Earthquake and Darkness at Jesus’ Death, Other Historical Sources

Diego Velazquez, Cristo Crucificado (1632)

My Bible study this morning had me reading Matthew 27, in which we read of Jesus’ crucifixion and the events that happened at that time.

45 Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. 46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” 47 And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 Immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. 49 But the rest of them said, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. 51 And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. (NASB)

I looked at a number of sources trying to verify whether other historians (besides the writers of the gospels) recorded the earthquake and darkness. Multiple sources point out that the darkness could not have been a solar eclipse, because of the position of the moon during Passover. The clearest discussion of these other historical sources was from creation.com:

Thallus wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Trojan War. Thallus wrote his regional history in about AD 52. Although his original writings have been lost, he is specifically quoted by Julius Africanus, a renowned third century historian. Africanus states, ‘Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me.’ Apparently, Thallus attempted to ascribe a naturalistic explanation to the darkness during the crucifixion.

Phlegon was a Greek historian who wrote an extensive chronology around AD 137:

In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e., AD 33) there was ‘the greatest eclipse of the sun’ and that ‘it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea.’

Phlegon provides powerful confirmation of the Gospel accounts. He identifies the year and the exact time of day. In addition, he writes of an earthquake accompanying the darkness, which is specifically recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 27:51). However, like Thallus, he fallaciously attempts to interpret the darkness as a direct effect of a solar eclipse.

Africanus composed a five volume History of the World around AD 221. He was also a pagan convert to Christianity. His historical scholarship so impressed Roman Emperor Alexander Severus that Africanus was entrusted with the official responsibility of building the Emperor’s library at the Pantheon in Rome. Africanus writes:

On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth—manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period.

Africanus rightly argues that a solar eclipse could not have occurred during the lunar cycle of the Passover, as this diagram shows. He also questions the link between an eclipse, an earthquake, and the miraculous events recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Eclipses do not set off earthquakes and bodily resurrections. We also know that eclipses only last for several minutes, not three hours. For Africanus, naturalistic explanations for the darkness at the crucifixion were grossly insufficient, as he showed by applying real science.

 

Discipleship Quick Tip: Metaphors in the Bible

Discipleship Quick Tip

“How can God be a rock?” my seven-year old asked me.

This was a great opportunity to teach her about an important principle of interpreting scripture: the use of metaphors.

A metaphor is defined as “a word or phrase used to describe somebody/something else, in a way that is different from its normal use, in order to show that the two things have the same qualities and to make the description more powerful.”

Metaphors essentially create “word pictures” of one thing in our minds that help us understand another thing. In this case, my daughter had read verses like Psalm 18:31, among many others:

For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God? (NAS)

This verse uses the imagery of a rock to help us understand some qualities of God.

Because we had already laid the groundwork that God is a spirit and doesn’t have a physical body, she understood that God does not have physical characteristics at all. So I reminded her about other places in scripture where God is described as having body parts, such as hands and nostrils.

I then asked her to think about a large heavy rock.

“Like the one in our island [in the driveway]?”

“Yes, exactly. What is that rock like?”

She came up with several ideas, such as it is too big for her to move; it’s a place where she rests when she’s playing, if it were bigger she could hide behind it during hide-and-seek. (Others like it is smooth in some places, rough in others, gray in color, etc. didn’t seem to work in the God-imagining process!)

I then asked her to think about why David might use the word rock to help us understand God. I think you can see where this conversation led.

That was an easy one. A little while later she asked me how Jesus’ body and blood could be bread and wine. That led to a deeper conversation about how Communion and the Lord’s Supper are reminders Jesus gave us about His sacrifice on our behalf.

As parents, when we read scripture for ourselves and with our children, pause, think about, and discuss the metaphors and other figures of speech (such as similes and analogies) that the Bible authors used to communicate certain ideas to their readers. Our grasp of spiritual truths will be deeper for the process.

 

Resources

Here are some examples of metaphors in scripture.

Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament is a classic and in-depth discussion of figures of speech.

This is a useful tool on “types” of Christ in the Bible (a “type” is a kind of metaphor or analogy)

I found helpful Howard Hendricks’ Living by the Book (also available for Kindle) for guidance on interpreting scripture generally. Search for the book+workbook set, too.

 

Why would a good God send people to hell?

This is a common question, and sometimes reflects misunderstandings about a number of issues, including God’s character, the “free gift” of salvation, and how the Bible talks about both.

God’s will is that all people would be saved—he wants each person to make the choice to receive the free gift of eternal life and of the Holy Spirit. Scripture makes this clear in 1 Timothy 2:3-6:

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. (NAS)

But how does that work? If God desires “all men” (and in today’s language that means “all people”) to be saved, why doesn’t he just save everyone and be done with it?

God’s Character is Complex

First, it is important for us to understand that God is a complex being, and that though He loves each person and has a will for their salvation, He also allows people the freedom to reject Him.

This reflects the reality that God’s character is complex and multifaceted (see, e.g., Exodus 34: 3-7). While God is Love, God is also a holy and righteous Judge—the Supreme Judge of the World. These characteristics aren’t contradictory, they just mean that God is complicated. Kind of like you.

Receiving The Free Gift

Now, how does this relate to salvation and damnation? I once heard an older preacher use an example to explain the way God gives people the gift of eternal life, and it has stuck with me for many years.

gift cardImagine that, for no reason, someone just decided to give you a $1,000 gift card to any store in the world.

Did you pay for the gift card?

No, someone else paid for it.

What if you don’t use it? Do you get to enjoy that gift?

No, the gift card just sits there.

If you don’t use the gift, you haven’t really received it, have you? It has been given, but not received.

In order to enjoy the gift card, you must choose to receive it and use it.

Jesus’ gift of eternal life to us is the same way. He died so that every person who ever sinned can have eternal life and fellowship with the Father. But every person must choose to receive the gift and use it.

[Jesus] came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name. (John 1:11-12)

Just as God loves every person so much that he was willing to sacrifice His son for them, He loves them so much that he won’t force them to bend to His will. That is, each person gets to makes their choice, and live (or die) with the consequences of their choices.

He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36)

So God’s just-ness in His character means that people who choose to receive the gift, live eternally. His just-ness also means that people who choose not to receive the gift also choose eternal punishment.

But what about those who haven’t heard?

Many critics of Christianity complain that this is profoundly unjust and unloving. They point out the situations of people who have never heard of Jesus, who lived their whole lives and died never even having the opportunity to accept or reject him.

There are at least two responses to this criticism. First, it makes the Great Commission a very urgent task! Second, over the last two millennia there has been a standard response, because The Bible tells us what the resolution is. In Romans 2, Paul writes about the Gentiles who didn’t receive the Law (the Old Testament), but who managed to live righteous lives anyway.

