It’s very important for Christian people to learn the main lines of evidence for Christianity and train to articulate them. Here are three reasons why:
(1) It warms Christian experience.
(2) It strengthens Christian proclamation.
(3) It fulfills Christian responsibility.
It warms Christian experience.
Many people feel that evidence is opposed or at least unnecessary to faith, and that there is little connection between knowing the evidence for Christianity and growing in love, hope, and faith. I disagree. In other words, I think understanding the evidence for Christianity can increase the warmth, as well as the clarity and structure, of our Christian experience. How can it do so?
(1) Firstly, a robust understanding of the evidence for Christianity helps to reduce personal doubts about central claims of Christianity – for example, claims like God is real, that Jesus rose from the dead, that the Bible is reliable, and that people who turn to God and place their trust in Jesus can know they have eternal life with God.
A great deal of weakness in the Christian life can be attributed to private, gnawing doubts about whether these kinds of claims really are true. These doubts can lead someone into inconsistency, hypocrisy, and habitual patterns of behaviour that the person suspects is wrong but does not really feel much motivation to avoid. Understanding the structure of the evidential landscape around Christianity can help someone to address their personal doubts.
(2) Secondly, the evidence for Christianity can provide a stable foundation for other aspects of Christian experience. The question of emotions in the Christian life – and especially challenges around how to manage them – is a very important one; and quite clearly the central themes of Christianity ought to provoke love, holiness, and integrity of life, not only intellectually but emotionally and behaviourally as well. However, for now it will be sufficient to emphasise this: if we know intellectually that we can trust God, we will feel safe to place our trust in God and express emotional vulnerability towards him.
If we allow our emotional life to be dictated by whatever happens to catch our fancy at the moment, there is a danger that we will become deeply unstable and susceptible to mistakes with significant negative impacts on other people as well as ourselves. And, while emotions are tremendously important, they are highly variable – dependent on how much sleep we get, what we read, how we think, and so on. A robust, clear view of the evidential landscape around Christianity provides a foundation for pursuing growth in Christian experience – love towards God and other people, trust in the Lord Jesus, and hope in eternal life with God.
(3) Thirdly, clarity about the evidence for Christianity is connected with clarity about the central claims of Christianity, and clarity about the central claims of Christianity is connected with warmth of Christian life and experience. I do not mean by this only that the evidence for Christianity is intrinsically interesting and stimulating, and involves our minds in a wide array of different fields. Rather, the connection between historical events (and the evidence around them) and doctrinal convictions is clear in the Bible, as well as the connection between doctrinal convictions and Christian practice.
For example, in many of his letters, Paul lays out essential aspects of various doctrines in the first half before turning to explain the implications of those doctrines for Christian life and practice in the second half. This is not an artificial pattern, but it reminds us that we cannot divorce practice from convictions, and we cannot divorce convictions from evidence.
But there are more reasons why it is important to learn Christian evidences.
It strengthens Christian proclamation.
There are a cacophony of competing worldviews clamouring for our attention in our contemporary cultural climate. Furthermore, many people feel that these views are not only equally credible (or non-credible) insofar as they touch on moral and spiritual concerns. They strongly feel that these views are equal in validity, and that they should not be evaluated on evidential grounds; rather, people should pick and choose what to believe as they like, in much the same way that they pick and choose what kinds of pizza or pasta to eat.
It is against this background that a rigorous understanding of the main lines of evidence for Christianity is essential to vigorous Christian proclamation. Why is that?
(1) Firstly, evidence clearly distinguishes Christianity as uniquely true in a pluralistic environment. The importance of this cannot be overstated. In a world with many competing claims, some of which are false and harmful, we must look for some way to distinguish true claims from false. We cannot appeal only to emotional or spiritual experience, because many other people claim equal or greater emotional or spiritual experiences, and it is very difficult to evaluate private experiences without the ability to enter into another person’s mental life.
Furthermore, while the claim that religious convictions are due to wishful thinking is arguably contrary to what we know about human psychology, no-one wants to be a dupe, and some of us tend to overthink and worry about whether we are wrong in matters of such great importance. We want to know where best to find meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, justice, and hope. The only reliable way to find the source is to investigate and evaluate the evidence.
(2) Secondly, familiarity with the evidence for Christianity provides confidence to stand in the presence of opposition and hostility. Why does this matter? We need to be very aware of the criticism that is levelled against Christianity in the present. We must, of course, avoid an unhelpful persecution complex; it is unhelpful to take every disagreement with or negative criticism against Christianity or Christian practice or Christian people as an insult or instance of persecution. However, the reality is that Christian doctrine and ethics are widely attacked and viewed not only as wrong but as contemptible, ridiculous, archaic – fit for a past age, maybe, but certainly not for the current day in the twenty-first century.
