The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 7)

We are continuing our previous examination of how God provides evidence for our faith in him. In particular, he uses the following patterns in the Bible when he provides evidence:
1. God provides evidence whenever he asks us to believe something, especially when he does something new. 
2. God expects us to test and verify the evidence he provides. 
3. God does not want us to be irrational. He does not want us to be overly skeptical or overly gullible, but to find the rational center. He rebukes those who refuse to test the evidence, believe too easily, don't believe despite the evidence, or refuse to infer beyond the merely empirical things.  
4. God provides evidence on his own terms. It is meaningless to test the evidence from outside the framework provided by God himself.  
5. We are to remember the previous evidence that God has provided, and take the past history of his faithfulness as evidence for our belief.  
6. Dramatic evidence, in the form of miraculous signs and wonders, comes only when God is doing something new and important. Other time periods are relatively more quiet.
Starting this week, we will address the some possible philosophical objections to these patterns.

"You can't actually have any evidence for Christianity. Evidence must be empirical, like it is in science. But there is no empirical evidence for God, which is why he must be believed on faith, with no evidence."

On the contrary, Christianity and science are empirical in exactly the same way. They both require you to infer non-empirical entities from the empirical evidence.

Now, one may say that the evidence for Christianity is not very good. Perhaps. But that is a topic for another discussion, and is irrelevant for the moment. The question at hand is whether Christianity, like science, is fundamentally based on empirical evidence, in the way that it processes and uses that evidence. I am claiming that the procedure for handling evidence is the same between Christianity and science. I am not yet claiming anything about what conclusion these procedures lead to.

Before we move on further, let's first establish a definition:
Empirical: based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.
So, is Christianity BASED ON observation or experience? Absolutely; the apostles repeatedly emphasized that they were eyewitnesses to Christ's resurrection, that they directly observed and experienced him in his risen state. The ministry Jesus and the apostles are filled with miraculous events that happened to people which directly affected their physical states. God brought Israel out of Egypt through multiple physical miracles, and reminded them repeatedly of this fact throughout their history. Billions of Christians throughout space and time have experienced God in some direct, experiential, and personal way.

If it were not for these empirical events, Christianity would not exist. In particular, if the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not have empirical backing from the people who actually walked, talked, and ate with him afterwards, Christianity cannot exist. This empirical evidence is critical to the very existence of Christianity, just as experimental data is essential to science.

Is Christianity CONCERNED WITH observation or experience? Of course. Christians can sometimes get lost in some rather esoteric discussions about the nature of the Godhead or the minutiae of predestination, but we all agree with the Bible that faith without works is dead: our faith in God must make a difference in the real world. It is no accident that the two most important commandments are 'love God', and 'love people', and this love can be empirically observed and experienced by others. Nor is it an accident that science has its theories, but those theories must explain the real world: a theory that makes no predictions is worthless. There is an exact parallel between a Christian's faith making empirical changes in the physical world, and scientific theories making experimental predictions in the laboratory. In both cases, the ideas lead to, and are concerned with, some real-world consequences.

Lastly, is Christianity VERIFIABLE BY observation or experience? No, not directly; no one has seen God, nor is it possible for humans to do so. But the evidence we have - especially in the form of Jesus Christ, who was a physical, flesh-and-blood man - makes God known to us.

So, isn't this a case where science and Christianity diverges, since science can be verified by observation? Absolutely not; science is not directly verifiable by observation any more than Christianity is. No one has ever seen a scientific theory: for instance, no one has seen the wave function of of a hydrogen atom, nor is it possible for humans to do so (wave functions don't "live" in a space that we can "see"). But the evidence we have - partly in the form of the emission spectrum of hydrogen, which is made of real colors we can see - makes the wave functions known to us.

Do not think that the above example is peculiar in some way: It works that way in EVERY field of science. In evolution, no one has seen the descent of man from apes. It is not directly observable: it happened a long time ago, and nobody was alive from then till now. But again, the evidence we have - the physical evidence that we can actually, empirically observe, such as fossils - makes the history of man's evolution known to us.

