Last Tuesday I had the pleasure of hosting an informal discussion between theologian and apologist Randal Rauser and The Counter Apologist, a prominent atheist/skeptic blogger. Near the end, I even got to take my moderator hat off for a second and have a bout with CA for twenty minutes or so.
I have two primary issues with the discussion or points I’d like to make at least. First off, knowledge bracketing…
Knowledge Bracketing (Or Lack Thereof)
Let’s say you’re talking to your fundamentalist Christian friend who is convinced there are zero errors in the Bible of even the most mundane sort. You are trying to get them to admit that, at the very least, a certain passage looks like an error. But every time you press them on it, they say something like “well I know God wouldn’t write an imperfect book, so it can’t be an error.”
You try again: “Let’s just pretend it’s a live option for a second that it there are errors in the Bible, just as a thought experiment. Does this passage look like an error?”
The respond: “Well… I just know there aren’t errors in the Bible because God is perfect and since Jesus rose from the dead and he believed in the authority of scripture, then there’s no way this could be a true error.”
That would be a bit maddening right? What you are seeing is what I call a lack of knowledge bracketing. The fundamentalist refuses to separate two ideas–the evidence of errors in the Bible and his theology of the Bible–even temporarily. This actually relates very closely to the very beginning of the chat with Randal and the Counter Apologist (CA), when we were talking about facing the violence in the OT honestly. For a long time I didn’t have a great answer for it, but I always committed to being honest about how the evidence looked. I wanted to be able to separate out my view of those OT passages and look at the honestly before putting them back in with my overarching worldview of Christianity.
This is my complaint when talking to most skeptics, including sometimes CA in this discussion, about the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (henceforth “the Res”). It can be like pulling teeth to get them to separate out the neutral evidence, even temporarily. It’s crucial to ask, if Jesus rising from the dead is a live option, which explanation best fits the data?
So which is the best explanation?
Things get a little more complicated at this point, and I am not an expert. The best starting point is to say what I said near the end of our chat when it was just me and CA. As I was dealing with my doubts and kept studying, there was a key point where the evidence flipped and it seemed like the skeptics were the ones trying to fit a square peg in a round hole rather than the other way around. For me, that moment was when looking at the evidence for the Res.
On the surface, based on the data we have, it seems to fit pretty naturally if Jesus really did rise from the dead. All the alternative explanations fit awkwardly for a number of reasons. Here are a few quick ones:
- – Paul is awkward to explain, It seems like he really was an enemy of the faith and then had something (supernatural?) happen to him to completely change teams.
- – James the brother of Jesus, if he also was an enemy of the faith (and there seems to be reason to think so), is in the same boat.
- – Why did the disciples take on such an odd view that Jesus had been resurrected rather than the normal natural view which would be that Jesus had been exalted in heaven or something like that? Resurrection wasn’t supposed to happen to only one person in the middle of history
- – The group appearances must not be true if a naturalistic account is to win the day. Group hallucinations are not a known thing in the psychological literature, besides perhaps other supposed religious examples like visions of Mary.
- – Similarly, the empty tomb must not be historical, in spite of the fact that a number of notable skeptic scholars even accept it as historical (see Mike Licona’s work)
You might point out from reading this that I use the word “seem” a lot. That’s rather a weak thing to base my beliefs on, right? Actually, I think the exact opposite can be the case1. I think my using “seem” is a honest acknowledgement of the epistemic position that I am in. If I had a PhD in ancient history and had immersed myself in all the primary sources, then perhaps I could go beyond “seem” in some of these cases.
But I can’t. And I don’t think CA or most other people in these debates can either. Instead I am basing my view on watching 100+ hours of debates between Christian and skeptics, dozens of books (which ultimately is still quite limited), blog posts, articles, and the like. Oftentimes a smart heuristic can be worlds safer than a ill-founded and overreaching deductive argument. That’s why I like the so-called “minimal facts” approach to the Res, because it gives me really useful shortcuts of knowing what is almost a universal consensus among scholars, including plenty of non-Christian scholars2.
Take the example of Jesus mythicists. They are the group that claim Jesus never even existed, and it’s almost impossible to find a professional historian with a relevant degree who takes this position. Internet atheists have the luxury of being Jesus mythicists due to their epistemic standpoint. People like Bart Ehrman, an agnostic who wrote a book arguing vehemently against Jesus mythicism, do not have that luxury. Ehrman has studied the first century documents as well as anyone in the world, and for him it’s not a live option to him to say “Jesus never existed.” So I think it’s very, very dangerous (epistemically) to take advantage of our limited knowledge to say things like “Jesus probably never existed.” This is when a healthy heuristic, like “practically zero professional scholars of any stripe think Jesus never existed” can be very strong. Sure, you can always have a defeater for that, but it needs to be pretty strong! And you need to explain why professional scholars of all different sorts of worldviews seem to have gotten this so wrong. Can you take on that burden?
That’s what bothers me about Counter Apologist casually throwing around the idea that the disciples might’ve been lying. In all my time studying and listening to debates about the Res, I don’t think I’ve heard a single scholar actually try that explanation seriously. Shouldn’t we then be timid to do so ourselves if we’re not a scholar? I’m not saying we are completely barred from it, but it seems prudent to step out in a direction like that with fear and trembling, unless we have the same sort of knowledge and credentials as other scholars.
I think it needs to be taken seriously that, as I quoted in the discussion, only about 25% of skeptical scholars are even trying to put forth a naturalistic explanation in recent years3. That seems like a pretty damning heuristic to me about the explanatory power of those naturalistic accounts.
