The Cost to Skepticism

“I simply need proof for God. But you have not adequately given it to me.”

This is a message I get from some folks when they learn I am a Christian. I will even hear it from some people when I’m not even speaking to them. Perhaps I’ve retweeted someone else online, and out of the blue I will suddenly be hit by anonymous demands for proof. Proof for what? Proof that Christianity is true, that God exists.

Skeptical people can sometimes (not always) be outspoken. And I usually appreciate the opportunity to hear where they are coming from. Personally, I think a healthy skepticism is a very positive thing in life. I think it helps us stay grounded, encouraging us to take a careful and thoughtful approach to important matters in life. As I seek to give people reasons for the truth of Christianity – engaging with the thoughtful skeptic is often helpful because it reminds me not to overstate the case that I am making to them. It’s a good counterbalance for me as a Christian case maker. So – I value the thoughtful skeptic.

However – I think there are some fundamental epistemological problems facing the hard line (sometimes called Cartesian) skeptic. What is a hard line skeptic? Well, I’ll define it as someone who demands absolute (or tautological) certainty about a subject. Here’s an example. Imagine I am wrestling with whether or not to make a career change in my life. Also, let’s say I take a hard line skeptical approach to this process. In that case, I am going to need to be absolutely certain of the correct course of action before deciding to take it. That means – 100% certainty. There must be no aspects of the issue – or my decision-making processes – that are unknown to me. And my understanding of the issues must be absolute. There must be no unknowns at all. Does that sound like a high bar to reach when changing jobs? Yup. Ever managed it? Nope.

Here’s the problem for the skeptic. We can only be tautologically certain about a very few minor things in life. Does a triangle have three sides? Is a divide by zero undefined in mathematics? Is there no upper limit to the set of prime numbers? These sorts of issues can be known with absolute certainty. The answer is yes in all three cases. They probably aren’t very important to my life right now though. Yet – the skeptic can find tautological certainty here. But what about elsewhere in their lives? I just don’t think certainty is possible. There’s no way to be absolutely certain about the ethical, aesthetic, political, business, religious, and relational issues we face. These are way too complicated. The hard line skeptic’s bar of absolute certainty can be met in the math textbook, but not in their daily life outside of the classroom.

That’s a problem. But, it’s not the skeptic’s biggest problem.

Let’s now think about the skeptical person who is demanding absolute proof of the truth of Christianity. The person who is constantly saying, “you have not given me enough. I want PROOF!” The biggest problem is – his position is completely self-refuting. It is a position that undermines itself. You see, because we cannot be 100% certain about very much in life (outside of math, for example) that means the skeptic cannot be 100% certain of his/her own skepticism. Yet their position dictates that – to have knowledge – they MUST know something absolutely, at 100%. Consequently, because they themselves cannot meet their own demand for knowledge, this means they cannot even be certain of their own skepticism! This is a fundamental epistemological problem that, if they are thinking rationally, would lead them to abandon their hard line skepticism and trade it in for a less hard line approach to take instead (more about that later).

When the skeptic fires demands (or sometimes even polite requests) for “proof of the existence of God,” I used to say to myself, “oh dear. I must try harder to give them proof.” Now I do not say that to myself. It’s not that I don’t care about the skeptic, because I do care. Rather – I have come to know two things. First – that they are using a standard on me that they cannot sustain for their own skepticism. So – I’m not impressed by their demand one bit. And second – they are asking me for something I simply do not need to do. The Christian is not required to give proof of the existence of God. Rather, they are to give “reasons for the hope they have.”[1]

In their book “How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology,” Dew and Foreman make some really helpful observations about the hard line skeptic’s dilemma.

1 – There are good reasons to think we do know things about the world, even though we do not know everything 100%. Sure, our senses can be fooled. But people have used their sense and mental faculties to perform open heart surgery, to fly to the moon, and to drive to the shops.[2] We can reasonably say we know, even though we don’t know everything. Right?

2 – The tautological, hard-line skeptic’s bar for knowledge is just too high for every subject in life, including whether or not God exists and whether Christianity is true. If we persist with this skepticism, we will find that the number of beliefs we can hold in our lives will be seriously undermined. How can we know something scientifically, historically, or morally if we require absolute proof?[3] That epistemological bar leaves us in a place where we don’t really know anything. It robs us. And that’s not helpful, and its actually wrong (as I pointed out above).

3 – The things we CAN know with absolute certainty are pretty unimportant (e.g. a triangle has 3 sides). The important stuff in life tends to be the stuff I lack absolute certainty for. The issues that really impact me (e.g. what is my destiny in life, what are human beings, is there a God) are issues that we will never fully understand. There will always be an element of doubt here somewhere.[4] But – as I’ve said already – having doubts about something does not disqualify me from claiming that I know something in that area.

4 – It is the nature of the subject in question that determines how we come to know it. If we are thinking about an apple, then our five senses are going to be sufficient to get to know an apple pretty well. However, if the subject is God, then there are many many factors in play here that make this subject different from an apple. So – we need to adjust our expectation about the level to which we can know God, compared to an apple.[5] If the angry skeptic demands, “give me proof,” then I would be tempted to reply, “God’s not an apple, you know.” There may be very good reasons why God does NOT make himself as obvious as an apple in your fruit bowl. Reasons that confer respect by God on the skeptic themselves. But those reasons will have to wait for another blog.

Conclusion

Hard-line skepticism of the kind I’ve described just isn’t tenable. It is harmful to us if we adopt it as a stance toward Christianity (and everything else in life). So – what stance could we adopt instead? Well – actually, it is not a different stance at all. It’s the stance we take on everything else in life (whether we realise it or not).

We could take an inductive approach to deciding whether we can claim to have come to know something about God and Christianity. It’s like this. “In a good inductive argument, the truth of the premises provides some degree of support for the truth of the conclusion.”[6] This is the most rational approach to take in our lives. And we probably do it in other areas without thinking about it. We don’t try to reach 100% certainty before taking a decision. We gather evidence, and then decide what level of support for the issue at hand is given by the evidence. If the evidence is good enough, we are likely to go with it.

So – my answer to the charge “give me proof of God,” is to say something like this. It’s not proof you need. What you are looking for is evidence, of rational arguments pointing towards Christian theism. You need to assess the evidence that is right in front of you in a careful way. And then – decide whether there is enough support for you to make a choice. It’s no good demanding absolute proof, when large amounts of evidence are right there in front of you.

Hey – I’ve been a Christian for 45 years. I cannot say that I am 100% convinced of the truth of Christianity. But – I am generally convinced based on my personal experience of God’s work in my life, and of my assessment of the historical evidence, and the wider evidence for God in the world. Is that proof? Not that would satisfy an irrational, persisting, cartesian skeptic. But it is a position that is considered, is rational, and is based on experience and argument. And those things seem to me to be a good foundation for saying – “I know God exists, and his name is Jesus.”


[1] 1 Peter 3:15.

[2] James K. Dew JR and Mark W. Foreman, How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology, (Downers Grove:IVP, 2014), 158.

[3] Ibid., 159.

[4] Ibid, 161.

[5] Ibid., 162.

[6] Inductive Logic, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, revised March 19th, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/logic-inductive/.

