XFiles Friday: Ain’t necessarily so

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)

Geisler and Turek open chapter 12 with a quote from Gary Habermas that seems intended to stifle any criticism of New Testament apologetics.

“Skeptics must provide more than alternative theories to the Resurrection; they must provide first-century evidence for those theories.”

Since modern day skeptics haven’t got a time machine to travel back to the first century in a search for clues, it would seem this argument would pretty well insulate the Gospel from any kind of skeptical criticism. Or would it? Is it possible that the evidence we already have is sufficient to demonstrate that Jesus did not, in fact, return to literal, physical, biological life after his crucifixion, death and burial?

Indeed it is, and we can readily demonstrate this from Geisler and Turek’s own answer to the question, “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?”.

If I were an apologist for a God Who loved me enough to die for me, and Who had raised Himself from the dead as a demonstration of His ability and willingness to eliminate any obstacle that kept us apart, I would prove that Jesus rose from the dead by saying, “Don’t take my word for it, let’s go see him ourselves and ask him whether the New Testament is telling the truth or not.” That’s the most straightforward and obvious proof, because it follows logically that, given such a strong divine desire to be with us, God would, you know, be with us.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in the kind of ideal world where God behaves as though He really believed the Gospel enough to act like He wants to hang out with us mere mortals, so Geisler and Turek have to resort to the same source they always turn to: the words of men.

Gary Habermas has completed the most comprehensive investigation to date on what scholars believe about the Resurrection. Habermas collected more than 1,400 of the most critical scholarly works on the Resurrection written from 1975 to 2003. In The Risen Jesus and Future Hope, Habermas reports that virtually all scholars from across the ideological spectrum—from ultra-liberals to Bible-thumping conservatives—agree that the following points concerning Jesus and Christianity are actual historical facts.

Since God does not show up in real life, we must turn to the words of men to assure us that certain ancient stories are really ancient history. Granted, if God’s dealings with man are ancient history, it doesn’t sound like He’s really all that fond of us. But these ancient stories are all that apologists have to work with, so Geisler and Turek have to make the best of it, even though these stories violate their own argument that God cannot possibly do anything more for man than to let him read a book (otherwise He will be “raping” man’s free will).

It doesn’t take long before “making the best of it” turns into “making it a bit better”—tweaking the facts slightly, emphasizing some bits, omitting others, and sneaking their own undocumented claims in as though they were part of the facts. Let’s take their list of 12 alleged facts and see what they’ve left out and what they’ve snuck in.

1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.

2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.

3. Soon afterwards the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent, having lost hope.

They start off fairly well: the first two facts are reasonably well documented and there’s no obvious reason for disputing them. Number 3 starts to inject a bit of commentary, though. The disciples were indeed upset, discouraged, and grieving after the sudden, violent death of their beloved teacher. Who wouldn’t be? The bit about “having lost hope” is a bit of a set-up though—Geisler and Turek are trying to insinuate the Christian mythological idea that after the crucifixion, the disciples were irretrievably devoid of hope, that they had given up on Jesus and would never recover their faith of their own accord.

If there’s one thing that’s harder to uproot than a rosebush, though. it’s hope. Especially superstitious hope. The Daylight Atheist has an excellent overview of the Millerite sect and their response to “the Great Disappointment,” when Jesus failed to return at the time predicted by Miller (or by the Bible, as Miller presented it). Like the first century disciples, they spent a significant amount of time discouraged and hopeless, but the emotional rebound, once they recovered from their shock, led to the creation of a number of new religious sects, including the Seventh Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Branch Davidians.

So the factual part of fact number three is that the disciples experienced a natural, ordinary, temporary phase of grief, despondency, and discouragement. Anybody would, under the circumstances, and it’s a normal part of human psychology to go through a bad spell before recovering one’s regular emotional state. Geisler and Turek would like us to jump to the conclusion that the disciples ought to have remained despondent and hopeless for the rest of their lives barring some kind of miracle, but in fact the opposite is true. Grief is temporary; hope felled will spring to life again.

Back to the list:

4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his internment.

