FreeImages.com/joaska-50512 - hide and seekI was taking part in a discussion on a friend’s facebook page recently about the problem of “divine hiddenness”.  Skeptical participants questioned the existence of God based on the idea that if He existed, they would expect Him to make Himself known to us (in a way that would satisfy them, that is). Now, I could take this opportunity to talk about how the Standard Cosmological Model (aka the Big Bang Theory) and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics point us to the necessary existence of God. Or how the world around us, the universe beyond, and even the amazing DNA inside of us all testify to the existence of an incredible Master Designer, in what we Christians call “natural revelation.” Or how the Bible is the most direct, specific way God has revealed Himself, revealing details we could never learn from our scientific observations alone. This is what we call “special revelation.”

Instead, I want to take a moment to simply point out something about this whole “hiddenness” issue. The Bible records some times that God was not so hidden.

  • In the Garden of Eden, immediately after Adam and Eve had disobeyed God and eaten the forbidden fruit, we are told that they “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” [Genesis 3:8]God came to them, but they are the ones who hid (or tried to).
  • Later, in the book of Exodus, we read of God giving Moses the 10 Commandments: “All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.'”[Exodus 20:18-19] Here, God reveals a hint of His power, and the people fear for their lives and don’t want Him to speak to them.
  • In the book of Revelation, John records his vision of the end times, when “the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”[Revelation 6:15-17]
  • This echoes Isaiah’s description of the Day of Reckoning, when people will try to hide themselves from the presence of God when He chooses to reveal Himself beyond all shadow of a doubt. [Isaiah 2:10-22]

In each of these cases, we see sinful people unable to bear God revealing Himself in an undeniable way. The response each time is to seek shelter from such non-hiddenness on God’s part by themselves trying to be hidden.

But see how God has chosen to reveal Himself in the person of Jesus Christ: in humility, in gentleness, in self-sacrificing love. Moreover, He came in a relational role; still perfect, but able to sympathize with our weaknesses, having lived as “one of us”, yet without sin. [Hebrews 4:15]

Consider what Blaise Pascal said in his Pensées: Christianity “endeavors equally to establish these 2 things: that God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart”. [1] Similarly, Matthew Henry, commenting on John 20:30-31, says that the miracles recorded in the Bible are “sufficient to convince those that were willing to be taught and to condemn those that were obstinate in their unbelief; and, if this satisfy not, more would not.” [2]

Is God’s divine hiddenness the issue it’s often made out to be? Honestly, I don’t think so. The issue seems to be more about the attitude with which we approach evidence rather than any inactivity on God’s part. When we look at evidence, do we expect total proof, beyond all possible doubt, or adequate proof, beyond reasonable doubt? But even setting aside that question of our presuppositions, if the above biblical passages are any indication, then those who say they want God to prove His existence to them might do well to heed the old maxim “Be careful what you ask for; you just might get it.”

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1671, #194 (quote from 1958 English edition).
[2] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible in One Volume (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), p. 1630.
John 20:30-31, NASB – “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

The Fact Stands

St Peter and St John at the Beautiful Gate - Gustave Dore (small)Today I want to continue looking at the strong evidential nature of the Christian faith exemplified in the Bible. In Luke’s history called the Acts of the Apostles, he records that Peter and John went into the Temple one afternoon, when a beggar was being carried in to beg for money. [Acts 3] Seeing the two apostles, he asked them for money. But then he got something he never expected — healing. Peter said to him, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!”[3:6] Peter took his hand and pulled him up, “and immediately his feet and ankles were strengthened.” We are next told that the people saw the man walking, leaping, and praising God[3:8-9], and they took note that he was the lame beggar who used to beg for money there. They recognized the man and understood this was a big deal. So Luke records that the people came running up to Peter and John “full of amazement”.

At this point, Peter took the opportunity to preach an impromptu sermon. Not one to mince words, Peter explained that it wasn’t by their own power that they had healed the beggar, but only by the power of Jesus, whom the people had “disowned” and “put to death”, but whom God had raised from the dead, “a fact to which we are witnesses,” he says.[3:12-15] Peter balances his brutal honesty with grace though, and adds that he understands they acted in ignorance,  as did their rulers, and that this had to happen to fulfill God’s prophecies. Nevertheless, they should repent and return, for ignorance is still no excuse. The people responded to this clear evidence in front of them, coupled with the apostles’ eyewitness testimony as to the source of the miracle.[Acts 4:4] Their leaders, on the other hand, didn’t take so kindly to Peter’s chastisement: the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, had the temple guards come arrest Peter and John, and bring them to be interrogated the next day. When asked by the Jewish religious leaders by what power they had performed this apparent miracle, Peter again pulls no punches, and plainly tells them that it was in the name of Jesus, the one they had crucified, but God had raised up again. Luke goes on to write that “seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say in reply” to Peter’s rebuke. The fact of the matter was actually standing before them.

