Tag Archives: evidence

Communications from the Creator

engineering-plans 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

Black Diamond - for experts only...
Black Diamond – for experts only…

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.

First off, does someone trained in a particular discipline and working in that area have an advantage over the typical layman in discussing that topic? Certainly, but this doesn’t preclude other people from forming reasonably valid opinions on the same topic. For instance, if you want to know whether your office building can support a heavier rooftop air conditioning unit, by all means, call an engineer like myself to investigate that for you. We’ll apply our knowledge, experience, and specialized analysis software to your situation to work out the safest, best solution to the problem. But if you’re in your office, and the roof is starting to visibly sag, the sheetrock on the walls is starting to buckle inward, and you can hear loud noises as bolts suddenly snap, please, don’t think you need to wait on an “expert” to tell you that you need to get out! That situation doesn’t require an expert to say “Run!” There is a difference between needing the fine-tuned conclusion that a subject matter expert can bring to a topic and needing to establish the broad, basic solution that can be deduced by anyone applying valid reasoning to the evidence at hand. In the roof collapse example, it doesn’t really matter to the occupants whether the roof beams are failing due to lateral-torsional buckling or by block shear at the column connection. They can look at the ceiling getting closer to their heads, and listen to the building, and reasonably come to the same basic conclusion as the engineer: this building is collapsing and we need to evacuate. Likewise, you don’t need to be a psychologist to recognize the guy trying to run people off the road has some serious anger issues he needs to deal with. And lawyers, despite their expertise, actually don’t decide the guilt or innocence of a person charged with murder. They can only explain the case; average citizens on the jury make the decision.   This idea that only experts on a topic can speak on any level about that subject leads to blind faith in those experts, and is really a forfeiture of our responsibility to dig deep and understand the issues we face. Please understand, this is a standard I hold myself to as well. If you hire me as an engineer, and I make some crazy-sounding recommendation that I can’t explain any basis for, don’t blindly trust me either – by all means, call me out on it.

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

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.

Of Blood & Water

Golgota - Mihaly Munkacsy 1884Over the course of the last several posts, we’ve looked at the consistent appeal to evidence in the apostle John’s eyewitness account of the ministry of Jesus. Today, we come to the climactic scene of the crucifixion in John 19. Jesus had been arrested and tried in a kangaroo court during the dead of night in chapter 18. He had been brought before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to ensure the death penalty can be carried out. Despite his finding Jesus innocent and offering to release Him, the chief priests, in an attempt to manipulate Pilate and curry favor with Rome, had called out Pilate as “no friend to Caesar” if he released Jesus. And so Pilate gave in to their demands, and played a part in Jesus’ plan of atonement for all mankind in the process. So Jesus was crucified Friday morning. The Jewish Sabbath started at sundown, however, and the priests wanted to make sure the bodies of Christ and two robbers didn’t remain on the crosses past sundown. But that meant accelerating the asphyxiation process that typically killed crucifixion victims. So they asked Pilate to have the victim’s legs broken so they couldn’t push up with their legs to take a breath. Asphyxiation would follow quickly instead of dragging on for hours or even days as intended with crucifixion. But John recorded a little earlier that prior to this, Jesus had cried out, “It is finished!”, bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. Therefore, when the Roman soldiers came up to Him, they found Him already dead, hence breaking the legs would be unnecessary. Nevertheless, Roman soldiers were responsible for being sure that those sentenced to death really did die (or face death themselves), so one of the soldiers took a spear and thrust it up into the side of Jesus. And here John records an interesting statement: “immediately there came out blood and water. And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.”

Now, anybody who has ever had or even seen a bleeding injury, knows that it’s normal for blood to come out of a wound, but not water. What is John to do with this oddity? As Matthew Henry says in his commentary on this verse, “What a competent witness he was of the matters of fact. What he bore record of he saw; he was an eyewitness of it. What he saw he faithfully bore record of; he told not only the truth, but the whole truth.” [1] It would’ve been easy to tell most of what he saw, and leave out that puzzling detail. Indeed, down through church history, we see believers looking for how to interpret this observation. As Origen wrote in the 3rd century, “Now, in other dead bodies the blood congeals, and pure water does not flow forth.”[2]  Hippolytus also noted that “streams which flow not from dead bodies flowed forth from Him.”[3] John Chrysostom, Theodoretus, Cyril of Jerusalem,  and other Church fathers all noted the same basic observation, and theorized as to what “mystical”, symbolic intent John must have had.  maybe it was symbolic of Jesus being the source of eternal life like a spring of water. In the 4th century, Rufinus offered that the water might symbolize the washing of saints and the blood the condemnation of unbelievers, or that they symbolized baptism by water and by martyrdom. He also guessed that the wound in the side might symbolize a connection with how Eve was made by removing Adam’s rib. [4] Cyril of Jerusalem supposed that “Jesus, who came to bestow the grace of pardon on men and women alike, was pierced in the side for women”. [5]Jerome, writing in the 4th and 5th centuries, described the blood and water as the “twin emblems of baptism and martyrdom.” [6] While there may be symbolism that can be attached to this, John seems to be insisting that this is first and foremost true, literal, witness testimony. So which is it?

Now, with the advancements in medical knowledge of the last 1900 years, we know about the condition of pericardial and pleural  effusion, the collection of fluid around the heart and lungs, respectively. [7] Now, we don’t need to try to determine some purely symbolic meaning from this text. We can see that, indeed, John was simply recording accurately exactly what he saw, even if the physical phenomenon  wouldn’t be understood for centuries. But now, we are also left with a bigger question. If he would dutifully record what he couldn’t explain, emphasizing so carefully that he was speaking the truth about this evidence – and we now know it to be a legitimate and plausible explanation – doesn’t it stand to reason that he would be equally honest in the rest of his account? Perhaps we would do well to pay heed to all that John has recorded for us of the incredible life of Christ… and all that implies.


Unless noted otherwise, references to early church fathers are taken from The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene & Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection, edited by Philip Schaff, (Kindle E-Book, eISBN-13:978-1-78379-372-3, by Catholic Way Publishing, 2014).

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible in One Volume, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), p. 1622.
[2] Location 78414 (Origen, “Against Celsus”, Chapter 36).
[3] Location 94724 (The Extant Works and Fragments of Hippolytus, “Fragments of Discourse and Homilies”).
[4] Location 488643 (Life & Works of Rufinus, “A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed”).
[5] Location 545344 (The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, Lecture 13, “On the words, Crucified and Buried”).
[6] Location 530455 (The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 69, “To Oceanus”)
[7] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p.199.

“That You May Believe”

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles smallWorking our way through the apostle John’s testimony of the life of Christ the last few weeks, we’ve been seeing example after example of Jesus calling on people to believe in Him based on the evidence presented. He didn’t ask people to blindly accept this incredible story of God lovingly, mercifully reaching out to mankind in spite of our rejection of Him. Unlike the ravings of a lunatic claiming to be someone he’s clearly not, Jesus’ claims to be God were backed up with demonstrations of supernatural power.

Looking at the 13th through 15th chapters of John today, we read 3 more examples of Jesus appealing to evidence. John records Jesus telling His disciples that one of them would betray Him, and saying, “I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He.” [John 13:19] In the next chapter, He tells them of His eventual ascension and return to God the Father. Again he says, “now I have told you before it comes to pass, that when it comes to pass, you may believe.” [14:29] In both instances, He is telling them what will happen, and calling their attention to it, so that when it does come to pass, they will understand the significance of it. Another aspect here is that the Old Testament law had 2 tests regarding prophecy. If a prophet made specific prophecies that did not occur, then he was to be considered a false prophet and be put to death. [Deuteronomy 18:20-22] And if a prophet performed some sign or wonder to accompany his words, but his teaching was such as to lead the Israelites away from God to chase after other gods, then they were to not follow his teaching, even with the evidence of supernatural power accompanying it. In fact, they were to put him to death as well. [Deut. 13:1-4] False prophets were not taken lightly. Yet Jesus is effectively telling them, “Don’t believe me if I don’t pass the test. But when I do, believe.”

In chapter 15, Jesus is telling His disciples that the world will hate and persecute them because of Him, for the world hated Him first. Then He tells them, “If I had not done among them the works which no one did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” [John 15:24] Clearly, He is appealing to the nature of His miracles as condemning evidence against those who saw His works and rejected Him. These were not some parlor tricks or the cunning work of some traveling charlatan. These were genuine miracles – alterations of our material reality that are impossible without God, the author of this reality. But perhaps you might question the originality of His miracles. Doesn’t the Old Testament describe people like Moses and Elijah and other prophets also performing great signs? Didn’t Elijah even raise the dead?[1 Kings 17:17-24] How could Jesus say that no one else had done the works He did? Here’s the difference. The prophets were performing those miracles as agents of God, in His name, and only by His power. Jesus performed His miracles directly, not as appeals to God to act on His behalf, for He is God.