This is an arguably reasonable conclusion, but it doesn’t really summarize the whole story well. What we have is not the empty tomb itself, but at least four different (and conflicting) stories, recorded decades later, in which the tomb is described as being either empty, or containing a young man dressed in white, or possibly a pair of young men, or angels. And that’s only the canonical stories—if you add in some of the other traditions that were circulating at the time, you have Jesus walking out of the tomb followed by a talking Cross, and similar tales.

There’s another fact that Geisler and Turek neglect to mention here, and that is the fact that in Palestine, it was widely reported that the tomb was empty because the disciples had taken the body. This story was so widespread that Matthew found it necessary to accuse the guards of taking a bribe in order to try and discredit the story (even though Matthew was neither one of the guards nor one of the Sanhedrin, so he wouldn’t have been there to see this alleged bribe taking place).

Note, too, that Jesus had a lot of disciples, and that they were famous for not always getting along so well, especially prior to Pentecost (according to tradition), so the body-snatching disciples needn’t have been Peter, John, or any of the other big names. The Twelve (or Eleven, rather) wouldn’t necessarily have even known that the body was being taken, so it’s entirely possible that Peter, John, and the Mary’s, could have been surprised by an empty tomb, and could even have encountered a young man who might have had something to do with the disappearance.

You might wonder how the disciples could have taken the body out from under the noses of the guards, but another fact that Geisler and Turek fail to mention is that the Pharisees didn’t even request a guard until the next day, which could quite plausibly refer to an interval anywhere from a few hours to an entire night in which Jesus’ body was unguarded. Some might object that a Jew would not do something like that because it would violate the law of Moses, but then again Jesus was famous for teaching the idea that good works were permissible on the Sabbath, and in fact Jesus’ extremely liberal attitudes towards Sabbath behavior is part of what got him killed—another fact not mentioned by Geisler and Turek.

We’re up to fact number 5 now.

5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.

This is another fact that is true as far as it goes, but we need to mention a few other facts that are relevant to this particular observation. First of all, there’s the fact that first-century Christians, like Christians today, take it as a fundamental article of faith that spiritual experiences are actual experiences. If I had a dollar for every time a Christian thought God had spoken to them, I could retire and live in luxury. In terms of religious experience, the first-century Christians were most similar to modern-day Pentecostals, though that’s actually backwards, since modern charismatics actually seek to model their experience after the first-century Christians. And charismatic Christians actually take pride in regarding their subjective, inner, personal experiences as being just as real as what you see on CNN news.

Then there’s the matter of ordinary psychological response to bereavement. Never mind all the people who have seen Elvis since his death, a recent article in Scientific American cites studies showing that up to 80% of elderly people experience “visions” of their departed loved ones as late as a month after their deaths (the loved ones’ death, that is, not the elderly people). Most of the time, such hallucinations are immediately recognized as a trick of the mind, but then again that’s because we’re not expecting our loved ones to be the divinely appointed Messiah chosen by God to save the world and free the oppressed.

Add to this already potent mix the presence of pagan stories about resurrected god-men, as well as the Jewish myth of the sacrificial lamb, and the Persian doctrine of eternal judgment, and you have all the raw materials you need for a spontaneous “resurrection” to occur within the hearts and minds of believers—a “resurrection” that would be accepted as being 100% as real and legitimate as if Jesus’ body had visibly walked out of the tomb and showed up for both believers and skeptics as well. (That’s another interesting fact Geisler and Turek fail to mention—these mysterious appearances happened only to believers. No impartial observers corroborate any of these claims.)

The apparition stories themselves are also remarkable for their stereotypical “ghost story” presentation. Ooo, he can walk through locked doors! Ooo, somebody walked all the way to Emmaus with him and didn’t recognize him until he prayed, and then he just vanished! He was walking on the beach, and suddenly a campfire was just there. And when they got out of the car, there was a hook hanging on the door handle. Oh wait, that last one was from a different story.

All of these stories have a strong subjective element to them that is rather inconsistent with the idea that Jesus’ physical body suddenly stood up again and began walking around. The body that was buried didn’t have the power to walk through walls, or to alter its appearance so as to fool people who knew him intimately, or to appear and disappear at will. These are all characteristics of a spiritual resurrection, the kind of “resurrection” that can happen in the minds and perceptions of the believer and that will be accepted and endorsed as being just as real as a materialistic resurrection, at least by the believer.

