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The Evidence of Christianity
La Jolla, California
Christian apologetics has had a long history, and is witnessed to even in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 3:15, all Christians are encouraged to be ready to make a "defense" for the reason of their hope in Christ. The word "defense" is a translation of the Greek word apologia, which means "a speech in defense of what one has done, or of truth which one believes." The formal use of this word is used by Paul in Acts 22:1 and 1 Corinthians 9:3. It appears that only the first use of apologetic speech is evident in the New Testament. The context of Peter’s statement is a message of comfort for those being persecuted. His use of the word apologia likely then refers to a formal defense before the authorities. Nevertheless his words have been used to promote the idea of using argument to establish the actual truth of Christianity. It has become customary, even today when Christianity is no longer a crime, to make a defense of the truth of Christianity whenever it might be called into question, e.g., when someone asks, "Why are you a Christian?" To such a person a Christian could be ready to give reasons why he or she believes. But this is not what Peter seems to mean. The defenses given by the apostles to the authorities were not attempts to convince the authorities that Christianity was true. Their aim was merely to defend Christianity against charges that had been brought against it.
There is actually very little in the writings of the apostles that encourages a Christian to attempt to prove his or her religion true. Why is that? I will make an attempt to answer that question in this article. I will also examine some of the evidences to which Christians have pointed for placing one's faith in Jesus—reasons to believe, you might say. In doing so, it is not my aim to prove Christianity true, nor to assist anyone to make a defense of the truth of Christianity before others, nor even to use such evidence to strengthen one’s faith in Jesus. I merely wish to show that the evidence often put forth to defend Christianity is no evidence at all. I will then draw attention to the only real evidence of Christianity. And it is an evidence that cannot be shown. It can only be experienced. In doing this, I am reiterating arguments put forth by Unitarians, who discussed this matter in the 1830’s and 40’s and eventually arrived at the same conclusion.
Christianity as “an Objective Faith”
Many would describe Christianity as faith in an “object,” and the object would be Jesus of Nazareth. It is faith in who he was (the Christ, the Son of God) and what he did (he rose from the dead, etc.). However, though it sounds like there are two propositions to prove, most apologists focus attention only on one. The first proposition, they say, can only be proved by the second. To them, there is no way to demonstrate that Jesus was the Son of God (who he was) except by demonstrating what he did (i.e., that he worked miracles or that a miracle was worked on him).
If this is an accurate description of what Christianity is, then such a faith could be demonstrated objectively. In other words, the facts backing the Christian claim are not a special kind of 'religious' fact. They are the cognitive, informational facts upon which all historical, legal, and ordinary decisions are based. The only ground, then, which we can possibly have for placing any confidence in Christianity is by proving the Bible true, or at least proving true the most significant events of Jesus life (some would say that his resurrection from the dead would be enough). This is the evidence we have of his divine mission, and of the truth of what he undertakes to reveal. The Christian faith would be primarily a historical faith that appeals to certain facts of historical occurrence, rather than primarily a philosophical faith appealing to ideas. Thus we often find Christian apologists appealing to the findings of archaeology or historical records to testify to the truth of their religion.
Difficulties with the “Objective” View
However, can we really know the truth of Christianity through historical testimony? Do we need to demonstrate historically that Jesus did what the Bible says he did (the most important event being his resurrection) in order to believe in Christianity?
The historical evidence for Jesus’ special powers or for his resurrection from the dead, upon which people rest so much of their faith, does not, and in its nature cannot, supply to the mind of any rational person any proof whatsoever of the truth of the revelation. In fact, it is impossible for us to know whether an alleged miracle is a miracle.
Simply because a person performs a wonderful work—heals the sick, for example, in a sudden and astonishing way, or restores somebody to life who apparently was dead—even if this is done right before my eyes, is that a reason in itself why I must implicitly believe everything he chooses to tell me? All that I actually see is the wonderful work. Now, yes, the person who does it might tell me that he does it by the immediate assistance of God. He might also tell me that God enabled him to do it in order to prove that he is a messenger from God, and therefore everything that he says should be implicitly believed. But how do I know that he tells me the truth? What guarantee do I have that he is not deceiving me? I don’t have any proof at all, except for his word, because an amazing act really offers no testimony that extends beyond itself. All I actually see is the act alone. Granted, there is a seeming connection between the act and what he says, but it is possible that the two have no relation to one another whatsoever. I might be inclined to think that only God could have enabled him to do such a wonderful thing. Yet I know deep down that there are others ways it could have been done. However he performed it, by whatever power or ability he performed it, whether in fact he performed it at all, these things are not readily apparent. Perhaps after examination, investigation, and prolonged observation, we might be able to figure out how he performed the “miracle,” but if the act is supernatural, caused by the special interference of God, we will never be able to figure out how it was performed. We would actually need another special interference of God, by which he would personally communicate to us the knowledge that the act was in fact supernatural, to know for sure. So it ends up that if this person performed a “miracle,” and he told me that he was a messenger from God and that I should believe everything that he says, it would be no different than if he did not perform any miracle, and he told me that he was a messenger from God and that I should believe everything that he says. In either case, I am obliged to rely only on his word.
