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The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 5)

March 31, 2015

This is a continuation of the last post. We're examining biblical passages that demonstrate the following six patterns in how God works to provide evidence for our faith in him. The six patterns are:

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 Bible passages in the New Testament after the Gospels that support these patterns. As with the Exodus, God provided a superabundance of evidence in the death and resurrection of Jesus, because he was doing something completely new and supremely important. Afterwards, the rest of the New Testament plays out with the resurrection as the backdrop.

Acts 2:1-41:
This is the story of the Pentecost, of the miraculous speaking in tongues and the first public post-resurrection sermon. In addressing the crowd, Peter backs up everything he says, providing evidence for each of his major points. The crowd had just experienced the miracle of speaking in tongues, which may have been ongoing as Peter gave his sermon. He also appeals to common sense ("These people are not drunk, [...] It's only nine in the morning!"), Old Testament prophecies (in Joel and Psalms), public events and knowledge about Jesus's ministry ("as you yourselves know"), and the status of every disciple as an eyewitness ("we are all witnesses of it"). At this first announcement of the resurrection to the general public, every point that Peter makes is backed up by evidence that the audience can verify.

Acts 3:
Peter performs a miracle by healing a man lame from birth, then addresses the crowd concerning Jesus. Like before, everything he says is backed up by evidence that his audience can verify. Peter appeals to an undeniable miracle ("as you can all see"), public information ("You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate..."), his status as an eyewitness ("We are witnesses of this"), and Old Testament Scriptures ("God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets").

Acts 4:1-22:
Peter and John are arrested for the miracle and the message in Acts 3. They are then interrogated before the rulers, elders, and teachers of the law in Jerusalem. Again, Peter backs up his claims about Jesus with evidence, of such strength that even his interrogators cannot refute them. He directly accuses the leaders for Jesus's crucifixion, and confronts them with an undeniable miracle. He furthermore again appeals to the Scriptures, and strengthens his testimony as an eyewitness by demonstrating courage in the face of opposition.

This pattern of providing evidence is repeated over and over again throughout Acts and the remainder of the New Testament. At this crucial point in the beginning of Christianity, as the saints grow in number and face increasing opposition, they repeatedly cite multiple lines of evidence for their claims about Jesus.

Acts 11:1-18:
Peter explains the conversion of Cornelius to Jewish believers. The Jews change their minds about the status of Gentiles based on the evidence that Peter presents. Their faith in God didn't cause their thinking to be inflexible, but rather to change their conception of God based on the evidence.

Acts 16:22-34:
Paul converts his jailer, asking him to "believe in the Lord Jesus". This call to faith is accompanied by the evidence of a supernatural earthquake, the remarkable fact that Paul and the other prisoners didn't escape, and an extended session where Paul "spoke the word of the Lord to him".

Acts 17:10-12:
The Bereans are commended for their willingness test the evidence Paul provides, by cross-examining Paul's claims with the Scriptures.

Acts 26:19-29:
Paul is under trial for his faith. When he is challenged by Festus, the new governor to Judea, on the point of Jesus's resurrection, he immediately responds by saying that governor Festus should test the story by verifying it with king Agrippa, because "it was not done in a corner". This is notable for several reasons: 1) king Agrippa is not a Christian. Paul is asking Festus to verify the story of the resurrection with a non-Christian. 2) King Agrippa is a secular - not a religious - leader. 3) He is sitting right there in the trial with Paul and Festus, and therefore can be - and is - consulted immediately. 4) the resurrection was an event that was so public and well-established that even king Agrippa knew about it. As always, Paul provides evidence to back up his faith, and welcomes the testing and verification of that evidence.

Romans 12:1-2:
We are able to "test and approve what God's will is". But this requires being "transformed by the renewing of your mind". So we are allowed - encouraged, even - to test, verify, and affirm God's will, but doing so requires that we first be transformed and renewed, so that such tests take place properly, on God's own terms.

1 Corinthians 2:4-5:
Paul reminds his Corinthian readers that they came to believe in Christ as a result of "a demonstration of the Spirit's power", so that their faith would have better evidence than mere human words to stand on.

1 Corinthians 15:3-19:
Paul explicitly tells his readers that if the resurrection didn't happen, Christianity would be falsified. He also names many specific witnesses who saw the risen Christ, and names himself as one of these witnesses. He thereby provides evidence for the resurrection, and opens that evidence to testing and verification, and is willing to stake his faith on the results of this test.

2 Corinthians 13:1-10:
Paul explicitly tells the Corinthians to test themselves to see if they are truly in the faith. He also strongly implies that they should test him as well. The Christian faith is not something to be left unexamined and unquestioned, but instead to be actively tested.

1 Thessalonians 5:19-22:
Paul urges his readers to test the prophecies, even though they ostensibly come from God.  Also note that 'test everything; hold on to the good' is a succinct summary of the scientific method.

Hebrews 2:1-4:
Here the author of Hebrews cites multiple lines of evidence which all testify to the the story of our salvation - announced by Jesus, confirmed by the disciples and other eyewitnesses, and testified to by signs, wonders, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Hebrews 11:1:
Having already cited the evidence for faith in Hebrews 2, here the author focuses on what we are to do with that evidence: we are to infer things beyond the merely empirical evidence, just as in science we are to infer non-empirical theories from the empirical data. This is how faith gives us assurance of things we do not see - because the evidence, while not being these unseen things in and of itself, points to these unseen things. We are to think about the evidence, reason from the evidence, and infer things beyond the merely empirical evidence. To refuse to do so would make you an unbeliever (in the context of faith), or a stamp collector (in the context of science).

James 1:2-4:
James takes it for granted that our faith will be tested, and that these tests are required for us to become mature. A faith that has not been tested is an immature faith.

2 Peter 1:16:
Here Peter appeals to his status as an eyewitness to Jesus's life, death, and resurrection to serve as evidence for his claims.

This has been a PARTIAL list of Bible verses which demonstrate how the God works to provide evidence for our faith in him. A complete list would be much longer.

Throughout the whole Bible, the pattern is for faith to be believed on evidence, tested and verified through evidence, and refined and changed on evidence. The Bible rebukes both those who believe without evidence, and disbelieve despite the evidence. In handling this evidence, we are to evaluate it in the context that God provides, in his own terms. We are also to use it to infer things beyond the merely empirical evidence, to believe things beyond what we can see. We understand that dramatic evidence, in the form of miraculous signs and wonders, occur when God is doing something new and important in history, whereas in other times we rely on the records of these events and the continuing evidence of a more common, mundane kind. All this is also how evidence works in science, as we expect from the God who is the Author of both nature and scripture.

In the next post of this series, we will examine some more verses which seem to argue against these patterns, and address the possible objections.


You may next want to read:
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 6) (Next post of this series)
How is God related to all other fields of study?
Basic Bayesian reasoning: a better way to think (Part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents

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