CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

From the comments to the post I Believe In One Fewer God than You Do:

What I find very strange is that if someone told you a snake or ass talked you wouldn't believe it just because someone told you they did. But you believe it and everything in the Bible because it's in there. You would be skeptical of every single claim in the Bible if someone came running up to you and said an old lady turned into a pillar of salt, or that lifting up the hands of Moses caused a military victory. You wouldn't even believe it if someone else came up to you and confirmed it. You would want to see for yourself, wouldn't you? Or are you truly a gullible person? But here you are two millenia removed and all you have is a text that says these things happened. Where are your critical skills here? Be consistent. Be as skeptical about these claims as you are claims today. Test these claims as an outsider. If you conclude Christianity is false, then seen what you believe, like I have. But I cannot be asked to believe these things actually took place without good evidence.

I have seen this argument at many times and in many different ways. I think the first place I saw it was when I was cruising around the Internet Infidels site and some former pastor who had fallen to the dark side made this argument (his name was Dan Barker, if memory serves). He argued that one of the things that led him away from faith was that talking snakes and asses are described in the Bible and we wouldn't believe them today, so why do we believe them merely because they are part of some old religious manuscript?

This argument has some appeal. It is the appeal to reject as untrue those things that are incredulous; that we all know can't be true from our personal experiences. After all, I reject many things out of hand simply because they are too incredible to be true. And certainly, some of the things that are described in the Bible are things that I would find difficult if not impossible to believe today. Hence, if someone who owns a farm were to tell me that their donkey spoke to them, I readily admit that I would first question that person's sanity.

The account of Balaam's ass is one of the most challenging in the entire Bible for both the Bible-believing Christian and the skeptic. After all, how can we take a book seriously when it contains stories of talking donkeys? Doesn't this show that the Bible is, as noted by infamous defense attorney and anti-Christian Clarence Darrow, a fable not to be trusted as true? The story points out the bifurcation in approaches to the Biblical text which can often lead to widely divergent views of its veracity. If one starts with some of the difficult stories like the account of Balaam's ass, one is likely to conclude that the entire Bible is nonsense because of the appeal of the argument that "we all know that donkeys can't talk".

However, there is another account in the Bible that, in my view, is even more unbelievable than the talking Donkey in Numbers 22. That is the account of the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his crucifixion.

Now, if someone were to tell me that my Uncle Joey had miraculously risen from the dead, I would find that very difficult to believe for a couple of reasons. First, I don't have and have never had an Uncle Joey. But more importantly, I would find the idea that someone had risen from the dead to be extremely unlikely because "we all know that people don't rise from the dead", right?

Yet, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central claim of Christianity. Why do I believe that this singularly unlikely event happened when "we all know that people don't rise from the dead"? I mean, if I wouldn't believe that Uncle Joey rose from the dead, then why would I believe that a man who lived 2,000 years ago rose from the dead? Further, if I accepted the Carl Sagan approach to reality that the universe is all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be, then it's doubtful that any evidence would ever convince me that any person rose from the dead.

But with all due respect to people who approach the Bible this way, that is a very foolish approach to the text. It's like reading a description of Einstein's Theory of Relativity and saying "so in the same period of time one person ages 10 times more than another? That's impossible, because we all know that people don't age at different rates" and rejecting the Theory of Relativity on that basis. The Bible isn't a book in a vacuum. It is a book whose veracity is evidenced by several factors.

If one starts with the arguments and evidence for God's existence, reviews the evidence that Jesus really did rise from the dead, examines the evidence that the accounts of Jesus life, teaching and ministry in the Bible are both trustworthy and faithfully preserved, and understands that God can intervene in the world, the accounts that would otherwise be unbelievable outside of context began to reveal themselves as true regardless of how difficult it would be to believe them in other circumstances. Even today, I wouldn't believe that Uncle Joey rose from the dead because I do know that people don't willy-nilly rise from the dead. But knowing that God exists and can intervene, I would recognize that such a thing, while rare, is possible. To happen would require a miracle and miracles can only be performed for the glory of and at the instigation of God. The resurrection of Jesus had the correct purpose and that purpose is both foretold and consistent with the accounts faithfully recorded in the books of the Old Testament. Moreover, Jesus rose again by the power of God.

