"This argument says that if God existed (and was perfectly good and loving) every reasonable person would have been brought to believe in God; however, there are reasonable nonbelievers; therefore, this God does not exist."
Two meanings of "divine hiddenness"
First, it's important to note (as the Stanford Encyclopedia entry makes clear in the first 2 paragraphs) that "divine hiddenness" as used in Schellenberg's argument should be distinguished from the age old meaning of "divine hiddenness" where believers agonize over the perceived absence of God in the believer's life, such as in Job, Jesus's cry on the cross, or "the dark night of the soul". In Schellenberg's argument the person uses the hiddenness to justify the belief that God does not exist, but in the believer's case the belief stays intact but provides a cause for the believer to "cry out" to God for His action or His presence. Thus, the two uses of "divine hiddenness" refer to two different facts. The rest of this answer will tackle the use as in the Schellenberg's argument.
Summary of the Christian defense
A 2019 Themelios journal article The God Who Reveals: A Response to J. L. Schellenberg’s Hiddenness Argument (pdf here) by Daniel Wiley acknowledges that "as divine hiddenness is increasingly used to justify nonbelief, it will become increasingly essential for the Church to offer rebuttal." He then carefully restates the most up-to-date version of the syllogism (see Section 1), taking into account Travis Dumsday's definition in 2016 and Schllenberg's own update in 2017, to demonstrate that one or more of the premises are in error.
Daniel then demonstrates how Schellenberg's argument, which has the following 3 core foundations:
- The positive correlation between love and one’s openness to personal relationships
- Nonresistant nonbelief
- The rationality of God as an omni-benevolent being
fails for three reasons:
- It assumes a correlation between love and openness that does not reflect the way men and women establish openness to relationships.
- It is not able to prove nonresistant nonbelief.
- It has not established God’s omni-benevolence apart from Scripture.
Quotes from the article to support the 3 reasons
Perfect Love and Openness to Personal Relationships (Section 2)
The heart of this argument is found in the correlation between love as expressed by human persons and love as expressed by God. As Schellenberg argues, if there was no possible analogy between God’s love and human love, then human language could not speak about God at all.¹⁸ This correspondence is best witnessed in a parent’s love for his or her children. In normal cases, the best parents always love their children, and this love manifests itself through a parent’s openness to relationship with his or her children. Now, if a parent is not open to relationship with his or her children, he or she is seen by others as a bad parent. Therefore, God, who is the perfect “parent,” much always be open to relationship with his “children,” lest he falls short of omni-benevolence.¹⁹
The force of this argument is strong, and especially because of its emotional angle. Those parents who refuse relationship with their children are seen as abnormal and less than truly loving. If that is so, then how can a perfect God avoid such scrutiny if he is not open to relationships with finite creatures? Nevertheless, the implied assumption with the above argument is that one’s openness to relationship is positively correlated with one’s love. ...
2.1. Parents and Closed Doors
... However, we can conceive of scenarios in which a parent’s love does not determine the openness of a relationship. For instance, a child could grow up and become delinquent in a way that would threaten the safety of his or her parents and family (examples include becoming a serial killer or a sex offender). A good parent will always love that child, but would a wise parent keep that relationship open considering the circumstances? ...
2.2 A Response to Potential Counter Rebuttals
Rebuttal: ... he could argue that God is perfectly loving, and thus his openness is never affected by the imperfections of human relationships or purposes that influence openness.
Response: ... such logic would contradict Schellenberg’s own thesis. As stated above, we can speak of God’s love because we understand human love. Furthermore, having proven that openness is also determined by purpose and not just love in man, it would be impossible to correlate human love with God’s love if God’s love is the final arbitrator in determining his openness but human love is not. Without this correlation between humankind and God regarding love, the logic behind the hiddenness argument cannot stand.
Rebuttal: ... he could argue that God is sovereign, and thus can be open to any relationship that he wants to regardless of humanity’s sin or vice.²¹ Therefore, the dangers of human actions would not affect God’s ability to be open to any relationship with any finite person.
Response: ... to say that God can be open to relationship with all humanity says nothing about God’s necessity to be open to all humanity. The original version of the hiddenness argument draws the correlation between perfect love and openness, not ability and openness. This is changing the argument. Nevertheless, even if ability is included in the argument, it still does not override the fact that openness is also determined by purpose, as previously demonstrated. If human persons have various degrees of openness based upon purpose and not just love, then why can’t God’s openness also be dependent upon his purposes and not just his love?²²
Rebuttal: ... he could argue that the deviant child already knows of the parents’ existence, and thus the relationship is not truly “closed” in the sense that the child lacks awareness of their existence.
