Tom Gilson

Are You Closed To Evidence?

Commenter kaapstorm posed an interesting scenario some time ago. It’s led me to think of a new way to discuss what it means to be open or closed to evidence. It’s fanciful, of course; but it’s an interesting thought experiment nonetheless.

Imagine your friend Matt spent the weekend with his friend Josh in a cabin in the woods. You see Matt the following Tuesday and he is very excited. You’ve never met Josh, but you have no reason to question his existence. You never even consider asking for evidence that Matt really does have a friend called Josh, and that he’s a real person. That would be silly.

But then Matt says that on Friday morning Josh walked on water, across half the lake, to the boat that Matt was in! Really?! You are a curious person. You want to know whether there was a sandbank just under the surface. Were Josh’s feet wet when he got into the boat? How fast was he walking — could there have been some mysterious non-Newtonian fluid where he thought there was water? Was it extremely cold — cold enough for ice to have formed and Matt not to have noticed?

That’s not “big evidence”. That’s just “light evidence”. Matt’s not finished. He continues, “That’s nothing! There was a terrible accident! Some hunters shot Josh … through the head! It was terrible! There was this massive hole in his skull, and I was nearly sick; I could see right through. I haven’t slept since then. I just keep seeing it over and over in my mind. We put him in the back of the car and drove him to hospital. But … and you’ll never believe this … but on Sunday he woke up in the morgue! He literally got up! His head is much better. There’s just a scar where the bullet when in, and he’s bald where the massive hole was on the other side.”

And at this point I’m expecting you’re looking for “big evidence”.

But Matt’s still not finished, “Oh, and he’s God.”

The Sort of Evidence That Could Conceivably Convince

Implausible? No, impossible. That’s the only sane way to think of it. And yet it could be instructive. Suppose you were Matt, and you really, really wanted to convince me your Josh story was true. The focal point would have to be Josh’s astonishing recovery from a fatal head wound. What would you need to give me before I could even begin to entertain the possibility your story was worth listening to? What would it take before I might begin to think it could be true?

Let me suggest several things that would help you, if you were actually able to provide them:

  • Evidence that Josh is an exceedingly extraordinary person, which might provide theoretical grounding for the next point following.
  • An explanation for why this might have happened to Josh: specifically, why he might have been granted this recovery from a fatal wound.
  • Some strong indication that Josh had had other remarkable, unexplainable events associated with him.
  • Eyewitness testimony from others who saw him before he was shot, while he was (brutally) dead, and after he had recovered.
  • Your own personal commitment, as well as the other eyewitnesses’, to your belief, even to your own cost.
  • Your own character: your demonstrated trustworthiness and mental balance; and the same again for the other eyewitnesses.

What Would It Take For Me To Deny You At That Point?

Suppose you provided all of that for me. What I mean is that you were really able to do so. (Of course no such person as this Josh exists, and we all know this could never happen. This is a thought experiment, so please go there with me anyway.) I could remain skeptical, but only on pain of denying what I know to be true not only of your character and sanity, but also that of the other eyewitnesses. I would have to deny what I know about human nature in general: that people do not hold on tightly to known untruths, to their own harm.

I would have to deny the supporting evidence that indicates Josh might have been the kind of person for whom this would make sense: that he is an exceedingly extraordinary person, that there was a good theoretical backing for his being a person who would recover from such a wound, and that (while it would have been the most extreme) it would not have been the first extraordinary event that happened in his presence.

I could continue to deny it in spite of all that, just because “dead men don’t come back to life.” That is, I could stake my claim on that seemingly universal principle, based perhaps on my conviction that whatever theoretical explanation there might have been for Josh’s amazing experience, it couldn’t possibly be good enough: because I know in advance of the evidence that these things never happen.

Are You Closed to Evidence?

This is precisely the way most strong atheists respond when presented with apologetic arguments for Jesus’ resurrection. Sure, it’s not their only response: they’ll also deny that there were eyewitnesses, or that Jesus performed other miracles, and so on. Frequently, though, they also come back to their committed belief that the world just isn’t that way: dead men don’t rise. There’s a natural order to life and the universe, and nothing violates it.

That’s the position I would hope to challenge through this thought exercise. There’s obviously nothing in it to provide evidence for Jesus’ miracles, or even for his resurrection. There is something in it, however, that’s relevant to atheists’ prior commitment to the impossibility of something like a resurrection violating (so they would say) the natural order.

And here it is, in the form some atheists hold it:

Whatever theoretical backing you might have to explain why Jesus lived, died, and rose again; whatever personal testimony you could bring forth; whatever commitment the original eyewitnesses might have had to their testimony; whatever strength of moral and mental character they might have displayed after the fact; none of that could possibly be good enough to budge me!

That’s known as being impervious — closed off — to evidence. Most atheists, as I understand them, do not prefer to be regarded that way.

