My early study of philosophy was with the old atheists and existentialists. I have covered the story on previous occasions, but the brief rendition is these thinkers had significant influence on me as a boy. I never received what might be called proper religious teaching coming up and so assumed a heavy swell of religious animosity as the years went by.
But eventually, just as I was exiting college, my confidence in atheism collapsed. For any person who seriously reflects upon the implications of atheism–in particular, metaphysical naturalism–they will see that these ineluctably lead to a series of conclusions so repugnant to common sense and daily experience, they force a nothing short of a complete and total re-evaluation of the godless paradigm. (I’ve highlighted a few of these implications on my podcast). From the elimination of morality, free will, intentional states of consciousness, and enduring selves–indeed, the denial of your very self to begin with–atheism cannot be coherently sustained.
These conclusions opened me up to considering the other side (what other option did I have?), to studying thinkers in the theistic tradition. I started with Aristotle and eventually found my way to Thomas Aquinas. I began a long excursus of natural theology, and became convinced that the arguments for God, from a purely philosophical perspective, were, in fact, successful. (Recommended reading: Beginner, intermediate, advanced.) Certainly they were more plausibly true than the arguments against God. All this brought me out of atheism, through agnosticism, and into a position of religious pluralism. You could say I was with Huxley at this point. You could say I believed in God, just not any particular type of God.
Now, common among men is the belief that God exists. So, I was no longer far afield, in that respect. But often included in this belief is the rather very strange notion that God (not all that long ago mind you) took upon Himself the human form, and was murdered brutally on our behalf. Even more peculiar is the notion that God did this out of love.
The thing that had greatly intrigued me this point, as somebody who was not a Christian, but would eventually became one, was this: Just how on earth did anybody ever get that idea?
At this point, I believe there are better ways of explaining this, and worse, but surely the most contrived of all the attempts I’ve seen is to say that Christ is an imitation of some deity before Him. That school of thought, however–the Christ-as-borrowed-pagan-myth hypothesis–died a rather embarrassing and sudden death in terms of being a sustainable thesis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and for good reason. (It yet lives on in the underworld popular culture, as we know, as many dead, historical hypotheses do.) As it turns out, there are not enough significant, explanatory parallels between Christ and the gods of other religions, after all. We hear that Krishna was pierced, for example, just as Christ was. But then we have a closer look at things, and more is revealed: Krishna was pierced through the heel with an arrow. Christ was pierced through the chest with a spear. And while anything might appear similar to the extent we ignore the differences, we must be honest with ourselves. The theory is ad hoc.
Also, this. We must remember that the Christian religion did not emerge from a pagan background. To understand Christ, one must view Him through the backdrop of first century Palestinian Judaism. Jews were quite familiar with pagan beliefs, and rejected them, considered them blasphemous. So, there is a causal link missing, as well. In other words, there is no non-contrived reason why a group of a Jews would suddenly hijack a set of heretical beliefs, proclaim them amid fierce persecution, and then go on to convert the world.
But finally, there is this.
What intrigued me about Christianity most is the fact the religious is, of all things, historical. There was, in other words, a clear time when Christianity did not exist, and then, suddenly, it did. What I am saying is the Christian religion is not one of those perennial philosophies of which someone like Huxley might go on about; something that can be reduced to a mere psychological archetype, or what have you. The Christian religion is something very different than that; it’s something that can be historically investigated and is therefore vulnerable to criticism. This is eerie to some extent. It’s almost as if God has challenged us to check His work.
This realization caused me to want to undertake the investigation myself. Namely, I did so that I might show where the Christians had gotten things wrong. But in doing so, I discovered only that I had gotten things wrong. Here is the short of what I found out. (More recommended reading, this time historical: shorter, and longer.)
New Testament scholars (as it happens, and in the large majority) agree upon a certain set of historical data points concerning the life of Christ and the rise of the Christian religion. These facts include (but are not limited to):
- That Jesus lived, and that He died on the cross. (In other words, that Jesus was an historical figure; not a myth.)
- That He was given an honorable burial in a private tomb, the location of which was publicly known.
- That that tomb was shortly discovered empty by a group of women followers…
- …An event that itself was succeeded swiftly by reports of post-mortem appearances of Jesus bodily resurrected to various individuals and groups over various times and locals, and under various circumstances.
- Finally, the sudden and aggressive (but non-violent) rise of the Christian religion from these historical discoveries.
What came to surprise me–indeed, what comes to surprise many who conduct a similar line of investigation–is that everything described is alarmingly non-controversial. These just are the historical facts of the matter, held among historians of nearly all political and theological (or non-theological, as the case may be) stripes.
The only controversial part, is this: How do you explain them?
Here I’ll cut right to the chase and say: Maybe it’s true. Maybe what Christians have claimed all along really, and in fact, happened. Maybe God does exist, and maybe He really did come down to earth, was killed off, and rose again.
One, of course, can appreciate the hesitation to accept such an account; the implications would be enormous. God–the almighty creator and sustainer of all there is–revealing Himself in the form of man, and getting nailed to a tree to forgive us our sins. I mean, come on! But who are we kidding? The effects have already been enormous, and the implications widely accepted. Christianity is the world’s largest religion.
Is it then possibly the case then that the majority of the world’s population is not actually wrong?
Surely, God raising Christ from the dead would explain what we know from the historical data. That is, if we posit the resurrection as just one among many historical hypotheses, it not only outstrips any rival, naturalistic hypothesis by an impressive margin, but is the only hypothesis on offer that has sufficient explanatory power, scope, plausibility, and is not contrived. From hallucinations to conspiracy theories, no non-theistic, non-miraculous explanation can adequately account for all that needs to be explained. They simply don’t work.
But even still, can the resurrection be “proved”, like, mathematically? Well, no. Because no miracle, not even the resurrection, could be proved mathematically (The applicability of mathematics is concerned with regularities, and the resurrection is, by definition, most irregular), but it can be made plausible—and, I would say, probable—through the canons of inductive reasoning when evaluating the various explanatory possibilities, and should, in fact, be adopted as the preferred hypothesis given just one, additional piece of background information. And that, of course, would be the existence of God. So, if you believe God exists (and feel you have good reasons for doing so), then you have all the prior and conditional evidence you need to affirm that Christ is the Son of God based on what we can gather from the historical account.
All this, of course is what converted me; caused me to accept that God really did raise Jesus bodily from the dead, just as Christians have always proclaimed, and that He did so as a way to sign off on the fulfillment of all the promises made to Israel. Jesus is the Almighty Yes to everything. The pathway to Eternal Life.
This is a rushed account, and I’ll complete the story another time. But for now, I’ll finish with this. While it may seem as though I’ve worked my position through from the armchair of a philosopher, I do not believe that faith rests purely as an intellectual effort. I mean, how could it? Nor do I believe I had so much to do with my own conversion that some, including myself, might imagine. The Holy Spirit, I now fully believe, was instigating me the entire time, leading me by the nose, if you will. All I did was freely choose to sniff my way down the trail. Reason can indeed give us the grounds from which to make an informed and trusting religious commitment, but that is all it can give. All faith still requires a leap; a movement not from the head, but of the heart. That is what St. Thomas taught us: That love takes up where knowledge leaves off.