The Outsider Test for Arguments

John's Book CoverWhen I first read John Loftus’ book, Why I Rejected Christianity (Now Why I Became an Atheist), one of the things that stuck out was the Outsider Test for Faith: “Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating.”

This isn’t a new idea, but I thought John ha done something valuable by stating it succinctly, stressing it, and giving it a memorable name. Recently, though, I wonder if it might not have been more effective if he had called it the Outsider Test for Arguments.

My reason for thinking this is a discussion thread at Victor Reppert’s Blog on the Outsider Test where Joshua Blanchard asked John to “provide a single example of an apologist adopting a double standard or assuming the Bible.” I chimed in suggesting Josh McDowell on the resurrection as an example, and then added another comment explaining why the arguments of William Lane Craig as well as Vic on the resurrection are often little better than McDowell’s.

Then someone replied, “but in those cases, Craig and McDowell aren’t saying it’s a matter of faith.” This misses the point. The point is that the things they claim as “proof” of the resurrection obviously aren’t, and they would realize this if they looked at it from an outsider’s perspective. Similarly, fans of McDowell and Craig wouldn’t be so impressed by their work if they just asked themselves “what would I think of analogous arguments presented in favor of another religion?”

I should say, too, that while I give McDowell and Craig as particularly clear cases, they’re far from being the only ones. I’m amazed by how often I find that a religious argument can be done away with simply by asking these kinds of questions.

That suggests that many people would benefit more by principle worded like this: “When you think of an argument to defend your religious beliefs, ask yourself ‘what would I think of an analogous argument, presented on behalf of a different religion?’”

For example, if you think your holy book is proof that the founder of your religion worked miracles, ask yourself “what would I think if a member of another religion tried to get me to convert, saying her religion’s holy book was proof that the founder of that religion worked miracles?” Or, if you think your religious beliefs couldn’t be irrational because everyone has to have faith in something, ask yourself “can faith prevent any belief from being irrational? If not, what makes ‘faith’ a better defense of my religion, than it would be for obviously irrational beliefs?”

In spite of the advantages of this principle, John’s original principle has the advantage that it targets what people believe, whereas someone following my proposed principle might give up many arguments without ever rethinking the main questions. I can think of a few ways to solve this, but the best way may just be to combine them:

Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating. Part of what this means is that whenever you’re inclined to give an argument to defend your religious beliefs, ask yourself “what would I think of an analogous argument, presented on behalf of a different religion?”

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  1. Regarding the resurrection, at least, I think Craig would say that he’s not simply appealing to his holy book or the dogmatic claims of his religion to argue for a miracle. He seems to really love mentioning that his “four facts” are accepted by the majority of NT scholars. Of course, most NT scholars are Christians, and were Christians well before they got their PhD’s. And there are mainsteam, respected scholars who legitimately doubt some of the four facts. Still, appealing to the four facts is not the same as appealing to the authority of the bible or whatever. I don’t know of any other religions that argue for miracles in that way either.

  2. I like this, thanks!

    They BOTH work.

  3. @Chris W
    Don’t you find Craig’s four facts presentation thoroughly disingenuous? The so-called facts are utterly dependent on the biblical accounts and the reliability of the same.

    1. Who asserted that Joseph buried the body? The gospel writers, each of whom have conflicting levels of information about J of A’s burial.
    2. Who asserted the tomb was discovered empty by women on Sunday morning? These same gospel writers, each of whom have conflicting levels of information about the events around this discovery.
    3. Who claims the disciples “saw” Jesus post-mortem? The gospel writers, each of whom have conflicting levels of information about these apparitions, and Paul whose bullet-point account is at odds with the gospel authors and who tries to insert his visionary experience in the same league as “the Twelve”.
    4. Who asserts that the disciples belief was formed by an actual miracle? Er, that’d be the biblical writers again. This last “fact” is embarrassingly suspect. It’s a messy generalization, usually conflated with the old “they would’t die for a lie” canard, plus lots of bare-faced assertion that such a belief is historically innovative and could not be a mere cultural or theological development.

