Answering Lee Strobel's Questions for Atheists

Friendly Atheist has posted the third part of a dialogue with Christian apologist Lee Strobel. In it, Strobel poses questions that he thinks would be the most effective at planting seeds of faith in an atheist’s mind. In this post, I’ll answer those questions. I’ve written on some of these issues at greater length in the past, and I’ll also provide links to those essays where appropriate.

Historian Gary Habermas: “Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus’ resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself.”

These historical facts are: (1) Jesus was killed by crucifixion; (2) Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; (3) The conversion of the church persecutor Saul, who became the Apostle Paul; (4) the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother; (5) The empty tomb of Jesus. These “minimal facts” are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn’t have quite the same virtual universal consensus, it nevertheless is conceded by 75 percent of the scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.

Ebon Musings: Choking on the Camel

Even if we grant that dubious 75% figure, what Habermas fails to acknowledge is that most of the scholars who study the historicity of Jesus are Christians, and are unlikely to produce conclusions that deviate from orthodoxy, even if – as in this case – those conclusions are supported by no evidence outside the biblical record itself. Habermas’ alleged “historical facts” are just the tenets of Christian belief presented in a facade of neutrality.

As such, I don’t intend to begin by making the concessions he would prefer. I maintain that of his five facts, (1) is recorded primarily in the Bible, and only secondarily, and spottily, in some documents written decades later. (2) is mostly correct, so long as we remove the question-begging assumption that the first Christians were disciples personally chosen by Jesus. (3) and (4) derive from no evidence I know of outside the Book of Acts, which was written for apologetic purposes and which Habermas has naively accepted as historical truth (see below). (5), again, is just a derivation from the creeds of Christian orthodoxy, not from any historical documents which suggest that first-century non-Christians acknowledged this.

For a comprehensive natural explanation, I propose this alternative: The first Christians believed that Jesus was a savior deity, similar to those of other mystery religions of the time, whose sacrificial death and resurrection was a sacred mystery that took place in a higher, heavenly plane and was revealed to believers through visions and revelations. Allegorical documents like the Gospels set the activities of this mythological figure in recent history for teaching purposes. Over time, through war and disruption, the original purpose of these writings was forgotten. This explanation neatly accounts for most of the available facts, including the vague and fragmentary references to Jesus in early historical documents that gradually become more concrete, the lack of reference in the epistles to a human life and career of Jesus, and the first Christians’ apparent lack of interest in sacred relics or holy places of their religion.

Philosopher Paul Copan: “Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?

Ebon Musings: Unmoved Mover: The Fine-Tuning Argument

I take strong exception to the claim that the universe is “remarkably finely tuned for life”. On the contrary, simple observation suggests that the universe is not well suited to life such as ours. When we consider the entire volume of the cosmos, we see that 99.999999… percent is cold, hard vacuum with a temperature of 3K. Within the galaxies, most of the interstellar medium is flooded with radiation. Most of the planets we’ve discovered are either freezing cold or boiling hot, unsuitable for life. In fact, in all the vastness of the cosmos, we only know one place where life can thrive – our own world – and even there, it’s restricted to a relatively narrow range of habitable zones and climates. A universe “finely tuned” for life should produce it abundantly; but in fact, life is confined to a single, infinitesimally small and fragile corner. This strongly suggests that life, far from being the intended purpose of the universe, was an unintended side product arising from a confluence of rare and unlikely circumstances.

And, second, granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don’t such ‘injustices’ or ‘evils’ seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?

Absolutely not! The injustices and evils that we perceive are not intrinsic properties of the universe, but qualities of human perception. We evaluate natural phenomena based on whether they have a harmful or beneficial effect for us. Often those effects are harmful, but this doesn’t imply that the universe has deviated from an original plan of goodness – that belief is a product of Christian presuppositions – only that natural phenomena occur randomly and don’t take human needs into account. In reality, the randomness and amorality of nature is a much stronger argument for atheism than it is for theism.

Talk show host Frank Pastore: “Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from non-life, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source.”

