The Question: “How can we be absolutely sure that the Bible describes the one true will of our Creator?”
It is worth asking first just what the one true will of our Creator described by the Bible actually is.
Moses puts it like this, in what Jesus calls the most important commandment, “to love YHWH your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The prophet Micah puts it like this: “for you know what YHWH has required of you: to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with YHWH your God” (Micah 6:8).
And to this list of brief summaries of Bible’s message I was about to add the message with which Jesus began his preaching, “The kingdom of God is near, turn away from sin and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). And this mention of the gospel makes me realise that I have oversimplified things. Because the gospel, the good news that Jesus came to declare, is not that we need to love God with all our hearts, or that we need to be just and merciful and humble. On the contrary, the good news of Jesus says that we haven’t obeyed the will of our Creator, in spite of its having been revealed to us both in the writings of prophets inspired by the Spirit of God, but that in spite of our disobedience God still loves us and has solved the problem of our sin by paying the penalty for it on the cross.
And this is why someone like Tim Keller (who wrote The Reason For God, well worth reading if you’re interested in a deeper and more skilful attempt to persuade you of the truth of the Christian faith than I may be able to offer you) can say “all other religions are basically advice, but Christianity is essentially news”.
This is similar to Luther’s emphasis on the difference between Law and Gospel, between commandment and promise. And this isn’t a New Testament idea that has been added to the Jewish scriptures, this is present all the way through the Bible, from the point when Adam is told that his creator’s will is that he be fruitful and multiply and name the animals and look after God’s garden and eat from the Tree of Life — but not from the Tree of Knowledge. And Adam disobeys and eats the forbidden fruit, but God is merciful and promises Eve that one of her descendants will finally defeat the Evil that tempted them to sin (cf. Genesis 3:15). And through the story of Moses who gives the people of Israel the law and tells them to obey it but not only warns them of judgement if they disobey it but prophesies that they *will* disobey it. But then also promises that after the inevitable judgement for their sin, God will change their hearts (Deuteronomy 33:6) so that they will love him and so that they will be able to live in the promised land and fulfil the will of God. And through the story of David who sings psalms about the blessedness of living by the law of God, and meditating on it day and night, but who fails to keep God’s law and commits adultery and then tries to hide his crime by killing the woman’s husband (2 Samuel 11). But when a prophet finally forces him to face up to what he has done and the fact that God knows of it and is not pleased, he casts himself on the mercy of God and God “has mercy on him according to his unfailing love” (Psalm 51:1).
And I still haven’t come to your main question, which was less about what the Bible actually says and more about epistemology. But I am less interested in epistemology and more interested in what the Bible actually says 😉
Nevertheless, I am also interested in trying to answer your question. So, here we go: how can we be *absolutely certain* that the Bible is true? (Having discussed the ‘one true will’ bit at length already, I am hereon going to paraphrase your question thus). Now, ‘absolute certainty’ is quite a relentless requirement. From a Christian perspective, only God is absolute and able to have perfect knowledge with infinite certainty. And we human beings are not only finite but also fallen and flawed, and therefore prone to deliberately misinterpret facts as well as merely not understand them. Nevertheless we are also made in the image of God, and so are meant to have the potential to understand truth (at least in a way proportionate to our finite capacity). And as Christians we believe that because of Jesus’ finished work on the cross, we can be made holy by faith and the very Spirit of God comes and dwells within us when we believe. And the Bible says that “the Spirit bears witness with our spirit” (Romans 8:16) — in this case the indwelling Spirit of God is witnessing that “we are sons of God”, but I believe the same applies to our conviction that “all Scripture is God-breathed” just as it claims to be (2 Timothy 3:16). On the one hand, there is a sense that I’m not saying anything different here what you unsympathetically describe as “I just know”. But on the other hand, if Scripture is like a double-edged sword which divides between soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12) and cuts us to the heart, then maybe our knowing that it is true and powerful should be on the same level of knowledge as our knowing when we cut ourselves with a knife — we know because we have experienced it.
