Does the Argument From Divine Hiddenness Count Against Theistic Arguments?


The argument from divine hiddenness (ADH) is an intuitive problem for theism that some philosophers consider to be a sub-species of the problem of evil.  The problem arises when we consider the fact that there are some people who seem to non-culpably lack belief in God.  If God exists, the argument goes, then He would ensure that no one non-culpably lacks belief in Him.  The empirical data runs strongly against this intuition (the argument goes).  Quite the contrary: in the world we see that there are many people who lack belief in God.  And a significant portion of them do so for what seems to be no morally-culpable reason.

Now, is ADH a good argument against theism for some subjects?  Perhaps in some epistemic contexts.  But I don’t think its a good argument against theism for a subject if (1) that subject considers there to be any “live” theistic arguments and (2) that subject is appealing to himself or herself as the exclusive evidence for the existence of inculpable nonbelief.  By a “live” argument for a subject, I mean an argument that the subject either considers to be sound, likely to be sound, or equiprobable with respect to soundness or lack of soundness.  By saying that a person appeals to himself or herself as the exclusive evidence for the existence of inculpable nonbelief, I mean that the only example that this person cites in support of the premise of the ADH which states “inculpable nonbelief exists” is himself or herself.

Consider a person who believes that there is at least one sound argument for theism, or believes that it is 50/50 that there is a sound argument for theism.  This person may go on to reason that despite this “live” argument, his or her inculpable nonbelief with respect to theism is evidence that God does not exist, and hence that the conclusion of the “live” theistic argument is outweighed by the ADH argument against theism.  But if there is a “live” theistic argument for this person, then for this person to accept the premise that he or she inculpably lacks belief that theism is true is premature; it assumes that he or she has decided already that there are no good arguments for theism.  So we shouldn’t look at ADH as an undercutting or a rebutting defeater for theistic arguments (at least for subjects in the situation we’re considering).  In the absence of “live” theistic arguments, an agent can view ADH as a rebutting defeater for theism.  But in their presence, an agent who is appealing to himself or herself as the example that provides evidence for the existence of inculpable nonbelief is making a decision that falsely presupposes lack of evidence.

I suspect that a similar point can be made not just about particular people, but about intellectual cultures.  If the climate of academia (American? Western? it doesn’t matter) regards at least one theistic argument as a “live” argument, then this means that said intellectual culture should not regard the argument from divine hiddenness as successful.  How we would identify an intellectual culture as considering a theistic argument to be “live” is another question.

Finally, some notes on the intuitive problem raised by ADH.  Yes, it does seem that there is inculpable nonbelief.  It doesn’t seem like all people that reject the existence of God or the truth of Christianity do so out of culpable ignorance.  Yes, Christianity would be counterintuitive if it were commited to denying the existence of inculpable nonbelief.  But I think that Christians can embrace the existence of inculpable nonbelief in at least two ways.  First, some cases of nonbelief may actually be cases of masked belief.  As C. Stephen Evans suggested in an article once, it is possible that some who do not explicitly affirm the reality of God can at the same time love, trust, or be otherwise committed to God in some way.  The fact that God Himself is the Goodness by which all things are Good makes it easy to see how this might be so: a person who has been tricked by uncontrollable circumstances into disbelieving in the existence of God may still love the Good and seek it.  And in doing so, that person believes in God but does not call him by all his names.

Second, some cases of inculpable nonbelief may not be permanent.  God could give a person who presently lacks sufficient evidence all of the evidence that they need at sometime in the future.  This may even include postmortem revelation.  If a person dies in a state of inculpable nonbelief, God may reveal Himself to him or her.  Many early fathers believed in a view of the intermediate state between a person’s death and the universal resurrection that included the possibility of deliberation and habituation (at least for persons of unsettled character).  Some even thought that the ignorance of some was compensated for in Christ’s harrowing of hell, and the subsequent preaching that those in Sheol who had seen Christ’s harrowing could give to those who died after Christ came.


