While not particularly a religious idiom, we live in a culture that insists on the idea that “seeing is believing”.
In social media we see the idiom translated as, “pics or it didn’t happen” or “video or it didn’t happen”. If we look how the idiom is defined in the online Cambridge Dictionary (here), we get the following definition:
if you see something yourself, you will believe it to exist or be true, despite the factthat it is unlikely
In popular evangelicalism, this notion finds its way into how we talk about evangelism when the emphasis moves away from actually preaching the good news (the evangel) and focuses more on us somehow “demonstrating” the Gospel. We discussed this before in CTT|Earn the Right to Speak Truth? The idea sometimes gets super-charged in the “signs and wonders” crowd who teach that people will not believe the Gospel unless the Church starts “operating in the gifts of the spirit” performing miracles, so-called “healing crusades” and big-tent revivals. The hard truth is that these movements aren’t actually performing any miracles, they are teaching false signs and wonders and they aren’t even preaching the evangel, the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But today, let us focus in on the claim that “Seeing is Believing” and see if it squares with Scripture.
Seeing is Believing in the Old Testament?
For this to be a trustworthy saying, surely we should be able to find some evidence of this in Scripture, right? Let us begin our investigation of this concept by looking for a generation of people who saw arguably the greatest display of God’s might and power to Save. Let us consider the Hebrews whom God delivered out of the hand of Pharaoh of Egypt. Consider the 10 plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, Mana from heaven, Water from the rock at Horeb, they heard the voice of God at Mount Sinai and they trembled and begged Moses to be the one to hear the Voice of God on their behalf. They saw the cloud of the LORD covering the Tabernacle. When they had the audacity to complain of the mana, the LORD sent quail. Yet, despite having seen all of these signs and wonders, they failed to believe God would bring them into the Promised Land. In Numbers 13, the LORD commands Moses to send 12 spies into the Land of Canaan. When the spies return after 40 days only Joshua and Caleb had faith that the LORD would hand the land over to Israel. The people rebelled against Joshua, Caleb, Moses, Aaron, and against God.
Numbers 14:1-12 (ESV) Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”
Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the people of Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel.
And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
I’ve highlighted the clearest condemnation against them in the LORD’s response. This generation remained in unbelief, despite the signs God had done among them. No generation can claim to have seen more at one time than this one. Seeing is believing? Not for this generation.
Numbers 14:13-30 (ESV) But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”
Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.” And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me. Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.
Only those of faith, though who believed the Word of the Lord actually got to see the Promised Land. We could go through many other examples of the persistence of unbelief in the face of great signs and wonders, but I think this quite the example for now. Let’s look to see if we find anything in the New Testament regarding the notion of “seeing is believing”.
Seeing is Believing in the New Testament?
One might be tempted to point to Thomas to support the idea that “seeing is believing”, so let us go there first.
John 20:24-29 (ESV) Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
This is not where we want to be… giving God an ultimatum of His Promises. I’ve highlighted the LORD’s rebuke of Thomas. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.
For a more thorough teaching against the notion that “seeing is believing” let us look to one of the parables Jesus taught, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Luke 16:19-31 (ESV) | The Rich Man and Lazarus
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
Notice the focus of Abraham’s statement… its focus is upon hearing Moses and the Prophets. And if they will not hear Moses and the Prophets, they won’t believe no matter what they see.
Faith comes by Hearing…
Romans 10:11-17 (ESV) For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
So then, brothers, when it comes to evangelism, let us not stumble into the trap of thinking we can add to the Preaching of God’s Word. Whether it be a temptation to “demonstrate miracles, signs, wonders” or the temptation to make an inescapable logical argument to make unbelievers see the obvious truths… do not be distracted by the simple fact that it is God alone who saves, and He has promised to do so by His Word. The same Word through which He created all things visible and invisible (Creed).
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (ESV) | Christ the Wisdom and Power of God
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Preach the Word of the Cross, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of sin. It is the LORD who saves, by His Grace, through Faith. And that faith comes by hearing through the Word of Christ.
Numbers 6:24-26 (ESV)
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
In Christ Jesus,