An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Chapters 38-40 and Conclusion
Part Four: Truth or Consequences
Chapter 38: Certainty vs. Certitude
- McDowell begins the chapter by explaining that we have different degrees of certainty for different kinds of truth, and that we can have moral or practical certainty about the truths of Christianity. He then goes on to describe the four types of natural certainty:
- Logical certainty. This is certainty about the truth of a mathematical or logical principle. Something is logically certain if there is no logical possibility that it could be false. “All circles are round” and “2+2=4” are examples of logically certain statements.
- Metaphysical certainty. This is certainty about something that doesn’t qualify as a statement of pure logic, but is nonetheless undeniable. For example, “I exist.” This must be true, because if I didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be here to make the statement.
- Moral certainty. This is certainty about something that could logically be false, but for which there is so much evidence that there is no reason not to believe it. Certainty beyond a reasonable doubt.
- Practical certainty. This type of certainty is weaker than moral certainty, and is held about beliefs that have a very high probability of being true. For example, you may be practically certain of what you had for breakfast this morning. It’s possible you aren’t remembering correctly, or that your memory or your perception of your breakfast has been altered somehow, but barring evidence for that, it is extremely unlikely.
Chapter 39: Defending Miracles
- McDowell gets right down to business, declaring that if a theistic God exists, then miracles are possible. Miracles, he reminds us, are being defined here as special acts of God. And McDowell takes care to note that the Bible is not being used to confirm the possibility of miracles, but only to report certain miraculous events that took place in history.
- Furthermore, McDowell asserts that we infer that miracles take place from the fact that we live in a theistic universe. We don’t conclude that miracles take place from the Bible, since the Bible doesn’t argue for the existence of God, but merely presupposes it.
- To prove the existence of God, McDowell is relying on the non-Biblical, classical arguments for God — the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, etc. This allows him to avoid making a blatantly circular argument for his belief in God, but there’s still the problem of how you get from the generic God of the first cause that follows acceptance of the cosmological argument to the personal and particular God of the Bible. To get to that God, you have to simply accept his existence on the authority of the Bible, and that is still circular.
The Nature of Miracles
The Purpose of Miracles
- So what are the attributes of miracles? What makes something a miracle as opposed to just an astonishing natural occurrence? McDowell lists a few distinguishing features:
- Miracles are supernatural acts of God.
- Miracles do not violate natural laws. This one might strike some as contradictory of the first one, but McDowell explains that miracles are caused by God acting from outside the system of our natural laws, and that’s what makes them supernatural. So by this definition, anything God does cannot violate our natural laws, because God isn’t beholden to our natural laws. A miracle, then, would be an action possible for God to perform, but impossible for we in the natural world to replicate.
- So when future generations of medicine and science find ways of spontaneously creating life, reversing physical death, or transmuting water into wine, that will prove that the miracles of Jesus weren’t miracles even if they actually happened. Good to know!
- Miracles are immediate. Miracles don’t slowly progress from one stage to the next — they are instantaneous.
- Miracles are always successful.
- McDowell lists and briefly describes five purposes of miracles:
- Miracles can confirm a message from God.
- Miracles can confirm a messenger of God.
- These two go together, and suffer from the same problem: if God worked miracles to confirm his message and messengers, why did he stop working miracles thousands of years ago? Even if we assume the miracles really took place, it’s only the people who actually witnessed the miracles who received confirmation that the related message or messenger was from God. They got miracles. Thousands of years later, I don’t have miracles. I have ancient writings recording claims of miracles. God hasn’t miraculously confirmed anything to me, or anyone else who has been alive since the last apostle performed the last miracle.
- Which makes me wonder why he bothered with the miraculous confirmation of his messages and messengers at all, knowing that the vast majority of people who would have to accept Christ to gain their salvation would have to do so without any miraculous justification of the Bible or the people who wrote it.
- Miracles promote good alone. Because God is good, see, and God don’t do evil miracles.
- Miracles glorify God alone. Because God is an egomaniac, you see, and God don’t glorify nobody but God!
- Miracles form the framework of Christianity. Miracles are an indispensable part of Christianity, because they form the basis of crucial Christian doctrines, and because they serve to demonstrate the truth of Christianity, because they are visible to believers and non-believers alike.
- Or at least they were, thousands of years ago, the last time they happened.
- Miracles differ from magic. This is listed with the purposes of miracles, but it fits better with the previous list of distinguishing attributes of miracles. The main difference between miracles and magic, McDowell says, is that miracles are under God’s control, not man’s control. Also, miracles don’t involve deception and are not naturally repeatable.
- Of note: McDowell never denies that magic is a real thing, merely that it produces false miracles. So add that to your list of preposterous shit Christians believe, if it’s not there already — which it probably is. Afterall, if magic didn’t really exist, fundamentalist parents would have no logical reason for banning their children from reading Harry Potter!