Add to that the fact that the people who tell the account appear very trustworthy. They had nothing to gain from lying about the resurrection, and had everything to lose. After all, in the thinking of the Jews of First Century Palestine, claiming that someone was God when they weren't was risking imprisonment, life, and almost certainly your eternal soul. Doesn't the veracity of someone come into play when you are told an account? If a friend who you trusted very deeply told you that something incredible had happened to them would you dismiss it out of hand? If not, why would you dismiss the accounts of these men out of hand without first exploring further to see if there exists further reason and evidence to support their otherwise incredible claims?

The evidence and reasoning that supports the claims of Jesus' resurrection makes the claims which would otherwise be incredible carry a sense of trustworthiness that would be missing from a claim that my Uncle Joey had somehow miraculously and pointlessly risen from the dead where no movement of God was involved.

What about other Old Testament accounts, like the account of Balaam's ass? Of course, if someone were to tell me that an ass spoke to them my first reaction would be to think they were daft. But the talking ass in Numbers 22 is not some purposeless talking ass like in fairy tales where houses and trees talk. Verse 28 opens, "And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey . . . ." Balaam's ass was moved to talk by the power of God as a lesson to Balaam. Shortly thereafter, God, through an angel, revealed Himself to Balaam. In context, the story takes on an aura of believability that it lacks in a vacuum.

Would I expect an ass to talk to me? No. Do I expect to see people rise from the dead? No. But simply because such things don't happen under ordinary circumstances does not mean that they cannot happen when God intervenes for His purposes. Is such intervention common? No. Should I readily accept every report of a miracle as being true? No. But being uncommon and worthy of investigation before belief does not mean that I should dismiss the claims out of hand.

Context is key. Once a person sees that there is strong reason to believe that God is real and can act in nature, then the only question is whether he did act in these particular ways -- regardless of how unbelievable the events would be if God didn't exist or didn't act.

19 comments:

A legal apologetic might be helpful in clarifying the issues here.

Trustworthiness is a function of credibility and reliability.

(1) Credibility deals with two things: (a) a plausible story, (b) honestily delivered.

(2) Reliability deals with three things: (a) a witness' powers of observation, (b) a witness' powers of memory or recall, and (c) a witness' accuracy in statement especially in the assertion of details that are subject to other testimonial or circumstantial corroboration.

The central issue here is the definition of plausibility or reasonable story.

Normally, I would think plausibility is a function of human motivation. Do the parties act for a reason such that they would not have acted otherwise at all (necessary motivation)? And do the parties act for a strong reason that explains the manner in which they acted (sufficient motivation)?

In the context of the resurrection, the relevant and material questions on motivation might be these: (1) were the followers of Jesus' motivated to remember the site of his burial, to attend that site after the sabbath, to make up a story of the resurrection and to suffer hardship for the maintenance of the truth of that story; (2) were the Roman authorities motivated to secure and protect the tomb; and (3) were the Jewish authorities motivated to seek to produce a dead body to refute the story? They are all relevant and material to the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead.

A miracle is an inference of divine causation in a historical matter (extraordinary or not). It is ultimately a philosophical conclusion.

This raises the issue of the relationship of history and philosophy. History is the actualization of the possible. It is probable something particular happened. Philosophy describes the limits of the possible. The philosophical laws of identity, non-contradiction and excluded middle are self-evidently true and describe the very nature of reality. Those philosophical laws set the parameters for history and historical judgment. That which is logically impossible cannot have happened regardless of how good the historical evidence might seem to be. Philosophical judgments are a necessary check on the legitimacy of all historical judgments. Philosophy maybe the handmaiden of theology, but it is not the handmaiden of history. Philosophy is the traffic cop of history. It prohibits travel in certain directions.