 

Note: like many of my blog posts, this one is about a specific topic: atheists’ attitude toward the possibility of evidence disconfirming their position. It is not about whether the available evidence actually does disconfirm their position. I predict some commenter will fail to notice that and try to swing the discussion that way anyway, making me responsible for proving that all the evidence is adequate: which is the project of libraries, not of blog discussions. Be advised that I intend to remain on topic.

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55 thoughts on “Are You Closed To Evidence?

  1. Something vital is missing from your bullet list of evidence. I’d like to see how the man’s head wound healed. What was the step-by-step process? Where did the new flesh come from? Was there some kind of medicine or some technique? This is the real evidence that would convince an atheist.

    Who cares whether Josh was an extraordinary person? That’s meaningless. And why do you assume he was “granted” his recovery? By whom? That’s meaningless. I just want to know the simple physical process for how it happened.

  2. John Moore,

    Understanding HOW something occurred is different than seeing evidence THAT it occurred. Your comment seems to demonstrate a presupposition that unless something is understandable by you, then it must be impossible. If that is true, then you have not only presupposed away the possibility of the supernatural without even considering evidence but also confined yourself to a very small world – a world small enough that you can understand it completely.

    I don’t always enjoy the fact that there are things in the world that I don’t understand, but if something is supported by sufficient evidence, I should accept it. To do otherwise seems foolish. I’ve heard that someone was able to demonstrate how bees fly using Computational Fluid Dynamics. I don’t understand the math behind CFD or anything about the particular model that was used, but I didn’t need this analytical feat to accept the fact that bees can fly, because I’ve seen plenty of evidence of it.

  3. “If you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer! Superstition ain’t the way.” – Stevie Wonder

    If you want somebody to believe in something that violates their basic everyday understanding of how the world works, then you’re going to have to give them a certain level of understanding. Otherwise, it’s just plain superstition.

    I don’t say things are impossible if I don’t understand them, but there must at least be a path toward understanding. It must at least be possible to understand.

  4. John Moore: how do hydrogen atoms fuse to become helium atoms? How does convection work inside the sun? How did the sun form in the first place? Do you understand any of that?

    How did Napoleon gain power in France and beyond? Why did Hitler acquire such a following? How did Alexander the Great attain to such high respect?

    How did Shakespeare develop such a huge vocabulary? How did he write so movingly?

    How did Beethoven and Bach come up with such great music?

    What kind of “path toward understanding” do you have in mind, anyway? And is it your opinion that if something is beyond understanding it didn’t happen?

  5. What you’re saying in effect, John, is exactly what I was talking about. You’re not open to evidence unless it comports with your preconceptions. There had to be some physically describable process. It had to be naturalistic. It had to be “Goddidn’tdoit!” Otherwise it didn’t happen.

    You’re closed to evidence by your preconceived prejudices.

  6. You say it’s meaningless whether Josh was an extraordinary person. I had specified something more than that, of course: that he was an exceedingly extraordinary person, such that it provided theoretical grounding for an explanation for how this might have happened to him.

    By dismissing that, even in a thought experiment, you dismiss the possibility of any theory but yours having any validity, and you do it because you’ve decided in advance that nothing about it could make any difference. This too is evidence of your preconceptions blinding you to possibilities other than what you have decided upon in advance. If you can’t be open-minded to the possibility of new things in a thought experiment, you can’t legitimately consider yourself open-minded at all.

  7. You ask a fascinating question: “Is it your opinion that if something is beyond understanding it didn’t happen?”

    First of all, I believe some things really happen that are beyond understanding. For example, things that happen inside black holes. Things that happened before the Big Bang. What the world really is apart from our symbolic understanding of the world. Quantum uncertainty. Anything else?

    For each of these categories beyond understanding, there’s an understandable explanation for why they are beyond understanding. That’s important, I think.

    Also, these categories are significantly removed from our ordinary day-to-day experience, so our ignorance is not important for us in our practical lives.

    Christians seem to be saying that there’s another category of things beyond our understanding, and this new category violates the two conditions I just mentioned, insofar as we don’t know why Christian miracles are beyond understanding, and these miracles are important for our daily lives.

    Personally, I’m open to the idea of supernatural things happening, but please take it easy on me – this is so radical and in a totally different category from things I’m used to.

  8. Great response, John. I appreciate the candor and the questions implied in what you said near the end.

    There is a reason why Christian miracles are beyond our understanding, if understanding (for you) means things like step-by-step processes and technique. Miracles are one-off. They’re not susceptible to repeated study to show what happened at each step along the way. And if it’s a true miracle, then God is doing something non-physical with physical results, so his “technique” is at least partly unavailable to be studied or known by physical methods.*

    As to why that would happen, well, this was a thought experiment where I included an extremely vague condition: that something about Josh would explain something about that. It’s not much help, is it? But it’s fiction.

    In the case of biblical miracles, though, God’s purpose was generally to make his reality, his character, and his message known, by making a clear signal of himself in this physical world we live in.

