Jesus of Nazareth once asked his disciples a simple but profound question: "Who do you say that I am?" That question is just as relevant for us today as it was for the ancients. If Christ were a mere good teacher, then Christianity amounts to little more than a curious and fascinating social movement - something for historians and scholars to ponder. But what if, as the Christian faith teaches, Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who died and rose for the atonement of our sins? Then our answer to his question takes on weighty significance, a significance with both worldly and eternal consequences.
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But how can we know who Jesus is? How can we know if the Christian faith is true? With over 4,200 religions in the world today, any conclusion we come to would seem presumptuous, at best, and bigoted, at worst.
Christianity, however, stands apart from most religions as an eminently testable worldview. Christian doctrine makes several claims about the way the world actually is - claims ranging from the metaphysical to the historical. If reason and evidence support these distinct truth claims at the core of Christian belief, then Christianity is a rational worldview.
Christianity encompasses a wide swath of doctrine and practice, and it's very easy to get caught up in the minutiae. Critics and defenders of Christianity alike can get bogged down in these side issues, debating the inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin birth of Mary, and the nature of hell. These are certainly important issues, but when it comes to investigating the truth of the worldview of Christianity, we must focus on the core non-negotiable issues first. What, then, are the essentials of Christianity? I contend that two propositions make up the ineradicable core:
1.) God exists.
2.) Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead.
If these two propositions are accepted, then denying the truth of Christianity would be irrational. Silly theories like the "Alien Jesus" aside, I think any honest non-Christian would adopt a broadly Christian worldview if they accepted these facts.
These two core propositions are points of contact with reality - the existence of God is a metaphysical, philosophical question and the resurrection of Christ is a historical question. So let's take a close look at both of these propositions in their respective areas of focus.
i.) God exists.
"For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." - Paul (Romans 1:20)
The Apostle Paul claims that God's existence is so well-established through reason that non-believers are literally without excuse. If we want to establish this strong claim, technically sound but very complex arguments for the existence of God won't do. Most people throughout history have not had access to knowledge of obscure philosophy or advanced science. Although arguments inevitably grow more complex as they are criticized, defended, and refined - I think there is a remarkable core simplicity to the case for God's existence. The three basic facts which undergird the case are;
1.) Something exists.
2.) Life exists.
3.) I exist.
Everyone throughout human history has had access to these facts - and their relevance to the case for God's existence has been long-recognized as well. Let us consider in turn how these three mundane truths form the foundation of a strong, intuitive case for God's existence.
1.) Something exists.
"…the first question which we have a right to ask will be, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?" 1 - Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, philosopher and mathematician.
The mere fact of existence provides the basis for a number of cosmological arguments. God, as an immaterial and eternal purposeful agent, seems a much more plausible "starting point" than an entirely material, purposeless universe. This basic intuition was formalized by Leibniz, who argued that an eternal God independent of the universe must be invoked as an explanation of the contingent facts of the universe. 2
Regardless of the strength of the Leibnizian cosmological argument, a remarkably strong version of the argument can be advanced based on the beginning of the universe. This argument, known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, has recently received much attention. The three simple premises are:
1.) Everything that begins to exist has a cause. 2.) The universe began to exist. 3.) Therefore, the universe has a cause.
While the first principle has strong intuitive support, the second principle enjoys remarkable support from science. The beginning of the universe is strongly confirmed by the evidence for an expanding cosmos. Indeed, the Big Bang theory, which implies a beginning of the universe, is now the most widely accepted account of the origins of the universe due to the overwhelming evidence for the expansion of the universe. Moreover, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics demonstrates that an eternal universe would already be in a state of heat death, thus entailing a beginning. 3 Finally, Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin have published a theorem that demonstrates that any physically plausible universe has a beginning. 4
In short, scientific findings support the long-held intuition that the existence of a contingent universe is evidence for an eternal personal agent.
2.) Life exists.
"A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question." 5 - Fred Hoyle, astronomer
Life is an incredibly complex phenomena, and throughout history most thinkers have regarded it as prima facie evidence for a creator. Darwin's theory of evolution is commonly thought to have destroyed this argument. But even Darwin's ambitious theory does not attempt to account for the very suitability of life in the universe in the first place. Scientific discoveries are continuing to reveal that the universe is incredibly fine-tuned for life. Without the intention of an incredibly powerful designer, it is fantastically improbable that the universe would be able to support life at all.
Take gravity, for instance - perhaps the most familiar yet mystifying force in the universe. The strength of gravity is extraordinarily weak compared to other fundamental forces. The strength of this force is very important for holding bodies like our sun and planet together. If gravity were too strong, stars would have lifetimes shorter than a billion years, and if it were too weak (or negative), no solid bodies could exist in the universe. Given the range of forces, gravity must be fine-tuned to one part in 10^36 for complex life in the universe to exist. 6
Science continues to uncover such remarkable improbabilities, lending strong support to Hoyle's suspicion of a super intellect at work.
3.) I exist.
