A few days ago I felt a rather large, firm lump on my body.
My first reaction was, “What on Earth is that?”…followed closely by, “Oh my gosh. This could be it.”
Honestly, I started to panic. I know I’m at a higher risk for certain types of cancer and I imagined the worst.
My doctor wasn’t able to get me in for five days. I spent that five days consumed by Google research—diagnosing myself, guessing what stage cancer it would be if I had it, and looking at 5-year survival rates for the various stages. Every time the kids were occupied, I would quickly grab my phone to Google something new about the size, shape, and texture of my unwelcome lump.
I eventually concluded that there was a pretty good chance it actually wasn’t cancer given the characteristics of the lump. I was still scared, but the more logical side of me believed it was more likely than not to be benign. When the morning of my appointment rolled around, I went in with the hope of reassurance.
That didn’t happen.
The doctor said he was “pretty” confident it wasn’t cancerous. I asked him if “pretty” confident meant something more like 51 percent or 90 percent, thinking he would say 90 percent. He replied, “More like 51 percent.”
The words hung in the air for what seemed an eternity. This is just as likely to go either way.
The doctor gave me an urgent referral for the various tests needed to determine what was going on later that day. I went home and had some very dark moments.
Fear consumed me. I prayed with desperate, tear-covered pleas for health.
I felt absolutely nothing back from God.
Just a menacing silence.
And at that moment, the voices of so many skeptics filled my head…
Why would God be so hidden at a time like this? Is He really there?
As an apologist—someone who knows well the evidence for God’s existence and the truth of Christianity—I knew what I would say to someone else asking that question. I could talk all about evidence and the philosophical reasons for divine hiddenness.
But in that moment, I didn’t want any more evidence. I didn’t want to make a case to myself for the truth of Christianity. I didn’t want to weigh facts to see what was most reasonable.
I wanted an experience.
I wanted a feeling.
I wanted to be overcome with the presence of God, with a feeling of peace, or with a supernaturally-given reassurance that I was going to be OK.
None of those things happened. And in that darkest of moments, I understood more than ever why experience so often trumps evidence…for both skeptics and Christians.
When Experience Trumps Evidence for Skeptics
Christian apologist Sean McDowell and the “Friendly Atheist” blogger Hemant Mehta were recently on the Unbelievable podcast by Justin Brierley. It was a fascinating discussion on what both Christians and atheists get wrong about the other side. You can watch it here on YouTube or listen through the podcast. I thought Sean was brilliant, and his gracious but pointed comments and questions revealed many of the inconsistencies in Mehta’s worldview.
But one thing stood out to me more than any other. Someone asked what it would take to change each of their minds about what they believe. Mehta (and I’m paraphrasing) said that he’s heard all the kinds of evidence that Christians offer and there’s really no evidence that could be convincing…outside of a personal experience.
This was absolutely intriguing to me. He had spent much of the discussion explaining how he doesn’t believe because there’s no evidence for God’s existence, but when pressed on what would change his convictions, he acknowledged that there’s no objective evidence—evidence outside himself—that would change his mind. It would have to be a personal experience (and he said he would question even that).
His comment made me reflect on years of hearing from skeptics through my blog. Though the reason for unbelief is almost always framed as “lack of evidence,” the comments typically come sandwiched with a list of experiential issues:
I’ve never experienced God doing anything in my life even when I desperately needed it.
God never answered my prayers when I was a Christian.
If God exists, he wouldn’t have let my daughter be born with this disability.
I used to be a Christian, but when I was losing faith I cried out to God for a sign and nothing happened.
Truthfully, I’ve always mentally responded to such statements with, “but these things, logically speaking, don’t mean God doesn’t exist…we have to look at the objective evidence for the whole picture of reality.” And that’s true.
But I can now better understand that experience can be so powerfully negative that we can become closed to considering any evidence outside of ourselves. We naturally trust our interpretation of our experiences over our interpretation of things like the complexity of DNA.
