This post is a consolidation of a whole series into one post. It's very long. Click on the following entries in the table of contents below to jump directly there:
What is faith? How is it conceptualized in Christianity?
In certain circles, it has somehow become popular to think that "faith is believing in something without evidence". That... is just wrong. That is manifestly not what the Bible teaches, nor is it anything that any thinking Christian has claimed. In fact, a Google search of the phrase basically returns a bunch of atheists attempting to get that charge to stick on Christianity, and a bunch of Christians saying that this is not what Christian faith means. It's a portrait of a typical fight against an attempted straw man, painted in a single search. In this post, we will examine the actual meaning of the word "faith" in Christianity, and the role of evidence in supporting that faith.
Christianity uses "faith" in multiple, different, but intertwined senses. In particular, "faith" may refer to:
1. Intellectual assent to a set of propositions, which are backed up by evidence.
(e.g. 1 Cor. 2:4-5, "My message and preaching were ... with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.")
2. Taking action based on "faith" in the first sense.
(e.g. Matt 15:28, "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.")
3. The personal degree of trust or confidence that a Christian places in Jesus, resulting from the accumulation of many instances of "faith" in the first and second sense.
(e.g. Gal. 2:16, "[A] person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.")
4. The lifestyle that incorporates "faith" in the first, second, and third senses.
(e.g. 1 Cor. 16:13, "[S]tand firm in the faith")
The situation is as if someone ignorant of quantum mechanics came across a group of physicists discussing it. He sees the physicists pushing around a bunch of mathematical symbols, and saying things that make little sense to him, while hardly discussing, say, the photoelectric effect, or the hydrogen emission spectrum (which are the things that actually serve as evidence for quantum mechanics). This is because physicists do not reiterate all of the evidence for quantum mechanics every time they work with it; they just get to the part that interests them at the moment. But it would be a mistake to then conclude that quantum mechanics is not built on experimental evidence.
The parallels go far deeper than just that single analogy. My faith in Jesus Christ shares many similarities with my faith in science. Consider the above four senses of the word "faith", and you'll see that they are essentially how we process science as well. We first place our trust in some new hypothesis or theory, based on some experimental evidence (first sense). We then act on this belief, by making new predictions and coming up with new technological applications for the theory (second sense). Eventually, based on the many successful tests, the theory becomes scientifically established as it gains our confidence and trust, and we use it to evaluate and interpret other experiments or theories (third sense). And by repeating this process over and over, we become scientifically minded individuals (forth sense).
Wait, but can't scientific theories be wrong? Isn't "being wrong" one of the hallmarks of science? What does that say about my ideas on God? Could I be wrong about God? Of course; like in the sciences, in such circumstances it's the new evidence that compels me to adjust my views. This is what it means for faith to be refined - changed for the better through more evidence, such as trials and life experiences. The Bible has multiple instances of this taking place, and it is considered something positive in every case.
So, Christianity (and science) is evidence-based. The multiple meanings of the word "faith" all start from the evidence-based assent to some statement. In fact, an overwhelming amount of biblical support demonstrates that Christianity has always worked this way.
God has always worked by making an evidence-based case for our faith in him. By closely examining the Bible, we can discern some clear, detailed patterns for how God interacts with us when he calls for us to have faith. 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 wants us to follow the evidence, by using it to infer things beyond itself. He wants us to move beyond the merely empirical things, to actual truths. He does not want us to be stuck on that "I only believe what I can see" attitude, which refuses to put the evidence to actual use in deriving deeper truths.
4. God does not want us to be irrational. He disapproves of both excessive skepticism and gullibility, but instead wants us to find the rational center. He rebukes those who refuse to test the evidence, believe too easily, or don't believe despite the evidence
5. God provides evidence on his own terms. It is meaningless to test the evidence from outside the framework provided by God himself.
6. Dramatic evidence, in the form of miraculous signs and wonders, comes only when God does something new and important. Other time periods are relatively more quiet.
In such times, we are to remember the previous evidence that God has provided, and take the past history of his faithfulness as evidence for our belief.
As before, it is instructive to note the close parallels in these patterns to how science works.
