When I was a kid, I watched Little House on the Prairie. I still can hear the theme song in my head and visualize the Ingalls girls running (or stumbling) down the grassy hill in their calico dresses. I remember what the Ingalls family farm and the town of Walnut Grove looked like. I can see the schoolhouse in my mind’s eye.

When I moved from Washington to Wisconsin a few weeks ago, I made a point to stop in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, on the way. Of course, the town doesn’t look like it did when the Ingalls family was around. I wish they had recreated the set from the TV show. I wanted to buy some stick candy and a sack of flour at Oleson’s Mercantile.

The museum was closed for the season. We went to the gift shop (always open), where I bought stick candy. In the middle of a neighborhood, we saw the spot where the Union Congressional Church had stood. In 1874, Charles Ingalls donated $3 to help buy a new church bell, which now rings a few blocks away at the English Lutheran Church.

A couple of miles north of town is the site of the family’s dugout home, on the banks of Plum Creek. The home is no longer there; there’s merely a depression in the side of the hill that rises up from the creekbank.

Here I stood, where the real Ingalls family lived nearly 150 years ago. It seemed foreign to my imagination. In my mind, the fake Walnut Grove (a television set in California) was the real Walnut Grove. Throughout my life, my picture of reality was a visual fiction. When I finally was immersed in the real thing, I didn’t recognize it.

The Fictions in My Mind

It made me think about how often I do this with realities that truly matter. I have ideas in my head that are well established. How accurate are they? If I encountered the reality of those ideas, would I recognize it?

Years ago, I worked as an intelligence analyst in drug enforcement investigations. Part of my job was figuring out the full identity of certain traffickers. Often, they had multiple aliases and nicknames. I put all of the pieces together for one particular trafficker and came up with an identity: Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto*. Eventually, he was arrested. He was officially identified as Pedro Antonio Marquez-Carrasco*.

Who?! That could not possibly be my trafficker, whom I had gotten to “know” over the previous year or two. My trafficker was Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto. I don’t know this Pedro Antonio Marquez-Carrasco. There had to be a mistake somewhere.

Of course, the mistake was mine. I made an incorrect identification. When the true ID was made, it was completely foreign to me, and I have trouble accepting it to this day! I had been so sure. For months, this person was Rodrigo Sandoval-Nieto, as far as I was concerned. The “fiction” became a reality in my mind. When the true reality confronted me, I was disoriented.

We all do it. Sometimes we become so sure of something, we let momentum establish it as a fact in our mind. When we encounter the actual fact, we don’t recognize it. Too often, we dismiss it because it doesn’t fit in our box.

It’s difficult not to make boxes. But, we will do well if we remember that they are our boxes and not necessarily fact or reality. We should never close the door to new evidence, and we must always desire the truth above all else.

*The names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Yesterday morning I saw what I believed was a bald eagle in my pajamas. (I know what you’re thinking: What was a bald eagle doing in my pajamas?)

After calculating the laziness factor of birdwatching from bed, I sprung into action, grabbed my camera, and got a few shots. Then I strapped on my snowshoes and headed toward the tree where I saw the bird. (I know what you’re thinking: What was I doing in a tree?)

When I got close, I was excited to see that the bird was still there. It was a bit like what Francis Scott Key must have felt when he saw that the flag was still there. (Okay, it wasn’t anywhere near that exciting much less meaningful, but you get my drift.)

I took more photos. The bird appeared to be dark all over, so I dismissed the bald eagle hypothesis (always something I’m loathe to do).

I trudged back home and took a look at the pictures I had taken. This is a photo I took from my bedroom window:

Keep in mind that the bird was a looooong way off, my camera has its limitations, and my window could use a wash. Still, it looks like a bald eagle, right? Huge. White head and tail. Bright yellow beak. “America the Beautiful” playing in the background. Why did I see an all-dark bird when I got closer to the tree?

Then I got to the second set of bird photos (separated by a few shots of snow and then more snow).

Excusez-moi? Who are you, and what did you do with my bald eagle? Apparently I missed the changing of the guard.

I entered the photos into my Merlin Bird ID app to get some insight into what was going on. I was especially looking for confirmation of the bald eagle ID! I uploaded that photo to the app. Drum roll, please …

American crow. Or black-backed woodpecker. Or great horned owl.

