Because Evidence

I recently had a conversation about faith which was full of surprises.

My friend was surprised to meet someone who claims to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ because of the supporting evidence, rather than despite it.

I was surprised to hear my friend say that he thought all Christians believed blindly, despite the evidence — 'leap of faith' Christians:

A leap of faith, in its most commonly used meaning, is the act of believing in or accepting something intangible or unprovable, or without empirical evidence. It is an act commonly associated with religious belief as many religions consider faith to be an essential element of piety. Wikipedia

This is really a basic misunderstanding of what 'faith' means in the context of Christianity. It does not mean believing something without evidence, it means trusting someone, because of the evidence. You'd need a really good reason to trust someone who made the claims Jesus made, and you'd be a fool to do so without evidence about his life and character. Moreover, the idea that someone would be brought back to life after death would need much supporting evidence to be credible — it would need stronger evidence, by far, than a more mundane event.

Fortunately plenty of evidence exists. I know this because I was fully convinced of my 30-year atheism until I confronted it. I made no 'leap of faith', but I did take a careful, and initially very sceptical, look at the evidence:

① I didn't believe Jesus existed at all — I thought the whole story was a fairy tale. This just shows how little research I had done because almost all scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed. In other words, historically speaking, the probability of Jesus' existence is much, much higher than the probability that he did not exist.

② I assumed the New Testament was written long after the events it purported to describe. Indeed, in the past, some scholars did try to date the books as late as the 3rd century, but manuscript discoveries have since disproved such ideas:

the discovery of some New Testament manuscripts and fragments from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, one of which dates as early as 125 (Papyrus 52), disproves a 3rd-century date of composition for any book now in the New Testament. Additionally, a letter to the church at Corinth in the name of Clement of Rome in 95 quotes from 10 of the 27 books of the New Testament, and a letter to the church at Philippi in the name of Polycarp in 120 quotes from 16 books. Wikipedia

Given that Jesus was probably crucified around 30-36 AD, the upper bound for 10 of the 27 New Testament books is a mere 60 years afterwards. Even in the extremely unlikely event that they were all written just before the year 95, it would still be perfectly possible for them to be contemporary accounts written by people who were around during the time Jesus lived. Of course some were almost certainly written long before even that early date, such as 1 Thessalonians, which was probably written by the end of AD 52.

③ I thought that the books of the New Testament had been changed over time to suit the purposes of whoever controlled the church. I had no idea that there is an entire scientific field of 'Textual Criticism' that is concerned with the identification of textual variants in either manuscripts or printed books, and that the manuscript evidence for the New Testament writings simply doesn't allow for significant late editing and evolution of the text. Over 24,000 manuscript copies or portions of the New Testament have been discovered, dating from 100 to 300 years after the originals, and while there are some variations, they are relatively trivial.

④ I had heard that the gospels were full of contradictions, and, indeed, there are some. What I didn't realise was that perfect agreement is far more suspicious than accounts that differ to a small degree in detail:

Each of these four witnesses agrees, in substance, concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus, but, like you would expect with genuine witnesses, differ to a small degree in detail. This adds credibility to their story. Witnesses who testify with identical details will raise suspicions as to collusion. Peter Young, New South Wales Supreme Court judge

The point is that eye-witnesses with integrity will tell the story as they saw it, and every eye-witness sees the events from a different angle. The basic facts remain the same but there are multiple perspectives. On the other hand, a "cleverly devised myth" (such as the kind Peter insists he has not invented), would likely hang together too neatly.

⑤ People who write accounts of their own actions tend to make themselves look good. For example:

The eye-witnesses who wrote the New Testament appear to be different however, and this lends credibility to their accounts. Peter is thought to have had a hand in Mark's Gospel, yet the account makes him look terrible at times:

27And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” 30And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same. Mark 14, ESV

is followed by:

70But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” 71But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” 72And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept. ESV

This is an unvarnished account, and given Peter's influence in the early church, he'd doubtless have had the opportunity to varnish it if he'd wanted to! On the other hand, if Peter has integrity as an eye-witness in respect of his own failings, that lends considerable credibility to the account as a whole.

This is only one example — I found that the gospels in general, and Mark's gospel in particular, have a raw, unpolished, feel to them. They are not 'mythic', but 'matter of fact'. They are talking about events long ago in a culture very different from our own. They are sometimes hard to understand. They are not made up stories by a bunch of people who decided to invent a religion (and then happily accepted persecution and even execution for their beliefs).

⑥ Jesus himself is recorded making some incredibly big claims.

In and of itself that doesn't prove anything either way, but it is important because it narrows our options for interpreting the texts down considerably. If the texts are basically just a made up story then we can just ignore them all. If, on the other hand, the texts have any integrity at all, then they must be reporting some semblance at least of what Jesus actually said.

In that case, it is not possible to conclude that Jesus was really just a good moral teacher and his story got exaggerated later. If any man said a fraction of the things Jesus said, and wasn't God, he must have been a liar, or completely mad:

31And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Mark 8, ESV

61But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” 62And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.63And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? 64You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. 65And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows. Mark 14, ESV

I found myself asking, "is this man a liar, or mad, or is he who he says he is?". When I looked at the other things Jesus said, I found I could not believe him a liar or mad. I also couldn't believe any more that the gospel writings were made up fairy tales, but I became convinced they were basically accurate eye-witness accounts written by people with a significant degree of integrity. I found myself left with Sherlock Holmes's maxim:

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

⑦ The resurrection of Jesus perfectly fits the big picture story of the Bible.

I only realised this several years later. Once I decided to take the eye-witness accounts seriously, I began to read them more closely, and the Old Testament accounts they refer to (that they claim point to the events of the New Testament).

I discovered that death is a central, crucial, theme of the Bible. It came as judgement on the man who God created to rule over and care for his Earth; the man who then rebelled against God's rule over him. The rest of the Bible tells the story of how God goes about dealing with that rebellion and ultimately how he solves the problem of death and lifts the curse.

What then would be more apt as a stamp of divine approval on the clearest message from God to man; the message about how to return to him and receive his blessing of everlasting life again? Why resurrection of course! If you want to prove you can conquer death what better way of doing so than by conquering death? And if you want to prove you are indeed divine and still ruling everything, despite appearances, why not do the one thing that can't be anything less than impossible humanly speaking?

I could write much more on this subject, but if you have read this far and want to know more, you should consider coming to church. The point of church is not to promote 'religion', but to learn more about this life-changing evidence together.

There are different ways of 'doing' church — we choose to do it over breakfast a light meal at teatime. You are very welcome to join us next time we meet :)

Author: Jack Douglas, Date: 2016-06-02