What Kind of Evidence?

Fr Dwight Longenecker is right:

What kind of evidence does the atheist want? What would be the knock-down argument/evidence?

The most frequently asked question by atheists who come to this blog is “What evidence do you have for the existence of God?” My reply is always to ask what sort of evidence they require, but not one of them has ever given me a straight answer. My question is an honest one. What sort of evidence would someone be looking for if they wanted evidence for God? I ask this because there are many things in life that we know exist, or whose existence we accept without question for which there is evidence, but the evidence is not of a scientific nature. I’m thinking of Love, Beauty and Truth for example. These virtues are very real, and the evidence for them is solid, but someone who wished to ‘prove’ their existence to a doubter would be hard pressed.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • phil_style

    I disagree with the notion that not a single atheist has ever been ale to give a straight answer. There are plenty of websites where atheists state firmly what precise evidence they would consider as “proof” of God.

  • Duane

    “You are my witnesses, says the Lord…” (Isaiah 43:10). I once read that the rabbinic midrash on that text is – “And if you are not my witnesses, then, as it were, I am not God.” Or, as R. Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote – “There are no proofs of the existence of the God of Abraham, there are only witnesses.”

    The evidence that there is a God is the lives of those of us who believe in God. Are we providing the evidence?

  • http://www.beingfilled.com/ Chuck McKnight

    The problem is not evidence. It is a willful rejection of God. Everyone, even atheists, know that there is a God, but they have suppressed the truth in unrighteousness.

  • John

    “Love, Beauty and Truth”

    Yes, and not as beliefs or propositions, but as a life lived. Which leads to the next question – can an atheist live a life of heartfelt service, compassion, empathy, giving, charity, good will, forgiveness of trespasses, and even love of enemy?

    Perhaps in one sense the atheist is right – religion and religious identity can often be more of an obstruction or diversion, rather than a compliment, to right living.

  • Mark Edward

    It sounds similar to the argument from that movie Contact (written by Carl Sagan). One character, a scientist who has found evidence for alien life, pushes another character, a former priest, to prove God exists. The priest turns it around, asking the scientist if she loved her dad. Well, of course she did. ‘Prove it.’ To that she has no idea what to say. What could be said? I’ve met some who consider this a cop-out, but it really IS a direct equivalent to the ‘God’ question.

    My brother fell in love with a woman, and if you looked for proof that she loved him, you could easily point to their dating history, the child they had, and that they got married… until she cheated on him as a means to get a divorce. After it was all done, she told him that all she wanted from the very beginning was to be able to say she got married and had a kid, since all of her friends had gotten married and had kids by the time the two met.

    We can’t prove God any more than we can prove love, so while the universal belief in the existence of ‘love’ does not necessarily mean ‘God’ also exists, I think it is fair that at the very least atheists who think theism is out-and-out stupid or impossible should lighten up their criticism.

  • Mark Edward

    @ Post #3,

    No. Just… no.

  • EricW

    I think the question makes some false assumptions in the way it’s being asked. Presenting

    1. Convincing evidence for the existence of God is different from:

    2. Presenting convincing evidence for the existence of the Hebrews’ divinity called “YHWH/Elohim” as depicted and described as acting in the OT. Convincing evidence of that might be proof that the things He was said to have done were done as depicted in the Bible, or proof that He spoke or speaks as He did to Abraham, Moses, the prophets, etc.

    Or

    3. Presenting convincing evidence for Jesus Christ’s divinity and Him being “God” and related to the OT YHWH in a Trinitarian homoousion Niceno-Constantinopolitan manner and being fully human and fully divine, and thus humans’ savior, in a Chalcedonian manner.

    Ascribing by default Romans 1:18ff. to all persons seems to be a misuse/misapplication of the text.

    In fact, I suspect that many atheists are not as disbelieving of God’s or a god’s existence or possible existence as they are unconvinced that the Bible’s depiction of God is the true depiction of the One True God.

    So I think the convincing evidence issue is re: several things:

    1. Convincing evidence that there is a Personal Being God.
    2. Convincing evidence that the God of the Bible is that God.
    3. Convincing evidence that Jesus is the Son of God and God the Son.

  • Patrick

    Paul said it was observable creation. I agree.

