November 17, 2013

Emotions and Deciding Whether Christianity Is True

Hello Dr Craig,

First let me thank you for your stimulating podcasts and debates during the last few years. Your intelligent defence of theism in the face of the unwarranted personal attacks and endless strawmen thrown out by your opponents is admirable.

The question I have for you, in short, is the following. What is the role of the emotions in the process of deciding whether Christianity is true?

I ask because you have made it clear that you believe that it is rational to believe in the truth of Christianity, and several Christian converts, e.g. Holly Ordway in her book "Not God's Type", have said that it was the desire to know the truth that motivated their examination of the evidence.

Yet it seems to me that the evidence for the Resurrection of Christ is not conclusive or compelling, and that therefore it must be the emotions that swing a person one way or the other. This surely means that a completely dispassionate assessment of the evidence is not possible?

A crucial role in convincing a person is often played by the moral argument, as defended by yourself on many occasions. But this argument depends upon an emotion-tinged second premise: if a person feels strongly enough that some things a really, objectively wrong, then the argument will work and move that person closer to acceptance of the evidence for the Resurrection. Personally, however, I appear to be a lifelong temperamental nihilist and pessimist about the objectivity of morality and the cosmic worth and value of us humans. This makes me skeptical in my assessment of the evidence for the Resurrection this despite my being convinced by the Cosmological arguments that God does indeed exist and my wanting Christianity to be true. It just seems too good to be true though, and the attendant proposition that God cares about us enough to sacrifice his son just does not, for me, gel with my experience of the world. The world seems a pretty harsh place, indifferent if not hostile to us. I'm aware though that my perception of reality may be skewed by the experiences I have had or missed out on during my lifetime.

This emotional disposition is a huge obstacle for me in finding the case the Resurrection convincing enough to accept it. It just feels too much like wishful-thinking, wanting the world to be other than it actually appears to be. But this seems to indicate that I'm letting my (negative) emotions influence my assessment of the evidence. How should someone such as myself approach the Resurrection evidence, given these temperamental obstacles? Is it possible to put pessimism to one side and to assess the evidence objectively and still arrive at a pretty firm conclusion?

Many thanks,


United Kingdom

I’m glad that you’re thinking about these things, Grant, and apparently considering becoming a Christian.

As I think about your question, I think it will be helpful if we distinguish between the role of emotions in warranting Christianity’s truth and their role in our deciding whether Christianity is true.

With respect to the first role, it seems to me that emotions have no role to play in warranting Christianity’s truth, though what are often misperceived as emotions may have an important role, indeed, to play. By warranting Christianity’s truth, I mean providing justification for thinking that Christian truth claims are true. That is the role of reason, not emotions. How you feel about something is no indication of its truth or falsity, unless those feelings arise as a result of rational factors underlying them. This is because emotions do not track the truth.

On the other hand, I have sometimes heard unbelievers characterize as mere emotional appeals what I take to be objective deliverances of reason warranting some truth. Take, for example, the second premiss of the moral argument

2. Objective moral values and duties exist.

which is mentioned in your letter. You say that this argument “depends upon an emotion-tinged second premise: if a person feels strongly enough that some things a[re] really, objectively wrong, then the argument will work.” Now if you mean that a person who strongly believes the second premiss will find the argument convincing, then your claim is unremarkable and has to do only with the pragmatic utility of the argument in evangelizing unbelievers. Doubtless, the moral argument “works” in this sense much better than the ontological argument! But if you mean to imply that the second premiss enjoys no rational warrant and is based purely on emotional feelings, then I think you’re confusing moral experience with emotions. The standard way in which ethicists assess the morality of various actions is by thinking about them and assessing them in light of our moral experience and intuitions. To say that we have no moral sense to guide us is to already assume that our moral intuitions are pure emotions, which begs the question. Which is more obvious: that sexually abusing a little girl is morally wrong or that my moral intuitions are utterly unreliable? As Louise Antony put it in our debate at the University of Massachusetts, “The existence of objective moral values will always be more obvious than the premises in any argument for moral scepticism.” Therefore, moral scepticism can never be rationally justified. Our apprehension of a realm of objective moral values and duties is warranted in exactly the same way that our belief in an objective realm of physical objects around us is warranted. Just as there is no way to get outside our sensory intuitions to check their veridicality, so we cannot get outside our moral intuitions to check their veridicality. These are properly basic beliefs grounded in experience and rationally held until defeated by some belief having greater warrant for us.

