Why do I believe the ridiculous?

This will probably be the last post responding to comments on my much-read Ricky Gervais post. The first explored why it is actually ok for people to challenge Christians, and the second presented a gospel which is not just a threat of hell. Now I come to probably the most common question:

Why do I believe things I acknowledge are a bit ridiculous?

Believe

I want to be honest up front. I don’t think the thoughts I have on this will satisfy many people.

Believing the ridiculous

This is the offending quotation from that post:

“for what it’s worth, my beliefs are ridiculous. I believe a man rose from the dead. I believe I am filled with the Spirit of God. I believe that because a man died and rose 2,000 years ago I will know eternity with a God I’ve never seen with my eyes. These are big claims. Even Paul says it sounds like foolishness and will be a stumbling block to people who don’t believe it.”

I stand by this. Any Christian who says talk of resurrection, miracles and heaven is just plain old common sense probably doesn’t understand the concepts of resurrection, miracles or heaven. Or, more likely, common sense. Like I said, Paul even said it sounds foolish.

And yet I believe it all. I would be willing to stake my life on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ almost 2,000 years ago, and I am giving my life in service of that same Jesus Christ. If it’s true, I have to.

But that’s the question, isn’t it? Is it true? There are two ways I want to look at that: from the perspective of ‘reason’ and from the perspective of ‘faith’.

Reasoning the ridiculous

One of the things I’ve been asked to do a number of times on Twitter and in comments here is to give some evidence for the claims I make. I’ve been told that since I make the claim there is ‘a god’, the burden of evidence is on me to prove it if I want people to believe it too.

ReasonIt will come as no shock to anyone (I hope) when I say that I cannot.

Of course I could demand that others provide proof there is no God, since that is what they claim. They wouldn’t be able to do that either. So this whole reason thing isn’t getting us very far so far.

A lot of the conversation seems to revolve around how the world came into being. Since science can explain things, we don’t need God anymore, surely. At times this has been presented as the knockdown reasoned argument. This makes the massive assumption that the reason people started believing (and believe now) is because they needed to explain things that don’t make sense otherwise. As it happens (and I know many of my Christian brothers and sisters don’t share this view) I affirm the theory of evolution. I’ve been amazed that is a surprise to some atheists.

In fact a lot of the assumptions about the content of my faith which I’ve heard from people who don’t share my faith have simply not been true. There is a huge breakdown in communication somewhere, and a lot of folk seem willing to lump all people of faith into one big category, make sweeping assumptions, and denounce the lot of us. In my original post, I spoke against unhelpful dialogue from Christians. Now I add that these generalisations by non-Christians don’t help either.

Faith in the ridiculous

That’s all I want to say about reason. What? Wait! You haven’t reasoned your faith, Dave! You haven’t presented us with the evidence upon which your beliefs are built, the logical steps you take to get to where you are now!

You’re right. I haven’t.

I don’t believe what I believe because of logic or reason. I absolutely assert that my faith is not illogical, it is not disproven and it correlates completely with the reality we see around us. But I can’t convince you of that. I can’t argue it.

Faith

That is not to say my faith is baseless. Jesus is an attested figure rooted in history. People have spent their lives investigating Christian claims and found they stand up to critique. There is a branch of Christian study called apologetics which articulates responses to common questions and criticisms of our faith, and they do a great job. Though that’s not my area of expertise, I do have specific answers to specific questions and criticisms you may level against my faith. Maybe if you have specific critiques, I can give specific answers. Leave a comment. But ‘Prove your faith’ isn’t helpful.

I’ll say it again: my faith is not illogical, it is not disproven and it correlates completely with the reality we see around us. My faith is not devoid of reason. It’s just not based on reason.

Ultimately, I believe what I believe because I have faith. This next sentence might anger some people. Faith is a mystery. The best description I can give is a biblical definition:

“Faith is being sure of what you hope for, and certain of what you cannot see” (Heb 11:1)

In other words, it’s being sure of something you can’t prove. So why can’t I just “let go of [my] security blanket” (quote from one of the comments)? The answer is simple and complex at the same time: I have faith, I’m sure of what I can’t prove.