Huh? I uploaded it a second time.

Brown-headed cowbird. Or dark-eyed junco.

I know it’s a crummy photo, but please try harder.

American crow. Or green heron.

I give up. Let’s try the photo of the second bird.

Red-tailed hawk. Or red-shouldered hawk.

That’s more like it. I’ll buy that.

So, what am I to think about the first bird? According to the app, it’s a woodpecker or an owl or a heron or a walrus or a sheep or one of the Backstreet Boys. What should we do when we are trying to determine the truth and our go-to authority seems off?

First of all, we keep in mind that it’s possible that our go-to authority is off. Blind trust is risky. Humans and their inventions are fallible. Secondly, we look at the evidence.

Building evidence-based beliefs means that we consider all of the evidence and figure out the best explanation for that evidence. What is the evidence about this bird’s identification?

  • My app is fairly reliable, but it has been wrong before, especially when the photo is poor quality.
  • The bird is huge and appears to have a dark body, white head, white tail, and yellow beak. This description fits a bald eagle and no other bird that I’m aware of, at least in this area. Caveats: I am not familiar with all types of birds, and the image quality is so poor, I might not have an accurate description of it.
  • I shared the photo on Facebook and asked people what they thought it was. Six out of six people identified it as an eagle.
  • The Merlin Bird ID app includes bald eagles on the list of likely birds in Vancouver, Washington, today.
  • At least two bald eagles have been spotted in this immediate area in recent days.
  • I really want it to be a bald eagle.

Okay, okay. That last one isn’t evidence. We often allow our desires to influence our beliefs, but we’ve really got to stop that. So, let’s throw that one out. What are we left with? When we can’t be certain, we settle for possibilities and probabilities. Based on the evidence, I am comfortable at this point with believing that it is probably a bald eagle.

Notice that, above, I didn’t ask for the evidence that this is a bald eagle; I asked for evidence about the bird’s identification. On Facebook, I didn’t ask others whether they thought it was a bald eagle; I asked them what they thought it was. Starting out with a presumption or bias can steer us in the wrong direction.

I want to know the truth, whatever it is. So, I leave the door open for more evidence if it should ever come. In this case, I can invite more evidence by asking what y’all think. I’m interested to know what you think of the first photo, especially if you have experience with bird identification. Let me know in the comments below!

Let’s say that you have a brother named Clive, and people claim that he’s perfect. I mean, he has never done anything wrong. You would know better, right? You know for a fact that he cheated on his sixth grade history exam as well as his first girlfriend, and he is a jerk on Twitter.

Clive’s friends start talking about him being faultless, and they implore people to hang on his every word and trust him completely. You would speak up, right? You would caution people and let them know that Clive is not the infallible saint they think he is. He’s a good guy, sure — but let’s not get all culty, okay?

This was similar to the situation that James was in. People claimed that his brother Jesus was sinless. James did not believe all of the claims about Jesus — he was not on board with this “Messiah” thing — but he couldn’t dispute this claim. James knew that Jesus was, in fact, without sin. That’s why James (an unbeliever in general) never spoke up and said, “You’re wrong. At least twice, he lied to Mom about why he came home late. He beat up the neighbor, and — although he denies it — I know that he stole my butterfly collection. It took me six years to build that collection, and he never admitted it!”

Fast forward several years. Jesus had died and risen from the dead. The movement of Christ was gaining momentum. The Jewish leaders came to James for help in shutting it down. According to Hegesippus:

They came, therefore, in a body to James, and said: “We entreat thee, restrain the people: for they have gone astray in their opinions about Jesus, as if he were the Christ. … Persuade the people not to entertain erroneous opinions concerning Jesus. … Take thy stand, then, upon the summit of the temple, that from that elevated spot thou mayest be clearly seen, and thy words may be plainly audible to all the people. For, in order to attend the passover, all the tribes have congregated hither, and some of the Gentiles also.” To the scribes’ and Pharisees’ dismay, James boldly testified that “Christ himself sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven”. The scribes and pharisees then said to themselves, “We have not done well in procuring this testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, that they may be afraid, and not believe him.” Accordingly, the scribes and Pharisees … threw down the just man… [and] began to stone him: for he was not killed by the fall. And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot, and the pillar erected to his memory still remains, close by the temple. This man was a true witness to both Jews and Greeks that Jesus is the Christ.*

In his younger days, James did not buy into the claim that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Something changed between that time and this moment of amazing confidence. Likely, it was the moment when James saw Jesus alive after He was dead. Understandably, that tipped the scale for many people.