What was their decision then? They reasoned, “What shall we do with these men? For the fact that a noteworthy miracle has taken place through them is apparent to all who live in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it.”[4:16] Indeed, the man healed was over 40 years old [4:22] and had been lame from birth [3:2]. He was a regular sight at the temple and would’ve been known to any of the Jews there. And now he was walking, leaping, and praising God.[3:8-9] They certainly couldn’t deny that! But they still chose to reject the source of the miracle, ordering Peter and John to speak no more of this troublesome Jesus. But facts are indeed stubborn things, and Peter and John replied that, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” [4:19-20] Not some appeal to vague or subjective mysticism, this passage is filled with appeals to concrete observation, testimony, and good reasoning.

But there is another interesting part of this story. Our historian, Luke, records that as this tribunal observed the confidence of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and untrained men, they too were amazed, and “began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.”[4:13] Over this 3 month long series on evidential faith, we’ve looked at the biblical appeal to a well-founded faith based on evidence of observed miracles and eyewitness testimony and sound reasoning, but here we see another type of evidence – and a critical one at that: transformation. If you’re a Christian, does your life show the evidence of the Lord of all the universe living in you, renewing your mind, [Rom 12:2] sanctifying you[1 Cor 6:11], and transforming your life so that you may “like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior”[1 Pet 1:15]? The Pharisees’ recognition of the apostles’ closeness with Jesus is a sobering reminder for us that Christ calls us to be different from the world in a way that only He can accomplish. Long after those that were healed have died, and far from the scene of the miracles, where no direct witnesses were ever available to testify about them, our transformed lives should be an undeniable fact that stands up boldly to a skeptical world’s scrutiny.

Recommended reading: J.C. Ryle, “Holiness“.



“Now I Know”

"Jethro & Moses, as in Exodus 18" by James Tissot, 1902
“Jethro & Moses, as in Exodus 18” by James Tissot, 1902

The last couple of months, I’ve been going through the New Testament gospel of John highlighting examples of the evidential nature of faith that Jesus calls us to have. Rather than asking us to have “blind faith” as so many want to claim these days, He appealed to evidence and reason. Yet this is not limited to Jesus or even to the New Testament. Today, I want to take you back to the time of Moses, roughly 1446 BC. He was leading the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt to their current home in the Promised Land, when he had a visit from his father-in-law Jethro. While there visiting Moses, he sees that Moses is wearing himself out trying to micromanage everything, and proceeds to give him some very practical advice on leadership and delegation. He also gives some good advice on picking leaders that many would do well to heed in election years, but I digress.

However, prior to that is a narrative that I’ve read over before without noticing the significance of it. Exodus 18 starts by telling us that first “Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses and for Israel His people, how the LORD had brought Israel out of Egypt.” After he found Moses and the people of Israel camped in the wilderness, we read this account of Jethro’s visit with Moses:

“Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had befallen them on the journey, and how the LORD had delivered them. Jethro rejoiced over all the goodness which the LORD had done to Israel, in delivering them from the hand of the Egyptians. So Jethro said, ‘Blessed be the LORD who delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all the gods; indeed, it was proven when they dealt proudly against the people.'”

We’ve looked at several examples of people in the New Testament believing in Christ after seeing miracles with their own eyes. But you might ask if this really helps most of us who have never seen – and likely never will see – the sick miraculously healed and the dead raised to life again. But here in this Old Testament example, we have a different case. Jethro heard a report about the miraculous events that had happened in Egypt. Hardly surprising – even if people didn’t know all of the details, the leader of one of the main powers of the region (Egypt) had released a large portion of his slave population (the Jews) to leave his country, then chased after them, and then suffered a mysterious defeat such that his entire force perished and the slave population survived and continued their mass migration. Armies colliding and one getting destroyed might be par for the course, but the regional superpower setting out after a bunch of slaves should only only end one way. This was a noteworthy news event on the surface, and even more so once the full story was told.

