What follows here is a brief interview I had with a peer who wished to know why I believed that Christianity is true and that atheism is false. The interview touches on arguments for God’s existence such as the argument from miracles and the minimal facts approach to Christ’s resurrection. We also talk briefly about atheism, and the difficulties it has, and the challenges it poses to Christians.
So I take it you’re not an atheist?
No, I am not. But atheism and its corollaries (by which I specifically mean philosophical naturalism and materialism) have been of great interest to me.
Atheism is the belief that God does not exist. As such, it is a positive affirmation of that proposition and not merely a “lack of belief” in gods or a God. When I normally think of an atheist, I usually think of the philosophical naturalist. Most atheists are philosophical naturalists, and they believe numerous things about reality, namely, that the natural world is all that exists, hence there is no God, gods, or supernatural beings. What follows are a host of other beliefs, such as belief in determinism and reductionism, among other things.
So why are you a Christian and not an atheist?
I really think that atheism and atheists have brought much valuable dialogue to the table of discussion. I think some of their arguments, objections, and contributions can get believers in God to think, and think hard!
But this is a far cry from saying that atheism is true, and that naturalism is the rational view to take of the world. I think that there are good reasons to believe that the supernatural exists and that God also exists. For me personally, it is far more obvious that a supernatural realm exists than does God, but as soon as you find there are good reasons to believe in the existence of the supernatural then its easier to believe in God.
Like what arguments from atheists can get believers to think?
Well, I think the argument from evil and suffering has always been a tough one for believers to deal with. However, I believe that it can be accounted for in ways beyond inclusion here.
And as some notable philosophers and apologists have contended, the argument from evil and suffering actually undermines atheism, not belief in God. The famous writer of the 20th century C.S. Lewis, who was an avowed atheist, saw this. He realized that he used evil and suffering in the world to undermine the existence of God, but he realized that atheism undercut moral objectivism, which caused him to doubt his atheism and eventually convert to Christianity.
I think atheists also get believers motivated to question their own beliefs, as well as to explore the world in ways they hadn’t done before. Although atheism is almost always a minority, they are very often a rather vocal minority, and thus believers and the religious cannot become slack intellectually.
So, what’s your best argument for Christianity then or belief in God?
Two arguments are most compelling. There are a host of other candidate arguments for God’s existence which I find strong, but not as strong as the argument from miracles, and the argument from the historical resurrection of Christ.
What’s the argument from the resurrection?
I think that if one wishes to overcome Christianity he or she has to look at the proposed evidence for the resurrection of Christ. I have noticed that many are not familiar with this alleged evidence, and that’s not only on the part of skeptics and non-Christians but also the majority of Christians themselves.
Now, philosopher and historian Gary Habermas is the mind behind this effort. I’ve personally had the privilege to read his work as well as listen to his presentations. Over a span of many years, Habermas collected and analyzed the writings (which is several thousand) of historians and scholars who have examined the life and ministry of Christ. What he discovered was that there are four facts almost all these scholars agree on. What he also noted was that these four facts are enormously relevant to the apologetic case for the resurrection of Christ. This has become to be known as the Minimal Facts Approach (MFA), an approach Christian apologists now have in their arsenal of theistic arguments for skeptics in the contemporary world.
What are these facts?
The MFA is a set of persuasive historical data that no historian doubts about Christ. Why? Because there is good historical evidence and good historical reasons to accept them. What is this evidence? This evidence is twofold. First, it is approaching the New Testament historical documents as merely historical documents, not privileging them as inspired texts (as Christians view them). Scholars have found these documents to be generally reliable in their attestation of several historical events, and even words and teachings of Christ. Also often included here, but not as valuable in terms of early witness, are extra-biblical sources from Jewish, Roman, and Christian sources, some of which are early. Taken together most historians believe we can construct a historical basis for several facts.
The other piece of evidence is the application of the historical method. History attempts to be an objective science and historians, like scientists, have devised criteria to use when analyzing history. There are several such criteria, and what I’ve found, having read scholars on this subject, is that they bolster the confidence we can have in purported events within the gospels and the New Testament.
Habermas has analyzed over 3000 peer reviewed articles written by academics, and what he discovered were at least four facts of Christ’s final moments that the majority of historians accept, even the most skeptical. These are:
(1) That Christ was crucified
(2) That Christ was buried in a tomb
(3) That Christ’s tomb was found empty by his women followers shortly after the burial
(4) That Christ’s followers had resurrection appearances of Christ himself.
It will come to the surprise of many that these four facts are widely accepted by scholars within the field. The only exception is the third fact (the empty tomb) which commands between 66-75% of consensus whereas the others are typically 98% and above. However, even fact three commands a majority, and several persuasive arguments have been used to increase the probability of the empty tomb (Habermas, for example, has outlined two dozen of arguments scholars have used). Further, other apologists and Christian scholars have only used three of these facts (excluding the third) and have still constructed a rationally appealing and impressive case for the historical resurrection.
But aren’t there skeptical arguments against the resurrection?
I find that it is difficult to engage historians on this because most, at least from what I’ve read, don’t make any claims (for or against) concerning the actual resurrection. It appears many seem to leave it an open question. I don’t doubt that historians have their own ideas about the resurrection but they don’t directly confirm or deny it in their academic work. One can understand why, for often the resurrection is a topic removed from the one the scholar is writing about, and if he is writing about the resurrection or the events shortly after, there is also considerable pressure to avoid making supernatural and religiously significant claims. We must remember that the western academia is entirely secular, and so few scholars are going to write in an academic journal that Christ was really raised from the dead as an act of God.
