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Text of 15 min talk: Intellectual Reasoning and Christianity

Disclaimer: This is the approximate text for a casual after-dinner TALK I gave, not a scholarly essay. Reading it is not the forum for which it was intended.

For reading, I can recommend these really great sources on intellectual reasoning/evidence for Christianity:

    The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel (this one is the most entertaining)

    Mere Christianity, C.S.Lewis

    Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell

And if you haven't read the Bible yourself - what are you waiting for? Most translations are under 1500 pages unless they're loaded with commentary. Many recommend starting by reading the New Testament part of the Bible, which is under 400 pages. This is fewer pages than a Harry Potter book.

I've updated this text very slightly (November 1999, and again March 2006), but tried to keep the spirit and length the same as the original talk.

8pm, April 19, 1995, MIT, Lobdell

A 15 minute invited talk on the subject "Intellectual Assurance Christianity is Sound"

Prof. R. W. Picard

I grew up thinking that all religious people had basically thrown their brains out the window. I thought they had concocted their faith out of some kind of intellectual weakness. Or, perhaps they liked ritual for its own sake, or believed what they believed to please their parents. Perhaps religion was some kind of comforting deception. I prided myself on being tolerant of their beliefs, but I was not interested in religion for me. Who needed it? I thought "I am doing quite fine in life without it."

Although I might have attended a talk on religion I would probably not have been a good listener. Because of my closed-mindedness against religion, it would be hard to be objective. I thought my atheism was scientific, and therefore the best way to be. What it took me a while to realize was that my belief that there was no God was as unprovable as the religious beliefs I assumed were wrong. I had to face up to the fact that I really had not carefully considered the issues.

Perhaps some of you have negative thoughts and feelings about religion in general, or Christianity in particular: Isn't it outdated? Isn't religion subjective? Wasn't Jesus just a good teacher? And Professor Picard, well, she spent a lot of years down south in the "Bible belt," so we will be tolerant and say that's fine for her to believe.

Some of you have brought negative biases here, and will have to work hard to accurately hear what I will say. Consequently, I take the risk of being misclassified as a religious lunatic, lumped with televangelists, fundamentalists, and all those with whom I least want to be associated. I also don't have tenure yet, and could conceivably risk my job for professing religious beliefs -- "how can she believe THAT?"

But the risks I take are insignificant compared to the issue at hand. The issue is twofold: first, what is the truth? And second, what is your response to it?

By truth, I mean objective truth. Truth can be known subjectively, but it also exists outside one's subjective experience. Beware of the trendy relativism that pervades much thinking today -- if you (absolutely) believe there's no absolute truth then you need to come to grips with a problem with your thinking first.

Is Christianity based on objective truth, or is it just a delusion that people keep alive for some compelling reason?

I only have fifteen minutes, which is not enough time to explain the evidence for the simple theorem Fermat stated in his margin, much less the intellectual evidence of the objective truth of all of Christianity, the topic I was asked to speak on. But let me make one claim, and leave you with a challenge.

Christianity is supported by a tremendous amount of objective evidence.

I don't expect to convince you of this in fifteen minutes, but let me at least mention some key issues.

For starters, the man known as Jesus existed. I once saw a book claiming, without evidence, that he was a myth, a made-up story. But, this book's claim is defied by an abundance of evidence. The historical accuracy of Jesus's life is vouched for not just by writers who became Christians, but is also recorded by non-Christian writers of Jesus's time. He walked on this planet; his existence is not in question. The real questions are who did he claim to be, did he really rise from the dead, and if so, what does this mean?

Many people who have not investigated the facts claim that Jesus was a good man and a fine teacher. However, if you go to the original sources and look at Jesus's claims, they are startling: Jesus claimed divinity. Not just once, but many times, and in front of many audiences. He claimed to be one with God, saying "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." He asked for and accepted worship as God. When asked publicly by the high priest, in front of numerous witnesses, "Are you the Christ?" he said "I am." Jesus's claim was clearly understood by the people of his time; we know this because of their responses, which ranged from outrage and accusations of blasphemy to life-changing acceptance. These claims of divinity were recorded by numerous eyewitnesses, and separate writers in separate documents, documents whose reliability and trustworthiness are strongly confirmed by multiple standard tests for historical literature. Josh McDowell, in volumes I and II of Evidence that Demands a Verdict (which I recommend for those who want a good overview of the issues) presents a huge list of references for the historical reliability of the writings from the time of Jesus.

McDowell also presents three options for "who was Jesus?" -- Lord? Liar? or Lunatic? If the historical Jesus's claim was true, then we might choose to respond to it as if it were true; we would respond to God, the "Lord." However, if his claim was false, if he was not God, then either Jesus was a deliberate liar, or a lunatic who believed he was God. (N.B., An excellent book by the great intellectual and writer C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity , pre-dates McDowell with essentially the same Lord-Liar-Lunatic argument. Lewis spent many years as a non-Christian intellectual before becoming convinced of the truth of Christianity. He tells fascinating stories and originally presented this material in a BBC radio talk; the book is available in both paperback and audio).

The many eyewitness accounts of this man's teachings and behavior do not support the liar or lunatic hypotheses. He taught about honesty. He taught with authority. He upset the religious leaders of his day to the point where many people scrutinized his lifestyle and tried to trap him into saying or doing something wrong. But nobody could find ANYTHING wrong with him, other than that he claimed an equality with God. This blasphemous-sounding claim was inexplicable, given Jesus's otherwise untainted behavior. They could not find any evidence that he was a liar. Perhaps Jesus was deluded in some bizarre way. But they could all see his behavior, which was not that of a deluded man: he was self-composed, earnest, deep, and patient. He repeatedly showed remarkable wisdom. He demonstrated miraculous deeds of helping and healing others. The many eyewitnesses of his behavior affirmed he did not have the character of a liar or a lunatic.

Many people of his day examined the evidence, and concluded that Jesus's life and claim were in agreement, that his claim might be true. They also realized that if this claim was true, then this was truly astounding. God becoming man - taking on our flesh - checking out what it was like down here in human form. An outrageous act.

If God became man and showed up downtown, wouldn't you go to hear him speak? Many people went to hear him and to learn about him, and consequently treated him as Lord. However, I suspect I would have still been a skeptic. Based on the records, some of Jesus's disciples also found it hard to believe in his deity. A man's claim to be God is not the kind of thing I want to believe.

Most of us demand some kind of compelling evidence or a sign to believe such a claim. The answer to this was the resurrection.

The resurrection is what Christians celebrated last weekend at Easter. On the first Easter morning, people weren't hunting for pink and green easter eggs and fluffy yellow marshmallow chicks. They were trying to find Jesus's dead body.

Never mind that before this all happened, there were significant prophecies of the events. For people who didn't know their Hebrew scriptures, Christ also told them what would happen. He repeated his predictions to multiple groups of people. Jesus pointed out the old testament prophecies he was fulfilling and would fulfill. This was very important, as the educated Jews knew these must be fulfilled as a sign confirming him as the Christ. (There were many "Jewish Christians" then and there are still many today, who keep their Jewish heritage but recognize the fulfillment of prophecy by Jesus.) Historical records include multiple accounts of Jesus's predictions and fulfillments of them. Despite all this foretelling, most people were surprised when it happened.

When the day of crucifixion came, given all Jesus's crazy claims that he would rise from the dead, the men who took him down from the cross made certain he was dead. They pierced his side, bringing forth a mix of blood and water, in front of a crowd of witnesses. His body was wrapped in burial cloths and put in a sealed tomb, with Roman guards stationed outside to make sure there was no trouble. Nonetheless, on the third day as Jesus predicted, the tomb was empty. The burial wrappings were there, but the body they had wrapped was missing.

We have numerous accounts of this historical event. And many people have offered explanations of what might have happened. I wish I had time to discuss the explanations I've heard. I am always open to revisit this important topic.

For example, could it be that Jesus was never really dead, and he escaped from the tomb? Or that possibly his body was stolen? Could there have been some conspiracy? Numerous authors have imagined such possibilities and logically compared them to the known facts. The conclusions of each, however, indicate that the alternative explanations proposed so far are not tenable. The only theory I've heard that has yet to be shot down is the explanation Jesus both foretold, and returned to tell.

