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From Nonresistant Nonbelief, by J. L. Schellenberg:

One might fail to believe in God even while God is open to a belief-entailing personal relationship if one prevents oneself from believing in God through self-deceptive resistance of God. So the hiddenness argument needs to show that not all nonbelief is of this sort: that there is (or has in the past been) nonresistant nonbelief. Chapter 6 shows how this may be done. It does so by reference to humans in the early days of human evolution as well as those today who are in doubt over whether such a God exists after careful reflection on the idea. With this job completed, we can add a third premise: Some finite persons are or have been nonresistantly in a state of nonbelief in relation to the proposition that God exists. And from this premise together with the previous conclusion, a second conclusion can be drawn: No perfectly loving God exists.

(source)

Other authors refer to nonresistant nonbelief as "blameless" disbelief or "inculpable" nonbelief. For example, this article says:

“Divine Hiddenness” in contemporary philosophy of religion may refer to the supposed fact that the existence of God is less than obvious, or to an argument against theism based on this supposed fact. The argument begins with the observation that many people of apparently good will and at least average intelligence have investigated the claims of theism, and yet still do not believe that God exists. Suppose, as many theists do, that the greatest human good is found in a personal relationship with God. Not believing that God exists seems an obvious barrier to such a relationship; but many of those who do not believe in God seem morally and epistemically blameless in their lack of belief. If the God of theism—an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good personal being—did exist, then surely those who genuinely seek God would find God: an omnipotent God would be capable of providing clear self-revelation to those who genuinely seek, and a perfectly good God would want to provide such revelation. That so many of those who do seek or have sought God persist in unbelief is therefore itself evidence that God does not exist. Or so claims the advocate of the “argument from divine hiddenness.” Some philosophers have responded by argued that “the problem of divine hiddenness” is simply a special case of the more general problem of evil, adding nothing new to the case against the existence of God, nor any new challenge to extant responses to the problem of evil. For example, it could be that there is some outweighing good that can only be obtained by God allowing blameless disbelief to continue in a person’s life. Other philosophers have argued that a good God might provide only “purposive evidence”; i.e., evidence that may only be made available to one if it would accomplish God’s purpose in one’s life (e.g., that one would respond to the evidence not just by believing that God exists, but also by loving and obeying God).

There are contemporary individuals who identify themselves as "nonresistant nonbelievers". For example, in a recent debate titled DEBATE: Theism vs Atheism | Jonathan McLatchie vs Alex O’Connor, Alex O'Connor said in his opening statement:

[...] I'm going to be making the claim, specifically, that atheism or naturalism provides better account for 3 facts of our universe:

  • The first being the hiddenness of God.
  • The second being the geographical, statistical arrangement of religious belief.
  • And the third will be the problem of gratuitous suffering and we'll see if we get time to finish it off.

Far from being unable to escape God, there is a very real contingent of nonbelievers, and I would count myself among their number, who are unable by any means to discover Him. Who seek and do not find, who knock and receive, as it were, no answer. This strange phenomenon is known as the problem of divine hiddenness. If there is a God, then simply why is He hidden from so many of us so much of the time? If theism is to offer a sufficient account of reality, then it must offer an account of what J. L. Schellenberg has famously labeled "nonresistant nonbelief", which he distinguishes from "resistant nonbelief" [...]

Question: From a Christian perspective, what are Alex and others who identify themselves as "nonresistant nonbelievers" doing wrong that is preventing them from finding God and attaining genuine belief in Him? What are plausible reasons for why God may appear hidden to them despite their alleged nonresistance?

Note: for scoping purposes, I'd be interested in answers that accept the following premises:

  • Universalism is false
  • Human beings possess some form of freedom of the will (i.e. full determinism is false, e.g. Molinists and Arminians would be welcome to answer this question)

Related: Are there any denominations that give official advice on how to win atheists for Christ who are very strong in philosophy, logic and skepticism?

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  • [BONUS] For those who are into philosophical discussions, I highly recommend this one: A Catholic, Protestant, Atheist and Agnostic Discuss the Problem of Evil. Description: The problem of evil is one of the most difficult challenges facing a theist who wishes to defend the existence of a good god. In this episode of the Cosmic Skeptic Podcast, Alex is joined by Joe Schmid, an agnostic, Cameron Bertuzzi, a protestant, and Trent Horn, a catholic, to discuss the problem in detail, and analyse various responses to it.
    – user50422
    Jul 3, 2022 at 22:57
  • 2
    Which denomination's views do you want?
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 3, 2022 at 23:26
  • @curiousdannii - do you think answers may vary too much depending on the denomination?
    – user50422
    Jul 3, 2022 at 23:30
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator Well Christians disagree about universalism, original sin, general revelation, total depravity, so yes, of course there are going to be different answers. How did you think there'd be only one answer?
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 4, 2022 at 3:18

4 Answers 4

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Nonresistance is more useful in a placid lake than in a rushing river.

