Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Momentary afflictions

Before we an assess the problem of divine hiddenness, we first need to disambiguate the problem.

i) For atheists and agnostics, this problem constitutes evidence for God's nonexistence.

But I think that's off the mark. I think it poses a problem, not for God's existence, but God's benevolence. 

To illustrate: suppose I'm hiking in a remote, unpopulated wilderness. I stumble across a log cabin. There's no doubt that a human being built it. This is not a natural phenomenon.

Suppose, moreover, that it's not an abandoned or dilapidated cabin. To the contrary, it's well-maintained. In fact, there's smoke coming from the chimney.

So I naturally infer that it's occupied. Yet, when I repeatedly knock on the door, no one comes to the door. Surely someone is inside. Or even if they stepped out briefly, they should return shortly. Are they deaf? Are they afraid to open the door to strangers? 

I think there's abundant evidence for God's existence, as well as God's ongoing activity in human history. That's not the nub of the problem.

ii) I think the problem puts great strain on freewill theism, with its commitment to God's general benevolence or omnibenevolence. If God wants everyone to believe in him and have a "relationship" with him, then surely he could do more to reach out to each individual.

One stock explanation is that if the evidence was unassailable, then that would overpower our freewill. But that's an implausible counterargument:

a) For one thing, if the evidence for his existence is ambiguous, then we're justified in not believing in God, in not having a "relationship" with him. In that case, his means are counterproductive to his ends.

b) Moreover, this fails to distinguish between intellectual  belief and Christian faith. Even if the evidence compelled us to believe in God, that doesn't compel trust in God. There's more to Christian faith than mere belief. Even if the evidence was rationally "coercive," whether or not we accept the invitation (as it were) is a separate question.  So the problem remains. 

By the same token, this is not a particular problem for Reformed theism inasmuch as many Calvinists deny that God wills to save everyone. Indeed, God wills for some people to disbelieve. 

iii) From a Reformed standpoint, this is a problem for believers, not unbelievers. It calls into question, not God's existence, but his benevolence towards them (i.e. believers). 

iv) Although the problem of divine hiddenness was only formulated in the late 20C, it's been around for millennia. Indeed, the OT prophets, Psalter, and Wisdom literature bear extensive witness to this problem. This is nothing new or surprising.

In that respect, it's consistent with Biblical theism. This is something Scripture has taught us to expect.

v) It does, however, pose a prima facie inconsistency in another respect: God commands us to pray, encourages us to pray, promises great things if we pray.

In that respect, Scripture fosters an expectation that God will intercede. This is not just a case of Christians being presumptuous. Rather, God gets our hopes up, only to dash our hopes. 

vi) This, of course, goes to the familiar problem of unanswered prayer. Scripture speaks in generalities. But divine threats and promises are often implicitly qualified, and sometimes explicitly qualified–which, in turn, implicitly qualifies the otherwise unqualified statements. So that's not fundamentally inconsistent. It does, though, create a practical tension–by leaving the believer in a state of uncertainty. 

vii) We need to distinguish between the conceptual problem of divine hiddenness and the existential problem of divine hiddenness. Even if a philosophical theologian could solve the conceptual problem, that wouldn't solve the existential problem inasmuch as most Christians and Jews don't have access to his brilliant solution. So they continue to wander in the darkness.

viii) Moreover, there's probably a sense in which we're not meant to understand it. It's just a fact that God sometimes chooses to behave in ways that believers find frustrating and aggravating. Behave in ways that provoke resentment. Deliberately leaving them to stumble in the dark. Behave in ways that cause them to ask "Why?" while simultaneously robbing them of any discernible answer. 

As I say, this is widely attested in the Bible. It's not just the raging apostate. 

God puts us in that predicament. If we knew the answer, it would cease to be so challenging. It's the cluelessness that makes it such a trial. 

ix) Some philosophical theologians appeal to a soul-making theodicy to address the problem. However, a difficulty with that move is that, in many cases, the effect is the opposite of sanctification. It makes believers bitter. Less worshipful. At least in many instances. There are some saintly exceptions.  

x) To some extent, or perhaps entirely, the eschatological compensations will simply moot the problem. At that point, maybe we won't even care what the answer is. It will melt away, like fleeing shadows in the rising dawn. 

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom 8:18). 
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Cor 4:17). 
Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,Nor have entered into the heart of manThe things which God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor 2:9).


  1. Pardon my ignorance, but what's a "soul-making theodicy"?

    1. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/#SouMakThe

    2. The Brothers Karamazov comes to mind.

  2. Excellent.

    As a parent this doctrine brings to mind the Fatherhood of God. I don't always respond to my children in the way they might like or expect, sometimes it's intentional - teachable moments - and at other times it's unintentional; I didn't hear the request, or I was distracted by something.

    In every case I expect my children to assume the best, and not lose heart, or think I've suddenly stopped caring for them.

    I expect them to trust me. All analogies break down at some point of course.