Wagering with Pascal

One of the more commonly cited approaches to apologetics by both atheists and some Christians is Pascal’s Wager, by Mathmatician Blaise Pascal. I’ve seen Christians cite it as a reason to believe, and I’ve seen atheists use this argument as an argument that Christians are not operating on the basis of facts, they are instead covering their bets or apple polishing.

Pascal’s wager is actually an early version of game theory, based on cost. The typical version of Pascal’s wager is that God’s existence is ultimately unknowable. Therefore, he assumed that because the potential loss of not believing in God (infinite punishment in hell) outweighed the potential gain (some creature comforts). Thus, it was better to wager on Christianity being true than wagering on it being false.

I’m not a fan of Pascal’s wager, and the reason is the nature of faith.
While saving faith is a step past intellect – that is there is a volitional component, faith must by definition include the mind. Pascal’s wager seems to be that which is condemned in James 2 – saving faith is not merely attending church to cover your bets. If the mind is not truly convinced, simply put it isn’t faith.

Pascal countered this argument by noting that faith could become real, perhaps, but perhaps not.

Instead, using similar principles I would like to restate Pascal’s wager in terms of investigation.

If Christianity is true, then not believing has the most dire consequences imaginable – eternal punishment by a Holy God, and therefore it behooves individuals to investigate the faith itself. If Christianity is not true, then yes one has wasted a bit of time, but the study itself can provide a beneficial intellectual challenge, and one can live their life free of the fear of being wrong. Therefore if we wager on whether Christianity is worthy of independent honest investigation, then we should choose to make such an investigation.

Some might note that they are satisfied with atheistic answers to Christian arguments – but are they sure that they actually understand the Christian arguments from atheistic sources? If my experiences with atheists are accurate to the community as a whole, my answer is no, most atheists don’t understand the evidence underlying Christianity, otherwise they would not use arguments based on outdated sources, theories or arguments that were answered definitively in the past. At one point, I thought it was just Dawkins, but most atheists seem stuck in the arguments of the nineteenth century.

As a result, I do not see Pascal as an argument for Christianity – but his line of thinking does provide a prod to look at the evidence itself.

Lee Strobel’s: The Case for Christ – a Review

Strobel, Leigh. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.

Strobel’s book is one of the best known lay-level works on apologetics. Strobel is an atheist who converted to Christianity while a crime journalist for the Chicago Tribune. His wife was converted to Christ first, and he began studying the Bible to try to prove her wrong, only proving the old saw, “What do you call an atheist who sits down and carefully studies the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Answer: A Christian.”

Strobel has written a number of books on Christian apologetics, and this is his first. All of his works are a series of interviews with major scholars related to particular fields to specific topics. The book is well organized and easy to read.

I personally divide my approach to the case for Christ into three phases, the first phase is the evidentiary phase – demonstrating the value of the gospels as historical accounts. The second, is the rebuttal phase, where I deal with explanations provided by other writers and the final phase is the conclusion. The case for Christ is a “first phase” work, and does an excellent job of communicating the basics though there are a few technical areas (such as the fancies of the documentary hypothesis) that might have deserved a little more space. On the plus side, Strobel does an excellent job of simplifying the case to the lay level without oversimplifying – he doesn’t simplify for example, by leaving out important details.

The organization of the chapters is topical, and are well written.

Conclusions: Strobel’s The Case for Christ is a great book, while there are areas I wish that Storbel went deeper, his work is one of the best lay level discussions of the evidence for the gospels. Strobel should not be considered the end of the discussion when it comes to Christian apologetics, but it is a great place to start.

Have the Gospels been changed in Their Teaching about Jesus?

One of the consistent argument made by Muslims is that the New Testament was changed somewhere between the time of Christ and the time of Muhammad. Their central contention about Jesus is that he was a prophet, who did not claim to be God and was not crucified, both are stated directly in the Quran and are expanded on in other sources. The idea that the gospels were changed is one of the central arguments underlying these beliefs.

But has the New Testament been changed, or more precisely is there evidence that the Bible has been changed in essential doctrines? Afterall, if we read a modern translation, there are footnotes indicating later changes to the manuscripts.

There are variations in manuscripts, this is widely known to be true. But there are no indications of a conspiracy to change the Bible. We know this because the Bible is the best attested work from the ancient world. There are more than 5000 Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament, 8000 in Latin, and thousands of other early translations known as “versions.” Additionally, the earliest Biblical manuscripts that we have collated come from the second century – within 100 to 150 years of the books authorship. By comparison, the next best attested work in the ancient world, the Illiad, is found in 500 manuscripts and the oldest manuscript is about 1000 years after the book was initially authored. No one argues that we don’t know the content of the Illiad. More to the point, we have manuscripts of the Bible that go back well before Muhammad’s time.

Gordon Fee, in one of the most erudite articles on New Testament Textual Criticism “P66, P75, Origin and the Myth of an Early Alexandrian Recesension” proved beyond any reasonable doubt that while changes occur, the close relationship between the early Alexandrian Manuscripts and the earlier papyri demonstrate that there was no conspiracy by the early Church to change Christian dogma as Muslim’s assert.

While there are Textual problems with the New Testament, arguing for changes in Christian doctrine is the result of a conspiracy theory when we take the New Testament as a whole.

