Along with the problem of evil, the problem of divine hiddenness has become one of the most prominent arguments for atheism. ~ Philosopher Travis Dumsday, “C. S. Lewis on the Problem of Divine Hiddenness,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion
Interview with Kenneth Richard Samples, MA
Rocked by the suicide of his brother Frank, Kenneth Samples began to seek answers to deep questions. Frank had plummeted into despair after struggling with drug addiction and incarceration, and Ken started wondering,
What do I have in my life that’s really meaningful?
His spiritual curiosity had already been piqued when his sister gave him a copy of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. Later he had a vivid dream in which he encountered a Christlike figure with scars and bruises on his face. “When he spoke — I kid you not — it was like thunder,” Samples told me. This resulted in an insatiable urge to study the Bible and attend church.
He became a committed Christian and immediately gravitated toward apologetics. He earned an undergraduate degree in history from Concordia University and then a master’s degree in theological studies from Biola University.
After working alongside legendary countercult apologist Walter Martin, Samples now serves as senior research scholar for Reasons to Believe, a nonprofit that focuses on science and faith. For more than twenty years, he has taught at Biola and lectured at universities around the country. His books include Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions and Christianity Cross-Examined: Is It Rational, Relevant, and Good?
Seated at a desk and wearing his gray hair cut short, Samples spoke in a sincere tone with an even cadence, unruffled by questions that might challenge his faith. After all, there are virtually no objections to Christianity that he hasn’t addressed over his career.
God’s Silence through the Centuries
I began by referencing several theists through history who struggled with the apparent silence of God and yet didn’t abandon their faith. For example, the Hebrew psalmist cried out,
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?... I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.1
The prophet Isaiah wrote,
Truly You are a God who has been hiding Himself.2
“An important component of ancient Israel’s worship was the engagement of divine absence,” said Old Testament scholar Joel Burnett.3 He added that in ancient Israel, “the sense of divine absence [and the sorrow and suffering that goes along with it] is regarded as a normal part of human experience.”4 Nevertheless, observed Michael Rea of the University of Notre Dame, none of the biblical texts that wrestle with divine silence ever question the reality of God.5
I turned to Samples. “Why do you think that many theists have struggled with the so-called hiddenness of God and yet never jettisoned their belief in Him?” I asked.
“I would start by defining faith — it’s a confident trust in a reliable source,” he began. “That means faith is not trust in any source or every source, but we put our faith in something that’s reliable. By that definition, faith has a rational component to it.” He paused, then continued. “These individuals put their trust in the one true God, someone they determined to be reliable and trustworthy. It was a faith that made sense and was fully rational. Of course, as C. S. Lewis said, you have to feed your faith.6 I believe they did that and ended up building a robust and resilient faith that could withstand the times when they felt perplexed by the seeming absence of God.”
“How did they feed their faith?”
“Through regular prayer, the study of Scripture, being part of a faith community, for example. And when you invest in your faith that way, it can sustain you even during those times when God seems distant.
“Sometimes when I talk to people who have walked away from faith, I ask them about their prayer life and their connection to a church, and there isn’t anything there,” he added. “Without that firm foundation, a person’s faith can crumble during times when God seems particularly distant. I know in my own life that when God appears hidden, it’s often at a time when I’m at a spiritual low.”
A quote by Corrie ten Boom sprang to mind:
“When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away your ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.”7
Her faith remained intact despite her painful circumstances during World War II because she knew that God could ultimately be trusted.
“Put Your House in Order”
I gestured toward Samples. “What about you personally — have you ever felt exasperated because God didn’t make Himself more apparent?”
“Well, the answer is yes,” he said. “When I was forty-five years old, married with three children, I came home one day feeling sick. It turned out I had contracted a rare bacteria that resulted in a large lesion on my right lung and six brain abscess lesions. I remember the doctor telling me, ‘What you have has a mortality rate of 80 percent.’”
My mouth dropped open. “I had no idea.”
“Yeah, when the doctor gave me that percentage, it was like a cold breeze ran through my soul. I ended up going through a difficult period.”
“I can only imagine.”
“I remember being hospitalized and having lung surgery. Through it all, there certainly were times when God seemed present, and that was comforting. But then one night, my family and friends went home from the hospital and I couldn’t sleep. I thought, Lord, where are You? I’m in a tough spot.”
“Did the silence of God threaten your faith?”
“Not in a serious way. As I began to think more clearly, I started to fall back on some things I had learned through the years.”
“I realized this experience of God’s silence didn’t invalidate the fact that I had encountered God before. And it certainly didn’t rule out the solid argumentation that I had discovered about God’s existence and the truth of Christianity. So, yeah, there were times when I thought, Lord, where are You? Admittedly, that can be scary. But when I fell back on the spiritual practices that I had nurtured through the years — prayer and worship, for example — the dark thoughts dissipated. Just reading the gospels raised my spirits.”
“Were you concerned you might die?”
“I remember the doctor saying to me, ‘Hey, put your house in order.’ I started by asking myself, What do I really believe about life after death? That prompted me to go through all of the evidence for the resurrection that I had researched through the years.”
“Was that helpful?”
“No question, it really buoyed me. I realized that the evidence was sound when I first came across it, it remained sound, and I trusted that it would continue to be sound into the future.”
“In the end, did this experience make you more sympathetic to people who wrestle with the silence of God?”
“Absolutely,” he replied. “I can relate to what they’re going through. And yet at the same time, can we really say that God has been hidden when the second person of the Trinity took on a human nature and entered into our world? I remember the theologian J. I. Packer saying that the incarnation is greater than anything in literature. I’ve found that just the practice of bringing that to mind has been an encouragement to me.”
- Psalm 22:1–2.
- Isaiah 45:15.
- Joel S. Burnett, Where Is God? Divine Absence in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 149.
- Burnett, Where Is God?, 117.
- See Michael C. Rea, The Hiddenness of God (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018), 6.
- See C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1943; repr., New York: Macmillan, 1960), 123–24.
- Corrie ten Boom, Jesus Is Victor (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1985), 183.
Excerpted with permission from Is God Real? by Lee Strobel, copyright Lee Strobel.
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Have you ever asked “God, where are You?” Did you struggle with your faith? What led you back to strong faith in Jesus? How does that help you feel compassion for your loved ones who struggle with the hiddenness of God? ~ Devotionals Daily