Wednesday 26 December 2012

Christianity in four brief points


Christianity originally only required four pieces of evidence in order to be known true - that was against the background either of Judaism or Paganism.

These four sentences amount to the evidence that Jesus was the Son of God, Saviour and Lord of all - what was meant by that was clear at the time, and it was purely a matter of whether the claim was judged to be true or false. 

But what a phrase like Son of God, Lord and Saviour means is nowadays no longer clear, and takes much more than four sentences to explain (which means in practice that since most people cannot or will not attend for even so much as four sentences, the whole thing has become de facto incomprehensible).


Anyway, here they are:

1. Evidence of the holiest man alive - John the Baptist - that Jesus was who he said he was.

(This was as if Albert Einstein at the height of his powers had pointed to some person and said, repeatedly, that here is the greatest physicist who ever lived; so far above me, that I am by comparison not fit to sharpen his pencils.)

2. The many miracles.

3. The fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah.


4. The resurrection.

All these were attested by numerous witnesses. 


So there is first understanding the package of Jesus' claims for himself. This understanding used to be fairly easy but has now become very difficult - especially since so many people think they understand Jesus' claims but have the facts extremely wrong.

Then there is the evidence that Jesus can be relied upon, that he was what he claimed to be.

The truth of the claims is thus separate from the nature of the claims - and these aspects should not be conflated.


Also, it must be acknowledged in advance that these claims of Jesus could, in principle, be true; whereas many modern people suppose that something about modernity has somehow discovered that Jesus' claims are necessarily impossible; they believe that Jesus' claims for himself cannot be true.

This attitude of the impossibility of Jesus' claims must be discarded, since it is ignorant.


It is ignorant because it confuses metaphysical assumptions with scientific discoveries made within metaphysical assumptions.

When deity is excluded from science and other empirical investigations, this is a metaphysical assumption that deity is not relevant - it is not a discovery that deity is not existent.  


The evidence that Jesus was who he said he was is strong, but not - of course - conclusive.

The evidence is as good as evidence gets - because all evidence boils down to the testimony of reliable witnesses. But of course, witnesses can be unreliable, can turn-out to be wrong, and may contradict each other - apparently or in reality.

Thus evidence does not get you all the way, nor is it intended that evidence should get you all the way, because belief must be chosen.

The rest is faith.



George Goerlich said...

If the media in general became thoroughly pro-Christian in viewpoint the message of the Bible would again be believed by the majority of people. That is, the evidence could suffice. Not even be necessary.

Most in the modern West live in thoroughly artificial environments. They have extremely limited contact with nature. All knowledge is filtered through a bureaucratic education system and media outlets.

I think that even if someone holy performed miracles today, it would still be not believed. That is, for many people, even if they witnessed an authentic miracle or even if it personally affected their lives, after a given time they would doubt themselves and once again assume they were wrong, that there is a scientific explanation, just a coincidence, that it was just a magic trick, etc. (That is, until the next scary event happens and they return to prayer in desperation).

That is, in general. Perhaps those in a good cultural and social environment would hold on to faith despite it ostracizing them from mainstream opinion.

I have done this myself, experiencing extraordinary events and dreams - later not thinking about it, or trying to dismiss as coincidence because it would upset a mainstream (secular conservative) worldview.

dearieme said...

#1 is very weak. John the B may have been the holiest man alive in the little world of the Jews, but what about the rest of the world?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d - No it isn't weak - we know that for sure by the emphasis placed on it by the Evangelists.

All you are saying is that you, personally, 2000 years later and in a different place, and who never met J the B, don't happen to find it convincing. But so what?

Of course the evidence is not compelling, none of it is, and (as Pascal explains to us) necessarily and by design not compelling.

And your argument, if applied generally in life, would also dispose of almost all evidence of any kind.

Our best guide to reality is still, as it always has been, the honest opinion of the most expert, informed and experienced person of whom we are aware in that domain.

dearieme said...

But most of the world was a closed book to the Evangelists too.

ajb said...

How do you get from testimony given in the Gospel to testimony by reliable witnesses? I.e., given there was a time delay from when the events happened to when they were written down, what is the evidence that the events as recorded largely are what were experienced by the relevant reliable first-hand witnesses?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - by reliable witnesses I was meaning something more 'legalistic' - a reliable witness is negatively defined as someone who is, for example, not a young child, not severely mentally handicapped and not psychotic.

So their word is to be believed - assuming they are truthfully-motivated.

So, if you wanted directions how to get someplace, who would you stop and ask for help, who would you believe when they gave directions?

You generally believe the directions given (and thereby risk time and energy if they are incorrect) unless there are reasons not to believe the person that gave them - such as that they seem crazy, simple-minded, are confused in what they tell you, or have the look of being dishonest.

We make these evaluations all the time. And the same with historcial accounts. Wind back to the 1970s - do we believe the oral testimony of Solzhenitsyn (and his witnesses) or do we believe the official and documented account endorsed by thousands of Soviet officials?

(Answer: Solzhenitsyn of course! We believe the oral testimony of one honest man over any amount of written, statostical documentation by liars and fakers - or we should do.)

John the Evangelist was, of course, one of the twelve. And the other gospel accounts were gathered by collecting the accounts of various people - just the normal way that history was done, the way we find out what happened about anything.

You probably know already, but the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament were written for those who were *already* Christian, in order to deepen and inform their faith - they were not primarily intended as instruments of persuasion or conversion.

TE said...

"Jesus was the Son of God, Saviour and Lord of all - what was meant by that was clear at the time,"

How do you reconcile this with the fact that there were many different opinions (most of which are nowadays known as Christological heresies or bad soteriology) on what it meant?

Bruce Charlton said...

@TE - It is the difference between arguments over precise definitions of a thing; and complete incomprehension of a thing.

Like the difference between: people arguing over the best wordings of a translation from Chinese; and a people to whom Chinese sounds like meaningless gobbledegook.