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Is Christianity Evidence-Based?

spring 2001

From nucleus - spring 2001 - Is Christianity Evidence-Based? [pp17-26]

Alex Bunn examines the evidence for the Christian faith.

Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable’(Henry Mecken).[1] Many share Mecken’s view that real faith occurs in spite of evidence to the contrary. However, the fact is that everyone has a ‘faith’, a worldview they live by to understand the world, to provide a moral framework and a purpose for which to live. We justify medical decisions on the scrupulous weighing of evidence, such as which antacid to use for dyspepsia. How much more important is it to pick the right worldview, by which we think, live and trust in for our future beyond death?

I would like to make three observations about ‘evidences’ in general.

Firstly, different types of evidence are admissible for different debates. A randomised controlled trial is the gold standard evidence to prove therapeutic benefit, for instance of streptokinase in the treatment of myocardial infarction. But you cannot use the same method to ascertain whether or not the second world war happened.

Secondly, if we are genuine in our desire to know the truth, evidence will change our behaviour. For instance, the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial showed that flecainide given routinely post MI, despite improving ECG appearances, caused patients to die 3.6 times more often than if untreated. Would it be acceptable to continue prescribing flecainide in the face this evidence? No, once evidence is examined and found convincing, open-minded people will commit themselves to change. If not, their prejudice is exposed. There is no point in asking a question, when we know we will not listen to an answer.

Thirdly, no evidence is ever fully conclusive. In real life, there is always room for doubt. If you’ve ever examined an acute abdomen in casualty, you’ll remember the uncertainty in making a diagnosis confidently. Could it be simply mesenteric adenitis, or a life-threatening perforating appendix? No surgeon is ever absolutely sure what he will find, but it is enough to know that there is no choice but to operate. Doubt does not excuse us from making a decision.

Likewise, we need to take seriously the best evidence and act on it. The questions are too important to let anyone else make choices for us when it comes to deciding what’s true. This article cannot do justice to all the material used to justify faith, but I hope it will encourage you to explore it for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

General arguments for the existence of God

Cosmological

Theologians through the ages have pointed to the need for a ‘first cause’, the divine hand which first started the process of cause and effect. In contrast, the Mayans, Greeks and Communists believed in an endless succession of events that had no beginning. Stephen Hawking[2] points out that the Big Bang Theory, based on Hubble’s evidence of an expanding universe, fits with the biblical view of a beginning for time and space.

Teleological

Observations indicate that at 10 -43 seconds after the Big Bang the universe was expanding at a fantastically special rate of speed, with a total density close to the critical value on the borderline between recollapse and everlasting expansion. Hawking estimated that even a decrease of one part in a million million when the temperature of the universe was 1010 degrees would have resulted in the universe’s recollapse before life could get started; a similar increase would have precluded the galaxies from condensing out of the expanding matter.[3]

If any of the fundamental constants of the universe were even slightly altered the universe would not sustain life. For instance, changes in either the gravitational force or electromagnetism by only one part in 1040 would have spelled disaster for stars like the sun, essential for the survival of all life. The constants are independent of each other, yet each seems perfectly set to create a universe that would nurture life.

In biology and medicine too, there is a natural sense of awe and wonder. From the stunning complexity of the clotting cascade, with its fine web of self-regulation, to the rich beauty of a tropical rainforest, the material world points to a creative mind behind it all.

Experiential

Many people still testify to God’s life changing power and personal touch. For instance, John Newton is famous for writing ‘Amazing Grace’. Formerly a slave trader, God turned him around. He eventually campaigned successfully for the abolition of slavery.

Moral

The concept of an ‘ought’ demands an agency outside of ourselves, to whom we are accountable. Atheistic ‘explanations’ lack coherence and remove the obligation to follow conscience. A common formulation is that ‘morality is just the rationalisation that doing good to others will eventually benefit the individual’. This surely is self-interest, the opposite of altruism! Why then sacrifice your interests when it is clear you will not benefit, such as caring for a demented patient whom you will outlive? This is not to say that you cannot be an atheist and act morally, only that a materialist worldview neither demands nor justifies it.

Democratic

Of the 5 thousand million people on the planet in 1995 there were 1,700 million Christians, 1,300 million Muslims and 13 million Jews4. Therefore theism, a belief in a personal God, is the number one worldview (60%), and Christianity is the most popular form of theism. Our atheistic culture is an anomaly both historically and geographically. A majority view does not make Christianity true (any more than it would a belief in UFOs), but any majority view does demand serious consideration.

