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Why Pascal’s Wager doesn’t work

September 17, 2009

Time and time again, I get asked why so many Christians like Pascal’s wager as a defense of their faith.

My answer is, “I have no idea, because it’s not only a bad argument, but it’s also bad theology.

Most of know what Pascal’s wager is, but for the casual reader of this blog, you can state it this way, “since God’s existence can’t be proven, a person should live as God exists since they have nothing to lose in life by doing so.”

Well, the logical problems with this argument have been pointed out in about a number of different places. I won’t bother to add to the Internet clutter on this one.

Instead, I would like to go straight to the Bible and Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15: 12-18 and verse 32

12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

32If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised,
   “Let us eat and drink,
      for tomorrow we die.”

Paul pretty much destroys the theological backing for Pascal’s wager. Paul points out that if there is no ressurection of the dead, Christians are the most pitiable people on the planet. And, it’s the reason that I always tell people, If I wasn’t a Christian, I would be an atheist. Paul doesn’t really leave open any other options for a Christian, which is why the early Christians were often accused of being atheists, strangely enough. Look at the terms he uses, “our preaching is useless,  your faith is useless, and if you life as God exists and he doesn’t, what have you dedicated your life towards? A lie and you have missed out on a lot of high living.

I realize some Christians might find this wacking of Pascal’s wager disturbing. I hope you do. You faith shouldn’t be based on Pascal’s wager. It doesn’t really work in the end and it’s just biblical wrong.

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47 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2009 1:47 pm

    Pascal’s wager is the most maligned and misrepresented argument in the history of philosophy.

    Pascal does *not* think you should believe blindly and for no reason. Rather, the argument *presupposes* that reason can support faith, but is in the end inconclusive. This is the position we are all in. Pascal presents the image of a huge coin in the air, such that it is _equally likely_ that it will come down on either side at the end of time.

    Given this, it’s quite simple to say that the more prudential choice is to choose to believe in God. A key qualifier is what needs to be added here: the decision has to be a *live option.* This means that it is a real choice for you whether or not to be a Christian. It seems like atheism might be true, but on the other hand Christianity might be true. You can live out one or the other. Why not choose to live the Christian life?

    Even Peter demonstrates this practical reasoning when he says to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

    Pascal’s wager is not meant to be an argument in a vacuum. It is a supplement to all the arguments there are for God’s existence and Christianity. It says that given we are such a cognitively poor condition, and we are facing a live option, why not act prudentially?

    Taking the argument in a vacuum and calling it on those grounds a bad one is poor thinking inherited from atheists who think they’re clever. Really, it just reveals a poor intellect. Indeed, if Pascal really meant for this argument to be a silver bullet for belief in God, why does he go on in the rest of Pensees to offer evidence for Jesus as God and the Messiah?

    And even in the case that Pascal did not frame the issue in the right way, the consideration still works in favor of Christianity in the context of arguments for God’s existence. Everyone is betting their lives on their assumptions. Is life *really* so precious that we want to bet everything that atheism is true?

    (Of course, the isolating of Pascal’s Wager in order to defeat it by claiming that there is some huge standard which it claims to meet but doesn’t is a tact which can be used against any argument for God’s existence. The problem is we have inductive minds. Each of these things form a *part* of our experience. It’s not like each one has the burden to carry the entire load, like the mere existence of the universe needs to be sufficient in and of itself to prove that God exists, or else it “fails” as an argument for God’s existence. All it needs to do is make his existence more probable, and once all the facts are considered, for them all to make his existence more probable than not.)

  2. thomas2026 permalink*
    September 17, 2009 2:11 pm

    Phil,
    You missed the point, I think.

  3. September 17, 2009 2:53 pm

    “Is life *really* so precious that we want to bet everything that atheism is true?”

    Yes. Life is so precious that to spend it in preparation for another, nonexistent life after death would be the biggest of all wastes. That’s what Paul seems to say, anyway.

    But, then again, I am just an atheist who thinks he’s *really* clever.

  4. joe agnost permalink
    September 17, 2009 3:28 pm

    Phillip: “It seems like atheism might be true, but on the other hand Christianity might be true. You can live out one or the other. Why not choose to live the Christian life?”

    Why not Islam? Why not Hinduism? Why not scientology?

    Why is it always ‘christianity OR atheism’? It’s not a ‘believe god or not’ question because there are FAR TOO MANY gods to choose from!

  5. YorkshireSkeptic permalink
    September 17, 2009 3:32 pm

    @Peter

    Bit of a false Dichotomy going on there. There’s more than just two answers to Pascal’s Wager (Christianity or Atheism) What if it’s the Islamic version of Jehovah that’s real? Or The Hindu pantheon? or Thor? or Zeus? or Jupiter? or Cthulhu?

    From ‘Hogfather’:

    The Quirmian philosopher Ventre put forward the suggestion that “Possibly the gods exist, and possibly they do not. So why not believe in them in any case? If it’s all true you’ll go to a lovely place when you die, and if it isn’t then you’ve lost nothing, right?”

    When he died he woke up in a circle of gods holding nasty-looking sticks and one of them said “We’re going to show you what we think of Mr Clever Dick in these parts…”

    Got to love a bit of Pratchett 🙂

  6. YorkshireSkeptic permalink
    September 17, 2009 3:34 pm

    @Joe agnost

    Beat me too it! (and far more succinctly too)

    And by ‘Peter’ i mean ‘Phillip’

    D’oh!

  7. September 17, 2009 3:40 pm

    The point was that it makes no sense to follow something which is false. But Pascal’s wager presupposes there are arguments – inconclusive, yet probabilifying arguments – that God exists. Thus, there is nothing involved in Pascal’s wager which esteems us to believe something that is false.

    And the wager itself really says nothing about what effect believing in God will have on this life, compared to what it otherwise would have been like. It more so has to do with the quality of life to be expected if God is real.

    However, as an aside at the end of the Wager, Pascal does comment on this issue:

    “The end of this discourse.–Now, what harm will befall you in taking this side? You will be faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful. Certainly you will not have those poisonous pleasures, glory and luxury; but will you not have others? I will tell you that you will thereby gain in this life, and that, at each step you take on this road, you will see so great certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you risk, that you will at last recognise that you have wagered for something certain and infinite, for which you have given nothing.”

