Deconstructing the Generic Hiddenness Argument

By John A. Limanto


July 31, 2018

“deus absconditus” (the hidden God) – Thomas Aquinas

Having stumbled across the doctrine of Hell, Atheist Smith frets over the seemingly harsh punishments promised to the unbelievers within Christianity. Deep within, he wants to submit to the “fairy-tale” that billions of people believe in the world. Yet, he just can’t wrap his head around one issue: “Why doesn’t God just appear before me now and make me believe?” He had attempted to pray before—begging for Jesus to appear bodily before him so he would believe. As a learned Atheist, he even had a mastery over the various literature in the debate. Yet, to no avail, Christianity still seems far and away from him. He just can’t believe it. “The evidence is just not enough,” retorts Smith as he wheels back to his living room to watch his favourite sport show.

The story of Smith is typical; we often find Atheists who seem genuine in their search for truth, but still finds it implausible—through a seemingly honest investigation—that Christianity can be true. Often times, we Christians, too, are bewildered over the seeming absence of God in our life. Within the story of the novel Silence,[1] the young Portuguese Jesuit priest Sebastião Rodrigues, ventures to the mainland Japan in the 16th century to evangelize and strengthen persecuted Japanese Christians under the Tokugawa Shogunate. Silence is based on the story of the real-life Jesuit priest, Cristóvão Ferreira, who apostatized during his missionary journey to Japan. Ferrerira appears within the novel—reminiscing to Redrigues, as he was eventually captured by the Japanese—of his own torture that led him to his apostasy. After Rodrigues is subjected to the same jailcell that Ferreira was in, he found—written in Latin—the words Laudate Eum (‘praise him’) engrafted on the walls of the cell. Harrowingly, Ferreira—being the desperate Christian that he was after having witnessed the moans and screams of his flock—had written the words out of exasperation over his torturous missionary journey in Japan. What was left for Rodrigues was to wonder why Christ himself seems absent from his journey. How typical is that question to the one that we ask daily in our Christian life?

I invite the readers within this article to wrestle with me for a moment with Job: the righteous figure who suffers, loses everything, and yet retains his faith in God. Finally, even after having met God through the whirlwind, Yahweh withheld explanations from Job, but rather challenged him to reconsider his position to talk back before the almighty God of the universe! Wrestle with me with Paul: the eager missionary that confesses of his own inabilities over and over again throughout his letter. Isaiah, having been secluded to lonely periods in his life, confesses: “Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself, the God and Savior of Israel” (Isa. 45:15, NIV). Although these figures soon find their way to communion and reassurances with God, surely, they were exposed to an untimely period of spiritual exhaustion—moments where God retains his silence.

Can God both be All-Loving and Hidden?

If we take two propositions with us for the moment: God is loving and God is hidden, there does not seem to be an explicit contradiction between the two premises. After all, it doesn’t appear to us to be the case that the two propositions contradict themselves in the way that married bachelor or square circle does. Of course, we can construct a premise that may reveal the inconsistency between the proposition God is loving and God is hidden. Let us examine the traditional problem and attempt to formulate our propositions.

Generic Hiddenness Argument (GHA)

The typical understanding of the hiddenness argument may be found in the writings of Nietzsche, a 19th century philosopher:

A god who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who does not even make sure his creatures understand his intentions—could that be a god of goodness? Who allows countless doubts and dubieties to persist, for thousands of years, as though the salvation of mankind were unaffected by them, and who on the other hand holds out frightful consequences if any mistake is made as to the nature of the truth?

Nietzsche, as ambiguous as he can be, questions whether or not “god” can allow “countless doubts and dubities to persist.” The warrant for supposing that this should not happen is that the “salvation of mankind” is reliant on “the nature of the truth.”

Perhaps, even clearer, is Joseph Butler’s satire against the Deists that “If the evidence of revelation appears doubtful, this itself turns into a positive argument against it, because it cannot be suppose that, if it were true, it would be left to subsist upon doubtful evidence.”[2] Butler, here, presents a hiddenness argument based on the probabilities. That given that the probabilities of the theistic arguments are so low, that, in itself, further lowers the probability for Theism.

