Divine hiddenness and the problem of no greater goods


John Schellenberg argues that God would never withhold the possibility of conscious personal relationship with Him from anyone for the sake of greater goods, since there simply would not be greater goods than a conscious personal relationship with God. Given that nonresistant nonbelief withholds the possibility of such relationship, this entails that God would not allow nonresistant nonbelief for the sake of greater goods. Thus, if Schellenberg is right, all greater goods responses to the hiddenness argument must fail in principle. I argue that there are good reasons for thinking that greater goods responses do not, for the above reason, fail in principle.

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  1. 1.

    In my usage, if a type of response fails in principle, it necessarily fails.

  2. 2.

    The following formulation comes from Schellenberg (2007). See pp 204–206. Although Schellenberg has offered more recent formulations of the argument, the core of his argument has not changed.

  3. 3.

    I cite Lehe specifically because goods such as his will be relevant to my argument later on.

  4. 4.

    For just a very small sample see Cullison (2010) (see second solution). Howard-Snyder (1996, 2016), and Murray (1993). For some more recent examples, see Dumsday (2018) (Dumsday has also proposed several other goods) and Paytas (2019) (Paytas defends the “free will” response to the hiddenness argument, which I take to be, ultimately, a species of greater goods response).

  5. 5.

    See page 17.

  6. 6.

    Exceptions include goods which do not benefit the nonresistant nonbeliever, but only someone else.

  7. 7.

    For a recent use of this argument, see Schellenberg (2015), especially page 41.

  8. 8.

    Schellenberg defines his use of “openness” as: “not through one’s own actions or omissions making it impossible for the other, whom one loves, to participate in personal relationship with one at that time should the other wish to do so.” See Schellenberg (2015), page 41.

  9. 9.

    See page 42.

  10. 10.

    See, for example, Schellenberg (2016), page 17. See also Stump (2010), page 109.

  11. 11.

    See page 44.

  12. 12.

    See page 45.

  13. 13.

    Consider the mother from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, who demands her son leave heaven and return with her to purgatory, since she feels she cannot remain in heaven but does not want to leave her son (Lewis 2002). It would be a greater act of love for the mother to withhold the possibility of relationship with her from her son and thus let him remain in heaven.

  14. 14.

    These conditions are similar to the ones originally proposed by Schellenberg (1993), pp. 85–86. The “optimal means” condition comes from Howard-Snyder (1996), pp. 438–439.

  15. 15.

    Most who disagree that these are necessary conditions hold views which are much more permissive about what God might be willing to allow. I adopt the position less favourable to my argument.

  16. 16.

    Whether these jointly constitute a sufficient condition for God to allow nonresistant nonbelief will also be controversial. Unfortunately, space does not permit me to offer an argument that they are jointly sufficient.

  17. 17.

    See page 210.

  18. 18.

    One of the other prongs, for example, suggests that no good or set of goods could meet the optimal means condition. Schellenberg does not state that these prongs should each be considered as independent arguments against greater goods responses, but it is no great leap to see how such independent arguments could be formulated.

  19. 19.

    See page 201.

  20. 20.

    And what about once one dies? It seems to me that, if God exists, it is plausible that everyone discovers this some time after death. The idea that some people might come to believe post-mortem, and that this could be significant to the argument from divine hiddenness comes from Mawson (2012). I do not think that this commits me to universalism. For example, God may reveal Himself to everyone and yet some may nevertheless resist. It seems to me that the arguments found in this paper are compatible with a wide range of eschatological views. Unfortunately, space constraints keep me from discussing this further.

  21. 21.

    My use of “concrete” should be contrasted with “abstract”, not immaterial. If one exists as an actual, concrete individual, it is an additional question whether one is a physical or material individual.

  22. 22.

    See page 40.

  23. 23.

    During my discussion of the MASS argument I initially only discuss whether a life which sometimes lacks a conscious personal relationship with God could possibly surpass any life which always includes a personal relationship with God. Strictly speaking, the problem of no greater goods claims that a life including a conscious personal relationship with God as its only significant good, as long as it always includes that relationship, must be better than a life which ever lacks such relationship, even if that life has many other significant goods. The idea is that such relationship, on its own, is unsurpassably great. But since there are many significant goods which are plausibly compatible with such a relationship, it’s unlikely that most lives always including conscious personal relationships with God are completely devoid of all other significant goods. At the end of this paper, I do hope to have provided reason for thinking a life always including such relationship can be surpassed even if it also includes other significant goods.

  24. 24.

    I recognize that there is a lot that could be said here for and against proposed goods such as these. Due to space constraints I cannot elaborate much further than I already have. Beyond noting that such goods have been underdiscussed, I can only gesture towards Lehe’s original paper, and Schellenberg’s (2005) response.

  25. 25.

    While plausibly travelling would be more “fun” than beginning her career, that is not enough on its own to entail that she would gain more value from travelling than from her career (even limiting the value from her career to the value in that year from her career). The security she would feel, the fulfillment she would gain, and the fact that she actually does enjoy her career more generally might plausibly outweigh—in that year—what she gains from travelling, even if she has more fun travelling.

