Deism to Christ

This will be a particularly extensive post, on a particularly important topic.

Closer to truth

Robert Lawrence Kuhn, despite the pretentious name, is a man I quite respect. He completed a PhD in brain research before switching fields and becoming a highly successful investment banker.  Somehow in his career he also found time to author over thirty books, and become a world expert on the history, political and economic system in China. He then built a particularly large merger and acquisition advisory company. Bored of all of these achievements, he returned to his original passion, science, and became a prolific writer on scientific matters at a popular level.

So, suffice to say, he is fully deserving of the title of genius.

He is not a believer however, but has always been fascinated by the question of God. As part of the most recent season of the American show ‘Closer to Truth,’ Kuhn interviewed one hundred and twenty-eight of the world’s leading philosophers, scientists and theologians on the questions of God, Cosmos, and Consciousness. The people he interviews are not chosen for their fame, their good looks or their quick wit. They are chosen for their expertise, and a good proportion have nobel prizes. The website allows anyone to watch these interviews, which usually go for between two and eight hours, for free.

All of that is a plug for a favourite show, and a preamble intended to establish the credibility of Kuhn’s hard won conclusion that, ‘in my opinion, the arguments for the existence of God are better than the arguments against it.’

Given that Kuhn does not even consider the historical evidence for the existence of God, discussing only philosophical and scientific evidence, this is quite a result.

Deism is far from Theism is far from Christianity

But what then? If someone considers the mass of evidence for the existence of God, and reaches the conclusion that the existence of God is more probable than not, then what is the next step? There is a world of difference between deism and theism, and another chasm between theism and Christianity.  How does one bridge this gap?

We cannot build a tower to God

I am a Christian. That is my specific theistic belief. I believe that Jesus is God, that the bible is a good record of his teachings, and thus that I can discern God’s will through reading that book.

And a disclaimer worth making is that I think the bible clearly teaches that people cannot reason their way to God. The bible would suggest that our faculties of reason are so blinded by rebellion, that we might well struggle to follow God even if he produced ten clear and present plagues, right in front of our eyes.

The only way to find God is with his internal help.

So I would suggest prayer and the reading of the bible as more valuable than any deductive argument. That said, here’s a few things that provide a rational foundation for my Christian belief, that may be of interest to others, or not.

A wager

To start with, before we enter into the question of evidence, here is a practical concern. Pascal’s wager asserts that belief is in everyone’s practical best interests. The argument essentially breaks the question of God down into four possible outcomes:

  1. You may live a religious and moral life and be rewarded by eternal happiness.
  2. You may live a pleasure-seeking life and be denied eternal happiness.
  3. You may live a holy life but there is actually no God or eternal life.
  4. You may live a pleasure-seeking life but it makes no difference because there is no God.

As can be seen, the God-seeking life has a higher expected payoff, than the God-less life.

This is a stunningly powerful *practical* argument for belief. It is not an argument about the *probability of belief.* That said, it deserves deep consideration. Re-read it if you have time.

The end result of Pascal’s wager should, I think, be a practical preference for belief over non-belief. The wager is a bit simplistic, assuming that there are only two options, belief in God, or non-belief in God. Complexity is added if one considers the multiple potential candidate Gods that exist, ie Allah, Yahweh etc. But, in my opinion the end result of this wager is that a thinking person would seek to commit their life to the most probable God.

Theism implies incarnation

Professor Richard Swinburne, former chair of the philosophy department at Oxford, presents an interesting argument that I think should frame our discussion of the evidence for the specific Christian set of beliefs. He argues that a perfect being would at some stage need to be involved in an incarnation event. A being who is perfectly loving would be very likely at some point to enter into our world of suffering in order to experience it with us.

If you buy this argument, and you believe that a God exists, then you will be predisposed towards a belief system that includes that God entering history. You would perhaps, if you were rational, be studying history and looking for possible incarnations.

So with a strong suspicion that an incarnation is likely, produced by our belief in God, we can then look at the historical evidence that Jesus Christ was God incarnate.

The most likely incarnation

Now Jesus is the most influential man in history, and indeed also in my opinion, the most incredible person ever to have lived. I don’t think that someone has to be a Christian to to share these convictions. H.G Wells for example once wrote, ‘I am a historian, not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.’

