Grim Reapers and the Infinite Past

One of the modern arguments for God’s existence is the Kalam Cosmological Argument (see my outline of it here); one of that argument’s two premises is that the universe began to exist. While I covered several reasons to accept that premise in my original post, my favorite reason for it was, unfortunately, too lengthy to include. Having finished the introductory outline of a case for Christianity, I now devote my first “random” post to this reason.

It’s called the Grim Reaper Paradox, and its application to the Kalam is due to the work of philosophers Rob Koons and Alexander Pruss. In order to understand it, though, we’ve first got to talk about the general logical tool known as “proof by contradiction.” The basic idea is that we don’t have to judge ideas as isolated points; we can judge the plausibility of an idea by the plausibility of its implications as well. If an idea has ridiculous implications, we shouldn’t believe it. The proof by contradiction is simply an extreme case of this reasoning; it is absolutely impossible for a contradiction to exist in reality, so if an idea implies a contradiction, that idea is necessarily false. (Fun fact: the simplest way to prove that 2 is irrational is a proof by contradiction.)

Returning to the Kalam Cosmological Argument, our goal is to show that the universe began to exist. Now either it began to exist or it didn’t (it’s “past-eternal”); therefore, one way to show that it began to exist is to assume that it didn’t and derive a contradiction. This is precisely what the Grim Reaper Paradox does. It goes like this:

Assume that our universe is past-eternal. Using conventional dating, we can number every year – this is 2019, there was a year 20, a year 2000 BC, and a year 20000000 BC. Since the universe is past-eternal, there is a BC year associated with every natural number. Now suppose there is also a past-eternal man named Fred. Unfortunately for him, there are infinitely many Grim Reapers out to kill him. There is one Grim Reaper for every natural number, and it is the duty of Grim Reaper number n to kill Fred during the year n BC.

  1. For any natural number n, Fred is either dead or alive at the end of n+1 BC.
  2. If he is dead, he remains dead, and is dead at the end of n BC.
  3. If he is alive, the nth Grim Reaper kills him, and he is dead at the end of n BC.
  4. Either way, Fred will be dead at the end of n BC for any natural number n.
  5. As a special case, we know that Fred is dead at the end of 1 BC.
  6. Because Fred is dead, some Grim Reaper must have killed him; since every Grim Reaper has a number, the one that killed him must have a number. Let’s call it Grim Reaper k, where k is a natural number.
  7. The fact that Grim Reaper k killed Fred means that he was alive after k+1 BC, but since k+1 is a natural number, this contradicts 4.

So we achieved our goal! We assumed that the universe was past-eternal and derived a contradiction; it follows that the universe cannot be past-eternal, i.e. it began to exist. Furthermore, it seems to me that each step of the argument is completely logically unassailable; the only way to avoid it is to say that the contradiction resulted from some other questionable assumption. In the interest of telling a good story, we did make a few such assumptions (e.g. the existence of a past-eternal man and the existence of an infinite number of Grim Reapers). But we can now trim these out to show that the contradiction remains even when the story is more boring.

We can easily replace the infinity of Grim Reapers with a single Grim Reaper who checks every year to see if Fred is dead; the contradiction is then derived in that there is a year in which Fred both was and was not dead. To replace our past-eternal man, there can instead be a past-eternal sheet of paper that each Grim Reaper is to sign during his year if it isn’t already signed. Alternatively, each Grim Reaper can supernaturally add a proton or a planet to the (past-eternal) universe if another Grim Reaper has not already done so. So these peripheral assumptions can be reduced to quite modest ones without damaging the essence of the contradiction; it would seem that the source of the problem really is the assumption of the past-eternal universe. If that’s right, we can be confident that the universe began to exist even apart from the abundance of scientific evidence we have for the same conclusion. In the face of these two lines of evidence, the traditional atheistic view of the universe as eternal no longer holds water. The inescapable beginning of the cosmos is something that any view of reality must explain; I expect that my atheist friends will have a lot more difficulty with that than me.


The Case for Jesus’ Divinity

With the general reliability of the Gospels established, we’re ready for the final step of our argument.  What ultimately makes Christianity unique is its view of Jesus – while other belief systems may view Him as a prophet, a moral teacher, or one god among many, Christianity alone holds that He is the incarnation of the sole God of the universe.  This view of Jesus is not just a belief of Christianity but the belief of Christianity; the entire religion is basically the implications and applications of Jesus’ divinity.  Therefore, to prove Christianity, we merely need to prove that Jesus is God.  I propose to do so by this simple argument:

  1. If Jesus rose from the dead, He is God.
  2. Jesus rose from the dead.
  3. Therefore, Jesus is God.

Why should we believe premise 1 – that if Jesus rose from the dead, He is God?  It’s obviously not true in general; God could raise anyone He wanted from the dead and it would have no bearing on that person’s divinity.  The key reason for this premise is that Jesus wasn’t just anyone, nor even just any moral teacher.  Jesus was a man who made radical claims about Himself – including that He was divine.  He forgave sins (Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-2) and called Himself Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-5), both of which entailed divinity in the Jewish religious context.  More directly, Jesus called Himself Son of Man after a divine figure in the prophecies of Jewish Scriptures (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Luke 21:27, Daniel 7:13); there is no mistaking that this was a claim of divinity in the Jewish context because it’s what finally got Jesus crucified for blasphemy.  The gospel of John is conspicuously lacking from those proof texts, but that’s only because John skips the indirect stuff and goes straight for statements like “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  Jesus also tells a crowd “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58).  Abraham was the father of all Jews and “I AM” is a reference to the Jewish name of God – our strong suspicion that this is a claim to divinity is confirmed by the Jews’ immediate attempt to stone Jesus to death for blasphemy.

