XFiles Friday: Six of one, half-a-dozen of the otherJanuary 9, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)
We’re going through a list of 12 facts (or “facts”) that Geisler and Turek would like us to believe are the plain, unvarnished historical circumstances surrounding the alleged “resurrection” of Jesus. Of the first six, we only found a couple that were straightforward and unbiased presentations of the probable facts. The other four contained subtle (and not-so-subtle) twists that are clearly engineered to set the stage for a claim that only a real resurrection could possibly explain them all. The last six, by contrast, tend more towards the “true, but so what” category of trivial irrelevance. But not all of them. Let’s look.
7. The proclamation of the Resurrection took place very early, from the beginning of church history.
Arguably reasonable, though hopelessly vague: 90AD could be considered “very early” and “the beginning of church history.” This one falls into the “so what” category. People started seeing Elvis alive shortly after his death, too, and rumors of bombs in the World Trade Center and missile strikes on the Pentagon began within hours after 9/11. What’s at stake here is not the timing of the claim, but its accuracy.
What Geisler and Turek don’t mention is that there are apparently a number of different resurrection stories that began circulating soon after Jesus’ death, as reflected in the different oral traditions that were eventually incorporated into the conflicting Gospel accounts of Jesus rising. That’s what we might expect to find among a large group of fervent, disappointed believers wrestling with denial over what had just happened, especially given the superstitious culture and religious/messianic overtones of Jesus’ own ministry. More to the point, however, is the fact that these stories began circulating only among those who were already believers—by Matthew’s own account, the guards were testifying that Jesus’ body was merely carried off by some disciples.
8. The disciples’ public testimony and preaching of the Resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before.
And also where, according to Matthew, it was widely reported that Jesus’ body had been taken by disciples. But human nature is a strange thing: many people actually believe more strongly in claims after they are shown to be false. The fact that the apostles would boldly assert that Jesus did walk out of the grave, even though everyone knew his lifeless corpse was carried out, would persuade many people that the apostles must really have something. Otherwise they surely wouldn’t dare make such a baldfaced lie in public—would they? But as is routinely demonstrated even in modern times, there is very little that a faithful Christian won’t dare to say if he or she thinks that saying it will promote the Gospel. They call it “a bold witness.”
9. The gospel message centered on the preaching of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Well, yes, but again, like numbers 7 and 8, this is a “so what?” observation. Of course the disciples would make the death and alleged resurrection—properly interpreted as an atoning sacrifice that was necessary for the salvation of faithful men—into the central dogma of their faith, even if they initially conceived of it as a spiritual resurrection. The idea that God would somehow redeem the crucifixion of Jesus, that He would even have intentionally sought it and pursued it, is the rationalization that transforms their disastrous loss into a brilliant and meaningful victory.
People always reframe catastrophes into stories that reassure them it all makes sense somehow, and that God is still in control. It’s human nature: some dad somewhere gets cancer and dies young, leaving a widow and school age children, and the first thing people ask is, “Did he smoke?” If he’s a smoker, you see, then it all makes sense, he was asking for cancer. Hurricane Katrina makes sense, because naturally God would be out to get all those sinners down there. The Christmas Tsunami was a warning from God, or an inscrutable (but ultimately) good plan to accomplish—well, something anyway. Whenever bad things happen, people’s first response is to try and find some way to make sense of it all, above and beyond helping and/or sympathizing with the victims. The death of a “messiah” would be no different, at least among his followers.
10. Sunday was the primary day for gathering and worshiping.
We’re really on a roll here. Yes, the early Christians did indeed meet on a Sunday, the day after the Sabbath, and the day on which, if John’s Gospel is correct, a couple of the apostles discovered that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb where they thought it ought to be. Then again, if other disciples took the body, John’s surprise is not quite as surprising as it might seem. Sunday became an important day, because that was the day the disciples first began to believe in a resurrection (regardless of what circumstances led them to jump to that conclusion).
11. James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic before this time, was converted when he believed he also saw the risen Jesus.
This one is a little surprising, since the Bible nowhere says that James was a skeptic or that he was converted by seeing a risen Jesus. There is a story where Mary and Jesus’ brothers thought he had gone mad, and came to take him away, but this doesn’t mean that James was necessarily one of the brothers that was there, or that he remained a skeptic until after the crucifixion. Mary, apparently, changed from a doubter to a believer some time during Jesus’ ministry, so there’s no reason to assume that James couldn’t have done so too. Or he could have had a grief/denial conversion on the loss of his brother, though I think that’s less likely.
Let’s put number 11 down as a definite case of projecting some Gospel-friendly assumptions into a fairly flimsy collection of non-specific and tangential Bible references.
12. Just a few years later, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) became a Christian believer, due to an experience that he also believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.
