Critics frequently claim that one reason they reject the Book of Mormon is because it is unsupported by archaeological evidence. Some have gone as far to claim that they would believe in the church if archaeology could “prove” that the Book of Mormon is true. The next several installments will deal with evidence, proof, faith and Book of Mormon archaeology.
I should note two important points regarding the nature of evidence and the necessity of faith. First, I’m unconvinced that any critic would “convert” because of some alleged “proof” because I doubt that any “proof” could ever satisfy those who have truly hardened their hearts against Joseph Smith.
Some time back, for example, one angry message-board critic wrote that “even if modern DNA studies” exhibited an Israelite presence in the ancient Americas, it would “not in the slightest … lend some credence to Mormon truth claims.” All such a find would do, he argues, would confirm what many people in Joseph Smith’s day already believed — the “common belief in the United States 175 years ago, that the (American Indian) was a descendant of the Israelites” (quoted in "Shaken Faith Syndrome," 54).
This would be the critic’s likely response to virtually any evidence found to support the Book of Mormon. If a text was uncovered in an ancient Mesoamerican ruin that was translated to say “Nephi slept here,” the majority of critics would still not be satisfied, and issues would be raised. “How do we know that the text really dates from Book of Mormon times?” “How do we know the text wasn’t planted by a BYU archaeologist?”
Because such a text would not have been written in English, challenges would arise regarding the translation to the English “Nephi” and the decision to use all those specific Latin letters in the English rendition of Nephi’s name. Even if it could be shown that the name was really “Nephi,” critics would simply contend that this was an example of a fantastic coincidence — such as the bizarre coincidence that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who wrote and edited the Declaration of Independence which was adopted on July 4, 1776, both died exactly 50 years later on July 4, 1826.
Jesus once said: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:31). For those who do not want to believe, there simply are no convincing (let alone intellectually decisive) evidences.
The late Hugh Nibley once observed: “When a man asks for proof we can be pretty sure that proof is the last thing in the world he really wants. His request is thrown out as a challenge, and the chances are that he has no intention of being shown up.”
Secondly, the Lord doesn’t work via secular proofs because that would confound the primary principle of agency. While there are evidences that support religious convictions, there are no intellectually decisive proofs, and there will always be evidences that conflict with our beliefs (see 2 Nephi 2:11-16).
LDS scholar Terryl Givens explains: “(T)here are appealing arguments for God as a childish projection, for modern prophets as scheming or deluded imposters, and for modern scriptures as so much fabulous fiction. But there is also compelling evidence that a glorious divinity presides over the cosmos, that God calls and anoints prophets, and that his word and will are made manifest through a sacred canon that is never definitively closed.”
Non-LDS philosophers have argued that in order for us to have spiritual freedom — freedom to make choices — God cannot allow us to know — by secular proof alone — that he exists. Non-LDS philosophy instructor Joseph Lynch, for instance, explains that this gap “is necessary so that human beings can freely make more moral choices and freely choose God — it can’t be too obvious that God exists, but his existence shouldn’t be altogether implausible either” (quoted in "Shaken Faith Syndrome," 40). If humans had incontrovertible secular evidence for the existence of God, they would be unable to freely choose whether or not to accept God.
From modern revelation, we know that without faith and testing we would be following a plan not unlike the one proposed by Satan — a plan that compels us all to return to the Father. “I am convinced,” notes Givens, “that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice. ...
“The option to believe must appear on our personal horizon like the fruit of paradise, perched precariously between sets of demands held in dynamic tension. One is, it would seem, always provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to, is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith, the choice to believe, is, in the final analysis, an action that is positively laden with moral significance.”
Michael R. Ash is on the management team for FAIR (the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research FAIRLDS.org) and is the author of "Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony In the Face of Criticism and Doubt" (ShakenFaithSyndrome.com) and "Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith" (OfFaithandReason.com). Michael's column, "Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith," appears Mondays on MormonTimes.com.