So on one hand we can come from the existence of God to the suspicion that an incarnation is highly likely and perhaps neccessary. On the other hand we learn from history that the most influential event we have recorded, is in fact a claimed incarnation.

This should at the very least already be raising our suspicions.

As suggested, I consider Jesus the best candidate for being an incarnation. The event that I think is most worthy of consideration, is that most pivotal event in human history, his life and death.

There are a variety of reasons why I believe that Jesus’s claim to be the Son of God is probably true:

Four agreed facts that deserve an explanation

Luke, a doctor of Jesus’s era, devoted himself to investigating the truth of the resurrection on behalf of his employer. He spoke to eyewitnesses about it, gathered the records of the day and wrote up an orderly account. As a professional doctor, Luke would have known full well that people don’t normally rise from the dead. Nonetheless he ended up concluding that the common Christian account is entirely accurate. His conclusions can be read today – they form the book of Luke in the bible.

In the present day, the overwhelming historical consensus, amongst professional scholars, is that four facts about Jesus are beyond dispute:

  1. The burial of the dead Jesus by Joseph of Aramithea in a tomb
  2. This tomb being later discovered to be empty
  3. Multiple attested appearances of Jesus after this
  4. Strong early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus

So if these four facts are agreed upon to be true, and few professionals would question them, we can conclude, at the very least, that something absolutely astonishing must have happened in approximately 33AD.

One day Jesus was dead, his followers were scattered, his tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers, and his name was being mocked in the streets.

The next day his followers were united and growing in number rapidly, his tomb was empty and the apostle Paul was able to claim that, ‘After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.’

One day the apostles are a wreck, with Peter denying Jesus’s existence in front of a teenage girl.

After the next day, the apostles are united in their message, heading out to spread the news of Jesus, unafraid of persecution. All except one of these apostles were killed as a result of the message they continued to preach. Peter himself, formerly the wimp, is said to have been crucified upside down in Rome. He was crucified upside down because he so respected Jesus that he did not wish to be killed in the same manner as his Lord.

How else can one explain these events? How else can someone explain the transition? How else can one explain the fact that eyewitnesses were so confidently prepared to be martyred, when they were formerly so despondent? How else can one explain the empty tomb?

Well, there are ways, but all are an extreme stretch. If one believes in God, and one is thus already inclined towards an incarnation event, then ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ is already looking like a rational conclusion.

If Jesus rose from death, then he would’ve been raised by God, since God would be the only possible being able to raise a person from the dead. If God raised Jesus from the dead, God would’ve been approving or vindicating Jesus’ teachings. Jesus’ teachings involved him being God. So therefore, God approved of Jesus’ claim that He was God.

Alternatively, Jesus may have raised himself from death. This would then directly imply that Jesus was God.

Conclusion: so if God raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus would be God. If Jesus rose himself from the dead, he would be God.

The prophetic evidence

In addition to the above argument, one could make a strong argument from prophesy. In the Old Testament there are over three hundred prophesies made about the ‘Messiah,’ a man who would come to save the Jews. Jesus claimed to be this Messiah, and is recorded in the gospels fulfilling all of these prophesies.

When the MIT university in the States tried to calculate the probability of someone fulfilling forty-eight of these prophesies by chance alone, they concluded that the probability was one in ten to the power of one hundred and fifty seven. The number of atoms in the Earth is around ten to the power of forty-nine.

So chance is out as an explanation, but perhaps Jesus rigged the odds. He would have known about the prophesies, perhaps he went around intentionally modifying his behaviour to tick them all off. But how could someone fulfil even just these three prophecies intentionally?

  1. In approximately 700 B.C. the prophet Micah named the tiny rural village of Bethlehem as the birthplace of Israel’s Messiah (Micah 5:2). Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
  2. In the fifth century B.C. a prophet named Zechariah declared that the Messiah would be betrayed for the price of a slave—thirty pieces of silver, which exactly later occurred.
  3. Some 400 years before crucifixion was invented, both Israel’s King David and the prophet Zechariah described the Messiah’s death in words that perfectly depict that mode of execution. Further, they said that the body would be pierced and that none of the bones would be broken, contrary to customary procedure in cases of crucifixion. All of these later things occurred.