1. Scientific claims require evidence, especially when these claims are attempting to establish a new theory.
2. The evidence provided is to be tested and verified.
3. The scientist must actually think, and put the experimental data to use: that is, he or she must infer from data (which are empirical) to theories and models (which are mental and therefore non-empirical). Someone who says "the data is the data, and anything beyond it is not empirical and therefore cannot be known" is not a scientist but a stamp collector.
4. While evaluating the evidence, the scientist is expected to think rationally: he or she must not be too eager to believe or arbitrarily skeptical.
5. A scientific theory specifies the kind of evidence that would verify it, on its own terms. General relativity, for instance, predicts the existence of black holes, but this prediction is made on its own terms - using things like the metric or the energy-momentum tensors, which are defined and understood within the theory itself. It is no good to try to impose from the outside the kind of evidence you would accept in favor of general relativity. You'd end up with ridiculous statements like "I'll believe general relativity when I can take a wormhole from New York to London" or "general relativity is true if yo mamma collapses into a black hole".
6. Dramatic evidence, in the form of data that cannot be explained by currently known science, come only in periods of scientific revolutions, when new theory or phenomena are being discovered. At other times, science prods along more calmly. During such times, we are to remember our scientific history: again using general relativity as an example, we remember the tests of general relativity that established it as a valid theory, and count those historical experiments as evidence for our belief.
These parallels are not surprising. After all, the same Author of both nature and Scripture has gifted us with reason and intellect to be used in getting to know more of him.
The following is a partial list of the Bible passages that support these patterns. In considering these passages, remember that I'm not addressing whether they are good evidence for Christianity; that is a separate question that will be addressed in other posts. For now, I am merely citing them as support for the above-mentioned patterns. They demonstrate that faith in God has always been evidence-based, as opposed to relying on anything like "blind faith".
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.
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 the 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 is a perfect example of how God always provides evidence when he asks us to believe something, and provides dramatic, supernatural evidence when he asks us to do believe something new and important.
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.
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 mentioned above, this is analogous to how evidence works in the sciences.
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 performs a miracle to provide evidence for our faith, then wants us to remember this work in the future and count it as evidence for our continued faith in him.
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.
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.
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 mentioned above: God provides evidence whenever he asks us to believe something, but that evidence is provided on his own terms (e.g. supernaturally setting fire to the offering). 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. The hypotheses were each tested on their own terms, like they are 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 terms that God himself dictated.
In this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus rebukes his listeners for having little faith, right after providing an argument from nature for why they SHOULD have faith. In general, whenever Jesus calls for faith, he always provides a reason to have that faith - in the form of a miraculous sign, an argument from nature, or from a previous revelation.
Jesus calms a storm. When the disciples were fearing for their lives because of the storm, Jesus rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith. He then immediately demonstrates that he's worthy of that faith by calming the storm. His call to faith is backed up by immediate evidence.
Jesus does not perform miracles for those who lack faith. He provides evidence on his own terms.
Jesus walks on water. Peter, seeing this, asks Jesus to call him out of the boat to walk on water as well. Jesus does not rebuff him, but instead tells him to come on out - God is pleased when we act on our faith and ask for more evidence according to his will. Peter comes out of the boat and walks on water, but then begins to fear and doubt and sink into the water. It is only at this point that Jesus rebukes him for having little faith, because he doubted DESPITE the fact that he was ALREADY walking on water. His doubt was not in line with the evidence of that very moment.
Jesus again rebukes his disciples for their lack of faith, because they could not drive out a demon. Their lack of faith was not in line with the evidence of Jesus's numerous previous miraculous signs, nor their previous commission to drive out demons. After rebuking this lack of faith in spite of the evidence, Jesus then drives out the demon himself, again demonstrating that he's worthy of having the disciple's faith placed on him.
Jesus tells the disciples that anything is possible if they have faith, right after demonstrating this to be true by causing a fig tree to wither. Again, his call to faith is backed up by evidence.