I suppose it would not be unfair to apply Butler’s satire as the generic hiddenness argument. The principal reason being that if the evidences for God’s existence is higher, Nietzsche’s remark would not have made sense and Butler’s principle would not follow. However, there is a downside to this. Nietzsche’s remark questions God’s hidden intentions.[3] For Nietzsche, humanity’s knowledge of God’s intentions are important for mankind’s salvation and that by God’s not revealing his intentions, he is not a good God. Yet, Nietzsche’s remark may already be stared at incredulously given the numerous texts that holy books of different religions contain about the intentions of their deities. Perhaps, for Nietzsche, at the end of the day, is that it is unclear which God is the true God based on the various purported revelations.

Based on the two quotations, we may already coalesce them together to a premise

(1) If God is all-loving, then the probability for the evidences for his existence and his identity for all persons at any moment is high.

As we will see, the basic assumption within this argument is the following:

(2) The probability for God’s existence for, at least, one person is not high.


(3) God is not all-loving.

It is hugely tempting to argue against (2)—namely, by contending that the probability for his existence is always high for all persons at any time. Yet, this can easily be dismissed as unrealistic—certainly, we, even as Christians, often perceive that God is absent from our lives. Even more, for Christians who may be born in regions where they were not taught about the evidences for God’s existence, it is likely that the probability for God’s existence for them is lower. Think about unbelievers. There are Agnostics who became Agnostics simply because they have no conception of God presented to them. Schellenberg puts it,

Among science’s discoveries is the discovery of deep time: the universe is not thousands or even million but many billions of years old…The past life of our planet too has to be measured in billions of years, and for most of this time life has been creeping through multiple avenues, with the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection…The big-brained species of ape, Homo sapiens, emerged after (and alongside) other species already fairly well endowed in that department perhaps 200,000 years ago, and 50,000 years ago was using language and drawing pictures in caves and probably also engaging in religious or proto-religious behavior.[4]

For the moment, let us concede Schellenberg. Let us concede that for over 150,000 years, humanity had no conception of language or religion. Therefore, we may say that (2) can be conceded. Without a conception of a God even presented to them, we would intuitively say that for these people, the probability of there being a God is very low. Perhaps, even if they attempt to seek after such a being (or imagine such a being), their attempt to find such a being would be greatly impeded by their low epistemic confidence in the being given the evidences presented to them. Of course, they can always manufacture their own conception of a God—but that would still not disprove that for some people, the probability of there being a God is low.

Disproving (GHA)

Breaking certain assumptions

Further reflections, however, should hinder us from ever accepting (1). The problem comes that (1) assumes that it is impossible for God to have a morally justified reason in hindering his appearances to mankind in general. Usually, Atheists would come up with scenarios in terms of a father. What kind of father would leave their children in abandonment for their whole lives? Certain illustrations can be brought up here in response to this. First, think of a loving father who sincerely wishes for his children to come to love him. However, it may as well be the case that by him appearing to his children at a length of time that it may disrupts the child’s activity that is crucial. For example, a father would not barge into a medical operation room to greet his daughter knowing that his daughter is a neurosurgeon operating a complex brain surgery. This in an example where hiddenness is morally justified.

Another big assumption that must be broken is the assumption that hiddenness is bad. Is it a sign of imperfection that a person is hidden? Clearly not. Sometimes, we admire lovers who may be absent from each other for a certain period of time where they trust each other in being able to retain their promises. The Bible, too, frequently uses the allegories of romantic love in illustrating the relationship between God and his people.[5] We may even ascribe a kind of maturity in them for them being absent in their lover’s life while wanting so desperately to be present. It is not at all hard to demonstrate that hiddenness is, by itself, neither bad nor morally unjustified. Are there cases where hiddenness may be bad or morally unjustified? It seems so too. We recognize and scorn parents that are absent at moments where they ought to. We chastise married couples who are absent to each other for too long given their preoccupations for other things in life. A parent who never allows a child an opportunity to know their parents seems unjustified. This, says the Atheist, proves that God is unjust in his situation for allowing such a moral abhorrence.

