The Rationality of Christian Belief
by Jefferson White
I. That Faith in Christ is Rational
Today it is widely believed that reason and faith are opposites.
According to this belief, if you use reason to prove the truth of something then you don't need faith. And if you use faith to prove the truth of something then you are not using reason.
Now the problem with this conception of reason is that it fails the test of reason.
Take modern science as an example.
Today, there are many people who believe that science is the only rational method for deciding whether or not something is true. Such people believe that it is only those truths that are established by science that are really true. However, there is a contradiction inherent in this belief. For there is no scientific experiment, even in principle, that can prove that scientific experiments are the only method for establishing what is true. The belief that the scientific method is the only way to establish truth is itself a form of faith.
But there are many things in life that people know to be true which cannot be proven to be true by either science or reason. Virtually everything of importance in life involves believing in things that cannot be rationally proven. What is the truth about love? What is the truth about the reality of one's own existence? What is the truth about right and wrong? All of these things are palpable to us as realities, yet there is no scientific or rational demonstration that can establish the truths which we believe about these things. Indeed, most people understand that there are no purely rational explanations for the most important truths about life. And this is why most people are not atheists.
This brings us to the question of faith in Christ as a rational proposition.
The scriptures teach that our knowledge of God is innate. In other words, every human being knows, as a self-evident truth, that God exists and that God has a moral nature, since this knowledge is implanted within every human being by God. The scriptures also teach that this innate knowledge is suppressed by those who are in rebellion against God. Therefore faith in God is primarily an act of the will and not an act of the intellect, although the intellect is involved.
The New Testament teaches that, before the coming of Christ, most of the world – except for the Jews – suppressed this innate knowledge of God. The ancient world lived in spiritual darkness. The New Testament teaches that Christ’s appearance in the world broke through this willed ignorance to give human beings a further means to believe. However, our knowledge of Christ is not innate. It is when the gospel of Christ is taught to those who are able to know God through faith in Christ that they are able to recognize Christ and are reconciled to God through belief in him. Again, this is primarily a matter of the will and not an act of intellect.
Now if the scriptures are true, and our knowledge of God is innate, while those who truly desire God will believe in Christ when they are presented with the gospel, then the act of human will that is called faith turns out to be the rational method for appropriating that innate knowledge.
It is in this sense that faith in Christ is rational.
II. That it is More Rational to Believe in Christ Than in Modern Science
Note what we are talking about rationality and not proof. We are not attempting to “prove” the truth about Christ. Indeed, our argument assumes that a purely rational proof that Christ is God is impossible. We are arguing only that it is more rational to believe in Christ than it is to believe in modern science.
So why is it more rational to believe in Christ?
The scriptures teach that God is the creator and sustainer of all that exists. The scriptures teach that God’s existence and moral character is a matter of innate human knowledge. Every human being knows that God exists and knows God's moral character. The scriptures also teach that this knowledge is deliberately suppressed by many, or even by most, human beings.
Thus there can be no such thing as an honest denial of God’s existence. As the scripture states: “The fool has said in his heart that there is no God.”
Now the average Western atheist argues that if there were "proof" of God’s existence he would immediately believe. But in making this argument the atheist is engaged in a category mistake.
The categorical difference between God and man is of an order of magnitude so great that the “distance” between God and man can be called infinite. By rational definition, therefore, no human being can have an "objective knowledge" of God's existence or of God's attributes, since they would have to be God to have that knowledge. Think about an ant having an “objective knowledge” of a human being. By rational definition, an ant is incapable of such knowledge. Now the difference in consciousness between an ant and a human being is hardly any “distance” at all compared to the categorical distance between God and man. Again, by rational definition, there cannot be an "objective proof” of God’s existence.
So how do we rationally know that God exists?
Again: we rationally know that God exists, and know God’s moral nature, because this knowledge is implanted within us by God as a kind of "virtual knowledge" scaled to our humanity. Thus when the scriptures state that many, or even most, human beings will reject their innate knowledge of God, what they are really rejecting is not some kind of “objective knowledge” of God, but instead they are engaged in an act of the will to deliberately suppress the knowledge that is within them.
The New Testament teaches that Christ was sent – “in the fullness of time” – to provide a further means for reaching as many people as possible, who can be brought to a saving knowledge of God through faith in Christ. In Christ’s own words: “My sheep recognize my voice.” Note that recognizing Christ's voice is not primarily a rational process, although reason is used in this recognition. Belief in Christ rationally follows if you “recognize” Christ's voice. It is in this sense, and only in this sense, that it is rational to believe in Christ.
Let us now turn to the problem of the rationality of believing in modern science.
Many people today believe that modern science will someday reveal the nature of reality as such. Of course, rationally speaking, science tells us much about the empirical structure of the material universe. But this belief is not a rational belief. But as one modern physicist put the matter, modern physics not only reveals that the universe is stranger than we had imagined, but it reveals that the universe is probably stranger than we can imagine.
But if this is true, then the ultimate nature of the cosmos is not within the capacity of science to explain.
Thus to make the claim that science will someday reveal “reality as such” is to argue for a conclusion that has no valid premise. There is no scientific reason to believe that science will ever reveal the nature of "reality as such." There is, of course, the faith that science will someday achieve this goal.
