Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? (2006)
17. Did the Earliest Christians Encourage Critical Inquiry?
|17.1 Holding's Bogus Evidence
17.2 Method as Revealed in Paul
17.3 Survey of Passages Relating to Method
17.1. Holding's Bogus Evidence
Holding claims that "throughout the NT, the apostles encouraged people to check" and "seek proof and verify facts." This is blatantly false. Indeed, the only evidence he can adduce for this absurd claim has nothing to do with "facts" and actually implies the opposite attitude toward method that Holding intends. Holding begins his case with 1 Thessalonians 5:21, which says (in context, i.e. 5:19-22): "Do not extinguish the Spirit, do not scoff at acts of prophesy, but put them to the test, and hold fast to what's good, and push away every kind of knavish thing." Is Paul talking about checking the evidence for the Resurrection? Or in fact any empirical claim? No. He is talking about testing ongoing prophesies in the Church, and the test he refers to is not empirical, but moral: believe any prophesy that is morally good, and shun any prophesy that is morally bad. That kind of test is not even relevant to Holding's argument.
The test in question is the same described or alluded to by other New Testament writers (e.g. 1 John 4:1-5:13; 2 Peter 1:19-2:22), and no other test (for distinguishing true from false prophesy) is ever mentioned in the New Testament. The Gospel of Matthew has Jesus himself describe and promote this "moral" test for prophesy: the sole criterion is whether the prophesy produces good or evil fruit (Matthew 7:15-20). No mention is made of doing empirical research or logical analysis or anything like that. To the contrary, Christians are told that false prophets will come bearing all the same evidence true prophets will (Matthew 24:23-29; Mark 13:21-23), therefore only a moral test will tell them apart. The assumption is that false prophesy produces lawlessness and abandonment of love (Matthew 24:11-12). This reflects the irrational groupthink assumption that a well-behaved man can't lie and a morally successful group must have the approval of God (see again, for example, Chapter 6 and Chapter 10). The only exception in the New Testament is when a false prophet is exposed the same way Moses proved the greatness of his God: in a contest of miracles (Acts 13:6-12)--not by researching or logically analyzing what he claims, but simply by seeing whose miracles work. Period. No other evidence or investigation ever comes up, or is at all required to convert even an elite (as discussed in Chapter 13).
Indeed, in the most explicit instruction, John uses the same vocabulary as Paul when he tells Christians to "test" prophetic spirits by seeing whether they promote or stifle love. Indeed, his test is absurdly question-begging: "every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not of God, but is the spirit of the Antichrist" (1 John 4:1-3). As standards of inquiry go, this hits rock bottom. The only further test subsequently offered is the criterion of whether the spirit promotes love or worldly desires (1 John 4:4-5:13), since only the former comes from God. It is impossible to accept any of these tests as evidence today. Whether someone in a prophetic trance confesses Christ and advocates love has no bearing at all on whether Jesus really rose from the dead. Indeed, the mere fact that these tests were more than sufficient for Christian converts proves exactly the opposite of Holding's point: they were satisfied with far, far less than anything we would call "irrefutable" evidence. So long as people had visions of a Christ telling them to love each other and give up worldly lusts, that was enough to prove Christ lived. Maybe they would require a missionary to perform some miracle before being truly convinced (as discussed in Chapter 13). But the Christians themselves admitted that even false prophets could do that! Therefore, even empirical evidence was inadequate. Only the moral (and thus thoroughly natural) success of the movement really counted.
The only other piece of evidence Holding has to offer is just as fatal to his case. Holding claims that "when fledgling converts heeded this advice" to check the facts, "not only did they remain converts (suggesting that the evidence held up under scrutiny), but the apostles described them as 'noble' for doing so," citing Acts 17:11. But that passage says the opposite of what Holding thinks: it says these "nobler" Christians accepted the gospel "readily" ("with all willingness"), not skeptically. And it says the only test they conducted, the only research they engaged, and the only fact-checking they carried out was "closely examining the scriptures on a daily basis" as to "whether these things were so," and from that alone "many of them therefore believed, and many among the respectable Greek women, too, as well as not a few of the men" (Acts 17:12). That's it. They checked scripture. And that was enough to persuade them to convert--on the spot. Not a single bit of actual research was required, nor was any engaged. No letters were sent. No inquiries made. No empirical evidence demanded. There wasn't even an interrogation of the apostles as witnesses--to the contrary, their stories were "eagerly" believed, and as soon as what they said matched what the scriptures said, that was sufficient to convert everyone who did convert, even "respectable" men and women. And this is what Acts praises as most noble--not skeptical inquiry as we understand it.
