The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

Divine Silence: Is God obligated to be more obvious than he is?


God can sometimes seem far away. In fact, there are times when we feel like we really, really need Him and yet he is not there, or so it seems. This has caused many to struggle deeply with whether God exists at all, since, after all, he could be more obvious, or so it seems.

This is a deep area of struggle, for some, and not one that I will minimize at all. I’ve been there too. And I suspect I will be there again.

But it is also an area of scholarly interest. The scholarly discussion can often feel like it is heartless. And, well, it is heartless. In the scholarly discussion, we are asking questions of a theoretical and technical nature, asking whether there is an intellectual problem here for the intellectual belief that God exists. The scholarly discussion doesn’t turn at all on your (or my) feelings about how obvious we want God to be. It only turns on whether God’s degree of obviousness is a logical problem, broadly construed, for the belief in God.

This is not to say that the scholarly discussion is not incredibly useful and even downright pastoral for our emotional struggles. Philosophy has helped me tremendously to be more grounded as a person and especially in my faith. It can seem heartless, but it is (or, at least, can be) good for our hearts and our minds!

The problem of Divine Silence (sometimes called the problem of divine hiddenness) is that there appears to be a logical tension with the following three claims:

  1. God is not completely obvious
  2. If God is all powerful, he could be completely obvious
  3. If God is all good, he should be completely obvious

It seems that, at most, two of these could be true, but you cannot have all three. For example, one may say that (1) is false and think that (2) and (3) are true. That is, God is as obvious as he possibly can be. There is nothing he could possibly do to be more obvious than he is. This would be consistent, but one wonders if this is plausible.

A Christian may think that this is plausible on the basis of Romans 1:20. Paul says here that God has revealed himself such that he can be “clearly seen” in what has been created. But it is one thing to say that God can be clearly seen and it is another to say he is as obvious as he can be. Even if one thinks that God is abundantly clear, the logical problem is there so long as God could be more obvious.

And it seems that he could. Couldn’t he reveal himself to you and me the way he did to Moses in a burning bush? Couldn’t it be the case that every time one walks by a bush, it bursts into flames and one hears the deep voice of God? Or couldn’t we have an experience like the apostle Paul’s on the road to Damascus? Paul was literally blinded and verbally talked to. God could arrange the stars to say: “Believe in me. Sincerely, God”. It will seem to most of us that God could do these things. But if so, then (1) is true. So we have to deny one of the other claims.

What if one denied (2)? One could say that God is not completely obvious ((1) is true), and God is good and should be completely obvious ((3) is true). It’s just that he lacks the ability to be more obvious. I won’t spend much time on this option since anyone who thinks that God is all-powerful will think that God can do anything that is logically possible. So if God cannot be more obvious, then the sort of God we are interested in (i.e., an all-powerful one) does not exist.

So let’s consider denying (3). Here we ask if God is obligated to be completely obvious. The idea that God is obligated in this way is often, it seems, assumed to be true in many discussions of hiddenness.

But why think this is true? Why, we might ask, would God be obligated to make himself more obvious than he is? What would establish an obligation? Many people seem to think God has commanded us to believe in him and then he punishes us for eternity if we don’t. If God is going to justly punish us for disbelief, then God would be obligated to be more obvious to. But this is not the gospel! We are not condemned and punished for our disbelief. We are condemned and punished because we have broken the moral law and the moral law is sufficiently obvious to all.

Perhaps one could say that God is obligated to make himself more obvious out of his love for us and his desire for all to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). But this again bears on the nature of the gospel. In desiring salvation for all is God merely desiring intellectual assent? Think about this for a minute. Consider James 2:

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder (v. 19).

I want to suggest that mere intellectual assent is not what God is after. There are passages that call us to believe (e.g., John 3:16), to be sure. But in the context of these passages these are best read as being called to give our whole lives in faith. There were many erstwhile followers of Jesus that seemed to believe in him when they got to see him multiply fishes and loaves or heal people, but the moment he began describing the call of discipleship (taking up one’s cross, etc.), they departed. In fact, at times it seemed that the miracles and the healings almost worked against Jesus’s goal of true discipleship.

So if God is after whole life faith and discipleship and he is not after mere intellectual assent, then it seems God could be more obvious ((1) is true), but it wouldn’t achieve his plans and purposes for us.

Thus, God is not obligated to make himself more obvious. God need only be as obvious as it achieves genuine faith.

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