Why we may doubt that Christianity is the only way to heaven

October 2005

For rhetorical economy we will call the assertion that Christianity is the only way to heaven Proposition C. This is a somewhat edited version of an essay I sent to a correspondent who asked me for a summary of atheists' reasons for doubting that proposition. During our discussion while I was preparing to write it, he asked me to avoid any critiques of the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy.

As I informed my correspondent, many atheists would respond to his question very differently than I do, since we have nothing in common except for our disbelief in any god. The following might be typical of unbelievers in general, or it might not. I have seen no relevant surveys. In any event, no one speaks for all atheists, and I am speaking here only for myself.

I begin with the observation that in this context, "Christianity" is a label for a certain set of particular beliefs. People who use the label, however, do not agree among themselves on which beliefs it properly refers to. We who are not Christians can see no objective standard by which to judge which sect, among all people who claim to be Christians, is more authentic than any other.

My first objection, then, is that even if Proposition C is true, I have no rational way to discern which version of Christianity I should embrace. None of the competing sects has a cogent argument supporting its claim to be the only true Christianity.

The objection may be stated more formally as follows. Proposition C presupposes these premises (among others):

  1. The Christian God exists.
  2. Heaven exists.
  3. An alternative to heaven exists.
  4. All humans, after their physical death, will spend eternity in either heaven or the alternative.
  5. All humans are destined for the alternative unless they become Christians before dying.

If A is true, then one of the following must also be true:

  1. God wants all people to know that premises B-E are true statements.
  2. God wants some people either to be unaware that premises B-E are true or to believe that they are false.
  3. God is indifferent to whether all people think premises B-E are true.

People who advocate Proposition C invariably assert that God is omnipotent. If he is, then he is capable of making it so that all humans know that premises B-E are true. Since most humans do not know this, then it must not be the case that God wants them to know. Therefore Premise 1 is false, and either 2 or 3 must be true. But Christians deny both 2 and 3, and that renders Proposition C logically incoherent.

The usual apologetic response is an assertion that God cannot ensure universal knowledge of B-E without violating people's free will. To my knowledge this assertion has never been defended with a rational argument. It has only been asserted as if it were axiomatic. However, it is falsified by the common experience of humanity. There are some facts of which all people do have knowledge, and they were in no useful sense compelled to acquire this knowledge. Examples are the existence of the sun, moon, and stars; the existence of night and day; the existence of other human beings; the past existence of their ancestors; and the existence and particular nature of their environment. Knowledge of these things and countless others are acquired by all people without any infringement on their free will. Our will has no involvement in their acquisition and therefore it cannot be violated. Therefore, it is possible to impart knowledge to people without violating their free will, and therefore if the Christian God exists, he could have made premises B-E known to all humanity without violating anyone's free will.

The incoherence of any proposition is sufficient reason to disbelieve it, but we will examine some other objections.

The truth of Proposition C, as it is customarily presented, entails the truth of the resurrection—the claim that Jesus of Nazareth returned to life three days after being executed by crucifixion. There is no valid argument for the truth of the resurrection that does not assume scriptural inerrancy. We have agreed to avoid discussing the issue of scriptural inerrancy itself, and so I can only note that if one assumes inerrancy, then one must believe in the resurrection and whatever it implies about God and man's relationship with God. But if that assumption must underlie our discussion, then we really have nothing to discuss. To assume scriptural inerrancy is to assume the truth of Christianity, and if that be assumed, then it follows by logical necessity that no possible objection to Christianity can be valid.

If there is to be any dialogue, then, inerrancy cannot be assumed. I will avoid confronting it as much as I can, but it cannot be avoided altogether.

Aside from its incoherence, then, the main objection to Proposition C is that unless one assumes that the Bible is inerrant, then there is ample justification for anyone to doubt the resurrection; and if doubt is reasonable, then it is not reasonable to believe that Christianity is the only way to heaven.

Many apologists have attempted to show that the resurrection is amply proved by evidence not dependent on a belief in scriptural inerrancy. We will examine some of those attempts.