Our knowledge of Jesus’ divine claims helps us better understand the significance of His resurrection.  The resurrection of Jesus, if it occurred, would not be a random miracle but rather God’s vindication of Jesus’ claims about Himself.  Thus, due to the unique context of Jesus’ life, teachings, and claims about Himself, premise 1 seems very plausible.

What about premise 2 – why should we think that Jesus rose from the dead?  Enormous books have been filled with answers to that question (e.g. N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God), but for a short and memorable one, here are some of the reasons Jesus is ALIVE (courtesy of Dr. Timothy McGrew).

Appearances of the risen Jesus were reported

The gospels are pretty much unanimous that there were reports of the risen Jesus: Matthew, Luke, and John attest directly to these appearances, while Mark includes an angel saying that Jesus will appear to His disciples but does not narrate this event.  The appearances occur to individuals as well as groups; perhaps most importantly, they occur to Christians and skeptics alike.  James, one of Jesus’ half-brothers, was not a Christian until Jesus appeared to him after His crucifixion.  Saul, an energetic and ruthless persecutor of Christians, also converted to Christianity after Jesus appeared to him; afterwards, he changed his name to Paul and wrote a large portion of the New Testament.

Low status of women

1st century Palestine was blatantly patriarchal; women were seen as emotional and unreliable, and as a result, a woman’s testimony was generally regarded as worthless.  Yet, shockingly, all four gospels agree that a group of Jesus’ women followers discover the empty tomb while Jesus’ male disciples are hiding in terror as a result of His crucifixion.  The inclusion of inconvenient or embarrassing facts is evidence of an authentic account and it doesn’t get much more embarrassing than that.

Immediate proclamation in Jerusalem

Shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion, belief in His resurrection exploded with Jerusalem as its epicenter.  This is notable for two reasons.  First, the short window between Jesus’ death and the proclamation of His resurrection makes it very difficult to explain as a result of legendary development.  Second, the fact that the miracle was proclaimed in the very city it was alleged to have happened means that everyone would’ve had access to all relevant public knowledge, eyewitnesses, and locations.  This is especially important because of the presence of powerful and organized opposition to Christianity that would have been eager to use something like an occupied tomb of Jesus to quash the movement.

Voluntary sufferings undergone by first witnesses

Life for those who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus wasn’t easy.  Paul was a zealous and advantaged Jew who was on the fast track to being a well-respected and well-off leader; he gave it all up to preach and make tents because of his belief in the resurrection.  He was beaten within an inch of his life multiple times for his passionate evangelism and was eventually martyred, as were several of the other apostles.  This fact presents a crippling obstacle to explanations which accuse the disciples of deception or conspiracy; they may have been mistaken, but the idea that they lived and died (some very painfully) with an unwavering loyalty to a lie they themselves invented is preposterous.

Empty tomb where Jesus was buried

All four gospels attest that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in a tomb and that the tomb was found empty three days later.  This would be powerful in itself, but the gospels do more than directly assert the empty tomb – they also give us strong evidence that even the early opponents of Christianity conceded that the tomb was empty.  In the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that the Jewish leaders paid one of the tomb’s guards to say that Jesus’ disciples had stolen His body – Matthew ends the account by saying “This story has been spread amongst the Jews to this day.”  The key point for our purposes is that Matthew’s account of the bribed guard is aimed at explaining the origins of the then-contemporary accusation that the disciples had stolen the body, which implies that such an accusation was being made.  But this accusation – made by the early opponents of Christianity – takes for granted that Jesus’ tomb was empty.  If even the enemies of Christianity acknowledged that Jesus’ tomb was empty, it’s very likely that it was.

These five facts taken together are very challenging for the skeptic to explain.  Every proposed naturalistic explanation (e.g. the hallucination hypothesis, the conspiracy hypothesis, the apparent death hypothesis) deals with one or a few facts only to be strongly disconfirmed by the others.  By contrast, the Christian has a concise, thorough, and simple explanation; Jesus actually rose from the dead.  Unless the skeptic can produce a comparably plausible hypothesis, we’re rationally justified in accepting the resurrection of Jesus as the best explanation of the facts.  No rival hypothesis has even come close; the situation is so desperate that even aliens (Dr. Michael Shermer) and secret twins (Dr. Robert Greg Cavin) have both seriously entered the discussion.  Therefore, it is quite plausibly the case that Jesus did rise from the dead.

If both premises of my argument are true, the conclusion is inescapable – Jesus is God.  This is an astounding conclusion with sweeping ramifications for every aspect of our lives, and I’d be remiss if I spent all this energy convincing you that Jesus is God and then just walked out of the room.  If Jesus is God, what does that mean?  Where do we go next?  For starters, we ought to be extremely interested in what God had to say when He was among us – that is, we should read the Gospels and apply Jesus’ teachings to our lives.  We may find that, in addition to teaching us Himself, Jesus displays a tremendous reverence for the Jewish Scriptures as a source of truth and that He passes His authority on to His apostles, promising that His Spirit will guide them into further truth.  Being lazy efficient, we may then wish that all these writings were collected for us – we’d be lucky, for the Bible is that collection.  As we study it, we may come to learn more and more of a God who moved heaven and Earth to relate with us despite our sins and provide a way for us to be saved from destroying ourselves.  We may respond by turning away from evil and accepting the life that He freely gives us.  As good as all that is, we may additionally wish that there were a place where those following Jesus and those curious about Him could come and learn and encourage one another – we’d be lucky again, for the church is that place.

Out of the single truth that Jesus is God comes practically all of orthodox Christianity. If you’re persuaded that He is, I implore you to act on that knowledge. If you’re intrigued but not yet persuaded, keep reading! Keep thinking! Jesus was a brilliant teacher, but His teachings were not for the lazy learner; He often spoke in difficult parables and answered questions with questions. Nevertheless, He promised that “everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”


Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?