Like I said, I sincerely doubt this post will satisfy many.


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  • Pommie Atheist

    I enjoy reading your blogs, but you still need to do better with the concept of “burden of proof”. Your faith cannot be disproven (and nor should any atheist with half a brain try). But you do assert that a god exists, and that Jesus once existed. I would be very interested in reading a blog from you on what evidence you can present for the existence of both. I think we can discount ‘Jesus existed because the bible says so’. What else is there?

    • http://limpingintotruth.blogspot.co.uk/ Dave Criddle

      I’m interested to know whether you have done any research into the area of the ‘historical Jesus’. If you have, you’ll know that virtually no-one denies that Jesus existed. Of course people disagree that he is God. Of course people disbelieve the resurrection. But there is plenty of extra-biblical support of the existence of Jesus. So much so that it really isn’t questioned anymore that he existed and that he died the death of a criminal.

      As for proving the existence of God, I accept that the burden of proof would lie with me IF (and only if) I were trying to convince people of that through evidence. Since I am not, I make no attempt to provide evidence.

      • Pommie Atheist

        Actually I’m not sure that “virtually no-one denies that Jesus existed” is at all accurate. My understanding is that the Romans – who apparently knew of this amazing guy, his alleged miracles, subsequently tortured and killed – chose not to document a thing about him. (A view I hands up admit comes from academics far more qualified than me, not my own research, as such). For sure there would have been many Jesuses at that time – it was a very popular name.

        My layman’s understanding aside, you’re shifting again Davey boy! You accept no evidence for god, fine. My question was actually about Jesus. Bible aside, what is there that evidences (a) he existed, and importantly (b) he had magical powers etc.? As I said, I’d be interested to read this as a blog (rather than clog up your comments section) – up to you.

        • Graham Criddle

          There is – referring to your original reply – an argument to be made (and I believe strongly) that believing Jesus existed because the Bible says so has significant validity.

          The gospels (which provide insights into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus) when considered as historical documents stand up to a lot of critical scrutiny and so should be seen as valid inputs into the discussion.

          The biblical evidence suggests that there were people living at the time of Jesus who clearly believe that He was a real person with great significance.

          But the question you posed is about extra-blblical evidence and, also, why the Romans didn’t document it.

          It is worth pointing out that, while records were kept and that we do have copies of some of them of today, it was a very different time, a time where many were uneducated, a primarily oral culture and long before the advent of the printing press.

          The Romans would have, presumably, focused on what was important to them and the crucifixion of one condemned criminal (in their view) among thousands of others wouldn’t have qualified. He lived and worked at a time when many people and groups were seeking followers and he could have just been seen as one of these (p168)

          Having said all that there is some extra-biblical evidence which we can draw on.

          Pliny the Younger (when governor of Bithynia) wrote to the Emperor Trajan around 110AD and said:

          “They [the former Christians] assured me that the sum total of their error consisted in the fact that they regularly assembled on a certain day before daybreak. They recited a hymn antiphonally to Christus as if to a god, and bound themselves with an oath not to commit any crime, but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery, breach of faith, and embezzlement of property entrusted to them. After this it was their custom to separate, and then to come together again to partake of a meal, but of an ordinary and innocent one.” (p175)

          So there is a reference here to someone known as “Christus” (a title associated with Jesus) who people met to remember and to celebrate and to worship as a god. This suggests that people in the early 2nd century believed that Jesus was an historical figure.

          Tacitus, an early second-century Roman historian wrote (in around 115AD) regarding the fire of Rome under Nero:

          “Therefore, to stop the rumor [that the burning of Rome had taken place by order], Nero substituted as culprits, and punished in the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. (p179)

          Here, the founder of Christianity is spoken of as being killed under the reign of Pontius Pilate.

