How Much Evidence Does it Take to Believe?

That’s a valid question.

I guess it ultimately depends on what you are being asked to believe and that should be the foundation of the question. That’s what seems to be reasonable. And we want what is reasonable, at least that is what some claim, but as I’ve argued, reason and being reasonable requires grounding.

Neil, over at the blog Godless in Dixie, asks such a question in a post titled, “Faith: Believing Without (Enough) Evidence“. Neil describes himself as having, “spent two decades of my life passionately pursuing the ideals of evangelical Christianity“, before having abandoned it.

Neil begins,

Nobody likes having their intelligence insulted, so it’s not hard to see why Christians push back when they are told that faith means “believing without evidence.” On the contrary, Christians very much believe they have evidence for the things they believe in (e.g. the resurrection of Jesus), although what they consider “evidence” may look quite different from what skeptics want when they use the word.

Right off the bat he begins insulting the intelligence of the thoughtful reader by committing the quite common logical fallacy of atheists who simply assert as a fact that faith just means, without question, to be “believing without evidence”. Anyone with a meaningful grasp of how language works knows that words often have more than one definition, and definition is ultimately determined by the usage of the word in a particular context. He’s correct in stating that we “believe [we] have evidence for the things that [we] believe in”, just as he’s correct in saying that, “[it] may look very different from what skeptics want when they use the word [evidence].” That’s true, because different types of claims require different types of evidence. There seems to be a tacit admission, on his part, that there are differences in such things, but the question is can he be consistent? We shall see.

He mentions Peter Boghossian’s caricature in his book A Manual for Creating Atheists of faith as an epistemology, something, I think, Tim McGrew handles wonderfully in this discussion with Boghossian on the Unbelievable podcast. But he goes on to say that,

Leaving aside the slippery semantics of the word “faith” for a moment, I’d like to address this issue of believing without evidence. I’ve argued elsewhere that the kinds of evidence which the Christian faith envisions should satisfy us fall into two basic categories: the Bible and personal experience. (link removed)

His “argued elsewhere” is dependent upon making distinctions without a difference, which is just more of those “slippery semantics” and the fact that he’s assuming that the definition that he insists on using is based on a fallacy of logic. I, personally, downplay personal experience of most Christians as they sometimes put it forward, especially when it comes to feelings simply because they are so subjective; however, as much as he wants to, again, assert that somehow the Bible is not evidence, especially when he later will use it that way to support an assertion, makes my inconsistency meter peg out.

Under the heading “What Kind of Evidence?”, Neil writes,

First and foremost, we are told again and again that the testimony of the writers of the Bible should be enough for us. Presumably that’s because the writers themselves were supposed to have been eyewitnesses to the events they detail therein.

Yes, if they were indeed men who had, “seen His glory”, then that, logically should “be enough.” There’s no doubt in the minds of the 2nd generation writers, Clement, Ignatius, or Polykarp to name a few, themselves claiming to be taught by the apostles, that they aren’t. The only reason to doubt that would therefore be on the basis of certain presuppositions rather than any evidence to the contrary. He continues saying,

That is far from a settled matter, I’m afraid, as the New Testament writings with the most clearly discernible authorship come from a man who never even met Jesus in the first place.

Actually, he (Paul the Apostle) does claim to have met him, so that is simply false.

Referring to what many New Testament scholars classify as a primitive credal statement found in 1 Corinthians 15, Neil says,

[That’s] second-hand or even third-hand information, as he wouldn’t have even been among those people himself two decades earlier, not to mention the fact he didn’t even give the names of any of them so that anyone could go interview them for themselves. Given that it would have taken weeks for that letter’s recipients to travel from Corinth to Jerusalem, it wouldn’t have been a practical possibility, anyway.

First, can we ask Paul himself? Why yes, we can!

…after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days.  But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:18-19)

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016. Print.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is dated about 3-4 years earlier than 1 Corinthians, and he pointedly states that he went to Jerusalem 3 years after his conversion and met withcount them— TWO other witnesses. Second, 1 Corinthians is a letter of correction to an established church and he falsely assumes that the recipients would have to travel to Jerusalem. We know that the apostles traveled to various churches, so they wouldn’t have had to travel there anyway. They could, and some did, especially if they were observant Jews or curious. People moved around all the time. It was the Roman Empire at the height of the Pax Romana, there were roads and regular ships traveling there. Time is simply an irrelevant factor. Third, the fact that he does not name them in the letter does not mean that they weren’t known to the Corinthians already or that their names could not be found out, it is simply assumed.