Likewise, no one has directly experienced Einstein's general relativity field equations. It's not even clear what that would even mean. Even if you were to get spaghettified by jumping into a black hole, you would experience the physiological effects of spaghettification, but not the field equations themselves. However, the evidence we have - in the physical observations of things like Einstein rings - makes the field equations known to us.

Even in a highly "hands-on" field like medicine, no one has ever directly observed the Platonic form of the cause of a disease - not in the sense that they've observed the abstract model for how bacteria work to create toxins which affects the patient's body and causes the disease. That abstract model from bacteria to disease remains an abstract, nonphysical model. It is to be held in the mind, but not directly observed in and of itself. However, by collecting empirical data - such as measuring the patient's temperature or observing his blood under a microscope - that abstract model can be verified.

In each case, the unobservable, abstract entity must be inferred from the observable things accessible to our senses. We must infer the non-empirical theories from the empirical evidence. This process is exactly the same in science as it is in Christianity. To refuse to take this step - to instead just say "I only believe what I can see" - breaks a crucial link in the scientific method, and makes doing science impossible. As I have said before - if you only collect empirical evidence without inferring any non-empirical theories from it, you are not a scientist - you're a stamp collector.

This is only what we expect from Bayes' theorem, which I mentioned before as the logic that underlies the scientific method. Look at the equation:
P(hypothesis|observation) = P(observation|hypothesis)/P(observation) * P(hypothesis)
The whole point of that equation is to infer something non-empirical - P(HYPOTHESIS|observation) - from something empirical, P(OBSERVATION|hypothesis). Probabilities of hypotheses cannot be directly measured; otherwise we would not need to use this equation, as we could just directly measure P(hypothesis|observation) instead. However, they can be inferred from probabilities of observations, which we can empirically state as having occurred or not. The non-empirical must be inferred from the empirical.

So, Christianity and science are empirical in the same way: the non-physical, non-empirical entities at their heart cannot be directly experienced or verified, but they can be inferred from the physical, empirical evidence we have.

We will consider more objections in the next post.

You may next want to read:
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 8) (Next post of this series)
Should we put the LORD our God to the test?
Science as evidence for Christianity (Summary and Conclusion)
Another post, from the table of contents

The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 6)

We are continuing our previous exploration of the Bible, and looking at the patterns for how God works to provide evidence for our faith in him. As a reminder, these patterns are as follows:
1. God provides evidence whenever he asks us to believe something, especially when he does something new. 
2. God expects us to test and verify the evidence he provides. 
3. God does not want us to be irrational. He does not want us to be overly skeptical or overly gullible, but to find the rational center. He rebukes those who refuse to test the evidence, believe too easily, don't believe despite the evidence, or refuse to infer beyond the merely empirical things.  
4. God provides evidence on his own terms. It is meaningless to test the evidence from outside the framework provided by God himself.  
5. We are to remember the previous evidence that God has provided, and take the past history of his faithfulness as evidence for our belief.  
6. Dramatic evidence, in the form of miraculous signs and wonders, comes only when God is doing something new and important. Other time periods are relatively more quiet.
We've seen many passages that conform to these patterns in the past weeks. This week, we will tackle the issue from the opposite direction, by examining verses that seem to go against these patterns. But upon closer examination, these verses will end up conforming to the patterns instead.

 Deuteronomy 6:16:
"This verse says that 'you shall not put the LORD your God to the test'. How could anything be based on evidence if you're not suppose to test it?"

This line of thinking completely ignores the context of the whole Bible on the question of "testing God". It doesn't even take into account the context of the verse itself. In fact, it cuts off the verse mid-sentence to twist it into saying something that it's not. The full verse reads, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, AS YOU TESTED HIM AT MASSAH." (emphasis added). At Massah, the Israelites tested God by ignoring the previous evidence that God had given them in orchestrating the events of the Exodus. They demanded water by claiming that God had brought them out of Egypt only to kill them of thirst in the desert. It is this specific type of testing - testing by imposing conditions alien to the terms that God himself has provided - that is forbidden in this passage. This is made abundantly clear when you take all the relevant passages into account. This makes sense, since the same rule applies to testing hypotheses in the sciences: a hypothesis must be tested on its own terms.

