Sunday Toons: “Out of his depth”January 18, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
When I was young and full of zeal for Jesus, I met a woman who told me her approach to Bible study. “I only use the King James Version,” she told me. “I read through the passage, figure out how you would say it in modern English, and then I’m done.” Though I was too meek to say so at the time, my little Christian heart was horrified. The New Testament was written in the common language of the people of the time. By paraphrasing an archaic translation into her “normal” usage, she was stopping right at the point where a New Testament Christian would have started. How could she call that “studying” the Bible?
I was reminded of that lady when I read JP Holding’s response to last week’s Sunday Toon. Not, of course, because he was as likable as she was, but because his study of I Cor. 15 seems to stop where mine starts. This leaves him at rather a loss as to how to respond, so he begins by graduating from the silly Ned-Flanders-ish insults to real, big-boy naughty words. He begins with:
Dumplin’ Dumbass shows why he’s ahead in the Platinum race for 2008:
prompting one of his regulars to respond:
Um… JP. You just said “Dumbass”
He is swiftly corrected by another TW regular, however:
So? It’s allowed. Dumbass.
And we’re off again…
JP starts with a clarification regarding his argument, which he seems to think I’ve misunderstood.
The full argument is, they weren’t denying that JESUS’ RESURECTION did happen, they were merely QUESTIONING WHETHER it was even possible for THEIR RESURRECTION to happen.
This to correct my somewhat snarky summary, “so they weren’t denying that it did happen, they were merely denying that it was even possible for it to happen.” Notice that JP makes a little edit in there. According to his rendition, the Corinthians “merely QUESTIONING” the resurrection, versus Paul’s description, “some of you SAY that there is no resurrection of the dead.” Not, “some of you are merely QUESTIONING whether there is a resurrection of the dead,” but “some of you SAY that there is no resurrection of the dead.”
This little alteration is, I believe, the key to understanding what JP sees as the issue here, and why he is so befuddled by my apparent failure to address it on his terms. We need to think like apologists here, and perceive the problem in terms of making Christianity sound like it has all the answers. Christians are highly motivated to believe what apologists tell them, so they don’t have to be good answers, or even correct ones, as long as the believer can feel like the problem has been addressed and has an answer.
If we take this approach, we’ll soon see that the most obvious problem in 1 Cor. 15 is the plain admission that there were people in Corinth who did not believe in resurrection. That’s rather a problem for a religion that’s supposed to be based on a resurrection, so the apologist’s number one priority is to find some alternative interpretation of the Corinthian belief that allows you to claim that they weren’t denying the resurrection of Jesus. JP believes that he has found such an alternative, based on a certain amount of scholarship into pagan beliefs and the denial of resurrection among unbelievers. (He ignores the existence of Jews who denied the resurrection, even though the Corinthian church started in a synagogue, but then again, why spoil a perfectly good apologetic with distracting facts?)
Thus, JP’s solution to the problem of 1 Cor. 15 is to suppose that the Corinthians were adopting pagan beliefs about resurrection, even though this is clearly a contradiction of the doctrine of the resurrection on which the Church is founded. He then makes the trivial and superficial observation that “Paul appeals to Jesus as their example, as leader of their ingroup. He is citing Jesus as precedent and also exposing the Corinthians on their inconsistency. They can’t reject resurrection for themselves on grounds that would also apply to Jesus (eg, the pagan idea that it was impossible at all).”
This, plus the observation that “people are inconsistent,” is JP’s conclusion. After much hard work and diligent study, he as arrived at an alternative interpretation of what the Corinthians must have believed, and therefore regards the matter settled. (Like I said, it doesn’t have to be a good answer, it just needs to be an answer, so that the apologist can claim that the problem does have an answer).
Where JP stops, however, is where I start, because his “answer” raises some very interesting questions. For example, JP uses “people are inconsistent” like it was some kind of magic wand: you just wave it around, and poof, all your problems disappear. He doesn’t dwell on why and how people acquire inconsistent beliefs, and he can’t understand why I focus so much attention on this aspect of the problem. But this is a key problem that his “answer” fails to even acknowledge, let alone resolve.
It’s true that people do end up with inconsistent beliefs, but they don’t do so knowingly and voluntarily. Who would want to make themselves obviously wrong? And the contradiction between “Jesus rose from the dead” and “nobody rises from the dead” is so obvious and easily pointed out that it’s worth asking how the Corinthians could have missed it. Even if we accept JP’s interpretation that the Corinthians were fooled by pagan philosophy into denying the resurrection while believing that Jesus rose, there’s still the question of how they could have fallen into such an blatant inconsistency.
What’s more, Paul points out that only some of the Corinthians were saying that there was no resurrection. That means that by the time Paul wrote back to them, a number of Corinthians had fallen into contradictory beliefs about resurrection vs. no resurrection, and nobody before Paul’s epistle had the wit to point out to the resurrection deniers that there was any conflict with the Gospel there!