Despite their differences, the three theistic religions hold to a common history: the creation, fall, flood, and the importance of one man, Abraham, and his offspring. All three also agree on the existence of a supreme being, who is all powerful, all knowing, morally perfect, creator and sustainer of the universe, and a self-revealing God. This God has chosen to speak to us through acts in history, prophets, inspired writings, and through a special relationship with one nation Israel. They agree on the rebellion of man leading to broken relationships and a fallen world. And they each warn of a judgement leading to a real heaven or a real hell.

Incarnational

Christians, however, believe that God has taken a giant step further to make himself known, when he clothed himself in human skin and actually entered human history personally, 2,000 years ago. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this. Hebrews 1:3 states ‘The son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’. Thus to meet Jesus is to meet God himself. Speculation has ended. That was OK for the disciples who walked, talked with and learned from Jesus, but how about for us 2,000 years later? We cannot meet Jesus physically today. But we can learn about Jesus through the historical documents that recorded his life and teaching, the Bible.

The Bible

The Bible is the most important book ever written. It is quite unique in its:

Circulation. The Bible has been read by more people in more languages than any other book in history. Up to 1932 alone more than 1,300,000,000 Bibles had been printed and by 1966 at least one book in the Bible had been translated into 1,280 languages.

Survival. Great care has been taken in its transmission over 3,500 years. The Jews had whole classes of men whose sole duty was to pass on every letter and digit with near perfect fidelity. No other text can compare. Who ever counted the letters and syllables of Plato or Aristotle? Even Shakespeare’s writing from recent history has hundreds of readings in dispute. In contrast, with maybe ten to twenty exceptions, the text of every verse in the New Testament is settled by general consent of scholars.

Continuity. A collection of books written over a 1,500 year time span, by over 40 authors from every walk of life. Kings, herdsman, soldiers, legislators, fisherman, statesmen, courtiers, priests and prophets, a tentmaking rabbi and a Gentile physician have all contributed, writing from three continents. The writing is diverse, including history, law (civil, criminal, ethical, ritual, sanitary), poetry, parable, allegory, biography, personal correspondence, personal memoirs and diaries, prophecy and apocalyptic. Yet there is a unity, which binds the whole together, a singular voice speaking through it.

Influence. The history of Western art, literature, law, ethics and culture can only be understood with reference to the Bible. It is a scandal that many otherwise educated people have not read it for themselves. As historian P Schaff has summarised:

‘Jesus of Nazareth, without money and arms, conquered more millions than Alexander, Caesar, Mohammed, and Napoleon; without science and learning, he shed more light on things human and divine than all the philosophers and scholars combined; without the eloquence of schools, he spoke such words of life as were never spoken before or since, and produced effects which lie beyond the reach of orator or poet; without writing a single line, he set more pens in motion, and furnished themes for more sermons, orations, discussions, learned volumes, and songs of praise than the whole army of great men of ancient and modern times.’

So the Bible has been influential, but is it actually true, historically accurate? Lets look at the common objections.

Common objections to the New Testament

Objection 1: ‘It was written by biased followers.’
Jesus’ followers detested dishonesty. One wrote: ‘Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator’(Col 3:9).

Moreover, they stressed the importance of truthfulness before a holy and judging God. ‘He (God) will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God’ (1 Cor 4:5).

And what would the motive be? They had most to lose by lying or being deceived. As a result of their claims, the first followers suffered greatly for their beliefs. Ten of the eleven faithful disciples were martyred, and St Paul suffered immense hardship before finally being put to death (2 Cor 11:23-28). Now it is true that men may die for something that is not objectively true (such as Kamikaze pilots dying for the divinity of Emperor Hirohito), but not for something they know not to be true. Above all other men, they needed to be thoroughly convinced. And crucially, they were in a position to check the facts for themselves. Furthermore, the New Testament does not rely on one person’s memory; rather it is a collection of 27 books by several authors.

Objection 2: ‘The accounts were written long after the events.’
On the contrary, the New Testament was written by eyewitnesses, and those very close to them. Take the book written by St Luke, a physician who knew how to take a history. He explained why he committed his research to writing: ‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.’ (Lk 1:1-4)

In addition we know that the documents were first circulated within living memory of the actual events:

‘...After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.’ (1 Cor 15:6)

Objection 3: ‘Even if the original disciples had written the truth, it has been corrupted over time.’
If this were true, we have to ask who corrupted it, when and how. Firstly so many corroborating manuscripts exist and from such a large area, it would have been quite a feat to gather all the authentic texts to tamper with. The table below compares the New Testament with other ancient documents.