Ebon Musings: Pay No Attention to the Deity Behind the Curtain

Pastore is asking for a full account of the current state of several entire scientific disciplines – cosmology, abiogenesis, and the evolution of the conscious mind. This is more than I’ll attempt to explain or even summarize in this space, but I do have one shorter observation. If Pastore’s question is meant to raise doubts in atheists, it can only be an example of the “God of the Gaps”: the belief that anything not currently known must be miraculous.

The fallacy is a glaringly obvious one. Throughout human history, countless natural phenomena that were not understood were attributed to divine action: mental illness, contagious disease, the seasons, weather, fertility, life and death, and many more. Without exception, these supernatural explanations have receded and been replaced by natural ones as our knowledge grows. Pastore is just applying this tactic to the issues where we don’t yet know the full answers, trusting that this time the gaps will remain impenetrable, and expecting that supernatural answers should be accepted despite their repeated past failures. But if we go by track record, we should all admit that the more likely answer is that these phenomena will turn out to be natural ones as well.

Historian Mike Licona: “Irrespective of one’s worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?”

Yes, I do occasionally experience doubt, as I’ve written about before. That’s a necessary consequence of having an open mind. But what I generally find gives me the most uncertainty is unfamiliarity. I’m not the kind of person who can dismiss a claim out of hand without looking into it, and claims I’ve never heard before usually give me a moment’s pause for that reason. But so far they’ve all failed to pan out, and the more I learn about most religious and supernatural claims, the less plausible they seem.

Author Greg Koukl: “Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?”

Ebon Musings: Unmoved Mover: The Cosmological Argument

Atheists are not committed to believing that “everything came from nothing”. Koukl’s alleged dichotomy overlooks a third alternative: that we simply do not know the ultimate origins of the universe at present, and that we can accept this as our answer for the time being until more evidence is discovered. As with Pastore’s question, Koukl assumes that a supernatural explanation, even one with no evidence in its favor, “wins” by default if a natural explanation is not currently known – this despite the well-established pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones over time.

I didn’t email Alvin Plantinga, considered by many to be among the greatest philosophers of modern times. But based on his assertion that naturalism is self-defeating, we could formulate this question (thanks to William Lane Craig for some of the concise wording): If our cognitive faculties were selected for survival, not for truth, then how can we have any confidence, for example, that our beliefs about the reality of physical objects are true or that naturalism itself is true? (By contrast, theism says God has designed our cognitive faculties in such a way that, when functioning properly in an appropriate environment, they deliver true beliefs about the world.)

Daylight Atheism: Are Evolved Minds Reliable Truth-Finders?

The fallacy of this argument is its assumption that “survival” and “truth” are two different objectives, such that they could be selected for independently of each other. But it should be obvious that, all else being equal, greater accuracy in perceiving the world will always be a survival advantage. Granted, evolution can and does take shortcuts, producing well-known psychological fallacies like the urge to anthropomorphize natural phenomena, and many people have been misled in this way. But even here we are not helpless. By using cognitive prostheses like science, we can compensate for our mental shortcomings and learn to view the world still more accurately.

By contrast, a theist who believes that God has designed our cognitive faculties to be accurate is faced with the embarrassment of explaining why there are so many conflicting and incompatible religions. How is this so, if we are designed to perceive the world accurately? Why is there so much confusion, ignorance and error among humans when it comes to determining what the true faith is?

For me, when viewing all Strobel’s questions, what stands out about them is their ordinariness. I concur with Greta Christina that these arguments, far from being anything new or unusual, are no different – and no more difficult to defeat – than those of the run-of-the-mill amateur apologists that most atheists encounter on a routine basis. That’s not surprising, of course, since most of those people take their cues from the leading apologists.

But for the same reason, it’s meaningful because this should give us confidence – confidence that we truly can stand up to the superstars of modern apologetics and answer the best that they have to offer. It’s not even difficult. Any reasonably well-versed atheist should be able to shoot down these arguments without a problem. If this is truly the best they have to offer, then we can be all but certain that the evidentiary base of Christianity does not have anywhere near the depth or breadth that would justify an atheist’s conversion.

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