So, when it is properly understood, this verse is not a counterexample to the biblical patterns for believing and testing the evidence. It in fact supports one of these patterns: God provides evidence, and the testing for that evidence, on his own terms.

Deuteronomy 13:1-3:
"These verses says that if a prophet advocates other gods, you should not trust him, EVEN IF HIS SIGN OR WONDER COMES TO PASS. Doesn't this show that a dogmatic adherence to God is more important than the evidence of signs and wonders?"

This passage merely means that you should not be irrational by believing with too little evidence. We are not to believe just anything, but to think through our steps. Recall the rules of logic embodied in Bayes' theorem, and the nature of evidence: since these things are probabilistically decided, there are bound to be some evidence even for incorrect hypotheses. But such evidence is likely be outweighed by the evidence for their correct alternatives. In this passage, God is urging us not to fall for these accidental evidence for other gods, because the evidence for him is so much greater. In particular, notice that the phrase "sign or a wonder" is in the singular form in the above passage. This is nearly the only place in the whole Bible where that phrase appears in the singular form. But "signs and wonders", in the plural, that testify to the true God appear numerous times throughout the Bible, corresponding to the mountain of evidence we have for him. So if we love the LORD our God with all our heart and soul, as the passage mentions, we would know that a single accidental evidence for false gods doesn't compare to the overwhelming evidence for God.

So, in the end, the passage is merely an example of good rationality, and it conforms to the six patterns mentioned at the beginning: there may be small, accidental evidence for other gods, but we are to believe God on the weight of the total evidence.

Matthew 12:38-42Matthew 16:1-4Mark 8:11-13Luke 11:29-32:
"In these passages Jesus refuses to perform a sign. Doesn't this demonstrate that he did not provide evidence for his claims, that he expected people to purely believe him on faith?"

Actually, in literally every single one of these passages, Jesus had performed a miraculous sign just prior to his refusal to perform another one. So it is not that Jesus is refusing to perform signs in general, or refusing to provide evidence. He is in fact condemning those who refuse to believe despite the evidence of the signs that he had just performed.

In fact, reading into the narrative a bit more, we see that some of the people who had just witnessed Jesus's miracle had attributed it to the works of a demon. This is a particularly pernicious state of mind, where an observation that should be evidence for one position gets interpreted for exactly the opposite position instead. So, for instance, someone who thinks that the moon landings were a governmental hoax might be shown videos from the Apollo program, only to exclaim "see how complete and pervasive the government conspiracy is!"

It is to people like this, who had the gall to then ask for another sign, that Jesus refused to show more signs. He is condemning their irrationality and providing evidence on his own terms, in keeping with the established patterns mentioned above.

John 20:24-29:
"This is the story of doubting Thomas, who doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead. After Jesus appears to him, he tells Thomas that it would have better if he had believed without seeing Jesus. Doesn't this clearly show that faith trumps evidence, that believing without evidence is better than believing with evidence?"

Actually, Jesus is only critiquing Thomas's rationality in this passage: Thomas ALREADY had enough evidence to believe the resurrection, BEFORE Jesus appeared to him in person, and ought to have believed accordingly. This is the same critique that Jesus gave to the disciples on the road to EmmausConsider the context: Thomas must have know the tomb was empty, and he had the testimony of Mary Magdalene and all the other disciples that Jesus had risen. In all likelihood they had all spent quite some time trying to convince Thomas of the resurrection. These were the unanimous eyewitness testimonies of trusted people that Thomas had known very well for a long time. He furthermore had the prophecies - from both the Scriptures and Jesus himself - that predicted the resurrection. Thomas also had Jesus's miraculous works which testified to his divinity. Based on all this, Thomas should have been convinced already, but he stubbornly refused to believe that Christ had risen. It is to this Thomas that Jesus said "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" - because such people would be demonstrating superior rationality by coming more quickly to the correct conclusion. It is irrational to be overly gullible or skeptical, and Thomas was erring on the side of skepticism.

