Why Does God Hide Himself from Unbelievers

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Why Does God Hide Himself from Unbelievers

Perhaps that is too bold of a claim. After all, the Psalmist reminds us that “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1) and Paul argues that God’s “eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20).


Indeed, this is true now more than ever: we know the universe had a beginning, it appears fine-tuned for life on the most fundamental level, and, as the incredible success of science has demonstrated, for some reason we are exceptionally good at studying and understanding the structure of our universe. These realities cry out for an explanation. Coupled with humanity’s shared moral sense and longing for justice, meaning, and purpose, the volume intensifies. One could very well read these as signposts pointing to God.


But one doesn’t have to. Indeed, many have not. And this is a problem.


The problem I’m referring to is often called the hiddenness of God. It is perhaps best expressed by atheist thought leaders who are quick to point out that they are atheist due to a single fact: not enough evidence. Many have even suggested kinds of evidence that they would find compelling: One night God could realign the stars to spell out “I exist”, signed YHWH. Or, He could stamp each atom with the message, “Made by God, the Creator of heaven and earth.”


Now, one may question the sincerity of such individuals who have made a career out of critiquing belief. Might they not even explain away a starry message as, say, merely the antics of a super advanced alien race? But they seem to have a point. After all, don’t you know at least one sincere person who would be turned (or returned) to belief by such evidence?


Whatever the means, surely God could in some way make His presence more obvious to the unbeliever. This is not to say God hasn’t provided sufficient evidence, merely that God could have provided irresistible evidence, which He apparently has not. Even the prophets affirm, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself” (Isaiah 45:15). Why?


I find this to be one of the strongest objections to the Christian faith; it has weighed on me even more than the problem of evil or the apparent delay of Christ’s return. Perhaps this is a corollary of having so many seemingly sincere non-believing friends. Why doesn’t God just manifest Himself to them in an undeniable manner, I’ve often wondered.


Yet, the more I’ve wrestled with the problem of God’s apparent hiddenness, the more I’ve come to be satisfied with a resolution that I believe reveals something altogether beautiful about God. Many pages could be spent on this; I’ll only sketch it here in brief.


First, a Psalm.


O LORD, you have searched me and known me!

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

You discern my thoughts from afar.

You search out my path and my lying down

And are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

Behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.

You hem me in, behind and before,

And lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

It is high; I cannot attain it.

Where shall I go from you Spirit?

Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

If I take the wings of the morning

And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand shall lead me,

And you right hand shall hold me.

(Psalm 132:10)


For David, the presence of God was far from hidden; rather, it was inescapable. And he found this to be “wonderful,” even song-worthy.


However, one could just as easily read David’s psalm and characterize God in a very different manner: “control freak,” “dictator,” “thought police.” Indeed, many have leveled such charges against God. Now, one may be inclined to view such titles as improper and irreverent, but Scripture suggests that such a reaction is, in fact, natural—at least to the human condition.


Enter Genesis. Humanity walks with God, but one act of rebellion later, when God shows up searching for man, Adam responds, “I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid” (Genesis 3:10).


Sin makes one afraid of God. More than that, it makes one envious of divine power. What was that act of rebellion, but seeking to be “like God.” At the root of rebellion:

I will ascend to heaven

Above the stars of God

I will set my throne on high…

I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;

I will make myself like the Most High

(cf. Isaiah 14:13-14)


To recap: the presence and power of God invokes in the hearts of rebels fear and envy. Consider the mighty acts of God in the Exodus. Pharaoh’s response: a hardened heart. Israel’s response at the foot of the mount: “the people were afraid and trembled” (Exodus 20:18).


Now clearly this has not prevented God from revealing Himself at various moments of history with supreme power. It is simply to note, God’s self-revelation, while efficiently making His existence indisputable, does not always trigger in humanity a response that leads to loving relationship.


Recall the kind of relationship God covets: “He desires that the creatures of His hands shall love Him because He is worthy of love. He would have them obey Him because they have an intelligent appreciation of His wisdom, justice, and benevolence” (Great Controversy, pg. 541).


Were God to make His eternal power and divine presence utterly apparent and inescapable, it is altogether possible that a great class would not conclude that God is worthy of love. Rather, they may very well become hardened in their rebellion or consumed with fear. One may very well deduce that God’s self-concealment is an act of mercy.


There seems to be something worth considering here: It appears that God tolerates unbelief over an improper fear-based relationship with Him. What a rebuke to so much religion!


But, one may object, could not God reveal Himself in such a way that it was clear that He is worthy of love? Couldn’t God reveal His divine attributes in such a way as to invoke His desired response from creation?


Here, I find the following insight instructive:

In the light that streams from Calvary the attributes of God which had filled us with fear and awe appear beautiful and attractive. Mercy, tenderness, and parental love are seen to blend with holiness, justice, and power. (Great Controversy, pg. 652)

Note first that it is the same attributes of God that have the potential to create either a “fear and awe” state or to be recognized as “beautiful and attractive.” It appears that any self-revelation of God to a rebellious people may only further their rebellion. Any, save one. “In the light that streams from Calvary…” Somehow the cross of Christ—the revelation of a quality of love willing to lay down One’s life for One’s friends (John 15:13)—awakens a different kind of response.


I believe there are many diverse ways that one comes to a knowledge of God—certainly moral considerations and cosmic observations play an important role. But while these evidences may be compelling, compulsion doesn’t characterize God’s dealings. Rather, when God seeks to make Himself known, He follows the principle of love, chiefly seen at the cross, as not to awaken fear or envy, but to awaken love.


Hence, while wondering why God doesn’t demonstrate His existence to the world today in a manner that would settle all debate, remember: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way […] Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13).


It is the love of God that endures the atheist critique as He goes about patiently, quietly, gently wooing humanity unto Himself.

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About the author

Anthony Bosman

Anthony Bosman, PhD, serves as an assistant professor of mathematics at Andrews University. He served as a campus ministry leader while a student at Stanford and Rice University and continues to find his greatest joy in helping students to recognize Christ as "the center and circumference of all truth".