Is unbelief really the result of a lack of evidence? On the face of this debate it appears that the whole thing boils down to proof and evidence, but actually it is not that simple.
Consider the following passages: Exodus 5:1-4; 7:8-13; 8:16-19, 31, 32; 9:7, 34, 35; 11:9, 10
I’ll give you the short version: they’re all in reference to Pharaoh (an unnamed pharaoh of Egypt) in the Exodus narrative. These verses switch back and forth between statements where Pharaoh “hardens his heart” or God in some way hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
In the light of these Bible passages, we are forced to ask ourselves: Was a lack of evidence the real issue with Pharaoh? Pharaoh had ample evidence to convince him of God’s existence, but this evidence wasn’t enough to soften his heart and lead him to repentance. He needed something more than evidence.
Consider the following passages: John 2:13-19; 6:30; Matthew 12:38-42
The short version of these texts is that they refer to the leaders in the religious authority of Jesus’ day. Just like the previous reference, we find lack of acceptance, but not because of a lack of evidence.
David Asscherick had the following to say about these two stories:
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had abundant evidence, much of it miraculous, to demonstrate the truth of Jesus’ Messianic identity. For example, Jesus miraculously fed thousands of people on at least two occasions, He publicly healed the sick, the blind, the paralyzed, He raised Lazarus from the dead, and was Himself resurrected from the dead after which he appeared to hundreds of people. Yet here again we see that evidence alone did not solve the problem of unbelief. As with Pharaoh, seeing was not believing.
Why might this be? Because often our worldview determines what we are allowed to see and accept as evidence. If the atheist insists that God doesn’t exist, then virtually no amount of evidence could convince him otherwise. Any evidence that would seem to point in the direction of God’s existence would likely be reinterpreted in the light of his conviction about God’s nonexistence.
By way of example, the Pharisees knew that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, therefore all of His miraculous works had to be either discounted or explained away. “But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons’” Matthew 12:24 (ESV). Apparently, evidence alone could not convince them.
They needed what we all need: a change of heart. This, as we shall see, is the issue.
Simply put, a lack of evidence is not usually the hampering issue for a person who desires to persist in unbelief.
Francis Bacon once quipped, “God never wrought a miracle to convince Atheism, because His ordinary works convince it.” As challenging as it may be to say it, the issue is not always the existence or availability of evidence, but the suppression of it. As the saying goes, “The heart of the matter, is a matter of the heart.”
Ellen White even went as far as to say:
Disguise it as they may, the real cause of doubt and skepticism, in most cases, is the love of sin. The teachings and restrictions of God’s word are not welcome to the proud, sin-loving heart, and those who are unwilling to obey its requirements are ready to doubt its authority. In order to arrive at truth, we must have a sincere desire to know the truth and a willingness of heart to obey it. And all who come in this spirit to the study of the Bible will find abundant evidence that it is God’s word, and they may gain an understanding of its truths that will make them wise unto salvation.
Christ has said, “If any man willeth to do His will, he shall know of the teaching.” John 7:17, R.V. Instead of questioning and caviling concerning that which you do not understand, give heed to the light that already shines upon you, and you will receive greater light. By the grace of Christ, perform every duty that has been made plain to your understanding, and you will be enabled to understand and perform those of which you are now in doubt. Ellen White, Steps to Christ, p.111
Sadly, people don’t always need to look for reason in Scripture to doubt God’s existence. The way many Christians debate and argue over seemingly inconsequential matters does a great job at that. Commenting on the state of modern Christianity, Francis Chan said, “We live in a time when Christians need to be told that they are supposed to live like Christ. That’s weird.”
Collectively, we must ask ourselves, “Are we living according to what we believe?” We can’t change others, but we can all govern our own lives. That’s where we must begin.
Going back to the point at hand, and to continue David Assherick’s thoughts on this:
Yes, people do give and have intellectual reasons for their unbelief, but the Bible gives evidence that heart of skepticism is more moral, not intellectual…The person may then choose to advance a host of intellectual arguments. These may serve to mask the deeper issue and hide it from others and even, sometimes, from oneself.
Now, before anything else, I realize that this is circular reasoning (using Scripture to justify a position about itself) but keep in mind that this blog was written originally as a sermon to believers and I wasn’t about to start a philosophical discourse on the validity of belief or the veracity of the Bible (I don’t intend to do so in this post either). I would also add that sometimes the conflict could also be an emotional response from previous negative experiences with religion or from a struggle to reconcile common Christian teaching that God is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful with the reality of suffering in the world or portions of Scripture (in which case, the issue as mentioned last time deals with the kind of God exists rather than if God exists). Francis Bacon once remarked that, “Atheism is rather in the lip than in the heart of man.”
C.S. Lewis echoed these very sentiments 1500 years later,
God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.
What, then, is the responsible Christian response in light of all of these realities? Find out next time in the final installment of this series.
REALigion Lecture Series, ARISE Institute.