“I'm pretty surprised, to be honest. I always remembered you being smart back in school.” It wasn't quite the reaction I was expecting from a high school friend at our 10-year reunion, upon hearing about my decision to go to seminary and become a pastor. But I wasn't shocked by it, either. In a lot of people's minds, and especially among my fellow generation of New Jerseyians, faith in religion (especially of the organized varieties) is something that you grow out of when you start thinking for yourself in college. Christianity seems ridiculous, irrational, and immoral to many people nowadays. It's considered a remnant of pre-modern myths and the gullible ancients who believed in them. Many are convinced that belief in a creator god will fade away as we learn more and more about science and the way the world really works, apart from any involvement of the supernatural. Being “smart” means realizing that we don't need god anymore and letting go of all those old, constrictive superstitions.
I tend not to get rattled or offended by comments like this, nor do I think my friend intended it to be combative or condescending. I remember civilly continuing the discussion for a few minutes, trying to explain why I believe in God while struggling to be heard over the loud music and voices around us. As you could imagine, he remained skeptical, not only about the existence of the Christian God, but also about my reasons for choosing to set off on a career/life path in the Church.
I occasionally wonder what conversations at my next reunion will be like. In addition to reminisces about high school, news about spouses and kids, comments on the food, or complaints about the poor beer selection at the open bar, what will I have to say about my spirituality? If friends ask about how my career plans turned out, will I tell them that I eventually lost faith and changed my mind about God? Will I tell them that the main reason for doing so were the outrageous claims of the New Testament about resurrection, claims that went against science and common sense? Will I confide with my closer friends that I look back at my years of faith in a supreme being with something verging on regret and pity for the delusional person I was? Or will I tell them that I fought through this period of doubt and came out on the other side with an even stronger faith and sense of purpose than before? Will I tell them that I don't feel like I need to make a choice between belief in the Christian God and my intellectual integrity? Even on the days when my doubts are most overwhelming, I continue to feel deep down that there are very good reasons for me to have faith, and to live in hope in the shadow of Easter.
After reading and thinking about dozens of arguments for and against the existence of a creator god and the Resurrection of Jesus, the intellectual plausibility of the Christian God continues to be one of those reasons. For years, the main weight of my evidential belief in God has rested on the historical arguments for the extraordinary life and Resurrection of Jesus. When it comes to ancient history, we can never have absolute certainty that an event took place. What we can do, however, is look at the facts and try to identify the most probable explanation for them. Across the board and irrespective of their religious beliefs, scholars have acknowledged three facts relevant to this topic as more or less indisputable: that Jesus was crucified and died; that his disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them; and that Saul of Tarsus underwent a drastic transformation, from Church persecutor to fervent propagator of the faith. One could also add two facts possessing slightly less scholarly consensus (but which, in my mind, are equally well-established): that James, the half-brother of Jesus, had a similar transformation to Paul's; and that Jesus' tomb was found empty by some of his female followers on that first Easter morning.
Gary Habermas, whose academic career has focussed on the historicity of the Resurrection, asserts that a careful consideration of these rarely-disputed facts alone can establish the Resurrection as a historically probable event. His “minimal facts approach,” as he calls it, has played an integral role in my search to determine whether it is at all reasonable to believe that Jesus was raised and physically appeared to his disciples. (Although I've highlighted Habermas, the writings of my favorite scholar, NT Wright, on the subject have been crucial for me as well.) In spite of the strong case for it, of course, alternative explanations continue to abound: claims of hallucinations and visions (perceived by both individuals and groups), lying disciples, the lies or delusions of Paul (despite the fact that he had everything to lose by becoming a leader of the Christian movement), the idea that a severely-beaten Jesus narrowly escaped death and somehow convinced his disciples that he had risen in glory, etc. Hours of ruminating on these and other explanations have led me to conclude that they lack logical and historical credibility. Only by importing assumptions about the non-existence of God or the impossibility of miracles can one refute that the Resurrection is the best explanation.
Thus, non-Christian historians and philosophers must simply shrug their shoulders and say, “I have no idea what happened, but anything is more plausible than believing that God exists and raised someone from the dead. Besides, I don't think historical method can even inquire into a so-called miracle.” It strikes me, though, that the Christian faith has the potential to be supported or verified by historical method more than any other religious system. After all, Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection appearances were publicly observable events. Regardless of one's opinions on miracles, the risen Christ was either physically seen by his disciples, his enemy Paul, and his skeptic brother, or he wasn't. I believe that the New Testament writings possess enough value as historical documents to establish that he probably was. That is, as long as you don't a priori assert the impossibility of a loving god who wished to usher in His renewed creation through the vindication of His Son.
Several weeks ago, I began to research the scientific and philosophical arguments for the existence of such a creator god as a supplement to my historical inquiries. I did so out of a desperate hope that it would bolster my wavering faith. I thought that if I only had enough rational reasons for belief, and if I only could be absolutely certain about it being the truth, perhaps my doubts could be permanently dispelled. Looking into subjects that I never would have researched otherwise, such as cosmogony, intelligent design, quantum theory, the human mind, and teleology, my faith has been enriched by the knowledge that trends in contemporary science can be decently argued to complement the concept of a creator god and an ultimate consciousness. At the very least, science does not preclude the possibility of a supreme being.
But in all the hours of reading about these topics and solidifying the historical case for the Resurrection, and amidst the emotional turmoil that accompanied much of that time, I never reached my initial goal of attaining to an absolute intellectual certainty in the truth of Christianity. At a certain point, I had to admit that there will always be a chance that I am fooling myself by believing in God. My fervent attempts to place myself in a world that holds purpose and transcendent beauty could be a sort of grasping at existential straws, seeking out patterns and meaning where there are none to be found. Luckily, my grapplings with spirituality didn't end at those conclusions. Instead, along with the realization that rational certainty will probably always allude me came fresh perspectives on faith, doubt, and epistemology (the study of how we know things). Perhaps more importantly, I began to develop strategies and chart a path forward that I believe will allow me to live a life of hope rather than despair.
(Note: The issues associated with the Resurrection deserve a lot more attention, but this blog article would have gone on much longer if I had allowed myself to flesh out all the facts. For more arguments for the Resurrection and refutations of counter-explanations, I would highly recommend The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, The Resurrection of the Son of God by NT Wright, and a compact book by William Lane Craig called Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? For some of the scientific and philosophical topics, check out Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig, The Big Questions in Science and Religion by Keith Ward, and Science and Religion: An Introduction by Alister McGrath. All of these books are written by Christians. It is, of course, a good idea to read arguments from both sides, but these books are a good start for those who are curious. There are also dozens of public debates by these and other thinkers that can be accessed on YouTube.)