As Jesus is being crucified, people mock him by saying that they will believe he is the Son of God if he brings himself down from the cross. Of course, Jesus does not. This is a clear illustration how God provides evidence only on his own terms, and it shows why things must work that way: when people without faith ask God for a miraculous sign, it is often done in complete ignorance of how and why God works miracles. Furthermore, in egregious cases like the mockers at the cross, their demand for a miracle is not only in ignorance of God's character, it is diametrically opposed to his purpose in sending Jesus in the first place. To use a scientific analogy, the mocker's demand is like saying "I'll believe in evolution if you could give birth to a monkey right now". Not only does such a demand completely misunderstand what evolution actually says, such a birth would in fact DISPROVE evolution. OF COURSE God is not going to listen to such a demand for a sign - providing such a sign would in fact would be evidence AGAINST the very idea that it's supposed to prove, that Jesus is the Son of God. This is why God provides evidence on his own terms. In fact, it is why EVERY hypothesis must be evaluated on its own terms.
Jesus tells the people sent by Jairus - whose daughter had just died - to not be afraid, but to believe. He then backs up this call to faith by raising the daughter from the dead.
Jesus has risen from the dead, and shows himself to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus. Jesus rebukes these two for their slowness in believing in the resurrection. They were already aware of the testimony of the women who had seen Jesus after Easter, and that the Scriptures prophesied about the Messiah - but they did not yet believe, for which Jesus calls them foolish. God does not want us to just stop upon looking at the evidence in front of us. He wants us to reason with it, and infer things from it, and use the witnesses and the Scriptures to understand things beyond themselves. Jesus rebuked the two on the road to Emmaus because they were not doing these things. They were treating the evidence they already had as mere facts with no further implications. God wants us to think, rather than to merely observe.
This is the meeting between Jesus and Nathanael. Nathanael is willing to believe that Jesus is the Son of God because Jesus knew that Nathanael had recently been under a fig tree. Interestingly, Jesus does NOT commend Nathanael for his faith, and instead tells him that he will see greater things. Jesus is effectively telling Nathanael that he should NOT yet believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but that it'll be okay because he will soon see enough evidence in the days to come. God does not want us to believe everything - not even if some of these things are done in his name - but instead wants us to follow the evidence.
Jesus's disciples started to believe in him because of his miracle at Cana, of turning water into wine. Jesus didn't say, "just have faith" to his disciples then expected them to blindly believe in him. He provided evidence - a reason for them to put their faith in him.
This is the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. He tells her to believe him, but he also gives her many reasons to believe him - first by engaging in a personal spiritual discourse with her, then by showing that he knows deep, specific details about her. He then stays in the women's town for two days and draws many people to believe in him, to give them a better evidence than a single woman's word for their new faith in him.
Jesus heals a blind man, then asks the man to believe in him. Once again, the call to faith is accompanied by evidence for that faith.
Jesus outright tells people NOT to believe him unless he does "the works of [the] Father". He also says that even if they don't believe him, they should look at the works he's done, so that they would come to believe in him. Again, God does not want us to just believe without evidence, but rather to follow where the evidence leads. On the other hand, he also doesn't want us to refuse to follow the evidence that inevitably leads us to him. Believing without evidence and disbelieving despite the evidence are both irrational, and God opposes both forms of irrationality.
This story starts with Jesus making some incredibly bold statements about himself, then asking Martha to believe him. He then backs up these ridiculously bold statements by raising Lazarus from the dead. Once again, Jesus backs up the call to faith with evidence for that faith.
After describing Jesus's crucifixion, John calls us - his readers - to believe the things written in his book. He does so on the basis of his status as an eyewitness to these events.
This is the story of the resurrection: Jesus's resurrection is confirmed by a superabundance of evidence, including the empty tomb, the burial cloth left behind, eyewitness testimonies, encounters with the risen Christ, the Scripture's prophesies, and in case of Thomas - an offer by Jesus to see and touch Christ's wounds. All of this is recorded so that we - the readers - may believe. Once again, the pattern is that God provides evidence when he asks us to believe something, and the record of these things then serves as evidence for those who come after them.
Throughout the Gospels, every single call to faith is accompanied by a reason for that faith. At no point in the Gospels does Christ or any of his disciples ask for anyone to have anything like "blind faith". Both faith without evidence and unbelief in spite of evidence are condemned: we are always to follow the evidence.
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.
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.
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, which 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").
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 now-familiar pattern 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.
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.
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".
The Bereans are commended for their willingness test the evidence Paul provides, by cross-examining Paul's claims with the Scriptures.