We argued in the previous post that the text of the New Testament is fundamentally the same today as it was when it was composed. But this textual reliability should not be confused with historical reliability; the textual reliability of the New Testament merely allows us to investigate whether the New Testament is, in fact, historically reliable. Going forward, we’ll narrow our focus to the parts of the New Testament that are needed for our discussion: the four canonical gospels (which contain records of Jesus’ life). We’ll assess the historical reliability of the gospels by asking two questions: first, to what extent were the gospel authors attempting to communicate historical fact? Second, if they were reporting historical fact, what reasons are there to accept or reject their testimony?

Let’s begin with our first question: to what extent were the gospel authors attempting to communicate historical fact? There are several avenues by which we can answer this question, but the most important is literary. On the basis of the character of the texts themselves, contemporary New Testament scholarship has largely agreed that the gospels are historical in nature, most closely resembling ancient biographies. Indeed, a simple and straightforward reading of the texts indicates that the authors are attempting to communicate historical truths (see, for instance, the opening of the book of Luke). This literary conclusion is reinforced historically; the gospels were cited continuously by early church fathers as reliable sources of (historical) information on Jesus’ life. If the gospels were originally intended as nonhistorical, it’s hard to see how the leaders of Christendom could’ve so quickly become confused about their function. Lastly, as we’ll talk about in the next section, some statements in the gospels which appear to be historical claims have been verified by archaeology as historical fact. I include this first section mostly for the sake of completeness; it’s not generally disputed that the authors of the gospels intended them to be read as containing historical truth, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll move on to the site of most disagreements. But as always, if you’re unconvinced by the condensed argument given here, investigate!

While most skeptics will concede that the gospel writers intended the gospels to be read as containing historical truths, they maintain that nevertheless the gospels aren’t historically reliable. There are two basic forms of this position: the gospel authors wrote falsehoods either deliberately (i.e. they were lying) or accidentally (i.e. they were mistaken). In assessing the strengths of these positions, methodology will be important. While it would be inappropriate and probably circular for the Christian to demand that we approach these texts with the presupposition that they contain no falsehoods, it’s equally inappropriate for the skeptic to take an attitude of “guilty until proven innocent” towards gospel claims, asserting that they’re false or unreliable unless they’re explicitly confirmed by an external source. We ought rather to begin at a tentative middle ground – assume that the gospel authors are well-intentioned yet fallible people attempting to record historical truth to the best of their ability. As we investigate their claims, we may find the authors to be blatantly dishonest, hopelessly inept, generally reliable, or even supernaturally flawless – but these are conclusions, not starting points.

Let’s look at the objections to gospel reliability first, both against the writers’ honesty and their competency. The main attack on the honesty of the gospel authors is to point out that they were Christians and therefore hopelessly biased; of course they’ll say that Jesus rose from the dead, performed miracles, gave true prophecy, etc. But this attack seems relatively weak. All historians – indeed, all people – are vulnerable to bias. While we ought to be aware of this danger, we still generally trust that historians who believe that World War 2 occurred (and even that the Allies were in the right) are capable of accurately reporting the facts of the matter. The bare possibility that the authors’ beliefs could have led them into biased reporting isn’t sufficient to discredit their account in the absence of any evidence that they actually succumbed to this temptation. (If it were sufficient, we should distrust all of history.)

The most popular attack against the competence of the gospel writers centers on the existence of alleged contradictions between the different gospel accounts; given a genuine contradiction, at least one of the contradicting sources must be in error. From there, the skeptic states or implies that if there are errors in the gospels then we ought to think that all (or most) gospel claims are unreliable. This objection is doubly flawed. While it’s certainly true that there are divergences in the gospels, this is characteristic of unharmonized eyewitness testimony and does not count against their reliability in the slightest. A contradiction is an instance where the texts make assertions that are logically incompatible with one another, not merely places where one text omits events included in another or something of that nature; it is up to the skeptic to demonstrate that there are contradictions of this nature in the gospels and this burden has not been met. But even if there were some contradictions (and therefore some errors) in the gospels, it does not immediately follow that the gospels are unreliable. If the police take statements from eyewitnesses following a bank robbery and receive wildly varying descriptions of the robber’s height, weight, color, and so forth, are they justified in concluding that there was no robber? Certainly not! During a shocking and terrifying robbery, it may be quite hard to observe and remember peripheral details, but it’s not hard at all to see that someone is robbing the bank. So the existence of some errors isn’t enough to substantially damage the reliability of the central testimony of the gospels; one would have to additionally show that the parts of the testimony in error are as likely (or at least comparably likely) to be mistaken as the parts of the testimony one wishes to discredit, and in the case of the gospels this simply can’t be done. Even if we were to grant that a few peripheral details are contradictory in the gospel accounts (which I do not think they are), the central facts pertaining to Jesus’ resurrection that are unanimously attested in the four gospels are of a completely different type than those details on which they allegedly contradict. Unless the skeptic can demonstrate the existence of genuine contradictions and then justify his leap from the presence of errors in the details to unreliability on even the most central points, the objection fails.

But we want to say more than that the gospel writers aren’t demonstrably unreliable; what positive reasons are there for thinking that they were accurately and sincerely reporting the truth? One line of internal evidence supporting the gospel writers’ honesty is the presence of embarrassing statements in the gospels. Jesus’ disciples, some of whom were crucial church leaders at the time when the gospels were written and circulated, constantly fail him. They lack faith, misunderstand His teachings, fall asleep when instructed to pray, and so on, culminating in most of them abandoning Jesus at His crucifixion. To a lesser extent, Jesus is also portrayed “embarrassingly,” i.e. in ways that it would’ve been convenient for the authors to omit. One of the most notable examples is found in John 6:53; Jesus has just miraculously fed a crowd of thousands with a single boy’s lunch and His popularity is cresting. Then, unprovoked and unprompted, Jesus tells His Jewish audience that his true followers must “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood.” This was preposterous; obviously the idea of consuming a person is alarming in itself, but additionally, blood was extremely ritually unclean for Jews. Unsurprisingly, many of Jesus’ new followers promptly leave upon hearing this. Hard sayings like this would’ve continued to be stumbling blocks for early Jewish Christians and all too easy for a propaganda piece on Jesus to quietly omit; but the gospel writers show themselves to be more honest than that, including embarrassing and awkward stories about leaders of the early church and their Lord in their writing.