Response: ... such logic would run contrary to Schellenberg’s own reasoning. Giving an example of a child who is enthusiastic about parents who do not have any relationship with the child, he concludes, “Their attitude towards him, whatever it is, doesn’t amount to the most admirable love, since they are closed to being in a personal relationship with him.”²³ At this point in the argument, openness vs. closedness is not indicative of existence vs. nonexistence, lest the above logic would make no sense (the closedness of the parents’ relationship in the example says nothing about their existence—they obviously exist!). Therefore, Schellenberg would have to retract his reasoning here (reasoning that is valuable to his argument) to make the rebuttal stand.
Nonresistant Nonbelief (Section 3)
According to Schellenberg’s logic, a perfectly loving God who is always open to a personal relationship with each finite person will make His existence knowable, for surely a God who hides evidence of Himself cannot be perfectly loving. Therefore, those who reject this necessary evidence for God must be in a state of resistance towards God.²⁵
However, Schellenberg also argues that there are many people who have not resisted or currently resist the idea of God but rather remained or currently remain unconvinced of His existence. These people include: (1) Early homo sapiens, who had no concept of or need to consider theistic religion, (2) Former believers, those who once held to theistic religion but converted out after reflection upon the evidence, and (3) Secularists who have felt no conscious desire to pursue discussion of God.²⁶ Schellenberg confidently concludes, “So anyone with some acquaintance with evolutionary history and a willingness to look truth in the eye will be able to see that, in the actual world, many people in our history have failed to believe in God without resistance of God in any way coming into the explanation of their nonbelief.”²⁷ In summary, if an all-loving God exists, then he would never close off relationships with finite creatures, and thus all nonbelief would be resistance. However, since there are some who do not resist God, then God must not exist. Unfortunately, as convincing as nonresistant nonbelief appears to be, this line of reasoning has numerous difficulties.
3.1. An Unprovable Assumption
... The reason for the unverifiability of nonresistant nonbelief is that nonresistant nonbelief is a conceptual thought of the mind. Therefore, there is no possible way for one to prove that one possesses nonresistant nonbelief beyond stating that one has nonresistant nonbelief.
... Nonresistant nonbelief as a provable state of mind is in no different a position than my inability to prove that I am thinking about taking my beautiful girlfriend for a ride in my new convertible or the believer trying to prove that God exists because he had a “personal encounter” with God. When this point is realized, Schellenberg’s proposed “evidence” simply becomes a “hand count” of all the people who claim to live or may have lived in a state of nonresistant nonbelief and not actual proof that nonresistant nonbelief exists. Even if one is truly in a state of nonresistant nonbelief and makes this claim with confidence, the fact that one cannot prove this claim makes the argument meaningless as an apologetic for atheism.
3.2. Ignorance of Resistant Nonbelief
The second difficulty is the assumption that resistance is always a conscious act. One’s personal belief that one is not resisting God is, alone, not proof of nonresistant nonbelief, for one could be deceived. Ironically, Schellenberg offers evidence for this rebuttal in his attempt to establish the existence of nonresistant nonbelief! Commenting on the nonresistant nonbelief of pre-theistic homo sapiens, Schellenberg argues,
Think about it. These are people who don’t believe in God. So they are nonbelievers–they are not in a state of belief in relation to the proposition that God exists. And how could they be resistant? It’s not even possible since resistance of God presupposes thinking about God, and their whole picture of the world is shaped in such a way that thinking about God just wouldn’t happen.²⁸
The reader will notice that Schellenberg contests that “resistance of God presupposes thinking about God.” However, the reader will also notice that these pre-theistic homo sapiens had a whole picture of the world “shaped in such a way that thinking about God just wouldn’t happen.” By this statement, Schellenberg admits that the thinking of these pre-theistic homo sapiens is so directing and controlling of the minds of these individuals that they would never think about God.
This thinking that is so directing and controlling is clearly evidence of a worldview, and understanding how worldviews work is essential in recognizing the importance of the previous point. God may have very well left evidence of Himself, but these pre-theistic homo sapiens developed a worldview that does not recognize God (at least in a theistic sense) and thus construe the evidence to fit their own worldview. ...
... As a final thought to this rebuttal, pre-theistic homo sapiens are not the only ones who could have a worldview that removes God from discussion. Is it not possible that a secular humanistic view of the world, which, by its very nature, attempts to define all life and purpose apart from God, would shape one’s mind in such a way that God becomes unimportant? Might a secular humanistic culture suppress the idea of God and interpret all the evidence God left of himself thought a secular lens and thus reject the idea of God a priori? Secularists may be convinced that they are not resisting God, but how can they be sure of this when they have, just as the pre-theistic homo sapiens did, a whole picture of the world that is shaped in such a way that thinking about God just wouldn’t happen?
