XFiles Friday: Christians and pagansFebruary 27, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)
Drs. Geisler and Turek are trying to rebut a number of atheistic/skeptical objections to the story of the Resurrection, and so far they’ve relied heavily on the divide-and-conquer approach: tackle each argument individually, and claim that unless it can single-handedly explain every detail of the Gospel stories, it is entirely untrue and unworthy of consideration. It’s a similar tactic to the technique of denying the existence of a forest by proving that each individual tree, on its own, is not a forest, and thereby eliminating each tree, one by one, from consideration. Once all the trees have been disposed of, the forest is gone, because how can you have a forest with no trees?
This week’s installment is no different. Geisler and Turek address the topics of whether the disciples’ faith led them to believe in a Resurrection, and whether pagan resurrection myths played a role in the formulation of the text of the Gospels following the crucifixion. These are some very powerful ideas, because the crucifixion of Jesus would have left the disciples in a very shattered and vulnerable state of mind, in which any suggestive notion might find fertile ground for sowing new dogmas, much as the Great Disappointment of the Millerites paved the way for a new set of doctrines in the form of Seventh Day Adventism.
Clearly, it would not do, apologetically speaking, to consider what influence such ideas might have had on a group of men and women who were desperately seeking some explanation that would make sense of their great loss, and so Geisler and Turek try to dispose of these ideas as quickly as possible. They start by objecting to the idea that the disciples’ faith could have produced the idea of a resurrection.
This theory was brought out well during the debate [John Dominic] Crossan [of the Jesus Seminar] had with William Lane Craig over the Resurrection. Crossan offered the theory that the disciples made up the Resurrection story because they “searched the Scriptures” after his death and found that “persecution, if not execution, was almost like a job description of being God’s elect.”
The entire two-hour debate turned on Craig’s response. He said, “Right. And that came after they experienced the resurrection appearances… The faith of the disciples did not lead to the [resurrection] appearances, but it was the appearances which led to their faith; they then searched the scriptures.”
Interestingly, Lane is inadvertently contradicting the Gospel story when he pretends that the disciples’ faith gave them no reason to suspect a resurrection until after it allegedly happened. The Gospels portray Jesus as plainly predicting and foretelling both his death and his resurrection on a number of occasions; if this were true, it would pull the rug out from under Lane’s assertion that the resurrection had to happen first, before the disciples would have any doctrinal basis for expecting it.
This argument might have worked if the disciples had been anyone other than the disciples. The problem is that many of the disciples, and all of the apostles, had been with Jesus for the entire three years of his ministry. Their faith was long since established before the crucifixion, let alone the alleged resurrection. They had heard Jesus preach and teach about spiritual truth, and not judging according to outward appearances. They already knew how Jesus was turning traditional Jewish teachings on their heads, and proclaiming bold new insights into the true meaning of spirituality. Jesus might or might not have planted the idea of a resurrection in their heads before his death, but even if he didn’t, he certainly had them mentally and intellectually equipped to re-interpret their devastating loss as a profoundly spiritual triumph. A man who could be a door and a vine, and who could give you his body and blood to eat and drink, might be capable of almost anything.
This becomes especially significant when you consider the possibility that the disciples might have been familiar with the resurrection stories of the pagan religions. I know it’s hard to believe that anyone back then might have had theological disputes with those whose faith was different, but it is possible that such interchanges occurred. Again, just the germ of an idea is all that would be needed in order for a new kind of spiritual experience to take root and blossom into a full-blown “resurrection” experience during the emotional and psychological trauma of early bereavement. Pagan ideas, coupled with Christian notions about how God works spiritually and surprisingly, would give them a powerful source for resurrection ideas and even experiences.
Geisler and Turek try to discount this possibility by appealing to the initial emotional shock of the disciples.
Indeed, the scared, scattered, skeptical disciples were not of the mind to invent a resurrection story and then go out and die for it. They were of the mind to go and hide for fear of the Jews! It was the resurrection that gave them bold faith, not the other way around.
What Geisler and Turek overlook is that this objection only works if you assume the disciples would have had to consciously conspire to present a story they knew was false. Because of their Christian faith, however, this is not necessarily the case. Christians even today convince themselves that Jesus is present whenever two or more are gathered in his name, and persuade themselves that they are receiving “messages” from God (whether or not any visible, audible, or tangible message is present). The nature of Christian faith is such that it is free from such mundane necessities as having actual, physical reality correspond to what you believe in. Consequently, the mere fact of having faith in a resurrection would be sufficient to give them the boldness to turn around and confront the world with their beliefs.
