Is faith just a crutch for the weak?
There is a familiar rejection of faith and God (and the Bible) out there that goes something like this: "There are no reasons to believe there is a God anyway, and the Bible is so unreliable and full of contradictions that no reasonable person could ever believe in it. Religion is just an opiate for the masses, and faith is for those who cannot prove what they believe."
I believe two things about this statement. First, I believe it is improbable and false, and I will spend the rest of this chapter discussing why. Second, I find that it is usually not based on rational, intellectual grounds, but its true basis is emotional. Someone is angry at God or the Church, so they manufacture intellectual reasons to justify their emotional stance. I believe these issues are dealt with in the previous eight chapters.
This mixed-motive for denying faith in God is well illustrated by the lyrics for the song "Faith in God" by Bad Religion. In this song we see how emotional and intellectual reasons are twined together to deny God:
It’s all right to have faith in godSo, is there a good reason to believe in God? Or is Bad Religion right and religion is "bad", unfounded, and pitiful? This is a valid question and needs a valid answer.
But when you bend to their rules and
their f___ing lies
That’s when I start to have pity on
You’re living on a mound of dirt,
But you can’t explain
your reason for existence
So you blame it on god.
So much hatred
in this world and you can’t decide
Who’s pulling the strings
So you figure
Your whole life foreshadows death
And you finally
realize you don’t want to die alone
So you’ll always have
It’s all right to have faith in god
But when you bend to
their rules and their f___ing lies
That’s when I start to have pity on
It’s all right to have faith in god
But when you bend to
their rules and their f___ing lies
That’s when I start to have pity on
There’s people in the world today
Who say they’re Jewish,
Christian and such,
They’re all ignorant fools.
They’ll tell you
you can’t have your own way
Unless you pay money and dedicate your life
you’ll be damned in hell.
Don’t be feeble like all of them,
have your own brain full of thoughts and choices,
So use it don’t let them
It’s all right to have faith in god
But when you bend
to their rules and their f___ing lies
That’s when I start to have pity
Certainty and proof versus evidence and faith
People often ask me if I am certain that there is a God. This may be surprising, but I tell them "No, I am not certain. I have some good reasons, but I am not certain." This may sound like a weird way to answer, but its true. Most people want me to be rock-solid certain, but I'm not. There are very few things we can be certain of. I am certain that I exist because I am thinking and feeling and choosing. I am pretty certain that the world around me is real, and not just some made up figment of my imagination, because if it was made up, I should be a lot better looking and have a lot more money!
Outside of these two things, we base everything on probability and faith. I am not certain that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that the laws of physics will continue to work the same way without ejecting me into outer space. But, based on past experience and the high probability that these experiences give me, I have faith in the sun rising and gravity remaining the same. I am not certain that my car will not explode, or that a tree will not fall on me when I leave my house, but based on probability, I have faith that it is safe enough to get in may car and go to work. Faith and probability are also necessary for my marriage. I am not certain that my wife will not leave me and rob me blind, but based on how she has acted in the past, I choose to believe that she loves me and is faithful.
You see, everything in life takes faith. Everything. Scientists could not do science without faith that the laws of physics will continue to work, that their scientific method works, and that their instruments measure correctly. No one would leave home and go to work or play if they did not have faith in the basic safety of the world around them. There could be no real love or friendships or relationships if it were not for trust in the other person beyond any certainty anyone might have. Basically, all of life is a series of steps of faith that we make, based on probabilities given to us by good reason and good evidence.
Some say that faith is just a crutch for the weak, for religious people who can't "prove" what they believe. Its just not true. The most passionate anti-God fanatic cannot "prove" there is no God: he only offers flawed evidence and poor reasons. In fact, I doubt that anyone can "prove" anything at all in such a way that someone else has to believe it (unless, of course, they "prove" it by torturing them until they accept it!). You see, God has built the universe in such a way that there is sound evidence and good reasons to believe that he exists. Indeed the Bible tells us that "the heavens declare the glory of God", and that the invisible nature and power of God is revealed by what is made, so that no one has an excuse. Yet, this evidence does not "make" anyone believe in Him. It takes faith. God wants us to have faith. He does not want robots, forced to believe in Him. He wants children, who choose to love Him.
It is kind of like this. If two people saw the words "GODISNOWHERE", one might say "It says God is now here!", but the other might say "No way! It clearly says God is no where!". They both looked at the SAME evidence, but came up with completely opposite answers. The evidence that God gives us for Himself is much like that. If you want to know God and desire to love Him, you will look at the evidence and say "God is now here". But if you do not want to believe in God, if you are angry at Him, if you think He is cruel, if you want to be god of your own life and reject Him, then you will say "God is no where". People who do not believe in God take evidence, often the same evidence that believers use, and say that it shows just the opposite: that God does not exist.