The Omni-Benevolence of God (Section 4)
... arguing for the omni-benevolence of God apart from Scripture is Schellenberg’s challenge. ... Why would philosophers simply assume that God, if he exists, is all-loving? There is certainly much in the world that would suggest otherwise (this is why the problem is evil is so problematic!). Furthermore, love as an attribute of God has not been universally held by the world’s religions both past and present. ... popular historical viewpoints on God have been fine without omni-benevolence as necessary for God, for example, Deism.³⁵ Perhaps God’s omni-benevolence is not so obvious after all.
Nevertheless, Schellenberg is certain that it is “reasonable” to conclude that God, if he exists, is omni-benevolent. Commenting on the qualities a perfect person must possess, he remarks, “Contrary to what some of my critics have said, such reflection—and not just Christian prejudice—is what lay behind my claim in Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason that a God would be perfectly loving.”³⁶ Since cultures have disagreed on the status of “love,” and thus “love” is not universally recognized as a perfection, Schellenberg bears of burden of proof in arguing that love as a perfection is not simply a Western cultural perspective but a proposition that can be proven by reason apart from Scriptural revelation and cultural influence.
4.1. The Urgency of Schellenberg’s Defense
... If Schellenberg cannot prove that God must be loving, then he must rely on Scripture to prove that God is omni-benevolent. This, however, would be the death warrant for the hiddenness argument, for to be consistent, Schellenberg would have to use all of Scripture to define God and man rather than just what is convenient for the hiddenness argument. As even the most simple-minded Bible college student knows, the Scriptures present a worldview radically different than that presented by Schellenberg, a worldview that is purely modernistic. The most significant and obvious distinction between Schellenberg’s secular worldview and the biblical worldview is the nature of man. According to Scripture, man is not a morally-neutral being but is a sinner and in a natural state of rebellion against his Creator (Rom 3:9–19; Eph 2:1–3; cf. Gen 8:21; Col 2:13). Man does not reject God because there is no evidence for God, but because man twists the evidence to justify His own rebellion and hate of God (cf. Rom 1:18–23).
Of course, proponents of the hiddenness argument would hardly accept Scriptural testimony to the nature of man as a rebuttal of the hiddenness argument. For secularists, the Bible is a biased religious document and thus it is meaningless to reference Scripture to refute the hiddenness argument. Schellenberg follows the play-book well. ...
... the radical distinction between a biblical worldview and the hiddenness argument forces Schellenberg to argue for God’s omni-benevolence apart from Scripture. If Schellenberg cannot do so, then it is obvious that he must rely on Scripture to form the idea of God as all-loving. However, if he does so, then he must also accept the rest of the biblical testimony regarding the nature of God and man.
4.2. A Rationally loving God?
As urgent as the matter is, Schellenberg only offers one clear non-biblical argument in proof of God’s omni-benevolence in The Hiddenness Argument.⁴³ This argument proceeds as follows:
Here’s one way to think about it. Bring before your mind the concept of the greatest possible person—a person so great that none could be greater—and suppose also that this person has created a world including finite persons. Think about this person’s attributes. Now either your conception already embraces perfect love towards those other persons among its attributes or it doesn’t. If it does, I’ve made my case. If it doesn’t, then ask yourself what is the result of mentally adding perfect love to the collection of attributes you’ve conceived.⁴⁴
Schellenberg’s example fails to prove that love is a perfection for two reasons. First, the argument begs the question, for it assumes that a more impressive person would be “perfectly loving” without proving that love is a perfection. Second, it bases the judgment of love as a perfection completely upon the reader, as if the reader’s perception of the value of love determines whether love is a perfection. Just because Schellenberg’s reader assumes that the addition of perfect love makes one a morally impressive person does not actually make that person morally impressive. If the reader concluded “no,” then would love no longer a perfection? Western culture may value love (however it is defined by western culture), but western culture’s admiration for something alone does not make it “good” in an objective sense, much less a perfection.
Continuing relevance for Christian apologetics (Section 5)
Despite the argument's shortcomings for Christians, Daniel noted that Christian pastors and educators should seriously understand the appeal of this argument and its staying power, just as the problem of evil remains relevant today:
Although the argument is emotionally satisfying and comfortably coincides with a rising secularism in our culture, there are just too many unproven presuppositions in the hiddenness argument for it to stand scrutiny.
Nevertheless, even with its problems, the hiddenness argument is not likely to go away anytime soon. Just as the problem of evil remains in writing at the popular level in spite of its difficulties,⁴⁵ so likely will the hiddenness argument also persevere, and especially as secularism continues to grow in Western culture. Schellenberg acknowledges that the hiddenness argument “is now quite regularly explored alongside the venerable old problem of evil in philosophy classrooms and texts.”⁴⁶ Therefore, pastors, educators, and students of theology cannot be ignorant of this “new” argument and its shortcomings.