Saturday, December 23, 2017

Making a case for Christianity

I've read lots of books on and articles on Christian apologetics over the years. I cringe at books entitled The Case for Christianity, as if the fortunes of the Christian faith hang on the success of that apologist in that book. Should we read these books in breathless suspense, turning the pages with white knuckled trepidation as the Christianity teeters in the blanche until the final chapter tips the scales in its favor? It would be preferable if less pretentious titles were used. Especially since many of these books are pitched at a popular level, and therefore skim the issues pro and con.

On a more substantive note, a dissatisfaction I have with many books on Christian apologetics is the narrow range of evidence. The Christian faith arose in a pagan world haunted by ghosts, demons, and witchcraft. In that context, the evidence for Christianity included exorcism, dreams and visions, angelic apparitions as well as apparitions of the dead. And the mission field in many parts of the Third World today parallels that environment. But Western Evangelical apologists from about the Enlightenment up until our own day generally neglect or avoid that dimension. While many treatments are good for what they include, they suffer from a provincial, ethnocentric, First World oversight in what they omit

Likewise, the argument from prophecy is a fixture of traditional Christian apologetics, but there's an unfortunate lacuna between pop apologetic arguments for fulfilled prophecy and scholarly expositions. Constructing good arguments for fulfilled prophecy takes patient detail work. 

Another issue is the gap between evidence for mere theism and evidence for Christian theism. How do we bridge the gap between evidence for theism in general and evidence for Christianity in particular? That's a common complaint, although I think the complaint is often unfair. If Christian theism is true, then that will include components of mere theism. They overlap. 

I frequently argue from Christianity from different angles. If I were to make a systematic case for Christianity, what's a good way to organize the argument? Is there a hierarchal structure, where one thing leads to another in stepwise progression? I think that's someone artificial, because reality is holistic, with overlapping domains. Nevertheless, there is something of a multi-stage argument, even if it's not strictly linear. 

This post takes for granted all the supporting material I've posted over the years. (Jason Engwer has posted lots of pertinent material as well.) The purpose of this post is not to actually lay out all the evidence, but to sketch an apologetic strategy. How to logically arrange the material. 

A. The Presumption of faith

Christian apologetics is an interdisciplinary field. Every Christian shouldn't feel intellectually deficient or inferior if they can't marshall a strong case for their faith. That depends on their aptitude, education, leisure time. Christian thinkers as diverse as Leibniz, Newman, Warfield, Polanyi, and Plantinga have explained that you can know what you believe even if you lack the ability to defend it. It's not as if there's a presumption against Christian faith which you must overcome. In many cases, you're entirely justified in what you believe apart from having arguments at your fingertips. 

But while Christian apologetics isn't indispensable to every Christian, it remains an indispensable component of Christianity overall. For one thing, Christian apologetics overlaps with evangelism and missionary outreach.

In addition, some professing Christians have unquestioning faith because they're perfunctory believers. They never gave it much thought one way of the other. It's just part of their social life. Going with the flow. If the tide went out, their faith would ebb. Perfunctory believers like that need to examine their rootless faith. 

Also, it's not ideal to espouse a particular theological tradition just because that's all you've been exposed to. 

Furthermore, even pious believers can suffer from a crisis of faith due to personal tragedy. Disappointment with God. They feel God let them down when they most needed him. God betrayed their faith. It's important to an apologetic backstop to guard against apostasy. 

B. Process of elimination

At one end we can approach the "proof" for Christianity by process of elimination. It isn't always necessary to have direct, positive arguments for something if you can discount the competition. This doesn't mean there's no direct, positive evidence for Christianity. But there are complementary strategies. 

C. Debunking naturalism

If we define naturalism as physicalism and causal closure, then evidence to the contrary falsifies atheism. So the remaining candidates will be religious. 

For instance, if there are well-documented paranormal phenomena, then that disproves naturalism (e.g. precognition, telepathy, psychokinesis, Old-Hag syndrome, veridical near-death and out-of-body experiences, apparitions of the dead).

At least in theory, some atheists appeal to platonic realism (e.g. moral platonism, mathematical platonism). I think that's ad hoc, and most atheists resist dualism. 

D. Debunking religious rivals

The most direct rivals to Christianity are Islam, Judaism, and cults. 

Some cults are cessationist (e.g. the Watchtower) while other cults appeal to ongoing public revelation (Mormonism).

The relationship between Judaism and Christianity is intertwined. On the one hand, the NT must be consistent with the OT. On the other hand, the credibility of OT prophecies and promises depends on a sample of fulfillments. Tangible evidence that some of these have been fulfilled, which lends credence to belief that others are in process of fulfillment. But messianic prophecies lose credibility with the passage of time if there's been nothing at all since OT times to validate them. How can you distinguish between a failed prophecy and future fulfillment if there's no evidence that any of them ever came true? How long must you wait before there's the justified suspicion that the seer didn't know what he was talking about? That's the dilemma for Orthodox Judaism. 

For reasons that I and others have stated, I think Islam and the cults are easily disposed of. 

Less direct are Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism. One issue is whether there's any evidence for Eastern religions. The onus is not on Christians to disprove religious claimants that have no evidence.

Although there's some putative evidence for reincarnation, there are alternative supernatural explanations. 

Assuming that witchcraft sometimes taps into genuine occult power, that's consistent with a Christian worldview. 

E. Ufology

i) That suffers from familiar scientific objections. 

ii) But in some cases it may have a basis in the paranormal (e.g. Old-Hag syndrome). Yet that's consistent with a Christian worldview. 

iii) Christianity doesn't rule out the possible existence of extraterrestrial life. 

