Why does God seem so hidden if he wants to have a relationship with us? Skeptics and Christians alike ask this question today, as did people in biblical times. Job (Job 23:8–9), King David (Psalm 10), and persecuted followers of Jesus (2 Peter 3:9) all cried out to a God who seemed hidden. Is the loving God of the Bible indeed hidden?
While there are many ways of making sense of God’s apparent hiddenness, in this article I will discuss how heaven offers hope to the believer and a potential answer to skeptics who question why God feels so hard to reach. Just to clarify, when I say “heaven,” I am referring to a new heavens and new earth where God’s presence and righteousness will be everywhere present (Revelation 21:1–4), not a place where people have their personal desires fulfilled or float on clouds.
The Problem of Pain
For many people, God’s apparent hiddenness and the human problem of pain seem related. Regarding the latter, C. S. Lewis said that “Scripture and tradition habitually put the joys of heaven into the scale against the sufferings of earth, and no solution of the problem of pain which does not do so can be called a Christian one.”1 I believe it is also true that a Christian response to God’s apparent hiddenness must set the glorious revelation of God we will experience in heaven against our frustrations in pursuing God in this life.
Will God Be Hidden in Heaven?
Scripture tells those who trust in Christ for salvation that they will one day see Jesus “as he is” (1 John 3:2). Certainly, that means God will be less hidden to us in heaven than he seems at times while we are alive on earth. The apostle Paul says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). So we know that, at least in terms of our relationship with Christ, we will have much more clarity in heaven.
But does this mean that God will no longer be hidden in any sense in heaven? This question is hard to answer. While God makes himself known to humans throughout Scripture, it is also clear that no matter how well a person—even Elijah or Moses—may know him, God remains beyond our ability to fully grasp. He is the Creator and we are creatures. He is infinite and we are finite. And even if we will be perfectly close to God in heaven in terms of relationship and our moral nature, it is likely that part of what will draw us near to God for all of eternity is the beautiful mystery of seeking to know him more.
That being said, in heaven there will no longer be suffering and God will no longer feel distant, which is usually what believers mean when they say God seems hidden. So while I suspect the mystery of God will never go away, the way in which God is hidden that frustrates us so much in this life will cease in heaven.
The Skeptic’s Concern: Well-Intentioned Unbelievers
What about skeptics who say they are looking for God but can’t find him? Many Christians, though not all, hold to a particular view of how sin impacts humanity that suggests all unbelief is the result of sin. However, some skeptics question this assertion and the implication that nonbelievers do not try to live morally upright lives. Philosopher Daniel Howard-Snyder says, “Even though some nonbelievers lack true benevolence, the empirical evidence strongly suggests that others possess it since they really do earnestly seek the truth about God, love the Good, assess evidence judiciously, and, if anything, display a prejudice for God, not against Him.”2 To paraphrase, Howard-Snyder says there are plenty of unbelievers out there who really want to know God if he exists but just can’t seem to find him in spite of trying.
Furthermore, the philosophical problem of God’s hiddenness, most famously stated by philosopher J. L. Schellenberg, asserts that because a relationship with God is the greatest good for humanity, a loving God would not allow any nonculpable unbelief (also called nonresistant nonbelief) among creatures designed for relationship with him. If nonresistant nonbelief exists, they argue, then the God of Christian theism must not exist. Nonresistant nonbelief occurs when a person who lives in unbelief would believe if God only made himself less hidden. In other words, a nonresistant nonbeliever is the kind of person Howard-Snyder has in view when he asserts that unbelief is not the result of bad intentions.
Is Heaven an Answer to the Skeptic’s Concern?
For the sake of argument let’s assume that the type of person Howard-Snyder and Schellenberg suggest, a nonresistant nonbeliever, does exist.3 Could the hope of heaven be a potential response to the concern of these skeptics regarding God’s hiddenness from well-intentioned unbelievers? Yes, I believe so.
My line of reasoning goes like this:
- If nonresistant nonbelievers exist, then they also meet the biblical definition of the type of person to whom God will, in the end, reveal himself (Matthew 5:8, James 4:6). They are humble enough to receive God’s grace into their hearts.
- God does not turn away those willing to seek refuge in him (Matthew 11:28–30, Isaiah 55:1).
- Therefore, all nonresistant nonbelievers, if they exist, will be in heaven with God, where God is no longer hidden.
- God’s hiddenness is therefore only a temporary frustration of God’s ultimate purpose to bring all who are willing into a relationship with himself.
Keep in mind that I am not claiming to know whether nonresistant belief is possible. I am only saying that if nonresistant nonbelievers do exist, there is scriptural precedent to believe that God, who sees the heart, would be gracious to such individuals.
The Greater Good
But even if nonresistant nonbelievers will be with God in heaven, why would God allow nonresistant nonbelief in this life if knowing God would be beneficial to both the individual and society? The “greater goods” argument contends that there are good reasons for God to allow nonresistant nonbelief and that these goods outweigh the negative consequences of God’s hiddenness (namely, people not knowing him). For example, philosopher Richard Swinburne suggests that giving people the opportunity to find out for themselves whether or not there is a God is, in and of itself, a good.4 For an exploration of the potential goods of God’s hiddenness, see the work of Luke Teeninga.5 For our purposes in this brief article, I will simply state that I believe a strong case can be made for God allowing nonresistant nonbelief for a short time on earth. In the end, all of those humble enough to respond to his love will achieve the “greatest good” of an everlasting relationship with God in heaven.
It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over
Humans often judge God from the perspective of our experiences here on Earth. After all, we are confined to a certain time and space. But I invite you to consider that the story doesn’t end when we die. We should not dismiss the God who sees every tear, knows every heart, and counts the hairs on each head without thinking about how he might resolve the struggles of this life in the next. God is good. All the time. And when we find ourselves thinking that God doesn’t exist or isn’t good because he seems distant or far away, let us not forget that a Christian response to any hardship always includes the hope of eternity.
- C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 427.
- Daniel Howard-Snyder, “Hiddenness of God,” in Donald M. Borchert, ed., Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd ed., Donald M. Borchert, ed. (Detroit: MacMillan Reference USA, 2006), accessed January 18, 2022.
- There are orthodox (small o) Christians who hold to a view of human nature that allows for the possibility of non-Christians truly seeking God. A full discussion of the impact of our sinful nature on our will is beyond the scope of this article.
- Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God(Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004), 267–270.
- Luke Teeninga, “The ‘Greater Goods’ Response to the Argument from Divine Hiddenness,” PhD Thesis, University of Oxford (2018), 63–73.