Is faith in the message of the Gospel blind? Are Christians simply appealing to a bearded sky-daddy in an attempt to avoid reality or is there evidence for their belief? NEW THIS WEEK: Pressure Point – We look at some of the hot-potato issues in culture that put the Christian under pressure and how to respond to them intelligently and truthfully. We also hear the conversion testimony of former atheist and scholar Philip Vander Elst.

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3 comments on “The Nature of The Gospel

  1. Mohan Dec 5, 2017

    Dear Graham
    You make a number of assertions which sadly do not withstand scrutiny.
    Lennox saying that it is impossible to prove that nothing exists outside of the closed system that is the universe may be technically correct but fails entirely to grasp a pretty rudimentary concept: that it is not possible to prove a negative. Following on from this, if I make an assertion as stupidly grandiose as the existence of an interventionist God, the burden of proof lies on me, not on the individual who rejects my assertion.
    Consider the following hypothetical example: If my wife believes that I am having an affair and I deny this, she cannot turn round to me and say “prove that you are not having an affair”. How is such a thing realistically provable? How can I prove beyond doubt that whenever I leave the house, I am not visiting the house of my imaginary mistress? The only way to do this is for my wife to follow me around absolutely everywhere, thus verifying every single one of my movements.
    The only plausible way to deal with this allegation would be for the burden of proof to shift to my wife, who would then have to prove that I AM having an affair. Until demonstrably correct evidence is produced, my wife’s assertion of my infidelity remains just that – a mere assertion. Any evidence that is subsequently produced would still have to be analysed in order to ensure that it stands up to scrutiny, otherwise any old nonsense could be put forward and deemed to be ‘evidence’.
    Even when no evidence of my infidelity is produced, my wife is still at liberty to believe that I am having an affair. The sincerity of her belief does not make her any more correct.
    I am struggling to find anything that is not mere assertion in relation to the truth of the Biblical accounts of the resurrection. How is the disciple’s “slowness to accept” the resurrection factual evidence that it had actually taken place? At best it is an example of Vander Elst’s inability to guard against confirmation bias. He had already decided that the resurrection had taken place in his mind and searched for anything that supported this assertion.
    Jesus’ empty tomb and the subsequent martyrdom of the disciples again provides no meaningful evidence that such an event took place. Even assuming that irrefutable evidence for an empty tomb could be found – it is an enormous leap to simply dismiss the notion that the body had been moved. However implausible one may consider even this theory to be, the fact remains that almost nothing on earth is less plausible than an individual rising from the dead. The theory that one of the disciples had moved the body in order to preserve the divine aura that surrounded Jesus is, to my mind, infinitely more plausible. Here was an individual who provided such inspiration to his followers that they were willing to abandon all, pay no heed to the morrow and follow Him everywhere. If somebody is so passionate about the message they are spreading that they are willing to die for that message, why is it so implausible that his followers would also be inspired to stand up for the same beliefs? History is littered with martyrs who did similar.
    I respectfully submit that providing sceptics with a choice between “Jesus as a con man” or “Jesus as a madman” is little more than an attempt to bait sceptics into making insults where no insult was ever intended. Denying the divinity of Jesus is simply not the equivalent of denouncing Him as a con artist or a madman. There are too many areas in between where clarity is notably absent to make even this assertion – for instance, we do not even know for sure that Jesus directly made the claims that the Bible reports. We only know that The Bible ITSELF claims that Jesus did so. That is why I say that questioning the veracity of the miracles or the resurrection is not a personal attack on Jesus himself. I have already stated my admiration for Him as an individual and I will not retread the same ground again here. Nevertheless, assuming that one accepts the accounts of the resurrection in the Bible, all we really can ascertain is this: That Jesus was crucified; that his body was subsequently missing; that the disciples claimed to have seen Him risen again. Absolutely none of these serve as evidential proof of the resurrection. Yet again, there are far too many knowledge gaps in between.
    Ultimately, however far-fetched alternative theories about the resurrection may be, none can be less plausible than the actual resurrection itself. Not every theory requires the same burden of proof and claims to coming back from the dead require quite insanely high levels of evidence to prove. As things stand, all we have are sources which only lead back to the Bible as the original primary source.
    As also mentioned, why, in me questioning the validity of the resurrection, does that automatically equate to my saying that Jesus was a con-artist? I say nothing of the kind because I have no evidence for that. Nor do I say that all those who witnessed His return were lying. Is it not simply possible that they got it wrong? To paraphrase David Hume: which is more likely? That the laws of nature were suspended in favour of one man, or that a mistake was made? Christopher Hitchens points out that Jesus is not even the only individual who comes back to life in the Bible, even going so far as to describe resurrection as something of a banality.
    When we are attempting to make sense of events which purportedly took place hundreds or thousands of years ago, we of course cannot do this without filling in gaps ourselves. However we are still entitled to simply consider how likely it is that a particular event took place. That is why I question the historicity of the miracles and the resurrection, but do not seek to particularly question the very existence of Jesus, his teachings or his crucifixion. These events do not fly in the face of the laws of nature.
    I would argue that religions such as Christianity are not handed down from eye witness accounts, but rather, they are handed down from claims of eye witness accounts; claims of revelation, not actual revelation. This is not exclusive to Christianity, it applies to all religions based on revelation. Whilst I admire the efforts of the apologetic approach to introduce evidence into the equation, this approach must ultimately fail because the evidence is bad to begin with. If I attempted to argue that Mohammad actually physically split the moon into two and then flew to heaven on a winged horse, you would rightfully laugh off the entire enterprise. Yet you are arguing for the veracity of an equally fanciful event and passing this off as truth rather than opinion. We are all entitled to our opinions but not entitled to our own facts.
    Now, can I prove beyond doubt that the resurrection and the miracles did not take place? I cannot. However, I have yet to have been provided with a single convincing reason to start believing otherwise. I dismiss the usefulness of the existing evidence entirely out of hand, it is biased to a fault and for me reinforces the need to view the Bible as a spiritual and symbolic guide only. Your absolute certainty on these issues is a little misplaced and more than a little troubling.
    Best wishes
    Mohan