Neil continues by saying,

The whole Bible keeps going this way once you really dig into what we know that we can know about the reliability of this religious text. All things considered, ancient writings leave an awful lot to be desired where external validation is concerned (cue the apologist’s itchy fingers).

Consider them “cued”: I would like to weigh the reliability of the Bible as a historical text based on the amount of textual witnesses against any other historical document from antiquity, which it simply blows any other competition out of the water in terms of accuracy and availability of evidence. However, this is again a question of consistency that is being begged since he is making an assertion based upon a misrepresentation of the facts, since what is argued by scholars is that the credal statement is being repeated by Paul to the Corinthian believers as a reminder of what they have believed, not as an exhaustive list of witnesses, that can be constructed from Paul’s other letters.

Just check this graphic which compares just the New Testament documents to any other comparable historical document.2013.10.20.X Reliability of New Testament – Dr. James White – 102613135517

On the issue of “personal experience”, Neil states,

[We] are told that the resurrected Jesus can be known directly through personal experience, and I will have to confess that for many years I believed I was experiencing a relationship with him myself. To make a long story short, I now believe I was responsible for conjuring that experience myself through my own creative imagination. I would submit the same is true for everyone else who believes they are experiencing a relationship with an invisible person who somehow lives inside of them, but I’m not going to spend very much time trying to convince them that’s the case because, quite frankly, some people need Jesus in their lives. Who am I to take him away from them? (author’s emphasis)

Let’s just dispense with the straw man: no Christian, that I know, argues that they are, “[…]experiencing a relationship with an invisible person who somehow lives inside them…” There is a necessary distinction between the inward reality of regeneration, brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit and that subjective experience must be measured against the objective standard of Scripture. So when Paul says,

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016. Print.

Given the context of the preceding verse and the end of the statement, what Paul is referring to when he says that “Christ…lives in me”, what Paul is arguing is that Christ’s righteousness that has been imputed to Paul by his faith, only made possible by the Spirit of God himself regenerating every believer. So, on the contrary, his claim is therefore false since it is Christ who creates and maintains the relationship to believers by his salvific act, and believers simply have to live in light of it.

Neil complains,

But they won’t afford me the same courtesy. They will not—they cannot—simply let me get on with my life without trying to convince me that I am missing out on a life far better than the kind I could ever live without knowing this person who lives inside their heads.

Again with the straw man? Just refer to my previous statement.

Neil continues,

So from time to time I have to stop and point out a couple of things that they keep forgetting.

The Christian faith demands we believe things without sufficient evidence to believe them. (author’s emphasis)

Who determines what is or is not “sufficient evidence”? Again, this simply depends on what one is trying to prove or support. But let’s see how he supports this assertion.

Neil writes,

It’s not that we’re supposed to believe them without evidence of any kind, it’s just that the kinds of evidence we’re supposed to accept isn’t really enough, nor should it be for anyone possessing the most basic critical thinking skills. (author’s emphasis)

Let’s be clear: ANY evidence gives a reason to believe something based upon the arguments derived from a meaningful and consistent interpretation of it as a task of the most basic critical thinking skills. He continues,

We are often told that all truth is God’s truth, and that he made us to be thinking creatures, so we shouldn’t have to check our brains at the door of the church.


Neil says,

But then we are told we must become as little children, which means among other things that we should trust the word of those who tell us that Jesus really is (or was) who he says he is (or was). We are to put aside our demand for evidence and believe that whatever the Bible says without further ado.


Um, no. We trust on the basis of the evidence provided by their testimony. Former atheist J. Warner Wallace, in his book Cold Case Christianity, writes,

As a skeptic, I believed that the Gospels were penned in the second century and were similarly worthless. If they were written that late, they were not eyewitness accounts. It’s really as simple as that; true eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus would have lived (and written) in the first century. The first criterion of eyewitness reliability requires us to answer the question “Were the alleged eyewitnesses present in the first place?” (p.160)

After setting out a case involving 11 points of evidence, Wallace concludes,

The reasonable inference from the circumstantial evidence is that the Gospels were written very early in history, at a time when the original eyewitnesses and gospel writers were still alive and could testify to what they had seen.(p.171)

As for what it means to “become as little children”, it refers to their innocence, humility, and lack of prejudice, something that the disciples, in the incident that the phrase is derived from, were not acting like. Sheesh.

