One of the common questions Christians run into is this: Even if you think God does exist how could we possibly know the Christian God is the correct one? This might come up when addressing Pascals wager but it comes up in other contexts as well. They will sometimes then go about naming every type of god or spirit that they can find on the internet. (Let’s call these hitherto unknown gods “the gods of the internet”). This appears to be an invitation to start wasting much more time than this argument should take. It also seems like an attempt to overwhelm us. Don’t be waste time or be overwhelmed. This question can actually be a great invitation to explore how quite a bit of evidence supports the Christian God.
If we get to the point that for whatever reason we accept we should believe there is a God, but we need to which god it is, then we should consider “good reasons” to believe one way or another. As I indicated before, “good reasons” to believe something generally fall into one of three categories. 1) It is theoretically rational to believe (ie. There is evidence that the belief is true.); 2) It is pragmatically rational to believe (that is, weighing the consequences of being wrong or right on this issue favors belief); and 3) It is logically consistent to believe. With this criteria we can start comparing the gods/religions and see which one wins.
What we should not do is try to talk about some imagined “burden of proof” and then try to think if the evidence for this or that god “meets the burden” or does not. This is not a rational way to choose between multiple different exclusive alternatives. This is because when we are choosing between multiple exclusive choices we do not necessarily choose the one that is more likely than not true. It is rational to choose the one that is simply best supported by good reasons even if it is not more likely than not true. In other words if at the end of the day we say the Islamic God has a 15% chance of being true the Jewish (non-christian) God has 30% of being true the Christian God has a 31% chance of being true and several other gods add up to the remaining 24% we can still say we should choose the Christian God. Of course pragmatic and logical considerations can come into play but to the extent those are equal then it would be rational to choose the Christian God even though we only give the Christian God a 31% chance and not over a 50% chance of being correct.
Getting back to proper reasoning one thing rational people should do in determining whether to believe in one God versus a different God would be to compare the evidence for each. Of course I think pragmatic rationality can play a role in this as well, but lets set that aside for now and focus on theoretic rationality. What sort of thing would even be “evidence” for a particular God?
Well lots of things could be evidence for God for different people. If the atheist refuses to believe anything could be evidence for God then ok you are probably dealing with a mind so closed no amount of rational discussion will help. If that is the case maybe you could use pragmatic reasons. But let’s say they are at least willing to agree some things could be evidence, what would evidence of God be?
Miracles are the thing asked for as proof of God most often. I know it is what I would want. Asking for “signs” (the bible’s term for miracles) seems to have been around since at least Judaism itself. The Gospel of John couldn’t be more clear that he is relating the signs in his Gospel for this very purpose. He flat out says:
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name. “
So the God that offers the best evidence of miracles would seem to me to be the main consideration if not the dispositive one. What sort of evidence do we have of miracles supporting Zeus or the God of Islam or the Christian God or the other “gods of the internet”?
People may have had a miracle in their own life (or the life of someone they know well and trust) which can serve as evidence. And considering the application of such an event would seem to be very rational thing to do. But what if you don’t think you, or anyone close to you, has had a miracle happen or even if it did, you don’t know that it points to one God as opposed to another? Then I think we should look at history and how such miracles are evidence for a particular religion.
As far as the miracles actually being proof of one God or another. It should be clear the miracles done by Jesus himself would support the Christian God. As it would be clear that miracles done by Mohamed would support the Islamic God. But even if we grant that lightening striking a particular ship at sea is a miracle, why should we think it is proof of Thor? So we would need to consider that when looking at the evidence.
Now then we have different historical miracle claims that are assigned to different religions. How do we analyze the competing historical claims? I suggest we use the same analysis historians generally use. Bart Ehrman gives several criteria that historians consider when evaluating whether something in history occurred. Using this criteria seems like a good way to evaluate different miracle claims.
Dr. Ehrman says these are the typical criteria historians use in evaluating historical claims:
1) Multiple sources
2) Preferably Independent sources
3) Non biased sources
4) Contextual credibility
5) Close in time to the events
6) No contradictions/internally consistent
They seem to be rational criteria. So I would suggest that people when considering what God is most likely “the true God” take these criteria into account in evaluating the various historical miracle claims.
So, for example, let’s take the “close in time to events.” Sometimes people argue that those who wrote the new testament did not themselves see Jesus. They at best could have seen elderly eye witnesses who saw the event. Ok Ill grant that for argument’s sake. But now let’s compare that to Zeus. Who saw Zeus perform a miracle and how long was it between the person who saw Zeus and the person writing about the event? As we start to go through the list of criteria we may wish the Christian God was better supported but when we compare it to gods like Thor or the various gods of the internet well we see that the Christian God really does do quite well. Jesus performed many miracles proving his religion.
If for example we have records that say someone on a clear day said “Let Thor’s power Strike this ship!” and then the ship was struck by lightening, ok, I would agree that would indeed be some evidence of Thor. But how do such accounts hold up under historical criteria? Who claims to have seen it and when was it recorded in relation to the event, are there multiple independent sources? etc etc. Encourage your atheist interlocutor to rationally compare these various gods of the internet against Christ’s multiple miracles using this criteria. Let them decide for themselves whether the Christian God is the most rational God to believe in. Let them see for themselves that there is good reason to believe in the Christian God.
I think that any rational person who actually takes the question of what God is the true God, seriously and pursues the matter in a rational way will almost certainly end up with only a few Gods if not one. Whether a rational person will be left with 4 or 2 or 1 well I am not arguing that right now but clearly there will not be this bewildering number of gods.
So just by considering the theoretical rationality we are likely to narrow down the number of Gods dramatically. We should of course also consider practical rationality. This might or might not further sort out some Gods. And then you have the more narrow questions of deciding between the few remaining Gods and in the case of Christianity you have to sort out all the different denominations. And of course you should do this in a rational way as well. But we can leave that for another blog.