Skepticism and McDowell's "Proof" By Jerry Wayne Borchardt
They are 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 the U.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"
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,
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,
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
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
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
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 of Newton,
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
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.
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).
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