The Evidence of Things Not Seen
Robert L. Millet
Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional
January 27, 2004
Some time ago I sat in my home ward and listened with much interest as four children moved to the front of the chapel and in turn bore their testimonies. The first one could not have been more than seven years old, and yet she spoke with a confidence that one might expect from a seasoned adult member of the Church. She said, essentially, “I want to bear my testimony that I know that the Church is true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that President Gordon B. Hinckley is our living prophet today.” She then shared some personal feelings and sat down. I pondered on her words, on the depth of sincerity evident in her voice, and I wondered: Does she know? Does she really know? How much could she know? Later during the day I reflected on the experience and had affirmed to my mind and heart that little children can come to know the things of God, by the power of the Spirit of God, (1 Corinthians 2:11-14) and can speak words of truth and wisdom, just as their adult counterparts can (Alma 32:23). A testimony is not something you either have or don’t have, but rather an impression of the Spirit as to the truthfulness of eternal things, an inner awareness that ranges along a spiritual continuum from a simple peaceful feeling to a perfect knowledge.
It has wisely been observed that the strength of this Church lies not alone in the powerful witnesses of the fifteen men we sustain as prophets, seers and revelators, but rather the deep reassurance and resolve that rests in the souls of individual Saints of the Most High from Alabama to Zanzibar. A testimony may begin through trusting in and relying upon the witness of another, of one who knows for sure; to believe on the faith of another is indeed a spiritual gift, a gift that can lead to eternal life (Doctrine and Covenants 46:13-14). And yet surely each one of us desires to possess our own witness, an independent knowledge of the reality of God our Father, the redemptive mission of Jesus the Christ, and the divine call of Joseph Smith and the work of the Restoration. It was President Heber C. Kimball that warned us of a test to come, a test that would separate out those who professed membership in the Church but did not possess a personal testimony sufficient to see them through hard times. “The time will come when no man or woman will be able to endure on borrowed light,” he said. “Each will have to be guided by the light within himself. If you do not have it, how can you stand?” (Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1973, 446, 449-50).
Faith in the Unseen
A few years ago a Baptist minister friend and I were driving through Boston in an effort to get to the LDS Institute of Religion at Cambridge. As has been my custom most every time I have been to Boston, I was absolutely lost and had no idea where we were. We stopped several times for directions, and each helpful person would point to us the way and say with much assurance “You can’t miss it.” After having heard that phrase five or six times, I asked our seventh helper for directions and began my question with “Please don’t say you can’t miss it, because I assure you that we can, for we have done it again and again.” During our scavenger hunt of sorts, we chatted. My colleague commented on a matter that we had discussed several times, namely the idea that Latter-day Saints are more prone to rely upon feelings than tangible evidence for truth of religious claims. In response, I asked: “Do you believe in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ?” The look he gave me was similar to that which a sixteen-year-old would give to someone who had asked what the teenager felt to be an inane question. “Of course I believe in the resurrection, Bob; I’m an ordained minister.” I followed up: “Why do you believe in the resurrection? How do you know it really happened?” He answered: “Because the New Testament teaches of the resurrection of Jesus.” I shot right back “But how do you know that the New Testament accounts can be trusted? How do you know the Bible can be trusted? Maybe someone just made all of this up. Maybe the Bible is a giant hoax.”
“No,” he said, “There is strong evidence to support the truthfulness of the Bible.” “Like what?” I asked. “Well, there are archaeological, historical and cultural evidences that what is being described actually happened.” I then queried. “And so that’s how you know the resurrection is real?”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” he said. At this point my mind began to race. And I found myself saying something I hadn’t planned to say. “You know, I feel a great sense of sadness right now.” My Evangelical friend was surprised and asked “Sadness? Why are you sad?”
“I was just thinking of a good friend of mine, an older woman in Montgomery, Alabama.” My partner asked: “What about her?” I then said, “Well, I was thinking of how sad it is that this wonderful and devoted Christian, a person who has given her life to Jesus and studied and memorized her Bible like few people I know, a woman whose life manifests her complete commitment to the Savior, is not really entitled to have a witness of the truthfulness of the Bible.”
“Why is that?” he followed up. “Well, she knows precious little about archaeology or languages or culture or history or manuscripts, and so I suppose she can’t really know within her heart that the Bible really is the word of God.”
“Of course she can,” he said. “She can have her faith, her personal witness that the Bible is true.” I pulled off to the side of the road and stopped the car. I turned to him, smiled, and stated: “Do you mean that she can have the power of the Holy Spirit testify to her soul that her Bible is completely trustworthy and can be relied upon as God’s word?”