But all this is very abstract. Maybe your question would be better answered if I rephrased it more personally: “How is it that I am so convinced of the truth of the biblical gospel that I am compelled to go out on the streets and interrupt strangers with my attempts to communicate this gospel message to them?”
And my story takes place in the context of not only a Christian family, but with missionary parents. But that alone does not account for my own personal conviction, for as you say, someone inclined to think logically is likely to doubt whatever articles of faith are passed down to him without justification. So I pushed a little to find answers to the questions I had, and found some answers which satisfied me. And I at 17 I decided to be baptised. And on multiple subsequent occasions I have been powerfully impacted by God in various ways, which I have written about at length for other audiences:
A year after I was baptized (my final year of school) I felt for the first time the overwhelming “joy unspeakable filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8) of which the Bible speaks and which I wrote about here.
In my second year of university, while feeling very low and purposeless, I began praying regularly with a friend and experienced something of the explosive power of the Spirit who catapulted Jesus and the early church into mission and still does the same today which propelled me to write and tell everyone I knew about what had just happened.
A year later I visited a friend in Egypt and the two of us went on a little pilgrimage to Mt Sinai, and there I was gripped by a desire to captivate people’s imaginations with the beauty of the kingdom of God which inspired this.
And it was after this that I began doing some street evangelism.
So my conviction of the truth of the Bible is very much rooted in my own personal experience. But I have also spent two years studying theology in the university in my little town of Cambridge, focusing as much as possible on the New Testament, and having my understanding put to the test by engaging with the fiercest scholarly critiques of the historicity of the New Testament writings to be found in academia. And in this time I discovered that there are (to my mind) more convincing counter-critiques of these critiques – and so I have come away with an increased conviction that Christianity can stand up to scrutiny. And hence my attempts to wrestle with your questions.
(And I should stop here and state just a couple of historical reasons for being convinced of the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus:
The New Testament authors were clearly convinced of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. Peter, John, Paul: you cannot read (have *you* read? If not, you definitely should) what these three individuals wrote without being convinced at the very least that they were convinced of the truth of what they were writing. And they were claiming to have seen Jesus, in the flesh, raised to new life after he had been crucified. And they were willing to, and did, die for that belief.
The New Testament belief in the divinity of Jesus is thoroughly rooted in Jewish (ie. Old Testament) theological thought-patterns, and appears too consistently through the NT for it to be explained away as a corruption of Judaism resulting from Greek pagan influences. The NT’s explanation would be that after Jesus was killed for the blasphemy of claiming to be equal with God, this claim was vindicated by God who raised Jesus to life again. Unless Jesus was really raised to life, this doctrine is so peculiar as to be totally inexplicable.
And I’ll stop there because your question wasn’t specifically about historical evidence for the resurrection.)
Clearly I began my investigation with a bias. But when we are discussing something that touches on the very heart of who we are and what the purpose of our lives is, is it possible to be unbiased? (And part of my battle in trying to persuade you of the truth of the gospel is to persuade you to *want* the gospel to be true).
So I suppose in conclusion my answer is that absolute certainty is probably something that we can’t have, at least not constantly (and absolute certainty that is inconstant isn’t really absolute). But we can, and I do, have a sufficient certainty, a confident conviction, that the gospel is truly the only hope for the world, that Jesus is he says he is and who the Bible (and maybe the Gospel of John in particular, brilliant book that), and that Jesus was right when he said that “the Scripture cannot be broken”, and so consequently, the Bible is trustworthy.
And the reason for my personal conviction is contextually cultural, essentially experiential, and with the support of historical investigation. And it continues to be tested from day to day.
Perhaps in response I should ask how certain you are of the reliability of your own worldview.
Or maybe I should just muse generally on the difficulty of persuading someone coming from a completely different worldview of the reality of your own. You might explain away my conviction that there is a God as a Freudian hangover or an evolutionary instinct. And I might explain your lack of conviction as your own refusal to acknowledge the sin that following Jesus would force you to confess (Mark 10:18-21), or that the devil has blinded you (2 Corinthians 4:4), or that God has not chosen you to be saved (Romans 9:22).
But I have gone on long enough. I look forward to your response and next question.
Grace and peace,