    Most atheists are fairly well educated, yet they assume the universe both created itself and sustains it’s operation. They wouldn’t say that about something as mundane as a brown paper bag, they do about the universe.

    Chris Hitchens even asked a friend once, “so what IF Jesus was resurrected, what would that prove anyway”?? I’ve got an atheist friend and when I asked him about the universe his response was, “it’s just there”. I respect this guy, this has to be his way of dealing with God.

    I just think he fears God and not in an appropriate way, so he ignores the question, sort of sleep walking through life.

    Here’s something that has been bothering me lately. I have another dear friend, atheist. Wonderful guy.

    He asks this, “How could God be like the bible portrays vis a vis virtue love for His creation and He would allow me to be punished forever even with the understanding I refused to believe, why wouldn’t He just have not had me born”?

    That is not an illegitimate question. My point is, the western church’s eternal punishment stuff is a serious impediment to the advancement of the kingdom and it may need to be reconsidered. Personally, I think it’s crass literalism to interpret scripture like that.

  • http://thekingsfellowship.com Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    I think I’m with phil_style #1. Surely there must be atheists who have thought of their criteria.

    Nevertheless, I think Father Longenecker’s idea is of great value in conversation with the common atheist. In evangelism I have encountered many atheists who have demanded proof but when pressed couldn’t provide an answer to what kind they’d like. To ask the question could be a good way to engage.

    @ #5 – Mark Edward. If you don’t like #2′s comment, then I guess the onus is on you to provide an alternative interpretation to Romans 1:18-19. Maybe you have a good answer. You certainly don’t need to let me know it but I’d be interested.

  • DMH

    #2 Chuck That’s quite an assumption.
    #3 John I think atheists can and do live those things ( as much as anyone else). I tend to ask; can the atheistic view give one encouragement to live that way?

    Nice post and a good question to ask in the conversation. I have found atheists good at tearing down their opponants philosophy but not so good at building their own.

  • John

    @9 DMH

    Good thoughts. I know people of all faiths, and of no faith, who reflect Christ in their lives by what they do and who they are, not necessarily what they say or “believe.” Some of the atheists and agnostics I know are intrigued by and even attracted to Jesus, but sickened by religion, religious institution, and religious identity and posturing (see @2). Can you blame them?

    I also know some militant atheists. Some of the militant atheism I’ve encountered is little different than religious fundamentalism, and fundamentalism itself (religious or otherwise) often seems the antithesis of “Love, Beauty, Truth.”

  • DMH

    #9 Steve to jump in there on your question about Rom. 1. I’m with EricW #7 in that it’s a misapplication. I don’t see Paul’s statement as a one truth fits all times, places, and circumstances (perhaps we see Scripture differently?). It seems to me that to start with that statement is somewhat question begging and begins the conversation on an unnecessary negative note.

  • EricW

    @ #5 – Mark Edward. If you don’t like #2′s comment, then I guess the onus is on you to provide an alternative interpretation to Romans 1:18-19. Maybe you have a good answer. You certainly don’t need to let me know it but I’d be interested.

    (Note: I think you meant to write “#6 – Mark Edward. If you don’t like #3′s comment”)

    Paul continues in Romans 1:21-32 to further explain what the people of Romans 1:18-20 did. That’s what’s problematic about applying Romans 1:18-19 to all persons as a “proof text” for the reasons that atheists don’t believe in God, as you can’t rhetorically separate Romans 1:21ff. from Paul’s argument. Hence I think it’s a misuse of the text.

  • AHH

    I agree with those who talk about our embodiment of Jesus as often the most important witness.

    But another question in response to the way this is phrased is whether we should care about convincing atheists (or anybody else) of the existence of some anonymous “God”. As we used to say in my youth, “that and a quarter might buy you a Coke”. The issue is the specific God revealed and incarnate in Jesus the Messiah. Unless someone is moved toward Jesus, converting to “theism” leaves the atheist just as lost as before (and maybe even further away from where they need to be, depending on what type of “god” the person starts believing in).

  • Ashley

    “Most atheists are fairly well educated, yet they assume the universe both created itself and sustains it’s operation.”. That’s a caricature of the position of most atheists, not reality. I find Big Bang Cosmology pretty convincing, but beyond that I do not know how the universe came to be or even if that question makes sense when talking about universe. We just don’t have enough information or insight at this time to answer the question. The claim that is was created by a god is likewise not supported by any evidence and only complicates the situation. The only honest answer today is “I don’t know”.