All the evidence from Acts and beyond corroborates this same picture, as demonstrated already in Chapter 13. So even if we completely trust what Acts says, it still proves exactly the opposite of what Holding argues: no empirical research of any kind was required or undertaken, even by wealthy converts, and in fact Christians were hailed as especially "noble" who simply "accepted" the message, confirming no more than that it agreed with scripture. Just as the Gospel of John says, "Because you have seen me, you have believed, but blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe." The greater praise, in other words, went to those who rejected the skeptical standards of Thomas and simply trusted what they were told. That entails a hierarchy of empirical values quite the reverse of what Holding pretends.
17.2. Method as Revealed in Paul
That concludes all the evidence Holding can find. There is no other evidence. And even these two passages utterly fail to support his point. As it happens, like these passages, the collective evidence of the New Testament, especially in the Epistles, supports quite the opposite conclusion. Never once is anyone "encouraged" to "check," "seek proof," or "verify facts" at all. No empirical method or standard of critical inquiry gains any praise. To the contrary, those who advocated such methods, and the principles of reasoned doubt and investigation, are pretty much on the receiving end of condemnation. Christianity, after all, targeted for conversion those who scorned the "wisdom of the wise" (1 Corinthians 1:17-31), not those who cherished the forensic standards of the supereducated lawyers, historians, and scientists of the day.
And this is born out in evident practice, as Paul could demonstrate any point he wanted by simply articulating a clever proof from scripture. Failing that, all he had to do was claim a revelation from God. No other evidence really mattered. At most, if he really needed some corroboration, he would appeal to the fact that he suffers for the faith, therefore he "must" be telling the truth, and he can perform "miracles," therefore God "must" approve what he says. Try as you might, search every verse, and not once is any other kind of evidence offered for any claim he makes, beyond "appearances" like his own vision. These are not fact-checkers. These are mystics. And the standards of mystics are wholly alien to any respectable empiricism.
Read the Epistles and see. Paul and his audience do not seem very impressed by rational, historical, scientific, or dialectical evidence (check out 1 Corinthians 2), so these get no significant mention in his letters. Instead, Paul always 'proves' the truth by appealing to the efficacy of apostolic miracle-working, to subjective revelation, to scripture, and to his upstanding behavior or 'suffering' as proof of his sincerity. That's pretty much it. After all, Paul and his flock believed 'truth' had to be grasped spiritually, on faith (1 Corinthians 2:15-16), not through skeptical investigation. Consider the argument of Galatians:
I am amazed that you are so quickly abandoning the one who called you in the grace of Christ, for a different gospel, which isn't really another gospel, except there are some people who trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you any gospel other than what we preached to you, let him be anathema! As we have said before, so say I now again, if any man preaches to you any gospel other than that which you received, let him be anathema. (Galatians 1:7-17, emphasis mine)
Here we have a serious situation: Christians are abandoning the faith for some alien gospel. Surely here, of all places, Paul would pull out all the stops in emphasizing the proper empirical methods for checking the truth of what Jesus really said and did, and hence what the true gospel really was. Yet what do we get? A question-begging criterion of blind dogmatism: anything you hear that contradicts what we told you is false. Period. No fact-checking required. Even a vision from heaven won't cut it! Paul is so adamant about this criterion that he repeats it twice. This is clearly the criterion of truth he and his congregation should and do employ. Yet it is exactly the opposite of the empirical standards Holding wants to pretend Paul advocated.
Paul continues (emphasis mine):
For I make known to you, brethren, regarding the gospel which was preached by me, that it is not according to a man, neither did I receive it from a man, nor was I taught it. Rather, it came to me through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my manner of life in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and made havoc of it: and I advanced in the Jews' religion beyond many of my own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when it was the good pleasure of God, who separated me, even from my mother's womb, and called me through his grace, to reveal his Son inside me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles, right away I did not consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go over to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me.
Think about this argument for a minute. Paul is surely using the best argument he knows will persuade his audience, and get them back into the fold--so we can say his audience must have found this line of reasoning more persuasive than anything else he could think to say. But his line of reasoning is the exact flip-side of empirical standards: whereas a good critical thinker would only trust a man who immediately went and checked all the facts before believing, Paul not only explicitly declares he did not do that at all, but the fact that he didn't is actually his very argument! In other words, he expects his audience to be impressed by the fact that he didn't fact-check! So important is this point that he actually goes out of his way to insist, "I'm not lying!" (Galatians 2:20).