So here we see that Jethro hears about what had happened, knows the main person involved in leading this mass exodus (Moses), seeks him out, hears the whole story from the eyewitness perspective of Moses, and becomes convinced by this testimony. This is the same procedure we use when we seek out the eyewitness testimony recorded for us in the various books of the letters and narratives compiled in the Bible. While we can’t directly cross-examine these long-dead witnesses like Jethro could have with Moses, we can still compare and contrast the different accounts with each other, with the archeological record, with external written records, and with basic principles of logic (for internal consistency and plausibility). When we do that honestly, the result will be the same as Jethro’s: “Now I know….”

Interpreting the Evidence

bloody-thumbprintThe last couple of months here have been devoted to chronicling the appeals to a faith grounded in evidence and reason in the Bible, rather than the “blind faith” many assume to be there. While I’ve highlighted miracles that Jesus performed to testify to His power and authority and deity, the Bible also records some skeptical responses that are worth examining. In John 12, Jesus has come to Jerusalem, ushered in with much fanfare as the people assumed He would be the conquering Messiah that would save them from Roman rule. But His plan wasn’t as shortsighted as that, so He proceeded to deliver some of His last public teaching before the Passover celebration where He would be crucified and resurrected to save people everywhere from their sin. John records that Jesus was troubled at this point, and asks, “What shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Thy name.” Then John writes that “There came therefore a voice out of heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.'” [John 12:27-28]

Now, I have heard some skeptics say that if God really wanted them – if He truly loved them – He would prove Himself by doing something extravagantly, unquestionably beyond any shadow of a doubt as to its miraculous origins. I’ve heard examples of making the clouds form the words “I am God” every day, or finding the equivalent of a “made by God” tag sewn into our DNA, or Jesus appearing on the capitol steps to perform on national TV whatever miracle a skeptic wants to see, like some call-in magic act. But here we have recorded a voice from out of thin air, in a time before recorded sound and loudspeakers, speaking not just a single random word, but a coherent compound sentence. And this isn’t just an isolated incident. The multitudes that had made a parade out of His entrance to the city and were listening to His teaching now are described as “the multitude who were with Him when He called Lazarus out of the tomb, and raised him from the dead [and] were bearing Him witness.” [John 12:17] They already had significant positive evidence to support His claims of deity. Now they were actually hearing a confirmation from heaven. But how did people respond? John records that “The multitude therefore, who stood by and heard it, were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, ‘An angel has spoken to Him.'” [John 12:29] As someone that’s always enjoyed watching storms, I can tell you that I’ve heard thunder in a lot of different variations, but never any that could be confused with a coherent, spoken sentence. And despite knowing people with some very deep, “booming” voices, I would not ever confuse their voice with actual thunder.

But that is the power of rationalization that the skeptic downplays. They can lament God not proving His existence to them (on their terms, at least), but they take an overly optimistic view of their own ability to look at evidence objectively when they do that. Just as the two groups described by John both heard the same sound, but interpreted it differently based on their presuppositions and biases, we also filter the evidence around us. If your views are founded on the idea that there is nothing, and can be nothing, beyond the natural world around us – that there can be nothing “above nature”, or supernatural – then you will necessarily explain away any contrary evidence with more and more ad hoc explanations.

Astronomers of Copernicus’s day had to come up with more and more convoluted explanations for such things as the observed retrograde motion of the planets in order to hold on to their model of the cosmos with the earth at the center. As long as they held on to that, they could never see how the evidence was better explained by the sun being at the center of the solar system. Likewise, as long as the skeptic  denies even the possibility of the supernatural, the evidence he asks for will always be labeled as simply thunder, or strangely coincidental cloud formations, or mysteriously well-designed but self-forming genetic code, or a magician’s illusions, no matter how unlikely these explanations may be. In science, this is called observer bias; there’s nothing wrong with the experimental procedure, or the equipment, or the measuring instruments, just the scientist interpreting the results. And that link in the observational chain is the most problematic. You can fix a faulty microscope, you can change the steps in an experiment; but if you don’t really want to know the truth, if “ignorance is bliss” in those areas of your life you guard closest, then that is a supremely difficult problem to overcome.

Maybe you’re a skeptic reading this. Maybe you think you just can’t believe any of the testimony recorded in the Bible. But one question you must ask yourself first is this: If Christianity were true, would I believe it?” [1] If the answer is “no,” then you have a case of observer bias, and it will always skew your interpretations of the evidence and keep you from ever finding the truth. If the answer is “yes,” then I want to encourage you that you’ve taken an important step, but only one step. Don’t be content to stop there.

