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The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 3)

In the last post I introduced six patterns for how God worked in the Bible to provide evidence for our faith in him. They were:

1. God provides evidence whenever he asks us to believe something, especially when he does something new.

2. God expects us to test and verify the evidence he provides.

3. God does not want us to be irrational. He does not want us to be overly skeptical or overly gullible, but to find the rational center. He rebukes those who refuse to test the evidence, believe too easily, don't believe despite the evidence, or refuse to infer beyond the merely empirical things.

4. God provides evidence on his own terms. It is meaningless to test the evidence from outside the framework provided by God himself.

5. We are to remember the previous evidence that God has provided, and take the past history of his faithfulness as evidence for our belief.

6. Dramatic evidence, in the form of miraculous signs and wonders, comes only when God is doing something new and important. Other time periods are relatively more quiet.

The following is a partial list of the Old Testament Bible passages that support these patterns:

Exodus 3-4:17:
God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, and Moses is rightly worried that the Israelites will not believe him. When Moses expresses this concern, God immediately provides him with not just one, but three separate miraculous signs that he can perform before the Israelites to convince them. The Israelites' demand for evidence is treated by God as something natural and expected, and God does not express any displeasure that they would request evidence. He does, however, get angry with Moses when he asks to be excused from his duty, despite all the clear signs that God just provided him.

Exodus 7-12:
God sends the plagues upon Egypt. The Pharaoh had plenty of evidence that they were the works of God, and knew that he had to release the enslaved Israelites. The plagues get worse as the Pharaoh ignores clear, repeated evidence that God is against him. This is a point that many of the film adaptations of the story miss - the long, drawn out, and tedious back and forth as Pharaoh says he will free the Israelites, then goes back on his word after each plague. Movies skip over this part because it is, after all, long and drawn out, and so would kill the pace of the film. They usually compress the first nine plagues into a short sequence, then play up the tenth plague (the killing of the firstborn) as a shocking drama. They do this because of the limitations of their medium. But in doing so they miss an important point of the story: that the Pharaoh had ample evidence of God's will, that he had multiple opportunities to repent, and that God escalates the plagues as a response to the Pharaoh's repeated hardening of his heart despite the superabundance of evidence that God provided him.

The book of Exodus:
As a whole, the book of Exodus is the founding story of the Jews, and it is full of God providing evidence upon evidence for the new revelation that he's giving them - the plagues upon Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the pillar of fire and cloud to guide them, the manna to feed them, etc. This makes perfect sense, as God always provides evidence when he asks us to believe something, and he provides dramatic, supernatural evidence when he asks us to do believe something new and important.

Numbers 14:10-12:
The Israelites reach the edge of the promised land, but they lose heart before the physically imposing inhabitants of the land. They rebel against Moses and Aaron, and talk about choosing new leaders and going back to Egypt. God is angry with the Israelites because they do not believe in him despite all the evidence that he has provided in leading them out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. God wants us to believe as the evidence dictates, and rebukes us when we refuse to believe despite the evidence.

Deuteronomy 4:32-40:
Moses implores the Israelites to believe in God as a part of his farewell speech. He does so based on the evidence of God's work in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. Once God has worked in history, we are to acknowledge that past work as evidence which still compels us to have faith in him. As I previously said, this is analogous to how evidence works in the sciences.

Joshua 4:4-9:

God stops the flow of the Jordan river, then has the Israelites carry out twelve stones from the river and set them down as a memorial. Again, God wants us to remember his past work and count it as evidence for our continued faith in him.

Joshua 24:16-27:
Again the Israelites affirm God's past work as reason to continue to believe in him. We are to remember how God has worked in history. After the flurry of  new revelation in the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan, much of the rest of the Old Testament is played out against this backdrop. Israel is constantly reminded to be faithful to God based on the evidence of his past work in Israel's history.

