Does Josh McDowell have Evidence That Demands a Verdict?

Josh McDowell

The Christian Post has published an article by Josh McDowell in which he makes some amazing claims. For example he cites the existence of Forensic evidence that Jesus Rose from the dead. Normally I’d roll my eyes at stuff like this and then move on, but I’m pausing for two reasons to take a closer look. First, yes it is “the” Josh McDowell, the author of “Evidence That Demands a Verdict”. Secondly, he is claiming “Forensic” evidence and so that sounds very compelling.

Let’s dip a toe into this murky pool and see what we find.

First A Bit of Background

His most famous publication is “Evidence That Demands a Verdict”. Published in 1972 it is one of the most influential Christian apologetic books. Back in my days as a believer I had a copy and so I’m familiar with the content. It does however face rather a lot of criticism and does not withstand a critical analysis. McDowell responded with an updated version titled “New Evidence that Demands a verdict” and as you might anticipate, it completely ignored the previous criticisms.

The article that has just been published in the Christian Post on June 10th, 2018 is perhaps a golden opportunity for the now 83 year old Mr McDowell to distill his many decades of extensive thinking on the topic of evidence to articulate some of his very best most compelling arguments.

Let’s take a look and see what we find.

Yes, Atheists Have Faith. But Do They Have Evidence?

The title itself, “Yes, Atheists Have Faith. But Do They Have Evidence?” is a gross distortion of reality …

  • No Atheists do not have “faith”, they simply don’t believe due to the lack of any evidence
  • Additionally, those that do not believe do not require evidence to disprove something that has never actually been proven.

Not only is it really not a good start, but it goes rapidly downhill from there as you get into the content.

He starts off with this pitch …

when a group of Christians challenged me to investigate the evidence for Christianity intellectually, I thought it was a joke. I accepted their challenge, fully intending to destroy Christianity and rub it in their faces.

I spent months traveling around the world investigating the claims of Christ. By the time I finished, I was shocked. Not only was it impossible for me to refute Christianity, I actually became convinced that it was true based on the historical evidence!

Mr McDowell has personally stated that while in College he was an Agnostic until he wrote a paper concerning the historical evidence for Christianity. Net effect – he made the leap and became a believer. He did not spend “months traveling around the world investigating the claims of Christ”, nor would he need to do so, unless of course he considers a trip to the college library to be on par with a trip around the world. What is true is that once he became a full time staff member of Campus Crusade for Christ International in 1964 he did travel as their apologetics representative in Latin America. As best as I can tell the only international travelling he ever did was to promote religious belief, not investigate evidence.

So what “evidence” does he offer.

His article lays out just three examples of “evidence”, so let’s review each in turn.

Evidence # 1 – The accuracy of New Testament documents

to help us determine if the text of the New Testament we have today is the same text that was written down 2,000 years ago, we have manuscript evidence. There are over 5,800 partial or full Greek copies of the New Testament—some as early as the late first century or early second. We can cross-check those copies with one another in order to recreate the original texts with remarkable fidelity. This manuscript evidence for the New Testament is far greater than any other ancient text.

I have no problem with the idea that we can accurately and reliably be sure that the document we have today is an accurate copy of the text that was first written. What this however fails to do is to establish the accuracy or reliability of what the written text claims.

We do know with a degree of certainty specific things.

  • We know that the earliest Gospel is Mark’s. Both Matthew and Luke clearly copied Mark because they fixed the bad Greek grammar in the portions they copied
  • We know that the Gospel of Mark dates to about 70 AD, long after the events it describes. For example it references the destruction of the temple, and that happened in AD 70
  • We also know that the authors of the Gospels were not eye witnesses, Luke tells you this at the start of his Gospel.
  • We also know that the ending to Mark’s gospel was a later addition.
  • etc…

In other words yes, there are things we do know because that is what the evidence clearly points to and so enables us to have an appropriate degree of certainty about this. None of this helps make a case for any of it actually being true.

