Our church, along with many churches in the Chicago area, is doing a sermon series entitled “Explore God.” The series is based around seven questions relevant to the Christian faith, and to people exploring the Christian faith.

  1. Does Life Have a Purpose?
  2. Is There a God?
  3. Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering?
  4. Is Christianity Too Narrow?
  5. Is Jesus Really God?
  6. Is the Bible Reliable?
  7. Can I Know God Personally?

My plan is to write my own answers to these questions. I welcome engagement from people of all backgrounds in the comments or by email. I look forward to revisions and corrections that arise from that dialogue.

I’d like to geek out a bit with this question — sort of in a physics-y way, sort of in an epistemological way. How would you ever know that someone is God?

If someone made that claim, how would you respond? With skepticism, I imagine. Appropriately so. But surely you would start asking for demonstrations of power, right?

For the sake of argument let’s set aside the obvious objection: God, as God, is probably not particularly interested in obeying the commands of a creature to demonstrate His power. I realize that many of us assume that God would have nothing better to do with his time. But just to provide intuition, consider the article “What to do when the trisector comes”—an amusing piece written by a professor of mathematics who deals with an onslaught of correspondence from people who think they have trisected the angle (which it is in fact impossible to do). Think of the chutzpa of people who think they know better than a professor of mathematics, and who only become irate when shown the error of their ways. Multiply that by infinity, and you have some idea how wildly inappropriate it is to ask God to respond to the kinds of magic tricks I’ll propose below.

But all of that aside, asking for a demonstration of power actually ends up not being conclusive. Maybe you’d make a challenge like: “If you’re God, make the sky light up with the words, ‘Adam Baker, I really am God.’” But what does that prove? It proves that the putative god can manipulate photons near the earth—nowhere near a demonstration of infinite power. (I brainstormed about this for several days, and I really can’t think of a way to demonstrate that any being has power beyond the earth. A semi-powerful being could fake distant astronomical events with faint, red-shifted light, for instance. Please comment if you’re more creative than I am!)

Another problem is that I can only make observations during my own lifetime, which is not infinite. So how can I know that the putative god is eternal?

And, just to bring this full circle, even if there’s some sure-fire test that I just can’t think of, there’s Decartes’s possibility, referred to in my earlier post, that all of my sensory information is just a delusion (the Matrix; brain-in-a-jar).

So on the one hand we don’t have absolute certainty about anything, period. On the other hand, as a short-lived finite being I simply lack the ability to verify that God is all-powerful and eternal, beyond doubt.

The question then obviously becomes, if God did actually come to earth two thousand years ago, how did He solve the problem?

As we saw above, no one could ever be convinced about the “what” question (what is Jesus? all-powerful? all-knowing?). But as humans we are able to get at the “who” question. In fact, throughout the gospels you find people asking Jesus, “Who are you?” and asking each other, “Who is this man?”

This is where we really need to know the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. the Old Testament, or the First Testament). People who don’t know the Hebrew Bible are really at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding the life of Jesus. You can get something—really, quite a lot—out of the gospels if you don’t understand the context, but you’re probably not going to understand the answer to the “who” question.

It’s perhaps easier to appreciate this with examples. In the gospel of Mark we have this story:

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, donʼt you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Mark 4:35-41

Now, control over the weather is a pretty awesome feat, but it’s even more meaningful within the context of Israel’s history. What did the sea represent to the Israelites in particular? In short: chaos, disorder, terror. The sea was an awesome, uncontrollable force. (It is for us as well, though our ships are better made!)

Even so, God was believed to have control over the sea. The parting of the Red Sea was the paradigmatic miracle of Israel’s history. (The Israelites were fleeing from the Egyptian Pharaoh, and God parted the Red Sea to provide a way for them to escape.) The people in that boat were people who grew up praying the psalms, like Psalm 107:29: “He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.”

So when Jesus calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee, that is a symbolically meaningful action. It is recognizable. The question they ask, “Who is this?” might be understood as, “Who must this be? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

It’d would be beside the point to observe that the Sea of Galilee is really more of a lake, smaller than the Red Sea, and certainly much smaller than the Mediterranean. If you’re evaluating miracles by output of kinetic energy, the calming of the Sea of Galilee may seem like small potatoes. But the point is not the scale of the miracle, but the fact that the action communicated who Jesus was.

I could multiply examples: the gospel of Mark is the shortest, but you see Jesus making very clear symbolic moves to identify Himself: forgiving sins, healing people, exercising control over the Sabbath (a mandatory day off), and so forth.

The gospel of John has a number of very direct statements as well, interleaved with a series of miracles that are, again, symbolically meaningful.

Jesus’s words and actions didn’t demonstrate that He was all-powerful or eternal: those things cannot be demonstrated. But they did show that He was the God that Israel had been worshiping for more than a thousand years. He focused on the “who?” question.

That is the testimony of the Bible, at any rate. That prompts the next question in this series, about the reliability of the Bible.

But I also wish to add a personal note, in two parts.

First, when I read the Bible, and encounter Jesus, I feel that I am reading about somebody who knew exactly what He was about. I don’t get that feeling with a lot of people. Jesus speaks directly to the heart. He cuts through the religious claptrap. He interacts with people in a real way.

Second, for me and for all Christians, “believing in Jesus” is again not a matter of “knowing that” (saber) but “knowing who” (conocer). I don’t want to get into a whole philosophy of knowledge, which I’ve written quite a bit about elsewhere in this blog, but I will that at the end of the day it is not the philosophical arguments that convince me that Jesus is God, but the fact that I know Him, interact with Him, struggle with Him. It’s much more closely analogous to knowing my wife, than it is to knowing a fact.