Skepticism and McDowell’s “Proof”
Jerry Wayne Borchardt
This is from The American Rationalist 27(July/August 1982). Copyright 1982 by The American Rationalist.
The religionist may be foolish, but he must not be obviously foolish to himself. -Chapman Cohen
Josh McDowell is a popular speaker, writer, and champion of biblical literalism. He is perhaps the most read and listened to Christian apologist in theU.S.today. Other champions of Protestant fundamentalism, such as Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Falwell merely assert Christian dogma through the medium of committed religious faith. On the surface, at least, McDowell stands apart; as an apologist he is seeking, outside of faith, to “prove” that Christianity is true.
How does McDowell prove Christianity? How does he challenge the skeptic? What is the “evidence that demands a verdict”; the “historical evidences for the Christian scriptures?” The apologist’s case for Christian belief rests on what he calls “the legal-historical proof.” In his book More than a Carpenter, McDowell argues that the “legal-historical proof” is derived from an impartial examination of oral and documentary evidences and renders “a verdict… reached on the basis of the weight of the evidence’ (p. 38). Because this “proof” is “based on showing that something is fact beyond a reasonable doubt” (p. 38), then McDowell is promising his audience he can demonstrate, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” that Christian doctrine is based on fact.
Does McDowell accomplish what he sets out to do, namely remove all reasonable doubt about Christian tenets? Has he silenced the skeptic? Does the evidence give support to the Christian? An examination of McDowell’s apologetics reveals that he, in fact, has not come to grips with rational skepticism. The apologist snakes his way past skepticism in order to posit his “legal-historical proof”; by so doing, he avoids a direct confrontation with the real basis of skepticism. McDowell parades his “evidence that demands a verdict” through several redundant volumes; but once he has side-stepped the primary issue of skepticism, little remains of his case but biblical exegesis.
Before we examine McDowell’s “legal-historical proof” we must first study his attempt to circumvent skepticism. His argument against skepticism is preliminary to the rest of his apologetics, and his case for Christianity depends a great measure on whether he can discredit skepticism or not.
In the opening chapter of More Evidence that Demands a Verdict we find the title “the presupposition of anti-supernaturalism.” In this chapter McDowell asserts that it is the skeptic who believes as the “result of a subjective world view” (p. 3). To hold to “anti-supernaturalism” is simply to be guilty of prejudiced thinking. To presuppose, we are told, “is to conclude something before the investigation is commenced” (p. 3).
This point of departure is useful to McDowell be cause he wants to turn the tables on the skeptic. The skeptic is charged with presuppositional biases before the debate has begun. It is crucial to the apologist’s thesis that he portray the skeptic as prone to dogmatism. McDowell’s “skeptic” is a mirror image of the faithful believer. With this guise, the apologist has presented a “straw-man” skeptic, disenfranchised of legitimate and profound skepticism. McDowell carries his assertion of “subjective” skepticism into his confrontation with the famous skeptic David Hume (1711-1776). Hume’s case against the acceptance of miracles is a profound philosophical critique of supernaturalism. In More Evidence that Demands a Verdict, McDowell quotes Hume’s famous “Essay on Miracles”:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. . Nothing is esteemed a miracle if it ever happens in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden;… But it is a miracle that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. (pp. 11, 12)
Thomas Paine (1737-1809) argues in a similar fashion in his The Age of Reason:
If… we see an account given of such miracle by the per. son who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily decided, which is, is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie? We have never seen, in our time. nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is, there fore, at least millions to one, that the reporter of a miracle tells a lie. (quoted by George H. Smith, p. 218)
In The Resurrection Factor, McDowell warns: “One must be careful in investigating the fact of the resurrection, and as not to rule it out historically because of one’s bias against anything hinting of the supernatural or miraculous” (p. 16). The apologist sees Hume’s critique as reliant on skeptical prejudice; a “biased view of history,” the “Hume Hang-over, as McDowell calls it, has seeped into and tainted modern scholarship. The result: “no matter what happens or how strong the evidence, this attitude dictates that the supernatural or miraculous must be rejected even in spite of the evidence” (p. 17).
Is Humean skepticism merely based on anti-supernatural prejudice, dogmatic “in spite of the evidence?” It would seem that if we accept McDowell’s account of the nature of skepticism, we must conclude that the skeptic is not very skeptical after all. Is skepticism to be so easily dispensed with? I think not.
The initial thrust of McDowell’s argument is based on a (perhaps purposeful) misunderstanding of true skepticism. The thoughtful skeptic has viewed the claims for Christianity through healthy critical and empirical analysis. This basis (not bias) results in an unacceptance of Christian dogma. It is the apologist’s job to “prove” supernaturalism “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but at the very outset McDowell has given up and falls back on the charge that it is the skeptic who is presenting a world view in need of confirmation. He apparently wants to put the burden of proof on the shoulders of the skeptic, when in fact it rests heavily with the Christian. His own “legal-historical proof” relies on the presupposition of the possibility of supernaturalism. It is this presupposition that is in question.
