Christianity: How good is the evidence?

In 1998, Lee Strobel wrote a book called “The Case For Christ”.  In it he frequently states that he used a hard-headed, no-nonsense, skeptical approach to the question of Jesus’ resurrection during a time in his life when he was an atheist; but then he goes on to spend the entirety of the book interviewing Christian evangelists and ministers.  Not once did he stray from the pack of people who actively want to sell you belief (see Image Top).  He loads the deck in favor of his foregone conclusion.

Jeffery J. Lowders’ states in his article “the Rest of the Story (1999)”:  “Strobel did not interview any critics of Christian apologetics, even though he attacks such individuals in his book.  For example, Strobel devotes an entire chapter to his interview of Greg Boyd (an outspoken faultfinder of the Jesus Seminar), yet Strobel never interviewed a single member of the Jesus Seminar itself!  Likewise, he repeatedly criticizes Michael Martin, author of Case Against Christianity, but he never bothered to get Martin’s responses to those attacks. This hardly constitutes balanced reporting on Strobel’s part; indeed, on this basis, one is tempted to dismiss the entire book.”

Further, Scott Bidstrup, in his article “The Case Against ‘The Case for Christ’” takes exception to his claim that he was an atheist at the time he wrote the book.  “The book is very cleverly crafted. It is often claimed by the proponents of this book that the author wrote it when he was an atheist, and was undergoing the conversion process. This is not true. From a careful reading (see the last two paragraphs at the bottom of page 14), he makes it quite clear that he wrote it as a fully committed Christian, “retracing” his spiritual path an indeterminate period of time after the fact.  As such, it is yet another ordinary piece of apologetic axe-grinding.

In addition to articles like Lowers’ and Bidstrup’s, there are many books that answer Strobel’s claims, and speak truth to his interviewees but “ATHEISM and the Case Against Christ” by Matthew S. McCormick actually re-creates the arguments against belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the ground up, addressing not only the facts of the claim but the conditions under which the legend of a resurrected Jesus was created and perpetuated throughout the ages.

McCormick takes the reader through the many and varied reasons why it is not reasonable to credit the story of the risen Christ including:

  • We don’t know, indeed have no way of knowing, who the original authors of the gospels were and what their motives were for writing these stories down.  Many simply copied what the others wrote.
  • We do not know the people who passed them along or how they changed them in the telling.  We do know however, that they had every reason to suppress any evidence against them.  Indeed, as preachers, they were in the business of selling belief and so would actively discard any evidence to the contrary.   “It is clear in the Gospels and in the other early writings that the intent of the authors is to spread the good news, to foster belief, to encourage faithfulness, to keep people strong in believing against the possibility of doubt, and to create new converts” – Matthew McCormick.
  • And the fact that every person responsible for retelling the story along the millennia had reasons suppress any evidence against it has to be considered at every stage of the story’s progression:
    • The witnesses
    • The repeaters of the stories
    • The authors
    • The copyists
    • The canonizers
  • Like Lee Stroble, they may say they’re hard-headed skeptics, but their actions belie that.  It’s the same reason you don’t see your preachers today preaching any reasons to doubt.
  • We don’t know anything about the people who edited those documents and what they could have left out.  However we DO know of the many Gnostic gospels, and other texts, that were not included in the Bible due the fact they weren’t supportive enough of the accepted scriptures to be included.  What other early evidence was conveniently misplaced for the same reason?
  • There are much better cases of supernatural activities that we don’t accept.  For instance, we all dismiss the well documented and attested cases from the Salem Witch trials.  Cases in which evidence was given under oath, and in front of constables and judges with heaps of depositions about neighbors changing shapes and dancing with the devil.  We pooh-pooh those cases but blindly accept the story of Jesus’ resurrection with NO contemporary evidence at all; indeed with no evidence at all other than anecdotal evidence in the form of ancient manuscripts written by scientifically illiterate and superstitious peoples.

The author also points out that if Jesus of the bible were actually God on earth and we believed that the miracles that Jesus performed were actually miracles that an All-Powerful, Universe-creating God would have performed; then He would be the under-achiever of all times.  Walking on water?  Feeding people?  Healing the sick and appearing to raise the dead?  Please.  How about re-arranging the stars to spell “Jesus Is Christ” in every human language, past, present, and future?  How about eradicating hunger?   How about creating a Bible that would self-update to explain things that really need explaining; like germ theory, or Electromagnetic theory, or Gravity?  And explaining them in a way that we could readily understand and use to make our lives better?  Or how about coming down to earth to actually help us with our problems, and then doing it for every single generation?

McCormick asks the reader how much trust they would put in a doctor who based his medical decisions on data gathered by a nurse who believed that the patient’s problem was their diet, and supplied the doctor only with information that supported that diagnosis.  How much should a District Attorney trust a detective who is known to have a particular malice against a person that he is investigating?  You should not feel justified in any judgment that does not have evidence both pro and con represented.  Further, you should certainly not feel comfortable with your own judgments if they are only supported by Faith; that is, when you discount all evidence against your view (or when you never even seek it out, as in The Case For Christ book.)

Matthew McCormack goes on to say that “One problem with Faith … is that if the believer decides to ignore the insufficiency of the historical evidence for her view, then the criteria she would have had to sort between acceptable and unacceptable beliefs would be lost.  If the faithful believer deems the historical evidence to be irrelevant, then the floodgates would now be open for a long list of other religious and metaphysical views and the believer would have no grounds on which to decide what views would be worthy of believing.  If the historical facts do not matter, then Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Mormonism, Zoroastrianism and thousands of other religions would all be on the same footing.  And that possible leveling of the decision field would undermine any special claim that Christianity might make on having the truth.

