Acting as if God is there, as it seems, is a necessary component of having faith in God. Especially if the book of Hebrews in the Christian Bible has anything to say about it.
Hebrews 11:6 says, “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.”
“Must believe that He is,” isn’t that an interesting quote? I find it especially interesting in light of a theory that I have about the majority of folks who believe in God. Lately, I’ve been making the argument that a significant majority of people who claim to believe in God do not equally claim to know that God exists.
So how does this honest admission live up to what is instructed in Hebrews 11:6? The best I can figure is that people are acting as if God exists without actually knowing it for themselves. I think many Christians see this as safe to do because they think of themselves as standing upon the testimony of the Apostles and Christ’s earliest followers.
So, let’s break this down a little bit. Christians have a New Testament, and within this collection of books are a series of extraordinary claims about Jesus of Nazareth and what God was said to have done within the lives of his followers. I’m not here to say that these stories are not interesting. In all honesty, there are some very fascinating ideas in the New Testament. People in union with God? His Spirit living within them and empowering them? Eternal life? A sense of brotherhood with people from all different backgrounds and walks of life? This is great.
Although there are many positive elements to the New Testament story, my position is that truth does not always coincide with hope. The truth is the truth, however the chips may fall. Part of guarding the truth involves applying discernment as it pertains to the reliability of miracle claims. Miracle claims abound in these texts and there are emotional reactions bound up within the narrative itself. Doubting Thomas touches the nail prints in the hands of a Jesus that he thought was dead, but now is alive. He falls to his knees and worships God.
It’s a heart-warming account, but it doesn’t make it true. I’m here to advocate the idea of not putting the cart before the horse. The cart is brimming with emotional appeal to the New Testament narratives. There’s a lot of fuel there to work from. The horse represents truth and how we can best discern what that is as it relates to these stories. My argument is this, and Bart Ehrman makes a similar point.
Miracles are the least probable events to consider for any critically minded historian. This is because miracle claims all over the world have a very poor reputation as it relates to what is true over what is mistaken or downright fabricated. Miracles, as a category of evidence from which to draw from are notoriously unreliable. It can be a complicated debate when I run into people who are convinced that they’ve encountered miracles. It isn’t as if I’m not open to changing my mind, but as the saying goes, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Miracle claims need to earn a reliable reputation, until then, it is no stretch of the matter to say that believers are resting upon very poor evidence.
Guarding what is true also means recognizing when we are unable to classify a set of claims as true. This is my conclusion about the New Testament as well as every extraordinary claim that the Bible makes. A most appropriate response is to suspend judgement and believers in turn have the burden to demonstrate that such claims are reliable. In the interest of believing in true things, each of us is entitled to rest upon the very best forms of assurance. Assurance should be clear, reliable, and derived from the best evidences available.
This brings me back full circle to the admission of a great majority of believers that they do not in fact know that a God exists. They act as if God exists because they draw their inspiration to do so from the New Testament narratives. We all must decide, does the New Testament pass muster as it pertains to the evidence? Not if it can be agreed that miracles are notoriously unreliable to put forth as evidence.
If the greater likelihood is that miracles are made up or highly susceptible to error, then it has not been established that Christianity is true. Many people of course believe it to be true in the face of its poorly purported evidence, in such a case a belief should only carry as much weight as the evidence it can bring to bear. If someone honestly doesn’t know if God exists and yet they tell us that they believe, they are demonstrating that this is a belief based not upon evidence but desire. Desire trumps evidence in the minds of believers all over the world.
When desire trumps evidence, there is a definite likelihood for such a belief being wrong. If people are acting as if God exists without knowing that God exists, they are structuring their lives and giving a lot of time to something that they don’t even know to be true. There is one key element that I think could change the minds of millions of believers. If Christianity was no longer a culturally normative set of beliefs, if it fell out of fashion similar to the way Greek Mythology and many other ancient religions have, this would act as a lynchpin for helping many people proportion their beliefs to the evidence.