Conservative/fundamentalist Christians frequently ask me how I determine “truth”. They usually pose this question after I have told them that there is no evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. The conversation usually continues by them asking me how I can know that anything exists? How do I know that I exist, for instance. I find this line of thought very odd. I don’t think that most of us are concerned about how we know that we really exist; that we are not just a figment of our imagination. But here is my response to our Christian friends:
How do I determine truth?
I’m not a philosopher, so my method of determining truth is probably pretty much the same as what most other Americans use: a combination of past experience, expert opinion, consensus opinion, common sense, and probabilities. For instance, I drive over American bridges every day without stopping to inspect the latest inspection report for each and every bridge, due to:
-I have never fallen through an American bridge.
-American bridge engineers have a good record of building safe bridges.
-the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that American bridges are safe; they cross American bridges every day, just like me, without first checking the bridge’s latest inspection report.
-common sense tells me that the bridge ahead looks sturdy.
-using the above information, I make a probability estimate of the safety of crossing the bridge directly ahead of me on the current road I am traveling.
Can I be 100% sure of the “truth” regarding the safety of American bridges? No. But that is life. Nothing is 100% certain (except death and taxes!).
So how do I know if an alleged historical event really occurred?
1. I look at documents from primary sources regarding the event.
2. I look at documents from secondary sources regarding the event.
Let’s take the example of this alleged event: Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon.
1. A document written by General X who states he was with Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon.
2. A document written by General Y who states he also was with Caesar.
3. A document written by Roman Senator Z who states that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and states that both General X and General Y accompanied Caesar on his crossing.
4. A known Greek writer, living at the same time as Caesar and these generals, records the same event with corroborating details.
Could all these persons have been involved in a plot to create false history? Yes. But I choose to believe that the chances of that being the case is very small. Evaluating the available evidence, and using probability, I choose to believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon.
Now, take a look at the evidence for the authorship of the Gospels. What do we have? Four anonymous books, two at least of which appear to have lifted large sections of the first, word for word, written decades after the event, with major discrepancies in the crucial event of the story.
The level of “evidence” for this alleged event is very poor compared to the evidence above for the crossing of the Rubicon.