    Of course the Christian will forfeit the cheap pleasures of life, or at least a single-minded pursuit of them. But those are probably not the right way to live in the first place. Intimacy in marriage makes sense; friendships take on real importance. It is questionable that the Christian life is worse even if life ended at the grave. The NT emphasizes the suffering that comes with following Christ, but always right next to the claim that doing so is the only thing which can bring us Joy.

    So the NT is behind Pascal on that note, too.

    Matt,

    The question, of course, is not whether _if there is no God_ life is wasted by following him. What I said is does it make sense to _bet_ that there is no God, when the evidence for him is so suggestive, the universe’s and our existence so inexplicable, and the resurrection looming in the background of history – do we really want to _bet_ that there is some mysterious explanation for all of these, rather than just following God? The question, then, is talking about our actual epistemic viewpoint.

  8. September 17, 2009 3:49 pm

    Yorkshire, Joe

    The wager is not meant to convince anyone that Christianity is true. The argument has never claimed this burden, and therefore the criticism doesn’t apply.

    The consideration of the wager, I have noted, comes to someone who faces a live option. A live option is when someone has already narrowed down the options to one alternative or another. Thus, the argument does not claim to get us to the point where that option is a live one. It tells us what to do *once we get there.*

    In order to get there does take arguments concerning which faith is most probably correct. Based on considerations of different faith claims, it seems that Christianity is the most probable. At that point, the one where the decision to believe or not believe comes in, is where the wager applies.

    Saying “Oh, but there are so many other gods to believe in!” pretends that there are no relevant evidential considerations which render belief in those gods not a live option. There is other evidence. Ignoring it and pretending that the wager tries to prove Christianity all by itself is shoddy intellectualism.

  9. joe agnost permalink
    September 17, 2009 4:00 pm

    philip: “Based on considerations of different faith claims, it seems that Christianity is the most probable.”

    Dude – there is ~no~ evidence for ANY religious gods! None. Zip. Nada. That’s why it’s called faith!

    This sentence gave me a nice laugh though….. “christianity…probable.”… heeheeheee. 😉

  10. September 17, 2009 4:08 pm

    Yorkshire-
    Can we PLEASE not say Jehovah. I know this is an annoying semantic point, but it really is a bad translation of hebrew into english! Ok annoying Christian nerd out….
    -Eric

  11. September 17, 2009 4:11 pm

    Joe,

    What is evidence? Some fact F counts as evidence for some hypothesis H if F makes sense in light of H, but would make less sense if H was not true.

    For example, take the Qu’ran. The Qu’ran gives a robust account of proper moral practice, sexual practice, the role of government, economics, the purpose of life, and many other facets of life. All of this is claimed to be an account of how to live human life individually and in community, and what will happen in the after life. Let us call all this fact Q.

    Now let’s take “Islam is true” to be our hypothesis, which will be designated as “A.” So is Q evidence for A? Certainly. For if A is true, then it makes sense that we have Q. The God of the universe will know the proper way for us to live, and it makes sense for him to tell us how to do so. It further makes sense if it is all together in one place, like a book.

    What if A was false, would we expect Q? Well, no laws of nature are violated by the existence of Q. It is of course *possible* that it could exist without A being true. People write books, and they want to know how to live and to think nice things will happen to them in the afterlife. But that it should be robust, coherent, monolithic, and followed by billions of people is still a bit odd if A is false. So we will say that Q is at least some evidence for A.

    So there is some evidence that Islam is true. Of course, your claim was that there is no evidence for any religious gods. Perhaps the evidence for them isn’t very good, or we don’t have very much of it, enough to believe in one of them, say. But it’s false that there is no evidence. Clearly, to anyone willing to consider what evidence is and what facts there are in the world, will admit that there is evidence for the different religions in it.

  12. joe agnost permalink
    September 17, 2009 4:14 pm

    Philip: “The question, of course, is not whether _if there is no God_ life is wasted by following him. What I said is does it make sense to _bet_ that there is no God, when the evidence for him is so suggestive”

    But that’s the problem! The “evidence for him is so suggestive” is not true at all. Not even slightly! (I think it’s the opposite personally).

    And so Pascal’s wager doesn’t work for religion because it will always come down to ~which~ god should we “bet” on? You (obviously a christian) say “Christianity is the most probable” but tell that to a muslim or a jew…

  13. September 17, 2009 4:15 pm

    “Faith”, by the way, means dependence. It is a similar feat to fly in a plane, or have someone drive you someplace. You are putting your faith in that person.

    Your having evidence that plane will support you, or that your friend is not a bad driver, is of course not incompatible with the fact that you must still have faith in them after all the evidence is in.

  14. September 17, 2009 4:15 pm

    “You (obviously a christian) say “Christianity is the most probable” but tell that to a muslim or a jew…”

    LOL, I do.

  15. joe agnost permalink
    September 17, 2009 4:22 pm

    Philip: “For example, take the Qu’ran. The Qu’ran gives a robust account of proper moral practice, sexual practice, the role of government, economics, the purpose of life, and many other facets of life. All of this is claimed to be an account of how to live human life individually and in community, and what will happen in the after life. Let us call all this fact Q”

    I disagree that Q is considered a fact. I don’t agree that the Qu’ran gives a “robust account of proper moral practice” – quite the opposite.
    Your whole argument falls apart right there.

    Philip: “But that it should be robust, coherent, monolithic, and followed by billions of people is still a bit odd if A is false.”

    Really? By that reasoning ALL the religions are true since they have followers that believe them. (And of course it isn’t at all “coherent”!)

    The evidence you’re providing here points more to a scam – a very good one – being pulled on the ignorant masses.

    Philip: “…your claim was that there is no evidence for any religious gods. Perhaps the evidence for them isn’t very good, or we don’t have very much of it, enough to believe in one of them, say. But it’s false that there is no evidence.”

    I will concede this point to you. There might be evidence – it’s just not (at all) convincing.

  16. September 17, 2009 4:28 pm

    Right. There not being _convincing_ evidence is a much different claim than there not being _evidence_.