    Craig calmly describes these as “four independently established facts” but it’s unclear how they are independently established when they all draw on essentially the same source material: the biblical accounts. But it’s smoke and mirrors; he’s simply pulling out plot points from Bible verses and rebranding them as historical certainties, appealing to authority.

    Worst of all, you simply can’t get to the reliability of an unprecedented supernatural event on these four facts. If you had these same four “facts” for an alleged resurrection which occurred only last week, any sensible person would insist on a much more forensic investigation before they opted for divine intervention as the most likely explanation.

    I think Chris’s point still stands. Although I don’t think Muslims actually use this sort of canny approach, if they did use similar presentational spin-doctoring on, say, Muhammad’s Isra and Mi’raj, appealing only to “facts” culled from the Qur’an and the Hadith, most non-Muslims would be unconvinced, and rightly so.

  4. Tim,

    Again, I was just pointing out that Craig is appealing to the four facts on the grounds that many NT scholars accept them, instead of purely on Bible’s authority or whatever. He never misses the opportunity to emphasize this. Chris Hallquist’s point is to ask “what if this type of argument came from another religion?” Well, with this particular argument, I don’t see a parallel to it in other religions. If I did, it might be worth investigating. There is no well established field of secular Qur’an studies that Muslims could appeal to for their own version of the four facts argument, for example. So, slight advantage to Christianity on this one.

    That being said, I think the four facts argument is weak.

  5. Chris Hallquist

    Chris W,

    Tim basically nailed it. Two further points:

    (1) Biblical studies isn’t really secular. It’s dominated by Christians and Jews of various stripes, and full of arguments that would be laughed at if applied to texts other than the Bible.

    (2) Craig doesn’t actually stick to his four facts. He pretends to, and then appeals to any statement in the Bible that he thinks will help his case, hoping his audience will assume everything he says is backed up by the consensus of Biblical scholarship.

  6. Chris & Co.,

    It’s important here to highlight, Craig in particular, in that the four facts are not based on the biblical accounts exclusively, but, rather, on that historical and cultural facts that the authors of the biblical record had nothing to gain from making the claims they did.

    I encourage you to look at the arguments on a deeper level. In the debates with Craig I have watched, this is his main point. Not that the Bible says so, but that it was not advantageous, socially, historically, or politically, for the gospel writers to say so.

    This is a compelling case.


  7. Chris Hallquist


    I’ve listened to a number of Craig’s debates, and never heard him say this. Could you point me to a specific debate, and the time stamp into the debate? But even if he does claim this, what could his evidence be outside of the Bible? We simply don’t have very much evidence at all, outside of the Bible, about the situation of anyone in 1st century Christianity.

    I understand that Craig makes lots of claims without explicitly appealing to the Bible for them. But in so many cases, it’s obvious that the Bible is the only evidence he could have.

  8. I’ll find the debate. I think he speaks to the point I highlight in his debate with Hitchens.

    I’ll check my source.

    I will emphasize the significance of this point, Chris.

    Even if the Bible is the only evidence Craig uses, it remains compelling as an argument. Let me tell you why:

    The gospel writers had everything to lose and nothing to gain by the claims they made.

    The claims, when understood in cultural context, read as a communication of factual events rather than mythology or legend.

    Mostly because, if the writers wanted to convince their audience of the validity of their claims, they went about it all wrong, considering, again, their cultural context.

    To say that women were the ones who found the tomb empty is ridiculous unless it actually happened that way.

    A culture the gospel writers would have wanted to convince would have ignored this claim because, no one cared what a woman had to say. A woman’s testimony is first century Palestine would have been utterly worthless and unsubstantial.

    Second, to claim the tomb was empty and that Christ was actually alive certainly meant the gospel writers and all those who claim to have seen Jesus alive were not only going to certainly be banned from the temple – which had HUGE implications and ramifications for Jews of the day -, but it also guaranteed the end of their lives – socially, economically, and, quite literally, through assassination or public execution.

    It’s easy to take the gospel stories for granted these days when Christianity is globally significant.

