“Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written: Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
—Matthew 4:7 (NIV)
As an atheist, the principal reason I do not believe in God is the lack of physical evidence. The observed facts simply do not support the existence of such a being, and therefore I believe it is no coincidence that most holy books warn their followers not to test their creeds, via parables and sayings such as the one above. (The quote comes from a section of the New Testament where Satan challenges Jesus to prove his divinity by performing miracles.)
To be sure, the believers say, we can infer the existence of God from unusual coincidences, apparently answered prayers, kind and courageous acts carried out by human beings, and changes in personality brought about by newfound strong belief. But, they say, we are not permitted to carry out an objective, rigorous, systematic test to ascertain whether God exists – or if we do, we cannot draw any conclusions from a negative result. We have no right to ask God to produce himself on demand to satisfy our doubts; we must take whatever he chooses to offer us and be content with it. In other words, the evidence can count for the existence of God, but never against.
However, in the Bible there are three stories – one from the Old Testament, two from the New – that say differently. The message of each of these stories is that God is willing to be put to the test before skeptics, to prove his existence and answer doubts with incontrovertible, empirical evidence.
The implications of these stories should be disturbing for theists of the Judeo-Christian tradition. After all, if God was once willing to prove himself, are not modern-day skeptics within their rights to ask for similar proof, and to reject belief if they do not get it? And why would the unchanging God act in such a manner in the past if he does not do it today? Can that be considered fair or just? Or, as “One More Burning Bush” argues, does this not imply that God is nothing but the result of a myth-making process developing over time?
Whatever the explanation, these three Bible stories undermine the arguments of believers who insist on the necessity of faith, and reinforce the convictions of skeptics who know it is at best unwise, and at worst dangerous, to accept any claim without sufficient evidence. The first story comes from the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, and concerns a confrontation between the prophet Elijah and the apostate king Ahab.
Elijah and the Prophets of Baal
“So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah. When he saw Elijah, he said to him, ‘Is that you, you troubler of Israel?’
‘I have not made trouble for Israel,’ Elijah replied. ‘But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.’
So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’ But the people said nothing.
Then Elijah said to them, ‘I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire – he is God.’
Then all the people said, ‘What you say is good.’
Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.’ So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. ‘O Baal, answer us!’ they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
At noon Elijah began to taunt them. ‘Shout louder!’ he said. ‘Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.’ So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come here to me.’ They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which was in ruins. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, ‘Your name shall be Israel.’ With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, ‘Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.’
‘Do it again,’ he said, and they did it again.
‘Do it a third time,’ he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.’
Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!'”
—1 Kings 18:16-39 (NIV)
As the reader can see, it was Elijah himself who suggested putting Jehovah to the test against Baal – Elijah, one of God’s greatest prophets, and one of only three people in the entire Bible (the other two being Enoch and Jesus Christ) who were granted the unparalleled honor of being allowed to ascend directly to Heaven while alive. If there have ever been any people who understood God’s will, Elijah was surely one of them, and he apparently saw nothing wrong with the idea of asking God to prove his existence in full public view. In fact, he was so sure of success he had no problem in giving his own side a disadvantage. And God did not rebuke him by remaining silent – he responded clearly, in dramatic and unmistakable fashion, showing the assembled nonbelievers that he was the one true deity.
This is exactly the way skeptics have always said God should act. Instead of hiding himself away, in this story he steps out from behind the curtain and makes his existence obvious, proving himself through a test where the conditions for success and failure were clearly set, the results would be unambiguous, and a success could not be brought about by chance. Why doesn’t he do this more often? He would convince a great number of hardened skeptics, and is that not what he wants? This story lets us know that the Biblical God is not averse to proving himself thusly.
