We believe there is historic evidence for the truth of the Christian message.
One starting point is this: the Church exists. The Church has not always existed. So the Church came into existence at some point. Of course, what started may not have been recognisable (by people today) as the Church, but there will be some continuity of people, belief and practice which identifies it as the same group.
The New Testament gives one account of the founding of the Church. Someone who wishes to claim the New Testament is wrong about what it teaches will need to supply an alternative explanation. The early Church believed that a real man who had been killed by the civil authority was also God incarnate and had risen from the dead. The early Christians were prepared to be tortured and killed rather than deny this strange claim. They clearly believed it was true. But why believe it unless it was true?
The key point is that Christianity is a historic faith - it is rooted in history. It tells about historical facts, about real people, real places and real events. If what it says is untrue, then Christianity is false, no matter how beautiful the message or noble the truth.
This is the heart of the reason why I became a Christian in the first place. People could suggest all kinds of alternative theories (the apostles were halucinating when they thought they saw the risen Jesus; it was wishful thinking; Jesus only fainted on the cross; and so on) - but each of these theories gives rise to more implausible beliefs. I just couldn't work up the faith to believe any of these other possible stories. I am a Christian because I lack faith. I lack the faith required to believe it is not true, in the face of all the available evidence.
However, that is simply my personal position. I am not asking you to believe the historic evidence proves the truth of the Christian faith, only to accept that there is strong historical evidence to support the belief that the New Testament account is essentially rooted in fact.
I worded this belief fairly carefully: "We believe there is historic evidence for the truth of the Christian message."
I am trying here to steer a course between two extremes.
On the one hand are those who say that it is all made up and completely unreliable. I think I respond to those folk in the rest of this piece.
On the other hand are those who claim that every word of the Bible is literally true, and it must all be accepted without question.
For a start, I don't accept anything without question. Secondly, no serious Biblical scholar believes in the literal truth of every word of the Bible: at best, they believe it is all true when the original text (not the English translation) is understood in context.
Sometimes the context is obvious. The Bible says "There is no god" but it does not mean that. The full quote is: 'The fool says in his heart, "There is no god."' - which is quite different.
But sometimes understanding the context of a passage is quite tricky. And, sometimes, different passage appear to contradict each other on some details. Perhaps, when we understand them correctly, there is no contradiction. Perhaps slightly different accounts of the same event are actually accurate accounts of very similar events, for example.
To be honest, I am really not too interested in these arguments. There are only a few apparent contradictions or inconsistencies in the texts we have, and not one of them matters. Not one of them has any real significance. The arguments are all about trivial details: did this event happen before that, or after it? Was there one man or two? Quite frankly - who cares? Not a single doctrine is affected in any way by any of these questions.
Over the years, historians have criticised the New Testament documents in many ways, suggesting that various details are mistaken or distorted. Over and over again, when new evidence has come to light, it has confirmed the accuracy of the New Testament.
All the evidence suggests that what we have in the New Testament are reliable documents which have been accurately copied and carefully peserved.
Many Christians do believe in the absolute truth of every word of the Bible, when taken in context. But that belief arises from studying the text and examining the options. It is a belief you arrive at, it is not where you start off from in the journey of faith.
One objection I sometimes hear is that the only evidence for the founding of the Christian Church lies in the pages of the New Testament.
But if you choose to collect all the evidence for something - anything! - into one place, then there will be no evidence outside that place. This isn't an objection, it is just a re-statement of the reason the early Christians had for pulling the documents together into one collection.
The alternatives tend to fall into two groups:
Many people have told me very confidently that the New Testament documents are unreliable. Not one of these people has ever put any effort into finding out if this is actually the case.
By 'unreliable', they usually mean 'corrupt'. But the New Testament documents are the most reliable and accurately preserved documents we have from the ancient world. All our history up to the printing press is based on documents with fewer copies and more variations in the text than the ones we are talking about. No serious historian doubts the accuracy or authenticity of the documents we are talking about.
A few people suggest that the New testament documents are unreliable because they are fictional. They have never been able to describe how you would begin to make up such a story, create dozens of documents, seemingly by many different authors, written over some fifty or sixty years, then convince a bumch of people that these stories are true - convince them so well that they are prepared to die for their beliefs. And none of the people involved in the conspiracy ever breathes a word: the best secret in the world and they never tell a soul. And nobody has ever been able to suggest a reason why anyone would want to do this. The more you think about it, the less it makes sense.
This is the one the conspiracy theorists like.
People who come up with this have usually read - or talked to someone who has read - one of the many best sellers that deal with this topic. The first one I read, and still one of the classics, is Holy Blood, Holy Grail. More recently, many people have been taken up with the idea that the 'revelations' in The Da Vinci Code are true.
I have responded to these ideas in more detail in my article on The Da Vinci Code, so just one comment will have to suffice for here: if the truth has been hidden by means of a conspiracy, how come there have been so many best selling books unveiling this conspiracy?
Of course, there are many documents other than those in the New Testament. They have not been suppressed by the Church, beyond the obvious fact that they have been copied and distributed by the Church far less, because they are less important.
You can pick up collections of these ancient documents in any decent bookshop. Several in my own collection are published by Penguin. There are many so-called 'gospels' other than the four in the New Testament. None of them date from the first century. And none of them are anything like those four. If you think the early Church made a mistake in not including these other documents in their recognised collection of texts, fine. I suggest you read them, and then make up your own mind about their value. I have read them. My personal opinion is that the early Church made the right decision, and it wasn't a very difficult one.