    Christianity wasn’t always significant or influential. The way of Jesus wasn’t always an “anity”.

    You have to understand that this bunch of people were underground, running for their lives – ostracized, ridiculed, and hunted.

    There was no social or economic or religious benefit for believing what they believed, and certainly not for spreading the word.

    The climate surrounding the formation of the early church does not scientifically prove the validity of the stories, but it gives them a solid plausibility structure.

    For those who are confused about the way historical facts are assessed and verified, well, it is not done so against the scientific method. History and Science are two separate and distinct categories of human experience.

    History is not so much about scientific certainty as it is plausibility. I could easily argue science is also more about plausibility than it is immovable, irrefutable laws and standards. Quantum Physics is teaching those who look more closely at the structure of existence, that things are not always as they seem, nor as predictable and orderly as we once thought.


    The point of Craig’s assertions and of my rudimentary extrapolation thereof, is to highlight historical fact. Craig isn’t arguing scientific method, but, more so, a strong plausibility structure, whereby historical data can be accepted as factual. Because no one alive today was around 2,000 years ago to verify anything at all, plausibility structures are consistently and widely accepted as verifiable when assessing historical data.

    The plausibility structure is established, in this case, by the consistency of multiple accounts via the Gospels (plural). It follows historically, and logically, that certain details will vary among independent accounts of events. This happens in courts all over the world today. No two people remember the same set events exactly the same way. But two people can agree an event happened. And the more people agreeing a certain event or events took place adds validity to the account. Not certainty. Validity.

    The Bible is not one book, Chris. It is comprised of hundreds of (if not many more) independent and collective manuscripts. Certain schematic details vary as one would expect when reading history, while major events remain constant and consistent, as one would expect when reading history.

    The strength of the Bible’s trustworthiness is that it is a compilation, written by multiple sources, over a span of time, across a wide geography, while maintaining a consistent story. The main events all align. The perspective of how these events went down varies some. I would, as anyone, expect it to be this way when reading or listening to a story of anything that actually happened.

    Again, the gospel writers had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by carrying the story of Christ and his resurrection around. Most of them did lose everything.

    Like I said, I will look for the specific debate and time stamp it for you.

    Thanks for the discussion,


  9. Chris Hallquist


    But what’s the evidence for your claims? It’s a little hard to know what to make of your last comment, but my best guess is that you’re willing to accept anything Craig or some other self-proclaimed authority claims is a fact, without even considering how they could possibly know it to be a fact.

    For example, what’s the evidence that the Gospel writers were signing their own death warrants by writing their books? There’s very little evidence that these books really were written by the people later Christian tradition claims they were written by. If the books weren’t written by their traditionally-ascribed authors, there’s no reason at all to think the real authors were martyred.

    And there’s very little evidence that those people (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) really were martyred. In the case of Luke, I’m not even aware of any Christian traditions that he was martyred.

    Before you buy into claims made by apologists like Craig, stop and ask yourself what evidence he could possibly have for his claims.

  10. Chris,

    It’s an interesting assumption that I’m willing to accept anything a self-proclaimed authority says. That’s presumptuous. You don’t know me, nor upon what I base my conclusions.

    There are better people to read on Biblical scholarship and history than me. There is quite a bit of historical documentation validating many of the historical claims of scripture. The book of Acts, as well as Luke’s Gospel (same author) make mentions of historical figures and geographies which have been verified for accuracy by many scholars.

    Again, I will mention to you that what is considered proof when assessing history is not the same as what is considered proof when testing science.

    Craig’s arguments, as well as mine – and I don’t proclaim to be an authority – have a strong plausibility structure. History can be, and often is, considered reliable and factual based on strong plausibility structures, as well as corroboration among those who witnessed the historical events or persons in question.

    The Bible has this corroboration as its backbone. Again, the Bible being, not one book written by one guy at a singular point in history, but, rather, a collection of books and letters written over a long period of historical time, across geographic locations, by a multitude of authors, while maintaining a consistency of historical events and persons, yet varying on schematic details, lends credibility and reliability to the texts.

