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Admitting, ever so modestly, that he can't disprove the existence of God, atheist popularizer Richard Dawkins explains why God almost certainly does not exist. His argument, presented in chapter 4 of The God Delusion (2008), is intended to expose the fallacy of intelligent design. It goes something like this:
• The more complex a thing is, the more improbable it is (absent a designer).
• God must be more complex than anything he created.
• Therefore, God is more improbable than anything in the universe.
The argument (and entire chapter) can be reduced to the "zinger" fashionable among budding atheists testing their forensic chops: "Who created God?" Fancied a debate-winning retort by Dawkins and his acolytes, the go-to comeback kicks off a line of reasoning that sends the discussion headlong down a black hole of infinite regression. For if "God" demands an explanation, so does any ultimate cause (material, immaterial, intelligent, or otherwise).
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In cheekier fashion, Dawkins has said he disbelieves all sorts of things that cannot be disproved: the tooth fairy, Easter bunny, Flying Spaghetti Monster (his own rhetorical creation), and other childish myths and imaginary figures; God is just one more thing he adds to the list.
On another occasion, when asked what defense he would summon if, after dying, he came face-to-face with God, Dawkins replied, "Not enough evidence, God. Not enough evidence."1
Riddled with Errors
These arguments, which play well to folks inclined to disbelief, share some fundamental errors.
First is the error of category. Unlike God, the tooth fairy, Easter bunny, and Flying Spaghetti Monster are not necessary beings. That is to say, the universe, life, and the fulfillment of man's transcendent yearnings are not contingent upon their existence. Simple and great thinkers alike have been entertained by the exploits of Odysseus and Peter Pan, but they have been transformed by the story of God.
Next is question-begging. By insisting that anything presumed to exist, including a necessary cause, demands an explanation, the argument presupposes naturalism, the very premise under question.
Then there's confirmation bias. By criticizing theism for its lack of empirical evidence, while ignoring the unproven and/or unprovable devices of naturalism (for starters, the multiverse, cosmic inflation, and macro-evolution), which collectively defy Occam's razor and which individually, at least in some cases, defy known physical processes, the argument betrays a blinkered consideration of the facts.
And that brings up the fourth error. Contrary to the claims of Dawkins and his ilk, there is evidence, sufficient evidence, for the existence of God—preeminently, in the Person of Jesus Christ.
In four separate historical records, Jesus is described as a first-century Jew who traveled throughout Palestine preaching, teaching, and healing; who was charged with blasphemy and executed on the order of Pontius Pilate; and who lay in a tomb for three days before rising from the dead.
Of the sayings attributed to him, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9) and "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) are arguably the most bracing and immodest. So much so that, to riff off of C. S. Lewis, the only reasonable way to regard the man who said them (and such similar things as that he had power to forgive sins) would be as a quack, as a madman, or as God himself. Yet even among non-Christians, the first two options are not seriously entertained, given the high moral character of Jesus' life and teachings.2
Thus, if true, these four records—the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are evidence for the one, true God; if false, they are mere stories, and Jesus and his Father warrant no more deference than is due to Poseidon and his father Chronos. Everything hinges, therefore, on determining the veracity or falsity of the Gospels. To do that, we need to consider the "three Ws" of investigative inquiry: when, where, and by whom they were written.
With respect to the first two Ws, when and where, proximity is key. Accounts of events that are made in a time and/or place far removed from the time and place in which the events themselves occurred have low reliability. That's because the "once upon a time, in a land far away" feature makes such accounts unavailable for critique by contemporaries to the events they depict.
With respect to the third W, who, corroboration is key. Accounts of events whose authenticity depends upon a sole author (such as the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon) are suspect, as are those whose author (or authors) materially benefits from promulgating them (such as Muhammad, whose Qur'an-inspired campaigns gained him lands, subjects, and political capital).
By contrast, accounts written in spatial and temporal proximity to the events described, and corroborated by multiple eyewitnesses with multiple points of view, have a high measure of historical reliability.
How do the four Gospels stack up against these criteria?
How They Stack Up
It is generally agreed by competent scholarship that the three synoptic Gospels, those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, were written in Palestine between a.d. 50 and 70—that is, in the very region where Jesus lived and worked, and within the lifetimes of people who had first-hand memories
Indeed, when the Apostle Paul recounted Jesus' death, burial, and resurrection in an a.d. 56 letter, he reminded his readers of the hundreds of surviving eyewitnesses to those events (1 Corinthians 15:4–8). And—what is unparalleled in any other literary work—dozens of predictions concerning those events of Jesus' life had been recorded three centuries earlier in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament. In short, Paul's readers had access to living witnesses who could challenge the gospel record, including by exposing attempts to manipulate it to match the prophecies.
Moreover, the Gospel writers themselves were close to those who knew Jesus, if not to the Lord himself. Of the synoptic authors, Matthew was a personal associate of Jesus; Mark was the ministry partner and spiritual son of Peter, one of Jesus' closest disciples; and Luke, a ministry companion of Paul, specifically states that he sourced his material from "those who were first eyewitnesses" (Luke 1:2). The non-synoptic author, John, who recorded his Gospel account in about a.d. 90, was also a personal disciple of Jesus.
Each of these authors wrote from a unique perspective and for a specific audience: Matthew for Jews, Mark for Romans, Luke for Greeks, and John for Christians. Thus, there are differences between the four narratives with respect to voice, emphasis, length, chronology, material included, events described, and details reported. However, in no case do such differences affect any doctrine of faith. To the contrary—not only do these variations contraindicate collusion, but the unique viewpoints and emphases of the four evangelists combine, much like a four-color printing process, to give a richer, more complete image of the work and Person of Jesus Christ than would any one record in isolation. In this sense, the evangelists' accounts, taken as a whole, are more than the sum of their parts.