Robust Christian proclamation will occur only if someone has some degree of boldness, clarity, and joy. Without boldness, someone will tend to betray their own convictions, opening themselves up to the attack that they don’t really believe what they profess to believe, and undermining the nature of the claims of Christianity. Without clarity, they will be unable to answer the questions raised by people against or about their views, because they will struggle to give a clear answer to challenges, and they will find it hard to look at issues in the right perspective. Without joy, they will misrepresent the experiential aspects of Christianity, and open themselves to the attack that Christianity is cold, dejecting, bitter, sad, and only for people with little love, hope, desire, courage, or happiness. But boldness, clarity, and joy are the product of sturdy understanding of Christian truths and the application of these truths to the heart – not only the doctrines of Christianity but the evidences of Christianity.
(3) Thirdly, since we are whole, integrated human beings, an inevitable part of loving other people is caring for their minds; and caring for the mind of another person involves helping them to think clearly about what is true and why we can know it is true, as well as gently guiding them away from mistaken views and ways of thinking.
As Christian people, we often emphasise loving people by caring for their physical and emotional needs, but there are intellectual aspects to human beings as well. If someone has massive intellectual doubts about the truth of Christianity, we are not truly acting in a loving way towards them unless we are concerned to answer their doubts or to help them see the doubts they have are relatively insignificant in light of the overall evidential case for Christianity. Sometimes we can treat symptoms, like depression and anxiety in some cases, rather than addressing the doubts that lead to the symptoms. True love for another person often involves helping them to see that Christianity is really true, and demonstrably so.
So Christian proclamation often depends on some sense of the evidence for Christianity. But, if it were not enough to emphasise that an understanding of the evidence for Christianity is important for warmth of experience and strength of proclamation, there is another further motivation for this study.
It fulfills Christian responsibility.
We have a responsibility as Christian people – a duty before God – to study the evidence for Christianity. Why do I say that?
(1) Firstly, consider the example of the Lord Jesus. When we look at his claims and actions in the Gospel accounts, we see that he provided evidence for his claims. Jesus appealed to his future resurrection (the Sign of Jonah) as vindication of his claims; healed a paralysed man to prove his authority to forgive sins; healed people to reassure John the Baptist of his messiahship; criticised the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for failing to repent in light of miracles; and appealed to testimony of John the Baptist, his own works of power, and Old Testament Scriptures as incontrovertible evidences that God the Father had sent him.
Throughout the New Testament, “signs” point to Jesus. In addition, the example of Jesus’ apostles also supports defending Christianity evidentially. They stood and appealed to the resurrection of Jesus as confirmation of his vindication by God. Paul defended and confirmed the Gospel and appealed to eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Jesus.
(2) Secondly, if the example set by Jesus, and by his immediate followers, were insufficient, there are biblical passages which strongly indicate that Christian people are to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that they have in Jesus. Peter, writing to Christians in exile, emphasises that they are to be ready to make a defence to anyone who demands from them an accounting for their hope. Jude writes to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.
The importance of this appeal to evidence in Christian ministry is confirmed in present experience. For example, many high school and university students are greatly interested in and encouraged by robust evidential defence of Christianity, and many people – esp. students – grow disinterested in Christianity because they were never trained evidentially and never took ownership of that process for themselves.
(3) Thirdly, an emphasis on Christian evidences forces us to consider the main questions – Does God exist? Did Jesus rise from the dead? Who did Jesus take himself to be? Are the biblical documents reliable records of actual historical events? It helps us to steer away from needless controversies.
It is tremendously tempting to make peripheral issues, issues that are not central to Christianity, the main things that we talk about when we meet and converse. But the evidences of Christianity, if we are to study them properly, can help to focus our attention on the main things.
- Richard Baxter, in the introduction to his Reasons of the Christian Religion, explains: “I perceive, that because it is taken for a shame to doubt of our Christianity, and the life to come, this hindereth many from uttering their doubts, who never get them well resolved, but remain half infidels within, whilst the ensigns of Christ are hung without, and need much help, though they are ashamed to tell their needs; and prudent charity will relieve those who are ashamed to beg.” [↩]
- There are many helpful works on the subject – e.g. those by N. T. Wright, Craig Keener, Craig Blomberg, Kenneth Kitchen, Timothy McGrew, Edward Feser, Luke Barnes, &c. [↩]
- Hyperbolic discounting – the tendency to view present rewards as significantly more valuable than the same or better rewards a long time in the future – is a significant cognitive bias that affects human judgement. Even in situations where people are faced with death, e.g. the death of close loved ones, their own tendency to reflect on God, death, judgement, and eternity is typically very short-lived. On the other hand, there is a great focus on immediate freedom, the desire to act according to one’s inclinations in the moment, and not to delay gratification. So we ought to predict that wishful thinking would significantly preference atheistic over, say, Christian convictions. This does not tell us which view, if either, is correct – only that the psychological evidence shows us there are cognitive biases leading us to undervalue the importance and evidence of Christianity. [↩]
- See Timothy Keller’s Making Sense of God. [↩]
- See e.g. Mt 12. [↩]
- See e.g. Lk 5. [↩]
- See e.g. Lk 7. [↩]
- See e.g. Lk 10. [↩]
- See e.g. Jn 5. [↩]
- See e.g. Jn 20. [↩]
- See Acts passim. [↩]
- See e.g. Php 1. [↩]
- See e.g. 1Co 15. [↩]
- See 1Pe 3. [↩]
- See Jude 1. [↩]