Another example would be the warrant for Christianity’s truth that comes from the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. To assume that the experience of the Holy Spirit’s witness to the truth of Christianity is mere emotions is question-begging. If God does exist, He is certainly capable of communicating His truth to you in an interior way as well as through external evidences. Again, certain Christian beliefs are, I’m convinced, known to be true in a properly basic way, grounded in the inner witness borne to us by God Himself. Interestingly, beliefs based on testimony—like my belief that your name is Grant—is a properly basic belief which I am rational to hold unless and until a defeater for that belief comes along. Similarly, many Christian beliefs are beliefs warranted to us by testimony—God’s own testimony. Don’t be too quick to dismiss it, lest you fail to hear the voice of God speaking to you.

So while emotions do not play a role in warranting Christianity’s truth, people who have no or little understanding of properly basic beliefs grounded in experience will often dismissively regard beliefs warranted in this way as based purely on emotion.

But what about the second role of emotions, their role in our deciding whether Christianity is true? Since we are concerned here about human decision-making, obviously emotions can and do play a huge role in the way we make decisions. We are none of us Mr. Spock, unmoved by our emotions. All of us make decisions through the interplay of reason and emotion.

Now the discernment and honesty of your letter is commendable in your recognizing that this fact cuts both ways. Just as a Pollyana-ish person, for whom all is sweetness and light, may be disposed to see God’s hand at work everywhere in the world, so the cosmic pessimist and nihilist will see the world as a much darker place and be cynical about people’s worth and motivations. What’s important to see is that neither of these persons is more justified by his emotions in how he sees the world. Your feelings that “It’s too good to be true!” (which also struck me as a non-Christian) have no more validity in and of themselves than someone guided by wish-fulfillment.

You’re right that the world seems to be a harsh and indifferent place. But you know, that’s precisely what Christianity tells us about the world. Read the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans in your New Testament. Paul describes a world of humanity which is alienated from God, morally reprobate and guilty before Him, groping in spiritual darkness, and pursuing false gods of its own making. Three times Paul says, “Therefore, God gave them up. . . .” God does not intervene; He allows human depravity to run its course. This only serves to augment our sense that something is terribly wrong and alert us to our need of God. As Christians, we know that we are living in a fallen world. But this world is not our home; we are citizens of another country, a land that is fairer than day.

So you need to shake off your pessimism and look as objectively as you can at the warrant for Christian truth claims. Read the Gospels themselves and ask God to speak to you through them. Read the chapters in my Reasonable Faith on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Watch some of my debates with sceptical New Testament critics like Crossan, Borg, Lüdemann, Spong, and Ehrman, and ask which side enjoys the support of the evidence. The fact that we should have any evidence at all for an event as extraordinary as the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead is stunning; that the evidence is so good is mind-blowing.

One thing that can help you assess the evidence objectively is to consider the fact, which dawned upon me only after completing my doctoral studies in Munich, that the principal historical facts undergirding the inference to the resurrection of Jesus are accepted by the wide majority of New Testament historians today, both Christian and non-Christian. The vast majority of scholars who have written on the subject agree that (1) the tomb in which Jesus was interred by Joseph of Arimathea was found empty by a group of his women followers on the Sunday morning after his crucifixion; (2) thereafter various individuals and groups of people on different occasions and under a variety of circumstances experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead; and (3) the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead despite having every predisposition to the contrary. Isn’t it amazing that most scholars concur with these facts? The question then is how you best explain them. On this score, most scholars today would probably simply profess agnosticism. Many would say that as historians they cannot make a pronouncement on whether Jesus rose from the dead. But as a philosopher and an ordinary human being, nothing prohibits me from making such an inference. Can you think of any better explanation than the one which the original disciples themselves gave?

I’d encourage you to recognize that your pessimism may be hindering you in objectively assessing the evidence for Christianity. Reality may be better than you think. The philosopher William James once said, “We may be in the world as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all.”