Why are some very smart people Christian, and some aren’t? This is an important question, because we can’t both be right. In this post, I share my new approach to rationalist Christian apologetics, and why I think there are still important questions that need to be answered here.
Why Should We Agree?
First, why do we expect there to be an answer? Fortunately, I don’t even need to invoke Aumann’s agreement theorem to try to convince you that over sufficiently basic questions about the way the world works, honest investigators of truth should eventually converge on the same answers.
We can just see that happening throughout history. Major disagreements of the past, like the nature of disease or the size of the universe, eventually were decided as people made more and more observations that confirmed one of the possibilities over another.
What do we disagree about?
Let me be clear about the disagreement here. I know plenty of people of other religions, but the two most prominent options that most frequently present themselves as evidence-based seem to be Christianity and naturalism.
Notice that I list Christianity rather than generic theism, or worse, deism. I see deism as simply naturalism with the added complexity of God existing, just to start things off. It would make all the same predictions as naturalism, so it seems like a very easy application of Occam’s razor to prefer naturalism to deism. In other words, if God exists but doesn’t interact with us in any way, how would we ever know he exists? Fortunately, Christianity makes stronger claims that do actually lead to predictions.
Without a doubt, most of the claims of Christianity are historical in nature. All Christians agree that Jesus was a man who lived and did at least many of the things recorded in the Bible. All but the most liberal agree that this included what we know as “miracles,” which I’ll define in a moment, but which include as a climax his death by crucifixion and subsequent resurrection.
How do such historical claims yield predictions? Well, there are a couple ways. First, we should expect to see a rapidly growing group of Jesus’ followers as word spread. We should expect them to record these events for posterity, because something like that doesn’t happen every day. And we should expect them not to fear punishment or even death, as followers of the one who overcame it.
I would argue that this is about what we do see when we look in the historical record, and that any alternative natural explanations make the evidence we see rather unlikely to have occurred. That historical evidence has been the basis of my faith since I first turned a skeptical eye to it back in early high school.
Beyond the First Century
However, I’d like to argue that we need to look beyond the history to the present day. There are a couple reasons to do so.
The first is that our faith is almost as bad as deism if it doesn’t say anything about the present day. Do we believe the Bible contains truth that affects us today? That’s a prediction. Do we believe God answers prayer? That’s a prediction.
Within Christian circles, there tend to be two beliefs about the nature of miracles today. The cessationist camp says that there are no miracles today, only in the past to establish Jesus as the Son of God. While I don’t see any support for this in the Bible, there’s a bigger concern I have. If God no longer interacts with us today in any way, there isn’t much point to being a Christian. And if he does interact, then there’s something we can measure. I therefore consider myself in the continuationist camp, which says that there are still miracles today.
The other reason to be interested in present-day miracles, though, is because of the almost limitless supply of observations they offer to settle the debate between Christianity and naturalism. Christians by no means expect miracles every day, but we can analyze those moments when we have expected them more than a naturalist would, and see whether they actually come true in those cases.
What is a “miracle?”
It’s about time that I define the word “miracle.” This might not be very emotionally satisfying, but I think this is something that we have to treat as a continuous phenomenon rather than a binary outcome. In fact, I’m just going to restate what I’ve said before: A miracle is something that an honest Christian would find far more likely than an honest naturalist.
Why don’t I define it in terms of “violating natural law”? Well, that isn’t well-defined: Which natural laws? It also excludes most healing miracles, since they often don’t violate any “laws” that anyone’s bothered to call as such. No, what people often share is the surprise that the doctors express, and that surprise is exactly what unlikelihood of their expectations expresses.
So that’s my thesis, that we need to take modern-day miracles seriously if we’re going to be the best apologists we can be. And talking with some atheists, I think this is what we’d need to do to convince them. They simply shrug when I mention the historical evidence. “Sure, that might have happened, but that was 2000 years ago, and there’s a lot that’s been lost in the dust of time.” Another friend put it this way: “Sure, your evidence is much stronger than anything else we know from that time. But suppose there was a claim of a resurrection from 10000 years ago, and the best evidence available was a pot depicting a figure raising their hands. For that time, that evidence would be remarkable, but we wouldn’t let it affect our lives today.”
Concerns and Objections
Now I’ll take just as much time to address some of the concerns people have expressed when I’ve shared this thesis with them.
1) “No, I don’t think God would show up if you went looking for him.” I have a couple responses to that. The first is that that would have worked out swell for Elijah at Mount Carmel. There are quite a few parallels to that passage, in fact. But secondly, is that really the God you believe in? See my earlier comments about cessationism.
2) “Okay, but if you went around trying to order God around, he wouldn’t fall for that.” Again, that would have worked well for Gideon laying out his fleeces. But really, that was a very special circumstance where Gideon had already gotten a message from God, and wanted to confirm it. No, I’m not proposing that we tell God to answer us by flipping coins to see what he says.
Instead, what I’m proposing is more like reportage than experimentation. What are the accounts of events that can be best explained from the Christian perspective? In this way, it could be more analogous to the gospels — reports of Jesus’ actions, including the miracles attesting to his divinity.