“Yes, that’s what I mean.” My smile broadened as I added: “Then we’ve come full circle.”
“What do you mean by that?” he asked. I said: “You’re telling me that this good woman, one who has none of the supposed requisite background or knowledge of external evidence, can have a witness of the Spirit, including deep personal feelings about the Bible and that those feelings are genuine and heaven-sent.” At that point my friend looked into my eyes and he smiled. “I see where you’re going with this.” We then engaged in one of the most productive conversations of our time together as friends. We agreed between us that it is so easy to yield to the temptation to categorize and pigeonhole and stereotype and even demonize persons whose faith is different than your own. It is so easy to overstate, to misrepresent, to create “straw men” in an effort to establish your own point.
We agreed that “traditional Christians” and Latter-day Saint Christians both base their faith upon evidence—both seen and unseen. While saving faith is always built upon that which is true, upon an actual historical moment in time, upon something that really existed in the past, true believers will never allow their faith to be held hostage by what science has or has not found at a given time. I know, for example, that Jesus fed the 5,000, healed the sick, raised the dead, calmed the storm, and rose from the dead—not just because I have physical evidence for each of those miraculous events (because I do not), nor even because I can read of these things in the New Testament, which I accept with all my heart. But I know these things actually happened because the Spirit of the Living God bears witness to my spirit that the Lord of Life did all the scriptures say he did, and more.
A prominent historian of religion, Randall Balmer, has written:
I believe because of the epiphanies, small and large, that have intersected my path—small, discrete moments of grace when I have sensed a kind of superintending presence outside of myself. I believe because these moments . . . are too precious to discard, and I choose not to trivialize them by reducing them to rational explanation. I believe because, for me, the alternative to belief is far too daunting. I believe because, at the turn of the twenty-first century, belief itself is an act of defiance in a society still enthralled by the blandishments of Enlightenment rationalism. . . .
Somehow, I don’t think Jeffrey [who asks how he can know there is a God] wants me to rehearse the ontological, the teleological, and the cosmological arguments for the existence of God. . . . So instead of dusting off the teleological argument, I think I’ll remind Jeffrey about Karl Barth, arguably the most important theologian of the twentieth century. Toward the end of his life, after he had written volume after volume on the transcendence of God and the centrality of Jesus, Barth was asked to sum up his work. The good doctor paused for a minute and no doubt looked out the window and played with the stubble on his chin before responding with the words of a Sunday school ditty: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” (Growing Pains: Learning to Love my Father’s Faith (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2001), 34, 61-62).
Many years ago on a Sunday morning I opened the door and reached down to pick up the morning newspaper when I saw beside the paper a plastic bag containing a paperback book. I brought both inside and laid the newspaper aside as I browsed the paperback. The cover was a lovely picture of a mountain stream, but the title of the book revealed to me what in fact the book was all about—it was an anti-Mormon treatise. Many of the arguments in the book against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were old and worn-out ones, dead horses that have been beaten since the days of E. D. Howe. Latter-day Saints had responded to the issues posed scores of times, but they continued to crop up. One section of the book did prove, however, to be of some interest to me. Let me paraphrase what was essentially said about 130 pages into the text. The author pointed out that eventually two Mormon missionaries would come to the reader’s door. If they do come, he pleaded, don’t let them in. If, however, you do let them in, then don’t listen to them. If they are allowed to tell you about their message, about Joseph Smith and angels and golden plates, they will ask you to kneel and pray about the truthfulness of these things. Whatever you do, don’t pray! The writer then made this unusual observation: In ascertaining the truthfulness of a religious claim, there are three things a person can never trust: (1) your thoughts; (2) your feelings; (3) your prayers. I was all ears at this point, wondering how we could ever know anything. I didn’t have to wait long, for the writer then noted that the only thing that could be trusted was the Holy Bible itself. I shook my head and felt a deep sense of sadness for the author, for I wondered how indeed a person could even know of the truthfulness of the Bible if he or she could not think, feel, or pray. I had a collage of feelings at that moment. As indicated, I felt sad for the writer, for it was obvious that he could not see the blatant inconsistency and irrationality of his own words. I tried to put myself into the place of a reader who was not a Latter-day Saint and wondered how I might feel upon reading such things. To be honest, I would feel insulted, knowing that I could not be trusted enough in my pursuit of truth to rely upon my mind, my heart, or even the most tried and true method of obtaining divine direction—prayer itself.