Humean skepticism should be understood as the juxtaposition of common experience against the testimony for (not of) the supernatural. Which is more probable, Hume would ask: That all of the mundane experiences we have in day to day existence are uncertain or that the anomalous human testimony for the supernatural is mistaken? On one side we have the great fact of our experience, on the other, mere assertion.
Hume’s position is impregnable. The miraculous events purported in the New Testament are relegated to history. Such alleged events are thus open to the same kind of criticism and doubt that can be applied to other historical subjects. Because these tales of miracles are based solely on human testimony, and we know from our experience that human testimony is susceptible to mistaken notions and outright fabrications, then the so-called “evidence” of miracles from documentary sources carry practically no force in the face of our understanding of the real world.
Curiously, McDowell states the case in The Resurrection Factor: “… which is more probable. The witnesses of Christ’s resurrection were mistaken, or Jesus was raised from the dead?” (p. 26). If we ignore McDowell’s unwarranted assertion about the “witnesses of Christ’s resurrection,” we can paraphrase him. Which is more probable: the authors of the New Testament resurrection accounts were mistaken or engaged in fabrication, or a first century Jew lived again after dying? This is a most profound question to put before the Christian, but McDowell is so involved with his supernaturalist prejudices that he appears blind to its powerful implications.
To carry Hume’s thesis further, suppose we accept the testimony concerning miracles at face value (as McDowell clearly does with his “legal-historical proof”). Are we then to conclude that such events are supernaturally induced? By what criteria are we to judge the events supernatural? No supernaturalist has been able to put forth an unquestionable demonstration (or even a coherent definition) of supernaturalism for the modern man; if supernaturalism could be demonstrated no controversy would exist and we would all be supernaturalists. The Christian must ascertain the criteria that distinguishes the miraculous from the natural and that differentiates Christian miracles from the miracles found in the doctrines of various other religions.
Suppose (a great supposition indeed) that we cannot find a natural explanation for an alleged supernatural event. Should we then accept the event as proof for the supernatural? Or would it be more rational to assume that the inexplicable event is due to our ignorance? What, then, if all inexplicable events are assigned to the domain of the miraculous? Could we ever advance knowledge if we were to “give up” and proclaim “supernaturalism” at every difficulty? Because the criteria that distinguishes alleged “supernatural” causes from natural causes is not ascertainable or forthcoming, then to proclaim “miracles” is really nothing more than a call, induced by ignorance, for unadulterated faith.
To argue for a miraculous event involves a paradox or , perhaps even a contradiction. The word “event’ implies “natural event.” Once again we ask: What could constitute an “event” that would remove it from the realm of the natural and place it within the purview of supernaturalism? The best that could be said for the criteria for miracles is that such events illicit surprise, wonder, or befuddlement. But such states of mind are based on ignorance and in no way imply that natural explanations are not possible.
Another aspect of Humean skepticism is more telling still. When McDowell argues that the resurrection was a miraculous event he is arguing by inference that no possible natural explanation can be postulated. This, if McDowell would care to admit it or not, is a dogmatic presupposition. The apologist falls in line with his faithful brethren as he asserts that no natural explanation can possibly be applied to the resurrection narratives found in the New Testament. He is quite satisfied to accept the stories in the New Testament at face value and to ignore any natural postulation concerning such stories, even though any natural postulation is vastly more plausible than the appeal to the miraculous.
Hume’s skepticism is devastating to supernaturalism because it is based solely on common experience, bereft of metaphysical postulations. Spinoza, the 17th century rationalist, argued that miracles are impossible, yet based his assertions on his pantheism. His argument rests on whether or not we accept his philosophical system. Hume, to the contrary, appealed not to metaphysics but to the physics of everyday experience. He brought the whole universe of common experience to bear on the issue of miracles. McDowell’s claim that Hume was merely expressing a presuppositional bias is lame indeed. Christians often reply that the rejection of miracles, as is the acceptance of miracles, is an attitude of faith. This argument imputes to the skeptic the fideistic epistemology that is the foundation of supernaturalism. It is as if the believer can understand the skeptic only if he thinks the skeptic is playing the believers game of faith. The skeptic, though, has no use for (religious) faith. Common sense and the systematization of common sense, i.e., science, are deemed a surer path to real knowledge than that provided by the assertions of faith.