John wrote down for us another insight into the evidential nature of biblical faith when he recorded Jesus telling them, “you will bear witness also, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” [John 15:27] Why did Jesus want the disciples to be His witnesses to the world? Was it their eloquence? Their charisma? Their political connections? Their respected positions in society? Their education? These might all be attractive and useful qualities for someone wanting to start a worldwide movement. What mattered to Jesus was the same thing that matters in court: that an eyewitness actually be at the scene that he testifies about. And this is why it was these men – these dirty, poor, “unlearned” men – that were to be His witnesses. They had been eyewitnesses from the beginning, and could truthfully report what had happened.

In the end, we believe Christ’s story, not because it is comforting (though Jesus is our comfort), but because it is true. This has always been the emphasis in Christianity, and with good reason. If it’s not true, then why believe it? If it’s not true, then, as the apostle Paul himself would say, “we are of all men most to be pitied.” [1 Cor. 15:19]

The Case of Lazarus

Raising of Lazarus - Bonnat 1857Let’s continue last month’s series looking at the evidential nature of faith presented in the Bible. What evidence did Jesus present to people to recognize the truth of His claims to be God? In the 11th and 12th chapters of John’s eyewitness testimony, we read of one Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, two sisters who had been following Jesus. The sisters sent word to Jesus that this close friend was sick [11:3], yet Jesus says that “this sickness is not unto death, … but that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” John then makes an interesting sequence of statements in the next few verses. He tells us specifically that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in verse 5, but that when Jesus heard Lazarus was sick, “He stayed then 2 days longer in the place where He was.” [11:6] That doesn’t seem very loving at first glance. Indeed, when He finally does arrive, Lazarus has already been dead and in the tomb for 4 days. Others have been there consoling the sisters, but not Jesus. Martha and Mary, in separate conversations with Jesus on His arrival, both tell Him that “if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” [11:21, 32] There was probably some frustration on their part, having seen what Jesus had done for others, and wondering what could possibly have kept Him from arriving in time to heal their dear brother. Others, too, were asking why this man who had healed the blind couldn’t also have healed Lazarus. Valid question. John records the reason Jesus gave to His disciples on the journey there: “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” [11:15]

Healing Lazarus so he didn’t die at that time would’ve been a good result by human standards. But Jesus had in mind a far better result – raising Lazarus from the dead. He waited until there was no question about it. In fact, when he orders the stone to be removed from the entrance of the cave where Lazarus had been buried, Martha, ever the down-to-earth sister, points out that “there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” [11:39] Yet, when Jesus called Lazarus, he came out of the tomb, still bound in burial cloths. [11:45] Now, we need to stop and remember that this wasn’t an age of coroners and hospitals and funeral homes, and a whole chain of people that took care of the nitty-gritty reality of death for you. The family and friends gathered with Mary and Martha had likely helped prepare the body for burial, move the dead body to the tomb, and close up the tomb with this large stone. If you personally place a dead body in a tomb, or you watch it being placed in the tomb while there grieving with the family graveside, and then someone comes and  somehow makes that same, very dead man live again, you can’t deny that something incredible has just happened, and that He who brought your friend back to life is worth your undivided attention! John tells us that’s exactly what happened. “Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and beheld what He had done, believed in Him.” [11:46] Those present saw the evidence, recognized the validity of the evidence, and hence, the validity of Jesus’ claim to be God, and accepted that claim to be true.

John chapter 12 then tells how Jesus came back to Bethany, where Lazarus was, and John mentions that “Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Jesus.” Interestingly, he records that “the great multitude therefore of the Jews learned that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus whom He raised from the dead. But the chief priests took counsel that they might put Lazarus to death also; because on account of him many of the Jews were going away, and were believing in Jesus.” [12:9-11] Here again, we see the clear role of evidence. A living man that people saw die is tough to explain away. People had heard about Jesus healing people of different sicknesses, but this was a whole other level of miracle. And so they came to see for themselves this dead man now living. And now, people who hadn’t seen the actual event, but had talked to the once dead man, and the family members who had buried him, and the witnesses who had seen him raised up again – now these people were believing in Jesus as well. Hence, the chief priests’ idea to dispose of the evidence (i.e. Lazarus)  before this Jesus thing got out of hand. Yet trying to squash this or hush it up was like trying to unring a bell. As President John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”[1] The resurrection of Lazarus was an especially stubborn fact that unfortunately proved to be a stumbling block for the chief priests who despised Jesus. Don’t let it be a stumbling block for you.


[1] John Adams, “Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,” December 1770, from The Works of John Adams, Vol 1, (Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1856).