Under the heading, “Thomas: Patron Saint of Skepticism”, Neil writes,

At first glance, the story of Thomas doubting the resurrection appears to teach us that asking for evidence is okay. Thomas had to see for himself that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and he wouldn’t be satisfied until he could touch the places on Jesus’s hands (I assume he meant wrists) where the nails used to be.

Well, he didn’t exactly ask.

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”  (John 20:25, ESV)

It’s downright impudence. He was essentially calling his closest friends “liars”, to their faces, saying in paraphrase, “Unless I see…, I will never believe.” This is not some gentle skepticism, it is a downright refusal to believe.

Neil writes,

At last, a person in the Bible with whom the modern skeptic can relate! This story would seem to relay that it’s okay for us to be the way we are, demanding the evidence we need, in order to accept a claim that strains credibility to say the least. People just don’t come back from the dead (have you ever seen it happen?), even though I must add that it wouldn’t have been so difficult for Thomas to accept if the city of Jerusalem only a few hours earlier had been inundated with people long dead but recently emerged out of their graves.

Actually, this “inundation” is something of a misnomer since we don’t have a number to define who these “saints” were. There’s argument over whether or not the passage in Matthew that he’s referring to is original to Matthew, if he’s making some point with a known literary device, given his penchant for taking pot-shots at various people, or if this is something that actually happened. The fact that we find no evidence outside of the Scripture that either denies it or supports it, given the fact that ancient writers, if they agreed with something would let it stand unchallenged, just puts a big ol’ question mark on it for me. If it happened, fine, if not, if it is not some interpolation, then it meant something else, maybe referring to the apostles, who were raised in faith. But, Neil continues,

But that’s not how the story ends. Whoever wrote this gospel couldn’t help but take a parting shot at the very critical thinking skills we are told God gave us in order to use for everything else except for examining the claims of the Bible.(link removed)

He quotes John 20:29, which reads in the English Standard Version,

Have you believed because you have seen me?

The question itself should cause the person who does think critically to stop and think about what Thomas has said in the past, in his abject refusal to believe. If anything, Jesus’ question puts Neil on notice: is this what it takes for you to believe? Now, whether the next statement are Jesus’ own words, or the conclusion drawn by John, is something worthy of debate, but it is telling,

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.

To that, Neil writes,

Well, it was nice while it lasted. For a second there, it almost seemed as if the Bible were going to affirm critical thinking skills and acknowledge the validity of asking for evidence before one believes. But it was too good to be true. In the end, we are told, the greatest virtue lies with those who believe what they are told without demanding further evidence.

What does Neil mean by “evidence“? He just pointed his audience to the evidence: the testimony of John. It’s that lack of self-reflection that causes me to question his critical thinking skills. The question that Neil seems to be avoiding is whether Thomas’ demand was for evidence or simply a reason to not believe?

Neil continues,

Credulity, it would seem, is a cardinal virtue for the Christian faith. In fact, if there were enough evidence to simply know something were true, it wouldn’t be called “faith” at all, would it?

FullSizeRender 1

The lack of self-reflection is absolutely stunning. Neil, buddy, if you accept something to be true based upon evidence, you believe it, and “belief” is a synonym for “faith“. You’re simply playing semantic games here. Neil’s own credulity should be subject to question. But he goes on,

Believing just a little bit further beyond the point at which empirical evidence trails off is precisely what faith is about. That’s why we have a different word from it in the first place. (Emphasis added)

This is simply a word game. The instant that he has enough evidence he will believe, he will have faith, not in something for which there’s no evidence, but based upon the evidence. He simply denies what he empirically has access to, right now. He’s, in effect, undermining his own argument. I have to wonder if this guy skipped chapter 16.

The Christian points to the Bereans who,

…examined the Scriptures every day to see if what [was] said was true.(Acts 17:11, ESV)

They had a high demand for evidence, sought it out, and concluded, based upon the evidence available to them, what they were hearing was true. Does Neil question their critical thinking skills? No. Why? He doesn’t because it would undermine his thesis. It’s not that Neil is a thoughtful skeptic, rather he’s a willful unbeliever.

This is something that needs to be considered, and considered thoughtfully: do you believe, based upon the evidence, that Jesus is Lord, and Lord of all, and Savior of all that believe now, here and now, without seeing Him, or will you believe when you stand before Him as your judge, which the evidence also testifies to? One belief leads to salvation from sin and the judgment that accompanies it, extended in mercy today, by living in repentance and faith in the evidence. The other belief results in accountability for sin and incurs the wrath of a holy and just God towards sin.

For further reading, see my post on epistemology and check out the debate below which centers on 1 Corinthians 15



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