Book Review: Can We Believe it? Evidence for Christianity.*
The opening paragraph tells readers that this book is intended for atheists and agnostics, and youth pastors and high school and university students, and scientists and mathematicians in particular: some audience! Seber (Emeritus Professor of Statistics at Auckland University) then assembles his material by arranging most of it as answers to the eleven questions that are his chapter titles: What do science and mathematics prove? Is there a God? Is there a spiritual dimension? Do we have free will? Is the Bible reliable? Who is Jesus? Do miracles occur? Why does God allow suffering and evil? Is Christianity a blessing or a curse to society? What about evolution? How do we get to know God?
The book has a number of strengths. Seber’s fluent discussion of maths and physics in a number of places will reassure and inform. He warns that science and mathematics have distinct epistemic limitations but does deploy them to good effect in his clearly-written chapter on the existence of God. Five consecutive pages of complex probability equations related to God raising Jesus from the dead in a later chapter will stretch most readers, though they will be reassured by the conclusion that “the evidence for the resurrection is strong from a probabilistic point of view” (219). In a number of places Seber is a justifiably severe critic of naturalism and materialism (while alert to the danger of too-easy Christian reliance on ‘God-of-the-gaps’ thinking).
In terms of apologetic methodology, Seber opts for what might be called a mix of evidentialist, modernist and rationalist approaches: unlike Paul in Athens or in his Epistles, or even Jesus for that matter, Seber resists any inclination to frame his material in any one of the various worldviews of his hearers or readers. (It would be interesting to know what Seber, who has a diploma in counselling, might make of Boa and Bowman, Faith Has Its Reasons (2006) with its persuasive appeal to the necessity of tying apologetic method to the personality profile of a hearer.) There is evidence of wide (sometimes quite dated) reading in the bibliography of some 350 items though fellow apologists will regret the omission of Blaise Pascal (the 17th century founder of probability theory) and of The Resurrection of God Incarnate by Richard Swinburne (often regarded as the most distinguished British philosopher of his generation) whose deployment of Bayesian analysis in defence of the resurrection has stronger theological and philosophical foundations than those provided by Seber. The appealingly written apologetics of Seber’s fellow mathematician, John Lennox, is also absent.
There are some controversial – perhaps courageous – dimensions, as well. For example, there’s an interesting appeal to “near-death-experiences,” a bold move given their hostile reception in some Christian circles. There is some shrewdly original material in his discussion of free will and determinism. In a number of places there are helpful and clear summaries of often complex (or generally inaccessible) discussions. There is a very brief discussion of the religions – a universally-encountered question in apologetic dialogue these days – but really only to offer biblical texts to refute their central claims. The texts deployed do not include any that relate to God not having left himself without a witness anywhere, or the extraordinary generous appraisal by Jesus himself of the faith of Gentiles and Samaritans. (A second edition will have to correct the assertion that Krishna founded Hinduism.)
At the same time, there are weaknesses that a would-be reader (or lender to those who don’t believe) should know about. For example, there is a very long chapter on the reliability of the Bible that too often seems to require the biblical authors to have written their history as if they lived in a modernist world whereas these authors were rightly obsessed with God and God’s sovereignty over all things which is why their history, whether about human origins or the Exodus or the life and resurrection of Jesus, are what we can call “theologized history.” (Seber is poorly served in this chapter by his documented dependence on two fundamentalist writers: Geisler and Howe.) Evolution is another example. Seber is right to question a wholly naturalist account of any model of evolutionary development but seems to regard the evidence for and against evolution as roughly equal. His failure to acknowledge that the dominant alternative in the Christian world (literalist creationism) has an overwhelmingly negative impact upon enquiring minds – what a fellow Kiwi apologist, Ron Hay, calls “the calamity of creationism” – will be regretted by a large number of Seber’s academic colleagues here in New Zealand. See, for example, the evidence cited in (medical Professor) Philip Pattemore’s Am I My Brother’s Keeper? a volume overlooked by Seber. To summarise a fairly detailed discussion of Genesis 1 with the statement “I don’t personally mind how God created the world as it is my relationship with God that is all important!” (277) has a nicely Christian ring to it – but at the expense of the critical realism that pervades most of the volume. It does make a huge apologetic difference these days how the reality of the world is described. There is a surely unsustainable flirtation with Chuck Misler’s ‘Bible Code’ (150-51) and with some other implausibilities suggested by literalistic and attempted concordist readings of the Bible. Seber wants to sidestep the futile debates over inerrancy but then refers his readers only to two highly polemical inerrantists for further reading! (132)
However, in a later chapter, Seber is also content to assert progressive revelation and the presence of copying errors (170); the Bible is not a “book on science,” partly because “writers used thought forms of the day” (178). And in a number of other places he is happy to draw upon the work of fellow evangelicals who do hold mainstream views about Scripture, cosmology and evolution. Nonetheless, it does appear that Seber himself too often treats the Bible as if it is the equivalent of an encyclopaedia – a volume that tells us all about all things – whereas Scripture actually does something else; it tells us what all things are all about. It intends to be a revelation not an encyclopaedia. And this weakness seems to relate to the author’s uncritical buying into issues dear to rationalist American fundamentalists judging by his dependence at times upon their literature.
Does the book succeed in its intentions? If Seber’s implied readers are fellow mathematicians, he certainly offers a strong dose of common-sense realism that God’s Spirit might well use to jolt them out of unbelief. But this undoubted strength might only partly succeed with well-read students, agnostics and atheists. They might be better served by Ron Hay’s Finding the Forgotten God, Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, and those with a scientific worldview by the likes of Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism and a closer reading of John Polkinghorne, and fellow Kiwis Graeme Finlay and Nicola Hoggard Creegan; or by many of the twenty or so volumes surveyed in an article in Stimulus, 22.3 (November 2015). But even with this reviewer’s hesitations, the book provides opportunity for stimulating dialogue with a humbly intelligent, biblically-centred, and quite widely-read defender of the faith.
Bob Robinson is a Senior Research Fellow at Laidlaw College, Christchurch. He is author of three volumes that constructively defend Christian faith in a religiously plural world, and for the past twenty or so years he has taught an upper degree-level course on apologetics entitled "Faith Has Its Reasons."
*To see the publishing details and ways the book is available please click on the image below