The Cost of the Multiverse

Marvel’s Loki series has built an interesting narrative on the idea of an infinite multiverse. Anything that could happen (including an alligator with a great Tom Hiddleston grin on its face), has happened. This makes for a rich story telling device. It is the way ahead for Marvel’s Multiverse of Madness phase 4 storyline. But there might be more going on here. Fiction is helping to cement the actual physical idea of a real multiverse into the public consciousness. The idea of a multiverse crops up in both science and science fiction.

The multiverse is how some scientists account for the fine tuning of the universe for life – without resorting to God as an explanation. Physicists Andrei Linde, Alan Guth, and Paul Steinhardt have proposed a scientific model called Inflationary Cosmology, while other physicists have proposed String Theory. You cash out the details in different ways, but you end up with:

1 – Our universe is finely setup for life to exist.

2 – There are an infinite number of different universes.

3 – There is a high likelihood of life sustaining universes coming into existence.

4 – We are just lucky to live in a life sustaining universe.

MIT physicist Max Tegmark has gone further to say that, “all structures that exist mathematically exist also physically.”[1] If you can think of a structure that is mathematically possible, then because there is an infinite multiverse, that structure isn’t just an idea. It actually must exist! So – hello Gator Loki.

However – there is a big epistemological cost to this idea. Stephen C. Meyer points out the cost in two ways.

The Cost of Our Rationality

The infinite multiverse means that any event- however unlikely – has actually occurred an infinite number of times. One such event is the sudden appearance (through quantum fluctuations of subatomic fields/particles) of a brain with preset memories and an ability to perceive a limited universe. These are called Boltzmann Brains after 19th century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. They pop into existence for a while – and then pop out of existence again.

If physicists posit a multiverse to explain the fine tuning of the universe for life, then this also must lead us to doubt the reliability of our own minds because it is more likely that we are Boltzmann Brains than individuals in a naturally complex and populated universe. And if that is the case – our scientific reasoning abilities, perceptions, and our basis for accepting the multiverse hypothesis are all undermined. The infinite multiverse is a self-refuting hypothesis.[2]

The Cost of Scientific Prediction

If we live in an infinite multiverse, then what can we say about our understanding of the laws of nature? Take the law of gravity for example? Well – we can say that so far – the behaviour of nature is such that the law of gravity leads us to expect certain behaviours. For example, the dropping of an apple from the branch of a tree to the ground. But because anything that could happen must happen in an infinite universe, we must also face the possibility that at some arbitrary point in the future, the natural laws will diverge and begin to behave in unexpected ways. Apple’s can start to fall up, for example. This is because for all we know, the mathematical laws describing the universe are not fully understood by us yet and are controlled by a wider and more general equation that will lead nature to behave differently in the future. We cannot rule out this possibility. But that means we can no longer confidently predict scientifically whether or not events will happen based on our experience of the past. Stephen Meyer puts it this way:

“Scientific explanation presupposes the uniformity and regularity of nature, including the uniformity of the fundamental laws of physics and the regularity of patterns of cause and effect [but] such uniformity and regularity may not characterize our universe, however much it might have seemed to do so up until this point.”[3] We might think we are experiencing cause and effect in nature. But what we don’t realise is that actually, we have been experiencing random fluctuations and nature will behave differently in the future compared to the past. Science as we know it – ceases to be helpful.

Summary

If we accept the thesis that we live in an infinite multiverse, then we must also accept two additional conclusions. We cannot be sure that we are rational, and we cannot rely on our ability to make scientific predictions.

Both of these conclusions undermine the multiverse hypothesis and the practice of science – so – I would suggest we cannot live with these conclusions. They are not logically sound. And so this is a strong reason to reject the multiverse in physics, look for another theory to explain the fine tuning of the universe.

Having said all of that – roll on season 2 of Marvel’s Loki!


[1] Stephen C. Meyer, Return of the God Hypothesis, (HarperOne, 2020), 394.

[2] Ibid., 401 – 402.

[3] Ibid., 396.

Archaeological Support for the Exodus

In my previous blog, I challenged the claim that Moses was a fictional character, a combination of various different characters from fictional mythology. The Usefulcharts YouTube channel claimed in their video that the archaeological evidence did not support the Biblical report of Israelites leaving Egypt, travelling around the desert for decades, till they eventually reached Canaan. I challenged that statement and I pointed out that a few relevant archaeological finds do exist. In this blog, I will list some more artefacts that support aspects of the Old Testament Exodus account.

Why do people claim the Old Testament as fiction? In the 1800’s, the school of higher criticism began to claim that the Old and New Testaments recorded fairy tales. The science of archaeology had not begun at this point, so there was no physical evidence yet to pose a counter argument supporting the Bible. Today – that situation has changed. Archaeological digs are uncovering artefacts supporting many Biblical accounts. Titus Kennedy is a professional field archaeologist and adjunct professor at Biola University. He comments that:

“the degree of historical corroboration between the Bible and the artifacts that have been discovered over the last 150 years is startling, surpassing previous expectations and estimates, and continuing to astonish.”[1]

Titus Kennedy

Higher criticism has entered popular culture today. The Old Testament is viewed by people as fictional and mythological, right? Yet – archaeological digs are uncovering many artefacts from the Ancient Near East which confirm claims made in the Bible. This directly challenges the notion of a mythological Bible. The argument from silence that was made by the higher critics is being shown to be unsustainable. For example, to date the reality of 70 individuals mentioned in the Old Testament have been confirmed thru artifacts discovered by field archaeologists.[2]

Here are four discoveries that are relevant to the Moses account in the Bible:

First – the Papyrus Brooklyn is dated 17th century BC. It contains the names of domestic servants, and some of the names are Hebrew. This supports the idea that Israelites lived in Egypt prior to the Exodus under Moses.[3]

Then the king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah. (Exodus 1:15)

Check out Brooklyn Museum for more details.

Second – Egyptian records show that the Egyptians used Semitic slaves to make bricks. The Louvre Leather Roll records the brick making quotas and potential penalties imposed on the slaves. The Leningrad Papyrus 1116A and a wall painting found in the Valley of the Nobles in Egypt show compulsory labor on public building projects.[4]

You are no longer to give the people straw to make brick as previously; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But the quota of bricks which they were making previously, you shall impose on them. (Exodus 5:7-8)

For more, refer to Leather Scroll: Quota for Brick-making, 1274 BCE : Center for Online Judaic Studies (cojs.org).

Third – the Dream Stele. An inscription was found between the paws of the Great Sphynx in Egypt. This text was from Pharaoh Thutmose IV, son if Pharoah Amenhotep II. Thutmose IV was not the natural heir to the throne due to the death of his brother, Amenhotep II’s first born son. The cause of death is not recorded in Egyptian documents. But Thutmose IV fabricates a divine promise to solidify his legitimacy as Pharaoh.[5]

You can find a translation of the Dream Stele here – Dream Stele (Sphinx Stela) | Ancient Egypt Online.

If Amenhotep II was the Pharaoh during the Exodus, his eldest son would have died during the final plague on Egypt.

[Yahweh] struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon. (Exodus 12:29)

Four – the Nomads of YHWH. In Sudan, two Egyptian temples contain reference to the “lands of the nomads of YHWH.” They are the earliest known references to Yahweh, the name of God in the Old Testament. They describe nomadic people living in the wilderness east of Egypt who were enemies of Egypt. They lived in tents. Surely, they nomads must have been living like that for a considerable period for the Egyptians to record their existence? The inscriptions are dated to Late Bronze Age, 1300 BC.[6]

For more, refer to Three Egyptian Inscriptions About Israel – Bible Archaeology Report.