Jesus is also criticizing the "I only believe what I can see" mentality in general. Thomas should have inferred the risen Christ, whom he did not see, from the testimony of the disciples, which he did see. If we refuse to infer invisible things from the visible evidence, that is not logical rigor or sound reasoning - it is stupidity. Such an attitude would make science impossible by turning it into stamp collecting. We believe in atoms, which we cannot see, by inferring them from the evidence of Brownian motion, which we can see. But a rock cannot infer anything.

What Jesus says to Thomas is therefore perfectly rational, and fits perfectly with the general patterns for how God provides us with evidence for our faith in him: we are not to err either to skepticism to gullibility, but choose the rational mean. Furthermore, we are to reject the "I only believe what I can see" mentality, and instead be willing to infer invisible things from the visible evidence.

Romans 4:16-21:
"This passage praises Abraham for believing God to grant him a child. It specifically mentions that his faith persisted despite the fact that he was old and his wife was barren. It commends him specifically for believing unbelievable things. Clearly, faith is suppose to override evidence, and that is suppose to be praiseworthy."

And when God made Abraham that promise, it was in an extended, direct, "face-to-face" meeting in the presence of God, after nearly a lifetime of Abraham walking with God and having his faith verified. In this scenario, Abraham correctly evaluated that the evidence for believing God overwhelmed the low chance that he could naturally have a child. It is this faith - one that correctly chooses the side with more evidence - which is commended in the Romans passage.

2 Corinthians 5:7:
"This verse says 'for we walk by faith, not by sight'. So you are suppose to ignore the evidence of your sight and stick to faith instead? Isn't this an absolutely clear expression of blind faith?"

This verse is not talking about evaluating evidence. Reading the verse in context makes that clear. "Faith" here is being used in an advanced sense, as something you live by, something you walk in - well past the stage of initial intellectual assent where the evidence gathering is the most explicit. Paul has already gathered his evidence; here he is now inferring and drawing conclusions from it. He speaks on the dichotomy between the body and the spirit, between the physical and the abstract. He concludes that the spiritual is more important, more permanent, and more real. That is the idea expressed in "we walk by faith, not by sight".

How Paul came to his conclusion is the story of other passages, where Paul does discuss the physical events that happened to him. But the conclusion from these physical evidence is that the physical is subservient to the spiritual - for, as Paul himself summarizes, what is seen is transient, but the unseen things are eternal.

This is only what's expected, as it's one of one of the patterns of how God works in providing evidence. God wants us to infer to things beyond the merely physical appearances. Unless the visible evidence can infer invisible realities, it is useless. These are the ideas Paul is expressing here; he is not commenting on how to gather that evidence in the first place.

And with all that, I've now covered a representative sample of the Bible passages on how evidence is handled in the Christian faith. We see that throughout the Bible, faith is based on the evidence. Even when we consider the passages that seem to go against that patterns, a closer examination reveals that biblical faith is rational and evidence-based after all.

In the next post, I will examine some of the common non-biblical, philosophical objections against that conclusion.

You may next want to read:
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 7) (Next post of this series)
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 1)
Should we put the LORD our God to the test?
Another post, from the table of contents

Should we put the LORD our God to the test?

Well, what does the Bible say?

"You shall not put the LORD your God to the test" - Deuteronomy 6:16

That seems straightforward enough, right? Why did I even bother to write this post? Isn't this an open-and-shut case?