    I did not mean to imply the moral system provided in the Qu’ra is correct, merely that it was a full account of a *a* moral system. That gives it more credence than a moral system which only tells us how to act a thousandth of the time, say.

    Of course, Islam is the second largest religion. A single adherent to a religion does not give it the evidence that Islam does on this score.

    As for evidence for Christianity, I suppose you should look to the posts on N.T. Wright. 😉

  17. Andrew permalink
    September 17, 2009 4:50 pm

    As for evidence for Christianity, I suppose you should look to the posts on N.T. Wright.

    I’m still awaiting your reply on the “Justified Belief” thread 🙂

  18. September 17, 2009 5:04 pm

    Philip,
    I wouldn’t use the word mysterious, but I would rather bet that there is natural explanation for the existence of the universe and the humans within. As I’m sure you’ve probably already guessed, I disagree with you when you write that the universe and our existence is “so inexplicable.” But, as you correctly point out, we are miles apart with regard to our epistemic viewpoints, and I’m not sure its a gap that can be bridged in order to allow us to have a meaningful conversation.

  19. Johann permalink
    September 17, 2009 5:04 pm

    For example, take the Qu’ran. The Qu’ran gives a robust account of proper moral practice, sexual practice, the role of government, economics, the purpose of life, and many other facets of life. All of this is claimed to be an account of how to live human life individually and in community, and what will happen in the after life. Let us call all this fact Q.

    Now let’s take “Islam is true” to be our hypothesis, which will be designated as “A.” So is Q evidence for A? Certainly.

    …wait, what?

    “Grimm’s Fairy Tales give us a robust account of proper moral practice, sexual practice, the role of government, economics, the purpose of life, and many other facets of life. Let us call all this fact Q.

    Now let’s take “The Big Bad Wolf is real” to be our hypothesis, which will be designated as “A.” So is Q evidence for A? Certainly.”

    What? o.0

  20. September 17, 2009 6:14 pm

    Johann,

    If analogous, that would show that the evidence was not as strong. However, the Grimm’s Fairy Tales purport to be fiction, while the Qu’ran purports to be revelation from God.

    That fact alone makes the two cases sufficiently disanalogous. However, I agree that often times isolated facts can be shown to be very weak evidence for a worldview; it is facts in unison that significantly increase probabilities. For Muslims, the fact that spirituality makes sense, that Muslim practice is widespread and largely uniform, that the teachings of the Qu’ran can be interpreted as “successful” with regards to government and economics, and so on, provide continual confirmation of their worldview. Each link in the chain may itself seem weak, but it’s the chain as a whole that they are depending on.

    But the point is at the same time taken; robust accounts of morality and human life are not miracles. We can account for them naturalistically. The question is one of where the probability lies given _all_ of the facts.

    Matt,

    I say “mysterious” to mean a hidden naturalistic explanation. For instance, take the New Testament. I am actually extremely curious to know what is the most plausible naturalistic scenario I should imagine with regards to the events in 1st century Palestine. We must account for a radical change in Judaism, and for this fellow named Paul and his theology. It is mysterious to us why people wrote the Gospels, and said that what is in them is true, if the Gospels are in fact false. If naturalism is true, something happened in the 1st century which is purely naturalistic, but it is very hard to discern what exactly it was.

    I am surprised you do not find it odd that the universe exists; I find the fact that anything should exist very puzzling. That humans are here is also very puzzling, for many universes (indeed, an infinite amount) would not have included humans. Perhaps there is no explanation for why the universe is here, and perhaps we humans won the lottery. But that would seem to me to be a very curious state of affairs indeed.

    Andrew,

    I know, I know! I’m going to go reply to Mike right now. Your comment is a good one, and I might respond to it unless I run out of time before dinner (since I am doing a bit of reading for it. It was a good comment).

  21. YorkshireSkeptic permalink
    September 17, 2009 9:40 pm

    @Eric
    Apologies! Out of curiosity what is the correct translation? 🙂

    @Phillip
    First you say that the Wager:

    ‘…is a supplement to all the arguments there are for God’s existence and Christianity.’

    Then in response to mine and Joe’s criticism about lack of consideration for other gods/belief systems:

    ‘The wager is not meant to convince anyone that Christianity is true.’

    Which one is it? :S

    Maybe i need to get to the point where it’s just a choice between two options (the live option) How would i get there?

    ‘In order to get [to the live option] it does take arguments concerning which faith is most probably correct. Based on considerations of different faith claims, it seems that Christianity is the most probable. At that point, the one where the decision to believe or not believe comes in, is where the wager applies.’

    For me, that’s where your argument falls apart. What if I look at all the ‘different faith claims’ and come to the conclusion that Islam has all the evidence in its favour and therefore, after applying the wager to my evidence and arguments, I should worship Allah?
    It could be applied to ANY God/Belief system that you think has the most evidence going for it.

  22. September 17, 2009 10:43 pm

    York,

    The two statements of mine that you ask me to harmonize say the exact same thing. They say that the wager does not, in itself, prove any certain faith to be true. It is rather a compelling prudential consideration that comes into play when the belief of a certain faith and unbelief are the options before you.

    Both of the statements are meant to say exactly that, even if you felt the latter statement meant to say that the wager could never be applied to Christianity, which would be a very odd thing for me to say. Rather, interpreted in the context of everything else I have been saying, it makes perfect sense to suppose I meant that the wager is not meant to prove Christianity *on its own steam.* (Which is what critics always assume about it.)

    The possibility that someone could come to think Islam had the best evidence for it does not affect the wager at all. Yes, in the case Islam has good evidence for it, it would be wise of you to believe it over believing nothing at all. That’s quite clear. However, I would disagree that Islam does have the best evidence for it. That we disagree on that premise (which faith has the best supporting evidence) does nothing to the force of the wager for someone at that point.

  23. Richard Eis permalink
    September 18, 2009 3:53 am

    As far as I recall, Pascal never published his wager himself. Which leads us to suspect what he thought of it also. A cute bit of amusing logic that didn’t lead anywhere when more closesly examined.

