Why I am a Christian

(even though I don’t believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy)

 

Christianity is falsifiable

Many religious claims are not verifiable or falsifiable

  • Claim: Religious Figure X received a divine revelation
  • On what basis would you confirm or deny that claim?

 

Christianity is different

  • It makes a claim that an event happened in space and time: Jesus Christ died and then was raised from the dead. And it says, if this didn’t happen, you should dismiss the entire religion.
    • From the Bible: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)
  • This is an empirical claim that is in principle falsifiable. If we don’t rule it out by assumption, then we can apply common methods of rational inquiry to judge whether the event really happened.

 

What if Jesus really did rise from the dead?

  • This would have profound implications for our understanding of the universe, existence, morality, God, and everything else
  • There are things about Christianity that are confusing or hard to accept as true
    • But in math, if we start with axioms that are solid, then we can prove easy theorems based on those axioms, and then use those easy theorems to prove counterintuitive, seemingly false theorems
    • We can believe the hard theorems because we have confidence in the axioms and the easy theorems
    • To me, the resurrection of Christ is the fundamental theorem of Christianity. If we can gain confidence in this, then this provides a foundation for us to have faith in the rest of the claims of Christianity.

 

Some uncontroversial preliminaries

There really was a man named Jesus who was crucified

  • Encyclopedia Britannica: “These independent accounts prove that in ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus, which was disputed for the first time and on inadequate grounds at the end of the 18th, during the 19th, and at the beginning of the 20th centuries.”
  • Wikipedia: “The baptism of Jesus and his crucifixion are considered to be two historically certain facts about Jesus. James Dunn states that these ‘two facts in the life of Jesus command almost universal assent’ and ‘rank so high on the “almost impossible to doubt or deny” scale of historical facts’ that they are often the starting points for the study of the historical Jesus.”
  • Jesus’ crucifixion was probably on April 7, 30 A.D. or April 3, 33 A.D.

 

Christians have always claimed that Jesus rose from the dead

  • The earliest Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life were written just a few decades after his death, and they firmly attest that Jesus rose from the dead
    • 1 Corinthians was written around 55 A.D. In it, the apostle Paul writes: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)
    • The Gospel of Mark was written no later than 75 A.D., and there are arguments that it was written in the 50s or even the late 30s. Mark records an angel saying, “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16:6)

 

The New Testament texts we have today are nearly identical to the original texts

  • There are thousands of surviving ancient New Testament manuscripts.
  • The time span between the New Testament books’ original composition dates and their oldest surviving copies is relatively short.
    • For example, the four gospel books that describe Jesus’ life (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) all have surviving fragments dating back to the 2nd to 3rd century A.D. The oldest surviving fragment of John is dated to 125 A.D., just a few decades after its composition.
    • The oldest surviving complete copy of the New Testament dates to 300-325 A.D.
    • Other ancient books typically have much longer gaps between composition and our earliest copies. For example:
      • The oldest surviving fragments of Herodotus’s The Histories were made over 400 years after the original, and the oldest surviving complete copy was made 1,300 years after the original.
      • The oldest surviving portion of Tacitus’s Annals was made about 700 years after the original, and the oldest surviving copy of Tacitus’s Histories was made 1,000 years after the original.
  • The text of the various ancient New Testament manuscripts agree with each other to a high degree
    • Wikipedia: “Almost all of these [New Testament textual] variants are minor, and most of them are spelling or grammatical errors. Almost all can be explained by some type of unintentional scribal mistake, such as poor eyesight. Very few variants are contested among scholars, and few or none of the contested variants carry any theological significance. Modern biblical translations reflect this scholarly consensus where the variants exist, while the disputed variants are typically noted as such in the translations.”

 

There is credible evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection

  • Non-Christian philosopher of religion Antony Flew: “The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.”

 

The likelihood of a false claim like this being believed is very low

  • It is exceptionally rare for followers of a religious leader to claim that he rose bodily from the dead, if only because false claims of this sort are easily debunked
    • Imagine trying to convince the world that the late Billy Graham is alive again
  • Wikipedia lists 28 people who have claimed to be the Jewish messiah over the past 2,000 years. Besides Jesus, none of them had followers claim they rose from the dead
  • Therefore, the fact that the early Christians claimed this and their claim didn’t quickly fall apart suggests that something extraordinary happened

 

