A Detective’s Approach:
Looking for evidence of God
Published: 11 July 2019 (GMT+10)
Probably the greatest crime-solving TV show of all time, or at least my personal favorite, is Colombo. Peter Falk did a tremendous job portraying a dishevelled but clever detective. He would casually investigate the scene, picking up on the tiniest details which pointed at a particular culprit, and then he would proceed to interrogate this culprit, often in such a way that they did not, at first, realize they were actually under suspicion.
There are several things we can learn from detectives like Colombo that we can apply to the enterprise of Christian apologetics in general, and creation apologetics in particular.
The Big Question
Skeptics and unbelievers in the modern era almost always make the same claim about their unbelief: they say they would believe if there were only sufficient evidence for God’s existence. They claim to have examined all the supposed evidence out there and found it all unsatisfactory. There is one simple question that anyone can ask such skeptics, however, that very often stops them dead in their tracks:
“What evidence would you expect to find of God?”
Asking this question seems rather obvious, but you’d be surprised how many long-winded debates go on where this question is never brought up. The skeptic enjoys being in a comfortable debating position of being able to say “I’m not convinced” every time a believer shows a piece of evidence in favor of God, yet that same skeptic shoulders no burden of proof themselves. But skeptics are making a claim just like believers, namely, they claim that there is insufficient evidence to believe in God. That is a positive statement, and such a statement requires support. Before such support can even be given, however, what would count as evidence must be understood.
A home break-in
For a useful illustration, let’s turn to an instance of a possible home break-in. Imagine you are a detective, and your first job must be to determine whether or not a home has, in fact, been broken into. What do you look for? Obviously, one of the biggest indicators of a home break-in would be signs of forced entry. Are there any broken windows? Are there any doors that have been busted off their hinges, or broken with an axe or some other object? If a detective were to examine a house and find no signs of forced entry, then several conclusions could be possible from this. Perhaps there was no break-in at all, or perhaps the victim knew the perpetrator and willingly let them into the house.
Applying this method of reasoning to the existence of God, we must ask: what sort of clues would we expect to find, if God did exist? For the unbeliever: how would this world / universe look different if God did exist, compared to how it looks now? Amazingly, very few skeptics are able to answer this question at all. Many times, they will simply refuse to answer the question, or attempt to deflect and claim it is not their burden to think of what evidence might look like.
What counts as evidence?
But can you imagine if detectives behaved this way? Imagine, after investigating a crime scene, a detective were to conclude “I do not accept that any crime occurred here.” When asked why, the detective replied, “I do not find any of the alleged evidence convincing.” The next natural question is, “What sort of evidence would you have expected that you don’t find?” Imagine if the detective were to reply, “I have no idea!” Would you have any confidence in this detective’s ability? I know I wouldn’t. Being able to discern what potential evidence would look like is the first prerequisite to investigating a crime scene, and any detective who can’t do that is not worth hiring.
The same is true for skeptics. Anyone claiming to be a skeptic who cannot tell you what evidence for God might look like is no real skeptic at all. They are just ignorant, and they refuse to accept the responsibility for their own ignorance. But sometimes, a skeptic will venture a response to this challenging question. The responses I’ve heard have mostly fit in one of two categories: the ‘Genie’ response and the ‘Test tube’ response.
The Genie Response
The first category of answers to ‘the big question’ I’ve heard I will call ‘genie’ responses because they essentially boil down to the skeptic asking God to perform miraculous tricks for them personally, on command, just as a magical genie in a bottle might do.
“If God exists, may he strike this table with lightning right now!”
This sort of thinking is arrogant to the extreme. We, as God’s creations, are responsible to God—not the other way around! God is not on the hook to perform tricks for us on command. God certainly has the ability to perform miracles, and we can read about many of them in Scripture. But these miracles were done because God deemed them necessary, not because an arrogant unbeliever demanded it and God gave in to their demands. In response to this sort of thinking, Jesus said in Matthew 12:39-40,
“A wicked and adulterous generation demands a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Responding to this answer is not particularly difficult. Simply say, “Imagine a scenario where God exists but for whatever reason (as he is God and you are not), He decides not to give you a miraculous sign when you ask for it. What evidence would you look for to discern if this God exists or not?” Simply attempt to move the conversation past the unhelpful and unrealistic demand for instant miraculous signs. Obviously, there is no logical reason why God cannot exist without providing these signs on demand, so this retort by the skeptic is entirely unsatisfactory.
The Test Tube Response
The other most common response I’ve heard from skeptics is a ‘test tube’ style response: they expect God to be accessible to empirical scientific testing. For example, they might ask for a scientific study that shows a statistically-significant advantage in praying for healing to the Christian God compared to any other god, or to not praying at all. Without getting into the contentious issue among Christians of whether God still performs miraculous healings today, we can still say this is a wrong-headed approach; God is not a blind natural force. God is a personal being of the highest order, and our prayers to God are part of a personal relationship—not a scientific test! Imagine if you applied this logic to earthly parents: do a study to see if they tend more often than not to give you what you ask, when you ask for it, and if they don’t, you conclude you have no parents! That is exactly the kind of ridiculous logic this particular response is using. Just as with the first response, this response also unrealistically expects God to perform on command.
The obvious, and not so obvious, evidence for God
Now that we’ve explored some of the responses you are likely to get from skeptics, what about the real answers to this question? What really are the reasonable expectations for evidence of God? The obvious sorts of things we might look for (corresponding to the signs of forced entry in our home break-in example) would be things like:
- Evidence for design, rather than randomness, in the cosmos
- Evidence for design, rather than randomness, in our earth and solar system
- Evidence for design, rather than randomness, in life
As the apostle Paul wrote,
“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20, emphasis added)
And in Hebrews 3:4,
“For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.”
Beyond this, we would also look for signs that God had communicated to us (i.e. in a body of Scripture). Why would a god bother to create something like our planet Earth, fill it with life including human life, and then do nothing else and remain totally silent? It seems very straightforward that if a god exists, we should expect to find evidence of communication from this god to us.
As it turns out, there are numerous competing claims of alleged divine revelations throughout history (and these competing claims are mutually exclusive because they contradict one another), so we would also need to look for clues like miraculously fulfilled prophecy to authenticate this Scripture as genuine. There would probably be other markers to distinguish true divine revelation from frauds; in the case of the Bible, we have a single coherent message with a beginning, middle and end which was given to dozens of authors over a period of thousands of years. This in itself is extremely impressive, and indicative of divine authorship. But we should also expect that God’s communication would be unique in its accuracy, and its ability to be confirmed by the available evidence.1
These are the obvious signs, but there is something a bit less obvious as well: the fact that we are able to think rationally and have knowledge at all actually points back to and depends upon God. If there were no God and therefore no designer for human life, what would that say about the usefulness of our brains for properly understanding truth? If there is no ultimate Authority governing the cosmos, does the concept of “truth” really hold any meaning at all? If we deny God’s existence, we are actually undercutting the validity of our own reasoning altogether. In the final analysis, all human knowledge depends upon God, and if God did not exist we would not be able to know anything for certain at all.
The next time you’re in a discussion or debate with a skeptic, ask them The Big Question, and push for a real answer. This is the quickest way to cut to the heart of the matter and reveal if the skeptic is being intellectually honest when dealing with the overwhelming evidence we do have of our creator, God.
References and notes
- A real-life crime scene detective, J. Warner Wallace, has written an excellent lay-level presentation of the powerful evidences for the reliability of the New Testament which I highly recommend: Cold Case Christianity. See coldcasechristianity.com for more on this resource. Return to text.