Not so fast. Let's apply the principles of Bible interpretation, and look at what the Scriptures have to say on the matter as a whole. First, we consider every instance where the word "test" appears in the ESV version of the Bible (The choice of translation is not particularly important - I just needed a specific text to do the search.). We then select only the verses where humans are said to test God. That gives us the following list of passages:
Exodus 17:1-7:
This is the story of the waters at Massah and Meribah. The Israelites test God by demanding water, while complaining that God was going to let them die of thirst. This takes place in the context of the exodus event, where Israel frequently rebelled against God and was repeatedly described by him as a "stiff-necked people". This passage is, by far, the most referenced passage when it comes to the mention of man testing God. In fact, all of the following passages about "testing God" refers directly to this event, or to the exodus event as a whole: Numbers 14:22, Deuteronomy 6:16Deuteronomy 33:8Psalms 78:18-41Psalms 95:8-10Psalms 106:14Matthew 4:7Luke 4:12, 1 Corinthians 10:9-11Hebrews 3:9
Among these numerous references is Deuteronomy 6:16 (which was quoted at the top), and two instances of Jesus quoting that verse (Matthew 4:7Luke 4:12). Because of these prominent verses and the sheer number of times that this event is referenced, it sticks out in most Bible reader's mind. But this makes it easy to forget that all these verses refer to the same event, and that the command to not test God was given in that specific context. In fact, my quote of Deuteronomy 6:16 at the beginning is actually incomplete: the full verse says: "You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, AS YOU TESTED HIM AT MASSAH" (emphasis added). But that context is often forgotten while only the high frequency of the injunctions against testing God is remembered. 
Judges 6:39:
This is the second story of Gideon testing God, by placing a fleece on the ground to manipulate the morning dew. Gideon himself seems to acknowledge that he's doing something wrong, as he asks God to not be angry with him even as he's performing the test. Overall, this passage must be counted as saying that we should not test God. 
Isaiah 7:10-14:
God tells king Ahaz to ask for a sign - any sign whatsoever, no matter how great. But Ahaz refuses, by citing that he will "not put the LORD to the test". God is exasperated and strongly rebukes Ahaz's answer, and responds by saying that he WILL give a sign, the greatest sign of all: the incarnation of Christ. Clearly, Ahaz was wrong to not ask for a sign. He SHOULD have tested God. Contrast his behavior with that of his son, king Hezekiah, who is endorsed by the Bible as a righteous king. When Hezekiah was given the opportunity to ask for a sign in 2 Kings 20:1-11, he actually asks for a harder sign, and it is granted to him. 
Malachi 3:10:
God says in this passage that bringing him the tithe will result in great blessings. He then explicitly says, "Test me in this". One can hardly ask for a stronger proof text to support the idea that we should test God. 
Just a few verses later, Malachi 3:15 also mentions testing God, but it is hard to draw firm conclusions from it. 
Matthew 16:1-4Matthew 19:3-11Matthew 22:17-22Matthew 22:35-40Mark 8:11-13Mark 10:2-12Mark 12:14-17Luke 10:25-37Luke 11:14-23John 8:4-11:
These passages describe the numerous times people came to test Jesus. His response is quite varied. Sometimes, he flat out refuses their test (Mark 8:11-13). Other times, he's exasperated, but gives them an answer anyway (Matthew 22:17-22). At still other times, he graciously answers them fully and even commends his tester (Mark 12:28-34, a parallel passage to Matthew 22:35-40). It's also worth nothing that some of the answers Jesus gives under testing are among his greatest hits, such as "render onto Caesar" (Matthew 22:17-22), "the greatest commandment" (Matthew 22:35-40), and "the good Samaritan" (Luke 10:25-37). Overall, testing Jesus gives mixed results, and it is difficult to say that one should or should not test him from these passages. 
Acts 5:1-11:
Ananias and Sapphira sell a piece of property, then offers a portion of the money to the apostles while pretending it was the whole sum. Peter equates this to "test[ing] the spirit of the Lord", and Ananias and Sapphira are supernaturally struck dead for this action. 
Acts 15:6-11:
Here the leaders of the early church are considering how much of the Jewish law gentile believers have to follow. Peter says that it would be "putting God to the test" to impose the full Mosaic law on these believers when they have already received the Holy Spirit. This passage clearly portrays "testing God" as something bad. 
Romans 12:1-2:
Here Paul says that we may discern the will of God by testing. Other translations are more direct - the NIV says that we can "test and approve what God's will is". Clearly, in this passage, testing God's will is something good. 
1 Thessalonians 5:19-21:
These verses tell us to test everything - even prophecies, which ostensibly come from God. 
1 John 4:1:
This verse tells us to test spirits, even if they ostensibly come from God.