I'll offer a response in 5 sections:

  • The Risks of inertia
  • The Devil really is that nasty
  • A Latter-day Saint discussion of revelation
  • A specific example from the Book of Mormon: Nephi vs. Laman
  • A Dash of Epistemology

--

The Risks of inertia

If we grant, for sake of argument, that life is not a game played without an opponent (e.g. the devil), there is opposition. This fallen world is a rushing river, not a lake. Let us consider Newton's first law and make a spiritual application:

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

This is like James' warning to those who lack faith and are:

like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed (James 1:6b)

If we are entirely nonresistant, we will end up wherever the forces around us happen to push us. Or, if we go with the flow, we have no further control on where we end up. If I want to get from A to B, nonresistance is not an effective strategy.

--

The Devil really is that nasty

I have a couple videos on my channel discussing one of Satan's nastier games.

Satan wishes to destroy people's spirituality while they are young, before they realize what they are giving up. Satan does not want people to be able to exercise moral agency on a level playing field, and he's happy to trap people with addiction or distraction as early as possible. He doesn't go easy on the young because they are children; he targets them all the more.

This is effectively illustrated by the Parable of the Caledonian Forest (of Scotland).

Sin can damage our spiritual reception; addiction can trap people in sin. Restoring a strong signal is possible through repentance, but it is not easy.

--

A Latter-day Saint discussion of revelation

Moroni 10:4 provides a formula that is highly applicable to this question.

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

Let's consider each of the 3 criteria that I've bolded above, and how the absence of any one of them can prevent us from piercing the "veil of divine hiddenness".

Sincere heart

A sincere heart is not "half-hearted". God expects us to take serious things seriously, and if we treat them lightly, we are not ready for more light & knowledge.

Luke 12:47-48 and Doctrine & Covenants 82:3 explain why it is merciful for God to not give us information or answers that we are not ready for or would take lightly--we are accountable for our faithfulness to what we know. If we know more and do not act differently, that knowledge only serves to condemn us further.

Furthermore, producing content pleasing to atheists can be an extremely profitable enterprise (see Alma 1:5) - this raises even further the cost of accepting God to one who is rich and/or famous because of the things they say against belief in God. The potential rewards (though temporary) for rejecting God can pose a substantial obstacle to one's motivations & sincerity.

--

Real intent

If we have real intent we fully plan to act on the answer we are given. As it relates to knowledge of God's existence, knowledge that a particular text comes from Him, or other such macro-theological questions, we should recognize and anticipate that the answer to this question will fundamentally change every aspect of our lives.

If knowing that a loving Father in Heaven exists, or that the Bible or the Book of Mormon is inspired, does not change our lives, we are failing to appreciate the tremendous relevance of these facts to everything. If we have real intent, we are ready to change anything if we learn that is God's will: we are all in.

--

Faith in Christ

If one reads the entire Book of Mormon (the aforementioned promise is in the last chapter of the book) and does not have at least a spark of emergent faith in Christ, I suggest they are doing something wrong. The Savior is not only mentioned in all but 2 of the Book of Mormon's 239 chapters, but it teaches profoundly of His mission, His love, and His doctrine.

Now, there is a topic here that some find uncomfortable--but it's a view held by most Christian denominations. What if one is trying to exercise faith in an inaccurate understanding of Deity?

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught:

Let us here observe, that three things are necessary, in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation.

First, The idea that he actually exists.

Secondly, A correct idea of his character, perfections and attributes.

Thirdly, An actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing, is according to his will. (Lectures on Faith 3:2-5)

Incorrect doctrines about Deity can be obstacles to our exercise of faith and our acting on the promises described in scripture. Naturally, any given denomination will suggest it is their doctrine that is correct and the others are wrong. This is understandably perplexing, and it was this very conundrum that led Joseph Smith, in his sincere quest for truth, to ask the questions that resulted in his First Vision.

A careful reading of Joseph Smith's personal history indicates that he wrestled with and studied upon these questions for quite some time before God clearly answered.