What I am about to do is show what I consider to be strong evidence that God exists. Even Jesus told us to believe based on the evidence of what He did. But this does not mean that the case is closed or that people may not disagree. It just means that these are some good reasons. You will have to choose for yourself whether or not to believe.
So if we are to base our faith on good evidence and sound reasons, how do we judge whether the evidence is good? Here are a couple of guidelines for judging evidence from my perspective. First, good evidence is well defined. It deals with the subject at hand and doesn't lead on a wild goose chase or play games with words. Second, good evidence matches with the facts. If the evidence says that something happened at a certain time and certain place, then there is evidence left behind that it really did happen. If someone reports an event, then they must be trustworthy, and not lying just to get something for themselves.
Third, good evidence is logical and does not contradict itself. It does not say one thing and then turn around and say (or do) the opposite. Finally, good evidence predicts accurately what will happen. It someone says that God is real and He can change your life, then I expect to see a whole lot of people with changed lives due to God's influence. These are just a few rules of good evidence. If someone tries to convince you of something, but they break these rules, I would beware.
God and experience
So, now the question comes: where do we look for evidence of God from? Well, I can count at least five sources of knowledge about God (although there could be more). The first source of knowledge we have is experience: what we see and feel and hear with our senses. We know from our senses that there are things beyond the physical world that control the physical world. Physical laws come to mind. Take the law of gravity. We cannot go out and capture the law of gravity and put it in a test tube. It is completely non-physical. Yet, we see how it totally controls all physical objects in our solar system.
On a smaller level, there are certain laws that control how sub-atomic particles work, and yet these laws are not physical. In fact, people who study sub-atomic particles now say that at the bottom of reality, particles and waves exist in 11 to 27 different dimensions. That is many more than the four dimensions of space and time that we can sense and feel. What this tells me is that there are non-physical, super-dimensional realities that control our reality, and the Ultimate Reality that gives shape to the rest of reality is God.
Experience also tells me that everything has a cause. Everything comes from something else. Nothing pops into existence from nothing. There had to be a cause. This tells me that all the somethings in this reality had to come from an ultimate Something that caused all other things. Since time, space, matter, and energy are all somethings, then this Ultimate Something must be beyond and outside of time, space, matter, and energy. If this Something is outside of time, then there cannot be anything before it, because it is before time. This Something is uncaused, beyond time, and yet it (or rather He) caused everything else. This something is God.
God and reason
The second source of knowledge that we have is reason, or logic. Reason tells us when things make sense and fit together. For instance, reasons tells me when I find a watch laying on the ground that it must have been made by an intelligent being somewhere (and lost by another being that was not as intelligent). Reason does NOT tell me that I should say "Wow! Look at this watch! It must have been formed by eons of rain water moving particles of sand into just the right place to make the casing. Plants must have secreted a rubber-like substance to make the straps. An electrical discharge from the atmosphere must have charged it just enough, at just the right instant, to make it tell the correct time."
This is absurd. Yet, some people look at the infinitely complex creation around us and attribute it to blind chance over billions of years. It does not make sense. Only intelligent beings create complex machines and rule-governed systems. Also, reason tells me that when I see 100 pickup trucks that look similar and all have "Toyota" on the back, they were all made at the Toyota factory. When we see similarities in creation in molecular structures and DNA, it makes sense that there is a common source, a common Creator. Only the most intelligent Being, God, could create the complexity and similarity we find in Creation. He might have done it in an instant or through a gently guided process over millions of years, but it took His reason and intelligence to do it, through His Word.
God and intuition
The third source of knowledge is our intuition, our feelings, and our affections. Intuitively we know that there is a perfect Being somewhere that has no flaws. We know this because no matter how perfect something is, we always can think of how it might be better. There can always be something bigger, stronger, smarter, faster, or more beautiful. This Ideal of utter perfection, which we compare all else to, is God. He must exist, because having total perfection means you must exist (you can't be perfect and not exist!). We all have a "God-shaped hole" in our souls that is infinitely deep and can only be filled by an infinitely perfect God. St. Augustine was on to something when he prayed: "Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."