To that point, at our Atheist MeetUps, I have long handed out cards imprinted with the tongue-in-cheek motto “Faith is Incredible!  With Faith you can believe anything!”  My point is the same as McCormack’s.  Without evidence and reason, you really can use Faith to believe that any religion, any conspiracy theory or indeed, any premise at all is true.  Every preacher of every sect of every religion in the world is telling his congregation that they must have Faith that what he is telling them is true.  And the time that he says this?  Why, it’s when they are questioning what he is telling them, of course.

4 thoughts on “Christianity: How good is the evidence?”

  1. I present the problem to classes like this: Imagine you’re an honest inquirer, really wanting to know which religion is true, if any of them. We start from the logical point that if they make contradictory claims, they can’t all be true. At best one can. (We find easily and readily that they do make contradictory claims.) So we walk into a town square wehre there’s a big fair, festival,a nd there is a booth for EVERYTHING, but for our interests, one for every religion that has ever existed. (This will take some time, empirically, but rationally, not too much.) We go to each, asking, Why should I believe yours? Do they all give reasons? Well, yeh, at first. Here’s the only stipulation we make–the reason has to be truth-related. That is, it has to be clear how if the reason were true, it would amke the particular religious conclusion true (or alternatively, we have to have the argument that makes the connection clear). Fair enough, right? So, ok, first booth? Why? Why should I join you? “ONly we have…” Ok, what exactly? Islamics will say one thing, Buddhists another, Hindus, Zoroastrians, etc. Christians take it, often, as sufficiently compelling that only they have a risen savior, born of a virgin. Well, of course they aren’t the only ones that have any of those things, A, and B, even if they were, the case isn’t obvious that this is truth related. I leave this as a challenge for students–if it can be met, great. But I tell them I haven’t ever seen any compelling reason here. For any of the religions. You do note that ALL of htem say something is unique about their religion. (I saw soemthing the other day that said it was that only Christianity adequately dealt with suffering. Tell you what–you give me some reasonable conditions on what makes for an adequate account of suffering that are non-question begging, and I’ll get back to you. Good luck. Well, then, you go back through, asking again, Why? Well, look at how it works in my life–Iw as a drug addict but now i’m better. First, all of them, or a great many, will claim this. And give you stories, lots of stories. Compelling, human, great, deep stories. You’ll cry–at each and every booth. But two little things–all the evidence seems equally good, or bad, or at least on par, epistemically. So this can’t decide the question we started with. AND I can’t see how the hell this is even prima facie truth related. Can only true theories ahve good consequences? No, of course not! But you’d need some such premise to ground this type of argument.

    Go back through. You might do this several times. But think–THNK! What could possibly distinguish, from the standpoint of truth, one from the other?? It has to be truth related and distinguish one from the others. At this point, I leave it as a challenge. I do tell them, as an explanation of my beliefs (distinguished from being an argument for them), this is why I don’t believe, on rational grounds. I have looked and looked, asked and asked, read and read, and have turned up exactly zilch.

    So, we go back through. Nothing so far. But they want you’re money in their coffers (you are begining to get a little cynical), or want your soul (less cynical, but still, hey), and they try again. Ok, ok, it’s just faith. Gotta have faith. X booth tells you that. Y booth, same thing. Z booth, and on and on. Is it distinguishing? No. Is it truth related? Here you get, at least historically, two answers. 1) Yes, it is. So, ok, how? Exactly? We’ve given you a complete rational methodology. If you ask, how did you get from this premise to that one, I can spell it out, or, if I can’t, in time, I will give it up. Right, isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? But you, what have you got? Nothing I’ve ever found. Zilch. Could I have missed something? Absolutely. But after a couple thousand years, I thnk it becomes more likely that I’m not, that faith isn’t a reliable way of finding truth. Not truth related, contra your claim that it is.

    2) No, it isn’t, not truth related at all. Now it becomes hard to see why “you gotta have it.” I am asking for something truth related, and you are telling me this is not. “Well, just try it, we got a special deal, you can try it free. See what it does for you. ” But they are ALL saying that? Haven’t got time! Why should I try YOURS? YOu better give me something a) truth related and b) distinguishing! Back to square one!

    All reminds me, as most things do, of a Seinfeld episode, where George wants to become Latvian orthodox because he wants to date a Latvian orthodox woman. (Which is explanatory, deeply, but alas not truth related.) They ask him, why do you want to convert? He thinks for a minute and says, I don’t know, the hats?

    Hats are cool. Fashion is cool. Aesthetics, to be more general, is very cool. Great, beautiful music, art, song, buildings! I love me some gospel music! Much of it is so beautiful to me! But, not truth-related, right? And NOT distinguishing (have you seen some art from other religions???)

    I find this compelling because it is not dogmatic. It offers challenges. It offers them based upon using the tools of rationality and critical thinking to find the truth. Come, it says, engage with me, show me where I am wrong. Or…not.

    1. Hi Brad,

      Thanks for the well-thought-out and in depth perspective to present to student. I really enjoyed reading it, and hope that it get’s their little brain-cells a-firing. 🙂 Well, said.

      1. di:lbnsp;tExcel&ent web site you have got here.. It’s hard to find quality writing like yours nowadays. I truly appreciate people like you! Take care!!

    2. Brad, Sorry it took so long to read this, I apparently overlooked it at the time. However, I love your approach and would love to turn this into an article on my Blog (over your by-line of course).. Would that be Ok?

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