“RELIGION . . . IS THE OPIATE OF THE PEOPLE.”1 Karl Marx’s well-known maxim illustrates a disturbing reality: Too often religion merely makes people feel better about themselves. Some say that religion is no more than a placebo, a deceptively ineffectual medicine, meant to fool the patient into having hope where no real hope exists. Sadly, this is too often true—some religious groups are no more than opiates providing transient highs based on individual feelings rather than on verifiable, ultimate truths.
If theology underwent an epistemological metamorphosis by girding itself with verifiable facts, the game would change dramatically.2 What if the Truth, at a particular point in history, broke through the veil of our perpetual quest for the ultimate placebo and revealed himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life? What if his existence, life, death, and resurrection were verifiable events that occurred in real time, real space, and real history? Would the “religion” he preached be a mere placebo? Or would it be the powerful medicine of the Most High God, literally erupting with certainty and power?
Though our postmodern world sometimes claims to be “spiritual,” Christianity is nevertheless constantly questioned and attacked on the basis of the placebo perception. As a defense against these attacks, it is essential that Christians understand the case for Christianity. The role of apologetics is to defend the exclusive claims of Christianity—specifically, that God came down to earth incarnate as a man, died on the cross for the sins of humanity, was raised three days later, and thus secured salvation for all who believe.3 How can such miraculous claims withstand scrutiny in a world in which science determines what constitutes knowledge and exercises an exclusive right to truth-claims? Quite simply, one must question science’s presupposition that “religion cannot convey truth,” or that religion only speaks to “religious” ideas (thus making it the opiate of the masses). In order to adequately show the truth-value of the claims of Christianity and question these presuppositions, this article will examine those elements of proof necessary to substantiate any claim of truth.
If our postmodern society will allow (or subconsciously uses) anything approaching a consistent framework that could make up a theory of knowledge, then understanding the tenets of this framework is the first important task in discussing and evaluating truth-claims. Therefore, we must understand some basic aspects of epistemology—the study of how we know what we know—that are peculiar to twentieth-century philosophy, specifically the tenets of the so-called Analytic Movement.4
Various Types of Statements
According to most proponents of the Analytic Movement, there are three types of propositions; truth-claims are analytic, synthetic, or nonsensical. To better explain, I’ll describe each of these three types and assess their respective capacities to reveal truth.
To begin, analytic statements are those that are mathematical in nature, or that consist of strictly logical definitions and deductions. Here’s an example: “Two plus two equals four.” Analytic statements such as these are purely definitional, and thus are absolutely true. Further, the fact that analytic statements are strictly definitional means they can’t tell us anything except the information contained within the statement. (So, in our example of “two plus two equals four,” it can’t tell us where the concept of the number “two” comes from, or why it is that two and two equal four and not five.)
Next, synthetic statements are those propositions concerning the world, nature, or the universe that are not internally defined as true. These statements typically rely on empirical testing or external observation to be confirmed or denied. Here’s an example: “I live at 1234 Every Street, Sometown, California 56789.” Demonstrating synthetic truth-claims is usually done by means of inductive argumentation, of which the scientific method is the premier example. This type of argument seeks to supply strong evidence for the truth of the proposition. In our example, to evaluate this truth-claim, an observer must empirically examine the evidence in its favor. The most obvious test would be to go to the address and determine if it is, in fact, my home. Barring such an observation, one could accept this proposition on faith. Synthetic propositions begin with the specific and work slowly upward toward the general, by means of corroboration and confirmation.
However, because empirical testing and observation are used to evaluate synthetic truth-claims, there generally can’t be anything approaching the definite, 100-percent certainty of analytic statements. Bias, inappropriate testing materials and subjects, insufficient data, and data tampering are all possible pressures that potentially serve to undercut the veracity of synthetic statements. This is why synthetic truth-claims must be tested! The tests need not be highly formalized examinations, but they should be investigated with reasonable rigor. Whatever the test used, our point is this: Judging the truth or falsity of a synthetic statement in the absence of evidence—that is, provisionally—necessitates a type of faith.
