The Apologetics of Experience (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 32)

NOTE: This is part 32 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book from Amazon and other retailers. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

My paternal grandmother, Lois Thomson, was the kind of woman who won arguments. She had a quick wit and a sharp mind and a strong will to triumph. In college she famously took a class or two on logic, and she never let anyone forget it (least of all my grandfather). And she appreciated apologetics. Both my grandparents loved to learn, and they collected books and videos defending the Christian faith from many angles, which they enjoyed sharing with their fifty-some grandchildren.

But for all that, Grandma used to say that the strongest apologetic was personal testimony. “People can argue with anything you tell them,” she said. “But when you look them in the eye and say, ‘This is what God did for me,’ they can’t look you in the eye back and tell you he didn’t.”

Within Christian circles, the word testimony is usually employed to mean someone’s personal story of encountering God, whether it’s something as simple as an answered prayer or as profound as a transformed life. Testimonies are vital to Christian communal life. They connect Christians within a congregation or community to what God is purportedly doing in their midst; they awaken hope and thanksgiving; and they serve as a horizontal corroboration and strengthener of faith.

But it’s no accident that the word is also used in legal contexts: in a courtroom, a testimony is the sworn statement of a witness concerning something they have seen or claim to otherwise know. (The word testimony comes from a Latin root meaning “witness.”) A testimony, in other words, is evidence—to use Merriam-Webster’s second definition, it is “firsthand authentication of a fact.”

There is a logical progression in the reasons for faith I’ve been discussing. If the universe was created by a God and if that God is personal, we would expect him to become involved at some point in history. If he did become involved, and if he did so in Jesus and especially in Jesus’s resurrection, and if he poured out the Holy Spirit into the world so he could be present and dwell among people who trust in him, then we would expect believers in Jesus to encounter God. And if believers in Jesus have encountered God, then we would expect evidence, of the only kind witnesses are able to give—we would expect firsthand authentication, or personal testimony of the presence and work of Jesus in their lives.

And in fact, we have that—or at least, millions of people claim we do. In my opinion, this is the most overlooked evidence for the truth of Christianity and of God in Christ. And I understand why: personal testimony is subject to all the problems that plague human perception generally and may have even led you or me to the point of doubt or crisis with which we are now wrestling. Experience by nature is subjective, our understanding of it is fallible, and yes, people can be led by their presuppositions and biases to read all kinds of meaning onto all kinds of events, whether that meaning is warranted or not. I’m certainly not immune to that, and neither are you.

And yet, we aren’t the only ones with a story. From the very start, Christianity has been marked by testimony of the most remarkable kind. It has been marked by changed lives—from Paul, the once murderous Pharisee, preaching the Jesus he formerly persecuted; all the way down to the former addicts and alcoholics I have grown up knowing, who live clean lives of hope and purpose today.

Christian testimony comes from people who are rich and powerful, and it comes from people who are poor and simple. It comes from doctors, lawyers, and professors, and it comes from four-year-olds and people with Down syndrome. Christian testimony comes from every corner of the earth, from east and west, north and south, advanced civilizations and tribal societies. Some of the most brilliant people in history have been Christians—and not just cultural Christians, raised within a certain worldview and never quite able to step outside of it, but Christians with a deep and personal faith based on personal encounter with God. Christians are comfortable and wealthy; Christians are persecuted, tortured, and martyred for their faith. Christians hold to many variations and shades of belief, but all ultimately stand on one thing—belief in Jesus, the Galilean, the man from Nazarene whose cousin John the Baptist asked him, “Are you the One, or should we look for another?”

Ultimately, they all speak with one voice—and there are millions of witnesses, stretching back in a straight line two thousand years to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s not even possible to list “prominent Christians” and come anywhere near a comprehensive list. As of 2001, the World Christian Encyclopedia claimed that an approximate 2.7 million people convert to Christianity every year, ranking it first—by far—in “net gains through religious conversion.”

Does that prove Christianity is true? Of course not. But any argument made in court that was backed by the sworn testimony of 2.7 million witnesses would have to be given serious consideration—and that is only the number of people who annually come into the faith from another religion. Of course, not every convert has a personal story of encountering Jesus, or of personal transformation or answered prayer or some other powerful religious experience—but vast numbers of them do. And in fact, I suspect that this is unique, and that other religions and belief systems do not have the same kind of experiential backing that Christianity does.