What about reasons for thinking that the gospel writers were competently and accurately reporting history? To name just one, the gospel writers show great attention for detail in their accounts. All four gospels use many place names when describing the ministry of Jesus, many of which are minor and would likely have been “local secrets”; a fruitful comparison can be made with counterfeit gospels like the Gospel of Peter, which was written far from the life of Jesus both temporally and geographically and is therefore reluctant to name any location other than Jerusalem. The author of Luke and Acts shows himself to be exceptionally concerned with such details, frequently using unique local jargon to name local authorities who often had short and unremarkable terms. Many of these unique titles, and sometimes the named person themselves, have been archaeologically verified; it would’ve been exceedingly difficult for anyone in the first century to gather the necessary information by any means except having been there. The presence of these details give the definite impression that the gospel writers were “on the ground” and proximate to the events they recorded in both time and space, and that they were paying close attention to carefully record their surroundings. (They could, of course, have stolen this historical setting accurately and then fabricated the particular stories of Jesus; that’s why this argument has to be given alongside others which defend the gospel writers’ honesty and aim at historicity.)

One last line of evidence referred to as “undesigned coincidences” argues directly for the historical reliability of the gospels and thereby supports both the honesty and the competence/accuracy of the gospel writers. (This evidence is thoroughly explored by Dr. Lydia McGrew in her book Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts.) The basic idea is that eyewitness testimonies naturally diverge from one another, but if they are genuine eyewitness testimonies, they’re grounded in the same real event. This underlying unity is sometimes reflected when testimonies fit together like puzzle pieces, complementing one another in ways that are best explained by their simply being true. For instance, consider the miraculous feeding I mentioned briefly in the previous paragraph. The following are facts reported by the gospels about that occasion:

  1. Jesus asks Philip, one of his more minor disciples, to go find food.
  2. Philip is from the town of Bethsaida.
  3. The miraculous feeding occurs at Bethsaida.
  4. Many people were coming and going on a road nearby.
  5. A major Jewish festival was occurring soon for which people would have to travel to Jerusalem.

These five facts fit together like pieces of a puzzle. But our puzzle pieces come from surprisingly different places: we learn facts 1, 2, and 5 in the Gospel of John, fact 3 from the Gospel of Luke, and fact 4 from the Gospel of Mark. This happens over and over throughout the gospels and is poorly explained by hypotheses which take these facts to be fabrications or errors. The intricacy with which these facts fit together has what can fairly be called the “ring of truth” and bolsters our confidence that the gospel writers were both honest and meticulously careful.

Though all of my posts have been focused on brevity rather than depth, this post is perhaps the most condensed of all of them. In my skeptical period, I don’t think any post of this length could have convinced me that the gospels were historically reliable. But I sincerely hope that, if your interest has been at all piqued, you’ll continue looking into the work of the McGrews or any of the other great scholars currently arguing for the reliability of the gospels to learn about the evidences I have here omitted. (And if you haven’t already, read the gospels for yourself! At worst, they’re some of the most influential documents in history. You may even learn something that lets you school a Christian in an argument, which is always fun.) I have also omitted many objections, so if you came in with a question and think it hasn’t been answered, you’re probably right. But for the sake of getting to the conclusion of my argument, I’ll press on and simply reiterate my encouragement that everyone interested continue dialoguing, commenting, and reading until they’re thoroughly convinced of one position or the other.


Has the New Testament Been Corrupted?

The first step in our investigation of Jesus is to obtain reliable sources of information about him. Somewhat surprisingly, there are many potential sources to assess; Jesus is incredibly well-attested compared to your average ancient teacher, especially considering that he didn’t write anything himself. Even when we clear away the sources that are historically unreliable (such as apocryphal Gospels) or too brief for our purposes (such as Tacitus’ single paragraph on Jesus), we’re still left with several lengthy sources about Jesus that have a good claim to historical reliability; these include the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as well as several of Paul’s letters, all of which are included in the Christian New Testament (abbreviated NT). Naturally, part of their claim to historicity is that these documents are quite old, dating back to the first or early second century. While we obviously want our sources to be close to the events they report, this desirable feature comes with a problem: if these documents had to endure 2000 years of history to make it to us, how do we know they made it intact?

Fortunately, this isn’t a unique problem – we don’t have the autographs (original copies) of practically any ancient work. What we do have are intermediate manuscripts, which are produced by copying the autograph or another copy. Textual critics use these manuscripts to reconstruct the original document as faithfully as possible; this process can be very involved, requiring knowledge of how the copying process for a particular manuscript was carried out, what kinds of errors were likely and unlikely to be produced in that manuscript, and so on. How well the textual critics are able to reconstruct the original text will depend on the quantity of manuscripts available to them and the reliability of the process by which those manuscripts were created.

