After a very compelling lecture in which Gary Habermas makes the case for the proof of the resurrection of Jesus, an interesting question was posed to him. He just finished using facts and suppositions accepted by atheists and skeptics to trace the message of the resurrection of Christ back to within one or two years of his death on the cross.
A common perception is that the New Testament writings were created many decades or even centuries after the death of Christ. Gary Habermas demonstrates with accepted scholarship that is not the case. The substance of the writings can be traced to within a year or so from Jesus’ death and resurrection. Yes – resurrection, which account even some atheists and skeptics now accept as historically accurate.
(The skeptics do not believe in the resurrection, of course, but they now concede that the followers of Christ were talking about and testifying that Jesus was resurrected as early as withing one or years after his death. This is truly significant because they were there and so were other people who could have disputed the accounts with eye witness testimony.)
In that light, an audience member posed this question: how can an atheist or agnostic accept the facts that suggest the authenticity of the message that Jesus rose from the dead and still not believe in Jesus?
The response is very interesting. You can listen to it here. (I also recommend that you listen to the whole lecture if you like a well-constructed position, and one in particular that strongly suggests the reliability of the message that Jesus rose from the dead – but that is not what this piece is about.)
Gary Habermas has published three books on religious doubt and has worked with a clinical psychologist for twenty years doing studies of religious doubt. The results of the studies of religious doubters show that 70%-80% of them doubt not for factual reasons, but for emotional reasons. As an example, he cites C.S. Lewis, who described in an autobiographical account how he prayed for his mother to be healed; she died; he became angry; and a few years later he described himself as an atheist.
None of us are purely rational people – not the believer, and not the doubter. Skeptics often accuse believers of wanting to believe; the shoe fits on the other foot too. C.S. Lewis recalls in Surprised by Joy how he latched on to the cold, hard philosophy of rationalism and materialism because, for him, it was better than the alternative (belief in God). Lewis admits that he was fiercely independent, and did not want to admit the presence of a “Cosmic Interferer” in his life. Habermas says that “all people are prejudiced and look at data with jaundiced eyes”. The studies he references indicate that “personal agendas” usually outweigh rationality, especially when it comes to belief. Belief (or unbelief), therefore is not formulated rationally in most people.
In another lecture by a world leading chemist, James Tour, he was asked many difficult questions, including whether he accepts evolution as scientific truth and whether he sees God in the world that he studies. At one point, he responds, “When you look at the structure of DNA under a microscope, it does not say in Hebrew ‘God was here.'” Yet, Tour does not waiver in his belief in God and the resurrected Christ. At another point, he tackles evolution from a chemist’s point of view and speaks honestly of scientific colleagues. He addresses evolution here. He talks about “what goes on in the back rooms of science” and the doubts that many national academy and noble prize winners have about evolution.
If Habermas is accurate, only about 20%-30% of doubters have come to their positions rationally. Perhaps, that is true of believers as well. I do not know, and that was not the subject of the studies referenced by Habermas. It is interesting to me, however, that a person could be staunchly atheist or militantly agnostic, accusing Christians of ignorance and irrationality, when that person’s agnosticism or atheism has not been come by rationally, and therefore not honestly. Even scientists have doubts about conventional science. Something as seemingly set in stone as evolution does not make sense to many scientists in the privacy of their own doubts. Yet, we have legislated evolution into (and alternative theories out of) our classrooms.
Whether believing or not believing, it seems to me that there is no benefit in being anything other than honest. I can appreciate an honest doubter; I am also wary of a dishonest believer. I see no reason to be anything other than honest with one’s self and honest with the facts that we know. Even believers have doubts.
Job is a great example of doubts, questions really. Why God?! Why me?! Why do I deserve this?! The most interesting thing to me about the story of Job is that he never gets his answer! Yet, he is utterly satisfied and restored to peace and harmony with his life. The Great Difference Maker is God, Himself. When God appeared to Job, He basically told Job, “You do not understand. You cannot understand.” But, that was sufficient for Job because he had an encounter with God!! That was all he needed.
I am not sure that belief in the end is a rational thing. I am sure, however, it is not an irrational thing. At the center of belief is God and having some encounter, some relationship with God is the basis of belief. For some it is like Paul on the Damascus Road; for others it is more subtle than that. James Tour describes his own encounter with God as a secular Jew in college here. Whatever makes up the science of doubt, belief is not a science; rather it is a reality to be lived and experienced.
I firmly believe that God will reveal Himself to the honest seeker. “Seek and ye shall find” is the promise. Seek honestly, seek earnestly, seek unrelentingly. Seek uncompromisingly. I can say that with assurance because I have not been disappointed by it.
The thought that a finite person whose life is a vapor in historical time, let alone eternity, can be certain of anything is almost preposterous . That we should be absolutely sure of anything, let alone demand absolute of proof of anything, is arrogance in the face of the vastness of the universe and the eons of time, even without considering the proposition that an infinite, timeless and ever present God encompasses all of it. That a Creator God would love such an infinitesimal person as me may be too great to fathom, but that such a God could reveal Himself to people, regardless of how limited in capacity to understand we are, should not be rationally doubted.