The only ancients known to worship Yahweh were the Israelites, so it follows that these nomads were the Israelites prior to their settlement in Canaan after their Exodus from Egypt. The inscriptions show the Egyptians knew about them.

[Yahweh’s] anger burned against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years. (Numbers 32:13)

Conclusion

Sure. It is easy to claim the Old Testament is fiction, but it’s becoming harder to justify that claim. If we think that, then we are ignoring an increasing amount of physical evidence that continues to be found today suggesting otherwise. While it is hard to line up an exact timeline, and difficult to match Egyptian and Israelite texts, the physical artefacts suggest a connection exists between them. They record the same events and peoples. Artefacts cannot by dismissed as mythology or propaganda. These and many more artefacts support the historicity of Old Testament accounts like the Exodus from Egypt.


[1] Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible 101 Archaeological Discoveries that Bring the Bible to Life, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), 239.

[2] Ibid., 238.

[3] Ibid., 48-49.

[4] Ibid., 50-51.

[5] Ibid., 58-59.

[6] Ibid., 60-61.

“Did Moses Exist?” – a Response

A friend pointed me to a video produced by the Usefulcharts YouTube channel this week – Did Moses Exist? Applying the Historical Method. I enjoyed it – it’s well produced, and the communication style is really easy to follow. He makes great use of pictures and…well…charts in his communication. His channel is well named – this is a useful way to communicate complex ideas.

I also appreciated the way he summarises a scholarly approach to history – “The Historical Method.” He refers to the importance of matching texts to archaeology, of seeking multiple sources, recognising genre, and taking notice of the passage of time. He also mentions the need to ask whether a source is “biased.”

Can we know whether something is true? Or are we left to just choose the interpretation we like best to explain an event or a writing from history? The video says – truth is accessible to us. We can know something about the past when we use historical methods. YES! I think he’s 100% on the money here.

For the rest of the video, the author applies these methods to the question, “did Moses actually exist?” In this blog I am going to make a few comments about his application of the Historical Method to the Moses question.

Responding to the Usefulcharts Argument about Moses:

First – he omits consideration of the cultural context of the ancient text. This is an important consideration. Which culture produced these writings, what were they like, and what was the purpose in writing. He does refer to the idea of “literary tropes” which were common at the time the text was originally written. We will come back to that. I think context is crucial in understanding any text. And if you are trying to answer the question, “did Moses exist?” we should include context in the discussion.

Second – his stated aim at the top of the video is to assess whether Moses existed in real life.[1] He says that he will take a historical perspective, and so this means he must restrict the historical data to reports that are only found outside of religious tradition – the Bible, or the Jewish written Torah. He isn’t using the Bible as a source of historical information in this video.

I think this is a misapplication of his historical method. Why would a historian arbitrarily set aside a rich source of information about a culture and the figure under consideration in the video – Moses? Particularly when this source is incredibly ancient, and so dates back to the times when these events occurred? A better approach would be to INCLUDE the Biblical texts, but assess the data we find in there. Perhaps he decided to set scripture aside because – he thinks it is somehow “biased.” I think this is an important misstep – and I will come back to it in a moment.

Also – I think his use of other Ancient Near Eastern writings to make his arguments shows a double standard. He seems happy to refer to the Babylonian record of Sargon of Assad as “an important part of the historical record,” and so is worthy of quoting directly as history.[2] If that is the case, on what grounds can he discount the writings of neighbouring Israel? Why are they not worthy of consideration as part of the historical record?

Third – he points to various competing Moses stories that he says come from the Hellinistic period,  spanning the time between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the birth of the Roman Empire around 31 BC. He seems to assume these competing Moses accounts are as potentially truthful as the Bible’s account of Moses. But they all describe a very different man.

What the video does not admit, however, is that these competing Moses stories are much much later than the Torah accounts. There is evidence that the Torah is much older than these Greek stories. For example, an inscription from the book of Numbers in the Torah has been discovered on metal amulets in Jerusalem that date back to 700 BC, and the Torah writings would have to have been around much longer before that time.[3] So – why does it make sense to treat the later Greek descriptions of Moses on an equal footing with the Torah? Clearly, the Greek accounts were written many hundreds of years after the Torah and the events it describes, in a different culture at a different time and for a different purpose. It is more reasonable to assume the earlier Israelite record is more likely to report who Moses actually was.

Fourth – he spends a lot of time making the argument that, because elements of the story of Moses are found elsewhere in other writings, this means that it is likely that Moses life in the Torah was a fictional account. He has a few examples of this. First, the Babylonian Sargon of Akkad, whose mother put him in a basket of reeds and placed him in the river.[4] He also points to common story tropes of the prince who finds out how hard life is outside the palace, or the hero who runs away and has to come back. He also observes that writings of this time viewed crossings of bodies of water as a metaphor of leaving behind an old life and starting a new one.[5] He likens this to the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus.

There are major problems with this line of reasoning. First, it commits the post hoc fallacy, which says that since Y followed X, this necessarily means X caused Y. Unless there are very good reasons to conclude that X caused Y, it is just not rational to suppose that it must have been so. There appear to be no good reasons to suppose this in the case of Moses. Second – most of the “tropes” the video identifies are very general themes that do crop up in many true historical accounts throughout human history. So – why must we assume the Moses account is fictional if the others are not?

Fifth – there is an assumption that religious sources are biased sources, and so should not be treated as reliable source of history. First – the Israelite nation recorded their religious history as a record of important events in their history. The Torah recorded of the nation’s covenant with Yahweh. This is the context in which the texts were produced. Second – to discount any text as biased (Biblical or otherwise) is to fail to realise that ALL communication from people carries bias. In fact, every person has a biased perspective in life. So – if we follow the video and reject biased accounts, then that means we also have to reject the video! Because he himself also carries bias when he wrote it.

The video’s tacit assumption is that a biased person is not capable of recording historical events. It turns out – the issue is not bias at all. The question is – can biased people (everyone is biased) tell the truth? I think the clear answer to that is – yes. For example, the most important accounts of the Nazi holocaust are from Jewish sources. Does that render them inaccurate? Quite the opposite. The people most interested in an event are likely the most meticulous in recording them.[6] Just because we all carry biases of different kinds does not mean we are unable to be objective. We can be objective. When it is important to us that we record what happened for the next generation to know and understand, we are likely to get details correct. Even though the ancient Israelite approach to historical record is less linear than our modern historical approach, this does not mean it must contain fiction. Israel’s record is likely to reflect what happened within the frame of their approach to history.

