The skeptical issue in our culture mostly enters into the religious dialogue in the following way: “In the case of God, who isn’t some physical object but a divine being, what kind of evidence should we expect to find? Christianity, Judaism, Islam, are all theistic faiths in contrast to pantheism (all is God), polytheism (many gods), and atheism (without God).The study of world religions involves a commitment to understand the issue of divine revelation. Richard Swinburne has done some work on this topic in his books Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy and The Resurrection of God Incarnate. He gives some reasons we should expect God to provide a revelation to humanity:
- We need a revelation from God so we can come to know more about Him. In other words, if we are to know more about God, he must reveal it in some way.
- Given the current state of our world (it is a world of sin and suffering), we should expect God to deal with this issue by becoming incarnate (taking on a human body and a human nature) and providing an atonement for our sins and identifying with our suffering
- To provide encouragement for doing what is right and avoid doing what is bad by providing rewards and punishments respectively.
- Provide us with moral information so we know what is good or bad as the case may be.
Let me offer a small outline on this issue and then look at some complaints by those who are not religious and some responses.
A. Divine Revelation: There are three things for a revelation to take place:
1. A Being capable of giving a revelation: God 2. A being capable of receiving a revelation: Man 3. A medium that is used for the revelation: (The created order, a messenger, the Bible, Jesus, etc.)
Biblically speaking, the acceptance of revelation is of fundamental importance to the Christian faith. The word “revelation” comes from the Greek word ” apokalupsis” which means “an “uncovering,” or “unveiling.”
In the Bible, there are two types of revelation- general and special. General revelation serves to explain the worldwide phenomenon of faith. Many people are religious, because they have a type of knowledge of God. All people have knowledge of God although it may be suppressed to the extent of being unrecognizable or unconscious. General revelation is seen in the created order (Rom 1:18-21) and through the gift of conscience (Rom. 2: 12-15).
While general revelation manifests God as Creator, it does not reveal Him as Redeemer. The principle of progressive revelation means that God does not reveal everything at once. In progressive revelation, there are many cases where the New Testament declares explicitly what was only implicit in the Hebrew Bible. One of these truths is the Jesus is the long awaited Messiah who takes away not only the sins of Israel, but the entire world (John 1: 29;3:16).
B. Challenges to the Revelation Model: The Outsider Complaint
1. Skeptics say there is no way to test a revelatory model. Religious people just “have faith.” It is blind and can’t be held to any empirical testing.
2. Competing revelatory models: Is there one God who gives a clear revelation? Or is there a God, or god who gives conflicting and contradictory revelations?
3. If religious people start with their Holy Book (The Bible, The Quran, The Book of Mormon), they are begging the question that there is a God who is able to give a revelation. Also, how do they know that it is their God or god that has given the correct revelation?
The late Christopher Hitchens said:
“Since all these revelations, many of them hopelessly inconsistent, cannot by definition be simultaneously true, it must follow that some of them are false and illusory. It could also follow that only one of them is authentic, but in the first place this seems dubious and in the second place it appears to necessitate religious war in order to decide whose revelation is the true one.”–Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2009), 97-98.
4. The scientific/naturalism objection: In his book Kingdom Triangle, J.P Moreland has noted that the majority of academia has convinced a gullible public into thinking that science/naturalism is the only way to arrive at knowledge. Therefore, theology can’t give us knowledge and is cast off into the domain of subjective opinion, etc. What is wrong with this?
5. Fideism: This objection is somewhat similar to #1. If we stick to the revelation model, this approach leads to fideism. Religious fideism asserts that faith and religious belief are not supported by reason. One must simply believe. Faith, not reason, is what God requires (Heb. 11:6). Many skeptics can speak from experience that Christians and other people from religious backgrounds don’t feel compelled to offer rational justification for belief.
C. The Revelation Model: A Response
1. ” There is no way to test a revelatory model”
Response: I agree that there needs to be a healthy skepticism towards revelatory claims. After all, if someone comes to my door tomorrow and tells me they have a new revelation that I need to submit to, I will probably be a bit skeptical. But the bulk of this complaint is based on a view that says unless we can empirically verify something, we just scrap it. The empirical view came to be seen as too narrow and self-defeating since on this ground the principle of empirical verifiability was not empirically verifiable itself. Therefore, it is meaningless as well.
The verification principle has broadened out to other kinds of verification tests such as experiential, historical, and eschatological. Historical verification is a way to test religious claims. We can detect God’s work in human history and apply historical tests to the Bible or any other religious book. The late Anthony Flew said the resurrection of Jesus was the best attested miracle claim that he had seen. Perhaps the most reasonable expectation is to ask WHERE and WHEN God has broken through in human history. To say there is no way to test revelatory claims calls for some clarification.
2. Conflicting Revelatory Claims?
Response: This is why we have what is called apologetics-offering reasons for what we believe. When do this, we can ask the following questions:
1. What is the claim of each religion? 2. How does it claim to know it? 3. What is the evidence for it?
When we do this, we will see that while there are some similarities in faiths such as truth, a God, a right and wrong, spiritual purpose in life, and communion with God, they all also have some glaring differences such as the nature of God, the afterlife, the nature of man, sin, salvation, and creation. As a Christian, I don’t think God wants the world to be confused. If God wants the world to know Him, it seems to me that he would give a clear revelation to humanity.