In other words, we have documentary evidence regarding the things people believed. To put that another way, it is not evidence, but instead is the claim in written form.

Evidence # 2 – prophetic evidence

To help us verify if Jesus is truly sent from God, we have prophetic evidence. The Old Testament has many different prophecies which predict the coming Messiah, including his family line, the nature of his ministry, his betrayal and death, and we even learn that the Messiah will come before the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 A.D. The likelihood of this happening by chance is essentially zero. But Jesus fulfilled every prophecy about himself.

Er … no, that’s not how this works. If he wishes to actually establish this claim then he needs to produce evidence that the prophetic details described within the Gospels actually happened.

The authors of the Gospels were wholly familiar with the old testament and all the prophetic claims, so it is not exactly a huge leap to see that they simply wrote a narrative around a messiah claimant to enable his credentials to be established.

What we do have rather clear evidence for is religious spin. For example, both Matthew and Luke cobble up a very contrived and convoluted way to explain how somebody who was known to be from Nazareth was actually born in Bethlehem. They needed to do that because the Messiah was supposed to be from Bethlehem.

In Matthew we discover that Mary and Joseph supposedly lived in Bethlehem in their own house.

  • There was no census, no stable, no inn, no shepherds

The author has a theme in which Jesus echoes parts of Jewish history, and so he has them fleeing to Egypt after the birth, then later returning and settling in Nazareth, a town they had never lived in before.

Meanwhile over in Luke we find an entirely different story. Here we find that Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and needed to travel to  Bethlehem for a census. That is quite clearly contrived to get it all to fit. The Roman Tax system was based on property and ownership of land, there was never any such census based upon ancestry, Roman taxation simply did not operate like that.

  • This time we find no astrologers visiting, and no flight to Egypt

Instead, we discover that Joseph and Mary travel on to Jerusalem right after the birth. Luke’s theme is different, he is describing a prophet for everybody, and so when he is presented in the temple, he is declared to be a light for the gentiles. Once done, they head back home to Nazareth

So why are these two accounts so different?

Quite clearly both authors needed to contend with the fact that it was common knowledge that their candidate came from Galilee, yet if he was to be the messiah, then he needed to have been born in Bethlehem, the town of Kind David, so they each contrived elaborate, but quite different stories that fitted in with their view of who they believed him to be.

The “evidence” that truly does demand a verdict is that the stories we are familiar with not only deeply conflict but have been contrived and massaged to fit a preexisting expectation. The narratives fulfilled prophetic details, not because that is what happened, but because they were massaged to conform to those existing expectations.

Evidence # 3 – forensic evidence for Jesus rising from the dead

The term “forensic evidence” sounds fascinating … until you find out what Mr McDowell actually means …

To help us determine if Jesus really rose from the dead, we have forensic evidence. For instance, we can look at the motive of the apostles who proclaimed that they saw Jesus risen from the dead. Why would they invent a story to get themselves persecuted? As the book of Acts tells us, they were threatened, beaten, thrown in prison, and some even killed for the proclamation of their belief that Jesus rose from the dead. By all accounts, they truly believed to have seen, felt, touched and been with the risen Jesus in clear conscience and sound mind.

Would people truly die for something that they know is not really true?

The rather obvious is that we need not doubt their sincerity, but this also is not “evidence”. People will happily die for things that they truly believe to be true, but is quite obviously not. If sincerity and a willingness to die for a belief is to become the test for the truthfulness of a claim, then given what happened on 9/11 I’d be curious to understand why Mr McDowell has not converted to Islam.

What we do perhaps learn from this third line of “evidence” is that either Mr McDowell does not understand the term “forensic evidence”, or alternatively, he actually does, and is simply using it dishonestly.

In Summary – “Faith”

He finishes off with …

Christians have faith which is backed by evidence.

.. to which we can observe that there is no compelling evidence. His claim is also a rather odd combination of words. If there was real evidence, then you don’t need faith, because it all becomes a fact. You can’t have both faith and real evidence, they are mutually exclusive terms.

