Why doesn’t God just do whatever it takes to make people believe in him?

Here’s something I’ve heard many times, often called the problem of divine hiddenness, recently articulated to me by a Facebook friend:

It would seem that an all loving god would not make it so damn hard to understand and believe when it could be so easy to make somone believe by any number of means. In fact god would know exactly what it would take to make me or anyone believe. why not do that?

Like the question, “When did you stop doing drugs?” this is not the sort of question we should answer directly, because it makes several bad assumptions:

1. IT ASSUMES THAT BELIEF = FAITH

But James 2:19 says that even the demons believe. Imagine God provided special evidence to an atheist that compelled her to believe he was real. Would she love him as a result? Or would she maintain that even though she was certain he existed, Yahweh is a monstrous deity not worthy of worship? Most atheists—especially new atheists—would say the latter. So if God wanted them to have a loving trust in him (faith), it doesn’t seem like proving his existence would get the job done.

2. IT ASSUMES THAT GOD HAS NOT ALREADY GIVEN SUFFICIENT EVIDENCE

But as (1) suggests, the problem atheists have with God is not strictly evidential in the first place; it is relational. Which is why Romans 1:18ff notes that, far from not knowing the truth, all people naturally do know about God, since his existence is clearly perceived in creation—but they suppress it in unrighteousness. Now, atheists obviously won’t tend to admit this, even to themselves; just as I would not have when I was an atheist. But looking back on my attitude and beliefs during that time, it is very obvious to me now that I was deceiving myself, and that Romans 1 was exactly right. Indeed, the Bible’s ability to accurately expose the human heart was something that I found quite convincing when evaluating its claims. It has the ring of truth about it.

3. IT ASSUMES THERE IS SUCH A THING AS CONVINCING EVIDENCE TO AN ATHEIST

But if the Bible is correct that unbelievers suppress the truth in unrighteousness, then any evidence for God will be suppressed in the same way—reinterpreted, no matter how implausibly, to point away from God. In Luke 16:31, Jesus observes that, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead.” I’d lay good money that if an atheist saw someone rise from the dead, she would look for a scientific explanation—and assume there was a scientific explanation regardless of her success—rather than believe it was a miracle. That being the case, what could God possibly do to convince her, when she will resolutely reinterpret any evidence to fit her godless worldview?

4. IT ASSUMES GOD WANTS EVERYONE TO BELIEVE IN HIM

But where is this taught in the Bible? Scripture is explicit that, because we are naturally enemies of God, none of us will ever love him without he himself taking the initiative and fixing this relational problem we have. It isn’t something we can do. Left to our own devices, we will always hate God. He must change our attitude; make us willing to see the obvious. That is what the phrase “born again” means—to have God replace our “hearts of stone” with “hearts of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

This is why Yahweh has always chosen whom he will save, and left the rest. That is what Israel is a model of. God does not intend to save everyone. Rather, as Romans 9:16-18 puts it:

So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I caused you to be raised up, that I might show in you my power, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then, he has mercy on whom he desires, and he hardens whom he desires.

Cross-posted from my blog.

9 replies
  1. Ian
    Ian says:

    1. Presumably, however, most people would like to think something they love (whatever that means) actually exists.

    2. It is pretty hard for evidence to exist of something that can’t even be described or understood.

    3. All we have is a language of description, and we don’t describe what “god” is very well. Get that sorted then we can talk.

    4. I don’t hate god, I don’t even have the remotest idea what god is. Why would I hate it?

    The problem with giving god characteristics like all knowing, all loving, all powerful etc is that necessarily everything that happens that is remotely influenced by gods actions necessarily occurs by choice of that god (either made to happen, or allowed to happen by omission). Most Christians won’t cede that their god is simply very powerful, vastly knowledgeable and pretty loving – its all or nothing. If that’s the case, then the original question you address stands unshaken.

  2. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    Hey Ian, (1) seems obvious so no need to reply to that. (2) and (3) are puzzling. In what sense can God not be described or understood? For thousands of years, some of the world’s greatest minds have believed he could be described and understood, albeit not exhaustively; and they went about it in very precise, intellectually rigorous ways. They also produced mountains of evidence for God’s existence. So while I guess (2) is true, it doesn’t seem relevant to Christianity; and (3) just seems false.

    Given what you say in (4), it sounds like you’re assuming that since you don’t understand what God is, the very idea of God must be inexplicable. That’s quite a stretch, don’t you think? I certainly don’t share your difficulty. Maybe you should crack a systematic theology and read the section on God. Or if you’re short on time, Wayne Grudem’s “20 Basics Every Christian Should Know” has a couple of chapters at the beginning which are quite good.

    necessarily everything that happens that is remotely influenced by gods actions necessarily occurs by choice of that god (either made to happen, or allowed to happen by omission).

    I’d go further. I’d say that necessarily, everything that happens period occurs by choice of God. You seem to allow for things happening that are not influenced by God’s actions; the Bible denies this. Nothing can happen apart from God. Indeed, the impossibility of contingent events causing themselves, or having an infinite regress of causes, is one of the classical evidences for God’s existence.

    If that’s the case, then the original question you address stands unshaken.

    You’ll need to explain why I’m afraid. I’m not seeing it.

  3. Ian
    Ian says:

    My point with 1 was, in response to your argument, that belief is not sufficient – my point was it is kind of necessary though. Therefore the original question stands.

    For 2/3 you kind of aid my point by saying firstly that the worlds greatest minds have been trying to describe and then move straight onto discussing evidence. No coherent description exists that I have seen – and certainly there isn’t one in the bible. Descriptions need adjectives, not verbs. First mover or loving entity or pervasive influence etc etc don’t actually say anything descriptive about the mover, lover or influencer. I have read quite a bit of theology and arbitrarily dug out an ebook of Systematic Theology (Jenson, 1994) to refresh after your comment. The entire book assumes the word god actually means something – it never tries to describe what the word actually describes (beyond verbs). It does spend a lot of time on what god does/did though. Anyway this is a distraction from the main point which is that god isn’t nearly well enough described to know if there is sufficient evidence, or whether or not it would convince an atheist.

    As an aside, the first causes argument is an interesting point – because according to you there is a way that contingent causes can be caused: god. Therefore it isn’t impossible at all and I suspect you’d be obliged to argue a universe were it wasn’t possible couldn’t exist… If god is a thing, and god is all powerful, then questions of possibility are meaningless. (Incidentally we have absolutely no idea how anything causes anything else to happen so questions of first causes are perhaps a bit beyond us right now).

    I can only assume, based on your statement that everything happens because of god, that my disbelief is precisely how god wants it. This kind of pokes a hole in evangelism though – well a jagged and weird hole, but a hole nonetheless.

    The original question was “Why doesn’t God just do whatever it takes to make people believe in him?” The only answer, based on your response, is god doesn’t want everyone to believe in it. No other argument works – for example the free will argument (god wants us to choose) relies on the fact that god doesn’t know what we will do. You say god does know. And because god is all powerful, god could have it so everyone believes and loves god. God choses not to. Why?

  4. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    My point with 1 was, in response to your argument, that belief is not sufficient – my point was it is kind of necessary though. Therefore the original question stands.

    The way atheists seem to pose the question is as if belief is sufficient; I’m simply responding on their own terms. Obviously I agree that to love God you must believe in him; as Hebrews 11:6 puts it, “Without faith it is impossible to be well pleasing to him, for he who comes to God must believe that he exists, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.”

    No coherent description exists that I have seen – and certainly there isn’t one in the bible.

    It’s hard to respond to a blanket assertion devoid of argumentation or examples. What is incoherent about describing God as the creator of all things, for example? What is incoherent about describing him as necessary? Or possessing all knowledge? Or being love? Or being non-composite (simple)? These are all clearly-defined terms in theology and philosophy, so you’re just obviously wrong about this.

    Descriptions need adjectives, not verbs. First mover or loving entity or pervasive influence etc etc don’t actually say anything descriptive about the mover, lover or influencer.

    Even if this were true, which is quite unclear since we can know a great deal about something from what it does, your comment is inadvertently comical since “first”, “loving” and “pervasive” are adjectives.

    The entire book assumes the word god actually means something – it never tries to describe what the word actually describes (beyond verbs).

    Having not read Jenson I can’t speak to his abilities as a theologian. But any good systematic theology will describe the attributes of God, and divide those attributes into communicable and non-communicable.

    god isn’t nearly well enough described to know if there is sufficient evidence, or whether or not it would convince an atheist.

