March 7, 2021 - Facts Versus Feelings

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What are the roles of facts versus feelings in leading us to the truth? Are feelings reliable, or can they lead us to falsehood? Can we prove the truth about God by evidence or logic? Facts are all we have to prevent our biases and imaginations from sweet-talking us into self-delusion.

Yet what good is evidence? All the evidence in the world cannot change the mind of a person who refuses to see evidence for what it is. As Cornelius Van Til argues, people can read evidence any way they want to. We all tend to see evidence the way we want to, based on our own preconceived biases. If we try to prove the resurrection of Jesus to an unbeliever, they can easily say, “Yeah, weird stuff happens all the time, like 5-legged frogs! What does it prove?”

Archaeologists debate whether the Biblical empire of David and Solomon ever existed. They look at archaeological evidence we have found for a powerful kingdom in Israel. Some scholars date the ruins to the 10th century BC, to the time of David and Solomon, while other scholars look at the same evidence and date it 100 years later, to the time of Ahab. Each of them sees the facts the way they choose to see them.

Biologists fiercely debate what they see in the fossil record. Many see undoubtable proof that all living species evolved from other species. But some look at the same fossil record and see large gaps between species. They see the so-called Cambrian explosion: sudden appearances of complex organisms like trilobites, seemingly out of nowhere, almost as far back as we can go in the fossil record. They ask: How do you get from simple chordate organisms to fish? How do you get from land mammals to whales? Biologists can look at the same data, and disagree about what exactly they are looking at and what it means.

Evolution cannot be proved in a test tube. History cannot be proved in a test tube. Both are non-repeatable. We can’t go back and watch Jesus rise from his tomb, but we can’t go back and watch Julius Caesar cross the Rubicon, either. We can’t prove the existence of God, either. But we can make a plausible, believable case that God does exist, depending on whether people are willing to read the evidence that way.

What some view as errors or falsehoods in a book like the Bible, may be seen differently by others. Was Jesus “wrong” when he says the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds if we find smaller seeds, or was that seed small enough to make his point? If we have not located the city of Ai from Joshua, is the Bible wrong, or have we failed to look in the right place? If Luke and Josephus appear to contradict each other about when Quirinius’s census took place, is one of them wrong, or could we have misread what both of them say? It all depends on our biases and assumptions. I try to cut other people’s holy books the same slack as I do with my own.

Sometimes no amount of proof will change people’s minds. It’s all like the story of the mental patient who was convinced that he was dead. The therapist uses medical books and films of autopsies to eventually convince the patient, “Dead people don’t bleed.” Immediately, the therapist stabs the patient in the hand with a scalpel. The patient looks down at his bleeding hand and cries, “Dead people do bleed after all!”

For many people, the testimony of the Holy Ghost in their hearts overrules any amount of evidence one might share with them to persuade them to change their belief. I’ve written about this in my book, The Historical Jesus and the Historical Joseph Smith. Many people argue that if we ask God whether their book’s message is true, God will show us it is true, “by the power of the Holy Ghost.” Likewise, the Protestant Westminster Confession of Faith says that “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority [of the Bible] is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” Both of these traditions teach that the testimony of the Spirit is the ultimate confirmation of God’s truth.

So, what good is historical evidence for the Bible, or Christian belief, or any belief? The answer is: evidence and Spirit must go hand in hand. God’s Spirit cannot authenticate a falsehood. Wherever obvious lies are being told, we must question whether this is the Holy Spirit speaking or a deceiving spirit.

The role of God’s Spirit is to open our eyes to see the truth for what it is. The role of evidence is to give us reasons why we should trust a testimony to our faith, and not the testimony of countless Muslims or Hindus or other religions to their very different claims of truth.

Truth cannot be based on feelings. Proverbs 14:12 (repeated in Proverbs 16:25) says, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way to death.” Feelings are what led John F. Kennedy Jr. to believe that he was flying on a level course on that fateful night of July 16, 1999, when in reality he and his passengers were plunging straight downward to their deaths. The instruments in his cockpit told a different story than his feelings. Our feelings are notoriously unreliable. Wishful thinking can’t change the truth.

