Recently, we became aware of an email conversation between two young persons: one a young physicist and a deeply committed Christian named Aron and the other, Josh, a person who at least at the time the conversation began was a skeptic. The exchange is so rich that we’ve asked for permission to post it here. We hope you find it as informative and intriguing as we have.
It seems very hard to trust a particular set of ancient records that are 2k years old even if there seems to be a high degree of corroboration with other records. There's one part of the Bible that mentions people dying for their faith. There are other parts that talk about other things like what Jesus taught and what some of the apostles taught in their epistles, and other parts about what the apostles and believers did.
So, even if people did die for their faith, how do you know what that faith was all about? How do you know that the Bible is completely true? What if the Jesus that people died for is not for the most part the Jesus recorded in the Bible? For example, what if he only claimed to be a prophet with an important message, but not the message that's in the Bible today? It's not too far-fetched for people to believe in this prophet and show their conviction in his important message by dying for their beliefs. Christians are not the only people in the world who value certain things more than life itself.
Additionally, I'm not sure that in those days, signing up to be a Christian and part of a Christian community is equivalent to signing up for a death sentence. Imagine you are a new believer in a certain city on a certain day between 30 AD and 70 AD. Yes, people hate Christians, and you've heard of Christians in other cities being persecuted. But, your community of believers so far has been left alone, so it seems to be safe. So, you continue to participate in your local community and you start to be identified by your neighbors as a Christian. You really like the sense of solidarity in the community, so you stay despite the possibility of trouble. One day, the city turns against Christians and decides to put them in jail or execute them. They just hate you for being so different and disruptive. They just want to get rid of your community of believers, and if you denounce Jesus, it doesn't mean they're going to let you off. They know you as a Christian and they just want to do a thorough job, so they get rid of you and your fellow believers sparing no one. You are not offered a chance to denounce Jesus in order to live. You're not really consciously choosing to die in order to proclaim your faith. You just happen to belong to a group that people want to eliminate. On the other hand, there are the apostles, most of whom were killed for their belief. I don't know why they might have died for their belief, but one could consider their executions as political executions. They stood for certain ideologies/communities/factions and their enemies just want them dead, even if they were to publicly denounce whatever they stood for. For example, maybe some apostle might have stood for not just Jesus, but also the overthrow of the Roman government. In this case, the Roman government would want to get rid of him even if he publicly rescinds.
So, I suppose at issue is the authenticity of the Bible—whether it records the actual beliefs of those early believers, and what Jesus actually said. This is a really complex topic. You need to trust the Bible with some limited knowledge regarding its accuracy in order to believe. The same goes for chemotherapy—you need to trust that the knowledge and beliefs of the doctors make sense, based on limited knowledge regarding the rationality of the scientific process. The big difference, though is that with Christianity, I don't know if there are people who went to heaven and came back, or people with a time machine who went back in time to be an eye-witness. On the other hand, belief in scientific knowledge could be based on the successful application thereof that is seen in everyday life, as well as the basic understanding that science experiments are repeatable — some science paper about an experiment could be written 400 years ago, but the experiment could be repeated to verify the recorded findings. Yes, it's hard for a non-expert to repeat the experiments, but experts are available in the present who can repeat the experiments, and you don't have to depend on second, third and fourth-hand accounts.
One way for the claims of the Bible to be repeatable is for miracles to be seen. If miracles were half as common as they seemed to be in the early church as recorded in Acts, then the Bible would be more believable today. In fact, Paul refers to his preaching in 1 Corinthians 2 as being done with 'power,' and most of the time, that word refers to some actual miraculous thing happening, such as instant healing of a sickness, resurrection of the dead, or teleportation. There's no reason given why they are less common now. I, for one, haven't seen a miracle. Why don't I see a convincing miracle the way it used to happen in Acts and the Gospels?
I suppose if you believed that believing in Jesus were the only way to be saved, then you would tell people that God is sending them to hell unless they believe in Jesus. It seems like a great way to alienate potential believers. To take it one step further, a Christian spreading the gospel with such a position may be causing damage to the work of another Christian with a more inclusive position.
