Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Anonymous Asks (10)

“How can we know that God is actually real?”

That’s an interesting question, and one that can be approached from a number of angles. The most obvious angle is scientific knowledge. Can we prove in a lab that God exists? Of course not. We can look into a microscope or up into a night sky and witness all kinds of evidence that points to a Creator, but can we demonstrate his existence from these things with 100% certainty to someone who doesn’t believe?

No, we should probably concede that we can’t.

Scientific Knowledge

Most people are not scientists, so when they talk about knowing something “scientifically”, I am highly skeptical. What they usually mean is that they are passingly familiar with something written by somebody with a bunch of impressive letters behind his name. They are accepting another person’s authority, not performing a scientific investigation themselves. Still, it is fair to speak of scientific knowledge as a real possibility, if only for a small number of very educated people.

I am not a scientist, but I believe in electricity. My belief doesn’t come from stringent proofs obtained through scientific inquiry. It comes because when I plug a lamp into a wall socket, all things being equal, the lamp can then be turned on to bring light to the room. As a child I simply accepted this miracle without questioning it; later, someone explained it to me. Because the explanation made sense, I believe in electricity, at least until a better explanation comes along for my air conditioning, my functioning computer and the static charge I sometimes get when I rub my feet on the carpet. If the light in my living room is actually generated by thousands of tiny, invisible, phosphorescent elves, I will probably never know that, but since the explanation I currently have for my functioning lamp makes sense to me, I have ceased to search for a more interesting one.

This is how most intellectual knowledge is gathered. We observe a phenomenon and wonder what causes it. Someone older and wiser offers us an explanation. If their explanation fits the evidence, we accept it. If it doesn’t, we look for a better one.

Probabilistic Knowledge

The degree of certainty we are able to obtain through examining evidence is almost always less than total. People who are 100% certain about everything are either saints, or more than slightly crazy. Most people come to conclusions by weighing the balance of probabilities and opting for the explanation that seems most likely to them. Some of these choices are more obvious than others. With regard to electricity, for instance, the phosphorescent elves are quite a bit less likely than my local electrical company, their probability being something in the order of 0.001%. Most decisions we have to make about what to believe are a lot closer than that, and many times there is decent evidence for more than one possible explanation.

In thinking about the origin of this world, I am able to conceive of only two possibilities: (1) that someone bigger than me made it; or (2) that it came into existence on its own. I cannot think of a third. Explanations like the biblical creation account or like “the earth was seeded by an alien race millions of years ago” fall into the first category. The various evolutionary theories fall into the second. There is no third category, so far as I can see.

Received Knowledge

I have examined both options repeatedly over my five-plus decades on this planet. Neither idea can be proven in a lab. Neither one is more “scientific” than the other, though evolution is embraced by scientists. Both require some amount of faith, since we can neither witness a Creator or creators, nor can we witness evolution in progress. But I opt for (1) over (2) because the latter seems to me a great deal less probable. I have read the “authorities” in both areas, and I am more convinced by the deists than the atheists (we might call this “received knowledge”). Of the various deistic possibilities, I find the God of the Bible by far the most plausible.

That’s me. Obviously others differ. But if the God of the Bible is real, I only have to give an account for what I choose to believe. Others will do their own accounting. All the same, approaching the question of origins as “scientifically” as I am able, I find God a much more probable explanation for life than any near-infinite series of random occurrences.

Personal Knowledge

But scientific knowledge is not the only sort of knowledge available to us. It is only a starting point. You might, for instance, examine the available data on successful marriages and conclude that your marriage is 10% more likely to succeed if you marry within your own ethnic group than outside it. Yet despite the data, you still choose to marry out rather than marry in. Why? Because you are not dating a statistic, you are dating a person. If you find that person trustworthy, appealing and possessed of the qualities you are looking for, you may decide to try to beat the odds, and it’s even possible you will. Personal knowledge is different from scientific knowledge, but it is no less valid. When, against the odds, you make a right choice about who to marry, you demonstrate that sometimes personal knowledge is even more valid.

Trust is real, and it matters, whether it is trust in a person providing you with a scientific explanation, or trust that when you pray, Someone is really listening. My own experience with prayer over 30-something years has convinced me God hears and answers. That’s not scientific evidence, but it’s evidence all the same.

Observational Knowledge

Another reason I believe in the God of the Bible is that what he says so frequently proves true in the real world. We could call this “observational knowledge”. When God says, “You shall not steal,” I can observe that the consequences of stealing are usually bad, not just for the person who is robbed or for society, but often for the thief as well. When Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” I know exactly what he means. I’ve seen it dozens of times. Thus, when God says other things that are more difficult to believe, I always remember how many things he’s already said that proved to be true.

My experience of doing the things God forbids is that while they may please me in the short term, over time they make me acutely unhappy. My experience of doing the things of which God says he approves is that, by and large, they make me feel better rather than worse. The teachings of the Bible are consistent with reality as I experience it, which leads me to believe they are based on some kind of larger truth.

Spiritual Intuition

Finally, there is another kind of knowledge that only applies to people in whom the Holy Spirit of God has taken up permanent residence. I’ll call it “spiritual intuition”, for lack of a better term. The apostle John says to his readers, “You have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.” In context, he seems to mean the ability to distinguish truth from lies when people claim to be speaking for God. We could also call this discernment.

A young person who is genuinely saved may not be able to perfectly enunciate why he is opposed to a particular new interpretation when he hears it, but he’ll usually be able to tell you there’s something fishy about it. That ability only gets more acute with passing years and acquaintance with scripture, and only diminishes in people who refuse to act on the knowledge God has already given them. This is not some kind of mystical thing where you fall into a trance or hear voices, but rather the normal, continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in the child of God. I can tell you from experience that it may be the strongest sort of “knowing” available to a human being. The sense of certainty it produces is well beyond any “balance of probabilities” by which we may evaluate other truth claims.

But of course this is something that cannot be explained convincingly to the unsaved, or experienced outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Really Knowing

But back to the original question: “How can we know that God is actually real?” The psalmist says, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” My suggestion would be this: If you are not sure that God is real, but you really want to find out, then behave as if he is. Live as if there is something to be gained by knowing God. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” The latter statement is absolutely true. So read his word and ask God to give you understanding. If you can’t see him or feel him, ask him to reveal himself to you.

There’s nothing to lose by it, and everything to gain. Certainty comes with time, proximity and obedience, not distance and idle speculation.

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