There is another thing that intuition tells us as well. It tells us that there really is love, and beauty, and hope. These feelings are not cosmic accidents. They point to something Real. When we get hungry, that proves that there is such thing as food. If we were beings that were not made to live off of food, we would never get hungry! Likewise, because we hunger for God, for love, for purpose, for beauty, and for hope, that proves that they really exist and can be found. To say that there is no God, and nothing beyond the physical world, is to spit in the face of all that makes us human. No one can live for long as a human if they really believe that all of their thoughts, hopes, and dreams are nothing but the random electric flicker of their brain cells. They will either kill themselves or become a monster. Humans need God to be whole.
God, tradition, and HIStory
The fourth source of knowledge about God is tradition, or the handed down experiences of human culture across time. People in every culture, in every age, have felt their "God shaped hole" and reached out for God to fill it through religion. One of the scientific method's rules is that if something happens EVERY time an experiment is run, then it is probably true. Well, EVERY culture has always felt the need for God and reached out to Him, no exceptions. Scientifically, it is therefore highly likely that God exists.
In fact, one way of looking at history is to actually see it as His-story, the story of God seeking to share His Love with a creation that has often rejected and rebelled against Him. Throughout most cultures there is some sort of story of an original perfect creation which gets corrupted by some sort of evil and destruction. Then God (or the gods) take various steps to contact humans and restore what was lost. Many cultures have flood or destruction stories, similar to Noah's flood in the Bible. Most cultures have a primitive belief in one Creator-God, or Sky-God, that gave birth to all lesser "gods", spirits, humans, and created beings.
In addition, most cultures also have "hero" stories about god-men who do miraculous deeds. Several cultures have mythical stories of a "dying-and-rising god", and all cultures have martyr stores of a good man or good woman who dies unjustly for the salvation of his or her people. If you look at modern drama and fiction, you see a similar pattern in nearly all stories. Most stories include a beginning where everything is good, a middle where everything goes bad and gets complicated, and an ending where there is resolution and "salvation" of the situation that is brought about by one or more "heroes". From "Little Red Riding Hood" to "Superman" to "Les Miserables" to "Star Wars" to "The Matrix", a similar pattern or redemption is followed.
It seems to me that all of this history actually points to HIStory, that there is a universal hope and a universal Truth to which all of these things point to in their own ways. Furthermore, it makes sense that out of all the stories in the world, some are more accurate than others in what they point to, and that one version has to be the most accurate out of all of them. I believe that the books of the Bible are this "most accurate" record of how and why God has worked in HIStory throughout the ancient world. Furthermore, I believe that Jesus Christ is the myth-that-became-fact, the real Superhero to which all lesser superheroes aspire, and He is the Martyr that alone is able to redeem from death. He is the actual, historical reality that all stories of dying-and-rising-gods, martyrs, and superheroes point to. He is who the plot-line of the story of the world is written around.
God and revelation
But after all of this evidence comes the question: which God? There are, after all, a myriad of gods that face the world today, and most of them offer contradictory versions of what being "God" means. It seems that we know enough to know that God exists, but we do not know enough to know WHO, or which one, God is. This is where our fifth and final source of knowledge comes in. This source is revelation, which literally means "pulling back of the curtain to reveal what is behind". We cannot know God without God Himself pulling back the curtain to allow us to see into His reality and know who He is.
Fortunately, God has done this for us through special revelation, where He has pulled back the curtain of eternity and entered into space and time and shown Himself for who He really is. He did this first through His Spirit, whom He sent to speak to certain people, to give them dreams, and to perform miracles. Next, He made some of these people His "prophets" who spoke out His message for other people to hear it. Finally, God did the ultimate thing He could do to reveal Himself to us: He became one of us in Jesus Christ. The invisible God became visible. The untouchable God became touchable. Furthermore, God empowered Christ's followers, the Apostles, to write down His actions and words so that all could read them and believe.
Because of this, the writers claim that their works are inspired by God to tell us all that we need to know Him and live for Him. This means that the Holy Spirit so filled the writers that they said exactly what God wanted them to say, while using their own words and styles. It is kind of like a couple married for 50 years who can finish each other's words and thoughts. These writers were so filled with God's Spirit and knew Him so well that they could finish His thoughts and write them down in their own words. The Holy Spirit's work of inspiration includes both the letters that were written and how the He led the Church to recognize these writings and accept them as "the Word of God".