Thus, Galatians 2 expresses values exactly the opposite of what Holding wants. Paul and his audience are thoroughly uninterested in Holding's idea of "fact-checking." To the contrary, the testimony of men, indeed even of angels, is inherently suspect--so suspect, in fact, that they can dogmatically reject it a priori. What is persuasive is simply and only this: that God spoke to Paul in a private revelation. That is the only kind of evidence his audience will accept--indeed, even so much as a hint that Paul checked the facts before believing the vision would destroy Paul's credibility entirely. For if he showed any doubt at all that the vision was true, if the vision was so insufficient that he had to seek reinforcement or additional instruction from mortal men, then this would cast doubt on the vision being an authentic communication from God. After all, his audience were the sort of people who thought God punished Zacharias (by striking him mute) for merely asking for evidence (Luke 1:18-20). That's how hostile the Christian mind was to Holding's dream of "fact-checking." The Christian moral was that Zacharias, and hence all of us, should simply trust a vision--no questions asked, and no facts checked. The same twisted logic also makes sense of Paul's tactic of pointing out how he did a total 180 from enemy to friend, as proof that his vision must really have been from God. The fallacious logic here would impress many people back then. But we have no good reason to buy it today.
17.3. Survey of Passages Relating to Method
Paul's bizarre anti-empirical assumptions reflect the fact that Christian epistemology was fundamentally centered on faith over evidence. For "the righteous shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17, quoting Habakkuk 2:4) and so "we walk by faith and not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7). This is an attitude that offers little encouragement to "checking the facts first." To the contrary, when questions arise, far from being encouraged to fact-check, the Christian is told to "ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind," and "such a man cannot expect to receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways" (James 1:6-8). Ask in faith. Ask without doubting. The man who doubts is aimless, unstable, and worthy of no help from God. This is exactly the opposite of encouraging critical inquiry. It quite clearly discourages it.
Far from being told to check things out, the Christian is told "you have no need for anyone to teach you" because Christ "teaches you about all things and is true and is not a lie, and just as this has taught you, you abide in him" (1 John 2:27). In fact, don't even pay attention to what anyone else says, just what we tell you, for "we are of God, and he who knows God understands us, while he who is not of God doesn't understand." That is our criterion of truth; "by this we know the spirit of truth" and can distinguish it from "the spirit of error" (1 John 4:6). This is dogmatism, not empiricism. Fact-checking is portrayed here as all but ungodly. Instead, believe what we say. End of story. That's indeed the only criterion implied in 1 Corinthians 15:11: after reciting the claims grounding the faith, Paul does not mention any facts having been checked or needing to be checked; all he says is "so we preach, and so you believed." That's considered enough.
At the same time, the principles of philosophy, science, logic, and forensics are lambasted as foolish. People who rely on them "become futile in their speculations," and though "professing to be wise," they are really just "fools" (Romans 1:21-22). Christians are openly discouraged from learning, developing, and employing skills of interrogation, investigation, and examination. Anyone who attempts to do that merely "deceives himself," for all those things are "foolishness before God." In fact, "it is written" that "the reasoning of the wise" is "useless," that God "will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and [that God will] bring the discernment of the discerning to nothing"--making fools of "the wise man," "the scribe," and "the skilled questioner" (1 Corinthians 1:18-20 & 3:18-20). This isn't exactly an encouragement to follow in the footsteps of philosophers, scholars, and skilled inquirers.
Indeed, Christians are specifically told to reject logical analysis, since "wrangling over words" is "useless" and brings only ruin (2 Timothy 2:14), and it's all "fruitless discussion" anyway. Whoever entangle themselves in it "neither understand what they are saying nor grasp the matters about which they make confident assertions" (1 Timothy 1:6-7). Examining alternative accounts and claims is discouraged, too:
If anyone advocates a different doctrine, and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing, having a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-4)
Thus, the very sort of person who asks questions, seeks precision in description and terminology, or even suggests the truth is other than what the Christian leaders say it is, is just plain evil. How can you check any facts, when any fact contrary to dogma is automatically a lie, born only of evil, arrogance, ignorance, and greed?