This analysis means any consideration of miracles (divine causation) is separate and distinct from the plausibility that informs credible historical judgments. It only arises after a historical determination on a balance of probabilities that Jesus rose from the dead is made. The question then becomes one of divine motivation: (1) did God possibly cause it? and (2) did God have a good reason to cause it?

The strong implication of this analysis is that extraordinary events (miraclous or not) do not require extraordinary historical evidence. The standard of proof remains proof on a balance of probabilities. Issues of divine causation do not factor into historical judgments on plausibilty. They serve only as a check on historical judgments on plausiblity which were based on other criteria such as human motivation.

BK,

Your point seems to be:

the miracles are not incredible to me because I believe in God

However, for someone who finds the existence of God incredible, the miracles will remain incredible.

Therefore, your arguments for the truth of miracles have only value for believers; you could never persuade an atheist with this line of reasoning.

People who spend a lot of time listening to believers in God soon comes to realise that there is nothing which is incredible about hearing donkeys talk.

Robd,

I think BK himself allowed as much. The original question (from John Loftus, as I recall), was more of an accusation along the lines of 'you believe this _only because_ some book told you so. i.e. you're being stupidly credulous.' BK isn't making an argument for why someone who doesn't believe miracles are even possible (much less that God exists) should accept that an angel once gave the power of speech briefly to a donkey. He's making an argument for why he himself is willing to give some credence to something _he himself_ otherwise would treat with extreme scepticism.


Steven,

Good call on Lord Winston earlier; but for someone who does occasionally contribute something proper, you can sure be a talking ass sometimes. {wry s} Learn to read for context. Bill didn't argue that there was nothing incredible about hearing donkeys talk.

(Now that I think of it, the real problem isn't that a text somewhere says that an angel once briefly gave an ass the power of speech. It's that under atheism Steven Carr shouldn't be anything more than a non-rational ass himself!)

JRP

"But with all due respect to people who approach the Bible this way, that is a very foolish approach to the text. It's like reading a description of Einstein's Theory of Relativity and saying "so in the same period of time one person ages 10 times more than another? That's impossible, because we all know that people don't age at different rates" and rejecting the Theory of Relativity on that basis"


It's not even similar. Einstein declared a fact that was previously unknown, a fact that can be tested and reproduced under similar conditions. Balaam's incident was a unique, nonrecurring act of God, assumedly. You can test Einstein's theory and prove/disprove it - you have to assume the truth of Balaam's incident on faith.

"reviews the evidence that Jesus really did rise from the dead"

There is no evidence. There are some hearsay reports composed 30-100 years after his death and a lot of theological posturing as to why we might or might not consider them to be true. The evidence is for the fact that the man had a following that believed in his resurrection, which we have much evidence for, even today.

"Add to that the fact that the people who tell the account appear very trustworthy"

We don't know who wrote the accounts. Tradition tells us that two of the authors were eyewitnesses, but textual evidence points toward one of those plagiarizing from the older hearsay report and the other written outside of the lifetime of the other author.

"They had nothing to gain from lying about the resurrection, and had everything to lose."

They had furthered hope in the restoration of a Jewish kingdom and until they became large enough to become a thorn in the side of Roman authorities, they did quite well materially. You can't tell me that an uneducated laborer who finds himself leading thousands of believers and relying on their support has nothing to lose or gain.

"After all, in the thinking of the Jews of First Century Palestine, claiming that someone was God when they weren't was risking imprisonment, life, and almost certainly your eternal soul."

There's little evidence that they considered Jesus to be God in the beginning - even Jesus did not claim that. There is evidence they believed him to be the Messiah, which was perfectly in line with their theology. The Jewish leaders were puppets, and didn't have authority to take the life of offenders. As long as they kept things from looking seditious, they risked little.

"Doesn't the veracity of someone come into play when you are told an account?"

It does. And the disagreement between the gospel accounts as well as their late authorship call that veracity into serious question.

"If a friend who you trusted very deeply told you that something incredible had happened to them would you dismiss it out of hand?"