Back in 1978, the morning after we heard the news that Jim Jones and his 900 followers had committed mass suicide, when I came to class at college that morning, my professor (who was an agnostic) asked me, “Tom, how in the name of God do you explain what just happened?” My response was, “It proves that it is possible to be sincerely – wrong.” And in this particular case, the price of being wrong was sky-high.

When any book that claims to be from God makes statements that cannot be verified, we can either take its claims on faith, or we can base our trust on the book’s track record of verified claims on other subjects. I refuse to believe that a book comes from God simply because it says so. Any book can make that claim. We need reasons to support that claim, hopefully reasons that can be tested in verifiable reality, reasons which anyone can see for themselves.

Some might think that I am demanding proof from God, rather than accepting the Bible’s word on faith. What I am saying is that we fallible humans need a little help from God to show us why we should believe the claims of the Bible, and not the claims of other books as well. And what we need is more than simply the testimony of the Spirit. The testimony of the Spirit can easily be misidentified. What we think is God speaking to us can easily turn out to be our own wishful thinking. When 2 books are both making claims to be from God, we need reasons why we should trust one book more than the other.

John writes in 1 John 4:1, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Spirit must be checked by facts, as best as we can determine those facts, lest we be misled by the wrong spirit. John gives his readers one specific example: anyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not from God. As we have seen in previous broadcasts, the big deception in John’s day was coming from the Gnostics, who believed that the material world was evil, and that Jesus was therefore just a ghost, that he did not truly come in the flesh. John is just giving one example of the spirit of error. There are more. What a faith teaches about Jesus is of crucial importance as we sort out which spirits are from God.

But why Jesus? It’s hard for us to see the issue through the eyes of the ancient world where Jesus first appeared on the scene. The Greeks and Romans had their gods. The Jews had their God and their Hebrew Bible. Why should either of them believe this newcomer named Jesus to be the truth, let alone the measure of all other truth? As Paul says to the church at Corinth, the Jews demanded signs from God, and the Greeks wanted wisdom. Yes, only the Holy Ghost can open our eyes to recognize Jesus for who he is, but how do we know it’s the Holy Ghost, and not some deceiving spirit, like the kind John warns his readers about later on?

The example of the Bereans in Acts 17 sets a wonderful example for us on how to proceed. The Jews in the synagogue at Berea (west of Thessalonika) had the word of God. They had the Hebrew Bible. Paul brings them a new word from God. He announces that the Messiah predicted in that Bible has come. It sounds good, but to be sure they weren’t buying into baloney, we are told that the Jews at Berea “searched the scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Wherever we know that God has spoken, we need to check and make sure that any new word that claims to be from God is consistent with the word that God has already given us. If it’s not, then we have reason to question whether that new word truly comes from God.

Backing up to when God first spoke to the Hebrew people, how do we know it’s God who is speaking in a situation like Abraham’s? Abraham had no Bible to rely on; he was just beginning to lay the foundation for God’s word as he followed the unfamiliar voice that told him to walk away from the gods of his ancestors. Moses, who added volumes to what we now know about God, needed some powerful assurance that this God was not just a voice in his head. Later on, prophets would come who claimed to be from God, who made competing claims. We had Elijah versus the prophets of Baal. We had Micaiah versus the prophets in Ahab’s court. We had Jeremiah versus the false prophets of his day.

In most of these cases, the other prophets spoke in the name of the same God. How were they supposed to tell which prophets were speaking the true word from God? The people back then did not have anywhere near the amount of God’s written word that we have. That’s why these cases were preserved in God’s word, as God shows us (case by case) which prophet had the truth. Now that God has given us the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets for our faith, we are in a much better place to test new claims of faith when they come along.

