I often identify myself as an evidentialist in the realm of religious knowledge. I find, however, that there are some misconceptions floating about as to what evidentialism is or entails. Herewith, some hopefully useful clarifications.
1) Evidentialism is not the position that emotions are only for people who are stupid.
Evidentialism should not be confused with a Spock-like philosophy that feelings and emotions are to be scorned and avoided. Rather, our personal relationship with Jesus Christ should be based on facts and evidence. We can trust Jesus because we have reason to do so. This gives us the freedom to commit ourselves emotionally and psychologically to God.
The problem arises when one bases one's beliefs upon one's emotions. That ordering leaves one vulnerable to emotional and other arational appeals from other religions. It also leaves one vulnerable to losing one's faith when the emotions are no longer there. Get it in the right order, and then connect the prose and the passion. That's what Christianity is all about.
An analogy from marriage may help: We can rightly be vulnerable with our spouses because we have good reason to trust our spouses. Vulnerability and emotion are very important in a good marriage. It would, on the other hand, be extremely foolish to "gin up" trust in a spouse or prospective spouse by making oneself vulnerable and thereby prompting emotions of total commitment that have no rational basis.
2) Evidentialism is not the position that only extremely intelligent people can have good reasons for believing Christianity to be true.
I want to linger on this point a bit so as to drive it home. Because those of us who are into such esoteric fields as probability theory and analytic philosophy tend to discuss and analyze arguments for Christianity in those terms, we can easily either get the impression or give the impression that a Christian who doesn't think of the arguments in those terms has no evidence. That is incorrect. For example, a person can be seeing the force of such internal signs of verisimilitude as undesigned coincidences without being able to give a probabilistic analysis of them. There is a tremendous amount of tacit reasoning that takes place and that is not irrational because it is inexplicit. "Grandma," the hypothetical unintellectual, sweet lady at your church, may be seeing a lot more about the credibility of the gospel narratives than she has ever articulated explicitly.
Something similar could be said about the argument from design, which struck Whittaker Chambers non-philosophically but powerfully, in an "all at once" fashion, when he was looking at his little girl's ear as she sat in her high chair.
The same is true of other arguments as well. Indeed, the argument for a First Cause is supposed to work via some fairly powerful a priori intuitions, and there is no reason to believe that a non-philosopher cannot be accessing the intuition (e.g.) that nothing comes from nothing even if he cannot discuss it in philosophical terms.
It is all too easy to assume that ordinary Christians in the pew have no evidence favoring Christianity, but this is an exaggeration. It probably arises out of philosophers' and apologists' own own involvement in researching every detail in depth. There's nothing wrong at all with being detail-minded, and it's good for some people to do that additional research, but it does not follow that everyone who has not done so is operating sans evidence.
3) Evidentialism is not the position that the only people who are going to heaven are those who can defend their faith.
Here I think the discussion may be plagued by an ambiguity on the term "justification." Epistemologists use the word to refer to having reason to believe something or being rational in believing something. Theologians use the term in a completely different sense to mean, roughly, having the guilt of one's sin taken away. The two senses must not be confused.
As far as I can tell, one can be justified in the theological sense without being justified in the philosophical sense. I see no reason to think otherwise. To put it more bluntly, a person who believes in Christianity irrationally but does, in fact, believe what he needs to believe, is committed to Jesus Christ, confesses his sin, and asks for God's forgiveness is on the road to heaven and is cleansed of his sin. One may call this an intellectual felix culpa, so to speak.
As a good evidentialist and apologist, I hasten to add that such a person is in a precarious position. (By this I reveal that I do not hold to a simple "once saved always saved" soteriology.) Especially in the present milieu where wolves are seeking to devour this sheep at any moment, the convert ungrounded in evidence is in great danger. A good shepherd (pastor, priest) or Christian friend should try to strengthen his grasp on the "reason for the hope that is in him" post haste.
A digression about children: If the convert is a child, this training will be done in stages appropriate to the child's age. Let us remember that a child is rational in a situation in which an adult would not be rational, for a child who has learned reasonably to trust his parents about mundane affairs has reason to trust them about religious affairs. An adult, more worldly-wise, knows full well that the person he is talking to may be knowledgeable and reliable in one area and out to lunch in another. He also knows that seemingly good and trustworthy people believe contradictory things about religion, which means that more is needed than a very basic level of trust in a person making a religious claim. This is just one example (many could be given) of the odd epistemological fact that a person who knows less may be more reasonable in believing some conclusion than a person who knows more.
In any event, the bottom line of point #3 is that evidentialism in apologetics is related only indirectly to the question of who is saved. In fact, even those who (alas) are explicit fideists and reject the need for good reasons for religious faith may well be justified in the theological sense. So this is not about, and never was about, what God requires for salvation.
