XFiles Friday: Context! Context! Context!March 27, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 12.)
Dominic Crossan, of the Jesus Seminar, once said that if the trees in his back yard suddenly moved 5 feet overnight, he wouldn’t immediately assume that the cause must be supernatural. Geisler and Turek take this hypothetical scenario and use a variation of it as an illustration of the principle that context ought to determine how you interpret things.
So let’s suppose that Crossan’s tree-moving event occurred in the following context: Two hundred years in advance, someone claiming to be a prophet of God writes down a prediction that all of the trees in one particular area of Jerusalem would indeed move five feet one night during a particular year. Two hundred years later, a man arrives to tell the townspeople that the tree moving miracle will occur shortly. This man claims to be God, teaches profound truths, and performs many other unusual acts that appear to be miracles.
Then one morning numerous eyewitnesses claim that the trees in Crossan’s Jerusalem yard—including several deep-rooted, 100-foot oaks—actually moved five feet during the night, just as the God-man predicted. These eyewitnesses also say this is just one of more than thirty miracles performed by this God-man. They then suffer persecution and martyrdom for proclaiming these miracles and for refusing to recant their testimony. Opponents of the God-man don’t deny the evidence about the trees or the other miracles, but offer natural explanations that have numerous fatal flaws. Many years later, after all the eyewitnesses are dead, skeptics offer additional natural explanations that prove to be fatally flawed as well. In fact, for the next 1,900 years skeptics try to explain the event naturally, but no one can.
Question: Given that context, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that the movement of the trees was supernatural rather than natural in origin?
I think that’s an absolutely brilliant illustration, and for once I agree with Geisler and Turek almost completely.
The problem, of course, is that Geisler and Turek have described a context which is precisely the kind of context that Christianity does not have. We don’t have a bunch of trees that are five feet distant from their original locations, we have a bunch of believers who say they remember the trees being five feet to the left of where they are now, in fact they’re sure of it, even though no non-believer at the time reports seeing any change in location and there’s no physical evidence of any such move.
We don’t have a God-man, either. We have stories about an alleged God-man, and the alleged miracles he allegedly performed. And we read these stories in the context of a world full of Benny Hinns and Joseph Smiths and Uri Gellers and Sylvia Brownes, and many other people who amaze their followers with their “supernatural” powers.
And those “prophecies”? Let’s take one from the beginning of Jesus’ life, and one from the end.
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.”
Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isaiah 7:10-16)
Isaiah is promising King Ahaz that the two enemies of Judah (the southern part of the divided kingdom of Israel) would be rendered incapable of attacking within the time it takes a child to go from conception to conscience. He specifically was not saying that there would be anything special about such a child, nor was he necessarily predicting that the child would be born of a virgin (since the Hebrew word meant merely “maiden,” which could be taken as either “virgin” or simply “girl”). The “sign” was that Ahaz would see the power of his enemies broken within such a short time, not that Messiah would be born of a virgin. Matthew simply ripped the verse out of context and applied it to Jesus’ mother—even though Mary did not, in fact, name her son Immanuel!
Then there’s the “prophecy” of the crucifixion, in Psalm 22. It’s a bit long to quote here, but you can follow the link if you’re interested. There’s a couple points of resemblance, like the reference to “they have pierced my hands and my feet” and “they divided my garments among them, and cast lots for my raiment,” but it’s not really what you’d call a clear-cut prediction that Messiah would be crucified, is it?
For one thing, the psalmist is speaking in first person, about trials that endure for quite some time (note the reference to praying night and day, and God not answering). The psalmist seems to have gone hungry for quite a while as well; he can count all his bones. That’s a sign of starvation, not a sign that his bones are unbroken (as some interpreters would have us believe). And most significantly, the psalm ends triumphantly, with God hearing the psalmist’s prayer, and answering his request for delivery from the sword and the saving of his life. Not really an unambiguous declaration of a resurrection, is it?
Think about it: if David, many centuries before Jesus, had written down a prediction that the Messiah would be crucified and would rise on the third day, would it really have been such a shock for the disciples when the prediction came true? Over and over again, the Gospels emphasize the point that those who knew Jesus best, and were most familiar with his teachings, had no idea he was going to die, because such a thought was contrary to their messianic expectations. Yet those expectations would have included a crucifixion, had the Jewish nation possessed a clear, ancient prophecy predicting it.
And that’s the key to understanding the “fulfillment” of biblical prophecy. Where Geisler and Turek’s purely hypothetical scenario has the ancient prophet making a plain, unambiguous, and specific prediction about precisely what was to happen when, we today have just the opposite. The “prophecies” are vague enough to be readily adaptable to almost any fulfillment, and where they’re not (as in the prediction that the virgin would name her baby Immanuel instead of Jesus), they don’t quite fit.
Then there’s the bit about witnesses who suffer persecution and martyrdom for proclaiming miracles and refusing to recant their testimony. That’s not what actually happened in real life, is it? The early Christians weren’t persecuted for insisting that the miracles were true any more than the Jews were sent to concentration camps for refusing to admit that the Ten Plagues on Egypt were a myth. Their “crime” was simply that they belonged to the “wrong” group, and failed to support the state religion. Pliny reports that the Christians he encountered were usually pretty good about offering incense to Caesar (if “properly motivated”), and that was all that was really needed, as far as he was concernet. It was not a cross-examination about whether miracles were materially true or only spiritually true, it was simply one group leaning on another, a sadly routine occurrence in human politics.
Geisler and Turek’s claim about later skeptics offering arguments with “fatal flaws” is just as bankrupt, since their “fatal flaws” turned out to be Geisler and Turek trying to fragment the evidence and then discredit each piece in isolation by arguing that that piece, by itself, could not explain everything. One might imagine a Holocaust denier arguing thusly: “The gas chamber theory does not explain why so many survivors report seeing widespread typhoid symptoms. The firing squad theory does not explain the many gas chambers that were found. The deliberate starvation theory does not explain all the corpses found with bullets in their heads. So since all of the Holocaust theories have fatal flaws, we don’t have enough FAITH to believe that Nazis killed Jews.” But even a Holocaust denier would not try to sell us an argument that bad.
The big factor, of course, is that all of our interpretation of ancient stories takes place in the context of a real world where we do not see God showing up in real life to speak to people, to work miracles, and so on. In the specific case of Geisler and Turek’s book, we’re interpreting their claims in the context of their earlier claim, back in chapter 8, that God cannot possibly do any of the things claimed in the Gospels, because to make His presence felt in “any but the faintest and most mitigated degree” would be to “ravish” (i.e. rape) our precious free will. This was the whole point of their argument about why the only possible evidence would have to consist of a Book that some people could believe and others could disbelieve. Unfortunately, this Book isn’t about a Book, it’s about precisely the kind of real-life showing up that Geisler and Turek (with support from C. S. Lewis) have insisted that God cannot do.
Geisler and Turek claim that it is possible to imagine a context in which it would indeed be possible to discern God’s existence—and they’re exactly right. It is theoretically possible. It just doesn’t happen. Instead, Geisler and Turek, throughout this book, have been interpreting the stories of the Bible in the context of the explicit assumption that God exists and is capable of doing miracles, based on their superstitious reasoning (“There are questions about origins whose answer we do not know, and therefore God exists and works miracles”), and supported by an egregious double standard that says we should accept every word of Luke’s testimony as infallible truth just because he got the governor’s name right, but we should reject the mountains of scientific research that has been done in the field of evolution because Hitler believed natural selection justified the Holocaust.
They’re right that they don’t have enough faith to be atheists. I’m not sure what it is they do have, but it sure ain’t faith. Faith would be more honest.