Proselytizers are fond of saying that nonbelief is a “heart problem” rather than a “head problem,” that those who do not believe have already chosen to do so for selfish personal reasons and thus evidence in the form of miracles would not sway them, but this story shows that to be false. The apostate Israelites were glad to return to worship of the true God when they saw his power demonstrated. Nor, apparently, was God concerned that such a miracle would amount to coercion (the other commonly given explanation for why he does not do them more often); in fact, Elijah explicitly said that its purpose would be to “turn their hearts back”. In sum, this story supports everything skeptics have always said, and the next story will provide further support.
The Conversion of Saul
In any list of the most influential early members of Christianity, the name of St. Paul of Tarsus must stand high. He was a prolific author who wrote a significant portion of the New Testament. He participated in the “Jerusalem Conference” recorded in Galatians 2 and Acts 15 that helped hammer out the fledgling religion’s view on the continued applicability of the Jewish law. And he was a tireless and dedicated proselytizer that worked to spread the new faith, and is quite probably the one person who was most responsible for its survival.
In light of these facts, it may be surprising for some readers to learn who he was before he was St. Paul. Before the dramatic events that effected a 180-degree turnaround in his life, according to the Bible, he was a Roman thug named Saul who eagerly and viciously persecuted Christians. The story of his conversion is the second one this article will discuss.
“Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’
‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered.
The Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.’
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord – Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized.”
—Acts 9:1-18 (NIV)
The story of the Damascus Road conversion raises serious problems for those Christians who claim that God withholds himself because he wants us to choose our own path freely, whether for good or for evil. God did not follow this plan of action with Saul – instead, he directly and spectacularly manifested himself for the express purpose of changing the course of this man’s life, commanding him in a way that could not be resisted or ignored.
Furthermore, the reader will note that God did not stop at causing Saul to see a strange light or hear a voice – events that, no matter how striking, could still have been construed as the result of hallucination. Instead, God supplemented this vision with confirming physical evidence that could not have been faked – he sent another man who was able to tell Saul, unprompted, the exact contents of his vision. This is information Ananias could only have obtained through revelation, proving to Saul beyond any doubt that his experience was no dream.
Granted, Saul may be a special case. Perhaps God converted him because he had special potential that Christianity needed to thrive, and perhaps not all of us could achieve as much if we were likewise miraculously converted. But that is besides the point. God was still willing to do this, and what he did once, he can do again. The fact that he did it at all shows that he has no objections to doing it in principle. If God wants atheists to believe in him, why doesn’t he send them visions like the one he sent Saul? It is not as if it costs him effort to do so, and wouldn’t it mean more souls saved? Isn’t that what God wants? Believers may object that this would constitute coercion, but that brings us full circle, back to the original question: Why then did he do it for Saul?
The last story this article will examine is the most personal and profound, and will lay to rest once and for all the Christian claim that God wants us to have faith above all else. It is Easter Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, and Jesus has arisen from his tomb. At first the disciples were despairing over their master’s death, because they “knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead” (John 20:9, KJV), but that evening he comes and shows himself to all of them, to their wonder and rejoicing. Almost all of them.
“Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’
But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.’
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’
Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!'”
—John 20:24-28 (NIV)
Keep in mind the identity of this skeptic. Thomas was one of the original twelve disciples, one of the select few who had accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry and therefore had already seen most if not all of his miracles. In particular, he witnessed one of Jesus’ most spectacular miracles, and one of the most relevant in this instance – the resurrection of Lazarus (as testified to by John 11:16, which mentions Thomas by name). But despite having seen Jesus fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament, having seen him display supernatural power over nature, and having seen him raise people bodily from the dead, Thomas still wanted to touch Jesus’ scars himself before he was willing to believe in the Resurrection! Surely this is the epitome of hard-hearted skepticism!
And how did Jesus respond to this demand? Did he castigate Thomas for doubting? Did he tell him to have blind faith? Did he even demand that he believe on the basis of the evidence he had already seen? No. Instead, he gave Thomas exactly what he asked for, letting him see with his own eyes the nail prints in his palms, letting him touch with his own hands the spear mark in his side – giving him the rock-solid, physical evidence he needed to overcome his doubts.
