We all know we’re not supposed to test God, but why not? Without evidence, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to tell the difference between a real god and a fake one.
Most Christians contend that God does not allow for testing because he desires faith, and he prefers to reveal himself only to the faithful.
Skeptics contend that the real reason we’re forbidden to test God is because God would fail the test. Moreover, faith spawns confirmation bias; instead of letting the evidence drive the conclusion, we draw a conclusion, and then seek out evidence to support it. Faith can also lead us to interpret random coincidences as signs from God.
But what does the Bible really say about testing God, and how has testing been dealt with in the past? Let’s take a quick look at the Biblical history of testing God.
“Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”
— John 4:48
While Jesus may have preferred that people just accept him on faith, it’s said that he performed many signs and wonders to prove that he was the Messiah. These signs were necessary to foster belief (if they were not necessary in some way, Jesus would not have performed them).
Interestingly, when Jesus was specifically asked for a sign, he rebuked those who asked, saying, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign!” (Matt. 12:39).
So while signs were necessary, Jesus preferred to do them for people who already had faith. (This, to me, seems like preaching to the choir. Like Jesus said, it is the sick who need a doctor, not the healthy (Mark 2:17). It is the nonbeliever who needs a sign, not the believer.)
When Jesus himself was tempted by Satan, Jesus utters the now famous line, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test'” (Luke 4:12). This was in reference to Deuteronomy 6:16, which says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.” And this verse, in turn, was a reference to a time when the Israelites were wondering around the desert, and asked God for water.
By asking for water, the Israelites were testing God to see if he would provide for them, but if there was ever a group that didn’t need another sign, it was this one. These men had witnessed the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, manna falling from heaven, and God leading them day and night by smoke and fire. Strangely, even after all they had witnessed, they were still asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7).
Regardless of why they remained unconvinced, God felt they were pressing their luck by asking for another sign. But in telling them to not ask for a sign, was God placing a permanent ban on all testing?
The miracles that took place in Egypt and in the desert are cited ad nauseam throughout the Old Testament as a reason to believe. But to future generations of Israelites, these stories were nothing but hearsay. If the Jews who had witnessed these events firsthand still questioned whether or not God was with them, how much hope was there for future generations who did not witness these events?
It’s no surprise that when future generations began running into trouble, they too questioned if God was with them.
Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count them or their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it.
— Judges 6:3-7
When an angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, Gideon expresses why the Jews had lost faith:
“Pardon me, my lord,” Gideon replied, “but if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
— Judges 6:13
God blamed their misfortune on their lack of faith (and the worship of Baal), but notice that Gideon says he is unable to believe because he and his people had not witnessed miracles from God. Sure, they had all heard the stories, but they had not seen these things for themselves.
So Gideon puts God on trial, and tests him several times. God first consumes an offering that Gideon places upon a rock (Judges 6:17-22); later, God fills some fleece with dew while leaving the surrounding area dry (Judges 6:36-38), and then does the opposite (Judges 6:39-40).
But God never rebukes Gideon for testing him; God never says, “I said no testing, damn it!” God gives Gideon all the evidence he needs to believe.
Fast forward a few centuries, and the Israelites were back to worshiping Baal. And, once again, God seemed to recognize that the people needed another sign, so they could distinguish between a real god and a fake (or inferior) one.
God prompts Elijah to summon people from all over Israel to witness a test between God and Baal (1 Kings 18:19). Elijah reasons with the people saying, “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). God wasn’t trying to run from a fight, he was saying, “Come, let us put this matter to a test!”
God had no objection to being tested against another god, in fact, it was his idea!
God then rains fire upon his sacrifice, while Baal does nothing (perhaps Baal felt his people were pressing their luck, after all they had already seen, and that they should now believe on faith alone). This demonstration was great for those who witnessed it (except for the priests of Baal, of course), but the proof of this miracle did not last, and to the next generation, it was just more hearsay.
Enter Testing with Tithes
A few centuries later, the Israelites were still questioning the benefits of serving God.
“You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty?'”
— Malachi 3:14
And, once again, God volunteers another test to confirm that serving him does make a difference:
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty.
— Malachi 3:10
On multiple occasions, God recognizes that evidence is the cure for doubt, and he would often show signs, or volunteer to show signs, to confirm his messages. But nowhere is the need for testing more apparent than when God is forced to deal with belief in idols.
Enter the idols
“Set forth your arguments,” says Jacob’s King. “Tell us, you idols, what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear. But you are less than nothing and your works are utterly worthless; whoever chooses you is detestable.”
— Isaiah 41:21-24
In this passage, competition from other gods forces God to deal with the inherent problem of faith: no evidence. And how does God recommend dealing with this problem? Surprisingly, God advocates for a healthy dose of skepticism! God demands evidence!
