Seeing Is Not Always Believing: A Worldview Lesson from Sequoia Trees
Sequoias are the largest trees in the world. Redwood trees are taller, but sequoia trees have the greatest mass.
The General Noble Tree, which now exists as the Chicago Stump, is perhaps the largest tree ever cut. It takes about eighteen men standing with arms outstretched to surround the stump completely (You can see me sitting in the stump in the picture accompanying this blog). Before it was cut, the General Noble Tree was roughly 3,200 years old, which means it started growing roughly two hundred years before the time of King David!
Sequoias are so large that when they were first discovered nobody believed a tree of this size could exist. Why not? The issue wasn’t a lack of evidence—people had seen photos and heard personal testimony to their existence. The rejection went deeper.
To prove that sequoias were real, the tree was cut down and shipped in pieces to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair where it was reassembled for spectators. Would this be enough to convince skeptics? Nope. Amazingly, the tree was reassembled, and viewers still believed it was a hoax. In fact, it was referred to as the "California hoax." The physical remains of the tree itself was not enough to persuade people of its existence. But why?
People rejected the existence of sequoias not because of a lack of evidence, but because of pre-existing beliefs about the possible existence of such large trees. In other words, they had already determined the size limits of trees before weighing the facts, and so they dismissed compelling physical evidence.
The story of the Chicago Stump is a timely reminder about the powerful role worldviews play in our understanding of the world. If you begin with the worldview that God doesn’t exist (naturalism), for instance, then no amount of evidence will convince you of a miracle. If there is no God, then any natural explanation must be preferred.
But why begin with that assumption, especially given the severe difficulties naturalism has in explaining certain features of the world. As my father and I explain in Evidence that Demands A Verdict, naturalism fails to explain the origin of the universe, cosmic fine-tuning, the origin of life, the origin of consciousness, and the existence of free will. In the absence of proof that God doesn’t exist, doesn’t it make sense to at least begin with an open mind and follow the evidence wherever it leads?
If the evidence points away from God, then follow it. But if the evidence points to the existence of God, be willing to follow that too. An open-minded approach to the existence of the supernatural is the most reasonable position to adopt. Otherwise, you might repeat the mistake of those who rejected the existence of sequoia trees.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, the National Spokesman for Summit Ministries, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.