That is all of the passages in the ESV Bible about a man testing God. So, what have we learned from this comprehensive list?

It seems that the record is mixed. Some passages endorse testing God, while others treat it as a sin. What are we to make of this? Now, if you're lazy, you may just shrug and default to saying "you can't test God", because it's easy to remember. If you're a bellicose atheist, you may jump up and say "aha! Contradiction!" But we are to do neither. The principles of Bible interpretation says that we are to find an explanation that makes sense of this seeming mess of verses.

So, can we do that? Is there a simple, common sense interpretation that makes perfect sense of all of the above verses?

Yes. Here it is:

We are to test God on his own terms.

This explains all of the verses above. At the waters of Massah and Meribah, The Israelites were not testing God on his own terms. They were imposing their own terms on what God must do, instead of figuring out what God had planned for them. They were testing God by conditions that are external to what God said he would do. Had they considered what God had actually revealed, they would have seen that God had planned to save them from Egypt and bring them to the promised land, and given them ample evidence for this plan. But they ignored all this and and cried out about being left to die in the desert.

When Jesus referenced this incident by saying "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test", he was replying to the devil, who had just tried to tempt Jesus into jumping off the top of the temple. Again, this would have resulted in Jesus attempting to impose his own conditions on what God must do. The devil's test was wrong for exactly the same reason as the Israelite's test at Massah and Meribah: it would be trying to force God to do something, instead of testing him on his own terms on something that he said he'd do.

It also explains why Gideon's fleece method of testing was incorrect. He, too, was imposing an external test, asking God to do something of Gideon's own invention. Had he heeded what God had been saying to him, he would have been satisfied with the signs that God had already given him on God's own terms.

This interpretation also explains why, in Isaiah, Ahaz was wrong to not ask for a sign. He had been explicitly offered one - God had said, "ask for a sign", yet Ahaz refused to act on the terms that God had given him.

It also explains why God tells Israel to test him in Malachi. God dictated the terms: he just told them to test him by bringing in their tithes. In these circumstances, we are to oblige and carry out that test.

It also explains the variety of ways that Jesus reacted when people came to test him. When they attempted to get him to do something by imposing terms of their own ('hey Jesus, do a miracle!'), he refused. But when they asked questions relevant to his role as a teacher, which is a role that Jesus himself chose to take on, he answered their questions.

Ananias and Sapphira are easily explained: they were testing God in betting that they could successfully deceive him. The council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 is also easy to explain: they could not keep gentiles out of the church after they had received the Holy Spirit. In both cases, it would have been wrong to test God by going against his previous revelation.

It also make sense of how we can test God's will, as described by Romans 12. We are to first be "transformed by the renewal of [our] mind[s]". That is, we are to first understand what God is offering us, on his own terms. Our minds are to be transformed and renewed to conform to his, so that we can understand his will. Only then we can test that will, and see that God passes the test. This allows us to affirm that his will is good and acceptable and perfect.

Lastly, it explains why we must test prophesies and spirits, even though they ostensibly come from God. Because God has laid out his message in clear terms - by prophets, Scriptures, and ultimately in Christ - we are to test thing according to those terms.

So, we are to test God on his own terms. This simple interpretation explains all of the above verses about testing God. But it doesn't stop there. We can be confident of this interpretation because it can furthermore be generalized to all other relevant "tests": all hypotheses, not just God, are to be tested on their own terms.

Let's first look at Bayes' theorem, which is a critical component of what it means to be a rational, logical, scientific person. Literally, look at the equation:
P(hypothesis|observation) = P(observation|hypothesis)/P(observation) * P(hypothesis)
You see that "P(observation|hypothesis)" factor? That means we are to evaluate the observation while considering the hypothesis to be true. The observational evidence, which tests the hypothesis, is to be tested on the hypothesis' own terms.

