Monday, October 26, 2009

On Witness: Two Quadrilemmas

How are we to understand the attacks made by some atheists against the reliability of the Disciples of Jesus as witnesses to what He said and did?  Christians of course believe that cases against their credibility are dubious at best, but what are they to do when they encounter claims which seek to deny the value of their witness?

The False Revelation Argument

One of the objections given to the witness of the Apostles, is the claim that other people (Mohammed, Joseph Smith, etc.) claim to have had divine revelation.  The problem with the argument is that it generally concludes to the effect of "Those claims were false so it is also likely that the claims of the Apostles are false.

You can't Prove a Universal from a Limited Case

There are several problems with this sort of an argument.  First of all, it argues from a specific case to reach a universal conclusion.  If what Mohammed or Joseph Smith claims is not true, that speaks against their specific case, not the case of anybody else.  If Bill and Jack both claim to have been robbed, and Jack lied about it has no bearing on whether Bill was lying.

What that argument has as an enthymeme (an unspoken assumption) is the claim that God does not exist so any claims of a form of revelation are false.  So the full argument would run like this:

  • God does not exist (Enthymeme)
  • Person X claims to have had a revelation from God
  • Therefore Person X is lying or deceived

The problem of course is the enthymeme needs to be proven logically if it is to be used as the basis of a logical argument.  If the premise needs to be established as valid, the conclusion is not proven to be true.  So as it stands, the argument cannot be used as a challenge to the case of witnesses.

The False Analogy

The second common problem with the claim is it is a false analogy.  People like Mohammed and Joseph Smith claimed to have private revelation from God, and convinced people to follow them out of largely material promises of a physical afterlife.

The case of the Apostles was different.  Who they followed was a specific person who did not make promises of physical rewards.  Indeed, the Jesus they followed made clear that political liberation and wealth were not the message He was teaching.  Those who followed Him (which were more than "Twelve men" as some have misrepresented) attested to what He said and the works He performed to back them up.  These are not merely accounted for in the Gospels.  The Talmud mentions these acts, though it calls them "magic."  So do the secular Roman accounts.

Two Quadrilemma and Atheistic Claims

The problem the atheist has to address is why they hold what they hold.  We can study by breaking this down into categories.  There are two ways we can look at it: One is whether Jesus spoke truthfully and the second is whether Jesus said what was claimed.

The First Quadrilemma

The first quadrilemma is based on whether or not Jesus spoke truthfully over what He said

  1. Jesus either was what He claimed or He was not
  2. The Apostles either believed what He claimed or they did not.

This leaves us with a quadrilemma. 

  1. Jesus was what He claimed to be and the Apostles believed His claims (What the Christians believe)
  2. Jesus was not what He claimed but the Apostles believed His claims (Apostles Deluded)
  3. Jesus was not what He claimed and the apostles did not believe His claims (Apostles Lying)
  4. Jesus was what He claimed and the Apostles did not believe His claims (Apostles Lying)

Of these claims, the Christians hold #1, atheists tend to be divided over #2 and #3, and with #4 in the past some Gnostics held to it, and some New Agers hold a variant of this sort of view.

The theology of Christianity (#1) holds that Jesus was what He claimed to be and the Apostles witnessed these claims and believed.  Christian apologetics comes from this perspective, and the one seeking to understand this should look to these sources.

The Gnostic view (#4) holds that Jesus was God, but the Apostles did not believe what He really said He was.  The problem with this view is, how do they know what was claimed without the witness of those who knew Jesus personally?

This leaves us with the two remaining views which atheists claim: Jesus did not speak truthfully and the apostles were deceived about what He said and did (#2) or Jesus was not what He said He was and the apostles lied about what He said.

The problem with both assertions is: On what basis can this be held?

Let's look at #2 first.  If Jesus lied or was deluded about what He claimed, on what basis do we assert this?  Is there evidence for this claim?  Or is it based on the assumption that Jesus could not be God because there is no God.  This assertion cannot be claimed as fact without evidence.

See how the assumption that atheism must be true keeps showing up in all arguments?  Yet atheism is the conclusion.  It can't be the premise as well.  So from a logical perspective this claim cannot stand on its own until the premise (Jesus was not who He said He was) is proven true.

Of course in this case the atheist who makes this claim [and to be fair, not all do] is arguing from a universal negative.  Such a case cannot be proven true unless actual evidence is produced which attests to this.

Such is the problem with the "Deluded disciples" argument.