Here’s why this is important: If we can treat synthetic truth-claims as provisionally true, then faith is not solely a religious concept. Synthetic, provisional truth-claims are those propositions that are effectively probable in nature, since they are based on empirically verifiable evidence. This means that our everyday, common experiences provide robust defenses for these truth-claims. For example, I have faith that when I get into my car it will start and I will be able to drive to work. I have no compelling reason to doubt this proposition, because my car has started every morning since I purchased it. Even so, this remains a provisional truth-claim. Here’s the point: You and I routinely—and without question—live as if probable synthetic statements (e.g., my car will start this morning) were certain, even when certainty cannot be conclusively determined. My car could, in fact, fail to start this morning—the battery could be dead, the starter could be broken, or thieves might have stolen my engine.
This concept directly addresses a common attack on Christianity, which goes like this: “You believers must take certain propositions on faith! That’s not rational!” Richard Dawkins purportedly defines faith as “believing in something that you know isn’t true.” But the discerning questioner might ask, “Aren’t most things upon which we rely taken on faith?” Trusting or having faith in the probability of observed data is an essential aspect of the human experience and one that can adjudge truth.
Finally, there are truth-claims that are neither analytic nor synthetic. Nonsensical statements are completely nonverifiable either by definition or by objective evidence. They are not even subjective in nature and are often termed “meaningless.” Nonsensical statements are neither true by definition nor do they lend themselves to any means of testing or observation. A classic instance is Noam Chomsky’s example: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”5 This is a perfectly fine English sentence—grammatically correct, intelligible—but completely nonsensical. There is no truth proposition in this statement, and there are no means by which its truth can be tested. Since such statements are neither true nor false, they communicate no understanding of either their own internal logic (as in analytic statements) or information about the external world (as in synthetic statements).
Many have relegated all religious statements to this nonsensical category, and it’s true that some religious statements are nonsensical. Here’s an example: There is a god who is said to have made all the coffee in the universe and bestowed it on humanity as a gift. The worshipers of this god claim that he exists in a separate realm in which no human method of observation can apprehend him. Belief in this coffee-god is, in fact, nonsensical, given that he cannot be determined to exist either analytically or synthetically.
Some examples of these three types of statements can provide a view into the working difference between them. Imagine that you are attending a history lecture and the lecturer asks, “How many kings in the kingdom are rulers?” This question merits an analytic statement in response (e.g., “One king rules the kingdom”) since the definitions of “king,” “kingdom,” and “ruler” necessarily determine the answer. Next, the lecturer asks, “How many servants does each king have?” This question necessarily begets a synthetic statement (e.g., “The king has two hundred servants”), since each servant must be counted in order to determine the answer. Now, an element of faith enters the picture—if the number of servants is reported by a trustworthy source, you might place your faith in the demographers who gathered the data. You must believe that these analysts did not change, miss, or record incorrectly the number of servants that served under each king.
The lecturer then proclaims, “An ancient king created the universe, then immediately died.” This statement is nonsensical, since the truth of this statement is neither definitional nor is there a means by which the statement can be tested in order to prove that such a king either existed or created the universe.
What is Meant by “True”?
Religious claims tend to fall into this nonsensical category, because most of them are not falsifiable—that is, there’s no way to prove whether they’re true or false, as in our coffee-god example earlier. So, to transcend the nonsensical category, the defender of a religious proposition must either prove that it is axiomatically true (i.e., show that it is an analytic statement) or show that it is a synthetic claim (i.e., show that it can be proved by observation and testing).
No religion apart from Christianity makes an attempt to support inquiry by synthetic statements. Christianity alone rises above all other religions in this respect. The core claim of Christianity—that Jesus Christ, who is God, the Creator of the universe, became a man, was legally tried by the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, killed on a cross, and rose from the dead three days later, thus securing salvation for all who believe—is empirical (synthetic) in character.
