? The examples that I gave of the Red Sea, the plagues on Egypt.

Student: When I say “reject” I don't mean as the atheist rejects him and says he doesn't exist. They just strayed like we do right now. We believe him. We believe that he exists. We love him. But we still stray. But I'm saying at no time in the Scripture does he reveal himself and, I guess, respect human freedom like in the case with Nebuchadnezzar or with Paul and say, I don't want to reveal myself to them because they might even reject the fact that I, God, exist.

Dr. Craig: OK. That wasn't my point. In fact, that was what I was disagreeing with in response to the earlier question. I think that, as you say, God sometimes does reveal himself so powerfully that there can be no doubt that he exists. But that doesn't remove the human freedom to reject a relationship with him. Paul saw the vision of Jesus on the Damascus Road, but what does he say in response to that? He says, “Therefore I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” He went ahead and went to Ananias and so forth. Paul, even though he had this vision of Christ – I don't think it was freedom-removing. It may have made it very clear that Christ had appeared to him. But the decision to trust in Christ, to follow him, to be his disciple – Paul still had that freedom to be disobedient.[3] That is what I am arguing. God's concern, as Moser said, isn't just in getting us to believe that he is out there. Even the demons believe that. What God wants to do is get us saved. He wants to get us to trust and to love him. There is no reason to get people simply to believe that he exists if it is not going to produce this kind of relationship in the end. God is perfectly justified not to give such a stark revelation of himself.

Student: But then are you saying that human freedom can overrule God's intention to get us to love him? That at some point he can reject?

Dr. Craig: Yes. OK, now this gets into . . . I think I now understand where you are coming from. When we get to the doctrine of justification, you'll see that I am not a Calvinist. I am not a Reformed theologian in that sense. I disagree with people like Luther and Calvin that God unilaterally saves us and we have no choice in the matter. I would be more of an Arminian or Molinist or Wesleyian who thinks that we have the ability to repudiate God's grace and to reject him should we so choose. That will be discussed later on, but you are right. From the Calvinist perspective, what the Calvinist would just say is that God doesn't want to save everybody. He doesn't want to save some. So he passes over them. They are called the reprobate. The elect – God will manifest himself to them in such a way that they will certainly be inevitably saved. But the rest he just passes over them and lets them go to hell. He doesn't really want to save them. That would be the Calvinist solution to the hiddenness of God. But I personally find that solution abhorrent and inconsistent with the nature of an all-loving God who wants as many as possible to be saved. But that's opening a Pandora's box, obviously, so let's move on to the next question.

Student: My comment is, on atheism, when the atheists claim lack of evidence I think they are claiming a willful ignorance because the evidence is present. There are arguments. Natural law. And even in the case of the multiverse, it cannot withstand the contingency argument. You can make an argument out of the multiverse. For instance, if the multiverse exists then everything that is possible exists. God is possible. Therefore God exists.

Dr. Craig: I think that what you are saying is the point that I also wanted to affirm, and that is that there is ample evidence for God's existence if we are simply willing to look at it with an open mind and an open heart. I do think that. In reading the literature on the hiddenness of God, you find these folks just assume that none of these arguments is any good. Whether that is willful ignorance or they've actually looked at them but are unconvinced, I couldn't say. But they don't interact with them. They don't show that they are no good. They don't refute them. So it does make you wonder what is the justification for this assumption that seems to underlie this argument about the hiddenness of God.

Student: I deal with atheists a lot. Even in the presentation of the evidence, they will just outright ignore it. I can't help you if you are going to be willfully ignorant on the matter.

Dr. Craig: Then you have to trust the Holy Spirit to open their hearts.

Student: Well, I fight them.

Dr. Craig: [laughter] OK.

Student: I think I know your answer to this question, but just for our benefit. It does seem like in Scripture – Old and New Testaments – that the major characters often had God personally speak to them or provide a message to them – audibly, through visions, appearances of angels, and so forth. We don't see – at least I haven't – seen that today.[4] Does that make God more hidden for us than it was for them, and is that a problem?

Dr. Craig: I agree with you that we don't have prophets today in the same way that they did in the Old Testament. John the Baptist seems to have been the last of those prophets before Christ came. So we don't have people speaking revelation from God today – speaking the word of the Lord. Those who do claim that I think are spurious. I haven't had visions or God speaking to me in the way that you described either, such as we have in the Old Testament, say to Ezekiel or to Isaiah. Yes, I think that is problematic in the sense that we would say if God really wants people to come to know him then why doesn't he do that more? I think what I've just said would be my answer to that. This kind of thing isn't just effective if it's mere showmanship, but God, through the ministry and witness of the Holy Spirit, does have this kind of interior assurance and ministry in our lives that is adequate for those who are not willfully ignorant of this, who reject him. So there is adequate grounds in the work of the Spirit for us today.