By taking the world as it is presented to us through empirical analysis, many skeptics have argued that miracles are not merely improbable, they are impossible. The freethinker Chapman Cohen has argued in his Primitive Survivals in Modern Thought :
In denying the possibility of a miracle we are thus on the strongest of scientific grounds. Knowing the constitution of water and of wine. I do not say that I do not believe there is evidence enough to prove that Jesus turned water into wine: I say I know he did not. I do not say that there is no evidence that a woman ever produced a child without male cooperation. I say that knowing the condition of human procreation, I know that it never happened. And the same may be said of the “miracles” that are exhibited in the annals of every religion from the most primitive times, (p. 139-140)
Is Cohen being dogmatic? Is he prejudiced against supernaturalism? Yes, if knowledge is dogma. Yes, if the modern understanding of the world is mere prejudice. The debate between the Christian and freethinker thus rests on the simple yet profound question: Should we trust a book or should we trust nature?
The Legal-Historical Proof
The edifice of McDowell’s apologetics is his “legal-historical proof.” What constitutes this proof? “When men and women rely upon the legal-historical method, they need to check out the reliability of the testimonies” (More Than a Carpenter , p. 39). McDowell presents a very revealing portrait of what it entails to use the “legal-historical method”:
For example-the resurrection of Jesus: A critical historian would want to check out the witnesses: confirm the death by crucifixion; go over the burial procedures; confirm the reports of Jesus being alive on the third day and the tomb being empty. Then it would be sensible to consider every possible explanation of the above data. At this state one would want to peruse other corroborative evidence and then draw an appropriate conclusion. (More Evidence that Demands a Verdict p. 13)
At first glance the method seems credible, especially the provision that “it would be sensible to consider every possible explanation” pertaining to the resurrection accounts. This is the skeptic’s position. But the apologist fails to abide by this rule and the “critical historian,” if McDowell is an example, is a very uncritical student of history indeed. A closer look at McDowell’s “legal-historical method” reveals a real lack of useful methodology and principle. “A critical historian would want to check out the witnesses; confirm the death by crucifixion,” etc. How would the historian go about checking the witnesses of the resurrection and confirming Jesus’ death by crucifixion and the reports of the risen Jesus? What evidence is at the historian’s disposal concerning such events described in the New Testament.
McDowell writes: “The New Testament provides the primary historical source for information about Jesus” (More Than a Carpenter, p. 41). This statement reveals much about what constitutes McDowelI’s “legal-historical proof.” I have argued elsewhere (see Sources) that McDowell has his priorities reversed. Instead of verifying the New Testament narratives with historical evidences, McDowell is in fact doing nothing more than using the New Testament to confirm the New Testament; an obvious case of circular reasoning and utter sophistry.
The apologist’s case is irrevocably impaired. Where is the “evidence that demands a verdict” confirming the virgin birth and resurrection narrative found in the New Testament? In the New Testament, McDowell replies. Where is the historical evidence in support of the New Testament stories of Jesus curing the blind and healing the leper? In the New Testament, McDowell asserts. Can McDowell be so naive as not to realize that it is the integrity of the New Testament that is called into question?
The true issue is overlooked, or avoided, by McDowell: Can the New Testament narratives be verified by contemporary sources? The 19th century atheist, Annie Besant, gives a succinct, yet unanswerable, critique of Christian “history” in the light (or lack) of historical evidence:
The most remarkable thing in the evidences afforded by profane history is their extreme paucity; the very existence of Jesus cannot be proved from contemporary documents. A child whose birth is heralded by a star which guides foreign sages to Judaea; a massacre of all the infants of a town within the Roman Empire by command of a subject king; a teacher who heals the leper, the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the lame, end who raises the moldering corpse, a King of the Jews entering Jerusalem in triumphal procession, without opposition from the Roman legions of Caesar; an accused ringleader of sedition arrested by his own countrymen; and handed over to the imperial governor; a rebel adjudged to death by Roman law; a three hours’ darkness over all the land; an earthquake breaking open graves and rending the temple veil; a number of ghosts wandering about Jerusalem; a crucified corpse rising again to life, and appearing to a crowd of above 500 people; a man risen from the dead ascending bodily into heaven without a concealment, and in the broad daylight, from a mountain near Jerusalem; all these marvelous events took place, we are told, and yet they have left no ripple on the current of contemporary history. (Freethnker’s Textbook, pp. 193-194)
Against the profound silence of contemporary history, McDowell goes his merry way, informing his readers that Christianity is based on historical evidence (i.e., the New Testament). For all his bluster concerning his “evidence” and his “legal-historical proof,” the apologist is using nothing more than a faithful acceptance of the Bible to bolster his case. His celebrated apologetics consists of nothing more compelling than biblical exegesis. In his Evidence That Demands a Verdict, McDowell devotes a chapter to “the trilemma-lord, liar, or lunatic?” This chapter gives us a concise example of the innate weakness of McDowell’s approach to Christianity. He accepts C.S. Lewis “argument” that either the Jesus of the New Testament was a deity or he was lying about his claim to godhead or he was insane. This contrived “trilemma” demonstrates how faithful McDowell is to the New Testament because he presupposes the New Testament to be essentially accurate in recounting the life of Jesus.