Answering Objections to Miracles
- McDowell responds to objections to miracles raised by Spinoza, Hume, and Patrick Nowell-Smith.
- First, Spinoza. Spinoza rejected the notion of miracles because to him, nature and God are the same thing. God is all and all is God. Since the natural order is a part of God, it would be absurd to claim that a violation of that order would be possible.
- McDowell restates his position that miracles are not violations of natural law, but events introduced by a cause that sits outside that natural realm.
- What McDowell doesn’t do is provide any reason why his definition of miracles — as events originating from outside the natural order that don’t actually violate the natural order — is more acceptable than Spinoza’s. Practically speaking, all he does is present an alternative definition of the word. He says “that’s not what miracles are; this is what miracles are,” but he doesn’t say why.
- Next, McDowell moves on to Hume, who rejects miracles on grounds of incredulity. Since natural events are far more common and better established than miracles, it is never preferable to assume that a given event is a miracle instead of an event with a natural explanation.
- The response, quoted from C.S. Lewis, is that since Hume cannot know that every reported miracle is false, it is only his own biased presupposition that compels him to reject that they occur.
- I’ve been over this more times than I can remember in this series alone. Naturalism — what McDowell absurdly refers to as antisupernaturalism — isn’t a presupposition; it’s a conclusion drawn from experience. If McDowell or C.S. Lewis or anyone else wants me to accept the occurrence of miracles, all they have to do is convince me that a single miracle has ever taken place.
- It strikes me that this argument can be boiled down to “David Hume isn’t credulous enough.” If I were Hume, I wouldn’t find that too insulting.
- McDowell quotes Ronald Nash, who accuses Hume of ignoring indirect evidence for miracles. For instance: you may not witness the miraculous healing of a blind man yourself, but you can still believe the miracle took place based on the fact that this formerly blind man can now see.
- The flaw in this argument is obvious: if you didn’t witness the miraculous healing yourself, but rather saw a blind man, and then saw the same man again some time later, no longer blind, it’s far more reasonable to assume that the man’s blindness was cured through some natural, medical means than through a miracle.
- Finally, McDowell argues against Patrick Nowell-Smith’s argument that so-called miracles are actually natural events for which we don’t yet know the explanation.
- “Nowell-Smith’s objection to miracles is rooted in a kind of naturalistic faith, not scientific evidence.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 670)
- That faith would perhaps be based on the fact that there is not a single confirmed, documented miracle in all of human history, and would therefore be very different from the religious faith a Christian has in the truth of the Bible. The reason scientists are trained to look for natural explanations and not to take supernatural claims at face value is that so far, every single phenomenon that has ever been explained, has been explained naturally. How many rocks do you have to turn over without finding fairies before you finally conclude there is no such thing as fairies?
- McDowell also takes issue with Nowell-Smith’s claim that miracles should be rejected because they lack explanatory and predictive power. McDowell’s argument (quoted from Norman “Pythagoras” Geisler) is that lots of other events lack predictive value (such as when a bachelor gets married), but we still accept that they take place.
- But a bachelor getting married, or any other event that Geisler and McDowell might describe as lacking predictive value, is a natural event with a natural explanation. The problem with miracles is that “God did it” isn’t an explanation for anything. Calling something a miracle doesn’t explain how it was done except in the most generic sense. And science isn’t in the business of superficial, inadequate explanations. Science seeks to understand the world at the deepest, most fundamental level we can access.
Chapter 40: Is History Knowable?
The Four Spiritual Laws
- McDowell opens the chapter with this:
- “There is no doubt that much of the evidence for the validity of the Christian faith is rooted in history. Christianity is a historically founded faith.” (p. 673)
- McDowell, and William Lane Craig and Norman Geisler, whom he quotes, goes on to describe the importance of history to the Christian faith, and how, because Christianity is firmly rooted in history, we can use historical evidence to verify its truth.
- Great! So where’s the evidence? It’s the final chapter of this book, titled Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and I’ll be damned if I can remember a single piece of evidence that’s been presented.
- You guys who’ve been watching this series, and especially if you’ve been reading the book along with me — have I missed the evidence? Did I skip over it? Does Josh McDowell describe a single piece of what he calls evidence that is not either the Bible or someone writing about the Bible? Because I don’t remember that.
- When he’s done describing just how incredibly important history is to Christianity, McDowell turns to his final task of the book: taking on the argument that history is unknowable. Because if you think you can deny Christianity by denying that we can know things about history, you’ve got another thing coming.
- This is similar to how McDowell spent so much time arguing for the knowability of truth, as though it were necessary to deny the very concept of truth in order to avoid accepting the claims of Christianity. Similarly, I suppose in order to deny the history on which Christianity claims to base itself, we must deny that history itself can even be known.