14 For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, 15 in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.

Paul argues that when the Gentiles instinctively lived righteously, they demonstrated that the Law was written in their hearts (that is, their minds and wills), and that God will judge them according to that criterion. They, however, face a much more uncertain judgement than those who accept the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ. The problem for the Gentiles in this situation, is how much obedience is enough? How much compliance with the Law written on their hearts is needed to balance of their disobedience to that Law?

Uncertain though it is, Paul seems to be arguing that this is the opportunity for salvation for those who have never heard the name of Jesus. But it is still a clearly worse option than the free gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

How much better to accept the free gift when you hear about it!

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Check out Sean McDowell’s video on another important dimension of this question.

4 Reasons for Parents to Keep Reading

© Pamela Hodson | Dreamstime Stock PhotosIt was the kind of question that makes parents quake in their boots!

The other day my 13 year old daughter was reading Leviticus—on her own!—and came across a passage that perplexed her:

16 The Lord spoke to Moses: 17 “Tell Aaron: None of your descendants throughout your generations who has a physical defect is to come near to present the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect is to come near: no man who is blind, lame, facially disfigured, or deformed; 19 no man who has a broken foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has an eye defect, a festering rash, scabs, or a crushed testicle. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a defect is to come near to present the fire offerings to the Lord. He has a defect and is not to come near to present the food of his God. 22 He may eat the food of his God from what is especially holy as well as from what is holy. 23 But because he has a defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar. He is not to desecrate My sanctuaries, for I am Yahweh who sets them apart.” (Lev 21:16-23)

Because we are advocates for Down Syndrome adoptions [read more here and check out Reece’s Rainbow here] and have many friends with special needs, my daughter began wondering whether this passage means that God does not find people with special needs acceptable as ministers. And then she asked me if her thinking was right.

What a perceptive question! I am so proud of her for thinking through this passage of scripture, and I told her so.

But let’s be honest: Even though it is a good question, it is a very hard question. How would you have answered? I mean, Leviticus is often perplexing because many of the social and theological issues it deals with are so foreign to us. Who among us could pull a correct answer out of thin air?

In God’s perfect timing, I have been reading Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, which addresses exactly these kinds of questions. Though Copan is dealing with New Atheist misconceptions about God, he lays out some specific ways God expressed his will that Israel understand holiness, and did so through the rules and regulations we find in Exodus and Leviticus. And (praise the Lord) he also deals with the passage that challenged my daughter!

Because I had been reading this book recently, I had a good answer for my daughter.

But I wasn’t off the hook! The next night at dinner, my other two daughters had equally grown-up questions:

The seven year old asked, “Why did Eve want to sin and disobey God?” In God’s perfect timing I had listened to a sermon that morning that addressed this exact question in a way that provided me with new insight that dovetailed precisely with the way she posed the question.

She then asked, “How can we be God’s children and He be our Father when he doesn’t have a wife?” And then the eleven year old asked, “How did people get saved before Jesus died?”

Can I tell you—these are important questions with which Christians have been dealing for two millennia. And they were asked by my tween kids, over a single meal! This is why as parents we have to be continually feeding our own minds, growing our own faith, and building our grasp of the deeper things of the Lord. Four points come to mind.

It is important to keep reading and studying…

  1. So you can learn and grow as a Christian. This might seem obvious, but the ability to answer your own questions and those of others requires some self-education. Reading the Bible is mission critical to your own preparation. But you should also be reading other materials to give you insight as to how major themes of scripture and theology work together. (For example, the Bible itself does not tell us how its manuscripts were transmitted to us; the Bible does not tell us when the Trinity became an accepted doctrine in Christian history; nor does not provide much explicit information about the social and political contexts of first-century Judea, though its narrative corresponds well with what historians tell us, for example here).

The right materials can help you learn how to think biblically about your world. Scripture admonishes us to move from spiritual “milk” to spiritual “meat” or “solid food” (1 Cor 3:1-3; Heb 5:11-14); this means we are to seek deeper answers to deeper questions, on more challenging topics than you were satisfied with as a new believer. Moreover, you are responsible for your own spiritual education in this process; maturing believers are not just sitting back and letting their preacher do the work for them, letting them simply dump information into their heads for 20 or 30 minutes each week and then call it good. We often speak of our kids having to “own their own faith” once they leave their parents’ home, but adults also have to own their own faith, too, and part of that is taking responsibility for learning.

  1. So you can answer questions from your spiritual children. As parents, our biblical obligation is to disciple our children—to pass on to them the knowledge of God and His ways to future generations. A central part of this is the children’s questions! (See Exod 13:11-15; Deut 6:20-23; Josh 4:5-7; 4:19-24.) Even if you’re not a parent, or if your kids are gone, the longer you’ve been a Christian, the more likely it is that someone else will see you as a spiritually-knowledgeable person. Therefore you owe it to them to be prepared. Again, you are responsible for seeking understanding and wisdom for the day in which you get asked that question.
  2. So you can be known as one who seeks truth. Your children will observe you feeding your mind and faith with the Bible and excellent materials that help you understand the Bible and God. As a father or mother, your children need to know that you are growing in your faith, so that they see that you believe growing in the faith is important. Not only will they tend to emulate you, but you will become known to them as a person who is trustworthy enough to ask difficult questions! In my children’s case, I also have to be honest about when I don’t know the answer to a question, and then seek out the answer.
  3. So you can listen thoughtfully. When you know what is true, you can more easily identify what is false, and this is a critical skill for Christians. If you are not feeding your mind with the truth, you will be less able to discern falsehoods that you will hear from the culture, from critics, and even from some teachers. How can you discern whether the teachings of Joel Osteen, Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism), Rob Bell, Billy Graham, or your pastor are true or false? By learning and educating yourself on Bible truth and the truths accepted by orthodox Christians for twenty centuries, you equip yourself to provide a reasoned defense of God’s truth and the gospel (1 Peter 3:15-16); to not be captured by this world’s false philosophies ((Col 2:6-8); and to critically evaluate false teachers (Matt 7:15; Matt 24:10-24; 2 Peter 2:1).

A few cautions…

Be sure that you are seeking God’s truth. Since the early days of Christianity, heresies have cropped up that, grounded in the spirit of anti-Christ, have pulled believers away from the straight path of godly knowledge and wisdom (1 John 2:18-24, 1 John 4:1-6). Truth does not just make you feel good about yourself, or confirm what you already believe (Heb 4:12), but is to teach us, rebuke us and train us out of incorrect behaviors and beliefs (2 Tim 3:16). And second, be humble and gentle, because you are accountable for what you teach others about the Lord (James 3:1). This is another reason to be sure that you are learning correct doctrine—you want to pass on correct doctrine, lest you be held accountable by God for perpetuating heresies and false doctrines, risking the souls of your children (Heb 13:17).

