Science and Religion Friday: Christianity does have objective criteria
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time running through some of the critiques of religion generally, but Christianity more specifically, that are offered by atheists today, especially those who would fall into the category of the New Atheists.
I first examined the primary historical evidence they use to say that Christianity and Science, which they claim always leads to truth, are diametrically opposed: the Galileo Affair. I demonstrated that while religion was used as a tool against Galileo, the actual source of the conflict was something else entirely and theology had been co-opted in a way that violates its purpose (you can read parts 1, 2, and 3).
Then I explored one of the other primary critiques, namely that religion isn’t even intelligible and so should be ridiculed at worst, or excluded from public discourse at least. This position, actually, is not new. I traced it back to logical positivism and demonstrated how that movement, ultimately, failed (here are parts 1 and 2 of that).
Now I’d like to revisit that critique and take it in a new direction. The argument is that Christianity can’t approach truth in the same way that empirical investigations, like science or history, can. They claim that since belief in God is necessarily the belief in something outside of nature and natural occurrence, then we can’t really know about God, because we have no way of knowing, and so we should be either atheist or agnostic because “God hasn’t provided the evidence.” Setting aside the bias for empiricism as a the sole source of authoritative knowledge (keep in mind logical positivism tried to make that claim and failed), it’s also simply not true.
Seeking Objective Criteria
For the sake of argument, let’s take this claim at face value: all human knowledge must be verifiable through objective means and is attainable through natural phenomena and interpretations of them that seem to be the simplest and, therefore, most likely. Very well then. History fits this criteria very well. The thing about Christianity that one needs to keep in mind, provided one does fall into the liberal theology of the kerygmatic theologians that dominated most of the 20th century, is that it is fundamentally historical. The bible is not a collection of things that God dictated to writers or that fell out of the sky (the Koran makes that claim, the bible does not). The bible is, rather, a record of the historical actions of God mixed with interpretations of those actions.
Let’s take the interpretations presented in the bible out of the equation, because the critic may argue that these interpretations are fundamentally biased by a priori beliefs (beliefs assumed not proven). Alright, let’s just focus on the history. Now, if we do that, it may very well be true that many of the events, perhaps even most of the events in the bible that are interpreted as miraculous could be interpreted by appeals to coincidental natural phenomena (incredibly unlikely, but not impossible). So let’s, for the sake of argument, take those off the table as well. Even if we apply this liberally and remove most of the miraculous events, there is still one event for which a purely natural interpretation is not possible: the resurrection.
Here’s the thing about the resurrection of Jesus. According to the biblical witness, prior to his death Jesus a) predicted that he would die b) claimed to be God c) stated that the primary proof of this would be his resurrection. This is certainly how John’s Gospel interprets it. The seventh, and most important sign, for John is the resurrection. Let’s also look at the things specific to the resurrection that are historical in nature (beyond what Jesus said) as the bible tells them. The bible states that a) Jesus really did live b) Jesus was genuinely dead and c) More than 24 hours later (actually 3 Jewish days later) Jesus was suddenly not dead again, but alive in his physical body. The physicality of the claim is important. If it had been merely a “spiritual resurrection” then it would not be an objectively observable event. Jesus had to physically die and physically come alive a long period later in order to meet the criteria.
If this second set (that Jesus was a person who died and then much later was alive again) is true, then the only plausible interpretation is that there is a supernatural force. If it is the person of Jesus to whom this happened, and given the claims he made (predicting his death and resurrection while also claiming to be God), then we don’t just have good reason to accept the existence of a God somewhere, but specifically the Christian message of God as recorded in the gospels.
In sum, the resurrection provides an objective historical event that can be analyzed through historical methodology. If the non-supernatural causes of the event are true, they are objectively so. If they are objectively true then the supernatural interpretation and presumed causes are the simplest way to make sense of them and thus it is true. So there you have it: the resurrection event occurred in history involving the physical person of Jesus and as such provides an objective criteria by which to judge it. As Wolfhart Pannenberg puts it “the truth of the Christian faith rises or falls with the veracity of the resurrection of Jesus.” As I’ve heard many times in various settings, but I don’t know where the origin is from “we put all our eggs in the Easter basket.”
Next week, I’ll talk about why not only the resurrection is an objective historical event, but why we have good reason to believe it is true rather than not.