The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

2 problems with Craig’s distinction of knowing and showing


In one of the best books on Christian apologetics in the last 50 years, Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig says something rather provocative. He thinks that the proper basis for knowing that Christianity is true is not the evidence for Christianity. This might strike one as more than a bit odd given that Craig is the one of the world’s foremost Christian apologists. Craig certainly has a high view of the evidence for Christianity’s truth given the fact that he routinely takes on Christianity’s most difficult critics in formal debates on the evidence for Christianity.

So what’s going on?

Knowing and Showing

In the book, Craig makes a distinction between knowing and showing. He says:

…the way we know Christianity to be true is by the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit. Now what do I mean by that? I mean that the experience of the Holy Spirit is veridical and unmistakable (though not necessarily irresistible or indubitable) for him who has it; that such a person does not need supplementary arguments or evidence in order to know and to know with confidence that he is in fact experiencing the Spirit of God; that such experience does not function in this case as a premise in any argument from religious experience to God, but rather is the immediate experiencing of God himself; that in certain contexts the experience of the Holy Spirit will imply the apprehension of certain truths of the Christian religion, such as “God exists,” “I am condemned by God,” “I am reconciled to God,” “Christ lives in me,” and so forth.[1]

Craig’s idea is the inner experience of the Spirit of God Himself—where He testifies to His existence and the truths of the gospel—is the primary way in which people come to the knowledge of Christianity. His idea seems to be that the best way to know something is to have direct experience of that thing. Though we can know in this way, we cannot share things known by inner experience. This is simply a fact about our inner experiences. We might say to another, “I feel your pain,” but we don’t mean it literally. What we mean by this empathetic claim is that we understand that one is feeling pain, and we have had what we take to be a similar feeling of pain. But mere testimony of an inner experience is not a good way to convey (i.e., provide evidence of) what the pain is like.

We can, likewise, tell people about inner religious experiences, but unless one has a similar experience, then this testimony seems too weak, in terms of evidence, to constitute knowledge.

So, for Craig, the best way (perhaps the only way) for us to convince another person of the truth of Christianity is to show that Christianity is true with arguments and evidence, which is what Craig offers in his debates, his books, and his interactions with students across the globe. Craig seems to think that this evidence, though it can move one along in their journey towards Christ, it never results in genuine knowledge unless and until God makes himself known to that individual. And it is not necessary for knowledge. The person completely uneducated in the arguments of Christian apologetics can be perfectly rational on the basis of his or her direct experience of God. Thus arguments and evidence play, at most, a ministerial or subsidiary role on the way to knowledge.

I think Craig’s distinction is problematic for two reasons.

Inner experience as evidence

First, though I certainly agree that religious inner experience is important for coming to a genuine and full knowledge of Christianity’s truth, it seems to me that it should be understood as part of one’s overall evidence set. That is, I deny that there is a substantive distinction between evidence, on one hand, and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, on the other. The direct experience of God just is evidence—indeed, great evidence—for the truth of Christianity. This is described as testimony and experiences, after all, and we typically think of testimony and experience as evidence.[2]

This is best seen within the broader discussion of evidentialism in epistemology. In this discussion, it seems to me that inner experiences such as this would just count as evidence. Again, direct experience of some fact is typically thought to be the best sort of evidence (such as one’s acquaintance with what’s immediately before them). The debate in epistemology is whether we can be rationally justified by facts without our being aware of these facts (e.g., Plantinga thinks that we can have, what he calls, warrant for our beliefs in virtue of their being produced by properly functioning faculties even if we are not aware that our faculties’ proper function[3]). The evidentialist thinks there must there be something of which we are aware that points to the truth of our belief (call this evidence) in order for one to be rational. The point is that what Craig identifies as the proper basis of religious knowledge seems to fall within this category of evidence since these are facts of which we are aware that point to the truth of our beliefs.

 Experience needs interpretation

But this is mostly a terminological issue. The more pressing issue with this distinction is that inner experience, all by itself, doesn’t seem to provide a good basis for knowing Christianity is true. The inner experiences that we have seem crucially to need interpretation. The typical religious experience does not seem to have enough content to serve as the primary basis of our knowledge.

For example, let’s say one is in an evangelistic service and experiences an overwhelming sense of awe. Is this sufficient all by itself to rationally believe that the claims being made in the service are true? It seems not. Many Christians would agree that this is inadequate if it was, say, a Mormon evangelistic service. But why should this experience justify the belief in the Christian gospel?

Craig is quite aware of this objection and says that the counterfeit experience of, say, the Mormon does nothing to take away from his veridical experience.[4] But one seems to need reason for thinking that the experience is in fact veridical. If merely being veridical was sufficient, then all skeptical concerns could similarly be dismissed. When the skeptic asks how one knows that one is not in the Matrix given it would be qualitatively indistinguishable experience, it simply doesn’t address her concern to assert that one’s experience is veridical. She’s likely to ask again, “but how do you know it’s veridical?”

Now Craig might not think that the Christian and Mormon experiences are qualitatively indistinguishable, but this seems impossible to verify. If they are qualitatively indistinguishable, then the rest of one’s evidences will need to play more than a subsidiary role. It will have to be this inner experience of God along with the Christian evidences that rationally justifies one’s belief.

Do Christians have evidence?

One motivation for Craig’s view is the fact that many Christians have never considered the apologetic evidence for Christianity, and yet they certainly seem to believe Christianity in a rational way. Craig thinks that one need not have familiarity with apologetics to know that Christianity is true. And I agree! But, I’ll end with a provocative statement: I think that the typical Christian has evidence for the truth of Christianity (including the inner and outer experiences of God, but also the natural signs seen in the world,[5] etc.) even if he or she does not know any formal apologetic arguments. There’s no doubt most Christians can greatly improve their evidence and rational basis by considering the rich tradition of Christian apologetics. But to think that most Christians do not have any evidence is just to have an unnecessarily narrowed concept of ‘evidence.’

If you like this content, sign up to get new posts in your email inbox:

Also follow me: @travdickinson

[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith:  Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3d ed. (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2008), 43.

[2] There are some approaches to Christian apologetics that understand “evidence” as only formal arguments and “evidentialism” as the view that formal apologetic arguments are necessary for faith. This is a much derided view. The only problem is that I know of no one who actually holds this view. The discussion of evidentialism in epistemology is far more precise (than the one in Christian apologetics).

[3] See Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Eerdmans, 2015).

[4] Craig, Reasonable Faith, 49.

[5] See C. Stephen Evans, Natural Signs and Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments (New York: OUP, 2010).


Thanks for reading! If you like this content, subscribe below to recieve new posts in your inbox.