Well, I am a modern-day doubting Thomas. I want the same opportunity he had; I want the same level of evidence that he got. If I am to believe in Jesus, I want to see the nail scars in his palms with my own eyes and touch the spear wound in his side with my own hands. What could be fairer than that?
Granted, the positive message of this story is soured somewhat by the next verse, in which Jesus tells Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29, NIV). But that does not affect the basic point of my request. Even if Jesus values blind faith more highly, he still granted Thomas’ request. It would be inconsistent and unjust of him to answer one request for evidence, but turn down another, identical request and demand that the person believe anyway. If God is a God of justice, he will not present a less convincing case to some people than others and then punish them all equally for not believing. Why should God be more accessible in some time periods than others? Will Thomas go to Heaven while other people who could have been saved will instead go to Hell, merely because of the time and place of their birth?
Believers may object to the idea of Jesus traveling from place to place to let each skeptic inspect his wounds personally, but again, what does it cost him? Why should he not do this? When the stakes are as high as the eternal fate of one’s soul, no one should have to make a decision based on anything less than the very best evidence. (Imagine if the prosecutor in a criminal trial complained to the jury, “I presented evidence in the last case! I shouldn’t have to do it every time. I’m a famous prosecutor, so you should trust me when I say the defendant is guilty.”) If he answered Thomas’ request, it would be unjust for him to do anything less for the rest of us. Am I within my rights to ask to see the same evidence that was given to Thomas, or for that matter Saul, or Elijah?
I have presented a version of the above argument to believers on several occasions, and the most common response is that I do not need to personally see such things, because all the testimony of these events is recorded in the Bible and I can read that instead. Such a reply misses the point entirely. What was given to Thomas, to Saul, and to the Israelites with Elijah was first-hand, eyewitness, physical evidence. The Bible, by comparison, is a book of unknown provenance containing hearsay stories written by anonymous authors in an uncertain time and place for the explicit purpose of propagandizing; a book of which we possess no original copies, making it impossible to tell how much these stories have changed since they were first recorded; a book passed down through the generations, copied and translated and recopied countless times with errors slowly accumulating all the while; a book that makes numerous claims that are impossible to verify, and other claims that blatantly contravene our present hard-won understanding of the way the world works; a book full of internal contradictions and clashes with science and history; a book, in short, that looks and feels just like all the rest of the dozens of books of mythology in this world in which people fervently believe.
Such a tenuous and fragmentary chain of legend can never, ever replace a simple touch of the nail prints with one’s own hands. The Bible itself testifies that we are entitled to more and better evidence than we currently have if we are to believe; therefore, if such evidence is not forthcoming, we are not only within our rights but obligated to reject it. If Elijah prayed before the Israelites and the fire would not come, or if Thomas’ fellow disciples insisted Jesus was resurrected but could offer no tangible proof, would these people not have been within their rights to doubt? Would they not have been justified in demanding a bedrock of more solid proof upon which to build their belief? And if so, then are modern skeptics not similarly justified in withholding belief in the absence of better evidence? Can it really be a coincidence that God never acts in reality in the ways he is depicted as doing in the pages of the Bible?
To believe a proposition in the absence of sufficient evidence is at best unwise, and at worst irresponsible and dangerous – consider how many wars have been started, and how many lives lost, throughout history by people’s blind faith in political or religious leaders. Human history bears witness to the simple truth that the evidence – not desire, not expediency, and most definitely not faith – must always guide our steps. As this article has shown, even the Bible teaches this, though it is a lesson its writers doubtless never intended to convey. And until evidence shows the Bible to be true – until God can be seen to act in the way he routinely acts within the pages of this book – atheists will rightfully remain today’s doubting Thomases. Until and unless the evidence can be provided, we will continue to warn humanity of the folly of theistic belief, pointing the way to a better future free of doubt, of hatred, and of fear.