C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Nostalgia

(or, “Why you sometimes feel like you can remember something, sometimes, from even before your childhood”)

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C.S. Lewis often wrote about (and alluded to) the sense of “nostalgia” that comes with beholding a beautiful landscape.

One of my recent backpacking trips

One of my recent backpacking trips. Observe the bursting sense of nostalgia.

I’ve always thought that the Christian argument from beauty/awe/nostalgia is one of the most difficult to convincingly express, yet one of the most powerful when properly understood. It shares some commonality with the Argument from Religious Experience, in that it relies on personal revelation rather than hard evidence (historical & scientific data) or soft evidence (formal philosophical arguments).

Rather than relying upon another person’s (oftentimes unreliable) testimony, however, the argument from nostalgia encourages self-reflection by identifying a peculiar sensation – almost like déjà vu, or a lost memory, or a half-forgotten dream – that seems to be shared by most people. C.S. Lewis described this sensation as follows:

“In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

When I first encountered that passage, I remember being stunned. I had to re-read it several times. It almost seemed as if Lewis had ripped something from my own mind and memories, and put it to paper half a century before I was born.

The association between nostalgia and childhood is particularly intriguing. While childhood clearly isn’t the source of this particular type of nostalgia, the sensation seems to be strongest in the context of one’s childhood. Something to do with innocence, maybe? Lewis goes on:

“Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

And here is where we make the leap from “peculiar shared sensation” to “argument for Christian theism”. Lewis again:

“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.”

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”

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Three Reasonable Tips for Debating Rude Persons on the Internet

I read an article awhile back that resonated with me, because I think it helps explain why the majority of online debates over “deep issues” like religion, politics, and philosophy get so…nasty. (Don’t believe me? Just type the word “religion” into Youtube. Click on any video with 100,000+ views. Read the comments.)

“The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong. This is bad. Worse, if they got away with it when they were young (say, because they were smarter than their parents, their friends, and their parent’s friends) they’ve probably built an ego around being right, and will therefore defend their perfect record of invented righteousness to the death. Smart people often fall into the trap of preferring to be right even if it’s based in delusion, or results in them, or their loved ones, becoming miserable…(continue)”

This problem is particularly bad online, when the “humanness” of one’s adversary is replaced with a keyboard, a computer monitor, and a half-eaten bag of Fritos.

boromir argument internet

I see the pattern all the time in those who initiate debates with me on this blog, and elsewhere. I see it in myself, at times (though I wouldn’t call myself a “smart person”). While I’d like to think I do a decent job of obeying the first half of 1 Peter 3:15-16, I often botch the second half. (So that’s my way of admitting that I’m not 100% qualified to be writing this post.)

I give you, then, Three Reasonable Tips for Debating Rude Persons on the Internet.

1. Don’t Debate Rude Persons on the Internet. Or at the very least, know when to call it quits. If the Rude Person ignores your well-crafted, novel-length rebuttals…don’t keep writing them.

If you’re anything like me, this has probably happened to you. Someone posts an inflammatory 5-sentence comment on an obscure news article, so you respond by pouring two hours into a 50-sentence essay (complete with a half-dozen documented sources) that matter-of-factly explains the problem with his initial comment (because let’s be honest…it’s a “him”). Your adversary then responds with an even more inflammatory 5-sentence comment – one which clearly shows that he didn’t read a word of that thesis you poured your sweat and blood into.

So it’s really tempting to respond like this:

Which brings me to…

2. Be Nice to Rude Persons on the Internet. Throwing a Wonka-tantrum might feel gratifying at the time, but it does nothing for the other guy…or your cause, for that matter. And it only turns you into a bitter person, in the long run.

Instead, if you REALLY want to shake your adversary to his core, try responding like this:

Now granted, it can sometimes be difficult to pull this off without your niceness sounding like tongue-in-cheek snarkiness. But once you’ve decided to be nice, the toughest part becomes choosing your words to avoid being misunderstood.

It’s hard to go wrong by just being nice. Ridiculously nice. Nauseatingly nice. When your adversary begins unloading his vilest insults on your intelligence, your character, your religion, and your pet hamster…just think of Mr. Rogers. Which brings me to…

3. Pause to Think Before Responding to Rude Persons on the InternetIf you find yourself getting angry, go spend a few hours doing something away from the computer.

