# Lest We Forget What God Has Done

As we have just celebrated Palm Sunday, and are looking forward to Easter next Sunday, I am reminded of the strong historical emphasis in the Bible. Why is that significant? Let’s work through that today.

Palm Sunday is the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while people honored Him like a king by putting their cloaks and palm branches in the road before Him [Mt 21:8]. Good Friday commemorates the day later that week that Jesus was crucified and buried [Jn 19:41-42]. Easter, or Resurrection Sunday, is the day He rose from the dead, accomplishing the mission He came here for [Mk 16:1-8]. Notice that these are all public, rather than private, events. For instance, when Moses beheld the burning bush in the desert, and heard God speaking to him from it, that was a private event; Moses was the only human there to tell what happened. However, God later confirmed that He was working through Moses via some very public events in Egypt in the form of the plagues He brought on the Egyptians. And while the Bible records a variety of private events like dreams and visions, it is interesting how often God points us back to public events that could be confirmed by multiple witnesses as testimony of His trustworthiness in the present and future. For instance, the apostle Paul refers to the Resurrection as having provided proof to all men that Jesus is the one chosen by God to judge the world [Ac 17:31]. And as Paul told King Agrippa at his trial, these things weren’t “done in a corner” [Ac 26:26]. Indeed, Paul writes to the Corinthian church listing the various witnesses of Christ, and mentions the fact that over 500 people saw Him at one time after His resurrection, many of whom were still alive at that time [1Co 15:3-8]; his readers could fact-check him if they wanted. The apostle John consistently refers to the fact that he and the other disciples had been present during Jesus’ life, and had witnessed His message and His miracles [Jn 19:34-35, 21:13-14, 1Jn 1:1-3]. Luke wasn’t a direct witness, but sought to compile a more orderly account of all the initial eyewitness reports of what happened [Lk 1:2-3], and noted that the witnesses had seen, heard, and touched Jesus after the Resurrection (i.e. Jesus was alive in the flesh and not simply a ghost or vision) [Lk 24:37-43]. And God Himself repeatedly pointed the Israelites back to the historical fact that He had miraculously rescued them out of Egypt [Ex 20:2, Lv 11:45, De 7:8, Am 2:10, etc]. In fact, He established a yearly ritual (the Feast of Unleavened Bread) to remind them of this Passover event [Ex 12:14, 25-27]. Later, when Joshua led them across the parted Jordan River, he had a monument erected with stones from the bottom of the river specifically to remind their descendants of what God had done for them in the past [Jos 4:6-7].

Why is the distinction between private and public events important? Private events depend on the truthfulness of the one recounting the event, while their account of a public event can be refuted by other witnesses if it doesn’t correspond with reality. For instance, Islam hinges on Mohammad actually being visited by an angel while he was alone in a cave. Mormonism depends on Joseph Smith actually being visited by an angel. Appealing to the actual occurrence of historical events is problematic for scammers (such as Smith’s supposed “Reformed Egyptian” that he tried claiming he had translated), but not for those telling the truth.

So, as we Christians have just celebrated one historic event and prepare to celebrate the turning point of all human history, I am grateful that God has established a public record to remind us of His actions throughout history. While there is revelation given to certain individuals directly in the Bible, God also often provided public signs and miracles to attest to the authenticity of their prophecies. We memorialize things with monuments so that we “never forget”, and God has likewise set up a string of historical events to serve as markers of His faithfulness – monuments to remind us lest we forget what God has done.

# Closed-Form Solutions & the Case for God

I was recently watching a series of classroom videos on Finite Element Analysis (FEA), and the professor mentioned that FEA is not a classical closed-form solution, but rather an iterative, open-form solution. What on earth does that mean, and how could it possibly relate to looking at the case for God? Let’s work through that this week.

