Monday, May 18, 2015

14. Arguments for and against God: Jesus

In order to make a case, one must have unambiguous terms, true premises, and valid argument forms. This amusing fake-logic popular blurb cartoon introduces my next point. It actually does not argue for an invalid argument form with anyone, but asserts the truth of a premise.

My argument stated here is separable from all the other arguments, as they all are separable from each other, at least by my intent. To reiterate the purpose of these posts and exchanges, I am putting forth a large number of inductive arguments that, if successful, would make the existence and nature of God very plausible, at least as plausible as that of denying that Santa Claus exists. I am also planning to introduce some alleged deductive arguments for the existence of God, and will discuss how much I am persuaded by them, which may or may not be the case. I also intend to introduce some of the better anti-theist arguments, and attempt to refute or cast doubt upon them.

The Classic Presentation of This Case.
The Apostle St. Paul made an argument regarding the existence and character of God when speaking to Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at Athens. They already agreed upon the existence of various deities, and there was one more that was thrown in for good measure, "The Unknown God." Here is an observer's recounting of his argument, which I accept.

Acts 17 English Standard Version (ESV)
[The context]
16 Now while Paul was waiting for [his associates] at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection [Anastasis, seemingly a consort of this "Jesus"]. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

[Paul's argument]
22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
29 Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

About the argument, for our purposes.
Even if we grant the bare fact of Jesus being raised from the dead, one need not necessarily say that it was a miracle or a violation of scientific laws. One could merely say that this is merely yet another fact of the universe yet to be explained, along with dark matter and the exact nature of subatomic particles, and finding the cure of the common cold. One could say that it's just an outlier, and maybe an interesting one at that.

However, Jesus predicted his death and resurrection, and there is a whole rabbit trail we could go down if we wanted to dispute that particular fact. For argument's sake, let us grant that it all happened just as described in the New Testament. My own argument then becomes this:

I. Jesus was raised from the dead.
II. His resurrection validates his ministry, teaching, prophetic predictions and view of God and the world.
III. The argument of St Paul (above, Acts 17) is entailed by (I) and (II).
IV. If one is an Athenian philosopher, then one should become a Christian.

IV. A suppressed/condensed argument:
Upon accepting the fact of Jesus' resurrection and the interpretive framework of the Apostles:
If one is a 21st century religious person, then I-III entail that the person become a Christian instead of any other religious persuasion.
If one is a materialist or wants to be a nihilist, then one has good reasons to believe the Jewish metaphysics of Jesus, and thereupon to consider the whole set of implications which are entailed by this alternative metaphysics.

The Limits of This Argument
It'a an all-or-nothing argument. If Jesus is not raised from the dead, then materialism is not refuted. And if the fact of his resurrection is not accepted, then materialism is not refuted.

Why I bother with it then
I bother with this argument because I find the evidence persuasive, and the whole set of consequences from accepting the argument to be sound. And because, like Pascal, I find the whole prospect of debating the God of the Philosophers to be beside the point--even if natural theology is a worthwhile subject in itself.


  1. This argument naturally breaks down into two parts. Firstly, we a have a quotation of some verses from the Bible (Acts 17) which I'll look at in a moment and secondly we have an argument by Bruce which uses these verses to infer the existence of God.

    Let's first take a look at the verses which describe Paul and some companions travelling around through Greece, from synagogue to synagogue converting many Jews along the way. To make a long story short Paul winds up in Athens alone. While there, he finds an altar dedicated 'to an unknown God'. As in previous locations he's been, here he also tries to spread the good word. This causes him to be brought to the Areopagus, the courthouse, where he is asked to explain what it is that he is preaching. Paul then claims that the unknown god the Athenians worship is his god. He claims that this god, who made everything and is Lord of everything, doesn't live in temples and isn't made of gold, silver or stone. He claims that in the past this god forgave such ignorance, but now wants everyone to repent. As proof of this claim he cites the resurrection of Jesus.