So fact-checking is practically ruled out a priori. Anything contrary to the "knowledge of God" and "obedience to Christ" must be destroyed (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). Not checked. Not looked into. Just destroyed. All mundane knowledge is suspect: "if anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know" (1 Corinthians 8:2). And the cure is not employing some critical method to gain reliable knowledge, but to simply reject everything contrary to dogma. The Christian is simply told to "make sure no one makes a captive of you through philosophy and senseless deception according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the natural world, and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8).
In fact, the earliest Christians conveniently constructed an epistemology whereby any evidence or testimony that contradicts their dogmatic beliefs could be rejected out of hand. Anyone who says anything contrary to the claims of the apostles is surely deluded, "for God has sent upon them a deluding influence so they would believe what is false" (2 Thessalonians 2:11), and they are all hypocrites, liars, victims of deluding spirits, and the puppets of demons (1 Timothy 4:1). Christians are even told, point blank: don't debate (Galatians 5:20-26), even though debate is the lifeblood of critical inquiry. Likewise, instead of checking out the facts and developing well-researched refutations, "false teachers" are simply to be "shunned" (2 Timothy 3:5), and so anything contrary to dogma won't even be heard--much less looked into. As Timothy is instructed, "guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith" (1 Timothy 6:20-21). In other words, trust what you were told. Don't even listen to anyone else. Rather than being told to investigate them, Christians are instructed to simply reject what stories they may hear (1 Timothy 4:7).
One can certainly try to sugarcoat all this, spin it to one's liking, make excuses, and ultimately argue that these declarations only apply to certain contexts, or whatever. It still won't change the fact that these are the only encouragements regarding method to be found in the Epistles. And not a one encourages anyone to "check the facts." Instead, when we catch glimpses of the actual methods that Christians respected, we find mysticism trumping empiricism every time. Consider Paul's moving appeal:
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom when I proclaimed to you the testimony of God.... My message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in a demonstration of the spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
Thus, Paul openly disavows the established rhetorical principles of evidence and argument, and says instead that the miracles of the Holy Spirit are all he came with, and all that God wants Christians to trust as evidence. Miracles and revelations and the apostle's word were always sufficient. No research was necessary, for "the Lord will give you understanding in everything" (2 Timothy 2:7; e.g. Mark 13:11; Luke 12:11-12, 21:13-15). Like modern New Agers (see Chapter 13), Christians are exhorted to ignore the evidence of their senses, and trust instead in the invisible certainties of their heart (2 Corinthians 4:18), since that is where God speaks to you. Indeed, Paul gives away the game when he says "what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?" (1 Corinthians 14:6) Funny how "evidence" and "logic" don't make the list. Paul is saying outright that if a claim doesn't come by revelation, prophecy, inspiration (gnôsis), or tradition, it is profitless and not even worth mentioning. So much for fact-checking.
Apart from Scripture, the Holy Spirit is their only sourcebook:
For to one God grants the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge (gnôsis) according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another workings of power, and to another prophecy, and to another interpretations of spirits, to another different kinds of utterances, and to another the interpretation of these utterances. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10)
Wisdom. Knowledge. Faith. All come from the Holy Spirit. Not from research. Not from making inquiries. Not from questioning witnesses accurately and weighing different kinds of testimony. Indeed, when Paul declares the hierarchy of reverence, the list goes: "first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, then the ability to help, then to administer, then varieties of speaking in tongues" (1 Corinthians 12:28). Again, fact-checkers don't even make the list.
Christianity's earliest critic certainly noticed the problem, and it is well worth looking at what he said on this matter, and what the Christian apologist Origin had to say in reply, even though this comes two hundred years late. When Celsus attempted to investigate the claims and doctrines of Christians, he kept running into this same wall: Christians would simply exclaim "do not question, just believe!" They expected converts to simply trust in Jesus--without evidence or demonstration. And Origen does not deny it. To the contrary, he defends it! He says, point blank: "we admit that we teach those men to believe without reasons." So much for the supposed encouragement to "check the facts" first.
Origen does claim that Christians believe in inquiry into the meaning of their prophetical writings, the parables of the Gospels, and "other things narrated or enacted with a symbolical signification," but mentions nothing about checking witnesses, documents, physical evidence, histories, or anything empirical at all. And what's worse, not only is "study of scripture" the only inquiry Christians engage in, Origen declares that most people don't even have the time for that (since people worked long hours in antiquity just to get by), and "therefore" the Christian exhortation to "simply believe" is actually a good policy! So rather than refute or even challenge Celsus on this point, Origin defends the very anti-empirical policy we have found throughout the Epistles, on the dismal argument that faith is good for people.