[1] A hat tip to Frank Turek at CrossExamined for pointing out the significance of this simple question. Read more in his book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist.

He Is Risen!

The Incredulity of St Thomas - Matthias Stom - 1621My wife and I went to see the movie Risen this past weekend, about a (fictional) skeptical Roman Tribune investigating the claims of Jesus being risen from the dead. So this seems like an appropriate time to finish up our look at the evidential nature of the apostle John’s gospel with a look at some of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearances recorded there.

First off, we start John chapter 20 with Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s followers, reporting to John and Peter that the tomb is open and Jesus’s body has been taken. Peter and John ran to investigate for themselves. John got there first and looked in the tomb and could see the linen wrappings lying there. Peter rushed in and saw the wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth lying separately, rolled up in a place by itself. I like John’s attention to details in things like this. John then records that he entered the tomb, “and he saw and believed.” But he goes on to say that they “did not yet understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.” And so they went back to their homes, perhaps to try to make sense of what was happening, while Mary lingered at the garden tomb, weeping. And so it is that she becomes the first witness of Jesus after the resurrection. She came back to the disciples, telling them “I have seen the Lord,” and gave them a message from Him. That evening, Jesus suddenly appears before them, in the locked room they were gathered in, where He showed them both His hands and His side. This miraculous entrance and presentation of His mortal wounds left no question as to whether this was Jesus or not. Yet Thomas was not with them, so they joyfully proclaimed to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he didn’t believe them.

Whether “Doubting Thomas” deserves all of the bad reputation he has or not, he nevertheless famously responded that unless he personally saw the nail imprints and put his finger in the nail holes and his hand into the spear wound, he would not believe. He had Mary, John, and Peter’s testimony of the empty tomb. Granted, that could simply mean grave-robbing, or relocation, as Mary had first assumed. But then he had Mary’s testimony of seeing and talking with Jesus. Perhaps she was hysterical in her grief. But then the rest of the disciples had now seen the evidence Thomas specifically wanted, and reported it to him, and it still wasn’t enough.

I sympathize with Thomas in his desire for personal verification, but we all have to understand that we can’t verify everything directly. In fact, most things in life are such that we can’t directly verify them and have to accept the testimony of others, whether they be historians, or scientists, or eyewitnesses and subject matter experts in court, or simply friends that have been places and seen things we haven’t. Therefore, when Jesus reappeared in the locked room a week later, when Thomas was there, He reprimanded him for his unbelief. But first, He offered Thomas the evidence he had asked for: “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.” John doesn’t record for us whether Thomas followed through on his earlier statement, but I suspect he didn’t feel the need to once he was face to face with Jesus. What John does record is Thomas’s quite sensible response to Jesus: “My Lord and my God!”

At this point John records a verse that often gets taken out of context to try to say that Jesus prefers a “blind faith” to an evidential faith. Let’s look at verse 29 now: “Jesus said to him, ‘Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.'” Is that what Jesus means here? I don’t think so. Note that Mary thought the body had been taken until she saw Jesus herself. Note that John says he believed when he saw the scene in the empty tomb. Note that Jesus was now showing Thomas what He had shown the other disciples the week before that caused them to tell Thomas that they had unequivocally seen the Lord. I don’t think He was talking about the other disciples believing without seeing.

While the disciples were able to see the truth of Jesus’ claims directly, there are two groups of people prevented from believing on the basis of direct sight: those separated by space and time from the events. Everyone to whom the disciples were sent to testify, all over the world, could not directly see these things. All of us that have lived both before and after that time can not directly see them either. Yet the letter to the Hebrews, in the famous “faith chapter”, tells of saints like Abraham, living prior to Jesus, who trusted in God’s promises, “having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance.” [Heb. 11:13] And in Jesus’s “high priestly prayer” recorded in John 17, He prays to God the Father both for His disciples and “for those also who believe in Me through their word.” [John 17:20]

We use our minds every day to reason through competing possible explanations for events that we weren’t able to witness directly based on what we do know about them. We still have an evidential basis for our conclusions, just not complete enough to draw a conclusion without some reasoning. Just as a jury can become rationally convinced of the details of a crime without having seen it firsthand because of applying reason to the partial evidence they have, God can and does convince us through our minds as well as our senses.  And here in John 20:29, I would suggest that Jesus is simply stating the value of using the minds He has created us with to recognize His truth even when we don’t have all the answers yet.