    • admin Dec 5, 2017

      Hi Mo – A lot to get through here. Thanks for your comments as always.

      Let me take issue with a few of your objections:

      1. ‘It is not possible to prove a negative’ – But it is! We can prove that there are no T-rex’s currently walking the earth. We can also prove the non-existence of logical impossibilities such as a square circle or a married bachelor. Lennox’s argument takes issue with those who deny even the possibility of miracles without presenting any kind of evidence for their conclusion.

      2. ‘The assertion of an interventionist God is stupidly grandiose’ – On what grounds is it stupidly grandiose to posit this? We live in a universe that we know had a beginning, we know that all things that begin to exist have a cause, therefore the universe must have a cause. That cause could not be something material within time and space since it is outside of space time and matter, it precedes them. We may call this un-caused cause of the cosmos God. Moreover, it appears that the greater burden of proof is upon those postulating that the universe as we know it sprung into existence out of absolute nothing and that it’s life permitting laws and constants balanced on a knife edge occurred by random chance, and that life on earth in all it’s complexity was simply the product of blind, unguided processes without intelligence. The evidence in the fossil record and in the micro biology of the human cell does not support this theory of the development of life.

      3. The historical facts concerning the resurrection are merely assertions based on the truth of the bible – The historical facts concerning the resurrection are as follows 1) That Jesus was crucified by pontius pilate 2) that he was buried in the tomb of joseph of arimathea 3) That the tomb was discovered empty on the third day 4) That jesus’s followers had encounters with what they believed to be the risen Jesus. These are agreed upon by the vast majority of scholars in relevant fields of study by atheist and christian alike (see habermas for a list of further facts agreed upon by believers and skeptics alike https://ses.edu/minimal-facts-on-the-resurrection-that-even-skeptics-accept) We may choose our inferences from the facts but as you say, we don’t get the liberty of choosing which facts we will accept. The gospels and pauline letters which make up most of the new testament are treated by historians as independent historical sources for the life of Jesus, whether we like it or not. Historians actually cite Luke’s gospel and his book of acts as dependable sources for the life of certain other rulers and locations in the 1st century. It is on us to draw inference to the best explanation for these facts.

      4. ‘That none of these facts serve as evidential proof of the resurrection’ – In what way do they not serve as evidential?

      5. ‘The disciples moved his body to preserve his divine aura’ – The disciples were Jewish, there is no concept of divine aura in Judaism and when you were dead, you were dead. The only resurrection concept in Judaism was the resurrection at judgement day. Moreover, even if they had moved the body is it plausible that they then spread the story of the resurrection despite knowing this to be a lie and enduring (to a man) violent persecution and martyrdom? I think not.