In his unbelieving days, James was in a position to know whether or not Jesus was sinless. If that claim had been false, James likely would have blown the whistle. After the resurrection, James was in a position to know whether or not Jesus died and rose again. He was there. He knew the truth. If it had been false, he would have stayed an unbeliever. If it had been false, he would not have stood up and confidently declared that Jesus was the Christ. He probably would have stood up and said, “Y’all have this all wrong!”

James wasn’t a blind believer in Jesus. He wasn’t an in-the-bag follower, just because He was his brother or a nice guy. James believed only when he was presented with compelling evidence. He knew for a fact that Jesus was dead and then alive, just as He said would happen.

I don’t share James’s experience, but his experience translates into compelling evidence for me. Jesus rising from the dead and being the Christ is the explanation of the evidence that makes the most sense to me. If Jesus had been a less-than-perfect liar or lunatic, James would have known that, and he probably would have nipped that cult right in the bud. Instead, he used his last breath to pray for those who were killing him for his now-unshakable faith in his brother.

*From Book 5 of Fragments from the Acts of the Church; Concerning the Martyrdom of James, the Brother of the Lord

The image above is a depiction of souls burning in the flames of Purgatory as displayed on the facade of the Church of Ánimas (Capilla de Ánimas) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Source/License

“The practice of praying for the dead is, I think, the fundamental origin of the doctrine of purgatory. … We often want to pray for those we love who die. It’s actually fairly hard in certain Protestant services I’ve been at … where you don’t pray for the dead. My heart wants to pray for the dead that I love. That means that I’m one of those Protestants who thinks that there might be something to the doctrine of purgatory.”

This was said by Phillip S. Cary, an American philosopher who serves as a professor at Eastern University. I heard it in a course he teaches: The History of Christian Theology.

Purgatory is said to be a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are atoning for their sins before going to heaven.

Let me provide the context for the first sentence in the quote by Dr. Cary: “The practice of praying for the dead is, I think, the fundamental origin of the doctrine of purgatory.” Earlier in the lecture, Dr. Cary mentioned that Augustine of Hippo, in his autobigraphical narrative, asked readers to pray for his mother, who was dead. Dr. Cary believes that the doctrine of purgatory developed from this request. The reasoning goes like this: It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone in hell, because it won’t do any good. It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone in heaven, because they don’t need it. Therefore, there must be a third place where the soul of a dead person can be, where prayers could be beneficial.

The reasons for believing

Dr. Cary teaches that the doctrine of purgatory is not from the Bible but that it was developed during the Middle Ages, likely based on a personal request made by Augustine — a theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries. The doctrine of purgatory relies on the soul being eternal (or, at least, existing after death). Dr. Cary’s course contains a lecture about the state of the soul after death, and he makes it clear that the idea of an eternal soul is from Plato, not the Bible. He contends that the Bible teaches that, after death, the soul sleeps until resurrection. (I, too, find this in my own study of the Bible.) It is relevant here to note that Augustine was greatly influenced by Plato.

Despite all of this, Dr. Cary “thinks that there might be something to the doctrine of purgatory”. Why? His own words: “My heart wants to pray for the dead that I love.”

What was the reason that the medieval mainstream church created the doctrine of purgatory? According to Dr. Cary, it seems that they wanted to provide an explanation for Augustine’s request for prayers for his dead mother.

These are self-described Christian scholars and theologians. Their reason for believing (or wanting to believe) is not “because it is what the Bible teaches” or “because it is consistent with Bible teaching”. This particular belief is not in the Bible, nor is it consistent with Bible teaching about death or salvation. That does not seem to be a concern of these scholars and theologians.

