Atheists and skeptics of Christianity consistently say that the reason they don’t believe in God is because there is no evidence for Him. If there were just good evidence for God and for the historicity of Jesus, atheists say that would make all the difference in the world – they’d immediately believe.
But is that all there really is to it?
Deborah Lipstadt might have a thing or two to say about that. Dr. Lipstadt, who is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, may not be a Christian or have a dog in the fight of atheism vs. Christianity, but she knows a thing or two about the ability of people to turn a blind eye to evidence when it’s offered to them. Lipstadt is the author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, and someone who has spent years studying the ability of people to reject truth.
While most people think that it’s only individuals like Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who casts doubt on whether the Holocaust occurred, Lipstadt discovered that the Holocaust’s historical validity is questioned by a far greater number of people than might be believed. Moreover, she found such denial has not only continued to gain adherents, but it has become a broad, international movement with organized chapters, supposed “independent” research centers (with cleverly disguised names), and various publications that promote a revisionist view of WWII history.
But what about all the evidence that clearly supports the historicity of the Holocaust? Lipstadt writes: “The attempt to deny the Holocaust enlists a basic strategy of distortion. Truth is mixed with absolute lies, confusing readers who are unfamiliar with the tactics of the deniers. Half-truths and story segments, which conveniently avoid critical information, leave the listener with a distorted impression of what really happened. The abundance of documents and testimonies that confirm the Holocaust are dismissed as contrived, coerced, or forgeries and falsehoods.”
In referencing Lipstadt’s findings, am I attempting to equate atheists with Holocaust deniers? Not at all. Instead, what I’m trying to get across is the fact that, when it comes to a person choosing to believe or deny something, there is more to that event than meets the eye.
Accepting or Rejecting a Belief
J. P. Moreland suggests that belief in something begins with a person first accepting that a particular claim is plausible. A plausibility structure, or “favorable conditions”, forms in the mind so that the claim can be entertained, with anything not viewed as plausible being rejected.
What helps construct a person’s plausibility structure so that a truth claim will be accepted? The study of this process and how a person gains knowledge (called ‘epistemology’ in philosophy) is a monumental subject, but in general methods include empiricism/pragmatism (through the sciences and senses), rationalism (reason), subjectivism (intuition and direct contact), and authoritarianism (testimony).
Of these, the most used method of historians like Lipstadt is the last method, which is testimony. And it is this method that causes the skeptic the most angst, especially where things like the New Testament are concerned. However, as Joe Boot points out, it shouldn’t, as it is a perfectly proper and convincing way of validating truth: “There is an important difference between the scientific and legal [testimony] methods for determining truth. The legal method does not ignore testimony or facts because they are not reproducible or testable. By a process of elimination and corroboration, the legal method allows history and testimony to speak for itself until a verdict is reached beyond a reasonable doubt and the balance of probability is achieved. I did not witness various battles that occurred through history and I cannot reproduce WWII so I must rely on documents and independent testimony to determine its plausibility. Certain kinds of tests are appropriate for different realms of thought.”
However, this fact doesn’t stop skeptics from dismissing testimony as evidence even when it’s as close and direct as it can be. In her follow up book, Lipstadt describes being sued by a prominent Holocaust denier named David Irving, whom she had challenged in her former work. At a recess in the trial, a woman came up to Irving and told him that her parents had been gassed at Auschwitz. A reporter who was standing there heard Irving reply: “Madam, you may be pleased to know that they almost certainly died of typhus.” 
An Example From Scripture
We see a great example of denying eyewitness testimony in John 9, which is devoted to Jesus healing a man born blind. The man’s neighbors and others in the crowd are so flabbergasted by the event and unwilling to accept his testimony of what Jesus did that they bring the man to the Pharisees for examination.
That’s where the real fun starts. You see, Jesus healed the man on a Sabbath and the religious leaders thought any ‘work’ such as healing a person constituted a violation of the Law. The Pharisees were already in denial about and hot under the collar with Jesus, and this just added fuel to their fire.
In with the Pharisees, the man gives the same account a second time as to what Jesus did. But even with the crowds and neighbors who knew him and the man’s own testimony, “The Jews then did not believe it of him, that he had been blind and had received sight” (vs. 18).
They decide they need more proof, so they call in the man’s parents to verify things. Mom and dad were shaking in their boots because it was well known that anyone who confessed Jesus as a real miracle worker and the Christ would be put out of the synagogue (a much bigger deal than it sounds on the surface). They carefully affirm that their son was born blind from birth, but go no further in stating how he now sees.
