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 skepticĀ  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.

One thought on “Interpreting the Evidence”

  1. Good article!

    A few months back I read an atheist’s blog post in which he challenged Christians to produce just one verifiable miracle. I didn’t even respond, but spent a good bit of time conemtplating the phrase “verifiable miracle.”

    I see two types of miracles.

    First there are the every day miracles. The miracle of a baby’s birth…the miracle of a sunrise…the miracle of a rainbow…the miracle of a child’s laugh…the miracle of a friend’s smile. To me, these are no less miraculous for being common. To me, these everyday miracles are brief glimpses of God’s glory. However, I feel confident in saying the atheist who issued the challenge would disregard these as not being truly miraculous, simply because they occur with relative frequency and because we can offer some manner of scientific explanation of their origins.

    Second, there are the highly extraordinary miracles. The virgin birth…the resurrection from the dead…the voice from Heaven…the blind see…the lame walk. These are indisputably miraculous events. However, I expect the atheist who issued the challenge would disregard these as unverifiable. Which begs the question, unverifiable by whom? These events were all verified by multiple eyewitnesses and faithfully recorded. However, because he cannot personally verify them, the verification by others is considered insufficient.

    And there is the fundamental issue. Any event that can be readily duplicated, no matter how miraculous (such as conception of a child) is disregarded as not miraculous enough. Any event that cannot be readily duplicated for the specific benefit of the doubter is disregarded as not being sufficiently verifiable. It’s circular reasoning.

    Even duplicatable events that we cannot explain, such as the quantum properties of light, because they are verifiable are assumed to be non-miraculous and something that we will someday be able to explain through more study, even though we don’t understand them now.

    It’s a debate that cannot be won…because the circular reasoning of the doubter finds a way to shut out all possibilities of the miraculous…even those that are both verifiable and unexplainable.

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