It seems lately that there has been a resurgence of atheism and agnosticism in American youth culture. With this in mind, it is necessary for young Christians to be able to explain and defend their faith through reason rather than mere appeals to authorities that non-Christians do not accept (i.e. the Bible, Church authority, Holy Tradition). Using inductive reasoning and the historical record, Christians can demonstrate that their faith is reasonable.
In my experience, most atheists and agnostics reject Christianity on the basis of a dogmatic and irrational rejection of miracles and Christian morality. Let me address this briefly before turning to the historical data.
Miracles are philosophically possible for the reasons the skeptic philosopher David Hume lucidly explained with regard to causation: past chronological experience in itself is no guarantee that physical phenomena will always occur in the future exactly like in that past experience. Philosophical skepticism undermines the dogmatic scientism and rationalism that say miracles can’t happen. I also suggest reading C. S. Lewis’ Miracles which explores precisely this topic and asserts that the reality of reason itself is miraculous. To summarize the argument in the book, Lewis quotes J. B. S. Haldane who appeals to a similar line of reasoning. Haldane states “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.”
Morality, if it is to have any real and signficant meaning apart from human opinion and preference, is a matter of faith. Morality is beyond reason. Reason and logic can never provide foundational moral principles; reason can only expound upon such unprovable principles. You can’t reason your way to unselfishness as a moral principle. Whether egoism or love is moral can be determined only by appeal to a faith, a religion. Atheists and agnostics have no reason on principle to embrace love and altruism. Because God is excluded, any atheist or agnostic “morality” has to be man-made and thus inherently arbitrary. For who is any man to say his morality is better than any other man’s? Moreover, a willful refusal to obey Christian morality says more about the disobedient person than it does about Christian morality; such a willful refusal certainly doesn’t say anything about the truth or reasonableness of Christianity one way or another.
Alright, now on to the historical evidence.
What we know about Jesus and early Christianity as a matter of history comes from Christian, Roman (Tacitus and Pliny the Younger), and Jewish (Josephus and the Talmud) primary sources. The Christian sources are eye-witness testimonies. They tell us four historical facts that are accepted by sincere and mainstream scholarship and have to be accounted for by the atheist, agnostic, or non-Christian:
- Jesus was tried, convicted, and crucified by the Jewish and Roman authorities.
- The tomb of Jesus was guarded and yet found empty. Neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities could produce His body.
- Afterward, many of His followers, former skeptics among them, claim to have to have seen Jesus alive in the flesh (not a ghost) and to have interacted with Him.
- His followers then, in the face of harsh persecution and martrydom, created a revolutionary worldwide movement that converted millions of people to a new way of life based on the life and teachings of Jesus. They achieved this without any significant economic, political, or military power.
The second and fourth facts are particularly significant.
The Christian explanation for these historical facts (the resurrection) is far more reasonable than all the other theories that non-Christians have come up with over the centuries. It passes historical scrutiny. Let’s take a look at these other theories one by one:
1. Jesus’ followers created a myth; they lied.
- The gospels tells us that Jesus’ followers were amazed at the sight of the risen Jesus; they did not expect Him to rise from the dead. Some refused to believe it even after others told them that He was alive in the flesh.
- It is one thing to create a myth or lie; it is quite another to endure persecution and death for the sake of beliefs that one knows or even suspects to be untrue. Such behavior is highly unlikely. Who would behave like this? (See theory #4 too.)
2. Jesus’ followers stole the body of Jesus. (A very early accusation made against Christianity by Jewish authorities.)
- The gospels and Jewish sources tell us that the tomb of Jesus was closed with a stone and guarded. It is highly unlikely that the poor, weak followers of Jesus could have overcome the guards nor do Jewish sources make this claim.
- If the followers of Jesus had stolen the body, then they would have known that Christianity was false. That would bring us back to the previous theory (#1) which has already been rebutted.
3. Jesus didn’t really die. (This theory is held by Muslims in particular and other non-Christian theorists.)
- This theory requires us to believe that Roman soldiers didn’t know how to kill people. How reasonable is that?
- Even if Jesus somehow managed to survive the scourging, crucifixion, and spear in His side. How reasonable is it to believe a man in such a state could have rolled the stone away from his tomb, overcome Roman guards, and made his way to his followers in various locations?
4. Jesus’ followers hallucinated or were insane.
- Insanity and hallucinations are private, not public. If many people report seeing something that is highly unlikely, it is not reasonable to say they are all merely dreaming, imagining things, or insane.
- Insanity and hallucination in themselves are very rare statistically. Hallucinations are usually caused by drugs or bodily deprivation.
- The gospels tells us that Jesus appeared to and interacted with many of his disciples, as many as 500 of them on one occasion according to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Bible also give us insight into the character and state of mind of those whom Jesus appeared to: the disciples were fearful, doubtful, despairing, skeptical, etc., hardly fertile ground for hallucination.
- Paul, a Pharisaic Jew, Roman citizen, and persecutor of Christians, according to his own letters claims to have encountered the risen Jesus. How likely is it that such a person would hallucinate such things and radically change his life?
Ultimately, each and every one of us has to come up with a reasonable answer to the question that Jesus posed to His disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” The most reasonable answer is the Christian answer. In this way, reason calls us to faith.