XFiles Friday: The apologetics of chutzpah

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 10.)

The first time I heard the term chutzpah, it was defined in terms of a man who has just murdered his parents, asking the judge to be lenient on the grounds that he’s just lost his mom and dad. It’s a kind of breathtaking outrageousness that substitutes brash boldness for common sense, and it’s a term that seems almost tailor-made for certain apologetic arguments.

You see, some apologetic arguments are just plain poor. They overlook obvious facts, they beg the listener to jump to credulous and superstitious conclusions, or they just don’t make any sense. Yet despite what might seem like fatal problems, they manage to be quite popular and enduring. They are effective because they have that special chutzpah that makes you want to believe that the apologist must have some kind of valid point to make, because nobody could possibly expect an argument like that to stand on its own.

Unfortunately, the chutzpah is indeed the only thing these arguments have going for them. We saw that last week with Geisler and Turek’s example of Jesus’ “hematohidrosis” that not only was not a self-consistent “eyewitness” account, but that the text itself does not support. There is textual evidence, in fact, that verses 43 and 44, which describe this alleged event, are not even part of Luke’s original gospel. Yet Geisler and Turek, like many other apologists, preachers and evangelists, continue to present it as evidence for the alleged historical accuracy of the New Testament. The argument works because people assume you couldn’t possibly get away with that kind of argument if you didn’t have something more solid to back it up.

Paul makes a similar argument in I Cor. 15.

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Notice, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” In other words, if you don’t buy this argument, you have to admit that you’re making a fool of yourself. The evidence may be against it. The story may be self-contradictory and unrealistic. But if you admit that there’s anything wrong with it, then you are the one who is going to end up looking stupid.

Apologetics is for the believer, not for the unbeliever, and so this kind of argument works. Nobody wants to look a fool, and nobody wants their vulnerable religious beliefs to be exposed as public embarrassments. Small wonder, then, that chutzpah counts for more than consistency with real world truth. Better to be bold and act like you’ve got your act together than to concede your argument’s weaknesses and have people’s pity.

Let’s look at another example.

Not only do the apostles claim to be eyewitnesses, on several occasions they tell their audiences that everyone knows what they’re saying is true. These are not offhanded comments but bold proclamations to powerful people.

Perhaps the boldest eyewitness claim comes from Paul as he stands trial before King Agrippa and Governor Festus. Paul has just begun to tell Agrippa and Festus why he has been converted to Christianity and how Christ rose from the dead as predicted by the Old Testament, when suddenly Festus interrupts and calls Paul Insane! The dramatic exchange is recorded by Luke in Acts 26:24-28:

At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”

“I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”

Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”

Do you see how brave, almost brash, Paul is? He not only boldly witnesses to the king and the governer, but he has the audacity to tell the king that he already knows Paul is telling the truth! Why is Paul so confident of this? Because the events of Christianity were “not done in a corner.” They were common knowledge and surely had not “escaped [the king's] notice.” Imagine a defendant challenging a ruler or judge in that way! Such a witness must know that the events he describes are well known.

Paul’s chutzpah is that he shouldn’t have dared to tell Agrippa that he [Agrippa] already knew the evidence for the Resurrection. After all, what if that evidence didn’t support the Resurrection? Well, obviously, the result would be that he would fail to convince Agrippa that Jesus had really risen. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what did happen. Paul did fail. Agrippa was not convinced, and neither called for Paul’s release nor became a Christian himself. Nor does Paul show any signs of being at all surprised by this outcome.

This is a tremendous flaw in Geisler and Turek’s argument, and shows more than just a little chutzpah of their own in their willingness to propose it. Presenting your arguments forcefully and with great confidence is simply good rhetorical practice, and is something that Paul, being a trained rabbi, would have already have had a lot of experience with. The question is not who presents their case boldly (since both sides in a debate would do so), but who presents convincing evidence. Paul tried, and got the outward show of confidence right, but he failed to provide Agrippa with enough evidence to convince him, as history records.

Paul’s case for the Resurrection was based, not on facts and evidence, but on bold testimony and an appeal to the prophets. Had Paul’s case been a matter of verifiable, real-world facts, he could just as well have presented his evidence to Festus as to Agrippa. But Paul’s conflict with the Jews was not a matter of real-world issues, it was a religious debate, which Festus couldn’t begin to make head nor tail of. So Paul didn’t try. His defense before Agrippa was different, however—so different that when Festus heard what Paul told Agrippa, he thought Paul had lost his mind.

Now think about that: what was different between Festus and Agrippa? They both had access to the witnesses Paul would have called, if he’d had any to call. But Paul didn’t call any, and apparently did not make it clear to Festus that he was even talking about Jesus rising from the dead, since the remark that so startled Festus and led to his interruption was Paul’s statement, “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

What we’re dealing with here is not a question of forensic evidence for someone returning from the dead, we’re talking about a religious argument over the fulfillment of prophecies. The reason Paul spoke to Agrippa about resurrection instead of mentioning it to Festus was that he was counting on Agrippa’s faith in the prophets to persuade him that Jesus had fulfilled the prophecies. It was a religious appeal based on religious authority—and bold testimony, of course—and it failed.

What we have in Acts 25 and 26, then, is a case where Paul could have made an appeal based on verifiable fact, and could have given Festus the names of people who could verify having seen Jesus rise from the dead, and could have offered the kind of objective, real-world proof that, in the words of Geisler and Turek, would have made it take more faith to be an atheist. And he didn’t do any of those things, but instead bided his time until he could make a religion-based appeal to a king whom he knew was a believer in the prophets. And we’re supposed to believe that Paul must have been telling the truth, just because he was bold in the claims that he made. Argumentum ad chutzpah.

It’s doubly chutzpah because this is the trial that should have made Geisler and Turek’s book unnecessary. Never mind 2,000 years later when a couple of American evangelical apologists are trying to find some reason to believe that the ancient Middle East really had something, we’re talking about a living apostle speaking to King Agrippa, with many of the alleged eyewitnesses still alive, and the allegedly empty tomb still empty. (And never mind why Paul didn’t call on Jesus himself to show up and testify in his defense.) This should have been the case that would have blown the whole field of apologetics wide open, that settled once and for all whether the apostles really had the goods or not.

And in a way, perhaps it did. Paul’s approach in not calling any material witnesses or citing any material evidence, and in preferring instead to keep things on the level of a religious debate over the words of the prophets, is amazingly consistent with a “resurrection” that took place only in the subjective experience and understanding of the believers, leaving no actual material evidence for Paul to appeal to. Why bring in your fellow Christians, and thus possibly expose them to imprisonment and persecution, if the most they can offer is a “spiritual” experience of Jesus “returning” from the dead spiritually?

Boldness is all well and good, and if you’re already arrested and in danger of execution, why not play the I’m-being-unjustly-persecuted card to the fullest? High-stakes poker games aren’t won by people who look at their cards and visibly wince whenever they’re dealt a poor hand, and poker is certainly not the only place where a good strong bluff is a prudent strategy.

In the end, though, boldness alone is not enough. Paul’s boldness, in the absence of material evidence, was not enough to convince Agrippa, despite Agrippa’s access to the local news, religion and history. Nor does it convince me any more than the boldness of Mohammed, or Joseph Smith, or any other heroic, steely-eyed prophet, apostle or evangelist. What impresses me is consistency with the truth. If you don’t have that, no amount of mere chutzpah will make up the difference.

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