With his posited “trilemma,” McDowell fails to ‘consider every possible explanation” or alternative. Elsewhere, for instance, he derides and dismisses theories about the resurrection that are based loosely on the New Testament but make secular interpretations, such as Venturini’s “Swoon Theory” (i.e., Jesus really didn’t die on the cross). Although the skeptic would argue that such theories are greatly more plausible than McDowell’s “He Has Risen” dogma, the skeptic does not need such far-fetched themes to account for the resurrection narratives. At least two reasonable alternatives to McDowell’s literal reading of the New Testament come to mind: the narratives about Jesus were based on prior documents and murky hearsay inspired by some obscure historical event, or the New Testament is fabricated religious propaganda derived from a synthesizing of Jewish and Graeco Roman mythical paradigms.
The “legal-historical method” is McDowell’s claim to Christian evidence and it is weak in method and substance. Other aspects of McDowell’s apologetics are equally weak.
The apologist does not put forth evidence for supernaturalism per se. McDowell never supplies any empirical or philosophical argument that would demonstrate, even in principle, the possibility of supernaturalism. He never attempts to prove the existence of deity, nor does he try to posit even as much as a coherent definition of “God.” He does not tender any argument that would support his initial bias towards belief in the supernatural. Perhaps he realizes that to address such issues would backfire and harm his attempt to “prove” Christianity.
The apologist ignores modern biblical scholarship. One of the more salient aspects of McDowell’s writings is the fact that he is completely out of sync with modern Protestant scholarship. He would be more at home in the 19th century. All of the textual and historical analyses that constitute the great bulk of scholarship today are cast aside in favor of the “Old-Time Religion” approach. McDowell, far from devising fresh arguments, is perpetrating a neo-fundamentalism that depends less on scholarship than it does on overt dogmatism.
The apologists “evidence” is often nothing more than mere fundamentalist rhetoric. A great portion of McDowell’s books consist of confirmation had from strictly orthodox scholars and laymen. The apologist will claim to offer “evidence” for his argument, but the evidence often turns out to be fundamentalist rhetoric from another source. For McDowell, fundamentalist rhetoric is secondary “evidence that demands a verdict.”
The apologist emasculates science. One of the more curious notions of McDowell’s is his belief that science “is based on showing that something is a fact by repeating the event in the presence of the person questioning the fact” (More Than a Carpenter p. 37). By restricting science to such a narrow purview, we are left questioning the scientific credentials ofNewton,Darwin, and Einstein, to name only three. Such a restriction ignores the full-bodied approach of science that brings rationality and logic to all systematic disciplines. McDowell perhaps purposefully limits science in the hope that his prejudicial belief in supernaturalism will forgo scientific scrutiny.
In summation: McDowell has been refuted twice over. First, the Humean critique of the miraculous is a compelling argument against the Christian’s fundamental assertions about the “historical” accounts of supernatural events. McDowell never shakes loose from the grasp of the skeptic and the result is fatal. Secondly, McDowell cannot recuperate from a hard look at his “evidence that demands a verdict,” the “legal-historical proof.” The “verdict” is in: The so-called “evidence” is no evidence at all; it is the uncritical, dogmatic acceptance of the New Testament.
This brings us back to the fountainhead of the debate between Christian and freethinker. As much as McDowell would deny it, his case for Christianity rests not on compelling “evidence” but on religious faith. McDowell has not been able to elevate his case beyond a faith commitment; he has failed to “prove” Christianity. Belief in Christianity rests where it has always rested-on faith.
Annie Besant. The Freethinker’s Text-Book: Part 11-Christianity . (New York, NY: Arno Press, 1972).
Jerry Wayne Borchardt. The Resurrection Factor by Josh McDowell (Book Review). The American Rationalist, Sept.-Oct. 1981.
Chapman Cohen. Primitive Survivals In Modern Thought. (London: Pioneer Press, 1935).
Josh McDowell. Evidence That Demands A Verdict: Historical Evidences For The Christian Faith (San Bernadino, Ca.: Campus Crusade For Christ, 1972).
Josh McDowell. More Than A Carpenter. (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1981).
Josh McDowell. More Evidence That Demands A Verdict Historical Evidences For The Christian Scriptures. (San Bernadino, Ca.: Here’s Life Publishers, Inc., 1981).
Josh McDowell. The Resurrection Factor. (San Bernadino, Ca.: Here’s Life Publisher Inc., 1981).
George H. Smith. Atheism: The Case Against God. (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1979).