Reasons for Belief and Reasons for Doubt (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 26)
NOTE: This is part 26 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book from Amazon and other retailers. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.
The God of the Bible never asked anyone to engage in trust that had no basis. When John sent his question to Jesus, the answer Jesus sent back was not the equivalent of “reason has nothing to do with faith, so just shut your eyes and believe.”
One characteristic of a Christian worldview — based as it is on historical events in the real, geographical world and on the written statements of Scripture about those events — is the belief that some things are actually true and other things are not; that truth exists and can be known, and that yes, this matters.
Following on that, Christians also believe that truth can be grasped by human reason, and that in fact the universe in general is reasonable and understandable, because it was created by a reasonable and understandable God. (It was this Christian belief that historically gave birth to Western science, and yes, that’s ironic.)
Jesus’s answer to John follows the same pattern as Yahweh’s self-revelation in the Old Testament when he appeared to Abraham, for example, or to Moses. In every case God demonstrated enough about himself and about his power and righteousness to give the human beings he was calling into relationship a rational basis for belief.
It wasn’t an exhaustive basis for belief — there was always some room for doubt. But it was enough. It set up the same kind of choice we make, and chance we take, when we choose to trust that another human being will keep their word or come through for us, based on what we know about their character and abilities. We make a decision, based not on nothing, but not based on absolute certainty either. We make a decision, based on something-that-is-enough, that we will trust. Then we can only wait to see whether our trust has been justified or not.
So Jesus did not ask John to believe without reason. Instead, he pointed out miraculous actions he was actually doing in the real world, and he showed how they were connected to prophecy in the Scripture. He was doing things John’s disciples could bear witness to and tell John about. His answer would also have reminded John of the things he had personally seen and heard: the dove, the voice from heaven. Jesus gave John real reasons to believe, even though he didn’t explain away all the reasons for doubt.
And this is the paradox we all live in. When it comes to truth, of the transcendent and eternal kind, there are reasons to believe — real reasons, good reasons. There are things we can know. Logic, wisdom, and intellect all have a place in faith. And yet, there are also reasons to doubt. God does not take away every possibility that we could be wrong, that our faith could be misguided. Instead he asks for trust.
Again, this is not unfair, even though it may sound that way at first blush. It’s commensurate with the kind of God we have, the kind of creatures we are, and the kind of thing faith is. Faith, at its core, is relational. It is not an intellectual exercise (as though the human intellect could ever fully grasp and dissect the transcendent and eternal). Faith is the currency of giving and receiving, of demonstrated character and of reciprocal trust. Faith, as Paul put it in Galatians 5:6, works by love.
So yes — there are many reasons to believe in God, and many reasons to believe the God of Christianity is the God, the real and true one. Some of these reasons are good; some less so. But this is not a book of apologetics, and I can’t make an exhaustive survey of all these reasons here. Suffice it to say: nearly every question anyone has ever asked about the existence of God or about the great philosophical questions of, say, miracles or suffering or life-after-death has been answered. Seek and you will find. (The answers are not even particularly difficult to get hold of; you can judge for yourself how good they are or aren’t.)
When it comes to trusting Jesus, or choosing belief over doubt, I’m not talking about shutting our eyes to reality and singing “la-la-la, I can’t hear you” until the things that are troubling us go away. In my opinion, Christians get into a lot of trouble by doing exactly that. Reason does have a role; evidence does play a role. And as I’ve said — there is plenty of evidence pointing toward theism generally and Christianity specifically as true.
But I think we need to realize that where something appears to be true, an alternative will always suggest itself as also possible; and by the very design of the universe, we will never be able to lay all our doubts to rest through “proof.” I’m not sure we can prove God. If God showed up for us in a huge display of power and glory, how could we prove that we weren’t hallucinating? If he healed us, how could we absolutely prove our healing didn’t have some other hidden cause?
Evidence is valuable, but evidence cannot be evenly deployed. We can prove the efficacy of medicine or the existence of an insect or an atom or a star, but we can’t prove the existence of love — and we deal with love every day, in ways that are hugely consequential to us. We regularly pin all our hopes, dreams, and fears on love, and we can’t quantify love at all or even really explain it. I can’t prove that I love you; I can only demonstrate that I do. You can’t prove it either; you can only trust in what I say and do, or more fundamentally, you can only trust in what you know of me. Risk can never be completely removed. And yet love, like wisdom, is justified by its effects.
In the nature of our universe, nothing that really matters to us is provable in an absolute sense. I can’t even prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I exist, or that you do. I believe those things, and I have good reasons to believe them; but I can’t prove them. That’s the way life is here. Once we have laid down a basic foundation of evidence and reasonable probability, everything else is based on trust. This isn’t just true of God or “religion” but even of human relationships. Everything that matters is a matter of faith.
But in fact, most of our doubts are of a far more personal kind. They are not just intellectual exercises; they are personal crises of faith — of trust in a person called God. And for these, the answers are relational, just as the crisis is relational. In a sense, we don’t doubt what God has done so much as we doubt what he has meant by it.
And if we’re truly honest, most of our doubts aren’t really about the logical, philosophical, or scientific questions that occur to us (or even sometimes plague us). For those doubts that truly are rooted in those areas, real answers do exist — if we faithfully seek them out, we will find them. And it’s not about trying to make facts fit our worldview. There are honest answers to honest questions. After all, if there is no rational basis for Christianity, then we are crazy to entertain the whole thing and we really should stop it and get honest about reality. If on the other hand we are committed to seeking out truth, honest answers are nonnegotiable.
To be continued …
This is Part 184 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.