"Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man. No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it." – Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, 1794.
Here are four objections to Paine’s argument.
1. Paine’s Comments Have Nothing to Do With Christianity’s Truth
It is a useful thing to ask what damage would be done to Christianity under some sort of “worst-case” scenario. How Paine-ful is it, really?
Readers will hopefully notice immediately that Paine says nothing that casts any doubt upon the truth of Christianity. His position is curious. To see how curious, consider that Paine grants the following, for argument’s sake. Firstly, he grants that God would be able to reveal truths to humankind. Secondly, he seems prepared to grant even that such a revelation has occurred.
Paine merely complains that, on his narrow definition of “revelation,” persons downstream from God’s direct revelatory actions would be under no “obligation” to believe what had been revealed.
Stop and ponder this. We are to envision a situation in which (the Christian) God actually exists and in which He has actually revealed things to various human beings.
Despite these things, Paine thinks that those of us whose knowledge of these actual revelations is posterior to the initial, divine communications, are under no obligation to believe them. On this reading, Paine seems to display an extraordinary level of bad faith – in the colloquial sense.
To be more specific, Paine basically says that even if God exists and even if God has communicated to human beings, he refuses to acknowledge it. It seems to me that all one has to have in order to be repulsed by this notion is a simple curiosity about the way the world actually is. Does God actually exist? Is there actual revelation? It’s a perverse – in fact, incoherent – conception of “reason” that says, “Well, yes, okay. God exists and He has revealed things to various individuals. But I don’t believe it.”
Someone might object: “Paine is simply granting, hypothetically and provisionally, that God and revelation exist. He may not believe that either or both actually do.”
Notice, though, that Paine has given no argument against the existence of God or against the possibility of revelation. Even if there were no non-“hearsay” (in Paine’s sense) instances of alleged divine communications, it would follow neither that God does not exist nor that Christianity is false.
2. Even Without Revelation, Christianity Is Still Supported by Reason and History
Number one, it is plausible that the existence of God can be demonstrated by reason alone. Numerous arguments have been advanced along this line, for example, various cosmological, moral, ontological, and teleological arguments (among others). Thus, even if there were no (warranted) examples of bona fide propositional revelation, neither atheism nor even agnosticism would, ipso facto, be justified.
Number two, it is reasonable to think that the New Testament documents (or documents relevantly similar to them) could be approached and analyzed according to the canons of historical science. As Protestant philosopher William Lane Craig is fond of saying, this approach is sufficient to yield three historically supported points – that there was an empty tomb, that there were post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and that Christianity sprang into existence among religious Jews who were tenaciously exclusivistic (that is, they were not inclined towards syncretism).
It is not irrational to believe that there is no convincing, naturalistic explanation for these three points. One may then infer that the only satisfying account is that offered by Christianity. But if this historical approach is sound (and Paine here gives no reason to think that it is not), then even if there were no such thing as (warranted) revelation, even explicitly Christian versions of theism would remain justified.
To again quote Professor Craig: “According to New Testament critic D. H. Van Daalen, it is extremely difficult to object …on historical grounds; those who deny [points like the empty tomb] do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.”
And all of this is the worst-case scenario. One would have to buy Paine’s restrictive definition of “revelation” and his criticism of it as “hearsay.” But what does he have in mind?
3. Paine’s Model Leads to (Unwarranted) Radical Skepticism
Paine seems to be advancing an extreme empiricism. It verges on the sort that counsels disbelief in anything that is not immediately evident to one’s senses. In any case, it takes a radically skeptical line on the epistemic value of testimony.
Think about the repercussions of this. If we can only trust direct testimony – that is, testimony communicated to us without any intermediary – then we could place no confidence in books of any sort or on any topic.
For instance, this would do violence to the discipline of history. How do I know that was any such person as “George Washington,” for instance? Or for that matter, why should I believe that the text on the picture owes to “Thomas Paine”? After all, my beliefs about both come to me secondhand, third-hand, fourth-hand, and so on.
My beliefs about various scientific discoveries would likewise be destroyed by this skeptical hammer. I may hear an astronaut report, for example, that he or she observed the earth to be spheroidal. By Paine’s criteria, perhaps, for him or her, then, it is spheroidal. Such astronauts had direct perceptual experiences to that effect. But what “obligation” would I have to believe such things? For me, they are simply secondhand reports. I wasn’t “there,” after all.
Of course, some might say that in the case of scientific reports, what is reported is in principle verifiable. But, though this may be conceded, it does not resolve the issue of unwarranted testimony.
Suppose that “hearsay” comes down to “information received from other people that one cannot adequately substantiate.” And suppose that scientific reports are, in principle, susceptible to substantiation. It seems that, on Paine’s model, we would have to undertake and complete the substantiation before we would be justified in our beliefs.
Take the reports of a spheroidal earth. Of course, if I traveled into outer space, presumably, I could see what the astronauts saw, and thus “substantiate” it for myself. Or perhaps I could perform some mathematical calculations here on earth. These are possible. But do Paine’s principles require that I do one or more of these things before I would be warranted in believing the astronauts’ reports? After all, from my vantage point, they are simply reporting something that they saw. I didn’t see it. Why does what they saw place any “obligation” upon me? Who thinks that this is rational?
Interestingly, revelation is also verifiable, at least in principle. Surely, if God could tell such-and-such to so-and-so, then He could tell me also. And it’s not impossible that he would.
But what if one worries that I have no clear-cut method for verification in the case of revelation. Think again about George Washington and Thomas Paine. Why should I think that George Washington was the “first president” or that Thomas Paine wrote the words herein attributed to him? I wasn’t there. I didn’t personally see Washington get inaugurated and Paine didn’t tell those things to me. How could I even begin to “substantiate” any historical claims at all? History depends upon testimony.