Sixth – he claims there is no archaeological evidence of Moses and an exodus from Egypt. But why would we expect to have evidence of the journey of a nomadic people who lived in tents as they travelled? It would seem more likely that we should find archaeological evidence of Israel from Egypt  (where they started from) and the Canaanite areas (where they ended up). The video gives the impression that there is no archaeological evidence – but this is clearly false. Evidence exists in both locations. For example, the Merneptah Stele was discovered in 1896. It is an Egyptian record mentioning Israel which is dated at around 1200 BC. There may be other earlier references to Israel in Egyptian archaeology.[7] Archaeologists have also found evidence supporting the Bible’s claim that Israel conquered Canaan around this time period.[8]

Also – just because we have not found archaeological evidence of Moses today does not mean the evidence does not exist. It just means it has not been found. Absence of evidence is never evidence of absence. There are many examples of Biblical accounts which were thought to be fictional, and yet archaeological evidence supporting the Bible’s account has eventually been found. One example of this is the archaeological evidence for King David in the Bible.[9]

Conclusion:

The video is an interesting discussion around whether Moses and the exodus occurred. He concludes that Moses must have been a composite fictional figure designed as a literary work explaining the origins of Israel.[10]

The idea that a story which forms an important part of a nation’s identity must necessarily contain invention – does not make sense to my mind. It assumes a very base level understanding of the idea of “myth.” But myth’s can be so much more than fictional tales. They can also be stories of actual events that shaped a people’s lives and their culture that take on incredible significance. I think – if you accurately assess the whole historical record for Moses – including Israel’s record – you can arrive at a strong argument proposing that the Torah contains historical accounts of a man called Moses.


[1] Usefulcharts Youtube Channel, Did Moses Exist Applying the Historical Method, youtube, uploaded Feb 19th 2021, accessed May 23rd 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptYz-Vu0dxY, 0:17.

[2] Ibid., 19:23.

[3] Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 102.

[4] Usefulcharts, 19:20.

[5] Usefulcharts, 20:11.

[6] Morrow, 114.

[7] Does the Merneptah Stele Contain the First Mention of Israel, Biblical Archaeological Society, uploaded January 17th, 2012, accessed May 23rd, 2021, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/does-the-merneptah-stele-contain-the-first-mention-of-israel/.

[8] Israel Enters Canaan Following the Pottery Trail, BAS Library, September/October 1991, https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/17/5/2.

[9] The Tel Dan Inscription: The First Historical Evidence of King David from the Bible, Bible History Daily, uploaded October 18th 2020, accessed May 23rd 2021, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/the-tel-dan-inscription-the-first-historical-evidence-of-the-king-david-bible-story/.

[10] Usefulcharts, 20:32.

Responding to Confirmation Bias

Sometimes when I am discussing Christianity with internet atheists, the time will come when they kind of throw their hands up in frustration at me. “Oh – you are just blinded by your confirmation bias. I’ve done my best with you.” So – what is “confirmation bias”? Well – it involves cherry picking the best bits for ourselves. It’s about wanting something to be true, and so being unable to see any alternative viewpoint that could call your belief into question. Psychology Today defines it like this:

Confirmation bias occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are motivated by wishful thinking.[1]

Now – whenever someone accuses me of confirmation bias, I want to scratch my chin in a skeptical way and say, “Hmmm!” Why do I want to do that?

It’s not because I think I am immune from confirmation bias. I know very well that I am not. The reason I become dubious at this point is because the other person has suddenly started talking like THEY are personally immune from the very thing they are accusing me of – confirmation bias!

Here is the thing – EVERYONE is vulnerable to confirmation bias. Whatever view we take, whether we believe God exists or are convinced he does not. The challenge for people when approaching problems and seeking solutions to them is – to minimize the effect of confirmation bias. And – I have worked hard to do this in my own life. I have not done this perfectly, but I want to do this, and I will continue to work at it.

Here are three good ways to reduce the risk of confirmation bias in life:

First – study multiple sides of an issue. This takes time and effort, but it is invaluable. I have spent the last five years studying for two Masters Degrees and – let me tell you – you don’t get far unless you are willing to listen to other people and be willing to respond to their claims. This builds an important skill, and crucially it helps us to reduce the risk that we will fall into confirmation bias again.

Second – think in terms of arguments. I don’t mean stand up rows with people. Rather, by an argument I mean form your position based on logical premises and conclusions that follow from the premises. I’m not saying you can deduce the truth of Christianity this way. But you can form many many cogent inductive arguments that support Christianity’s claims by appealing to every facet of life. From nature, history, science, etc. You can also form many arguments that call Christianity into question, and when you do that, you can form responses to them. This is what I try to do in my writing. Dr. Heshmat from Psychology Today thinks this is a very healthy way to live, because it develops, “the ability to look at the world without looking for instances that please your ego.”[2]

Third – be willing to have your mind changed on an issue. So, someone might say I simply want the Bible to be true, and so I look for things that confirm that desire in an intellectually plausible way. Well – I do think that so far in my life, my work in exploring the evidence for and against the truth of Christianity – makes my decision to BE a Christian the sensible one. I find excellent evidence across the disciplines to support it, and the arguments against the truth of Christianity tend to be much weaker to my mind, relying on a commitment to naturalistic thinking that is not itself justifiable.

So – yes, I stake my life on the truth of Christianity. BUT – I could change my mind on that if there were excellent reasons to do so. If better evidence came to light, for example, against the historical grounding of Christianity. I could overturn my thinking then. That would be the most honest thing to do. But – it would take VERY strong evidence to get me there, better than the evidence from antiquity we currently have. I am not someone who says, “You could never convince me otherwise.” Hey – I’m just little old me. I don’t know everything. I could be mistaken.

To the atheist, I ask the same. The average atheist I encounter is committed to the non-truth of Christianity and will look for anything to bolster their position, however weak the argument is revealed to be on further scrutiny. I would ask of the atheist the same thing I ask of myself. That some circumstance would exist where they could change their mind on the God issue.

Conclusion

In my blog and my podcast I work hard to present arguments rather than just asserting statements. For example, I am not interested in something like, “God exists. Change my mind.” Ok – it’s a popular meme. But its entirely unhelpful. Why? Because it’s about one person with confirmation bias – asking another person to unconvinced them!! This is not a helpful approach to discussing anything. We need to deal in the currency of arguments. And the stronger the argument, the healthier the opinion and the better the discussion. Good, cogent arguments are healthy, and when we think in this way, we resist the temptation of confirmation bias.

Back to internet atheists. The irony is that everyone of these people I have ever spoken to wants to convince me that Christian belief is wrong and God does not exist, or at least there’s not enough evidence to claim that he does. And so anyone who says he does (me) is automatically suspect. Well – my response to this is – enough with assertions. I have read enough internet atheist assertions (like – ‘there is not enough evidence that gods exist,’ or, ‘there’s no evidence the events in the gospels occurred.’) These are bare assertions. Let’s see your argument and let’s be willing together to examine the assumptions of your argument, weigh those assumptions, and have your claims challenged in a rational and respectful way. And when we do – lets recognize together that what we are doing is very good and healthy. Because it challenges the tendency toward confirmation bias in us both.


[1] Shahram Heshmat, What is Confirmation Bias?, Psychology Today, April 23, 2015, accessed 23rd October 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias.

[2] Ibid.

What do Neanderthals Tell Us about Human Uniqueness?

Both archaeology and palaeontology give evidence for hominid creatures that lived before human beings. For example, the species called Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal) seems to have existed between 200,000 years and 30,000 years ago in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Almost thirty complete skeletons have been discovered.[1] Evidence of Homo sapien (Human) civilization dates back to about 80,000 years and so there is an overlap between Neanderthals and humans in ancient history and there may even be some evidence of interbreeding between these two species in our contemporary human genome.[2]

It is often said that there is an evolutionary connection between Neanderthals and humans. But what if there was a fight for dominance between Neanderthals and humans? Either could have survived. What if both species fought for survival and it just happened to be that the humans won? I think there is good evidence to suggest both these ideas are wrong.

