The Telescope of Faith

Messier 96 galaxy viewed by Hubble Space Telescope, courtesy
Messier 96 galaxy viewed by Hubble Space Telescope, courtesy

The last couple of weeks have been about the evidential nature of faith and how it is the result of “divine persuasion”[1], of seeing the evidence God has provided us, and recognizing that the source of that evidence can be trusted. When I first started rock climbing in college, I quickly learned that how far I got off the grounded depended on how much I trusted my climbing equipment. I had to put my faith in my climbing shoes, rope, harness, and anchors. But once I saw they were trustworthy, it was “game on!” But faith is applicable in far more of life than just rock climbing. And in the current book I’m reading, J.C. Ryle looks at the life of Moses as an example of faith lived out.

In his classic 19th century book “Holiness“, Ryle makes this brief but insightful point about Moses’s faith in God: “Faith was a telescope to Moses.” In the context, Ryle was referring to how Moses’s trust in God helped him to see past all of the trials and pain to the Promised Land of Israel. But I think this analogy goes so much farther. Hebrews 11:1 gives the most direct definition of faith in the Bible when it says “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[2] Ryle develops the first part of that definition with his idea of a telescope in that Moses’s faith gave him assurance of the hoped for result, but today I just want to highlight how the telescope of faith applies to the second half of that definition as well.

Living in Nevada for 10 years in an area away from the lights of towns was a nightly reminder of Psalm 19 when it says that “the heavens declare the glory of God.”[3] The stars and the Milky Way were so much more visible there compared to where I live now. But as beautiful as those starry nights in Nevada were, I was seeing only a fraction of a fraction  of the majesty of the cosmos that we see now through our large optical telescopes, our simply gigantic radio telescopes, or our space-based telescopes like Hubble that are unhindered by the atmosphere. Groups of pinpoints of light have now been revealed to be these awe-inspiring systems of billions of stars of all different sizes surrounded by enormous, beautiful gas clouds. In some cases, we see more structure and beauty looking at these systems in the portion of the spectrum we can’t see than we do in the normal range of visible light. Mapping the universe in ultraviolet, infra-red, microwave, and X-ray radiation has revealed things we never would’ve been able to prove existed by our normal unaided sight alone.

Yet… it wasn’t any of these telescopes that made those things reality. The various telescopes simply showed us the reality we couldn’t see. Just as we see the stars above and dimly recognize the grandness of the universe, the evidence we see points us to God and we place our faith in Him. But then a strange thing happens. As we trust Him, He opens up the shutter on the faith telescope, and we begin to see the full spectrum of life, so to speak. We thought we were seeing all the evidence for God, and it was sufficient to answer His call to follow Him, and yet it was only His calling card! Now, we find His signature everywhere we look, written in the nanoprinting of every cell; written in hidden mosaics of life now suddenly obvious to our faith-trained eyes; written so large across the horizon of the universe in galaxy-wide letters that we laugh that we missed them before.

Maybe you’ve heard, or maybe you’ve said, that faith is “blind”, that it is belief in spite of the evidence. And yet all of us place our faith in different things each day, whether it’s rock climbing equipment, or the aircraft (and its pilot) taking us on our next business trip, or the brakes on our car. And all of these can be untrustworthy instances of misplaced faith. Let me encourage you, friend, to put your trust – your faith – in the only One who won’t let you down. Don’t live your life with blinders on, only seeing a narrow spectrum of reality, when the Author of reality has so much more to show you.

[1] “Faith” comes from the Greek word πίστις (“pistis”), derived from the root word πείθω (“peitho”) meaning to be persuaded.
[2] Hebrews 11:1, NASB.
[3] Psalm 19:1, NASB.

“See For Yourself”
Jesus & the Samaritan Woman – Gustav Dore

Last week, we looked at several passages in the gospel of John that deal with the evidential nature of biblical faith. Let’s look at a couple more instances today, along with a potential objection. The 4th chapter of John’s gospel tells the stories of Jesus meeting first a Samaritan woman at their local water well,[1] and then a Jewish nobleman on His return to Galilee.[2] Although the Samaritans were normally despised by the Jews, and it was frowned upon to talk to a woman (Samaritan or otherwise) in public in that culture (see v. 27), Jesus had a lengthy conversation with the Samaritan woman, and we see several interesting statements made. The woman left her water pot at the well and went back into the city and told the people there, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ (i.e. the Messiah), is it?” She invited them to come see for themselves whether this man might be the promised Savior. Rather than simply dismissing her, they went out of the city to where Jesus was to investigate for themselves. Later in the passage, John says that “from that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me all the things that I have done.'” They then asked Jesus to stay with them 2 more days, and John notes that “many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.'” This was not like a cursory glance or half-hearted listening. The Samaritans invested enough of their time in listening to Jesus for many of them to weigh His words and become convinced that Jesus was who He said He was.