Perhaps I could become an archaeologist and see what artifacts and historical traces I could find. But, notice that, on Paine-ian principles, I would have to do this myself. It would avail me nothing to read about the alleged findings of others! Is this reasonable?
I think not.
Likely, someone is thinking: But these are “scientific” matters; Paine is speaking about “religion.” What of it? What we would need, firstly, is some serviceable definitions of “religion” and “science,” followed immediately by some argument that testimony about “religion” should have more restrictive parameters than testimony about “science” when it comes to believability.
I would be interested to inspect such an argument. But, alas, none is to be found in Paine.
What we find, instead, is a sort of anti-supernatural bias. And many people today relate to that. But then, in the first place, short of an argument for atheism, it may have been more appropriate for Paine to have titled his book The Age of Anti-Supernaturalism. As things stand, he appears to have simply co-opted the word “Reason” as a euphemism for his prejudices.
Why think that the only people who are “reasonable” are those who adopt an anti-supernatural orientation? Paine gives no reason.
4. Paine’s Definition of “Revelation” is Questionable
Up to this point I have simply been assuming Paine’s definition of “revelation.” It is worth noting that the Catholic Church draws a distinction between “public” and “private” revelation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) relates: “Throughout the ages, there have been so-called ‘private’ revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith.”
As Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin states: “Because they do not require divine and Catholic faith, private revelations do not impose an obligation of belief…”.
However, as I mentioned, private revelation is contrasted with public revelation. “The term ‘public Revelation’ refers to the revealing action of God directed to humanity as a whole and which finds its literary expression in the two parts of the Bible: the Old and New Testaments.”
In “[t]he Christian economy, …no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
When it comes to private revelation, Catholics agree with Paine! If “something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only.” The only one bound to believe a private revelation is the one to whom the revelation is given.
But Paine arguably gets the core of Christian revelation wrong. The Bible is not considered “private revelation.” It’s public revelation.
How could Paine object? He began by admitting:
“No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases.”
Doesn’t this plausibly apply both to private and to public revelation? Shall we think that the omnipotent, omnipresent God of the Bible would be unable to communicate to us publicly?
It seems not.
But then, though it may be agreed that, if “something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only,” it is not the case that this exhausts the revelatory options.
For God could also reveal something to more than one person. Or, to put it differently, it seems that could effect public revelation. In fact, this is what Christians hold that God has, in fact, done.
Thus, after all, Paine either owes us an argument that denies the possibility of public revelation, or he owes us an admission that the considerations that he does advance apply only to private revelation. However, as I have indicated, many Christians (especially Catholics) happily concede this.
Even if Paine’s argument succeeds, Christianity is not shown to be false. At best, Christian revelation is shown to be not “obligatory” to believe. However, in order for Paine to establish this much, he would need to sell us on a radical skepticism that would nearly totally undermine disciplines like history and science. Managing to salvage history (and other disciplines) would provide Christianity with the possibility of non-revelation-dependent supporting evidence. For it is arguable that reason and history (either alone or jointly applied) go a considerable distance toward establishing many Christian-friendly conclusions – and certainly toward establishing bare theism – entirely apart from revelation. Finally, Paine ignores, or was ignorant of, the Catholic distinction between public and private revelation. In the face of this distinction, Paine’s argument collapses entirely.
All in all, Paine either shows that virtually any historical proposition is entirely unjustified, or he merely gives voice to his own pet variety of anti-supernaturalism. Either way, I don’t see much for the Christian to worry about.
 E.g., G. Leibniz’s argument for a Sufficient Reason of the cosmos (universe). 1. Everything that exists has a sufficient reason for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. 2. The universe exists. 3. Therefore, has a sufficient reason for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. 4. But the universe is not necessary. 5. Therefore, the sufficient reason for the universe lies in an external cause.
Or the Kalam Cosmological argument. 6. Whatever begins to exist has a cause. 7. The universe began to exist. 8. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
In both cases, one then reasons that the relevant cause has various properties. For one thing, the cause must be non-physical, space-less, and timeless (since, by “universe,” we mean all physical things that exist in space and time); extremely powerful (in order to bring a universe into being); extremely intelligent (ditto); and even personal (because if it were an impersonal set of necessary and sufficient conditions, then either the universe should be eternal – which, according to modern cosmologists, it is not – or else the external cause would need its own external cause – and we’d be off-and-running on a vicious infinite regress).
 9. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist. 10. But objective moral values do exist. 11. Therefore, God exists.
 12. It’s possible that a maximal being (i.e., a being with all “great-making” qualities or “perfections”) exists. 13. If it’s possible that a maximal being exists, then there is some possible world in which a maximal being exists. 14. But one of the perfections is necessary existence. 15. Therefore, if a maximal being exists in some possible world, then a maximal being exists in all possible worlds. 16. The actual world (i.e., our world) is part of the set of all possible worlds. 17. Therefore, if a maximal being exists in all possible worlds, then a maximal being exists in the actual world.
 18. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to chance, design, or necessity. 19. It’s not due to chance or necessity. 20. Therefore, it’s due to design.
 William Lane Craig, debate with Michael Tooley, Univ. of Colo. [Boulder, Colo.], Nov. 1994, <http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-god-exist-the-craig-tooley-debate>; citing David Hendrick Van Daalen, The Real Resurrection, London: Collins, 1972, p, 41.
 Jimmy Akin, “Revelation: Public and Private,” Catholic Answers Magazine, n.d., <http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/revelation-public-and-private>.
 Ibid.; quoting Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Message of Fatima.
 CCC 66; loc. cit.
 Very roughly, the idea is that the Old Testament traces God’s activity amongst and with the people of Israel. In the New Testament, God’s public activities involve Jesus’s life and Passion as well as the institution and beginnings of the Church.