A big reason for saying that is that there is a massive difference in the capability of the first humans in comparison to the Neanderthal. While Neanderthal capabilities were very basic and appear to remain consistent for 100,000 years or more, when humans suddenly appeared they had capacities that far exceeded everything that had come before. Human exceptionalism is evident, the human super-predator, the unique being who is made in God’s image.

 

Use of Fire

There is evidence of charcoal and primitive hearths in Neanderthal sites. But does this mean Neanderthals mastered pyrotechnology? Not to the various researchers who recently concluded that Neanderthals made opportunistic use of natural fire when it became available to them. They used it when it presented itself, rather than had mastery over it. But humans were uniquely able to create and curate fire in a sophisticated way.[3]

 

Creation of Tools

It appears that Neanderthals were able to produce and use tar as an adhesive when making spears. Does this suggest complex cognitive behaviour? The method they used is thought to be very basic and naturally occurring. They would not have to discover a precise method for distilling the tar. Also, when we compare the Neanderthal behaviour to current Chimpanzees and observe they too produce spears from tree branches using a six step process, make stone tools to open nuts, form insect repellent and exploit wildfires. So the Neanderthal behaviour isn’t so exceptional compared to Chimpanzees. [4]

Human behaviour is much more sophisticated, involving analysis of different tar production methods and choosing the most efficient production method for the maximum production yield. Human cognitive ability was superior to Neanderthals.

 

Cooking Food

Humans have always had the capacity to gather, but also to cook our food and to use implements. Based on some chemical residue at a Neanderthal site, Smithsonian paleoanthropologists concluded that the Neanderthals also cooked. But – age could have resulted in the sort of chemical residue. Worse, no grinding implements have been found to prepare matter for cooking, and there is evidence that they had not mastered fire. So – it seems we lack evidence that Neanderthals intentionally cooked their food.[5]

 

Use of Medicine

Humans do medicine. It appears that Neanderthals consumed plants that had no nutritional value, but had anti-inflammatory properties. So perhaps they did have a primitive type of medicine. But so do chimpanzees, who will eat certain leaves to cause vomiting to rid their digestive system of parasites.

 

Cave Paintings

There are many sites dated to between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. But Neanderthals were dying out by then. It seems more likely that humans were the cause of the case paintings. Painted shells have been found which are dated to around 45,000 years ago. Again – this is around the time Neanderthals were disappearing. “All claimed evidence for symbolic activities among Neanderthals is highly debatable. ..currently there is little compelling reason to conclude that Homo neanderthalensis was a symbolic creature in the same sense as modern Homo sapiens.”[6]

 

Symbolic Thought

Many studies have shown evidence suggesting Neanderthals lacked the cognitive sophistication of humans. For example, anthropologists notice human societies have the concept of division of labour, specialization based on sex and age. This promotes economy and allows human society to thrive in harsh environments.

The evidence suggests Neanderthals only hunted large game. By way of contrast, humans hunted a wide variety of creatures and developed many types of tools to assist them and clothing as well. This suggests a division of labour in human society that was lacking in the Neanderthals. It is thought that an inability to divide labour in this way led to small population groupings in fewer locations and the eventual demise of the Neanderthal species.[7]

 

The Use of Language

There is disagreement about whether Neanderthals could speak. Anatomical features remain inconclusive and while the Neanderthal genome appears to contain certain key genes, this doesn’t mean they used language. Animals communicate in many ways, but they don’t use syntactical language in a sophisticated way as humans do.[8]

The evolutionary paradigm doesn’t explain the appearance of language. Often it is linked to the ability of the species to vocalize and make sounds. But humans have a language capability that is independent of vocalization. Vocalization is necessary, but not a sufficient condition for language. The best way to study the appearance of language seems to be through evidence of symbolism and symbolic cognitive capabilities. And this is unique in the record to the human species, appearing around 80,000 years ago. While basic Neanderthal capabilities remained consistent for hundreds of thousands of years, humanity and its language capability appears suddenly.

 

Conclusion

There seems to be a good argument to suggest that humans are exceptional, of a different order from the start. So the idea that humans competed with Neanderthals for survival does not seem to be supported by the evidence. Neanderthals were very limited in their abilities, and when the human super-predator arrived, there was no comparison between them. This is consistent with the Biblical teaching that man alone is made in God’s image – the imago Dei.

Also, the evolutionary ideas of gradual improvement struggle to account for the large sudden appearance of human sophistication. Combining this with the related but different anatomy of human and Neanderthal species, it seems that we must make the data fit the evolution theory rather than the data suggesting an evolutionary connection between humans and Neanderthals. And this is not a good way to explain anything.

 

[1] Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross, Who Was Adam A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity, 2nd ed, (Covina: RTB Press, 2015),184

[2] Rana and Ross, 267

[3] Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “Timing of the Appearance of Habitual Fire Use,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 108 (July 19, 2011), E298, doi:10.1073/pnas.1106759108Paul Goldberg et al., “New Evidence on Neandertal Use of Fire: Examples from Roc de Marsal and Pech de l’Azé IV,” Quaternary International 247 (2012), 325–40, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2010.11.015; Dennis M. Sandgathe et al., “On the Role of Fire in Neanderthal Adaptations in Western Europe: Evidence from Pech de l’Azé IV and Roc de Marsal, France,” PaleoAnthropology (2011), 216–42, doi:10.4207/PA.2011.ART54.

[4] Fazale Rana, Did Neanderthals Make Glue?, Reasons to Believe, January 10, 2018, accessed July 22, 2020, https://reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design/read/the-cells-design/2018/01/10/did-neanderthals-make-glue.

[5] Rana and Ross, 315

[6] Ian Tattersall and Jeffrey H Schwartz, “Evolution of the Genus Homo,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 37 (2009): 81, quoted in Rana and Ross, 319

[7] Rana and Ross, 321

[8] Rana and Ross, 323

A Case for Miracles – What if Natural Laws Help Reveal the Miraculous?

In part 1, I looked at the skeptical position against miracle claims. This often says:

 

1 – Miracles violate the laws of nature, and our experience tells us these natural laws are fixed. Dead people stay dead.

2 – No testimony can establish a miracle happened unless the falsehood of that testimony would be more miraculous than the miracle claim.

3 – Only primitive people entertain the idea that miracles could ever occur.

I talked about how the skeptic erects a knowledge barrier against the idea of particular events because they don’t like the implications of them. But there are two more problems with the skeptical rejection of miracles.

2 – It is Mistaken to Think that Miracles Violate the Laws of Nature

Why is it mistaken? After all, we know people don’t come back from the dead after a few days like the Bible claims of Jesus.[1] What’s more, people can’t turn water into wine as Jesus is reported to have done. We’ve never seen anything like that before in a lab, never mind at a wedding. Surely that’s enough for us to say – miracles like these are impossible?

I can see three problems here:

2.1 Natural Laws are DESCRIPTIVE not PRESCRIPTIVE

The law of gravity, for example, is an approximate description of a natural phenomenon. It describes what we usually perceive, all things being equal. Apples fall from trees, and what goes up usually comes down again. But natural law does not demand or prescribe what MUST happen. Law is not a straight-jacket to nature. It is simply a description of our current understanding of nature. Humans did not create nature, we simply work to understand it and express our tentative understanding using laws. For example, if a rocket is designed to produce enough kinetic energy, it can break the gravitational pull of the earth and send its passengers into orbit around the planet.