He also chips in with …

Atheists also have faith

… which is rather obvious nonsense. He tries to justify it with this …

Atheists have faith that the universe can come from nothing. Atheists have faith that life can come from non-life. Atheists have faith that consciousness emerged from matter. Atheists have faith for all sorts of claims for which, ironically, there is no evidence.

Again no, none of that is in any way related to the lack of belief that a God did it all by magic. The entire scope of atheism is that he has a God claim and there are people who don’t believe it. That’s the precise scope of it all. Pointing to stuff that nobody understands and claiming “God did it” is indeed faith. Rejecting that answer and sticking with “I don’t know” is not “faith”, but instead is intellectual honesty. That’s perhaps a concept that appears to have utterly eluded Mr McDowell.

I once truly embraced Mr McDowell’s “evidence” as truth. The problem is that when you examine it critically, what you discover is that there is nothing of any real substance, just incandescent vapours and translucent surfaces (smoke and mirrors).

It might indeed be wholly sufficient to convince those that already believe, but there really is no evidence here at all. That’s why people talk about “faith” and not “fact”.

8 thoughts on “Does Josh McDowell have Evidence That Demands a Verdict?”

  1. Clearly Josh McDowell is not the scholar he claims to be. I have read everything the guy has written. And I couldn’t ultimately believe any of it. BTW, I have a PhD, since that seems to be so important to you. And I didn’t need that degree to see through McDowell’s blatant deception. I hope you can eventually come to see the facts as well.

    Reply
  2. By the way, what are your credentials Dave? Are you a scholar? You don’t even have a surname… What a shame

    Reply
  3. I was surprised by the scholarly critique of the writer who didn’t read the new book but rather an article about Mr. McDowell comes right out and states that Josh McDowell is a liar.

    Well anything further would certainly be fair and untainted. So much for being scholarly.

    Then he states the writers of the Gospels who themselves taught honesty among other things were liars and manipulators.
    Luke who was a disciple of Paul’s states that he wasn’t an eyewitness and was trying to give an orderly account and therefore all the writer’s were not eyewitnesses? Selective citing anyone?

    Matthew was an eye witness; John was an eyewitness. Mark was Peter’s disciple.

    Paul’s writings were dated earlier than the date you give for Mark so it’s not logical that his writings would precede the Gospels. Nor do his writings contradict the Gospels but affirm them.

    Regarding Atheists don’t have faith misses the point, I feel intentionally. I think that’s a very easy assertion to understand. To simply say you don’t have evidence that convinces me is one thing but then if you’re a thinking person at all you have to have an alternative; at least I would hope you would.
    I would think Mr. McDowell would point out that the alternatives would require great faith to believe.

    That’s ok. It’s hard to see the evidence when your eyes; mind is closed.

    Reply
    • OPENING COMMENT
      You wrote …
      // I was surprised by the scholarly critique of the writer who didn’t read the new book but rather an article about Mr. McDowell comes right out and states that Josh McDowell is a liar. //

      The posting does not claim to be a scholarly critique of a book, but rather a rebuttal to an article directly written by Mr McDowell himself.

      The word “liar” does not occur anywhere in the posting. The claim that it does is not factual.

      COMMENTS ON TEXTUAL CRITICISM OF THE GOSPELS
      // Then he states the writers of the Gospels who themselves taught honesty among other things were liars and manipulators. //

      Again, no where in the posting is such a claim made.

      // Matthew was an eye witness; John was an eyewitness. Mark was Peter’s disciple. //

      I understand that you might indeed sincerely believe this, but I’m not aware of any credible robust evidence that validates any of this.

      While there is a tradition that Matthew wrote Matthew, modern scholars reject this. What we do clearly know by simply looking at the text that the author used rather a lot of Mark as a source.

