Questioning what Christianity tells us

Easter is the right moment to examine Christianity or the belief systems our lives are based on, writes Ross McKerras
[From The Press, Perspectives page, Thursday March 20, 2008 — typed in manually because it’s not online, but it should be!]

“The Resurrection of Christ is the most notorious and monstrous Imposture, that ever was put upon mankind.” When Thomas Woolston fired this shot in1727 the attack on Christianity was well and truly under way. Exact casualty figures are still being counted, but one thing can be said: it was surely good enough to clear out no man’s land. Either the resurrection of Christ really happened, and the consequences are huge; or it didn’t happen, and the consequences are huge. You can’t loiter somewhere in the middle.

“Then I’m with Woolston”, many modern Kiwis will say. “People might have believed this sort of thing in a pre-scientific age, but not today”. But what really is different about today? Just because people happened to live 2000 years ago doesn’t mean they were stupid. They knew just as well as we do that dead people don’t come back to life, even better than we do perhaps, since they had first-hand experience all the time of dealing with their sick and dead. They had no specialist facilities such as hospitals to do it for them.

In fact, the real reasons many people today don’t believe in God and in miracles often have little to do with modern scientific knowledge. First, let’s accept, for the purposes of the argument anyway, that God exists, and that he may sometimes intervenein the world to do something special.

The next step is to agree that the gospels are correct in at least the essentials of what they say. Refusal to grant this assumption is to subscribe to a level of skepticism that will have to call into question an awful lot of history as we know it (and unquestioningly accept it), for example the basic facts about the lives of any of the Caesars.

Next, the alternatives: Jesus came back to life, or he didn’t. Or maybe he didn’t die, but only became unconscious and later staggered out of his tomb? Come on, these are not Asterix’s Romans. You don’t rule the known world by being soft or stupid. Maybe Jesus’ disciples stole his body and hid it somewhere? To do that they needed to be brave and resourceful, smart and quick-thinking. By the honest portrait the gospels give, they fail on all these counts. The ruling elite had several compelling reasons to find the body, and plenty of time to do so, but they didn’t. Besides, the disciples staked their lives on the truth of their claim.

Or, just maybe … Jesus really died, and God brought him back to life.

Granted the assumptions, the evidence looks pretty good. In the end, though, we have to acknowledge that there is no final proof or disproof in such matters. It comes down to a judgment call. We can choose to believe in God, and that he resurrected Jesus, or not.

It is important at this stage to expose the widespread fallacy that people who are “religious” base their lives on faith, while everyone else has certainty. The fact of the matter is that we all have to choose which road we will put our faith and our feet on; none of us can see what’s at the end of our road. Even science is in the same position, despite Richard Dawkins’ assertions. Much of modern science is based on assumptions that test out insofar as we can test them, but they cannot be proved. Progress can only be made when they are simply assumed true.

The theory of special relativity is based on the assumption that the speed of light is a constant. General relativity starts with the assumption that gravitational mass is identical to inertial mass (something that bothered Newton, who spent a long time devising experiments to see if it was so).

The method of beginning from assumptions, called axioms, and then constructing a body of knowledge with logical, watertight proofs was introduced at the dawn of modern science by Euclid. But then in 1931 Kurt Gödel showed that, even granted the most carefully selected set of axioms, you still can’t prove everything.

So it is in life. On the night before Socrates died, one of his friends summed up his teaching like this: “…it is very difficult if not impossible in this life to achieve certainty… at the same time it is utterly feeble not to use every effort in testing the available theories… it is our duty to do one of two things: either to ascertain the facts, whether by seeking or by personal discovery; or, if this is impossible, to select the best and most dependable theory which human intelligence can supply, and use it as a raft to ride the seas of life — that is, assuming that we cannot make our journey with greater confidence and security by the surer means of a divine revelation”

You may believe that the Bible is a divine revelation; or you may think it is a “monstrous Imposture”. For Euclid and Einstein, choosing the right axioms was critical. But many people today have not stopped to examine either the claims of Christianity or the belief system their lives are at present based on. Surely each of us has an obligation to ourselves, if no-one else, to do so.

  • Ross McKerras is a Bible translator from Christchurch

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