Peter Boghossian and the Atheist Definition of Faith

By Robin Schumacher

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Continued from Page One

A Flawed Understanding

Now let's return to the question of how to know if Jesus walked on water. The process used to answer this question is no different than the one needed for tackling any other question from history. How do you know that anything from history actually happened?

Look back at the five epistemological methods for acquiring knowledge and ask which one(s) are appropriate to use for tackling this question. Although a mixture of more than one is possible, the method of testimony is really the one that historians foundationally rely on to ascertain the truthfulness of a non-repeatable event/historical report. You have to rely on eyewitness accounts that were accurately recorded by trustworthy individuals.

But how do you know if the testimony is accurate and/or if the witnesses are telling the truth? The Scottish skeptic David Hume (no believer in God) proposed the following tests: "We entertain a suspicion concerning any matter of fact when the witnesses contradict each other, when there are few of them or they are of a doubtful character, when they have something to gain by their testimony, when they deliver their testimony with hesitation or with over-violent confidence." [10]

Let's apply Hume's criteria to Jesus walking on water:

  Is there contradiction among the witnesses? No, the multiple attestations agree on the key facts that Jesus walked on the sea.   Are there only a few witnesses? No, there were a dozen who witnessed the event.   Do the witnesses have doubtful character? No, they were committed to a religion that espoused high standards of truth and characterr.   Did they have something to gain from their testimony? No, if anything they had much to lose, which history says they did.   Is the testimony hesitant or overzealous? No, the multiple accounts display no hesitancy or extra zeal; the accounts simply state the facts.

Let me pause just for a moment and quickly comment on the real problem Boghossian and other atheists have with Jesus walking on the sea — it's a miracle. It has nothing to do with epistemologies, etc., but everything to do with a worldview that starts with the premise that God does not exist and miracles don't happen. That is an entirely different matter to debate.

However, let's re-engage now with the matter at hand and conclude with Boghossian's supposed proof text that shows how Biblical faith fits his redefinition of the term: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). Doesn't this support his case?

Not at all. Instead, the Bible plainly shows us in many places what the writer of Hebrews means when he says faith is the "evidence of things not seen." Let's look at just three.

John the Baptist is in prison and things aren't going the way he thought they would. He sends a message to Jesus that questions whether He's really the Messiah. Does Jesus say to him, "Now John...just believe!" No, instead Jesus tells him, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them" (Matt. 11:45). Jesus references the Old Testament prophecies that characterize the Messiah so John would have "evidence of things not seen" concerning Jesus' identity.

Another example is where Jesus tells a paralytic his sins are forgiven. This irritates the religious elite to no end because only God forgives sins. Jesus knows what they're thinking and asks them: "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk'?" (Mark 2:9). Obviously the former is easier because there's no way to empirically verify that someone's sins are forgiven. So here's what happens next: "'But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,' — he said to the paralytic — 'I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home'" (Mark 2:1011). Jesus gives them the "evidence of things not seen" (the man's sins being forgiven) by doing the more difficult, here-and-now work of healing the man's infirmity.

Third and last, Jesus makes the claim that those who believe in Him will have eternal life (John 3:16), but what "evidence of things not seen" does He give us to back up His statement? Answer: His resurrection, which consists of much more than His body simply vanishing and believers left hoping He was right. Instead, we read that "To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3, my emphasis). [11]

So in the end, we see that both Boghossian's claim of faith being an epistemology and his distorted / invented redefinitions of faith fall flat, and do so with quite a thud. Instead, a good dose of investigation and apologetics spell out yet again something philosopher Alvin Plantiga has written to those who hold to the Christian worldview: "Perhaps the main function of apologetics is to show that...[we] have nothing whatsoever for which to apologize." [12]

10. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
11. Whether you believe the Bible or not, the above examples show that faith, as showcases in the Bible, is not "belief without evidence." In this case, as Gilson points out in his book, it is right and proper to use Biblical examples to demonstrate Boghossian's error.
12. Alvin Plantinga, "Christian Life Partly Lived," in Philosophers Who Believe, ed. Kelly James Clark (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1993), p. 69 as quoted by Alex McLellan in A Jigsaw Guide to Making Sense of the World.

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Published 5-7-2014