Ultimately, if an authoritative text has proven itself reliable to us at points where we can verify its truth, we will trust it at points where the truth of that text gets challenged, whether it be the existence of Solomon’s empire, or the existence of an historical Adam and Eve. And in any situation where the authoritative texts of different religions happen to fundamentally disagree, we must decide which book we trust more.

A few moments ago, I said that we need at least some undeniable, verifiable truth to help us tell the difference between a book we can trust and a book we cannot trust. As we seek to verify the claims of different books that claim to be from God, some of them make claims that appear to be impossible. Does that disqualify them from being true? Not necessarily.

We can imagine how hard it was for the earliest European visitors to Australia to convince the people back home that the platypus was for real. So we can imagine how hard it was for the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection to believe their own eyes. Miracles and visions from God are not impossible, they are just rare and more difficult to substantiate by witnesses. Cases of humans surviving after getting swallowed by a sea creature (like Jonah) are not unbelievable, but yes, we can count them on one hand, so we understand why some are skeptical. We have to rely on claims that we can verify, to help us decide whom we can trust when it comes to claims that we can’t verify. Because I am persuaded by a strong case that Jesus truly rose from the dead, I find it much easier to believe that Jesus was conceived without human father, that he was God in human flesh, and that he walked on water, all of which would be much harder if not impossible to believe if not for my conviction that Jesus rose from the dead.

We talked about this once in a morning Bible study group. I told them that I classify cases of paranormal events into Class B and Class A events. Class B is what I call healings and events that are rare or even astounding, but violate no laws of nature. Class A is what I call events such as resurrection of those who are brain-dead, events which break the laws of nature (meaning, we never see them happen), but do not break the laws of logic. By implication, the third category would be events that break the laws of logic, such as, the possibility that a finite moon could be on both sides of the earth at the same time. God does not do logical impossibilities, yet that does not contradict our belief that God can do anything.

The Bible does not require me to believe logical impossibilities. It does call me to faith in wonders that are rare but break no laws of nature, and wonders that break the laws of nature but not the laws of logic. I believe in them, because I find the rest of the Bible’s testimony to be compelling. But I try to be charitable in assessing the supernatural claims of other religions. Other books make numerous claims that I do not personally accept, but I respect the willingness of those who believe in those books to suspend judgment on those claims, for reasons similar to why I am willing to trust the Bible at points where I find my faith stretched to the limit.

As the angel Gabriel says to the Virgin Mary in Luke 1:37, “For with God, nothing shall be impossible.” Therefore, I try to be cautious not to rule out anything but logical impossibilities, just because nobody else has seen some paranormal claim. When I hear claims today about people who were brain-dead rising from the dead, or stupendous healings with no natural explanation, or when I hear about people knowing facts that they had no way of knowing, or speaking languages that they never learned, or seeing visions of heavenly beings, I take a wait-and-see sort of approach. They could be true, or not. However, I may be difficult to convince that your paranormal claim really did happen.

Once when I was leading a worship service, I heard a guy say that the devil sat down next to him on an airplane. What did I say? I said nothing. I was cautious. How do I know for sure that the devil did not sit down next to him? But neither was I willing to agree that what he saw was true. People claim to see angels all the time. My test is to see whether that angel comes to call attention to himself, or to point people to Jesus. I hear prophets today making predictions. I wait and see whether the parts that can be tested come true.

God does not expect us to be gullible. God does not expect us to be so open-minded that our brains fall out. As John writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:9 that the great coming Lawless One will come “with all power and false wonders.” Jesus says, “For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” We don’t need to wait for the last days to see false prophets and even false signs and wonders. We need more than feelings to guide us.

Only God can open our eyes to see the evidence for what it is. I’m just glad God has been merciful enough to give us a lot more than unreliable feelings to lead us to the truth. God has given us evidence. God has given us reasons why we should believe the claims of the Bible over any other book, why the Bible deserves our trust more than any other book. Only the Holy Ghost can convince us that this is true, but God gives us evidence to help us make that judgment call. We’ll talk about that next time on Biblical Words and World!