by ProfDave, ©2021

(Nov. 2, 2021) — [Read Part I here.]

Since we are trying to construct a Christian Worldview, we need to spend a little extra time on the knowledge of God.  Is it possible to know anything about such a being and to test whether we are right or wrong? 

We have taken a tour of our ways of knowing: physical senses, authority, internal experience and reason. Truly, “we see through a glass darkly.”  So how on earth can we know God?  We cannot “see” Him.  We are told, “no man can see God and live.” Spiritual beings are not material things you can see anyway.  We would not expect senses or instruments, designed as they are to detect matter and energy, to detect spiritual objects.  God is like the wind: you can’t see it, but you see what it does.  Even wind gauges do not “see” wind, but only measure the movement of air caused by wind.  So can we construct a God-gauge?

Well, actually, you can “see” the effects of God all around you.  It takes a brilliant mind to obscure the obvious. Why should there be anything at all? Look up into the night sky (with or without Hubble).  Does that tell you something about God’s magnitude?  Look at the grass you walk on or through a microscope, say at the leg of a bee.  See the exquisite design?  Does that tell you something about God’s artistry?  Look at the double-helix of the DNA containing whole libraries of information.  Does that tell you something about God’s intelligence? 

How can we know God?  In the analogy of the wind, we cannot see the wind but we can see what it does.  In the same manner we may virtually “see” God in creation.  But this is not the primary way we can know God.

Second Hand Knowledge

What about second-hand experience?  Can we “see” God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in the Holy Books, on the History channel, in church?  Certainly, all the rules of prospective, bias, expertise and integrity apply.  But what no one seems to notice is that all human societies everywhere, and in all times, have acknowledged the reality of a spiritual realm!  Even animists and polytheists have a shadowy Creator beyond the spirits and gods that they try to control.  It is hard wired.  God certainly is not a painting or a statue, and the History Channel is not real history.  World religions fundamentally contradict each other in their conceptions, but the consensus of mankind is that God is.  His name is “I AM.”  Does that count as knowledge?  Can we start with that?

The knowledge of God we get from our senses is indirect and from humanity in general is contradictory.  Thus, we know that it is highly probable that He exists, but who is He?  Good news: there are books.  Bad news: there are too many of them and they contradict each other.  Anybody can construct an imaginary religion, based on their own imaginary gods, reflecting the wisdom, values and legends of their own people.  But if it comes out of their own heads, no matter how “holy” and “enlightened” they may be, it is still fiction.  Correspondence to truth would be purely coincidental. 

Holy Books

In practice, there are only a half dozen important holy books.  There are a few authoritative ancient writings of religious genius that command reverence and are determinative of the spirituality of millions down through the centuries.  They purport to tell us about God/the gods/the Mandate of Heaven, about the origin, meaning and destiny of human life, and about morality and salvation.  Again, they contradict.  It is not logically possible for all to be equally true.  It is only possible for one to be true or for all to be false.  I am intimate with only one: the Bible.  Is it THE one?

How can we know God?  Can we know Him through the holy books of the world’s major faiths?  We noted that they are contradictory in their key teachings.  For example, the New Testament and secular sources say Jesus died on the cross.  The Koran says he did not.  Both cannot be true. On some points all could be wrong, but all could not be right. 

Confession: I have not read the Koran or the Gita or any of the others, but I have been reading the Bible most of my life.  Can we know God through the Bible? This collection of ancient writings is the source of virtually all the core teachings of Christianity. And Judaism comes from the first 70% of it.  That many Christians and Jews cherry-pick what they like does not change the fact that this is their major source of data on God.  This is what Christians know about God.  On a different level, millions through the centuries claim to have experienced God, “heard” Him speak, through what they call “God’s Word.” They, in all humility, claim to know God!  But is it true?  Is it real? How do we know?

We can hear what people say about God and we can read about it in a holy book. 

Hearsay you say.  Can you trust it?  Depends on who says.  Can you trust the holy books?  They purport to reveal the secrets of life and the universe.  Most of them were written by men (sometimes it is a little vague just who) who claimed to have experienced God, gods, or special enlightenment.  Their words have been convincing enough to capture the reverence of millions down through the centuries.  But is that knowledge or imagination?  Can it be examined?

The Koran, for example, is the collected sayings of the prophet Mohammad, based on the visions he claimed to have had from the angel Gabriel.  Visions are not sense experiences – they by-pass the physical senses.  As internal experiences, they are not verifiable by others, except as prophecies are fulfilled in the physical world or in the character of the prophet. Muslims are not allowed to examine the validity of the Koran.  Next we will look at the Bible.

The Bible?

