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The few times that New Testament claims intersect with history – namely, the Nativity accounts, and to a lesser degree, the Resurrection accounts – the claims fail, historically speaking. What epistemic right does the Christian then have for believing in Jesus, for being a Christian?

If you ask the Christian “Why do you know that the Resurrection accounts are true?”, they will likely reply “Because I have faith (in Jesus).” Faith, in any meaningful sense, is belief absent of evidence. This becomes apparent when we ask “Why do you have faith in Jesus”, and they likely reply “Because of the Gospels and New Testament.” But that is not evidential because it defers to the faith position.

The faith in Christianity comes predominantly from the New Testament, and faith that the New Testament is true comes from faith in Christianity qua Jesus. Here we have a circularity.

Perhaps the Christian can draw on personal revelatory experiences. However, an Amazonian tribesman will never have a revelatory vision or appearance or some kind of experience that will point to Christianity if he has never heard of or come across Christianity. Religious experiences of Christians concerning Christianity come about precisely because they already have knowledge of the Bible, of the New Testament. In other words, Christian religious experiences supervene on (depend upon) knowledge of the Bible. These experiences do not really break the problematic issue of circularity, but actually feed into that circle.

Even given critical historical analysis such as the book I am writing (The Resurrection: A Critical Analysis of the Easter Story) that points to the claims not having veracity, the Christian can still rely on mere faith, because the epistemic circle is not really sound, just relying on itself. Indeed, the process ends up looking like a presuppositional stance where the Christian might as well just presuppose the truth of the New Testament to sure up faith in Jesus.

This is precisely why apologists like William Lane Craig try so hard to get away from mere fideism (the doctrine that knowledge depends on faith or revelation) because they know this is not convincing to a third party. Craig sets this out in his book (and resultant website) A Reasonable Faith that tries to establish an evidential and rational basis for his belief, intending it to be ammunition to convert third parties.

And this is why he is absolutely intent on establishing the Easter story and the Resurrection historically. I can understand this. He (and others, such as Gary Habermas with his Minimal Facts approach) does this because he has everything to lose by not doing so (or merely resorts to believing the whole kit and caboodle based on personal revelation alone).

There is no doubt about the centrality that the Resurrection has to the theology, and indeed the existence, of Christianity. Therefore, if one can show that the historical claims of the Easter story are highly dubious, that the most probable hypothesis is that it did not take place, then there are serious threats to Christianity as a worldview. Christian preaching is empty, the apostles are liars, there is no divine forgiveness for sin, there is no hope for those dying in belief in Christ, and we should pity Christians. And Jesus was probably just a man. That’s a pretty damning state of affairs. Christians really need the Resurrection to be true; they have a lot to lose. Craig illustrates this by his voluminous work on defending the empty tomb and the Easter story narratives.

If we relate this back to probability and belief in a hypothesis based on Bayes’s Theorem, then we might look at the Background Knowledge part of the formula. This is where the naturalist atheist will diverge, before we even get started, from the supernaturalist theist.

The naturalist will conclude (i.e., not presuppose), based on pragmatism and inductive observation, that there is no recourse to supernaturalism. We can’t assess eyewitness accounts (there are none), we have never experienced a god becoming a man, we have never experienced any living organism dying and being resurrected, we have no evidence of a heaven, so on and so forth. Therefore, in order for all of these Easter story claims to be true, we have to throw out everything we know about how the world works. Which is fine, if the evidence warrants this (it doesn’t, by the way).

Now, the theist has different axioms but the problem is they are circular.

The theist already believes in a world (background knowledge) where resurrections and general supernaturalism are possible (and perhaps even expected). With this background knowledge, the probabilities of the claims are therefore massively adjusted upwards. They already believe in a world where there is a god, God, and where this god has been in human form, Jesus.

But these are the very claims we are trying to evaluate. The existence of God as Jesus and resurrections are what we are analysing in the formula, so you can’t presuppose the truth of the Resurrection by already having the Resurrection or resurrections in your background knowledge.

Roundabouts and circles and on they go.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...