However, that said, scholars (like Bart Ehrman or Gerd Luddeman), who are active skeptics that disagree with the claims made by Christianity, will write a book or two arguing against the resurrection. It is important to note that this does no constitute scholarly work but are the personal views (theological and philosophical) of the scholars in question. But this is where the strength of the MFA shines through. Every scholar who wishes to be skeptical of the historical resurrection realizes that he or she needs to deal with these four facts presented within the MFA. And they attempt to do so, which I find leads to some particularly fantastical alternatives to the resurrection hypothesis. Luddeman for example attempts to explain the resurrection through grief hallucinations, and Ehrman attempts a more philosophical approach by arguing that we can never say a miracle has occurred in history. But when Ehrman has to explain the data he says that it is far more likely that Christ was thrown into a mass grave than he was resurrected! Ehrman realizes that no evidence to suggests this ever happened to Christ, but he will still accept it over a supernatural explanation. As such, this shows the length that skepticism has to go to. Ludemann’s hypothesis is even more incredible for we know that hallucinations are not physical (the gospels widely affirm that the resurrected Christ was touched by his disciples and that he did other physical things), and that hallucinations, due to being subjective projections from within an individual’s own mind, are incredibly unlikely to occur in group settings. Additionally, it is unlikely that the early followers of Christ would have come to reject Judaism to boldly spread the message of a resurrected messiah if all they had were apparitions and hallucinations to go on.
The point is this: all the skeptical explanations that have ever been proposed (which are several, and the hallucination one being the most popular) fail to explain one or more of the facts within the MFA.
This puts Christians in a good place to argue that the best explanation of the MFA is that Christ was really resurrected from the dead and done so supernaturally (and physically) by the power of God. The resurrection is thus compelling not only because it explains all these four facts, but because it is the most obvious and straightforward explanation!
But you’re using the Bible as evidence for Jesus and his resurrection?
One of the common misconceptions people unfamiliar with history and the historical method have is to reject historical texts because they were penned by a figure’s followers, whether those followers come immediately after the figure or centuries later. A skeptic will approach the New Testament this way, saying that we can’t use them as historical documents because they were authored by Christ’s earliest followers.
But such a methodology is hugely problematic for it assumes many unwarranted things. First, it assumes that the New Testament documents aren’t historical and (supposedly) entirely theological. Second, it assumes that the texts don’t have historical value. Third, it assumes that because they were penned by early Christ followers that they must be unreliable or approached skeptically until proven innocent.
But historians don’t deal in assumptions, they realize that one has to argue for a point of view. Thus, most historians would never approach any ancient text in this way and for very good reason. For example, often our major sources for historical figures were penned by their followers after the events. If we were to reject these documents then we would have to do away with a swathe of history that historians believe we can be fairly certain of. Further, this (and for other reasons) is why historians have developed the historical method. They can apply such criteria to texts penned by those in close proximity to a historical figure and come away with some very probable information. It is important that we come to learn to let the authors of historical texts speak for themselves, and we can put their claims to the test.
What I have come to see is that when we do put the New Testament texts to the test we can make a compelling historical argument for the resurrection of Christ.
If I was an atheist what kind of argument would you use to defeat me?
This is an interesting question, but I’m not a fan of the way it has been phrased. Arguments are important and I like to use them, but my goal is never to approach someone who disagrees with me, and then use an argument or proof to “defeat” them. I think using arguments to kind of knock an opponent over the head can be quite counterproductive.
One of the things I’ve learned from studying philosophy is that humans aren’t entirely rational. Yes, we have rational faculties and components within us, through which we can use reason and critical thinking. But we are also emotionally driven, and often this can be the driving factor in our reasoning process. As such, if one agitates an ideological opponent during a discussion then he or she will become angry or upset, and they will more often than not become closed to accepting what one has to say. This is an important point to remember especially when we debate worldviews, ideologies, and religions, because these are almost always sensitive topics.
But then returning to the question of arguments, there are several. As I noted above, the argument from miracles is very convincing to me. Christ’s historical resurrection would be one piece of evidence in this cumulative case. Also in my examination of literature and talking with people interested in the topic, I have come to find that we have solid documented evidences for miracles of healing. There are numerous cases, some of which have been documented on film, medically, and independently by numerous eyewitnesses. The ones I know of are perhaps too numerous for here, but I will always forward interested readers to scholar Craig Keener’s book Miracles. Keener has engaged the question of miracles most extensively in terms of philosophy, its history, and documented evidence in today’s world. I enjoyed his research so much that I even used it in a presentation I delivered to the local RatioChristi chapter here.
Why would this be difficult for atheism?
As I noted, most atheists are philosophical naturalists. Because the idea that the natural, physical world is all that exists, if it happened to be that a supernatural event really did occur then it would provide a defeater for naturalism and all forms of atheism. As such, a single miracle is not merely a “difficulty” for atheism, it is ultimately a defeater of the entire worldview.
What one will come to see is that atheists, well aware of this, will attempt to explain supernatural explanations away, and they will adopt a skeptical explanation no matter how incredible it is. We see this not only in Christ’s resurrection, but elsewhere to, such as in atheist accounts of the beginning to the universe, and their attempts to explain away anecdotal and well attested miracle accounts. The most fascinating one to me concerns an atheist American professor who witnessed a dead man rise from the dead while he was doing anthropological research in Africa. What was particularly unique about this case what that he witnessed it alongside others, and even wrote about it in an academic journal. Well, when the atheist community learned about this, what was their response?
You guessed it, it had to be hallucinations!