Plausibility Structures

We are happy to believe the Jesus story over the UFO story because of what sociologists call plausibility structures. We all have plausibility structures that determine whether a story is unbelievable or believable. These plausibility structures are essentially preprogrammed and predetermined inside us.

As I was telling you the UFO story, your plausibility structures were flashing red lights and setting off blaring alarms. When I said that this little green man took us to his home planet Jupiter and we went through a time portal and only one second of earth time went by, your plausibility structures were screaming, “Unbelievable!”

But when I told you the Jesus story, your plausibility structures were giving you green lights. When I said that Jesus was born of a virgin and that he died on a cross and rose again three days later, your plausibility structures were saying, “Believable!” And when I said that Jesus will come again, your plausibility structures kept giving you green lights.

Where do these plausibility structures come from? Three main sources contribute to our plausibility structures: (1) community, (2) experiences, and (3) facts, evidence, and data.

Regarding the UFO story, most of you do not belong to a community—friends and family you know and trust—that believes in UFOs. Most of you have never had a personal experience of a UFO in your life. And most of you do not believe there are any facts, evidence, or data to support my UFO story. That’s why you judge the UFO story to be unbelievable.

But regarding the Jesus story, most of you do belong to a community that believes in Jesus. Most of you have had a personal experience of Jesus in your life. And most of you do believe that there are enough facts, evidence, and data to support the Jesus story. That’s why you judge the Jesus story to be believable.

Which is the most powerful source in determining belief? You might assume it’s facts, evidence, and data. Maybe you desperately want it to be facts, evidence, and data. But facts, evidence, and data are actually the least powerful in determining belief.

You see, if I told you the UFO is still in my backyard right now, you probably couldn’t be bothered to come and check it out. You probably don’t have the time or willpower to investigate what is so unbelievable. And if you did bother to check it out, you would find a way to explain away the evidence. You would tell yourself that this was all part of an elaborate hoax.

Facts, evidence, and data are surprisingly weak in making something believable. So which is the most powerful in determining belief? Community.

Chan, Sam, and Ed Stetzer. 2020. How to Talk about Jesus (without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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