A miracle, therefore, does not constitute proof that the person who performed it is a messenger from God, and neither does a miracle performed upon him. This is a conclusion drawn by many of the writers of the Bible (Deut. 13:1-3; Matt. 24:24; Luke 16:27-31; Gal. 1:8; 2 Thess. 2:9; Rev. 13:14). It thus becomes clear that the amazing miracles recorded in the Gospels, including Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead, even if we believe they were actually performed, do not afford (and cannot afford) by themselves any evidence whatsoever that Jesus was sent by God or that the Gospel he preached is a revelation from God. This is a conclusion we cannot escape. We may believe that the Gospel is a revelation from God, but we must believe it independently of any belief in the truth of the wonderful works it records. In fact, if a Christian, who believes that Jesus did indeed perform these miracles and was resurrected, actually ponders the matter, he or she will be compelled to admit that it wasn’t the proof of these miracles that instilled his or her belief in Jesus as a divine messenger, but was his or her belief that Jesus was a divine messenger that instilled his or her belief in the miracles. It is the revelation that supports the miracles, not the miracles that support the revelation.
Thus the typical Christian apologetic approach is backwards. It assumes that a person must first be shown that Jesus was a messenger from God before believing the message. But it is in fact the opposite. When one comes to believe the message, then one is more inclined to think of Jesus as a messenger from God.
Christian faith, therefore, the belief that Jesus was divinely sent, is not based on what he did. It is based on what he said. Make no mistake about it; when I say Christianity is based on “what he said,” I don’t mean the fact that he said it (lest we resort to historical argument again); I mean the truth of what he said. It is of relatively little importance, in fact, who uttered the message. What matters is whether the message itself is of divine origin. Christianity is the message first, the messenger second (John 7:17).
Seeing Christianity as a faith in ideas or principles, rather than faith in historical occurrences, does not remove it from the realm of reason. Christian faith is not simply a religion of emotion; it does appeal to the intellect. It is open to falsification, as any system of ideas is. Jesus’ teachings may be put under scrutiny, evidence may be brought to bear that calls it into question, and argument may be made against it. Christians may present reasons why they believe what they do in an intelligent and rational manner. But this is as far as apologetics can go. The objective evidence is insufficient to establish its truth, and a faith cannot be built upon it alone.
Christianity: Revealed from Within
The evidence for special religious truths (such as the truth of Jesus’ teachings), in my opinion, cannot be different in kind from the evidence for religious truths in general. Think about it: all religions contain some truths, right? Some of these truths are identical with some of the truths in Christianity. So the question is: How did these other religions discover these truths? Did they discover them by believing in the miracles or resurrection of Jesus? Did they discover them by believing the Bible to be true? Did they discover them by believing that Jesus is the Son of God? Not at all. They discovered them by some other means. Well, whatever those means were, they must be the same means that Christians used to discover those same truths. Religious belief and conviction are essentially the same thing in all minds, so there must be the same kind of evidence to induce belief and conviction in both Christians and non-Christians. People’s minds and hearts are basically the same. Christianity is one religion among others. It is a species of a larger genus. It must therefore share some features with other religions; otherwise it might be Christianity, but would not be a religion. (However, I would agree that there may be different quantities of truth in two religions, or different quantities of religious belief and conviction in two individuals of the same or of different religions.)
So where do religions get their truths from? Usually from some original teacher who presented these ideas to others. We do not need to enter a discussion as to how these teachers discovered the truth. In some cases, they may have been inspired of God, in others may simply have been extremely gifted or talented, and in others may merely have repeated what they heard from someone else. What is of more importance is how others who heard them knew that they were telling the truth. After all, this is the great question regarding the evidence of Christianity: How do we know that Jesus was telling the truth?
In many cases, we learn the truth of a system of principles by putting them into practice and seeing if they work. Or we could observe the lives of others who have practiced the system, and see how their lives are going. This often verifies the truth of a religious system. However, sometimes this process takes a very long time, even the greater part of a person’s life. And yet we see people with strong faith in the Christian system even before they are able to complete this lengthy investigation. Sometimes they embrace it wholeheartedly soon after hearing it for the first time. Why is that?
People usually believe and obey religious teachers because they feel the truth they bring, and admire them, because these teachers say what others would gladly say, but cannot. The divinity of an inspired and original religious teacher is seen and appreciated as the principles taught by this instructor are seen and appreciated. Religious belief, therefore, comes from something deep inside of us. It is not simply an intellectual effort. It affects the moral sense and the conscience and the heart.