  • RJS

    Eric W,

    There was some comment number shifting early on … so #3 became #2 became #3 … #5 became #6 and so on.

  • http://thekingsfellowship.com Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    DMH & EricW, Thanks for answering my query. I was genuinely interested.

    I’ve always read that text in a universal light and think I will continue to. But I appreciate your comments, perhaps someday I look into it and re-evaluate Rom 1:18-19.

  • ykv

    @ #13 – Eric W. “Paul continues in Romans 1:21-32 to further explain what the people of Romans 1:18-20 did. That’s what’s problematic about applying Romans 1:18-19 to all persons…”

    It gets even more problematic if you read Rom. 1:18ff. as a description, not of all people, but of the nation of Israel in particular. Paul’s statement regarding the “wrath of God” (a well-established Old Testament euphemism for “Israel-in-exile”) as being “presently revealed” (i.e., in the form of Jerusalem’s “Roman imprisonment,” heading for the catastrophe of the war of 70 AD) leads me to believe that this entire section of Romans 1 is directed squarely at Israel and Israel’s history. True, he gets there by way of some interesting allusive imagery (Sodom and Gomorrah, the Golden Calf, etc.), but I think that’s where he intended to go.

    As far as proving God’s existence to atheists, I have to agree with Scot’s original post. Trying to prove God exists is indeed very much like trying to prove that Love exists, probably because, according to John, “God is love.” You can point to the effects, but it’s hard to prove the Source, except by way of implication.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    The atheists who are close to me (at least a couple of my kids), totally would accept that there is something transcendent going on in the universe, but they view the bible as a caricature of that transcendence.

  • http://rwtyer.blogspot.com Rory Tyer

    Re: the use of Romans 1 – nobody doubts that Paul is, in Romans, speaking to some situation (or set of potential situations) specifically, and that he is developing an argument rather than listing once-for-all truths. This is Biblical Studies 101. But the really difficult part is to begin to ask the question of how it is that Paul was able to make just that sort of argument to address just the sort of situation he was addressing. What assumptions, for instance, did he have about the nature of the world and its origin that would render appropriate his use of just this argument at just this point? And are those assumptions that could reasonably merit that verse being applied in some other context? Or are we now operating under an imaginary and fundamentalistic (in their own way) set of strictures about how a verse’s original context affects its applicability? I suspect that what people push back against is the seemingly callous and indifferent and self-righteous way some Christians have thrown this verse at people as if it actually solves or proves something. So we should take our cues from Paul: if you’re going to make a statement like that, it has to have an appropriate context. But that just brings us back to the beginning and to the question of when we ourselves might find a context in which we could make a similar statement operating under similar assumptions. This assumes, of course, that Paul’s argumentation and assumptions carry with them some sort of authority with which Christ-followers are obligated to reckon; I recognize that not everyone agrees with this. But if you do, the rest, I think, follows. Just a thought.

    The demand for “evidence” does usually involve a number of problematic assumptions about what is allowed to count as evidence, how that evidence is to be assessed, who has the authority to decide these sorts of questions, etc. I think those who have reference the specificity of the biblical witness (DRT #19 “they view the bible as a caricature of that transcendence”) are onto something extremely important. The issue is not so much God in the abstract; the issue is the biblical record and all of the things that (rightly or wrongly) flow from it, such as the things Christians do or don’t do, etc.

  • Greg C
  • MountainTiger

    I fail to see any sense in which Longnecker is right. As reading the comments to his post would make clear, many atheists have provided examples of evidence that would convince them. To claim otherwise is to lie.

  • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

    My experience with atheists is that they won’t accept any evidence. They deny everything. I even had one who denied that C.S. Lewis was ever an atheist. When I pointed out to him that Lewis recounted his spiritual journey in “Surprised by Joy,” he replied that Lewis was a Christian when he wrote the book and therefore likely embellished the story! After a while you get the definite impression that they deny everything because they really don’t want to believe, which of course is exactly what Paul says in Rom. 1:18.

  • John

    @ Bob Wheeler “My experience with atheists is that they won’t accept any evidence.”