4) Evidentialism is not the position that you have to set aside your Christianity while investigating it.
No evidentialist is telling a person who wakes up one day to the fact that he has little evidence for Christianity that he needs to tell God, "I'm setting aside my relationship with you, if you exist at all, while I go on a lengthy investigation of all of this. See you later, God." After all, if Christianity is true, this would be an insane thing to do. Moreover, honesty in investigation does not require that we start off in disbelief. Herewith an excellent quote from one of those excellent old writers, the 18th century Presbyterian minister John Leland,
It is not necessary to a just inquiry into doctrines or facts, that a man should be absolutely indifferent to them before he begins that inquiry, much less that he should actually disbelieve them; as if he must necessarily commence atheist, before he can fairly examine into the proofs of the existence of God. It is sufficient to a candid examination, that a man applieth himself to it with a mind open to conviction, and a disposition to embrace truth on which side soever it shall appear, and to receive the evidence that shall arise in the course of the trial. And if the inquiry relateth to principles in which we have been instructed, then, supposing those principles to be in themselves rational and well founded, it may well happen, that, in inquiring into the grounds of them, a fair examination may be carried on without seeing cause to disbelieve, or doubt of them through the whole course of the enquiry; which in that case will end in a fuller conviction of them than before. (A View of the Principal Deistical Writers, 1837 edition, p. 129)
Leland is right. No Christian should view himself as obligated, in the name of fairness and honest inquiry, to set aside his Christianity while he inquires into it. Inquiry and the acquisition of knowledge can proceed while continuing to be devoted to Christ. I believe that this misperception of evidentialism maybe part of why pastors and parents fear an evidential approach rather than welcoming it. (See this post.)
5) Evidentialism is not the position that, if you cannot answer every objection that can be or has been raised to Christianity, you are not rational in believing it.
This cannot be emphasized too strongly. The Internet and the world of books are filled with misleadingly phrased objections, foolish objections, objections based on misconceptions, honest but answerable objections--objections everywhere.
This is a function both of the importance of the subject and of the amount of time and energy that skeptics have devoted to it. It is not (repeat, not) an indication of inherent dubiousness in Christianity. The fact that someone can raise an objection doesn't make it a good objection or even an objection worth much concern.
Philosophers in particular are in some danger of forgetting this. We train philosophy students to "know the literature" and to spend time in their papers answering objections that have been raised to their own position. This is not wrong in itself, but it can give the false impression that, at a minimum, any objection that is brought up by someone "respected" is itself worthy of respect. The principle is incorrect even taken at face value, because plenty of people who are respected in the scholarly world have poor judgement when it comes to objections to religion, and some entire scholarly fields have accepted and incorporated bad methodology for a long time.
In the Internet age, this misconception about respecting any objection that others respect creates problems that go beyond granting too much credit to people on the basis of their scholarly credentials. For now, anyone with an Internet connection can get a following and be respected by someone or a group of someones and can even write a "book," and suddenly the ardent young philosopher thinks such a person might well be saying stuff worthy of concern.
Two quotations from the older writers are relevant to an over-focus on answering objections. First, one that I quoted in the older post, from George Horne, an 18th century bishop:
In the thirty sections of their pamphlet, they have produced a list of difficulties to be met with in reading the Old and New Testament. Had I been aware of their design, I could have enriched the collection with many more, at least as good, if not a little better. But they have compiled, I dare say, what they deemed the best, and, in their own opinion, presented us with the essence of infidelity in a thumb-phial, the very fumes of which, on drawing the cork, are to strike the bench of bishops dead at once. Let not the unlearned Christian be alarmed, “as though some strange thing had happened to him,” and modern philosophy had discovered arguments to demolish religion, never heard of before. The old ornaments of deism have been “broken off” upon this occasion, “and cast into the fire, and there came out this calf.” These same difficulties have been again and again urged and discussed in public; again and again weighed and considered by learned and sensible men, of the laity as well as the clergy, who have by no means been induced by them to renounce their faith. [snip]
Many and painful are the researches sometimes necessary to be made, for settling points of that kind. Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject. (emphasis added)
As Horne implies, Christians have answered the same objections over and over again, yet they keep coming back up as if new. Moreover, answering objections can take much longer than the original statement of them, even if the objections themselves are based upon "pertness and ignorance."