The formation of the Bible
The messages that these prophets and apostles wrote down were collected into letters and books. The Church then collected these books into a mini-library which we call Scripture, or the Bible (the Greek word Biblia, which Bible comes from, means library). The Bible is the sacred, common library that tells us who God really is and what His will for our lives is. Over time, the Holy Spirit guided the Church to recognize which books were genuine writings, since they had been written by true apostles and prophets and conformed to the message in the rest of Scripture. The Church also recognized many books that were not genuine, and were either forgeries or untrue or not in unity with the message of Scripture. The Book we have today, called the Holy Bible, contains all of the writings that the whole Church has agreed on through the ages as really being Scripture.
This Scripture is divided up into the "Old Testament" and the "New Testament". The Old Testament is the story of God's people as they awaited God's coming to earth as the Savior (who would be Jesus). The New Testament is the story of God's people after the Savior came as Jesus Christ. Both Testaments are ESSENTIAL to understanding God, because in both God's character and His will are revealed in different ways. Scripture is a record of God's mighty acts and also a transmission of His teachings. Without Scripture, we can have no real accurate knowledge of who God is.
This is not to say that there are not disagreements over Scripture. Some people say that there are "secret books" that should have been included, but these books were never secret to the ancient Church and were rejected for really good reasons. Likewise, some groups, such as the Mormons, try to claim new revelation and add new books to Scripture, but these almost always contradict what Scripture already says. Some other Church bodies, like the Roman Catholics, add about an extra dozen books in the Old Testament that help us understand the time period two centuries before Jesus' birth.
These books are called the "Apocrypha" or "Deuterocanonicals". Nothing is particularly wrong with these books, but they have never been agreed on by the whole Church at one time. It is kind of like this book. This book may be true and Biblical, but that does not mean that it should be added to the Bible! It helps describe what the Bible means, but it is not part of the Bible. The same is true for the Deuterocanonical writings (see the afterthought).
How reliable is the Bible?
But is the Bible true? Is it "good evidence"? I think so. First of all, it claims to be totally true and accurate in what it says about God and how to follow Him. The basic truthfulness and usefulness of the Bible has been witnessed to in the lives of millions (even billions) of Christians and Jews over the last 3000 years. This is far more than any religion or belief system, ever. In judging the reliability of Scripture, in light of how it has helped countless people over the eons, it is best to give it the same benefit of the doubt that we give defendants in our legal system: the Bible is innocent of falsehood until proven guilty (and no one has ever proven it guilty).
Second, the Bible is highly coherent. It was written over 1500 years by different authors in different languages, and yet, it has a common story that is told throughout. Yes, there are some rough spots and some parts are hard to understand and put together (mainly because we do not live 2000 years ago and cannot fully grasp their culture). But, all in all, there is a core message to all of Scripture that is the same, and it paints a picture of loving, powerful, merciful God that is consistent and grows in depth and intensity until it comes to fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. Explaining this core message, especially as it relates to how God deals with evil and pain, is what most of this book is about.
Finally, the Bible fits with the evidence around it. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of times that archaeology has found artifacts, relics, and even cities that are remarkably similar to what the Bible reports in the Old and New Testaments (see the afterthought). Ancient writers and stone tablets have been unearthed that report very similar stories and events to those recorded in the Bible. In fact, I do not know of one archaeological or historical find that flat-out disproves the Bible, while I do know hundreds that provide evidence to back it up. When you look at the precision with which the Bible was copied over thousands of years, and the number of copies made, and you compare that to any other ancient document, you find that the Bible's accuracy stands head and shoulders above the rest.
All of this is not to say that the Bible is without error. No one can prove or disprove that. This is just to say that the Bible seems to be highly reliable, and is very accurate when it comes to telling us who God is and what His will is for us. Yet, whether the Bible has historical or scientific errors is not even the point anyway. We do not judge the truth of a scientist on whether or not he knows the evening news, and we do not judge the truth of the evening news on how well they did in their science classes. No, we judge each one by the type of information that they are trying to give us.
By whose standards?
Some will respond to this by saying "Well, if the evidence for God does not meet my standards of evidence, the standard of modern scientific journals, then I will not believe it". This is just patently absurd and would not apply to many areas of real life, and should not apply to God. The scientific method is great for testing non-personal physical realities that are able to be duplicated in laboratory settings. It is horrible for testing persons and things that cannot be duplicated.
How absurd would it be to scientifically judge which piece of art was the best, or which song sounded the best? How about if you told your spouse that you would not believe in his or her love until they demonstrated scientifically that they were lovable? How about if someone on a jury decided that they could not render a verdict on a murder trial until the murder was re-duplicated? Or what if a historian said they would not believe in Julius Caesar unless he was re-duplicated for all to see? It is patently absurd. Most of the things worth proving are not provable in the scientific sense. The scientific method can test many things, but it cannot test the things that really give life meaning.
