On an October day in 1995, I was diagnosed with an incurable disease.
I’d been sick for several weeks, with stomach pain so severe and debilitating that I was certain I was suffering from a food-borne illness like E. Coli. I’d lost almost 20 pounds, I was unable to eat, and I hadn’t been to work in almost two full weeks. After extensive (and intrusive) testing, my doctor delivered the news.
I’d never even heard of ulcerative colitis. In those days, I’d just gotten my AOL account and could barely navigate the web, much less skip through WebMD, the Mayo Clinic’s website, or various sources of authoritative or semi-authoritative information, so I did the next-best thing: borrowed one of my doctor’s medical texts. As I scanned, I found out everything I already knew — that the disease could be painful and debilitating — and things I didn’t want to know — that the disease could cause life-threatening complications. Oh, and it was incurable.
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In recent years we’ve witnessed the rise of a vocal atheist community, particularly on the Internet. Some are angry and condescending towards people of faith, some not, but one of the common arguments they make — regardless of attitude — is there is “no evidence” that God exists.
This statement has always puzzled me. I could understand that they may not be persuaded by the available evidence, but “no evidence”? Really?
What is “evidence”? A decent legal definition is “every type of proof legally presented at trial . . . which is intended to convince the judge and/or jury of alleged facts material to the case.” This proof can include eyewitness testimony, expert testimony, scientific evidence, and circumstantial evidence. The types of evidence are too numerous to list. But whatever its form, the bottom line is the same: It is proof that is intended to convince another person of the truth of the matter asserted.
Evidence is often contradictory. Eyewitnesses conflict, scientific evidence is often subject to different interpretations or can be tainted by mistakes or corruption in collection and analysis, statistics can often be more confusing than illuminating, but as anyone with even a few seconds of courtroom experience understands, the mere existence of alternative explanations does not — by itself — nullify evidence presented. Conflicting evidence or alternative explanations certainly increase the difficulty in discerning truth, but saying that one is not persuaded by the evidence presented, or believes that the evidence for one proposition is stronger than the evidence for another proposition, is a materially different statement than the assertion that there is no evidence at all.
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My condition deteriorated rapidly. I took steroids until my face puffed out like a balloon, reduced my food intake to the most inoffensive and bland items consistent with basic nutrition, and — yes — prayed hard. Nothing worked. My weight loss was nearing 40 pounds (to put it in perspective, I was at roughly 125 pounds on a six foot frame). Within days, I was hospitalized.
IV drugs were ineffective. I was in unbearable pain. As I kept wasting away, my doctor introduced me to a top local surgeon, who literally started drawing incision lines on my stomach. He was preparing to remove my colon.
At that point, my prayers shifted. I started praying for courage to face the surgery, for stamina in the recovery, and for the fortitude to face the reality of at least a temporary colostomy bag and a forever-changed life. To that point, I hadn’t reached out much beyond my close, local friends, but now — in my desperation — I cast the net much wider, asking my extended family of law school Christian friends to pray.
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One of the more interesting aspects of argument between Christians and atheists is the habit of some to assume that the existence of a possible naturalistic explanation decisively rebuts any assertion of a supernatural cause — regardless of the improbability of the naturalistic explanation (given the current state of scientific thought). So stories of miraculous healing are dismissed as doctor’s errors or the placebo effect or, simply, wishful thinking. Other kinds of claimed encounters with God are dismissed as “coincidence” or even madness (and, to be clear, coincidences do exist, and some people are insane). But the ability to articulate a possible alternative explanation for events does not negate all other alternative explanations.
For example, there are certainly potential alternative stories about Jesus that enjoy varying levels of historical credibility, but does the existence of those alternative stories utterly negate the testimony of the Gospels? Not at all. In fact, much of the alternative historical evidence about Jesus comes from more fragmentary sources, with writers more removed from Jesus’s life than the authors of the Gospels.
I’ll say it again: conflicting evidence or alternative explanations do not equate to “no evidence.”
