Biblical Faith, Evidence, and Reason
More than once now I’ve mentioned that faith as exemplified in the Bible is often based on evidences and on reason. I think it’s a good time now to show what I mean. Even though it means I’m planting two articles here in a row, it might help get us unstuck and moving forward again, which is worth it if it works. We could set aside some of what I said about the process in my previous article.
The paradigm cases of faith for Christians are those that are found in the Bible. If the Bible presents faith as belief disconnected from evidence or reason, then that’s what we all ought to take faith to be. If on the other hand there is faith in the Bible that is based on or supported be evidence and/or reason (from this point forward I will simply say “evidence”), then it is plainly not true that all faith is disconnected from evidence–not unless the Bible itself misuses and misconstrues the term faith. Since the faith that Christians endeavor to develop is biblical faith–faith as defined and exemplified in the Bible–it would hardly do to say that the Bible got faith wrong.
I do not mean to say that all instances of faith in the Bible are based on objective (third-party verifiable) evidence. We don’t know what it was that caused Abraham to believe, other than a direct personal encounter with God. (Later in his life God performed a miracle in the birth of Isaac.) I only mean to show that faith is often based on objective evidence.
So let’s look at some instances:
1. Moses. God appeared to him in a burning bush. That was evidence of God’s reality, which it was rational for Moses to accept. There was also at that time the demonstration of the rod turned into a snake. Based on that experience, Moses believed God and obeyed.
I must pause right away to address a possible objection: “Do you mean to say you think that really happened?! That’s evidence-free faith right there!” Yes, I do believe it happened, but you do not need to believe it yourself in order for the example to apply. You see, the question for now is not what happened in biblical times, but rather how is faith exemplified in the Bible? And here it is portrayed as the result of God convincing Moses through evidence. So clearly faith in God can be built upon evidence.
2. The people of Israel in the Exodus. God showed his reality to them through objective signs: the plagues on Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the production of water from the rock and manna from the sky, and so on. Moses implores the people to believe just on account of what they had seen:
“For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day, know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.
3. Gideon. In Judges 6 we see that God gave him evidence of his reality and of his guidance by way of the fleece.
4. Elijah and the people of Israel. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah prayed that it would be known that there is a God in Israel. It was in this very context that he set the stage for God to demonstrate that reality: the great burnt offering on Mount Carmel. In other words, the prayer was not that the people would take up belief in God for no reason at all; rather it was that God would show himself before them all.
5. The disciples of Jesus Christ. Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3, emphasis added).
6. Paul, and those who came to faith under his teaching. See for example Acts 19:8ff (emphasis added):
And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.
I could offer many more examples, but these should suffice to show that biblical belief is often (even if not always) built upon objective evidence. So as I have already said, I wonder if it might even be sufficient to allow us to move off of the sticking point, “faith is necessarily opposed to evidence and reason,” and on to more interesting question, such as: “Is there evidence and reason to support Christians’ faith today?” (That’s rather a broad topic for this forum, but it’s the general form of a more interesting question.)