An Evangelical Christian colleague, Craig Blomberg, once observed: “You know, it’s ironic: The Bible considers it praiseworthy to have a faith that does not require evidence. Remember how Jesus replied to doubting Thomas: ‘You believe because you see; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’ And I know evidence can never compel or coerce faith. We cannot supplant the role of the Holy Spirit, which is often a concern of Christians when they hear discussions of this kind.
“But I’ll tell you this; there are plenty of stories of scholars in the New Testament field who have not been Christians, yet through their study of these very issues have come to faith in Christ. And there have been countless more scholars, already believers, whose faith has been made stronger, more solid, more grounded, because of the evidence—and that’s the category I fall into” (Cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan) 1998), 52-53).
In writing of faith in the unseen, a Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, Luke Timothy Johnson, explained: “Belief in the existence of God is already an act by which one ‘entrusts’ oneself to a world that is not entirely defined by what can be seen and counted, heard, and accounted for.” Further: “Christians need to begin by insisting, first of all to themselves, then to each other, and finally to the world, that faith itself is a way of knowing reality. They need to insist that faith establishes contact with reality in a way different from, but no less real than, the very limited (though, in their fashion, extremely impressive) ways of knowing by which the wheels of the world’s empirical engine are kept spinning.” As an illustration, “If religion can hold as true only what is ‘within the bounds of reason,’ and if ‘reason’ is defined in terms of the empirically verifiable, then the resurrection is excluded by definition. But if the resurrection is excluded, why should Christians continue to revere Jesus, who is then only one of many figures from antiquity worthy of attention and honor?” (The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 45, 101, 180).
True believers will always be challenged by those who refuse to see. In a very real sense, believing is seeing. No member of the Church need feel embarrassed when they cannot produce the golden plates or the complete Egyptian papyrus. No member of this Church should ever feel hesitant to bear testimony of those verities that remain in the realm of faith, that are seen only with the eyes of faith. Elder Neal A. Maxwell has written: “It is the author’s opinion that all the scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, will remain in the realm of faith. Science will not be able to prove or disprove holy writ. However, enough plausible evidence will come forth to prevent scoffers from having a field day, but not enough to remove the requirement of faith. Believers must be patient during such unfolding” (Plain and Precious Things (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 4.).
Similarly, President Ezra Taft Benson pointed out: “We do not have to prove the Book of Mormon is true. The book is its own proof. All we need to do is read it and declare it. The Book of Mormon is not on trial—the people of the world, including the members of the Church, are on trial as to what they will do with this second witness for Christ” (A Witness and a Warning (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988), 13).
“We are not required to prove that the Book of Mormon is true or is an authentic record through external evidences—though there are many. It never has been the case, nor is it so now, that the studies of the learned will prove the Book or Mormon true or false. The origin, preparation, translation, and verification of the truth of the Book of Mormon have all been retained in the hands of the Lord, and the Lord makes no mistakes. You can be assured of that” (A Witness and a Warning, 31).
President Gordon B. Hinckley put things in proper perspective when he taught: “I can hold [the Book of Mormon] in my hand. It is real. It has weight and substance that can be physically measured. I can open its pages and read, and it has language both beautiful and uplifting. The ancient record from which it was translated came out of the earth as a voice speaking from the dust. . . .
“The evidence for its truth, for its validity in a world that is prone to demand evidence, lies not in archaeology or anthropology, though these may be helpful to some. It lies not in word research or historical analysis, though these may be confirmatory. The evidence for its truth and validity lies within the covers of the book itself. The test of its truth lies in reading it. It is a book of God. Reasonable individuals may sincerely question its origin, but those who read it prayerfully may come to know by a power beyond their natural senses that it is true, that it contains the word of God, that it outlines saving truths of the everlasting gospel, that it came forth by the gift and power of God.” (Faith: The Essence of True Religion (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 10-11.)
We place a great deal of emphasis in this Church—as we should—upon the singular role of the Book of Mormon, of its vital place in our own witness of the overall truthfulness of the restored gospel. In the meridian of time, the resurrection of the Master stood as the physical evidence for the Savior’s divine Sonship, the tangible witness that Jesus was Lord. Either he rose from the dead, as he said he would, or he was a fraud and Christianity was a giant hoax. So with our own dispensation: the Book of Mormon stands as the tangible evidence of a spiritual reality—that God has spoken anew in our day; has made known his mind and will and purposes through Joseph Smith and his prophetic and apostolic successors; that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in deed and in fact the kingdom of God on earth.
