To review: Christianity exists because the apostles claimed to have had multiple encounters with Jesus, alive and in-the-flesh, after he had been executed and buried. According to them, they conversed with him, ate with him, and even examined his crucifixion wounds through the course of his several post-resurrection appearances, during which he instructed them to pass on his teachings and the news of his resurrection to the rest of the world.
Whatever else we believe about God or Christ or religion in general, that’s a fact: the apostles made that claim, and that’s why Christianity exists, and it would not exist apart from that central proclamation.
Once that fact is established—as with any human testimony, there is only one of three possible conclusions we can draw from that information: They were either lying about it, mistaken, or telling the truth.
If we consider each hypothesis in light of the rest of the information we have about the 1st century and about the origins of Christianity, it will become increasingly untenable that they deliberately lied about it, and even more difficult to entertain the possibility of any scenario that could have led to them having been honestly mistaken about such an experience.
And to quote Sherlock Holmes (and Spock after him): once we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
As I’d mentioned in my previous entry, though, I don’t expect it to be that simple and easy. All things being equal, it would be that simple and easy, but there is a tremendous amount of widespread and deeply-entrenched misunderstanding and misinformation out there to complicate the question of Christianity’s truth or falsehood.
Also, there is a common impulse among non-Christians to relativize the evidence by lumping Christianity into the same category as any other religion: “Don’t they have their ‘proof’ as well?” they’ll say, the suggestion being that competing religions could be “proven” just as persuasively by an eager apologist.
So, we should put that to the test by evaluating, say… Islam by the same criteria. The central revelatory miracle claimed by Islam was Muhammed’s reported visitations by the angel Gabriel to dictate the content of the Qur’an. What conclusion does the evidence suggest for that claim, though? Was Muhammed telling the truth? Was he lying? Or was he somehow mistaken? And how well attested is that claim and the content of those purported revelations in the first place?
Regarding Christianity, a great many people have a much easier time believing that the apostles were either lying or mistaken than they do believing that God, as He’s described in the Bible, exists and would miraculously intervene. My assertion, though, is that people who honestly believe either of those two hypotheses simply lack information adequate to arrive at an educated conclusion. If their objections to Christianity are truly honest, once they take that information into account, they’ll arrive at a different conclusion.
In fact, when I argue this case in person—when people stay in the discussion until the end, that is—it always leads to one of two different outcomes. Typically, a discussion like this takes off when someone remarks upon the supposed foolishness or falsehood of the Christian religion, and (after clarifying that I agree with many of their criticisms of common Christian memes and practices, as discussed in previous blog entries) I generally answer as gently and respectfully as I know how by the seemingly audacious claim that “As a Christian, I’ll bet I have better reasons for believing what I believe than you do for what you believe…” That usually elicits a scoff at first, but by the end of the discussion, most people either acknowledge a need to seriously reconsider their appraisal of Christ and Christianity, or they acknowledge that it is true, but that they don’t want my God, even if He is real (at which point there’s nothing else to say… once people hear and acknowledge that it’s true, but reject it anyway, all we can do is leave them to their choice).
And that isn’t to boast about my debate skills or my apologetic know-how. It’s really easy to win a debate when you happen to be right. When you’re arguing against the truth—against God Himself—it doesn’t matter how smart, creative, or knowledgeable you are, because no amount of rhetorical conjuring or intellectual gymnastics can make two and two add up to five or make something true when it isn’t.
(“But it’s not about winning a debate… You can’t argue someone into the kingdom of heaven,” my fellow Christians might say at this point. And they’re partially correct, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll answer, with qualifications previously discussed, “Yes, it is most certainly about winning a debate.” At least, that’s what the apostle Paul thought it was about.)
But people still try to argue, and entire careers are made on such efforts to reconcile the plain, observable facts with what many prefer to believe instead. Consequently, there is endless misinformation out there about the origins of Christianity, which can make for an epic-length discussion when that misinformation has to be deconstructed, refuted and corrected, hence the length of this entry.
It’s actually turned out quite a bit longer than I’d previously anticipated, so in the interest of easing digestion, I’ve broken it into several bite-sized chunks, with a rough table of contents and links below.
Not that this is an exhaustive refutation of every single argument against traditional Christianity, but I believe I’ve addressed some of the most common and deeply-held misconceptions mustered against it.
There are those who would argue that “Jesus Christ has risen from the dead” isn’t necessarily what the first Christians taught and believed as a literal fact of history. It’s obviously what every copy of the New Testament in the world puts forth as the central claim of Christianity, but there are a couple of pretty widespread misconceptions that what we have as the New Testament today is either:
1) not what was originally written (which I discuss in The Telephone Game: How do we know this is the real New Testament?), or that
2) It is what was originally written but does not accurately represent what was originally taught by Jesus Christ or his immediate followers (which I address in The Forgotten Jesus…?: How do we know the New Testament represents the real Christ?).
3) Then there are those who might acknowledge that the original disciples claimed to have experienced the resurrection, but might still have been lying or mistaken (which I discuss in Extraordinary Claims).