November 4, 2011

Knowledge & Life after Death: The Surprising Epistemology of Shane Hipps

It seems the hoopla over Rob Bell's last book just won't go away (to the joy of the folks at HarperOne, I am sure), and more has been said from both sides than I have time (or, for that matter, care) to read. But one item that came across my desk this week struck me as quite interesting and somewhat peculiar considering the source.

The folks at are hosting some interchange between Shane Hipps, successor to Rob Bell as teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church, and Francis Chan, who wrote a book in response to Bell. With this post, I'd like to respond to some of what Shane Hipps' said, especially with regard to how knowledge is to be had.

Let me say up front that this is not a post about hell, Rob Bell, or universalism. It is a post about logic, consistency, and epistemology (the discipline that studies how we know things). Those matters are significant, because if we are to say anything at all, especially in print and not least with regard to important and sometimes controverted issues, then we must speak with clarity, consistency, and wisdom.

Let me say up front that I appreciate much of what Shane Hipps has written. I certainly disagree with him on some things, but I do so with gratefulness for much of what he has said. He has thought more and more deeply about the relationship between changing media forms and the Church than most, and his work in that area has had significant impact on my own understanding of those issues. So, even though I write today with some concerns about Hipps' epistemology, I aim to do so with charity acknowledging that much of his work has had a weighty effect on my own thought and is valuable for the Church.

That said, let's turn to the issues at hand. In his essay at, Hipps said this:
As a Christian who believes in the Bible and Jesus, I have found the intensity and certainty of the debate all very bizarre. It’s strange that so much passion and ink has been spilled over something that is all speculation.
Here’s what I mean: If you died, took pictures, and came back to life again, then you would know with certainty what happens after death. Of course, you would only know what happens to you, not everyone else. But if you haven’t died, you can only speculate about what happens to you and everyone else.
Hipps here reveals what he believes is necessary to have certain knowledge about something (or, at least, life after death). That is, he reveals something about his epistemology, and what he reveals is striking to me given other things that he will say later in the post. For Hipps, it would seem that certain knowledge needs (1) personal experience and (2) verifiable evidence. With regard to life after death, to be able to speak with certainty, one would need to die and come back to life (personal experience) and have pictures (verifiable evidence). And even with these two things, you can only speak with certain knowledge about your own experience and not that of others. No one presently available to us has either personal experience of life after death or pictures; thus, we are right to be skeptical of their speculations.

The reason all this strikes me as peculiar is because Hipps identifies himself as one empathetic to the postmodern ethos (The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture, 17), but his comments above on knowledge come across as deeply modernistic. Modern epistemology demanded verifiable empirical evidence as the only source for true and certain knowledge. And if such evidence could not be produced, the only other option was doubt and skepticism, because, after all, if it's not verifiable, it's just speculation, fantasy, a waste of our time.

The problem with modernist epistemology was that it was driven by a presupposition that ruled some answers out of court before the questions were even asked. This is precisely why many modernists rejected the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. "We know things like resurrection don't actually happen," says the champion of modernism, "no one available to us has ever experienced or witnessed such a thing. And we certainly can't verify such claims. Thus, they are not to be considered available to be known." The modernist presupposition rules out the possibility of something like resurrection before the question is even raised.

Hipps here falls prey to the same critique. He has specific presuppositions about how something can be known with certainty, namely through personal experience and verifiable evidence. And his presuppositions about how things are known rule out all sorts of answers (indeed, even all answers) when the question of life after death is raised. From the perspective of Hipps' epistemology, there is no reason to even ask such questions, because we can't know anything about that; it's all speculation. Is it fair to rule out some answers before the question is ever asked?  One reason that modernism failed is that it did precisely that.

Another issue that comes up is whether Hipps' criteria for knowledge meet their own standard for knowledge. That is, can we experience and verify that experience and verifiability are indeed the basis and criteria for certain knowledge? Hipps says that to have certain knowledge we need personal experience and verifiable evidence. But how do we know that he is right? Let's apply his own criteria for certain knowledge to his criteria for certain knowledge. Does anyone have an experience to show us that experience and verifiability are necessary for knowledge? Is there some data somewhere that we can verify in order that we may know that these criteria are indeed the standard for how you know things? What if there is some other way of knowing? Have tests been done to rule out other possibilities for how things can be known? Does anyone have pictures?

The reality is that there are plenty of theories of knowledge out there that do not take Hipps' criteria as the exclusive standard for knowledge. Perhaps things can be known in other ways. Perhaps there are other kinds of evidence, legal or historical. Perhaps we can know things because they are revealed by a trustworthy source. If so, it is not the case that experience and verifiability are the only means by which a thing may be known.

