The Reconquista Initiative
The Gospels, Personal Relevance, and A Priori Commitments
Note: Please be advised that this essay was inspired by David Marshall’s blog post located here: http://christthetao.blogspot.ca/2017/01/epic-rap-battle-jesus-vs-alexander.html
When speaking about the gospels, as well as the veracity of all the records for Jesus’s life, unbelievers often point to the fact that there is a great deal of dispute amongst scholars concerning the details of Jesus’s earthly existence—especially when compared to the relative agreement that scholars have concerning the details of the lives of other historical figures—and such unbelievers point out this fact as a means of undermining both the credibility of the gospels and certain Christian claims about Jesus Himself. And so indeed, unbelievers thus bring up this issue as a reason to reject the claim that we can know much about the life of Jesus. However, there is often an ignored reason for why there is such a major dispute concerning the life and times of Jesus and so relatively little dispute about other ancient figures: namely, personal relevance. After all, for the unbeliever, if the gospels are true, then this not only means that his entire worldview is false, but also that, suddenly, he is morally at fault for various things, he is morally responsible for those faults, and there are even potentially everlasting repercussions to his faults if he does not repent of them. Thus, the debate over Jesus is not merely an academic one, as it is in the case of most other historical figures. Rather, it is a debate which affects every single one of us, whether we want it to or not. And in such a case, both motivated reasoning and cognitive biases can flare up to a major level in anyone who wishes to deny the evidence for Christian theism, such as the evidence found in the gospels.
Therefore, the issue of “relevance” concerning the gospels is a point that cannot be overlooked. In fact, it is so important that one wonders whether one should, before having a discussion with a non-believer, ask them whether they would genuinely come to believe that Jesus had caused miracles to occur or that God had resurrected Jesus from the dead even if they had ten eyewitnesses to the events in question as well as video evidence of both Jesus’ miracles as well as his death and subsequent resurrection. Since I doubt that many of them actually would believe in Jesus’s miraculous workings or his resurrection even given such evidence—rather, they would grasp at any naturalistic explanation possible, such as that ‘aliens’ did it or that the video evidence was forged—then it soon becomes reasonable to believe that such unbelievers’s current objections to the gospels are merely objections meant to give more plausibility and apparent legitimacy to their already existent a priori rejection of Christianity and the gospels. In essence, their current objections against the gospels—which, though not without merit, are all-too-often exaggerated and selectively-skeptical—make it easier for them to maintain their intellectual credibility in light of their a priori commitment against theism and Christianity; and such objections certainly make such unbelievers seem more rational than if they outright admitting that no amount of historical evidence would ever convince them to believe in miracle-working Jesus or in his miraculous resurrection from the dead.
And lest you think that I am merely “supposing” that some atheists would react this way, note the following examples.
First, note atheist JJC Smart, when, on page 46 of the 2003 second edition book Atheism & Theism, he states the following:
[QUOTE] …someone who has naturalistic preconceptions will always in fact find some naturalistic explanation more plausible than a supernatural one… Suppose that I woke up in the night and saw the stars arranged in shapes that spelt out the Apostle’s Creed. I would know that astronomically it is impossible that stars should have changed their position. I don’t know what I would think. Perhaps I would think that I was dreaming or that I had gone mad. What if everyone else seemed to me to be telling me that the same had happened? Then I might not only think that I had gone mad—I would probably go mad. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added]
Second, consider arch-atheist Richard Dawkins, who, in an interview with fellow atheist Peter Boghossian, which can be found on Youtube under the title “Richard Dawkins in conversation with Peter Boghossian”, essentially admits that no evidence can convince him that God exists. Here is a transcript of their conversation between the 12 minute and 30 second mark and the 15 minute and 30 second mark (and please note that I am indebted to the ‘Shadow to Light’ blog for this transcript):
[QUOTE] Boghossian: What would it take for you to believe in God?
Dawkins: I used to say it would be very simple. It would be the Second Coming of Jesus or a great, big, deep, booming, bass voice saying “I am God.” But I was persuaded, mostly by Steve Zara, who is a regular contributor to my website. He more or less persuaded me that even if there was this booming voice in the Second Coming with clouds of glory, the probable explanation is that it is a hallucination or a conjuring trick by David Copperfield. He made the point that a supernatural explanation for anything is incoherent. It doesn’t add up to an explanation for anything. A non-supernatural Second Coming could be aliens from outer space.