When someone is trying to demonstrate something, they use the tools and precision needed to show what is under question. You don't use a scalpel to cut down a tree. You don't use a microscope to measure a football field. You don't expect your science professor to be an expert in history, and you don't expect your history professor to be expert in science, and you don't expect either to be an expert in religion and ministry. You go to a priest or pastor for that.
The Bible gives reliable information about God, even if it may have historical or scientific errors. The Bible was not given to be a science book or even a history book (although it clearly does report much history accurately). We do not need the Bible to teach us about things we can touch and see and test for ourselves. We need the Bible to reveal to us things that we could never find on our own through human effort, such as who God is, what the spiritual world is like, and what moral and spiritual principals should guide our lives. THIS is what the Bible teaches us, in very precise detail. The historical evidence we have merely gives us a higher probability that what it says is accurate and trustworthy.
Reading the Bible in a responsible way
If you want to find out about God, I encourage you to base your knowledge on what the Bible says. And read it like a story, like a narrative. It is not a flow chart or a dictionary where you can just pull out verses out of context. If you pull verses out of context, you can make the Bible sound awful, when that is not what it is saying at all. Here is an instance: "He went out and hung himself... and Jesus said, 'go and do likewise'... 'and what you do, do quickly'" (Matthew 27:5, Luke 10:37, John 13:27). You can twist Scripture any way you want to, and even make God look evil and Satan look good.
Don't get me wrong. I believe that the Bible is totally and completely true from cover to cover. That is why this book is based on what the Bible says about God and His will for us. But I believe it is true to tell us truths about what God needs us to know: namely, who He is and what His will is. This truth is sometimes given to us in legal and systematic form, in sets of laws or ideas. More often, this truth is given to us in stories that demonstrate God at work in the lives of real people. These stories, while true, do not usually have the type of accuracy we would expect from a modern history textbook. They don't have to, because they were not written for that purpose. Rather, they were written to show what a real relationship with God is like, for individuals and communities. When it is essential that something be historically accurate to be true (such as in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus) the Bible makes that clear.
Other times, the Bible gives us this truth in fictional stories, like when Jesus tells parables. God also gives prophets visions and dreams, in which truth is presented in very symbolic, and often confusing, ways. And finally, many times the Bible gives us this truth by showing us what NOT to do, and by giving us stories where people turned away from Him and His will for them. All of this is true, it is just truth given in different containers. That is why it is essential to interpret the Bible like any other book, by paying attention to the historical context, the type of literature, and the flow of the story.
Part of the reason is because the Bible is a story, a narrative. Because of this it reports evil actions and misconceptions of God as they happened, and sometimes people mis-interpret this and think that the Bible is affirming these misconceptions. That is why it is always good to read the Bible first as a story of God's family across the ages as they have wrestled and struggled with God. Secondly, it is good to read the Bible in the community of God's family, the Church, since it will be His family that knows Him best and is best able to understand His Book. You may even want to talk with someone who is a leader in the Church, who has been trained to understand the original languages and original historical contexts of the Bible. They will be able to help you understand what it is saying about God and His will for us, especially when the Bible seems obscure or confusing.
This brings us to the issue of culture, language, and interpretation. The Bible was written in a far different culture, in languages that we no longer speak. English translations do their best to get the meaning across this culture and language gap, but often something is lost in the process. We can recover what is lost, but only be really studying it, talking about it with other believers, and wrestling with it in prayer.
There are tons of websites out there that like to point out supposed "Bible contradictions", where they rip two or more Scriptures out of context and put them side by side and make the Bible appear ridiculous. What you have to remember is that these people are treating the Bible in ways that they would never want people to treat their own writing and speech. Secondly, you have to remember that these people do not like God or the Bible and will twist anything they can to make them sound bad. Thirdly, you have to remember that they rarely, if ever, put in the time and effort needed to understand the original language and cultural context that the passage is coming from.
Someone has said that it takes a lot less effort to tear down a house than to build it up. It may take 30 men to build a house over a month, but one man in a bulldozer can tear it down in 30 minutes. Does this "disprove" the house, and make it a defective house? Not at all. It just shows that it is easier to be destructive and critical, than constructive and loving. If you mis-use the Bible, you can tear it down and cut yourself off from God in a matter of days. But if you use the Bible properly, as God means for it to be used, reading it and listening to it and struggling with it alongside God's family, then it will take you on a lifetime journey into the heart of God.