Aaron Kosminski, Jack the Ripper and Christian Apologetics

One of the most vexing true crime cases is that of Jack the Ripper. The Ripper investigations in many ways were the inspirations for numerous improvements in police methodology and the study of serial murderers. The case is a difficult one because Scotland Yard’s files are incomplete, and forged evidence has been brought forward such as the ripper letters and likely the Maybrick diaries. Recently the news of a new book, Russell Edward’s Naming Jack the Ripper has come out, claiming that Jack the Ripper has been identified on the basis of DNA evidence.

There are issues with the source of the DNA (the chain of custody with the shawl linked to the fourth known victim, Catherine Eddowes, is uncertain) and if the researchers used MDNA as some have suggested, the identification is not as ironclad as if it were Nuclear DNA. When the DNA on the artifact is based on comparisons to descendants there are additional issues, as well.

A bigger issue in the title, though, is that the DNA alone is insufficient to identify someone as the Ripper – we don’t know when the DNA transfer might have occurred, it could have been weeks, months or even years before or after the killing took place. This means the DNA in this case is circumstantial evidence.

The real strength of Edward’s book is that it builds on a previous suspect. The various true crime books on the Ripper range from the ridiculous (Prince Albert Victor, artist Walter Sickert, an unnamed midwife typically known as “Jill the Ripper”, and author Lewis Caroll) to those actually suspected and investigated by Scotland Yard. Edwards book identifies the Ripper as Aaron Kosminski. This is actually based on one of the three major suspects named in a 1894 press release known as “the Macnaghten Memoranda,” and more importantly, one of the supervisors in the case, Donald S Swanson noting in a margin note to the memoirs of commissioner Edward Johnson that Kosminski had been identified by an eyewitness.

Swanson’s notes, Edward Johnson’s memoirs and the Macnaghten memorandum have all led two major suspects: Aaron Kosminski and a unknown Jewish man named David Cohen who was identified with one Nathan Kasminsky by Martin Fido in his 1987 work The Crimes, Detection and Death of Jack the Ripper; Fido’s theory was later given credibility by former FBI Profiler John Douglas in The Cases that Haunt Us.

What does all this have to do with apologetics? Atheists will tell you that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, and should be discounted without further analysis unless there is forensic evidence. However, if Edward’s book is correct in all it asserts then what it really means is that the forensics, in this case, unearthed additional circumstantial evidence to support the eyewitness identification.

Dismissing any evidence is something that we do at our peril, most notably if we stake our souls on that dismissal.

Fatherly Advice Part 2

Last time, I noted that the early church fathers were a useful source of information. I specifically demonstrated that they had better information at their disposal than we have, and that they were not as universally uncritical as they are sometimes accused of being.

With that said, there are a few specific things I want to bring out that the fathers present about the gospels.

1. It is sometimes claimed that the gospels were originally written anonymously and the names of Biblical authors were added later. This makes little sense in general, if this were the case, we would expect that the gospels would bear the names of the higher profile Church leaders. However, the fathers make this theory impossible. Matthew is never referred to as anything other than the gospel of Matthew, and the same is true of the rest of the gospels.

2. While there was some debate about the authority (also known as the canonicity) of a few books of the New Testament, there was very little controversy to any of the New Testament gospels, Acts or the Pauline Epistles. The Gospels and Acts were nearly universally treated as historically accurate, first century, authoritative works of history by the church since they were initially written.

3. The earliest fathers quote from nearly every book of the New Testament, while recent questions regarding the dating of some of the fathers have recently been raised, it is difficult to conceive any timeline in which the New Testament books were written in the second century.

4. Finally, many argue that the early Church was not interested in the historic reality of the gospels. A late second century father named Tertullian, however, also demonstrates that this is not true. Tertullian in his work On Baptism notes that a presbyter in the Church of Asia was excommunicated for writing a book called The Acts of Paul and Thecla. Tertullian states of this book, “the presbyter in Asia who produced this document, as if he could add something of his own to the prestige of Paul, was removed from his office after he had been convicted and had confessed that he had done it out of love for Paul.” This strongly indicates that the early church did care about the historic realities of the New Testament and the gospel accounts.

Fatherly Advice Part 1

There is an important element of the discussion of the resurrection of Christ that often gets ignored, and that discussion is the early church fathers (in scholarly circles these are known as the Ante-Nicene fathers).

As Biblical protestants we do not consider the fathers to be authoritative. In truth, as theologians they are a mixed bag, Polycarp is much more useful than is the Epistle of Barnabus. But the fathers are very valuable when it comes to Church history.

The dirty secret that many ignore is that they had superior information to what the modern church historian has available to him. Early Muslims purposefully burned Christian libraries and Christian books during their conquest of the Middle East. Eusebius’ Church history, for example, quotes or references numerous authors that are otherwise lost.

In part, the fathers have also been demonstrated to be accurate historians. With the discovery of the Gnostic gospels we have suffered from a lot of conspiracy theories published by those seeking to profit from the gullible to try to suggest that the gnostics were the earliest Christians (see our series on the technical site to answer this particular question). However, there was one thing that the gnostic library at Nag Hammadi and other finds have demonstrated that no one in the religious left or the atheists discuss on any PBS Specials – these books proved that Iraneus and other early fathers accurately described their opponents. This demonstrates that many of these men were a careful critical thinker, which indicates that the early Church did not value ignorance.

Next time, I want to cite a few specific things that the fathers provide us.