A Guide to Examining the Way We Believe So That What We Believe Will be Secure
My sister Angie died in January of 2004. I believe this to be the case. In fact, I am so convicted of the truthfulness of her death I could say without hesitation that I am certain that she died. No, not in a mathematical sense. No, not in an infallible sense. For cases such as this are not like mathematics. And I am not infallible. Therefore, by definition, I could be wrong. But I am not. Angie is dead.
(Please forgive the rather morbid illustration that I use throughout this chapter. I only include it because of its relevance to the issue of conviction and belief).
I got a phone call from the medical examiner while on HWY 635. “Is this Michael Patton” he said. “Yes, it is,” I responded with curiosity to this heavily accented country voice. “Are you in your car?” he asked. “Yes, I am,” I said with some amount of curiosity and a growing degree of fear. “Is your family with you?” he asked. “Yes, they are,” I said this time with more fear than curiosity. “Could you pull over please,” he requested. By this point, I knew what was next.
I have to tell you, I have never in my life had some random unidentified person ask me these questions while driving down the road. Neither have I since received such a request. I hope I never have to again. Just think about it. The phone rings in my car and an unfamiliar voice that sounds like he was either Brooks, Dunn, or Haggard asks me to pull over. There was one fleeting thought that popped in my mind. I remember because I looked into the rear-view mirror to see if it was a cop. Why would a cop call me to pull me over? However, I knew better. I hoped for different (even a cop!), but I knew better.
“Why?” I responded to his request to pull over. “It’s my sister isn’t it?” My overwhelming fear did not give him time to answer. I asked the preemptive question. “She is dead, isn’t she?” After a long pause, the medical examiner responded “Yes, sir.”
Although I did not have any “hard” evidence, I knew what had happened. Angie, my sister, had committed suicide. I did not even stop by the medical examiner’s office to view the body. Though he told me where they found her (at a hotel in Denton, TX), I did not stop there to examine the scene. I immediately called my mother and told her what happened. I then began the three hour drive from Texas to Oklahoma to mourn with my family. All of this I did because I had implicit trust in some random voice on the other end of the line.
Two days later, I went back to Texas with my wife to pick up Angie’s car and her cremated remains. As we pulled up to the medical examiner’s office, my wife was gracious enough to go inside and do what needed to be done. When she came back, she told me they had pictures. She said that there were many, but she could not look at any of them but one. It was a picture of Angie’s hand on a gun. I said, “Are you sure it was her’s?” This was a question out of desperation. I knew it was. “Yes, it was hers,” my wife said with a look on her face as if she felt she was taking away my last bit of hope. I immediately called the medical examiner from the parking lot. “Can I come in and see the pictures?,” I asked. I am sure he was thinking very carefully about how to respond and that is why he paused for a bit before answering. “Yes, you can come see them. But I don’t think you want to.” My heart sank with those words, knowing what they implied. “Remember her as she was,” he continued. “Don’t do this to yourself.” I almost got out of the car, but then sank back into my seat and conceded. Kristie had brought out a white cardboard box which is supposed to have the ashes of Angie in them. Even today, they sit at my mom’s house on a shelf, twelve feet high in her living room. I have never looked at them.
I believe Angie is dead. I never saw her body. I never saw any pictures. I never saw the gun she used. I never saw any fingerprint evidence. I have never looked into that box. I never even saw the medical examiner. But based on one conversation with a guy I don’t know and the testimony of my wife who only saw her hand, my conviction level that Angie is dead is very strong. Every once in a while, I have this fleeting irrational hope that normally shows up in a dream that Angie is alive. She normally appears in some random place and we find out that it was all a big mistake. But those are dreams. I truly believe Angie died.
We are talking about the anatomy of belief. We are asking about the why? and how? of our beliefs. Most specifically, we are talking about the process of belief in relation to Christianity. Building upon the intellectual conviction aspect of belief, we now turn to what I call forensic conviction.