    *Some readers will point out that “technique” is the wrong word in that context, and I agree, but for these purposes that’s not important.

  9. @Tom Gilson:

    There is a reason why Christian miracles are beyond our understanding, if understanding (for you) means things like step-by-step processes and technique.

    I would even go further: to have such an understanding would be to understand as God understands, which is impossible as a matter of principle. That is why asking *how* God did this or that is a meaningless question.

  10. I’m not trying to speak for other atheists, just myself. The evidence I expect is the ability to make some predictions about something that hasn’t already been seen. If you claim that matter is made of atoms, that germs cause disease, or that the universe started with a hot explosion, all of those ideas can be used to make predictions about what will happen in chemistry experiments, how diseases spread, or what we will see with our telescopes.

    You claim that these miracles occurred because Jesus was the incarnation of an omniscient, omnipotent, creator of the universe and that you have a personal relationship with Him. It seems like you should be able to deliver a few predictions about experiments or observations that we could check: a tsunami warning, some Lotto numbers, the neutrino masses, anything. This isn’t a very high bar for the God you describe. That’s what I’d like, and I think many other atheists would find that pretty compelling as well. It’s what we expect of each other when debating the workings of the world.

    My hat is off to Harold Camping for at least making a solid, testable prediction.

  11. Gavin,

    “This isn’t a very high bar for the God you describe.” How right you are! That bar is too low by far. We already have the evidence of Jesus coming back to life after being brutally executed. Obviously some study is involved for each of us to decide for ourselves whether the accounts are believable, but it’s there for the studying. Now we want the Creator of the universe to stoop to parlor tricks to make us believe?

    Imagine that the President of the United States knocks on my door tonight and says he wants to stay for dinner. I look outside, see his very recognizable face, a small army of secret service, and a motorcade blocking my entire street. Am I going to look at him and say “That’s all well and good, but I’m going to have to see some ID before I believe you’re really the president.”?!?

    Am I going to then require his ID again if he comes back again next week, like each new generation of skeptics asking for new signs of God’s reality even though the evidence has already been given?

  12. Gavin,

    God, by his nature, is both personal and supernatural, outside of outside of “the workings of the world”. The type of evidence you describe is very useful for understanding natural processes, which are impersonal. The assumption that God must act like the rest of His creation and be provable by exclusively scientific means seems to rule out openness to the possibility of His existence.

  13. That’s right, David. Gavin, it seems like people want it both ways: we want miracles to prove there’s a God, and we want predictive tests to prove there’s a God. Miracles by definition are not predictable in the manner you say. And there’s a severe difficulty in setting up an experiment to show that God exists: what’s your control condition? We theists understand God to be in, under, through, behind, and above all things. This world in which we live is (part of) the confirmation that he is.

    Think of it this way: if there’s any doubt about the reality of God in the world, it’s because we’re so accustomed to it being as it is. If God wants to communicate something particular to us, he needs to create a “signal” that will stand out from the “noise.” (I’m speaking in engineering terms; if that language isn’t familiar this won’t work as well for you.)

    Miracles are one form of that “signal.” They are non-repeated, non-regular, non-natural events: just as any communication is, among the noise of its transmission medium. Your voice over the telephone can be analyzed scientifically, but your message cannot. And even the scientific analysis of your voice requires special circumstances: instrumentation and/or accurate recording equipment, appropriate to the form of the signal, ready and waiting at the appropriate moment.

    Suppose there is no such equipment there when you talk on the phone. (That used to be a given; now there’s the NSA 😉 ). Does that mean you didn’t have that conversation? No. Does it mean no one can confidently affirm you had that conversation? No. Does it mean no one knows what you had in mind to say? No.

    There was no scientific recording equipment present at the resurrection, but there were people who knew him before his death who saw him alive afterward. There was meaning communicated in the events and in what he said about them. And this is perfectly conceivable even without scientific recording equipment on site.

  14. David and Tom,

    The prediction-and-test evidence that would convince me is provided by God throughout the old and new testament. Moses makes quite a convincing demonstration to Pharaoh by giving the specifics of each plague before it happened. Elijah predicted that that the Lord’s altar would ignite, but the altar Baal would not. Jesus told the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” [Mt 8:13] I am open to exactly this sort of evidence.

    I’m not convinced by those specific examples because the prediction could have been added to the story later to make the story more convincing. If a similar demonstration was held today, it would be easy to document the time of the prediction. Everybody knew about Harold Camping’s prediction before the test date. There is no way for him to change the story after the fact to make it look like he was right all along.

    I am open to evidence, but I have standards. The Bible gives numerous examples which, if they occurred as described, would meet those standards. A more contemporary, better documented set of examples would be very convincing.

    Also, I’m not arguing that any of all of these miracles did not occur. Maybe all the stories are true. I don’t know, because there isn’t what I find to be convincing evidence either way.

