It is the belief of some that a sacrifice must be made in order for western civilization to reach its zenith; an old reality must cease to exist for a new to come forth. Faith, religion, and God must die. Inspired by this vision, some have made it their life mission to annihilate anything that sounds religious. And because religion is so embedded in the human psyche, it isn´t uncommon to find world-famous skeptics or atheists deploring the fact that religions like Christianity still have a major influence in modern society. According to them, the Bible should be seen as an obsolete book full of ancient and rudimentary tribal beliefs about nature, creation, and the destiny of the universe. Those who lived in the Bible writing times are portrayed as gullible simpletons easily fooled by their religious leaders. In a society marked by growing intellectualism and advances in scientific knowledge, religious belief is treated as an obstruction to the evolution of western civilization.
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We are often reminded that centuries of observation and rigorous research led to the abandonment of many superstitious beliefs about nature. Our modern society no longer believes that light is created by a god or that spirits inhabit rivers, mountains, or trees. We have ceased to see the sacrifice of virgins as a ritual required to appease angry gods. The “educated” people of today are nothing like the ignorant nomads who wandered the landscapes of biblical times. Beliefs in a literal creation, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, or the virgin birth of Jesus are seen as stupid, foolish, and irrational.
For some time now, spirituality has become synonymous with ignorance and intellectual suicide. Everything that is “religious” is treated as subjective, uncertain, or unreal. Only what is scientific and empirical should be accepted as objective, concrete, and factual. For these reasons, many people don´t really see a difference between believing in the Bible and believing in Santa Claus, unicorns, or dragons. Only that which can be proven in a lab or through empirical means should be accepted as real.
To a certain level, I agree that we should be skeptical of some things. Questioning and doubting not only free us from unwanted trouble, it can open the doors to new knowledge and opportunities. But the image skeptics usually paint about the Bible is completely distorted. At times I wonder whether they really know the book they so fiercely criticize. Even their view of today’s civilization seems overinflated.
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By what standards should one define a culture as “modern”? Is it because we use fueled cars, have electricity in our homes, and walk around with electronic gadgets? Is technology really that which defines what it means to be modern? If that is the case, a lot of us who like to think of ourselves as “educated” and “modern” should review our self-perception. Eta Linnemann once caught my attention with the following argument: “Even a person from Papua, New Guinea, who still may live in what we consider Stone Age conditions, figures out fairly quickly the connection between a light switch and the light which shines from an electric light bulb”. Still, “countless people from our surroundings who are without question ‘modern’ have little more understanding of technology than how to flick a light switch”. Some of us, surprisingly, even keep alive ancient superstitions such as knocking on wood, crossing fingers, or avoiding to cross paths with a black cat.
It may come as a surprise to some, but, in many respects, the stories and the people described in the Bible represent a reality very similar to our own way of thinking and living. Far from being gullible simpletons, the Bible individuals often demonstrated a skepticism bordering on rebellion – something we could easily identify with today’s mindset.
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In this article, I would like to focus on three characters who exhibited healthy skepticism. These are only a few of many Bible individuals concerned with what is objective, concrete, and real.
The episode of Thomas doubting the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is a good example of skepticism in the Scripture (John 20:24-25). His refusal to believe without proof shows that reluctance to accepting the resurrection is not recent. After all, when was the last time somebody witnessed a resurrection? Thomas was a witness to Lazarus’ resurrection and still had a hard time accepting that of Jesus. To believe such an incredible event, he had to see it with his own eyes. He needed empirical evidence! His stance reminds us of David Hume, a philosopher and historian from the 18th century who became widely known for his skepticism and his insistence on empirical evidence.
Another interesting case is that of king Hezekiah. After confronting and miraculously defeating Sennacherib, the king of Judah became ill to “the point of death” (2 Kings 20:1). Depressed, he cried to God for mercy. In response, God sent the prophet Isaiah to inform him that he had been granted another fifteen years of life. Hezekiah could have been satisfied with that answer. God had already done so much for him in the past and there was no reason to doubt the word of the prophet. Still, Hezekiah questioned the authenticity of Isaiah’s prophecy and demanded a sign of confirmation. Unaffected by this disrespectful request, Isaiah gave him two options: “Shall the shadow go forward ten steps, or shall it go back ten steps?” (v. 9)
For me, seeing the sun accelerating ten degrees from the current position would be surreal. But Hezekiah questioned even the genuineness of what his eyes had seen. After all, the sun would be doing exactly what it does every single day: move forward. The only difference was the acceleration, and certainly, someone could find a plausible explanation for this phenomenon. What would be truly abnormal would be for the sun’s shadow to recede ten degrees. That was it! It would behave against all that was (and still is) known about the physical world. Consequently, Hezekiah demanded that the shadow receded ten degrees, and so it happened.
The book of Judges describes the encounter between Gideon and the angel of the Lord, who commanded him to confront the Midianites (Judges 6). Despite of clearly understanding the message and despite of the additional proof in the support of the Israelite army, the newly appointed general still harbored doubts. Could he have had a hallucination or entertained an illusion? How many times haven´t we all been tricked by our eyes? Haven´t we all been certain of having seen something or someone only to find out that we were victims of an optical illusion? Gideon wanted to be certain that what he experienced was real. Such a consequential message could not be left to the realm of subjectivity.
Therefore, he decided to test God: “I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said” (Judges 6:37). The test seemed simple. It was impossible for a piece of wool to be exposed to the dew while the surrounding floor remained dry. Still, something bothered Gideon. What if the wool absorbed the humidity around? This didn´t seem such a far-fetched possibility.
Gideon decided to do something that every honest scientist does: he created a control group and inverted his request: “Allow me one more test with the fleece. This time make the fleece dry and the ground covered with dew” (v. 39). There! Now he was satisfied. This new experiment would prove that God was with him.
These three stories show us that people from biblical times had a clear perception of what is real and what is not, of how nature should behave and how to identify the supernatural when nature acted differently. Perhaps they were unable to explain the movement of the stars like Isaac Newton did, but they were not adept of fanciful theories about the laws of nature. Anything that appeared abnormal was met with skepticism. In the case of miracles, these people wanted to be certain that God was the One operating them.
Different from today’s skepticism, which rejects any divine involvement in natural events, the skepticism of biblical figures aimed at confirming that it was truly God who was acting. Far from being the victims of delusions, hallucinations, or tricks, those who witnessed God’s action doubted their senses and looked for irrefutable evidences of authenticity in the events taking place. These examples should inspire us to develop an intelligent, questioning faith – one that seeks to understand the ways of God and discern His actions within nature. However, when something supernatural occurs, we should be humble enough to recognize God’s sovereignty over nature and submit ourselves to His will.
 Eta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 74.