Last weekend, in response to a post I made on Facebook, an anonymous individual took a swipe at me with a crude innuendo, then claimed that my entire post was “a ginormous example of the argument from ignorance fallacy”. (That’s another thing you’ll notice with Rude Persons on the Internet. They like to remain anonymous, and they like to accuse others (falsely, in most cases) of committing logical fallacies. But by pointing this out, they’ll probably say I’m committing an ad hominem.)

Anyway, my initial reaction was something like this:

Had I responded right away, I probably would have regretted it later. So instead, I grabbed some ice cream from the freezer and spent the rest of the evening watching the Oscars. When I logged on to Facebook the next day, my blood pressure was back down to 120/60. It still ended up turning into a lengthy debate…but by taking time to cool off, I was able to avoid responding to his insults.

So there you have it then.

If God Designed Humans, How Do We Account for “Design Flaws”?

A friend posed a question to me the other day that I found interesting. I’ve copied it below:

Given: God is good, all knowing, all powerful.

If he had designed us intelligently, then he would have known that at some point in time, many of his children would become rather prosperous, even those who are considered “the least among us” in the US are reasonably prosperous, compared to Jesus time, and truly most of the world has improved it’s standard of living to some extent, even though there are hundreds of millions if not over a billion that have poor access to water.

Given that he would know that his children would generally become this prosperous, why did he then design us so that we could become obese and diseased (in the various ways that we do) just by being averagely prosperous. Granted, many are extraordinarily or at least partially gluttonous, but many eat more or less reasonably and still become obese and diseased. Is this not, in some manner of thinking, a design flaw? I’m not per se arguing this, but the thought came to me, and I thought that you might enjoy the thought experiment if nothing else.”

Physiologically speaking, my friend raises a great point. In many ways, the human body does seem more proficient at dealing with food scarcity (for example, by utilizing ketone bodies during starvation) than with food excess (for example, its limited means of excreting cholesterol).

wall-e obesity

[Name that Pixar film]

Theologically speaking, we’re left with an apparent dilemma. It’s true that the mere presence of “design flaws” doesn’t, in itself, undermine the existence of a designer. (If a bridge or building has a structural flaw, it was probably still designed by an engineer or architect). Yet if God is a maximally great being, shouldn’t humans (being God’s highest creation, and all) be optimally designed? Shouldn’t our bodies be flawless, if God is flawless?

I don’t think so – although I do understand why one might ask the question.

My friend (a medical student) was specifically referring to metabolic diseases of the developed world…but I think we can safely lump together all examples of physical flaws. This includes everything from autoimmune disorders and birth defects to cancers and aging.

Speaking for myself, the presence of such flaws is easier to understand when I try to imagine what the absence of “design flaws” would look like. If our bodies were designed flawlessly, wouldn’t that necessarily entail immortality and perfect health? When we look at Scripture, I think the Christian has grounds for arguing that this is exactly what God originally intended for us, and still intends for us.

garden of eden fall of adam

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” –Genesis 3:17-19 (NIV)

So rather than regarding our physical flaws as a problem of design, I would be more inclined to attribute them to the effects of sin. And this pattern can be found elsewhere, when we stop to examine various aspects of human psychology, sexuality, sociology, etc. The physicalist might claim that humanity’s existence has the markings of randomness, but I believe it has every appearance of a good thing that’s been tainted – a sort of “fallen paradise”, if you will. (For those who are interested, I’ve written more on this topic HERE.)

C.S. Lewis on the Efficacy of Prayer

Can the efficacy of prayer be measured scientifically?

Personally, I would be a bit skeptical of any scientific study that claimed to have found a clear relationship between prayer and “desired outcome”. I’m of the opinion that this understanding of prayer (a mere tool for getting what we desire) is fundamentally flawed.

This is the same misunderstanding that Dawkins makes with his “God Hypothesis” paradigm (i.e. “the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other“). This viewpoint takes a very small view of God (and, by extension, of prayer). Rather than acknowledging God as the ultimate Source of all knowledge and human experience, it seeks to detect the existence of God as an entity within the physical universe – like one might detect dark matter or alpha particles. It regards God as a variable within a system rather than the Creator and Sustainer of the system itself.

CS Lewis Not Impressed

In his book “Miracles” (buy it HERE, or check out my review HERE), C.S. Lewis offers the following commentary on free will, divine foreknowledge, and the efficacy of prayer. His model includes some important qualifiers and details that I’ve glossed over, but this excerpt conveys the basic idea:

“Suppose I find a piece of paper on which a black wavy line is already drawn, I can now sit down and draw other lines (say in red) so shaped as to combine with the black line into a pattern. Let us now suppose that the original black line is conscious. But it is not conscious along the whole length at once – only on each point on that length in turn.