We have been roaming around looking for knowledge of God.  Imagination need not apply.  God must be outside my own skull.  Is the Bible a possible source?  Have patience, Jesus-brothers and sisters, we’ll get there. Three levels: the historical account of Hebrew experience, the existential encounter people have through it, and finally (if you are able to receive it) its supernatural inspiration as the Word of God.

We’ve been starting at the ground level.  After centuries of challenges, there is not much doubt left of the genuineness and reliability of the book as a document.  These are genuine ancient writings – poetry, prophecy, history – written in the times and places claimed for them.  This is what these folks experienced.  So what can we know from them?

As an historian, I am struck by the historical character of the Bible.  Yes, there are regulations, poetry and sermons, but it is all embedded in a narrative from beginning to end – in more ways than one!  The events are historical events, as real as those recounted by Herodotus or Pliny and subject to the same examination.  And believe me, it has been examined – and has embarrassed its detractors.

The Hebrew experience of God is of a being beyond history, suffusing history with meaning, and occasionally intervening in it.  The wind in the trees.  A rustling in the leaves or a mighty tornado.  Individuals “see” God – it is not clear that they do so with their physical eyes or whether it is really God they see or His glory – His effects.  They hear God speak – again, it is not clear it is through their physical ears.  But they certainly do see Him act on a continuum from ordinary events of spiritual significance to impossible coincidences to massive interventions in time and space for which there are no natural explanations. 

There is an elephant in the room with the Hebrews, a distinct Entity, rational and intentional.  We may doubt or reinterpret what happened, but it was their experience.  They could not have made all this up.

Of course, if you already “know” that there’s no such thing as God and or anything beyond nature as we know it, then no amount of experience would enlighten you – even if you had to bury 185,000 dead Assyrian warriors (II Kings 19, II Chronicles 32).  Eeeuww!

Experience in the Bible

But a lot of the experiences recorded in the Bible are not physical experiences.  Do we have knowledge that is not physical – that does not come through our eyes and ears or even our nerves?  We referred to one sort of that knowledge earlier.  Self-awareness does not come through our senses.  But is it just us? Could we know something beyond ourselves? Some things seem to be built into our minds: cause and effect, conscience and a sense of moral law, intuition (perhaps), spiritual awareness in general.  Is the mind itself a material thing? Unlikely. The mind operates the brain but is more than the brain. Does it listen apart from the ears or see apart from the eyes?

Reading the Bible as any other book, we see that it records some pretty spectacular empirical experiences as effects of God.  But it is full of the direct experience of God: the Voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush and dictated the Law, the ‘Word of the Lord’ that came to the prophets.  The whole nation heard the Voice at Sinai – and it scared the stuffing out of them.  Other occasions, such as the visions of Isaiah, Daniel and other prophets, clearly bypassed the physical senses.  The life and teachings of Jesus are another whole dimension of the experience of God.  But in every case the witnesses were life-or-death certain of what they saw and heard.  And they pass it down to us as documentary knowledge of God.

Arguably the main source of our information about God is the Bible, a written account of the experience, empirical and inner, of the Hebrew people.  It is a reasonably reliable and accurate account of that experience – the first level. 

But is it credible?  Once again, if you disallow the possibility of something beyond nature – such as God and an inner self – then the less you know about God the better.  But if your mind is open, then read the Bible for yourself.  Don’t get bogged down in the genealogies (real people though) or the ceremonial law (though it teaches holiness and atonement) but see the character of God in the Old Testament and in Jesus.  But be warned.  Level two kicks in.  People often have an existential experience of their own with God if they read the Bible with an open mind.  It could change your life.

Experience Through the Bible

How about the experience of reading the Bible?  You see black (sometimes red) ink on white pages.  That’s an experience.  You see words and sentences, verses and chapters.  That’s an experience.  They record the experiences of people long ago, internal as well as external experiences of God.  The Voice speaking to all Israel from Mt. Sinai, the Voice speaking to little Samuel in the night,  “and the Lord spoke unto Moses.” Those were experiences.

They are second-hand experiences when you read them.  But then something else happens.  God speaks to you.  Words jump off the page, bursting with meaning for today – something from beyond yourself and your imagination. That’s an experience.  A God experience.  They are common among Jesus-followers.  The more you read the more you receive – and the more you are changed.  God speaks through the Word.  This has been my experience and I find it undeniable.  How else can you explain the world-wide influence of this ancient book?

God speaks.  Usually not through your ears.  An audible utterance happens to some, once in a lifetime.  Less rarely, His voice falls on inner senses.  But so distinctly that you are certain it was not you.  When you pray, stop to listen.  Yes, you can get it wrong.  There are other voices – our own desires and imaginations.  Listen, but verify with the written Word.  Most Jesus-followers “hear” Him in the Bible, His love-letter to us.  Read it. 