To assert that the God of the Bible would give a clear revelation in the person of Jesus (33 A.D.) and then give another revelation 600-650 years later (Islam), which contradicts the one in 33 A.D is odd. Furthermore, what about the two other so-called revelations in the 1800′s (Mormonism and the Watchtower Society) that both contradict the Christian and Muslim claim. If anything, that would make the God of the Bible a very contradictory Being. We see in Scripture that the God of Israel is a rational being, principles of good reason do flow from his very nature. For example, “It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb 6:18), and God cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2:13).
In my view, we should follow the guidelines as seen in the book Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective, by Norman L. Geisler and and Paul D. Feinberg. They say the following about the relationship between revelation and reason:
(1) “Reason is over revelation” is correct in that reason is epistemologically prior to revelation. The alleged revelation must be tested by reason. (2) “Revelation is over reason” is right in the ontological sense. God created reason and it must be His servant, not His master. (3) “Revelation only” is correct in the sense that ultimately and ontologically all truth comes from God. (4) “Reason only” has some truth, since reason must judge epistemologically whether the alleged revelation is from God. (5) “Revelation and reason” is correct because it properly assigns a role to each and shows their interrelationship. One should reason about and for revelation, otherwise he has an unreasonable faith. Likewise, reason has no guide without a revelation and flounders in error.
3. The science and naturalism objection
We can look at cosmology, biology, physics, and other fields of science to detect design. As we observe the world around us, there are two kinds of causes- natural and intelligent. When we take this approach, we can show that it requires some faith to think blind, undirected, natural processes (as a mechanism) can fully answer the issue of anticipatory, specified, and irreducible complexity.
Also, while the Christian worldview is not opposed to science, it does recognize the limitations of science in relation to the discovery of human knowledge. In some cases, scientism tends to reduce all legitimate knowledge (epistemology) to the scientific method. Therefore, this form of science ends up committing the reductive fallacy by taking one area of study and reduces all reality to this one area alone. Furthermore, to assert that all truth claims must be scientifically verifiable is a philosophical assumption rather than a scientific statement.
4. The Fideism objection:
The Church needs to take responsibility for this problem. How many sermons or classes have ever discussed a clear definition of Biblical faith? There have been three aspects of faith expressed throughout church history: notitia (knowledge), fiducia (trust), and assensus (assent). Notitia refers to the data or doctrinal element of faith. Assensus refers to the assent of the intellect of the truth of the Christian faith. According to the book of James, the demons have intellectual assent to the fact that God exists but not have saving faith. That is why a person must exercise fiducia- this is the aspect of faith that involves the application or trust in the faith process. In other words, fiducia allows a person to go beyond merely intellectual assent. Fiducia involves the will, emotion, and intellect. Therefore, biblical faith involves a commitment of the whole person.
D. Some Reasons Why I Still Think Revelation is Needed:
1. Building on what Swinburne says, many people don’t have a developed theory of knowledge. Why? Because they don’t have the time or haven’t thought about it. Furthermore, people make rational statements and believe a number of things without doing an exhaustive evaluation of the evidence. Alvin Plantinga thinks belief in God properly basic. Although I don’t think everything about the Plantinga model is correct, there may be some truth to this.
2. The Effects of Sin: Biblically speaking, revelation is needed because of sin. Sin can dampen the cognitive faculties that God has given us to find Him. In other words, sin affects the whole person—mind, emotions, and will. Human beings are radically depraved in their being.People can and do harden their hearts towards God. Sometimes they can reach the point where they are desensitized towards the ways of God. Human beings are radically depraved in their being. Another way to say this is that they are extensively affected by sin. But humans are not totally depraved in an intensive sense, since sin does not destroy the image of God (see Gen. 9:6; James 3:9). God’s image is effaced but not erased. (1)
3. Aquinas on the need for Revelation: I think our buddy Thomas Aquinas offered a good case for the need for revelation. He set forth five reasons why we must first believe what we may later be able to provide good evidence for (Maimonides, 1.34):
1. The object of spiritual understanding is deep and subtle, far removed from sense perception.
2. Human understanding is weak as it fights through these issues.
3. A number of things are needed for conclusive spiritual proof. It takes time to discern them.
4. Some people are disinclined to rigorous philosophical investigation.
5. It is necessary to engage in other occupations besides philosophy and science to provide the necessities of life (On Truth, 14.10, reply).
Aquinas said it is clear that, “if it were necessary to use a strict demonstration as the only way to reach a knowledge of the things which we must know about God, very few could ever construct such a demonstration and even these could do it only after a long time.”
Elsewhere, Aquinas lists three basic reasons why divine revelation is needed.
1. Few possess the knowledge of God, some do not have the disposition for philosophical study, and others do not have the time or are indolent.
2. Time is required to find the truth. This truth is very profound, and there are many things that must be presupposed. During youth the soul is distracted by “the various movements of the passions.”
3. It is difficult to sort out what is false in the intellect. Our judgment is weak in sorting true from false concepts.
1. Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999, 540