Thinking back to my daughters’ questions…I have found that God knew exactly what I needed to know and when I needed to know it. Through consistently reading and studying the Bible itself, as well as reading books and listening to sermons and apologetics podcasts, God prepares me to answer the questions that arise about our Lord, His Word, and His Kingdom.

4 Steps to Staying Christian Through College

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Christians can survive college with their faith intact. A major theme in my Biblical Worldview & Apologetics classes and seminars is preparing students for the challenges they will hear to Christianity and central Christian doctrines when they’re in college. Once they know what to expect, I think, they will be better prepared to put the challenges in context and then be equipped to think through the underlying assumptions and evidence at stake.

An article came across my newsfeed this morning (via the fantastic worldview and apologetic website The Poached Egg) that addresses the problem of students who believe in creationism (regardless of whether that is Old Earth Creationism, Young Earth Creationism, or Intelligent Design Theory) but are sitting through courses in evolutionary biology that are the norm at colleges and universities. This article, “Talking Back to Goliath: Some Advice for Students in the Evolutionary Biology Classroom,” is written by Paul Nelson, Ph.D. of Biola University and the Discovery Institute.

How should students respond to professors who assert the “truth” of Neo-Darwinian evolution?

His central piece of advice, which I heartily endorse, is

First, no aggression. David slaying Goliath is a justly famous account of bravery, but that was a literal battlefield. Your task is to persuade, not harm. Your sling and stones should be the evidence — or its conspicuous absence.

We have to be honest that the environment at colleges and universities is increasingly antagonistic toward traditional Christian beliefs and doctrines. That means that while some professors are nobly tolerant of diverse ideas like those of biblical Christianity, most are not. Thus the battlefield of the classroom is generally one in which the profs have the power and the podium, while students have no power and only as much podium as the prof is willing to yield.

Christian students must remember that aggression in social relationships like this are very unlikely to yield positive benefits in the form of a conciliatory or evangelized professor who will concede the significant gaps in evolution evidence. (Here is an article with links to some evolutionists who will admit this.) Keep in mind that your professor’s career and job security most likely depend on their continued belief that evolution is true.

Next, Nelson recommends that students in biology courses review the scholarly literature in the field, to evaluate the claims of Neo-Darwinian evolution for themselves.

Choose any complex structure or behavior, and look in the biological literature for the step-by-step causal account where the origin of that structure (that is, its coming-to-be where it did not exist before) is explained via random variation and natural selection.

You’ll be looking a long time. The explanations just aren’t there, and this fact is well known to evolutionary biologists who have become disenchanted with received neo-Darwinian theory.

In this context, my general advice to students is this.

1. Know your audience. This is not primarily your professor, but your fellow students. They don’t have the personal investment in evolution being true, unlike your prof, and you can build personal and relationships with them over coffee, via study groups, and so on. Knowing your audience also means you can ratchet your expectations as to what you can accomplish in that class context over the semester.

2. Learn and be able to articulate the evidence and the evidence gaps in evolutionary theory, not just the evidence that supports creationism. By understanding the perspectives and holes in the dominant theory, your faith will not be shaken, and your ideas will have credibility among your peers. (Again, your professor is not your peer!) Moreover, you must be able to articulate the arguments that are used to support evolutionism for a very practical reason–you want to pass the class! This is not the same thing as conceding that evolutionary theory is true. It is comparable to learning the central doctrines of Islam in order to understand its theological gaps to effectively respond to their claims; learning what they are is not the same thing as thinking that they’re true.

3. Learn how to be winsome in the way you undermine others’ faith in Neo-Darwinian evolution and then communicate the opposing view. For a strategic approach to this, I highly recommend the book Tactics by Greg Koukl and other approaches related to conversational apologetics (examples here and here). In fact, I have adopted Koukl’s book for my upcoming class.

4. Develop a support system. Find professors at your school or at other schools who will support your faith as well as who know the literature and theories. Chances are, Christians student fellowships will be able to tell you who some of the Christian profs are on campus. You may have to connect with faculty who are experts in their field at a Christian university, such as Biola or Bryan, or through apologetics groups such as the Christian Apologetics Alliance or Ratio Christi. Connect with Christian student fellowships and a local church that treat the Bible seriously as a historical and theological document. Don’t isolate yourself from other Christians, don’t give up meeting together with other believers (Hebrews 10).

Keep in mind that even though the popular image of David facing Goliath (1 Samuel 17) is that David was a young child, scripture tells us that when he went to meet the giant, David had already honed his battle skills through combat with lions and bears (17:34-37). Don’t wait until you get into the class to prepare your heart and mind for these challenges.

Christian students who go to college often have their faith undermined by new ideas and idealogues who are increasingly intolerant of ideas outside the mainstream–that is, Biblical Christianity. By staying respectful, intellectually engaged, winsome in your conversations, and connected with other Bible believers, you can keep your faith.

 

Historical Evidence that Jesus Actually Existed

ravenna-jesus-212x300One of the more remarkable theories by skeptics of Christianity over the last century is that Jesus Christ never even existed. Fortunately, the historical record is quite clear, and the actual existence of this man in history is well documented by ancient historical standards.

In a forthcoming article in Biblical Archaeology Review Dr. Lawrence Mykytiuk, a professor at Purdue University, carefully summarizes and discusses the historical evidence for Jesus in early non-Christian sources. This article is well-documented, with two-thirds of the published web-page dedicated to footnotes verifying or explaining his conclusions and broader scholarly debates. (It isn’t actually new information, but is an easy-to-understand and thorough discussion.)

You can read Mykytiuk’s whole article here, but based on reading and analysis of non-Christian sources, the following facts about Jesus can be known from two prominent ancient historians who briefly mention Jesus (and excluding dubious changes to those historians’ writings).

What do we know about Jesus?

  1. He existed as a man [Josephus and Tacitus]…
  2. His personal name was Jesus, as Josephus informs us.
  3. He was called Christos in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, both of which mean “anointed” or “(the) anointed one,” as Josephus states and Tacitus implies…
  4. He had a brother named James (Jacob), as Josephus reports.
  5. He won over both Jews and “Greeks” (i.e., Gentiles of Hellenistic culture), according to Josephus…
  6. Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him…
  7. Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, as both Tacitus and Josephus state.
  8. His execution was specifically by crucifixion, according to Josephus.
  9. He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship over Judea (26–36 C.E.), as Josephus implies and Tacitus states, adding that it was during Tiberius’s reign.[1]

While there is no good reason, historically speaking, to exclude Christian writings (such as those in the New Testament or by early church fathers), the non-Christian evidence about the historical facts of Jesus’ life and death is clear, despite the small number of people who claim otherwise.

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[1] It is worth noting that several of Mukutiuk’s conclusions parallel those of two Christian apologists who focus on the resurrection of Jesus. Gary Habermas developed the “minimal facts” approach to the resurrection, and with Michael Licona has written extensive scholarly work on this question (see examples here and here.