Deuteronomy 18:19-22:
God provides a simple test to see if a self-claimed prophet is actually from God: does the prophet's proclamations come true? The test is simple, straightforward, and logical. Note that God expects there to be false prophets and therefore expects us to test the prophets, instead of believing everything that's proclaimed in his name.

Judges 6:11-40:
God calls Gideon to fight the Midianites on behalf of Israel. Gideon is appropriately skeptical, and asks for a sign that the person he's talking to is really God. God obliges him and gives him a sign by supernaturally setting fire to Gideon's offering. Gideon then later requests two additional signs: for the ground to be dry while a fleece he placed on the ground is wet with dew, and next time for the fleece to be dry while the ground is wet with dew. God again obliges him by granting both signs. Gideon is not held to be wrong for asking the first of these three sign - in fact God assures him that he will be fine. But by the time he asks for the last sign there is a hint that he is pushing things too far. This is all in perfect accord with the patterns above: God provides evidence whenever he asks us to believe something, but that evidence is provided on his own terms. He then expects us to follow that evidence and believe, and rebukes disbelief in the face of evidence. By the time Gideon asks for a third sign, he has two reasons for being worried about invoking God's anger: because he's dictating the terms to God, and because he had plenty of evidence yet was still unwilling to believe.

1 Kings 18:20-39:
This is the story of the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, where God answered Elijah's prayers with fire. This was a simple, straightforward test: "The god who answers by fire - he is God". There are several notable things about this story. First, God provided sure evidence for the people of Israel, and once again gave them a reason for them to follow him. Second, God provided that evidence on his own terms - that's what makes it a valid test. Elijah provided the conditions for the test ("The god who answers by fire"). The prophets of Baal then accepted the challenge, and thereby made it a valid test for Baal as well. Neither party was forced to accept external terms that they disagreed with - as I said before, this is how it also works in the sciences. And lastly, God was willing to provide this dramatic evidence because the times were dire: this was a low point in Israel's history, where the worship of God had declined to the point where Elijah was the only remaining prophet of the true God. At other, more ordinary times, God wants us to look to our past to see the evidence of his former works throughout history.

Proverbs 14:15:
This verse says, "The simple believe anything, but the prudent give thought to their steps". Faith without evidence is not what God wants from us. He doesn't want us to believe anything and everything. Instead he wants us to give thought to our steps, and follow the evidence. Also, it is important to note that this verse is a proverb - a general bit of wisdom that applies in nearly every context, something that we can use as a rule in our lives.

Isaiah 7:10-17:
Here, God tells king Ahaz to ask for a sign - any sign whatsoever. Ahaz refuses, on the ground that he will not "put the LORD to the test". But this refusal, given on seemingly pious grounds, is not what God wants from us. God actually rebukes Ahaz for refusing to ask for a sign. God WANTS us to "test" him when he himself offers us a sign, when it is given on his own terms.

2 Kings 20:8-11:
This is the story of king Hezekiah being healed of his illness, when he asks for a sign that he will recover. Contrast this passage with Isaiah 7:10-17, and Hezekiah's behavior with Ahaz's. Hezekiah is also offered a sign, and he does the right thing by asking for the harder sign.

Habakkuk 3:2:
Prophet Habakkuk, writing in a more "ordinary" time than that of Moses or Elijah, seems to lament that God no longer does miraculous works in Habakkuk's time. He says that he's heard of God's fame, and stands in awe of his deeds, but wishes that he would repeat them again in Habakkuk's day. This is in accord with the idea that God performs dramatic miracles only during times of new and important revelations, while providing records of his previous works in history during ordinary times.

Malachi 3:10:
God straight up says "test me in this", in promising blessings to the Israelites. This illustrates again that God actually wants us to test him. The test, however, is to be done properly, on God's own terms.

In the next post, we will continue to examine select passages, moving on to the New Testament.

You may next want to read:
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 4) (Next post of this series)
Key principles in interpreting the Bible
What is "evidence"? What counts as evidence for a certain position?
Another post, from the table of contents

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