#539

August 13, 2017

Finding a Confident Christian Faith

You make a distinction, which I accept, between “knowing” and “showing” that something is true. But the thing is that I don’t know that the Resurrection is true, therefore, assuming it is, I need to be shown this. The problem is that, from the standpoint of the skeptical but open-minded seeker, as I consider myself to be, when looked at dispassionately the historical evidence is, while perhaps sufficient for corroboration of what one already believes, for the rest of us fragmentary and unconvincing.

Let me be clear: I am a theist. But in the absence of better evidence for the Resurrection what Christianity proposes about God, i.e. that he loves each of us personally, when set against the evident and undeniable indifference of the natural world to its creatures, just looks like wishful thinking. Hence I incline, reluctantly, towards stoicism, which seems better in tune with the empirical facts.

Now, the very gratuitousness and unnecessariness of our universe is clear evidence to me of the intrinsic goodness of God, who, after all, can need nothing from us that he doesn’t already have. But I see no unambiguous evidence that this goodness extends down to actual love and concern for individual creatures. Why should God care about us? In any case it is surely inconceivable, if not logically impossible, for God, who is presumably one unitary consciousness, to have a “personal” relationship, i.e. one-to-one, with every single one of the billions of souls alive now, not to mention those who have died and those who will exist in the future.

Of course, God could simply “make” me know that the Resurrection happened and then God’s love for us would be a simple inference from that fact and none of the above would be a problem. But he doesn’t do this, for me anyway, and there seems no purely rational bridge to faith. One possibility is Pascal’s Wager, i.e. act as if until you become conditioned to believe through sheer force of habit, but to me this seems intellectually dishonest, and you and I both care, I think, about the truth.

What is your opinion of my reasoning here? Am I missing something? Is there any intellectually honest way, prior to, or in the absence of, the intervention of the “Holy Spirit”, to get from stoical resignation to a confident faith in the truth of the if true undoubtedly good news of the New Testament? There are after all good reasons for all of us to want such faith: it was undoubtedly this (and not resigned stoicism) that built the modern world and it has long been clear to me that, as you have pointed out elsewhere, if something very like Christianity is not true then human life is ultimately futile and absurd. Futility and absurdity hardly seem like a very good basis on which to build a life that adds up to much...

So, I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts on all of this. I would guess that my epistemic condition is a common one – many of the “spiritual but not religious” types probably share it, so this question will have a broad appeal and interest.

Grant


United Kingdom

Answering your question thoroughly, Grant, would require me to run through my entire apologetic case for Christianity! I’m tempted therefore just to say, “Read On Guard or Reasonable Faith.” Have you actually read those books and digested the arguments therein?

Let’s start with the distinction between knowing and showing Christianity to be true. When I talk about knowing Christianity to be true, I’m talking primarily about Christian belief which is properly basic, grounded in the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. This is the ultimate source of a confident Christian belief.

But you just blow this away, asking if there is any “intellectually honest way” to a confident faith “prior to, or in the absence of, the intervention of the ‘Holy Spirit’.” Whence this precondition? You imply that a knowledge of Christianity’s truth on the basis of the Spirit’s witness is somehow intellectually dishonest, despite the fact that one of the world’s greatest philosophers Alvin Plantinga has enunciated and defended in detail just such a religious epistemology.[1] Your choosing to ignore the witness of God’s Spirit is unjustified and even dangerous, since it is apt to harden your heart toward God and cut you off from Him.

Next there is your skepticism. This is again an unjustified starting point for philosophical inquiry (see QoW #528). You seem to equate skepticism with “intellectual honesty,” which is unwarranted and downright false. Moreover, skepticism is existentially a foolish stance to adopt. You yourself state, “if something very like Christianity is not true then human life is ultimately futile and absurd. Futility and absurdity hardly seem like a very good basis on which to build a life that adds up to much.” Precisely for that reason you ought to be inclined to believe if there is any good chance that Christianity is true. If you had terminal cancer and some scientific lab had an experimental drug that might cure you, would you refuse to take it until clinical trials had established beyond reasonable doubt its efficacy? I don’t think so. If there were any reasonable chance it might save you, you’d go for it.

Next there is Pascal’s Wager. You have mischaracterized his argument, focusing only on the part about how to inculcate belief. See my discussion of the Wager in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.[2] Properly understood, Pascal’s argument is not at all intellectually dishonest, in my opinion.

Then we come to the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. You complain that the evidence is “fragmentary and unconvincing.” These misgivings are quite worthless, Grant. All of our knowledge of history is based on fragmentary evidence, yet historians have great deal of confidence, say, about the defeat of the Spanish Armada or the course of the Jewish Revolt AD 66-70. Of course, you may claim that the evidence for the resurrection is too fragmentary to sustain belief in the facts of the case. But then you need to prove that claim, not just assert it. That leads to your second misgiving: the evidence is unconvincing. This is just a personal psychological fact about you. Failure to find evidence convincing could be due to any number of factors: unfamiliarity with the evidence, inability to understand the evidence, lack of skill in the historian’s craft of weighing the evidence, and so on. The suspicion that the deficiency in this case lies with you and not with the evidence is supported by the fact that by far most historical Jesus scholars find the evidence for Jesus’ crucifixion, entombment, empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection to be quite convincing. What do you know that they don’t that has left them in error?

You doubt that “God . . . loves each of us personally, when set against the evident and undeniable indifference of the natural world to its creatures.” But this assertion ignores the argument from the fine-tuning of the universe. The remarkable fine-tuning of the universe for embodied conscious life shows that the natural world is not indifferent to its creatures but was in fact finely-tuned against all odds for the eventual production of intelligent creatures like us. Now supplement that with the moral argument for God’s existence, which shows that those embodied conscious agents are also moral agents who have moral duties to fulfill, which are most plausibly grounded in the commands of a perfectly good God. That gets you a God who loves us personally, even if the laws of nature operate indifferently as to their effects (thereby making rational moral choices possible). The moral argument thus cuts the ground from beneath the indifferent God of Stoicism. Finally, as I have sought to show, the presence of so-called natural evil does not prove that the existence of the Christian God is impossible or even improbable.[3] (Where is your skepticism, Grant, when it comes to these anti-Christian claims?) Top all this off with the evidence of the ministry and teachings of Jesus, ratified by his resurrection from the dead, and the sincere seeker will surely find adequate evidence for belief in a loving God.

Why should God care about us?” Because He has made us in His image, finite persons, capable of knowing Him and therefore of intrinsic moral value. One human person is worth more than the entire material universe put together. It’s not at all inconceivable that the infinite God should sustain personal relationships with billions of human persons, just as you, a finite person, maintain personal relations with a plurality of friends. Your God is too small, Grant, and your imagination impoverished. (Again, I ask, where is your skepticism now in accepting these implausible claims?)

So I think you are missing a lot--indeed, virtually the entire apologetic case I have labored to construct. I’d encourage you to re-think things from the ground up, especially being as skeptical of your skepticism and your misgivings about Christianity as you have been about Christianity itself. I believe that you’ll come to a much better place.

Notes

[1] Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015).

[2] Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2d. rev. ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2017), chap. 7.

[3] Ibid., chap. 29.