“I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source. Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.”
– Antony Flew, There is a God, (pg. 88)
For those of you who haven’t heard the name Antony Flew, he was one of the world’s leading atheists for decades having debated many top Christian thinkers from C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga and even William Lane Craig. However, before he passed away he actually came to be believe that God existed after all. The reason why is in his quote above. Antony Flew never came to acknowledge Christian theism as far as I know, although one prays that he did before he passed on. The issue I would like to explore in this article is how one can move from theism in general to Christian theism in particular evidentially. I would at this point like to offer up a reminder of sorts by mentioning the value and role of natural theology.1 Natural theology is simply the use of arguments and evidence for God’s existence apart from special revelation (such as Holy Scripture, etc.). Examples would include arguments for a cause of the universe, an argument as to why anything exists rather than nothing, an argument for God’s existence based on the objectivity of moral values and duties, etc. These arguments will only further solidify the truth of theism as we then move forward and examine why Christian theism is the best explanation of the available evidence.
So you think you have good reasons to believe that there is a god or gods out there somewhere, but then you start reflecting on it just a little bit more and think, “Who is God or who are the gods? Or how could I even know? There are so many claims from others to know God: from Judaism, Islam, Christianity and many more. How can one actually know what the truth is? I hope to provide a brief look at this topic and show how we should first find a starting point then work out from there and try to reach a conclusion. While there are many factors affecting whether or not a person is inclined to embrace Christian theism in particular after arriving at theism in general, I want to explore it from an evidential perspective here. I’ll start by offering a brief, reflective rejection of polytheism, namely that there can exist more than one God. Then I want to offer a logical starting point from which to work after establishing why monotheism makes the most sense philosophically. Finally we will examine a brief case for Christian theism and then draw a conclusion by way of summary and reflection.
Monotheism or Polytheism?
When reflecting on the existence of God it seems that we should establish whether we are looking for one god (monotheism) or more than one god (polytheism). Something that really helped me is perfect being theology,2 namely that God should be conceived of as a maximally great being. So on this view there is no being greater than God and if there were, then that being would be God. Any great making properties a being could have, God, as a maximally great being, would be maxed out in all of them. The reason this is helpful in regard to our issue of monotheism versus polytheism is that for God to be a maximally great being one of the properties of God would concern His divine aseity, namely His self-existence and His not being dependent on any other being for anything. So God would then not be dependent on His creation for anything or He would cease to be maximally great and would therefore not be divine. So on this view God is logically necessary, in other words his non-existence is logically impossible. Anything that is necessary would exist in this way. Remember that many atheists used to hold that the universe existed in this way, so this isn’t special pleading for God.3 If this is the case then can there be more than one God? This would be logically impossible it seems, akin to having an irresistible force and an unmovable object. If one being is logically necessary and doesn’t/can’t depend on any other being for its existence, then can there be two of them? Of course not, because at least one of them would have to be dependent on the other for its existence and hence one would be maximally great and the other not.4 This seems to me to be good grounds for affirming some form of monotheism. Once we have arrived at monotheism, then we need to examine which form of monotheism seems to be the most plausible.
The best starting point for trying to weigh the truth claims of different forms of monotheism is with Christianity. I would at this point like to reference and encourage you to read a wonderful article by Dr. Craig Hazen titled, Christianity In a World of Religions, in the compilation essay book Passionate Conviction. He recalls getting to speak to a group of students in a religious studies course and that he offered them four reasons as to why a thoughtful person on a religious quest should start with Christianity, and I think he makes a great case. The four reasons are as follows:
- Christianity is testable.
- In Christianity, salvation is a free gift of God.
- In Christianity you get an amazing worldview fit.
- Christianity has Jesus at the center.5
In his essay he expounds on each of the four points, but I think for our purposes here we should focus on number one during our evidential case and then I’ll remind us of the importance of number three during our concluding remarks. Remember that what I want to offer in this article is a look at the evidential barriers to moving from theism in general to Christian theism in particular. So issues such as moral or emotional objections, etc. won’t be addressed at this point but are serious obstacles that need to be addressed. So if we consider just the evidence alone and have truth and coherence as our primary goal and we consider Hazen’s points, then we need to ask ourselves what would an evidential case for Christian theism look like?
Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?
The first point made by Hazen is that Christianity is testable. In this case the test is a historical test. Christianity rises or falls based on whether the claim “God raised Jesus from the dead,” is true or false. So the Christian would offer that “God raised Jesus from the dead,” is true and would proceed to give historical evidence to show this to be the case. Anyone who denies this claim needs to offer a different explanation that fits the evidence just as good or better than the Christian claim. Remember as well that when we are talking about history we aren’t dealing in absolute certainties. We only get absolute certainty in the fields of mathematics and logic. So what we want to keep in mind is that what needs to be shown is for the claim “God raised Jesus from the dead” to be more plausibly true than its rival explanations based upon the available historical evidence.