"These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either." (Mk 16:13)

People who believe in God are willing to accept talking donkeys because they read it in a book and are willing to believe it was right to kill whole tribes of men, women and children, because they read a book saying that those people deserved to die.

robd, you represented what I was saying as the following: the miracles are not incredible to me because I believe in God. Yes, that's true. But the point of the post is that there are lots of reasons to believe in God so pointing out that some things happen in the Bible that would be incredible under ordinary circumstances is hardly an objection that I would find particurly troublesome.

Steven Carr,

I have to admit that you have made me revise my post. Donkeys may not be able to talk, but they can certainly comment on blogs.

Anonymous,

Please identify yourself.

I never said that the comparison between the Theory of Relativity was in identity with the Bible. One is a scientific theory which is testable by certain means. The other is a religious teaching that probably cannot be tested scientifically. But, of course, if you read through what I wrote you'd see that wasn't the comparison I was making.

There is no evidence. There are some hearsay reports composed 30-100 years after his death and a lot of theological posturing as to why we might or might not consider them to be true. The evidence is for the fact that the man had a following that believed in his resurrection, which we have much evidence for, even today. Etc. Etc.

Since I suspect you are the same person who wrote in response to the earlier thread, I will simply say that the foregoing is certainly what some people believe. However, since the argument countering what you have said is too long to put into a comment, I will simply say I think that a strong case can, and has, been made that you are simply wrong on most of what you said.

I find it strange that these same people will believe in abiogenesis, and that the universe came into existence from nothing, by nothing.

I have to say that, if I'm going to believe these two claims, I'll have to see it myself. :)

Hey look, Steven is reduced to braying again!


Not everyone among the opposition believes that the universe came into existence at all (much less from nothing by nothing), PL, but I do take your point.

I'm trying to remember if I've ever heard of anyone confirming by test that someone will age slower (or is it faster?) the closer he gets to lightspeed. Nothing comes to mind; and I'm not real sure how it would be verified through testing anyway. But it could have happened without me hearing about it, pretty easily.

Anyway, I suppose the point to the Einstein thing is not whether there _is_ yet experimental verification, but that there at least _might be_, in principle. Which is the same as saying that where something always automatically reacts to impetus, then in principle its reactions ought to be testable, even if the test hasn't been done yet (or can't be practicably done for whatever reason.)

Which conclusion has nothing to say about situations where something isn't only reacting to stimuli, per hypothesis. (Though that possibility could be denied per philosophical assertion or conclusion. But that wouldn't be a scientific conclusion about the hypothesized situation.)

JRP

BK,

My name is Bob and I'm a new commenter. I came across the post via a Google search. If you don't want anonymous posters, turn off the feature in your options. New visitors don't know it's taboo if you don't specify it.

I did read your entire post, and I stand by my comment. One is a proposal of a recurring event, the other of a unique occurrence. If you were saying Balaam's case forever awakened us to the reality of talking donkeys, it would be a legitimate comparison.

As for Etc-ing out my comments as unworthy of response, I will say that a strong case can only be made in the mind of someone who already has their mind made up.

Glad to see you take me on like you have, but please, if you deal with an argument of mine, quote from me by name.

In any case, even if you believe in God, it doesn't make it likely that an ass talked!

Let's say a believer came up to you today and he told you an ass talked. Does that make it any more likely that one did? And all we have is Balaam's word on it. You wouldn't have believed Balaam, so why do you because someone else did and wrote it down?

Besides, you have this whole thing reversed. You believe in God precisely because you believe these miracles actually happened, for the most part. You do not believe in the miracles because you first believe in God.

I, on the other hand, have everyday evidence that these miracles didn't happen. I don't see them happening today. Because this is the case, I have every rational right to say the people in those ancient days were simply superstitious like their neighbors were, who believed in the gods Baal, Zeus, Ra, Pharoah and Nebuchadnezzar.

I just don't think you understand this problem, that's all. I call it the Achilles' Heel of Christianity.

Bob,

We welcome comments, but I don't welcome anonymous comments. If you have something to say, please identify yourself. Unfortunately, if there is a way on blogger to have people comment but not allow anonymous comments, I haven't found it yet or I would set it up that way.

Second, I am not telling you not to stand by your comment. If I were comparing them in the way you suggested then I would agree that I erred. But the comparison between the two is as follows: in both, you are taking something that seems incredible out of what is a much larger case and saying you don't believe it on that account. That is where the comparison I made connects. If you think I'm wrong on that point, I would be interested in hearing why, but your response doesn't deal with that point at all.

Finally, I wasn't saying that they were unworthy of response. I was saying that they have been responded to on many occasions, but I wasn't going to respond to them here. Oh, and yes, I have made up my mind. I am not an agnostic. Does that mean I cannot be convinced to the contrary? I have changed my mind about a large number of things that I had made up my mind about in the past, so I don't think that the fact that I have made up my mind about Christianity makes it impossible that I should reconsider. However, I encourage you to read some of the material that counters what you so blithely state as facts about Jesus and the Gospels -- it may open your eyes. (Oh, and before you ask, I have read lots of stuff contrary to my own beliefs.)

John W. Loftus,

Sorry about not using your name. But I certainly think anyone interested enough could follow the link back and find it easily enough.

Second, I didn't say it made it likey an ass talked. What I meant (and I thought I made clear) is that it takes it out of the realm of impossibility.

Third, how do you know I wouldn't have believed Balaam? Maybe Balaam was a really good friend who I trusted and knew would not lie. Maybe he had others with him who could attest to the fact the ass talked. I certainly agree I would have been skeptical, but to say outright I wouldn't have believed him simply strikes me as a case of prejudging that should be beyond someone who claims to think independently.

Third, I am fascinated by the following:

You believe in God precisely because you believe these miracles actually happened, for the most part. You do not believe in the miracles because you first believe in God.

Maybe I'm confused here, but isn't this just the opposite of your position? I mean, I thought you were saying that the only reason we Christians believe in things like Lot's wife becoming a pillar os salt was because we believed in God. Now you seem to be saying that the only reason we believe in God is because we believe that God's wife turned into a pillar of salt. Help me out here.

Finally, I do see miracles happening. No, I don't see talking donkeys of resurrections, but I have seen a man sick with cancer getting miraculously healed. But more than that, I see the entire universe and our place in it as a miracle. I'm sure you dismiss it as chance, but that's partly why you don't see.

I understand the problem perfectly. You don't understand the solution.

BK said...I didn't say it made it likey an ass talked. What I meant (and I thought I made clear) is that it takes it out of the realm of impossibility.

Okay, but how much of your faith is based, not on what is probable, but what is not impossible?

BK said...Third, how do you know I wouldn't have believed Balaam?

You would surely ponder the story, but what are the odds they were fooling you, someone played a trick on them, or that they were all drunk when it supposedly happened. You would ask him to have his donkey talk for you, and you know it.

BK said...I thought you were saying that the only reason we Christians believe in things like Lot's wife becoming a pillar of salt was because we believed in God. Now you seem to be saying that the only reason we believe in God is because we believe that God's wife turned into a pillar of salt. Help me out here.

No, the only reason you believe in miracles is because you believe the Bible. And the whole reason you believe the Bible is because you were taught to believe it based upon when and where you were born, as I have said.

Other than that, let me clarify: You believe in [the Christian] God precisely because you believe these miracles actually happened, for the most part. You do not believe in the miracles [of the Bible] because you first believe in [a creator] God.

I have seen a man sick with cancer getting miraculously healed can you verify this, and doe it also legitimize the particular theology of that person?

BK:

I'm anonymous 1, not anonymous 2. I wrote the first post in this section. Anonymous 2 wrote everything else. My name is Robert Sutherland. I can't remember my old blogger name or password, so I use Anonymous.

Robert,

The easy solution is simply to type your name at the bottom of your comment. It helps us distinguish between various anons. (Considering the amount of spam I get from being registered on 'Booger' {g}, despite the password system, I certainly don't blame someone for not registering.)

JRP

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