Christmas 2007
Eric Rasmusen
http://rasmusen.org/_religion/why.htm

Why Am I a Christian?

This page will contain a little essay I will write up soon, I hope, since no doubt many people are checking my homepage as they meet me in England. Right now it is mostly a place-holder. If you want to encourage me to finish it, email me at erasmuse@Indiana.edu.

There are two parts to answering the question.

First, why do I believe that Christianity is true?

Second, why do I behave as a Christian?

These are distinct questions. Someone can believe the Bible is entirely true yet fight God. Someone can believe the Bible is entirely false, yet live like a Christian.

What does it mean to say that Christianity is true? Christianity is not just theoretical, like Platonism; it is, like geology, a combination of fact and theory. The big difference is that the facts on which Christianity is based are highly uncertain. We can take the central one to be this: that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. You cannot be a Christian without believing that fact to be true. You can believe much of what Jesus said is true, but you don't believe what 99% of Christians, including Arians, Roman Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Calvinists, Greek Orthodox, Pelagians, and Lutherans have always believed, and it's doubtful whether you can have a distinctly Christian belief system without it (putting aside such ancient oddities as the Gnostics who believe Jesus is divine but never actually died). Just because I believe that Buddha once said something sensible doesn't mean I'm a Buddhist. In the same way, just because you agree with Jesus that murder is bad and sinners can repent doesn't mean you're a Christian. No-- you must believe in miracles, and in particular in the Resurrection.

Well then, why do I believe that Jesus rose from the dead in about the year 30? As with any historical event, we need to look at the documents and judge their reliability and plausibility. Here, reliability is much easier to assess than plausibility. We have much better documentation for the Resurrection than we do for most ancient events. It is generally agreed that Paul's letters and the Gospels were written within 100 years of the Resurrection (probably much earlier), and we even have original documents from within 400 years or so (much closer than the earliest documents we have narrating events such as the Persian Wars or the life of Julius Caesar, I think.) It is unfortunate that while we have at least 5 different authors, they all draw on the same sources and all are Christian, but that, too, is no different from the situation for most ancient historical events (rather better, in fact-- do we have any source but Caesar himself for is war in Gaul?). Furthmore, the Gospels and Paul are level-headed in style and approach, and seem to be written for an audience capable of checking their claims by asking eyewitnesses at one or two steps removed. And the New Testament, like the Old Testament, is remarkably even-handed. Peter, the leader of the early church, has all his flaws portrayed; the disciples generally are made fun of; Paul admits to his flaws and sins. All these things are good indications of reliability.

No, the big problem is plausibility. When an otherwise reliable source says that a man rose from the dead, the ordinary level of reliability is not good enough. Somebody who thinks the book of Luke is not good evidence that Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea is just plain foolish. Somebody who thinks the book of Luke is not good evidence that Jesus rose from the dead is reasonable.

Why, then, do I disagree? It is not because I have received a divine revelation. If I had, that would be a very good reason for my belief, if one that would not be persuasive to other people, but I haven't. Rather, I view belief in the Resurrection as the most reasonable way to explain certain anomalous facts. These include the reliability of the Biblical documents which assert its truth, but they also include the success of the Church, its widespread appeal, the human moral sense, the human belief in gods, and the incompleteness of evolutionary theory. Consider the following questions:

1. Why do humans have moral beliefs?

2. Why do humans believe in God or gods?

3. Why did the writers of the Bible write what they did if it is false?

4. Why did Christianity expand so rapidly and last so long?

5. How did people in so backward an area as Israel come to write such a good book and to have such unusual ideas?

6. Why have the Jews survived so long?

7. Why have so many intelligent people thoughtfully believed in Christianity over the ages?

8. Why is Christianity thriving in the world today? (in the world as a whole; Europe must be excluded)

9. How can evolution explain the variety of species today without the help of nudges from God?

10. How can life have begun when DNA is such a complicated molecule?

11. What can explain the extraordinary coincidences for the values of physical constants needed to allow our current universe to exist?