    Bob, those dang nab atheists are saying the same thing about you! Maybe if we tried to love on them, serve them, be kind to them, and understand them as God’s children… maybe they would start to look less like “them” and more like “us”.

  • Bill

    Having been raised unchurched my issue with Christianity was not an unwillingness to believe in the existence of God, but an inability to find a ‘being’ that I could actually call ‘God’. Not having any preconceived ‘Christian’ notions about God, I imagined that God was all wise, all knowing, and all powerful. What my Christian friends told me about God, therefore, didn’t fit. Various reasonings to explain away why God couldn’t use his power, didn’t do the ‘loving’ thing, wasn’t wise enough to give us unarguable scripture didn’t help. Rationalizations about free choice, Satan did it, etc. kept decreasing ‘God’ down to a man. Add judgment, millennia of human suffering, natural disasters, the doctrine of hell fire, etc. and ‘God’ becomes even less than man. For me, nice Christians aren’t evidence for God. A really cool, seemingly ‘designed’ creation isn’t proof either. Scripture certainly isn’t. Christian history isn’t. Nor is the story of grace. When I honestly and as objectively as possible step back from it all I realize that there just isn’t any such things as proof for God. God just isn’t. But life just ‘is’.

  • Charlie Clauss

    On the one hand, if we want to dialogue with atheists, we must come to a common context, including a common language. But on the other hand, why must we accept their positivist assumption?

  • Luke Allison

    I think it’s really silly to lump all atheists into one category.

    Are we talking Richard Dawkins-level top of the world atheists?
    Are we talking infidels.org-level armchair atheist apologists?
    Are we talking about angry hirsute basement atheists?
    Are we talking about kind and gentle Buddhist atheists like Sam Harris?
    Are we talking about deconverted college-age atheists who lacked “sticky faith” but will probably rejoin the church when they have kids?
    Are we talking about agnostics who call themselves atheists because they don’t understand the categories?
    Are we talking about someone like me who seems to go through an atheist phase every time a new tragedy occurs?
    Or are we talking about people who simply have been told their whole life that God should be obvious and evident in their life and don’t see him? In which case atheism is understandable, but avoidable….

    There’s so many different kinds of atheists out there. Endless combinations, too.
    I guess it’s sort of like Christianity!

  • Scott Gay

    Edwyn Bevan’s series of lectures called “Symbolism and Belief” has to be mentioned on this post about evidence. It applies to atheists and Christians. Just one quote of thousands that apply……..”…” now I’m rereading it and it has so many powerful thoughts I can’t pick just one. One thing I get from him is that this spirit life that has appeared on Earth is obviously just a speck, a very, very small fragment, a but brief flash( that given probabilities when considering the times involved, would seem to side with it probably not lasting)) when one considers the scope of this universe. Many who take the void of God view are experiencing reality in that light.

  • Patrick

    Ashley,

    If atheist = there is no God, then they have to assume the universe just created itself or happened accidentally. We’re not discussing agnostics.

  • Patrick Hare

    How about the sort of supernatural phenomena that gave/confirmed the Hebrew and Christian communities their belief? Audible communication, parting/calming the seas, raising the dead, etc.?

  • Marcus C

    @Patrick Hare #30 Honestly, being exposed to supernatural phenomena (I grew up attending the Anahiem Vineyard under John Wimber) is pretty much the only thing that keeps me from succumbing to the questions/problems that Bill #25 brought up and becoming atheist.

  • Greg D

    I have found with my experience that if you ask an atheist this question, he/she likely wants to see physical evidence of God’s existence. A literal manifestation of God’s presence… now… right in front of them. Something that we cannot possibly achieve, although Elijah did it pretty well with those who worshipped Baal.

  • JamesB

    Same proof I would demand if you insisted a particular human being was real: show up and knock on my door. Then maybe we could go grab a beer and a burger. And then I would have a plethora of questions.

    But let’s be honest: it’s a leading question. Like, “Would you like to smell this cologne?”

    As a longtime Christian, now atheist, I figure if the Christian God is real, he is Omniscient. He should KNOW what it would take to convince me. He’s allegedly Omnipotent. He should have the power to do it.

    And the analogies of Love, Beauty and Truth all fail. No one is claiming that any of those desire a relationship with me or that I should serve them.


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