- As with the arguments about truth, I know of no atheist or critic of Christianity who doubts the Bible or the divinity of Jesus on this basis. If anything, the knowability of history is a very good reason for not accepting Christianity. We can know things about history, and therefore we can know that many of the events that supposedly form the historical foundation of Christianity never actually happened.
- McDowell spends most of the rest of the chapter arguing for the knowability of history (which I don’t object to), and also for the knowability of miracles in history (which I also don’t object to, in principle — if miracles occurred in history, we ought to be able to know that they occurred). Unfortunately — but not unexpectedly — his defense of the historicity of miracles amounts to an extended reiteration of his earlier defense of the general acceptance of miracles: we can’t prove that they didn’t happen, therefore we should accept that they did happen (at least the ones on the Bible).
- Then, he starts wrapping things up:
- “I would like to conclude this section, as well as this book, with a word, not from my head, but from my heart. Much of the material you’ve read has been pretty heady stuff. And that’s good. God gave us minds to use to evaluate the evidence of His revelation of Himself to us.” (p. 686)
- And also to use to imagine that evidence when it doesn’t actually exist, apparently. McDowell goes on:
- “But much more often in the Bible, God speaks on a heart-to-heart level. . . . And that’s my attitude as I close this book. If you or someone you know is struggling with the issue of giving your life to Christ, I’m imagining myself sitting across the table from you talking heart-to-heart. Perhaps you’re struggling with some of the issues mentioned in this chapter. You may be saying, ‘I’ve never seen a miracle; how can I put my faith in a message that speaks of the miraculous?’” (p. 686)
- Josh McDowell, get outta my head! He continues:
- “As we saw earlier in this chapter, David Hume and many other philosophers and educators throughout history have adopted the position that miracles are impossible partially on the basis that it is much more probable that miracles don’t occur than that they do occur.” (p. 686)
- He really does have a hard-on for David Hume, doesn’t he? Continuing:
- “But though it may be more probable that miracles do not occur, it is foolish to rule out the possibility of the miraculous simply because of probability. And as we saw in the section on prophecy fulfilled in Jesus, the probability of any one person in history fulfilling all those nearly three hundred prophecies was literally next to impossible. And yet, the historical records tell us that against all odds, Jesus came and did just that.” (p. 686)
- And by “historical records” he can only mean the Bible. The only evidence McDowell has written about in this book is the Bible. As I’ve stated previously in this series, there is something undeniably impressive about the way McDowell writes this book. The audacity of writing a book titled Evidence That Demands a Verdict that never so much as even refers to actual evidence is remarkable, if not admirable. The misdirection that McDowell carries out for nearly 700 pages with total commitment, never blinking, is something to behold.
- Before I wrap up, there’s a section right at the very back of the book, taken from Bill Bright, called the Four Spiritual Laws.
- The Four Spiritual Laws are:
- God loves you, and offers a wonderful plan for your life.
- Man is sinful, and separated from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
- Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. Through him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
- We must individually receive Jesus Christ as savior and lord, then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives. (p. 757-760)
- Needless to say, those are all backed up by passages from the Bible, quoted chapter and verse.
- So in the end, we’re left with the Bible. That’s the only thing McDowell presents as evidence. And the fundamental flaw of that argument — the great big fault line from which all the other smaller cracks branch off — and there are a lot of them — is that the Bible isn’t evidence of anything other than the beliefs of the people who wrote it. The Bible tells us that people believed Jesus worked miracles and rose from the dead — or at least, that they wanted other people to believe it. It doesn’t give us any reason to believe those things ourselves. An anonymous report that a miracle took place isn’t evidence that a miracle took place, especially if that report is over 2,000 years old and the person who supposedly worked the miracle is worshipped as a god by the person who made the report.
- If you’ve watched this series, and especially if you’ve read the book along with me, you’ve seen Josh McDowell twist and abuse the methods of scientific inquiry, relentlessly project his own biases onto his adversaries, redefine atheism to suit his own purposes, disparage higher education, mischaracterize and deride skepticism, express incredulity at firmly established scientific principles like evolution, while recommending that the often preposterous claims of the Bible be taken at face value, and that the Bible be accepted as a reliable source of historical and moral truth on its own authority.
- As McDowell himself wrote near the end of the book’s third section, now the verdict must be delivered. It’s not the verdict McDowell wants us to reach. But it is the verdict toward which I am propelled by reason, science, history, and my own desire to know the truth, whatever it may be.
- The charges are as follows: that Josh McDowell is a mendacious, disreputable modern apologist; and that the Bible is a book of myths, not a book of facts. And the verdict is: guilty on both counts.
That’s it! I’m out!