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Monday, August 18, 2008

Questions for Christians: The Resurrection (part 3)

First, the usual disclaimer: the purpose of these posts is to pose questions to Christians who come here (or go anywhere, for that matter) with the intent of converting us to Christianity, but also with an open mind about their own faith. You may post your answers here, or answer them privately, at your discretion. My ultimate goal in asking these questions is to have you deconvert from Christianity. If you are not open to at least the possibility of that happening, then I suggest you not respond to these questions, as that will be a waste of your time (and possibly our bandwidth). At the same time, I am open to the possibility of learning a thing or two about Christianity along the way -- but if you answer these questions publicly, with the intention of being a teacher instead of a learner, then please don't bother doing so here. These questions are for your educational benefit.

This is one in a series of "Questions..." posts that deal with the Bible, the scriptural compilation that constitutes the conceptual framework of the Christian faith. If you were ever a Christian, chances are you've read some of the Bible. If you are still a Christian today, chances are you haven't read all of it.

This is the third and final "Questions..." post dealing with the most critical of all Christian doctrines: the Resurrection of Jesus. In reading the last two posts of the series, Christians may have thought of (or found on the web) some objections to the questions I posed, or defenses of the Resurrection in spite of the problems I raised. I'm going to deal with a few of those (by no means all of them, but hopefully enough to demonstrate that, yes, we atheists have thought of these things, and yes, we still don't believe the Resurrection happened), then I'm going to ask the two most important questions in this miniseries.

Q: If Jesus had not risen from the dead and the apostles preached that he had, couldn’t their critics have proved the whole thing wrong by going to the tomb and producing the body?

A: If the apostles had preached that Jesus had physically risen from the dead, then that would be a good way to disprove it – if the critics of the time had cared enough to do so. However, there were hundreds of miracle claims floating around that part of the world at that time, and few people would have had the inclination to go around disproving them all. (And in fact, if anyone did make the attempt with respect to Jesus, we would not know about it today, because the early church actively sought out and destroyed documents critical of Christianity – more on that in a future post.)

However, we have reason to believe that the apostles did not preach that Jesus had physically risen from the dead. Paul’s letters, which are the earliest mention of the Resurrection, seem to be talking about a spiritual resurrection, where Jesus’s spirit ascended to heaven, was given a spiritual body, and in that body appeared to the faithful in visions, such as Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus. After that comes Mark – and we know that the end of Mark, everything after 16:8, was a later addition to the text, added in the 2nd century or later. All that the author of Mark mentioned was an empty tomb and a “young man” delivering the message that Jesus was no longer then – a narrative that was likely not meant to be historical, but symbolic. The gospel authors were Hellenistic Jews, who co-existed with ancient Greeks and shared a great deal of culture with them; they placed great import in the Greek symbolism of the bodies of dead heroes disappearing into thin air as a sign of deification (cf. Hercules and Apollonius).

If you read the Resurrection accounts in the order in which they were written – first Paul’s letters, then Mark up through 16:8, then Matthew, Luke and Acts, then John, and finally Mark after 16:8 – perhaps you can see for yourself how a simple folkish belief becomes, over a period of decades, a legend.

Q: But don’t the gospel accounts say that the disciples witnessed the risen Jesus?

A: They say that – the question is, are the gospel accounts reliable? We know they were written decades after the “fact.” Why should we believe they are reliable?

Q: Why should we believe they are not reliable?

A: Two reasons. First, as previously discussed, the gospel writers had ulterior motives in writing the gospels. Second, quite simply, the gospels contain stories of miracles. We tend to not accept as historically reliable any account which contains miracles.

Q: Isn’t that a materialistic presupposition on your part? By ruling out the possibility of miracles from the get-go, aren’t you begging the question?

A: Not at all. Historians don’t presume materialism or naturalism – they simply presume that the way things work today is the same way they worked back then. We don’t see miracles today, therefore we expect that there weren’t miracles back then. If miracles were commonplace today, then we would assume that they were commonplace back then.

Q: But Jesus was a special case, wasn’t he?

A: Now you’re the one begging the question. To justify the reliability of the New Testament on the grounds that Jesus was a special case is to assume that Jesus was a special case, which presumes the reliability of the New Testament, which is exactly what is at issue.

Q: Why do you say the story became a legend? It’s a pretty straightforward narrative, isn’t it?

A: A straightforward narrative with earthquakes, zombies, solar eclipses, etc. Sounds like a legend to me.

Q: The gospels say that it was women who discovered the empty tomb. Why would they invent a detail like that, when the testimony of women was considered unreliable at the time?