In quantity of manuscripts, the New Testament is unparalleled. We have well over 24,000 manuscripts of the New Testament including over 5500 in Greek (the language in which the NT was originally written). Homer’s Iliad comes in second with nearly 2000 manuscripts while important ancient histories have a few hundred at most. (It’s also worth noting that the count of New Testament manuscripts does not include the over 1 million citations of the New Testament found in the writing of the early church fathers that help further establish the original text.) The abundance of New Testament manuscripts is obviously helpful in textual critics’ attempts to reconstruct the original documents, but strangely, it’s the reason for some of the most common popular objections to the transmission of the New Testament. These attacks, generally inspired by Dr. Bart Ehrman’s popular-level books on Biblical textual criticism, focus on the number of “variants” among NT manuscripts. As an example, consider Matthew 8:18, a sentence found in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew. In the English Standard Version, a typical English Bible translation, the verse reads “Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side.” But there are 6 different readings of this verse among Greek manuscripts of the New Testament; where the ESV says “crowd,” manuscripts may say “multitude,” “multitudes,” “multitudes coming,” “vast multitudes,” “many,” or “many multitudes.” These different readings are called variants, and while the total number of variants is tricky to obtain, many estimates place the number at 400,000 or higher. (Skeptics will often note that this number is higher than the number of words in the New Testament.) But as the variants of Matthew 8:18 show, some variants simply don’t matter. In fact, the variants of Matthew 8:18 are more meaningful than the majority of New Testament variants, more than 80% of which are spelling errors or differences in word order that aren’t even translatable into English (since Greek word order is more flexible than that of English). The remaining variants are called “meaningful” because they actually affect translation, but within this category, it’s typically unambiguous which reading is the original (because, for instance, a variant may be found in just a single 9th century manuscript whereas one of its competitors is multiply attested by early and reliable manuscripts). Less than 1% of all NT variants are meaningful and have a viable chance at being the original reading of the text, and most of these are still so minor that they present virtually no obstacle to a historian attempting to learn about Jesus – remember, “meaningful” here means “translatable,” not something like “of great importance.” A partial list of NT variants can be found here; it doesn’t take more than a brief perusal of them to observe that they’re of pretty much no consequence to a historical investigation of Jesus, though of course I’d encourage everyone to investigate until they’re satisfied.

The New Testament also excels in the reliability of the processes that created its manuscripts. Christianity began as a movement within Judaism, and the Jews at this time had an incredible reverence for the Word of God. One of the manifestations of this reverence was the care with which they copied what Christians now call the Old Testament – they took great pains to avoid errors, utilizing a numbering system to double-check new scribal copies. The proof is in the pudding; comparing two extensive Old Testament manuscripts, the Dead Sea Scrolls (produced around the 2nd century BCE) and the Masoretic Texts (produced around the 9th century CE), we find that Jewish scribes were able to preserve the text to a remarkable degree. While many early New Testament manuscripts were not produced by scribes in the same way as these Old Testament manuscripts, the point is that these early Christian Jews were products of the same culture as those scribes and their immense respect for what they believed to be God’s Word would plausibly have led to similar care and concern for accuracy in New Testament textual transmission. Thus even for the interval between the composing of a New Testament document and the dating of its earliest extant manuscript, we have good “soft” evidence in our knowledge of Jewish copying practice that it wasn’t drastically changed due to copyist incompetence during that time.

But even if no errors were introduced by incompetence, how do we know that no errors were introduced deliberately? For instance, some very late manuscripts include an explicit reference to the Trinity in 1 John 5:7-8; this is known to be a copyist creation not grounded in the original text. It looks very much like a copyist, wishing that there were more direct Biblical proof texts for the doctrine of the Trinity, deliberately added one to the manuscript he was charged with producing. The reason we know that this was a copyist addition, though, is because it was just one copyist acting in isolation; the change that he concocted isn’t reflected in independent manuscripts. This is very likely how any deliberate edit to the New Testament would look due to the decentralized nature of early New Testament manuscript production. It wasn’t as though the church in Jerusalem had a factory churning out manuscripts and an accompanying master list of everyone who had manuscripts of a given book; rather, these documents spread organically through the early church across a wide geographic area with copies being made for individual churches by individual copyists as they were needed. One would have to postulate some kind of conspiracy to explain how a deliberate text alteration made it into a broad enough swath of independent manuscripts to be considered authentic by modern textual critics, and in addition to the general implausibility of conspiracies, it’s further implausible that a large enough number of copyists would have consented to deliberately changing what they believed to be God’s Word.

In conclusion, then, we have good reasons to believe that the New Testament has the same substance today that it had 2000 years ago. The abundance of manuscripts, though it creates many variants, allows us to easily judge which variant reading is authentic in the huge majority of meaningful cases; even in the very few cases where it’s tough to decide, very little is at stake from a historical point of view. And in the small interval where we lack manuscripts, we have good soft evidence that the documents weren’t substantially changed accidentally (because of Jewish care for God’s Word as demonstrated by their pristine preservation of the Old Testament during the same time period) or deliberately (because of the decentralized nature of early New Testament transmission). This doesn’t mean that the New Testament is historically reliable; works of fiction or totally fabricated history books could be perfectly transmitted after their writing and they’d still be terrible sources of historical fact. But having established that we have access to the substance of the original New Testament documents, we’re now in a position to assess whether they’re a good source of historical information about Jesus.


Don’t We Need to Investigate All Religions?

According to a Pew Research survey conducted at the end of 2017, 80% of Americans say that they believe in (some) God. But for any person convinced of God’s existence – perhaps by arguments for General Theism – the question immediately arises: which God? In the next several posts I’ll lay out the framework of a case that God has revealed Himself uniquely in Christianity by examining the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Before that, though, we need to address the elephant in the room: many religions claim to be the unique revelation of God. Don’t we need to investigate all of them before we can make any judgment as to which of them is right?

Being a math major, I’ll attempt to answer the question with a mathematical analogy. Suppose you’re taking a timed, multiple-choice math exam. You encounter one problem that you don’t know how to solve; fortunately, you do know enough to determine whether a proposed solution “checks out.” The rational (and usual) strategy would be to assess each answer choice and, upon finding one that does “check out,” record your answer and move on. Then, if you have time after completing the exam, you can return to the question and assess the rest of the answer choices to make sure that they do, indeed, fail. It’s also worth noting that if, for some reason that doesn’t fit into the analogy, you had data on how many of your peers chose each answer choice, you’d probably assess the most commonly selected answers first.

