Other Worldviews

Why Evidence Will Not Convince Some Atheists

Author Tim Barnett Published on 01/22/2019

The famous atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say to God if he found himself standing before Him after his death. Russell replied, “I probably would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’”

For Russell, it all came down to the evidence. The implication is, given better evidence for God, Russell would believe.

Many atheists today make similar claims. For example, while taking questions on The Atheist Voice, Hemant Mehta—the Friendly Atheist—was asked, “What would it take for you to believe in God?”

He replied, “I guess, simply put, I would need to see a miracle. I need evidence for God, and maybe that would come in the form of a miracle that has no possible explanation in the natural world.”

When we hear claims like these, it is tempting to think belief in God comes down to the evidence and nothing else. On this view, it’s as if we have an “evidence meter” in our heads. And when the “evidence meter” reaches a certain level, we believe in God.

But is it really that simple? Does belief in God merely depend on evidence?

A Heart Issue

The brilliant French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal didn’t think so. He certainly believed evidence for God played an important role. However, it wasn’t the decisive factor.

In his masterful book Pensées, Pascal wrote,

Willing to appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart, and to be hidden from those who flee from him with all their heart, God so regulates the knowledge of himself that he has given indications of himself, which are visible to those who seek him and not to those who do not seek him. There is enough light for those to see who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.

Pascal makes it clear that the evidence for God is not the issue. Instead, the issue is with the desires of the human heart. To put it another way, the problem is not with God; the problem is with us.

According to Pascal, the evidence for God will have a different result depending on the heart of the person. Those who seek God with all their heart will see the evidence and believe. Those who flee God with all their heart will also see the evidence but will not believe. It’s not an evidence issue; it’s a heart issue.

Pascal’s ideas find support in both the Old and New Testaments. Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah to the children of Israel, God says, “You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).

This same promise is repeated in the New Testament. Paul appeals to the men of Athens to seek after God so that they may find Him.

And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us. (Acts 17:26–27)

Here is the problem with Russell’s and Mehta’s responses. They assume, as many people do today, that knowledge of God is only an evidence issue. If they reach a certain level of evidence, then they will believe. But this is simply not true. They have failed to account for the orientation of the heart.

There is no clearer example of this in Scripture than the Pharisees’ response to Jesus healing Lazarus.

When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of Him but also to see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus. (John 12:9–11)

After being confronted with evidence that Jesus miraculously brought Lazarus back from the dead, the chief priests didn’t repent and turn to God. No, the text says they made plans to kill Lazarus.

This passage highlights two different responses to the same evidence. John tells us that many believed in Jesus because of the evidence (v.11). But this miraculous event didn’t guarantee that everyone would believe. There were some—the chief priests—who had the same evidence and chose to reject it.

Lazarus was living, breathing evidence of Jesus’ identity. However, rather than believe, the chief priests made plans to destroy the evidence.

This is unbelievable unbelief.

Belief in Jesus—God the Son—has consequences. The Pharisees and chief priests knew it. After Jesus raises Lazarus, they plot to kill Jesus, saying, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:47–48).

Notice what’s motivating their unbelief. It’s not the evidence. In fact, they don’t deny that signs are being performed. Rather, they don’t want to lose their status—including their temple and nation (v.48). They can’t stand the idea of living in a world like that. As a result, their wicked hearts push back.

And so do many today. In a moment of honest reflection, Philosopher Thomas Nagel remarks,

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

A Worldview Issue

This kind of unbelievable unbelief is still present today.

In a candid discussion between atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Boghossian asked Dawkins what it would take for him to believe in God.

You might assume Dawkins would boldly announce, “Evidence!” After all, scientists are supposed to care about evidence. But that’s not what he says. He states,

Well, I used to say it would be very simple. It would be the second coming of Jesus or a great, big, deep, booming, bass Paul Robeson voice saying, “I am God, and I created.” But I was persuaded...that even if there was this booming voice in the second coming in clouds of glory, the more probable explanation is that it’s a hallucination, or a conjuring trick by David Copperfield, or something.... A supernatural explanation for anything is incoherent. It doesn’t add up to an explanation for anything.

After more discussion, Boghossian pushes the question further. He asks Dawkins again, “So what would persuade you?” Dawkins replies,

Well, I’m starting to think nothing would, which, in a way, goes against the grain, because I’ve always paid lip service to the view that a scientist should change his mind when evidence is forthcoming.

Did you catch his answer? There is no amount of evidence that would convince Dawkins of the supernatural. None! He has excluded the supernatural before even looking at the evidence.

In the end, it’s Dawkins’s presuppositions—his naturalistic worldview—that have ruled out a supernatural being. In fact, even if Dawkins witnessed the second coming of Christ or God speaking to him in a booming voice, he wouldn’t go to God; he’d go to a psychiatrist.

Again, belief in God is not only an evidence issue; it is also a worldview issue. The evidence exists, but some worldviews will not allow that evidence to speak.

True, God could have written “YAHWEH” in the stars or stamped “Made by God” on every atom in the universe. But this would not guarantee that people would believe. Some hearts simply don’t want to believe. And some worldviews won’t let them believe. In either case, evidence is not the problem. We are.