Before we do, though, I must acknowledge the existence of numerous apologetic arguments to the effect that the gospel accounts of the resurrection, even if not assumed inerrant, cannot plausibly be dismissed out of hand by a mere appeal to human fallibility. I do not have time for a thorough rebuttal to this argument. For the moment I just note that well-credentialed scholars have offered a wide variety of scenarios to account for the gospels' origins while allowing them to include a substantial core of historical truth. I find some of those proposed scenarios to be pretty implausible, but others seem very credible. They are entirely consistent with what is commonly known about human nature. To the main point: Even the implausible scenarios seem more believable to me than a dead man coming back to life.

1. Eyewitness testimony.

Apologists say that in the gospels we have eyewitness accounts of the resurrection, or at least of facts that imply a resurrection. This claim essentially assumes its conclusion—that there was an event to which there could have been witnesses. What we actually have are ancient documents in which it is alleged that certain people saw Jesus of Nazareth and interacted with him during a certain period of time after his death. The overwhelming consensus of historians in general, and New Testament scholars in particular—aside from a minority of those with a prior commitment to belief in Christianity—is that those documents contain no actual eyewitness testimony. The consensus is that their authors are unknown, and that whoever they were, we cannot be certain about their sources, either. That their sources might in fact have been eyewitnesses is considered extremely unlikely by most New Testament scholars, with the minority exception already noted.

This does not prove that the stories they wrote were false, but failure to prove falsehood does not prove truth. If we are not sure how the stories came to be written, and if the stories are improbable on their face, then doubt is reasonable. Furthermore, a resurrection is so improbable that even if eyewitness authorship were proved, it may nonetheless be more reasonable to believe that the witnesses were somehow mistaken about what they saw than to take their word for it that a dead man had returned to life.

2. Early acceptance among Christians.

It is alleged that within the Christian community, belief in the resurrection is attested so early that it could not have been a mere legend but must have been inspired by an actual occurrence. The notion here is that legends about real people require many generations to evolve—that as long as there about people alive who knew the real person, exaggerations about that person's exploits will be minimized.

In the first place, numerous counterexamples have been documented in real history, including the history of the American West. Some very imaginative stories about some famous frontiersmen—Wild Bill Hickcok and Wyatt Earp, to name only two—were told and widely believed not just soon after their lifetimes but during them.

In the second place, the argument assumes that people in general have a tendency to change their beliefs when confronted with facts that contradict them. This has never been shown to be the case. Indeed, the contrary has been demonstrated time and again. At no time in history, and in no place on this earth, have most people been critical thinkers or inclined toward skepticism. Their beliefs about anything, once formed, are extremely resistant to change. No sect of any kind—religious, political, philosophical, whatever—has ever shown itself to be an exception. It is rather in the very nature of any sect to sustain the beliefs of its members, to defend those beliefs against all criticisms, including a presentation of incontrovertible facts disproving their beliefs.

There is no evidence whatsoever that Christians were ever confronted by such facts. I do not believe that anyone ever showed Peter a corpse and told him that it was Jesus' body, but my main point is that it would not have mattered if anyone had. Peter would have denied that it was Jesus' corpse. And why not? Without DNA testing, how could anyone have proven that it was in fact Jesus' corpse?

I should mention here that I do not believe Peter ever believed or told anyone that he saw Jesus after the crucifixion. I think those stories are themselves legends. What I'm saying is that if Peter had somehow come to believe, erroneously, that he had seen a risen Jesus, then nothing that anybody could have told him or shown him would have made him believe otherwise.

Of course this does not prove he was wrong. But it doesn't prove he was right, either. It leaves room for reasonable doubt.

3. Hostile witnesses.

This is related to #2 but bears separate mention. It is claimed that the first Christians would have been constantly confronted by unconverted Jews and other opponents who would have exposed the falseness of their beliefs, if their beliefs had been false. Even if those early Christians themselves had been undeterred, they could not have won any converts and so Christianity would have disappeared within a generation.

This argument, too, assumes much of what it seeks to prove. It assumes that the New Testament and, in special particular, the book of Acts are correct in every detail excepting only the claim of Jesus' resurrection. The book of Acts, though, is the only account we have of what Christians were doing during the years immediately following Jesus' death. Its historical reliability is subject to the same criticisms as that of the gospels. We do not know how much of it is factual. We cannot be certain that any of it is factual.