    My biggest bugbear with the wager is that it implies that religious observance has no cost to the physical life you have in terms of time, money and effort.

  24. Shannon permalink
    September 18, 2009 9:32 am

    Phil? Just to say – textbooking the definition of argumentum ad populum does not really amount to evidence of any sort for any god’s existence, the Wager wholly aside.

    I am also curious: if you use this example, and say Islam has a modicum of truth (and Christianity has, by extension, the same modicum of truth, and Shinto, and Zoroastrianism, and the Tao, and Bhuddism, and Hinduism – and those are just the modern faiths) – why are you Christian?

    This is where the Wager falls apart – not in its core premise to someone waffling on whether to believe (in that, it’s perfectly functional philosophy) – but in a justification for belief in a specific faith.

    As an atheist, the wager is never presented to me in the context of waffling faith, no. It’s presented to me as the false dichotomy it is when shaken at nonbelievers as a ‘proof’ of why we should believe in god. You don’t seem to be defending the Wager on those grounds – and that’s good. It fails in that context.

  25. September 18, 2009 9:32 am

    Yorkshire-
    We are not 100% sure, but the hebrew tetragammon is YHWH, and the germans when translating it took the y and turned it into a j, and it just changed the whole darn thing. But most likely, it would have been have pronounced Yahweh or Yahwet!

  26. fauxrs permalink
    September 18, 2009 10:09 am

    Regardless of how one interprets Pascals Wager, it is most often delivered as the following “What if you’re wrong, wouldnt it be better to believe than not just in case?”

    That form of the argument is hogwash, Inst god supposed to be all seeing omnipotant and omnipresent, wouldnt he be able to see right through my subterfuge?

    See Its not possible for me to choose to believe, belief isnt that easy. you cant be rational and just turn on ones belief in supernatural beings. I can no more decide tommorrow to believe in the christian god, than a christian can tommorrow decide to believe in zeus or fairies.

    We are told that if we choose the chistian side we will be “faithful, humble, grateful, generous, a sincere friend, truthful.” I am those now without any need for christianity, of course there are ample christians who are also none of those things. So there is no guarantee that these things come with Christianity, and chritianity has no sole ownership of those either.

    Christianity offers no solace, no comfort, no benefits that I need, that I dont have access to now without it. What it does offer varies greatly from what sect of christianity I might supposedly adhere to and some of those sects requires (judging from what I see and read) blind ignorance to reality and truth.

    Nope, gonna have to do better than Pascals wager

  27. joe agnost permalink
    September 18, 2009 10:48 am

    Well said fauxrs!! Nice job!

  28. September 18, 2009 11:20 am

    Shannon,

    In the case that God is supposed to be our Father, it would be evidence against him if no one believed in him. He cannot be a good parent if it impossible to come to know him; thus, his existence is more probable when there are many humans who claim to be in relationship with him.

    So you are saying that theism for you is not a live option. In that case, I wholly agree that the wager should not move you to act. However, I think you can moved to seek out God, to see if there is a way to believe in him; can this all make sense in some way? I think in the case belief in God is not presently a live option, we all owe it to ourselves to see if there is a way of doing things which would show why someone would believe in God.

    (Given I do think it is quite pointless and undesirable to believe something which is false, I agree the same is true of me with respect to atheism. If there is some grand truth which atheists see which I don’t as a theist, I owe it to myself to study what they say and to try to enter into their experience to see if we do in fact have good reason to think that theism is false. For if theism is false, then I don’t want to believe it.)

    And I did not say that other faiths had a modicum of truth, but had at least some positive evidential status. A proposition might have evidence for it, but then turn out to be totally false. “The Big Bang occurred” is such a proposition.

    Believing and following Jesus basically depends on what you think of Jesus, and what evidence there is for him compared to other prophets or metaphysical systems. And what reasons are there to think that Jesus was God? Well, there are many. For instance, that Jesus taught the truth about moral facts, that his personality was much unlike humans (he never felt his security threatened by other people, which is evidence that his personality was not solely that of a human), that he cared about other people deeply, that he speaks to human needs in a very basic way (“Come unto me all ye who are weak and weary, and I will give you rest for your souls”), and so on, all provide some evidence that Jesus was a true representation of God.

    However, more importantly is the framework in which these details are filled out. The Hebrew Bible anticipates the coming of a Messiah who will right the world with God. Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible paints an entire picture of human wickedness and depravity which in general portrays a hopeless and depressed world (See 1 Judges, Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Psalms, etc.) Also, the Law was given to Moses as guidelines for living which were basically impossible to live up to for the Israelites, or anyone else. This was in lieu of the relationship God promised to have with people – such as he had with Abraham, who was credited with righteousness by *believing* God.

    It is in this context that Jesus arrives. In doing so, he makes sense of nearly everything in the Old Testament. Before announcing his conclusion, a detective will lay out all the facts, so that we will see how his conclusion connects all of them together into one coherent story. Jesus does this with the Old Testament. Not only does Jesus fulfill prophecies about the Messiah predicted to come, but he becomes the person in whom God’s children can have faith (as promised to Abraham), he suffers with us to make sense of the plight of Job and the unrelating God he argued against, he becomes a model of living to fix our depravity, he explains and demonstrates how relationships work so we know how to act, he rights the world with God by living a perfect life which we could never live to offer up to God as an atonement for all our wrongdoings, and he does none of this through writing anything down, but as a God would who cares about his children, by entering into their plight and entering into relationship with them.

    Ever since then, of course, the ministry of Jesus has been carried on, not by the Church as many would refer to it, but through the church, the lowercase church, of people in many places and times who have lived as Jesus lived because of the love he showed for us. The life that he gives to people has echoed through the lives of people all through history to the present in people who live in the shadows, humble lovers of God and of others.

    As C.S. Lewis puts it, it is as though history is a book, and the Incarnation is the chapter that, once inserted in the middle, makes sense of everything.

    Of course, we started with some details, and then gave some structure, but in the middle of the painting is the grand event of Jesus’s life – the Resurrection. The resurrection is important for two reasons. First, because if it happened, only God could have brought it about. And if God raised Jesus from the dead that will mean that God has put his ‘signature’ or ‘cachet,’ as Iike to say, on the life of Jesus and on the universe as a whole, identifying who he is for us by approving of Jesus as his representative. So if we know the resurrection happened, we are given dramatic confirmation of Jesus’s teaching.