Student: I thought you would also say we have written Scripture inspired by God which they did not.

Dr. Craig: Good point. Fair enough.

Student: I'll borrow a quick note from Joyce Meyer – she was, I think, one of the best practical theologians around. She said that it is a trust issue, and trust and faith always involve unanswered questions. We are always going to have a certain amount of that in order to have a trust and faith in God.

Dr. Craig: I understand. My only reservation is that I think that even if you are absolutely certain that God exists (as I say, if it is manifest or plain as the nose on your face) I think that the trust issue still arises – it is still there. You don't need uncertainty in order for the faith or the trust issue to be an issue. So once you come to believe that God exists, the question still remains: am I going to be his disciple? Am I going to love him and bow the knee and obey him? As I say, Israel in the Old Testament had no doubt about the first question – that God exists, that Yahweh had delivered them from Egypt. But the trust question still remained.

Student: I agree. We have a couple of dimensions on that. Also, an example of overt rejection in light of supernatural evidence is the raising of Lazarus. Not only did they want to kill Jesus after they saw, but they wanted to kill Lazarus, too!

Dr. Craig: It bears out – doesn't it? - what Jesus said in that parable in Luke 16 – if they won't hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe even if someone rose from the dead. And here comes Lazarus! As you say, they try to kill him.

Student: The Scripture says God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I think so is human nature. Therefore, if you go back to the beginning, Adam and Eve seemed to have a revelation of God. There was still a decision that had to be made that they did make.

Dr. Craig: Wonderful example! Who could have been more certain that God existed than Adam and Eve? And yet!

Student: They chose not to believe even though they had a direct revelation. The deception to me conveys maybe she wanted to do something to be more like God. But the deception – there is still a choice of trust and she chose not to.

Dr. Craig: Good example, thank you.

Student: I agree with you that the evidence for God is so strong it is like the nose on your face that he exists. There are no issues on that. And quite honestly, for the Israelites it was the same thing. It was so obvious that God existed that wasn't the question. The problem becomes that in people's daily lives they see difficulties, they experience hunger, they experience pain, etc. That is what causes people to even ignore the fact that there is evidence for God. What is your thinking on the premise that we are actually here to experience pain and difficulty as part of God's plan?

Dr. Craig: That forms the perfect segue to the next section which is on the problem of suffering and evil! But, so as not to preempt further questions on this topic, I won't make that transition yet. But we will.[5]

Student: One of the main points you are defending is the idea that it may not be necessarily true that just because God were to reveal himself and make himself more obvious and more people came to believe that he existed that therefore more people would come into a loving, saving relationship. A lot of atheists I talk to really resist that. They basically are like, You think of all the people that don't believe, if God revealed himself plainly to everyone then surely more people would come to a saving relationship. Doesn't it just seem obvious?

Dr. Craig: It is not obvious, though, is it?

Student: They use that to put the burden of proof back on us. They are saying, “You show me how that is true.”

Dr. Craig: Oh, no. Remember here – this is important. Don't let them shift the burden of proof. We are looking at arguments for atheism. We bore our share of the burden of proof when we gave arguments for God. Now it is the atheist's turn. He needs to show that if God really did exist then he ought to be making his existence much, much more manifest than he is. That objection is defeated by saying you don't have any reason at all to think that in a world in which God's existence was perfectly obvious that this would lead to greater salvation and love of God. In fact, as I said, I wouldn't have any reason to doubt that in such a world people might actually come to resent God more because it would be so in-your-face that they would be more unbelieving in the sense of trusting in him. The atheist has got the burden of proof here. I don't think he can give any argument.

Student: One attempt I have heard someone say was that you take someone like a Muslim. They are already a theist of sorts. They believe in God. Surely if God just plainly revealed himself to them, a Muslim could easily switch over and just believe in the Christian God instead.

Dr. Craig: Well, you know how hard it is for Muslims to become Christians. It is enormously difficult to make that transition. Some do, and some do through visions and dreams of Jesus. But we don't have any knowledge to say if God gave more dreams and visions that more would come to know him. We just don't have any way of knowing that. It may be that this world that God has chosen is the one in which he is most effective in bringing people to himself through the ways in which he has revealed himself. Even if he could get more people to believe that he exists, that doesn't show that it would result in greater salvation.