In an ironic twist, God now plays the role of the atheist. God does not believe in these gods, and recommends that you don’t either, not unless they can provide some pretty extraordinary evidence. God says, “If idols cannot present respectable evidence, then they are not to be believed. Let these gods predict the future, or tell us about the past, or do something amazing that fills us with fear and awe, that we may know they are real. If they can not do these things, then they are worthless, and those who believe in them are idiots.”
But when it comes to testing God, a double standard emerges.
When these idols failed to deliver (as they surely did), we do not hear them offering the kinds of excuses we hear coming from God. The idols do not say, “You should not test the idols!” (see Luke 4:12), or “A wicked and adulterous generation asks the idols for a sign!” (see Matt. 12:38-39), or “When you seek the idols with all your heart, only then will you find them” (see Jeremiah 29:13), or “If we idols show you a sign, it will destroy freewill!” and so on.
When it comes to belief in other gods, God demands evidence before faith, but when it comes to belief in God, God demands faith before evidence.
It seems only fair that we place the same demands on God that he has placed on the idols, and demand evidence before faith, and so this is my response to this passage:
God of Abraham, present your case! Set forth your arguments! Tell us, what is going to happen, and this time, be specific! Tell us exactly when an extremely unlikely event is going to happen, or give us unambiguous information about your creation that we have yet to discover, so that we may know that you are God.
I have examined your prophecies and (thus far) I have found them to be little more than subjective vagaries that are heavily reinterpreted in hindsight; such tricks have been faked by many others.
I have also examined your historical insights and found them lacking. Mankind has discovered no clear evidence for a historical global flood and extinction, but we have found evidence for five separate mass extinctions (none by flood) that you fail to mention. There is also evidence that there were times when much of the earth was covered by ice; and that there were long periods of time when different types of animals were present (sans-humans); and times when giant meteors impacted the earth, but you make no clear mention of any of these historical events. Your genealogies also lead us to believe that the earth is much younger than the evidence suggests.
I have also examined your knowledge of your creation and found it lacking, with no mention of how everything is built from atoms, or how the earth is covered with living things invisible to the naked eye; there are no “divinely inspired” maps of the lands you created, no mention of the land or the Indians living across the sea, no mention of how our planet is but one of many orbiting other stars; no description of how the earth and planets orbit the sun, and no mention of other galaxies. You do not describe natural laws, though you are credited with creating them; the Bible contains no revolutionary description of physics, or relativity, or quantum physics — nor any explanatory “theory of everything.” From the biggest to the smallest, your knowledge is limited to the observable.
Failing all these things, I feel I have no choice but to ask for a sign like the kind you demanded of the idols, like the signs you offered the Israelites in Egypt and in the desert, or the signs you gave to Gideon, or Hezekiah, or Thomas. Do something — right now (so I don’t later mistake a coincidence for a sign) — whether good or bad, so that I will be dismayed and filled with fear. Send down fire from heaven as you did for Elijah, or write upon that wall as you did for King Belshazzar, or turn my glass of water into wine, or appear before me as you did Paul, or flip that light switch, or levitate this coin — do something that I may have evidence that you are less imaginary than Baal and the idols.
If you cannot do the things you challenged the idols to do, then I can only conclude that you too must be man-made, the product of myth and legend; an antiquated superstition invented to try and explain the unexplainable, control the uncontrollable, and console the inconsolable.
Like the Isrealites, our generation is left asking, “Is the Lord among us or not?” “Where are all his wonders that our ancestors told us about?” and “What do we gain by carrying out his requirements?”
Out of desperation, we test God, but instead of receiving a clear sign that he is not imaginary, we are fed excuses. We are told, “You are wicked for asking for a sign!” Really? Why? God himself demanded a sign from the idols before believing in them. Or we are told, “You will be blessed for believing what you have not seen!” (John 20:29). But any imaginary god can offer imaginary blessings! I don’t need a promise of future blessings, I need evidence, and would gladly forego all the imaginary blessings offered by all the imaginary gods in exchange for proof from one of them.
As a Christian for over 30 years, I accepted the claims of the Bible on faith alone, and met God on his terms. I’ve spent countless hours listening for God’s “still small voice,” I’ve heard many claims of miracles, I’ve been “slain in the spirit,” and I’ve spoken in tongues, but these are also evidences that must be accepted on faith, or there are alternative explanations for these things, and none would convince me more than God responding to a very simple test.
So just as the Isrealites in the desert demanded evidence, just as Gideon demanded evidence, just as the later generations of Israelites demanded evidence, just as Thomas demanded evidence, and just as the Lord God Almighty himself demanded evidence from Baal and the idols, I too feel it is not unreasonable to request a demonstration before believing the extraordinary claims of God and Christianity.