First, let me give some background so you can maybe see why a nerd like me would make that connection. A closed-form solution, in this context, is where you can simply solve an equation  to find the unknown variable. For instance, in my practice of structural engineering, the deflection of a cantilever beam may be something I need to know as I’m sizing the beam. If the beam conforms to certain assumptions like a constant cross section, constant material stiffness, a uniform load, and so forth, I have a simple equation: $\Delta = \frac{wL^4} {8EI}$. If it’s a concentrated load at the end, there’s a slightly different equation. These equations are each derived from beam deflection theory for a specific boundary condition, like a cantilever, or a simple span beam, and they provide exact answers. We engineers like exact answers. It’s nice to be able to say “this beam will only deflect 1.21 inches under that load, which is still acceptable.” I like closed form solutions because they are directly solvable for the variable I’m looking for, but sometimes, even with tables of equations for dozens of different conditions, there are no closed-form solutions, or they are too complex to use, or it would take a while to derive the equation from scratch. An open-form solution like the approximation methods used in FEA is iterative and relies on the results of previous attempts. FEA models a component like a beam with lots of little pieces that can each respond differently, so I’m not quite as limited by simplifying assumptions. Think of a beam made out of lots of LEGO® bricks.  Each brick (a “finite element”) is connected to multiple other bricks, and the total strength of the beam depends on the behavior of all of those individual connections. In general, the smaller the bricks, the more accurately you can represent the beam. But as the number of LEGO® bricks increases, the time to calculate all of those interconnections increases exponentially. That type of solution gets complex pretty quickly, and requires a computer for any problem worth solving. But it also doesn’t produce an exact solution. It iterates, or repeats the calculations with different input values until the successive estimates begins to converge. In other words, it runs through the thousands of equations over and over until the results aren’t changing much with each pass, and are within a tolerance the user sets for what is “close enough”. And what is “close enough”? That’s going to vary with the user and the type of problem being solved. Also, another engineer could try solving the exact same problem with a different mesh size (i.e. bigger or smaller LEGOs) and arrive at different results since it’s not just the beam properties that determine the answer now, but the modeling choices like mesh sizes, convergence tolerances, and iteration method.  So why would I want to use a complicated, inexact, and sometimes difficult to verify process like that? FEA lets me solve things I couldn’t otherwise. Some problems get far outside the simplifying assumptions of our various formulas, and FEA (done correctly), is the best option for finding a solution, even if it isn’t exact.

# Are You Certain About That?

Certainty about something brings a sense of security, but is certainty possible in matters of belief? Skeptics often recoil at the confidence Christians have in knowing that God exists, that the Bible is His message to us, and that His way is the only acceptable way to live. The nerve of those Christians! How arrogant to express such certainty about such things! Can we be “absolutely certain” of things like the existence of God, life after death, and so forth? Or are they like childhood beliefs in Santa Claus that will be seen through inevitably? Let’s work through that today.

To an extent I will grant the skeptic their case against absolute certainty, although probably not for the reason they might hope. True “absolute” certainty is only possible with exhaustive, comprehensive knowledge.[1] However, that is called omniscience, and only God possesses it. Therefore, technically, I would say absolute certainty exists but is impossible for us mere mortals, finite as we are. However, it’s “all in who you know”, as they say, and I would offer that the Christian doesn’t need to possess that ultimate level of certainty because he knows the One who does. God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, said, “I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure'” [Is 46:9-10]. I know the Writer of this grand play, so whether or not I know how the next scene will unfold, I can be certain of how it ends (spoiler alert: God wins), and I can rest easy in that knowledge. As Dr. Douglas Groothuis said, “we can live wisely within ignorance if it is bracketed by knowledge.”[2]

Now, I said I would grant the skeptics their rejection of absolute human certainty, but does this mean that I don’t think Christians can be “certain” about the One whom they have staked their life on? Hardly. Absolute certainty comes with complete knowledge, which is God’s alone, but knowledge is something we may possess to varying degrees, just as we may be loving or merciful or holy to a degree, while God possesses all these attributes perfectly. Just because we aren’t perfectly loving like God, doesn’t mean we can’t understand and demonstrate love to a great degree. Likewise, we may have a more than sufficient confidence about various things in life, even if we can never attain absolute certainty. How certain can we be of things? I would suggest that our certainty is proportional to the authority from which we receive our information. For instance, if you were looking for information on finite element analysis for structural design (an interest of mine), and your choices were between me and Edward Wilson, you would hopefully go with Wilson, one of the key figures in the development of that analysis method. You could have far greater certainty in the veracity of his statements than mine given that he really did “write the book” on that now-common method of analysis. You could have more confidence in my statements on the subject the more I referenced legitimate authorities on the subject like him, or demonstrated that my statements matched up with cold, hard reality via testing or logical necessity. The closer we get to legitimate authority on a subject, the closer we get to certainty about it. The closest I can get to absolute certainty in life is when I rely on the all-knowing Author of life itself.