    The second reason the resurrection is important is because it is an empirical claim. We can talk about what we would expect the world to be like if it did happen, and what we would expect the world to be like if it did not happen. Jesus’s body was beaten and crucified for hours on end by Roman authorities – it is near certain it was dead. The claim is that after 48 hours of being interred in a tomb, Jesus’s body was transformed into a new body which still resembled his old one, and he then appeared to the Apostles, Women, and several hundred other disciples over the course of the next 40 days. That is the claim.

    Of course, if this happened, we might expect something like what actually happened in the 1st century: the Apostles starting the church in Jerusalem, shooting outward to the Gentile nations, theology explaining what the life of Jesus meant by someone authorized by God to do so, and accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus by those who were close to him, or by those who knew those who were close to him. Of course, this is exactly what we find, and therefore good evidence that the hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” is true.

    If Jesus did not rise from the dead, however, the subsequent happenings in the 1st century are remarkably strange. For now the start of the church, the theology surrounding Jesus’s life and resurrection, the accounts of it happening, all have no good reason to occur. Of course they all to fit together if Jesus was in fact God and did in fact rise from the dead, but what if he didn’t? What do they follow from? It is quite mysterious. Perhaps different explanations account of these things. Maybe the Gospels are creative literary fictions, the church was a deliberate religious scam, and all the theology connecting Jesus to the Old Testament was propaganda.

    The problem is, this makes our ultimate hypothesis quite complicated. Now we have different agents acting for different reasons, reasons which we have no evidene they even had. In fact, we have evidence they did not have such motivations: a religious scam is meant to confer some benefit on those organizing it, while maryrdom is what many of the original Christians reaped from their efforts. Furthermore, the Gospels have many features which distinguish them from myths, like that they mention eyewitnesses who could be contacted, their intimations of who were their primary sources through devices like the inclusio, Luke and John’s deliberate claim to be based on eyewitness testimony, and so on.

    Furthermore, that all the Old Testament theology should just so _happen_ to fit seamlessly into the life of a created character and make sense of all of history and humanity’s relationship to God seems quite implausible. Especially when the Gospels are creative fictions totally unrelated to that theology in the first place.

    Of course, there are many explanations compatible with the data, but they depend on fortunate coincidence to build their cases; and coincidences are what we don’t want in our worldviews. Coincidences make our worldviews improbable. When we look at something and say ‘Oh, that’s just how it happened, and that’s all,’ when there is a simple explanation which connects all of the data, we are accepting a less probable explanation.

    The main reason we believe in anything is explanatory power. When we observe certain facts in the world, it makes us wonder why it is that these facts are the way they are. Thus, we postulate scientific laws, events in history, that a certain person was the murderer, and so on, in order to explain why things are the way they are. I think Jesus being who he said he was explains a lot of facts, including ethical facts, historical facts, theological facts, relational facts, and so on. In fact, he makes sense of the path of human history if the Gospels accurately depict him. Moreover, his life makes sense of everything in a very simple way, rather than me needing to come up with a whole army of explanations to account for different parts of the data.

    To bring a sketch of these reasons to a close, I think that Jesus does this better than any other prophet or metaphysical proposition there is. We don’t even have a way of seeing if God approves of other faiths, since they have no equivalent of the resurrection. Furthermore, many religious faiths come without the precedent of the Old Testament, which foresees and readies the coming of Jesus. They appear out of nowhere, as though in a vacuum. And the theology surrounding Jesus makes sense of humanity’s fallen state, through his atonement via his death after a perfect life, our ability to come into a direct relationship with him to be covered by that atonement, and the ensuing life of walking with him and living in community as he taught us to do.

    Clearly, there are a lot of reasons to believe in Jesus, and I think much less reason to believe in other prophets or faiths. There is no one big fact that is my ultimate reason; even the resurrection by itself would make no sense without the surrounding context. It is the picture of the universe and life that Jesus gives which makes more sense than anything else, and I think that gives us good grounds for thinking that it is true, and thus that Jesus really is who he said he is.

    (I would love to hear an argument for Buddhism or Taoism, by the way. I have never seen one given for either; I am wondering how they purport to authenticate themselves.)

  29. Fauxrs permalink
    September 18, 2009 11:23 am

    Hrm, my previous post is proof that proof-reading is good. Misspellings galore, capitolisation errors and all that.

  30. Fauxrs permalink
    September 18, 2009 11:44 am

    He cannot be a good parent if it impossible to come to know him; thus, his existence is more probable when there are many humans who claim to be in relationship with him

    Argumentum ad Populum is a logical fallacy, the fact that a belief is widely held offers no guarantee that the belief is true or correct. If a persons belief can be wrong, then a belief held by many can be just as wrong. It cannot be used as an argument of proof of validity, all it can prove is that the belief exists, it cannot prove the belief is true.

    Coincidences make our worldviews improbable. When we look at something and say ‘Oh, that’s just how it happened, and that’s all,’ when there is a simple explanation which connects all of the data, we are accepting a less probable explanation.

    So you’re theory is that simple explanations are less probable than complex explanations?

    I cant believe that you really mean that, there is no simpler explanation than “God did it” an explanation that requires no evidence whatsoever and requires no further investigation.

    Snap of the fingers, God did it, case closed? No sir I dont think thats what you mean at all.

  31. Shannon permalink
    September 18, 2009 11:48 am

    … I am not entirely certain this is the appropriate forum to debate the existence of faith, but I will say I believe you to be arguing from your own prejudice.

    This isn’t a bad thing – we do it because the filter of our perceptions is what we have! But – the evidence you lay forth for your reasoned belief in Christianity is colored by the idea of faith in a vacuum.

    If Jesus did not rise from the dead, however, the subsequent happenings in the 1st century are remarkably strange.

    They are no stranger than the subsequent happenings that followed when the Mormons took up Brigham Young’s pronouncements in the 17th century. They, too have martyrs, they, too were persecuted. They claim that their prophet got gold tablets that he read out of a hat (oversimplification, but hey!) and they face prejudice and persecution for far less than the assertion that a man rose from the dead.