The development of man-made theologies that mix human philosophy with divine revelation are another way to trip people up in their search for God (that statement can be affirmed even if we don't agree on which theologies are man-made).

I have often encountered people who do not believe in the Christian God because their understanding of the Christian God is a strawman. When I hear this strawman described I cannot help but think that I would not believe in such a being either.

--

Nephi vs. Laman approach

There is in the Book of Mormon a story that I find relevant here. Nephi and his brothers were sent to Jerusalem to obtain the brass plates, a record of Jewish scripture (incidentally, from the perspective of those who consider this a true historical account, their taking the brass plates from Jerusalem circa 600 BC prevented the destruction of these records by Babylon ~14 years later)

Unfortunately, the man who has the plates is not a decent guy to work with, so this is no easy task.

Nephi's approach to the problem is:

 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.

His brother Laman (and Lemuel who listened to Laman), on the other hand, though he grudgingly traveled back to Jerusalem, responded by: 

  • complaining (1 Nephi 4:4) 
  • doubting what information God had already given him (1 Nephi 3:29-31) 
  • waiting outside the walls of Jerusalem while Nephi proceeded in faith (even though Nephi didn't have all the information yet, he trusted the information he had been given enough to act on it) (1 Nephi 4:4-6)

Both of them made the trip back to Jerusalem, but it was Nephi who succeeded. The difference between Nephi & Laman was "go and do" versus "go and spectate". We cannot just sit back and wait for God to deliver all the answers; we are active participants in the process.

--

A Dash of Epistemology

If there is a God who does not wish to be discovered by empirical means (that's a link to my own work on the subject) or by human reason alone, then demonstrating that His existence is true or false by empirical means/human reason would mean that this God is not Omnipotent. To state this formally:

  • P1: God does not wish to be discovered by empirical means
  • P2: God does not wish to be discovered by human reason alone
  • P3: If God is Omnipotent => (He will not permit Himself to be discovered by empirical means ^ He will not permit Himself to be discovered by human reason alone)
  • P4: (God is discovered by empirical means OR God is discovered by human reason alone)
  • C: God is not Omnipotent

So either God is not Omnipotent or at least one of the premises is false. My own experience leads me to reject premise 4.

As a very brief commentary on the purpose of premises 1 & 2 (see link above for more detail), I suggest that wisdom given by the world can be taken away by the world. One of the beauties of science is that it is constantly changing -- this is useful for technological progress but is not useful for building a stable foundation for things of eternal consequence.

Mercifully, then, God does not ask us to build our spiritual foundation on the wisdom of the world--this would, after all, be decidedly disadvantageous to those who lived before things like moveable type or the scientific revolution. I don't believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a mystery that requires years of graduate work to grasp; I believe the basic principals of the Gospel are sufficiently plain that a child can understand them.

These musings then, lead me to exactly the same principal taught by Paul, that profound understanding of spiritual matters comes from God:

And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor. 2:4)

Human wisdom alone may give us all manner of flying buttresses to support a belief in God, but will never give us the foundation. Many brilliant people (who probably approach this problem with good intentions) want to build a foundation on their own wisdom, only to find their foundation is unstable.

I cannot speak for any of the specific individuals named in the OP, but in general, I see in humanity (myself included) a strong temptation to resist humility before God. If we think we can do things better without God's help, we will learn the hard way that we cannot.

--

Conclusion

In this fallen world, many obstacles can distance us from God and we cannot afford to go with the flow. The difficulty is not in God's ability to speak, but in our ability to hear. God mercifully will not give us more than we are ready for because it will hurt us.

To paraphrase Bryce Dunford, if we will partner with the Lord He will remove every obstacle to our salvation, but we have to be all in.


Post-Script

Scoping

  • This answer is in scope for Non-universalism (see Doctrine & Covenants 76:43-48)
  • This answer is consistent with some form of free will (see 2 Nephi 2:26-27)
  • This answer is not written to convince anyone to believe in God--the answer was written to respond to the question, which was scoped for viewpoints from Christians (who already believe in God).

Repentance

This post discusses the need for repentance. Teaching repentance meets with hostility now as it has for millennia. The world says it is unloving to teach repentance, and that the highest good is "you do you". To paraphrase Brad Wilcox: God loves us as we are, but He loves us too much to leave us as we are. I submit that the world has it precisely backwards: it is unloving to leave people where they are. (further very candid discussion of this matter is on my channel here)

What if people try the process and it doesn't work?

Some suggest it's cherry picking or irrational to consider that something in the process was done wrong--but this suggestion is quite the opposite of the scientific method.