    This is the historical proof, Chris.

    There are also autonomous, unbiased toward Christianity, historical figures who corroborate figures and events (Lucian, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and the infamous Josephus, just to name a few) of the New Testament.

    Oh, and to correct a mistake you made in critiquing my response, I did not say one way or the other whether the Gospel writers were actually martyred. My argument was that they faced martyrdom (murder) for spreading the Gospel message. My point was not whether they were killed, but that they were positioning themselves to be killed. It went along with my point that the Gospel writers and early disciples had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, in carrying the message of Christ and His resurrection around in the first century.

    That was the point.

    All of the points, as I admitted earlier, do not prove the Gospels are true, they just make it more plausible.


  11. You say:

    “The Bible has this corroboration as its backbone. Again, the Bible being, not one book written by one guy at a singular point in history, but, rather, a collection of books and letters written over a long period of historical time, across geographic locations, by a multitude of authors, while maintaining a consistency of historical events and persons, yet varying on schematic details, lends credibility and reliability to the texts.

    “This is the historical proof, Chris.”

    Cliff, try this: imagine someone came to you and said that an Indian guru was god incarnate, and proved this by working many miracles. You don’t believe them. Oh, but the evangelist says, they have historical proof. Really? Yes, they have a few anonymous religious tracts recounting the guru’s life and alleged miracles, and some letters allegedly written by early leaders of the sect.

    “What!?” you say, “That’s not proof.” “But oh,” the evangelist says, “these were written by many people over a period of some decades, and they agree they agree in the general points of the story while varying in some of the details. What’s more, my sect was persecuted in its early years, so no member of it could have had any reason to lie. Finally, I don’t think people would have told the stories this way if they were made up.”

    Simple question: would you be convinced?

  12. Chris,

    Such a story would, potentially, be historically reliable.

    I would, of course, need to see the texts this man claims to have which tell the story of the guru.

    Does he have just one copy of the originals? Or are there many, many original manuscripts, written by different people, who corroborate the story?

    I would be interested to know if any unbiased sources, who lived around the same time, made references to the guru and the early followers.

    I would like to see historical documents predating the guru, and see if they make any sort of predictions about the guru’s coming, and if those predictions line up with the birth, life, and death of the guru.

    I would have to read the teachings of the guru and see if those teachings were politically, economically, or racially motivated – to see if the guru was unique to one people group of if the guru had cross-cultural, global significance.

    Merely claiming such a guru existed and that they have a text affirming the existence of the guru and his miracles is not enough. That’s why the story is POTENTIALLY reliable historically.

    The hypothetical situation you give, Chris, does not match my argument for Christianity because Christianity goes far beyond some random guy coming up claiming he has a book that talks about a guru who lived and did miracles and claimed to be god.

    Christianity and the historicity of the Scriptures stand strongly against scrutiny, and satisfy rigorous historical reliability standards.

    The Bible, and the New Testament specifically, is a compilation of thousands of ancient manuscripts. This is not ONE book we’re discussing here. This is thousands of ancient writings. It is not just a claim someone is making. It is the fact of the matter. This is a big difference in your hypothetical situation and the history of Christianity.

    The existence and parts of the account of Jesus are corroborated by unbiased, independent sources, as I listed in my comment prior to this one.

    The old Testament also corroborates the story of Jesus through prophecy (predictions) about him that align, including how he would be born and how he would die.

    Finally, the disciples didn’t just experience some kind of normal, Monday morning, persecution. It’s not like the “persecution” Christians experience in the Western world these days, where people create blogs to debunk beliefs. No, they were culturally ostracized, outcast from their families, religiously excommunicated, and sentenced to death.

    The Gospel writers and early disciples were not the well-to-do of society. The very little these people had was given up or taken from them. Psychologically speaking, the disciples lacked the motivational reasoning to act the way they did.

    A promise of eternal life wasn’t what they were banking on. They had that promised as devout Jews.

    It stands to reason the early disciples were fully convinced of the first-hand experience they had with a resurrected Jesus.