In case #3, we have another level of proof needed.  Not only did Jesus lie (or was deluded), but the Apostles did not believe what they were teaching.  In other words, the Apostles lied about what Jesus said and did. 

This is the case where the counterargument of cui bono? (Who benefits?) comes into play.  How did the apostles benefit from the lie?  They were not rich or powerful.  They were executed for their beliefs, hated by their own ethnic groups.

Case #3 not only has to establish that Christ was not who He said He was, but also has to establish why these "false witnesses" would rather die than recant what they lied about.

Therefore Case #3 also requires evidence to impeach the credibility of the disciples.  Yet again, the argument is based on the belief that God does not exist and seeks to find an alternate motive for the Apostles.

Ultimately, the Christians present their case for #1.  Those who hold it false need to provide their evidence for why they hold #'s 2,3 or 4.

The Second Quadrilemma

Some might find this a bit redundant, but it is necessary to investigate an alternate claim made by some atheists, and that is the claim that Jesus did not even say what the Apostles claimed He did. Again we need two divisions of two groups:

  1. Either Jesus said what is attributed to Him or they did not
  2. The disciples either understood what Jesus said or they did not

With these categories, we again have four groups:

  1. Jesus did say what is attributed to Him and the disciples understood it
  2. Jesus did say what is attributed to Him and the disciples did not understand it
  3. Jesus did not say what is attributed to Him and the Apostles understood it
  4. Jesus did not say what is attributed to Him and the Apostles did not understand it

Now in these cases, it seems the atheist dodges the horns of having to prove Christ was lying or deluded, but it does open more problems as well.

Case #1 is what Christians believe

Case #2 is not too common.  Some heresies would hold that the Church misunderstood the Bible for example and their version is accurate.

Case #3 again assumes the Apostles knew what Jesus did teach but lied about it.  (Some Muslims say this about St. Paul for example)

Case #4 is what is argued by those who claimed that Jesus had a human message but the disciples misunderstood his language (taking it over literally).  A variant of this is the Muslim claim that the Scriptures were altered and misrepresented by the Apostles who did not understand Christ was teaching Islam.

With case #1 of course, one would look to the writings of the apostles as true.  This is what Christians believe, and the defense of such a view would be found in the Christian writings.

With case #2 we have some of the early Christological heresies of the Church which held that certain biblical passages were in contradiction to what the Apostles claimed and therefore they got it wrong.  This gets into the concept of How do we interpret the New Testament?

With case #3, we have an alternate expression of the third case in the first quadrilemma: The apostles lied about what Jesus said.  Again, cui bono?  What did they gain?

In case#4, we would find most atheists who want to say that Jesus was merely misunderstood and His disciples did not understand what He was trying to say.  There are some problems with this reasoning however.

First, such a view assumes Jesus was a wise teacher, but merely misunderstood.  Yet a wise teacher seeks to make sure his students understand him before he goes on.  He does not use metaphorical language if it is clear that his students are taking it literally.

Second, such a teaching has to be taken into context of the culture: The teachings of the disciples was that Jesus Christ was God made man.  Yet to the Jews, such a view would be blasphemous, and His first disciples were Jews.  It would have been easier for a pagan to accept it than a Jew.  Yet they did either accept His claim or mistakenly thought He taught it and believed it.  How can this be reconciled, and what evidence exists for such a view?

Third: If Jesus did not teach what the Disciples claimed He taught, then what did He teach?  How can we know the disciples misunderstood what was said without evidence of what was said.  Without this, we do not have anything factual, but merely a counter-theory based on the idea that whatever Jesus was, it could not be God.

The Endless Circle

Notice how these claims all return back to the central atheistic conclusion: There is no God.  The claims made about what "really" must have happened are based on this conclusion.  But for an atheist to appeal to science or to doctored texts or falsehood or delusion as a reason to object to the Christian claim needs to demonstrate that his view has basis in fact if it is to be taken as a reasonable objection.

What it Leads To

I don't doubt some atheists will read this and think I am arguing that "atheism is false, so Christianity is true."  I am not.  Rather I am examining certain claims made by some atheists which are used to state that Christianity is "unreasonable."  In doing so, I show the logical flaws in their case and that the argument in question cannot be reasonably used against the Christian belief.

Now of course the demonstrating the flaws in the atheistic claim does not yet prove Christianity true, but it does show certain attacks against Christianity are without a solid basis and can reasonably be dismissed.

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