The last concern I'll raise here is this. At least one other affirmation that Hipps makes in the very same post does not stand up to his criteria for knowledge. He says:
Now having said this, I’m only aware of one person who died, and I mean really died, like three days dead, and came back to life again. His name was Jesus. Upon his return from the dead, he didn’t believe anymore; now he knew.
Hipps emphatically affirms that the very dead Jesus of Nazareth was raised again to life. Whether Hipps would say he has certain knowledge of this, I don't know, but he certainly doesn't seem to put the resurrection of Jesus in the category of speculation. He affirms it emphatically. The problem for Hipps is that the resurrection of Jesus does not meet his criteria for knowledge. No one alive has a credible experience of meeting the embodied Jesus and there is no verifiable evidence (like a photograph) that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead. So, according to Hipps' own epistemology, we can only speculate about the resurrection of Jesus. Nothing can be said of it with certainty or definiteness. The inconsistent thing is that Hipps affirms definitely and emphatically that Jesus was raised from the dead, even though his epistemology says such a thing cannot be known. And in public discourse and debate inconsistency is a problem; unless, of course (and with a tip of my hat to my college logic prof), you are not worried about little things like consistency.

At the end of the day, Hipps here falls prey to the postmodern critique of modern epistemology. I would have thought that Hipps would recognize this, and I would have expected to find him on the other side of the modern/post-modern debate. Perhaps I've simply not read enough of his work, but given his affinity for postmodernism, his epistemology surprises me.


Shamby said...

Nice post Matt. I think you are right to question Hipps in the way you it seems the problem for him is not his claim that specific forms of evidence are available for the possibility of certainty (like experience), but that certainty is virtually limited to some forms of evidence. In short, Hipps overplays the experience card...and then, when it's convenient (i.e. not consistently).

But actually, I think this is more postmodern than what you suggest. Modernism dealt with epistemology primarily by concerning itself with metaphysics. Experience was not allowed the status of certainty without scrutiny, and philosophers from Descartes to Kant to Schleiermacher and Hegel qualified which experiences counted and which did not.

However, the postmodern orientation has been to take the side of the subject somewhat uncritically (i.e. without parsing the intuitability of metaphysical objects...or maybe just giving up on the attempt). None of this would have been possible without phenomenology and then existentialism...but that's why Postmodernism still abides by rather Modern categories.

At the risk of sounding like a brain here, I think Hipps' failure to engage more carefully the idea of certainty is an over-reliance on the celebrated uncertainty of his Postmodern readers. Perhaps harsh, but he is conning his audience, using their commonsense as his leverage.

However, I take case with your idea that Modernism is or was a failure. Modernism defeated its older, less careful philosophers and theologians...the likes of Voltaire and Hume, Strauss and Kant...even while affirming some of the clarity they brought to the conversation about certainty. I think you are not considering these later Romantic thinkers who critiqued their own tradition.

Anyway, thanks for writing on epistemology. It is a favorite subject of mine, and I thoroughly enjoyed your post.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Shamby, thanks for your interaction here. I kind of suspected someone might respond along these lines.

I know the experience side of things is not as deeply modernistic. It was more the need for verifiable evidence that struck me as a decidedly unpostmodern epistemology.

I tend to agree with you that there may be a con going on here. I had a similar thought in that what he says seems sensible, but when it is really analyzed is deeply problematic.

In saying that modernism was a failure, I didn't really mean that with regard to the way it handled the problems of that which came before it. And there is certainly a lot that I appreciate modernism, not least anesthesia and modern medicine. I should have clarified to speak more precisely in the problems that show up with modern rationalism and positivism, which, I think, we've largely discovered to have significant shortcomings.

Thanks for your thorough and charitable interaction. I always appreciate your comments.


ἐκκλησία said...

Matt, I rarely think about epistemology. Also, I don't know Shane Hipps or his belief's about it, so I will not speak idle words. However, your analysis of the postmodern influence on epistemological thinking (by pastors) was very interesting, and motivated me to see what I could find on the subject in the bible.

About pastoral responsibility, looking forward to the new covenant [Jer 3:15] says "And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. But Ezekiel also prophecies the following "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?" Your observations about correct epistemology seem pertinent. If the post-modern epistemological standard of certainty demands (1) personal experience, and (2) verifiable evidence, than what does that mean for our conviction of things unseen? Does it mean faith cannot be certain?

Hebrews defines faith as "... the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (from [Heb 11:1]). In your thinking, do you understand [Heb 11:1] to be an epistemological statement (saying something along the lines of our faith itself provides sufficient evidence for us to be certain about unseen things)? If so, if [Heb 11:1] is true, doesn't 'faith' meet that post-modernist epistemological standard, since faith is experienced directly, and it provides sufficient evidence to be certain (def'n: conviction is to 'fix a belief as certain')?

So the question is whether or not post-modernists believers accept [Heb 11:1] as true. If [Heb 11:1] is true, we don't need to experience 'life after death' physically as long as we experience 'faith', since faith provides sufficient evidence (about spiritual 'life after death') that we can be certain of our physical resurrection, since faith itself is evidence of resurrection in general (being its spiritual example) [Rom 6:3-11][Col 2:11-14][1 Peter 3:21]. Similar arguments can be made about 'Jesus' physical resurrection using faith.

So if the post-modernest pastor needs to appeal to something other than 'faith', doesn't that mean fundamentally that they disbelieve [Heb 11:1] (and other such biblical arguments)? If pastors are teaching doctrines that require a burden of proof beyond 'faith' to obtain certainty (against passages such as [Heb 11:1][Rom 6:3-11][Col 2:11-14][1 Peter 3:21]), doesn't that fundamentally imply that the shepherds have not been feeding their flocks, or themselves [Jer 10:21]?

Nice post.