The Virgin Birth: Myth, Made-up, or Misinterpretation?

Source: http://iconreader.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/vmdirect.jpg

Source: http://iconreader.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/vmdirect.jpg

One of the most frequent challenges to traditional Christian doctrine is over the “virgin” conception and birth of Jesus in Mary.

Some people argue that miracles never happen (a philosophical assumption, rather than an empirical fact), and therefore the virgin birth of Jesus could not be true.

Others argue that the virgin birth was a mythological addition to the story of Jesus’ life, and was originally derived from other ancient “virgin birth myths,” and so it is not true.

This last one is particularly popular these days, and The Apologetics Guy has put together a concise response to the myth objection. His key points are these:

“The Virgin Birth wasn’t Copied from Myths”, either Horus, Mithra or Caesar Augustus.

By the way, LutheranSatire has put together a very clever video refuting (and yes, mocking) the myth-copying hypothesis:

Apologetics Guy then addresses the accusation that the virgin birth was made up later on, arguing that

“Making up a fake story about Jesus’ virgin birth wouldn’t make Christianity more attractive to the Jews. It would actually make people suspicious about Jesus…The Virgin Birth Wasn’t Emphasized…[and] The Virgin Birth is Different from Myths” in important ways.

One of the most important differences is that the Christian tradition of the virgin birth occurs prior to the other myths commonly cited, as Catholic.com notes,

“The parallel between the birth of Jesus and the pagan god exists, but the Christian tradition antedates the pagan mythology…and none were ever believed to be historical figures like Jesus.”

Finally, The Apologetics Guy doesn’t address a more text-critical view–that the gospel writers had to contrive Jesus’ conception by a virgin because they misread an Old Testament messianic prophecy from Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. (NAS)

Evidence Unseen addresses several of the anti-virgin conception claims, one of which is the claim that the Hebrew word alluding to the messiah’s birth (almah) doesn’t really mean virgin, but instead is a general term referring to an adolescent young woman. After discussing the language issues, they conclude,

“while the term almah does not exclusively mean virgin, it is certainly compatible with virginity –especially when we see that there was no other Hebrew term to use that would be any better.”

In short, Christians can continue to be confident in the integrity of the doctrine of Jesus’ virgin birth. It was clearly not copied from other pagan myths, it was not made up by the later church, and Matthew did not misinterpret the Old Testament prophecy.

Merry Christ-mas!!

 

 

 

Why I am Convinced God Exists 2: Assumptions and Evidence Standards

Michael Angelo's Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Michael Angelo’s Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

In attempting to answer the question “Does God Exist?” I had to make some assumptions. In this post I discuss the rationality of my process, and lay out the handful of assumptions that underlie my broader analysis. These assumptions are, I believe, entirely reasonable: 1. I exist. 2. I can reason. 3. There are true answers to many questions related to God’s existence. Based on these, I discuss specific standards of evidence and proof used by various disciplines.

Previous Post: Introduction

In my previous discussions, I’ve used the term rational a couple times, and so it’s important that I tell you what I mean by that. Rationality is a term used in economics and political science to describe a process of thoughtfully pursuing goals using reason. That is, a person is considered rational when she has a goal she’d like to achieve, is able to reason through a set of options for pursuing that goal, and follow a path she believes will help her achieve that goal. This evaluation and path selection assumes she has enough information to make those judgments, and that she can reason through the consequences of selecting different paths. This doesn’t require perfect or complete information, but having enough credible information to make a reasonable prediction.[1]

Here, my goal is to conclude whether God exists, and rationality refers to my reasoning through the various paths that come up on that journey. As a result, I haven’t specifically addressed every question that could possibly be asked about what the world would be like if God doesn’t exist. Rather, I’ve selected the most pertinent lines of inquiry that I reasoned would help me answer the question for myself. Other people will probably have other lines of inquiry that will satisfy their intellectual curiosity on this question. If they’re rational, they’ll think systematically, too, and will pick questions that will, on balance, enable them to more or less objectively answer the question. The alternative is to cherry-pick paths that will lead them to the answer they want to be true, which is intellectually faulty and dishonest.

After I wrote about 12 single-spaced pages of analysis, I stopped. Had I made unreasonable assumptions that would inexorably lead me to the conclusion I wanted to be true? That is, since I want God to exist, did I frame the whole set of questions in such a way as to inevitably lead me to the conclusion that God exists? As I thought about it, I backtracked to my initial questions to figure out my underlying assumptions. I concluded that they are reasonable and realistic and need not lead to the conclusion that God exists. They are:

  1. I exist. By implication, this also means the material universe, what Carl Sagan called the cosmos, exists.
  2. I can reason. That means I have the intellectual ability to think through a series of questions and answers, imagine contrary views, evaluate contrary arguments, compile and evaluate evidence, and draw conclusions based on that process.[2]
  3. There are true answers to many questions. Some statements are true and other statements are false. By true, I mean true in the conventional way that people use the word and its partner, truth. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a true statement or belief as “Consistent with fact; agreeing with the reality; representing the thing as it is,” and truth as “Conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity (of statement or thought).”[3] So the true answer to whether God exists has to be consistent with the facts, agreeing with the reality of the way things are. Ascertaining the truth of a statement involves the exercise of reason (see my second assumption, above).[4]

That’s it—those are the core assumptions from which I’m working. Fundamentally, this is a search for the true answer to the question, Does God Exist?. Again, I don’t claim especially comprehensive or specialized knowledge in some areas, but I know how to evaluate many facts, I know how to compare and contrast ideas, and I know how to think reasonably logically.[5] I think I’m competent to evaluate whether an idea, concept, or statement conforms to reality within the normal bounds of normal human intelligence.

My process, therefore, was not to develop my own professional expertise, research agenda, or even a deep familiarity with the original professional academic research in any of these areas. Rather, I did my best to evaluate other people’s work while also thinking systematically through my own ideas and considering in broad strokes the alternatives. And that has to be enough. (Even if I wanted to acquire professional expertise in some of these fascinating areas, I already have a full-time job and my lovely bride has said she is not going to put me through graduate school again!)

Now that I have discussed my basic reasoning and assumptions, let’s turn to specific issues related to the standards of evidence or proof one might need in any area of study.

Standards of Evidence

Convincing someone of something depends on the standards of evidence the first someone requires. What kind of evidence would be adequate to prove that God exists? Logic, legal reasoning, experimental science, statistical reasoning and historical reasoning all provide input into addressing this question. In the end, I conclude that science and experimental reasoning provide language but not tools for evaluating whether God exists, because they are only appropriate for testing material things and processes. Since no one makes a serious claim that God is a material being, materialistic methods for “testing” for God simply aren’t appropriate.