If natural law prescribed what must always occur, then rockets can’t break gravitational pull, and certain types of miracle would also be impossible because they both would violate natural laws. But that’s NOT what natural law is. Natural law is not a straight-jacket. It is simply a description of what people usually observe.

But unlike the rocket, a miracle (like turning water into wine) is an unusual or unique event which does not occur by natural but by supernatural means. This does not violate natural law. God created matter in the universe and established the chemical properties of both water and wine. Were he to switch the chemical composition from one to the other on one occasion, then this would extend our understanding of what is possible when a divine agent is involved.

It seems to me there are at least two ways God could intervene in nature:

  1. God could simply use natural law to achieve his purposes in the world. But it would be the timing of the natural event that would make it miraculous, not the conditions of the event.
  2. God could reach into the natural world and redirect events so that something out of the ordinary happened. This would not break natural law, because law is descriptive of what usually occurs. In this situation, something different happens which we describe as miraculous because it is surprising and out of the ordinary.

C S Lewis said it this way. Imagine on two consecutive nights I place two British 5 pound notes in my bedside drawer. The laws of arithmetic tell me that by the second night, my drawer contains a total of 20 pounds. Now, if I wake up the next day and open the drawer and only find 5 pounds there, I do not conclude that the laws of arithmetic have been broken. Rather, I know that someone has come along and pinched my money. It would be ludicrous to suggest the laws of arithmetic prevent the existence or activity of thieves![2] In other words, agents act and laws exist. One does not contradict the other. Rather, the existence of the law of arithmetic reveals the activity of the thief. Miracles work like that when it comes to God.

2.2 It’s a mistake to judge the likelihood of a miracle by considering normal experience

A skeptic may claim that they have never seen a miracle.[3] But that’s irrelevant to whether or not other people have witnessed miracles, or whether miracles occur. The point is that miracles are unusual events, so their existence is out of the ordinary. It is pointless to judge miracle claims by our own personal experience.

People do not usually come back from the dead by way of normal natural causes. Yet Christians do not claim that Jesus somehow spontaneously came back from the dead by natural means. Rather, God chose to raise Jesus from the dead. And this was a unique event in history. And if God exists, he would be able to suspend the laws he himself created without contradicting them.

All of this is can be true whether or not our own personal experiences involve miracles or not.

2.3 We argue in a circle when we deny miracles based on what usually occurs

The skeptic says because natural laws are uniform and predictable, miracles cannot and do not occur. But they have a problem. Our experience of nature is only uniform and predictable if we already know that all reports of miracles are actually false.

The skeptic is saying:

“Miracles never occur, so miracles are impossible.”

They are therefore presupposing what they are attempting to prove, and circular arguments like these are logically fallacious. But its worse than that. There are many contemporary, well evidenced and credible miracle claims reported by both believers in God and skeptics alike. It is simply mistaken to suppose that no miracles have occurred, because this claim flies in the face of the documentary evidence.

3 – Primitive People Did Not First Believe the Miracle of Jesus’ Resurrection

It’s true that primitive people have attributed natural phenomena to the work of their gods. But Ancient Judaism was quite different, it was a sophisticated, humane and learned culture. Children were taught the Torah from a young age, and many could read and write. The Apostles were not primitives. Sure, they were ignorant of the modern scientific methods and discoveries we have today. But it’s wrong to accuse them of ignorance for that reason because that knowledge wasn’t available to them. They knew very well that dead people stay dead. To notice an event as miraculous, you have to have a solid appreciation for how the world works. And this is exactly what helped them realise Jesus had been raised from the dead.

They also understood the risks facing them for challenging the authorities and preaching the risen Christ in Jerusalem. And yet the risk was clearly worth it for them, and Christianity has been the result.

 

Conclusion

In this brief blog series, I’ve responded to the common claim is that miracles can’t happen, and we cannot know whether they can happen. What we’ve seen is that this amounts to nothing much more than a bare prejudice against the idea that God exists and he intervenes within the natural universe he created. Miracles don’t violate the laws of nature, they would extend them. We don’t need extraordinary evidence of miracles, just sufficient evidence. And while primitives may have attributed natural phenomena to the gods, the Bible’s view of miracles is a highly sophisticated one.

When you consider the many cumulative logical arguments for God existence (e.g. cosmological, moral, fine tuning, biological information, etc), the possibility that God exists becomes strong, and so the idea he would intervene in nature through miraculous means becomes highly likely.

 

 

[1] I know medical Doctors who HAVE witnessed this on a smaller scale, people returning to life a few hours later. And there are many documented examples of this sort of thing in Craig Keener’s book.

[2] C S Lewis, Miracles A Preliminary Study, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1947).

[3] For a vast archive of contemporary miracle claims, see Craig Keener, Miracles The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

A Case for Miracles – What If We Had Sufficient Evidence?

Forty years ago, Carl Sagan introduced the idea that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and this aphorism entered into public consciousness. But Sagan’s idea dates back much further. In the 18th century, Scottish philosopher David Hume helped lay a skeptical groundwork against the Bible’s claims that supernatural historical events have occurred. Speaking about the claimed resurrection of Jesus, Hume said:[1]

1 – Miracles violate the laws of nature, and our experience tells us these natural laws are fixed. Dead people stay dead.

2 – No testimony can establish a miracle happened unless the falsehood of that testimony would be more miraculous than the miracle claim.

3 – Only primitive people entertain the idea that miracles could ever occur.

Here’s how people tend to use these ideas today. When a Christian makes a case for Jesus’ resurrection, the skeptic will often respond with:

“Ha! Jesus’ resurrection is an extraordinary claim, so where’s your extraordinary evidence? All you’ve got is a bunch of old books!” When the Christian presses further, they will probably find that the skeptic has no idea what could actually qualify as extraordinary evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. But whatever the Christian can present as evidence, the skeptic replies, “Not extraordinary enough. Try again.” So – the skeptic remains justified in his position. Miracles don’t happen.

What is happening here? The skeptic is strongly committed to the non-existence of miracles like Jesus resurrection, so they have raised an unscalable epistemic wall. No-one can scale it and convince them that Jesus rose from the dead. This is just fine for them because they feel that means they don’t need to worry about God’s existence.

Now – personally, I think it is very wise to be initially skeptical about any miraculous claim we hear. But it sounds dangerous to me that the skeptic would refuse to accept something based on what they WANT to be true. It seems much safer to follow the evidence where it leads in these matters.

I’m going to point to three serious problems with the skeptic’s position.

1 – We Don’t Erect Knowledge Barriers Against Other Unique Events

Unique and surprising stuff happens in life all the time. But so what?

1.1 Surprising Events Happen

For example, in 1954, Roger Bannister achieved something that people thought impossible. He ran a mile in under four minutes. A small crowd was there to witness the achievement, but the reports spread quickly. How extraordinary! Yet the newspaper reporting on its occurrence was pretty mundane. Here’s another one. In 1969, the first humans stepped onto the surface of the moon, and all people had to witness this were expert commentary, news reports and grainy, poor quality video. Even though a tiny minority of people would later claim these moon landings were faked, this did not reflect the international outpouring of excitement and acceptance of this unique event at the time. Extraordinary! But all the evidence we had that it happened was very normal indeed.

