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How Might an Intelligent Person Believe?

03/27/2015 04:24 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015

How might an intelligent person believe in God? Good question. Epistemology, the study of knowledge and justified belief, holds that cognition comes from personal experience, testimony from others, or from reason.

All knowing, and believing, involves reason in some manner. Of course, reasoning may be correct or flawed. A belief may be true or false, justified or not. Knowledge, on the other hand, must be justified and true. Consider these three categories of thought: delusion, belief, and knowledge. Delusion is a false opinion lacking factual basis. Knowledge, delusion's opposite, is established fact. Belief, on the other hand, is based upon possibility, or probability, locating logically somewhere between delusion and knowledge. Belief relies upon evidence, not proof, and may be true or false.

Justified belief requires logical possibility, or better yet, compelling probability. Is it possible, even probable, that God exists? Is it possible that miracles occur, that God raised Jesus from the dead? When posited, such beliefs are called propositional truth-claims, or simply propositions. But are they justified beliefs? If so, what justifies them?

Aristotle argued, "The potentiality of opposites is the same." That is, "If it is possible for the opposite of something to exist or to have happened, the opposite would also seem possible." For example, if it is possible that it will rain today, it is possible that it will not. If it is possible that God does not exist, it is possible that God does exist. If it is possible that I will awaken in the morning, it is possible that I will not. If it is possible that God did not raise Jesus from the dead, it is possible that God did raise Jesus from the dead.

Truth-claims regarding the existence of God and miracles are reasonable, not unreasonable. These claims, per Aristotle's reasoning, are logically possible. They may or may not be true, but they are logically possible.

Moving beyond possibility to probability, might probability be established regarding traditional truth-claims pertaining to God? Though potentiality of opposites is the same, such is not the case with probabilities. One might fairly reason, "Rain is probable today, but it is possible it won't rain." One may not, however, logically contend, "Rain is probable today, and rain is improbable today." This statement is illogical. Either rain is probable, or it is not. It is possible that God exists and possible that God does not exist. Probability, however, must privilege one of the two options.

The gulf between delusion and knowledge must be bridged by faith, faith based upon evidence rather than proof. To believe is to take a risky plunge. Of course, to choose not to believe also carries risk. Decisions often are made, neither blindly, nor based upon indisputable facts, but by reliance upon a reasoned faith, or a lack thereof.

To believe in the existence of God is to believe in a higher power and an intelligence higher than one's own. To choose to disbelieve in the existence of God is to believe also; it is to believe there is no living higher power, nor living intelligence higher than that of the human.

To believe in the possibility of miracles is to concede that we may not know everything there is to know about the operation of the universe, nor the prospect of divine intelligence. Is evidence for miracles, including the resurrection of Jesus Christ, available for open, inquiring minds?

Perhaps no truth-claim involving miracles strains credulity like the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Dead persons do not rise and live again. Do they? They may do so, we know, if artificial resuscitation is applied within three minutes of death. Three minutes are not three days, however. Besides, resuscitation differs from resurrection in that a resuscitated person will die again.

How might Jesus have been resurrected, as Christianity claims? "An object at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by an outside source." So physics teaches. But what if an outside source acted upon the dead body of Jesus? What if the outside power was God? Is this possible? How might an intelligent person believe? Surely not blindly, nor with unassailable proof. Through a reasoned faith? How so?

Most would insist that the alleged resurrection of Jesus can be explained apart from supernatural options... Consequently, various natural theories have been advanced:

(1) The Swoon Theory: Jesus was not actually dead when placed in the tomb. He had merely swooned or fainted, but then revived. But the soldiers pierced his side with a spear to complete his killing, the record states. The expert executioners believed him to be dead. Pontius Pilate examined him and pronounced him dead. Moreover, the guards at the tomb would have easily apprehended a man in the condition of Jesus, and testified of it.

(2) The Fraud Theory: The disciples slipped in and stole the body of Christ. The guards made this claim, saying while they slept, the deed was done. But if they slept, how would they know? Besides, a Jew would not want a dead body already buried. It would be unclean to them. Nor would they steal the body to perpetuate a lie they themselves did not believe: that there would be a resurrection.

(3) The Mistake Theory: The women made a mistake and went to the wrong tomb, an empty one. The record states they were present to observe the Friday burial, returned on Saturday, then Sunday.

(4) The Vision Theory: Hallucinations. Alleged eyewitness hallucinated. But Jesus ate fish, allowed Thomas to examine his nail-scarred hands and his punctured side.

(5) The Wild Dog Theory: The body of Jesus was eaten by wild dogs. No, the tomb was sealed by a large stone.

(6) The Rotted Body Theory: The body of Jesus rotted away. Really? After two or three days?

Evidence? What does the evidence suggest regarding the resurrection of Jesus?

(1) The written record is reliable, dating to two decades from the event. Normally, such historical substance makes historians drool. Furthermore, the oral record dates to the actual event.

(2) Eyewitnesses include more than 500 persons on 10 occasions in a span of 40 days. Eyewitnesses include Mary Magdalene, other women, Simon Peter, James, the brother of Jesus, Thomas, two men traveling on the road to Emmaus and nearly 500 more.

(3) The change in the lives of those who testified of seeing the resurrected Christ. Peter had denied Christ three times leading up to the crucifixion, but became an emboldened martyr who courageously died for the resurrected One with whom he spoke and ate. James, the brother of Jesus, had not believed previously, but became the bishop of the Jerusalem church and died for his faith. Saul, who had been persecuting followers of Jesus, became a follower, eventually writing almost half of the New Testament, then accepted martyrdom.

(4) The centrality of the witness of women appears illogical. Why would fabricators of a fiction place at its center the testimony of women within a patriarchal society where the witness of women was not accepted in the public square, a court of law, or a de facto regional or world tribunal?

(5) The change of the day of worship from the Sabbath to Sunday makes no sense apart from the veracity of the resurrection of Jesus. Why would hundreds of years of worship by Jews on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, suddenly be changed to Sunday worship? Should not those who made the change be allowed to answer the question?

(6) How might an intelligent person believe? Reason and testimony from others are important avenues of belief. Perhaps the most compelling apologetic of all, however, remains one's personal experience with God through the risen Christ. For the past 2,000 years, persons have shared their personal life-changing experiences with the living, risen Lord. Millions have believed simply because they could do nothing else. Exemplars include Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis, and Pope Francis.

(7) One might perhaps protest that the written historical source of these narratives is the Bible, which is unacceptable as objective history by non-believers. On the other hand, the early believers in the resurrection did not believe because of the New Testament account. At the time there was no New Testament. Rather, they believed because of their personal experience, the testimony of others, and their reasoned faith.

(8) Flavius Josephus, the first century Jewish historian writing in Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVlll, Chapter lll, noted: "Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man . . . . He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate . . . had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold . . . ."

In the final analysis, neither the existence of God nor the resurrection of Jesus Christ can be proven, nor disproven. Evidence and logic, however, allow both possibility and probability to be established in the case for belief. The gap between evidence and proof is a petri dish where a culture of reason may give birth to a living commitment of faith.

How might an intelligent person believe in God this Easter? Not by delusion, nor by proof, but by a reasoned faith -- or even better, through a personal experience with the Risen Christ. Openness, reason, and experience: that is how an intelligent person can believe. Credo. I believe.

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