There are many common standards used and familiar to many of us, and different disciplines make use of different proof standards. The “proof standard” leading to the conclusion that my ancestor Caleb Albee fought in the Revolutionary War is different than the proof standard that education affects the probability that a person will vote. The legal standard expected of juries for convicting criminals is different from the experimental standards for concluding that the rate of chemical reactions varies based on changes in the ambient temperature in which the chemicals interact.

Some common proof standards

Beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the burden of proof a prosecutor must meet in a trial in which someone is accused of a crime. The jury must find the evidence and reasoning so strong that any reasonable doubt about the accused’s guilt must be overcome. Note that this doesn’t eliminate any doubt, or any possible other explanation for a crime. Even though this sounds really difficult to understand, thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens are able to apply this proof standard every year in nearly every jury trial held in our nation.

Preponderance of the evidence. This is the burden of proof that must be met for someone suing someone else in a civil suit, such as breaking a contract or agreement, or that the tree branch that fell on my car is your fault because the tree is on your property. Lower than the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard, this simply requires a jury to assess whether, when all the relevant evidence is considered, someone broke a contract or ought to be held responsible for some bad outcome. Again, thousands of our fellow citizens apply this proof standard in civil jury trials every year.

Reasoning to the best explanation. This is a proof standard for drawing conclusions about historical events and relationships, such as in my hobby, genealogy.[6] This leverages documentary and archaeological evidence about the past: events and people, their lives and relationships based on contemporary accounts, documents and circumstantial evidence. This is fundamentally the basis for the discipline of History, which seeks to document whether, where, how, and why certain events happened. Since for most of human history there are no eyewitnesses now living, everything we know about the past is based on reasoning to the best explanation. (I have recently come to learn that in Logic, this is called abductive reasoning.)

Scientific statistical reasoning. This is based on probability and sampling theories, in which the likelihood of outcomes and relationships can be calculated; and hypothesis testing.[7] There are normally two major types of errors to avoid: rejecting a true statement instead of accepting it as true (a Type 1 Error), and accepting a false statement as true instead of rejecting it (a Type 2 error). Probabilities can be calculated for avoiding those errors. (In terms of God’s existence, a Type 1 Error would be rejecting the statement “God exists” when it is in fact true. A Type 2 Error would be accepting the statement “God exists” when it is in fact false.)

  • The standard point at which a statement is normally accepted as empirically supported is at the 95% probability level, though that standard is arbitrary. You have seen this used when the news presents public opinion poll results that include a margin of error notation (such as ± 3%). Billions of dollars in spending each year hinges on people applying this proof standard to marketing and political decisions. The important thing about this kind of reasoning is that it hinges on a probabilistic standard of proof rather than an absolute standard; even if we obtain a result for which we are 99.9% sure, we still allow a small probability (0.1%) that our conclusion is wrong. The lower that probability, the higher the confidence that we’ve correctly identified a true statement or rejected a false one.
  • Explanatory power is the statistical concept that permits us to calculate the proportion of variation in some phenomenon that is explained by a set of independent variables. Any group of explanatory factors will explain some amount of the differences in a thing we’re trying to understand. In my research, for example, I often am trying to explain why people vote or do not vote. The outcome is easy to understand: either a person votes or she doesn’t vote. If I have 10 variables that are plausibly related to that behavior, I can calculate rather precisely how good a job each one does individually. I can also calculate how good a job they do collectively.[8] One important point here is that even in the most rigorous analysis of individual behavior we never even come close to explaining 100% of the variation in anything (aggregated social statistics are an exception).
  • So as a social scientist using statistical and econometric methods, I am comfortable with (1) finding explanatory factors that are plausibly, logically and statistically related to a phenomenon I’m trying to explain. (2) Thinking probabilistically about how likely they are to actually be related to the thing I’m trying to explain, and being comfortable with that probability being a good deal less than absolute certainty. And (3) happy when a reasonably high level of explanation is provided by my factors without even coming close to explaining everything. I am satisfied with sufficiency and coherence, rather than incontrovertible proof, and every social scientist and economist that uses statistics operates on the same principles.

Experimental evidence of physical objects and processes (that is, conclusions that are based on the process of hypothesis testing, controlled experimental manipulation, and replication). Since this particular proof standard requires the ability to manipulate and replicate experimental conditions, it is inadequate to evaluate claims that cannot be subjected to experimental replication or manipulation. For example, we can’t replicate the creation of something from nothing, in which there is by definition nothing to vary or manipulate in the experiment; thus creation ex nihilo is an event not subject to scientific experimentation. On the other hand, experimental evidence is adequate for learning all kinds of things about the way the material world operates.

Basic Logic, including the Law of Noncontradiction, which says that “No proposition may be simultaneously true and false” and its partner, the Law of the Excluded Middle, “Every proposition must be either true or false.”[9] (Note that is a more formal restatement of one of my underlying assumptions.)

Understanding these standards of evidence and proof helps me reason about God’s existence in three specific ways.

  1. First, I can be okay with not having 100% proof of God existing, but with finding sufficient arguments and evidence for me to conclude that some things are very likely to point to God’s existence. Admittedly, this is a bit subjective, and the question is not subject to actual probabilistic calculations at all! But the principle is that in the rest of my intellectual life I don’t expect or get absolutely perfect or complete explanations for anything, so I’m comfortable with some gap between what I successfully explain and a perfect explanation.
  2. Second, a variety of kinds of arguments and evidence can be brought to bear on the question of God’s existence. When I teach students about methodological variety, I use the metaphor of triangulation, in which methods and accumulation of different kinds of evidence provide a process of narrowing the set of potential explanations to those that seem most plausible.
  3. Third, given what I observe in the world around me, I can reason out which theory and factors best provide a comprehensive, if not complete explanation for the world and for human behavior. Do the principles of an atheistic worldview do as good a job explaining things as the principles of a theistic worldview? If not, which theism provides the best or most reasonable explanation, or demonstrates the greatest explanatory power, for the way the universe and human beings actually operate? Again, I don’t need absolutely complete explanations, just logical, plausible, sufficient, coherent, and (hopefully) parsimonious ones.

In particular, I think it’s interesting to note that none of the legal or scientific standards of evidence requires 100% elimination of every other possibility every time in order to conclude that a person is guilty, that an historical event happened, or that an hypothesis is supported or refuted. On the other hand, the Law of Noncontradiction allows us to identify logical options and eliminate directly contradictory statements as equally true, so we can organize the logical outcomes in certain situations.

Extraordinary Evidence?