Notice, also, that people are often even more bold and forthright in proclaiming their faith when their faith has no verifiable, external basis. They cannot show anyone else that what they say is true, and therefore they must compensate by putting extra fervency into their witness. Watch a Mormon and a traditional Christian argue over their various scriptures and miracles and what-not. The weaker the basis for one’s faith, the harder they have to work to establish it, and the more confidently they assert it, if only to reassure themselves.
Inevitably, Geisler and Turek trot out the divide and conquer defense.
In addition to the fact that there’s no evidence for his theory, Crossan cannot account for the resurrection appearances to more than 500 people. Nor can he account for the empty tomb or the Jewish attempt to explain it.
Either it explains everything , or it explains nothing, and it clearly does not explain everything, so we should simply dismiss it and pay no more attention to whatever it could and probably would have contributed to the phenomenon as a whole. That’s Geisler and Turek’s approach anyway, but it’s denialism, not skepticism. True skepticism would want to look at the whole picture, and see how the parts contribute to the whole, in order to draw an evidence-based conclusion. Geisler and Turek, however, merely want to dispose of the evidence, because it weakens their claim that only a genuine, materialistic resurrection could possibly account for the NT stories.
As for the contributions of pagan myths, Geisler and Turek once again try to simply discredit and dismiss the evidence entirely. Their first tactic is the trick they used earlier: taking a specialized, technical definition of “myth” and then arguing that absolutely nothing about the NT is mythical in any sense, just because there are characteristics that don’t fit the special, technical sense.
[T]he New Testament is anything but mythological. Unlike pagan myths, the New Testament is loaded with eyewitness evidence and real historical figures, and it is corroborated by several outside sources. C. S. Lewis, a writer of myths himself, has commented that the New Testament stories do not show signs of being mythological. “All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job,” said Lewis. “And I’m prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.”
What’s missing from this passage is any consideration of the less formal sorts of myths and legends that arise through hearsay, rumor, and the occasional outright hoax. The legend of Bigfoot, or Area 51, or the Bab, would also fail to meet Lewis’ strictly scholastic criteria for what constitutes a valid “legend” in literary criticism, but this does not mean that they are “anything but mythological.” They’re simply a different type of mythology than the Greek classics Lewis is focusing on.
Geisler and Turek’s second trick is, well, maybe you can guess…
Second, the pagan-myth theory can’t explain the empty tomb, the martyrdom of the eyewitnesses, or the testimony of the non-Christian writings. Nor can it explain the evidence that leads nearly all scholars to accept the other historical facts we listed at the beginning of the chapter.
Once again, Geisler and Turek plead with us to please jump to the conclusion that a historical factor cannot have anything whatsoever to do with prompting a superstitious belief in a Resurrection, unless it can magically and single-handedly explain every aspect of the stories that have come down to us over the past couple millennia.
From here it goes down hill. Geisler and Turek’s next argument appears to confuse the concept of borrowing from pagan resurrection myths, with the notion that the disciples were trying to convert people to explicitly pagan mythologies.
Third, ancient non-Christian sources knew that the New Testament writers were not offering mythical accounts. “The earliest Jewish and pagan critics of the resurrection understood the Gospel writers to be making historical claims, not writing myth or legend. They merely disputed the plausibility of those claims.”
Well of course the disciples were claiming the resurrection as physical fact. You don’t go around converting people to your religion by saying, “Hey, how would you like to buy into this story I just made up?” (Well, not if your name isn’t L. Ron Somebody or other, at least.) It’s hard to believe that Geisler and Turek seriously failed to grasp the point that the role of pagan resurrection stories would be to suggest the idea for possible adoption as a Christian spiritual truth. Nobody is seriously arguing that the disciples went around hollering “Pagan myths for sale, get your pagan myths here!”
Geisler and Turek have three more objections to voice, but I’m running out of time for this session, so we’ll save those for next week. If we’re lucky, we’ll polish those off fairly quickly, and then get to sit back and enjoy a real treat: Geisler and Turek pointedly and smugly asking, “Do You Have Any Evidence for That?”