Nonresistant Nonbelief? Reexamining A Trending Atheist Argument

Post Icon

What is non-resistant nonbelief? J. L. Schellenberg coined this phrase as shorthand for an argument he formulated against God’s existence from divine hiddenness.[1]

In short, Schellenberg’s argument runs like this: An all-loving and all-powerful God would not allow there to be people who are open to or desire to know God but are unconvinced of his existence. There are people who are open to theistic or Christian belief but, not for lack of trying, don’t find themselves believing. The evidence doesn’t convince them. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

This argument is trending. The recent popularity of the argument has been aided in no small part by Alex O’Connor, formerly known as Cosmic Skeptic. An atheist and proponent of the argument, O’Connor has a YouTube channel approaching 600,000 followers. He regularly makes use of the nonresistant nonbelief argument. Recently he said, “I want to be a Christian.”[2] He’s not convinced Christianity is true but suggests that “all it would take is a sign; all it would take is an experience that [he] can interpret as a religious experience”[3] for him to become a Christian. Alex is brilliant and thoughtful, and he seems to be genuinely seeking truth. What are we to make of his and others’ claims about nonresistant nonbelief? I will provide five responses to the version of the argument aimed specifically at the Christian God.

Seeing is Not Always Believing

First, the argument wrongly assumes that one would become a Christian if he or she were only to witness a miracle or have a clearly religious experience of the Christian variety. However, there are numerous counter-examples to this suggestion. For instance, many people in the Gospels witnessed Jesus performing miracles and did not become his followers. In Matthew 12, Jesus heals a man with a shriveled hand in front of the Pharisees. Far from becoming believers in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, they “went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus” (Matthew 12:14). Seeing is not always believing.

There is more than sufficient evidence for God’s existence and Jesus’ resurrection, evidence that leaves the unbeliever without excuse.

Ample Evidence

Second, this argument suggests that God hasn’t provided us with enough evidence for his existence or for the claims of the gospel. Contrary to this objection, the Apostle Paul says that through creation and conscience, God has “clearly” made himself known to everyone (Romans 1:20). God’s existence was universally known and is universally suppressed or distorted (Romans 1:18). Our epistemological problem (a failure of right belief) arises from an ethical problem (a failure of right affection and action). Even in our state of exile, however, there is more than enough evidence of God’s existence. The arguments of natural theology, such as the cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments, formalize and make clear what should be self-evident: God exists.[4]

God hardly stayed away or refrained from contacting us. In addition to communicating with the patriarchs and the people of Israel, he entered human history as the most famous and influential person who would ever live (Jesus). He assumed a human nature to rescue us from what separates us from him (sin). He was publicly crucified on our behalf. Three days later, he was resurrected and revealed himself to followers (Luke 24:36-53), skeptics (John 24:29), and enemies (Acts 9:3-6). He then left us a pristine historical record of these events so that all people could know how to be reconciled to him (the Bible).

But, it is often asked, why doesn’t Jesus appear to everyone? Jesus only appeared to those who would serve as official eyewitnesses. As Luke comments in Acts 10:39-41, “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”

Again, however, even if Jesus had appeared to everyone (as he one-day will), there is no guarantee everyone who saw him would have been converted to Christianity (Luke 16:31). There is more than sufficient evidence for God’s existence and Jesus’ resurrection, evidence that leaves the unbeliever without excuse (Romans 1:20).

Belief and Faith Aren’t Synonymous

Third, the argument assumes that believing Jesus is God or that Jesus rose from the dead entails that someone is a Christian. This is not the case either. As James writes, “Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:19). No one would suppose that the demons’ belief in the central claims of Christianity makes them disciples of Jesus. Believing George III is King and being a Loyalist aren’t synonymous. Demons know who Jesus is and what Jesus has done, but they hate him and rebel against his authority.

One can have a justified, true belief that a surgeon has successfully performed hundreds of life-saving brain surgeries. Getting on the operating table is an entirely different matter. Christian faith is not simply believing that Jesus is Savior and Lord or that God exists and raised Jesus from the dead; it’s entrusting your life and eternal destiny to Jesus as Savior and Lord. It’s getting on his operating table.

Resistant Nonbelief

Fourth, the argument asserts that there is such a thing as nonresistant nonbelief. But why think that? This supposed condition is better understood as resistant nonbelief. Like the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:17-27), people often want the benefits (salvation) but not the responsibilities (submission) of Christianity. We may want Jesus’ goods, but we certainly don’t want his authority. In other words, there is no nonresistant nonbelief; everyone is at least resistant to the Lordship of Christ. In our fallen condition, we want to rule ourselves, so if becoming a Christian means giving up our “autonomy,” we’ll pass.

Ignoring the Fall

Finally, this argument often overlooks the consequences of the Fall. Why, it is asked, is God hidden from us? If God is so loving, why don’t we have access to his direct presence? As you know, humanity was originally in God’s direct presence. But Adam and Eve rebelled against God and were subsequently kicked out of the Garden. Their exile from God’s presence was a form of punishment and protection. Regarding punishment, humanity lost the privilege of being in God’s immediate presence. Regarding protection, it was no longer safe for humanity to be in God’s immediate presence. God’s holiness does to sin what UVC light does to bacteria: destroys it. So, if God loves us and wants to protect us, we should not expect humans to have direct access to his presence. The Fall made that state of affairs, at least temporarily, untenable.

Never miss an episode, article, or study!

Sign up for the CFC Newsletter now!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


[1] Schellenberg, J.L. Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2006).  For a good overview of the argument, see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/divine-hiddenness/

[2] See his video Is it God’s Fault I’m an Atheist?

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, Part One, q. 2, a. 1.) distinguishes between a proposition being self-evident in itself and self-evident to us. The claim “God exists” is self-evident, but because of the noetic effects of sin is no longer self-evident to us apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.

  • apologetics
  • philosophy
  • Readers Choice Nominees 2023
  • theology
Jonathan Darville

Jono Darville is a former Global Master Trainer with The Center for Leadership Studies and Co-Leader of the New York branch of Models for Christ (an international non-profit bringing the gospel to the fashion industry). Due to a decade-plus long battle with chronic illness, Jono almost lost his life in 2017. After spending a number of years bed-bound, God graciously intervened in 2020, using UNC Hospital to restore Jono’s health. Jono is now finishing an M.A. in the Philosophy of Religion at SEBTS, while serving as a Ruling Elder and Youth Director at Peace Church in Cary, NC. He and his wife, Jillian, have one son, Jono Jr.

More to Explore

Never miss an episode, article, or study.

Sign up for the Christ and Culture newsletter now!

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.