Religious evidence is not like the evidence that we obtain through the medium of the understanding, or by observing the physical universe, or by examining written records. That kind of evidence, scientific or historical evidence, is restricted to our relations with material things, to the operations of the brain itself, and to our social relations. Certainly the truth of natural facts may be learned by natural means, that is, by the use of reason and the faculties subservient to it, but is it not reasonable to suppose that the truth of supernatural facts can be learned only by supernatural means, that is to say, some means other than reason and the faculties subservient to it?
In order to know what is true and what is not (and whether Jesus’ message represents such truth), we need to know the ultimate source of truth, that infinite God in whom we, and all things, live, move, and have our being. This is the sort of knowledge that goes beyond the province of the understanding. It is perceived by another faculty we have, a religious faculty. Anyone acquainted with the history of the human race, or with the operations of the human mind, must have observed that there is a certain faculty, tendency, or capacity of human nature that inspires a sort of religious awe. We read about it in poems, in books of devotion, and hear it in prayers. It is this part of human nature that sees God.
A sense of dependence on a Supreme Being is a natural and essential sentiment of the human soul, just as much as feeling, seeing, and hearing are natural sensations of the human body. Here, then, are the religious instincts that lead us to God and religion, just as naturally as the intellectual instincts lead us to truth, and the animal instincts lead us to food or sex. And just as the sensation of hunger we feel presupposes the existence of food to satisfy it, so the sensation of dependence on God presupposes the existence of the Supreme Being. The existence of God is not something discovered by a process of reasoning, by a long series of deductions from facts, nor yet is it the last generalization from phenomena observed in the universe of mind or matter. But it is a truth fundamental in our nature, given outright by God, a truth which comes to light as soon as self-consciousness begins. The germs of religion are born in us, or innate.
Liberal Christians believe in Christianity because they see its message as exactly accordant with the innate teachings of self-consciousness. They cannot, at least at present, conceive of any person who has or does more fully represent the moral and religious side of our nature, none who receives more fully direct religious and moral inspiration from God, and therefore no more perfect moral and religious incarnation of God than Jesus of Nazareth. The evidence for this conviction comes from within, not without. Each individual accepts the witness of his or her own soul as the evidence of Christianity.
So what are we to conclude? Christianity is either a religion whose germs and first truths are innate in the soul, or it is a religion whose germs and first truths are not innate in the soul. If we take the latter alternative, I admit that, in line with the common opinion, the historicity of the New Testament miracles would be necessary to establish the divine authority of the mediator of this religion, and that devout persons who measure the doctrines of Christianity by reason, conscience, and the religious faculty would be basing their belief on no foundation at all.
On the other hand, if we take the other alternative and admit that Christianity is a religion whose germs and first truths are innate in us, there is no need for the scientific or historical arguments to prove the authority of this mediator. To illustrate: if someone brings me a glass of wine, and tells me it is the finest wine on earth, and I taste it and agree that it is the finest wine I ever tasted, I do not need the person who brought it to me to tell me he is an expert on fine wine. I am convinced regardless. If what he gives me tastes terrible to me, then I will reject what he tells me, even if he shows me credentials that establish him as an expert on fine wine. Suppose a religious teacher came and assured his audience that it was our moral duty to lie, steal, and murder. Then, to prove he was a messenger of God, he walks on water. Would you believe the new doctrine? If not, why not? Would it not be because it conflicts with your sense of reason, your conscience, and your religious sense? Thus a religion must be made for our religious nature, as much as the wine for our palate. God has laid the foundation of religion in us, and the religion built up in us must correspond to that foundation, otherwise it can be of no use to us.
It seems to me much easier, more natural, and above all more true to ground Christianity on the truth of its doctrines, and its sufficiency to satisfy all the moral and religious wants of humankind in the highest conceivable state, than to rest it on history, which at best could only be a sign and not a proof of its excellence (and which, besides, actually requires more evidence to convince people of its truth than Christianity requires without them).
To me, the spiritual words of Jesus are a more convincing proof of his divinity than the story of his miraculous transfiguration, and the life he lived a more satisfactory evidence of his divine authority than all his miracles. I do not need a miracle to convince me that fire is hot and ice is cold, nor do I need one to convince me of the divinity of Christian principles.
Christian apologists actually have exposed Christianity to attack by making its validity rely on the historical and scientific evidence of the events recorded in the Gospels. They make their fellow Christians rest their moral and religious faith on evidence too weak to be used even in a common court of justice. They make our religion depend entirely on something outside, on strange events which are said to have happened 2000 years ago, of which we can never be certain. Christians generally don’t want to be critics and historians, but they do want to be Christians. Christianity is not a thing of speculation, but a matter of life. We Christians ground our faith on its truth—which is obvious to every spiritual eye that is open—on its fitness to satisfy our spiritual needs, on its power to regenerate and restore our lives, on our faith in Christ, which depends not on his birth or ascension, on his miraculous powers of healing, creating, or transforming, but on his words of truth and holiness and on his divine life.
© 2006 American Unitarian Conference™