Is there a difference between a “fact” and a “belief?” A skepticI recently dialogued with argued that there is. Christianity, he contended, was based on mere “beliefs,” such as Christianity’s core “belief” in the Resurrection. The distinction, he said, was that we cannot cross-examine these witnesses to the key events in the life of Jesus. Consequently, our faith is based not on facts but on beliefs. The early writers, he further argued, were simply documenting the things they “believed” not things they had shown to be true. Finally, he concluded that Christians fail to take into consideration “all” of the evidence regarding Christ’s death and, consequently, should not be so quick to say that their belief is well-founded.
How should the Christian respond to this type of challenge? Is our faith based “merely” on “beliefs.” Framing the question this way has considerable rhetorical force. Santa Claus is not a “fact,” however much St. Nick may have lived at one point in history. Notice the way the question about him is normally put: “when did you stop believing in Santa.” When you stopped “believing” – when you abandoned your primitive or childish “belief” – you were ready to move from make-believe to real, ready to join the grown-up world of scientifically minded people who determine “facts.”
The first step in responding is to point out that the distinction between “belief” and “fact” is an arbitrary one that suggests the two are an “either-or” proposition, when they are not. Naturally, one believes in things he thinks are facts. If I know my name is Al, it’s hard for me to form or hold a belief that my name is actually Fred. Yes, there are some things that are not based in evidence which someone may nonetheless believe to be true. For instance, a person may believe that a magician has created a rabbit from the thin air inside a hat, when in fact he has used deception to hide the real source of the rabbit. Consideration of examples like these leads to the working definition that most scholars employ regarding the subject: a “fact” is a properly grounded belief. It is a belief that corresponds to reality.Mistaken beliefs are not facts; but all known facts are the subject properly held belief.
This then leads to the question of how one determines the accuracy – the factual nature – of historical events. Unlike conducting scientific experiments to test a hypothesis, the historian must employ a different method. He cannnot perform a repeatable experiment. By the challenger’s definition, however, we must therefore concede that all historical events are mere “beliefs” at the point that no one is around to be “cross-examined” about their statements. By this reasoning, we would have to call the assassination of Lincoln a “belief” because there are no eyewitnesses who can be cross-examined. Every historical murder conviction would move from a “fact” to a mere belief as soon as enough witnesses died, or enough evidence was lost, that it could no longer be tried in court. That’s simply not how history is done.
What of the claim that cross-examination of witnesses is necessary before determining a fact? From the perspective of someone who has spent close to three decades cross-examining witnesses, I would be the first to agree that it a powerful tool to uncover deceptive testimony or to clear up mistaken beliefs. But it is not the only way to determine veracity. I have encountered very accomplished liars who were able to withstand a vigorous cross. By contrast, someone willing to die rather than renounce their testimony has inherent credibility, because it establishes the strength of the conviction. The person can be mistaken in their beliefs, but such level of commitment suggests that they are not lying about them. Here, the relevant inquiry is what the first disciples – the eye-witnesses – did. Later Christians “believed” based on the earlier witness’ testimonies, but the first disciples had first-hand knowledge of whether their claim of resurrection was true or false. They could easily have said that he rose in spirit or that his message was one of universal peace and brother hood and everyone should just learn to “get along.” Instead, they insisted that Jesus returned in bodily form and that he is the Christ through whom all must be saved. This claim was unnecessary – indeed, it was often quite dangerous – unless they believed it was actually true, and needed to be taught; and they were in a position to know why they thought that. In this setting, what they were willing to do to stay true to their convictions is a whole lot more than what even the most skillful cross-examination could hope to accomplish.
The challenger’s last point is that the believer is ignoring evidence. What would be such “evidence?” Often, we hear that the “outside” accounts of Jesus’ are minimal. There are, of course, references to his life from non-Christian sources. More importantly, the absence of outside accounts of Christianity is not, strictly speaking, evidence. In other words, absence of evidence is not the same as evidence against a proposition. And one cannot wait until “all” the evidence is in because that point will never come. Like every other belief we hold, our conclusions can change as we learn more facts. But decisions are reached on available evidence, or they will not be made at all.
As I consider the challenger’s comments, I think of the saying that “perfection is the enemy of the good.” It seems that he is superimposing a standard of “perfect knowledge” about things that no human being could ever meet. With such perfect knowledge, you can call something a fact; otherwise, it is merely a belief. The temptation to do so is understandable, but knowledge comes from considering the evidence one has. Yes, one must be open to competing evidence, and must be always willing to test those beliefs as more information is acquired.
Christianity has withstood this challenge from its earliest days. Indeed, as Paul wrote, if the Resurrection did not occur, we are to be pitied as fools. Paul staked Christianity’a future, and its credibility, on the truth of this core claim. For two thousand years, it has withstood that test for a very good reason – it is based in fact, not fiction.
Posted by Al Serrato