Christian equivocation on testing God

All right, Christians, can I get a straight answer on this, please? Maybe you could have some kind of council or something…? I just want to know if you think it’s reasonable to expect some kind of trustworthy evidence for your god’s existence before believing in him. That means that claiming a mystical trance experience in a group of people doing the same thing as you doesn’t count, but a specific, unusual prayer being granted could count — say, asking God to make an amputated limb grow back and then watching it happen.

Of course, the reason why I keep getting contradictory answers on this question is that the Bible itself tries to take both sides. On the one hand, we have passages like:

You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah. (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:5-7, virtually the same text in Luke 4:9-12)

But on the other hand, you can’t escape passages like:

And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.” (1 Kings 18:36-39, fire burned up stone and water!)

And Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “What shall be the sign that the LORD will heal me, and that I shall go up to the house of the LORD on the third day?” And Isaiah said, “This shall be the sign to you from the LORD, that the LORD will do the thing that he has promised: shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or go back ten steps?” And Hezekiah answered, “It is an easy thing for the shadow to lengthen ten steps. Rather let the shadow go back ten steps.” And Isaiah the prophet called to the LORD, and he brought the shadow back ten steps, by which it had gone down on the steps of Ahaz. (2 Kings 20:8-11, the sun moving backwards!)

Then Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said, behold, I am laying a fleece of wool on the threshing floor. If there is dew on the fleece alone, and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have said.” And it was so. When he rose early next morning and squeezed the fleece, he wrung enough dew from the fleece to fill a bowl with water. Then Gideon said to God, “Let not your anger burn against me; let me speak just once more. Please let me test just once more with the fleece. Please let it be dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground let there be dew.” And God did so that night; and it was dry on the fleece only, and on all the ground there was dew. (Judges 6:36-40, two tests this time!)

Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. (Exodus 7:8-10, this one was God’s suggestion)

Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21, if you’ve been waiting for a New Testament source)

Every time I ask a Christian why God doesn’t heal amputees, or suggest the kind of events it would take for me to consider belief in their god, they tell me that testing God is a major no-no. But when I talk to Christians about the importance of evidence, they assure me that their faith isn’t a blind one and quote Thessalonians to me. Convenient, isn’t it?

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7 Comments

  1. I think the theologically correct response would be that you’re allowed to test God as long as you don’t draw any conclusions from a negative outcome. :)

  2. Ahahahaha, yes, I think you’re right.

  3. The buyBull is written just that way on purpose so that he deluded followers can do anything they like (unlike atheists) and then claim their g0d said its OK.

  4. We already had that council (scroll down to “2. On revelation” then canon 1). I’m kinda surprised you didn’t know that, because it was one of the more common hyperventilating points of Russelites before they all mutated into Dawkinites.

    (And the stock answer is it’s you who’s equivocating, because “putting to the test” is not necessarily the same as “needing reasons”. Putting to the test is basically a relationship failure of the controlling kind. For comparison it’s reasonable to enter only into romantic relationships where you have some good reason to believe your SO won’t cheat on you. But that doesn’t make it reasonable to make permanent surveillance the only evidence you accept on that point and then placing a bug in their shoe.

    But then isn’t it true you already know the stock answer and asked the question rhetorically?)

  5. I don’t know any atheists who are “Russelites” (I assume you are referring to Bertrand Russell) or “Dawkinites” (I assume you are referring to Richard Dawkins). We tend to form our own opinions, and while we may enjoy reading the interesting thoughts of particular people, unlike religious folks we don’t hold anyone’s word as “gospel” truth. That might explain why I wasn’t aware of this particular ruling… never heard any of this hyperventilating you mention.

    Then again, it might be that Christians don’t all seem to hold this ruling to be true. See the last paragraph of my post: I get told contradictory things, sometimes even by the same people, when I ask Christians these questions. Maybe another council is needed. ;)

    I don’t actually buy the distinction you are making between “reasons” and “tests.” As a scientist, I do experimental tests to examine reality, and I use the resulting data as my reasons for holding certain beliefs about reality. It’s got nothing to do with “relationship failure.” And none of the examples I cited were anything like “permanent surveillance” of God. All I’m asking is that God turn the sun back ten degrees, like he did for Hezekiah. Is that too much?

  6. christian & scientist

     /  December 16, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    well, what about not-personally-witnessed examples of unlikely prayer requests being answered? There are wild stories of people thought dead waking up again, healings of lifelong deformities during prayers, etc. I tend to think that if even a fraction of these stories are true, it is proof that something is going on that we can’t perceive through any scientific measurement that we have yet developed. I have heard the argument that some people wouldn’t believe a miracle if they saw one so that’s why they don’t see any, but I tend to think more that we have to figure out which sources of information to trust, just like all published science articles where you look at their methods and results before drawing your own conclusions about whether they successfully proved anything. If we can trust other people’s experiments for physical science results, why can’t we trust some other people’s experiences for guidance about spiritual truths?

  7. @christian & scientist: I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that people notice and in some way document a miracle before believing a miracle has occurred. I don’t believe every urban legend I hear; do you? My guess is no … we know that sometimes stories get exaggerated, because it’s easier to give the benefit of the doubt to something that your neighbor heard happened to their cousin’s best friend’s husband’s pet parakeet than something that supposedly happened while you were an eyewitness.

    The other big question I still see remaining is, how do you choose which people’s experiences to trust for guidance? There are “wild stories” told by people of all religions, presented as supposed evidence for their respective beliefs. If a Muslim claims that someone was healed through their prayers to Allah, and a Christian claims someone was healed through their prayers to Jesus, have we really learned anything — other than the fact that sometimes people’s ailments go away for reasons we might not fully understand? We haven’t actually gotten any extra evidence in favor of either Islam or Christianity here (vs. the other), since the healing (the claims, at least) are independent of the religion variable.

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