Jesus’ disciples didn’t make a silly mistake

  • Jesus really did die on the cross
    • Roman soldiers were not exactly ineffective at meting out death
    • After Jesus died, a soldier pierced his side with a spear to make sure he was dead (John 19:34). Blood and water came out, consistent with the spear rupturing the pericardial sac that surrounds the heart.
      • Edwards et al., JAMA 1986: “Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross.”
  • Jesus’ grave really was empty on the third day after his death
    • The gospels are careful to provide details on why Jesus’ followers were not confused about which grave he was buried in
      • He was buried a tomb that had never been used before, so being confused about how many bodies should be in the tomb was impossible (Matthew 27:60, John 19:41-42)
      • The first witnesses to the resurrection, the two Marys, watched Jesus being put in the tomb (Matthew 27:61)
    • Roman soldiers were posted to guard the tomb, so the body could not have been stolen (Matthew 27:62-66)
    • The fact that Jesus’ grave was empty does not seem to have been disputed by anybody (Matthew 28:11-15). Christianity’s early enemies could have put an early end to the movement by producing the corpse of Jesus, but they didn’t.

 

The disciples were unlikely to be lying about seeing the risen Jesus

  • The apostles had little incentive to lie
    • Why do people consciously lie?
      • They have something to gain from telling a lie
    • What did Jesus’ apostles have to gain from lying about seeing the resurrected Jesus?
      • Status within a small group of followers whom they’ve managed to deceive
      • Condemnation and persecution from the Jewish community they had spent their entire lives in
      • Banishment
      • Execution
  • If the apostles were lying, the incentives for them to later recant were large
    • The usefulness of the lie for status would surely have disappeared when an apostle was about to be executed for his Christian faith. Recanting may have saved his life.
    • An apostle who saw that other apostles were being killed because of their faith would have been strongly tempted to leave the Christian community
  • None of the apostles recanted their story
    • But could there be no record of recantation because there was a cover-up by the church?
    • Probably not. The Bible is not shy about recording the apostles’ failures.
      • The big one: Judas betraying Jesus to His death (Matthew 26:14-16)
        • One of your leader’s 12 closest followers decided to turn against him
        • If you were to cover up anything in order to bolster your religion’s credibility, this would be a prime candidate
        • If the early church didn’t cover up Judas’s betrayal, why would it cover up other apostles’ betrayals?
      • When Jesus was under arrest, Peter (the leader of the apostles) disowned Him three times (Matthew 26:69-75)
  • Chuck Colson, the White House special counsel during the Watergate scandal who became a Christian, on why Watergate supports the truth of the resurrection story:
    • “Here were the 10 most powerful men in the United States. With all that power, and we couldn’t contain a lie for two weeks… Take it from one who was involved in conspiracy, who saw the frailty of man firsthand. There is no way the 11 apostles, who were with Jesus at the time of the resurrection, could ever have gone around for 40 years proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection unless it were true.”
  • If the apostles were making up the resurrection, this isn’t the story they would have told
    • Women are recorded as the first witnesses to the resurrection (Matthew 28:9). But at the time, the testimony of a woman was not admissible in Jewish courts.
  • Non-Christian New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen:
    • “I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say, and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.”

 

Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were unlikely to be hallucinations

  • Hallucinations are (almost?) always private experiences limited to a single individual
  • The risen Jesus appeared to groups both small and large
  • The Bible records that at least in the first four bullet points above, everybody in the group had a common experience of what Jesus was doing and saying; each did not have a divergent vision. This is inconsistent with the hallucination hypothesis.
  • The Bible often describes encounters with God as occurring through visions. But at least in the first four bullet points above, the Bible is emphatic that they were not merely visions. They touched Jesus, he ate their food, he fed them.

 

One of Christianity’s most committed enemies testified to the resurrection

  • Paul, who was extremely disinclined to believe in a resurrected Jesus, became the greatest evangelist for the Christian faith, wrote much of the New Testament, and died for the faith
    • Paul was a leader in persecuting Christians, whom he viewed as dangerous blasphemers
    • Paul becoming a Christian is like Osama bin Laden becoming an American patriot
    • Like bin Laden, Paul (named Saul before his conversion) believed in killing for his convictions
    • Paul had nothing to gain from testifying to Jesus’ resurrection
    • But Paul encountered the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, where he was headed to persecute Christians. He became an immediate convert. (Acts 9:1-19)

 

Jesus’ death and resurrection were foretold in the Old Testament

  • There are many examples, but I find the most striking instances to be in the Old Testament book of Isaiah
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls contain a complete copy of the book of Isaiah that is radiocarbon dated to between 335 B.C. and 107 B.C., so Isaiah clearly predates Jesus by centuries
  • Isaiah Chapter 53 makes four predictions about Jesus that match the New Testament accounts
    • He will lead a blameless life
    • He will let himself be crucified without protest because of our sins
    • The punishment from God embodied in Jesus’ crucifixion will allow us to be forgiven of our sins
    • Jesus will be resurrected from the dead
  • Excerpts from Chapter 53 (read the full text of the chapter here)
    • “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
    • “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
    • “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
  • Elsewhere, Isaiah predicts that Jesus’ mission will include all non-Jewish peoples
    • “He says: ‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.’” (Isaiah 49:6)
    • “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.” (Isaiah 42:6)

 

What does it take to believe something?