The fact that these claims about Jesus occurred in the natural world renders them open to empirical testing. Christianity appeals not strictly to an analytic definitional claim, but to a synthetic claim; thus Christianity’s account of its own foundation falls into the same knowledge (or epistemological) category as scientific truth. Accordingly, Christianity can make truth-claims about the world, nature, and the universe. These truth-claims can thereby be known as probable fact, even though there are certain elements of the narrative that require faith. This faith is not a specialized type of faith unique to the Christian confession, but it is actually the same kind of faith that is universally necessary for humanity to operate.
So, the synthetic claims of science, which inform and enable the epistemology of the postmodern thinker, are of the same type as the synthetic claims of Christianity. That, in turn, means one of science’s prominent presuppositions—“No truth can be found in religion”—is baseless. Since every proposition that science asserts as true also requires faith, the scientist cannot use faith to discount the truth-claims of Christianity. In this way, the rejoinder “Well, it is a matter of faith” is rendered powerless, because all positive assertions in the absence of direct observation are built on a foundation of faith. The Christian faith is not a “blind faith”; it is a faith informed by both evidence and reason. Even the most materialist scientist lives in accordance with this proposition.
While postmodernity may indeed be “spiritual,” this spirituality serves not as a means of finding truth, but is instead a system for living a peaceful or fulfilling life. Thus, according to this ideology, the propositions of a religion are not fact but a placebo that allows those who engage in religious behaviors to feel good. An example is the “Coexist” movement, which argues that all religions should drop claims of exclusivity and accept the claims of the others. According to this paradigm (whether the proponent realizes it or not), all religions are nonsensical. Religion exists not as a means of accruing knowledge of truth, but instead imparts only desirable feelings to the believer.
“You Do You”
Similarly, this impulse is manifested in the popular, postmodern, quasi-ethical statement often emoted by Millennials, “You do you.” This statement suggests that individuals are to ignore external recommendations regarding how to live life and instead be guided by what feels best—not that anything external should define “best” for you either! Since ethics, daily practice, and religion hold no objective truth, postmodern individuals place a premium on personal gratification and self-satisfaction. Christianity transcends the postmodern spiritual experience; it is subject to the synthetic propositions of empirical data and observation; it lives in the real world that is, more often than not, the realm of science.
Because the synthetic claims of Christianity occurred in the past, and can thus be judged using the historical method, Christianity not only serves as a robust foundation of knowledge for believers, but it can do the same for curious unbelievers—even in the postmodern world. This means that written records, external dating, and archaeological evidence can all be leveraged to assess the veracity of Christian truth-claims.
The essential Christian claims concerning Christ are referred to as “the gospel.” This gospel message is, among world religions, uniquely historical. That is, the gospel claims are based on events that happened in real time, in real places, and in real, verifiable history. Thus when the apostle Paul seeks to define the “gospel message,” he tells his reader the historical story of Christ and lists the witnesses who can attest to the veracity of the claims made in the story:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor. 15:3–8 ESV)
Among the world’s religions, Christianity is notable not only for the fact that it makes historical claims, but also that it proposes the means of its own falsification. Later in that same chapter, Paul provides the mechanism by which the Christian claim can be solidly debunked:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:14–19 ESV)
That is, if its own claims about the resurrection of Christ were proven historically false—e.g., the bones of Jesus Christ were found somewhere in a cave in Palestine—then the religion itself would be proven false. Christianity not only utilizes history as a setting for its significant events, but it wholly depends on history for the verification and validation of its central claims.
Christianity makes several historical claims that are dependent on each other. Consequently, were any one of these claims shown to be false, then the entire foundation would crumble. In order for Christianity to offer truth, at least these three events must have actually happened:
1. Jesus Christ must have been God incarnate;
2. He must have been tried by Pontius Pilate, convicted, and crucified (died) on a cross; and
3. He must have risen from the dead three days later.
The impact on the truth of Christianity is as follows:
1. If Jesus were not God, then he would not have been able to atone for the sins of the whole world;
2. If Jesus did not die, then the claim that he conquered sin, death, and the power of the devil by means of his sacrifice is nullified since no sacrifice occurred; and
3. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then his claim to be God is false, and he could not have been victorious over death nor could he have secured life for all believers.