The last item on Geisler and Turek’s list is a major faux pas for their little apologetic, since it proves beyond a reasonable doubt that these “visions of the risen Jesus” are not cases of witnesses observing his physical body stepping out of the tomb. By the time we get to Acts 9 and Paul’s “vision” (which took place among a crowd of men who, curiously, did not see Jesus there at the time), Jesus has allegedly ascended into heaven (and incidentally revealed that heaven has a physical location that is located due “up” from the Mount of Olives). According to various Scriptures, and 2,000 years of theological history, Jesus is not due to return again until The End, which means whatever vision Paul may have had, it was not a case of Jesus literally showing up in any real, material sense of the word.
It’s also worth noting, again, that Paul reports Jesus as telling him that “it is hard for you to kick against the goads,” which is a reference to oxen being driven in a direction that they didn’t necessarily want to go. Apparently, Saul/Paul had been struggling for some time against some secret pressures or urgings that were trying to compel him to turn to Jesus, but he had been resisting them up to this point. Maybe, as a devout Pharisee, he couldn’t resist the temptation to finally have a “real resurrection” to wave under the noses of those bloody Sadducees, or perhaps he secretly felt guilty about all the blood he was shedding in God’s name, and wanted to turn his life around. But in any case, it is clear that Saul’s conversion was not unanticipated, at least by him.
Then of course we have the problem of Jesus failure to appear to any of the rest of us. The Ascension was supposed to be the excuse for why Jesus no longer showed up in real life, but the Damascus Road blew that one. If a risen Jesus is indeed able to interact visibly, audibly, and tangibly with men and women here on earth, despite being all the way up there in heaven, and if he indeed wants to do so, then why does he not do it, even for believers? If Jesus simply behaved as though he really loved us as much as the Gospel says, i.e. if he really enjoyed our company and wanted us hanging around with him for all eternity, then questions over the “resurrection” ought to be moot, since there is nothing preventing him from giving us the undeniable evidence that would result from doing what he wants. And after all, Geisler and Turek’s claim is that it takes more faith to be an atheist. Jesus ought to have no problem doing things that would relieve believers of the need for blind faith.
In any case, there you have the list of 12 “facts” that Geisler and Turek want to use as the foundation for their claim that Jesus really did rise from the dead. They left out a bunch of other facts that seem to lead to the “wrong” conclusion, and they include a number of facts that are either largely irrelevant or else are manifestly tendentious and tainted with the assumption of the conclusion they are trying to prove. So what do we really know about the so-called resurrection of Jesus?
Well, we know that Jesus taught his followers to see “spiritual truth” as being just as real as material truth, if not more so. We know that “visions” of Jesus were specific to that group of individuals who was most prone to see (and misinterpret) grief- and denial-driven hallucinations of his “survival.” We know that the earliest stories of people having such visions were stories that described Jesus in remarkably ghost-like terms, similar to the kind of urban legends that people still circulate today, and we know that these stories tended to contradict each other in significant and irreconcilable ways. And we know that early Christians weren’t too picky about what they believed, since they uncritically embraced most of these stories, contradictions and all.
We know that early Christians were troubled by reports that the actual fate of Jesus’ body was known, and was non-miraculous. We know that they circulated counter-stories of their own, intended to discredit rumors of body-snatching. We know that the guard, if there really was one, was not even requested until after the Sabbath (leaving less-scrupulous disciples ample opportunity to retrieve the body without difficulty). And we know that Christians, to this very day, continue to try and convince people that Jesus’ body was under guard for the entire time, despite the fact that the Bible has been contradicting this claim for almost 2,000 years.
We know that, then as now, Jesus did not and does not show up for skeptics. We know that, even in cases where believers (or incipient believers, in Paul’s case) claimed to see Jesus while standing in a crowd of non-Christians, the non-Christians did not see Jesus. We know that Christians today, even though Jesus is supposedly up in heaven, and is not supposed to return until The End, nevertheless believe that he is present among them “wherever two or more gather in [his] name,” and that they sincerely believe this to be true even though he does not actually show up there. And we know that, no matter how much Jesus is said to love us, he manifestly is either unwilling or unable to show up, in person, even in a Damascus Road sense, to tell us so himself.
Did Jesus’ literal, material, lifeless corpse really come back to life and walk out of its tomb on its own accord? We have no reason to believe so, and the most fundamental and obvious consequence of a genuine resurrection is conspicuous by its absence. Jesus is not here with us, despite having no reason to abandon us and despite having the alleged ability to show up for earthly mortals no matter where his physical body is. If he did rise from the dead, he’s doing a damn good job of pretending he didn’t. And why would he want to do a thing like that, if his goal were to ensure that it would take more faith to be an atheist?