[Peter Boghossian begins to speak and is in full agreement with Dawkins, arguing, for example, that if the stars spelled out a message from God, we would first have to rule out alternative explanations, like an alien trickster culture.]
Dawkins then agrees with Boghossian.
Boghossian then asks him: So that [stars aligned into a message] couldn’t be enough. So what would persuade you?
Dawkins: Well, I’m starting to think nothing would, which, in a way, goes against the grain, because I’ve always paid lip service to the view that a scientist should change his mind when evidence is forthcoming. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, https://youtu.be/qNcC866sm7s%5D
Third, in a Pharyngula blog post which was written on the 9th of October 2010, accessed on the 14th of January 2017, and titled “It’s like he was reading my mind”, atheist PZ Myers—author of the aforementioned popular atheist blog site—also admits that no evidence could convince him that God exists:
[QUOTE] Steve Zara has a nice article at RD.net [Richard Dawkins.net] that is actually saying the same thing I’ve been arguing at recent talks: There is no possibility of evidence to convince us of the existence of a god. … There is no valid god hypothesis, so there can be no god evidence, so let’s stop pretending the believers have a shot at persuading us. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/10/09/its-like-he-was-reading-my-min/%5D
Finally, Steve Zara—mentioned above—in an article on ‘richarddawkins.net’, which was written on the 30th of July 2011, and accessed on 14 January 2017, and titled “There can be no evidence for God (revisited)”, writes:
[QUOTE] …we should challenge the very concept of gods, we should not let believers set the rules of the game with flim-flam about the possible truth of Biblical miracles, or other ways of knowing reality, or necessary beings. We should make it clear that all arguments that lead to gods are wrong because they lead to gods! God is a singular mistake, a philosophical division by zero, a point at which the respectability of arguments break down. God is out of the question, the ultimate wrong answer. [UNQUOTE, bold emphasis added, https://web.archive.org/web/20140121204114/http://old.richarddawkins.net/discussions/642394-there-can-be-no-evidence-for-god-revisited%5D
In light of the above quotes, is anyone surprised that such unbelievers would vociferously argue that the gospels are not persuasive and that they would use any means necessary to make their objections against the gospels and against any historical record which supported Jesus’s historical nature? Of course not, for doing so is the only way to maintain their intellectual credibility in light of their a priori anti-theistic commitments. In fact, given the above quotes, it is not even shocking that some unbelievers try to outright deny the very existence of Jesus, for doing so makes their dismissal of the gospels that much easier. And so, while points can indeed be made concerning certain weaknesses in the gospels, we cannot lose sight of the fact that objections against the gospels would be made no matter how good the evidence for them was. In fact, funnily enough, Jesus himself tangentially admits as much in a more general way in Luke 16:27-31 when he says that some people would not believe in the miraculous or in Christian theism even if they saw a man raised from the dead, and so Christians should not only not be surprised when people readily deny the evidentiary value of the gospels, but they should actually predict that this will be the case in many instances.
Finally, it should be noted that while Christians are not immune to the same problem as the one identified above, this problem is not necessarily as acute for believers as it is for unbelievers. After all, even if the gospels are deemed to be weak historical evidence, a Christian could nevertheless remain a Christian on purely philosophical grounds, or on the basis of Paul’s writings, or the Christian could even move to fideism or to Reformed Epistemology as the grounds for his faith; or even, the Christian might lose Christianity, but he could remain a religious theist, and so the blow to the Christian would not be nearly as much as it would be to the unbeliever if the unbeliever had to admit that the gospels were powerful historical evidence. Thus, for the Christian, changing his perspective on the gospels would not be nearly as life-changing as such a change would be for the atheist. Thus, a good case could be made that the atheist’s drive to deny the strength of the gospels is greater than is the believer’s drive to affirm their strength.
And so, the long and short of it is this: as unpleasant as it might be to have to question a person’s motives and worldview commitments when dealing with their arguments concerning the gospels, the fact remains that when it comes to assessing the gospels, a person’s a priori commitments concerning them are highly relevant, and so they simply cannot be ignored. And this is a point that should never be forgotten when discussing the gospels with an unbeliever.
If you wish, then please show your support here: www.patreon.com/reconquistainitiative
Anno Domini 2017 01 14
Non nobis Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam