Defenders of the Christian faith spend a considerable amount of time trying to prove that something happened thousands of years ago. But that really shouldn’t be necessary because, if the claims of Christianity were true, the present day evidence for it should be all over the place.
Let’s take a few minutes and review the things we are led to expect by reading the words of Jesus himself on the matter. I’m sticking primarily with Jesus because if I turn to anyone else (e.g. Peter, Paul, James, John, Moses) there will be some excuse for why their words no longer matter and we shouldn’t use them either to validate or falsify the claims of this faith. Well, it’s fine to validate them, but never to falsify. That’s out of the question.
But really…people waste an inordinate amount of time debating whether or not the resurrection happened when the greatest proof for it should be any one of a number of things Jesus told us to expect today. I’m going to list four of them.
If Christianity Were True…
1. The church would experience less sickness, injury, and accidental death than the rest of the world.
Granted, Jesus never promised life with him would be a bed of roses. In fact, he warned his followers that associating with him would cause the world to turn against them. Of course, that hasn’t stopped American Christians from constantly complaining that the very thing Jesus predicted is happening (and whether or not it’s for the reasons he suggested is an argument for another time), but that’s beside the point.
He clearly promised that if you pray for the sick, they will be healed. The apostle James (who we are told was his brother) claimed the same thing, and the New Testament is full of examples of the disciples successfully praying for people to be healed.
More than that, Jesus went on to expand the effectiveness of prayer to a much broader range of possibilities when he said that any time two of his disciples agreed on something it would be done by the Father in heaven. That’s a really bold claim. I’m guessing the reason he didn’t make the number higher than two was that he knew if he shot for more, there would just be an argument and another church split.
Rarely concerning himself with caveats, Jesus audaciously promised:
Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father…You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
There should be at least a statistically significant difference between the fortunes of Christians and non-Christians, but there isn’t.
In fact, one of the largest and most carefully controlled studies of the effects of intercessory prayer was done by the Templeton Foundation, which was created by a wealthy Presbyterian looking to demonstrate the contact points between faith and the empirical sciences. The study found that those who were prayed for actually encountered more complications than the ones who were not. To my knowledge, no other study has been able to find statistically significant evidence to the contrary. The lived experience of all who are honest with themselves will only corroborate this finding.
And yes, before someone says it, I know in one place the Bible says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” But in another place, the God of the Bible also says, “Test me in this…” referring to his promise to unleash material prosperity on his people in exchange for faithfully tithing to him. That promise in itself could constitute another point in today’s list, but I’ll save that discussion for another time since my previous theology inclined me to believe that the Old Testament tithe was a practice made obsolete by the crucifixion and should never have been carried over into the church anyway.
Now back to our list. If Christianity were true…
2. The church wouldn’t keep splintering into hundreds or possibly even thousands of rivaling groups.
There are at least two reasons we should think this. First, Jesus himself gambled his own validity on the church’s ability to remain unified, which was a colossal mistake. He actually said—out loud—that the unity of the church would be the way the world would know that the claims he made about himself were true. Yikes. That was a very, very bad move.
But even if he hadn’t have made that connection explicit, it would still stand to reason that you should expect more agreement among a crowd of people claiming that God speaks to them, or that he spoke to them at one particular time in the past. Unless God is a very poor communicator, it shouldn’t matter how bad people are at accurately perceiving his thoughts and feelings. There should be more agreement on what he wants.
So the rest of us should be forgiven for not being impressed. And given that Jesus staked his credibility on this very thing, it seems to me that we should also be excused for not accepting the message his “followers” so passionately want us to believe.
When what you’re perceiving is real, you don’t wind up with this many wildly conflicting opinions about what you’re seeing and hearing. And that goes double for a subject around which we are expected to build our entire life and community.
3. There should be a notable difference in character among people who believe they have the Holy Spirit, and they should care about the same things Jesus cared about.
But there’s not a great deal of evidence for either. And I’m not trying to argue that I am better than they are; on the contrary I can tell you that generally speaking they’re in the same boat as I am. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be. If Christianity were true, the indwelling Holy Spirit would yield in Christians a noticeably better crop of behavioral “fruit,” and yet I honestly cannot say that such is the case.
Among those fruit, we are told, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness…but how do we judge what those should look like in action? I could take each of those terms and unpack them to show that there is little discernible difference between the traits of Christians and those of the rest of the world, but I’d rather streamline this discussion by simply asking what key trait mattered most to Jesus? That should be fair game, right?
What did Jesus care about most, and is it the same thing that Christians seem to care about most? That should tell us whether or not the same spirit that animated this man animates the people who represent him to the world today.
I’ve read through the gospels more times than I can count and it seems to me that Jesus cared most about showing mercy to others, especially to the poor and the foreigner and to those most rejected by everyone else, and he cared least about adhering to the purity codes of the surrounding religious establishment. In fact, at times he was downright ostentatious about contradicting their obsession with purity, breaking their rules on purpose just to make a point:
“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'”
Jesus was far more at home with prostitutes than he was with religious leaders. Why? Because evidently in his mind, sexual deviance wasn’t actually the most dangerous vice a person could have. That dishonor belonged to self-righteousness and sanctimoniousness, two traits I would argue fit Christian culture in my country better than almost any I can name.
Christians in my country are downright obsessed with sex—with controlling who does it and with whom, and when, and how they do it. No personal detail seems off limits for this preoccupation of theirs, and virtually every censorious rule they champion somehow traces back to the regulation of this one activity, including their highly restrictive language codes.