    Even if we only had a minimal description of God as a necessary, immaterial force of great power, that would be quite sufficient to know if there is good evidence for his existence, since the various forms of cosmological arguments going back to Aristotle are far more plausibly right than wrong.

    Therefore it isn’t impossible at all and I suspect you’d be obliged to argue a universe were it wasn’t possible couldn’t exist…

    That’s a fundamental presupposition of the first cause argument. You’re making my case for me.

    If god is a thing, and god is all powerful, then questions of possibility are meaningless.

    Another assertion in lieu of an argument. Why would they be meaningless? Do you think “all powerful” means “possessing the ability to do anything imaginable”? If so, you’re simply burning a strawman, since that is not what theologians have ever taken omnipotence to entail. Rather, omnipotence refers to the ability to do anything broadly logically possible. If you think God can create a square circle or a rock so heavy he can’t lift it, you are not only mistaken and painfully ignorant of a topic you nonetheless feel quite confident in arguing about, but you’re also unable to spot nonsense-statements when you see them. Not promising.

    (Incidentally we have absolutely no idea how anything causes anything else to happen so questions of first causes are perhaps a bit beyond us right now).

    Again, this is just confused. Rather than being an argument against a first cause, this is precisely a cog in the first cause argument! Aristotle distinguished between four different kinds of causes, and defined causation in terms of actualities and potentialities. His basic thesis was that since potentialities require some prior actuality in order to themselves become actual, there must be a first mover who is himself pure actuality. Again, this is one way in which God can be clearly defined, in strict philosophical terms which anyone can understand if they bother to put some time into studying the matter.

    I can only assume, based on your statement that everything happens because of god, that my disbelief is precisely how god wants it.

    In one sense, yes. But of course, God also wanted me to be an atheist for several years; that didn’t mean he wanted me to remain an atheist. Christianity is not fatalistic.

    This kind of pokes a hole in evangelism though – well a jagged and weird hole, but a hole nonetheless.

    Another assertion in lieu of an argument. You make this statement like it’s obviously true. But since evangelism is the instrumental means by which God saves people, it’s actually obviously false.

    The only answer, based on your response, is god doesn’t want everyone to believe in it.

    In one sense, yes. I actually think God does desire that everyone be saved; but that desire is contingent on his prior decree to create a world of people, many of whom will not be saved, because salvation is not the end of creation. The end of creation is the manifestation of God’s perfections. So his ultimate desire is not to save everyone, since that is the better world given the end for which it was created.

  5. Ian
    Ian says:

    Cool – 1 put to bed.

    What is incoherent about describing God as the creator of all things, for example?

    I am not sure what is coherent about it. We have never seen an act of pure creation or first causism, so I am quite confident in stating no-one has a clue what such a thing entails.

    What is incoherent about describing him as necessary?

    I don’t know where to start to use that as far as describing something goes.

    Or possessing all knowledge?

    It seems to me there are infinite things that could be known. Infinites are messy.

    Or being love?

    Can you be happiness? Because that makes as much sense as being love.

    Or being non-composite (simple)?

    My point is not that you don’t have words you can use descriptively in gods general direction – it is that they don’t actually form a picture of anything, and certainly nothing sufficiently concrete as to be loveable.

    Even if this were true, which is quite unclear since we can know a great deal about something from what it does, your comment is inadvertently comical since “first”, “loving” and “pervasive” are adjectives.

    Yeah my technical language skills are not a strength. Still if we say a thing barks, then we go “oh, it must be like a dog”, a thing we do have a description for that does that thing. When we say it’s “first”, what do we learn about the thing itself? Nothing because we don’t have another thing that was first to relate it to. Now you can say “something first is needed” (I don’t think it is, but that aside) but you can’t say anything about what it is other than what is needed to be first. Now what would a necessary first cause have to be like? I doubt very much we have the remotest idea.

    Even if we only had a minimal description of God as a necessary, immaterial force of great power, that would be quite sufficient to know if there is good evidence for his existence,

    But quite far from making it sufficiently well described to be even remotely loveable. As an aside, what exactly is an immaterial force of great power? Force and power are terms I know from physics but don’t really apply here and immaterial isn’t something easily relatable. This language seems to me more metaphorical (watch me get that term wrong as well) than literal.

    Another assertion in lieu of an argument. Why would they be meaningless? Do you think “all powerful” means “possessing the ability to do anything imaginable”? If so, you’re simply burning a strawman, since that is not what theologians have ever taken omnipotence to entail.

    I’m very happy to hear you say that – because more than once I have had Christians tell me otherwise. So you claim god is all powerful within a set of rules, presumably a set of rules that we will probably never understand?

    Rather, omnipotence refers to the ability to do anything broadly logically possible.

    If god can only do that which is “broadly” logically possible, what gives him the power to do the impossible and be a first cause? If first causes are broadly logically possible, then the comsological argument seems to hit trouble – well the god part of it anyway.

    Moreover, it seems “broadly” logically possible that I could be made to believe and love a god like thing. So that doesn’t get him out of dodge just yet. Presumably you think god knows enough and is powerful enough to do the things I described. Therefore I conclude that whatver I do next, god knew I was going to do it, and so I might as well not care about what god wants (which god knew I’d do) and think about other things (which god knew I would).

    Christianity is not fatalistic.

    Shouldn’t it be?

  6. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    I am not sure what is coherent about it. We have never seen an act of pure creation or first causism, so I am quite confident in stating no-one has a clue what such a thing entails.

    You seem to think that if we can’t describe the mechanism of creation, then we can’t understand the concept of creation. But the very fact that you’re talking about creation and we both know what it means puts the lie to this idea.

    I don’t know where to start to use that as far as describing something goes.

    Then you need to study some basic ontology. Anything exists either necessarily or contingently. If you don’t understand this distinction, then it’s no surprise you think the various cosmological arguments are no good. I’d recommend you check out http://bnonn.thinkingmatters.org.nz/8020-arguments-for-god-why-and-wherefore-1/ for a primer. Note that there’s a part 2 which illustrates the surprising number of things we can infer about the first cause, given what is created.

    It seems to me there are infinite things that could be known. Infinites are messy.

    Infinites are only messy when they have to exist in spacetime. There is nothing messy about saying that the set of natural numbers is infinite; nor with saying that God knows all natural numbers. If you think otherwise, you need to provide an argument.

    Can you be happiness? Because that makes as much sense as being love.

    Happiness is a poor example. Goodness would be better. But the Bible explains the manner in which God is love via the doctrine of the Trinity. There isn’t anything incoherent about saying that the three persons of the Godhead eternally love each other, and that this is what it means to say God is love.

    My point is not that you don’t have words you can use descriptively in gods general direction – it is that they don’t actually form a picture of anything

    You are assuming that because they don’t form a picture for you, they don’t form a picture for anyone. But why would philosophers since Aristotle (at least) seriously think about, explicate, and debate ideas like divine simplicity if they literally meant nothing? I mean, which is more likely — that you don’t get something which many of the greatest thinkers have understood and thought to be very important, or that you have easily discerned the actual incoherence and incomprehensibility of ideas which these great thinkers mistakenly thought were meaningful and understandable?

    Now what would a necessary first cause have to be like? I doubt very much we have the remotest idea.

    Well, for starters it would have exist necessarily, and be pure actuality. Again, the fact that those terms mean nothing to you doesn’t imply they mean nothing to me. On the contrary, what it implies is that you are missing something fundamental.

    what exactly is an immaterial force of great power? Force and power are terms I know from physics but don’t really apply here and immaterial isn’t something easily relatable.

    Again, this is something well-defined in theology and philosophy. We know that many of the terms we predicate of God are analogical. For example, Ed Feser explains:

    Now, for the Thomist, a proper understanding of these various aspects of classical theism requires a recognition that when we predicate goodness, knowledge, power, or what have you of God, we are using language in a way that is analogous to the use we make of it when applied to the created order… It has to do…with Aquinas’s famous “doctrine of analogy,” which distinguishes three uses of language: Words can be used univocally, in exactly the same sense, as when we say that Fido’s bark is loud and that Rover’s bark is loud. They can be used equivocally, or in completely unrelated senses, as when we say that Fido’s bark is loud and that the tree’s bark is rough. Or they can be used analogously, as when we say that a certain meal was good, that a certain book is good, and that a certain man is good. “Good” is not being used in exactly the same sense in each case, but neither are the senses unrelated, as they are in the equivocal use of “bark.” Rather, there is in the goodness of a meal something analogous to the goodness of a book, and analogous to the goodness of a man, even if it is not exactly the same sort of thing that constitutes the goodness in each case.

