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Philosophy of Religion: Divine Hiddenness

Divine Hiddenness (I), Painting by Andrew Weir (Saatchi Art)

In this article I will explain Schellenberg’s argument from hiddenness, before assessing whether it is able to resist an objection from free will.

To begin, Schellenberg argues that divine hiddenness is incompatible with God’s all-loving nature. Briefly, the argument goes like this. Schellenberg holds that if a perfectly loving God exists, then that God would always be open to a personal and meaningful relationship with any finite person. If such a God exists, then there would be no finite persons who are in a state of nonresistant non-belief regarding the existence of God. But, there are or have been people who were in a state of nonresistant non-belief regarding the existence of God, so such a perfectly loving God does not exist. If a perfectly loving God does not exist, then God does not exist. I will now explain this in more detail.

Firstly, Schellenberg holds that a perfectly loving God would always be open to a personal, meaningful relationship with any finite being. This is because a perfectly loving God would not just be benevolent, but be consciously loving. Schellenberg compares this to any loving relationship: for a relationship between human beings to be loving, both parties must be present and open to being in that loving relationship with each other. However, God’s openness to a loving relationship with us might not look like a human relationship; according to Schellenberg, it may not be an easy or even comprehensible openness. In short, we might not understand exactly how God is open to having a relationship with us. Secondly, Schellenberg holds that a perfectly loving God is incompatible with the existence of nonresistant non-believers. This is to say that there can be people who already believe in God, and people who are strong atheists; but if there are people such as reflective doubters [(open minded people who do not (yet, perhaps) believe in God)] or even people who existed before there was the conception of a theistic God, then a perfectly loving God would have made themselves known to these people, to seek to change their belief in order to have a relationship with them. The idea is that if God were aware that a person was in a state of nonresistant non-belief regarding their existence, then the only reason why God would not want to have a personal relationship with that person would be if God did not want to, and that would not be perfectly loving. Thirdly, Schellenberg takes the existence of nonresistant non-believers to be an empirical fact — it is not a necessary occurrence that there must be non-resistant non-believers. Finally, all this is to point to reasons to dismiss versions of ultimate reality that rely on a personalistic entity: Schellenberg does not deny the existence of some kind of God, just that the God must have personal qualities.

Attributes of God, 1000 Word Philosophy (2018)

To move on, a main objection to Schellenberg’s argument is that God has remained hidden not because God is not perfectly loving, but because their presence would impinge upon the moral free will of human beings. This is because the undeniable presence of a God would be like constant surveillance, changing the incentives for people to act morally. The thought is that people might then do good only out of the fear of the wrath of God and not from actual moral virtue, and that people may avoid doing evil, again not because of moral virtue, but because of fear of punishment. Schellenberg defends his argument by saying that God does not have to remain hidden in order to preserve free will. There are several reasons why, but I will focus on his response that there are already many strong believers in God who are nevertheless able to act freely.

Schellenberg suggests that because there are strong believers in God who nevertheless retain moral free will, then it must not be necessary for God to remain hidden in order to preserve moral free will, meaning that divine hiddenness must be because there is no perfectly loving God, and therefore that there is no God at all. These strong believers presumably believe that God is present. However, a possible reply to Schellenberg goes like this: perhaps God has only revealed themselves to such people precisely because of their ability to retain moral free will. Not everyone is able to, or is allowed to perceive God’s presence because not everyone is able to act with true moral free will if God’s presence is undeniable. It would be difficult to determine peoples’ motivations if they knew of God’s existence, especially if they knew that retribution was certain for any immoral acts. So, God is only revealed to a person once they reach some sort of spiritual or moral precondition. In this way, God can and must remain hidden in order to preserve moral free will. If God revealed themselves to just any person, then moral free will would likely be eradicated. However, there is the question of how we would be able to prove that these people indeed act out of moral free will, and not their strong feelings of piety or devotion to God’s moral will. So, one way Schellenberg would be able to plausibly resist this response if he were able to argue that these people do not actually act with moral free will. However, this would be very difficult to prove either way, resulting in an impasse between Schellenberg and his critics. I would like to suggest that Schellenberg is at an advantage here; it seems much more likely that those with strong belief in God act out of piety or devotion, than that they have been selected by God for their exceptional moral autonomy. It is of course difficult to prove either way, but it seems much more plausible that strong believers in God will consequently act in accordance with God’s moral will. On the basis of this objection alone, it seems that Schellenberg’s defence of his argument is plausible and reasonable.

To conclude, I have explained Schellenberg’s argument from hiddenness, before analysing an objection from free will and Schellenberg’s subsequent possible replies. I have then concluded that Schellenberg’s response is the more plausible of the two views, and therefore, that on this point, Schellenberg’s defence is successful.


Schellenberg, J. L. (2015), ‘Divine Hiddenness and human philosophy’. In Hidden Divinity and Religious Belief: New Perspectives, edited by Adam Green and Eleonore Stump. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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Maggie Leung

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