To sum up: to believe that Christ is God follows from the rational premise of Christian belief. That premise is that our knowledge of God is implanted within us by God and that those who truly desire God will believe in Christ. Now this is a belief that is either true or false, but it is a belief that rationally follows from its own premise. Clearly, if our knowledge of God is innate, then it is rational for us to believe in God. However, the belief that modern science will someday explain “reality as such” does not follow from any rational premise that is found in science. It is only the faith that science will someday reveal the ultimate nature that exists, without this faith being a valid premise of science.
And this is why it is more rational to believe in Christ than in modern science.
III. That it is Rational to Believe that the New Testament is Reliable History
It is rational to believe that the New Testament is a reliable historical account for three reasons.
First, if we remove all references to miracles from the New Testament, the writings that make up that book (except for Revelation) are what the ancients would have immediately recognized as a collection of histories and personal letters. However, if we remove every reference to miracles from ancient pagan writings, in which miracles are as central to those writings as they are to the New Testament, there are no pagan writings that would be recognized by the ancients as being histories or personal letters.
Therefore we are faced with a literary paradox.
The New Testament, as a form of ancient literature, is clearly a collection of histories and personal letters as the ancients understood those terms. And yet miracles are central to the New Testament in a way that is not found in any pagan history or personal letter. Thus the New Testament is historically unique as a literary phenomenon. In ancient terms, the New Testament is a collection of histories and letters that record miracles - including the primary miracle of Christ's resurrection.
The New Testament is unique as an historical document.
Second, the oldest manuscripts that we have of the surviving writings of the ancient world, except for the New Testament, all come from hundreds years later than the original texts. Some manuscripts are a thousand years and more later than the original text. Also, the number of surviving manuscripts is quite small. Yet scholars believe that we substantially possess what was written by the ancients.
In contrast, the earliest surviving New Testament manuscripts are from less than two centuries after the writing of the original text. And there are a large number of manuscripts from this early period. Therefore, among all the documents that have come down to us from ancient world, the New Testament has by far the earliest manuscripts and the most extensive number of manuscripts.
There is also this: Enough fragments of the New Testament survive, from the second century after Christ, that it is possible to reconstruct almost the whole of the New Testament just from those fragments. This places the earliest New Testament "manuscript" just one century after Christ. This is unprecedented for any ancient document. There is more rational proof for the proposition that we have the original New Testament than for any other ancient writing.
Third, most scholars today put the writing of the gospels and of Acts in the second half of the first century, or within two generations of the events narrated in the New Testament. Most scholars regard the letters of the Apostle Paul to be earliest writings of the New Testament, earlier than the gospels. Paul's letters can be dated to the very middle of the first century, which is the era in which those letters were written.
There are also dozens of incidental historical details that are found in Paul’s letters, and in the Acts of the Apostles, which can be historically dated to the middle of the first century. And many of these social, political, and other details were true only in the middle of the first century. They would not have been true of a later period. Also, there are dozens of historical details in the gospels narrating the life of Christ which belong to the first third of the first century, the very time of Christ.
There are other historical arguments that could be made. But these three arguments alone establish that it is rational to believe that the New Testament is reliable as a record of history.
IV. That Belief in God is Rational Despite the Existence of Evil
A long-standing argument of the atheist is that Christian belief in the absolute goodness of God is rationally incompatible with the existence of evil.
Here is the basic atheist argument:
First premise: If God is absolute in both power and goodness, then God would not permit evil.
Second premise: Evil exists.
Conclusion: Thus God does not exist.
But there is a rational problem with this argument.
Let us begin by noting that many philosophers, including many Christian philosophers, attempt to provide a rational argument - called a theodicy - for why a good God would permit evil. Some of these philosophical arguments are quite ingenious. But the problem is that the scriptures never make this kind of argument. The closest thing to such an argument is when Christ states (in the parable of the tares or weeds) that God permits evil to exist for the sake of the good. However, Christ's statement does not tell us why God permits evil. It simply asserts that God permits evil for the sake of the good. No rational explanation for the existence of evil is given. The same is true of every other passage in scripture that speaks of the goodness of God in relation to evil. It is always assumed that the goodness of God is compatible with the existence of evil, but there is no explanation for why God permits evil.
Therefore a rational argument based on the scriptures would be as follows:
Major premise: God is absolute in both power and in goodness, and does no evil.
Minor premise: Evil exists.
Conclusion: Evil is permitted by God for reasons that we do not understand and which, in the nature of things, we may never understand.
The reader will note not this argument does not constitute a rational proof for believing that God's existence is compatible with the existence of evil. It only establishes the rational possibility that God's existence is compatible with the existence of evil. And if that possibility is rational, then the atheist's argument fails. It fails because the possibility exists that these two things are compatible.
It should also be understood that the atheist argument involves a logical contradiction. For if the atheist is right and there is no God, then there is no evil as well. Evil exists only if there is some ultimate authority that transcends the cosmos and who therefore defines good and evil. But since the atheist denies that such a transcendent authority exists, the atheist argument logically entails that there can be no such thing as evil. So the atheist argument is not just defeated by the rational possibility that the Christian argument could be true, but is also defeated by the logical contradiction found within the atheist argument. Because the atheist denial of the existence of God entails a denial of the existence of evil, the atheist cannot then rationally use the existence of evil to “prove” the non-existence of God.