Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Divine Hiddenness and the Problem of Evil

The problem of divine hiddenness, roughly, is this - if God's so keen on us believing in him, even to the point of possibly staking our salvation at least partly on it, why does he remain so hidden from us? In other words, how can a reasonable person be blamed for not believing in God if God hasn't made it as obvious to that person as it could possibly be?

For the purposes of this post, I'll leave aside the objection that God's existence is immediately obvious to everyone and so nonbelief is indeed always blameworthy in that sense. What I want to discuss is how distinct this problem really is - is this a problem that's somehow uniquely troublesome to Christians and similar sorts of theists? My answer is no. I'm not really sure what all the fuss has been about surrounding this issue of late (of course, I'm not as up to date on the literature on this topic as I'd like) - in my mind, the problem of divine hiddenness just seems to be one particular case of the problem of evil, albeit a somewhat striking one. Any answer to the problem of evil, it seems to me, will generally do just as well or just as badly as a response to the problem of divine hiddenness.

Now, why do I think this? Well, for one thing, divine hiddenness is just one example of the bad stuff that exists in our world - we were made for direct, "face-to-face" relationships with and knowledge of God and that lack is a bad thing. In that sense, divine hiddenness is just one more evil which God allows and yet which also perhaps results in people being punished, just like God's allowal of murder or rape. The connection with evil becomes even stronger if we take the biblical stance that sin has damaged and does damage our abilities to clearly perceive God or to assent our will to him or his truths. If that's so, and without sin we would in fact perceive God clearly and wonderfully, then the explanation for divine hiddenness lies in part in the explanation of sin and fallen, sinful state - that is, a solution to the general problem of evil. And if we're responsible for that bad stuff and it's that bad stuff that prevents us from knowing God then perhaps we are in fact responsible for any divine hiddenness we experience since it is brought upon us by ourselves.

This seems to me a much better way of approaching the topic than the well-worn answer I've heard some Christians give. According to some, God remains hidden because otherwise, (if, say, he started really obviously revealing himself to people, writing the gospel in the clouds in English, etc.) people would have to believe in him and so would have no free will. There's a couple things people could mean by this. If God revealed himself in this way then...

1. People would have no choice but to believe that God exists and so would have no free will.
OR 2. People would have no choice but to follow God and so would have no free will.

Now 1 is simply not true. Maybe people wouldn't have any choice but to believe that God exists, but that doesn't mean they have no free will. Free will pertains to willing to do something, not necessarily willing to believe something. There are all kinds of things we don't seem to have any choice (or at least very little) but to believe in it yet we still are free. Besides, believing that God exists doesn't necessarily change anyone's behavior - as James says, after all, even the demons believe - and shudder.

But neither is 2 necessarily true either. Why think that this would follow? Adam and Eve were in direct contact and fellowship with God and yet they still chose to disobey God and not follow him. So clearly the obviousness of God doesn't necessarily hinder our will in any way and still allows for us to reject him. Maybe there are some kinds of revelations that would do this, but I'm not sure what that would be or that anyone has ever experienced it (Paul perhaps?) and clearly God can be very obvious without things being like this (he walked with and had direct fellowship with Adam and Eve after all). So in either case - 1 or 2 - I think this sort of objection fails and that a better strategy would be to subsume the divine hiddenness problem under the problem of evil in general.

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