Student: If providing more evidence for God's existence or having more reasons to believe in God doesn't help people come to a loving relationship with God then what is the purpose of natural theology?

Dr. Craig: I think that God can use this in the lives of those who are open to it and receptive. I take very seriously that God wants as many people as possible to be saved. So he knows the right degree of revelation of himself to give so as to maximize the number of persons in the world who will come to love and know him. These arguments would be part of the way in which he does that. But we are not in a position to say that if he were there he would give more.

Student: I actually have a huge problem with the people saying that atheism is the set position that everybody is born with. I haven't seen a study that shows that way or the opposite. In my own experience, and what I've seen in other people around me, is I started out believing that there was something. When I became an atheist it was when I thought that I was so smart that I didn't have to believe in that. It was foolish to believe in that. I think, from what I've seen, most people kind of start with they believe in something. Children believe in something. Then somebody either snuffs it out of them or they snuff it out of themselves. They get some kind of chronological snobbery where they look back on everybody who has ever believed in God, whether it be our founding fathers, the country, or the people in the Bible, and they say they lived in a non-technological, non-philosophical genius world where they have to believe in God because they are ignorant. Going back to what he said, I think that you kind of build up walls towards believing in God. I think that is why natural theology is useful. Because it kind of tears down those walls and then lets the Holy Spirit in and lets Jesus in. Then you can do the rest of the work through the Bible.[6] Just in my personal experience, I don't think that people are born atheists. I think people are born to know that God exists, and then they trick themselves out of it somehow or somebody else does it.

Dr. Craig: There is actually scientific data to support that. I remember seeing a sociological study of Japanese children who are not raised in a theistic culture and yet tended to have a belief in God – in these very young children – until it got, as you say, rubbed out. Many people who are working on child psychology think that belief in some sort of God or agency is hardwired into the human brain. I think you are quite right in saying that atheism is not something that you are born with. It is something that is arrived at later. But that is not really the issue here. I am not suggesting, nor is the atheist suggesting, that it is a default position in that sense. The issue here is that if there were a God would he have made his existence a lot more obvious than it is. I don't see any reason to think that when we remember that his desire is not simply to get people to believe that he exists but to bring people into a personal, saving relationship with him.

Student: I really think that was a great comment because I remember my own life. I believed very, very truly as a young person. I remember meeting the first person that ever said, “No, I don't think there is a God.” I was shocked! As I went through life I got smarter and smarter to the point where I overcame the need to believe in God. I thought back. I am going to follow up on my comment on cats.

Dr. Craig: You are very bold!

Student: I looked back, and my parents told me there was a Santa Claus. And I remember when I found out there wasn't I went, “They lied to me!” So I want to follow up with cats and say Santa Claus is a bad thing to teach children about because it turns out to be a lie.

Dr. Craig: I actually did a question of the week on that on our website.[7] I agree with you. I think that it is terribly prejudicial to theism when your children find out you've been lying to them about this mythological figure. I think there are ways to celebrate Christmas that take advantage of Santa Claus by talking about the real Saint Nicholas – the church father – and what he did and how people now pretend that he comes on Christmas Eve to visit the children. We can play this game. We can make believe and fantasize about this, but it is not literally true. Children love to make believe so you can still have fun with Santa. You don't have to be a Grinch. But my goodness, we shouldn't, I think, as you say, lie to our children lest they think, “Have they been lying to me about Jesus and God?”

Student: According to the famous passage in Romans 1, apparently in God's mind he has given us sufficient arguments because here in verse 20 he says, “For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities, his eternal power, and divine nature, have been clearly seen being understood from what has been made so that men are without excuse.” In his mind, he has given enough. So while little man can get together and say maybe he should have given more, but they are not God. The next thing, too – the reason most people don't come to God is not because they don't believe in him. It is because they hate him. They are unregenerate. They don't want anybody telling them what to do. That, in essence, is what Armageddon is – it started out at the Tower of Babel and has progressed to Armageddon where God has finally had enough with unregenerate mankind which has grown more and more. As J. Vernon McGee used to say (he was a famous pastor; he died years ago but he is around the world with Thru the Bible, by J. Vernon McGee) people that say they have an intellectual problem with God is most of the time a lot of baloney. What they've got is a sin problem. They don't want to give up what it would take to follow God.