    Again, there is nothing incoherent or meaningless about this; it doesn’t show that we can’t know anything about God. It just shows us that we can’t know anything about God in the way that God knows it. Because we’re not God. Obviously.

    So you claim god is all powerful within a set of rules, presumably a set of rules that we will probably never understand?

    Since I specified the set of rules (namely broad logical possibility), I’m not sure why you’d think we could never understand them. Broad logical possibility refers to what, metaphysically speaking, could take place. It precludes direct logical contradictions, along with other impossible circumstances. Again, it sounds like you need to read up on some basic metaphysical categories. I find it very surprising that you’d come in here claiming we can know nothing about God when in fact the problem is simply your own ignorance. Why would you claim to know such things when you obviously aren’t qualified to comment?

    what gives him the power to do the impossible and be a first cause?

    You’re assuming that being a first cause is metaphysically impossible. That’s a highly idiosyncratic position that you need to argue for. Why should anyone accept it?

    If first causes are broadly logically possible, then the comsological argument seems to hit trouble – well the god part of it anyway.

    On the contrary, this is the whole point of cosmological arguments. If you think the God part runs into trouble, you need to give an argument to that effect.

    I conclude that whatver I do next, god knew I was going to do it

    More than that, he caused it (though not in the sense of the “mundane” causation we are familiar with).

    so I might as well not care about what god wants

    You’re speaking in non-sequiturs. How does this follow?

    Shouldn’t it be?

    You need to explain your position. Why should we think of Christianity as fatalistic? In what sense does God’s omnipotence entail fatalism?

  7. Ian
    Ian says:

    The first cause notion sits firmly in the “and then a miracle occurs” category of understanding things. Even given the argument it is needed (which isn’t a given by any stretch but that’s an argument for another day) we only know its needed by virtue of a gap in knowledge. We don’t even know what secondary causes are, let alone what the first one might be. Therefore the word creation (in terms of first causes) is at best a place-holder, not useful in any descriptive sense.

    But to return to the OP, nothing you have argued says anything about why god doesn’t make everyone believe or love, it just sidesteps the issue. This is necessary because even if a god does exist in some form or another, it is manifestly obvious we know very very little about it, so answering questions like this with the certainty you seem to have seems to be seriously over-reaching.

  8. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    The first cause notion sits firmly in the “and then a miracle occurs” category of understanding things.

    You keep making these bold statements completely devoid of any reasoning to back them up. My suggestion would either be to learn how to argue for your position, or stop writing cheques with your mouth that your brain can’t bank.

    we only know its needed by virtue of a gap in knowledge.

    Saying this just shows that you don’t even have the most tenuous grasp on the first cause argument. It is not an empirical argument to the best explanation. It is a metaphysical proof of principle. You can disagree that it succeeds as such, but then you need to defeat it on its own terms. Mistaking it for something completely different just shows how blinkered you are. It’s like you can’t even imagine discerning anything by non-scientific methods. Yet the scientific method rests on these kinds of metaphysical arguments.

    We don’t even know what secondary causes are, let alone what the first one might be.

    Who are you speaking for? Who is this “we”? You need to stop imputing your own gross ignorance of basic metaphysics to everyone else. Causality as a mechanism may be mysterious, but that doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about the types of causation.

    nothing you have argued says anything about why god doesn’t make everyone believe or love, it just sidesteps the issue.

    Since I didn’t intend to address that question, this objection misses the mark.

    it is manifestly obvious we know very very little about it

    Again, you need to stop imputing your own ignorance to everyone else. God is quite clear in the Bible about his reasons for creating, and his reasons for not saving everyone.

    answering questions like this with the certainty you seem to have seems to be seriously over-reaching.

    I’m putting this in the jar for Most Ironic Statements of 2014. We’ll be announcing the winner early next year.

  9. Stuart McEwing
    Stuart McEwing says:

    Ian, I know its off topic, but a first cause of the universe is not required by virtue of a gap in knowledge (i.e. by what we DON’T know). Its needed by virtue of something we DO know, namely, that the universe began to exist. Secondly, people do know what secondary causes are, just like people know what “creation” means – their definitions are given in common dictionaries.

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