When Experience Trumps Evidence for Christians
People who are passionate about apologetics often lament the fact that so many Christians don’t understand the need for it in today’s world. What we hear all the time from church-goers is that they already believe, so they don’t need all this “evidence stuff.”
As someone who writes and speaks frequently about all the important reasons why we desperately need this “evidence stuff” to be known in the church today, that’s very frustrating. And it can be even more frustrating when Christians say they don’t need it because they have experiences instead:
They’ve felt God’s presence, so they know He’s there.
They see God in their spouse and kids.
They know God is there from that still, small voice inside.
They see God in the beauty of the mountains.
Why do I say frustrating? Let me put on my apologist hat: because experiences are subjective. In a world that is increasingly hostile to the idea that Christianity is true, Christians need to be able to point to something outside of themselves as evidence for their beliefs. If your child says they don’t feel God, and you say you do, how helpful can your personal experience be to them? But when you can point to the objective evidence for God’s existence in the world around them, the historical evidence for the resurrection, and the evidence for the reliability of the Bible, you’re able to ground their faith in something you can mutually access.
However, just as powerfully negative experiences can trump evidence for atheists, powerfully positive experiences can trump evidence for Christians. What they’ve experienced has felt so certain that the value of outside evidence seems to pale in comparison.
What, Then, Is the Value of Objective Evidence for Anyone?
Through this brief ordeal, I’ve understood more than ever that nearly everyone trusts, by default, their experiences more than objective evidence. And frankly, it’s experience that we desperately want. Fine-tuning arguments schmarguments. We would all rather take a powerful feeling of God’s presence any day.
What, then, is the value of apologetics?
A lot. But I’ll stick with three points.
1. For those who have had powerfully negative experiences, apologetics remains a way to compare our subjective experiences to the objective evidence for the truth about reality…when we’re not grieving. Apologetics may be of very little use for most people in desperate times, but that doesn’t negate the longer term need. When we teach our kids to build a faith based on evidence, it doesn’t mean that when difficult times come they will necessarily resort to a simple response of, “No matter how I feel while pondering if I have cancer, I know Christianity is true!” I certainly didn’t. But it does mean that over the longer term they will have the tools needed to assess their personal experiences in light of objective evidence. Ultimately, confidence in the truth of Christianity—grounded in good evidence—gives people well-justified eternal hope that brings perspective to our (often tragic) negative experiences.
2. Similarly, for those who have had powerfully positive experiences, apologetics provides a needed check against reality. Having hope without good reason is delusion. We shouldn’t be content to assume God is there only because we had a powerful feeling while the praise band played. It’s also safe to assume that no one will live an entire life of powerful positive experiences—every Christian goes through times when God seems far. When powerful positive experiences become more distant, it’s easy to doubt their validity. Learning apologetics helps keep us grounded when the experiential highs wear off.
3. For those who haven’t had particularly powerful positive experiences, apologetics provides conviction instead of a feeling that the lack of an experience means a lack of God’s existence. When I was a teenager, I went to a youth conference where the speaker stirred up a lot of emotions and many kids in the room were crying. I wasn’t. My youth leader pulled me aside and said, “Natasha, I noticed you aren’t as emotional as the others here. Are you sure you’re close to God?” I’ll never forget that assumption that closeness to God equals a highly emotional experience. If that’s the expectation, and you don’t experience God as you would like, you can quickly assume He just might not be there. When we teach our kids the objective evidence for the truth of Christianity, however, they gain conviction of their beliefs and realize faith isn’t about waiting for a certain experience to happen.
I eventually got in for all the testing to determine what the lump was all about. It was the longest few hours of my life but ended with the best possible news: it was nothing but a common benign cyst that required no further testing or procedures. I was free to walk out.
I got to my car and cried tears of relief.
And now here I am, back to life as normal…but I want to acknowledge that there are many who don’t get this good news. I have several friends with cancer right now. They are living with the day-to-day uncertainties that consume your every waking second. I almost didn’t write this post because it seems too easy to write when you are no longer in the circumstance. I hope it will be taken in the spirit in which it was intended, however: a simple reflection on something I learned during a (relatively) few moments of desperation.