    Bruce takes the previous story as the basis for his own argument, which generalises from Athenians to all religious people. He adopts Paul's claim that Jesus was resurrected. He claims that this means that Jesus' view on religion and everything Jesus ever said, taught or claimed must be correct. He deduces that religious Athenian philosophers should become Christians and, a fortiori, any religious peron should become a Christian.

    I agree with Bruce that if you accept the conclusion that religious Athenian philosophers should become Christians, you should accept that any religious person should become a Christian. I do however wonder where that leaves me as an atheist.

    That aside, do I accept his conclusion? To not accept his conclusion, I would have to either demonstrate a flaw in his reasoning or not accept the assumptions upon which his reasoning is based.

    Actually I choose to do both. I'll start with what I consider to be a flaw in reasoning.

    Bruce claims that if Jesus was raised from the dead that then it follows that everything that Jesus said, taught or claimed must be correct. This, in and of itself, is a clear non-sequitur. Even if I accept that Jesus was raised from the dead, this does not logically imply what Bruce claims it does. Logically it would still be quite possible that God looking down from on high thought to himself : "This guy got a raw deal. You know what, I'll bring him back. He may have had some wierd idea's but he deserves a second chance. After all it said that I work in mysterious ways." In no way does the resurrection of Jesus mean that he was right about everything, even if he predicted it. This is a major flaw in the reasoning.

    Now, onwards to the assumptions. Was Jesus resurrected? Was he executed? Was he even born?

    I will simply, for the sake of argument, accept that Jesus really existed and was in fact executed. I am not totally convinced, but there are at least some plausible arguments that this might be the truth. Then there remains only the question : was he resurrected? I would have to say that there is absolutely no evidence that this ever happened outside of the bible itself. There are many who would refer to other historical sources and claim that this is evidence, but when reading these sources they basically all just claim "It is said that ....". They merely repeat the story as a tale told. The only contemporary source might be Josephus, however it is common consensus that the single reference to the biblical story is a later interpolation.

  2. Excellent response. Your close reading rewards my confidence in you, John.

    You challenge the facts about Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection. I understand that, and understood that going in. Without doing the hard work here of explaining why it's worthy of belief, i.e., that it's historical knowledge and not mere opinion or fable, I will merely assert that it's true. For the sake of the argument, I ask that you provisionally grant it/them as premises to see where it goes. (For real life, though, I ask that you believe me.)

    Your refutation, when I feel the heat, hinges on:
    "Bruce claims that if Jesus was raised from the dead that then it follows that everything that Jesus said, taught or claimed must be correct. This, in and of itself, is a clear non-sequitur."

    Maybe. Here's my expanded argument on this point. My main interest originally was escaping intellectual nihilism. If God revealed himself to the Jews in general and in Jesus Christ in particular, then Jewish metaphysics (of God existing and revealing himself, of nature actually being Creation, of generally reliable sense knowledge, of objective morality in general, and more) would be sound. The details could be nuanced, but the outline would be established.
    My next inference is that Jesus would be the One, the authoritative revealer of the truth about God and Man, the Messiah and all that this entails. Here is where my argument needs some reinforcement.

    To wit: even if everything the scriptures foretell, or explain after the fact, about the Messiah is true, I still do not know how much of what he taught (in the whole Special Revelation of God in Israel and the Church teaches) is culturally compromised, analogical, imprecise and so forth. For example, even if all we say about Jesus is true, Jesus as the Son of Man had less knowledge than Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. Proof of principle is that he did not know when he would return, and he did not know who would sit on his right hand and his left; yet in the Trinity in his divine person there ought not be this gap in knowledge. Therefore, I do not know the limits of Jesus Christ's knowledge, even if I grant the strongest claims about his identity as Messiah, Christ and second person of the Trinity.

    --And, I assert, we can and should grant the strongest claims about Jesus Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity. But I'm preaching here, not arguing.

    --Again, even though I present this quote from Paul as a logical argument, it is actually a proclamation with logical implications. God he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and he has given proof of this by raising him from the dead. Therefore, we need to repent and believe.
    Again, I'm preaching.