"Cogito ergo sum" - I think, therefore I am. - Rene Descartes, philosopher
Consciousness is the most undeniable facet of reality. Even if we were to deny the existence of the physical universe, we can't deny our own conscious life.
Conscious thought is inherently difficult to fit in a materialistic framework. That is why so many philosophers, in an attempt to uphold naturalism, have tried to explain away the conscious mind. Behaviorism, functionalism, and a slew of other materialistic accounts of the mind have taken sway in the scientific community.
Yet, all these materialistic theories fail to truly account for conscious experience. Consciousness involves states of being that are fundamentally different from the material objects that can be described by chemistry and physics. For example, conscious experiences have a qualia - a "what it's like to be" feeling that material properties lack. 7
The prevalence of materialistic accounts of the mind is based on the false belief that advances in neuroscience have demonstrated the reducibility of the mind to physical processes. Scientists are becoming ever more adept at uncovering the links between certain physical brain states and their conscious counterparts. Yet, this merely demonstrates their relatedness - it does not prove that they are identical. Indeed, even the ancients knew that something as mundane as drinking certain beverages can lead to drastic changes in conscious experience and behavior. Science has merely given us a greater understanding of how these physical and mental states interact.
Conscious experience is utterly mysterious in a materialistic framework. But in the theistic framework, a conscious God is the most fundamental component of reality, so the existence of the mind is understandable, and even to be expected. The very existence of our own conscious mind thus provides a strong reason to believe in a personal God.
If these three evidences establish the existence of God, then the case for Christianity has been bolstered significantly. However, the real heart of the Christian faith is to be found in the person and work of Jesus Christ, whom we turn to next.
ii.) Jesus Christ rose from the Dead
"And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." - Paul (1 Cor.15:14)
Christianity is truly a remarkable religion, staking its credibility entirely on a singular historical event that seems, at face value, laughable. Indeed, the very fact that the Christian message survived and flourished, despite many disadvantages, is a strong testimony to its truth. If Christ had not been raised and provided strong testimony to that fact, he would have died as a footnote of history. I'd like to consider three strong disadvantages the Christian message had to overcome to survive in the ancient world;
1.) Jesus was a man of little repute.
As a Jewish carpenter from the small city of Nazareth, Jesus had disadvantages in ethnicity, occupation, and location that would severely damage his credibility.
2.) Jesus died a disgraceful death.
Crucifixion, "the most wretched of deaths," 8 was a method of execution devised by the Romans for intentionally shaming the victim. The theatrics of the flogging, cross-bearing, and naked nailing to the cross were not simply methods to maximize pain, they were intended to destroy the credibility of the victim. Christianity's critics took advantage of this fact, insulting Christians as worshippers of a "god who died in delusions…executed in the prime of life by the worst of deaths." 9
3.) Jesus preached an unpopular message.
The concept of a physical resurrection was implausible to the Jews and repugnant to the Romans. Jews expected the resurrection to occur at the end of the world for all people. 10 The Romans, who had little respect for the physical body and much preferred the ethereal soul, believed that physical resurrection was a disgrace - according to Celsus corpses "ought to be thrown away as worse than dung." 11
Despite the inherent difficulties, the heart of the Christian message from the very beginning embraced this obscure Jesus of Nazareth, preaching his death on a cross and miraculous resurrection. How did the Christian message overcome all of these obstacles and emerge as the most successful world religion of all time? As the Cambridge historian C.F.D. Moule noted:
If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole of the size and the shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with? ...the birth and rapid rise of the Christian church...remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself. 12
We have seen that the core claims of the Christian faith - the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ - enjoy substantial scientific and historical support. While these evidences do not deliver 100% certainty, they do provide an extra punch to that most important of questions, put forward by Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago: "Who do you say that I am?"
1.) G.W. Leibniz, "The Principles of Nature and of Grace, Based on Reason," in Leibniz Selections, ed. Philip P. Wiener, The Modern Student's Library (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951), p. 527.
2.) This is based on Leibniz's Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), which basically states "for every entity x, if x exists, there is a sufficient explanation why x exists."
3.) See Craig, William Lane. The Kalam Cosmological Argument. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000. Print. pp 130-140
4.) Vilenkin, A. (2007). Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes. New York: Hill And Wang.
5.) Fred Hoyle, "The Universe: Past and Present Reflections." Engineering and Science, November, 1981. pp. 8–12
6.) Manson, N. (2007). God And Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science. Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.
7.) For a great exposition of this concept, see Nagel, T. (1974). What Is It Like to Be a Bat? 'The Philosophical Review', Vol. 83, No. 4, pp. 435-450
8.) From Jewish historian Josephus, Jewish War 7. 203
9.) Oracle of Apollo preserved by St. Augustine; Civitas Dei 19.23; p. 690 CC
10.) Craig, William Lane, Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ," Truth 1 (1985): 89-95
11.) Origen, Contra Celsus 5.14
12.) C.F.D. Moule, Phenomenon of the N.T. (1967) p. 3