On the truth of the New Testament

Here is an argument that I frequently encounter (in one form or another):

We know that the Gospels must be accurate because they were written within the lifetime of witnesses. If they were false, then witnesses would have come forward and declared them false.

There are a number of general reasons that I find this to be an unconvincing line of reasoning. Namely:

I recently thought of another way to answer this particular challenge, and wanted to try it out in this blog before using it in conversation (please leave your thoughts in the comments). My argument would go something like this:

Let’s say that there was a Jewish man named Eli who lived in the decade after Jesus died. Eli encounters two men, a Disciple and a Witness. The Disciple tells Eli about Jesus Christ, who did many miracles, rose from the dead, and will grant everlasting life to those that put their faith in him. The Witness, on the other hand, says that he was at the wedding in Cana and didn’t hear anything about water being turned into wine.

This gives Eli a lot to think about. The Disciple certainly had more information, so that’s a point on his side. And the Witness couldn’t absolutely prove that the miracle didn’t happen, because it could have happened without him noticing. But as a religious man Eli knows that the decision whether or not to believe Jesus is the Messiah is an important one, and he wants to make the right choice.

As Eli sees it, there are four possibilities:

After weighing these possibilities, Eli realizes that he cannot lose by believing in Jesus, so he discounts the testimony of the Witness and believes the Disciple. In fact, so many people reason as Eli does that the Witness is completely unable to spread his message that Jesus is a false prophet.

Is it possible that the Gospel stories, although untrue, could have propagated in the face of witnesses to the contrary because religious-minded people thought as Eli did? Yes, but only if we can show that religious people sometimes think in this way. Fortunately for us, we can show precisely that.

Eli’s argument is a minor variation of Pascal’s Wager — a common argument for the belief in Jesus. If Eli is right to reject an eye witness and believe a legend for these reasons, then we must agree that the stories in the Gospels could have propagated despite the contrary testimony of witnesses. If Eli is wrong to reject an eye witness for these reasons, then Pascal’s Wager is not valid in the face of evidence contrary to belief.

All of which leaves modern Christians with two choices: either agree that Pascal’s Wager is false if there is any reason to doubt Jesus’ divinity, or agree that the Gospel stories of miracles may be nothing but legends.

Posted on October 18, 2010 at 7:00 pm by ideclare · Permalink
In: Bible

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments via RSS

  1. Written by Clytia
    on October 19, 2010 at 12:20 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I think this would work unless you’re talking to a christian who actually from the start agrees that Pascal’s Wager is a dreadful reason to believe in something. And I do know a few of this sort of christian.

  2. Written by nick
    on October 21, 2010 at 6:40 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I always hated pascal’s wager. to me it seemed more of a way to divert investigation and a sign that someone lives mentally in fear and is just tyring to cover their hide. maybe they aren’t intentionally but when you look at all that the argument implies that does seem to be the bottom line. I also hear the argument that the new testament is true because the old testament prophecized things that would happen and they happened in the new testament. my question to them is; is it not possible that the people who wrote the new testament simply read the old testament and made it fit?

  3. Written by Zach
    on November 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Personally, I know few if any Christians who think Pascal’s Wager is a good reason to believe in God. Furthermore, unless you think that Pascal’s Wager actually does influence people (which is, of course, different than thinking that Pascal’s Wager SHOULD influence people), you really shouldn’t be using this argument.

    Personally, I don’t believe any religious person believes in God because of Pascal’s Wager, simply because logically it makes no sense at all. People might SAY that Pascal’s Wager influenced them, but I am pretty sure that, if you dig deeper into their reason for belief, you fill find many more important reasons than that.

  4. Written by Caleb
    on November 6, 2010 at 7:57 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I agree with you partially. While some of the people living around 32 B.C. would have nothing to lose by following Jesus, many people would be persecuted for their beliefs. If that were the case, the choice Eli would have to make wouldn’t be between nothing and something. Instead, Eli would have to decide whether the story a follower of Jesus presented was reliable enough to believe.

  5. Written by a christian guy
    on September 29, 2011 at 3:12 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    Whether or not you believe in the gospels, I think it is important when using this argument to recognize the historical context in which Jesus was teaching. There was a very strong cultural and religious connection to the Old Testament and the laws of Judaism. What Jesus was doing was teaching against everything that people of that time believed in. This would make Pascal’s Wager seem to be an illogical method of reasoning for whether or not to believe in the disciple’s claims because Eli would have to first abandon all belief in his Jewish culture. I do however understand the point that is trying to be made here.

Subscribe to comments via RSS

Leave a Reply