There is a common perception that religious claims are all rather weak epistemologically. That is to say that when it comes to supporting
their truth claims, people expect that religions all ask for the same thing: a pretty big leap of faith. Religions, it is believed, don’t offer solid reasons to accept their teaching, they just ask you to trust blindly.
While this is certainly the case for most religions, I always try to argue that this is not true of Christianity. As one piece of support for this claim, I usually present at least some part of the case for the resurrection of Christ.
However, even after being presented with that evidence, people often try to suggest that it is not very solid, For example, I received a couple of emails recently from listeners of my radio show. The first one said that the resurrection story wasn’t good evidence because
Anecdotal accounts of a persecuted man and his crucifixion, belief in a supernatural occurrence (raising from dead), establishment of a cult based on the life of a man – these are all very common historical events in mankind’s history in all sorts of faiths – none of these pieces of information is particularly noteworthy on an evidentiary basis; certainly nothing convincing enough to base one’s world view on.
He went on to say that he wanted something he could see and touch for himself, something empirical, not some story from thousands of years
A different listener emailed with a similar complaint: He also wanted something a little more solid in the way of evidence. He claimed that if
Jesus revealed himself to each of us personally (rather than just to the few 2000 years ago It would prove to everyone that He exists, and that we must follow Him to be saved. While it is true some would reject Him anyway, they couldn’t plead ignorance. No one would waste their time
with [other religions if we all had this better evidence.]
While there are many false assertions in these statements, I want to focus on just two:
1. The Christian evidence is not empirical and therefore not trustworthy.
2. The Christian support for its truth claims is not is not unique among worldviews
In both cases, just the opposite is true. The reality is that Christianity is unique in the very fact that it alone among religions actually deals in
empirical evidence. Christianity is the one religion that has offered empirical reasons to support its truth claims.
Let’s start with the empirical nature of Christianity’s truth claims. (and let me qualify these remarks by saying that empirical evidence
is just one type of many types of evidence for Christianity)
The listeners who emailed claim to be wanting something empirical. This would imply that they think the evidence offered in support of
Christianity, and in particular the resurrection, is not empirical. Or at the very least they are saying that something that happened 2000 years ago doesn’t qualify as good evidence because “it wasn’t empirical to them.” They didn’t experience it firsthand, so it’s not empirical and therefore not trustworthy.
But this is simply absurd. Empirical evidence does not have to be experienced by everyone on the planet for it to be empirical. I’ve been told
that there is plenty of empirical evidence that Australia exists, but I’ve never been there and the photographs I’ve seen could easily be fakes. Should I discount the existence of Australia as lacking empirical evidence? No, of course not.
You might reply that Australia is a continent – a thing – and here we are talking about a historical event. OK – I hear that Florida defeated UCLA last night but I wasn’t there and I didn’t even see it on T.V. Does that mean there was no empirical evidence of UCLA’s triumph? Of course not.
It was witnessed by thousands in person. Nobody in their right mind would say that “There was never any empirical evidence of Florida
winning because I wasn’t there to experience it and unless I have the evidence presented to me personally, there is no empirical evidence.”
It is a huge non-sequitur. It simply does not follow that you had to be at the national championship game for there to have been any evidence offered of its reality. In the same way, it does not follow that just because you were not there to see the resurrection that there was no empirical evidence to support it. Of course there was. The claims of Christianity were as empirical as can be.
The Christian claim is that Jesus did miracles in front of witnesses, was beaten to a bloody pulp in front of witnesses, was hung on a cross and had a spear thrust into his side in front of witnesses, was buried in a tomb by witnesses, appeared again three days later (and for many days after that) in front of witnesses, and did more signs in front of witnesses. The whole story is based on the idea that Jesus calls the people to “look and see.” “See the people I healed.See me raised from the dead. Feel my hands. Touch me, speak to me. Believe because I have given you very good reasons to believe.”
The atheists that I quoted seemed to think that there is a problem with the nature of the evidence – that it is not empirical. On
inspection, though, it turns out that it is not the type of evidence that is the problem, as it is as empirical as can be. Rather it is the timeframe and
place in which this evidence was presented.
When pressed, most people will admit that if the miracles and resurrection were done right in front of them, they would believe. If they
could see the spear being thrust into Jesus’ side as he was on the cross and then touch his resurrected body three days later, they would believe. People want empirical evidence – this would suffice. So it is not that the evidence presented 2000 years ago is not empirical or satisfactory in and of itself, it is that it was presented 2000 years ago. We don’t get it firsthand.
So the objection turns out to be that “We weren’t there so I can’t believe it because there cannot be good enough evidence”. But this is simply silly. You presence has no bearing on whether or not there is good evidence for a claim.
This is like me saying “I wasn’t in Indianapolis on Monday so nothing you tell me will convince me that there was a basketball game there. Unless I was able to see the players on the floor myself, I can’t believe they ever played. Unless I was able to receive empirical evidence myself, there was no empirical evidence presented.”
No, of course there was empirical evidence. And no amount of time will change that fact. 2000 years from now the statement, “I wasn’t at the
final four in Indianapolis in 2006 so there was no empirical evidence presented” will be just as absurd as it is today.
As long as there is good reason to accept that the objective, empirical evidence has been presented at some point, and we have thousands of people who will testify that the NCAA basketball game was presented to them in person on Monday, then there is good reason to accept that the game took place.
There is good reason to believe that objective, empirical evidence for the truth claims of Christianity has been presented. Yes, it was presented 2000 years ago, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was high quality, objective, empirical evidence.
Which leads me to my second point about the listener email. The empirical nature of the Christian claim is not common at all. There is simply
no other religion that comes close to making similar claims based on similar evidence. There are no instances of resurrection, at least none put in actual recorded history. There are no calls to “look at the evidence and see that what I say is true.” Rather, the common refrain among so-called prophets of other religions is “trust me, I speak for God.”
When I speak to people of other religions I always ask them the same thing: “Why should I accept that what you believe is true? What good reasons can you give me?” Inevitably, the answer is either subjective or circular or both.
“Well, we just ask that you pray about it and God will reveal it to you in your spirit” or “Look within and wait for enlightenment.”
When asked how someone know that they have received this enlightenment, the answer is usually, “Oh, you just know.”
“Or what about holy books?” I ask “How do I know your book is from God?”
“Well, because the person who wrote it was a prophet.”
“And how do I know that he or she was a prophet?”
“Well, look at what they wrote, it testifies to their prophetic nature right there.”
Christianity doesn’t play those games. It says look at the evidence, examine for yourself if what I say is true. “Come, let us reason together, the God of the Bible says” If only more people would take Him up on his offer.