Picture: University of Michigan Law School Reading Room
Rick Mattson, InterVarsity staff and author of How Faith Is Like Skydiving: And Other Memorable Images for Dialogue with Seekers and Skeptics (InterVarsity Press, 2014), continues his series. Rick will be speaking at Urbana Student Missions Conference (December 27-31) in a seminar called “Love Your Atheist Neighbor,” and he’s giving us a preview here. Read Part 1 and Part 2. Interested in doing a series on Urbana or an interview with an Urbana speaker? Email us here.
Making Your Case
In my first post I encouraged you to love your atheist neighbor regardless of whether he/she is friend or foe.
And for atheists who present themselves as “science-only,” I suggested in my second post that science is a helpful—but by itself overly narrow—method for finding God.
The next question that needs to be addressed, then, is How does one find God? This moves us into positive case-making for Christian faith.
A stair-step diagram: One day I was invited by a philosophy professor at South Texas College to present an overview of Christianity in his Survey of Religions class. I happened to be traveling in the area so he enlisted me as a more native speaker of the faith than himself. On a massive whiteboard in the classroom, I drew an ascending staircase of arguments from bottom left to top right. On each step I wrote a word or phrase that summarized an argument, such as origins, design, the historical Jesus, experience, morality and consciousness. And I explained each argument along the way.
The structure of the staircase showed in graphic form the idea of one argument building on another to strengthen the overall case. At the top of the staircase, which was the conclusion of the argument, I wrote a word nobody in the room expected. Instead of the word “proof” I wrote the word convincing. After all, I was playing the role of religious attorney, attempting to convince the jury of students and professor in front of me that the best explanation for reality as we know it is Christian theism. Not proof. Just a persuasive case.
Cumulative case. The approach to argumentation just mentioned is known as a cumulative case. And it is a powerful—but not quick—way to present Christianity to a thoughtful seeker or skeptic.
In his massive Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, Douglas Groothuis lays out a multi-faceted argument for Christianity that moves from classic theistic arguments to intelligent design, morality, religious experience, consciousness, and the reliability of the Bible. The point is that the aggregate effect of these individual elements, what theologian James Beilby calls “a series of converging arguments,” adds up to a sturdy case for Christianity.
A helpful analogy is a civil court of law, where an attorney marshals together evidence such as witnesses, phone records, motives and the like, in order to convince a jury of her thesis. At the end of the day the jury must ask, What’s the best overall explanation of the facts as we know them?, and deliver its verdict accordingly.
The atheist objects. A common response from atheists to the cumulative case is that it functions like a series of leaky buckets, none of which “really holds water.” And if none of the individual containers is leak-proof, says the atheist, it’s unlikely the whole lot fares any better.
But atheists often focus too much on the individual pieces and not enough on the collective strength of the evidence. Let’s say we’re able to present six solid but imperfect arguments that reinforce each other and all point in the same direction—toward the truth of Christian theism. Taken as a whole, the atheist should consider the combined strength of all pieces, even if the individual parts (buckets) contain small leaks.
An example is the case for the life of Jesus as presented in the four Gospel accounts. Christians can provide very good historical reasons to trust the Gospel records by considering the authors, their motives, and the nature of the records. To summarize,
- first-century Palestinian Jews were strict monotheists and wouldn’t invent deity figures such as Christ and the Holy Spirit.
- Nor would they include humiliating material in their stories, such as their own failure to stay awake in the garden of Gethsemane or playing second fiddle to the women at the empty tomb.
- The apostles would not risk their lives for a known fabrication.
- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John provide us with multiple voices of agreement regarding Jesus, yet contain enough differences to be credible.
- Early non-Christian sources plus
- quality NT manuscript evidence add further weight to the case, so that a thoughtful, open-minded inquirer could be readily persuaded to embrace the Jesus of the Gospels.
Notice what just happened. I provided a six-part cumulative case (summarized) for the historical Jesus. But an entrenched skeptic could give alternative explanations for each piece of the puzzle:
- There was a band of polytheistic Jews in Palestine we simply don’t know about—a holdover from OT Jewish apostasy, and they invented Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
- The authors included instances of self-abasement in order to exalt Jesus by way of contrast with themselves.
- The disciples believed the opportunity for religious power outweighed the danger to their own lives.
- Multiple voices (the four Gospels) all telling the same lie represent an even greater lie.
- Early non-Christian sources about Jesus have been tampered with or are otherwise unreliable.
- The abundant NT manuscripts are copies of the original misinformation and thus get us nowhere.
Again, notice what just happened. From the skeptic’s perspective, the six-part cumulative case is recast as six leaky buckets.
So who’s right, the purveyor of the cumulative case or the skeptic?
Dismissibility. Recently I was sitting at a restaurant with one of my atheist pals. Lee is an ex-pastor and an outspoken critic of Christianity. He asked me, as he has dozens of times in the past, what real evidence there is for Christianity. His contention is that there’s not much. I presented in summary form the cumulative case mentioned above, and he responded with the leaky bucket analogy.
Many atheists like Lee dismiss any and all arguments for Christianity because they fall short of proof (the buckets have leaks). This I readily admit. There are no proof-positive arguments that I know of. But if everything we say about God is potentially dismissible, what is the real state of Christian argumentation? Is “dismissibility” a liability? I’ll address that question in my next post.
Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, by Douglas Groothius
Echoes of a Voice: We are not Alone, by James Sire
A Jigsaw Guide to Making Sense of the World, by Alex McLellan
Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense: A Response to Contemporary Challenges, by C. Stephen Evans