Because Bayes' theorem is the basis for the scientific method, our interpretation on testing God can be generalized to science as well. All scientific hypotheses, not just God, are to be tested on their own terms. For instance, if you want to test the theory of special relativity, you can't just say "so according to relativity, there should be faster-than-light particles moving backwards in time, right? Well, where are they?" That is not what relativity says. In order to actually test relativity, you must first understand it, then test it according to the predictions that it actually makes. It is tested on its own terms, by interpreting the data according to the hypothesis itself.

Likewise, concerning the theory of evolution, you can't say "I'll believe in evolution if you can give birth to a monkey right now". That is not a valid test for evolution, because that's not something allowed in evolution. You are imposing a condition on the theory that is external to the theory itself. You must first understand what the theory actually says, then test it by making observations, and seeing how well the observation agrees with the theory. But that judgement - the agreement between theory and observation - is to be evaluated in terms of the theory itself. The theory decides what observations agree or don't agree with it.

In the Bible, recall that some people mocked Jesus by telling him that they would believe him if he could come down from the cross. This was not a proper test for Christ's claims, because the mocker's demands were in fact in complete opposition to Jesus's purpose in going to the cross in the first place. If they had been actually listening to Jesus, they would have known that he had repeatedly predicted his own death and resurrection. So then, judged according to the terms that Jesus himself set out, his death on the cross was actually evidence FOR his claims about himself. The mockers did not understand this, because they did not test Jesus on his own terms.

So, we are to test any hypothesis - not just God - on its own terms. But that's not all. The idea that we are to test God on his own terms also generalizes to our personal relationships. We test God this way, because the same rule applies to how we interact with our loved ones. Imagine that, at a time of genuine need, a close friend sincerely says to you:

"Look, we both know that you're financially in a tough spot. I want you to know that you don't have to worry about paying your college tuition. I'll take care of it. I think that your pursuit of an education is a noble goal, and you shouldn't be held back by not having enough money. You can count on me. Just do the best you can at school."

In this case it would be fine to test your friendship by actually expecting your friend to come through with the money. This is, in fact, what God is asking us to do in Malachi 3:10, when he asks Israel to test him by holding him to a promise that he himself had already made. We ought to graciously accept the promise and expect him to fulfill it.

But let's say that you responded by saying:

"No. I refuse to take your money. I know you're rich. You don't need to prove it to me. I believe you. But I'm not having you do anything for me. After all, I don't want to test our friendship."

Would this not be rude? In fact, wouldn't it be a demonstration of how little you valued or trusted your friend? This is what Ahaz does in Isaiah 7:10-14 in refusing to ask God for a sign. When God himself offers the sign, it is wrong to refuse. Instead, we are to hold on to his words and test him by actively relying on those words.

As a third scenario, consider that you say to your friend:

"Hey, you're rich, right? I want a mountain made of gold. You're my friend, right? Give me a gold mountain. Otherwise, obviously you don't care for me and can't meet my needs."

This is how the Israelites tested God at Massah and Meribah. It's how the devil asked Jesus to test God. It's how some Pharisees tested Jesus by demanding a sign. This is clearly the wrong way to test a friendship, and it is an equally wrong way to test God. It is the difference between taking a friend at his word, and demanding something from that friend. When God makes us a promise, we are to test him by saying "wow, you would really do that for me? Thank you. I accept, and I will hold you to your promise." But we are not to test him by saying "I demand you do this for me" on something that he's said nothing about.

So, we are to test God on his own terms. The Bible on the whole is actually very clear on this matter, since every verse about testing God falls into this pattern. Furthermore, God created the world so that this principle can be generalized to as a rational rule of logic, a proper scientific procedure, and a principle of interpersonal relationships. There is unity in the Biblical passages, and throughout all other forms of God's revelation.

But at the end of the day, the Bible itself says it best. You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah - that is, by demanding things from him and imposing your own terms on him, without regard to what God has said for himself. Instead, first be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you can understand what God has actually said, on his own terms. Then you can rightly test the will of God, and you will find that it is good and acceptable and perfect.

You may next want to read:
The role of evidence in the Christian faith (Part 1)
How should we interpret the Bible? Look at it as scientific data.
Another post, from the table of contents

"Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

I'm trying my hand at a Bible fanfic. This story is based on John 21.