    Is this reason to believe in Brigham Young’s statements of faith?

    The ancient Celts were largely destroyed by Rome in part because their pattern of belief was incompatible with modern theology, though the Romans tried to woo them. The celtic cross is only a Christian icon because the faith absorbed it from the Celtic culture. Christmas trees. Easter. These are appropriations in an attempt to absorb another faith… or simply absorptions as remnants of another faith.

    Does this mean we should all be Druids because many of their high priests chose to be martyrs to their cause?

    We don’t even have a way of seeing if God approves of other faiths, since they have no equivalent of the resurrection.

    Brigham Young was given gold tablets and a divine revelation by an agent of God himself. There is precisely the same amount of evidence for this claim as there is for the Ressurection.

    Islam has the Splitting of the Moon (summary at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Splitting_of_the_moon) which certainly falls in the same order of magnitude, with just as much evidence.

    Taoism and Bhuddism claim few miracles – they do not need the divine in the same way Western/Middle Eastern religions do. Facinating stuff. That said, Bhuddism does claim that enlightened men have certain spiritual capabilities, and show that the followers of Bhudda were eventually able to do what he was able to do as they came to join him in enlightenment. Taoism does have the Seven Immortals – they didn’t have to die to achieve everlasting life, and stories of Taoist immortality persist.

    Hinduism is where I am weakest, but I borrowed this from http://science.jrank.org:

    Just as the Hindu deities can descend in human forms (avatars), so the Hindu saints can, through the practice of asceticism (tapas), rise to godlike status. Thus the saint is often understood to be a “god-man” or a “goddess woman” by virtue of having “realized” the divinity innate in all human beings. In this context, a miracle is a manifestation of supernormal powers (siddhi) acquired as a function of attaining ever purer forms of consciousness (samadhi) through meditation and physical austerities. A classic treatment of the siddhi is the Yoga Sutra of Pantanjali, where the list of supernormal powers includes knowledge of previous lives; clairvoyance; knowledge of the moment when one will die; control over and thus freedom from one’s bodily systems; the ability to levitate and transverse great distances in a moment’s time; the power to expand or shrink one’s body; and so forth.
    Read more: http://science.jrank.org/pages/10251/Miracles-Miracles-in-Sacred-Scriptures.html#ixzz0RTOopZOv

    … and let me just say, Hinduism is far, far older than Christianity.

    We are raised into belief systems. We come to accept things as tacit truths – and we tend to look at those from other systems as having less valid data than we do. In the end, however, the claim of miracles-as-evidence-for-divinity is a common one, common across every faith from the beginning until now.

    By the by – no faith appears out of nowhere. Even the most rediculous faiths – ones we can agree on – are predicated on faiths that came before. There is even a growing body of scholarship that claims Yaweh as part of a pantheon of ancient gods, and that the Yawehist cult subsumed the others in much the same way the Cult of Isis subsumed the egyptian pantheon by the time of early Christianity.

    Witness the Cargo Cults: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmlYe2KS0-Y … an unsophisticated people with their own mythology is confronted with technology they cannot possibly hope to understand. So, they try to rationalize it within the scope of their own beliefs. It didn’t ‘come from nowhere’.

    You and I call it rediculous – these people are willing to die of exposure for it. Should we follow them?

  32. Shannon permalink
    September 18, 2009 11:51 am

    (to add – this is from Dawkins. Take it with a grain of salt:)

  33. Philip permalink
    September 18, 2009 1:25 pm

    Shannon,

    Of course, this thread is not the most germane place to have an entire discussion on whether or not belief in Jesus is more rational than belief in any other prophet or metaphysical system. However, you did ask, so I thought I would outline how an answer like that would go.

    Anyways, you state three general objections

    1) Other faiths claim similar things

    Claims like miracles surface in almost every religion. Two responses: first, not all these miracles are tied intrinsically to the truth of these religions. There isn’t anything in Christianity that says that miracles won’t happen within other religious traditions.

    Second, there is not good evidence for other miracles. For instance, take the splitting of the moon. The reason this is so disanalogous to the resurrection is because the splitting of the moon is a random miracle concerning a large natural physical object. There is no reason why God would perform this miracle at all, while there is good reason for God to perform the Resurrection.

    Or take the Golden Tablets. The Golden Tablets still being around might help the claim that they were given to Joseph Smith by an angel. At the very least then we would have the plates.

    Of course it is quite clear that there are many miracle claims in the world; however, it is intellectually sloppy to not consider the relevant evidential considerations. The Resurrection has been thoroughly examined as an event by historians, and there is good analysis on the evidence surrounding it, such as by N.T. Wright in The Resurrection of the Son of God, by Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and Richard Swinburne in The Resurrection of God Incarnate.

    My prediction is that surveying the relevant literature will make you believe that there is far more evidence for the resurrection than any other miracle claim in history. (This depends, once again, on the context of the miracle. None of your examples have anything close to a context like that provided by the Old Testament and first century Judaism.)

    2) Others were persecuted/martyrs

    There have been many other martyrs in the world than just first century Christians, certainly. The problem is that the Christians in the first century would have been dying for their faith, while also knowing it to be false if the resurrection did not in fact happen.

    3) Faiths come from other faiths

    This is not relevant in determining whether or not to believe in Jesus. A belief can come from anywhere, and still be true.

    And I am sure it is true that Yahweh had some bones to pick with the other gods in the ANE.

    4) We are raised in our belief systems

    Of course, this would render us unjustified in most of our beliefs. I only know about the Civil War because I was raised in the United States: that does nothing to damage the fact that it is true.

    The ultimate problem here is a lack of familiarity with the evidence surrounding Jesus; this is a live discussion going on in the scholarly world, and we are privileged to be able to listen in. Other miracle claims occurring is irrelevant; you need to be able to know the evidence for Jesus’s life and resurrection, and *then* be able to say that there is a equal amount of evidence for some other claim. Reading Bauckham’s book alone would dispel that claim.

