Rational Belief

Photo Credit:  Attila Szűcs

Photo Credit: Attila Szűcs

This post is an exerp from Chapther 10 of Follow: A Handbook for Making Disciples of Jesus Christ, available on Amazon.com.  Kindle edition is available now.  Paperback coming soon!   

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
— C.S. Lewis

Following Jesus should never involve a blind leap of faith.  

The idea that faith should be blind is false.  Due to an array of causes, some have falsely promoted an idea that religious belief somehow requires the suspension of logic.  The indication seems to be that religious matters are outside the scope of rational and scientific thought and are therefore false.  

First of all, the idea that matters of faith do not intersect science and rationality is a false premise leading to a false conclusion.  However, the idea that something is false simply because it cannot be tested scientifically is itself a false assumption.  It is akin to saying, “Since I have never seen a virus it doesn't exist.”  The limitation of knowledge is not an indication of existence beyond knowledge's limits.  

Without giving you the whole back story, much of this thinking came as a result of an array of philosophers who subscribed to Isaac Newton's view that the universe was a vast machine of cause and effect that could not be influenced by anything outside of itself.  This erroneously ruled out the miraculous work of God and led to a few of theology that puts the human subject at the center of knowledge, rather than viewing God as the source of knowledge about Himself.  This view led to many arguments against God's existence, as well as to a vast array of liberal theology that denies the essentials of faith listed in the last chapter.

Newton's mechanistic view of the universe has since been supplanted by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, which aligns quite well with the Christ-centered worldview that sees God as the revealer of truth.  While the truth of God stands regardless of trends in the sciences, it is nice to see the realm of physics start to catch up a bit with what God has shown us in His Word.  

A Note: You will find that every now and then science and the Bible don't seem to line up.  Remember that science is continually changing. If it were infallible, it wouldn't.  God's Word never changes.  When something doesn't seem to line up, keep studying.  Often, the Bible is proven true as science advances.[1]  Not only that, but there is also the reality that we sometimes misinterpret Scripture as a result of translations or personal bias.  Humility is essential as we let the Holy Spirit illuminate God's Word.  

Sadly, in both ignorance and fear, many still think that faith requires the suspension of intellect.  They are wrong.  While it is impossible for anyone to prove anything beyond all possible doubt (we can't know everything in the universe), it is possible to give solid evidence, proving things beyond reasonable doubt.  As we will see, there is a great sum of evidence to support the essential beliefs of Christianity.  

My hope is that this chapter helps strengthen your faith and assists you in helping others overcome obstacles to faith.  

Nicky Gumble[2] says that believing in Christ should not be a blind leap.  Instead, it should be an eyes wide-open step of faith.  We look at the evidence, not knowing beyond all possible doubt and trust with our eyes open based on the evidence at hand.  As you may have already experienced, after believing we experience confirmations of belief.  

Gumble uses the illustration of a court case he worked in which a man was accused of stealing jewelry.  The jury studied the evidence (fingerprints at the scene, among other things) and his rebuttal (the possibility that he was at the jewelry store shopping earlier and left prints then).  After weighing the evidence, the jury had to make a decision.  They found him guilty.  After which, they were allowed to hear a whole host of other information that they were not able to hear before the verdict.  As it turns out, the defendant had been convicted of several other counts of jewelry theft and was awaiting trial for more.  Confirmation.  

So it is with Jesus.  Everyone can hear evidence.  Everyone must make a decision.  None of us can know everything.  We must take a step of faith based on evidence.  When we do, God often brings more confirmation through experience.  

We must take this into account when communicating our faith.  God says we must always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:15). It is to us to prove a rational explanation of our faith.  We call this "apologetics,” which means, “to give an answer.”  We don't want people to believe blindly.  We want people to see the Truth of God and believe rightly.  

I would like to take you through a few key rational arguments in support of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection of Jesus

Everything comes back to Jesus.  It is all about Him.  Fortunately, we have the most evidence for Jesus, His death, and His resurrection.  

I have a simple logical argument that can be simplified in this equation:

Notably, this argument comes primarily from the mind and scholarship of Dr. Gary Habermas.[3]  His book The Historical Jesus, among many others is absolutely invaluable to apologetic efforts.  I highly recommend his work.  Lee Strobel is also a good author on the subject.  His book The Case for Christ has helped many come to faith.  I think you will find Strobel easier to start with.  Habermas is a good next step.