  15. Gavin,

    Your comments seem to indicate that you expect a specific type of evidence given in specific conditions. By definition, if there is a God who created everything, to whom we owe our very being, He doesn’t owe it to us to give evidence of His existence in the particular flavor we like best. On the other hand, if that God loves us and wants us to follow Him, He will provide enough reasons for belief that those who are open will see them and choose to follow Him. Consider whether the type of evidence you’re asking for is what we should absolutely expect of such a God or just the flavor of evidence that you prefer.

    It sounds as if what you’re looking for is for God to provide miraculous signs to every generation of every people-group. However, if that were to happen these signs would be so regular as to no longer seem so miraculous. Also, there would be a great deal more people falsely claiming to speak in God’s name than there already are, faking miracles or claiming them retroactively in order to advance their own agendas. To borrow Tom’s analogy, the “noise” would grow louder to the point that the “signal” of God actually speaking would be no more clear than it is now.

    The life, death and resurrection of Jesus as recorded in the Bible, if accurate, are certainly sufficient evidence of God’s reality. I’d urge you to consider whether the historical evidence for the trustworthiness of the Bible is at least enough to merit considering whether there might be other types of evidence that make the overall story convincing.

  16. How predictable that those who reject Jesus Christ are the ones who have never taken the effort to sort through history, even secular; for evidences.

    You are invited to visit our website (www.facebook.com/truthwithlove). Of special interest may be our theatrical exposition to the book of Revelation “Beyond The Veil Of Death” (http://beyond-the-veil-of-death.blogspot.com) that is in the writing. You may follow as it progresses.

    Blessings!

  17. David,

    When it comes to the case of the resurrection, one of the key parts of argument is that the resurrection was possible because Jesus had a unique relationship with an omnipotent God. If that is the case, we aren’t just arguing about something that happened two thousand years ago, we are talking about something important in the here and now–the existence of God.

    The claim that this God exists, right now and right here, should have some evidence to back it up. I’m am open to such evidence, but it has to meet the same basic criteria I use for assessing evolution, climate change, palm reading, string theory, medicine and any other claims.

    My standard does not presuppose naturalism. In fact, the Bible is filled with stories that show how this standard can be met through miracles.

    Being open to the evidence doesn’t mean giving a special pass to ideas I find comforting. Nor does being skeptical mean putting up barriers to ideas I simply don’t like. I use the most objective standard I have been able to formulate, which is predictions and tests.

    I think that level of openness is common among atheists, but I know it is not the universal atheist position.

  18. David Martin @11:

    > Am I going to then require his ID again if he comes back again next week, like each new generation of skeptics asking for new signs of God’s reality even though the evidence has already been given?

    Good point; I certainly raised my children that way. If I explained something to their older brother or sister, there’s no reason to explain it again. After all, I’ve explained it once — the sibling’s vague and contradictory recollection of my explanation should be sufficient.

  19. Tom Gilson @13:

    It’s difficult to show that God exists? God has a problem separating the signal from the noise? We should focus more on the word “omnipotent”.

    It’s trivial for God to demonstrate to the world He exists. Once a year the stars form themselves into the simple message “Happy New Year! — Yahweh”, rotating, of course, as the planet turns. We’re done, everyone agrees that God exists, it’s not a difficult thing.

    I’ve a glass of bourbon on my desk; if that glass turns into a mouse and scampers from my desk this evening, I will publicly repent — to be clear, I claim 2 Peter 3:9, and I wait on God. (Or is that verse not one of God’s promises?)

    I am not closed to evidence. What harshes my mellow is God chooses not to give evidence, knowing His decision will result in the human beings He and we love suffering an infinity of torture in Hell.

    God’s exposition was common in the Old Testament: you can’t read a chapter without mortals demanding evidence and being granted it (see Gideon and fleece, where Gideon not only demanded God prove himself, but that God prove himself repeatedly over the course of days).

    God didn’t hide himself in the Old Testament, did He just love Gideon more than me?

  20. David Martin @15:

    On the other hand, if that God loves us and wants us to follow Him, He will provide enough reasons for belief that those who are open will see them and choose to follow Him.

    David, every test, puzzle, question, whatever has tester bias, that is, the way a test is presented, and the evidence given for the “correct” answer, predicts who can “solve” it.

    We know intelligence is inversely correlated with belief. (Insert all sorts of hand-waving here, about what “intelligence” means, and how it’s defined — for the purposes of this argument, let’s just agree that a high score on the SAT is inversely proportional to belief in God, because that I can prove.)

    Are you saying that in the same way being born of Muslim parents pretty much guarantees you a one-way, pre-punched ticket to the gates of Hell, being “too clever by half” is another route?

    That God chose to provide reasons for belief He knew would be insufficient for me?

    On the other hand, I guess it’s a deeper meaning for 1 Corinthians 1:27.

  21. David Martin @15:

    if [God providing miraculous signs to every generation] were to happen these signs would be so regular as to no longer seem so miraculous. Also, there would be a great deal more people falsely claiming to speak in God’s name.