      6. Conflation – Disputing the apologetic approach to christianity by virtue of an appeal to Mohammed splitting the moon is fallacious, it commits the fallacy of equivalence. When one makes a claim to be an eye witness to an actual event we must question that claim, how many other eye witnesses were there? Does what they say they witnessed line up with other circumstantial evidence? What do other eye witnesses claim etc? There are at least four eye witness accounts in the new testament to the events of jesus’s life, death and resurrection, there are also at least 9 extra biblical sources from history to these events. This is very, very good historical evidence. There is no comparison to be had here with the story of Mohammed.

      • Mohan Dec 7, 2017

        Hey Graham,
        Huge thanks for taking the time and trouble to respond. You are giving my critical faculties a thorough workout which I am really very grateful for.
        I will attempt a rebuttal to your points here:
        1) It is possible to prove a negative:
        – Not really. Not in this context. In point 6 you state that I am unjustly relying on an argument of equivalence and with respect you have started out doing the same thing. First off, your analogies of a squared circle and a married bachelor are essentially falsifiable arguments – they are deemed to be impossibilities because of existing definitions of the words ‘circle’ ‘squared’ ‘married’ and ‘bachelor’.

        – With regards to the veracity of the miracles as performed by Jesus, as things stand, these are not verifiable or falsifiable in any meaningful way. The Bible and other secondary sources tell us only this: that at some point in the past, a number of people at best believed that they had witnessed events which broke the laws of nature; and subsequently, these were written down. If Lennox is actually saying that sceptics flat out deny the possibility of miracles, this is also not quite the case. Speaking for myself, if I came across verifiable/ falsifiable evidence for miracles which convinced me, then I would have to change my mind. Different claims require different levels of evidence Graham. Eyewitness accounts to the Sermon on the Mount will require much less of a burden of proof than eyewitness accounts of somebody making a lot of food out of a bit of food. Carl Sagan said it best: “Extraordinary claims call for extraordinary evidence”.

        – You mentioned the numbers of eyewitnesses who had attested to the miracles and stated that this was solid evidence. Check out footage of the Hindu mystic Satya Sai Baba. Before his death in 2011 he regularly purported to perform miracles similar to those found in many religious texts. The sheer numbers of followers who accept these as proof of his divinity could equally be put forward as evidence, yet I view these with the same scepticism as I do the miracles in the Bible, or indeed anything which contravenes the laws of nature.

        – Eyewitness accounts, given the right circumstances, can be spectacularly unreliable and even more so when that eyewitness account has been the subject of a game of Telephone and been passed from person to person.

        2) We live in a universe that we know had a beginning, we know that all things that begin to exist have a cause, therefore the universe must have a cause
        – Agreed. Something obviously did create the universe because it exists. That says nothing about what or who. Do I know definitively what the first cause was? Of course not. Except my saying “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. Einstein didn’t know. Lawrence Krauss doesn’t know. Neil DeGrasse Tyson doesn’t know. But science is at least working on it. And here we link back to point 1) Not being able to disprove does not equal proof of the opposite. Also, going back to definitions – if I am as yet unsure whether something happened, it means that I do not as yet believe it. Even now I do not say that I KNOW that the resurrection/ miracles did not take place. I am saying that I have not been given any convincing reason to believe it. You believe otherwise which is perfectly acceptable. But call a spade a spade and state that it is a belief and not fact.

        – Your theory that a sentient and omnipotent God created everything is only that – a theory. It is not THE truth. At best, it is YOUR truth. To you, evolution may also be just a theory; Except as things currently stand, it is by far the most tested, the most corroborated and the most elegant theory for life that exists. It is the model that best takes account of all available research and all observable data. Also, you mentioned randomness; yes, we may be here by chance. Who knows? Rewind the clock back and maybe the evolutionary process may have taken a different road and we might not have existed. I don’t know. I even accept that us even existing on a planet capable of sustaining life is incredibly improbable; however it does not automatically follow that the God of which you speak of created all this. By and large, yes I do believe that it is mainly luck that we happen to have been born on a planet that is capable of sustaining life. It is no less incredible for that.

        – You have used the iPhone argument on a couple of occasions now – again showing that you yourself are not above conflating. We have tangible and verifiable evidence for what created the iphone. We do not have such evidence for who or what created the universe. All that I am essentially saying is that absolute certainty on this subject is misplaced.