Recently President James E. Faust told the story of a Latter-day Saint lecturer at London University, Joseph Hamstead. Brother Hamstead once spoke to a group at the university of the LDS faith, including its youth and family programs. One of those in attendance responded as follows: “I like all of this, what is being done for families, etc. If you could take out that bit about an angel appearing to Joseph Smith, I could belong to your church.” Hamstead retorted: “Ah, but if you take away the angel appearing to the Prophet Joseph, then I couldn’t belong to the Church because that is its foundation” (Personal correspondence to James E. Faust; cited in Faust, “Lord, I Believe; Help Thou Mine Unbelief,” Ensign, November 2003, 19-20).
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has written: “To consider that everything of saving significance in the Church stands or falls on the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and, by implication, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of how it came forth is as sobering as it is true. It is a ‘sudden death’ proposition. Either the Book of Mormon is what the Prophet Joseph said it is, or this Church and its founder are false, a deception from the first instance onward. . . . Joseph Smith must be accepted either as a prophet of God or else as a charlatan of the first order, but no one should tolerate any ludicrous, even laughable middle ground about the contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. This is an unacceptable position to take—morally, literarily, historically, or theologically.”
Elder Holland went on to explain: “If Joseph Smith did not translate the Book of Mormon as a work of ancient origin, then I would move heaven and earth to meet the ‘real’ nineteenth-century author. After one hundred and fifty years, . . . surely there must be someone willing to step forward—if no one else, at least the descendants of the ‘real’ author—claiming credit for such a remarkable document and all that has transpired in its wake. After all, a writer that can move millions can make millions. Shouldn’t someone have come forth then or now to cashier the whole phenomenon?” (Holland, Christ and the New Covenant (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 345-47.) With this in mind, perhaps we can better appreciate why Joseph Smith stated simply: “Take away the Book of Mormon and the revelations, and where is our religion? We have none” (History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., ed. B.H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 2:52).
While we seek to make friends and build bridges of understanding with persons of other faiths where possible, we do not court favor, nor do we compromise one whit on what we believe. Some doctrines, like the doctrine of “only true and living church” (D&C 1:30), by their very nature, arouse antagonism from those of other faiths. Would it not be wise to avoid or at least downplay such divisive points? Perhaps, some say, we should consider focusing on matters we have in common and put aside, for the time being, the distinctive teachings of the Restoration. Elder Boyd K. Packer declared: “If we thought only in terms of diplomacy or popularity, surely we should change our course. But we must hold tightly to it even though some turn away. . . .
“It is not an easy thing for us to defend the position that bothers so many others. But, brethren and sisters, never be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Never apologize for the sacred doctrines of the gospel. Never feel inadequate and unsettled because you cannot explain them to the satisfaction of all who might inquire of you. Do not be ill at ease or uncomfortable because you can give little more than your conviction. . . .
“If we can stand without shame, without hesitancy, without embarrassment, without reservation to bear witness that the gospel has been restored, that there are prophets and Apostles upon the earth, that the truth is available for all mankind, the Lord’s Spirit will be with us. And that assurance can be affirmed to others” (Conference Report, October 1985,104, 107).
The Significance of a Matter
In the end, the only way that the things of God can and should be known is by the power of the Holy Ghost. These things are what the scriptures call the “mysteries of God.” Another way of stating this is to suggest that the only way that spiritual truths may be known is by the quiet whisperings of the Holy Ghost. How did Alma the younger know? Was it because he was struck to the ground by an angel? Was it because he lay immobile and speechless for three days while he underwent a confrontation with himself and his sinful and rebellious past? No, Alma knew as we know: he may have undergone a serious turnaround in his life through the intervention of a heavenly messenger, but the witness that drove and directed this magnificent convert was the witness of the Spirit. In his own words, “Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety? Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me” (Alma 5:45-46).
On the other hand, we can come to sense the significance of a spiritual reality by the loud janglings of opposition it engenders. For example, what do the following locations have in common: Portland, Dallas, Atlanta, White Plains, Nashville, Denver, Stockholm, and Ghana? Clearly in each of these places the announcement that a Latter-day Saint temple was to be built there brought opponents and even crazed zealots out of the woodwork. If I did not already know by the quiet whisperings of the Spirit within me that what goes on within temples is true and is of eternal import, I just might sense the significance of the temple by the kind of opposition that seems almost to flow naturally from those who refuse to see.
Consider another illustration. Why is it that so many people throughout the world write scathing books, deliver biting addresses, and prepare vicious videos denouncing the Book of Mormon? What is it about black words on a white page, all of which are uplifting and edifying, that invite men and women to come unto Christ and be perfected in Him, that would arouse such bitter antagonism? Once again, if I did not already know, by the quiet whisperings of the Spirit, that the Book of Mormon is truly heaven-sent and indeed Another Testament of Jesus Christ, I would recognize its significance—its power to settle doctrinal disputes, touch hearts, and transform men and women’s lives—by the loud and hostile reactions people tend to have toward it.