    To be clear, you’re saying I and everyone I love (not to mention 2 billion Muslims), will go to Hell, suffering the tortures of the damned for eternity, because there “would be a great deal more people falsely claiming to speak in God’s name”.

    I’m feeling Yahweh’s pain here. Like, man, that would just totally suck! There’s no way He could provide a convincing sign to every generation without the copycats messing with the game — it’s not like He’s omnipotent or anything.

  22. Gavin @17:

    Thank you. It sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I appreciate your position in regard to following where evidence leads. I think our fundamental divide may be over what constitutes evidence. I view testable predictions as a valuable evidence for a great many things, including some questions about the existence and nature of God. However, God is both Personal and Supernatural. We should expect that He will act in ways consistent with His character, but not necessarily consistent with what we expect or find convenient. in that case, the kind of evidence you discuss will not be as useful in regard to proving/understanding God as it is in understanding things that are impersonal and natural.

    So the question becomes: What other kinds of evidence are relevant? In Tom’s thought experiment, even though we weren’t there to see Josh’s death, there are good reasons (which you may or may not consider sufficient) to believe he WAS dead and came back to life. In the case of Christianity, we can look at the internal consistency of the Bible, the age and level of agreement of the biblical manuscripts we have, what other ancient authors said about the people and events described in the Bible, what other ancient authors said about Christians in the early years of the church, how well the Bible corresponds with the way the world actually is, and many other things. Do you consider these types of things as evidence? (Note that I’m not asking if you think these are sufficient evidence, just whether this type of evidence is useful.)

  23. Keith,

    I’ll choose not to take the bait on your dig at Christians’ intelligence because, although it may make for good rhetoric, it is not related to the OP and you didn’t back it up.

    I’ll also choose not to address the words you put into my mouth as to the topic of Hell, which is also unrelated to the OP and differs from how I think of that topic.

    As to your openness to evidence, your comments seem to indicate that you will believe only if a miracle falls into your lap, which you seem to think was common in the Old Testament. The OT claims that God worked miracles to get His message across (1) to the entire nation of Israel, at it’s founding, to convince them that He was who He said He was, and later (2) to key figures or at key times in the history of Israel. It hardly leads one to believe that it was common for Israelite during the rules of the judges and kings to personally experience miracles. In fact, Moses speech to the nation at the end of Deuteronomy instructs them to expect exactly the opposite.

    However, there are many other forms of evidence, which Tom has discussed numerous times on this blog. That is what the OP is getting at. If you were the observer in his thought experiment, do you think that it is reasonable to believe that Josh actually died and came back to life? Do you think the evidence is sufficient to at least consider that Josh MIGHT have died and come back? If, as your posts seem to indicate, you are open only to miraculous evidence which you see with your own eyes, then you are closed to all other forms of evidence. It is as simple as that.

  24. David Martin @23:

    I intended no dig at Christians; there’s an inverse correlation between intelligence and religiosity. That says nothing about whether or not religion is true, of course, it simply says more intelligent people (again, insert whatever hand-waving you like about what “intelligent” means), are less likely to have a religious belief. While not on-point to the OP, it responds to your comment “He will provide enough reasons for belief”, by pointing out the obvious: the reasons He provides are not applicable to everyone equally, as God chooses not to provide reasons reasonably applicable to all who are aware of them.

    Which begs the question: why not? If God desires none perish, why would he miraculously cure Bob’s cancer, bringing Bob to salvation because, well, Bob isn’t the brightest guy in the world, but ignore Alice, simply because Alice knows sometimes cancers fall into remission?

    I don’t mean to put words in your mouth. However, you provide ordinary, commonplace reasons God might not want to expose Himself: you posit concern that His actions might “no longer seem so miraculous”, or a “great deal more people falsely claiming to speak in God’s name”. I want to remind you of the stakes of His decision: 2+ billion people in eternal torment in Hell because God doesn’t want to dilute the quality of His miracles? Is that really where you and God want to plant that flag?

    Am I closed to other evidence? I don’t think so, although that opinion is probably self-serving.

  25. Once a year the stars form themselves into the simple message “Happy New Year! — Yahweh”, rotating, of course, as the planet turns. We’re done, everyone agrees that God exists, it’s not a difficult thing.

    Maybe the answer to this mystery is that God is still waiting for everyone to agree based on the other daily signs he’s given us: a child born, patience, marriage, moral truth, music, art, hope, love, forgiveness, repentance, etc.

  26. The knowledge or belief that God exists does nothing in and of itself. Satan and his ilk know God exists, yet they remain willfully rebellious and lost. Words in the sky might get everyone to believe that God exists but it won’t change everyone’s heart toward him – and that is what God wants.

