Philosophy Fridays: Is Believing God Acted, Without Evidence, Justified?

philosophy

Every now and then, on a Friday, I’ll step into the deep waters of Philosophy, ramble on about some idea and maybe even interact with something I might be reading. Most of the time, a real philosopher could probably read my drivel and offer a corrective—but for now I’ll speak from ignorance. After all, it is Friday; what better way to have fun than with philosophy. In this post I’ll follow up a previous question with answering this question: “Can you be justified in believing God acted in history if you lack evidence or even an argument for the best inference of the evidence?”

Why would we need either arguments or evidence to be justified in believing that God worked in history? People don’t usually function like that.

Currently I believe that I am typing on this keyboard but I don’t believe that it’s really you dreaming of me typing. I don’t have evidence for that belief, nor do I have a good argument: I just believe I’m doing it. This belief could prove to be unsubstantiated (if I’m really plugged into the Matrix) but on what grounds am I currently not justified in holding the belief?

That’s now, but what about three days ago? I truly believe that I bathed. I don’t have a formed picture in my mind of the event. My current stench is evidence to the contrary. Checking the water bill proves nothing. Asking for early rising eyewitness accounts is unhelpful. Am I therefore unjustified in believing that I bathed?

Let’s not belabor the point: we don’t need evidence or an argument to be justified in most of our beliefs. Why would the bar suddenly rise when it comes to God?

Enter the slogan “extraordinary events require extraordinary evidence” which doesn’t make sense on several levels.

First: “extraordinary” is arbitrarily defined. If I bathed only once every three years, but my wife bathed twice a day, wouldn’t me bathing be extraordinary? And at what point is bathing becoming “ordinary”? After bathing every 2 years? Every month?

Second: it’s a moving goal post. After all, some things that at one point might have been extraordinary are now ordinary. Believing in future smartphones in 1982 suddenly becomes a justified belief in 2001 when technology changes?

Third: it forces us to ignore any event. As William Lane Craig said, imagine that I buy a lotto ticket and actually hit the jackpot…am I unjustified in my belief that I actually hit the jackpot because the only bit of evidence I have (ie: the winning ticket) isn’t extraordinary enough? Maybe the winning ticket and the random numbers stated on the screen aren’t enough. Maybe I need to also get struck by lighting. But even getting struck by lightning is less extraordinary than hitting the lotto.

Fourth: what’s extraordinary for God? Imagine God says “I’m going to raise a dead man” then proceeds to do it. Sure the dead don’t normally rise, but how is God doing what he said he would do an extraordinary thing? And if it is the case that he said he would do it back then, can’t I now be justified in believing he acted in history as he said he would?

If James the Baker always tells the truth tells me that yesterday he made me a cake am I not justified in believing him? He’s never made me a cake before. There seems to be no good reason for a cake. And there’s not even evidence that he made me the cake. But I know James and he’s a truth teller and baking is within his sphere of ability. Can’t my belief be justified simply on account of who James is and what he does?

If we substitute James for a necessary maximal being who is The Good, doesn’t that in itself justify beliefs of (at least) God’s activity in history (without saying anything more about what he said)?

So, to the opening post, am I justified in believing God acted in history even if I lack evidence or an argument? Of course I am. That doesn’t mean there isn’t evidence. It just means that I don’t need it to believe it.

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Shock and Awe: Observing Fear

In a Philosophy Friday I addressed the question “Did Jesus Fear” where I pointed out that it depends on what we mean by fear. Fear, I noted, isn’t wrong in itself and might actually be necessary for basic living. But I wanted to make a textual observation that I really didn’t have room for in that post (and plus, it detracts from the primary philosophical considerations).

The textual observation is in regards to Hebrews 5:7

In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. (NASB)

Personally I think piety (even knowing the definition) is a strange word to use but the NASB has a habit of doing that. The NIV does a better job of getting the idea across by translating it as reverent submission.

The Greek term there (eulabeias) is later translated by the NASB in Heb 12:28 as awe.

What’s interesting is when you look at the KJV family. The KJV translates Heb 5:7 as “because he feared” while Heb 12:28 as “godly fear”. This clues us English readers about the problem with translating words only with their literal meaning.

What does the word eulabeia actually mean? Maybe it is only the good fear like reverence?

Well, that collides with its usage when we see the word being used to mean actually fearing (Acts 23:10) something like moved in Heb 11:7 (although the NASB translates it there as reverence) and in the Septuagint (admittedly, an older Greek) 1 Sam 18:29 the word could mean something like being astounded.

So now you have a word (eulabeia) which could mean reverence and it could mean actual fear. Hrm. Maybe we can differentiate it by looking at one of the other words for fear: phobos?

The Bible is choc-full of references with this word but the problem of literal meaning comes up once again. In Matthew 14:26; Rom 13:3; and 1 John 4:18 it means terror or fear but sometimes it could mean reverence, respect, or honor (1 Pet 1:17; 1 Peter 3:2; Rom 13:7; 2 Corinthians 5:11).

Indeed phobos, in some cases seems to mean that terror-sort-of-fear but in (strangely enough) a positive sense (1 Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 7:15; Eph. 6:5; Phil. 2:12).

This is all to conclude that textually, you can’t decide on a position merely because of the words being used. The words can mean something differently in different contexts and within those contexts is where you find the proper breeding ground for this or that position. Mind you, this isn’t to say you can embrace whatever you want. Just because the words have a range of meaning doesn’t imply that you can pick or choose from whatever you want within that range.

In this case a simplistic answer of “No.” or “Yes.” To the question “Did Jesus fear” doesn’t do justice to the words themselves, but it also doesn’t do justice to the text since it doesn’t adress all the complexities involved within the text.

It winds up being primarily a philosophical question (as I pointed out in that other post) based on the implications of the theology of the hypostatic union—which is exceedingly Biblical.


Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 2: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament

Lust, J., Eynikel, E., & Hauspie, K. (2003). A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint

Newman, B. M. (1993). A Concise Greek-English dictionary of the New Testament

Thomas, R. L. (1998). New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek dictionaries : Updated edition.

Zodhiates, S. (2000). The complete word study dictionary : New Testament

 

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