After this encounter, Jesus left Samaria, and, coming to the region of Galilee, he went to Cana, where He had performed His first public miracle. Here, He met the desperate father of a deathly sick child. The man had traveled roughly 25 miles from Capernaum to ask Jesus to come to his home and cure his boy. Jesus seems to reprimand the people here for wanting evidence when He says, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” And yet, John records Jesus later telling the Jews in Jerusalem, “If I do not the works of My Father, believe Me not.”[3]

How do we reconcile these 2 different responses regarding belief based on evidence provided? It’s important to note at the beginning of this account (v. 46), that this was in Cana, where He had already demonstrated His power. It seems that His scolding here is due to their desire for continual demonstrations – for proof beyond proof. As John Gill says in his commentary on this passage, “they required signs and miracles to be wrought, in confirmation of Christ’s being the Messiah, and which indeed was but right; and Christ did perform them for that purpose: but their sin of unbelief lay in this, that they wanted still more and more signs; they could not be contented with what they had seen, but required more….”[4] Like a jury in court, at some point we have to recognize that we’ve seen and heard enough evidence to reach a reasonable decision even if we didn’t get every question answered exhaustively. Despite that rebuke, though, the man pleaded again for Jesus to come and heal his son. Jesus, not needing to travel to heal the son, told the father, “Go; your son lives.” It used to be said that “a man’s word is his bond”, and the father took Jesus at His word, trusting that the deed was done, though he might not understand how. Then he acted on that trust and left for his day-long journey home. When he was partway home, his servants met him to say the son had recovered. John then tells us that the father asked them for the time of the recovery, and they told him the fever left the boy “at the 7th hour”. John continues, “So the father knew that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, ‘Your son lives’; and he himself believed and his whole household.”  As Matthew Henry commented on this verse, “The diligent comparison of the works of Christ with His word will be of great use to us for the confirming of our faith…. He had before believed the word of Christ; but now he believed in Christ.”[5]

In John 4, we see two different cases of people deciding to believe in the deity of Jesus. The Samaritans were convinced by His words, while the Jewish nobleman was convinced by His miraculous actions, but neither accepted Jesus’s claims blindly. The Samaritans came  to hear and decide for themselves based on what Jesus said and what they knew of the promised Christ, while the nobleman verified the boy’s recovery wasn’t natural by comparing the time of recovery with the time of Jesus’s pronouncement. As Paul later wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”[6] But you must examine what you’re presented with before you can hold on to the good and discard the bad. Don’t bypass that critical step and throw out the evidence Jesus confronts you with before examining it and “seeing for yourself” the truth of it.

[1] John 4:39,41-42, in particular, NASB.
[2] John 4:45-53, NASB.
[3] John 10:37, NASB.
[4] John Gill D.D., Exposition of the Old and New Testaments – OSNOVA Kindle Edition, 2012 (1763 original), Location 276230 (John 4:48).
[5] Matthew Henry’s Commentary in One Volume, (Zondervan, 1961) pp. 1528-9.
[6] 1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB.

“Look and See”

Sherlock HolmesOne thing I love about Christianity is the evidential nature of our faith. That may surprise some people to hear those terms used together, but Jesus didn’t ask people to believe on “blind faith” as some would like to assume. I’ve written before on how the very word translated from the Greek as “faith” in our Bibles speaks of being persuaded by evidence or proof. You can find that article here. Today, I want to look at a few more Scripture passages that deal with that evidential nature of faith for some of the first people to follow Jesus.

In the 1st and 2nd chapters of John’s gospel account, we see several instances of people deciding to believe that Jesus was the Messiah (or Anointed One). When Philip had decided to follow Jesus, he told his friend Nathanael that he had found the One foretold by Moses and the prophets, and that it was Jesus of Nazareth. When Nathanael asked skeptically (and maybe a bit sarcastically) if any good thing could come from the poor village of Nazareth, Philip’s  reply was “come and see.” When Jesus greeted Nathanael with “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”, this surprised him – “How do you know me?” Jesus answered that “before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Maybe this reference to the fig tree held some special significance to Nathanael to warrant the following response, for he replied with “Rabbi, You are the Son of God, You are the King of Israel.” Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t congratulate him for this quick assessment, but rather seemed to question his sudden jump: “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”[1] It seems that Jesus wasn’t looking for disciples who would follow just anybody that came along.

After that, Jesus performed His first miracle when He turned water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. Immediately after that account, John writes that “This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.”[2] Their belief followed a sign. John tells about Jesus being in Jerusalem at the Passover, and says that “many believed in His name, beholding His signs which He was doing.”[3] For those people also, belief followed a reason to believe. And again, in the same chapter, John talks about Jesus prophesying that He would die and rise from the dead, although they didn’t understand what He was saying at the time. But then John writes that “When therefore He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken.”[4] This was the ultimate proof.

After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples, but one of them wasn’t there – Thomas. Although the others told him that Jesus was alive and appeared to them, he was skeptical. His famous response that he wouldn’t believe until he could put his fingers in the nail holes in Jesus’s hands, and put his hand into the gaping spear wound in Jesus’s side, has earned him the nickname “Doubting Thomas”. But what was Jesus’s response when He came back and Thomas was present? Did He strike Thomas dead for his skepticism? Or for his wanting proof? On the contrary, He told Thomas “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.”[5] And what are the words used for believing and unbelieving? They are the words πιστός (pistos) and ἄπιστος (apistos), respectively. Pistos is the Greek word typically translated as “faith” and comes from the root πείθω (peitho), meaning “to be persuaded”. Apistos is the negation of that, and means one who is unconvinced. Jesus offered Thomas the chance to verify for himself that it really was Jesus, and then told him to let the evidence persuade him and not remain unpersuaded in spite of the evidence.