F. Positive evidence for theism

This includes a priori and a posteriori theistic proofs. Philosophical and scientific arguments.   

G. Positive evidence for Christian theism 

1. Argument from miracles

2. Argument from prayer

3. Argument from special providence

Here I have in mind Christian miracles and answers to Christian prayer– well as Christians who experience a special providence. May not be something he asked for or anticipated, but it meets a need, present or future. 

(1-3) don't necessarily single out Christianity, but they cluster around Christianity. 

A lot of evangelical apologetics is focussed on the miracles of Christ, especially the Resurrection.  The argument from miracles is a traditional and central argument for Christianity. However, the traditional formulation suffers from circularity. In reference to biblical miracles, they don't lend independent, additional credibility to Biblical narratives because they depend on the historicity of the narratives to reliably report them. 

However, that deficiency is easily remedied inasmuch as the evidence for miracles isn't confined to ancient documentary evidence (e.g. Scripture). There's evidence throughout church history, up to and especially the present. 

So it isn't necessary to first make a case for the historicity of Scripture, since Christians miracles are hardly exclusive to Scripture. The evidence is abundant in time and place. 

The argument from miracles has the additional advantage of being much more accessible than philosophical, historical, and scientific arguments.

4. Possession and exorcism

Credible cases debunk naturalism. Moreover, these often take place in explicitly Christian settings. In that context, successful exorcisms furnish evidence for the Christian theology (i.e. the Christian deity, Jesus, Satan, demons). 

(There's some evidence that the living can also be possessed by the dead. If so, that debunks physicalism.) 

5. Apparitions of the dead

This is an overlapping category. General apparitions of the dead (e.g. ghosts, poltergeists) debunk naturalism without singling out Christianity. 

However, a vision of Jesus or crisis apparition involving a dead Christian is evidence specific to Christianity. I'm referring to credible or veridical examples, and not just any reported encounter. 

6. Argument from prophecy

If it's demonstrable that Jesus fulfills messianic prophecy, then that evidence singles out Christianity. 

7. The Bible

A common objection is that it's viciously circular to cite the Bible to prove the Bible. However, that's simplistic:

i) At the very least, Scripture is prima facie evidence for what it reports. In that regard, it's no different than historical records generally. We routinely cite Greco-Roman historians (e.g. Thucydides, Tacitus, Josephus, Julius Caesar) as sources for ancient history. Or medieval chroniclers (e.g. Anna Comnena). Likewise, Civil War historians consult letters and memories by Civil War vets. No reasonable person would say it's viciously circular to cite letters to home from Civil War vets to learn about the Civil War. That's primary source evidence. 

There's no presumption that these records are false. Of course, not all witnesses are credible or equally reliable. There's standard criteria to sift testimonial evidence. But unless we think a witness was motivated to lie, we don't automatically discount what they report. 

ii) Biblical archeology provides corroboration, where evidence survives. 

iii) A neglected but refurbished line of evidence is the argument from undesigned coincidences

8. Existential argument

Christian apologists often argue that life is pointless if we're byproducts of an accidental universal, and if we pass into oblivion when we die. Most atheists are loathe to admit that, although of few are more honest about the consequences of naturalism (e.g. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, David Benatar, Alex Rosenberg). That generates a dilemma for the consistent atheist. He can bite the bullet. He can say that since atheism is true, human lives are worthless. Nothing matters. If, however, he takes the value of human life as his starting-point, then Christian faith ought to be his end-point.


  1. Discount out-of-body experiences as paranormal. They can be reliably induced. Rituals like chanting, mantra recitation, and prayer, all utilize repetitive sounds to help induce a wide variety of states of consciousness that correspond to the tempo or rate of the repetition. The parietal lobe is involved in how we locate ourselves in physical space, and it can get dialed down under known and repeatable conditions. I've heard personal testimonies of a few people who have had "out of body" experiences which they invariably attribute to spiritual reasons. If you can switch off that part of your brain, then your brain would "have no choice" but to perceive that the self is "endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses."

    My experience is that Christians who appeal to the supernatural so quickly, have had their curiosity to understand the natural world neutered by the easy explanation -- and indeed the explanation they actively want -- "it's possible, because God". But... the answer has never been magic. Out of body experiences are not supernatural at all. These mystical occurrences, which happen across a wide range of religions, are often described in similar terms. And that's because there's nothing supernatural actually going on. We tend to downplay just how malleable our brains are. Until recently, any advanced neuroscientific explanation wasn't possible. No one 1000 years ago could say "ah, but that's just your posterior superior parietal lobe shutting down, which you brought on yourself with sounds that repeat at a specific frequency". So the explanation was "God". In the same way ancient cultures didn't understand what a rainbow was, or where language came from, so the explanation was always and everywhere "God". It's indisputable that the category of what you consider supernatural today is smaller than what was considered supernatural 5000 years ago.

    1. I'm not referring to the perception of an out-of-body experience, but examples of veridical out-of-body experiences where the mind perceives things it couldn't perceive if its perception was localizes (i.e. confined to the five physical senses). Say the patient is in the operating room, but their mind perceives things outside the operating room, which is later confirmed by witnesses. Or overhearing conversations in the operating room when higher cortical functions were shut down.

      I didn't attribute the experience to spiritual reasons. Rather, I point out that it's incompatible with naturalism (i.e. physicalism+causal closure).

      Another example concerns veridical apparitions of the dead.

    2. For instance: