The Benefit of the Doubt

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

Christianity is possibly false?!

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Here’s the question: Is Christianity possibly false?

My answer: Well yes, of course it’s possibly false.

What? How could I have given my life for something that I think is possibly false? Doesn’t admitting to this swing the door wide for doubting one’s faith? Isn’t this just philosophers stirring the paint– needlessly making trouble for those that already have a solid faith?

All really good questions!

In teaching Christian apologetics, this issue typically comes up. The question is what sort of status does the claim ‘Christianity is true’ enjoy? Students, in my context, are always a bit taken aback by saying that Christianity is possibly false.

Now before you make a call to my institution and insist that they relieve me of my employment, what you need to realize is that the only reason this sounds provocative is that the terms are not well defined. In my experience, once we clarify the terms, then my students (and you too) will say “of course, Christianity is possibly false in that sense.”

Okay, so what does it mean for a claim to be possibly false? Let’s first say what it does not mean. It does NOT mean that Christianity is actually false. And it does NOT mean that Christianity is probably false. It doesn’t even mean that we are 50/50 on whether it is false. All ‘being possible’ means, for our purposes, is that something is conceivable. A claim is possible insofar as one can imagine it or conceive of its being the case. It could be the craziest thing in the world that no sane person believes and yet it is still possible in this sense. So to ask whether something is possible is just to ask whether one can conceive (i.e., coherently hold in one’s mind and imagination) of the claim.

So what things are possible? It is going to be a range of claims far and wide. It’s possible that, by the time I retire, I’m a billionaire. In fact, it is possible that, by tomorrow, I’m a billionaire. This is incredibly unlikely, especially given my line of work, but it is clearly conceivable. I could befriend a billionaire benefactor who writes me into the will later today and moments later tragically dies. There you go, I’m a billionaire. Or I could stumble on inventing something that gets manufactured for every human on the planet. Or there could be a diamond mine under my house. Again, I’d be crazy to plan on or even hope for any of these things. However, they are conceivable, and thus they are possible.

Philosophers typically annoy people when we talk about possible thought experiments. We like to talk about how it is entirely possible that last night while you were sleeping you were captured by a mad scientist who removed your brain from your body, placed it into a vat of life sustaining chemicals and with electrodes is stimulating your brain to have the everyday sorts of experiences you are having right now. So, in this case, all of your experiences, from what you see, hear, taste, feel, etc., are not caused by the objects you take them to be caused by but are manufactured Matrix-like experience. Is this possible? Of course it is! Does any (sane) philosopher think that it is actually the case? There are none that I know.

We could keep going here but I hope you get the idea. So long as something is imaginable, so long as something is conceivable, then it is possible.

You might be wondering at this point what’s not possible, since it seems like the range of possible is fairly substantive? A claim is not possibly true when it is logically incoherent. It is not possible that one will find a married bachelor. A married bachelor is a logically incoherent notion. One could not possibly imagine or conceive of such a thing. One can imagine a bachelor getting married but the very moment he marries, he ceases to be a bachelor. It is not possible that God causally determined a human to act freely. God can (and does) causally determine a person to perform an action. However, by the definition of ‘causal determination,’ the action is not free. It would be incoherent to claim otherwise. 2+3 necessarily equals 5. To think otherwise is literally impossible. Or, more accurately, one should say that it is logically impossible. Given the concept of ‘2-ness’ and ‘3-ness’ and ‘addition,’ it follows that 2+3=5 and you couldn’t imagine otherwise in a logically coherent way.

Can you imagine a square circle? That is, can you imagine a circle that has the properties of a square? Try as you might, you can’t do it. Imagine a circle. And then take that image and start to put some 90 degree angles on it and then… but wait, whatever is now before your mind is no longer a circle. It’s likely just turned into a square.

So when we ask whether it is conceivable that Christianity is false, the answer seems to be clearly yes. In fact, this appears to be precisely what the Apostle Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15:16-19. He says:

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

Paul seems to be raising the mere possibility that the resurrection is false and concluding that if this were to be the case, then we, who have given our lives to its truth, are pitiable fools. Paul is not saying it is a likelihood that the resurrection did not occur. He’s not saying it is 50/50. And he’s not somehow doubting the truth of the resurrection claims since he’s just got done laying out a case for its truth grounded in eyewitness testimony. But he is admitting its conceivability—it’s possibility.

Should this cause us to doubt? The mere possibility should not cause us to doubt unless you are in the business of doubting all logical possibilities, including claims related to the Matrix, mad scientists and a plenitude of other conspiracy claims.

It is of course striking that Paul says here that Christianity wholly turns on whether Jesus rose from the dead. He predicates the Christian gospel on the truth of a historical event. This might make us feel a bit uneasy. However, I think the case for this historical event is incredible. I think it is so incredible that I have given my life to its truth and to the defense of Christianity. If Christianity wasn’t possibly false, then there would be no point to defending the truth. No one defends the truth of 2+3=5. No one gathers evidence to show that bachelors are unmarried. We just explain these things to our kids and eventually they “see” or grasp these truths. However, when it comes to an event like the resurrection evidence matters (again, this is presumably why Paul lays out a case for the resurrection in the first part of 1 Cor. 15).

So I am never merely trying to stir the paint or mess with someone’s faith when I bring this up. The attitude that I hope it motivates, however, is an attitude of intellectual humility. Realizing that one could be wrong about something helps one to take care in how one thinks about one’s Christian faith. This, in turn, should motivate us to be like Paul and defend the Gospel with good evidence.

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One Reply

  1. Sam

    I am in total agreement with what you have said here.
    A similar position is given here, http://www.johnstackhouse.com/2008/04/11/im-certain-that-there-are-two-kinds-of-certainty/