Geisler and Turek choose not to highlight these facts in their list of 12 things that scholars all agree are true, because Geisler and Turek aren’t out to discover what the truth is, they’re out to dictate what the truth is. They want to prove that it takes more faith to be an atheist, as though the atheist had fewer facts, but the way they make the atheist have fewer facts is by simply omitting them. The facts are there, and most of them are even recorded in the New Testament (which ought to satisfy Habermas’ demand for first century evidence). Geisler and Turek want to make it sound like the resurrection itself is a literal, material fact. But it ain’t necessarily so.

One last item and then we’ll save the rest of the list for next week.

6. Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were thoroughly transformed. They were even willing to die for their belief.

Point number six is a major twisting of the facts. Were the disciples’ lives transformed because they had “experiences,” or were the “experiences” the result of the disciples transforming their own faith—as the Millerites did after their Great Disappointment—in order to lend new meaning and purpose to an otherwise incomprehensible turn of events? We might argue over which conclusion best fits the facts, but there is no disputing the fact that Geisler and Turek are forcing their own interpretation of things onto the evidence, and presenting this interpretation as though it were one of the historical facts.

Were the disciples’ lives even significantly transformed? Before the crucifixion, they were leaders in a growing religious sect, and they traveled around preaching the gospel and carrying on their ministry. After the “resurrection,” they went back to doing the same thing. That’s not a “transformation,” that’s just people suffering a setback and recovering after a period of grief and bereavement.

Were they willing to die for their belief? Well, sure, if they had to, but they didn’t go out of their way to pursue it (at least not until it became fashionable to do so). In that respect, they were slightly less zealous than today’s suicide bombers. But again, is this really a transformation? It’s a change from the disciples’ behavior during their initial period of shock and grief, but duh, of course someone who is in traumatic psychological shock is going to be performing at a sub-par level for a few weeks or so. Their courage after they recovered their composure is simply a normal and natural consequence of their emotional recovery coupled with the logical dictates of their faith. If you’re going to deny that Jesus’ death was a serious setback for Christianity, then you’re going to have to deny the significance of your own death on the same basis.

None of these so-called facts is at all inconsistent with the sorts of things we see going on all the time in the real world, among faithful Christians (and non-Christians, faithful or otherwise), in the absence of genuine, supernatural, material resurrections. This fits Geisler and Turek’s earlier claim that God cannot intervene in human affairs in ways that would demonstrably prove His existence. According to Geisler and Turek, the only way God can interact with man is via stories told in a book. And based on what G&T have provided so far, there’s no reason for us to view the resurrection as anything more than just that: a story told in a book. A God willing and able to raise Himself from the dead so that He could be with us forever is a God who would be willing and able to be here with us forever. So He should be.

But that doesn’t happen—not even in the story in the book. Sorta tells you something, don’t it?

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 4 Comments »

4 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Ain’t necessarily so”

  1. Kenneth Says:

    The idea of an historical event that “should” shatter a social movement does in fact do so is out of date with what we know about human (social) nature. Cognitive dissonance shows that these types of shattering events are often reinterpreted by those most committed to the original movement with the result that such believers are even more committed that before the event. The ‘true believers’ rationalize in any way possible to save the movement. Based on this one can make a strong argument that a resurrection is the least likely explanation of the events surrounding the death of Jesus.

  2. Luke Says:

    As interesting as this article is, isn’t it unnecessarily playing in to the theologians’ game? We know for a fact that people who’ve been dead for three days don’t come back to life. This is not an a priori supposition, it’s a medical fact. For me, nothing more need be discussed.

  3. Badger3k Says:

    Actually, there isn’t evidence outside the gospels that Jesus actually was crucified by the Romans. The earliest writings merely say that he suffered and died. Years later, the Passion Narrative was developed (and subsequently added to). Is it possible that it reflects a real situation? Sure, although the narrative nature of Mark makes it a bit problematic that it actually is probable. So, I’d say that 1 & 2 are not really a given, but for the sake of argumentation we can go with it. The Empty Tomb gives some scholarly looks at the resurrection stories.

    Other than that, we can easily look to such incidents as the Bab or Haile Selassie to see what happens with some movements and the stories that develop (such as HS didn’t really die). It’s odd how such incidents never seem to come up in an apologists arguments.

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