Article ID: JA2005DS | By: Dan Story
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One of the first things I was taught after beginning my apologetics studies, some thirty-five years ago, was that apologetics doesn’t prove anything in the sense of absolute certainty. For example, it can’t provide unequivocal proof that Jesus Christ is God or the Bible is true. The reason for this is because religious truth-claims are not self-evidently true, as in much of mathematics (five times five can be only twenty-five) or true by definition (all husbands are married). It’s assumed that religious truth falls out of the category of irrefutable certainty. Thus, most apologists agree that apologetics consists of giving evidences that demonstrate Christian truth-claims, but not proof positive.
After decades of apologetic studies, however, I believe apologetics can prove Christianity is true in a practical sense, that is, if we use the word “proof” the same way we do in justifying most of our beliefs and in making decisions in everyday life. The New Oxford American Dictionary (2003) defines proof as, “Evidence or argument establishing or helping to establish a fact or truth of a statement.” This is exactly what evidential apologetics does — we “establish” truth through “evidence” and rational arguments. Therefore, with this definition in mind, it’s perfectly legitimate for Christians to claim we can prove Jesus is God; the Bible is God’s revealed Word; and Christianity is the only true religion.
Levels of Proof
There are different levels of proof relevant to some areas of knowledge but not to others. Almost all things people consider as adequately proven are based on probability, not absolute certainty. If I refuse to buy a car unless I’m absolutely certain it will not break down the moment I drive off the lot, I could never buy a car. I would never travel in an airplane if I had to be absolutely certain I will arrive safely at my destination.
Absolute certainty must be ruled out as a standard for making virtually all of life’s decisions — including religious ones. We can’t expect mathematical precision to apply to religion, just as it doesn’t to scientific, legal, and historical issues. When we reach the highest level of probability attainable in these particular categories of knowledge, the vast majority of people believe we have realistically achieved proof in terms of practical application.
People are sent to prison based on evidence deemed to be beyond reasonable doubt — probability. We evaluate the validity of historical evidences based on the probable accuracy of documentation. The same is true for everyday decisions. We judge our chances of safely crossing a busy street, or that a prescribed medicine won’t harm us, based entirely on probable outcomes. In all these examples, we consider probable conclusions as essentially proof because probability is the highest level of certainty possible in these particular areas — the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly convincing.
We can tie this to religious truth-claims. Christianity can provide the same level of practical certainty for the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible, and other Christian truth-claims that is accepted as proof beyond reasonable doubt in scientific, legal, and historical matters. Furthermore, no other religion in the world provides this same level of proof. It is in this sense that we can honestly and legitimately assert that Christianity is religious truth. This will become clearer as we look at these three areas of knowledge and apply them to Christianity.
The Scientific Method
Regarding the scientific method, let me say at the outset that I am not referring to the particular philosophy of science — scientism — that insists nothing can be considered true unless it passes through the filter of scientific testing. (By the way, this notion is a self-defeating proposition because the claim itself can’t be proven scientifically!) Nor am I endorsing the naturalistic conclusions of secular science, such as Darwinism. But I am suggesting that the scientific method for discovering truth is the most reliable truth-test in almost all areas of knowledge. Christian apologist and legal scholar Dr. John Warwick Montgomery explains: “[The] empirical or scientific method is the truly valid way of approaching truth because it alone can accomplish to the satisfaction of all what the other methods…cannot; not only do its results not need to be tested for error independently, but is in itself capable of determining what authority to follow and what common sense beliefs and presuppositions to hold.”1
The scientific method for “approaching truth” comprises two essential ingredients: evidence and probability. As a system for discovering and confirming truth, the scientific method involves inductive reasoning; that is, it accumulates reliable evidences that point to a general conclusion — but one established on the highest degree of probability attainable. Although probability leaves the door open for possible error, it is the closest we can come to determining truth outside of mathematics and formal logic — which, as noted, do not apply to most areas of knowledge.