The source of authority

I understand that not everyone shares my view of sola scriptura, that the Bible is the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice. I believe that because I believe this:

The Bible is a reliable collection of historical documents written by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses. It contains falsifiable claims that would have shut down the Christian movement at its start if the claims had been untrue. Although the documents were written by about 40 authors over a period of about 2,000 years, they are coherent in message. The Bible reports events that were the fulfillment of specific prophecies, and it contains prophecies that have been fulfilled in post-biblical times. Much of the Bible is confirmed by the writings of contemporaries and by archaeological findings. The Bible is by far the best attested writing from antiquity.

In other words, I trust the Bible as sole authority because I believe there is strong evidence that supports it as the word of God.

The basis for belief

Many doctrines of the mainstream church come, not from the Bible, but from pagan philosophy or non-biblical, non-apostolic tradition. Do you know which ones? This post isn’t really about the specific doctrine of purgatory. It’s about ideas and where they come from. It’s about our reasons for believing. The doctrine of purgatory is just one example.

It is important that we know where ideas come from, especially the ideas we embrace or reject. It matters why we believe what we believe. We would be wise to base our beliefs — not on desires or hopes or an attempted explanation of one person’s notion — but on evidence. Only then can we build a thoughtful faith that is less likely to be shaken — and more likely to be true.

Is history’s most compelling event the opening night of Private Lives?

I love words and old stuff, so I listen to a BBC radio program from the last century called My Word! Panelists are quizzed on words, literature, and the like. In one episode, the panelists were asked, If you could be present at any historical event, which one would you choose?

Dilys wished she could have witnessed the moment when Stanley found Livingstone. We know about the famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Dilys was dying to know whether Livingstone replied with something such as, “Did you have a good journey?”

Dennis would be present at the opening night of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. The play has garnered popularity over the years and is still produced, and Dennis wondered whether he would recognize its greatness at its premiere.

Frank wanted to have been there when the cities of the plain were destroyed so that he could see exactly what they did in Sodom and Gomorrah that warranted fire and brimstone. That made the audience giggle.

Antonia agreed with Frank that the Bible is full of irresistible episodes, and she would have chosen to be there when the Red Sea parted and the children of Israel escaped from the pursuing Egyptian army. She would choose that event because she loves to travel and likes the idea of crossing an international border without the bother of passports, customs, and immigration checks.

Perhaps the panelists weren’t going for significance and gravity but rather for humor and levity and even quirkiness. Maybe they didn’t want to get too heavy or religious. I can understand that. If that’s what we’re going for, I’ll pick that moment in 2737 BC, when Camellia sinensis leaves blew into the water that Chinese emperor Shen Nung’s servant was boiling for him. Let there be tea!

History’s most compelling event (IMO)

If we’re being completely serious, I’ll choose the resurrection of Jesus. How amazing would that be to witness?! Granted, not everyone believes that this event happened. But, here’s something that is definitive about this event: If it happened, it is of utmost significance to us all. The veracity of the entire Bible — all that it claims — hinges on the veracity of Jesus’s resurrection. That includes the hope of eternal life and the end of suffering.

Let’s say that someone claims that a squadron of alien spaceships has just entered earth’s atmosphere. If that’s true, it is of utmost significance to us all. What is the first thing we should do? Look for evidence to determine whether it is true. Are there unusual lights in the sky? Is NASA taking it seriously? If we find evidence to support the claim, we should Google “alien invasion handbook”. If not, we should go back to our cup of tea.

This is how we should handle a claim that, if it is true, is of utmost significance to us all. There is evidence to support the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. We would be wise to follow the evidence and see where it leads. For me, it adds up to proof. I do not say this lightly, and I have been able to say it only recently.

Do you know any of the evidence? You might know more than you realize. For example, you know that millions of people believe that Jesus rose from the dead; there must be reasons why they do. You know that a movement that has circled the globe and lasted nearly 2,000 years is based on a claim that people knew for a fact was either the truth or a lie. If it had been a lie, the movement would have been squashed before it got going. The first Christians were operating on fact, not faith.

The claim of Jesus’s resurrection deserves investigation because there is evidence for it and because, if it is true, it is of utmost significance to us all. If Jesus rose from the dead, we too can be resurrected to eternal life. Our future just might depend on history.