Its consciousness in fact is travelling along that line from left to right retaining point A only as a memory when it reaches B and unable until it has left B to become conscious of C. Let us also give this black line free will. It chooses the direction it goes in. The particular wavy shape of it is the shape it wills to have. But whereas it is aware of its own chosen shape only moment by moment and does not know at point D which way it will decide to turn at point F, I can see its shape as a whole and all at once. At every moment it will find my red lines waiting for it and adapted to it. Of course: because I, in composing the total red-and-black design have the whole course of the black line in view and take it into account. It is a matter not of impossibility but merely of designer’s skill for me to devise red lines which at every point have a right relation not only to the black line but to one another so as to fill the whole paper with a satisfactory design…

line-man

It is never possible to prove empirically that a given, non-miraculous event was or was not an answer to prayer. Since it was non-miraculous the sceptic can always point to its natural causes and say, ‘Because of these it would have happened anyway,’ and the believer can always reply, ‘But because these were only links in a chain of events, hanging on other links, and the whole chain hanging upon God’s will, they may have occurred because someone prayed.’ The efficacy of prayer, therefore, cannot be either asserted or denied without an exercise of the will – the will choosing or rejecting faith in the light of a whole philosophy. Experimental evidence there can be none on either side. In the sequence M.N.O. event N, unless it is a miracle, is always caused by M and causes O; but the real question is whether the total series (say A-Z) does or does not originate in a will that can take human prayers into account.

This impossibility of empirical proof is a spiritual necessity. A man who knew empirically that an event had been caused by his prayer would feel like a magician. His head would turn and his heart would be corrupted. The Christian is not to ask whether this or that event happened because of a prayer. He is rather to believe that all events without exception are answers to prayer in the sense that whether they are grantings or refusals the prayers of all concerned and their needs have all been taken into account. All prayers are heard, though not all prayers are granted. We must not picture destiny as a film unrolling for the most part on its own, but in which our prayers are sometimes allowed to insert additional items. On the contrary; what the film displays to us as it unrolls already contains the results of our prayers and of all our other acts. There is no question whether an event has happened because of your prayer. When the event you prayed for occurs your prayer has always contributed to it. When the opposite event occurs your prayer has never been ignored; it has been considered and refused, for your ultimate good and the good of the whole universe. (For example, because it is better for you and for everyone else in the long run that other people, including wicked ones, should exercise free will than that you should be protected from cruelty or treachery by turning the human race into automata.) But this is, and must remain, a matter of faith. You will, I think, only deceive yourself by trying to find special evidence for it in some cases more than in others.”

Christianity and High Beauty (With Pictures!)

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

– JRR Tolkien, “The Return of the King”

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I rarely re-watch movies, and I practically never re-watch documentaries. But I’ve watched Roger Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters” twice now, and I’ll probably watch it again. You really ought to set aside an hour to enjoy it. At the very least, watch the first 3 minutes.

This post will draw somewhat heavily from Scruton’s documentary, but will also include my own thoughts – from more of a “hey-watch-as-I-attempt-to-relate-this-to-Christianity” perspective. Starting with:

1. Beauty in Nature

As alluded to in the Tolkien quote, I find it comforting that the beauty of the natural world is ultimately beyond the reach of man’s corruption. We might do our utmost to despoil the beauty of our immediate environment, but the sprawling majesty of the universe stands by unfazed.

I sometimes talk to atheists & agnostics who point to the sheer size of the universe, and claim that our smallness and apparent insignificance is evidence against the existence of God. I’ve always thought to myself, in response, “what better way for an infinite, all-powerful Being to express Himself to us, than to surround us with mind-numbing vastness and beauty?”

aquinas_unimpressed

When we look upon the night sky…a mountain landscape…a blazing sunset…a wind-whipped prairie…we stop to appreciate these things for their mere existence. They stir something within us, drawing our attention to a craving, within ourselves, for a Higher Beauty that nothing in this universe can quite satisfy.

Glacier Ridgeline

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20, NIV)

2. Beauty in Things

If mountains are beautiful because they are created by God, then sculptures and poems are beautiful because they are created by people. Robert Frost creates beauty by describing a forest, even if the poem is, perhaps, eclipsed by the natural beauty of the forest itself.