One would think that being indwelled by the Spirit of Jesus would make people more like him, and yet the church’s value system seems to have inverted what mattered most to him. That is relevant information for the question I’m exploring today.And once again I know what some of you are thinking: You’re thinking this only points to the failure of Jesus’s followers, not to a failure of the Holy Spirit who is supposed to empower people to be better about these things than they naturally would be. But this is a convenient deflection, a shifting of the blame from the beliefs themselves to the believers who adhere to them.
Whose power is supposed to accomplish this moral quickening? Ours, or God’s? And when this fails to happen, on whom do you place the blame? Is your answer to the second question consistent with your answer to the first?
To put it bluntly, if Jesus were truly raised from the dead and living inside of people today, it would make a more noticeable difference. They would care about the same things he cared about, worrying more about how you treat the less fortunate than about what you do with your genitalia.
4. Christians would be better at discerning what is true from what is not.
On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus promised his disciples:
“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”
As it turns out, the church is quite easily led into trusting faulty ideas as well as people who should not be trusted at all. I could go off again on how the largest and most powerful group of Christians in America (evangelical Protestants, especially white ones) voted into power the most corrupt and dishonest presidential administration in national history, or how support for Donald Trump has only escalated following the revelation of numerous personal scandals and legally contradictory statements. But it goes so much deeper than that. It’s a problem much older than him.
Toward the end of his ministry, the late Billy Graham admitted that his greatest regret was allowing conservative political interests to mingle with the faith that he represented. He foolishly placed trust in the Republican Party in general, and in Richard Nixon in particular, after which time he pulled Jerry Falwell, Sr., of the Moral Majority aside in 1981 to warn him:
“I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form…. it would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” [emphasis mine]
And that they have. They’ve been doing it for decades.
But it’s not just about politics. The church in America also keeps getting it wrong on matters of science as well. Despite the fact that 98% of scientists agree that humans evolved from other species over time, a majority of evangelical Christians reject that view in favor of a direct divine creation of separate species. And it is white evangelicals who most vehemently deny (three quarters of them) the climate change that threatens to disrupt our ecosystem in ways that are irreversible.
Granted, an argument could be made that the whole of the Christian faith shouldn’t be judged by looking at one subset of the faith, even if that subset does represent the largest and most influential religious group in the country. Everything’s not about white evangelicals, right? Sure, I’ll give you that. But shouldn’t the “Spirit of Truth” impact these people as well? Shouldn’t the “Spirit of Truth” have made it clear centuries ago that popes aren’t perfect, or that violently invading Muslim territories to regain control for the Church was cruel and immoral?
This isn’t just a white evangelical problem—resistance to social and scientific progress was a key feature of the Catholic church for most of its history. Ever heard of the Dark Ages of Europe? Were they receptive to new knowledge when Galileo tried to show them what he discovered?
I guess what I’m saying is that no portion of the Church has ever been above the social and economic motives that govern the behavior of the rest of us, making them no different at all. They’re just people, like the rest of us, and there’s nothing inside of them that sets them apart as specially marked for the validation of their faith over everyone else’s. And if the Christian faith were true, that would not be the case.
Shame On You for Asking
I could add several more things to this list.* The Bible makes it sound as if inexplicable miracles should be happening all over the place (and I don’t mean at the hands of doctors practicing medicine, which is a human discipline), but for some reason every story you hear today involves something that you missed because you weren’t there at the time. And if you get the nerve to ask why someone can’t show you one of these miracles for you to see for yourself, you’ll likely be shamed for asking for it.
That says an awful lot, doesn’t it? It would be one thing if they just shrugged and said, “Oh, well. I guess you missed it. Maybe you’ll see the next one.” But they’ve been taught to guilt anyone who asks for evidence, which signals an insecurity that speaks volumes. When you know what you’re saying is true, you don’t have to impugn the character of anyone who wants you to demonstrate how you know it. That looks super sketchy.
Honestly, the whole field of Christian apologetics shouldn’t even exist. If the Christian faith were true, it wouldn’t need defending with a Bayesian statistical analysis for the probability of the resurrection. If the claims of the Bible were true, the resurrected Jesus would be so alive and present in the world today that no one would need to resort to such elaborate efforts to convince us they’re legit. The evidence for them would be everywhere.
So you won’t likely catch me diving into endless debates with theists over topics like foundationalism versus coherentism or constructivism, nor will I get sucked into arguing about the reliability of ancient historiography. I’ll leave that to people far more enamored with philosophy than I am. But I still say that if the claims of this faith were true, we wouldn’t really be having these discussions at all. The fact that defenders of the Christian faith spend the amount of time that they do obsessing over these things may be the most damning detail of all.
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* Among the other notable suggestions to this list was the notion that direct revelation from God should have included at least one significant disclosure about the workings of the natural universe, advancing our scientific knowledge at least a little. Like the way we imagine contacting advance extraterrestrial life forms would provide us with some cool new tech to make our lives easier. But it turns out that God’s people in the Bible tend to be behind the times, rendering them vulnerable to being conquered by just about every surrounding empire that attempted to do so. All they needed was iron chariots, and Yahweh’s hands were tied.
It would also have been nice if the Christian faith had led the advance in our understanding of social justice, equality, and human dignity. But for every subgroup within this religion attempting to do so, there were much larger groups standing in the way of progress, actively opposing their attempts to change the way things are even while quoting the Bible to make their case (see treatment of women, slavery, segregation, etc).