          .Josephus, a major Jewish historian, wrote in his Antiquities:

          “When, therefore, Ananus [the high priest] was of this [angry] disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road. So he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” (Antiquities 20.9.1) (pp185–186)

          While the focus of the passage is on a leader of the church called James, there is clear reference to his brother – a Jesus who was called Christ.

          He also writes:

          “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Antiquities 18.3.3)” (p.190)

          Which speaks for itself

          (All page numbers here refer to the book “The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition”)

          There are people who would point to other claims, and there are detailed arguments to be had about each of these passages but it is does show that there are references – outside of the Bible – to a historical person called Jesus Christ. That this person was called by the Romans and that his followers believed that he came back to life.

          How we respond to these claims is another matter.

          • Pommie Atheist

            Thanks for the very comprehensive reply Graham!

            What we are referring to is not a common criminal. The guy was alleged to be the son of god himself – this would have been a major event of the time and surely worth documenting one way or another. In fact wasn’t Paul the first person to do so? And he himself said that he never met Jesus in person, and did not learn about him from any other person? In other words, he dreamt him up.

            We know a great deal about the Egyptians and their civilisation of 4-5000+ years ago through their writings. For sure the Romans would have had it well within their means to make records. However when it comes to Jesus, no *contemporary* historian appears to have done so. And there is an important word – contemporary. I was pleased you made the references you did, as these are arguments I have come across before and therefore actually feel able to respond to.

            Pliny & Tacitus: they wrote of what Christians were *thought* to have believed in – not the same as historical facts – almost 100 years after Jesus was said to be alive. These documents are perhaps not unimportant, but contemporary historical records they are not. The repetition of hearsay 100 years after the event would surely not be thought of as real evidence even at the time, let alone 2000 years later.

            Josephus: again, perhaps not an unimportant document, but his Antiquities was not based on historical events. Right at the start he says that his writing is based on scriptures and religious books. And he did not write all this until long after Jesus, if he existed, died. He was an Orthodox Jew, which if I understand Judaism correctly, means he himself did not believe in the existence of Jesus Christ.

            I’m probably at the limits of what I can contribute. All else I can say is that I’ve been to Bethlehem, and I’ve been to the spot “where Christ was born”. When asked, even the people who are there today (well, 25 years ago) right at the heart of it could only say basically “well this is what we believe”. I completely agree with Dave – “prove your faith” is unhelpful. You can’t, you won’t and you shouldn’t have to. Prove God exists, prove Jesus existed – these are valid questions and ones which thus far have not been answered and seem unlikely ever to be answered. As such, I won’t be falling to my knees just yet (especially as the left one is a bit dodgy. And I have tiled floors)…

          • Graham Criddle

            While we are not actually talking about a “common criminal” he was crucified by the Romans along with many others and as such probably not very significant in their thinking.

            The claim to be “son of god” would have, of course, been significant and the claims which Paul made for him in many ways spoke out against the might of Rome. But Paul also recognises that to base faith on someone who had been crucified appeared to many as foolish (which Dave alluded to earlier) and that is how many people who had seen Jesus, and the punishment he received, would have thought.

            Paul does claim that Jesus met him – but after his resurrection and return to heaven. The story is told in Acts 9 and Paul comments on it in Acts 22 and 26. He also, in 1 Corinthians 15:8 makes it clear that Jesus had appeared to him. This is at the end of a passage where he has been speaking about the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and where he talks about finding out about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. From these words here it seems clear that the early church were totally convinced that Jesus had lived, died and been brought back to life. If that were not the case, the emergence of the church remains a complete and amazing mystery.

            You referred to the fact that Paul didn’t learn about Jesus from any other person. This is, I assume, a reference to Galatians 1:16-17, the context of which is Paul describing his calling to be an apostle.