And someone replies, “Hang on. Neither of these events are miraculous. They are natural events.” Yes. They are unique natural events at the time, never having happened before. If you want an example of a non-natural unique event that we treat in exactly the same way, think about the beginning of the universe. Cosmologists generally accept the Big Bang theory, but point to naturally observable evidence for this supernatural event. For example, the cosmic background radiation level, and the red-shift of receding galaxies.

My point is this. For these and countless other events, we do not have extraordinary evidence supporting them. Instead, we have SUFFICIENT evidence, and this is enough for us.

1.2 Sufficient Evidence Rules Out Other Explanations

What is sufficient evidence, and what does it do? The evidence must be sufficient to make the alternative explanations for these extraordinary events to be unreasonable. In other words, given the evidence we have that these extraordinary events occurred what’s the likelihood that the event did not actually occur? It’s highly unlikely the event did not occur. For example, skeptical theories about the US moon landings are incredibly outlandish and bizarre when compared with the very normal evidence supporting the events themselves.

I think we look for sufficient evidence and are satisfied by it all the time. Here’s another example. What happens more often? People being married, or political leaders being assassinated? Clearly, more people have been married than have been assassinated. Now, consider the case of the assassination of US President Abraham Lincon. It was a unique event that is reported to have occurred on 15th April, 1865. Are we more skeptical about this event compared to, say, a Royal wedding? No we aren’t. And the reason is that, even though the assassination of Lincon is a unique event in history, we have sufficient evidence that it happened. But more importantly, the evidence rules out the alternative possibilities. Namely, he was not assassinated that day, or he died of natural causes that day, or something else.

My point is that when unique events occur, we don’t seek some extraordinary level of evidence that is beyond reach. Not at all. We are satisfied with sufficient evidence that rules out other explanations.

When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, the documentary evidence is sufficient for many reasonable people because this evidence rules out alternative explanations of that historical event. The evidence of the empty tomb, the eyewitness appearances and the first century birth of the Christian church can only adequately be explained by the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth died and was raised from the dead unexpectedly and significantly. However extraordinary the claim, we don’t treat this event any differently from other unique events in history.

But – should we? After all, miracles like the resurrection Of Jesus are not natural occurrences. In the next part of this blog, I’ll talk about miracles and whether the laws of nature prevent them from happening in the real world.

[1] David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding Section X Of Miracles, https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/43811/hume-on-miracles.htm.

Why Start a New Christian Apologetics Podcast?

During the Coronavirus lockdown, I’ve launched a new 10 episode, weekly podcast. Please check me out!

 

Spotify

Apple Podcasts

 

What’s been the inspiration of my podcast?

Well – I used to do a sales job. I would travel around Europe with a colleague, and we would visit corporate customers in the hope that they would buy our (excellent) software products. I enjoy travel, and I enjoy talking to people. It was – in so many ways – a perfect job.

But there was a lot of downtime in that job. Airports to wait in, restaurants to eat in, hotels to use. When we weren’t towing our employer’s party line…there was lots of time to talk about other things. Usually, the subject of Christianity came up. Why? Because I’m a Christian and I like discussing the reasons why that makes sense.

The podcast – RESPOND – is inspired by those sorts of conversations that happened on my sales trips. Its all about a discussion for why Christianity makes sense! You can find it on Spotify and Apple podcasts…

 

Someone might ask – “Why do we need another podcast dedicated to the subject of Christian Apologetics?” Well – why do we need a new podcast about anything? If a topic is worth talking about – then it seems to me its worth sharing opinions on.

 

BUT – I think there are four particular reasons why this blog is important, and why another Apologetics podcast is useful. Here they are:

 

FIRST – Because the Bible Commands It

Now – I don’t mean that they predicted blogging or podcasting in the first century. Of course not. But what I DO mean…is that they encouraged Christians to put forward the claims of Christianity clearly, and be willing to discuss these claims with the unconvinced. Where does it say that?

Here are three examples:

“…I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” (Jude 3)

In the first century, they might have contended in the Synagogue, or the marketplace. Today we might contend in the comments section underneath the blog or the podcast. Is it really that different…?

“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:5-6)

How we talk about these matters…matters! Robust conversation and the challenging of bad ideas is important, but its got to be done in a respectful way. And when the other person replies with rude comments? Hey – it teaches you a sense of humour.

“In your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)

There’s a sense that – Christianity always demands a defence, like in a court of law. People seem hardwired to attack the claims Christianity makes. And so – a response is required. This is what this blog, and the podcast is all about. But – again – notice that the heart behind this response is respectful. I’m sure I won’t always achieve that, and I may need to apologise if I get it wrong, but respect is my aim.

 

Here’s the bigger point tho. If Christians aren’t making a case for the truth of Christianity, they are disobeying the teaching of the Bible! So – it’s important that these blogs and podcasts exist. They make the case, and they help other Christians to make the case themselves. Which sounds like a win-win to me.

 

 

The second reason for another apologetics podcast? Because culture demands it

It seems to me that Western culture is steeped in three toxic ideologies.

Relativism, the idea that there is no absolute truth. The cry of the relativist is, “Who are you to enforce your morality on me?”

Pluralism, the idea there’s no exclusive truth. “So, how can Jesus be the only way?”

Naturalism, the idea that there’s no supernatural truth. “Hasn’t science proven that miracles are impossible?”

 

Christianity challenges culture on all three of these points. And frankly – our culture needs to be challenged this way. Christian apologetics is one route to doing so.

 

Third – the Christian Church needs it

The church is only a generation away from extinction. So, how do we help the next generation from drifting away? Well – an important way of doing that is through Christian apologetics. Showing the truth of Christianity in a clear and compelling way.

 

Fourth – the Results Confirm It

Many people have become Christians as a result of these sorts of discussions about the rational grounding to the Christian faith. One of the most famous Christians of the 20th century, C S Lewis, was a formidable intellect, earning multiple highest honours degrees from Oxford University. He lost his childhood Christian faith, but it was Christian apologetics which led him back to Christianity. Discussing these matters with his Christian friends, one of whom was J. R. R. Tolkien.

 

 

So – do we need another Christian apologetics podcast? Yep – we do. Give it a listen please, and give me some feedback. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

 

Could Jesus’ Resurrection Have Been a Cunning Lie?

Is it possible that the event which launched Christianity in the first century, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, was actually an elaborate lie staged by one man? A lie that influenced countless people down through the centuries? After Jesus’ crucifixion, did the disciple Peter simply invent a story about seeing the risen Christ? And did this lie result in the fabricated reports of the resurrection that appeared in the writings of Paul (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15) and the later gospels?

That’s the foundational claim of the book “The Christianity Myth,” which seeks to reframe first century Christian history in the light of a simple but highly influential fabrication. The author, Ken Thackery, assumes a fundamental difference exists between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Historically, Ken says Jesus existed, but the Christ preached by the church has always been a fabrication. Ken says “obviously this historical Jesus wasn’t resurrected in Jerusalem after his crucifixion,” and “…the New Testament evidence is therefore based entirely on Peter’s uncorroborated & unverified claims, the veracity of which has never been independently established.”[1]

This idea cuts to the heart of the matter for the Christian apologist. Often, when someone seeks to prove Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, one of the main lines of evidence are the New Testament writings themselves. Yet Ken says we must throw them all out, because they are clearly infected by this fabricated idea – the resurrection of Jesus.