If you could be present at any historical event, which one would you choose? It’s fun to think about, and it provides perspective. You know what’s even better? Realizing that the future holds far more. I missed out on being there for the greatest events of history, but I plan on being there for the greatest events of the future. See you there?

Feeling inundated with information about COVID-19? Before that, perhaps it was the impeachment or Brexit or The Bachelor finale. How do you know what bits of information are true? Here are a few ways to get closer to the truth about anything:

1

Consult multiple reliable sources. See where the consensus lies. Consensus is not always an indicator of truth, but it usually lines up with other evidence.

2

Follow the evidence. Just like a detective, follow leads. See where the weight of evidence lies.

3

Use common sense. If it doesn’t sound right, there’s probably a reason for that. Don’t just automatically accept or reject information; think it through for yourself.

4

Be comfortable with uncertainty. In the absence of proof, file the information under “possible” or “likely” or “unlikely”.

5

Desire the truth. If you have a bias for what you want to believe rather than for the truth, you’re in trouble. A sincere desire for the truth — whatever it is — is the best way to find the truth.

Especially with information that affects our health and lives, it’s important to sort truth from error. In these days when we’re all being careful with where we go and what we touch, let’s remember also to be careful with information.

If you trust the Bible as a historical and holy book, what is the reason(s)? Is it any of these?

  • Because you always have.
  • Because you like what’s in it.
  • Because you have examined the evidence and found that the weight of evidence points to its trustworthiness.

If you don’t trust the Bible as a historical and holy book, what is the reason(s)? Is it any of these?

  • Because you never have.
  • Because you don’t like what’s in it.
  • Because you have examined the evidence and found that the weight of evidence points away from its trustworthiness.

If your reason is not included here, I am interested in hearing it if you’re willing to share it in a comment below. My purpose is not to persuade anyone of a particular viewpoint but to encourage people to think through their beliefs and clarify and articulate their reasons. I also appreciate understanding where people are coming from. I hope you’ll take this opportunity to think through your viewpoint on the Bible’s trustworthiness and, if you’re willing, share your reasons in a comment.

“How well do CBT [Cognitive Behavioral Therapy] and religion mix? CBT is all about rationality, and religion is often about faith. The two seem kind of opposite. … CBT is … grounded in western empiracism and rationality, and faith is something that is very much different.” (Jason M. Satterfield • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Retraining Your Brain)

Is he right about faith, that it is the opposite of rationality, that it is not grounded in empiracism and rationality? It depends on whose faith he’s talking about. Notice that I didn’t say what faith; I said whose faith.

Consider this example. Darlene believes that Jesus died and rose again because that’s what she has believed her whole life and because it gives her comfort. Janie believes that Jesus died and rose again because she has examined the evidence for it and against it — in a sincere pursuit of truth — and she considers the weight of evidence to point toward that belief.

Even though they believe the same thing, Darlene’s belief is not rational; it is not based on evidence. Janie’s belief is.

What difference does it make?

  • Darlene is not likely to get others to respect or accept her belief. Janie is.
  • Darlene is likely to have her belief shaken when challenges come. Janie isn’t.
  • Darlene is likely to believe things that aren’t true. Janie isn’t.

Those differences are significant! They are worth reading again. Every one of us believes something, so this is universally relevant.

It might be true that, like Darlene, Janie has held this belief since childhood and that it gives her comfort. But, unlike Darlene, that’s not why she believes it. Those realities are not the basis for her belief. Evidence is.

Faith gets a bad rap in a lot of circles. Sometimes it’s warranted, and the Darlenes of the world share some of the responsibility. The Janies of the world must help redeem the reputation of faith. Faith, by definition, is belief without proof, but it does not have to be — nor should it be — belief without evidence.

What would happen if Darlene decided to be like Janie? She would shed beliefs that aren’t sound, she would build beliefs that are both sound and strong, and her belief would garner respect and maybe even some adopters. Wow! That’s powerful.

If you want to be more like Janie, I encourage you to check out my book Building Evidence-based Beliefs. It’s a great way to cultivate skills and traits that help you discern truth from error and establish a habit of building thoughtful, sound beliefs.