Dr. Craig: I think you are right. That is what Romans 1:20 clearly says. It says that God has made his existence so evident in the created world that people are without excuse. It couldn't be much plainer than that. The atheist would have to show that if God existed he would make his existence more obvious than what he has. That is just sheer speculation on his part. It is conjecture. There is no reason to think that.[8]

Student: When we are talking about why wouldn't God make his existence more obvious, I think he has made it pretty obvious but so many people don't see it. My analogy is, I have a husband and three boys. I spend a lot of time finding lost things. Helping look for backpacks…

Dr. Craig: The husband is included in that, huh? [laughter]

Student: Keys, shoes, wallets. The keys are on the counter, or the backpack is on the counter. “Oh, Mommy, I can't find it.” It is right there! It is not that my vision is better. In fact, I probably have the worst eyes in the house. So why do I see it that is right there, and no one else can find it?

Dr. Craig: What's the answer? [laughter]

Student: My question is: it didn't suddenly pop out of the sofa when I saw it. It was in the same place, and we all had the opportunity to see it but only I saw it. That implies that the obviousness could be the same to everyone, but some people don't see it whether they choose not to see it or they are blinded to it.

Dr. Craig: To try to draw a spiritual analogy then, you could say that in some way you were more attuned to seeing these things whereas these other folks, even though they were right there, didn't see them. Similarly, one could be more attuned to seeing God in the way he has revealed himself whereas people who are hardened or, as Romans 1 says, darkened in the intellect would suppress this truth and not want to see it.

Student: I definitely agree that at the point where the Gospel has been presented the reason it is rejected is more moral than it is intellectual. I think that is affirmed pretty clearly in John 3 where it says, “This is the condemnation that the light has come into the world and men love the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” It gives a causal connection between evil deeds and the rejecting of the light. I think you are definitely right that atheism is a moral issue – I guess anti-theism is more of a moral issue if you draw that distinction between non-belief and disbelief. That is my main comment. I wanted to affirm that that is true. I approach that truth – I come from the Reformed perspective. I am not going to ask this in a way that brings it into the Calvinistic versus Arminian view of regeneration, if I can avoid it. If I can't you are free to not answer. [laughter] When I am doing apologetics to a non-believer especially (and I think apologetics is more for the believer than it is for the non-believer at a certain point), I have to approach it in those terms. That is where I have to trust the Spirit of God to regenerate the person on his own account rather than my ability to persuade. My objective then becomes present the Gospel correctly rather than present it persuasively.

Dr. Craig: Whoa! But wait a minute. That doesn't need to be mutually exclusive. You can do both.

Student: I wouldn't say it is mutually exclusive. I don't mean that at all. I think it is a different point of emphasis.

Dr. Craig: We are on the same page.

Student: I agree with you.

Dr. Craig: Apart from the Spirit of God, these arguments would fall like water on the stone because the natural man doesn't receive the things of the Spirit of God. Of course, you are absolutely right that the Spirit of God needs to move in the hearts of unregenerate people to get them to look at the evidence and to use the evidence as a means of persuading them. God can use arguments and evidence as a means of drawing people to himself in the same way he can use preaching to draw people.

Student: Absolutely. I just kind of wanted to bring it up.

Dr. Craig: You are making a good point.

Student: I don't disagree. They are definitely not mutually exclusive. I just know from my experience sometimes . . . and that is the source of any frustration that I get. They are not being persuaded. I just have to always remind myself that it is not up to me to necessarily persuade. It is up to me to present them clearly and truthfully. I think that has always been an encouraging thing for me.

Dr. Craig: I think you are right. Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, had a slogan. He said, “Success in witnessing is simply sharing Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God.” I think that something similar can be said of apologetics.[9] Success in apologetics is simply sharing sound and persuasive arguments in the power of the Holy Spirit and then leaving the results to God. It is not up to you to bring about the result.


We will return to this question of the problem of suffering and evil which is the most important argument against the existence of God that is out there.[10]



[1] 5:10

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:16

[4] 20:08

[5] 25:10

[6] 30:12

[7] See Q&A #453 “Should Parents Let Their Children Believe in Santa Claus?” at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/should-parents-let-their-children-believe-in-santa-claus (accessed May 30, 2016).

[8] 35:07

[9] 40:01

[10] Total Running Time: 41:08 (Copyright © 2016 William Lane Craig)