Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Preponderance of the Evidence

“They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”
— Abraham

Anyone familiar enough with the Bible to know whether Abraham or Moses came first has almost surely also read Jesus’ story in Luke 16 about the rich man and Lazarus, so I won’t need to explain to you how Abraham, who lived and died more than 400 years before Moses, could speak intelligibly about what either Moses or the Prophets wrote.

In the Lord’s story, Abraham is speaking from Paradise to a dead man in Hades, across the great chasm that divides the two.

Talking to the Dead

The rich man in Hades begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his five brothers to repent so that they will not end up like him. Abraham replies that anyone who rejects Moses and the Prophets will not be convinced even by witnessing a resurrection.

The Jews literally had Moses and the Prophets, or at least they had what those worthies had written. But everyone everywhere has some version of Moses and Prophets, I think. All have encountered some revelation of God, however wispy and ephemeral, for which they remain accountable.

I once crashed a conversation I overheard in a coffee shop. A young man behind me was talking to his friend about the pros and cons of committing his life to Christ, and I simply couldn’t mind my own business. But once I introduced myself, one of the first things he told me was that his aunt had witnessed to him repeatedly. The things I was saying to him were already familiar. Like the rich man’s brothers, he had his “Moses and the Prophets”, a living, personal testimony to the reality of God. I can think of a dozen other cases just like his.

Without Excuse

Romans 1 tells us bluntly that men are without excuse. That God’s invisible attributes — his eternal power and divine nature — may be clearly perceived in the universe around us. That one way or another, God has given evidence of his existence to everyone. It falls to every individual to decide if he or she will pursue the evidence in hope of knowing God, or reject the knowledge of God entirely, or put the issue on the backburner. The last is hardly an improvement; it is difficult to see why God should be measurably more pleased with our indifference than our hostility.

Of course the fact that God has his witnesses in every life does not mean the gospel is redundant or that Christian testimony serves no real purpose. It certainly does not excuse us from playing our part in the process of bringing light to the world. What can be known definitively about God from nature is limited, and even an eager reader of the Old Testament often requires an interpreter, as the Ethiopian eunuch discovered. But Philip was only required because the eunuch had already gone to the trouble of acquiring the scroll of Isaiah’s prophecy, just as Peter was sent to Cornelius because of his obedience to the limited revelation he already had, and Naaman was cured of his leprosy because he believed a second-hand tale told by a slave.

The Preponderance of the Evidence

Perhaps it is only the trace evidence of real Christian faith that still remains in our rapidly re-paganizing culture, but more and more I find that those with whom I share my faith are invariably already working from some existing starting point, be it a visit to an evangelical church, a childhood experience at a Christian camp or Sunday School, a chance meeting with another believer at some unrelated event, or who knows what.

Some people, like the rich man in Hades, assume repentance or faith are the product of miraculous heavenly revelations. Abraham says this is not the case at all. For those with no interest in knowing God even miracles are useless. Moreover, God owes men nothing, and they will receive no more than they have already received.

The Kavanaugh hearings are a reminder that, notwithstanding the reality that we rarely have all the relevant facts before us and that some of them are no longer obtainable at all, every one of us nevertheless makes dozens of decisions daily on the basis of the preponderance of the evidence. Confronted with claims of one sort or another — whether they be the claims of our children about who stole their toys or the claims of a salesman about the performance of his product — we assess them, weigh their relative likelihood along with the potential consequences of ignoring them, and then proceed accordingly. The powers-that-be in our world all do the same: they make life-and-death choices affecting millions with no final, irrefutable evidence before them because those decisions must be made. The thousands of smaller decisions we make daily are made exactly the same way. Why should we imagine the decisions we must all make about God and eternity are any different?

Let Them Hear Them

This is essentially what Abraham told the rich man in Hades about his brothers. Not “Let them be told for the first time that there are life-transforming claims made about God, righteousness and judgment in Moses and the Prophets.” His brothers all knew that already.

Rather, he said, “Let them HEAR them,” meaning “Let them RESPOND.”

God already raised one man from the dead. Our friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members are not likely to get another.

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