Therefore, as we have established the idea that hiddenness may either be good or bad, we recognize that, at the very least, it is not impossible for God to both be all-loving, desiring the best for each person, and yet be absent at certain periods of their lives. He may as well have an overriding justification for his prolonged period of absent for a group of people.

Constructing a counter-argument

We now have enough to reflect more on this issue. Given that it is possible for there to be an overriding justification why some person is allowed to suffer from the hiddenness of God, (1) is demonstrably false. Perhaps, at this point, we can construct another premise:

(4) If there is an overriding moral justification for God’s hiddenness, then it is possible for God to be all-loving and allow hiddenness.

Hiddenness in (4) is construed as the low probability for some persons, at some moments, for God’s existence. If we follow my line of thoughts, we can see that the argument has already lost its weight. The counter-argument goes:

(5) There is overriding justification for God’s hiddenness

(6) Therefore, it is possible for God to be all-loving and allow hiddenness

This argument suffices for (GHA) to fail. For given (6), (1) is already false. Our defence now turns to (5).

First, an overriding justification for God’s hiddenness may be his desire to maximize the amount of person saved. This may come off as a counter-intuitive idea. Notice that hiddenness is in terms of the lack of probability for God’s existence. Therefore, the opposite of that is a higher probability for God’s existence—perhaps an almost certain knowledge of the proposition there is a God. Yet, it does not seem at all clear that just the knowledge of there being a God should be enough to prompt somebody to a loving relationship in our life—even given the knowledge that he is all-loving. We recognize that if our lovers constantly disturb our activities, the relationship may not be healthy after all. If our parents constantly bang at our doors to remind us of his love for us and of his existence, we may as well be pestered by it. Consider the rise of Christianity. Even if we concede that within this world, the probability for God’s existence may be low, the rise of Christianity is unprecedented even in areas where not just seeming divine forsakenness is evident, but that active persecution is rampant. Often times, bad events (including that of seemingly bad hiddenness) may prompt Christians to be even stronger in their faith. China, after having 20 million Chinese losing their lives during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, gained a growth of the church in China leading to 30-75 million Christians by 1990.[6] Johnstone remarks: “Mao Zedong unwittingly became the greatest evangelist in history.”[7] Could the same growth have been prompted by consistent perturbations of God intervening in history to display himself bodily at all times? These events seem to be more triggered by the persecution that motivates the Christians. By 1989, it is recorded that for every seven non-believers, there is one Christian.[8] The church is ever-growing and Christianity is “simply growing faster than any other global religion.”[9] The bottom line of this seems to be that we are not in any position to judge whether or not there are hiddenness that in overall produce more bad than the good. As we have seen our example of the rise of Christianity following a great persecution, we should likewise not presume that given a seemingly bad hiddenness that the hiddenness leads to an overall bad than the good. As a matter of fact, it may be the case that God, wanting to maximize the amount of people saved, has placed men in circumstances where a maximal number would be saved. In such a world, it does not seem implausible that God has to maintain, variably, an epistemic distance where his hiddenness produces the maximal amount of saved. If this is indeed true, then God has such a moral justification in allowing his varied level of hiddenness just as he controls other aspects of the human lives to woo men to him.

Further, we also recognize—in our daily Christian lives—that God’s providence directs us to him in ways beyond what mere appearances can do. We recognize God’s love through our mystical experiences with him and we pursue fervently after a God who seems to appear not through explicit revelations, but by his gentle prodding to our lives. Of course, we recognize moments where God’s hiddenness disturbs us more than anything. But we recognize that often times, the moments where God is most hidden are the moments where we seek after God most. Like a father teaching his child to walk by refraining to force himself on the child, God may as well allow us to seek after him more given his seeming hiddenness in our life.