Hugh Nibley, one of the greatest minds of this dispensation, a defender of the faith throughout his life, stated: “The words of the prophets cannot be held to the tentative and defective tests that men have devised for them. Science, philosophy, and common sense all have a right to their day in court. But the last word does not lie with them. Every time men in their wisdom have come forth with the last word, other words have promptly followed. The last word is a testimony of the gospel that comes only by direct revelation. Our Father in heaven speaks it, and if it were in perfect agreement with the science of today, it would surely be out of line with the science of tomorrow. Let us not, therefore, seek to hold God to the learned opinions of the moment when he speaks the language of eternity” (The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and F.A.R.M..S., 1987), 134).
I have learned a few things as I have learned a few things over the years. I thank God for the formal education I have received, for the privilege it is (and I count it such) to have received university training. Education has expanded my mind and opened conversations and doors for me. It has taught me what books to read, how to research a topic, and how to make my case or present my point of view more effectively. But the more I learn, the more I value the truths of salvation, those simple but profound verities that soothe and settle and sanctify human hearts. I appreciate knowing that the order of the cosmos points toward a Providential Hand; I am deeply grateful to know, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that there is a God and that he is our Father in heaven. I appreciate knowing something about the social, political, and religious world into which Jesus of Nazareth was born; I am deeply grateful for the witness of the Spirit that he is indeed God’s Almighty Son.
I appreciate knowing something about the social and intellectual climate of nineteenth-century America; I am grateful to have, burning within my soul, a testimony that the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith in the Spring of 1820, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is truly the kingdom of God on earth. In short, the more I encounter men’s approximations to what is, the more I treasure those absolute truths that make known “things as they really are, and . . . things as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13; compare D&C 93:24). In fact, the more we learn, the more we begin to realize what we do not know, the more we feel the need to consider ourselves “fools before God” (2 Nephi 9:42).
Those who choose to follow the Brethren, believe in and teach the scriptures, and be loyal to the Church—no matter the extent of their academic training or intellectual capacity—open themselves to ridicule from the cynic and the critic. Ultimately, doctrinal truth comes not through the explorations of scholars, but through the revelations of God to apostles and prophets. And if such a position be labeled as narrow, parochial, or anti-intellectual, then so be it. I cast my lot with the prophets. I am one who sincerely believes that education need not be antithetical to conversion and commitment; it all depends on where one places his or her trust. “True religion,” Elder Bruce R. McConkie testified, “deals with spiritual things. We do not come to a knowledge of God and his laws through intellectuality, or by research, or by reason. . . . In their sphere, education and intellectuality are devoutly to be desired. But when contrasted with spiritual endowments, they are of but slight and passing worth. From an eternal perspective what each of us needs is a Ph.D. in faith and righteousness. The things that will profit us everlastingly are not the power to reason, but the ability to receive revelation; not the truths learned by study, but the knowledge gained by faith; not what we know about the things of the world, but our knowledge of God and his laws” (Conference Report, April 1971, 99).
I know, as I know that I live, that God lives, that he is our Father in heaven, that he has a body of flesh and bones, and that we are created in his image. I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. I know that through genuine, godly sorrow for sin, we can have our garments washed in the blood of the Lamb and enjoy peace and happiness here and eternal glory hereafter. I know that Joseph Smith was and is a prophet of God, a covenant spokesman for Deity, the preeminent prophetic revealer of Christ and the plan of salvation, the one called to stand as the head of this final gospel dispensation; through his instrumentality, precious doctrinal truths and divine, saving authority have been restored to the earth. Further, my witness is current. I know that Gordon B. Hinckley stands in the shoes of Brother Joseph, that he holds the keys of the kingdom of God in their fulness, and that it is our privilege to live at a time when prophets and apostles walk the earth. This Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in the line of its duty, and it is preparing a people for the second coming of the Son of Man.
These things I know. I have come to know them by the same means and in the same manner that Peter knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16-17). My knowledge of things spiritual, like all true faith, is based on evidence that is not seen. I chose to believe, and in the process I came to see, to know. At the same time, I possess what the apostle Peter called a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). That is to say, my witness is as satisfying and stimulating to my mind as it is settling and soothing to my heart.
God grant that you and I, as a peculiar or a purchased people, may cleave unto Him who is the Truth; that our total trust, our complete confidence, and our ready reliance will always be in Him; that our lives will reflect more and more what we know and believe; and that we will “shew forth the praises of him who hath called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).