  27. Come on Keith. Be honest. You don’t just want some sign from God that he exists. As Steve K says above there are lots of those. You want God to jump through your hoops. And that’s ok. You have free will and every right to choose your own standards. But at the same time you complain that because He won’t give you the evidence you demand you and “everyone you love” will go to Hell. Aren’t you trying to have it both ways? It’s ok for you to have your own standards but it’s not ok for God to have His own standards? And further, if God were to do as you suggest then he would have forced you to believe in Him and thus taken from you the free will you so cherish.

  28. two comments: first, eternal conscious torment in hell should not be used in arguing against Christianity because that’s not what the bible teaches (and even if there are those here who would argue with that, I think it’s evident that that is not the universal understanding of the fate of unbelievers)

    second, the resurrection was a miracle meant for believers. the miracle meant for unbelievers was the prediction Jesus made that was clearly documented before it happened: the destruction of Jerusalem and especially the fulfillment that “not one stone will be left upon another”regarding the destruction of the temple 40 years later.

  29. Steve K. @26:

    That’s a common Christian explanation: atheists know there is a God, but “harden their hearts” against Him for some reason, usually so we can continue in our sinful lifestyles. The story is usually served with a side order of “God has provided plenty of proof — no proof is sufficient if you choose not to believe!”

    I hypothesize Christians say this because it’s a more comfortable narrative to believe God is self-evident; anyone who doesn’t believe has chosen to reject God and therefore deserving of Hell. I mean, who doesn’t like a storyline where the bad person gets their just desserts in front of the Great White Throne as the credits roll?

    But that’s just a narrative — we don’t live in a comic book where super-villains forever lose but survive to shout defiance at their nemesis. The truth is that if God shows up, nobody is going to say “Yes, I know God exists and will send me Hell forever, but I just like eating shellfish too much to follow His law!”

    If God shows up, atheists are going to get in line just like everybody else, because not doing so would be insane.

    (You mentioned Satan. We read that Lucifer knows he can’t win, but rebels anyway. He’s kicked out of Heaven, but fights back by tempting humans to sin. Seriously? Lucifer, God’s supreme creation, is that incredibly stupid? It’s Lex Luthor vs. Superman, and makes about as much sense when you think about it in the context of the real world.)

    It’s a lot less comfortable for Christians to internalize that smart, ethical, good people simply see no reason to believe in God.

  30. @Keith:

    If God shows up, atheists are going to get in line just like everybody else, because not doing so would be insane.

    Exactly.

    Which just proves why you are wrong and completely misunderstand the nature of the problem.

  31. In addition to the truth that G. Rodrigues just spoke of, “getting in line” doesn’t necessarily do anything for you, Keith. You can be a good prisoner by following all the rules, while at the same time never confessing to the crime you committed and asking for mercy and forgiveness.

  32. G. Rodrigues @30, SteveK @31:

    I wrote “getting in line” as shorthand.

    Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone, when confronted with the fact of a real and living, perfect God, not repenting and turning to Christ for mercy and salvation. In that situation, how would you possibly not do that?

  33. In that situation, how would you possibly not do that?

    I assume you’ve read in the Bible how Jesus was crucified? It’s possible.

  34. Steve K @33:

    A fair point: if the Biblical account is true, maybe Judas wasn’t the sharpest knife in that drawer!

    Did Judas believe Jesus was the Messiah? There are arguments Judas never believed Jesus was the Messiah (for example, Judas never calls Jesus “Lord” in the Bible), and so his betrayal makes sense. And, of course, there’s John 13:27, where Satan enters into Judas.

    Absent being robot-controlled by Satan: do you think it likely someone who genuinely believes in God’s presence and thereby Jesus’ sacrifice, would reject that sacrifice? I find it vanishingly unlikely, myself.

  35. David,

    Would you explain why my standard of evidence is unreasonable for addressing the question of God’s existence? You keep brining up that God is Personal and Supernatural as if this somehow means I need to change my standard. I think my standard perfectly suited to questions about a personal and supernatural being.

    Also, my standard has nothing to do with convenience. I think it is somewhat insulting to suggest that my problem is laziness, although I can understand how such an insult arise naturally in a discussion that starts with the allegation that most strong atheists are closed minded.

  36. It seems like you should be able to deliver a few predictions about experiments or observations that we could check: a tsunami warning, some Lotto numbers, the neutrino masses, anything

    How do you propose conducting a controlled experiment with a being that you cannot control?

  37. SteveK @36:

    People raise this point, usually attacking studies on the efficacy of prayer, but the truth is we do it all the time.

    Inability to control variables of interest in the experiment affects results, but lack of control doesn’t mean you can’t run the experiment or the conclusions are invalid.

    For example, epidemiological longitudinal studies, where the health of potentially large populations are tracked for decades — what, exactly, is being “controlled” there, other than “lives in Japan”?

    The real reason to say statistical methodology can’t apply to God is if God is a “trickster God”. The assumption science makes is that God plays by the physical rules, and He didn’t bury fake dinosaur bones, or create the light from distant galaxies already enroute to Earth. Maybe God does change the measured data of statistical studies to trick us and hide His manipulations of the physical world — it’s impossible to tell, and in that case you can’t use any scientific methodology to study Him.