I can think of answers to all of these questions, but the answers are unsatisfactory (things like "amazing coincidence" or "it must be useful for survival somehow"), especially in aggregate. God is a useful explanation for a lot of things that otherwise are hard to understand.

For example, evolution is a very useful idea. As the son of a geneticist and someone who has written a book on game theory (the math of which is used in evolutionary biology) I am no opponent of the idea that over time certain traits are more likely to survive than others, so what one observes in the end will be very useful traits rather than random ones. Moreover, some traits by their very suboptimality indicate evolution rather than design for what works best. The human appendix, for example, is a small appendage to the large intestine which seems to have no useful purpose but does give us appendicitis once in a while. Evolution explains this because if the appendix gradually got smaller, it would get jammed with debris and cause appendicitis even more often, so it stays at its current size. But would a benevolent God design people with an appendix?

With so much evil in the world, appendicitis is not much of an argument against God. It is, however, evidence that He has used evolution to cretae humans, or has wished us to believe that evolution is at work. The problem is that evolution is not enough. It explains some things, but not everything-- not, perhaps, most things. The clearest examples of evolution are where existing traits get more common or less--- where bird beaks get longer or shorter, for example. Where things get hazy is in the origins of entirely new features, and the origin of species. Humans have selected animal varieties for thousands of years, with amazing results. But where are the new species? Chihuahuas and wolfhounds are both still dogs. Only now, with recombinant DNA, are we getting drastically different creatures, and that's not evolution, but design.

So how do we get from the trilobite to the economist? If God tweaks mutations, we have the answer. Perhaps some other answer will arise-- I cannot exclude that. It could be that there is something in embryology that will do it, or some natural process that makes one mutation generate other changes in the organism, and research on these things should be encouraged. But the theory of evolution remains incomplete. It may also be able to explain human moral sentiments--reciprocity is an easy example--- and belief in God, but it is easier to make the argument than to be persuaded by it.

Evolution is a hot topic these days. Even more problematic within science is what is called "fine tuning" in physics. I do not understand this well enough to discuss it much, and it has not affected my own thinking, but John Lennox has a good summary of the fine tuning problem in his God's Undertaker. One of this themes is that advances in science have created as many puzzles as they have solved. Evolution has explained why different creatures exist now than in the age of dinosaurs, imperfectly at least, but biochemistry has told us that all life is based on an extremely complicated molecule called DNA. It used to be possible, and even standard, to believe that the universe had no beginning; now we have to deal with the Big Bang. A cave man could believe the life's materials just happened to be here; now we have to wonder how atomic energy levels can be such as to create carbon from helium or beryllium. I think that the relative constancy of our uncertainty is no accident. The Christian God has made it clear in the Bible that He discloses Himself selectively. For whatever reason, He does not want everybody to believe in Him. If He did, He could quite easily convince everybody by means of modern-day pervasive miracles. That would be considerably more dignified and straightforward than putting some sort of message encoded in DNA, or letting some scientific study show that prayer works, or creating some DNA-less animal that could not possibly have resulted from evolution. No-- if this God exists, He has made His existence non-obvious. At the same time, He would be cruel indeed if He gave us no evidence at all for Himself. Rather, we would expect that whether He exists or not, there would be some evidence for Him but not convincing evidence. One might add that if He does not exist, the evidence against His existence should be increasing, but I hesitate to go so far. Human knowledge of such things does not necessarily progress.

Anomalies in Nature are not the most important thing for our belief, however, and maybe I have given them too much attention here. Even if we were sure that someone designed our Universe and is still intervening in it, that doesn't tell us much. We need to get to specifics if we know whether we are to obey such a being (or even what rules to obey) and whether to worship it. A God who merely designs Nature is a useful scientific hypothesis, but is more like the gods of primitive peoples who explain natural events such as earthquakes than like the Christian God who loves us and whom we are to worship and obey.