But as a bit of review, allow me put this in context once again: Forensic conviction makes up the second aspect of our “Real Life” conviction meter.
The real life conviction meter is one of three aspects that make up the relative strength of our overall intellectual conviction in belief. The overall conviction meter looks like this.
Finally, the conviction meter is one of three aspects that make up our overall belief.
Forensic conviction is that aspect of our conviction that provides evidence for what we believe. Normally, this word “forensic” limits the evidence to issues of forensic science (i.e. DNA evidence, fingerprints, tire tracks, and the like). But we are not limiting it to such things here. The word “forensic” is taken from the Latin forensis, meaning “before the forum.” It speaks to the evidence that one can bring to solidify a truth claim. Broadly, this can include any line of legitimate evidence that substantiates one’s claims. It goes beyond first-hand evidence in that it looks to material, historical, as well as traditional forensic evidence.
For Christians, we believe many truth claims. As has been said before, many people believe things without any evidence at all, believing that the introduction of evidence is the polar opposite of faith. However, our conviction, while based on many things, must take into account the evidences for the veracity of our truth claims. Faith is very weak if it is blind. If God exists and has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, while we may not have been there to have first-hand conviction about such things, we can and should look to the fingerprints left behind.
This is often referred to as “Evidential Apologetics.” “Apologetics” is taken from the Greek apologia of 1 Peter 3:15 where Peter tells his readers to “always be ready to give a reason (apologia) for hope that is within them to everyone who asks.” An apologist is one who spends his time constructing arguments based on the evidence to defend and strengthen what they believe. While this book is not an apologetics book per se, it is an attempt to legitimize and encourage the type of thinking and conviction that apologetics provides.
Evidence and the Resurrection of Christ
The central truth claim for Christianity is the resurrection of Christ. Paul tells the Corinthians that if Christ has not been raised from the grave, we should all just pack our bags and go home (or something like that).
1 Cor. 15:13-19
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (NAU)
While our faith is “worthless” without Christ’s resurrection, conversely, we believe that if Christ did raise from the grave our faith is the opposite of worthless. It is the paradigm of all of history. It demands all our allegiance and devotion. If Christ has risen from the grave, the implications are beyond tremendous.
However, none of us were there when Christ rose and, I assume, none of us have personally seen the risen Christ (1 Pet. 1:8). You cannot search YouTube for official or rogue footage of Christ’s resurrection. Therefore, we have to look beyond first-hand conviction to “forensic” or evidential conviction. This is the way it is when we believe all matters of ancient history. It is important for us, then, to look for the fingerprints of the resurrection so that we can add forensic conviction to our belief.
The Resurrection of Christ and the Death of My Sister
As I said before, I believe my sister died in 2004. I have a strong conviction about this and I believe this conviction is warranted. In fact, I believe that it is so warranted that if I did not believe it, I would need to be assigned to a therapist for treatment. Granted, my conviction could be stronger. If I had gone into the medical examiner’s office and seen the pictures myself I would have even more conviction. If I had been there when she died, I would be even more convicted. But I do not need these things to be secure in my belief that Angie died.
You see, Angie was living with me for many months prior to her suicide. Her life had taken many unfortunate turns. She had become severely depressed. About a year before her death, she attempted suicide. I know because I found her, carried her limp body out to my car, took her to the hospital, and watched as they treated her. Since that time she was on “suicide watch” in our family. In fact, the night I got the call from the medical examiner, my family and I believed that something was not right. No one could get a hold of her. I was actually out looking for her at the time I got the call, already fearing the worst. Therefore, I trusted that medical examiner without much question. I believed my wife when she said it was Angie’s hand in the picture. I trust that the ashes at my mother’s house are Angie’s ashes. The fact that I have not seen Angie since that day further confirms my conviction. This is what we call circumstantial and corroborating evidence. There are certain things that we would expect to find if said truth claim were really true.
While you and I will not be able to have first hand evidence or, even, photographs of Christ’s resurrection, this does not mean that our conviction meter has to suffer much. We simply look to the “footprints” of history. When it comes to Christ’s resurrection, there are certain evidences which we should expect to find.