In precise parallel, the problem of which religion (if any) is God’s unique revelation can’t be solved directly. But we can assess each religion to see whether it “checks out” as God’s unique revelation, and if we find one that does, we can adopt it and move on unless and until we have the time to return and check our work. If we want to save time, we can check these religions in a meaningful order, perhaps by looking at number of adherents, number of converts, age, cultural impact, and so forth. The key point here is that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be bogged down in exhaustive investigations of even the most remote alternatives before we feel confident enough to record our answer; our lives are indeed timed. To be clear, I’m not endorsing recklessness either; if you investigate Christianity and are sincerely unimpressed, I join with C.S. Lewis in saying that “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it.” Don’t be pressured into “believing” before you’re well and truly convinced, but conversely, don’t let timidity cause you to withhold belief long after you have the evidence you need. If you find the evidence for Christianity compelling, you’re rationally justified in believing it even before you investigate its competitors as completely as you’d someday like to. With that, let’s turn to the evidence!


General Theism (Part 8): Closing Remarks

In conclusion, then, we’ve examined three arguments for God’s existence (Cosmological, Fine-Tuning, Moral) and two arguments against it (Evil, Divine Hiddenness). I’ve presented them with primary goals of brevity and clarity – there’s still plenty of arguing to be done. I’d encourage you to continue thinking not just about which premises are true and which are false, but also about how confident you are in them and why you’re as confident as you are.

So why does all this matter? Why put in the mental energy of continued investigation when you have homework and/or a job and/or a life? That depends. Up until now, we’ve just been thinking about how skeptical we should be about God in general – if deism is true, it doesn’t matter very much at all whether you believe it or not. But if Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or any number of other religions are true, that will have major ramifications for how you ought to live and what you ought to believe. If you’re now convinced that God exists, or even that He plausibly may exist, look for Him! In our next series, we’ll examine the reasons for thinking that the God we’ve been talking about has revealed Himself in Jesus of Nazareth; if that’s true, it has the power to change your life just as it’s changed billions of others, including mine.


General Theism (Part 7): Divine Hiddenness

The other powerful objection to General Theism that we should examine is Divine Hiddenness – if your God wants me to believe in Him so badly, why doesn’t He try a little harder? (It should be noted that this objection isn’t maximally general since it assumes that God wants us to believe in Him – some forms of theism, like deism, aren’t committed to such a position. Nevertheless, since Divine Hiddenness is a problem for all evangelistic religions, it’s more general than an objection to, say, the reliability of the Bible.)

One common formulation of Divine Hiddenness is:
1. If God exists (and wants us to believe in Him), reasonable unbelief does not exist.
2. Reasonable unbelief exists.
3. Therefore God does not exist.

Why should we believe the premises of this argument? We accept 2 on the basis of atheistic testimony both past and present – when asked what he’d say if he died and found himself before God, atheist Bertrand Russell replied “Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence!” Indeed, even as a Christian, I can attest to the fact that I once had reasonable unbelief (more on that later). Denying 2 as it stands would force us to either accuse atheists of deliberately lying or else argue that they’re not accurately perceiving their own reasons for affirming atheism. The former is uncalled for, extremely uncharitable, and implausible; the latter is more plausible (human psychology is quite complicated) and, ironically, what atheists sometimes say about theists who claim to have reasonable belief. But if we can avoid speculating about the psychology of our opponents, I’d prefer to – so let’s start by inspecting premise 1.

What justification can the atheist give for premise 1? Usually, the atheist takes it as obvious that if God wants us to believe in Him, He’ll give us all we need to do so. But there are a number of ways to challenge such an assertion. First, is it truly necessary that God give such evidence of Himself at all points in an individual’s life? Here, I appeal to my own story as an example. In high school I had rational doubts and objections concerning Christianity that caused me to reasonably disbelieve it; later, however, I was exposed to additional evidence that changed my mind and led to (what I think to be) reasonable belief. It’s entirely plausible to me that God allowed me to reasonably disbelieve for a time because it was better that way – indeed, my own experience of doubt is a major reason that I’m now so involved in Christian apologetics, and so this very post is an example of something which never would have existed had my temporary unbelief been prevented. To deal with such a rebuttal, the atheist will usually adjust their premise to the more modest:

1*. If God exists, nobody will have reasonable unbelief for the entirety of their life.

But then, in order for their argument to remain valid, they must also adjust their second premise to

2*. People have reasonable unbelief for the entirety of their lives.

But 1* is still objectionable, at least in the Christian case. For the atheist’s starting assumption in this whole objection – that God wants us to believe in Him – is only conditionally true of the Christian God. The basic narrative of Christianity is that we’ve all broken God’s moral law; as a righteous judge, He cannot abide this and is thus relationally separated from us. But through Jesus’ death on the cross, we have an opportunity to be reconciled to God and be with Him forever. That story raises a host of other questions, but the important point for this discussion is that according to Christianity, God is interested in drawing people into loving relationships with Himself, not merely convincing them that He exists. This means that if someone would choose to reject a relationship with God even given more evidence of His existence, God has no obvious motivation to give them any more evidence than they already have. So the atheist must again modify his argument to:

1′. If God exists, no one who would enter a loving relationship with Him were they to have sufficient evidence of His existence goes without such evidence for the entirety of their lives.
2′. At least one person who would have entered a loving relationship with God were they to have sufficient evidence of His existence has gone without such evidence for the entirety of their lives.