Take Caesar’s Gallic Wars. This text is so well accepted it is used in history lessons. What are its credentials? It was written in 50 BC, yet we rely on just 10 texts written 1,000 years after the events! Compare this with 5,000 ancient Greek New Testaments manuscripts over 1,000 years old, 24,000 ancient manuscripts in total.

Secondly, very early copies exist that are identical to modern versions; let us look at documents we can see with our own eyes within the British Isles. The oldest text may be one in Magdalen College, Oxford, from as early as AD 68. This is just 35 years after Jesus’ death. This is like receiving a story direct from the original witnesses, like my father recounting stories of World War II. The John Ryland’s fragment of John’s gospel in a Manchester library dates from AD 125. This document is evidence that the gospel of John was circulating in Egypt within about 60 years of its writing. This is within 100 years of the events. Reading this text is equivalent to hearing a story from the witnesses’ direct descendants, such as my father’s stories of World War I passed on from his father. The Chester Beatty papyri in Dublin contain most of the NT, and dates from AD 200. The Codex Sinaiticus is a complete New Testament on view in the British Library, from AD 350.

Thirdly, a vast literature outside of Scripture attests to its reliability:

  1. References outside the Bible.
    Even if we had no early NT texts at all, the early church fathers (before AD 325) provide 32,000 quotes from the NT. These cover all but eleven verses, and demonstrate incredible early agreement on the content of the NT(see table).[5]
  2. Hostile historians outside the church.
    Suetonius wrote about the Roman emperors, here about an event in Claudius’ reign (AD 49): ‘He expelled the Jews from Rome, on account of the riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus.’6 Just 17 years after the crucifixion, the message was having an enormous impact on the capital of the empire. This historical event is recorded in Acts 18:2.
    In AD 66-73 Josephus, a Jewish commander who defected to the Romans wrote:

    ‘At that time, there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good and he was known to be virtuous. Many among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die, but those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders; and the tribe of Christians, so named after him, have not disappeared to this day.’[7]
    In AD 112 Pliny, governor of Bythinia, wrote about ‘this perverse religious cult’ affecting ‘large numbers of all classes’, and executed many as they threatened pagan temple commerce.[8] In addition, Tacitus mentions Christ’s execution under Pontius Pilate, and the spread of Christianity to Rome, which Nero blamed for the fire of AD 64.[9] Justin Martyr (died AD 165) implored others to follow Christ because the evidence was so compelling. He alone quoted the NT 335 times. ‘That he performed these miracles you may easily satisfy yourself from the 'Acts of Pontius Pilate'. ’ Apparently Jesus’ miracles were officially recognised![10]
  3. Archaeology
    No archaeological find has contradicted NT history. Rather they have affirmed its reliability. For instance, many experts had previously thought that the Hittite nation (Gn 10:15, 23:9, Jdg 1:26, 1Sa 26:6, Ezk 16:3) was mere biblical fiction. Whole rooms now dedicated to their artefacts in the Topkapi Museum suggest otherwise!
  4. Prophecy fulfilled
    Recently I read Isaiah 53 to a group of students in Russia. All who heard it for the first time assumed that it had been written about Jesus in the New Testament. None guessed it had been written at least 700 years before his birth! Read Isaiah 53 for yourself. Which other historical figure could this possibly refer to? Jesus’ unique fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies demonstrates God’s preparation for his entry into the world. In the table are 20 out of 200 fulfilled prophecies written at least 700 years before his birth.
    These predictions sketch out Jesus’ mission. He came to die the death we deserved, in our place, and to guarantee our release from the punishment of death, eternal separation from God. But how can we know he succeeded? What’s the evidence? How do we know he didn’t die in vain?

    ‘If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.... your faith is futile, you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.’ (1 Cor 15:14-20)

    Paul is saying that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, we are still guilty before God. All the people who have died in hope are lost. Worse still, those of us still alive who follow Jesus are living a lie, and are to be pitied. But if Jesus did indeed rise, then all who follow him, who are ‘in Christ’, can be confident that they too will rise to live with him (1 Cor 15:22-23). So the resurrection is either the most important event ever, or the biggest lie.