Man is unique among creatures not only in his ability to appreciate beauty, but in his ability to willfully create beauty for beauty’s sake. In concurrence with Dr. Scruton, I would argue that for a thing to be beautiful, it cannot be created primarily for utility, or for mere self-expression. Beautiful things often possess these qualities, but they must be secondary.

“All art is absolutely useless. Put usefulness first, and you lose it. Put beauty first, and what you do will be useful forever.” – Oscar Wilde

sistine chapel mona lisa

Also: simply calling something beautiful doesn’t make it so! That kind of absurd relativism might be permitted in modern art museums, but not on this blog.

3. Beauty in People

At the risk of sounding repetitive, a person possesses beauty for the simple fact that they exist. This is best illustrated by the perplexing phenomenon of Otherwise Articulate Adults Making Interesting Noises in the Presence of Babies.

Infants are useless in the truest sense of the word. They’re essentially poop machines, incapable of providing us with any tangible service or benefit. Yet babies evoke an emotional response precisely because of their uselessness. When utility is stripped away, we find ourselves reveling in the mere fact of existence of another human person.

newborn infant

This also comes into play when contrasting feelings of romantic love with feelings of lust. The man overcome with romantic love desires nothing more than the flourishing and well-being of his beloved…even if it comes at his own cost…and even if he will never be able to personally take part in her life. He would gladly throw himself in front of a train, rather than see his beloved suffer pain, shame, or disgrace. He will daydream about performing acts of heroic sacrifice on her behalf (rushing into a burning building, diving in front of a bullet, etc.).

The man overcome with lust is primarily interested in how the other person can be of use to him. The object of his lust is an instrument to be used and discarded.

“Pornographic images reduce the person being lusted over to body parts only. There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows too little.” – Pope John Paul II

I believe that the human experience of beauty provides strong inductive evidence for the central claims of Christianity (namely: the existence of High Beauty, original sin, and our subsequent inability to grasp this Beauty unaided). Three observations, in closing:

Firstly: We recognize beauty and know that it’s good…even if we have difficulty defining it.
Secondly: We perceive that our desire for beauty can be tantalized, but never truly fulfilled.
Thirdly: We yearn for Something, unseen, that can fulfill our unfulfilled desire for “more beauty”.

Book Review: “Orthodoxy”

It’s been a few months since my previous book review, but that’s because my wife and I only read a few pages each night before bed. I mostly read medical texts and classic fiction on my own time…which doesn’t always make for great “book review” material.

For those who aren’t familiar with G.K. Chesterton, the man was a genius. I actually posted a Chesterton quote page back in May of 2012, so clearly I’m a fan.

In “Orthodoxy”, Chesterton sets about describing his own intellectual journey – from his early Christian upbringing to his adolescent skepticism and back again. It’s very much a “gut-level” approach, with Chesterton explaining how, despite his best efforts, the orthodox teachings of Christianity gradually won him over.

Chesterton was also a pretty sarcastic (and hilarious) guy, so there were a few laugh-out-loud moments.

I actually think that the chapter titles do a pretty good job of describing the progression of the book:

Chapter 1: Introduction in Defense of Everything Else
Chapter 2: The Maniac
Chapter 3: The Suicide of Thought
Chapter 4: The Ethics of Elfland
Chapter 5: The Flag of the World
Chapter 6: The Paradoxes of Christianity
Chapter 7: The Eternal Revolution
Chapter 8: The Romance of Orthodoxy
Chapter 9: Authority and the Adventurer

“Orthodoxy” is the perfect book for anyone looking for an honest, intuitive, lighthearted, and personal sort of apologetic. Chesterton defends the Christian worldview in an easy-to-grasp manner by appealing to “an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts” (as he puts it).

As usual, I’ve collected below a few of my favorite passages:

“As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman’s argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out…The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle…The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and even miscellaneous, just as a sane man knows that he is complex. The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist’s world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts.”

“A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert – himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason.”

“Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.'”

‎”…But when I came to ask [the determinists] I found they had really no proof of this unavoidable repetition in things except the fact that the things were repeated. Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more weird than more rational…The recurrences of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea.”

‎”…What we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”

“I found it was [my agnostic teachers’] daily taunt against Christianity that it was the light of one people and had left all others to die in the dark. But I also found that it was their special boast for themselves that science and progress were the discovery of one people, and that all other peoples had died in the dark. Their chief insult to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves, and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their relative insistence on the two things.”