Finally, let me address the famous objection put forward by atheist astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”[10] I have two responses to this. First, I am interested in evaluating extraordinary claims, such as “God exists” using evidence that is available. And the evidence one requires must be appropriate for the question one has. As I discussed earlier, as a political scientist my research questions drive my research methodology, and the same principle ought to to the question of God’s existence. It seems to me that what Sagan sought was the kind of scientific evidence that is simply inapplicable to the question with which I’m dealing. But my second thought is that I am willing to apply the principle within analytically-appropriate knowledge domains. So I think it is reasonable to expect extraordinary evidence to support Dr. Sagan’s claim that “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”[11] Or that nonliving matter spontaneously became living. Or that the universe started all by itself, creating everything from nothing, for no reason, or that it has eternally existed, or that the multiverse is actually scientifically provable.[12]

In conclusion, in seeking to answer the question Does God Exist?, there are several standards of evidence that come into play to some degree. Few, if any, of them hold absolute proof up as even possible to achieve. So whenever I think it’s possible to do, I will lay out my best understanding of the logical options for an issue. (For example, in the next section I’ll point out that on the question of God’s existence there are only two possibilities: Either God Exists or God Does Not Exist; there is no in-between state.) So there is a true answer! Then, thinking through other related questions, the various standards of evidence will come into play in ways that seem appropriate to the particular aspect of the questions at hand.

Does God Exist?

In this post I address a relatively simple yet profound truth: God either exists or God does not exist. There is no in-between state. What we believe about God’s existence is entirely irrelevant to whether God exists. And whether we can even know about God’s existence is also irrelevant. The fact of the matter is, there is a yes or no answer to this question. The real question is whether we can acquire sufficient reasons to conclude that one of these two is more likely to be true than the other.

Yes or No

Does God exist? There are only two answers, Yes and No, and they both can’t be true. That is, either God Exists or God Does Not Exist. Therefore, I have to evaluate which one of those answers corresponds to reality and the way things actually are, can be logically supported, and is evidentially supported.

Let’s lay out the logical options as a big picture roadmap for my analysis.

  1. One of these two statements is true, and the other is false: Either God Exists or God Does Not Exist.
  2. The question of God’s actual existence is independent of my belief about this. That is, it doesn’t matter whether I believe it or not, God either exists or does not exist.

Therefore, any person’s belief that God does not exist has no bearing on whether God actually exists. Similarly, any person’s belief that God does exist also has no bearing on whether God actually exists.

After I made these points at a recent talk, a young man suggested that there might be a third option—that we can’t know whether God exists. He was confusing knowledge about God with God’s actual existence. (In philosophical terms, the question of God’s reality is ontology, but the question of acquiring knowledge about reality is epistemology, and this was the difference.) Thus, it’s useful to address a third point related to knowing whether God exists:

  1. God’s actual existence does not rely on my possessing knowledge about God or about God’s existence.

What this means is that God may exist even if I don’t know it. Not knowing it does not bear on God’s existence.

It also means that God may exist even if I possess incorrect information about God. The relative correctness of my information does not affect God’s actual existence or actual nature, only my understanding of God.

Finally, it’s important to note that if God exists, there may be evidence of God’s existence. God may or may not have intentionally conveyed information to humanity about himself (or herself, or itself). Even if there isn’t evidence we can perceive, that doesn’t affect whether God exists, only that our knowledge about God doesn’t have evidence. On the other hand, we might be able to perceive at least some or all of the evidence for God’s existence.

(There are some important implications for the answer to these questions, and a person who concludes that God exists or doesn’t exist has some more work to do in accounting for the way the world works, or for explaining God more thoroughly. That set of questions is beyond this series, but are on my agenda to address down the road.)

My First Conclusion: God either exists or does not exist. The arguments and evidence must point me to which one of these statements is true, even if I don’t attain 100% certainty.

In my next post, I will address an important aspect of God’s existence. Most human conceptions of deities suggest that there exists a realm or dimension beyond the physical realm. If this realm is nonmaterial, it is one in which nonmaterial beings or deities could exist. Is there evidence that the non-material realm or reality exists in which a being like God could exist?

Next Post: Let’s Get Real(ity).

[1] An irrational person is someone who ignores the evidence and information and then follows a path unlikely to end with her goal being achieved, or that she just wanted to follow despite the evidence. So it would be irrational of me to use materialist methods to study nonmaterial things, because the method would not reasonably be expected to provide evidence about the subject.

[2] All of this begs the question, “How can a mere collection of neurons, blood vessels and electrical impulses actually do this and have any confidence in the result?” Late in my process I discovered the so-called “Argument from Reason,” which I’ll discuss later. I believe this provides a compelling argument for an intelligent, creative, reason-based being behind everything. But at first I just intuitively believed that I had the capacity to reason to a true conclusion.

[3] OED Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 20, 2014.

[4] Again, this raises the question of how a mere collection of neurons, etc., determine whether a statement is true or false and then trust themselves that they have come up with the right answer.

[5] Thanks especially to a couple of computer programming courses back in the 1980s, and to Dr. Valli Koubi who took the time to walk our International Conflict class systematically through the logic of Expected Utility Theory when I was at the University of Georgia.

[6] See, for example, Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997).

[7] See, for example, Gujarti, Basic Econometrics (McGraw-Hill, 2003); an accessible introduction is Cuzzort and Vrettos, The Elementary Forms of Statistical Reason (St. Martin’s, 1996).

[8] This is calculated with a statistic called the coefficient of determination, which is the proportion of the variation in the probability—technically the logged odds—of voting explained by the variables.

[9] Horn, Laurence R., “Contradiction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Accessed at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contradiction/ August 29, 2014

[10] Sagan, Carl (writer/host) (December 14, 1980). “Encyclopaedia Galactica”. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Episode 12. 01:24 minutes in. PBS. Cited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan#cite_note-74, Accessed 2 November 2014.

[11] Sagan, Carl, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4.

[12] See the excellent discussion of this claim by Rob Lundberg, “Responding to the ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidences’ Objection,” at http://roblundberg.blogspot.com/2014/01/responding-to-extraordinary-claims.html.

 

Why I am Convinced God Exists: Introduction

Michael Angelo's Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Michael Angelo’s Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

In the spring of 2013, I set out on an intellectual journey. I realized that I hadn’t ever really engaged with the question of God’s existence for myself. Oh, I had learned a few arguments about God’s existence, but I hadn’t wrestled with the question on my own terms, to see if it really is rational and reasonable for me to believe it.

I had to bring my own mind to bear on the problem for a couple of reasons. First, as a reasonably intelligent person and a trained social scientist, I believed that I possessed a mind capable of addressing the question. Second, as a Christian who takes the Bible text seriously, I had to be obedient to key principles contained in scripture. One was Jesus’ own words, paraphrasing the ancient Hebrew pillars of The Law:

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, NAS; see also Matthew 22:37 and Mark 12:30)

I knew that Jesus had added “all your mind” to the Hebrew text (compare, for example, Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12, and 13:3), so I reasoned that by saying love God with my mind he probably meant something like, “Apply the intellectual processes and capabilities of your mind for the purpose of loving God.” And while I had long been a student of The Book (that is, The Holy Bible), this wasn’t a topic on which I had focused. Another principal is embodied in the verse,

sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense [an argument or explanation] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15)

The context for this instruction is the Christian’s likelihood of having to endure suffering and intimidation for the sake of the gospel. As a Christian, then, I had to have arguments and explanations at hand that would enable me to take a stand and defend my own beliefs. Moreover, I’m instructed to do this with gentleness and reverence. I don’t know about you, but I am least likely to be gentle when I feel the least confident in my own abilities and information; when I am simply regurgitating other people’s beliefs and opinions that I agree with, and I get a serious challenge, I tend to react out of frustration and with sarcasm. So I found that I had to get to a place intellectually where I personally owned the argument for myself, and could communicate it to others with a good attitude. Even if some discussion partners would resort to intimidation, my conscience had to be clear (1 Peter 3:13-16).