You’d think at this point it’s time for the Pharisees to cry ‘uncle’ and give credit to Jesus for a true miracle, right? Wrong. Now things get ugly as the Pharisees bring the man back in for round two.
The religious leaders begin by calling Jesus a sinner, which the man brushes off by stating: “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (vs. 25). His reply is terrific because it forces the Pharisees to look past their presuppositions with Jesus and focus on the reality that’s staring them (literally) in the face.
I love what happens next. The Pharisees ask the man to repeat his story yet again, to which he responds: “I told you already and you did not listen; why do you want to hear it again? You do not want to become His disciples too, do you?” (vs. 27).
Whenever I feel a discussion with a skeptic or atheist is going around in circles and I’m having to repeat myself with the evidence concerning Christ I’ve already supplied, I’ll ask something along the lines of: “Before we cover this same ground again, let me ask you: what’s the bottom line for you in this? Are you truly interested in knowing the truth about Jesus and ready to bow your knee to Him as Lord if your questions are satisfied?” You’d be surprised at the responses I get, a lot of which can be summarized as “No”.
The reaction the once-blind man got from the Pharisees on this matter was visceral: “They reviled him” (vs. 28). The Pharisees aren’t interested in following Jesus nor are they interested in hearing any more evidence or testimony that validates His Messiahship.
But that doesn’t stop the man from hitting them with one last bit of knowledge: “We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him. Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing” (vv. 31-33).
What did the man get for his effort? From the Pharisees, he received ejection from the synagogue, but from Jesus he received salvation (vs. 38).
What Do You Want to be True?
As I said at the beginning, the ability for someone to deny the truth about something can be breathtaking. But what’s at the heart of such denial? What stops a person from even beginning to think that a particular truth claim could be plausible?
This is obviously a complicated subject, but for many, it boils down to one simple thing: they don’t want the matter in question to be true.
Stories are plentiful about people with cancer who ignored the clear warning signs on the side of cigarette packs and the physical symptoms they were experiencing, of young girls who were literally nine months pregnant and who wouldn’t believe they were about to have a baby, and even of individuals like David Irving who stood up in a Canadian courtroom and testified: “No documents whatsoever show that a Holocaust has ever happened.”
The will to deny truth can be extraordinarily powerful.
When it comes to God, some atheists admit this is the obstacle they face. Thomas Nagel has written: “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope that there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
Could Christians be guilty of this – of wanting God to exist so badly they turn a blind eye to truth claims that run contrary to theirs? Of course. This is one reason Christian apologists beat their drum so loudly and call on all believers to critically examine facts as the Apostle Paul demands that we do (1 Thess. 5:21).
“Truth,” said Søren Kierkegaard, “is subjectivity”. He didn’t mean that truth is subjective, but rather that people must subject themselves to truth and relate to a truth from a personal and moral standpoint. So for Kierkegaard (and the rest of us), if atheism is true, we should all be atheists, but if Christianity is true, then everyone should bow their knee to Christ.
After Jesus started His ministry, He returned to His hometown to find a sad state of affairs. Everyone knew of His miracles and were aware of His teaching that surpassed others before Him. But the Bible says they “took offense” at Him (Mark 6:3), with the Greek word used being skandalizō, which is related to the English word “scandal”. Like the Pharisees, they rejected Him and thought Him to be a scandal (stumbling block) to their way of life.
The next thing the Bible says is He, “wondered at their unbelief” (Mark 6:6). The Son of God was literally amazed and marveled at how they could look past the evidence He supplied of His truth claims and deny the proof that was before them.
The wonder of a willing unbelief is both frustrating and sad – especially when it comes to rejecting Jesus. If you’re not a Christian, I urge you to not follow in the footsteps of the Pharisees and people of Jesus’ hometown. Instead, give a fresh look at Christ if you haven’t done so in a while. A good concise treatment of Jesus’ life worth checking out is John Dickson’s Life of Jesus: Who He is and Why He Matters.
 Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1993), pg. 2.
 J. P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997), pgs. 75-76.
 Joe Boot as quoted by Stuart McAlister in Just Thinking podcast episode, Ravi Zacharias Ministries.
 Deborah Lipstadt, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (New York: Harper, 2005), pg. xiv.
 Lipstadt, History, pg. xiii.