If we apply the essential elements of the scientific method — inductive reasoning based on evidence and probability — to religion, we can demonstrate that Christianity is true to the highest level of certainty possible in the area of religious knowledge.2 Thus, we can legitimately conclude that Christianity, as close as can be determined, is truth. Furthermore, if we apply this same truth-test — inductive reasoning based on evidence and probability — to non-Christian religions, we can demonstrate they do not have the overwhelming confirming evidences Christianity has: eyewitness testimony, historical confirmation, fulfilled prophecy, documented miracles, archaeological support, textual reliability, and so on. The probable conclusion is that non-Christian religions are untrue.
Can we prove Christianity is true in a court of law? If we apply the same methodology used to determine truth in jury trials, we can demonstrate Christianity is true (“innocent”) and non-Christian religions are false (“guilty”). Nineteenth-century Harvard law professor Simon Greenleaf, considered one of the greatest American authorities on the use of evidence in legal procedures, demonstrated this in his book, The Testimony of the Evangelists: The Gospels Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice.3
What standard does our court system use to determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant? Again, evidence and probability. Dr. Montgomery explains: “Legal reasoning operates on probabilities, not possibilities; preponderance of evidence in most civil [non-criminal] actions; evidence beyond reasonable (not beyond all) doubt in criminal matters” (emphasis in original).4 This means in criminal cases there must be no other reasonable explanation for the crime other than the accused did it. The prosecution builds its case by presenting such an impressive and compelling amount of evidence that all other possibilities are eliminated. In short, the accused is sent to prison or even executed according to probability of guilt.
As a legitimate way to determine whether or not Christianity is religious truth, legal reasoning is of tremendous value. Christianity is the only religion in the world where its truth-claims can be tested by legal reasoning — that is, by evidences, especially eyewitness testimony. All other religions require its followers to accept their tenets based on the unverified claims of their founders or documents.
The authors of the New Testament were careful to note this eyewitness testimony in order to validate the authenticity of their writings. The apostle Peter writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16, NASB). The apostle John is even more specific: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life…what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also” (1 John 1:1–3, NASB).
Another value of legal reasoning is that it demonstrates why Christian truth-claims should be considered factual. Here’s an example of this. Let’s say a person demands “absolute proof” that Jesus rose from the dead. We point out that His resurrection was an historical event and can’t be repeated. Nevertheless, we can prove it actually occurred in a legal sense. We do this by presenting all the eyewitness testimony and circumstantial evidence that supports the resurrection and refutes all the naturalistic theories used to argue against it. In other words, we show that the biblical explanation of resurrection best explains the facts: the birth of the Christian church around AD 30, the empty tomb, the changed lives of the apostles, eyewitness testimony from people who personally knew Jesus and saw Him alive after His resurrection, and so on.
If the weight of legal evidence supports the biblical claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we are justified to accept it as accurate truth in the same way we accept that people are guilty of a crime based on the overwhelming evidence marshalled against them. In both cases, we have reached the highest level of certainty available in the area of legal reasoning. For all practicable purposes, we have reached what we can consider reliable proof of Jesus’ resurrection.
If spiritual seekers make a decision on which of the many hundreds of competing religions is true based entirely on the evidence, they will be compelled to accept Christianity and reject all other religions. Just as the scientific method and legal reasoning demonstrate this, we can establish that history also provides the same level of probability that Jesus rose from the dead in vindication of His claim to be God in human flesh — that Christianity is the only true religion.
All Christian truth-claims ultimately rest on the reliability of the Bible. What we know about the nature of God, deity of Christ, work of the Holy Spirit, God’s plan for salvation, promised resurrection, future new heaven and earth, and all other Christian beliefs rest squarely on the reliability of Scripture. If we cannot demonstrate the Bible’s reliability to unbelievers, many will consider Christianity to be no different than any other world religion. Its truth-claims would rest on the subjective religious experiences and personal opinions of their founders and followers. The demonstrated historical reliability of the Bible sets Christianity apart from all other religions.
How does historical evidence prove the Bible’s reliability? It demonstrates that in every area where Scripture can be checked out, it is proven to be trustworthy: its textual composition is coherent; much of its historical data is verified by non-Christian sources; its fulfilled prophecies are confirmed to be accurate; and its geographical and cultural descriptions are in harmony with other ancient documents. On the other hand, when the same techniques of historical investigation used to verify the Bible are applied to other religious books, the non-Christian documents are found to be spurious. Indeed, non-Christian religions are conspicuous by the absence of historical and other objective evidences.