  38. SteveK,

    I do not propose conducting a controlled experiment. For numerous examples of evidence that I would find compelling, see the Bible (examples in 14 above).

  39. @Keith:

    Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone, when confronted with the fact of a real and living, perfect God, not repenting and turning to Christ for mercy and salvation. In that situation, how would you possibly not do that?

    This is just what you describe it to be: a failure of your imagination; but what you can or cannot imagine is quite irrelevant to the arguments. And your failure of imagination is doubly baffling because you, seemingly unaware of it, point out the very problem in the same sentence.

    From the get go you have kindly showered Christians with insults and crude, rank psychology, and yet your objections are ignorant, and against a childish strawman. From #20:

    We know intelligence is inversely correlated with belief.

    I do not know if this is true or not (and quite frankly, couldn’t care less), but if it is, I wonder why you are putting so much effort in proving yourself the statistical outlier.

  40. G. Rodrigues, @39:

    Thank you, at least, for not telling everybody that I’m short and my mother dresses me “funny”.

    I was about to indignantly respond that I insulted not a single Christian, but reading back through this thread, I am forced to admit to a sarcastic tone I would now take back if I could. In short, I apologize, I should have done better!

    Now, to your point: this “problem” I don’t see? Would you be so kind as to spell it out for the slower members of the audience?

  41. For numerous examples of evidence that I would find compelling, see the Bible (examples in 14 above).

    It would be nice to see these examples today – I would certainly like it. But these things aren’t necessary for justified, rational belief, nor are they owed to us by God.

    Remember, Gavin, 99.9% of people in those days did not witness any miracles. Is today any different? No. The accuracy of that statistic isn’t the point. The point is there is enough compelling evidence around you today, just like back then, that can lead a person to justified belief.

    See my list of everyday signs in #25. If you don’t see these examples as evidence for God, then is that God’s problem or yours? A little introspection might be in order.

  42. @Keith:

    Now, to your point: this “problem” I don’t see?

    You said and I quote:

    Honestly, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone, when confronted with the fact of a real and living, perfect God, not repenting and turning to Christ for mercy and salvation. In that situation, how would you possibly not do that?

    So according to you, when confronted with God, we would immediately repent. But what can this possibly mean? Why would everyone “get in line”? If you mean by this that we would repent out of fear, and that *is* what you imply, than that is not repentance. If on the other hand, you are suggesting that just in virtue of coming to know that God exists we would come to love Him, then that is simply false. For one, the Bible does not leave much room for doubt that men will not change their ways even in the presence of portents and signs directly from God — the Biblical story of Israel is one sorry witness to this. Also, it would imply that if only men only were shown the truth they would accede and be good, and thus that there are no “real” evil men (a view held by Plato) or even that there are no evil self-styled Christians. But this is false, and there are evil men, and evil Christians. And by evil, I do not mean evil in the full import that the word has nowadays, but the more mundane exchanging of the highest goods, those goods that are proper to human nature, for lesser goods.

    But it is false, even on simple psychological grounds. Compare: suppose Venus descends from Heaven and I am smitten by her Beauty. Being smitten by her beauty does not entail that I will love her, respect her and honor her; it could simply mean that I would lust after her, or use her as a means to satisfy my selfish desires. One could retort that God is not the same as Venus, a mere goddess, but this instead of weakening the comparison only makes it stronger. For to love God is also to love Truth, and the Good and the Beautiful, and insofar as we exchange the Truth, and the Good, and the Beautiful, for lesser goods, we reject God. So what you would be saying amounts to this: after a lifetime spent rejecting Love, the Good, the Truth and the Beautiful, upon seeing God face to face, we would immediately embrace Love itself, the Truth itself, the Good itself, the Beautiful itself, which is an absurdity.

  43. SteveK,

    The topic of this discussion is whether strong atheists are closed to evidence. I’ve explained a very broad category of evidence that I would accept as compelling. I think many atheists would accept that evidence. Do you disagree?

    See my list of everyday signs in #25. If you don’t see these examples as evidence for God, then is that God’s problem or yours?

    It is not a problem at all. I’m not sure why you are getting so agitated.

  44. I’m not agitated, Gavin.

    I’ve explained a very broad category of evidence that I would accept as compelling.

    I understand that. Do you understand that this is an unnecessary, and artificial requirement that you’ve imposed? You may WANT this, but you don’t NEED this. Once you’ve accepted this fact, perhaps you will focus your attention on, and attempt to make sense of, the evidence we do have.

  45. Once a year the stars form themselves into the simple message “Happy New Year! — Yahweh”, rotating, of course, as the planet turns. We’re done, everyone agrees that God exists, it’s not a difficult thing.

    Here’s how I think this would play out today, particularly in the Western Hemisphere.