    Chris, you and all other non-theists can raise any objection you please. I mean, whatever justifies for you not believing in God.

    It’s your choice man, as you know.

    The way it works is: every answer I give you has an objection. Every objection you give me has an answer.

    It isn’t a matter of you needing more reasons to believe, because you have chosen to object.

    It doesn’t matter what objections you give me because I have chosen to believe.

    Non-theists pretend they are the only rational ones in the world. Don’t be so easily mistaken. Most of my close friends are rational, intellectuals. These close friends are also followers of Christ. My close friends who are Christians have occupations in genetics, engineering, mathematics, medicine, linguistics, philosophy, and history. I’m sure you have friends in similar fields. The difference between my friends and your friends – the difference between you and me, Chris – is first hand experience with the resurrected Jesus.

    We have had that first hand experience – and continue to have it. You have not. And that’s a damn shame. Seriously.

    I’m praying for you, Chris. As silly, and unnecessary – and possibly unwelcome – that may be to you, I’m doing it. I’m praying you have first hand experience of Jesus. It’s the kind of experience that confounds all reason. That’s a major reason it is so cool.

    I’ll continue to discuss the details with you on your blog. I don’t know how helpful it is, except to sharpen both our reasoning skills (which is worthwhile).

    I appreciate the dialog, Chris.

    Take care,


  13. cliff writes:

    The difference between my friends and your friends – the difference between you and me, Chris – is first hand experience with the resurrected Jesus.
    We have had that first hand experience – and continue to have it.

    Could you explain the nature of your and your friends’ first-hand experience with the resurrected Jesus? I mean, if we’re talking about ordinary human beings, then if I tell you I’ve had “first-hand experience with” someone, then you’ll want to know if, for example, I met the person in the flesh, had a phone conversation with them, or had a written exchange with them on the Internet. I’m guessing that your “first-hand experience with the resurrected Jesus” wasn’t one of those, but we don’t know what it was.

    Also, cliff, what do you think of F. F. Bruce’s “The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?”

  14. Peter,

    The first-hand experiences with Jesus vary in kind among my friends as they do with me.

    The experiences, however, are common in that they all involve the tangible, unmistakeable involvement of a living, interpersonal God.

    My friends can speak for themselves and their experiences. However, I can share with you one of my personal experiences that happened recently.

    My mother has been affected by a mental disorder, impairing her in many ways. One way she is impaired in particular is with aphasia (an impairment of language modality)…basically, she is unable to produce speech, and communicates through nodding on occasion.

    I was talking with Jesus over the course of a couple of days about my mom. I asked Jesus to involve himself in my mom’s life in a tangible, influential way, to give her joy and peace in her life while she suffers with the mental disorder. Soon after having this conversation with God – a couple days later or so – I was cleaning up dishes after dinner and I hear my mom humming a beautiful tune!

    This may not seem immediately significant, but I have NEVER heard my mom hum anything ever in all my life. It was completely out of the blue. She was sitting in her chair, watching me as I stood at the sink, humming.

    A few days later my dad approached me, in shock, asking if I had heard Mom humming. He knew nothing of my prayers (he is agnostic himself). He was blown away by this.

    I understand this story has little significance to anyone who does not know me personally or my mom’s condition, and how dramatically it has affected her. But to those who know my family and have experience Mom’s illness, this is unquestionable, tangible first-hand experience with God.

    In case there is any question, I have lots of stories like this. I can assure you this is not an isolated, coincidental experience because I have a regularity of first-hand experience with God, not chance, random, or indirect experiences.

    I hope that helps, Peter.

    Take care,


  15. Peter,

    Regarding your question about F.F. Bruce: Though I am familiar with him and some of his work, I have not read the work in question.

    I’ll check it out.

    Michael Grant, the English classicist and renowned historian has written some really good stuff on the historical reliability of the gospels. Check him out, Peter.


  16. Cliff,

    This will probably be my last comment on this thread, but I want to make one point you seem confused on: having lots of copies of a book is no evidence that the things the book says are true.