3) “It sounds like this will be susceptible to confirmation bias — people will remember the times when the miraculous occurs and forget those times when it doesn’t.” Yes, that’s definitely something to take into account. Hey, I never said that this is an easy problem! At the same time, Christians seem to make claims that, if true, would far outweigh that sort of effect.
4) “I’m sure someone has tried to do this before.” Yes! And that’s what gives me courage. One of the books that started me on this road was Miracles (2012) by Tim Stafford. I’d highly recommend it as an introduction to what sorts of miracles seem to happen today. Stafford takes a reporter’s approach and just asks questions of everyone involved. He then takes a bit of the microphone for himself to answer some of the most common questions. While I don’t agree with all of his conclusions (including his de-emphasis of miracles themselves, saying everything is God’s work), I think he does an excellent job of compiling fascinating stories that would surprise most naturalists I know.
But I think this is just the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of what can and, in my opinion, should be, a full-blown investigation. There are so many stories out there, and someone needs to look at a large number of them to see what we can learn.
In fact, I want to turn a usual criticism of Christians by naturalists on its head. For many people, the word “miracle” is curiosity-stopper. Once we attribute the action to God, the case is closed and we stop asking questions. Done poorly, this often leads to a “God of the gaps” model where anything that we haven’t currently explained by other means gets attributed to God, and as we understand more about the world, our understanding of God diminishes.
Yet to call the examples Stafford brings up, at least, a “God of the gaps” framework would be a straw man. In his first and foremost example, a man is instantly healed from intense pain in his legs that had him wheelchair-bound for years when he attends a prayer gathering at a church and specifically asks for prayer over his condition. That’s not just something we can’t explain; it’s exactly the sort of moment Christians expect God would most frequently act. There’s a prediction there, if an uncertain one, and I want to better understand how to make better such predictions.
In other words, we should answer that criticism by not stopping with the word “miracle.” Personally, that attribution leads me not only to praise God for the healing, but also to ask further questions, like these:
- Does miraculous healing only happen in some locations and not in others?
- What role does faith play in healing? Whose faith?
- What types of conditions does God heal, and what doesn’t he?
- Beyond healing, what other ways do we see miracles?
- Do these miracles occur for members and around practices of other religions?
- Can we use this as a gauge for orthodoxy, as the Jerusalem Council did in Acts 15?
- What can we learn about God’s priorities from his choices of how to act?
It’s a very hard problem, but the last few of these could be known as “empirical theology.” For instance, we could actually verify that God loves Christians if we noticed that the vast majority of the miracles were related towards helping us. (Of course, we’d have to tease this out of a wide variety of competing alternatives, but if we were careful and had enough data, we could.)
5) “Miracles don’t happen today because they were only important in establishing the authority of Jesus and the apostles in the first century.” This is essentially the argument that cessationism gives. Sometimes they’ll add the caveat that miracles might occur out on the mission field, like in Africa, because the gospel might be spreading to those people for the first time. But not in the US, because we already have enough knowledge of God.
The problem with this is that it gravely misunderstands our current situation in the US today. Does anyone doubt God’s existence today, in America? Of course we do; that’s why I’m writing this. Do we have any questions about the boundaries of our faith? All the time, from Mormons to Catholics to nominals to Rob Bell. I don’t mean to sound an alarm so much as remind us that Christianity is still commonly contested here as it was in the 1st Century, albeit mostly by different means.
6) “Where would you get funding?” Ahh, the classic question posed to every academic. Fortunately, the Templeton Foundation sounds like it would be perfect for this sort of endeavor. They’ve already funded a large-scale study in Boston on distant, nearly-anonymous (Christian) prayer, which turned out to have no effect. Honestly, this doesn’t really surprise me, since that sort of prayer (lacking any personal connection, even indirectly) doesn’t occur in the Bible either, to my recollection. But that also seems like just the tip of the iceberg to me. What about other forms of prayer? What about other types of healing? Of course, the problems get tougher when you do that (and this study already cost $2M), but there’s definitely more to know. And if this works, it would save people a lot of time trying to figure out which religion to follow.
7) “Okay, but how would you do it cheaply?” One idea I have is to get things going would be to sample from American Christians (using something like SurveyMonkey’s Audience feature) and ask them detailed questions about any experiences they’d characterize as miraculous, similar to Tim Stafford’s reportage approach. As a difference, though, I’d particularly emphasize words of knowledge and prophecy over healing, since the alternative naturalistic theories are more well-understood, and therefore, the surprise much stronger.
In a brief conversation on his blog, I asked Stafford why he hadn’t included many instances of either of these, and he responded that atheists didn’t tend to find them compelling, since they could be more easily fabricated after the fact. To be fair, this is the same argument used against biblical predictions. But with careful reportage, at least in some cases, we should be able to distinguish facts from lies, or at least find the alternative very unlikely. Did they write their predictions down, or tell anyone else? How unlikely was that piece of information they received in the first place?
This topic has been on my mind for at least a year now, but this is the first time I’ve written it out fully like this, so I might come back later and add in more. Thanks to everyone who’s read it all the way through! Please contribute your own thoughts and comments. 🙂