In chapter 3 of The End of Christianity, John Loftus argues that Christianity is wildly improbable. There are many little paths I could go down in reviewing this chapter. I’ll try to address the arguments that impinge most strongly on my personal beliefs so as to keep this post a manageable length. Also, as a moderate-to-liberal Christian, it would appear that my beliefs, in Loftus’ eyes, are “less improbable” than the beliefs of the most conservative Christians (although I’m sure the author would still find them “wildly improbable”). So keep in mind that Loftus’ arguments may not apply to me in the same way they would apply to a fundamentalist.
He begins with a list of ten creedal affirmations that are held by at least some Christians (pp. 76-77). The most conservative Christians would probably hold all of them while a more liberal Christian, such as myself, would hold fewer of them. He contends that Christians cannot support these beliefs through the use of reason. His arguments are short and largely emotional in nature. It’s preaching to the choir.
Let me briefly address some of these arguments. First, he asserts that historical investigation cannot determine whether a miracle occurred or not (p. 78). There’s no reason to believe this is true. Certainly anyone with an open mind will allow the evidence to change their beliefs. To assert beforehand that the evidence cannot convince you to change your mind is to admit that you are close-minded and cannot be reasoned with. It is also quite ironic that someone who does not believe miracles occur needs to employ a method (methodological naturalism) that rules them out from the beginning. If miracles do not actually occur you’d think the evidence could never lead someone to believe that they did occur.
Second, he asserts that Christians have to begin with a Christian framework in order to interpret the evidence as supporting Christianity (p. 79). I see no reason to believe this is true. One example would be someone who is convinced on philosophical grounds that Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics is correct and then reasons, through arguments such as the Five Ways of Thomas Aquinas, that monotheism (not deism or polytheism) is true. Once the existence of a deity is established on independent grounds, the likelihood that the God of the Bible exists seems more plausible than it did when such a person was an atheist. Another example can be found in Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Historical method is not inherently Christian but can lead to the belief that Christian claims, such as the resurrection of Jesus, are true (as long as we do not pre-judge the matter as methodological naturalists do).
Third, Loftus asserts that miracles do not happen in the present and therefore could not have happened in the past (p. 79). This merely shows that Loftus does not get out much. In a radio interview, Craig S. Keener states that he has come across modern cases of resuscitation from the dead. It is my understanding that in his upcoming book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, he will catalog a number of alleged miracles that have occurred throughout history into the modern period. Note the difference in approach between Keener and Loftus. Loftus merely asserts miracles do not happen and then concocts a rule that historical evidence cannot convince him that miracles occur. On the other hand, Keener goes out, does the leg work, and tries to find the best explanation of the evidence. He does not pre-judge the matter like Loftus does. Following Keener’s lead may be a kind of outsider test for atheism that Loftus needs to take.
In the second section of the chapter, Loftus writes that Christianity makes more extraordinary claims (in number not in kind) than atheism, pantheism, deism, Judaism, or Islam (pp. 81-86). This is dubious since he provides no hard numbers. It also appears he has little understanding of Islam. For example, he writes that the “Muslim accepts some of the early portions of the Old Testament” (p. 83) when, in fact, Muslims accept those parts of the Bible (Old and New Testament) that agree with the Koran but believe the Bible is corrupt (meaning that if the Koran contradicts the Bible it is because the Bible has been corrupted). He also does not mention the Hadith literature which would certainly increase the number of claims made by Islam.
In the third section, Loftus notes beliefs he finds bizarre or illogical (pp. 87-91). He fires off question after question in this section. Many of the questions are irrelevant to me personally or frame questions in a way that show faulty assumptions on Loftus’ part. For example, he asks how God, who is spirit, can create the physical universe without making contact with the physical (p. 88). The faulty assumption in the question is believing that change is only possible if physical contact occurs. Once we do away with this assumption the “issue” disappears. That is not to say that there may not be unanswered questions, it’s just that not knowing all the answers is part of the human condition.
The fourth section contains a brief critique of arguments from some Christian apologists (pp. 92-98). I don’t have the works of these apologists on hand and so will skip reviewing this section. The chapter closes with fifteen reasons why Christianity is improbable (pp. 98-104). I will briefly respond to points most relevant to my beliefs and that have not been touched on before or are not apparently addressed in other chapters (the numbering below is from the book).
(1) How can God be good if evil exists? On Thomist grounds, goodness is defined as how well an entity conforms to its essence. God’s essence is pure actuality and He conforms to it perfectly. Therefore, He is good by nature and not by whether or not He allows some evil to occur.
(2) Christianity dismisses the tragedy of death. This is true to the extent that, unlike atheists, we do not believe that death is the annihilation of the deceased. We believe that we live on in the afterlife. But this is not an abnormal belief in the least. It is the atheist who holds the unusual belief in this regard.
(5) Why believe only the miracles described in the Bible occurred? One need not make this assumption. Investigate each miracle individually.
(7) Why have none of the OT prophecies about the Messiah been fulfilled in Christ? This is not true. For example, in the last chapter, Richard Carrier alluded to Daniel 9:26 and I noted that, at least by my interpretation, this was a fulfilled prophecy.
(10) Loftus falsely asserts that no NT author claims to have seen the resurrected Jesus. But, for example, John 21:24 makes just such a claim. Note that he does not even get into the matter of actual authorship. He only mentions what the author claims. Full blown debates about the authorship of books of the Bible is outside the scope of this review.