Let me list a few:
Contemporary documented evidence:
My conversation with the medical examiner that night and with my wife in the medical examiner’s parking lot both combine to give me much needed contemporary evidence. Along with this comes my own testimony and understanding of Angie’s volatile condition. I, being a contemporary of the event (though not an eye-witness), have written about it many times on my blog. It had an incredible impact on my life. And here I am, many years later, still giving testimony to its reality.
If Christ rose from the grave we would expect to find the same sort of accounting of the event and its immediate impact. Think about if an event such as this is claimed to have occurred and there was no record of it until hundreds of years later. For something as epic as someone claiming to be God’s son dying and raising from the grave, it would be very hard to believe if contemporary testimony was not present. In the Bible, there are four accounts of Christ’s life and death written within a generation of the event. These are called the “Gospels,” meaning “good news.” Each of these Gospels tells the same story, but are different enough for us to assume that there was no plot or collaboration to fabricate the event. As well, there is much evidence to believe that two of the Gospels (Matthew and John) were written by eyewitnesses. The other two, Mark and Luke, were written by those who were contemporaries of the event. Luke even claims to have investigated everything closely (Luke 1:1-3). This would make him a key historical witness. This is what we would expect if Christ rose from the grave.
Near contemporary collaboration and impact:
Since Angie’s death, I have had many conversations with people who new her, both friends and family. They all account for her absence with a belief in her death. Their knowledge of her past depression and present absence provides collaborating evidence. This is exactly what you would expect if Angie died.
Just as when you drop a boulder into a pond you will get a ripple of waves, so also we would expect there to be ripples—indeed tidal waves—of residual impact from such a monumental event as the resurrection of someone who was the Son of God. Not only do we have contemporary testimony through the four Gospels, but we also have many more first-century documents which give account of or assume the resurrection of Christ. In the collection of documents we call the New Testament, we have twenty-two personal and public letters and one historical account of the the impact and implications of the resurrection. Outside of the New Testament, there are dozens of first and early second-century documents which assume the reality of the resurrection of Christ. These are from early believers, historians, pastors, philosophers, and, even antagonists. This is exactly what you would expect if Christ really rose from the grave.
Chronological and geographical information:
When I gave an account for Angie’s death, I included places and times with a fair amount of detail. In doing so, I opened the door for you to test the veracity of my claim. If I were making this story up, I would have left those details out or replaced them with obscure places and times. That way you could not test my truth claim about Angie.
When a monumental event is claimed, it is very hard to believe if it was done in secret. Providing information about cities that there is no record for, kings who never ruled, and geographical sites that find no grounding in history is a sure way to be labeled as “myth.” That is what you would do if you were making something up. However, if the testimony is true, one would expect the revelation of such details. Why? Because the one who is making the claim would not be afraid that his or her testimony would be debunked. When someone is fabricating something, they can’t provide these types of details since there is a good chance people would check up on their accuracy. Surrounding the claims of the resurrection are an abundance of details. There are city names, names of people involved, names of rulers, the timing of the event, and all the details one would expect from a truthful testimony.
Lack of motive for fabrication:
Neither you nor I have any evidence to believe that the story of Angie’s death is being fabricated. I have no reason to believe that someone would call me and claim to be a medical examiner and tell me my sister had died when she had not. There is no reason to believe my wife made up the story about seeing Angie’s hand. It would be hard for you to make the case that I, myself, am making this story up. I suppose that you could say that I am creating this up to use it as an illustration for this chapter, but that would require a greater leap of faith than believing that it is true.