            Your comments on the “contemporary records” are some of the areas which cause real dispute (as I recognised in my earlier reply) but they do suggest (I would say strongly) that within less than 100 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus there were people in many parts of the Roman empire who were following him as the Son of God and prepared to suffer and die for him. Something must have happened for this expansion and commitment to take place.

            And so, to some extent, we get back to Dave’s original point. There is extra-blblical material which speaks about the historical Jesus (and the book I referenced and others explores these issues in great detail) and much debate over what they mean.

            But the movement of those who follow Jesus emerged and spread so quickly – and has become such a powerful force – is a historical fact which has to say something, but that is a different story.

          • http://limpingintotruth.blogspot.co.uk/ Dave Criddle

            It’ll come as no shock that I agree completely with my Dad (that’s Graham!). From the perspective of Christians, Jesus’ claims were massive. From the perspective of the whole Empire, they were pretty insignificant a the time and only became more so as Christianity grew and spread. I find it unsurprising that writings about him cropped up more a little later on. And both the volume and consistency in content of writings about him (biblical and non-biblical, Christian and non-Christian) suggest to me it is perfectly rational and naive to believe he existed.

            But when all’s said and done, you find us unconvincing. This thread of comments goes to show exactly the purpose of my comments above. If the conversation revolves only around ‘proof’ and burdens thereof it will get nowhere. I consider my faith rooted in history and thoroughly rational, and I have reasons for that. These reasons don’t do it for you, so you do not.

            I don’t intend to write a post in defence of the historical Jesus. It is not my area of expertise. Very intelligent and thoughtful people from my faith tradition have researched and written at great length about it. If you’re interested in hearing about this from the ‘Christian perspective’, I’d encourage reading some folks like Ravi Zacharias, Craig Blomberg and Richard Baukham. Their work is fantastic, and I couldn’t hope to write anything which would add to it.

            With that all said, I don’t expect to reply to anymore of this because it’s proving a little fruitless. I’m happy for you have the last word!

  • mattcantstop

    Dave, thanks for this post and your thoughtful manner of discussion.

    While I am an atheist I do not share Pommie Atheist’s skepticism when it comes to Jesus as a historical figure. I think there is ample evidence there, not am I sure what good it does to question this aspect of history.

    You said “I consider my faith rooted in history and thoroughly rational, and I have reasons for that” below in your response to Pommie. I think your belief he was a historical figure is quite rational (rational also because the time to determine if that is even true is likely not worth the pursuit). But when you say your “faith” is rational it makes me want to ask some follow up questions to it:

    1. How would the world be different if Jesus was not what he proclaimed to be? For instance, if I said that gravity works the opposite of the way it does (things go away from the earth, not towards it) there is ample, observable evidence in testing this theory. We could simply look around us and see if things behave as I say they do. If you were wrong, and Jesus was not the Son of God nor the Savior of the world, how could we look at the world around us and see things differently than they are? Some would say “people would be less nice, they wouldn’t be so passionately serving Jesus and transforming their lives!” But we can both see people doing all these things without Jesus (although you may believe we are never truly “without” Jesus).

    The problem with the claims of Christianity is that there are numerous excusatory footnotes for the claims so that they can never be proven wrong. The problem with this approach is that it paints a world that looks incredibly similar if he does, or does not, exist. This is a big “stumbling block” for me. If God exists, and he truly loves us, surely he would give us something reliable to discover this truth. The Bible (Old Testament especially) paints God as a jealous God that cares DEEPLY if we believe in Him. Surely he would give us evidence so that we could know it was Jesus, specifically, that we believe in. Because to me the world looks equally correct if Islam, Hinduism, atheism or Christianity are correct. It seems like a poor approach on God’s part to make a reality that is inconsequentially different depending on which one of those is correct. A rebuttal could be that WE are the ones that make it not noticeably different, but I would disagree with that assessment.

    What say ye? You believe your faith claims are reasonable (likely through spiritual experiences you have had and observed experience that backs up the claim). But the claims of Christianity are so beautifully vague for a Christian (you will be blessed, you won’t be…) so that the world looks the same if it is or is not true. That complicates calling the position reasonable to me. Anyway, what are your thoughts?