Reliable Documentation

There are 4 primary criteria that must be met for a first century historical document to be considered reliable:

  • Number of copies (the more the better, at least 26)
  • Few Variant Readings (the fewer contradictions between copies, the better)
  • Date of Writing (the earlier, the better)
  • Number of Sources (the more corroborating, the better)

Number of Copies.  For a first century historical document to be considered reliable, you have to have as many copies as possible. More than 8 is considered pretty good.  If there are 26 copies of a document, it is considered very reliable.  The document with the most copies (other than the New Testament) is Homer's The Iliad.  We have about 600 copies of The Iliad.  This pales in comparison to the New Testament for which we have 1,500 copies.  Not only does the New Testament beat all other documents in number of copies, it beats the second place document by more than double.  In fact, if you count Latin translations, we have over 5,000 copies.  It is the most prolifically and accurately copied document of the first century.  

Few Variant Readings.  Variant readings are differences between copies.  A few variances between copies of documents are considered normal and acceptable.  However, the fewer variant readings, the better.  Unlike The Iliad and so many other documents, the New Testament has virtually no variant readings.  There are only a few small differences in numbers (sometimes due to rounding) and word order, but nothing that affects doctrine or major facts.  The New Testament was more accurately copied in antiquity than any other document.  

Date of Writing.  The earlier an eyewitness account is recorded, the better.  For instance, autobiographies and biographies written by contemporaries are considered much more reliable than biographies written decades later.  When we compare the writers of the New Testament to people who wrote about other first century figures, the New Testament wins again.  I like to compare the writings of the 4 gospels to accounts of Tiberius Caesar.  The earliest three writers who give account of Tiberius Caesar write 75, 83 and 180 years after his death.  However, the 4 gospels were written 40, 50, 50 and 65 years after the Resurrection.  Other New Testament books were written even earlier.  The New Testament accounts of Jesus were written very early, and as such are considered very reliable.  

Number of Sources.  The other thing to consider is number of sources.  When it comes to Tiberius Caesar, we have 9 total sources.  We have over 40 sources for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus' life is more verifiable that Caesars.  

Eyewitness Accounts

Make note that many of the writers of the New Testament accounts of Jesus were either eyewitnesses themselves or were directly reporting the accounts of eyewitnesses (or both).  As you will see, this is very important.  

It is notable that even critics of Scripture will affirm that the book of Galatians was indeed written by the Apostle Paul.  It is widely supported as a reliable document, even by critics.  In Galatians 1:11-20 Paul visits two eyewitnesses of the Resurrection (Peter/Cephas and James) to get their eyewitness accounts of the gospel, especially as it relates to the resurrection.  

Martyrdom

The fact that the New Testament meets all of these criteria so well makes it the most reliable first century document in existence.  If someone were to disbelieve the reliability of the New Testament, they would have to throw out all of First Century History with it in order to be epistemologically justified.   In fact, the accuracy and proliferation of the New Testament copies is so overwhelming, many consider its very existence miraculous.  

However, accuracy is only part of it.   The question to ask is: Couldn't the New Testament writers have lied about everything, especially the Resurrection?  The reality is that considering the circumstances, it is virtually impossible for them to have lied.  First of all, after the resurrection of Christ, Christians became targets.  The apostles fled persecution and spread across the known world.  They wrote the gospels while hundreds or even thousands of miles separated many of them.  However, their stories corroborate well.  In fact, they line up incredibly well.  This would have been almost impossible if they were lying, because the lies would have contradicted.  

That's not all!  One of the best arguments for the validity of Scripture is the fact that liars don't make martyrs.  We know of people who have died for someone else's lie, and we know of mentally deranged people who have died for their own "lies" (delusions).  However, there is no record of anyone giving their life for their own lie.  The 11 apostles that remained after the resurrection were each willing to face death for their individual eyewitness accounts of the life and resurrection of Jesus.  That means 11 eyewitnesses were willing to die for their own testimony of the Resurrection of Christ.  This doesn't even include the hundreds of other eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus that died for their belief in the resurrection.  This kind of thing doesn't happen unless they are telling the truth.  

