Thursday, July 2, 2020
Faith and Evidence: What if I Don't Need Evidence to Believe?
In the first three parts of this series on faith and evidence, I thoroughly examined Old Testament and New Testament scriptures to demonstrate that Biblical faith is not “belief without evidence", but instead is a confident trust and hope based upon the evidence that God has revealed about his nature and his ability to protect and care for his people. Yet, some Christians may be thinking, “But I don’t need evidence to believe in God. I just have faith.” Even more, some Christians may believe that the desire or pursuit of evidence reveals unbelief. The purpose of this post is to address those concerns.
First, whether they are aware of it or not, I would claim that every Christian has at least three pieces of evidence that support their faith: the conviction of the Holy Spirit, personal experiences with God, and general revelation of God’s power and design through nature. The evidence of God’s invisible attributes through nature is something that we may not recognize overtly but is something that we absorb unconsciously from a very early age (See Romans 1:19-20). It has been demonstrated that young children, even children with secular parents and no exposure to religion, believe that the design seen in nature requires a creator.1 It appears that we have to outgrow this natural intuition to reject belief in God.
All Christians also have personal experiences that they can share about how Christ has transformed their life, brought them peace and freedom from guilt, or worked in providential or even miraculous ways in their life. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit ministers to every Christian, confirming the truth of the Christian worldview in their hearts. Jesus promised his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13). So, while I agree that Christians can have a sincere and genuine faith without any knowledge of apologetic arguments for the Christian worldview, all Christians do have some evidence for their faith.
However, I would also argue that two of these types of evidence, personal experience and the conviction of the Holy Spirit, are insufficient in demonstrating the truth of the Christian worldview to non-Christians. Some apologists have noted that there is a difference between “showing and knowing.” Through personal experience and the ministry of the Holy Spirit, I might have a very strong personal conviction or knowledge of the truth of Christianity, but it is difficult to use these experiences to show that truth to others.
Furthermore, followers of other religions also point to personal and spiritual experiences to support their beliefs. During a lonely season in college, I met with Mormon missionaries for a few sessions. In one of the very first meetings, they quoted the following verses: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:5-7). The message was that the Holy Spirit would confirm the truth of Mormonism to me if I asked God and did not doubt that he would answer my request. I ended up breaking off the meetings, but a few years later, when I was more established in my Christian faith, a friend and I met with Mormon missionaries to try to engage them in reverse evangelism. Predictably, the missionaries used the exact same verse to challenge us to ask God to reveal the truth of Mormonism in our hearts. My friend responded, “I did ask the Holy Spirit, and he told me that you’re wrong.”
Admittedly, our discussion with the Mormon missionaries was not very productive for either side, but the question remains, how do we discern truth when people from different religions claim to have personal and spiritual experiences that confirm their worldview? This is where additional evidence is beneficial. Let’s say a Christian, a Mormon, a Muslim, and a Hindu all claim to have personal and spiritual experiences that confirm their religious beliefs yet are open to examining their worldview. I think the best thing would be for each person to acknowledge that their experiences are real, but that personal and spiritual experiences can also be deceptive. The human heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9), so we need to be aware that our emotions and experiences can sometimes mislead us.
I also think each person should acknowledge that it is impossible for each person’s worldview to be true, since they make contradictory claims about the nature of reality. They could all be false, but they can’t all be true. Then, I would encourage the group to openly and honestly evaluate the historical, literary, archaeological, and scientific evidence supporting each worldview. In my opinion, the Christian worldview clearly comes out on top in this approach. The group would discover that there is no archaeological evidence confirming the accounts in the Book of Mormon, but there is substantial archaeological evidence confirming elements of the Old and New Testaments. They would discover that there is a robust historical case supporting the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, events that the Christian worldview affirms but that Islam denies. Scientific evidence indicates that the universe had a beginning, approximately 13.7 billion years ago, an event that points to an all-powerful, infinitely intelligent, personal creator outside of time, space, and matter. Such a description fits the description of God in theistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but does not fit pantheistic religions such as Hinduism or new-age movements, where the divine is found within creation itself. I think that such an investigation would lead the group to conclude that the spiritual experiences of the Christian are leading to truth whereas the other spiritual experiences are leading to deception. Such a conclusion would fit with the Biblical description of the spiritual realm, one in which the Holy Spirit leads to truth, but false spirits also seek to lead people into error.