  34. Philip permalink
    September 18, 2009 1:25 pm

    (Of course, I changed the amount of objections to four, btw.)

  35. joe agnost permalink
    September 18, 2009 3:05 pm

    philip: “therefore good evidence that the hypothesis ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’ is true”

    Wow. I couldn’t disagree more… reading your reason for typing this shows me that you don’t have a clue about rational logic. Not a clue.

    I’m still reading though – let’s see if you hit upon anything that makes sense, because you’re failing miserably up the here.

  36. Shannon permalink
    September 18, 2009 3:16 pm

    The earliest versions of Mark do not have Mark 26:9-20. The earliest biblical account we have of Jesus, then, ends with the woman leaving the tomb, and no appearances to the disciples.

    Paul argues his best argument for the ressurection in 1 Corinthians, and not only speaks against bodily ressurection, but not once, not ever, mentions the empty tomb.

    The details of the gospels differ in events surrounding the ressurection, from people rising from their graves to the temple veil tearing, to even which day following the death it took place. They differ, even, on who discovered the empty tomb, what the status of the tomb was when people arrived – well. Dozens of small details.

    The gospel writers wrote what they wrote in an effort to make converts, and most biblical scholars will point out that it is likely details were altered or embellished to make their points.

    The four gospel timelines do not match up with what is known of history, and what the bible itself says about Jesus’s life and career.

    The list of potential objections to historical veracity goes on and on, Phil – but your claim that Christianity is the One True Faith ultimately banks on a historical event that, when looked at by those outside of the faith, is just as rediculous and dismissable as your dismissing of the miracles of those faiths that are not your own.

    You have mentioned those four writers. Have you read Komarnitsky, Robert Price, Mike Davis — or really anyone that doesn’t have a vested interest in defending historicity?

    Regardless – this isn’t the forum.

    You want the Golden Tablets, but are content with four versions of the ressurection written by evangelists with the absolutely earliest one put to paper sixty years after the event… and our earliest version of that document doesn’t even have anything beyond the empty tomb.

    You want to say that hearing the truth changed Jesus’s first followers, and are not willing to hear that hearing their truth changed Brigham Young’s first followers – and they were both exposed to the same level of persecution for lack of gain.

    ALL faiths have martyrs. All faiths change men. Some live, some own the world for a while, and some die – there was a time in human history, for instance, when you’d have worshipped Zeus, along with everyone else around you, and nobody would have heard of the tiny Israelite nation. We call it ‘mythology’ now, but have you forgotten that at one time men believed very fervently in the ressurection of, say, Osiris by his wife, Isis, after being hacked apart by his brother, Set? Entire nations were founded on this belief, and great societies had this at their foundations.

    And I am sure it is true that Yahweh had some bones to pick with the other gods in the ANE.

    Ah. Other gods exist? Then why aren’t they worthy of worship? They are /gods/, after all?

  37. Shannon permalink
    September 18, 2009 3:22 pm

    Just to add –

    Christianity’s message is beautiful. Thomas Jefferson’s Bible remains one of the most inspirational works of literature I’ve ever read, and stands as one of the pillars of my own morality.

    This Christ guy had a great philosophy. Love others. Do well by others. Be meek, be gentle, and care. Lay aside pride, and put stock in love – don’t worry about death. Be the best you can be in the here and now, without reservation.

    … I’ll pass on the ‘give everything away’ bit, but. You know.

    When you strip the supernatural element away, the story of Christ is philosophically beautiful – just as the Tao is, in my own brain.

    However, the christian religion predecates on miracles, exclusivity, boundless pride, and certainty that is just not there in the philosophy. I don’t believe ‘Christ rose from the dead’ – but I don’t have to, either, to say the fellow had a good message. On the other hand, the Church (whatever Church it is) must say this, to say that the message is worthwhile. Why?

    Because without it it’s just a good idea?

  38. joe agnost permalink
    September 18, 2009 3:25 pm

    @Philip – it’s hard to take someone seriously when they claim to actually believe the resurrection story as factual and not allegory.

    Philip: “the Christians in the first century would have been dying for their faith, while also knowing it to be false if the resurrection did not in fact happen.”

    Or they were just dumb enough to believe it happened… much like many christians today!!

    Your “evidence” is so weak!

  39. Philip permalink
    September 18, 2009 5:23 pm

    Joe,

    It’s unhelpful to other people (those reading or myself) to characterize someone’s argument as “weak”, and then leave it at that. That is what is called “debate commentary.” It contributes nothing to the substance of what is being said.

    Confidence that your opponent is wrong is not a reason for him to give up his belief. Please do not leave pointless comments which do not provide reasons for people to consider about the issue at hand.

    I like to discuss ideas with people, especially in the case of God and Jesus, but it is frustrating when the discussion is a mere re-iteration of your conclusion.

    If atheism is true, I would very much like to know that. Please help me to understand why it is true. It is not being very nice as a human if you know the reasons why atheism is true but you won’t tell me what they are.

  40. Philip permalink
    September 18, 2009 5:46 pm

    Shannon,

    Not every source about the story of the resurrection need provide the entire narrative. Thus, that Mark leaves out the appearances and Paul does not explicitly mention the empty tomb is inconsequential; those truths can be derived from other primary and secondary material. Indeed, notice how Paul and Mark together provide the very story that Christians believe even without the rest of the Gospels.

    In order to hinder my belief in the resurrection, contradictions must fulfill two requirements. First, they must be irresolvable (i.e. missing names of women and the number of angels at the tomb are not strict contradictions), and they must be a central part of the story. If they don’t fulfill these requirements, then they are not interesting since they do not impact (to any nontrivial extent) the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.

    It of course doesn’t make sense to say the Gospels don’t line up with what the Bible tells us about the life of Jesus since the Gospels are what the Bible tells us about the life of Jesus.

    That the Gospels were written sixty to eighty years after the event is irrelevant so long as we have good reason to believe that their content was determined by eyewitness testimony. There are compelling reasons for the nature of oral history, the Judaic culture, the early church, the content of the Gospels, and 2nd century Apostolic Fathers that the Gospels are based on such eyewitness testimony.