In short, judging by the criteria of spatial and temporal proximity to the events recorded and multiple attestations to those events, we can say that the gospel record enjoys high historical reliability. When we also consider the fact that the number of surviving Gospel manuscripts far exceeds the number of surviving manuscripts of any other work of antiquity, it becomes apparent that there is more historical evidence for Jesus's life, death, and resurrection than there is for, say, Julius Caesar's campaign against and conquest of Gaul.
But what about author motive? Is there any validity to the atheists' claim that Jesus' disciples hatched a "risen Savior" tale and foisted it on a benighted public for their own political and/or financial gain? In a word, no. This charge not only lacks even a scintilla of historical evidence to support it, but it also contravenes everything we know about human nature.
Far from reaping personal profit or benefit from preaching about Jesus, the disciples lived under the constant threat of torture, imprisonment, and death—strong incentives for even a brave man to recant a narrative he firmly believes. And at the time of Jesus' passion, the disciples showed themselves to be anything but brave. They all fled when Jesus was arrested, and at his trial, Peter cravenly cursed out denials at the mere suggestion that he knew him. Yet something happened later that turned the disciples from jellyfish into ironmen overnight. That same Peter who had denied even knowing Christ gave rousing testimony about him to crowds of Jews on the morning of Pentecost, and continued to do so even after a gag order was issued by the Jewish religious leaders. The other apostles were equally stalwart in their preaching.
Eventually Peter suffered martyrdom, as did Paul and all the other apostles except John. Yet critics would have us believe that these men lived parlous lives ending in martyrdom for the sake of a testimony they knew was bogus. E. P. Sanders, a longtime professor of religion at Duke University, doesn't buy it: "That Jesus' followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences, I do not know."3 Sanders understands that while people may endure brutal mistreatment and even death for what they believe is true, they won't willingly do so for what they know is false.
Nobody knew that better than the late Charles W. Colson.
All the President's Men
In his book, Loving God (1997), Chuck Colson wrote about his involvement in the Watergate conspiracy. While he was Special Counsel to President Nixon, Colson was one of a small band of "hand-picked loyalists" who believed passionately in their leader and sacrificed careers, privacy, and family life for their cause. And in 1972 it seemed to be worth it, as they found themselves on the winning team, their leader having just been re-elected in a landslide victory.
These loyalists were influential men, enjoying the perks and prestige that come from close association with the man who holds the highest office in the land. They were powerful men who, with a word, could mobilize the military, fire high-ranking personnel, or order a private jet. Thus, when the Watergate scandal broke, they had everything to gain from closing ranks and maintaining their story, and much to lose from a failed cover-up. Yet, writes Colson, despite all that was at stake, they "could not hold a conspiracy together for more than two weeks." When faced with the personal embarrassment, public disgrace, and likely prison term that exposure of their involvement would bring, the conspirators' "natural instinct for self-preservation" took over, and, "one by one, [they] deserted their leader, walked away from their cause, [and] turned their backs on the power, prestige, and privileges."4
Christ's disciples, by contrast, were powerless men who lacked social position and political clout. They could expect much worse than public disgrace or even prison time for holding fast to the gospel message. Yet they preached it boldly, beginning in Jerusalem, where the religious leaders strove in vain to suppress or discredit it, and spreading out from there even unto Rome and beyond. Despite enduring all manner of persecution and martyrdom, the disciples grew in number from about 100 at the time of Jesus' death and resurrection, to over 5,000 in a only a few weeks' time, up to six million by a.d. 300, and today number some two billion souls.
Contrast this with the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great; it began splintering soon after his death. The Roman Empire lasted much longer; still, within five centuries of the assassination of Julius Caesar (the "dictator in perpetuity"), his "Eternal City" was sacked, leading to the collapse of the western portion of the empire. Closer to our day, Hitler's Third Reich, which was to last a thousand years, lasted barely a dozen. And scarcely a century after the death of Karl Marx and some 70 years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Berlin Wall fell, the rest of the Iron Curtain came down, and the Soviet Union was dismantled. Yet the movement of a Galilean carpenter has not only endured but has grown for two millennia, despite being driven underground for the first 300 years of its existence and despite suffering persecution in numerous times and places throughout its history, even to the current day.
Had Jesus been just another would-be world-changer, his following would have soon dissipated. Instead, despite the suppressive forces of the cross, the stake, the coliseum, and the gulag, the Church he established has become the world's largest and most influential institution.
The implication was not lost upon one would-be world-changer, Napoleon Bonaparte. While exiled on the island of Saint Helena, the ex-emperor of France told fellow émigré Count Montholon,
Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I myself have founded great empires; but upon what did these creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded His empire upon love, and to this very day millions will die for Him. . . . I think I understand something of human nature; and I tell you, all these were men, and I am a man; none else is like Him: Jesus Christ was more than a man. . . . I have inspired multitudes with such an enthusiastic devotion that they would have died for me . . . but to do this it was necessary that I should be visibly present with the electric influence of my looks, my words, my voice. . . . Christ alone has succeeded in so raising the mind of man toward the unseen, that it becomes insensible to the barriers of time and space. . . . This it is which proves to me quite convincingly the Divinity of Jesus Christ.5
To the unblinkered critic, the combined historical witness of Scripture, the behavior of the disciples, and the phenomenon of the Church provide objective evidence of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ, in whom, "all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9)—evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that God most certainly does exist. •
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