Regarding why miracles aren't as common now as they are in the Bible, actually even in Bible times they were not that common. Remember that the events in the Bible are just the ones which were interesting enough to write down. Many of the people in the Bible who we remember for having experienced miracles spent decades of their lives before never having seen one. Also, most of the miracles in the Bible are concentrated into 3 time periods a) the Exodus, b) Elijah and Elisha, and c) Jesus and the apostles. In the case of a & c God was starting a new covenant and needed to confirm the change to the people at the time. In the case of b he was recalling the people of Israel to a covenant that they had rejected. In between there were hundreds of years in which most ordinary people didn't see any miracles at all. And even in the lives of those who performed miracles, there were times of doubt in between—look at the stories of Abraham, Solomon, or Elijah. And "if miracles were half as common as they seemed to be in the early church as recorded in Acts", you still probably wouldn't have seen one personally—unless you happened to be following Paul or Peter around or got lucky.
God expects his people to pass on the memory of the miracles which have already happened, and to trust him even in the times when he is working more quietly. I have already explained in my first email why trust is spiritually important and why God would ruin the work he is trying to do if he just showed miracles on demand.
Are you skeptical about ancient history in general? Do you believe Julius Ceasar was assassinated by a conspiracy of Senators in 44 BC? If you believe in any events of ancient history, you believe it based on testimony, written either by eyewitnesses, or those who compiled the testimony of others. That's how history always works. Why is 2000 years any worse than 200 years? (In either case all of the direct eyewitnesses are dead.)
In the case of the apostles, we have multiple eyewitnesses who claim to have seen the same thing, who were tortured rather than renounce it. Of course I agree that just because someone is willing to die for a belief, that doesn't mean it is true. It only means that the person believes it is true. If I died for Christianity, that only means I think the evidence is good. But when the apostles died for Christ, they were in a position to KNOW whether the evidence was good. There's no way that anyone could fake the kind of resurrection appearances that are recorded in the gospels. And the resurrection is key to the entire teaching in the New Testament. Look all over the place; it's resurrection this and resurrection that. If you believe the book of Acts, the apostles started teaching about the resurrection only a few weeks after the death of Christ. If you think that the apostles were teaching something else for the first few decades and then later brought in the resurrection, where is the evidence of this original version of Christianity.
Regardless of the experience of the average Christian in the 1st century, the apostles certainly knew from almost the beginning that their beliefs risked death, that is why they were meeting behind locked doors on Sunday morning. I don't know whether all Christians got a chance to renounce Christianity or not, but at least some of the time the Roman practice was to not punish Christians who denied their faith:
It makes sense anyway; if you want to stamp out a religion it's much more valuable to get an important religious leader to spare himself by recanting than to kill him.
Anyway, in order for it to be rational to disbelieve in Christianity, there has to be an alternative hypothesis that is more reasonable. Do you think the apostles were liars? Do you think they hallucinated it all? Do you think it was all made up hundreds of years later? None of these hypotheses are reasonable, for reasons which I can go into if you want.
There are also miracles which have occurred in modern times. Most of them are performed by missionaries who are evangelizing to people who have never heard the gospel before. At the price of a some research and a plane ticket, there is nothing to prevent you from talking face to face with someone who claims to have seen a modern day miracle.
Why do you insist on seeing a miracle personally? It is perfectly possible to become rationally convinced that supernatural events have occurred by doing historical research and then using your brain. Just like we become convinced of lots of other things in life. What you are basically demanding is MORE evidence than is necessary, so much evidence that you don't have to think or trust, just see. Demanding a miracle is basically saying to God, I want you to force me to believe, I want it to be so totally obvious that I don't have to reach out in faith. As long as we are on the subject of what kind of belief is necessary to avoid going to Hell, I should point out that the kind of belief you'd get from being compelled to believe isn't faith. "Even the demons believe—and tremble!" (James 2:19).