“Some satisfaction is needed even to make things better. But what do we mean by making things better? Most modern talk on this matter is a mere argument in a circle – that circle which we have already made the symbol of madness and of mere rationalism. Evolution is only good if it produces good; good is only good if it helps evolution. The elephant stands on the tortoise, and the tortoise on the elephant.”

‎”In actual modern Europe a freethinker does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who, having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions: the material origin of phenomena, the impossibility of miracles, the improbability of personal immortality and so on. And none of these ideas are particularly liberal. Nay, indeed almost all these ideas are definitely illiberal, as it is the purpose of this chapter to show…”

“If I am asked, as a purely intellectual question, why I believe in Christianity, I can only answer, ‘For the same reason that an intelligent agnostic disbelieves Christianity.’ I believe in it quite rationally upon the evidence. But the evidence in my case, as in that of the intelligent agnostic, is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts. The secularist is not to be blamed because his objections to Christianity are miscellaneous and even scrappy; it is precisely such scrappy evidence that does convince the mind. I mean that a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend….I can only say that my evidences for Christianity are of the same vivid but varied kind as his evidences against it. For when I look at these various anti-Christian truths, I simply discover that none of them are true. I discover that the true tide and force of all the facts flows the other way.”

‎”Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them…If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism – the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence – it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred.”

Evidence for the Resurrection: The “Minimal Facts” Approach

Note: This article is inspired by a lecture given by Dr. Gary Habermas at the 2012 EPS Apologetics Conference. Dr. Habermas is a historian and philosopher, and is one of the world’s leading experts on the resurrection. 

Dr. Gary Habermas

When presenting a historical case for the resurrection of Christ, it is often useful to build an argument using only the “minimal facts” accepted by mainstream secular critics. This entails setting aside any book of the New Testament that is NOT currently regarded by critical scholars as being authoritative.

Although the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have gained a great deal of renewed academic credibility in recent years, there remain a number of critics who only accept Paul as a reliable author. Furthermore, of the fourteen books traditionally attributed to Paul, only seven are generally classified as “undisputed” among secular historians: Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon.

Dr. Habermas presents a case for the resurrection that relies exclusively on these seven books. Only dates that are widely accepted by secular critics will be used.

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Our starting point:

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures…” (I Corinthians 15:1-3, KJV)

The key point here, for our purposes, is that Paul is transmitting a testimony that he himself received. So the message of the resurrection must have been alive and well before Paul wrote this passage in ~55 AD. (In verse eleven, Paul also alludes to there being additional witnesses preaching the news of the resurrection.)

“The Resurrection of Christ” (Peter Paul Rubens)

This in itself is remarkable, since historians place the date of the crucifixion at either 30 AD or 33 AD. It actually predates the four canonical gospels, which were written between 70 AD and 95 AD.

We also know that Paul’s radical conversion experience took place during his trip to Damascus two or three years after the crucifixion. Following his conversion, Paul spent three years in Arabia and Damascus before returning to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:17). While in Jerusalem, Paul spent more than two weeks visiting with James and Peter (Galatians 1:18-19).

“The Conversion of Saint Paul” (Caravaggio)

So within six years of the crucifixion, Paul (a guy who claims to have encountered the risen Jesus en route to Damascus) was comparing notes with James and Peter (two guys who had known Jesus personally).

Then, in Galatians 2, we learn that Paul returned to Jerusalem in 48 AD:

I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. (Galatians 2:2, NIV)

As for those who were held in high esteem – whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism – they added nothing to my message. (Galatians 2:6, NIV)

This is critically important. It tells us that the essential facts of the gospel message – Jesus’ deity, death, and resurrection – were agreed upon by early Christian leaders up through 48 AD.

But how long did it take for this message to develop in the immediate wake of the crucifixion?

Well-known agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman concludes that “high Christology” (the belief in the divinity of Jesus) appeared within one or two years of the cross. Other, less skeptical historians believe that local Jews were worshiping Jesus within six months of his execution.

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These are the “minimal facts” that are virtually undisputed by secular historians. Regardless of whether or not one actually accepts the resurrection, the historical implications of these facts seem inescapable.

Of course, there are a number of even more compelling arguments for the resurrection that rely on the accounts of the canonical gospels. These arguments are beyond the scope of this post…but William Lane Craig outlines a few of them in his 2006 debate with Ehrman.

Additional Reading:

Minimal Facts Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