This might work for JP, who is naturally attracted to the idea that everybody else in the whole world is stupid, but for the rest of us it’s a rather remarkable curiosity. It’s no fun adopting an obvious self-contradiction that even an idiot can find the flaws in (as I’m sure JP can attest), yet the Corinthians seem to have done exactly that. Paul’s rebuttal makes this quite clear. “If the dead are not raised, then Jesus is not raised,” writes Paul. Well, duh! It doesn’t take an inspired apostle to figure that one out.
The truly significant issue in 1 Cor. therefore, is the question of how the Christians came to adopt the idea that there is no resurrection. The church was too young at this point for the Corinthians to have grown up taking the gospel for granted and then unconsciously absorbing worldly ideals, as we sometimes see today. Nor would that explanation account for the fact that there seems to have been no one in the whole church who was able to nip the problem in the bud by pointing out the obvious conflict with the Gospel. Even if there were some youngsters who had been a tad too eclectic, there were still living believers who had been converted to Christianity from Judaism or paganism and who should have known better.
You could suppose that the deniers were converted pagans, who brought their old beliefs with them, but then that gets back to the problem I raised before. A resurrection denier who converts to belief in a resurrected God-man without realizing that this contradicts his denial of resurrection is like an atheist who converts to Christianity without realizing that worshipping God contradicts atheism. It just doesn’t happen.
You could suppose that the deniers were false Christians, joining under false pretenses in order to enjoy the many secular benefits of belonging to a Christian church. But that’s another anachronism: the church in Corinth was not in control of as much of the social structure as the American Christian church is, and there’s even some evidence of friction and/or persecution against first century Christians. Hence, no incentive to pretend to believe when you really didn’t.
You could suppose that they just didn’t notice the conflict, but that explanation fails as soon as any one in Corinth realizes there’s enough of a problem to be worth telling Paul about. Try to find a Christian anywhere, who believes that Jesus really rose from the dead, and tell him there is no resurrection without his first thought being that Jesus’ resurrection proves that there is! Then find an entire church in a major city without even one single individual who realizes that there’s a conflict between the Resurrection and a denial of all resurrections. Ain’t gonna happen.
You could try saying that the Corinthians were swept up in philosophy fever, and were just buying into pagan philosophy in order to appear wise and learned. But again, this fails as soon as any other Corinthian Christian realizes that there’s a problem, because if the dead are not raised, then obviously Jesus did not rise, so clearly someone ought to have given them Paul’s obvious rebuttal, even if they somehow managed to overlook it themselves. Any way you look at it, it just doesn’t work to try and claim that the Corinthians unwittingly fell into contradictory beliefs about resurrection.
There’s really only one sensible and coherent explanation for the fact that Paul found it necessary to write back and defend the doctrine of the resurrection, and that’s if the deniers had found some rationalization that enabled them to conclude that it was not a contradiction for Jesus to rise from the dead when there is no resurrection. It’s simply not plausible to maintain that everybody in the entire church of Corinth, pro- and anti-resurrection, failed to notice that denial contradicts the Gospel. The deniers must have had some reason to believe that both beliefs could be reconciled, despite their apparent contradiction.
A spiritual resurrection would fit the bill quite nicely, of course. Pagans, by and large, had no particular aversion to the idea of an afterlife, and a purely spiritual resurrection would allow Jesus to rise (spiritually) while at the same time not violating the principle that no one rises (materially). This interpretation also fits the facts better than JP’s: it explains why Paul felt it necessary to build up to his argument by first asserting that Jesus’ resurrection was really real, and it also explains why Paul’s rebuttal in the second half of the chapter consists of defending the idea that we shouldn’t expect a resurrected body to be the same as the body that was buried. It also explains why Paul defended the validity of a spiritual body rather than making the argument that pagan philosophers were, well, pagan, and thus not inspired by God. (Look up the word “Darwin” on almost any apologetics web site to see just how rare that omission is!)
So there really is an interesting issue in I Cor. 15, even though JP hasn’t dug into the matter deeply enough to understand why I’m not spending all my time where he does, at the superficial observations. And in the interest of fairness, I should point out that my interpretation is not the inspired and infallible guide to what was going on in Corinth either. I’m just pointing out the interesting coincidences: that Paul begins by defending the reality of the resurrection just as he would need to do if the Corinthians doubted that a spiritual resurrection was really real, and that he then gives them some really bad reasons for believing that the resurrection was real (“you’ll look foolish if it wasn’t!”) just like he might do if he didn’t have a good case for a material resurrection, and that he then moves on to address exactly the sort of questions that would arise if someone was arguing that spiritual resurrections are not real (like “what kind of body do they rise in?” etc.) and that he conspicuously does not make any mention of pagan philosophers being wrong or deceived like JP might have expected him to…and so on.
Yep, just coincidences, every one. Really amaaaaaaaazing coincidences. That’s all.