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) Agrippa 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.
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 it is 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.
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.
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 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.
Now, some verses are cited as examples which go against the patterns established in the above passages. They supposedly show that God wants us to "just believe" or have "blind faith" in him. We will now examine these few verses and demonstrate that they in fact conform to the above-mentioned patterns of how God provides evidence for our faith.
"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's 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.
"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, as 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 "a 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 realize that a single accidental evidence for false gods cannot compare to the overwhelming evidence for God.
So this passage is merely an example of good rationality, and it conforms to the 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 12:38-42, Matthew 16:1-4, Mark 8:11-13, Luke 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.
"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 Emmaus. Consider 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.
"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. 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.
So the Bible is very clear that our faith is to be based on evidence. Some people, however, will not examine what the Bible itself says about Christianity, and instead choose to raise some philosophical objections against the idea of faith. They often do so based on some preconceptions about how evidence works in science versus how it works in Christianity. We will now address these objections.
"You can't actually have any evidence for Christianity. Evidence must be empirical, like it is in science. But there is no empirical evidence for God, which is why he must be believed on faith, with no evidence."
On the contrary, Christianity and science are empirical in exactly the same way. They both require you to infer non-empirical entities from the empirical evidence.
Now, one may say that the evidence for Christianity is not very good. Perhaps. But that is a topic for another discussion, and is irrelevant for the moment. Similarly to when we discussed the Bible passages, the question at hand is whether Christianity, like science, is fundamentally based on empirical evidence, in the way that it processes and uses that evidence. I am claiming that the procedure for handling evidence is the same between Christianity and science. I am not claiming anything here about what conclusion these procedures lead to.
Before we move on further, let's first establish a definition:
Empirical: based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.
So, is Christianity BASED ON observation or experience? Absolutely; the apostles repeatedly emphasized that they were eyewitnesses to Christ's resurrection, that they directly observed and experienced him in his risen state. The ministry Jesus and the apostles are filled with miraculous events that happened to people which directly affected their physical states. God brought Israel out of Egypt through multiple physical miracles, and reminded them repeatedly of this fact throughout their history. Billions of Christians throughout space and time have experienced God in some direct, experiential, and personal way.
Christianity did not come about from some people simply thinking about something, or feeling a certain way. If it were not for the empirical events mentioned above, Christianity would not exist. In particular, if the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not have empirical backing from the people who actually walked, talked, and ate with him afterwards, Christianity cannot exist. This empirical evidence is critical to the very existence of Christianity, just as experimental data is essential to science.
Is Christianity CONCERNED WITH observation or experience? Of course. Christians can sometimes get lost in some rather esoteric discussions about the nature of the Godhead or the minutiae of predestination, but we all agree with the Bible that faith without works is dead: our faith in God must make a difference in the real world. It is no accident that the two most important commandments are 'love God', and 'love people', and this love can be empirically observed and experienced by others - by the hungry ones we feed, the poor we clothe, and the defenseless we protect. Nor is it an accident that science has its theories, but those theories must explain the real world: a theory that makes no predictions is worthless. There is an exact parallel between a Christian's faith making empirical changes in the physical world, and scientific theories making experimental predictions in the laboratory. In both cases, the ideas lead to, and are concerned with, some real-world consequences.
Lastly, is Christianity VERIFIABLE BY observation or experience? No, not directly; no one has seen God, nor is it possible for humans to do so. But the evidence we have - especially in the form of Jesus Christ, who was a physical, flesh-and-blood man - makes God known to us.
So, isn't this a case where science and Christianity diverges, since science can be verified by observation? Absolutely not; science is not directly verifiable by observation any more than Christianity is. No one has ever seen a scientific theory: for instance, no one has seen the wave function of of a hydrogen atom, nor is it possible for humans to do so (wave functions don't "live" in a space that we can "see"). But the evidence we have - say, in the form of the emission spectrum of hydrogen, which is made of real colors we can see - makes the wave functions known to us.
Do not think that the above example is peculiar in some way: It works that way in EVERY field of science. In evolution, no one has seen the descent of man from apes. It is not directly observable: it happened a long time ago, and nobody was alive from then till now. But again, the evidence we have - the physical evidence that we can actually, empirically observe, such as fossils - makes the history of man's evolution known to us.
