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The Sufficiency of Probability in the Christian Belief

For my intro students…

I often play this game with my kids that drives them crazy. Sitting in the room, with no one but us, while they are not looking I will slap them on the rear and act like I did not do it. They turn and say, “Daddy! I know you did that.” I say, “I did not.” ”Then who did it?” they respond (thinking they have settled the issue with this one question).  I say, “A guy ran into the front door and slapped them and then ran out.” They look at me like I am crazy. “Look!” I respond to their skepticism, “The door is not locked. It is obvious that someone could have come in since the door is not locked.” Upon further looks of skepticism, I have them go check the door to see if it is locked or not. Once they check and see it is unlocked, I have won the day. I have poked a hole and their certainty and even caused them to confirm it. No longer possessing the indubitably that I have required for their epistemic verification, they now have lost poise in their former confidence. In other words, I tricked them into thinking that one has to be absolutely certain about something before it can be believed.

Ideas about the value of certainty are currently on the theological stage of debate. With the postmodern push toward perpetual skepticism that gives way to necessary compromise and a redefining tolerance, along with many in the church responding by appealing to a fidist approach to the faith (ignore the evidence, just believe), Evangelicals are found scratching their heads, wondering why we are checking the door to see if it is locked.

“You can’t be certain that Christianity is true. Some have said that it borrowed from other ancient religions to get its story.”

“You can’t be certain Christ rose from the grave since his body might have been stolen.”

When a suspicious world says that we cannot be certain about anything because of the alternative possibilities, we find ourselves defending a position drunk with its own form of compromise. When people poke holes in our beliefs with arguments no better than “look, the door is not locked” we find ourselves missing the big picture, attempting to argue about the security of the door.

How did we get here?

The father of the so-called Age of Reason, Rene Descartes, was commissioned by a cardinal in the church to find a way of attaining a level of certainty that went beyond mere probability. With skepticism on the rise, probability was looked at as the ugly step-sister of the indubitability that accompanied absolute certainty. Indubitability equates to infallible knowledge—knowledge that can’t be wrong. Prove without a shadow of a doubt that God exists by mere intuitive resources. That was Descartes commission.

(Let me repeat as this may be a new word to some of you. Indubitability describes the impossibility of being wrong due to an exhaustive and infallible method of inquiry; beyond the possibility of question or doubt.) 

There was celebration at Descartes seeming defeat of the skepticism of his day. His “I think therefore I am” looked as if it provided a bridge to attain the type of certainty to which humans have never been privy.  His methodology, which became known as “the Cartesian method,” was adopted in large part by those in the West. And thus began the Age of Reason, where certainty—indubitable certainty—reined supreme.

Christianity was never bound by any sort of indubitably from a human perspective. We have never been required to check the lock on any door. In fact, no one actually can or does live by such a method in the acquisition of truth.

But alas, we often think we are supposed to. We have turned “the evidence that demands a verdict” into “the evidence that produces indubitably.” At least that is what we are pressured into doing.

Once this method does not produce absolute certainty, once we cannot account for the door being unlocked, we find ourselves wondering why we are being forced to check the door in the first place. Yet we do it anyway. When the door is unlocked, those who are epistemically conditioned to find this substantial, like my children, enter into a state of suspended belief, doubt, or skepticism or opt for a “leap of faith” that demands no evidence, and then sneer at those who do demand evidence as if it is passé.

What my kids should say is this, “Daddy, I don’t care if the door is unlocked. It does not play a sufficient part in your proposition to warrant a disregard of the greater areas of viability with regard to our belief that you are the one who slapped us.” And if I respond, “But you don’t know with perfect, absolute, and infallible certainty,” they should say, “No daddy, probability is sufficient to warrant, yea, demand a belief such as ours and, as a consequence, to reject your alternative.” Well, if they said it like that, I would be scared, but you know what I am saying.

Probability is sufficient. We neither need to go into intellectual hibernation and accept our beliefs on blind faith nor do we need to suspend our belief until all the objections, no matter how improbable, are answered (i.e. we don’t need to check the door).

