Here’s a thought experiment. Say you’re a strong Christian. You’re comfortable arguing for your position. You don’t think much of the atheist arguments that you’ve seen so far, and you’ve seen quite a few.
Now you come across a holy book from some other religion. It’s an English translation from an original written in a long-dead language from a foreign culture.
What could the book possibly say that would convince you that its miracle claims are correct? That it—and not your own Christianity—is correct? It’s just words on paper. What possible combination of words would be compelling?
We’ll make the case for the ancient religion as strong as possible
- Oral history. The earliest New Testament books were Paul’s epistles, written more than two decades after the life of Jesus. The gospel of John was written roughly six decades after, and Revelation and others possibly later still. The books of our imaginary religion were written roughly contemporaneously so that the period of oral history is almost nonexistent.
- Translation. The Christian story came from Jewish culture and the Aramaic language, but the original New Testament documents came from a very different culture (Greek) and language (Greek). Our imaginary religion will not have this extra level of translation.
- Copies far removed from originals. Our oldest copies of the books of the New Testament were written centuries after the originals. We’ll make ours just decades after. No—what the heck—let’s make them the originals themselves, 100% complete.
- Eyewitness testimony? Some of the noncanonical gospels claimed to have been written by eyewitnesses. For example, the Gospel of Peter says, “But I Simon Peter and Andrew my brother took our nets and went to the sea.” The Infancy Gospel of Thomas begins, “I Thomas, an Israelite, write you this account.” The Gospel of Thomas begins, “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.” Historians doubt that they are actual eyewitness accounts, but at least they claimed that they were. The four canonical gospels make no such claim—we don’t even know who wrote them—but the books in our imaginary religion will.
- Contradictions. The four gospels tell an inconsistent story. Was Jesus on earth 40 days after the resurrection (Acts) or one day (Luke)? Was there an earthquake followed by the dead rising from their graves? Only Matthew makes this claim. How many women were there? In what ways did Peter deny Jesus three times? And so on. The typical apologist’s response is to harmonize any differing accounts into a clumsy whole, but our imaginary religion will have multiple mutually supporting accounts with no contradictions.
In short, any positive feature of the evidence for the Jesus story will be matched or exceeded by our imaginary religion.
How are we doing so far, my Christian friend? Do you have any remaining objections where you see better evidence in favor of the gospel claims? Apply those features to improve our imaginary religion. How many independent accounts of the miraculous events do you want? Add that to the list. Does an ancient book sound more in touch with cosmic truth, or would you prefer a more recent and verifiable book? Would you prefer the documents to be written in an ancient language or modern English? A living language or a dead one? Do incidental elements in the story make it sound more authentic? Add it to the list. The only rule is that the evidence itself must be natural, as is the case with Christianity. No microfiche or holograms or levitating tablets or anything else outside of the technology of the time. No modern English written on a papyrus dating to 2000 years ago.
Given all this, would you become a believer? After a few days kicking the tires to verify that scholars indeed did agree to these claims, would you switch your allegiance?
If not, then evidence can’t be particularly important to you. If you say that your belief is based primarily on something besides objective evidence—personal experience or the religion you were taught as a child, perhaps—then don’t imagine that this will convince anyone else. If evidence doesn’t underlie your belief, why should I be convinced?
Instead, make clear that you believe because of this personal experience and not from evidence. Don’t raise evidence-based arguments if you believe in spite of the evidence.
The invisible and the non-existent
look very much alike.
— Delos McKown
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 11/6/13.)
Photo credit: Wikimedia