Our own experiences, both external and internal, are relatively limited.  A large proportion of what we think we know comes to us on the authority of others – parents, teachers, TV personalities and documentaries, newspapers, books, the internet.  One particular book, the Bible, has had a unique impact on people all over the world and down through the centuries.  We noted that its authority comes to us on three levels, as an historical account and literary compendium of mostly Hebrew interaction with God and as an existential medium through which people experience God.  But Jesus-followers also believe that it is literally a self-revelation by the Living God Himself.

We have internal experiences of ourselves, of our conscience and thoughts, and perhaps of God.  But our minds are confused.  How can we tell the voice of God from our own imaginations or (truth be told) the tempter?  The best way is to verify it with what God has spoken to others, verified down through the centuries.  Then watch what it does in your life.  My inner being has been changed by a Power beyond myself.  Now that’s experience!

Authority of the Bible

Is the Bible the Word of God?  Read it and see.  It certainly claims to contain the words of God.  Some New Testaments print the words of Jesus in red.  If they did that to the words of the Almighty in the Old Testament they would run out of red ink.  And you know what the writers believed the penalty was for misquoting Him?  Stoning.  Life would be short and hell long!  Check it out.

But what do we know?  We assume the reports of our own senses are reasonably and usually accurate.  We have some certainty of our own inner experiences but are vague about where they come from or what they mean.  We are surrounded by a clamor of “authorities” and would-be authorities, an ocean of information overload.  Among these, rising like an island above the waves, stands one unique source of ancient wisdom, history, and revelation that still speaks powerful inner experience to modern mankind.

Is the Bible the Word of God?  It certainly quotes God – a huge part of the book.  “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” was originally penned by Solomon (Proverbs 11:31) and quoted by Peter (1 Peter 5:5). Is that the Word of God, too?  Clarification.  In the John 1, “the Word of God” (Logos) is the second Person of the Trinity, the Christ, who became incarnate in Jesus.  Which is it?  The Person or the book?  Both.  Christians believe that both reveal The Eternal One to mankind.

We have been exploring our knowledge of God.  Given that He is an infinite spiritual being and we are finite creatures with opaque spiritual senses, we can know Him only through His intervention in the material world and His intentional revelation of Himself.  Christians believe (on abundant evidence) that both are mostly in the Bible.

Christians believe that the Old and New Testaments are inspired – “God-breathed” – to a degree and in a sense that no other book is.  They constitute a work of supernatural truth and authority with power to change the human heart.  Even when the scores of writers speak in their own diverse voices, they carry the message of the Almighty. 

Christians differ in their theories of inspiration.  As the authors are each imbedded in time and space, as often as not describing real-time events (unlike other holy books), there is every potential to catch them in falsehood or anachronism.  And every effort has been made to do so – with very little success.  Are their words supernaturally guarded from error?  Makes sense.

Believing is Seeing

But is it credible?  Believing is seeing.  If you begin with the blindfold, “there is no such thing as anything beyond the material cosmos,” you will be blind to light and color.  The world will be dark and gray, lonely and meaningless.  Your subatomic particles make you think that you are an autonomous self, thinking and choosing, but everything is determined.

But if it is possible that there is a God, capable of making it all and of revealing Himself – then the lights come on and it all makes sense.  The occasional miracle (Divine intervention beyond science and probability) is not a problem.  A God that big and wise can do anything He wants.  Including giving you an autonomous self and the chance to freely love and experience Him!

Conclusion – perhaps?  But will it all make sense?  Well, maybe not.  Because we are not smart enough and – you guessed it – we don’t know much.  But God is a much better living hypothesis than the empty, meaningless, purposeless world of materialism.

Knowledge comes to us through external experiences – our senses.  Reasonably reliable, but not perfect.  But what do they mean?  Knowledge comes to us through internal experience, not accessible to science.  We know what happens in us, but it can lack clarity.  Where does it come from?  Our own experience needs to be validated and compared with the experience of others.  But just because “everybody says” doesn’t make it so.  But what if God says?  We could still get it wrong, but it helps that we have it in writing.

David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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  1. This is a very good article. It makes a great deal of sense and I find it very interesting. I read the Bible daily and sit under the teaching and preaching of several very knowlegdeable pastors, one of which has 2 masters degrees in Christian theology. The Bible was written by 40 authors from several countries on 3 continents over a period of 1600 years. There are no contradictions, which seems to me to be almost impossible unless it is truly the inspired Word of God, and I firmly believe it is so. There have been sceptics I read about who set out to discredit the Bible and wound up becoming believers. This shows me that God worked through His word to enlighten unbellievers.