Many Christians believe that for faith to be authentic, it must be free from any doubt. While this may be an ideal, it’s far from realistic. Many characters in God’s Word—including Abraham and John the Baptist—experienced episodes of doubt. Though hopefully such experiences are the exception rather than the norm, the truth is, most Christians occasionally struggle with doubt—even apologists.
So what is the proper relationship between faith and doubt in the lives of believers? To even come close to answering that question, we must confront an even more fundamental issue. Do we have to prove Christianity beyond a reasonable doubt?
Dr. Mike Licona has grappled with such questions for years. This has led him to dispel claims about contradictions in the Gospels and, most notably, look to the resurrection of Jesus as a litmus test for the truth of Christianity.
Christians claim that the resurrection of Jesus was a historical event with theological implications. If Jesus rose from the dead, then we have a strong reason to believe in the validity of Christianity; if he didn’t, then Christianity is false. Since Christians claim the resurrection is a historical event, one set of tools we can can use to verify that claim is the historical method. If, using historical methodology, the resurrection can be proven to have occurred then, by implication, there is strong reason to believe all of those theological implications are also true—Jesus is who he said he is, and Christianity has a rational, historically verifiable basis.
So how can we use the historical method to prove the resurrection of Jesus actually occurred?
Can we be certain of the resurrection of Jesus?
In his Mobile Ed course Philosophy of History, Dr. Licona explains the level of certainty necessary to credibly claim the historical reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
First, Dr. Licona emphasizes that we must clearly identify the objective. Is our objective to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the resurrection occurred? Licona says that, although he believes you can prove the resurrection with that level of certainty, it isn’t necessary from a historical perspective. He uses an illustration from the legal system to demonstrate his point: the distinction between criminal law and civil law.
“In criminal law, you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the guilt of the person. In civil law, it’s the preponderance of evidence.” In other words, in a criminal case the person’s guilt—the positive assertion that the individual committed the crime—must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in a civil case, one asks which claim possesses the most evidence in its support.
Why the double standard? “It’s beyond reasonable doubt in criminal because the person’s liberty, and perhaps even their life, is at stake, so it requires a greater burden of proof.” In a criminal case, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to demonstrate guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
How does this illustrate the historian’s task when judging historical claims?
“If you apply that to something like the resurrection . . . you’d have to . . . prove beyond a reasonable doubt that what that person is claiming is wrong.” In other words, it would be the skeptics’ duty to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus’ resurrection didn’t occur; it’s not the Christian’s duty to prove the resurrection beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, Licona explains, historians do not look for reasonable doubt when examining historical claims. Just like lawyers in a civil court case, historians look for a preponderance of evidence. “Where does the preponderance of evidence point? We’re going to apply the arguments of inference to the best explanation. Which hypothesis has the greatest amount of explanatory scope? The greatest amount of explanatory power, is less ad hoc than other hypotheses, and has the greatest amount of degree of plausibility? The hypothesis that best fulfills those criteria is regarded as what probably occurred.”
In his years of scholarship, Licona has become convinced that even if one limits his or herself to the tools of historical methodology, the preponderance of evidence points to the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus.
Help for doubting Christians
How can this admittedly abstract conversation regarding historical methodology help the average Christian struggling with doubt—or pastors helping those who are? Ultimately, Christians should rely on God’s Word, the Christian community, and their relationship with the Holy Spirit as they struggle with questions concerning their faith. However, it can also be helpful to question the questioning. How often does a Christian doubt because they have set an unrealistic expectation concerning their faith?
Instead of looking for absolute certainty, Dr. Licona suggests Christians experiencing doubt seek reasonable certainty. “We can look at the evidence, make logical conclusions, and have reasonable certainty. That’s all we can ask for.”
When I spoke with Dr. Licona last year concerning his own struggles with doubt, he suggested that absolute certainty regarding anything may be an unrealistic expectation. We are capable of questioning every aspect of human existence.
For instance, how do I know my everyday experiences are actually occurring? How do I know I’m not living out a scenario like those depicted in the movies The Matrix or The Truman Show? How do I know my life is not, in fact, an illusion? One could entertain all sorts of outlandish notions; we are capable of doubting literally anything and everything. But reality isn’t dependant upon the strength of our belief; our position in Christ is dependent upon the one in whom we’ve placed our faith.
It’s possible that many Christians struggling with doubt have set an impossible threshold of certainty. Christians don’t have to prove Christianity beyond a reasonable doubt, although such a thing may indeed be possible. Instead, they can look to the preponderance of evidence in its favor—and continue to rest upon the one in whom they’ve placed their trust.
Get Dr. Licona’s Philosophy of History course today.