This explanation is the one that Jesus offered: he would be resurrected, physically, after his death. What was impossible for mere man was not impossible for him. ``Sure,'' we say -- ``and you also believe in little green men!'' No, emphatically. There is no evidence at all for little green men. There is an abundance of historical evidence for the resurrection. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared, bodily, on at least ten separately recorded occasions, to hundreds of eyewitnesses. On one occasion he appeared to over 500 people. Multiple accounts have been recorded of these events, several written while eye-witnesses still lived. If you believe any well-documented facts of history, then you have to at least examine these reports, which are as well substantiated as historical evidence can be.

The appearance that means the most to me is the one to the doubting disciple Thomas. Despite everybody telling Thomas, "We have seen the Lord" and becoming believers, Thomas stuck to his skepticism. Thomas said, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it." A week later Jesus came to Thomas and said, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." The evidence was provided. Thomas said to Jesus, "My Lord and my God." Jesus, knowing that it would still be hard for those like Thomas who had to see to believe, said, "blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

The resurrection of Christ is the fundamental event of Christianity. It is a hard act to understand without first comprehending the word "sin." Sin means "missing the mark," not achieving perfection, falling short of what we could be, falling far, far short of God. This "sin" is what separates us from fully knowing God.

Consider this: nothing a man tries to do can draw him into full communion with God. Sin is like a gulf that keeps us some distance from God. But, God could reach across the gulf to us, and did this when God became man, a very extraordinary man -- one who is without sin -- but who could still be tempted and could enter into suffering with us, even suffering the most painful known torture and death of the time.

The records of prophets, eyewitnesses, and others who wrote of the events indicate that Christ's death and resurrection paid the price for sin. Why did there need to be a price? A just God could not merely dismiss sin; that would be unjust. But a just and loving God could come up with a creative solution: paying the price of sin for us, and making this "payment" a free gift to all humankind.

A Christian is any person, any race, any gender, any economic status, any sexual orientation, any culture, any education level, anyone, who acknowledges his or her sin, and asks for and accepts this free gift - the atonement of Christ. It's simple enough that a person without much intellect can grasp it, and that is good. But it's also profound enough that brilliant philosophers and theologians devote lifetimes to its understanding and explanation. All are welcome, and so you will find that Christians are an enormously diverse group.

In my world travels, I have the privilege to meet an enormously wonderful diversity of people. However, I find even more diverse communion in local churches, where a blind woman leads the sighted in singing, "I once was blind but now I see...," where perfumed Boston Brahmin and unbathed street people takes seats in the front row next to each other, where a powerful CEO happily follows the lead of a plumber while volunteering to serve in the soup kitchen, where the star athlete befriends the child who cannot use his limbs, and where people from all internationalities, all levels of education or socio-economic status, all age groups, discover that they are exactly the same height when standing next to each other before God.

I know some people who like to ridicule Christians. I even used to be one of them, so I know about their pride. They call Christians "stupid" or "weak" or whatever makes it easy to dismiss them. I would like to say they are wrong, but the fact is they are more right than they realize. Compared to the Author of All Knowledge, every one of us sure is stupid. Compared to the Maker of All Universes, we are all weak. We can barely begin to comprehend what real Strength is.

The resurrection is the essence and the evidence of Christianity. Everything else you hear or see taught about the beliefs of Christianity is secondary (and may not even be an official part of Christianity).

The events of Christ's resurrection are well established historically. Many great intellectuals, as well as uneducated people, have embraced the evidence. So, given all the evidence, why do some people, both uneducated and educated, still not believe?

I once heard a person say, there are so many who do not believe, therefore "God hasn't given us enough evidence." But truth, even accompanied by overwhelming evidence, does not force people to believe. For example, the horror of the Holocaust is true; it is as as established a fact of history as any. There is overwhelming evidence, including living eyewitnesses. It is a historical fact, and yet there are already people who deny that it happened, who claim that it is a myth! There were children who laughed during the movie "Shindler's List" and who question its veracity. There are historians who are rewriting history books saying that the Holocaust did not happen, and offering other theories for the so-called evidence. Someday people may even have to give talks on the "Intellectual Evidence for the Holocaust."