I am sometimes struck, while reading the writings of people who lived hundreds of years ago in different times and cultures, by how much the Jesus they describe sounds like the Jesus I know. They write about what he whispered in their ear, and their stories all sound alike, and they all sound like mine. The Apostle Paul and Amy Carmichael and Catherine of Siena and me—we all know the same unseen Man. That seems extraordinary.

So I submit to you the notion that Christian testimony, throughout history and stretching well into the present day, constitutes a massive body of evidence that deserves to be carefully considered. I think my grandmother was right when she said you can’t argue with someone who tells you what God has done for them—and when millions upon millions of people for thousands of years tell essentially the same story, their collective voice should not be ignored.

Of course, quantifying and qualifying all of this testimony would be a massive undertaking, and to my knowledge no one has ever done it. But in your personal search for truth, I challenge you not to neglect this: Go and learn the stories of people who say they have been changed by Jesus. Track them down, buy them coffee, and listen to them. Dig out their stories in books and read them. And if you can, once you’ve gathered a sense of the weight and the number of them, explain them all away. In a sense this is how Jesus answered John. The blind see, the lame walk, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.

To reiterate: Christianity is not based on theories or philosophies or even moral teachings. It is based on claims that real things have happened in the real world. A domino fell, and that was creation. Another domino fell, and that was resurrection. These two events explain everything else. But it’s true that we are at an enormous distance in time from the events of the Old and New Testaments, and that distance can create doubt. We didn’t see creation happen. We didn’t see Jesus come out of the grave. We can still see dominos falling, but of course we can find another explanation for that if we try. (There is always a choice, so there is always the possibility of an alternative explanation.) So even though we can hear testimony and even encounter God for ourselves within the framework provided by creation and resurrection, this whole thing will always come down to making a choice. We like to demand absolute proof, but that isn’t how this works; and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, that isn’t how this works because this isn’t about science, it is about relationship.

Of course, the irony is that even when we are given proof, it’s usually not enough. There were people in Jerusalem who knew Jesus had been raised from the dead but chose not to believe in him. There were many people who saw his miracles, but rather than put their trust in God they just kept pushing for more and more miracles until it was clear their demands had nothing to do with faith at all but rather were an expression of unbelief. Given “proof,” those who want to reject Jesus can always find an alternate explanation. (“He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons,” the Pharisees declared. ) Within relationship, demands for proof are a vicious cycle that can only be broken by a demonstration or a word of love, followed by a choice to trust in the heart behind them. Ultimately we are always asked to choose love and to choose trust.

If I may be very real here, I have experienced miracles. I have seen people healed. I have been rescued from death. I have had dreams and visions, I have had supernatural encounters, I have heard God speak, and I have experienced instantaneous personal transformation. And yet I am still capable of doubt, and I do still doubt. Sometimes I think I’m just crazy, and all of this has been my imagination. That’s an alternative truth and a plausible explanation. It’s not a good explanation, but it’s there.

And while in times of doubt it comforts and helps me to revisit the issues of creation and resurrection and the experience of millions of people who aren’t me, ultimately this whole thing does come down to making a choice to believe, in the same way we believe in human love.

Love can never really be proven, even though there are many good reasons to accept it as true: we just can’t know one another’s hearts that deeply. Love comes from the spirit, from the invisible part of us. Yet we can know it, experience it, and even stake our lives on it. I can look at you and say, “I love you.” And you can choose to believe that is true—and in making that choice, absent of absolute proof, you can be absolutely right.

To be continued …


This is Part 190 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash




2 responses to “The Apologetics of Experience (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 32)”

  1. […] Part 190: The Apologetics of Experience (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 32) (Matthew 11:1-19) […]

  2. Jeff Goodman Avatar
    Jeff Goodman

    For the seeker of spiritual truth, believer and non-believer, the question must be asked: If Jesus of Nazareth isn’t the Son of God, then who was He? How do we explain the phenomenon? With whom can He be compared? To accept Him as our Saviour, we must accept Him as our Lord. To accept Him as Lord, we must do what He commands. Otherwise, faith is reduced to superstition. When the Son of man comes, will He find faith on the earth? Or just superstition? The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart: and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous are taken away from the evil to come.

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