With my atheist and agnostic (yeah, I know those are technically “different”… but the end result is the same) friends, it pretty much always comes down to one thing in our debates: a disagreement about the possibility of the miraculous.
Christians believe the miraculous is possible; atheists do not. Neither denies that it would truly be a miracle for a man to raise himself from the dead; but the former believe it happened, while the latter won’t.
(This is why some of the more generous agnostics—as well as the Buddhists and Muslims and pagans and most others—say things like, “Jesus was a great teacher” or “Jesus was a good man.” Historical evidence of Jesus’ existence and teachings is difficult to deny, but their beliefs are incompatible with the deity of Christ. That is, of course, a problem: one for which they typically prefer not to suss out the implications. This is the crux of C.S. Lewis’ “liar/lunatic/lord” trilemma, but that’s for another day. [And yes, I’m aware of the criticisms regarding Lewis’ model… I’ll address some of them below. But again, a different day.])
My atheist friends prefer to think my position is absurd and anti-scientific, while they style their own as being highly logical and rooted in factual evidence.
But in reality, we’re not so different.
EXHIBIT A: Atoms vs The New Adam
Atoms, as I understand them, are (sort of) the basic building blocks of the material world. They consist of protons, neutrons (usually), and electrons. The electrons whirl around the proton-neutron core at such a high speed that it is almost as though they are in multiple places at once (which is how multiple atoms can share electrons and exhibit a charge [or lack thereof] that makes it seem as though all of the electrons are exclusively their own). I might have gotten that last sentence wrong. See, this is where my knowledge starts to exhibit significant gaps. And I graduated at the top of my class!
But—and I know I’m not alone in this—I’ve never seen an atom. In fact, the way I understand electron microscopes is that they don’t really show you an atom at all. Not in the way a typical magnifying microscope would—where light reflects off the viewed item and bounces, stretched by the lens, to your eye. Rather, in an electron microscope, my understanding is that electrons are bounced off of an atom and the device translates the reflection into a kind of representational image.
I believe in something invisible, by which everything in the universe holds together. I don’t constantly think about this something, but I am constantly encountering it. This something contains unimaginable power—power to energize and to destroy—and mankind is inescapably at its mercy. We may tap into its power, but we owe our existence to it and not the other way around.
You see where I’m going with this.
No, I’m not saying God = atoms. But atoms—like God—are invisible. No one will ever encounter a single atom and realize that he or she has done so (though the same cannot be said of God). And yet the vast majority of atheists surely believe in the existence of atoms.
And so do I. And so do you, I suspect. But we only believe on the basis of a sensible-sounding explanation from someone who appears to know more than us about it and who, therefore must be closer to the original source of the information.
Which brings me to my next exhibit.
EXHIBIT B: More Than One Witness
Like it or not, the vast majority of us accept various narratives about the natural world, without ever seeing or encountering any evidence that they are true. We claim that it follows from a logical progression of ideas based on solid evidence.
But that kind of thought-progression requires assent to some initial claims: claims that, if incorrect, doom any conclusions that may derive from it. And the deeper one goes down the rabbit hole, the more opportunities one has to get it totally wrong. It can be like driving from California to New York—the more possibilities (forks in the road) one encounters, the greater the possibility that even the most competent driver will, at some point, take a wrong turn. The problem is, one can be quite sure about having arrived at the wrong destination while driving (Florida looks nothing like New York). But the conclusions of scientific navigation are not always so obvious (or at least, not immediately) when they’re wrong.
And for most of us, who have only a rudimentary knowledge of particle physics, we hardly get anywhere down the road on our own power; we’re forced to hire a driver. In other words, we lean on the narratives of scientists (who come by that title through all sorts of methods) and then use “cheater” words to identify the theories we adhere to: “string theory,” “climate change,” “greenhouse gases,” “plate tectonics,” “special relativity,” “heliocentrism,” etc.
Lest I be accused of being a simplistic troglodyte, I must say I do believe the sun is the object around which the objects in our solar system revolve (though special relativity complicates this a bit), and I find nothing offensive about plate tectonics. I’m not condemning all conclusions of science; I’m pointing out that only very, very few of us actually do the science. Most of us just believe what we’re told. And typically, the ones telling us haven’t done the science either. They learned about it at a university… possibly from people who have done the science, but maybe not even at that level do we have firsthand knowledge. We accept a narrative, and we find it increasingly plausible when more trusted sources jump on board (hence the incessantly touted [and not exactly accurate] “scientific consensus” about human-made climate change).
More than a hundred people saw Jesus, after the resurrection.
They are those who spread the faith, whose firsthand account was believed. And while most of them did not write anything down (nothing that’s been preserved, at least), some did—at least six of them. And among those who recorded it and those who simply talked about it, the message was the same: this guy rose from the dead.
Christians believe the story of the God-man, Christ, because we believe that the miraculous is—while in many ways inexplicable—nevertheless plausible. Atheists reject the possibility of the miraculous because, as a first-principle, they reject the plausibility of a Power that exists distinct from the natural (measurable, observable) world. They claim to do so because this Power has not manifested Himself to them on their terms. This claim would have some merit if this Power had never manifested Himself in any way at any time. But a host of eyewitnesses say that they encountered this Power—that they ate with Him, hugged Him, spoke with Him, watched Him die, and then saw Him enjoy some food (as their minds were blown) a few days later. Atheists opt to reject these narratives because they find them implausible—because they do not believe miracles are possible. But, as Donnell and Connell point out in the video below, it can hardly be called intellectual integrity if one throws out or seeks convoluted ways to discredit any accounts that contradict one’s beliefs.
We in modern times find ourselves in the same place with the story of Christ as we do with scientific narratives. We may either believe them, or not believe them, but we really have zero chance of gaining a sensory experience of the narrative in order to corroborate it.
In truth, our certitude—whether we believe in atoms or God or both—relies on a certain measure of faith. And when we do place our faith in God, we find, as C.S. Lewis did, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”