A difficult trilemma

Jesus’s claimed that he had the authority to forgive people’s sins. He also claimed that he has always existed, that he has been around since the beginning. He also claimed that he will return at the end of time to judge the world. The author of Narnia explains an argument first developed by the philosopher Blaise Pascal, that one can formulate based on these claims –

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

The perfect message implies a perfect messenger

Jesus preached a message that was in stunning opposition to the prevailing current of his era. The early Christians were not predisposed to believe in the resurrection claim that they later joyfully died for. A broad study of Old Testament literature, inter-Testamental apocrypha and Jewish pseudepigrapha, as well as post-Temple Judaism would suffice to show that the claims of the early Christians are extremely improbable, unless something like what they claimed really happened.

Additionally, the moral notions that Jesus taught were so powerful that they have radically reshaped human culture. Perhaps in our post-Christian culture we fail to see how extraordinary his message was and is. We fail to see him for the unmatched genius that he was. When I read the teachings of Jesus, my suspicion is raised that I am reading more than the words of a mere man.

As Einstein said, ‘No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.’

Napoleon said of Jesus, ‘What a conqueror!–a conqueror who controls humanity at will, and wins to himself not only one nation, but the whole human race. What a marvel! …He claims the love of men–that is to say, the most difficult thing in the world to obtain; that which the wisest of men cannot force from his truest friend, that which no father can compel from his children, no wife from her husband, no brother from his brother–the heart. He claims it ; he requires it absolutely and undividedly, and he obtains it instantly.

Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, Louis XIV strove in vain to secure this. They conquered the world, yet they had not a single friend, or at all events, they have none any more. Christ speaks, however, and from that moment all generations belong to him; and they are joined to him much more closely than by any ties of blood and by a much more intimate, sacred and powerful communion.’

In addition to this, a salvation event of perfect grandeur is exactly the sort of event that would be expected if a perfectly good being, ie God, did indeed exist.

The belief that God, who deserves infinite splendour, took instead in the moment of the cross infinite punishment, to set us free, is a belief that is superior in beauty to all alternatives. Indeed it is perhaps superior even to all ‘possible’ alternatives.

I do not believe that it is even possible to improve on, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).

This too, for me, is evidence that Jesus was God.

Conclusions, and attempted answers to two questions

I think that as a result of the above arguments, a belief that Jesus is God is more rational than a lack of such a belief.

If you believe in Jesus, and you agree with most New Testament scholars that we have an accurate record of his teachings, then you believe in the bible, since he affirms it.

Thus I can answer the two questions that sparked this blog post, two questions that appeared in my inbox last week, (as I understand them) namely:

  1. How do we know that we are made in the image of God, as part of his creation plan, and that we aren’t faulty by-products of the other things God was doing in the universe?
  2. How do I confirm to myself the reality of a God who intervenes in the world, as opposed to one who sits up in the sky merely watching?

Well I hope the above discussions of the evidence for Jesus, and the consequent evidence for the trustworthiness of the bible, are now apparent in their relevance. If we have established that the bible is trustworthy, then it can perhaps answer these two prickly questions for us.

  • The answer to 1. can be found in Genesis 1 verse 27, ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ We are not accidents, we are not mere chunks of matter, we are more than animals. The biblical picture is of a human race that in some respects mirrors our creator. We are held to be of value and importance, as a result of this. We are set over the creation, in stewardship over it. God is the creator, and the universe is the creation, and we, in a very real sense, have been given an authority over this universe. The history of the human race is one unremitting dereliction of this cosmic duty.

In addition, it is worth noting that nothing would be outside of the creation plan of a God. Implicit in the definition of God is omnipotence and omnipresence. God is all-powerful and all-knowing. He is furthermore the creator, sustainer and redeemer of all that exists. There are no ‘accidents’ in God’s plans, no mistakes. His is an optimal and all-encompassing rule. There is no rock, no sea-shell, no twig, that God cannot rightly point to and say ‘mine.’

  • The answer to 2. is implicit in the opening discussion that I commenced this blog with. The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is evidence for the interventionary character of God.

Jesus explains some aspects of God’s operation in our universe with a famous teaching, ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10:29-31, an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount).

So, to conclude, I believe that God is real, that God is Jesus, that the bible is trustworthy, that man is central to God’s plan for the universe, and that God is at work in the macro and micro movements of history.

I hope that this is at least on topic for a response to the questions that were asked. I would be happy to continue the dialogue.

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