Likewise, no one has directly experienced Einstein's general relativity field equations. It's not even clear what that would even mean. Even if you were to get spaghettified by jumping into a black hole, you would experience the physiological effects of spaghettification, but not the field equations themselves. However, the evidence we have - in the physical observations of things like Einstein rings - makes the field equations known to us.
Even in a highly "hands-on" field like medicine, no one has ever directly observed the Platonic form of the cause of a disease - not in the sense that they've observed the abstract model for how bacteria work to create toxins which affects the patient's body and causes the disease. That abstract model from bacteria to disease remains an abstract, nonphysical model. It is to be held in the mind, but not directly observed in and of itself. However, by collecting empirical data - such as measuring the patient's temperature or observing his blood under a microscope - that abstract model can be verified.
In each case, the unobservable, abstract entity must be inferred from the observable things accessible to our senses. We must infer the non-empirical theories from the empirical evidence. This process is exactly the same in science as it is in Christianity. To refuse to take this step - to instead just say "I only believe what I can see" - breaks a crucial link in the scientific method, and makes doing science impossible. As I have said before - if you only collect empirical evidence without inferring any non-empirical theories from it, you are not a scientist - you're a stamp collector.
This is only what we expect from Bayes' theorem, which I mentioned before as the logic that underlies the scientific method. Look at the equation:
P(hypothesis|observation) = P(observation|hypothesis)/P(observation) * P(hypothesis)
So, Christianity and science are empirical in the same way: the non-physical, non-empirical entities at their heart cannot be directly experienced or verified, but they can be inferred from the physical, empirical evidence we have.
"Your so-called evidence for God is not any real evidence, because it's not repeatable. Your faith has to rely on records of things that happened thousands of years ago. In science, experiments must be repeatable, and that kind of evidence is the only real evidence. Scientists who disagree can always settle their difference in the lab, whereas no one has ever performed any miracles in controlled, laboratory conditions."
On the contrary, non-repeatable events in the past are often the subjects of scientific discourse, and they are studied by the records left behind by those events - exactly like in Christianity. In order to be considered "science", it is not necessary for the original event to be repeatable. Only the experiments on the record of these events need to be repeatable.
Consider Kepler's Supernova, the last observed supernova to have exploded in our own galaxy. It was bright enough to be seen even in daytime. It appeared in 1604.
Now, Supernovae are not repeatable in a controlled experimental setting. If you meet someone that says "I don't think supernovae occur in the Milky Way", you can't just say "let's walk on over to my lab, and I'll show you one". Given that you can't make a supernova, and that you weren't alive in 1604, how can you be sure that this supernova really appeared? By studying the records it left behind, of course. It was widely observed by many people (including its namesake Kepler), who left written records of their observation. Furthermore, its remnant can be observed today. Both the physical remnant and the written records can be queried in a repeatable fashion, and that is sufficient for its study to be considered science.
Consider also the K-T impactor that killed the dinosaurs. This faces the same problems as Kepler's Supernova, except it's a million times worse. Neither you nor any other humans were alive 65 million years ago. You cannot repeat this experiment and observe it in a lab. The only thing we can do is observe the records it left behind, in the form of an impact crater and the worldwide deposition of an iridium-rich geological layer. And the experiments done on these records are repeatable: you can collect samples from the K-T layer, and measure its iridium levels. You can go to the crater and measure its size. You will get consistent, repeatable results when you do so. And it is this repeatability, and not the repeatability of the original impact, that places the extinction of dinosaurs within the domain of science.
In general, you will get nowhere in science unless you accept records of previous experiments and events. No scientist performs every relevant experiment; that would simply take an impossibly long time. Even performing a single experiment that only confirms a theory is considered notable. Given this limitation, a scientist places his or her faith in other scientists, and relies on their records of previous experiments. Science, then, is built on believing in the records. Consider Arthur Eddington's measurement of the bending of starlight during the 1919 solar eclipse. This was considered the experimental verification of Einstein's General Relativity. Now, have you performed this experiment yourself? In fact, even among physicists, how many of them do you think actually repeated this experiment? Given that the vast majority of people have chosen to rely on the records left behind by Eddington instead of doing the experiment themselves, should they then reject General Relativity? Of course not.