Nobody believes anything non-trivial because of “proof”

  • Many people say the only way they will believe in God or Christianity is if they have “proof”
  • What is proof? What your high school science teacher taught you:
    • Formulate a hypothesis
    • Gather data
    • Data are consistent with a hypothesis if there’s less than a 5% chance that it would have happened if the hypothesis was false
    • Are data consistent with hypothesis? If yes, accept hypothesis. If not, reject.
  • Nobody actually does this when forming their most important beliefs and choosing actions
    • The data alone are never that convincing
    • If we imposed this standard of proof, we would be paralyzed
  • “Strong rationalism” is the philosophy that nothing should be believed unless it can be proved rationally by logic or empirically by sensory experience. Most philosophers today think that strong rationalism is nearly impossible to defend.

 

Examples where the data are not completely conclusive, and yet we believe

  • An example from physics
    • Einstein never accepted quantum mechanics to be true. Hence the famous declaration, “God does not play dice with the universe.”
    • But he saw all the same experimental data everybody else did
    • Even data in physics—which are as clean as any you’ll find—do not speak for themselves
    • All physicists today accept quantum mechanics as a workhorse theory, even though it is fundamentally inconsistent with general relativity
  • An example from economics
    • “The most fundamental rule of economics is that a rise in price leads to less quantity demanded.” —Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. (This is called the Law of Demand.)
    • Deirdre McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics, on the Law of Demand’s wishy-washy empirical performance:
      • “Sometimes, certain very sophisticated statistical tests of the law applied to entire economies… have resulted, after a good deal of handwringing and computer-squeezing, in the diagonal elements of certain matrices being negative at the 5 percent level of significance. And sometimes they have not.”
      • “Less comprehensive but more numerous demonstrations of the law have been attempted market by market… Again, the curves sometimes give the right slope, and sometimes don’t.”
      • “Some economists have tried to subject the law to a few experimental tests. After a good deal of throat-clearing they have found it to be true for clearheaded rats and false for confused humans… an interesting result which no one worries about too much.”
    • 99.99% of economists believe in the Law of Demand. Economists don’t need “proof” to be convinced of this.
  • An example from history
    • Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants in 218 B.C., an incredible feat
    • Our only documentation of that deed:
      • Polybus: written 70 years after crossing
      • Livy: written 200 years after crossing
    • We don’t have the original manuscripts of Polybus and Livy
      • Earliest copy of Polybus: 1100 years after original publication
      • Earliest copy of Livy: fragment copied 400 years after original publication
    • From textual comparison, it’s clear that Polybus and Livy drew from the same primary source for their account
      • So there is really only one testimony that has been retold twice
    • Polybus and Livy contradict each other on exactly which route Hannibal took over the Alps
    • Despite these problems, historians generally accept that Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants
  • Examples from mathematics
    • Surely in mathematics, all proof is iron-clad, isn’t it?
    • Mathematicians Philip Davis and Reuben Hersh: “The line between complete and incomplete proof is always somewhat fuzzy, and often controversial.”
    • Mathematician Kevin Buzzard: “Working definitions of proof for the working mathematician: A proof is something which the elders in our community have accepted as correct… In modern mathematics, perhaps the idea of whether a certain object is a ‘proof’ can change over time (e.g. from ‘yes’ to ‘no’).”
    • Encyclopedia Britannica: “Since its invention it had been generally agreed that the calculus gave correct answers, but no one had been able to give a satisfactory explanation of why this was so.” This state of affairs lasted for over a century after the invention of calculus by Newton and Leibniz.
      • Mathematicians agreed that calculus gave “correct” answers even without proof!
    • Today, mathematicians claim that all possible “finite simple groups” have been classified.
      • Proof of the “enormous theorem” is scattered over 30 years of journal articles and 15,000 pages
      • Realistically, proof is unverifiable
    • 100 years after it was conjectured, the “four color theorem” is now considered to have been proven
      • No human being has actually read through the entire proof
      • The proofs are generated by computer programs
      • Do you think there is 100% certainty that there are no bugs in those programs?
  • An example from philosophy
    • One of the main lessons of modern philosophy is that there don’t seem to be any good arguments for
      • the existence of other minds
      • the existence of other people
      • the existence of the past
      • the existence of an external world
    • How do I know that I am not just a brain in a vat (i.e., in the Matrix)?
    • Yet we believe that other minds and people exist, that the outside world exists, and that the past exists

