Monday, January 21, 2008

Experience vs Evidence

When should we share our personal experiences in evangelism or apologetics as opposed to offering evidence (i.e., facts or arguments)?

Dealing with the Lost Tomb
During the “lost tomb of Jesus” debacle in the spring of ’07, I tuned into my local Christian radio station and heard them discussing the issue and the drama surrounding it. The DJs then asked people to call in and tell them “when Jesus first became real to you.”

I thought this was a poor way to approach that topic, and I told them so. I objected to dealing with it by discussing subjective issues (i.e., “when Jesus first became real to you”) when the documentary (and anyone talking about it with a Christian) was discussing very objective issues (i.e., whether or not this tomb had ever contained the remains of Jesus and His family).

The Problem with Experience
When we meet objective claims (e.g., Jesus never rose from the dead; we have his body to prove it) with subjective claims (e.g., Jesus is real to me), we do two unfortunate things:

1) We perpetuate the stereotype of Christians as brain dead fanatics who follow blind faith in spite of contrary facts.

2) We perpetuate the anti-intellectual bias in the modern church by teaching the next generation that feelings trump facts.

Objective statements have to be met with objective statements. When someone brings up, for example, the “tomb of Jesus,” we should launch into the weaknesses of this so-called documentary (and they are legion) as well as offering the evidence for the historical reliability of the resurrection story and the NT as a whole first.

The Place for Experience
Voddie Baucham, in The Ever-Loving Truth, asks why we believe the Bible. He argues that if we say we believe it because “it works,” we have to deal with people who say the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the Tao Te Ching work.

If we say we believe the Bible because “it is a reliable collection of historical documents written by eye-witnesses to supernatural events that took place in accordance with specific prophecies demonstrating that the Bible is divine in origin, oh, and it works,” we have given the other solid, objective reasons to trust the Bible supplemented by our subjective experience that it works.

When defending the resurrection of Christ, we should give the evidence for the empty tomb, the appearances to the apostles and other disciples, the transformation of the apostles, and the appearance of the early church. And then we tell them how we’ve encountered a very much alive Christ who fills our hearts and our lives with joy and meaning.

Christianity is an experiential religion. Our feelings are important to us and to those we want to share the gospel with. Raw data alone will not do. But sharing mere feelings without some of that data will not do either.

Your testimony is the icing on the cake, the gravy on the steak, the boat on the lake, but if you don’t have something underneath it, all you have is an unwholesome, unfulfilling emotional experience.

Combined with solid evidence and sound arguments, though, your experience can make facts accessible and attractive to the thinking, feeling human beings around us.


Do You Know Why You Don't Believe?

"Fact, Faith, Feeling" as Ancient Wisdom @ Scriptorium Daily


Vinny said...

Hi Chris,

I cannot really think of any nice way to say this, so I am hoping that my past civility will convince you that I am not trying to be any more obnoxious than absolutely necessary. It is not blind faith that makes me think of evangelical Christians as brain dead. I really have no problem with faith. It is their claim to have objective evidence when, in fact, all they have is faith that makes evangelical Christians seem foolish to me.

I have been reading Lord or Legend: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma by Gregory Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy. The introduction includes the following statement: “In all honesty, a main reason the authors of this book continue to profess faith in Jesus is because we cannot with integrity account for the evidence without concluding that the Gospel presentation of Jesus is deeply rooted in history.” When I read that statement, I wanted to scream.

The evidence for the Gospel presentation of Jesus is, for the most part, four anonymous documents written thirty to sixty years after the events they describe. Two of these documents are attributed to eyewitnesses. One is attributed to the companion of an eyewitness and the last one is attributed to the companion of a man who was not himself an eyewitness to any of the events described in the document. The evidence for these attributions tends to rely heavily on Irenaeous, a man who wrote approximately a full century later and used numerology as the basis for some of his conclusions.

I am an agnostic rather than an atheist because I cannot see how one can know that there is not a God any more than one can know there is a God. I am comfortable with the idea of faith because I believe that man is limited such that I cannot really reject absolutely the possibility of something that transcends the reality that I experience. However, I also believe in an objective shared reality of facts and evidence and it strikes me as absurd when I hear Lee Strobel claim that the evidence for the traditional understanding of Jesus is “overwhelming.”

At least for me, it is when evangelical Christians claim to have facts and evidence that I doubt their intelligence. When they profess faith, I am quite comfortable.

Anonymous said...

Well said Vinny. I am a professing Christian (and actually a fan of Greg Boyd's - I think you'd enjoy his "The Myth of a Christian Nation"), but couldn't agree with you more about the Christianity-as-fact claims. It sounds like you've read quite a bit more than I on the subject. I just can't stomach it. I mean, I understand that the left brained faithful are naturally going to want to validate their faith with factual evidence, but at the end of the day it boils down to faith, just faith. (Ironically, if enough evidence could be found, it would no longer be faith at all.)

ChrisB said...

Gentlemen, thanks for sharing your thoughts. A reply is going to take me a little time and will probably end up being its own post -- hopefully within the next couple of days.

Dr. Russell Norman Murray said...

Objective statements have to be met with objective statements. When someone brings up, for example, the “tomb of Jesus,” we should launch into the weaknesses of this so-called documentary (and they are legion) as well as offering the evidence for the historical reliability of the resurrection story and the NT as a whole first.


I wrote on the Jesus Family topic at that time. I agree that there is a need for objective and reasonable theology and apologetics when these issues arise. Interesting blog.


Korf said...

Actually, I'd say the New Testament is pretty deeply rooted in history. Written thirty to sixty years after the event occurred--you frown on it, but for ancient history that is amazing! What about Homer Iliad for instance? It was written in around 800 BC, yet the earliest copies we have are around the second and third century AD. And this is the book with the second greatest amount of manuscript history from ancient times. We have around 650 or so ancient manuscripts regarding the Iliad.
The New Testament has about 5,266 ancient manuscripts regarding it.

Bascially, this is manuscript testimony where you can crosscheck copies of documents that agree with each other. If they come from different areas, then you can do even more cross checking to figure out what the original document was. They'd only agree if at, some point in the past, they came from the same manuscript.

This is the case we have with the New Testament. The copies check out, agree, and have been found in different areas. Also, even Josephus, the first century historian, mentions Jesus in passing. (Though, there are some bits scholars have concluded were inflated, but the basic remains: Jesus was purposely mentioned).

At any rate, with a bit of research, anyone would be able to conclude that an ancient text written within thirty to sixty years after the actual event is pretty phenomenal!

Keep up the blogs, Chris! I just found them and am really enjoying them!

Jon said...

Thanks kolaida, you took the words right out of my mouth.