Aside from a corpse that nobody could possibly have identified with any certainty, Christianity's enemies could not possibly have had any hard evidence against the church's teachings. Disputes between Jews and Christians could only have been a war of rhetoric. A few good preachers would have been all that Christianity needed to hold its own against its critics.

Apologists will also claim that there is no record of hostile witnesses because they had no argument: Christianity was true and the church's enemies knew it, and so they had nothing to say. This is supposed to be proven by the absence of any documented opposition to Christianity during its earliest years (aside from what is recorded in Acts).

While it is true that we have no secular references to Christianity during almost the entire first century, this is not necessarily because nobody could find anything bad to say about it. It is also, just by the way, hard to reconcile with the notion that Christianity was viciously persecuted from Day One. One would expect some writer somewhere to have noticed all the violence and made some mention of it. It seems at least as likely that the first Christians were simply ignored because, notwithstanding 2,000 years of Christian mythology, nobody really felt threatened by anything they were saying or doing. Maybe nobody argued with them because nobody thought they were worth arguing with.

4. The martyrs.

If any belief that people are willing to die for must be true, then Christianity cannot possibly be the only way to heaven. The 9-11 hijackers are surely in heaven if their martyrdoms vindicated their faith. And of course, to assume beforehand that only Christians are vindicated when they die for their faith would be special pleading at its worst.

Apologists try to rescue the argument from martyrdom by saying that Jesus' disciples—men who had known him for three years and who would certainly have known whether he really returned from the dead—nearly all died for proclaiming the truth of his resurrection. Did they not thus demonstrate that they must have had a very compelling reason to believe in the resurrection? Perhaps they would have, if we had good reason to assume the historical accuracy of the stories about their deaths. But we have no compelling reason to assume their truth. We have only legends, and those legends do not even show up in the historical record until, at the least, well over a generation after the events they report. Not one of them is an eyewitness account. Not one of them even claims to be based on any eyewitness accounts. In short, we have no direct knowledge about the death of any disciple.

This does not prove the stories are false, but it does establish that there is no strong evidence for their factuality. Stories about the disciples' martyrdoms cannot prove anything until they are proven to be factual. Until then, the stories cannot constitute evidence for anything. The uncertainty about their truth allows lots of reasonable doubt.

5. Archeological validation.

It is claimed that certain archeological discoveries have validated the gospels. What they have actually done is only to confirm certain incidental details that would have been common knowledge to anyone living in that region at that time. This apologetic is on a par with a claim that A Tale of Two Cities must be a true story because historians can prove that the French Revolution really happened and that the cities of London and Paris really existed at the time in question.

No archeologist has ever confirmed a single fact that logically implies any part of the gospels' primary message. To suggest, as some apologists do, that we are somehow obliged to believe either everything in the Bible or nothing at all in it is the purest nonsense. No similar claim is ever made for any other book that has ever been written.

6. The empty tomb.

This claim really belongs under the "eyewitness testimony" heading, but Christian apologists have begun to treat it as if it has become a fact no longer in dispute. Several months ago even Newsweek magazine mentioned it so offhandedly as to imply that no reputable historian any longer questions whether a few of Jesus' disciples found his tomb empty shortly after his burial.

Nevertheless, it is not an established fact that anybody found Jesus' tomb empty. It is not an established fact that he was ever even buried in a tomb.

What is established is that four men wrote (not independently) stories about his body being put into a tomb that was found empty soon afterward. If the stories are true, then we need to examine various theories about what happened to the body, and we can give due attention to the claim that the tomb was empty because the body became alive again. However, if we can plausibly account for the stories' origin without assuming their literal truth, then the empty tomb is not necessarily a fact and therefore needs no explanation, supernatural or otherwise.

Nobody can prove that there was no empty tomb, but nobody needs to prove it. The stories about it leave room for reasonable doubt concerning their reliability as historical fact. Those who say there was an empty tomb need to prove that, and then they need to prove that a bodily resurrection is the only plausible explanation for it. They have never done that.

Site home

Religion index

This page last updated on March 20, 2017.