You are not lazy or a poor investigator if you cannot give an answer right now to every objection that comes up. Nor are you therefore unjustified in continuing to believe that Christianity is true. The mere existence of some objection you have not yet answered does not amount to a prima facie refutation of your position. Herewith the 19th century English archbishop Richard Whately:
Similar to this case is that which may be called the Fallacy of objections; i.e. showing that there are objections against some plan, theory, or system, and thence inferring that it should be rejected; when that which ought to have been proved is, that there are more, or stronger objections, against the receiving than the rejecting of it. This is the main, and almost universal Fallacy of anti-christians; and is that of which a young Christian should be first and principally warned. They find numerous ‘objections’ against various parts of Scripture; to some of which no satisfactory answer can be given; and the incautious hearer is apt, while his attention is fixed on these, to forget that there are infinitely more, and stronger objections against the supposition, that the Christian Religion is of human origin; and that where we cannot answer all objections, we are bound, in reason and in candour, to adopt the hypothesis which labours under the least. That the case is as I have stated, I am authorized to assume, from this circumstance,—that no complete and consistent account has ever been given of the manner in which the Christian Religion, supposing it a human contrivance, could have arisen and prevailed as it did. And yet this may obviously be demanded with the utmost fairness of those who deny its divine origin. The Religion exists; that is the phenomenon. Those who will not allow it to have come from God, are bound to solve the phenomenon on some other hypothesis less open to objections. They are not, indeed, called on to prove that it actually did arise in this or that way; but to suggest (consistently with acknowledged facts) some probable way in which it may have arisen, reconcilable with all the circumstances of the case. That infidels have never done this, though they have had 1800 years to try, amounts to a confession, that no such hypothesis can be devised, which will not be open to greater objections than lie against Christianity. Elements of Logic, 1870, pp. 144-45.
The phrase "the fallacy of objections" should become common currency among apologists and their students and should be guarded against with vigilance. This, for two reasons: First, as Whately implies, the evidence for Christianity is very strong and tough. It is emphatically not just "one premise away" from being refuted. On the contrary, it is the very nature of a good empirical argument that it overjustifies the subject in believing its conclusion. Hence, even if we don't know why Jesus said this or what the correct resolution is to that putative contradiction (for example), this does not mean that our entire edifice is trembling, any more than that is the case for a well-justified scientific theory.
Second, apologists and students should come to recognize the shape of the argumentative landscape. This will include recognizing objections according to the class into which they fall, which will in turn result in a tough-mindedness that remains unshaken by the next thing one happens to read. The well-versed apologetics student should be able to say, "Wait a minute. Are you really implying that the disciples thought Jesus was risen from the dead because this would make him resemble some pagan God? That's absurd," and should know enough of the history of 1st century Palestine, as well as enough of human pscyhology, to know why this is absurd and hence to be scarcely slowed by it in his progress. He should be able to say, "Ah, another argument from silence" or "Oh, I see, that's another manufactured contradiction."
He should recognize that our not knowing why Jesus made some comment (such as asking the disciples if they have swords and then later telling Peter to put up his sword), so far from being a problematic objection to Christianity, is a plausible mark of the authenticity of the narrative. For, whatever Jesus meant, forgers and legend-makers are unlikely to stick pointlessly inexplicable and apparently conflicting comments into the mouths of the figures whom they are making larger than life. This jujitsu move, whereby the skeptic's bullying objection is seen to be an argument for the narrative, should be familiar to every student of Christian apologetics. I do something similar in this post where I discuss the surprisingly "kingly" portrayal of Jesus in the early Lukan account of the words of the angel at the annunciation and of the Song of Zechariah.
The point I am making here is that evidentialism is not, never has been, and never should be an intellectual game of whack-a-mole. It is not a matter of trudging through a landscape of endless objections, answering one and then plodding on to tackle another. And if that is what students think it is, then the sooner they are disabused of this notion the better. Rather, they should be encouraged to lift up their heads and see the landscape at large. They should be taken up to a mountaintop and shown the lie of the land. They should come to see the objections and replies they already know as part of a pattern so that they can fit objections they encounter into the pattern. This will be immeasurably strengthening to their faith.
Withal, we cannot neglect prayer. For it is undeniable as a matter of individual psychology that what strengthens one person may unsettle another and that a young person who is taught as well as possible by excellent teachers may nonetheless feel unsettled and confused. He may misevaluate probabilities, or it may prove surprisingly difficult to convey that clear image of the lie of the land to some given individual. Some people may be susceptible to falling into the fallacy of objections however often they are warned against it. This is all true. But none of that is a telling objection against the evidential approach, for the true brittleness of a fideistic faith is a greater danger still.
I propose that those of us who are interested in evidential apologetics should be talking among ourselves about how we can avoid conveying the false images of our approach discussed here and strengthen earnest young people attracted to it. These are matters of eternal significance.