The most essential question of all must be whether the claims about Jesus are supported by historical evidence. That is, are they true?
Examining the Evidence
In order to conclude whether the available historical evidence supports the claims made about Jesus Christ, we must examine that historical data using the same historical process, critical methodology, and body of evidence used to determine claims made about any historical figure.
That body of evidence must comprise reliable, historical accounts that clearly record events of that figure’s life. These historical accounts form the source material—the data, if you will—that must withstand the empirical testing and critical observation of the synthetic line of reasoning. Only then can such sources be deemed credible. While absolute certainty will never be possible, the plausibility of the source material should be sufficient to act on. Thus faith will be essential to this historical enterprise. (Again, this faith cannot be a blind faith, but instead it must be—like the faith required of any synthetic truth-claim—based on the same principles by which the sciences determine fact and by which we make everyday decisions.)
As would be the case for any historical figure, the evidence for Jesus would necessarily be varied. Specifically, to substantiate the three items listed above, we would require accounts and records of Jesus existing and living under the Roman rule; there would need to be reliable records that the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, sentenced Jesus to death; and finally, we must have accounts of Jesus physically living and appearing after his death.
All of the events in question are recorded in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As we would expect, the Gospels record the events of Jesus’ human birth and his incarnate nature as God. They make clear Jesus’ death at the hands of representatives of the Roman Empire. And finally, the Gospels boldly proclaim his resurrection from the dead and recount his appearance to over five hundred people (as referenced in 1 Cor. 15) after his victory over death.
Lest the skeptic quickly dismiss the New Testament as mere fairy tales, it is critical to note and to know that the Gospels have been examined as historical documents under the harshly critical eyes of historians, archaeologists, exegetes, theologians, and various other experts.6 They have stood up remarkably well under scrutiny; indeed, in all respects (other than those for which no empirical examination can be structured, such as the miracles), the Gospels have proven to be among the most historically accurate documents of antiquity in the whole world.
For example, the Gospels are astonishingly accurate regarding the political figures of the time. References to historical persons such as Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Pontius Pilate are not only specific as to title, dates, and location, they also all enjoy independent verification in other, nonbiblical texts. The culture of first-century Judea enjoys no better testimony than the Gospels. If these texts so accurately convey the realities of life in the early first century, then we can give reasonable credence to the claims that are less easily verified.
The composition of each of the Gospels has been dated—even by most skeptical scholars—at no later than seventy years after the resurrection of Christ (i.e., before AD 100). Relative to most ancient documents, these dates of composition place the Gospels very close to the events they record. Even though the earliest surviving Gospel manuscripts date to the second century, these are still comparatively contemporary to the composition of these texts. The oldest known manuscripts of the works of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, date nine centuries after his life and death. Despite the intervening millennium, no one seriously doubts that this ancient philosopher truly lived, so it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that the accounts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are extremely reliable.
Not only are the Gospel accounts exceptionally contemporary with the dates of the events they document, but they are also, as noted above, supported by external documents and sources. Flavius Josephus,7 who recorded the experiences of the Jews under Roman rule, and Publius Cornelius Tacitus, who referenced the crucifixion and Pontius Pilate’s involvement in his Annales,8 are both non-Christian authors who recount elements of the Gospel narrative. Josephus even makes note of Jesus’ claim to be God. To these corroborations can be added archaeological finds—such as the Caiaphas Ossuary, the Pilate Stone, and the Ossuary of James—that also support the personages of the Gospels.
The available historical evidence confirms that the Gospels are indeed accurate and trustworthy sources of synthetic knowledge. The three claims concerning Jesus with which we dealt earlier fall in line as respectable truth-claims. The Gospels—and other testimonies—accurately record not only that Jesus claimed to be God but also that many people believed this claim. The Gospels—and other testimonies—clearly record that Pontius Pilate put Jesus to death and that his execution was publicly observed outside of Jerusalem proper. The Gospels clearly record that Jesus’ body was publicly laid to rest in a tomb owned by a man named Joseph from Arimathea, and that a Roman guard was placed outside this tomb. The Gospels record—then proclaim—that three days after this execution, Jesus physically rose from the dead. Over the course of the subsequent forty days, Jesus ate with his disciples and appeared to more than five hundred people. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead affirmed his claim that he was God.