By wasting no time on "fact-checking" before committing to the faith (or even afterward!), people can gain salvation and moral improvement. "Isn't it better for them," Origen insists, "to believe without a reason, and then become reformed and improved," rather than "not to have allowed themselves to be converted on the strength of mere faith, but to have waited until they could give themselves to a thorough examination of the reasons?" Origen says it is indeed better to "just believe," because most people could never complete such an examination, and therefore would remain wicked and die unsaved. So it is better they simply have faith, and not waste time checking the facts. So much for Holding's argument.
In conclusion, there is no evidence the apostles were "actively encouraging people to check out their claims" in any sense we would find relevant today. To the contrary, as best we can tell, they were encouraging the rejection of the methods of critical and empirical inquiry advocated by elite scientists and philosophers, and instead advocating the pursuit of entirely different criteria of truth--criteria we know today are full of holes and incapable of actually getting at the real truth about anything (beyond blind luck). Their standards were mystical (appeals to scripture and revelation), moral (appeals to the virtue of the speaker as proof his story is true), and superstitious (appeals to the miraculous "powers" of the speaker as proof he's right)--never anything validly empirical.
Obviously, this won over no one who already valued the skeptical and empirical standards of the philosophical schools. But that is precisely why these people are condemned as fools. The Christians found favor instead with those who despised elite philosophy and cherished in its place entirely different standards of inquiry, standards focused on God, spirituality, and moral development. And that is all the more reason why we can't much trust what the Christians claimed. By its very design Christianity excluded rational and critical minds, driving most of them away with every insult, while sucking in droves of what we would today call New Agers, people who prefer to "feel" their way to the truth through blind faith in dreams, oracles, and superstitious assumptions about God, man, and the universe. These were people who were annoyed with the uncertainties of real knowledge, and preferred to find refuge from the anxieties of doubt and the rigors of research by clinging to the absolute certainty of unquestioning faith. Their standards were incapable of ascertaining the truth--about anything, much less the resurrection of Jesus. And for that reason we cannot conclude they would only believe it if it was true. Indeed, from what we can see of their methods, that isn't even probable.
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 Miracles as Criterion: 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 ("my speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so your faith would not stand on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God," emphasis mine); 2 Corinthians 12:12 ("truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, by signs and wonders and mighty works"); 1 Thessalonians 1:5 ("how that our gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance, even as you know what manner of men we showed ourselves toward you for your sake"); Hebrews 2:3-4 ("what was spoken through the Lord, was confirmed to us by them that heard, and God bore witness with them, both by signs and wonders, and by manifold powers, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will"). Moral Virtues as Criterion: 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, 12:7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:5. Scripture as Authoritative: Romans 15:4, 16:25-26; 1 Corinthians 4:6, 15:3-4; 2 Timothy 3:15-16. Revelation as Authoritative: 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, 12:8, 13:2; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9; Galatians 2:1-2 (note how Paul occasionally distinguishes between his opinion and instructions from God, e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:12, 7:25 vs. 14:37), see also Ephesians 3 & 2 Peter 1:16-18. Examples in Acts of Trusting Visions: 7:55-56, 10:1-7, 11:5-14, 12:6-11, 16:9-10, 22:17-21.
 Origen, Against Celsus 1.9-10 (Galen makes a similar observation about Christians in On the Different Kinds of Pulses 2.4 & 3.3 = Kühn 8.579 & 8.657; and there are similar quotations surviving in Arabic, cf. Early Christian Writings: Galen). Origen even appeals to the "fact" that Christianity improves men's morals as sufficient proof that it's true--because no doctrine could do that unless God approved of it. This is the same pseudologic I've discussed in other chapters: from Origen's cultural point of view, to be good, and to be approved by God, are synonymous and inseparable. So good men can't lie, nor even be mistaken in their doctrines--for if they were, they would not be good. Vicious logic indeed. In contrast, Celsus advocates the view that we must "follow reason and a rational guide, since he who assents to opinions without following this course is very liable to be deceived." Notice how we never find any statement like this in the Bible.
Copyright ©2006 by Richard Carrier. The electronic version is copyright ©2006 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Richard Carrier. All rights reserved.