      As for John, as with Matthew, most scholars have abandoned the idea that John wrote John. (Yes, I’m aware of 21:24-25, are you aware of why that is not a credible argument of authorship?)

      The claim that the author of Mark was a disciple of Peter is a popular belief, but is not an established fact, but simply speculation at best.

      // Paul’s writings were dated earlier than the date you give for Mark so it’s not logical that his writings would precede the Gospels. Nor do his writings contradict the Gospels but affirm them.//

      The posting contains no statement regarding Paul’s letters or the dating of those. I do agree that they are earlier than Mark. To claim that they don’t contradict is not exactly a surprise, since there is almost no biographical data regarding Jesus in any of Paul’s letters.

      COMMENTS ON ATHEIST “FAITH”

      Finally, you write …
      // Regarding Atheists don’t have faith misses the point, I feel intentionally. I think that’s a very easy assertion to understand. To simply say you don’t have evidence that convinces me is one thing but then if you’re a thinking person at all you have to have an alternative; at least I would hope you would.
      I would think Mr. McDowell would point out that the alternatives would require great faith to believe.
      //

      It is called the Null hypothesis, or to translate, when faced with questions regarding why things are the way they are, the various Christian Claims don’t have credible evidence. Disbelief does not imply, as you claim, some alternative must be embraced, but simply “I don’t know”. Making stuff up is really not a good means for believing as many true things as possible.

      // It’s hard to see the evidence when your eyes; mind is closed.//
      What “evidence”, seriously ?

      I sincerely find that neither you nor Mr McDowell are actually presenting anything convincing. A claim that is not accepted by the majority of scholars and has no evidence to verify it is not “Evidence”.

      Reply
    • Agreed — it is hard to see, that there is no objective, impartial evidence which proves your theism is correct, when your mind is closed, by your refusal to be honest with that lack of objective evidence for your theism.

      Reply
  4. Hi Mitch, you appear to be struggling with something here. The rather obvious observation is that when deeply felt emotions are in play, humans are willing to give up their lives for an idea, a belief. Numerous examples exist. 9/11 is simply an example we are all very familiar with.

    You and I would agree that the individuals involved in the 9/11 event were willing to die for an idea that you and I would agree is “not true”. Where we differ is that you, I assume, are convinced that those that personally encountered Jesus, were willing to die for something that was true.

    Let’s, just for the sake of argument make an assumption. Let’s assume that the followers of jesus were willing to die, not simply because they were convinced that it was true, but because it actually was true.

    We have two distinct possibilities … people are willing to die for a cause that a) is true b) is not true.

    If both possibilities exist, then how can the existence of such willingness be exclusive evidence that the cause is true?

    You might still not agree, but hopefully you grasp the point and appreciate why I personally do not find the argument to be compelling evidence of truth.

    Reply
  5. You may not want to address it honestly and it is easy to play off my thoughts with some witty criticism and clever slogans; your 9-11 comparison of someone in the 1st century willing to be the victim for having witnessed the Christ and someone actively harming a group of people in a suicide mission you believe in are not the same. You can draw some parallel but the root is your trying to hard and feigning virtue at the same time. Being murdered and being killed while detonating a chest bomb killing yourself and others are not the same.

    I’ll answer for you, “Yeah but still…” “I’m a skeptic of anything that doesn’t payoff for me” or “hey man, I’m just…”

    I also appreciate your work, the Dave who wrote the this review, the David who commented, and the other Dave who left a similar review on Amazon.

    Both believe they’ll be killed and go to heaven. One is killed by not conforming to the world and the killers think themselves good, one is suicidal and shows the physical analogy of how suicide rips apart many unsuspected people around you.

    Reply
  6. McDowell, his apologetics, and those like him who spin out the same garbage, should be ashamed of themselves for peddling such lies. I was duped by their crap when I was too young and too uneducated to know any better. Now, many years later, having learned the truth, I would like to meet either of the McDowells, and tell them to their face, what conartists they really are.

    Reply

Leave a Reply