It is God’s desire not to have anyone perish but to come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9). You would think, then, that God’s existence would be more obvious. It is striking to note that the theme of the hiddenness of God is not infrequent in Scripture. Gerhardt von Rad says, “The whole history of the covenant is simply the history of God’s continuous retreat” (Old Testament Theology, 2 vols. [Harper & Row, 1967], 2:374). Even more telling is the claim by Richard Elliott Friedman: “In the Bible God creates humans, becomes known to them, interacts with them, and then leaves” (The Hidden Face of God [Harper & Row, 1996], 76).
While this might seem to be an exaggeration, Isaiah boldly exclaims: “You are truly a God who hides himself” (45:15). Job struggled with God’s hiddenness, questioning, “Why do you hide your face?” (13:24), and queries, “If only I knew where to find him” (23:3), only to conclude, “If he hides his face, who can see him?” (34:29). Psalmists openly question God’s hiding or plead with God not to hide: “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (10:1; 44:24; 88:14). “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (13:1; 89:46). “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me” (27:9; 55:1; 69:17; 102:2; 143:7). “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ Lord when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed” (30:7).
The manifestations of God in Scripture are real but indirect. They reveal and conceal at the same time. Yahweh is active yet obscured, evident and veiled simultaneously. Yahweh speaks, interacts, and appears elusively through angels, visions, “thick dreadful darkness,” dreams, a burning bush, and miracles. Moses sees only the back of Yahweh pass before him and is told, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (33:20). Yahweh dwells in the tabernacle and the temple, but God is not seen. Yahweh will only speak through the medium of prophets (Num 12:6-8). Yahweh says, “I will certainly hide my face” from the people because of their wickedness and idolatry (Deut 31:17–18; 32:18). The theme emerges in the prophets that Yahweh’s hiding is due to Israel’s sinfulness (Isa 1:15; 8:17; 54:8; 57:17; 59:2; 64:5, 7; Jer 33:5; Ezek 39:23–24; Mic 3:4). Moreover, Yahweh’s presence departs from the temple and does not return (Ezek 9:3; 11:22). There is, however, a promise of future return: “I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezek 39:29; chs. 43–47).
Even in the NT, God is not obvious even though “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). That Jesus was God incarnate was concealed and veiled in human flesh. The Jewish people did not recognize Jesus as Messiah, let alone divine. Mark’s Gospel, in particular, describes Jesus as being evasive about his identity. John the Baptist questioned if Jesus was the Messiah, asking, “Are you the one to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus’s response was purposefully vague (Matt 11:3-6). Jesus’s followers did not recognize him as divine before the resurrection (Luke 18:14). The Emmaus Road episode depicts Jesus as playfully ignorant so as not to be recognized (Luke 24:36-49). Jesus’s teaching in parables requires one to have “ears to hear, eyes to see” (Mark 4:9-12). Stunningly, Jesus prays: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure (Matt 11:25–26; Luke 10:2). In the end, God even hides from Jesus. While dying on the cross, Jesus prays, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34; Ps 22:1).
Why does God hide? A palpable answer is that God’s essence is spiritual, not material, so God cannot be seen. The OT states specifically that God withdraws from humanity because of sin and wickedness. Luther believed that God could only be found hidden in suffering and the cross to base revelation on grace alone. John Hick, building on Irenaeus, thought that God hides to create “epistemic distance” between himself and humans so that they may have freedom to grow and mature. Kierkegaard and Emil Brunner maintained that God is paradoxically “wholly concealed, yet wholly present” in Jesus Christ to cultivate and elicit a decision of faith. Pascal said that God is hidden because “God wants to motivate the will more than the mind. Absolute clarity would be more use to the mind and would not help the will. Humble their pride.” It appears that God hides so that we seek: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer 29:13).