More on the Resurrection

The Tomb is Empty.  The reality is that it has been 2,000 years, and no one has been able to produce Jesus’ body.  You can go to the tomb where he was laid and see that He is gone.  The only people with motive to steal Jesus’ body were martyred for their belief that he rose from the dead.  Not only that, but the religious leaders of the day with the support of the Roman Empire did everything they could possibly do to debunk the growing belief in the resurrection of Jesus.  Finding His body would have been the best way to do that.  Yet, the entire Roman Empire could not find His body.  

There is no such thing as mass hallucination. There are many critics who fully acknowledge that the disciples were willing to be martyred for their eyewitness account of the resurrection.  Many critics will affirm that the disciples really believed they saw the resurrected Jesus.  Seeking a desperate explanation, some critics have argued that the apostles and multiple other people (sometimes 500 at a time) simultaneously hallucinated the resurrected Jesus.  This is a rather desperate critical argument.  The reality is that people don’t hallucinate the same thing at the same time.[4]  Have you ever been with someone who was hallucinating?  Did you see what they were hallucinating?  Of course not!  Can you imagine 500 people hallucinating the exact same thing at the exact same time?  Of course not!   

The Resurrection can’t be a mere resuscitation.  Some have speculated that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, but rather that He merely swooned, appeared dead and was resuscitated in the tomb.  This is impossible for multiple reasons.  First, crucifixion eventually causes suffocation.  Part of the torture of it is that a person can’t breath while hanging on a cross with his arms stretched out.  The person being crucified has to push up on his nail-bound feet to breath, experiencing immense pain. If Jesus had swooned, he would not have been awake to push Himself up to breath and would have died of suffocation within minutes.  Further, John 19:34 notes that the guards, intending to make sure Jesus was dead, pierced his side with a spear.  Blood and water came out.  This indicates that His heart had already stopped.  When the heart stops, the pericardium (thin sack around the heart) fills with water.  Blood and water indicate Jesus had already died.[5]  

The Apostles changed from fear to boldness.  Imagine if your leader was publicly executed and you were known to be associated with Him and his teachings.  You would be afraid that they would come for you next.  So it was with the disciples.  They were afraid and in hiding (John 20:19).  Consider also that Peter denied Jesus three times, because he was afraid of what would happen if people knew He was Jesus’ disciple (Matthew 26:69-75).  However, upon seeing the resurrected Jesus, the apostles were filled with boldness.  Knowing that they would be resurrected just as Jesus, they had no fear of death.  It was not long after this that Peter and John openly profess Christ to the people who they were afraid of only weeks before (Acts 4).  A turn from cowering fear to boldness in the face of death can only be attributed to the resurrection of Jesus.  

Encountering Jesus

Ultimately, evidence is only part of belief.  You can have all the evidence in the world and still not know Jesus.  Jesus is a person, and people have to be met to be known.  None of this matters until you encounter Jesus.  Consider the evidence rationally, but above all else ask Jesus to reveal Himself to you.  Once you meet Him, you will never be the same.  


[1] The Hittite Empire is a good example of this.  The Old Testament mentions the Hittites several times, but for a long time the OT was the only reference to it.  It was thought to be “biblical myth” until 1906 when archeologist Hugo Winckler found a library of clay tablets documenting the existence of the Hittites.  Later on, the Hittite city of Boghazkoy was discovered, further supporting the biblical record. 

[2] Nicky Gumble is a British pastor who developed The Alpha Course, a course that offers a meal, a talk, and a discussion about Jesus.  It is great!  I recommend it. 

[3] Primarily this argument came from lectures he did at Liberty University in 2003.  However, he also used a large portion of this argument in his Veritas Forum lecture published on YouTube Nov. 8, 2012.  You can access it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ay_Db4RwZ_M&feature=youtu.be

[4] Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: Hallucination, The Recent Revival of Theories by Gary Habermas. This article was originally published in the Volume 23 / Number 4 / 2001 issue of the Christian Research Journal, but it is available online at http://www.equip.org/PDF/DJ923.pdf

[5] The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ by Gary Habermas (Joplin, MO: College Press, 2001), p. 72-75.  http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/historicaljesus/historicaljesus.htm

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