        – We may call this un-caused cause of the cosmos God.
        Indeed we may. If you wish to use the word ‘God’ as a generic term for the transcendent and mystical force which gave rise to the universe, then no problem. I have even said that I myself view the universe in a sort of pantheist way, similar to how Einstein and Spinoza. It is only for that reason that I don’t call myself a full blown atheist (I perhaps register at around 5.5 on the Dawkins scale). However I do not think that you are simply referring to God as some ‘un-caused cause of the cosmos’. You’re pretty clear on what you perceive God to be – He appears to be entirely sentient, entirely without weakness, entirely without limits on his power and capable of fulfilling the role of a father. It is this conception of God that I do not agree with and for which not a shred of worthwhile evidence has been presented. I am an atheist with regards to this type of God. Except, all things really considered, you too are an atheist for all other Gods other than your own.

        3) The historical facts concerning the resurrection are merely assertions based on the truth of the bible
        – The very phrase “The truth of the Bible” is itself an enormous assertion and is no different to the assertions made by Muslims about the Qu’ran, the Jews about the Torah or the Scientologists about all that Xenu nonsense. “The opinions of the Bible” is perhaps more palatable.
        4) Historians actually cite Luke’s gospel and his book of acts as dependable sources for the life of certain other rulers and locations in the 1st century. It is on us to draw inference to the best explanation for these facts.

        – Just because the Bible contains references to individuals and places which were known to have existed, it does not follow that the entire text is historical fact. James Bond worked for MI6 but the movies don’t serve as a source of info for a day in the life of the organisation. Just because I can climb Mount Sinai tomorrow if I wanted to does not even remotely serve as proof that Moses did.
        – Even I don’t say that the entirety of the Bible is entirely the product of someone’s imagination. Jesus as an inspirational spiritual leader? I am down with that and I have no issue with anyone invoking the Sermon on the Mount for inspiration in their lives.

        5) The historical facts concerning the resurrection are as follows 1) That Jesus was crucified by pontius pilate 2) that he was buried in the tomb of joseph of arimathea 3) That the tomb was discovered empty on the third day 4) That jesus’s followers had encounters with what they believed to be the risen Jesus. These are agreed upon by the vast majority of scholars in relevant fields of study by atheist and christian alike

        – Habermas’ minimal facts approach is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. I am more or less willing to accept all of the above statements. I am also willing to accept that the majority of existing scholars have accepted the above as historical fact also. However, all we can ascertain from the above four facts is the above four facts. None of them allow us to draw the conclusion that the resurrection took place. Also, acceptance of the facts does not mean that one is obliged to accept the conclusion that you happen to find most compelling. In an earlier blog post you posited other theories which sprung from the same facts, but let us be honest. There was no way that you were ever going to find any theory compelling that did not conclude that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.

        6) Yes, the disciples believed they had seen the risen Jesus. They were even sincere in their belief. It was still a belief and beliefs do not equate to facts. They do not equate to evidence. You are in essence saying that because the disciples were convinced themselves, that serves as assurance that it all must have taken place.

        7) That none of these facts serve as evidential proof of the resurrection’ – In what way do they not serve as evidential?

        – As above

        8) The disciples were Jewish, there is no concept of divine aura in Judaism and when you were dead, you were dead.
        – You are slightly splitting hairs here but I appreciate the clarification. ‘Divine Aura’ was maybe a clumsy choice of words. What I meant is that Jesus will have been so inspirational to his followers that he would have had a transcendent quality to him – so in this sense I meant that he had an ‘aura’. Other great people from history could be argued to have the same – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Socrates, Einstein etc. Although amazingly I am with Judaism on this: when you’re dead, you’re dead.

        9) This is very very good historical evidence
        – In your opinion. Also, good historical evidence of what? I would venture that existing sources can serve as decent evidence that someone who matches the description of Jesus of Nazareth will have lived around 2000 years ago, delivered his ministry, inspired many and bravely died for his beliefs. His disciples were so inspired that they too were prepared to die for their beliefs. If that is where you leave it then I am with you. Invoking the supernatural because it makes you feel good requires more than ‘very very good’ evidence.

        10) There is no comparison to be had here with the story of Mohammed
        – Both stories invoke equally outlandish supernatural claims which are expected to be accepted without question and without doubt. Both Jesus and Mohammed claimed that there was no God but their own. Both were mistaken. Seems like a reasonable comparison to me.

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