Now, eighteen months later, I can confidently give an answer to the question of God’s existence that reflects my own careful thinking and evaluation of different perspectives. I’ve looked at Christian, atheist, Buddhist and Hindu (among others) answers to difficult questions, and used some basic logic and my professional training in research methods and causal logic. I make no grand claims to be a physicist, logician, molecular biologist, geologist, philosopher, or theologian. I’m just a reasonably intelligent guy thinking systematically about one of the most important questions with which humanity has to deal.

I acknowledge that the way I tend to approach the questions had to have been influenced by some of the apologetics to which I had already been exposed prior to this journey, and so I already know that there are critiques of every argument and line of reasoning that make sense to me, and I’m okay with that. But here’s the thing: No one person has sufficient knowledge and expertise about every field and subfield that are relevant to this conversation. We all have knowledge and explanatory gaps in which we defer to trusted experts, and I’m no different.

How much information is enough?

As a political science professor I study people’s voting decisions—that is, why they prefer one candidate over another and why they do (or do not) vote. While I might think people ought to gather complete and perfect information about candidates, policy differences and their impacts, I now know empirically that no one does this. People simply acquire enough information to make a choice: sometimes it is given to them, sometimes they happen upon it accidentally, and sometimes they intentionally seek it out.[1] Importantly, almost no citizen does independent original research about candidates and policies. Almost everyone relies upon experts and other trustworthy compilers of information from which they obtain their needed information. Some people acquire pure propaganda, others try to find relatively “objective” sources, while others rely on heuristics (information shortcuts) that enable them to make a quick judgment that has a good chance of being accurate.[2]

My process, therefore, was not to develop my own professional expertise, research agenda, or even a deep familiarity with the original professional academic research in any of these areas. Rather, I did my best to evaluate other people’s work while also thinking systematically through my own ideas and considering in broad strokes the alternatives. And that has to be enough. (Even if I wanted to acquire professional expertise in some of these fascinating areas, I already have a full-time job and my lovely bride has said she is not going to put me through graduate school again!)

Why Even Bother?

Finally, what did I actually hope to accomplish in this process? First, for myself, I wanted to think systematically about whether God exists, because that piece of information has consequences for many other areas of my life—especially how I treat other people. Second, I wanted to be able to evaluate whether a rational, thinking person can come to a reasonable, logical and coherent conclusion that conforms with reality as we know it. To put it another way, can an intelligent, thoughtful person come to an informed coherent conclusion about whether God exists and answer “Yes”?

If, after thinking intelligently and critically I could come to the conclusion that God exists (or least probably exists), then I no longer have to feel insecure or threatened by skeptics who say theists are stupid, ignorant, and irrational. (The list of highly intelligent people who believed in the God of Christianity is long and impressive, and includes Galileo, Thomas More, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Washington Carver, C.S. Lewis, Chuck Colson, and Francis Collins.) Finally, I wanted to be able to lay out a reasonable case for my conclusions that will hopefully make sense to someone who believes that God doesn’t exist or that is wondering if it’s even rational to do so.

In short, my goal is to describe my journey–what arguments and evidence make the most sense to me. I hope you’ll join me, and find my reasoning…well…reasonable. If you are a current believer in the God of the Bible, I hope you are challenged to undertake this exercise on your own. If you are a current non-believer in God, I hope you will at least find my conclusions reasonable, even if you don’t end up agreeing with me.

The Question I Should Have Been Able to Answer

In 2013 I had a Facebook conversation with an atheist in which I was challenged with a question that, as a long-time Christian, I should have been able to answer. But I couldn’t put together a quick response—that is, I was not prepared to give a defense for the hope that is in me. The simple question was, “What has convinced you that God exists?”

What is Faith?

It was hard to answer because I have always believed that God exists. Even in the years when I rejected the Christian faith, I knew in my heart that God existed. I rejected Christianity in that season of my life not out of rationality but simply out of a desire to live my life as if He didn’t. So I had some homework to do, because I knew enough that if I answered, “I just have always known,” or “by faith,” my answer would be unsatisfactory even to me because faith is not really about how we know things. Rather, faith is the result of experiences and information that give us confidence regarding things for which we don’t have experiences and information. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I have faith in my wife’s marital fidelity, that she would not commit adultery. What does “have faith” mean? Does it mean that I just know in my heart that she will not commit adultery? How do I know she won’t? Well, I just know! Isn’t that goofy? I didn’t just meet her and decide she would be faithful to our marriage vows. No, I spent a lot of time getting to know her, watching her behavior, evaluating her character, and talking with her about what marriage means. I thus came to the conclusion that she would not commit adultery in future unknown situations because her character and behavior had given me credible information (from her past) that supported the conclusion.

I will be getting on an airplane to travel to New Orleans this January. I have faith that the plane will get me there. What does that mean? Do I just know that 200,000 pounds of metal will successfully levitate to 30,000 feet above the earth and descend safely a couple of hours later? On what basis would any reasonable person think such a thing? Here is how: I understand that there is a law of gravity and that with an aerodynamic design and a sufficient amount of forward motion, even a 200,000 hunk of metal can be held aloft in a controlled way. I don’t personally understand all of the physics of the thing, but I know that other people do and have designed airplanes to leverage those physical laws in order to make planes work reliably. Moreover, I know a lot of people who have flown on planes, and they testify that it works. Even better, I have personal experience flying; in fact I have flown the Chicago to New Orleans route a couple of times, and made it! Thus I have faith—that is, I trust that even though I don’t understand it all, the physics of flying has a successful track record and works reliably—that the plane I board in Chicago next January will successfully fly me to New Orleans, even though I haven’t taken the flight yet.

To return to the point, saying that I believe that God exists by faith doesn’t mean I just know He exists without or despite any corroborating reasons or evidence. Faith means, as it does in every other situation in which people use the word, a reliance on past evidence, arguments, testimony and experiences that leads me to a conclusion that I can leverage for future situations about which I don’t have information, until I gain better understanding or get to the future. (From a Christian perspective, this is what the meaning of faith is in Hebrews chapter 11.) I develop trust with regard to the unknown future based on the known past; if the known past gives me enough information to trust in the future, it also could give me confidence that explanations exist for things I don’t understand no matter when they occurred.

