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Evidence of Evidence

June 16, 2017

Whenever I discuss faith on Twitter, sooner or later we run into the issue of “evidence”: I claim to believe on the basis of evidence, while my opponents often claim there is no evidence. Both can’t be right, and I maintain that there is plenty; but what do I actually mean when I talk about “evidence”?

First: evidence isn’t same as proof. Real proof is only found in mathematics, I’m told, and that’s not what I’m talking about. Evidence, on the other hand, is “anything presented in support of an assertion” (Wikipedia), and that’s exactly what I want to present to you: lots of actual, incontrovertible facts that support the assertion that Christianity is true.

Exhibit A: the universe. I know Stephen Hawking and others argue that the universe “created itself”; I fail to be impressed. Nothing creates itself, so the fact that something does exist suggests there is a divine Creator. There may of course be other plausible explanations, but so far I haven’t heard one.

Exhibit B: morality. Most people agree that there is right and wrong, good and bad; atheists often base their accusations against religion on such ethical assumptions. Where does this idea come from? If life is just a matter of surviving long enough to reproduce, there’s no room for either justice or mercy; if there is no absolute law-giver, what you consider “right” and “wrong” is just your personal preference which can’t be imposed on anyone else. There’s no reason evolution would bring about a conscience; so where did it come from, if it wasn’t implanted by an intrinsically moral Creator?

Exhibit C: the Bible. No, I’m not saying you should “just believe what the Bible says”! The Bible may or may not be reliable; but its existence is a fact, and it has to be taken seriously as part of the evidence – not just dismissed out of hand as “fairy-tales”.

For starters, nobody has ever staked their life on a fairy-tale being true. There are no followers of Cinderella in the world; Jesus, on the other hand, has millions of followers who claim that the story is worth dying for.

Secondly, fairy-tales are generally set in a land far away, once upon a time, with unidentifiable characters and places. Christianity is based on a particular person, clearly located in a particular country at a certain time in history, and whose existence can be objectively verified.

Here’s another big difference: in fairy-tales and legends talking animals, walking trees, magical objects and people with special “powers” are all seen as quite normal, par for the course, no explanation given or expected. By contrast, in the Bible you only find the supernatural breaking into regular human history at irregular intervals, and it’s always presented as God’s direct intervention, never as a natural phenomenon. Miracles are so called precisely because people knew such events were not normal; Joseph planned to divorce Mary, which shows that he (or at least the narrator of the Nativity) knew as well as we do that virgins don’t get pregnant!

Plus, the supernatural events in the Bible “make sense”: they aren’t just irrational violations of natural law, but happen for a reason. Unlike many legends and fairy-tales, the biblical universe is coherent, and clearly recognisable as the same universe that we live in.

There are many books (e.g. by Lee Strobel and J Warner Wallace) that explore the general reliability of the New Testament, so I won’t argue that here. I’ll just point to one particular piece of biblical evidence: the episode where Peter denies Jesus before the crucifixion. This is actually one of the strongest pieces of evidence in favour of the reliability of the gospels. Nobody in their right mind would make up a story about the first Christian leader denying Jesus! The only explanation for its inclusion is that it must have happened; but the only reason Peter would have told anyone is if he was forgiven afterwards so it didn’t matter – which implies he really did meet the risen Jesus …

Exhibit D: the church and its message. By the middle of the first century, there were Christian communities all over the Roman Empire. By the mid-60s there were enough of them in Rome for Nero to be aware of them and pick them as scapegoats. These early Christians were prepared to die for their faith, rather than deny Jesus. And remember that these Christians proclaimed a Messiah who had been crucified – a ridiculous concept, not one that was likely to attract new followers on its own merits.

So what made thousands of people leave their inherited religion (whether Judaism or paganism) and claim allegiance to a Messiah who had been executed as a criminal? I don’t think there is any way to explain the explosive spread of Christianity without taking the power of God into consideration.

It’s also important to note that the early church didn’t proclaim a new set of ethics, but the resurrection of the crucified Messiah – because they were convinced he was alive again.

Everything points to the tomb actually being empty. If the Romans or the Jewish leaders had known where the body was, they would have brought it out and put an end to the whole thing as soon as it started. The disciples stood to gain nothing: the church was persecuted for the first two centuries of its existence, and there was neither money nor honour involved in preaching Jesus. Nobody willingly dies for something they know is a lie!

Note also that the four gospels give slightly different accounts of the resurrection morning, as always happens when different people give an account of the same event. This suggests the authors got their info from different sources who had not colluded with each other, but who independently of each other claimed to have seen the empty tomb and the risen Jesus.

By the way, if there was no resurrection, why didn’t the disciples just disperse after the crucifixion? On all counts, an executed Messiah was a failure, and if the disciples didn’t actually meet the risen Jesus, there is no reason they would have hung around in Jerusalem, where Jesus’ enemies held sway. The obvious thing to do would be to go back home and forget all about Jesus; surely the foolishness (and danger!) of continuing to follow an executed Messiah would be worse than the embarrassment of going home and admitting they were wrong!

Exhibit E: changed lives. Millions of people can testify to radically changed lives as well as more low-key encounters with Jesus. Such claims can rarely be tested scientifically, but they are still valid as evidence: the fact that all these people claim to have experienced something beyond the physical has to be explained, and to me, the most simple explanation is that there is something beyond what can be seen and heard.

There we are: that’s probably the main evidence I would present to any sceptic. So just one final word:

Some atheists refer to God as a “sky fairy”, implying he’s just as real and just as believable as fairies at the bottom of the garden. But from the Christian perspective there is a big difference: fairies are optional: the garden can happily exist without them; God is the gardener, without whom there wouldn’t be a garden to begin with. Scientists can study the garden (and discover that there doesn’t seem to be any fairies in it); they can’t access the Gardener unless he chooses to reveal himself to them.

This I believe he has done throughout the history of humankind but supremely when he came to earth in Jesus. If you don’t at least investigate properly who he was and what he did, how can you claim to be objective and unbiased?

 

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  1. Replying to Brandon | milfordpastor

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