Some theists would press even harder on 1′, but I’m content to accept it as stated. However, whereas premise 2 started off looking pretty defensible, our corrections to premise 1 have turned it into the much more dubious 2′. Why should I believe that such a person has existed? Indeed, in the lives of many particular atheists there seems to be evidence to the contrary. Richard Dawkins, for instance, calls the God of the Bible “the most unpleasant character in all fiction”; I suspect that more evidence would merely have resulted in the revised quote “the most unpleasant being in all reality.” Now if no context whatsoever were given to 2′, I’d still probably be an agnostic about it with a slight lean towards affirming it; that’s why Divine Hiddenness is a strong objection. But because I’m committed to 1′ and I have stronger reasons for thinking that God exists than I do for thinking that 2′ is true, the most rational thing for me to do is reject 2′. If I were extremely confident in 2′, I’d need to reject my belief in the existence of God instead; if I were moderately confident of 2′, I’d keep my belief in God but be noticeably less confident in it. In fact, though, I have little more than a vague suspicion that 2′ is true; hence, I have no qualms about rejecting it due to the force of the positive arguments for God’s existence.

I’d like to conclude my discussion of Divine Hiddenness with a personal challenge for my atheist and agnostic friends – be the counterexample! Be honest with yourself and examine whether you’d be willing to submit to God if you knew He existed. If you would be, keep your eyes open – you could even consider praying for God, whoever or whatever He may be, to reveal Himself to you. And if you live your entire life a genuine seeker and die without ever encountering God, you’ll honestly be able to say that God was hidden from you. But be prepared: if Christianity is true, as I think it is, that won’t be the way the story goes.


General Theism (Part 6): Evil

If God is omnipotent and benevolent, why is there such tremendous evil and suffering in the world? This oft-asked question lies at the heart of the Problem of Evil, which many theists regard as the strongest objection to the existence of God. Recalling our Bayesian statistics from the previous post, the atheist’s objective here is to demonstrate that evil is much more compatible with atheism than it is with theism. As a theist, I don’t need to show that evil is more probable on theism than atheism – there can be evidence against a true fact. I just need to show that the expectedness gap isn’t as large as it would need to be to outweigh the positive evidence for God’s existence.

So just how big is the explanatory gap between atheism and theism when it comes to evil? Historically, many atheists have tried to argue that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with theism (i.e. the probability of God and evil coexisting is 0) – if they were right, this objection would singlehandedly end the discussion. Fortunately for the theist, this ambitious form of the objection has been largely abandoned due to the work of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (who’s definitely worth reading, particularly if you’re interested in the theory of knowledge). But we aren’t out of the woods yet – even if the probability of evil given God’s existence is nonzero, it could still be so low that evil counts as devastatingly powerful evidence against God.

The argument will hinge on a single question: how likely is it that God has morally justifying reasons for permitting the evil we see? The atheist typically answers that they don’t see any morally justifying reasons for permitting, say, a child getting run over by a car. This is colloquially called a “noseeum” argument, and noseeum arguments vary significantly in power. If I use a noseeum argument to back up my assertion that there isn’t an elephant in the room, I’ve got a solid position; if I use one to argue that there’s no flea in the room, I’m on much shakier ground. So are morally justifying reasons more like elephants (we’d likely see them if they were there), or are they more like fleas (they’d be hard to see even if they exist)?

To argue that they’re more like fleas, the theist can provide sample explanations for why God may permit evil (called theodicies) that would be hard to see in particular cases. For example, suppose (as Christianity maintains) that knowing God is an incommensurable good, meaning that it’s worth anything we could give for it. Then a world with more evil and pain could still be better overall if more people came to know God as a result. But how plausible is it that the worlds in which the most people come to know God have as much suffering as we see in ours? Actually, quite! Many Christians can personally attest to the fact that they’ve come to know God as a result of disaster or pain, and this anecdotal trend has been well-substantiated statistically by analysis of the growth of evangelical Christianity during immensely painful periods in a nation’s history (ex. China, El Salvador, Ethiopia). So it seems plausible that if Christianity were true, God may permit some instances of evil and suffering so that a maximal number of people come to know Him. (There are many proposed theodicies that complement each other – you can see 10 more at

Theodicies are further complicated by the so-called “butterfly effect”; a single event can have its first major consequence many years and miles away from its occurrence. Even if permitting an act of evil results in tremendous good 150 or 15000 years from now, we may not be able to determine that from our perspective, which is limited to a very small region of time and space.

So while the theist acknowledges that evil exists and that God would not permit evil unless He had morally justifying reasons to do so, the theist can maintain that we simply don’t have the ability to confidently conclude that such reasons don’t actually exist – like fleas, they may just be incredibly hard to see from our vantage point. Since the atheist is the one mounting the objection, this rebuttal suffices to ward off the force of the objection without major damage to the theist’s position.


General Theism (Part 5): Disproving God?

Before we dive into a couple of the strongest arguments against God’s existence, let’s lay some groundwork; in particular, how can one argue for a negative (“God does not exist”)? What would evidence against God look like?

I’ll discuss here the basics of Bayesian statistics, but I’d encourage anyone interested in mathematics or good argumentation to look into it further themselves. Essentially, when comparing two hypotheses P and Q to see which of them we ought to believe, we should consider the implications of P and the implications of Q and compare them to our observations. If a particular circumstance (let’s name it E) is more probable given P than it is given Q, then E is evidence for P (i.e. upon discovering E, we should be more confident of P and less confident of Q, though we may still believe Q on the basis of other evidence).

Let’s consider a simple example to get our heads fully around the concept. Suppose that you think there’s a 90% chance your friend is out of town. Based on prior experience, you know that there’s an 80% chance his lights will be on if he’s home but only a 5% chance that his lights will be on if he’s out of town. If you then drive by his house and discover that his lights are on, you need to adjust your confidence that he’s actually out of town – intuitively, we can see that this will decrease our confidence that he’s out of town because the lights being on is more expected if he’s in town than if he’s out of town. Bayes’ Theorem actually lets us produce numbers – you should now think that there’s only a 36% chance that your friend is out of town (and therefore a 64% chance that he’s home). So in this case, the evidence of the lights being on was strong enough to change your mind – whereas it was previously more likely that your friend was gone (90/10), it’s now more likely that he’s home (64/36).

