XFiles Friday: “Do You Have Any Evidence for That?”March 13, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)
Having BS’ed their way through a few common skeptical arguments against the “Resurrection,” Geisler and Turek put the icing on the cake with a section intended to out-skepticize the skeptics.
Christians are used to “counter-punching” alternative theories to the Resurrection. In fact, we’ve done that by pointing out numerous deficiencies in the alternative theories ourselves. But that’s not enough. While skeptics rightfully put the burden of proof for the Resurrection on Christians (and, as we have seen, Christians can meet that burden with good evidence), Christians need to put the burden of proof on skeptics for their alternative theories. In light of all the positive evidence for the Resurrection, skeptics must offer positive, first-century evidence for their alternative views.
It’s one thing to concoct an alternative theory to the Resurrection, but it’s another thing to actually find first-century evidence for it. A theory is not evidence. Reasonable people demand evidence, not just theories. Anyone can concoct a theory to explain any historical event.
Pretty incisive stuff, eh? Geisler and Turek go on to compare skeptics of the Resurrection to Holocaust deniers, just in case we were in any doubt about who the good guys are supposed to be. But they overlook one important point: their own evidence is already more consistent with Christianity being a myth than it is with the Resurrection story being a literally and materialistically accurate account.
For example, let’s take the story of the alleged bribing of the guards, which Geisler and Turek mention as being the only first-century evidence against the resurrection story.
While skeptics have formulated numerous alternative theories to explain away the Resurrection, there is no evidence from any first-century source supporting any of them. The only alternative theory that’s even mentioned in a first-century source (the disciples stole the body) is from Matthew, and it is clearly identified as a lie.
I love that last bit. It’s “clearly identified as a lie”—by Matthew, who is explicitly attempting to discredit widespread reports in Palestine claiming that disciples (not necessarily the Apostles, but just disciples) had taken the body. So what, did G&T think a Gospel writer was going to say, “Everybody around here knows that disciples took the body, and they’re right”? Of course Matthew is going to try and convince us that we shouldn’t believe the reports. But look at the means he uses to try and convince us.
First of all, Matthew is the only one who even claims that there were any guards. None of the other Gospel accounts mention any guards being anywhere near the tomb on Sunday morning. But even more than that, Matthew accuses these alleged guards of illegally taking bribes from the Sanhedrin in order to spread false rumors. That’s a very fishy story for several reasons: first, as Christian apologists themselves like to point out, the guards would get in trouble for sleeping on the job (some apologists even claim they would have been liable for the death penalty). Even if the Jews did promise to keep the governor from punishing them, it’s a story they would not be likely to agree to spread. Who knows how much influence a bunch of priests in occupied territory would have over a Roman governor?
Also, the story itself is implausible. If the guards were asleep, how would they know who had stolen the body? And even if they did agree to spread it, how would Matthew find out about the bribe? Neither those who illegally paid the bribe nor those who illegally accepted it would be running up to Christians and saying, “Hey, you know that story we’ve been telling to make you look stupid? We took illegal bribes to tell it.” Matthew cites no sources, nor does he even claim to have had a special revelation from God. As far as the evidence is concerned, this looks like just another instance of a Christian making up whatever argument plausibly serves apologetic purposes.
The one piece of evidence we can be sure of in this story is that Matthew was bothered by widespread reports of disciples taking Jesus’ body, enough to specifically target one part of his Gospel at debunking it. But even if we believe that guards were telling people that disciples took the body, that makes the guards eyewitnesses of the actual event—the only eyewitnesses (other than the disciples that took the body)—and their testimony flatly contradicts the testimony of the other NT writers, none of whom were actually at the tomb when the body disappeared. Matthew says they were lying, but how would he know? They were there, he wasn’t. Nor was he there when the alleged bribe took place. By his own account, and by the standards G&T have been using for NT writers, the guards testimony ought to get more weight than Matthew’s, based on who was really an eyewitness.
Furthermore, when we look at how this story has been used over the years, it gets even fishier. For 2,000 years or so, Matthew’s Gospel has been telling us that Jesus’ body was unguarded for at least 24 hours before the Sanhedrin even requested that a guard be posted. Anyone could have taken it, even a Gentile. And yet, for 2,000 years or so, Christian apologists have been telling us that there was no way anyone could have stolen Jesus body because it was guarded by Roman soldiers.
