Sunday Toons: For old time’s sakeJanuary 11, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
It’s been a while since we’ve had any real Sunday Toons, but since Mr. Holding has seen fit to award me the highest honor he has to bestow, it seems like a good time to stop in for another visit. Holding, for those of you who may not yet have had the pleasure, is a self-styled Christian apologist whose approach is perhaps best typified by this insightful analysis:
Having now read more than 50 books on the subject, I can say without qualification that you are stupid in this regard.
In fact, it’s amazing how many of his analyses end with “…and therefore you are stupid,” or variations thereof. It’s a defense mechanism of sorts, a tactic intended to discourage critics from hanging around long enough to pose a real problem, though from my perspective his best defense is the relentless mediocrity of his scholarship and apologetics. It doesn’t take long to exhaust his repertoire of social maneuvers and rhetorical ploys, and after that it gets fairly repetitive and uninteresting. He’s read a lot of books, and therefore you are wrong (though sadly he has trouble providing any specific articulation of what those books contain that actually proves you wrong). Ok, yeah, we get it, that’s your schtick and you’re schtickin’ to it. Ha ha.
Still, he does now and then come up with an actual argument for his beliefs, and some of them are actually interesting to consider. It’s not that they’re right, exactly, but they’re wrong in interesting ways. One of these arguments appears in his attempt to debunk what I said about I Cor. 15.
For example, he says that “the reason Paul wrote [1 Cor.] 15 isbecause, as verse 12 tells us, he was unhappy with the number of believers who did not buy this whole resurrection business.” Um, not quite, Dumplin’. Their issue was not with whether the resurrection of Jesus happened; their issue was with what was thought to be the impossibility of resurrection (point 3) according to pagan philosophical principles. There’s no room to say that doubted that Jesus was raised; but they did doubt that they could be. As I noted in replies to The Empty Tomb, this does mean they were holding inconsistent positions. Paul’s appeal to Jesus as a model is for the purpose of saying, to persons of a collectivist mindset, “If you deny that it can happen to you, then how do you explain that it happened to our ingroup leader?”
Ok, so they weren’t denying that it did happen, they were merely denying that it was even possible for it to happen. I can see this is going to be good already.
Let’s review I Cor. 15 real quick, shall we? Paul starts out by saying “This is what the most important thing in the Gospel is: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.” He then cites a number of “appearances” that are intended to prove that Jesus did rise, of which his own experience is the crowning example. (That right there is a bit of a problem, since we know that this was not a physical appearance and that the men who were with Paul did not see Jesus appear.) He gets sidetracked for a bit (“I persecuted the Church! I am not worthy!”), but the main point he’s trying to make is that Jesus did rise (in some sense, at least).
This is all groundwork for his main point, in verses 12 and 13. “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.” Paul, in other words, is quite clear on the conflict between the idea that Jesus rose, and the idea that there is no resurrection. He’s equally clear that he sees this as refuting what the Corinthians believed, which is a problem, because it suggests that the Corinthians did not believe that Jesus rose.
Holding proposes an interesting solution: “There’s no room to say that [they] doubted that Jesus was raised; but they did doubt that they could be.” In other words, they believed that Jesus rose from the dead, but they thought that only Jesus was raised, and that no one else would be. Now, this might lend some credence to the notion that they regarded Jesus as some kind of god, and was therefore possessed of powers that no one else had, but it does rather deflate Paul’s argument doesn’t it? I mean, let’s assume that the Corinthians did indeed believe that Jesus was raised and that no one else was. Paul’s argument, in historical context, turns out to be, “But if Jesus was the only one who was raised, how is it that some of you say that Jesus is the only one who was raised? For if no one but Jesus is raised, then Jesus himself is… uh… raised. Just like you said. Never mind.”
What Holding is doing is what a lot of apologists and theologians do: try to take the ideas discussed at the end of the chapter, and overlap them onto the beginning. The end of the chapter does indeed focus on the question of what kind of body are the dead raised in, and addresses it with a number of comparisons that contrast the inferior body that was buried and the spiritual body that is raised. But we’re not up to that part yet. We’re still at the beginning of the chapter, where Paul tries to convince the Corinthians that their beliefs are wrong because Jesus (allegedly) did rise. In Paul’s mind, at least, there is a clear contradiction between what (some of) the Corinthians believed, and the doctrine of the Resurrection.