Obviously, this means that I disagree with the new atheist definition of faith as “belief without proof” or “pretending to know things I don’t know.”[3] I don’t know how planes work and I’m not a psychic, but I know they have worked pretty reliably in the past. I don’t know for sure that every plane will always fly safely, but, on balance, I have faith that in the future planes will generally work as designed. Thus, even though I don’t know a lot else about the future, my belief in future planes working is based on the past evidence, or proof, that planes can and do work.

How would I know?

With all that said, for my own curiosity’s sake I wanted to be really specific and thoughtful and carefully evaluate the evidence, arguments and experiences that lead me to conclude God exists. And, to be completely honest, I simply had never done any real mental work to really understand why I really believed that God really exists. I had even memorized and taught some basic apologetic arguments for God’s existence, but I had never really wrestled with the problem itself, for myself.

As a political scientist, before I collect or analyze data I have to think about the appropriate research methods that are appropriate for finding an answer to a question. For example, if I want to understand presidential decision making in foreign policy, I wouldn’t use a survey of the American public, I would interview the small number of people who have actually observed presidents working through foreign policy decisions.

Thus, regarding the question of God’s existence I had to ask: What evidence or arguments (or both) are even appropriate to address the question of whether God exists? This got me thinking about the standards of evidence that people normally use for making decisions, and that scientists normally use for drawing conclusions about whether a statement or hypothesis has support. The next part of my analysis thus briefly discusses these standards, much of which are familiar to most people.

Then I address different questions that seem to me to be central to the question of how I would know whether God exists. First, what are the possible answers to the question Does God Exist? Second, in what possible kind of reality could God exist? Is it likely that such a kind of reality does exist? Third, what about things I know exist—where did everything come from? Where did I (as a member of humanity) come from? This is the question of origins. Fourth, what about the problem of evil—why do I (along with most humans and cultures) have a nagging feeling—an intuition—that evil is real? And if evil is real, how do I know? And where did it come from? And why do humans have such an overwhelming sense that it matters?

My Conclusion: God Exists

Here is the basic outline of my conclusions. I will share my more detailed thinking on each point as we move forward. Let me say that these statements might sound a bit weird to my Christian friends; the statements might even sound like I’m hedging my bets. But this is how I’m getting to my conclusion without starting with the assumption that God exists.

  1. A force or being or entity that I will call “God” either exists or doesn’t exist, so there is only one true answer to the question.
  2. Logic and evidence lead me to conclude that an immaterial/ spiritual realm almost certainly exists apart from material reality. Additionally, the two realms probably interact with each other. Thus, there is almost certainly a realm in which an immaterial God could exist, and an immaterial God could interact with material reality.
  3. Evidence and logic lead me to conclude that the material realm almost certainly had an originating point in time and a source external to itself. Additionally, there is no evidence that life could have originated from non-living matter alone. The force that produced material reality and life must be greater than material reality and the living beings within it. It must be powerful enough to bring every material thing into existence and to impart life into nonliving matter.
  4. Evidence and logic lead me to conclude that Evil is real; therefore Good is real. The intuition of good and evil, and the concepts themselves must have a source. It’s quite plausible (though I’m not sure that it’s necessary) that the source exists outside the people or cultures that make nearly universal moral judgments about certain actions or events.

All told, I conclude that it is entirely plausible, if not highly probable, that God exists. In fact, because either God exists or doesn’t exist, the preponderance of the evidence points to God existing rather than not existing. Thus, based on the evidence and logic, I conclude that God exists. This doesn’t quite get me to the God of The Bible, but at least I conclude that God is a highly reasonable and intelligent being, external to the material world, powerful enough to create material reality and life itself, and imbue mankind with an inherent sense of good and evil.

In the next section I will lay out my underlying assumptions in pursuing answers to my questions, as well as addressing the question of the standards of proof for or against God’s existence.

Next: How Could I Know Whether God Exists? My Assumptions

————————

[1] See, for example, Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (Addison-Wesley-Longman, 1957); Samuel Popkin, The Reasoning Voter (University of Chicago Press, 1991); Herbert Simon, “A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice,” in Models of Man, Social and Rational: Mathematical Essays on Rational Human Behavior in a Social Setting (Wiley, 1957).

[2] Party identification is such a heuristic. A Republican who knows only that one candidate is Republican and the other is a Democrat can make a pretty accurate prediction that on most issues, on balance, the Republican candidate will agree with her, and the Democrat will disagree with her. And she will be right.

[3] Boghossian, Peter. 2013. A Manual for Creating Atheists, chapter 2.

A Quick Evaluation of the “Jesus’ wife” papyrus fragment

Photo by Karen L. King.
Grabbed from nationalgeographic.com

For those of you who have heard about the papyrus fragment that includes the phrase, “Jesus said to them, My wife…she is able to be my disciple…” (see the link below to the National Geographic article), watch this two-minute video showing why this provides zero important information about Jesus.

(Link on YouTube)

Dr. Habermas’s main points as to why this MS doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus being married.

  1. The most important point is that the text is written way too late to contain historically-reliable information. Therefore it can’t contribute anything to our knowledge about the historical Jesus, who lived and died in the first 1/3 of the first century, and all of his companions were dead by 100. [In fact, the latest reports show that this fragment dates from the eighth or ninth century, at least 700 years after the last apostle, John, died!] Even the scholar who analyzed the fragment says it provides no information about the historical Jesus.
  2. The text says “my wife” but it doesn’t say anything either before or after to contribute any information. (Well, it says a little more than that, but still doesn’t provide any historical information, except that Jesus might have had progressive views about whether women could be disciples. Which is not news at all, for those familiar with the progressive views of women he already demonstrated in historically reliable documents—the gospels.)
  3. The fragment is written in Coptic, most likely the language of gnostics (various heretical groups who believed and taught untrue things about Jesus) in the centuries following Jesus’ death, who were not interested in the historical evidence about Jesus.

Finally, my friend and New Testament expert Dr. Tim McGrew notes: “The fragment itself is quite late by the standards of Jesus scholarship — many centuries later than the era of the New Testament. For it to be billed as “ancient” is downright misleading, and the press should be ashamed of stooping to such tricks. I don’t believe there are any serious scholars who think it sheds any light on the historical Jesus. At most, it reflects the beliefs of some second century gnostics.”

So the long and the short of it is…The fragment is written too late to be of any historical value to understanding the Jesus who lived in the first century, especially compared with the extraordinary number and consistency of early manuscripts and eyewitness accounts regarding Jesus and first-century Christians. It is simply an interesting bit of papyrus written several hundred years after Jesus and his disciples died. Fuel for skeptics’ speculations, and little besides.

National Geographic  Article: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/04/140410-papyrus-jesus-wife-evidence-archaeology-science/