A: Actually, it wasn’t. Again, these were Hellenistic Jews – their cultural background included many stories of strong female characters, including heroines and goddesses. Women didn’t enjoy the same privileges as men did, but they were hardly considered unreliable witnesses.

Q: The gospels included the figure of Joseph of Arimethea, a member of the Sanhedrin and therefore well-known to the people of the time. Why would the gospel writers have invented easily discoverable facts about him if they weren’t true?

A: Remember that the gospels were written many decades after the “fact” – long enough to easily invent fictional details about members of the Sanhedrin, or even fictional members of the Sanhedrin.

Q: Okay, let’s grant that the whole thing is implausible and absurd. Isn’t it so absurd, in fact, that it must be true?

A: When an account is that absurd, I tend to draw the exact opposite conclusion – that it is definitely or probably false. But that’s just me.

And now, the last two questions regarding the Resurrection.

6. Is there, in fact, any extra-biblical confirmation that the
Resurrection actually happened?

For centuries, Christians had only one source outside of the Bible to
confirm that the Resurrection actually happened -- a passage in the
works of the historian Josephus known as the Testimonium Flavium --
which they held over their heads like a trophy for nonbelievers to
cower before. Imagine their embarrassment, therefore, when it was
discovered that this passage was a Christian forgery! It was inserted
into the Josephus works by Christian evangelicals sometime in the
fourth century, as confirmed by the absence of that passage from all
copies prior to that time.

Neither I nor any Christian I have read or spoken with can name a
single source that confirms the historicity of the Resurrection
outside of the Bible. Can you do what these great minds cannot?

7. If you were able to travel back in time to the day of the
purported Resurrection, and see with your own eyes that it did not
happen, would you then admit that the Resurrection did not happen?

This seems like a rather straightforward question with an obvious
answer -- at least, to us atheists it does -- but apparently it isn't.
William Lane Craig, one of the foremost Christian apologists of our
day, was asked this very question at a debate, and he admitted that
he would continue to believe in the Resurrection even if he saw for
himself that it did not happen!
The reason, he stated, was that he
had the "assurance of the Holy Spirit" -- in other words, a warm fuzzy
feeling in his tummy -- that it did happen, and so he would accept the
witness of the Holy Spirit above the witness of his own self.

Think about this: one of the greatest, if not the greatest,
defenders of the historicity of the Resurrection, admits that
whatever the evidence says is trumped by his own personal feelings on
the matter! If Craig must rely on that, instead of the evidence, what
does that say about the evidence?

My Christian friends, even your own leaders admit that the evidence
for the Resurrection is unreliable. If you are a rational person,
shouldn't you conclude that the Resurrection is indefensible? Or do
you, like Craig, prefer the emotional assurance you receive from
continued belief?


  1. "My ultimate goal in asking these questions is to have you deconvert from Christianity."

    No such thing. Who wants to be the teacher now? Hypocrisy?

    "If you are not open to at least the possibility of that happening, then I suggest you not respond to these questions, as that will be a waste of your time (and possibly our bandwidth)."

    OK I won't waste your bandwidth, oops.

  2. Dan,

    It appears that you take the impossibility of deconversion from Christianity to be an integral part of the definition of Christianity -- and it follows from that that, if you are unwilling to change your mind about Christianity being true, you are similarly unwilling to change your mind about your argument that deconversion from "true" Christianity is impossible. So I won't bother arguing the point with you. I'll only wish you a pleasant life in that nice little hall of mirrors you've erected for yourself.

  3. hall of mirrors...

    I'm so pretty, oh so pretty, I am pretty and witty and ...

    It just happens to be the most important decision of your entire life forever, choose wisely and make 100% sure you are right.

  4. You mean like you are?

    What if you're not? Right, I mean.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Silent Dave,

    What if you're not?

    Excellent point. What if I am completely wrong and I have lived a life to struggle towards righteousness.

    I cold easily just say "insert Pascal's wager here" but it goes beyond that. I would rather live a life knowing there is a God and die to find out there isn't one. (I would still be glad I attempted to conduct myself in a righteous manner.) Then to live a very sinful life, like I used to, knowing there is no God only to find out I was horribly wrong.


  7. Well, perhaps you're right that it is better to be righteous and wrong than to be unrighteous and right. But I think it would be best of all to be righteous and right. With atheism, one has that option; with Christianity, one does not.

    Of course, I hardly expect you to accept that last proposition -- which brings us back to the issue of whether you're open to the possibility of God not existing, which you've said you're not, so there we are unless you have something else to add? (Oh please try to pull Pascal's Wager, pleeease try to pull that one . . .)


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