Prophecies fulfilled concerning Jesus

Event Predicted, fulfilled
Born of a virgin Is 7:14, Lk 1:26-37
In Bethlehem Mi 5:2, Lk 2:4-7
Of David’s line 2 Sa 7:16, Mt 1:1-17
Preceded by messenger Is 61:1-3, Lk 4:18-21
Brought good news Is 61:1-3, Lk 4:18-21
Healed the sick Is 42:7, Mt 8:2-4
Suffered for others Is 53, Mt 20:28
Acted as a servant Is 53:11, Phil 2:6-11
Mocked Ps 22:7, Mt 27:39
Nailed to a cross Ps 22:16, Jn 19:18
Given vinegar on the cross Ps 69:21, Mt 27:34
No bones broken Ps 34:20, Jn 19:34
Sold for 30 pieces of silver Zc 11:12, Mt 26:15
Blood money used to buy a field Zc 11:13, Mt 27:3
Buried with the rich Is 53:9, Mt 27:57
Brought forgiveness Zc 3:1-10, Mk 2:5
Brought good news even for non-Jews Is 11:10, Acts 11
Will judge the world Dn 7:13-4, Jn 5:22

The resurrection

Most sceptics presume that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Alternative explanations are that:

A: He must have swooned, and not died
B: The disciples or someone else must have stolen the body
C: The disciples had hallucinations of his return

Let’s look at the historical events to see who would have the motive and means to fake the resurrection.

The execution

The Romans, arguably the most disciplined and ruthless military outfit the world has ever known, executed Jesus. They didn’t make careless mistakes. Firstly, he was flogged with a flagrum; a handle fitted with leather thongs, to which shards of lead were attached, used on the bared back, buttocks and legs. It was an ordeal that might kill a man.11 He was then forced to carry his crossbar across the city (Jn 19:17). This was often the heavy crosspiece that barred a door. At the place of public execution probably on the main road out of the city, he was laid on the upright, and nails were driven through his forearms and heels. The whole structure was dropped into a small hole in the ground. In order to breathe, the victim would push up on the nails through his feet. Gradually the man would tire and asphyxiate. Each man was guarded by four professional soldiers.12 The centurion was personally questioned by Pilate about the certainty of death, and he was convinced. The Jews also were convinced, and asked that the corpse be guarded (Mt 27:62-64). These were after all highly political events. If in doubt, the soldiers would break the legs. In Jesus’ case, there was no doubt, and as he was dead already. They thrust a sword through his side, probably through his heart. Intravascular coagulation had already happened, so blood and water flowed from the wound (Jn 19:33-34; Mk 15:44-45). There’s no doubt, he died.

Two disciples asked Pilate for the body to give it a decent burial. Pilate agreed, and summoned the leader of the centurions. It’s inconceivable that he’d have handed over the wrong body. This was a very controversial and political execution: the Jews had plotted to have him killed, on the basis that Jesus claimed to be a king, and ‘anyone who claimed to be a king opposes Caesar’ (Jn 19:12-16). Pilate felt he had to punish high treason.

And it would have been another capital offence to interfere with a Roman state punishment.13 There’s no doubt, he was buried.

The body was then washed and embalmed with two cloths, head to toe, stuck down with aloes and myrrh, a gluey resin, weighing 75 pounds (Jn 19:39-40); the body was essentially mummified. It was placed in a cold stone tomb, with a boulder rolled across the entrance, so large it would take several men to move (Mk 16:2,3).14 The tomb was sealed with the Roman governor’s insignia,[15] and guarded by a team of 10 to 30 soldiers.[16] The breaking of a seal was automatically investigated as a crime against the governor.[17]

Yet on the third day Jesus’ body had disappeared, the grave clothes lying collapsed in their place (Jn 20:6-8).18 It is interesting that the Romans could not find anyone to punish for the loss of the body. The guards were bribed by the Jewish leaders to say that the disciples stole the body whilst they were asleep (Mt 28:11-15). Of course they could hardly accuse anyone if they had been asleep at the time, but why would so many professionals sleep on duty, knowing it was a capital offence?[19]

Jesus returns

Jesus appeared to Mary and the other women at the tomb, which is interesting. If the story had been made up, a woman’s testimony would have been a bad invention, because legally, a man’s testimony was worth that of ten women.

Jesus later that day appeared to all eleven of the disciples, even walking the seven miles to Emmaus without a limp (Lk 24:13-35). Pretty impressive if he had swooned on the cross and broken out from a sealed guarded tomb after three days without food or water, not to mention a penetrating chest wound and deep punctures to wrists and ankles.