Let's use a simpler example: if I run some code and it works, describe my code to someone else, and he rewrites the code...but when he goes to run the code it doesn't work, how should I proceed? Especially if my code is still working?

My first question would be how is his code different from my code? There may well be other questions worth asking as well, but it is not irrational to go into debugging mode.

As it relates to receiving revelation from God, this process is complicated by the fact that we cannot directly see each other's code. I outlined above quite a few reasons why the process will not work if improperly executed--and why this is exactly what we should expect from a merciful God.

Abandoning reason

Since my formal argument has been misquoted elsewhere (or possibly confused with another argument from another source), some clarification may be helpful. In postulating limits on what can be discovered through human reason alone, I am accused of denying the supremacy of reason. This simply does not follow.

I suggested limits on human reason alone; I've simply identified a further question that should be asked: who's reason?. I take no issue with the supremacy of divine reason. In this post I further discuss the concept of "reasoning in the absolute", which is a critical distinction between what is reasoned by an Omniscient Being versus what is reasoned by non-omniscient beings.

In any event, I believe teleological & moral arguments can be used by human reason to rationally believe in the existence of God, but they aren't going to discover the details of the plan of salvation; God has elected to reveal that Himself rather than leaving thousands of years of pre-scientific human history entirely in the dark.

For a further example of "rationally believing that something exists" versus "discovering something", consider the planet Neptune. Humans were able to mathematically predict Neptune's existence before it was discovered by observation. It was rational to believe in Neptune's existence prior to 1846, people just knew precious little about it (source).

(A discussion on why it is morally hazardous/undesirable to rely 100% on human reason would be a better fit for a separate question)

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  • Take an upvote from me because the first two points are good, even if a lot of Christians would disagree with all the mormon-specific stuff.
    – nick012000
    Jul 4, 2022 at 20:43
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    Although there is "mormon specific stuff" the distillations of same resonate biblically. +1 Jul 5, 2022 at 13:05
  • Hey HTTR, any thoughts on this one :-) ? (Edit: context)
    – user50422
    Sep 7, 2022 at 1:34
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator I don't see how one could define a truly objective standard without having all knowledge (e.g. how do I know there isn't something else out there that should be included in my standard?). But if one had all knowledge...it's kind of a moot point as one clearly has sufficient evidence. My own two cents are that the only truly objective standards are those given by God. Sep 7, 2022 at 3:03
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator I went back and looked at this philosophy question; I think dcleve pretty well nailed it - I don't know that I would have too much to add =). Sep 8, 2022 at 16:51
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The premise that non-resistant non-belief is a reality for some is, from a biblical standpoint, false. Every single person has enough evidence to render them without excuse as regarding the Godhead and His eternal power: in fact, such evidence is clearly seen and understood.

Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse - Romans 1:19-20

There is a decision that is made to attribute the clear evidence (perhaps early on) of God to something other than God. This is perhaps easier than it has ever been in an age where the accumulated knowledge of mankind is ever more accessible and where human wisdom is increasingly revered and raised up against the knowledge of God.

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. - Romans 1:21

Such resistant non-belief may have been instilled so early on and be so pervasive within society, it may appear so genuinely reasonable, that it feels and looks like non-resistance but the biblical declares it false. If we are not being led by the Spirit of God then we are at enmity with God:

Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. - Romans 8:7

enmity - the state or feeling of being actively opposed or hostile to someone or something.

Just because one doesn't feel like they are at enmity with God does not rule it out.

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    In short, their mistake is failing to appreciate the weight of the teleological argument, right?
    – user50422
    Jul 5, 2022 at 13:33
  • 2
    @SpiritRealmInvestigator It's more like an active rejection of the teleological argument. Failure to appreciate could be non-resistant but Scripture says these things are plain to them and are clearly seen in what has been made. Within "all that we can see" the ubiquity of the principle of cause and effect enables human reason and then humans reason that "all that we can see" has no ultimate cause. This makes Cause and Effect the ultimate cause "... they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools ...Romans 1:21b-22a" Jul 6, 2022 at 12:12
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Perhaps I am over my head about philosophy, but I am a Christian. As a Christian, I believe the veracity of the Bible. Perhaps:

John 6:44a

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.

Not Arminian, not Calvinist. Just taking the Word and His words for what they plainly say. Recognizing, of course,

Phil 2:12-13

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

... and 1 Cor 1:18

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

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Why do you believe they are doing something wrong? I should think God will appear these "non-resistant non-believers" when the time is right.

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