In that chapter, Jesus thrice asks Peter whether Peter loves him. The subtleties of this conversations are lost in translation, as the Greek words "agape" and "phileo" are both translated as "love". You can read more about the possible meaning of this exchange here or here.

I wrote this story while reflecting on why Jesus and Peter would use those particular words for "love". Happy Easter!

"Simon Peter."

Uh-oh. Here it comes.

"Simon, son of John, do you love me? Will you follow me, live for me, and die for me?"

I... had not been ready for that, although I knew that something like it was coming. I suppose I should've thought of an answer beforehand. I nibble at the fish in my hand and pretend that I'm not yet done eating, but it does nothing to hide me. Maybe I should pretend to choke on a fish bone? The eyes of the Lord and the other disciples are all on me. Cowards. They'd all been jabbering away during breakfast, pestering Jesus with their questions. But they're all quiet now, waiting for me to answer. I guess I've been unusually quiet around Jesus recently. Even just earlier, I had acted like a fool, diving out of the boat to get to him first, then not saying anything to him once I got ashore. I couldn't even meet his eye. I just looked down and around, standing with Jesus in awkward silence, while everyone else came on the boat. I feel like a bigger fool now, as I reply:

"Well, ah... yes, of course, Lord. You know that I, you know, love you enough to do those things for you. You can count on me."

I'm not sure what's worse: that the other disciples know that I'm lying, that Jesus knows that I'm lying, or that I know that I'm lying. Who could believe anything I say now, after how my promise at the Passover supper turned out? "I would die for you"? Ha! I was lying when I said it then. Why would what I say now be any different? I go back to looking down, and pretend to eat my fish.

"Feed my lambs.

Simon, son of John, do you love me? Truly, completely, unconditionally, and wholeheartedly?"

This time, I do momentarily choke on a fish bone. Ack. Cough. Ahem. Gulp. How am I suppose to answer that? Should I say, "yes, Lord, I really do love you"? But what if he replies with "but truly I tell you, before you finish that fish, you'll deny me three more times"? Then I guess I'm suppose to just go "if you say so, Lord" this time? Because answering him with all my resolve - with clenched fists, burning eyes, and gritted teeth - didn't do any good last time, at the supper. I think - I feel - that I love him now, but I think I felt the same way back then. So really, what does my answer, my resolve, or my efforts matter? What does it matter that I say in response:

"Well... sure, Lord. You know, um, that I love you, you know, in all those ways."

Am I damning myself with that answer? Could it possibly be that I should instead say "No, I don't love you"? Would I rather go back to how I was at the supper, ignorant and wrongly confident? Was I a better person, a better disciple back then? I think my replies so far have been honest, for whatever that's worth. Does that count for anything? Or does it just make me a fickle, spineless, worthless coward, who can't even answer a straightforward question about how I feel?

"Tend my sheep.

Simon, son of John, do you love me?"

What can I do but say what I feel now? So I just say:

"Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."

A simple question, and a simple answer. That's all I can say. That's what I know for now. I don't know how I'll end up in the future. I don't know if what I've said is enough. I don't know how long it's good for. But he knows - he knows everything. For now, in response to a simple enough question, I can only say that I love him.

"Feed my sheep.

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go."

And will I be able to answer you then? Will I then be able to say, "Yes, I love you. I have followed you, lived for you, and died for you. I love you truly, completely, unconditionally, and wholeheartedly"? Can I dare hope for that possibility?

I don't know. But... my replies no longer torment me. At the moment, it's peaceful here. Calm. There's no more questions to answer, nothing more that has to get done. Not like the times before Jesus's crucifixion, where we were always going from town to town. I'm sure we'll have things to do soon enough. But for now, it's just us, here on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, relaxing after a good breakfast. I don't worry about the future, or what I know, or how I'll turn out. I'm just sitting in the peace with Jesus, whom I love.

Soon enough, he says "follow me", and I get up again.

You may next want to read:
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
Merry Christmas! And happy one year anniversary for this blog!
Another post, from the table of contents