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The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 6)

We are continuing our previous exploration of the Bible, and looking at the patterns for how God works to provide evidence for our faith in him. As a reminder, these patterns are as follows:

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.

We've seen many passages that conform to these patterns in the past weeks. This week, we will tackle the issue from the opposite direction, by examining verses that seem to go against these patterns. But upon closer examination, these verses will end up conforming to the patterns instead.

 Deuteronomy 6:16:
"This verse says that 'you shall not put the LORD your God to the test'. How could anything be based on evidence if you're not suppose to test it?"

This line of thinking completely ignores the context of the whole Bible on the question of "testing God". It doesn't even take into account the context of the verse itself. In fact, it cuts off the verse mid-sentence to twist it into saying something that it's not. The full verse reads, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, AS YOU TESTED HIM AT MASSAH." (emphasis added). At Massah, the Israelites tested God by ignoring the previous evidence that God had given them in orchestrating the events of the Exodus. They demanded water by claiming that God had brought them out of Egypt only to kill them of thirst in the desert. It is this specific type of testing - testing by imposing conditions alien to the terms that God himself has provided - that is forbidden in this passage. This is made abundantly clear when you take all the relevant passages into account. This makes sense, since the same rule applies to testing hypotheses in the sciences: a hypothesis must be tested on its own terms.

So, when it is properly understood, this verse is not a counterexample to the biblical patterns for believing and testing the evidence. It in fact supports one of these patterns: God provides evidence, and the testing for that evidence, on his own terms.

Deuteronomy 13:1-3:
"These verses says that if a prophet advocates other gods, you should not trust him, EVEN IF HIS SIGN OR WONDER COMES TO PASS. Doesn't this show that a dogmatic adherence to God is more important than the evidence of signs and wonders?"

This passage merely means that you should not be irrational by believing with too little evidence. We are not to believe just anything, but to think through our steps. Recall the rules of logic embodied in Bayes' theorem, and the nature of evidence: since these things are probabilistically decided, there are bound to be some evidence even for incorrect hypotheses. But such evidence is likely be outweighed by the evidence for their correct alternatives. In this passage, God is urging us not to fall for these accidental evidence for other gods, because the evidence for him is so much greater. In particular, notice that the phrase "sign or a wonder" is in the singular form in the above passage. This is nearly the only place in the whole Bible where that phrase appears in the singular form. But "signs and wonders", in the plural, that testify to the true God appear numerous times throughout the Bible, corresponding to the mountain of evidence we have for him. So if we love the LORD our God with all our heart and soul, as the passage mentions, we would know that a single accidental evidence for false gods doesn't compare to the overwhelming evidence for God.

So, in the end, the passage is merely an example of good rationality, and it conforms to the six patterns mentioned at the beginning: there may be small, accidental evidence for other gods, but we are to believe God on the weight of the total evidence.

Matthew 12:38-42Matthew 16:1-4Mark 8:11-13Luke 11:29-32:
"In these passages Jesus refuses to perform a sign. Doesn't this demonstrate that he did not provide evidence for his claims, that he expected people to purely believe him on faith?"

Actually, in literally every single one of these passages, Jesus had performed a miraculous sign just prior to his refusal to perform another one. So it is not that Jesus is refusing to perform signs in general, or refusing to provide evidence. He is in fact condemning those who refuse to believe despite the evidence of the signs that he had just performed.

In fact, reading into the narrative a bit more, we see that some of the people who had just witnessed Jesus's miracle had attributed it to the works of a demon. This is a particularly pernicious state of mind, where an observation that should be evidence for one position gets interpreted for exactly the opposite position instead. So, for instance, someone who thinks that the moon landings were a governmental hoax might be shown videos from the Apollo program, only to exclaim "see how complete and pervasive the government conspiracy is!"

It is to people like this, who had the gall to then ask for another sign, that Jesus refused to show more signs. He is condemning their irrationality and providing evidence on his own terms, in keeping with the established patterns mentioned above.

John 20:24-29:
"This is the story of doubting Thomas, who doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead. After Jesus appears to him, he tells Thomas that it would have better if he had believed without seeing Jesus. Doesn't this clearly show that faith trumps evidence, that believing without evidence is better than believing with evidence?"

Actually, Jesus is only critiquing Thomas's rationality in this passage: Thomas ALREADY had enough evidence to believe the resurrection, BEFORE Jesus appeared to him in person, and ought to have believed accordingly. This is the same critique that Jesus gave to the disciples on the road to EmmausConsider the context: Thomas must have know the tomb was empty, and he had the testimony of Mary Magdalene and all the other disciples that Jesus had risen. In all likelihood they had all spent quite some time trying to convince Thomas of the resurrection. These were the unanimous eyewitness testimonies of trusted people that Thomas had known very well for a long time. He furthermore had the prophecies - from both the Scriptures and Jesus himself - that predicted the resurrection. Thomas also had Jesus's miraculous works which testified to his divinity. Based on all this, Thomas should have been convinced already, but he stubbornly refused to believe that Christ had risen. It is to this Thomas that Jesus said "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" - because such people would be demonstrating superior rationality by coming more quickly to the correct conclusion. It is irrational to be overly gullible or skeptical, and Thomas was erring on the side of skepticism.

Jesus is also criticizing the "I only believe what I can see" mentality in general. Thomas should have inferred the risen Christ, whom he did not see, from the testimony of the disciples, which he did see. If we refuse to infer invisible things from the visible evidence, that is not logical rigor or sound reasoning - it is stupidity. Such an attitude would make science impossible by turning it into stamp collecting. We believe in atoms, which we cannot see, by inferring them from the evidence of Brownian motion, which we can see. But a rock cannot infer anything.

What Jesus says to Thomas is therefore perfectly rational, and fits perfectly with the general patterns for how God provides us with evidence for our faith in him: we are not to err either to skepticism to gullibility, but choose the rational mean. Furthermore, we are to reject the "I only believe what I can see" mentality, and instead be willing to infer invisible things from the visible evidence.

Romans 4:16-21:
"This passage praises Abraham for believing God to grant him a child. It specifically mentions that his faith persisted despite the fact that he was old and his wife was barren. It commends him specifically for believing unbelievable things. Clearly, faith is suppose to override evidence, and that is suppose to be praiseworthy."

And when God made Abraham that promise, it was in an extended, direct, "face-to-face" meeting in the presence of God, after nearly a lifetime of Abraham walking with God and having his faith verified. In this scenario, Abraham correctly evaluated that the evidence for believing God overwhelmed the low chance that he could naturally have a child. It is this faith - one that correctly chooses the side with more evidence - which is commended in the Romans passage.

2 Corinthians 5:7:
"This verse says 'for we walk by faith, not by sight'. So you are suppose to ignore the evidence of your sight and stick to faith instead? Isn't this an absolutely clear expression of blind faith?"

This verse is not talking about evaluating evidence. Reading the verse in context makes that clear. "Faith" here is being used in an advanced sense, as something you live by, something you walk in - well past the stage of initial intellectual assent where the evidence gathering is the most explicit. Paul has already gathered his evidence; here he is now inferring and drawing conclusions from it. He speaks on the dichotomy between the body and the spirit, between the physical and the abstract. He concludes that the spiritual is more important, more permanent, and more real. That is the idea expressed in "we walk by faith, not by sight".

How Paul came to his conclusion is the story of other passages, where Paul does discuss the physical events that happened to him. But the conclusion from these physical evidence is that the physical is subservient to the spiritual - for, as Paul himself summarizes, what is seen is transient, but the unseen things are eternal.

This is only what's expected, as it's one of one of the patterns of how God works in providing evidence. God wants us to infer to things beyond the merely physical appearances. Unless the visible evidence can infer invisible realities, it is useless. These are the ideas Paul is expressing here; he is not commenting on how to gather that evidence in the first place.

And with all that, I've now covered a representative sample of the Bible passages on how evidence is handled in the Christian faith. We see that throughout the Bible, faith is based on the evidence. Even when we consider the passages that seem to go against that patterns, a closer examination reveals that biblical faith is rational and evidence-based after all.

In the next post, I will examine some of the common non-biblical, philosophical objections against that conclusion.

You may next want to read:
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 7) (Next post of this series)
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 1)
Should we put the LORD our God to the test?
Another post, from the table of contents

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