While ancient documents often contain reliable historical data, those that include supernatural claims, such as alleged miraculous accounts, do not have the evidential documentation for such claims as does the Bible. Consider, for example, evidence for the resurrection and life of Jesus Christ. Not only do eyewitnesses within Scripture testify to Jesus’ resurrection (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:1-8; 1 John 1: 1-4), but there are multiple non-Christian writings that mention many of the highlights of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death, which are consistent with biblical revelation.5 That Jesus rose from the dead “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4 NASB) is the capstone validating the truth and reliability of the Bible.6
What conclusion can we draw from the historical evidence? Since the Bible’s verifiable contents are demonstrated to be accurate and reliable, we can justifiably conclude its spiritual truth-claims are equally trustworthy, such as the indwelling Holy Spirit, salvation through Jesus Christ alone, and eternal life in heaven for God’s people. In other words, the Bible’s spiritual truths do not stand alone. They rest on a solid foundation of verifiable historical facts. No other religious document passes the test of historical investigation as does the Bible. There are no contenders. Christianity alone attains the highest level of certainty available in the area of historical investigation; therefore, once again, Christianity alone can legitimately claim to be religious truth.
Our Apologetic Task
When skeptics demand “proof” the Bible is authentic, or Jesus is God, they often switch from accepting the kinds of proof they accept in science, law, and history to demanding mathematical-like precision. As we saw, however, mathematical proof is an entirely different category of proof and cannot be applied to religion any more than it can be applied to science, legal matters, and history. This does not mean proof is impossible, only that it is not axiomatic proof as in mathematics.
Part of our apologetic task, then, is to help unbelievers understand this. We need to point out that the same truth-tests they accept as adequate proof in science, law, history, and everyday life will prove beyond reasonable doubt that Christianity is true and other religions are false.
The Ultimate Proof
This too needs to be said. Objective evidences and rational argumentation are not the ultimate “proof” of Christianity. We have a secret weapon in our arsenal no other religion possesses. Christian apologist and theologian William Lane Craig emphasized this when he wrote, “The proper ground of knowing Christianity to be true is the inner work of the Holy Spirit; and in our showing Christianity to be true [apologetics], it is His role to open the hearts of unbelievers to assent and respond to the reasons we present” (emphasis in original).7
The ultimate proof of Christianity? The inner witness of the Holy Spirit.
Dan Story has an MA in apologetics and is the author of dozens of articles and eight books, including a recent revised and expanded edition of his apologetics book: Defending Your Faith; Reliable Answers for a New Generation of Seekers and Skeptics (Kregel Publications, 2019).
- John Warwick Montgomery, The Shape of the Past: A Christian Response to Secular Philosophies and History, rev. edition (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1975), 265.
- Editor’s Note: Most, if any, Christian truth-claims are not subject to scientific confirmation, understood as testing hypotheses through repeatable observation and experimentation. Such Christian truth-claims as the universe began to exist a finite time ago and all human beings descend from one original pair of human beings fall within the broader scientific purview.
- Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists: The Gospels Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1995).
- John Warwick Montgomery, “The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity,” in Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question, ed. John Warwick Montgomery (Dallas: Probe Books, 1991), 332.
- See Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press Publication Company, 1999).
- Editor’s Note: It is worth clarifying that the argument here is not that Christians believe in the reliability of the Bible because it is God-breathed and inerrant. As explained, the basic reliability of Scripture can be demonstrated through historical analysis. Furthermore, it is not necessary (or possible) to establish each and every teaching of Scripture by historical analysis before one can have warrant for Christian belief. Indeed, with respect to the apologetic task, it is sufficient to show based on natural theology and historical analysis that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead; and on the basis of Christ’s vindicated and authoritative claims about Scripture, one receives warrant to embrace the full teaching of Scripture as the inerrant word of God. For further study, see Dan Story, Defending Your Faith; Reliable Answers for a New Generation of Seekers and Skeptics (Kregel Publications, 2019).
- William Lane Craig and Joseph E, Gorra, A Reasonable Response: Answers to Tough Questions on God, Christianity, and the Bible (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013), 315.