 

1 – Some Questions

Clearly, Ken’s ideas raise lots of questions. For example, if the early Christian experiences reported in the New Testament are based on fabrications, why would people believe a lie that Peter allegedly told about Jesus’ resurrection in the first place? Particularly since this resurrection idea would have been alien to ancient Judaism, so why would it have been compelling to Jewish people if there was no evidence for it? Also, why were these lies about Jesus’ supposed resurrection so carefully documented anyway?

Here’s a bigger question.

If Jesus was not raised from the dead, why would Peter put himself in danger by claiming that he was? Jerusalem was not a safe place for the friends of Jesus after his crucifixion. If the authorities had executed their leader, they would pursue any Jesus follower who decided to continue Jesus’ mission. We actually have evidence from the historian Josephus that this happened to other Jewish Messiah candidates. How interesting though, that in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the executed Messiah’s mission continued and spread despite the danger facing anyone who publicly proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But if Ken is right that Christianity is built on a lie, why would anyone want to put themselves in harm’s way by doing that?

Of course Ken’s answer is, they didn’t. This is all just a story, fabricated to give later Christian converts a plausible grounding for their Christian faith. He says, “converts would eventually want to know more about Jesus’ life before his crucifixion, and it was this growing need to know more about Jesus, that eventually triggered the appearance of many gospels. These gospels, all appearing after the death of all concerned were just local attempts to provide Jesus’ missing biographical details for the benefit of their pagan converts.”[2] Perhaps Ken would go on to say no one in first century Jerusalem believed in Jesus’ resurrection, it was all made up many years later for an eager audience of later Christian believers?

Well – if that is the case, then I would ask, what do we do with the first and second century evidence that supports the claim that the disciple Peter did not just put himself in harm’s way after Jesus’ crucifixion, he was willing to suffer and die for his first-hand personal witness of the physically risen Jesus? And – what do we make of the evidence that he was actually martyred in Rome for doing so?

What I’m saying is this. You could understand other people giving their lives for something they only thought was true. But Ken says Peter knew Jesus resurrection was false. If Peter was the only one who genuinely knew that Jesus’ resurrection was a lie, then why would he personally put himself through danger, suffering, and death for his own lie?

Now – Ken doesn’t seem to think Peter was martyred. He says, “The actual facts of the apostles is unknown and Peter’s alleged death in Rome is not backed up by reliable evidence.”[3] If Peter wasn’t martyred, then we can’t point to his willingness to die as confirmation that Jesus was raised from the dead.

But hang on. Is Ken right? Let’s test his claim that we cannot know with certainty that Peter was martyred for his Christian beliefs.

 

2 – Evidence for the Martyrdom of the Apostle Peter

The traditional understanding of Peter’s fate is that he was martyred in Rome under Nero’s reign in AD 64 – 67. How strong is the evidence for this traditional understanding? It turns out that there are many sources that support this idea from the first and second century. This is important because these sources were written “in living memory” of Peter.

In his doctoral dissertation, Sean McDowell examines the literary evidence from antiquity that supports the martyrdom of Peter.[4]

First – the New Testament itself. In John 21:18-19, Jesus cryptically predicts Peter’s execution, though no details are given. 2 Peter 1:12-15 records Peter writing from Rome in the knowledge that his death is imminent.

Second – 1 Clement 5:1-4. Written in the first century, this is believed to come from the church leader in Rome and written to the church in Corinth. Clement assumes Peter’s martyrdom in Rome around AD60 as common knowledge. “This is Peter, who … bore up under hardships not just once or twice, but many times; and having thus borne his witness he went to the place of glory that he deserved.”[5] Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman says, “By the end of the first century and into the second it was widely known among Christians that Peter had suffered a martyr’s death. The tradition is alluded to in the book of 1 Clement.”[6] McDowell says, “at the very least, this passage provides evidence that Peter and Paul were considered examples of faithful endurance for the Gospel, even in the midst of suffering, until their deaths.”[7]

Third – the writings of Ignatius, a Christian leader from the second century who was also martyred. Two writings are important:

  • Letter to the Romans 4:3 – Ignatius faces his impending martyrdom, and he seems to assume both Peter and the apostle Paul were also martyred before him.
  • Letter to the Smyrneans 3:1-2 – this letter presupposes the martyrdom of many of the apostles, including Peter.

Fourth – The Apocalypse of Peter. This is a work attributed to Peter, but the real author is unknown (it is a pseudepigraphal work). Yet it is dated to the first half of the second century and is thought to be built around a historical core of data, providing “early attestation for the martyrdom of Peter in Rome under Nero.”[8]

Fifth – The Ascension of Isaiah. Like the Apocalypse of Peter, this is a pseudepigraphal work dated early in the second century. It refers to an apostle who fell into Nero’s hands and, since it was written in living memory of Peter, the readers would know who was being referred to here. While it doesn’t explicitly state Peter was martyred, it implies it happened in Rome.

Sixth – The Acts of Peter. Dated toward the end of the second century, this work contains legendary material, a historical novel. Yet scholars note that the authors did not just make material up. Rather, they were bound by received tradition and memory of events, including the martyrdom of Peter.

Seventh – The Apocryphon of James. This pseudonymous text is dated to before AD314, and it shows that “by the end of the second century at the earliest, the crucifixion of Peter was assumed by both Orthodox and Gnostic circles alike.” [9]

Eighth – Dionysius of Corinth. This was a pastoral letter written around AD170 to encourage the Corinthian church. He mentions the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul, and the historian Eusebius uses Dionysius’ work as confirmation that both apostles died under the reign of Nero.

Ninth – Irenaeus, Against Heresies. Written at the end of the second century to challenge Gnosticism, he references the deaths of Peter and Paul in Rome. The tradition of their martyrdoms was strong, and so in this text, a reference is clearly being made to it.

Tenth – Tertullian, Scorpiace 15, written in AD208 (early third century). He is confident in Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, and encourages the reader to check the archives of the empire if they doubt this fact.

On top of the surviving texts attesting to Peter’s martyrdom, crucially there is no competing narrative from antiquity that presents a different explanation for Peter’s fate.

 

3 – Conclusion

There is therefore firm historical support for the Christian martyrdom of the apostle Peter from many different sources. And this makes Peter’s martyrdom as firm an event as any from antiquity. Unless we are to believe that not only is the New Testament fabricated, but all of this historical record as well. But this strains incredulity, I think.

So – the question remains. If Ken is right and Christianity is built on a lie, why would Peter choose to die for his own lie?

Here’s another possible interpretation of the historical record.

Jesus’ resurrection is not a lie. It is an event from history. God did raise Jesus supernaturally from the dead, and this event contributed to the changing of Peter and the other apostles from frightened defeated followers into brave and confident proclaimers of the resurrected Christ. This put them on a direct collision course with the same authorities who executed Jesus. Yet they were willing to put their lives on the line in spite of this danger. They were willing to “suffer and die for their first-hand witness of the risen Jesus – this is of foremost importance. The evidence shows that some really died as martyrs, and that none recanted.”[10]

[1] Ken Thackery, The Christianity Myth, https://keebostick.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/the-revised-christianity-myth/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, (London: Routledge, 2015), 55 – 92.

[5] 1 Clement 5:4.

[6] Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary, quoted in McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles.

[7] McDowell, 73.

[8] Ibid., 78.

[9] Ibid., 87.

[10] Ibid., 259.