So in seeking to provide evidence against the existence of God, the operative question will be “what aspects of reality are unexpected on theism but expected on atheism?” Circumstances with larger gaps in “expectedness” get weightier consideration – if something is 50% likely on atheism and 49% likely on theism, that’s probably not gonna change anyone’s mind unless they were already perfectly on the fence. 30% to .001%, on the other hand, will carry a lot of force.

We can also use our new understanding of evidence to quickly deal with a really bad objection to God’s existence along the lines of “we can’t directly observe Him.” Now since we can’t directly observe something that doesn’t exist, this observation is extremely expected on atheism. But since God is by definition immaterial and transcendent, we wouldn’t be able to directly observe Him on theism either! So this observation has practically no expectedness gap – it’s utterly mundane and expected for both the theist and atheist and hence doesn’t count as evidence for either.

Just as for theism, though, the abundance of bad atheistic arguments doesn’t imply that there aren’t also good ones. In our next two posts we’ll examine the problems of evil and divine hiddenness; our task will be to assess how big the “expectedness gap” is, and in particular whether it’s large enough to overwhelm the positive arguments we’ve presented.


General Theism (Part 4): Morality

In our final affirmative argument for the existence of God, we’ll be examining the basis for moral values and duties. To preempt a far-too-common misunderstanding, this argument is *not* saying that all atheists are terrible people and all theists are good, nor even that most atheists are terrible and most theists are good. This argument says exactly nothing about how a belief in God affects one’s behavior. Rather, it examines whether the existence of moral values can be adequately explained by an atheistic worldview. The argument goes like this:

  1. Objective moral values and duties exist.
  2. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is like the Kalam Cosmological Argument that we examined two posts ago in that it has two premises from which a conclusion logically follows – a person cannot rationally believe 1 and 2 but deny 3. Just as before, then, we’ll proceed by examining whether premises 1 and 2 are plausibly true, and if they are, 3 follows without further argument.

Before we even get into our defense of the argument, though, we need to define our terms. (Pro tip: always do this. A shocking number of arguments in day-to-day life result from a difference in terminology rather than an actual difference in belief.) Let’s start with moral values. Just like black, white, and grey are color values that can be possessed by different objects, there are moral values possessed by different actions.  Some actions, like stealing, are morally bad; others, like charity, are morally good.  When I say that these moral values are objective, I mean that they’re intrinsic to the action and don’t depend on anyone’s moral beliefs.

Moral duties, rather than dealing with good and bad, deal with right and wrong.  It would be good for me to become a firefighter and help others, and it would also be good for me to pay for the meal of the guy behind me in the drive-through, yet I’m not morally obligated to do either.  I am, however, morally obligated to warn someone if I see a train headed towards them; it’s not just good for me to do so, it is right, and it is wrong for me not to.  Regardless of what I believe about morality, I can justly be held accountable if I fail to fulfill my moral duty.

One last note: in order for premise 1 to be true, I don’t need every action to have an objective moral value, I just need at least one action to have an objective moral value.  With that in mind, we can assess this premise by considering a few questions.  Could murdering someone for fun ever be anything but wrong?  What about torturing a baby for no reason whatsoever?  What about oppressing people because of their race or gender?  I’d argue that these actions can never be morally good regardless of what the perpetrator or their society may believe.  Even if the Nazis had won World War 2 and indoctrinated everyone in the entire world to agree with them, the Holocaust would still have been morally wrong.  These may seem like extreme examples (because they are), but if you say that no objective morals exist, then I don’t see how you can escape the conclusion that even these extreme atrocities aren’t truly, objectively wrong. Assuming, then, that you condemn these atrocities as passionately as I do, we can agree that there are at least some objective moral values and duties.

In order to assess premise 2, we must imagine that there isn’t a God (or perhaps stop imagining that there is one).  In this Godless universe, how can we explain the existence of objective moral values and duties?  While we certainly have an innate sense that some things are right and others are wrong, personal belief and intuition clearly can’t be the source of an objective (person-independent) moral standard; at most, they’re indicators of a higher moral standard.  A natural place to look for this standard is society, but it too fails to be objective; as just one example, America used to believe that slavery was morally acceptable, and now it doesn’t.  Some have suggested that morality is grounded in evolution, but there are a number of problems with this suggestion.  For starters, it’s not clear that every action favored by evolution is a moral one.  But the much deeper issue is that evolution can only describe why morality appears to exist; if my moral urges are nothing more than evolution-favored instincts, I have absolutely no obligation to continue following them.  The last option I’d like to consider is that morality is like chess. The ultimate goal of chess is to take the opponent’s king, so moves which further that goal are said to be good, and moves which don’t are said to be bad.  This seems like a promising approach to morality; maybe morality is ultimately about helping people, and from that we objectively derive all our morals and duties.  The problem with this model is that we’ve smuggled in our goal (or “objective”).  Why should I help other people instead of, for instance, acquiring a maximal number of socks? To say “because that doesn’t help people” would be plainly circular – what we need is a super-standard by which to judge our standards, and that puts us squarely back where we started.

In the end, we find that the search for objective morals in our Godless universe is fruitless.  We feel certain that they exist, but we can’t seem to find any way that they could have come about.  What we need is an authoritative, unchanging, personal source for our objective morals; in other words, God.

If our defenses of premises 1 and 2 hold water, God’s existence follows necessarily. This concludes the “affirmative” section of our dialog on General Theism. To review, we’ve tried to argue that the beginning of the universe implies a transcendant cause, that the fine-tuning of the universe implies a cosmic designer, and that the existence of objective moral values and duties imply the existence of an authoritative and personal Lawgiver. Taken together, these arguments make a powerful case for God’s existence – but before we draw any conclusions, we need to make sure that there are no counterarguments that outweigh the arguments we’ve presented.