9 Responses to “Does the Argument From Divine Hiddenness Count Against Theistic Arguments?”

  1. James Says:

    “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. And who among us is pure in heart? We are all “morally culpable”: “in Thy sight shall no man living be justified”. But too often, instead of acknowledging our guilt, we try to blame God for our problems. It seems to me “hidden” is just a term we humans use for “something I don’t want to see, but don’t want to admit to myself that I don’t want to see”. The Scriptures are clear that God’s glory is, well, everywhere. Hiddenness seems to me to be a way of describing something less objective and more subjective. The objective component to hiddenness seems to be that God hides Himself in part because if He did not, the Uncreated Light would give sinful humanity some really, really bad radiation burns, so to speak; so again there, it’s our fault for being sinful.

  2. James Says:

    Even Greek pagans thought if one saw Zeus ‘in all his glory’ you would perish. And how much greater than Zeus is the God of Israel?

  3. The Lichenthrope Says:

    I agree, we totally shouldn’t take this philosophical problem seriously. Anyone who doesn’t see or acknowledge God is just sinful, so it’s their own fault. Hooray!

  4. MG Says:


    Obviously all are morally culpable for wrongdoing. The question is whether all who do not believe in the complete teachings of Christianity are equally culpable for nonbelief. The obvious answer suggested by the Fathers and Scripture is “no”. When St. Paul and St. Irenaeus speak of God overlooking the times of ignorance because people hadn’t been told about Christ, I take this to mean that not everyone who has lacked belief in Christ has been in a position to reject Christ.

    Regarding the divine glory, I agree it is everywhere. And the problem is partly a subjective one for sure. But not all subjective facts about us are our fault. It hardly seems to be a hunter-gatherer’s fault that he lacks an ability to clearly distinguish in his mind between synthetic and analytic truths (an objectively good distinction to have); and yet this is a subjective fact about himself. And yes, the divine glory can be objectively hidden to prevent the hardening of the heart from happening to those who are not prepared. But are all those from whom it must be mercifully hidden always fully culpable for their lack of preparation? I don’t know for sure. But I doubt this is true in all cases.

    Disagreements aside, I do think that much of what looks like inculpable nonbelief probably isn’t. When I claim the phenomena probably exists, I’m not saying it is widespread, or that all apparent cases are real cases. I don’t know for sure, of course; it could be more widespread than I think. But I can say that I have very good reason to think that people are capable of engaging in complex feats of self-deception: I do so on a daily basis (Lord have mercy).


    Are you trying to say something like this?:

    “This is an intuitive problem, and the apparent existence of inculpable nonbelief needs to be taken seriously. In order to make it intuitively plausible to hold that all nonbelief actually is culpable, one must be able to give a plausible story explaining the moral difference between (a) people that appear to genuinely practice and believe Christianity (who actually seem to struggle for salvation) but do so with a mixture of sometimes confused motives and somewhat bad reasons (including sometimes an intellectually dishonest attempt to entirely ignore secularism and other religions as respectable alternative views) and (b) educated people who appear to believe that Christianity is false based on philosophical problems grounded in relatively intuitive premises, and who do not seem to practice vices that are clearly wrong enough to strongly prick their relatively well-developed consciences. This story must take into account the fact that oftentimes the circumstances under which the somewhat irrational belief described in (a) is formed can be extraordinarily favorable to the person believing in Christianity, whereas the circumstances of a person described in (b) can oftentimes be extraordinarily unfavorable.”

    If that’s what you were trying to say, then as always, the intelligent content of your comments is welcome, productive, and helpful. But I wish that instead of making sarcastic remarks that don’t actually elaborate your issues and can potentially alienate people from dialogue, you would just make an argument.

  5. The Lichenthrope Says:

    Hey, no fair making my intelligent content explicit!

  6. James Says:

    “I agree, we totally shouldn’t take this philosophical problem seriously. Anyone who doesn’t see or acknowledge God is just sinful, so it’s their own fault. Hooray!”

    That’s exactly what I meant.

  7. MG Says:


    Is this sarcasm from you now? Could you clarify what you were saying initially?

  8. The Lichenthrope Says:

    MG, nobody on the internet but me knows how to use sarcasm. We should obviously read his comments exclusively through a literalist historical-grammatical lens.

  9. James Says:


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