In addition to guiding such discussions, evidence is also useful in answering the questions and doubts of people within the church, often youth. Survey data indicates that young people are leaving the church at an alarming rate. While sometimes they leave the church for emotional or experiential reasons, such as hypocrisy amongst believers or abuse within the church, often they leave because no one was able to answer their intellectual doubts.
In 2015, the Pew Research Center conducted a study of religious “nones” who were raised as members of a particular religion before shedding their faith in adulthood. Fifty percent of respondents said “lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many respondents who mentioned ‘science’ as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said ‘I’m a scientist now, and I don’t believe in miracles.’ Others reference ‘common sense,’ ‘logic’ or a ‘lack of evidence’ – or simply say they do not believe in God.”2
Consider, the following anecdotes atheists who formerly considered themselves to be Christians and were asked to explain why they no longer believed in God:
“I think I was around 9 or 10. I was reading the Bible…I didn’t read the whole thing, but the first 30-40 pages. I had a lot of questions in those few pages. A majority of the questions were answered with "you just need to have faith." If you cannot explain to me why things are the way they are, I do not believe what you say. Even as a kid, I could not chalk anything up to faith. There were also a lot of things I didn't agree with.”
“In my teens I started questioning. I would ask questions like "Why would God create a person that he knows will be evil and will go to hell?" I really enjoyed when the religion teachers had no answers. Still, fear made me stick with it. Eventually intelligence won out. I simply couldn't get religion to make any sense. Letting go of it was very freeing.”
“Every time I asked a question like where is a god or if he was real, why can't we see him? And the answers that I got back were, " He works in mysterious ways", just doesn't make any sense.”3
I want to say respectfully, yet boldly, that the responses of the Christians in these persons’ lives were not good enough. If your child, a friend, a family member, or a young person in the church comes to you with similar questions, you must be prepared to give a more substantial response than, “Well, you just need to have faith.” This doesn’t mean that everyone needs to major in apologetics, but I think that all believers should have an introductory level knowledge of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, evidence for the reliability of scripture, answers to the problem of evil and suffering, and scientific evidence for the theistic worldview.
When you don’t know an answer to someone’s question, it is okay to do some research and get back to that person later (but not too much later) or to direct them to another person in the church who is equipped to answer their questions. There are many great resources that Christians can access to build a foundational understanding of apologetics. A couple book recommendations are Talking with Your Kids about God or God’s Crime Scene. I have picked up a lot of knowledge listening to YouTube while I wash the dishes. I recommend checking out the following channels: Mike Winger, Capturing Christianity, Inspiring Philosophy, or Trinity Radio (though I recommend watching videos that feature Braxton Hunter. I find his occasional co-host to be a little bit too snarky).
While I think that each individual believer has the responsibility of pursuing basic apologetic knowledge, I also challenge the church to better equip the flock. In my opinion, pastors should regularly incorporate apologetic teachings into their sermons. Churches should make apologetics workshops and classes available to their members. Youth groups should not only teach their students evidence for the Christian worldview but should also equip them to share this information with their friends and in environments that are hostile to the Christian worldview. In this video, apologist J. Warner Wallace makes the point that instead of merely teaching our students, we need to train our students to defend the truth of the Christian worldview.
This post in no way minimizes the role of the Holy Spirit in leading people to faith in Christ. Ultimately, no amount of evidence is going to lead to saving faith unless the Holy Spirit convicts a person of their sin and their need of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It is the power of the gospel that leads to salvation, not the power of apologetic evidence, though God often uses evidence to overcome people’s intellectual objections to Christianity. It may be that you do not feel a strong need for apologetic evidence to bolster your faith in Christ. We are all wired differently, and many people are led to Christ through the sacrificial love shown by a Christian friend or personal experiences of God’s providential protection and provision. Yet, others are either led to Christ or prevented from leaving the church in part through evidential arguments and survey trends suggest that the American church is failing to answer the intellectual doubts and questions of our children. By investing in learning the robust apologetic evidence for the Christian faith, believers will be equipping themselves to “become all things to all people, that by all means [they] might save some.” (1 Corithians 9:22).
1) Barrett, Justin. Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs. Atria Books, 2012.
2) Wallace, J. Warner. “Are Young People Really Leaving Christianity?” Cold-Case Christianity. January 12, 2019. Retrieved from https://coldcasechristianity.com/writings/are-young-people-really-leaving-christianity/
3) “Atheists of Reddit, What Made You Leave Your Religion?” Reddit. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/csn64k/atheists_of_reddit_what_made_you_leave_your/