Everyone knows that motive provides a great deal of circumstantial evidence for things. When it comes to the resurrection of Christ, to claim that those who testified about the resurrection made it up, we would have to propose some sort of motive for fabrication. This asks the question Why would they make up such a story? Almost always, motives for fabrication involve some sort of personal gain. But it is very difficult to find a motive for fabrication among those who claimed Christ rose. They did not become rich. We don’t know of any issues of prideful revenge. And, in their lives, they did not win any popularity contests. In fact, it would seem that most of them died a martyr’s death. Even the Gospel writers did not include their names in the Gospels, showing us that they were not seeking fame. It is only from early Christian testimony that we believe we know who wrote them. I am sure that we could come up with some theories for fabrication, but these theories would require a great deal of blind faith to believe. Our conviction meter here would have to be very low were we to opt for an alternative theory.
Incidental and obscure details:
When I told the story about Angie, I provided many details that were unnecessary. I told you about the conversation I had with the medical examiner word-for-word as I remember it. I told you that I was on HWY 635. I told you how I thought it might have been a cop calling me. I told you that the Angie’s remains were in a white cardboard box. And I told you about how I almost went into the medical examiner’s office to look at the pictures when he advised me not to.
A good indication that a story is true is when there are details told that are not necessarily relevant to the big picture. Sometimes these details will be confusing for the listener, but make sense for the one who is telling the story. When people are making stories up, they normally only include what is relevant to insure the substance of the fabrication. In the accounts of Christ’s life and resurrection, the Gospel writers include many details that are somewhat irrelevant from the standpoint of the hearer. For example, in John’s Gospel, we are told that “the one whom Jesus loved” (John the writer of the book) outran Peter to the tomb (John 20:4). This information is completely irrelevant from the standpoint of the bigger story, but is a mark of authenticity to the historicity of the events.
An example of a confusing detail is when Christ talked about the “unforgivable sin” (Matt. 12:32). Outside of Matthew and Luke, this idea is not spoken of again. It is not a theme of the Gospels and does not get explained later on. All of church history has been confused about what the “unforgivable sin” is. Most, like myself, would say that it amounts to a rejection of the Gospel. Either way, this is a mark of genuineness due to its obscure nature. When people are making stuff up, they normally make sure that every detail fits into the big picture and is understood.
I have just scratched the surface of what it means to have forensic conviction. My hopes are that by reading this small bit of evidence for the resurrection, you see how forensic conviction can add to your overall conviction meter.
Let me ask you a question. Based on what you have read here, do you believe that my sister Angie died in 2004? I imagine that you do. Why? Because you, on autopilot, did not even need for me to explain the reasons why you were convicted that I was telling the truth. You were automatically filtering this through your already existing conviction meter. You trusted my testimony.
But you know what? While I think that the evidence here is substantial for us to believe that my sister died, I think that it is even more substantial for a belief in the resurrection of Christ. The reason why we don’t often see it as such is because of the miraculous nature of the resurrection. People die every day. We experience it. People don’t raise from the grave every day. I imagine none of you have experienced it. I understand this, but we must be careful. Our conviction cannot be wedged through a presupposition that people cannot raise from the dead. That is what we call “question begging.” It is assuming the conclusion (people cannot raise) and basing the way we look at the evidence upon this assumption (therefore, whatever the evidence says, it cannot say that Christ rose). For our conviction level to be high, we have to let the evidence itself produce a conclusion, not the other way around.
For some people this type of empirical “forensic” evidence will not be so important. For others, it will be paramount. As I have been arguing, we need to see faith as multifaceted and complex. However, we need to see the simplicity here as well. I encourage you, whether this is what you think you need or not, to explore and examine the evidence for Christianity, specifically Christ’s resurrection. If Christianity is true, then God went through a lot of trouble to make sure this is all available to us. We want to have our faith strengthened. We don’t close our eyes and our ears to the real world. We look to the evidence and follow it wherever it leads. If we don’t, our faith will be either non-existent or very weak.
1. Draw and fill in your conviction meter chart. How high is the “forensic” sub-meter? Explain where you are at and why.
2. How important is this type of evidence for your faith? Explain.
3. Do you think that Christianity is seen as a belief that has its forensic meter set a zero? Why or why not.
4. What challenged you most about this chapter?
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]