Of course, if it were just a matter of knowledge of data, I could misinterpret the data, just as 2 scientists can look at the same data and interpret it quite differently depending on the assumptions they bring to the table. However, it’s not data we have come to know, but rather a personal, relational Creator who knew us better than we know ourselves before we were even born. And He has set His Holy Spirit in us [Gal 4:6] as a testimony [Rom 8:16], a seal [2Co 1:22], and a pledge [2Co 5:5, Eph 1:14]. This is why the apostle Paul could speak so forcefully when he stated, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.” [2Ti 1:12] This is why John summed up his purpose in writing his first letter thusly: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” [1Jn 5:13] This assurance for the Christian comes not from turning a blind eye to evidence the skeptic thinks contradicts our beliefs, but rather from “Christ in you, the hope of glory” [Col 1:27], and that is a hope that does not disappoint [Rom 5:5] .

Am I absolutely certain that God exists and the Bible is His true revelation of Himself to us, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Due to my finitude, I would say I can’t be absolutely certain of that. But I would also say that I’m far more certain of those things than I am of my sitting here in front of a computer typing these words. I could be in a coma right now dreaming about blogs and office deadlines and commuting and all the other thousand little things in what I consider my daily life, living out my own little version of The Matrix. But even in that extreme case, when all of the external world around me is questionable, I still have the evidence of His Spirit in me, and I still know that God necessarily exists, that His Word endures forever, and that “my Redeemer lives”! And I’ll take that degree of certainty, absolute or not,  over anything else this world has to offer. Blessings, y’all.

[1] h/t to Bruce Waltke, in his lecture series on the Book of Proverbs, featured on www.biblicaltraining.org for this insight. See his lecture, “Hermeneutica Sacra“.
[2] Douglas Groothuis, Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness – A Philosopher’s Lament (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2017), p. 49.

# Communications from the Creator

Today I want to offer a modest proposal: that God acting in human history is a reasonable possibility. What I offer here is by no means a “proof”, in even the loosest sense of the word, of the existence of the personal, relational, God of Christianity. But it is, I hope, something that opens the door to possibilities you might have dismissed out of hand in the past.

I’ve heard some very intelligent people through the years say they could agree to the need for a Creator or Supreme Being to “get things started”, but the idea of a personal, interacting God as Christianity describes is a bridge too far for them. This conviction may be due to the fine-tuning of the universe or the amazingly precise information management system of our DNA, or from the recognition of the implications of the law of causality and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This idea that God is a distant “Watchmaker” who wound up the universe and and walked away is typically known as deism, but this is not what the Bible advocates. In fact, the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes “And without faith it is impossible to please Him {God}, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”[1] There are two requirements listed here: 1) accept the fact that God does indeed exist, and 2) accept that God will respond to our seeking. In other words, God is not the uninterested, detached god of deism, but rather one who interacts in human history.

We see so much apparent design in our natural world, that we have to ask if there was a designer. And if there was, would that designer leave any kind of message to convey intent regarding his “product”? You can review some of the reasons for believing in a Creator/Designer based on the Teleological Argument (or the argument from design) here, but this really doesn’t take us past the the idea of basic theism, that some god exists. It may be one or more gods; it may be a god who did indeed get the universe started, but who no longer exists for some reason; or it may be that deadbeat god of deism who gets things started and walks away.

Seeing design aspects in nature, I tend to think of God’s designs in terms of engineering. As an engineer, when I design a building, I invest myself in that design. I care about what happens to it. And so I write instructions pertaining to various stages of its lifecycle. A project will typically have sheets of “general notes” on our drawings, and sometimes hundreds or thousands of pages of project specifications.  All of this is to detail what’s acceptable and what’s not in terms of construction materials, building loads and uses, acceptable substitutions, and so on. I don’t just say, “Make it work,” and leave the contractor to guess how to meet the building requirements without any instructions. I’m not going to design a mezzanine and tell the client, “Here’s a mezzanine design for your warehouse, but I’m not going to tell you if it’s rated for a 300 psf load capacity or only 50 psf. Don’t worry – you’ll figure it out pretty quickly once you start stacking boxes on it. If it starts sagging, you’ve exceeded my design.” That would be crazy. When we go to the effort to design something, we try to leave instructions regarding our intent for its proper use. The more complex the design, the more important the instructions are. It seems reasonable to me that if God exists, and put so much incredible planning into this universe, this world, and us as humans, He would provide some “documentation,” so to speak. Now, we have a collection of documents – the Bible – that does, in fact, claim to be a message from this Creator, addressed to His creation.