Second, an overriding justification for God’s hiddenness may be his desire to allow for human freedom to choose to love or not to love. A characteristic of love is that it does not force itself on anybody. Perhaps, at this moment, it may be objected that love always wants the best for the recipient of the love and therefore, as it is better for someone to be saved than not, it would have been morally justified for God to force himself on everybody so they may gain eternity of happiness. However, things don’t resolve as easily as that. First of all, happiness may not be achieved without there being free creatures who can be aware of their situations. Free creatures are creatures who are able to choose and think between ranges of options. It seems that in order for such beings to be created and yet God forces himself on them, God would have to make it seem to them that they are free when in reality, they are determined by God in every second of their life so they may feel happy. But this would violate the honesty of God. God, being morally pure, would not be able to allow such a deception. On the other hand, if God were to allow genuine happiness, it may as well only be achieved through genuine free choices. After all, if heaven is a place of the dwelling of God, then a person who may likewise be given the freedom to choose to reject God.

At this point, we may ask, “But could God have created creatures who are not, by nature, evil—and therefore, they would naturally be more inclined to choose God than not?” Interestingly, this precisely is the Biblical account. The Biblical account insists that God created humans as “very good”.[10] Yet, by their freely given freedom, men chose to rebel against God and the fall initiated the abhorrent nature that humans possess afterwards. After all, we have all been spiritually “dead”[11] Given that men are already in sin, God’s desire to allow human freedom the choice to love or not to love God becomes impossible initially. It may only be that given a certain kind of grace that men are enabled not the same level of ability, but a similar ability to choose between ranges of options—some of them may be non-resistant enough to God to allow his further salvific grace to work salvation in the man.[12] The point is that freedom to choose to love is an attribute of love that God gives. God is faithful in his principle up even when men have fallen to sin because to refrain from such a principle would be to either revoke their free status or to deceptively take their freedom.

Perhaps, given the considerations of salvation, this principle by itself, is not enough to justify God’s hiddenness. After all, if all God is concerned about is preserving freedom for its own sake, is it justified in light of the great disparities between salvation and damnation to hide himself? However, if we combine the two principles together, we get a strong argument in favour of God’s all-loving character—that is to say, God wants to maximize the amount of saved persons and to give each a choice to reject God. In doing so, God has to inevitably ordain the damnation of many people in light of these two objectives.


These two suggestions are only some of the ways we can justify (5). The argument that we have brought up in favour of there being overriding reasons for God hiding himself may as well be a sea of countless other explanations that have been posited along the way. What if the justification that we have brought up works? That means that no Atheist would be justified in holding (1). Even further, a justification for (5) counters even other possible principles in favour of hiddenness. I contend in this article that hiddenness is in terms of the lack of probabilities. Yet, there are works out there arguing that hiddenness is non-resistant unbelief.[13] However, even we can construe hiddenness as the fact that there is non-resistant unbelief, our justification for (5) still holds. It may be the case that non-resistant unbelief be justified given the reasons we have stated. Thus, this broad generalization can work for the generic types of the hiddenness argument.

[1] Endo, Shusaku. 1969. Silence: A Novel. Translated by William Johnston. New York: Picador Classics.

[2] Butler, Joseph. 2006. The Works of Bishop Butler. New York: University of Rochester Press. 256

[3] Schellenberg also points this out in The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God. Schellenberg, J. L. 2015. The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God. New York: Oxford University Press. 26

[4] Ibid. 76-77

[5] Needless to say, I had Hosea’s story and Song of Songs in mind while writing this—both of which are great allegories of God’s love for humans.

[6] Johnstone, Patrick. 1993. Operations World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. As quoted in Craig, William Lane. 2017. “A Molinist View.” In God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views, 37-55. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. 48-49

[7] Ibid. 49

[8] Ibid. 51

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gen. 1:31

[11] Gen. 2:17

[12] For a fuller discussion of this model of grace, see Cross, Robert. 2005. “Anti-pelagianism and the Irresistibility of Grace.” Faith and Philosophy 199-210.

[13] Schellenberg, J. L. 2015. The Hiddenness Argument: Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God. New York: Oxford University Press.


About the Author

By John A. Limanto

John A. Limanto is a fellow leader of Philosophy group in Pelita Harapan School and an aspiring Christian apologist in his local community. After living for 7 years in Borneo, he now resides with his family in Jakarta, Indonesia where he is pursuing his research on Molinism and free will.