by Steven B. Cowan –
We concluded in the previous installment of this essay that knowledge does not require having absolute certainty. We can know things, even very important and controversial things, even if we can’t have the kind of certainty about it that rules out all possibility of doubt. But, the question naturally arises at this point: how do we know Christianity is true? Granted that we don’t need absolute certainty, we do need some kind of sufficient justification for claiming to know it, don’t we? And the answer is: yes, we do.
How Can we Know Christianity is True?
Let me recommend to you that there are two complementary ways that we can (and do) know that Christianity is true. First and foremost, there is what theologians call the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. We read about this in Paul’s letter to the Romans where it says, “And the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are the sons of God.” As we read the Holy Scriptures, for example, the Holy Spirit directly addresses our spirits and indicates to us, “This is the Word of God—that it’s all true.” Have you ever felt that?—that as you read the Bible, you just get a sense that this is not simply the word or men, but the word of God? As we commune with God in prayer, don’t you sometimes know in your heart of hearts that God hears you and cares for you—that you are his beloved child? This is the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.
Now, let’s be careful. This internal testimony is not going to be evidence for someone else. If you tell someone else that you have this internal sense that Christianity it true, it’s not going to provide that other person with any strong reason to believe. But it does give you reason to believe if you have it! The internal testimony of the Spirit gives us one of those basic beliefs that I spoke of a moment ago—a belief that is justified and warranted unless and until someone or something can give me a compelling reason to doubt it. And I know of no compelling reason to doubt it.
Well, someone might say, “Is this just purely subjective? How can you trust that?” I admit that the testimony of the Spirit is subjective in the sense that it’s something going on in my mind that is not accessible to other people. But that is not a defect. In this sense, it is no more subjective than my knowledge that 2+2=4 or that “torturing children for fun is wrong.” I intuit in my subjective consciousness that these things are true, and there is no way I could ever prove these things to some quirky person who doesn’t seem to agree. Yet, these things are true and known by me just the same.
But if all this is not enough for you, there is another way that we can know that Christianity is true. There are strong, rational arguments for the truth of Christianity. Now remember what I said earlier: we don’t need absolute certainty to have knowledge. And most, perhaps all, of the arguments for God’s existence and for his revelation in Jesus, do not rise to the level of absolute certainty. I readily admit that. But, again, that is no defect.
One of the things you will run into out there when you’re trying to do apologetics, especially with people who are influenced by the New Atheism, is that they will set the standard of proof very high. If your arguments are not strong enough to remove the possibility of any and all doubt, then they will say that you have completely failed to make your case—that you have no evidence at all. When my agnostic and atheist friends say that kind of thing to me, I like to remind them that they themselves believe many important and controversial things for which they, on their standard for knowledge, have no evidence at all. If the standard for knowledge is absolute certainty, then they have no evidence at all that there is a world outside their minds. They have no evidence at all that they had toast for breakfast. They have no evidence at all that there are other minds besides their own. All of these things can be doubted and are doubted by many people.
Of course, I will agree with my skeptical friends that it’s kind of silly to doubt such things. But if it is silly to doubt such things, then it is equally silly to doubt the truth of Christianity just because the evidence is less than absolutely certain. And then I go on to show them that, even though the evidence is less than absolutely certain, it is nevertheless quite strong.
For example, concerning the existence of God, we have many converging lines of evidence all pointing in the same direction: to the existence of an all-powerful, wise and personal creator of the cosmos. We have the evidence of the fine-tuning of the universe for life; the fact that all the values of the physical constants in the universe (e.g., the amount of gravity, the strength of the strong nuclear force, etc.) are set at just that place to allow for life to exist in the universe. This is something that is unexplainable by appeal to natural laws. We have the existence of objective moral values—again, something that makes little sense in an atheistic universe. We have the existence of consciousness, a thing that philosophers of mind and neuro-scientists have despaired of explaining in physical terms. Now I could go on, but let’s just go with these three things: the fine-tuning of the universe, objective morality, and consciousness. Naturalistic atheism cannot explain these things. But, the existence of a personal God would explain them all quite well. In fact, if God exists, then these things would not be all that surprising. However, if atheism were true, the fine-tuning of the universe, objective morality, and consciousness would be very surprising—they don’t really fit very well in an atheistic universe.
So, we have three very significant facts and two possible hypotheses or worldviews to explain them. On the one hand, we have Christian theism which fits the facts like a glove, and on the other hand we have atheistic naturalism which doesn’t fit the facts at all. Now neither theory is going to give us absolute certainty, but that’s beside the point. The question is: which one is it more rational for us to believe? A theory that doesn’t do justice to the facts or one that does?
Though this is admittedly sketchy, you get the basic idea here of how we can show that God exists. We can give similar arguments for the resurrection of Jesus and the authority of the Bible. You might be surprise at just how strong the evidence for these things really is. Concerning the resurrection, for instance, the evidence puts it beyond any reasonable doubt. Perhaps in future issue of this newsletter we can include a discussion on Jesus’ resurrection. In the meantime, you might want to check out the article on that subject in Areopagus Journal (July-August 2003).
What about Faith?
Let me conclude by returning to where I began. I told you up front that Christianity is something that can be known, and I have tried to explain how and why that is so. But I also said that faith is very important. Where does faith fit in to all this?
To get a good answer we have to first get clear on just what the word “faith” means. When it comes to the kinds of issues we’ve been talking about, people tend to use the word “faith” as a substitute for “knowledge.” On this view, faith is what we have when we don’t have knowledge. It’s kind of like the little boy in Sunday School who, when his teacher asked him what faith is, he said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t true.” In other words, on this definition, faith is believing something without any evidence, or perhaps even contrary to the evidence. On this view, faith and knowledge are incompatible. If you have faith, you can’t have knowledge, and if you have knowledge you can’t have faith. By the way, when Richard Dawkins ridicules faith, this is the meaning of faith that he usually has in mind. And, for what it’s worth, I don’t blame him much for ridiculing this kind of faith.
The Bible talks a lot about faith, as you all know. But I dare say that the Bible rarely, if ever, talks about faith in this way. In Scripture, faith is not presented as a substitute for knowledge. Rather, faith is defined as “trust” or “confidence.” It is a voluntary disposition of the will to trust or rely upon someone or something. As such, there is no incompatibility between faith and reason, between faith and knowledge. In fact, on this biblical view of faith, there is actually a positive, proportional relationship between faith and reason. What I mean is that the more reason and evidence you have, the more faith you can have. By way of analogy, consider the possibility that the more evidence I have that my wife is trustworthy, the more trust or faith I can have in her. The more evidence I have that my bank is responsible and cautious in its investments, the more trust I will have in my bank.
So, the more evidence you have in the existence of God and for his benevolent purpose for your life, the more trust and confidence you can have in him when your life doesn’t seem to be going well. This is why David, over and over again in the Psalms, when he sought for hope and assurance from the Lord in difficult circumstances, found himself rehearsing all the mighty acts of God in the past on behalf of God’s people in general and of David in particular. David could trust God, have faith in God, because God had proven himself trustworthy. And this is why you and I, knowing that God exists and that he cares for us, knowing that Jesus died for our sins, and that he rose again on the third day, and knowing that he has promised us a glorious eternal life—this is why we can be “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”