The historical underpinnings of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and times are incontrovertible. Several of the major events of Jesus’ life can be corroborated in external, non-Christian sources. Therefore, Jesus’ historicity passes the litmus test of synthetic knowledge. We can rely on the historical personage of Jesus because we can rely on the authenticity of the Gospels. If the Gospels are correct in so much of this incidental detail, then why should we not suspect they are credible in the most important detail: the deity of Christ?
A Reasonable Faith
This is a reasonable faith claim. If we can be reasonably confident that the events recorded in the Gospels are accurate, and no evidence that establishes the falsehood of Christ’s claim to be the Messiah has been found (e.g., his body), then other faith claims predicated on the divinity of Christ begin to make sense according to the rules of synthetic knowledge. Knowing that Jesus truly was God in turn suggests that he came to earth solely to save humanity from sin and secure salvation for all who believe in him, as he claimed. The knowledge that Jesus Christ saved humanity from sin, death, and the power of the devil requires faith; but because of the veracity of the Gospels, this faith occupies the same epistemological category as scientific knowledge.
This faith is no opiate-induced, feel-good hallucination, nor is it founded in any nonsensical statement. Christianity is in a uniquely defensible position existing in today’s postmodern world. Synthetic, empirical claims demonstrate conclusively (using the same methodology employed by the sciences themselves) that Christianity and the claims of Jesus’ deity are true facts. We arrive at the conclusion that Jesus is God, not through spiritual enlightenment or tapping into the universal divine, but by the same methodology through which we establish the facticity of the American Revolution, or that gravity is an attractive force relative to the mass of an object. The postmodern ideas of the “Coexist” movement and the “You do you” mantra are refuted by Jesus’ universalizing claim that he is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). The historical and empirical nature of Christianity breaks out of the realm of myth and into the realm of flesh-and-blood reality.
Christians who are subjected to questioning and attack can rely on more than just blind faith to refute claims against their beliefs. Our reliance on Christ as our only hope of life, salvation, and freedom is assuredly a leap of faith, but it is not a blind leap. To defend against these attacks, it is essential that Christians understand the epistemology of theology, proclaim the exclusive claims of Christianity, and defend the true faith with apologetics. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, died and rose for your sins. Live boldly in this truth!
Scott L. Keith (PhD, Foundation House Oxford, under the sponsorship of the Graduate Theological Foundation) is the executive director of 1517 The Legacy Project and cohost of the Thinking Fellows podcast.
- The full quote from Marx is: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” See Karl Marx, Preface and Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976), 1.
- It is the opinion of this author that every church ought to own a copy of the audio lecture series Dr. John W. Montgomery’s “Sensible Christianity,” and place it in their library to be made available to its members. “Sensible Christianity” can be found for purchase at: https://shop.1517legacy.com/products/sensible-christianity-mp3.
- Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3–4.
- For more on this, see A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth & Logic (Mount Vernon, NY: Gould Media, 1980). Also see John Warwick Montgomery, Tractatus Logico-Theologicus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012); and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and C. K. Ogden, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922).
- Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures (The Hague: Mouton, 1957), 15.
- A wonderful synopsis of the historical veracity of the Gospels can be found in John Warwick Montgomery, History, Law and Christianity (Irvine, CA: New Reformation Publications, 2014).
- See Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus; Comprising the Antiquities of the Jews; a History of the Jewish Wars; and Life of Flavius Josephus, Written by Himself ... And Three Dissertations, Concerning Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, James the Just, God’s Command to Abraham, Etc., trans. William Whiston (Hartford, CT: S. S. Scranton Co., 1917).
- See Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals, trans. A. J. Woodman (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004).