What I posed to my children was merely a possibility to explain the slap, but possibilities do not create probabilities. We are responsible in this life to act upon the revelation given to us, not to seek absolute indubitably.

We are neither postmodern skeptics nor modern rationalists. We find value in both skepticism, when truly warranted, and rationality, when the probability is conditioned by God to be such.

In other words, our belief in Christ’s resurrection should not be sidetracked simply because someone presents an alternative possibility. Yes, we engage these alternatives, but we don’t give them more credit than they deserve. The old illustration of the “leaky bucket” only finds relevance in an imaginary world where indubitability is required for ever rational decision. Those who say that the Christian story borrowed from other religions or that Christ’s body was thrown into a shallow grave have simply presented other possibilities that are often no more sufficient to warrant credibility than my “look, the door is unlocked.” Possibility, yes. Probability, no.

Don’t be shaken by unlikely theories.

Don’t hypocritically require indubitability.

Don’t think that all possibilities are equal.

Don’t opt for a “leap of faith” type of faith.

Just because something is possible does not make it probable.

Finally, and most importantly, I believe that the resurrection of Christ is probable to such a degree that the only rational option is for all people to fall on their face and worship him.

29 Responses to “The Sufficiency of Probability in the Christian Belief”

  1. Really great post Michael. You have no idea how much i’ve been wrestling with these sort of ‘possibilities’ lately and it can seriously interrupt my faith. While I agree that we shouldn’t blindly ignore alternative possibilities, I think it is important not to give them too much attention, or we may risk “giving Satan a foothold.” Thanks for covering this topic, it was a very practical read.

    Brad

  2. Yep another good one Michael you are on a role! Just what I’ve been pondering lately.

  3. You and I think alike, especially when training our children. I used many tactics of the same nature, because I wanted my children to think for themselves and come to conclusions based on the available evidence. This is what people needed to be reminded of on occasion as well.

  4. Couldn’t someone just respond that the resurrection is but one possibility among others and that it should be examined as critically as the others? Just because it is one of the oldest explanations and the church’s preferred explanation makes it no more probable than other explanations (in many people’s eyes the resurrection is more improbable than any other explanation).

    Bryan L

  5. Yes, someone could say that. My point was tha twe go with the most probable explaination, whatever it is. I happen to believe that the Christian worldview, when all the evidence is considered, is by far the most probable.

  6. The Christian worldview pretty much hangs on the reality of the resurrection (whether it did or didn’t happen), though, so it seems you fall into a vicious circle if the Christian worldview is part of the reason (or the main reason) you believe the resurrection is the most probable explanation.

    Bryan L

  7. Bryan,

    I agree that probability in and of itself does not totally a case make. And certainly CMP admitted that, to his credit.

    But, as Mark Twain remarked, “There are lies, damnable lies and statistics.” So truth isn’t established by numbers, percentages or even probabilities on either side, because we can tweak things like numbers and probabilities to make them reflect what we most believe. So ,n the other hand, there are probably more non-Christian folks in the world than not, but conversely that does not make Christianity untrue.

    The problem, in my opinion, is that folks look at the argument as quid pro quo, in other word my argument is as good as yours type of thing, because one or the other of us has show someone else they are wrong before truth is established.

    Whatever we believe, however, we have to remember truth is not a slave to our personal beliefs, but exists separately from us, no matter how much we try to change ours or others perception of it. All we can try to do is discover as much of it as we can.

  8. Great post, Michael. Well said!

  9. That is right Bryan, that is why we must attempt (as hard as it may be) to confirm truth, not our prejudice.

  10. Well, you could be wrong, couldn’t you?
    -Yes, but …
    There you go, I refuted you.

    :)
    Great post.

  11. I wonder what presuppositional apologists like Bahnsen or Frame would say about the sufficiency of probability. I’d bet that they would say that it is enough to morally compel people to believe, but they would probably also say that God has already proved Himself persuasively to every person and they just suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rm 1). Bahnsen would say that the Christian worldview coherently provides necessary preconditions of intelligibility for human experience of rational thought, uniformity in nature, and moral absolutes, etc.