That is why the Bible is so important. It serves, weakly by itself, as evidence for God, but what it is special for is in being evidence for what God is like and what God wants us to do. Here, I should really discuss why I think the Bible is evidence, and why History is evidence, but before I do that, I will talk about a more general point: the necessity of believing something.

An old saying tells us that "Someone who believes in nothing will believe in anything". That's not quite right. Rather, everybody believes something, if only weakly. The best way to define belief is by how a person behaves. How do we know if you believe that the way to get home on a path is North or South? If we stand around talking, you may give reasons for North and reasons for South, and moan about not really being sure. But we can see which way you go. You're not going to stay in one place-- that way, you're sure to go nowhere. So it is with religious belief. Perhaps you do actually have definite knowledge and find it an easy decision as to what to believe. I don't think that's actually as common as it seems. Rather, people being what they are, we have three other groups of us:

1. People like me who feel uncertain, but have nonetheless made a firm choice. (Or do I belong in group 3?)

2. People who have made a firm choice, and, hating uncertainty, have brought themselves to feel certain. This group includes atheists and Christians.

3. People who feel uncertain, and have made a weak choice. This includes Christians who call themselves such as a matter of habit, because they've postponed thinking about whether it really makes sense. It includes the much bigger group of people who call themselves agnostics but whose way of life indicates that they have actually chosen atheism, because they behave exactly as they would if there were no God.

Group 3 is not an admirable one. This is important stuff. It is one thing to be an atheist deliberately, but quite another to be one out of laziness. Perhaps that is where "Someone who believes in nothing will believe in anything" applies. If the destination is either North or South, it is stupid to stay in one place. A random choice is better. But someone who says he refuses to make a choice is really choosing to stay in one place--- a definitely wrong choice. I think we've all done that in our personal experiences. It's a form of procrastination. But we realize that it's a bad thing to do.

Thus, we need to make a choice about God. The choice is not about what to believe in the sense of what facts we have in our mind. Rather, it is how to interpret those facts and make a decision. It's the same as when you are lost on a country road and decide whether to go North or South. The evidence before you is fixed; what you have to do is make a choice as to what to do about it. Having decided to go North does not make you think that South was definitely wrong, but some such choice is crucial and necessary, not matter how weak the evidence in either direction.

[To be continued.]

Notes:

I claim that giraffes exist. You cannot find any giraffes in Bloomington, Indiana. Convenient for me, isn't it? No way to refute my claims. But, I plead, the nature of giraffes is that they don't live in Indiana. Miracles are like that too. They don't live in Today.

When reasonable men disagree, one always wonders why. Grace is part of the answer here.

Something to deal with: the Question of Evil. The answer to this is that we don't know, and we should not expect to know. A child cannot understand why his father allows a strange man to cut him with knives (surgery) or why they have to abandon their house (foreclosure) or why his father is away all the time (sales trips). We are like children, and cannot expect to know. We are helpless, and must trust. That is a highly uncomfortable position, but if God is God, He is far enough above us that we must be humble. If He is evil Himself, our situation is as hopeless as a child with an evil father-- but there is nothing to be done about it. A two-year-old rebel is in a hopeless position. So we should trust for the best.

The Bible is our evidence. The main question is not whether it is infallible and entirely inspired by God, but whether any of it is. If some of it is, then we have the words of God available to us, and we should use them. To be sure, figuring out how much is dependable might be hard, and is full of pitfalls if you are as biased as all of us are, but it is an important task. My own policy is to trust the Bible where I am uncertain, and especially where its commands contradict my own prejudices, but to put little importance on its historical accuracy, as being unimportant to its intent and to my own life. I don't need to know how many years Ahab reigned, but I do need to know whether no-fault divorce is acceptable.

The second question I raised at the start of this essay was why I behave as a Christian. This is harder to answer. Grace must be the answer, I think.