What Christians are trying to hide is the fact that it’s not just skeptics who can’t find Jesus’ body. If Jesus had really risen from the dead, the most fundamental and obvious evidence would be the Risen Savior himself. But Christians can’t show us any risen savior. They don’t have the body either, alive or dead. And they try to cover up this lack with an even fishier story than Matthew’s facile accusation against the alleged guards.
In Acts chapter 1, we read:
So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
The story of the so-called “Ascension” is intended to account for the absence of a Risen Savior who otherwise ought to still be here (since he’s allegedly immortal). The only trouble is, we’ve come a long way since those primitive days when people thought of heaven and earth as two basically flat territories, one located physically above the other. We’ve been above the clouds, and even into outer space, and God’s throne isn’t up there. There was no place for Jesus to ascend to.
Christians in recent centuries have gotten around this by supposing that “heaven” is not literally the sky (no matter what the ancient words mean), but rather is a spiritual dimension. There are all kinds of problems with this view, however. If heaven is not a physical location floating above the clouds of Palestine, then Jesus was not going to heaven when he allegedly ascended. Indeed, there is no particular physical direction you could go that would move you any closer to or farther from a spiritual heaven. So again, Jesus has no place to ascend to.
Likewise, if heaven is a spiritual dimension, and if Jesus is an omnipresent deity, then he’s already in heaven (along with everyplace else), and there is neither the need nor the possibility for him to go there. You can say that, though omnipresent, he still exists in a physical body that does have a physical location, but again, if heaven is not a physical location, there’s no way his physical body can physically move itself there, even if it can miraculously fly above the clouds. And why move his physical body anyway, since he’s already in heaven, in his spirit?
You could say that perhaps Jesus floated up into the clouds in order to accommodate the current beliefs of primitive people about the nature and location of heaven. If you do that, though, you are admitting that the people who wrote both Testaments of Scripture believed in a flat earth cosmology in which heaven was a physical place floating up in the sky. And it’s certainly true that both Testaments are filled with references to heaven that treat it like a land above the clouds, to the point that even today we cannot gesture in God’s direction without lifting our hands upwards. And yet, that land above the clouds does not exist.
So the one thing we can say without fear of contradiction is that Jesus did not “ascend into heaven” as first century Christian “witnesses” claim, since there is no place up there for him to ascend to. Nor do we need to worry that he’s somewhere up there right now, waiting with an army of angels for the day when the doors of heaven (!) will be thrown open once again at the last trumpet and the invasion of God’s avenging forces. We’ve been up there. It’s all air and emptiness. The Old and New Testament writers were wrong.
But if the Ascension did not happen, what does that tell us about the testimony of the New Testament writers? Sure, Luke knew the names of a few major cities and prominent political figures, but what happens when we check out his reports of journeys to celestial destinations? Those destinations are not there. And yet, this particular trip is a crucial piece of the argument for the resurrection. It’s the cover story for why Christians have no Risen Savior to back up their claims, and according to some commentators, it’s the occasion of the “more than 500 brethren” allegedly witnessing the resurrected Christ.
If the 500 “witnesses” didn’t actually see what Paul claimed they did, what shall we say of the other witnesses? Did they really see anything? Paul’s own testimony states that when he “saw” Jesus on the road to Damascus, no one else saw anyone. The Gospel accounts differ dramatically concerning who saw what and when, and what they did afterwards. And we know from our own modern day experience of contemporary Christians how little it takes for a Christian to think God has truly shown up in their life.
Geisler and Turek want evidence? We’ve got it. A major element of the story concerns “witnesses” claiming they saw Jesus ascend to a place that isn’t there. In the first century, they could get away with it, but nowadays we know better (or at least, we have access to information that would allow us to know better, if we were willing). The Gospel story was written by primitive and superstitious folk who accepted the mythological view of heaven as a literal, material Gospel truth, and even today, sincere Christians expect Jesus to return from that same place. And it’s not there. It does not exist. We finally have a piece of the Gospel we can test first hand, and it fails. “Reasonable people demand evidence,” and now we’ve got it. And all that’s left to do is draw the obvious conclusion.