Monday, January 13, 2014
The Incongruity of Probability Theory in Christian Evangelism and Apologetics
In a recent article published in Philosophia Christi, Richard Swinburne came to the following conclusion: “I conclude that unless my assessment of how probable the evidence of natural theology makes the existence of God is very badly mistaken, it is very probable that Jesus was God incarnate and that he rose from the dead.” Now, isn’t that a forceful, impressive, and eloquent way to speak about what Christianity claims is the single greatest event in all of human history. Before I begin commenting on Mr. Swinburne’s astounding conclusion and the confidence with which he makes it, the reader needs to understand that I come to this subject as a theologian and biblical exegete, not a philosopher. I am an apologist, but only in the sense that I think every believer has a duty to engage in apologetics. However, my education and training are not in philosophy. My education is in theology, systematics, and the biblical languages, in hermeneutics. Therefore, what my scrutiny and criticism will lack in philosophical rigor, it will certainly compensate for in theological and exegetical carefulness.
The fundamental problem with Swinburne’s approach is that it does not appeal to Scripture for its epistemic authority, but rather to human reason. It is obvious that Swinburne appeals to human reason, to argumentation, to historical evidence as his final authority for believing that Jesus was God incarnate and that He rose from the dead. In fact, what Swinburne really believes is that it is reasonable for a person to believe that Jesus is God incarnate because the historical evidence makes it highly probable that He was. Swinburne and other non-reformed philosophers and so-called apologists continually accept the criteria of justification that godless philosophers place on them. The unregenerate rationalists and empiricists insist that all beliefs must meet their criteria in order to qualify as true knowledge. Since these philosophers use inductive logic, which is based on probability, certain knowledge is impossible. If a Christian does not challenge this strategy at the beginning, their conversation will be wrought with insurmountable objections.
The resurrection can only serve as evidence for Christian theism within the world of the regenerate. The problem with Swinburne’s view is that he and other philosophers separate the epistemological significance of the resurrection from its soteriological function. This sort of reasoning fails to adequately account for the ethical problem deeply embedded in unregenerate epistemologies. Natural theology is far too optimistic in its estimation of man’s ethical neutrality where epistemology is concerned. Scripture is clear on this point: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20) The Greek word translated “without excuse” is ἀναπολογήτους (anapologetous) and it literally means without an apologetic. There is no philosophical defense for refusing to acknowledge God, according to Romans 1:20. It is amazing to me that with great frequency, Christian philosophers actually pretend there is one. Since Scripture already says that God Himself has furnished all the proof that every unbeliever need in order to acknowledge Him, we need not waste our time trying to provide them with more proofs. Are we silly enough to think that our arguments and proofs are somehow superior to or more effective than the ones God has etched in their conscience and placed in front of their noses?
I read Swinburne’s quote to my wife this morning and I asked her to tell me what was wrong with it. She immediately said that she did not like the sentence “it is very probable that Jesus was God incarnate and that he rose from the dead.” I asked her to explain to me why she believed the statement was wrong. Her answer was very simple but also quite profound: “because it is not true.” I asked her to elaborate. She quipped, “Jesus actually is God and actually did raise from the dead and so to say that he probably is and did these things is false.” The truth is that my wife is absolutely correct.
A major objection to Swinburne’s statement is that biblical Christianity does not teach that it is highly probable that God exists, that Jesus was probably God incarnate, and that He probably rose from the dead. Hence, Swinburne is essentially defending a belief that is not included within Christian theism. Christian theism teaches forcefully and with absolute certainty that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, that He absolutely rose from the dead for our justification, and that all those who place their faith in Him will have eternal life. Additionally, Christian theism certifies without any hint of doubt that those who reject this message of the gospel of God will surely perish and come under eternal wrath, time without end.
Another challenge concerns the reliance on probability as a valid method for arriving at what is likely the truth. What else must absolutely be true in order for probability to be true? The answer is that the validity of uniformity must be true in order for probability to be valid. We must be able to show that there is a relationship between the general and the particular. This is exactly what the unbeliever cannot do. He assumes such a relationship exists but he cannot provide an adequate accounting for it. If the world came to exist on its own, randomly, by accident, without a cause, then there is no way for us to account for any relationship between the general and the particular. Chance and uniformity are not exactly related. As we would say in the south, they’re not even distant cousins. In fact, they are opposites. Why then do Christian philosophers feel compelled to accept basic beliefs about how the world operates when these beliefs are in clear contradiction, not only with Christian theism, but also with the system with which they argue? It makes very little sense as far as I can tell.
Romans one clearly informs Christians that God has made Himself known to all men. ὁ θεὸς γὰρ αὐτοῖς ἐφανέρωσεν is very clear. For God made it very plain to them. The word means to cause something to be fully known by revealing clearly and in some detail—‘to make known, to make plain, to reveal, to bring to the light, to disclose, revelation. This very same word is used in 2 Cor. 5:11, θεῷ δὲ πεφανερώμεθα, we are fully known by God. Jesus used it in John 14:21 where He promised to make Himself known to the one keeping God’s commandments. Therefore, when the unbeliever claims they do not know if God exists or when they claim that God does not exist, they lie. The question for the Christian is will we go along with that lie. Will we grant to them that which Scripture denies?
In short Swinburne’s view does not hold up under scrutiny. The very systems that use probability as a reliable test for knowledge cannot stand up under the scrutiny of their own basic claims. For instance, what happens when probability is turned on itself in a random universe? How probable is it that this world would exist in the first place? It was a one-time event. Probability does not work with one-time events. The Christ event was a one-time event. The resurrection was a one-time event. Supernatural creation of humanity was a one-time event.
In addition, probability would never be the most likely explanation for a miracle of any kind. Deceit, or delusion or exaggeration would always trump supernatural phenomena in terms of probability. It would always be more probable that someone is lying, or suffering a delusion or simply exaggerating than it would that a miracle occurred. Hence, if we concede this point of probability, the entire system of Christian theism collapses.
Christians are called to give an account for the hope that is in them. We are under no obligation to squabble with unbelievers over the existence of God or the truthfulness of the claims of Scripture. We are under an obligation to refute claims that contradict the teachings of Scripture. But that refutation does not take on the philosophical nature of unbelieving presuppositions. The refutation is Scripture. How do we refute error? We do it the same way Jesus did it: with Scripture. We don’t need to argue for why we call upon Scripture as our sole authority, outside of appealing to Scripture itself. The unbeliever cannot possibly defend their ultimate authority of autonomous human reason. They expect us to assume that human reason is completely reliable. But we all know that is not the case.
To argue that God probably exists, and that the Bible is probably God’s word, and that Jesus is probably God incarnate, and that He probably rose from the dead is also to argue that we are all probably saved and that Jesus is only probably returning one day and that divine judgment will probably happen in the future, probably. For God who probably exists probably so loved the world that He probably gave his only begotten Son! Is that the gospel? I can say with absolute certainty that this, ladies and gentlemen is not the Christian gospel. I believe it is time we begin to wrest the gospel from these philosophers that foolishly think that Christ and Aristotle can be friends. I think it could not be clearer that they are mortal enemies.