    Teams of scientists would be immediately summoned to explain the yearly phenomenon much like they’ve been asked to explain other mysterious events and so-called miracles.

    After some time, these experts would show us time-lapsed, high-def video of the stars moving into place and propose naturalistic theories for why the stars moved in that particular way, on that particular day, every year. Perhaps there’s something out there that we missed – something unseen like dark matter or gravity – some undiscovered natural phenomenon or law. Perhaps it had something to do with black holes, or quantum mechanics.

    They’d insist that we send probes into space and build special telescopes in order to study and find clues. Skeptics and ‘freethinkers’ would remind us at every turn that “Goddidit” wasn’t a rational explanation. “We don’t know” is the correct response, they’d say.

    Meanwhile, people like Keith are jumping up and down and waving their hands. “Come on people! It’s obvious that God is doing this. God exists! Everyone should fall in line and worship him!”.

    Yes, Keith is now a believer, but it didn’t play out as he expected. Not everyone is convinced as he initially thought. Skeptics demand proof. They demand that God show them a sign – one that *cannot* be denied.

    Keith is frustrated and shakes his head at these people as if to say ‘where there’s a will to deny the obvious, there’s a way’.

    Welcome to Christian apologetics, Keith 🙂

  46. SteveK,

    I think the requirement is both natural and necessary, but reasonable people may disagree. Do you agree that there is no evidence for God which meets my standard?

  47. Keith @24

    Point taken with regard to my bit on what would happen if God made miracles more common. It was speculation on my part as to how the human race would receive such a series of events, not an evaluation of God’s ability or intent, as I think you received it. What is not speculation is that the God described in the Bible wants followers, not merely people who assent to the fact of His existence. And we don’t have to look to far to find many people who claim to believe the Bible, clearly assenting to God’s existence, but who just as clearly only follow the parts of the Bible that suit them. This is not exclusively a Christian problem, it is a human problem, and is true of any religion or ideology. This was also the main reason for my speculation about how the human race would respond to an increase in miracles.

    Gavin @36

    I was not by any means implying laziness on your part. Since you had only talked about one type of evidence, “prediction-and-test”, I was trying to understand if that is the only kind of evidence you consider to be valid. It appears to me that in your posts you are appealing to that type of evidence alone and have not responded one way or another about other types of evidence. My best guess (based on the evidence of your posts) is that you don’t explicitly deny the value of other types of evidence in regard to God, but don’t really consider then to be useful.

  48. David,

    I do not consider the other types of evidence to be useful for answering a question about the existence of an omnipotent God who is right here, right now. Two thousand year old documents are useful evidence for answering some questions, but not questions about here and now. Some of the other things mentioned, like the beauty of music, aren’t evidence at all.

  49. I came across this interesting review over on Apologetics 315:
    http://www.apologetics315.com/2013/10/review-heaven-logic-of-eternal-joy-by.html#more

    This excerpt of the review is related to this thread

    Walls also describes how Christian doctrine developed. Citing the work of Richard Swinburne[10], Walls notes that if we have prior reason to believe that a good God exists then we have prior reason to believe that God will act in certain ways…including provide us with information about how we can get to know him. These a priori reasons ‘lower the bar’ of historical evidence required to believe in certain events (i.e., the resurrection). The resurrection is such a central event both because it indicates that we ourselves have the possibility of arising in a new body (and hence of immortality) and that it vindicates Christ’s claims to divinity. It involves the development of formal doctrines like the incarnation, atonement, and ascension, and hence salvation. The resurrection , in implying what our resurrected bodies will be like in the afterlife, is implicitly invoking images of what we will be like in heaven. And the end goal of Salvation is, of course, an eternal, perfect relationship with our Creator in heaven. The Ascension, most straightforwardly, is the translation of Christ from Earth to Heaven. This, for Walls, demonstrates that removing the concept of heaven from Christianity would inevitably warp the fabric of Christianity into an unrecognizable shape.

    and this one

    One involves the complaint that Christ made failing to hold a belief (Christ is the Messiah) a sin that carries the consequence of eternal damnation. With disarming simplicity, Walls explores what it means to be in Heaven—namely, to be in the direct and loving presence of God. The upshot is that Heaven won’t be Heaven for someone who is not already in love with God.

    captures the essence of a relationship with God.

    I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, but it looks like one worth reading.

  50. There’s a natural order to life and the universe, and nothing violates it.

    That’s the position I would hope to challenge through this thought exercise.

    The problem is that this exercise makes the analogy of Jesus’s miraculous life and resurrection to some case where a human is said to have literally risen from the dead. Could we be more dreadfully unimaginative in the way we interpret ancient texts?

    I’m not sure that the Gospels were intended to be journalistic accounts of events that actually happened. They’re riddled with poetic license and deliberate echoes of the biographies of past Jewish figureheads. Shouldn’t we be approaching these stories in a way that better recognizes and appreciates their symbolic import?

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