    An awful lot of Christians seem to believe the contrary, and I’m at a loss as to understand why. My best guess is that they hear apologists like Josh McDowell being vaguely excited about the number of manuscript copies of the New Testament, and think, “If McDowell thinks this is important, it must be because this confirms the historical reliability of the Bible.”

    But the fact is that having lots of copies of the book doesn’t prove the historical reliability of the book. What the NT manuscripts do do is put us in a better position to figure out what the original form of the books that constitute it was. However, just because you know a book originally said X doesn’t mean the original author wasn’t lying or misinformed about X.

    Personally, I don’t buy the claim that we know with 100% certainty that current reconstructions of the books of the NT are 100% accurate. But even if I did, it wouldn’t affect any of my other criticisms of the so-called “evidence” for your religion, that I make in my book and in the PDF I recently put out.

  17. Chris,

    Again, I appreciate the dialog on this.

    I hope, as I reiterate my point, you will understand the position better.

    I agreed with you. No one knows, in the scientific sense of “knowing”, that what the BIble says is true.

    My argument is not that what is written in the Scriptures about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is true (though I trust it is); I’m just saying it is plausible. The Scriptures have a strong plausibility structure for accuracy. I think I said that multiple times, actually. I don’t know how you missed it.

    I’m glad you have a book and a PDF. As far as anyone knows you made-up everything you wrote.

    Obviously that’s possible.

    Everything you ever say or write can be argued as fabrication and blatant falsehood. That doesn’t make it the case, Chris.

    Anything ANYONE ever says or writes can be fabricated or blatantly false.


    What’s your point?

    If you’re looking for 100% certainty, as you stated, you have intentionally set yourself up to not believe in God.

    You have setup a standard for God you don’t apply on anything else you believe.

    There is no such thing as 100% certainty, Chris.

    Not in Physics, Biology, Mathematics, or Chemistry. There is not 100% certainty in history, literature, engineering, cooking, mechanics, medicine, genetics, or law.

    Human error is a factor in all humans do everyday.

    Quantum Physics has revealed a dimension of material existence which confounds all previous scientific “certainties”.

    Everything, yes, even science, is estimation and approximation.

    No tool of measurement can be calibrated perfectly.

    No human eye can observe anything at it’s smallest. No microscope or machine can either.

    This is what I was expressing in my last post addressed to you.

    You have chosen not to believe.

    That’s the extent of the complexity of your non-belief.

    A simple choice not to.

    You mask it behind philosophical, historical, and scientific objection. But, as I said before: All of your objections have answers.

    Your ability to infinitely produce objection does not invalidate that to which you object.

    Sorry, Chris.

    Creating a standard requiring 100% certainty is asinine and irrational. It only works to discredit any intellectual credibility a person may have originally thought you may have had. You don’t require it for anything else, and, so you couldn’t, because nothing in all of human experience or thought can meet such criteria.

    This conversation would have been much shorter had I know earlier you seriously expected 100% certainty. Actually, the conversation wouldn’t have taken place at all.

    To say, as you do in your PDF, that people could have been hallucinating, or people could have been mistaken about what they saw, or remembered, is to say really nothing at all. Anything could have happened. And you must admit, with all the “could have’s” you put forth, that everything that happened “could have” been true. You absolutely, necessarily must admit that it “could have” been true. Because of the language you use to “debunk” (let’s get real, you don’t do that) the resurrection of Jesus, being all “could have’s”, you have to equally say it “could have” been true.

    To remain intellectually credible and consistent, you have to claim agnosticism – or ignorance – of the matter. You just don’t know. You don’t have 100% certainty it is true. You don’t have 100% certainty it isn’t.

    You, in all your uncertainty, choose not to believe it. All of your reasons being mere “could have’s” find you sitting there, ultimately saying, “I just don’t want to believe in it”.

    Fair enough.

    That I can accept.

    It’s takes responsibility to say that.

    It’s a blatant abdication of responsibility to make all sorts of excuses for why you aren’t doing something; especially invalid excuses. Just admit you don’t want to believe and be done with it.

    signing off,