Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Role of Proof and Evidence in Christianity

Faith is often separated from the reasons-for-faith and is left without support. Here’s one example: “The Bible is about proclamation and not proof.” Similarly, we hear, “Nobody comes to the faith through argumentation, but rather, the work of the Spirit.”

Indeed, salvation is the work of the Spirit, but He uses various human means like preaching, friendship and reason. Sadly, dismissing reason and argumentation is common in many churches, although justification for this is lacking. However, some voices are raising the alarm. Troy Anderson writes about the positive impact of Lee Strobel and other apologists:

Although Strobel and others are appealing to the intellect, people are responding with their hearts. Strobel says the recent [atheistic] aggression against the faith has provided a great opportunity to present Christ to non-Christians. Strobel is convinced apologetics helps bring people to God. He notes that more than 700 made professions of faith during his last book and speaking tour. Many people have a spiritual sticking point—a tough question about the faith. And once they find an answer, Strobel says, it often turns out to be the last barrier between them and God.

The Apostle Paul would have agreed. His tools-of-the-trade included reason, persuasion, and evidences to win people to Christ (Acts 17:2-4; 18:4; 28:23). If we want to win the ear of educated people, we have to be able to speak in a language that is meaningful to them—evidences and proofs. Christianity has to seem at least somewhat credible before they will give it a hearing. In the same issue of Christianity Today, apologist and debater, William Lane Craig, reasons:

• It is the broader task of Christian apologetics…to help create and sustain a cultural milieu in which the gospel can be heard as an intellectually viable option for thinking men and women. It thereby gives people the intellectual permission to believe when their hearts are moved.

Argumentation and evidences are not just for the unbeliever; they are also for the believer and serve to strengthen our entire life in Christ. Jesus counseled His followers to not believe in Him without corroborating evidences:

If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid. There is another who testifies in my favor, and I know that his testimony about me is valid. You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth….I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. (John 5:31-37)

Jesus was simply following the Old Testament requirement that everything had to be established by at least two witnesses (Deut. 19:15) or evidences. This does not suggest that His Word is insufficient (John 8:14-18; Gen. 1) or that its saving power is limited (John 6:63; 3:16). Instead, Jesus was highlighting our vulnerability to deception and our resulting need for corroboration (1 John 4:1; 1 Thess. 5:21) and warned that, without confirmation, we are liable to mistake something fleshly for the witness-of-the-Spirit (Mat. 7:15-16).

There is nothing illegitimate or contrary to faith about seeking proof. The Bereans were commended because they didn’t just believe Paul’s word but sought confirmation (Acts 17:11). Indeed, the entire Bible is about evidence and proof. God held Israel accountable because they had all the evidence in the world, and yet rebelled. Therefore, Moses concluded that Israel was without excuse:

Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other (Deut. 4:34-35).

Knowing God wasn’t simply a matter of intuition and feeling; it was based on hard evidence. God had been angry with Israel, not because they couldn’t muster up enough courage to take a leap into the darkness of belief, but because they had every reason to believe and still refused:

He did miracles in the sight of their fathers in the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan. He divided the sea and led them through; he made the water stand firm like a wall. He guided them with the cloud by day and with light from the fire all night…But they continued to sin against him, rebelling in the desert against the Most High…When the LORD heard them, he was very angry…for they did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance (Psalm 78:12-17, 21-22).

Israel was guilty because they knew better. They had proof, but they rejected it, refusing to believe. Trusting God was never a matter of gritting one’s teeth and forcing belief, but a willingness to acknowledge and honor the God who was so manifestly present. Likewise, unbelief is not the product of a lack of ability, but a lack of willingness. When Israel rebelled against God at Kadesh Barnea and wanted to return to Egypt (Num. 14:4), it wasn’t because God hadn’t given them enough reasons to support their faith:

Then the LORD said to Moses: "How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them (Numbers 14:11)?

Jesus just as generously provided reasons-to-believe. He allowed Lazarus to die in order to show off “God’s glory” (John 11:4) by raising him from the dead. He performed many miracles so that the observers would believe. Even His resurrection provided “many convincing proofs” (Acts 1:3; Mark 16:20) to His then faithless, deserting disciples. The very existence of the Church rests upon proofs and assurances that Christ lives. He also prophesied so that His disciples would believe once those things came to pass (John 14:28-29).

In contrast to this, a respected theologian wrote,

God is simply not an empirical hypothesis which can be checked out by the scientific method. As Stephen Jay Gould and others have insisted, the natural sciences are not capable of adjudicating negatively or positively on the God-question.

• Any worldview—atheist, Islamic, Jewish, Christian or whatever—ultimately depends on assumptions that cannot be proved. Every house is built on foundations, and the foundations of worldviews are not ultimately capable of being proved in every respect. Everyone who believes anything significant or worthwhile about the meaning of life does so as a matter of faith. We’re all in the same boat.

Ironically, these denials of Christianity’s proof-claims lack proof themselves. Never once did McGrath provide any rationale for his dogmatic claims. Instead, proof is essential to our life in Christ and is also available. Even John the Baptist, the pre-Cross strong-man, required evidential confirmation. As he languished in prison prior to his martyrdom, he sent his disciples out to Jesus to ascertain if Jesus was truly the Messiah. He needed reassurance, and Jesus provided it:

• Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor
(Matthew 11:4-5).

Note that Jesus didn’t respond, “the foundations of worldviews are not ultimately capable of being proved in every respect. Everyone who believes anything significant or worthwhile about the meaning of life does so as a matter of faith” as did McGrath. Nor did He say, “Tell John to just believe!” Instead, He provided evidences. True faith isn’t a plunge into the darkness, but a step out into the light of reasons-to-believe.

I don’t want to devalue the ordained, yet painful struggles of faith. However, I want to encourage the believer that there is a solid rational foundation upon which to rest our faith. Consequently, we need not divorce our minds from a life of faith to find solace. We need not fear that the conclusions of honest rational seeking will undermine our childlike faith before our Savior. Heart and mind must be united if we are going to live transparently, authentically, and non-defensively. It is when our minds aren’t prepared with reasons for our hope (1 Peter 3:15) that we become defensive and must live in the shadows. Even if we ourselves don’t see miracles, the eye-witness accounts themselves constitute weighty evidence, according to John 20:30-31.

The world tells the Christian that (s)he has no right to try to convert others and that it’s the height of arrogance to suggest that our experiences with the Divine are any more valid than theirs. And they are correct! If we lack objective evidences and proofs and nevertheless attempt to say that we’re right and they’re wrong, we are worse than arrogant. We are insensitive and dismissive of the lives, experiences and commitments of others.

If we can’t make provable claims about our faith, then Joseph Hough, the former president of Union Theological Seminary is right in saying,

Religion is something that we human beings put together in our effort to give some cultural form to our faith. Religion, our rituals, our music, even our theology, is a human attempt to express what we have experienced…Therefore we want to be careful about claiming that one religious form is the only one that is authentic or real.

Hough expects his readers to believe that we are limited to our subjective religious experiences without any provable facts. If this is so, then he’s right, and we shouldn’t claim that ours is the real thing.

Evangelism only makes sense if we can say that Christ has not only changed me—for people of other religions also make this claim—but also that “Christ is truth, and here are the reasons to support our claim!”

We have been called on to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind (Mat. 22:37). We can’t fulfill this command if we’re lazy and dismiss evidences as irrelevant.

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