There are several approaches to dealing with examining/testing the foundational claim of Christianity and what I offer below will be the approach taken by Dr. William Lane Craig. He has published on this widely but my favorite essay from him on this topic also just happens to be the one in which he best captures the heart of his case in a concise manner.6 As a reminder we need to realize that this approach does not require that one treat the primary source material (Paul’s letters, the Gospels) as inspired Holy books free from error. All one needs to do is treat the documents just like any other historical documents and mine out the historical core of what is being said. So even though I am focused on helping us move from theism to Christian theism based on an evidential case, this approach would also help any atheists who are interested in testing Christianity’s historic bedrock. Even if one thinks that there may be contradictions in the Gospel records, those are all in the secondary details and they need not deter us just like any other ancient historical source. I like Dr. Mike Licona’s example about the Titanic.7 Before we found the ship, the eyewitness testimony conflicted. Some eyewitnesses say that the ship broke in half and sank. Other eyewitnesses say it stayed intact and sank. Those two things are not reconcilable, either it broke in half or it did not. However, because there is conflict in eyewitness testimony, does that mean that the Titanic didn’t sink? Of course not! Same applies here to the Gospels and our historical investigation of the central claim of Christianity.
What Is The Evidence?
What I would like to do is give a brief outline of Craig’s essay and try to motivate those who hold to theism to seriously consider the evidence for Christian theism. Craig’s essay here completely changed my Christian walk and introduced me to Christian apologetics and I have been working very hard at it ever since. Here is a quick sketch of Craig’s essay where he starts by giving us an introduction and a helpful section on testing historical explanations. At this point he gives us some criteria for examining and testing historical and scientific hypotheses called inference to the best explanation.8 He then examines three lines of historical evidence: 1) Jesus tomb was empty, 2) we have multiple independently attested eyewitness accounts of people who all claim to have experienced appearances of Jesus alive after His death (referred to in the essay as postmortem appearances) and 3) the question of how did the disciples come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection (since it was such a foreign concept to Judaism). He then gives supporting evidence as to why we should think each of those three facts are true (which I have indented just below each one of the three main facts just mentioned in the outline that follows) and gives a brief explanation for each of his claims. We then get a concluding section where he gives criteria that supports historicity in any ancient work to show that it is more likely to be historical. He then assesses Jesus’ resurrection in light of the criteria for inference to the best explanation that he gave in his introductory comments and finds the conclusion “God raised Jesus from the dead” to be the best explanation of the evidence that we have. Here is his full outline below which I find immensely helpful:
-Testing Historical Explanations
-The Nature and Assessment of Historical Explanations
-Historical Explanation and the Supernatural
-Evidence For the Resurrection of Jesus
(1) The Empty Tomb
-The historical credibility of the burial story supports the empty tomb
-Paul’s testimony implies the fact of the empty tomb
-The presence of the empty tomb in the pre-Markan passion story supports its historical credibility
-The use of “on the first day of the week” (Mark 16:2) instead of “on the third day” points to the primitiveness of the tradition
-The nature of the narrative itself is theologically unadorned and nonapologetic
-The empty tomb was discovered by women
-The investigation of the tomb by Peter and John is historically probable
-It would have been virtually impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty
-The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb
-The fact that Jesus’ tomb was not venerated as a shrine indicates that the tomb was empty
(2) The Postmortem Appearances
-The testimony of Paul shows that the disciples saw appearances of Jesus
-The Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances are fundamentally reliable historically
-Particular resurrection appearances have historical credibility
-The resurrection appearances were physical, bodily appearances
(3) Origin of the Disciples’ Belief In Jesus’ Resurrection
-Jewish belief always concerned a resurrection at the end of the world, not a resurrection in the middle of history
-Jewish belief always concerned a general resurrection of the people, not the resurrection of an isolated individual
-Evidence for the resurrection and criteria of authenticity
-Assessing the resurrection as the best historical explanation
Certainly we can go very deep into this subject. The deeper one digs, the more plausible the resurrection hypothesis seems to be. What I would like to encourage everyone to do, Christians and theists alike, is study on the resurrection of Jesus and see if you think it measures up to the historical test. Remember the goal of this article is to challenge those of you who hold to some form of theism to seriously examine Christian theism. In Dr. Craig’s essay he mentions that one of the major objections to the resurrection hypothesis isn’t a lack of evidence, etc. but a worldview bias known as naturalism in which the supernatural is deemed impossible from the outset without even examining any evidence.10 Remember however, that if one espouses theism in general, then this major barrier is already behind you! What would make you, as a theist of some sort, reject on an evidential basis the hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead?” I encourage you to read Dr. Craig’s essay as well as Dr. Hazen’s essay and begin your quest for the truth on this central issue. Why would I say “central issue?” Simply because the practical and eternal implications of the truth of Christianity cannot be understated. Remember Dr. Hazen’s third point, that Christianity is a great worldview fit. This is important because since Christianity is testable that means it makes objective claims about reality. Our worldview is the set of beliefs we have that help us best make sense of reality. Most of us have worldviews that contain unreflective contradictory beliefs. What we want is to have a worldview that best explains reality in a consistent manner by pooling together all bits of knowledge and human experience into a coherent package. Christianity can give us this coherence we are looking for. If we examine evidence from cosmology that seems to point to a beginning of the universe, the Christian worldview can be open to that based upon the evidence (as opposed to say a naturalistic/atheistic worldview which rules it out without examination) as even Antony Flew would agree. Also, what about one of my favorite topics, namely that of objective moral values and duties? On theism in general one can ground objective moral values and duties, but if Christianity is true God has also revealed His commands to us as a way to know what constitute our moral values and duties. Naturalism again is a failure here. Many more examples could be given to support this. So I again just want to challenge, as well as encourage, any of you who may be undecided on what form of theism is true to examine the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and see if you can find any other explanation of the evidence (by putting those claims to the test) that is just as good or better than the foundational claim of Christianity, namely “God raised Jesus from the dead!”