Consider furthermore the origin of life. In this case the "repeatability" criterion fares even worse than the case of dinosaur extinction. We don't even have a coherent theory of the origin of life, and therefore cannot even propose what experiment we would need to repeat. And yet, because this event left records - namely in the commonalities that all living organism share, such as the structures of DNA and proteins - the origin of life can be studied. And experiments on or about these records are repeatable, and this is enough to bring the origin of life into the domain of science, even though the event itself is not repeatable.
The formation of the moon, and the Big Bang, also share these characteristics. Neither event is repeatable, and they cannot be performed in a lab. Yet they left records (e.g. the size of the moon, or the expansion of the universe), and because the experiments performed on these records are repeatable, their study is considered science. The evidence about them is therefore considered true evidence.
And all this is exactly how things work in Christianity as well. The resurrection of Christ is not a repeatable event; we cannot bring him back down to earth and kill him again and see what happens. But his death and resurrection left records. Because this was a historical event, the records are historical in nature, just as astronomical events leave astronomical records and chemical events leave chemical records. Specifically, Christ left behind the writings of his followers (the New Testament) and the community of his believers (Christians) - records that testify to his life, death, and resurrection. And these records, as they exist now, can be queried in a repeatable fashion to see what kind of evidence they yield. You can, for instance, read different translations of the Bible across multiple languages across space and time, and see how consistent they are with one another, and with known history. You can observe Christians and their practices and see if they are accurately predicted in the Bible. You can dig into Christian interpretations of the Bible. You can apply psychological or sociological studies to the eyewitnesses of Christ's resurrection, and see whether they are likely to be liars or mythologizers. You can analyze the linguistic style of the Gospels, and judge whether they are likely to be real or fictionalized. And the fact that you can do all this, with the things we have today right now (Christians and the Bible), in a repeatable fashion, makes the evidence concerning Christianity as "real" as any evidence in the sciences.
I remind you again that for now, I am not addressing whether the evidence for Christianity is any good; I'm merely addressing the fact that you cannot simply dismiss it because of some arbitrary criterion about "science". You have to actually consider the evidence for Christianity: some philosophical remarks about how science does or does not work will not let you off that hook.
So, is Christianity then a science, despite the non-repeatability of its founding events? Am I saying that repeatability doesn't matter? No; I do acknowledge that an event's repeatability is a desirable quality. Its absence isn't fatal to a scientific study of the original event, but of course repeatability does make us more sure of our conclusions. We are certain that atoms exist, because you can image them repeatably in any number of laboratories around the world. This repeatability makes atomic theory more certain.
So, isn't it still regrettable that the historical events of Christianity are not repeatable? This non-repeatability may not be so bad as to warrant dismissal of all evidence, but doesn't it still fall short of the best possible kinds of evidence? Why did God only provide this seemingly sub-par evidence, when so much of science is repeatable? And doesn't this clearly show that science and Christianity are non-overlapping, fundamentally different kinds of fields altogether?
Now, I want to be clear that there absolutely is a difference between science and Christianity. Christianity is not a science. However, this difference is not a difference in kind, but in degree. They are both governed by the same rules for evaluating evidence, and the same rules of sound thinking. The SAME rational rule that governs when we can expect repeatable experiments in science also tells us that we should NOT expect repeatable experiments in case of Christianity.
The rule is simply this: you only expect repeatable experiments from the things you can control, things that are "lesser" than you. So in a chemical synthesis, you expect that repeating the experiment will yield the same chemical, because you can control chemicals. The same applies to making a bacterial culture. However, when you start considering experiments on animals, or humans, things do not yet become unrepeatable, but at least more difficult. Human dissections, for example, are more difficult and slightly less repeatable than frog dissections. Ideally, we would raise a group of specimen to have well-developed features which can be clearly identified in a dissection, for pedagogical purposes. This would be tricky with frogs and abominably immoral with humans. Because of this, human dissections compromise repeatability in some small sense, because we often have little control over whether the cadaver was a smoker, or an athlete, or morbidly obese.