In fact the disciples weren’t expecting Jesus to come back from the morgue! They were the last people to fake his resurrection. They were demoralised and scared. It’s clear they were utterly dependent on their leader. Without him they were very ordinary men, or more honestly a motley crew of country yokels, with a full house of character flaws. Peter, impulsive but cowardly, James the mother’s pet, John the show-off, Thomas the sceptic. So on the day of the resurrection they met behind locked doors, unable to cope without Jesus. He appeared against all their expectations, and transformed them into great leaders who would alter the course of history. Jesus appeared to many on many occasions: to the seven at Tiberias, James, the eleven several times, Paul more than once, Stephen, John, and over 500 others in one place.20 It wasn’t some kind of private club; Jesus came to announce publicly his victory over death. Extraordinary evidence convinced these men and women of the extraordinary claims of historic Christianity. Hallucination would not explain these events. Anyone who has seen someone hallucinate on the wards will confirm that the experience is highly individual, and a distortion of reality; no two hallucinations are the same. These patients are anything but convincing.

Changed lives

Peter, an unschooled fisherman, at first denies all knowledge of Jesus, even to an unthreatening maid, three times in just one night (Jn 18). Yet after meeting the risen Jesus, he had confidence to face 3000 city types (Acts 2). How many fishmongers from Billingsgate fish market could address Wembley Arena? Something major happened to these men.

Jesus also appeared to Saul: another life which took a complete U-turn. When Jesus met him Saul was busy hunting down Christians to stamp out this new faith (Acts 26:9-11). A scholar and statesman Saul (renamed Paul) later pleaded with the Roman rulers, the most powerful men on the planet, to accept Christ. He was beheaded outside Rome in AD 65.

The growth of the early church is also testimony to the evidence for the resurrection. Just seven weeks after the event Peter gave a speech which convinced 3,000 Jews in one go to join this ‘heretical sect’. They must have been well aware of the controversy their beliefs were causing, and that as Jews they were committing a capital offence. As was discussed earlier, the first followers suffered severely for their beliefs.

Thomas Arnold, Professor of History at Oxford, and a specialist in Roman times has written ‘there is no fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair enquirer than that of the resurrection’.[21]

Conclusion

God has given us ample evidence for his existence and his rescue plan for mankind. He took the initiative by revealing himself in history, through a special relationship with Israel, culminating in his arrival as a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. The apostle Paul explained that there is no longer any room for agnosticism, for sitting on the fence. ‘In the past God overlooked ignorance but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.' (Acts 17:30) We ask for evidence for God’s work in the world. His name is Jesus.

References

  1. Mencken H. In Prejudices, ‘Types of men’. Dictionary of Quotations. Bloomsbury, 1994
  2. Hawking S. A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books, 1995:8-10
  3. See www.origins.org/menus/debates.html for discussion of design in physics and www.reasons.org/resources/apologetics/brieflook.html for discussion of Hawking’s theories
  4. Johnstone P. Operation World. OM Publishing, 1998:23
  5. Jaganay L. An introduction to the textual criticism of the New Testament. Translated by BV Miller. London:Sands
  6. Antiquities xviii.33. Cited by McDowell J. Op cit:82
  7. Epistles X.96. Cited by McDowell J. Op cit:83
  8. Annals XV.44. Cited by McDowell J. Op cit:81
  9. Apology 1.48. Cited by McDowell J. Op cit:85
  10. Mattingly J. Crucifiction: Its origin and Application to Christ. Unpublished ThM Thesis. Dallas Theological seminary, 1961:21. Cited by McDowell J. Op cit:196
  11. Green M. Man Alive. IVP, 1968:32
  12. Palmer B. Cure for Life. Milton Keynes: Summit, 1996:34
  13. Thorburn, T. The Resurrection Narratives and Modern Criticism. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1910:97. Cited by McDowell J. Op cit:207
  14. Whedon D. Commentary of the gospels Matthew-Mark: Vol 9. New York: Hunt and Eaton, 1888:343. Cited by McDowell J. Op cit:209
  15. Roper A. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965:23-4 Cited by McDowell J. Op cit:210
  16. Ibid
  17. Stott J. Basic Christianity. IVP.
  18. Bruce AB. The Expositors’ Greek New Testament: Volume 1- The synoptic gospels. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903:337. Cited by McDowell J. Op cit:242
  19. Cited by McDowell J. Op cit:224
  20. Cited by Smith W. In Therefore Stand: Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965:425


Article written by Alex Bunn

More from nucleus: spring 2001

  • Editorial
  • Conjoint Twins
  • Conscientious Objection to Abortion
  • International Orientation
  • News Review
  • Is Christianity Evidence-Based?
  • Should Christians Fight?
  • Serving the Casualties of War
  • Sharing Christ with patients
  • Know Your Bible 36
  • Differential Diagnosis 34
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