    I noted, once more, that being a martyr for the resurrection is different than being a martyr for any other cause. I can die for the United States, or for capitalism, or vegetarianism, but it doesn’t say anything about the validity of those ideas. The fact that someone was preaching that they saw a man who had been killed alive from the dead, and were willing to die for the belief, would make no sense in the case that he had not actually risen from the dead. Martyrdom and persecution are necessary conditions for being evidentially significant, but they are not sufficient.

    Note that what you have to do to attack Christianity is draw on parallels to many other different religions – which is exactly my point! There is no other religion entirely like Christianity. *Of course* there are similarities between Christianity and other religions, because they have minimal evidential statuses as well. Christianity is the only one that has evidential support on all sides. There is no other faith that has the amount of evidential support from so many facets of reality than does Christianity – they might have a somewhat similar facet here or there, but they never completely parallel the story of Christianity which has so many layers of evidential value it is impossible to argue for it: one sees the picture, and has trouble repainting it for how much goes into it.

    If there were another religion just like Christianity in every regard, it would be a fairly simple task to spot it. You would say, “Look here is their OT, their prophet with all these characteristics, the history of their ministry, their well attested miracle which founded their faith, and their further unification of thousands of facts we know about life. Just like Christianity!”

    There may or may not be other supernatural beings worshipped by other cultures; otherwise, Yawheh would have been a true god to counter false ones.

    As I said, I am very interested to know what the best naturalistic view of the events in first century Palestine are. I do read Robert Price, and nonChristian scholars in general – to see whether or not I should believe that the events attested to in the New Testament are false. As humans, we ought to value the truth above all else. Who wants to live for a lie? The truth is all that matters.

    As for Christianity’s message – it is that Christ was God in human form, and was humiliated before a planet of fallen mortals. He preached himself as the ultimate truth of reality, not ethical principles. (“Eat my flesh” “Drink my blood.”) He lived a perfect life and died for the sins of all of humanity. His rising from the dead is the central event of his ministry.

    It makes no sense to speak of Christianity’s “message” aside from these. These simply are the Christian message. In the case he was not God, he still thought he was, and his ethical principles are clouded in a fog of insane ravings about his own primacy in the ultimate scheme of the universe. I fail to see the beauty in that.

  41. Shannon permalink
    September 21, 2009 4:12 pm

    *coughs* Again – not the right forum: but there is ‘no other faith quite like Islam.’ ‘No other faith quite like Mormonism.’ ‘no other faith quite like Taoism’.

    Just because your chosen faith is unique (and it is.. unless.. you look at Apollynious of Tyana (spelling off, I’m sure), or even Dionysius’s cult …) does not mean others are not as well.

    In other words: you were raised to be Christian, and to see it as Truth. Thus you do. If you were raised in Iran, do you think you’d see the same thing?

  42. Andrew permalink
    September 21, 2009 8:32 pm

    I noted, once more, that being a martyr for the resurrection is different than being a martyr for any other cause. I can die for the United States, or for capitalism, or vegetarianism, but it doesn’t say anything about the validity of those ideas. The fact that someone was preaching that they saw a man who had been killed alive from the dead, and were willing to die for the belief, would make no sense in the case that he had not actually risen from the dead. Martyrdom and persecution are necessary conditions for being evidentially significant, but they are not sufficient.

    The problem with trying to claim martyrdom as evidence that someone was actually willing to die for their belief is that we don’t know with any reliability, for any first-century martyr, for what crime they were actually executed (with the possible exception of James who may have been mentioned by Josephus), and whether they were given any opportunity to recant (unlike the Catholics, the Jews and the Romans didn’t believe in that), and whether we’d have heard about it if they had.

    (Arguably, we don’t have reliable evidence of any first-century martyr at all; we don’t know whether Josephus’ reference to James has been tampered with, and stories of other martyrs generally come from much later writings)

    So we don’t have any grounds whatsoever to claim that any eyewitness to the Resurrection ever, at any time, chose death in any context in which they could have avoided death by changing their story.

  43. erp permalink
    September 22, 2009 10:37 pm

    Strictly speaking Christians were allowed to recant (we have Pliny’s letters in the early 2nd century for that). Note they weren’t dying for believing in the resurrection but for refusing to honor the State Gods (you recanted by sacrificing to them). It was a bit like the US imprisoning Jehovah’s Witnesses for not having their kids say the pledge around 1940.

    Plenty of people have died for their beliefs but that doesn’t mean their beliefs were accurate just that they held them strongly. Note that Christians have killed Christians over doctrine (think of what happened to many heretics [the same group of heretics was usually perfectly willing to execute their oppressors for heresy if they got into power).

  44. Andrew permalink
    September 22, 2009 11:11 pm

    That’s not quite the same thing. What you’re referring to with Pliny is how the Romans simply determined whether someone was a Christian or not; if you weren’t a Christian, you’d have no problem with cursing Jesus and sacrificing to the imperial cult. This was used in cases where someone was merely accused of being a Christian in the sense of belonging to some secret organization (which was illegal generally).

    If someone were facing an accusation of some more substantive offense against public order for which there was evidence, then simply denying being a Christian wouldn’t get them off. (And of course such a charge might not have been legitimate.)

    (And James, if we can believe Josephus, was railroaded by a Jewish court in the absence of its Roman procurator, for offenses against Jewish law.)

  45. erp permalink
    September 23, 2009 1:00 am

    Note that Pliny asks what he is to do about former Christians and is told to just accept the cursing Jesus and sacrificing to the imperial cult. It is those who refuse who are to be dealt with.

  46. Andrew permalink
    September 24, 2009 8:05 pm

    Right, but Pliny is getting those instructions from Trajan, who is possibly the most highly regarded of all the Roman emperors (by contemporary writers and most later historians). The Christian tradition has, for example, Peter as being martyred under Nero, who might possibly not have been quite as much of a monster as Roman writers portray; but again if we believe Christian traditions, Nero was looking for scapegoats, and so he’s hardly likely to have been inclined to let anyone off the hook easily.

  47. erp permalink
    September 24, 2009 8:20 pm

    I suspect we may be arguing at cross-purposes here. Neither of thinks martyrdom proves the beliefs of the martyr.

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