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I’ll never forget when the call came. It was late at night, well after a person as sick as I was should have been in bed. My law school friend, Ruth, was on the other line. I hadn’t spoken to her in more than a year.
“David, it’s over. God has healed you.”
I can’t remember if I laughed out loud, but I do remember feeling angry. How dare you, I thought. I’m trying to mentally prepare myself for surgery and recovery, and you’re giving me silly God-talk.
“I’ve been on my face before the Lord for the last two hours, and He told me that you were healed.”
Yeah, right. We spoke for a few more minutes, but I got off the phone as quickly as politeness would permit. Still feeling terrible, I went to sleep.
The next morning I woke up and felt curiously refreshed. For the first time in days, my stomach felt reasonably normal. No pain. The next day? No pain. And the next? No pain. Slowly I began eating real food. The doctor told me he was holding off on his surgery recommendation, and gave me a bland diet to try to see what my body could handle.
Within days I was devouring enormous amounts of rice, chicken, pasta, and — yes — my mother’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. By December I’d gained back all 40 lost pounds, was weaned almost entirely off of steroids, and the doctor proclaimed me “in remission” (that can happen with ulcerative colitis patients).
I stayed in remission — for one year, for two years, for five years, for fifteen years. This November will mark the 18th year since I had any symptoms. My recovery was so rapid and complete that my doctor changed his initial diagnosis — away from ulcerative colitis. Subsequent doctors have stated in the years since that “You never had ulcerative colitis.”
What happened to me? Did my original doctors make a mistake? Did I never suffer from the disease? Or did I recover under the awesome power of the world’s most pessimistic placebo, with my friend’s (disbelieved) suggestion that I was healed triggering the brain’s awesome recuperative powers? Or, did my friend pray, God answered, and He healed me?
Alternative explanations? Yes. Conflicting evidence? Perhaps. “No evidence” of supernatural intervention? Oh, please.
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Yes, there is evidence that God exists. I just presented the tiniest piece of that evidence: one incident among many of God’s intervention in my life. Multiply that by millions upon millions through thousands of years, and you begin to get a sense of the cumulative total of the evidence not just of God’s existence but of His active intervention in human lives.
At the same time, multiply the mistakes and delusions of this fallen world by millions upon millions through thousands of years, and you will also understand why things that seem so plain to you can be so cloudy or opaque to others. I’ve seen crazy people claim direct lines of communication with God, only to spew forth destructive nonsense, and — yes — I’ve seen science provide answers that previous generations had left entirely up to the supernatural.
Ultimately, truth is spiritually discerned. We can talk evidence all day long, but until the Holy Spirit moves in the heart of man, that heart will remain dead. But hearts remain dead in part through the lies that we tell ourselves, and one of the greatest lies is this: There is “no evidence” that God exists.
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Every October, I think back to 1995, when God granted me a reprieve that I did nothing to deserve. Then I remember this passage from scripture, a passage that impacts me just as much today as it did in 1995. From the book of Job, Chapter 33:
19 “Or someone may be chastened on a bed of pain
with constant distress in their bones,
20 so that their body finds food repulsive
and their soul loathes the choicest meal.
21 Their flesh wastes away to nothing,
and their bones, once hidden, now stick out.
22 They draw near to the pit,
and their life to the messengers of death.
23 Yet if there is an angel at their side,
a messenger, one out of a thousand,
sent to tell them how to be upright,
24 and he is gracious to that person and says to God,
‘Spare them from going down to the pit;
I have found a ransom for them—
25 let their flesh be renewed like a child’s;
let them be restored as in the days of their youth’—
26 then that person can pray to God and find favor with him,
they will see God’s face and shout for joy;
he will restore them to full well-being.
27 And they will go to others and say,
‘I have sinned, I have perverted what is right,
but I did not get what I deserved.
28 God has delivered me from going down to the pit,
and I shall live to enjoy the light of life.’
Thank you, Jesus, for the great grace you showed an utterly undeserving young lawyer. Thank you for the evidence of Your existence.