Proof of God’s existence is something we’ve all wrestled with at least once. Shouldn’t God appear before us and give us concrete proof? Is an appearance really the best way to achieve confidence?
Christian apologetics is a vast discipline, ranging from philosophical defences, historical evaluations, and scientific facts. I cannot stress the importance of a good defence enough, however, the first question for many doesn’t rise after an evaluation of the historical and philosophical data. For many, the first question is found in a simple plea for an appearance, a concrete proof that tells us that God really does exist. But is a physical appearance the best form of “proof”? Let me explain why I don’t believe it’s so.
When we use the word “proof,” especially in the context of God’s existence, we carry another prerequisite that goes without being said: confidence. What proof can give us the most confidence that something is true? Confidence is an important requirement to carry when we evaluate evidence because we’ve seen time and time again proofs that stand for years only to be disproven with a stronger theory or discovery later down the road. The more confidence we have the more strongly we can conclude that it won’t be disproven later.
Confidence can also keep us from diving into an “infinite regression” of proofs. A proof that gives me confidence may not provide the same confidence for another. If I conclude Proposition B to be true because of Proposition F, why do I accept F to be true? In other words, if I conclude that God is true because I witnessed a physical appearance, why do I trust the appearance? What else would I need to affirm that I really had seen God? And if I did receive some kind of proof that can affirm that I had really seen God, why do I trust that? Wouldn’t I need something else that supports that proof? Then another and so on?
This is where the “appearance proof” starts to break down. I may have confidence that what I saw was God, but would my friend have the same if I told him? Where I stop the chain of regression may not be the same for my friend. Our arguments are unconvincing because we started with a proof that isn’t justifiable. We had KNOWLEDGE but we didn’t have JUSTIFICATION. I would know I had seen God, but I can’t justify that to anyone else. Furthermore, if God appeared to everyone, what’s to stop us from using that to our advantage in inhumane ways? Can we argue that someone is wrong if they claim that “God told them” something if we place an experience above an argument? We need to look for something more substantial. If proof is nothing more than a form of evidence Christianity has enough to enable us to have a reasonable confidence in its truth.
The Kalam Cosmological argument is a very popular (and incredibly simple) argument among apologists for the existence of God (not necessarily the Christian God, I must stress). The formula goes thusly,
A. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
B. The Universe began to exist.
C. Therefore, the Universe has a cause (outside of itself).
There is a strong probability that this argument is air-tight, and it has the same level of justifiable certainty for everyone because it can be looked into and justified by science. A personal appearance lacks this epistemic certainty. There are other proofs as well, including the ontology of morality, the fine-tuning of the universe, and the vast amounts of data on the Resurrection and Jesus’s divinity (i.e. the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, the conversion of James and Paul, etc.). These are proofs that can be substantially justified to the point of being overwhelming.
I must note that personal experiences and/or appearances, despite possessing a lack of justification to others, is an essential component of confidence, if only for the individual. It’s the difference between the belief that something is true to a belief in something. But these experiences must be used in the context of more substantial pieces of evidence. Our testimony to the unbeliever should go from “I believe God is real because I had an experience/He appeared before me” to “I believe my experience is true because God is real, here’s how I know (insert arguments).” We should begin with the most concrete pieces of evidence before moving towards areas that are less justifiable, not the other way around.
We see the Bible approach evidence in the same way. We see the more ambiguous proofs being used far more sparingly than others. Personal experiences/appearances, for example, are not held in high esteem for a testimony as they can be too easily counterfeited (2 Cor 11.14: And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light). We can also note Jesus’s warning of false Christs who will do wonders in His name. Moreover, why haven’t we seen people bowing down to magicians who seem to defy the laws of logic? Couldn’t we call these “miracles,” another proof many skeptics ask for? Yet again we never see an isolated miracle used as an evangelical tool for the reasons that they aren’t compelling and they run into the same problems the personal appearances do.
When John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask if Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus did not refer to isolated miracles, but rather miracles in the context of Messianic prophecy (link 2 below). Jesus used an unmistakable pattern of fulfilment to make certain His identity.
In conclusion, Christianity has an abundance of justifiable proofs that gives us confidence in the existence of God and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I can look through the manuscripts to see if Jesus was who He claimed to be, I can test the eyewitness accounts of the apostles, evaluate the psychological and the social conditions following the Resurrection appearances, the lack of time needed for legendizing, and the severe lack of any kind of sufficient rebuttal in history. We have a vast amount of data on the historical Jesus, more so than every other figure in antiquity. In contrast to the proof of a personal experience, God also treats us with dignity and respect as thinking individuals. We have enough data to come to a decision on our own if we so choose to seriously examine it, and it’s a decision God will honor either way.