  26. 26.

    Space constraints keep me from discussing goods from nonresistant nonbelief at length, but I cited several articles in a previous footnote which propose such goods.

  27. 27.

    See Poston and Dougherty, 2007, as well as Cullison (2010).

  28. 28.

    See also Weidler and Aijaz (2013).

  29. 29.

    See also chapter 3 of Cuneo (2016), pp. 52–65.

  30. 30.

    To Schellenberg’s credit, Cuneo uses a similar analogy to demonstrate how an action done for one person can “count” as being done for others as well. But while Cuneo’s analogy can help us understand to some extent how God can relate personally to us through His creation and His other creatures, it cannot bring us all the way there.

  31. 31.

    Thanks to Brian Leftow for this point.

  32. 32.

    For an example of nonbelievers giving thanks, seemingly to no one, look no further than the North American holiday of Thanksgiving.

  33. 33.

    For Schellenberg’s “love and openness” argument discussed above, whether nonconscious relationships really are relationships matters, because love (so Schellenberg argues) motivates God to openness to relationship (a quasi-relationship will not do!). But, as discussed above, greater goods responders argue that God’s first priority would be the optimal well-being of His creatures. In that context, it only matters whether creatures can get the same kinds of benefits from quasi-relationships that they get from genuine relationships. And so, whether nonconscious relationships are genuine relationships or quasi-relationships does not make a crucial difference in that context.

  34. 34.

    One might object that the main intuition behind thinking Sloan’s situation is better than Aiden’s at T1 is that Aiden’s life at T1 is no fun—that it is experientially lesser; but nevertheless (such an objection might run) what Aiden has at T1 is objectively better than what Sloan has. But I respond that it is important to remember that what Sloan has is not just more fun than what Aiden has; Sloan enjoys truly deep and meaningful friendships and he participates in truly deep and meaningful work, in both his professional life and his free time. Moreover Sloan does have a meaningful personal relationship with God, albeit nonconscious. So while Sloan at T1 very likely is experientially better off than Aiden, he also seems to have a very objectively valuable life at T1, and much of what is objectively valuable in his life at T1 is missing from Aiden’s life at T1.

  35. 35.

    It is important to note that I have not appealed to greater goods from hiddenness here. That is, the significant goods I mentioned (meaningful relationships, meaningful work, and meaningful volunteer work) do not require hiddenness. The purpose of the case of Aiden and Sloan is to demonstrate that premise 13 is false. The support for premise 13 is based on the assumption that one’s life when one lacks a relationship with God would always be greater if one had a relationship with God—even if that’s the only significant good one has at a time. The Aiden and Sloan case is intended to show that this assumption is false. To do so, one does not need to show that Sloan’s life must be greater at that time (because Sloan has access to goods he otherwise wouldn’t) but only that Sloan’s life could still be greater even when he lacks a conscious personal relationship with God. This is enough to demonstrate that one’s life when one has a conscious relationship with God is not necessarily unsurpassably greater than any life without a conscious relationship with God could be at that time. In the following section I bring greater goods from hiddenness (goods intended to meet the optimal means condition) into the Aiden and Sloan case, but at this point they are not necessary. Even in that case, as I will argue, these greater goods from hiddenness do not have to meet the optimal means condition in order to demonstrate that the problem of no greater goods fails. They only need to meet the optimal means condition to demonstrate that the hiddenness argument fails.

  36. 36.

    Though Travis Dumsday (2018) argues that part of the reason God does not make His existence obvious to everyone is that, in doing so, He might disrupt our meaningful personal relationships with other people.

  37. 37.

    This is because the MASS argument is an argument for the strong problem thesis, which is designed to show that greater goods responses fail in principle because nothing can outweigh the value lost due to nonresistant nonbelief. This example merely shows that it can be outweighed—though God could still ensure that it never actually is outweighed. Thus, greater goods responses to the hiddenness argument themselves must demonstrate more than what I’ve shown here.

  38. 38.

    And, it seems to me, some reason to think premise 12 is false. Though I discussed those reasons only briefly in this article.

  39. 39.

    Again, see the goods suggested in the literature I referenced at the beginning.

  40. 40.

    Note here that Aiden’s life may also includes other significant goods, but it does not include any goods which require hiddenness. The thought here is that, if Sloan’s life can surpass Aiden’s life when Aiden has no significant goods besides a conscious personal relationship with God, then plausibly Sloan’s life can surpass Aiden’s life even if Aiden does have other significant goods, so long as Sloan has some significant goods Aiden has no access to (especially if temporary hiddenness can bring about an enhanced relationship later, and if the intuitions from the Tracy case are correct). Whether goods meeting the optimal means condition actually do exist I cannot discuss at length here. But what I’ve argued provides us good reason for thinking that we cannot dismiss greater goods responses in principle due only to the problem of no greater goods.


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Teeninga, L. Divine hiddenness and the problem of no greater goods. Int J Philos Relig (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11153-020-09767-7

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  • Divine hiddenness
  • Problem of no greater goods
  • Theism
  • Atheism