Holding proposes a solution to that problem as well: the Corinthians were simply being inconsistent in their beliefs. That one certainly has the ring of plausibility, right? We see Christians hold inconsistent beliefs all the time, like the belief that “God is in control” and that “the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One.” But this one seems a bit much just the same. How on earth do you convert to a religion in which the most important principle is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, a religion that you join by a ritual of baptismal union with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, and not notice that there’s any contradiction with your conviction that the dead do not rise?
There’s a Monty Python sketch in which a new recruit comes up to his commanding officer and wants to be let out of the army because he didn’t realize there were going to be guns and fighting and such. (“I mean, blimey, someone could get hurt!”) It’s a funny bit, because it’s ridiculous to suppose that anyone could be dense enough to join the army and not realize that there was any fighting involved. How, then, do we explain the existence, within the Church, of believers who did not believe that resurrection was possible? Not just that their own resurrection was impossible, but that resurrection itself was impossible, in a way that contradicted the resurrection of Jesus, and which the resurrection of Jesus could thus be used to refute?
I can think of a couple of different ways. One is if the resurrection is an afterthought, a little-known doctrine that Christians sheepishly share only with those who’ve been absorbed deeply enough into the religion to be willing to accept the hard-to-swallow stuff. Based on Paul’s declaration that the resurrection was a core element of the Gospel he preached and by which he converted the Corinthians, that seems unlikely.
The other possibility is if the resurrection, as originally preached, was a spiritual resurrection, the raising of a spiritual body, as per the latter half of the chapter. A person who believed in a spiritual afterlife, you see, could easily adopt a religion based on the spiritual resurrection of Jesus, even if they denied the possibility of a physical resurrection. The inconsistency between accepting resurrection and rejecting resurrection would not appear until later on, when it came time to discuss the implications of the resurrection—or, for example, if the doctrine itself began to morph into the idea that Jesus had a real (as in physical) resurrection.
That’s another interesting possibility, because if the Corinthians did sign up under the assumption that Jesus’ resurrection was spiritual, and then noticed a growing tendency to re-frame the resurrection as a physical, bodily resurrection, it would produce a controversy within the Church. Not only would there be controversy, but the controversy would involve the very specific issues of whether or not Jesus’ resurrection was really real, and what it really means to be “raised,” i.e. what sort of “body” do you have when you’re resurrected.
Some of those issues obviously did arise in the case of the Corinthians, and Paul takes the second half of 1 Cor. 15 to address them. And notice, the issues that arise (e.g. “what kind of body is raised?”) are issues that spring from a discussion of physical versus spiritual resurrection. Paul’s response is, strikingly, not a defense of the idea that the same physical body is raised, but rather a defense of the idea that raising a different kind of body is just as good.
When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
There’s all different kinds of bodies, Paul argues. The raised body doesn’t need to be the same body as the one that was “sown,” any more than a wheat seed needs to still be a seed when it comes back up out of the ground. And besides, an earthly body isn’t as cool as a heavenly one. It’s sown a natural body, but it’s raised a spiritual body.
Christians today no longer embrace the idea that a spiritual resurrection is just as good as a materialistic raising of the dead. Even in Paul’s time, the “spiritual body” stuff was creating headaches and undermining the whole Gospel. To make the resurrection real, you need to somehow incorporate the physical body into the process, even though doing so makes it cease to be a physical body and leaves you with a disembodied spirit that manifests itself physically (and temporarily) just like the angels in the Old Testament stories, and even the unresurrected OT God on occasion.
I’m pretty much done with that topic, but I can’t resist sharing just a couple more toony gems from Mr. Holding.
Beyond this, Dumplin’ offers the usual canards. “Paul doesn’t mention an empty tomb, bwaaaah.” (No, I guess when he says “buried” he means they buried Jesus in midair, or at sea.) “The body could have decayed so that it was unrecognizable, bwaaaah.” Doesn’t matter, Dumplin’. ANY body could have been produced by the authorities, who could have tagged it “Jesus,” and no one could have said boo to contradict them.
Right, Mr. Holding. So why didn’t they take just any decomposed body and call it the body of Christ? Perhaps because they didn’t need to, since it was already widely reported that the body had been taken by disciples, as Matthew records? And by the way, when you bury someone in a tomb, doesn’t that mean that the tomb is no longer empty? The question isn’t whether burial produces an empty tomb, it’s whether a resurrection does. A spiritual resurrection would make the contents of the tomb irrelevant and not worth mentioning, but all four of the stories that claim a physical resurrection take pains to assure us that the tomb was indeed empty. Paul, who says the body is “raised” as a spiritual body, does not.
Ah, Sunday Toons. I’d forgotten how much I almost enjoyed them.