    -Tyler

  12. kis, perfect mock of something that is, unfortunately, believed. Thanks!

  13. Love this! It’s better sport than football! (Go Colts! 6-0!) The Solas are not alone from each other. Scriptura – truth, fide – the leap, gratia – the ability, Christus – the pupose, Deo gloria – the motive.

  14. Great post Michael. Out of curiousity where would you say your “starting point” is (or where should ours be)?

    In other words, obviously the Gospel and Christ’s ressurection are the key points that we are aiming for (in terms of affirming the probability); however dead people (in my and most people’s experience) don’t rise from the dead, they stay dead.

    So are we starting with the probability that some sort of creator exists (which the majority of religions have), if so, how do we get from that point to the Christian God? Pointing to the Bible is often not “helpful” at this point because a large portion of other faiths have a sacred text or even a tradition they they point to as divinely inspired as well. Thus it becomes more of a circular arguement.

    Look forward to your thoughts.

    Your brother in Christ,

    -Joshua

  15. Joe, if were starting on neutral ground, we would start with the claims, implications, and historicity of the events of each religion.

    All three are needed.

    In the case of Christianity, the claim it that Jesus rose from the grave. The implication is that he is God. The resurrection is a historical account which causes belief in it to have historical testability (which, I believe is a necessity for any claim—it has to go beyond sujective account of any individual). Upont testing the resurrection, it proves to be the most probable explaination for the claims. Therefore the resurrection along with its implications demand our comittment. Therefore, Jesus is Lord.

  16. Truth Unites... and Divides October 26, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Great post CMP! Great post.

  17. “Upon testing the resurrection, it proves to be the most probable explanation for the claims”

    Ah yes, much heat on this one but little light. There’s a lot of water being carried by those 15 words. Skeptics are going to play their Extraordinary Evidence card (I keep mine in my wallet). Agnostics are going to shrug their shoulders. Professors are going to earn tenure. Christians will say , “Amen.”

  18. Sorry to nitpick Micheal, but I found your #16 comment to be a bit confusing as to what you were hoping to show. Maybe you can elaborate on it some.

    And I don’t think you can make the easy jump that the implication of the resurrection is that Jesus is God.

    Do you have anyplace for the experience and power of the Holy Spirit in your arguments for the truth of Christianity (or the Christian Worldview) It seemed like a big proof in the early church. I wonder if you’ve ever tried to incorporate it in your arguments?

    Bryan L

  19. As far as circularity goes in our worldviews, it’s kind of inevitable in our ultimate criteria if we’re consistent. We can try and go by ‘autonomous’ human reasoning, and justify it with more ‘autonomous reason’ or we can start with Scripture and end with Scripture. If Scripture is our ultimate authority, it should justify itself–otherwise we have appealed to something else as our ultimate authority. As long as the argument is BROADLY circular–some would argue–and as long as it corresponds to our experience of life and the world, it is persuasive. Evidences, while some would argue that they shouldn’t be our primary place of discussion, can still add persuasive power to a ‘broadly circular’ argument…so they should be studied and used–they just shouldn’t be ultimate.

  20. Probability is probably good enough.

    But how probable is it, normally, that a body that died, disappeared by floating up into the clouds?

    How often does that happen in normal life?

    And therefore, how probable is this, versus other explanations?

  21. being an incredibly compulsive person, I’m often tempted to require absolute certainty for my core beliefs. it’s rather unwarranted!

  22. Can God reveal things to us such that we can know them for certain? Of course He can. And He has.

  23. This is the natural (and unfortunate) end of evidential apologetics.

    Why don’t we START with God–just like everybody does (Romans 1:18-20)?

  24. I am leaning in the direction of Tyler.

    One of the great questions is …

    How did Abraham know it was God, when he was called out of Ur?

    Self-attesting voice of the one true God.

    So it goes with Scripture.

    While we weigh the evidences, which is fine, the ultimate proof is in the pudding of all truth being self-attesting. And all truth is rooted in the truth Giver.

    I am not a full-on presuppositionalist, but I lean heavily in that direction.

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