 

Even God visibly showing Himself isn’t enough to produce belief without a leap of faith

  • “In 1988, the atheist philosopher A. J. Ayer had such an adventure when he choked on a piece of smoked salmon and his heart stopped for a few minutes. Soon afterward, Ayer reported that his near-death experience, in which he saw a red light that seemed to govern the universe, ‘slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death… will be the end of me.’ But he later dismissed it as a hallucination caused by a temporary lack of oxygen in his brain.”
    —Jim Holt, New York Times Magazine, July 29, 2007
  • “…to my thinking, miracles are never a stumbling-block to the realist. It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognised by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also.”
    —Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880, The Brothers Karamazov

 

What is sufficient for belief?

  • A preponderance of evidence in favor. Airtight proof almost never exists.
  • Within nearly every decision and action in life is a leap of faith made to bridge the otherwise impassable gap between evidence and conviction.

 

What is the Christian message?

Terrible news followed by the best news there ever was

Sin exists

“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.”
Psalm 51:4

  • Sin is any action, thought, or word contrary to God’s will
  • We are often aware of sin because of our innate (but imperfect) sense of morality

 

Everybody has sinned

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
1 John 1:8

  • Even you. Even me. Even Gandhi. At least once. Probably tens of thousands of times.

 

There is a perfectly just God who punishes every sin

“The Son of Man [Jesus] will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 13:41

  • In order for there to be justice, all wrongdoing must be punished
  • The punishment for any sin is eternal separation from God—that is, hell
  • We have all sinned, so all of us deserve to go to hell
  • Why is the consequence of even a single sin eternal separation from God? An illustrative analogy:
    • Pasta is good
    • Roaches are bad
    • If you add even a small roach to a big plate of pasta, the pasta becomes inedible
    • Adding more good pasta to the roach-tainted pasta doesn’t make it any better
    • The roach-tainted pasta must be thrown away
  • Similarly, if we sin, we are tainted like the pasta with a roach in it.
  • Doing more good deeds doesn’t compensate for already-committed sin, just like adding clean pasta to the roach-tainted pasta doesn’t make it more appetizing

 

God loves us and is merciful

“He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”
Psalm 103:10

  • God does not want us to go to hell
  • But if wrongdoing is not fully punished as it deserves, then how can God be perfectly just?

 

The only way God could be both merciful and perfectly just was to bear the penalty for our sins Himself

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Romans 5:8

  • God sent His only Son, Jesus, to this world to become a Jewish man living 2,000 years ago
  • Jesus lived the sinless life that we should be living
  • Although He was innocent, Jesus was put to death by crucifixion
  • God’s penalty for our sin was poured out upon Jesus
  • Jesus was resurrected three days after dying. After appearing to many of his followers, he ascended into heaven.

 

Forgiveness is freely available to anybody who submits to Jesus as God and asks to be forgiven

”For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16

  • Because Jesus has paid the penalty for our sins, God can forgive us. Our slate is wiped clean.
  • After we are forgiven, God looks at us and sees Jesus’ life of perfect righteousness, not our own miserable record of sin

 

This earthly life is just the beginning

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Daniel 12:2

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
1 Corinthians 2:9

  • There is life after death
  • Heaven and hell are real places
  • Every human being is headed to one or the other

 

Other Resources

  • Evidences for the Historicity of the Bible
    A concise PowerPoint presentation by Gordon Hugenberger of Park Street Church on the reliability of the Bible’s historical accounts. Includes some economic analyses!
  • Neil Shenvi – Apologetics
    Neil is a theoretical chemist whom I became friends with while he was a post-doc at Yale. On this site, he not only covers the common questions about Christianity, but also topics such as the implications of quantum mechanics for faith and the existence of miracles.
  • Skeptics Welcome
    Content from New York City’s famous Redeemer Presbyterian Church. “We recognize that belief is hard and that it is worth acknowledging and wrestling with the questions, doubts, objections and skepticism around the Christian faith.”

 

Churches

In New Haven, I am a member of Trinity Baptist Church.

During my years in Boston, I was a member of Park Street Church.

If you are in the United States, one resource for finding a church near you is 9 Marks.