The resurrection is also a historical fact. It's evidence is abundant and has stood up to the scrutiny of intellectuals for thousands of years. The problem is not "is there enough evidence of the truthfulness" of either event; the problem is that people don't want to believe it. Historical evidence is never a "proof".

You may recall I said there are two parts to my talk -- the first part was "what is the truth?," and now, the second part is what is your response?

You are free to choose what you believe, whether or not it agrees with truth. Gratefully, God does not force belief. If you were "forced," perhaps by your parents, to believe in any religion while growing up, even Christianity, then you should question what you were taught. Go try to disprove it; look for objective evidence. The Bible calls people to pursue truth, to pursue understanding. It calls people to search with all their heart, MIND, and soul.

But even the greatest minds are not perfect in their pursuit of and acceptance of truth. I think the three things that get in the way most often are ignorance, pride, and moral problems.

A lot of people, including Christians, are ignorant about God, about Christ, and about all God has revealed to us. Many people (wrongly) think that being a Christian is just a label for what you grew up with or for being a "good" person. Many have not even heard that there is a wealth of historical evidence for Chrisitianity's claims. Many write it off based on a misconception. Many believe based on subjective feelings, or disbelieve, based on subjective feelings. What are your beliefs, or disbeliefs, based on?

The second barrier is pride. For me, this is the hardest barrier. Deep inside, we are selfish, self-centered, reluctant to acknowledge anything exists beyond our ken. Pride may also show up as disinterest or dislike for anything religious, or for anything dealing with what science doesn't address (including history and philosophy). We get so wrapped up in ourselves that we don't even see what we are missing. C. S. Lewis wrote, ""We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and lust and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to keep on making mud-pie in the slums because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a vacation at the beach."

I once wondered why doesn't this God of truth and wisdom and knowledge just take charge and make us all believers. But this would mean a denial of our freedom to choose. Love does not enslave. God offers us each great things, but does not force us to accept.

The third most frequent barrier to belief is moral. Often there is some behavior that a person fears they would have to give up if they accepted the truth of Christianity. In my experience, the person would always be better off if they did. It is like a run-away kid saying, "but if I go back home then I will not be allowed to eat candy all day long."

Of course, then there's the reverse problem: some people think that Christians have some kind of moral superiority complex. This is regrettable. Nobody, Christian or non-Christian, achieves moral perfection in this life. Perhaps Christians fail greatest when they take it upon themselves to judge the sin of others, despite that the Bible warns against this. What should offend the Christian most is his or her own sin, not that of others.

Here is a question for those of you who don't believe: If someone took all the time needed to provide you with all the facts and evidence to answer your questions to your complete intellectual satisfaction, convincing you of the historical truth of the resurrection and the claims of Christ, would you be WILLING to believe? Or is your mind closed? Has your mind become like that of those who refuse to believe the Holocaust ever happened, regardless of the evidence? All the truth in the world will not persuade a closed mind.

Jesus made claims that led to an uproar in his day, and which are still radical: He said, "I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly." He stated, "He who is not with me is against me," and "I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me." If you think yourself educated, you should at least read the Bible. It amazes me how many people know they believe it or disbelive it without having read it.

There is intellectual evidence to investigate, to base belief on. It is not just for our mental satisfaction; it is essential to consider carefully. The decision -- acceptance or rejection of God's free gift, has eternal consequences; I believe it is the most important decision we make in this life.

I'm out of time, and I've barely presented the issues. It's fine to reject many of the institutionalized aspects of Christianity, the practices of hypocrites, even the faults of those like me who are Christians, who remain far from ideal in our efforts to practice what we believe. But, don't confuse these human failings with the mounds of historical evidence for who Christ was, for what he said and did.

Look at the accounts of the historical Jesus. Read about his life and his resurrection. Examine the evidence. Decide what you will believe.

Let me add that if you decide to accept the truth of God's gift based on the intellectual evidence, then you will find not just an intellectual faith, but behind it, a personal God. This God meets each of us in mind, body, and spirit. Scripture records God's saying to us all, "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in ..."

Copyright 1995 by R. W. Picard; Revised 1999 and 2005 by R. W. Picard.