    • mattcantstop

      I numbered it with a #1 but then didn’t ask the other questions because my post was already too long :)

      • http://limpingintotruth.blogspot.co.uk/ Dave Criddle

        Hi Matt. My wife and I are about to go on holiday for a week, so I can’t reply in full now. Your comment and question is a great one, and I want to give it the reply it deserves. We may have wifi while we’re away, but if not I will respond to this when I am back next week. Thank you also for stopping at #1. These things work far better when we discuss one thing properly than a dozen badly! Consider this a holding reply: watch this space!

    • http://limpingintotruth.blogspot.co.uk/ Dave Criddle

      As I said before, great question! I don’t know if my thoughts here will satisfy, but here goes.

      When I stated that my faith is rational, I do not mean it is all based on evidence. I do not believe you can look around at the world, take findings and measurements and through a process of reason make an empirical proof that God exists. What I mean is that it is not irrational. It does not fly in the faith of all evidence. There is nothing that science or philosophy has proven which refutes the claims of my faith.

      With that in mind, I find it hard to properly answer your question. The world would look the same whether Christianity is true or not. Maybe. I can of course point to the many men and women in history who have acted upon their faith and achieved both wonderful and horrific things. I could argue that if God didn’t exist and Christianity were false, that wouldn’t have happened (and I largely believe that to be the case). But it’s a weak argument, because in reality it is their belief in the God of the Bible which motivated them, and that belief can still exist if they are wrong. Ultimately, since my faith is not based on the evidence of the world around me, I’m not going to argue along those lines. It will only make Christians look silly!

      Ultimately, what I’m saying is probably this: my faith is not a product of how I see the world; how I see the world is a product of my faith.

      I don’t suspect that to be a satisfying conclusion for you.

      • mattcantstop

        Dave, I think you are right, how you see the world is a product of your faith (although I think that is true for all of us and whatever viewpoint we have…we see through a glass darkly :) ).

        Thanks for the response. I enjoy discussing this stuff with you. If you were in Utah I’d say let’s head out to lunch and chat about it some more! I was just curious about your response. Thanks.

        • http://limpingintotruth.blogspot.co.uk/ Dave Criddle

          I completely agree. We all exercise some kind of faith in something. I thought about saying that, but I’m always worried that a Christian saying that to a non-Christian seems a little condescending or patronising.

          If I’m ever in Utah, I’ll let you know!

          • mattcantstop

            Well, I wouldn’t call it faith, but our worldview shapes how we see the world, for sure. To me faith, at this point, has an innately religious connotation. I have hope about a lot of things but I would say I don’t have any faith.

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  • TRman

    Makes sense…the Greek word from which we derive “faith” is, I believe, a verb…It is an “act”, a choice, an assertion, a profession–if it were “reasonable” by secular standards (scientific standards), then what would be remarkable about it? The God I believe in is remarkable, magnificent–the creator of all beings and the universe–not some ethereal entity concerned with making sure we have ample reason to affirm his existence. I know this borders on agnosticism, but it’s the only reasonable explanation I can find for being unreasonable. We all have an existential longing as we grow into this world for something “greater” than ourselves–whether a need to believe in a higher power or a humanistic “faith” that, left to our own devices, we will eventually become a loftier race of beings with Christlike disposition. It is this very longing, as C. S. Lewis (once atheist turned Christian) attested, that has been placed in us by God to seek him out. Whether we believe is a choice we must make on our own. Anyone can believe the ridiculous if threatened with provable hellfire and eternal damnation; that’s what makes Christianity in its true loving form so remarkable, there is no tangible proof that loving unconditionally, and treating others as you would have them treat you will pay off in the end…but we’re supposed do it anyway. Our job is not to hate Atheists, but love and embrace them as God’s creations, just like us. Faith is their choice to make, not ours.