I highly encourage people to go watch debates with William Lane Craig, Michael Licona, and Gary Habermas on this topic. Hear as many skeptics take them on as possible. You’ll start to get a feel for things. And then of course read as many books and study further if you want an even better grasp.
“…biggest challenge to my atheism so far… these stories fly in the face of dismissive attitude that most atheists have.” -Cory Markum, the atheist host of The Hinge Podcast after reviewing miracles testimony
Counter Apologist seems to rely pretty heavily on the idea that, even if the evidence does point to the Res happening, we could never actually conclude that due to the nature of miracle claims and our inductive understanding of how the world works.
To avoid most of the definitional and philosophical issues involved with discussing miracles, I have moved to an almost entirely bottom up approach (i.e. data first) on the topic. I think my appearance on the Doubts Aloud podcast is a good example of this for those interested.
I’m not trying to launch a full fleshed argument for miracles in this post, but allow me to simply put down some “pins” of data we have that are the beginning of a larger argument:
- – We know from survey data that, at minimum, hundreds of millions of people alive today claim to be an eyewitness to a miraculous healing4. That alone seems to completely undercut Hume’s starting position in his argument against miracles.
- – Along with a plethora of testimony, much of it from sources one would otherwise consider quite reputable, there are multiple published studies in secular peer-reviewed journals showing things like 10x or greater improvement in vision and hearing after prayer.
- – That sort of data is bolstered greatly when you consider the wealth of testimony that confirms it. Taking Heidi Baker and her ministry specifically, it’s very easy to find testimonial data that seem to confirm the scientific study done that showed the 10x or greater improvement in hearing/vision. As a good starting point, I recommend Dr. Candy Gunther Brown’s book Testing Prayer, published by Harvard University Press. Dr Brown is a professor at a secular university (Indiana University), it should be noted.
- – Add the above to this quote from Keener: “In the modern period, I have come across claims of perhaps four hundred healings of blindness through prayer, the majority of them from sources that I trust (some of them from eyewitnesses I personally interviewed or know personally), and these can be regarded as merely a representative sample. Certainly a vastly larger number of blind persons are not healed, but the healings of blindness nevertheless remain significant. Some of these healings have included medical documentation of organic problems, including, as noted earlier, scarring of the eye tissue, which disappeared during the healing. In some cases of healings from blindness, the eyewitness reporters have observed eyes white from cataracts immediately change as the cataracts have disappeared.”
- – Looking at the above, you have a wealth of testimony, some from highly regarded sources (Keener himself has a PhD from Duke, and you’ll find plenty of references from other PhDs and M.D.s in Keener’s book as well), and this testimony is further corroborated by an actual scientific study conducted by Dr. Brown and published in a secular medial journal. Add to that scanned doctors reports, including at times before-and-after X-rays, of organic problems disappearing immediately after prayer. Is all this not at least eyebrow raising? If you could readily give me anything close to this from Islam, Hinduism, or even from a non-religious context, that would be a powerful defeater. I have not found that yet—not even close. The best I’ve heard is some quotes about Sathya Sai Baba, which is also who Counter Apologist referenced. I’ve never seen X-rays, I’ve never seen research studies done that confirmed it. Nothing even close to that. Just a number of stories. It would of course be interesting to dig into those stories and see what we can find! Don’t get me wrong. But the comparison to what we have in Christianity is not even close.
- – As a reminder, CA and I came to an agreement that, if there were to be evidence of miracles, it would have to rise above the statistical noise of strange stories and miracle claims from other religions (and non-religious contexts as well). But that’s exactly what I think we have with Christianity. I think the quality and quantity of miracle data we now have with Christianity is at least 20x anything else I’ve seen from anywhere else, if not closer to 100x or greater. I challenge any skeptic to immerse themselves in data from Heidi Baker’s ministry or to simply read Testing Prayer by Dr. Brown. I don’t think you’ll come away from that unchanged. And I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find much from non-Christian sources that compare (but please share if you do!). At the very least, you will echo what I Cory Markum said in the quote above, and you’ll hopefully be more careful not to dismiss the miracles data we have.
Zooming out to take an intuitive, holistic look at what I see then, this is where I end up:
- – It almost seems like the idea that God raised Jesus from the dead is actually the best-fitting explanation for what happened after Jesus’ death, if we’ll allow that option at the table for just a second
- – It almost seems like crazy accounts of truly remarkable (far outstripping statistically expected anomalies) healings take place around Christianity, often literally while a prayer to Jesus is happening
- – (for me only) I also add to this the supernatural stories, including some healings, within my own close friends and family I trust, further confirming what I have learned from third party sources
Maybe that’s as far as you get. Maybe you can’t take it any further and you simply have two admittedly eyebrow-raising pieces of data in your worldview now. But if other things start to also cohere to a overarching viewpoint of “Christianity is true,” at some point you’re going to have a gestalt shift and it will simply seem like the most reasonable lens to see the world through. That’s where I’m at at least :).
Like my posts? Then subscribe!
- See my episode on Black Swan epistemology to hear more reasons why it’s better to take a modest but robust position rather than a far-reaching but fragile position
- According to leading scholar Daniel B. Wallace, a majority of Society of Biblical Literature scholars are not Christians anyway, making the consensus view that much more powerful
- According to Gary Habermas in his Capturing Christianity interview.
- Craig Keener repeats this multiple times in his book Miracles