We must go on over to the social sciences to consider things that we cannot really control. Once we are no longer dealing with just a dead human body, but a living human mind, we get to psychology. And while it may be interesting to repeat some classic psychological experiments such as the Stanford prison experiment, we cannot ethically do so: we are not permitted to have that much control over our fellow humans, even if they're experimental subjects, and it would be wrong to seek that control.
If we go on to the behavior of groups of humans, no single experimenter can hope for enough control for an experiment. Thus we rarely have sociological or economical experiments in the same way we have physics tabletop experiments. Repeatability of events is not really sought in these fields: we do not, for instance, attempt to re-create the conditions for World War II to study it better. Even suggesting such an experiment would be immoral. Instead we study past events where historical circumstances lined up to create situations that we're interested in.
To bring this back to the physical sciences, consider astronomy: we have no control over when stars go supernova, or how quickly a galaxy moves away from us. To even think that we have this control, in our current technological state, would be pure delusional hubris. That is why repeatability is not sought in astronomical events: the events are beyond us.
I have always liked how, in astronomy, they have 'theorists and observers', instead of 'theorists and experimentalists'. That label of "observers" shows a degree of humility before nature - an understanding that we do not control the heavens, that we cannot perform experiments on it. Astronomers can only observe, and hope for a fortuitous combination of heavenly circumstances to enlighten them.
In all this, the principle is clear and logical; you can demand repeatability of events in subjects you can control, such as chemicals or bacteria. You cannot demand it of subjects that you cannot control, such as human societies or galaxies. Furthermore, this difference is one of the things that separates one type of science from another: for example, the social sciences all deal with things that are hard or impossible to control.
Now, consider Christianity. What is the subject of Christianity? God, and his interactions with humanity. What hope do you have of controlling this subject? None. You cannot control he who controls the heavens. To even suggest it is to incur guilt, in a way that might be glimpsed at by considering the suggestion to trigger another World War. How much repeatability can we then expect from events performed by God? None. We can only observe, like the astronomers observing the heavens.
Notice that the answers concerning Christianity are given according to exactly the same criteria that we use in the sciences. There is one logical principle that gives these answers for both Christianity and science, that allows some scientific events to be repeatable and God's actions to be non-repeatable. What does this mean in categorizing Christianity alongside the sciences? Just as a difference in the subject distinguished social sciences from the physical science, this infinitely greater difference between God and his creation distinguishes Christianity from all sciences - not because Christianity is irrational or handles evidence in a fundamentally different way, but simply because of where it falls in the spectrum of degree of control over the subject.
So, Christianity is not a science. However, this difference is not a difference in kind, but only in degree. The same rational rule that governs when we can expect repeatable experiments in science also tells us that we should NOT expect repeatable experiments in case of Christianity. Beneath this difference in degree, they are governed by the same rational rules for handling evidence.
The first step in faith starts by believing, based on the evidence, the message we have heard preached to us. All other biblical meaning of the word "faith" are built on it.
The Bible is replete with passages that demonstrate the crucial role of evidence in the Christian faith: God always provides evidence whenever he asks us to believe something, and provides dramatic evidence when he asks us to believe something new and important. He expects us to test and verify that evidence, and to follow it where it leads. He furthermore wants us to maintain clear-headed rationality while we make our inferences from the evidence. He therefore rebukes irrational behavior, such as refusing to believe despite the evidence, sticking to an "I only believe what I can see" mindset, or attempting to test the evidence from outside the framework that God himself has provided.
These evidence-based patterns of rationality are documented throughout the whole Bible. On the other hand, there is not a single instance where anything like "blind faith" is called for on the part of the believer. Furthermore, it is not only the Bible which demonstrates these patterns in handling the evidence: the soundness of these patterns is guaranteed by the fact that science follows the exact same rules in handling its evidence. This is only expected, as the same Author of both nature and Scripture has infused them both with his logic and faithfulness. Any attempt to philosophically dismiss evidence in Christianity as "non-empirical" or "non-repeatable" runs straight up against this parallel in science: rejecting these patterns in Christianity's handling of its evidence for some philosophical reason means that you'd be rejecting the equivalent scientific practices as well.
Evidence in Christianity, therefore, plays the same crucial role in as it does in the sciences, and is handled in the same way.
You may next want to read:
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity
How physics fits within Christianity (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents
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