Why I Am a Christian

Christianity is a religion based on history. A simple way to decide whether it is true or not is to ask yourself, "Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead three days after he was crucified?" If not, Christianity is false. If so, Christianity should be believed-- though of course there is more to it than one historical fact.

That a man would rise from the dead is a miracle, something contrary to the laws of nature. But to disbelieve in God because miracles don't exist is circular reasoning. If God exists, then of course miracles exist too, because God is where the laws of nature come from, and, like any legislature, he can amend the laws-- use "divine law" instead of "natural law" whenever convenient.

Indeed, why should we think that there should be any laws of nature at all, in the absence of a God who ordains them, except that we see they usually hold and so we suppose they'll continue to hold? That's not a very strong argument, as philosopher David Hume explained to us in the 1700's.

To be sure, Hume also argued that we should not believe in a miracle unless it would be even more amazing that the people who reported the miracle were liars. He has a good point, and that's the crux of the problem. Which is more plausible--- that Jesus rose from the dead, or that the people who said he did were liars or fools?

To answer that we must go into motives. Why would somebody lie about Jesus rising from the dead? For personal gain, presumably. But did the early Christians gain? No. In fact, they were often killed for their claims. Were they mistaken but sincere? The "fool" theory is a little better, but you have to be pretty convinced to die for your beliefs, or even to live for thirty years with no material reward.

To be sure, there are many crackpot beliefs. "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time." But when it comes to belief requiring some sacrifice bigger than paying for miracle pills or going to inspirational meetings, the believers diminish rapidly. And in the case of crackpot beliefs, we usually observe some charlatan leaders who profit personally. We can find plenty of charlatans among Christian leaders a thousand years later, but where was the gain in the first fifty years?

What I've just said is essentially the argument in Paley's Evidences of Christianity, a very readable and pleasant book written shortly after Hume made his arguments. Neither Paley nor I claim to be completely convincing. We are arguing plausibility, not mathematical proof, or even scientific proof. For historical fact, that's all you can do. If an event only happened one time, with a limited number of witnesses, how can it be proved? Scientists don't know that light always travels 186,000 miles per second as surely as mathematicians know that the area of a circle is pi-r-squared. Historians have even less certain evidence that Julius Caesar was assassinated by Brutus. For Caesar's assassination all we can do is rely on the few historical records that have survived, via manuscripts that are much newer than the manuscripts of the New Testament and authors who would have been in trouble if they went against the official story. We believe them only because we weigh the likelihood of lying and mistake against the likelihood of truth.

The evidence for Jesus's resurrection is not overwhelming. It is more reliable than the evidence for Caesar's assassination, but the fact itself is so much more surprising that reasonable men can go either way on it. This is part of God's plan. We cannot know why, but it seems from the rest of the Bible (for reasons I will not go into here) that God does not desire that the evidence be overwhelming. He wants to permit paganism, atheism, Judaism, and Christianity all to be reasonable beliefs, each supportable by argument and evidence even if one of them better explains the evidence than the others. He has chosen to require a leap of faith in addition to reasoning. This leap of faith is not a giant leap-- there is evidence,too--- but as in so much of life you have to make up your mind about a hard decision without knowing for sure. You have to settle for just 51% probability of being right, maybe, before you make the big decision. But you do have to decide, one way or the other. It makes a big difference to how you should live your life whether Jesus rose from the dead. You can't say, "I don't know." Either Jesus is the Son of God and deserves worship and obedience--- from YOU, not just in general--- or Jesus is a fake and deserves your contempt.

Hence, my most important message is to make your choice. Don't put off whether you believe in God or not. If you keep putting it off, you'll be dead before you know it, and it'll be too late to decide. Decide boldly now whether you are a believer or an unbeliever. You can change your mind later, but you need to live life one week at a time and you'd better have a plan for this coming week. If you pick "Jesus didn't rise from the dead", you'll need to decide how to live this week--- whether for pleasure, virtue, self-annihilation, or whatever The Good is (figuring that out is your next step). If you pick "Jesus did rise", you'll have to decide what that implies and try to serve God. But you can't pick "I don't know". That would be like being lost in the woods and deciding to sit down and starve to death because you aren't sure whether to walk east or walk west to find your way out.

I'd like to stop there, but I shouldn't. First, there are other rasons to believe Jesus rose from the dead. If God has so chosen, you'll get a personal conviction from the Holy Spirit, an overwhelming feeling that leaves no doubt in your mind. I'm not so fortunate, but you might be. Other evidence is the history of the Church, which has overcome a remarkable amount of adversity and internal corruption and turmoil. There is the Old Testament, and how neatly Christianity continues Judaism past the destruction of the Temple in the 1st Century. There is the belief of so many people, both the simpleton and the genius, for whom personal gain or convenience would push them towards unbelief. Above I chose to focus on just one argument.

Second, if you decide for Christianity, as I have, you need to decide what "Christianity" means. All Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead, but they disagree on a lot of other things, both in what you should do and what you should believe. We'd expect that. Naturally people will disagree more about a worldview the more they think about specific details--- even important details. If you pick atheism, you have a lot of details to work out, and you'll find yourselves in almost complete disagreement with other atheists. If you pick Christianity, you'll find this no less true. So get to work on the basics now. The rest can come later.