XFiles Friday: Straight from the sourceMarch 20, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)
Geisler and Turek have a fun trick their Christian readers can try at their next party or social gathering.
Those who have alternative theories for the Resurrection should be asked, “What evidence do you have for your theory? Can you please name three or four first-century sources that support your theory?” When honest skeptics are presented with this question , they typically answer with silence or a stuttering admission that they have no such evidence because none exists.
That’s a great tip for a popular book on apologetics, because most Christians, in casual discussions with their fellow laymen, aren’t going to be able to discuss “first century sources” in any great detail any more than their skeptical opposites. Even among skeptics, there’s just not that much that was going on back then that would justify most people spending significant amounts of their time becoming authorities on who said what 2,000 years ago.
The catch is that this is actually a faulty approach to determining the facts of the matter. Because God does not show up in real life, Geisler and Turek have to base their beliefs exclusively on the words of men, and therefore they assume that any skeptic would need to do the same thing, and would need to find some person or persons in the first century who said the same things that skeptics believe.
What G&T overlook, however, is the fact that we don’t need a first-century Richard Dawkins writing a 2,000 year old version of Ye Godde Delusionne in order to have first century support for our conclusions. We can effectively cross-examine the Christians own sources, by applying the principle that truth is consistent with itself. We can look at all the evidence, both ancient and modern, and ask ourselves, “Which hypothesis would produce consequences most consistent with what we observe, the hypothesis that Jesus literally rose from the dead, or the hypothesis that the ‘resurrection’ was the product of a combination of psychosocial factors plus a possibly misplaced corpse?”
As we saw last week, we don’t need alternative theories for the Resurrection, because we today do not have any resurrection to explain. What we need to explain is why we have stories about an alleged resurrection, and that’s not really that difficult to account for. So Geisler and Turek try to up the ante:
And it’s not just the Resurrection that the skeptics have to explain. They also have to explain the other thirty-five miracles that eyewitnesses have associated with Jesus. Are we to believe that the four Gospel writers were all deceived about all of those miracles as well as the Resurrection?
We can best answer this question by taking a look at the reliability of Christian testimony, starting with Geisler and Turek. You will recall that in earlier parts of the book, they identified the Gospel writers as men who “were eyewitnesses or had access to eyewitnesses,” which in practice means that they lived at the same time and in the same general area as people whom they identified as eyewitnesses to something. In other words, the people who actually recorded these alleged miracles were, in many cases, not really eyewitnesses themselves. Yet here we have Geisler and Turek claiming that all 35 miracles were associated with Jesus by “eyewitnesses.” By fudging the truth just a little bit, they make an argument for the Gospel that seems stronger (and therefore it must be the right thing to say, since it “glorifies God,” right?).
Then, too, notice how Geisler and Turek have shifted from “alternatives to the Resurrection” to “alternative theories FOR the Resurrection,” as though the Resurrection were a literal fact that skeptics were having trouble accounting for. There’s a push here, a drive to spin the facts inexorably towards the conclusion that the Gospel is true. And we see the same bias in the Gospels themselves: John himself declares that the Gospels “are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Is there evidence that early NT writers might have played with the facts, uncritically exaggerating claims that supported the gospel and downplaying factors that might have worked against it? I think there is, and I’ll go so far as to take up Geisler and Turek’s challenge. Let’s see if we can’t find 3 or 4 first century sources whose testimony supports skeptical conclusions about the Resurrection.
First of all, we have Matthew’s testimony that there was a story, widely circulated among the Jews, that disciples stole Jesus’ body during the night. Matthew accuses the story of being a lie, but then again, the stories accuse Matthew of telling a lie too. Who should we believe? We’ll save that question for later; our main point right now is that Matthew declares that there is first-century testimony stating that disciples had taken the body, and this is just what we would expect to find if human hands had removed Jesus from his original tomb.
More than that, however, Matthew claims that there were guards who were actually at the tomb when the resurrection (or body-snatching) took place. That would make these guards the only eyewitnesses of what actually happened to Jesus’ corpse, and according to Matthew, what these eyewitnesses were claiming was that, again, disciples took the body. Once again, Matthew accuses them of lying, just as their story makes Matthew’s claims a lie, but the fact remains that we have a second first-century source claiming, by direct eyewitness testimony, that Jesus did not rise, and that his body was simply moved. Matthew tries to discredit the story, but agrees, under cross-examination, that there do exist eyewitnesses who contradict his own, non-eyewitness testimony.
Next, we have Paul’s testimony, as recorded in Acts 9:7, that when Jesus appeared to him, none of those with him saw anyone there. This is consistent with the skeptical theory that people who “saw” Jesus after his death were not seeing him in any literal, physical sense. That’s three sources. Let’s back up a couple chapters, then, and listen to Stephen’s testimony at the end of Acts 7.
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
As we saw earlier, the first century believers thought that heaven was a literal, physical place floating in the clouds over Jerusalem, and that it had doors that could be opened to let rain out and to let believers into. It was even close enough that you could see through the doors, from ground level, and spot the throne of God, and see who was standing beside it.
But in fact, heaven is not such a literal place floating up in the sky. Once again, we have a first-century source testifying about “seeing” Jesus in a way that did not involve literal, material seeing, but consisted of subjective “visions” and other non-physical, non-objective experiences. And yet—this is the important point—neither the Gospel writers nor Christians today regard Stephen as having lied about seeing Jesus. The Christian concept of truth is augmented by the concept of “spiritual truth,” which frees Christian claims from the constraints of materialistic reality. A thing does not need to be happening in the exterior, objectively real world, where everyone else can see it, in order to count as Christian truth.
And we have many other witnesses, both ancient and modern, offering testimony that, while outwardly supporting Christianity, is actually more consistent with the skeptical conclusion that Christian standards of truth are based more heavily on whether a claim supports the Gospel than on whether it’s consistent with mundane, materialistic facts. Listen to a Pentecostal explain, some time, why the miracles performed by Roman Catholic saints aren’t genuine. Or vice versa.
Geisler and Turek wrap it up by saying, “The explanation that requires the least amount of faith is that Jesus really did perform miracles and really did rise from the dead as he predicted.” But this “explanation” boils down to saying we ought to believe whatever the New Testament writers tell us, just because they say so. Everything Geisler and Turek want us to believe depends on trusting that what men tell us is true. They have no resurrected Jesus to offer as evidence, and even the human testimony fails to be consistent with itself or with what we observe in real life.
I agree that it doesn’t take a lot of faith to believe in the resurrection. What it takes is sheer gullibility. And I don’t have enough gullibility to agree with Geisler and Turek.
Hmm, that’s kinda catchy. I wonder if I should write a book with that title?