So did it persuade him? Yes! What was Thomas’s immediate response? He cried out, “My Lord and my God!” Though the rest of his story isn’t recorded in the Bible, church tradition records that “Doubting Thomas” took the gospel to Nineveh (near the modern day city of Mosul, Iraq), and then went on to India, where he was eventually run through with a stake after a confrontation with local Brahmin (Hindu priest caste) who were angry about his preaching and refusal to worship Kali.[6] And yet there are still Christians in India today that trace there spiritual heritage back to Thomas, just as there were in Mosul until ISIS ravaged the city 2014. From skeptic to martyr, Thomas’s journey speaks of a life-transforming persuasion just as strongly as Paul’s change from zealous persecutor of Christians to the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (i.e. non-Jews). But such a transformed life is the natural result of fully understanding how firmly grounded your trust in Christ really is. Borrowing from Philip and Jesus, “Come and see” the evidence for yourself, but then don’t stop there. Believe.

[1] John 1:45-51, NASB.
[2] John 2:11, NASB.
[3] John 2:23, NASB.
[4] John 2:22, NASB.
[5] John 20:24-28, NASB.
[6] Riley K Smith, Restricted Nations: India, Tales of Glory, (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Book Co, 2009), pp. 14-15.

The Burden of Proof

Overworked-800pxThe burden of proof is something that gets tossed back and forth in debates like a hot potato. When do you bear the burden of backing up your view? This is something I’ve wanted to look at here for a few months, but then I found that Dr. Paul Copan had already written up an excellent article on the subject, published back in 2013, that really addresses anything I might have said, except better. The full article (about 4 typed pages) is available here or here, and I really encourage everyone to check it out. Here are excerpts from the first 3 of Copan’s 7 points.

In conversations with atheists, they may challenge us: “You’re claiming that God exists. Therefore, the burden of proof rests on you, not me. So … where’s your evidence?” Atheist Michael Scriven insists “we need not have a proof that God does not exist in order to justify atheism. Atheism is obligatory in the absence of any evidence for God’s existence.” Or perhaps someone has told you that belief in God is just like belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Where do we begin to respond to such assertions?

First, define your terms — especially atheism. Understand the terms you are using. You can clear up a lot of confusion here and keep the conversation with a professing atheist on track. Ask your friend, “How do you define atheism?” According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the historic definition of “atheist” is one who “maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence God exists expresses a false proposition.” The late atheist-turned-deist philosopher Antony Flew, defined atheism as “rejection of belief in God” — not merely the absence of belief in God. Likewise, Julian Baggini, in his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, asserts that atheism is “extremely simple to define.” It is “the belief that there is no God or gods.”

Second, the atheist also bears the burden of proof in making the claim, “God does not exist.” Keep in mind: The atheist is actually making a claim to knowledge just as the theist is. So rather than shrugging off any burden of proof, the atheist should understand that both claims needs justification, not just the theist’s. If you make a claim to know something, you should be able to justify that claim when challenged. The atheist — if he or she is a true atheist — says that God does not exist. But we can ask, “Why think this? What positive arguments are there for this claim?” To date, there just has not been any argument coming close to showing how this is so. Some might say, “Arguments for God’s existence do not work.” But that is not enough. You need to show why God does not exist (more on this below). In my experience, the “atheist” more often than not turns out to be an agnostic.

Note: that has been my experience as well.

Third, look out for the “atheist’s” slide into agnosticism, from claiming disbelief to mere unbelief. True agnostics affirm they do not know whether God exists or not. By contrast, atheism is a strong claim and is actually a fairly difficult position to defend. As noted, many professing atheists are not true atheists — that is, one who disbelieves or rejects belief in God. Rather, they are more like “agnostics” — unbelievers. What they mean by “there is no God” is more like “I lack belief in God.” In April 2001, I was speaking at an open forum at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts. A student told me during the Q&A, “The reason I am an atheist is because the arguments for God’s existence do not work.” I replied, “Then you should be an agnostic, not an atheist. It is logically possible that God could exist even if the available arguments for God do not work. So, you should be an agnostic, in that case. You have to do more than say the arguments for God do not work to be an atheist. You have to show why God cannot exist. You see, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The person who claims to be an atheist but simply lacks belief in God is blurring the historic distinction between agnostic and atheist. We should gently press him on this question: “What makes your position different from an agnostic’s?”

I hate to stop there, especially without getting to Dr. Copan’s dissection of atheists’ favorite parody of God – the Flying Spaghetti Monster – but you’ll just have to read the rest of Dr. Copan’s article for yourself. Till next time, keep thinking!


Below are the links for Dr. Copan’s full article.