To believe in a “revelation” is merely to believe that God has revealed something about himself to human beings. Of course, many people have claimed to have received messages from God; these can be read in the scriptural traditions of different religions. (There are also plenty of individuals alive today who claim to hear God; our questions apply to them too.) Different scriptural traditions make incompatible claims– so they cannot all be true. But if we have reason to reject one, shouldn’t we reject every revelation claim? Not at all. There are philosophical, economic, political and moral disagreements between, and within, different cultures. It certainly does not follow that we must reject every moral doctrine and philosophical system!
In fact, there are some good, critical questions we can ask of any Scriptural tradition or prophecy:
1) We can ask if God could have sent this particular message. The title “God” has a particular meaning. God is a “perfect being”, a “maximally great being” and “worthy of worship”. Effectively, all these terms mean that God is so great that we cannot even conceive of anything greater than he is. So we should be extremely suspicious of revelations which claim that we should worship a limited, finite creator. A revelation which claimed that God had a beginning or a creator would not describe something worthy of worship. Furthermore, we should be very sceptical if a message asks us to do something that a morally perfect being is unlikely to approve of.[i]
2) We can ask if God would have sent this particular message. Now, a perfect God worthy of worship would not be in the business of providing us with some interesting facts about metaphysics or thermodynamics. A God worthy of worship would surely seek to challenge us, transform us, and lead us into a deeper relationship with himself and others. So a revelation from God should be morally and personally challenging.
3) We can ask if we need to hear the message. The world is not as it should be; morally we are not as we ought to be. It seems that we are in need of rescue. A morally perfect being would not be uninterested in our plight. Any message from God should help us to understand our situation, point out how we need to change and then offer us a measure of hope. A revelation from God should also stretch and deepen our moral knowledge, then strengthen our moral commitments.
4) We can ask if the message makes sense We should expect a set of messages from God to be consistent. So if we accept that a message (A) is truly from God we cannot rationally accept another message (B) which contradicts it.
5) We can ask if the message makes sense of our world For example, a revelation which tells us that the universe is contingent, is designed, and that human beings have strikingly unique features which set us apart from other animals, fits what we know about our world. “Revelations” which claim that the observable world is an illusion, that good and evil are merely subjective, or that there is no self, are very dubious. (After all, if there is no self, who is revelation speaking to?)
6) We can ask if the message makes sense of our lives Suppose we set you the problem of finding the prime factors of a number such as 6887. Perhaps you have no idea how to solve this problem, but your friend tells you that the factors are 71 and 97. It is then very easy to check the answer – simply multiply the numbers together. So you can be confident that your friend has given you the correct answer even if you had no idea how to work it out yourself. In fact, it is a general feature of mathematics that it is often easier to check that an answer to a problem is correct than it is to solve the problem. You will conclude that your friend has access to a source of knowledge to which you do not.
Something similar applies to evaluating a putative revelation, although in a more indirect way. It may be that we would not conclude from the scientific or historical evidence that humans are in some sense made in God’s image or that we have fallen short of his idea. But perhaps when we investigate the behaviour of others, and reflect on our own thoughts and actions, we find that this makes sense of human nature.
7) We can ask if the message is shocking or strange If physics has taught us anything, it is that the world seldom turns out as we expected. Of course, physics is a rational discipline which makes sense of the world; but it regularly surprises us with its discoveries. God’s foolishness would be wiser than our wisdom- even the wisdom of physicists. If there is a God, it would seem likely that we would have obligations to him and to other people that we would not know about if he did not reveal them. It would also seem entirely reasonable that God might have priorities and values that differ from ours. We might also learn that we have failed to meet certain obligations or failed to value the right things.
So, a true revelation from God would shock and challenge us, yet make sense of our world, our lives and our failings.
8) We can ask if any concrete, historical evidence confirms the message Unlike many religions, including some major world religions, the truth or falsity of Christianity fundamentally depends on historical events. It is the Buddhist message, or the messages delivered to Muhammad, which are of primary importance in those religions. But if Jesus did not call us into God’s kingdom, if he did not die on a Cross and if he did not rise from the dead, then the Christian revelation is false. Therefore can look for evidence which can undermine, and evidence which would confirm, the truth of the Christian revelation.
9) We can look for “God’s signature” Historical evidence which confirms that a miracle occurred could be powerful evidence for the truth of a revelation.
So, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ provides powerful evidence for a powerful message.
10) Finally, of course, we must ask the exact content of message we are evaluating ? Hebrews 1v1-2 makes it clear that the Christian revelation centres on Jesus: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times in various ways but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” But can we be more exact about the content of the Christian message? To really grasp this you must spend time with the Gospels; but we can summarise it briefly as follows:
The human race has rebelled against the only true God, the almighty creator of all things, who exists eternally as three persons, Father, Son and Spirit. To rescue us, God called a special people, Israel. Jesus Christ, God the Son, fully human and fully divine was Israel’s true messiah. He called everyone, without exception, to enter God’s kingdom; he founded a Church through his Apostles.
Jesus died on the Cross, taking the judgement we deserve; then he rose bodily from the grave and ascended as saviour and Lord. We are called to surrender personally and totally to God, and to trust completely in his Son, who will return as our judge and ruler of a New Heavens and New Earth. When we turn completely to God and depend on Him, God the Holy Spirit transforms us, calling us to new life and new obedience.
Postscript: An appeal for open-mindedness
We would ask that you consider the questions above carefully, and not rush to judgment. We would also ask that you spend a little time carefully reading through the Bible, beginning with the Gospels, before you dismiss the possibility that God has spoken through Jesus of Nazareth. It’s important not to close our minds to the possibility of a revelation. Whenever major revolutions take place in science there is often serious opposition from within the scientific community. Part of this opposition is a justifiable reluctance to give up on an old theory that has served us so well, but part of it can also be due to a conviction that the world simply could not be as the new theory describes it. Before Einstein, scarcely any serious thought had been given to the possibility of describing the universe with a non-Euclidean geometry. Even if it was possible from a mathematical point of view to come up with a non-Euclidean geometry where the angles of a triangle did not add up to 180 degrees, surely it would be ridiculous, if not downright perverse, to think that the universe could be like this.
And yet such a geometry is central to Einstein’s theory of relativity. In a similar way, many of the concepts of quantum theory are completely counterintuitive and do not at all correspond to what many people think the world must be like. In fact, particularly in the case of quantum theory, this is not just a theoretical point for it is well-known that these counterintuitive features of the theory generated significant opposition, not least from Einstein himself, which is the context of his famous quip that God does not play dice. For our purposes, the point is that people can reject a theory, or worse still not even try to understand it, or even worse still disparage it without understanding it, because of a prior commitment that the world simply cannot be that way. We must try not to make the same kind of unscientific mistake when it comes to considering the claims of the Christian revelation.
[i] See our thoughts on Abraham and Isaac; the war in Canaan; slavery in the Bible; the nature and purpose of Torah; the possibility of miracles and the fate of those who have not heard the Gospel. We have also gathered short videos and other web-resources on the Old Testament (which, like any text, is easily misunderstood if it is not read in its historical and literary context.)