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Seeing Is Believing - Part Two

Web posted on August 23, 2014

Sunday Peace

By Rev Robert Lyon

Last week I mentioned that the Apostles and the church of the First Century had an "incontrovertible apologetic", an argument for the truth of Christianity that could not be refuted. That's a monumental claim, and the burden of proof 2000 years later falls on those of us who still believe it.

But we need to be arguing the case in the same way the Apostles did, because arguing it any other way is doomed to failure. So let's come at this backwards by first of all noting what sort of argument the Apostles did not make.

One thing the Apostles did not do was try to prove the existence of God. They simply assumed it. Most people did in those days. Of course, they also assumed that the orderliness of nature was God's handiwork (Psalm 19, Romans 1:19f) but they did not try to prove that, either. Aristotle, Avicenna, Aquinas, and others have tried to prove the existence of God, but modern philosophers are quick to point out flaws in their reasoning. Which does not mean, therefore, that God does not exist, but that the arguments for his existence aren't conclusive.

The late Professor William Hatcher, a Baha'i mathematician and philosopher (obit 2013), offers a mathematical proof for the existence of God in his 1990 book Logos and Logic. He says his proof is conclusive. It may well be, and I hope it is, but only a mathematician can know for sure. But even if it is conclusive, there is still a big gap between God as a philosophical or mathematical construct and the God of Jesus and the Bible.

Of course, the problem with trying to prove the existence of God, as I think most people recognize, is that the only data we are able to access are those that exist inside this material universe. And the five senses that we use for apprehending those data are also part of the material universe. But if God himself, as it seems, exists outside the material universe (whatever "exist outside" may mean) then we cannot know him unless he invades our time and space and makes himself known to us.

That "invasion" is just what the Apostles and the church of the First Century believed had actually happened in the person of Jesus. But how do you prove a thing like that? Actually, it's a lot easier than trying to prove that God exists. But if we're going to use words correctly, we should recognize that "prove", strictly speaking, is what mathematicians do. What the rest of us do, including historians, scientists, journalists, juries, and the rest of us just sorting out our daily lives, is to "infer probabilities" from "objective" evidence, things that we can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, and measure.

Speaking of the divine "invasion", it may surprise you to discover that Jesus and the Apostles actually promoted the use of objective evidence. On at least two occasions Jesus' audience asked him for eye-witness evidence, a "sign" they called it, that he was the Messiah, the "divine invader". It seems that what they wanted was some extraordinary feat like those that Moses is said to have performed before Pharaoh, like turning his walking stick into a snake or summoning a plague of frogs. But Jesus knew that objective inquiry was not their motive, so he replied, "A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matthew 12:39 and 16:4).

His audience knew the story of how Jonah had spent three days and nights inside the belly of a great fish before he was vomited back onto dry land. But they would not understand that Jesus was making a comparison to his impending death and resurrection. Nevertheless, the saying would be memorable precisely because it was puzzling, and after his resurrection they would recall and understand it. And maybe even draw the right inferences from it.

The Creator-God in whom Christians believe knows perfectly well how we draw inferences from evidence, because he designed us to do so. He intended our minds to work that way. He also intends the Resurrection of Jesus to be the evidence on which the truth of the gospel must stand or fall. And Jesus said that this "sign of Jonah" is the only sign we get. It is the only sign we need.

Twenty-five years later, the Apostle Paul had the same message when he was speaking to Greek philosophers in Athens. God, Paul said, "has set a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given credence to all by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:31). Where I have used the word "credence", some translations of Paul's speech say "proof" (but it's not), and others say "assurance" (which is close enough). But I prefer "credence" because the Greek word Paul uses here means "believability" or "a basis for faith". Paul chose his word carefully because he knows that the case for the Resurrection depends on the reliability of eye-witness evidence (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).

If we can validate, from the eye-witness evidence, the claim that the Resurrection was an actual historical event, then the inference that God exists and that Jesus is his Messiah will be so compelling that, unless we are willfully perverse, we shall find it impossible not to be Christians. On the other hand, if it can be shown that the Resurrection did not actually happen, then we must insist that the gospel can have no further claim on your allegiance or mine. It's as simple as that, and I can see no middle ground between the two.

But there's an important wrinkle here. Because those who first found the evidence compelling all became Christians (they were eye-witnesses! how could they not?) we don't have any non-Christian sources attesting to the Resurrection. And after the eye-witnesses' stories were told and retold, and eventually written down, they were collected into what became the New Testament. So the complaint that we have no corroboration from "secular" sources is (to be kind) just a bit disingenuous.

So it turns out that I'm facing a double challenge. I want to convince you that the Resurrection actually happened. But before I can do that, I'll need to show you that the New Testament's reportage is substantially reliable. Hope you'll hang in for a few weeks and see where this takes us.

Robert welcomes your questions and comments at

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