But how could one know if such a book really is what it says it is? There are a couple of ways. One is to check the accuracy of statements made in it that we can confirm historically and archeologically. If we find its record of history confirmed independently, through other sources, then we are warranted in trusting it to some degree.  In this, the Bible has been confirmed repeatedly. Many things mentioned in the Bible aren’t recorded elsewhere, though. Or if they were, those corroborating sources have been destroyed or are yet to be found. However, when we find archeological evidence for the truth of the biblical records,  in the absence of outside sources, that is a powerful piece of evidence in favor of the Bible. For while we might say that biblical authors were simply copying from their contemporary authors (and so of course they matched up), finding an actual town or a monument to a king or ruler that no other sources besides the Bible ever mentioned is very hard to refute. This has also been been the case with the Bible on multiple occasions. So we have a collection of writings from multiple authors spanning well over a millennium that presents a coherent, historically accurate, archeologically-verified record of events. But it also claims that all of this is due to the divine inspiration of its writers by the all-knowing Creator of the universe, and that He used them to convey His message to humanity. That would explain the historical reliability of it in its accounts of natural history. So could it be telling the truth in its record of supernatural history as well? When Luke records the minutest details about people and places visited, and these are repeatedly confirmed, should we not at least entertain the possibility that he may be telling us the truth when he records miracles as well?

Secondly, there is the issue of prophecy. Anyone who has ever watched the weather forecast knows that it is extremely difficult for us humans to predict events even a few days in advance. Yet the Bible contains prophecies that were made hundreds of years in advance of their fulfillment. While some prophecies might be vague enough to be rationalized, I want to point out one I’ve always found particularly interesting in its specificity. Isaiah 44 and 45 record a prophecy that a specific king named Cyrus would set the captives free, restore Jerusalem, and rebuild the Temple there, without asking for payment or reward. This was fulfilled 150 years later when Cyrus, King of Medo-Persia, allowed the Jewish captives to return to Israel and rebuild their city and the Temple, and even provided them with money to purchase building materials. Predicting the name of a future foreign ruler generations in advance is beyond any natural human abilities and does speak to the supernatural inspiration of the Bible.

In summary, I think the corroborating historical records and archeological evidence, combined with fulfilled prophecy, point to the legitimacy of the Bible’s claim of divine inspiration. And if it is divine communication, then this is truly the most important message ever put into human language, and it is incumbent on all of us to study it relentlessly. For in so doing, we learn not only of a God powerful enough to create a perfectly-planned, finely-tuned universe out of nothing, but also of a God who loves each of us more than we can ever understand, enough that He entered into human history to offer reconciliation and redemption to a rebellious and ungrateful humanity. And that, my friend, is the God I serve.

[1] Hebrews 11:6.
[2] Isaiah 44:24-28 & 45:1-13.

# Qualifications

There is a trend I’ve noticed in debates (especially online) where it is put forth that who you are disqualifies you from making any statement on a controversial issue. Those familiar with logic will recognize this as the genetic fallacy, that a statement’s origin can determine whether it’s true or false. And yet it persists in the public square. Here are some examples, some of which I’ve been personally challenged with: you can’t speak about human behavior unless you’re a psychologist; you can’t speak about science without being a scientist; you can’t speak about abortion unless you’re a woman; you can’t speak about legal issues unless you’re a lawyer, and on and on. Since this is often brought up, let’s look at this in more detail.

Something else to consider is that amateur enthusiasts often develop extensive knowledge in those areas that attract them. For example, I don’t often have to deal with liquefaction as a design consideration, but someone whose house collapsed in an earthquake because it was built on susceptible soil may devote their life to learning everything they can about liquefaction mitigation. Even though they may not have the engineering credentials that I do, I might still do well to heed what they say about that topic. I’d want to verify how they arrived at their conclusion, but we should never discount someone’s statements simply because of the person making the statements. You see, ultimately, the objective nature of truth determines the validity of the message, not the qualifications of the messenger.

Often, when I get this kind of pushback, the person I’m debating ironically also doesn’t meet the qualifications they demand of me before I can speak on the topic. By their own standard, they shouldn’t be voicing their opinion either. But typically, this is just a tactic for attempting to shut down the conversation. For example, one time, an abortion supporter told me I couldn’t comment on anything about abortion because I wasn’t a woman. And yet, the Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of abortion in 1973’s Roe v. Wade case were all men. The difference? Only that they were agreeing with her position.

Are we free from the duty of making informed decisions? Can we just “leave that to the experts?” Can we ignore the claims of those who aren’t experts? Not as Christians, we can’t. The Bible tells us to “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”[1] That may surprise some who assume the Bible demands a “blind faith” or a “leap in the dark”, but we actually aren’t allowed to check our minds at the door. We need to study the evidence, reason through the implications, and make the wisest, most discerning choices we can, in whatever the matter is at hand, even if we’re not experts.

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:21, NASB.

# Hiddenness

I 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, 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

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”.

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.

# “Now I Know”

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

The 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!

My 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.