True or false: The truth of the entire Gospel message depends on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
I’m pretty certain that this is something that both Christians and non-Christians alike, after reading the Gospel accounts, would agree on. If Jesus remained in the grave, a dead man, then doesn’t that make the entire account of these books a lie?
Recently I was invited to watch a lecture by Gary Habermas, a professor, historian Christian apologist, and author of various books about Jesus. This after I had expressed a thought on how difficult this central claim of the Gospel would be to accept for a true skeptic. Presumably, this recommendation was to help me bridge the gap between the claims and reasons to doubt them.
It seems reasonable that Habermas, an expert who believes, would come out with his best argument. I mean, why waste an opportunity by holding the most solid proof of resurrection for a later date, right?
So, after watching, and taking notes, this is the outline of the arguments made along with my own counterpoints:
1) Most Contemporary Scholars Agree
Habermas spends considerable time talking about the changes in perspectives in the last 30-40 years in academic circles. Apparently, most theologians are conservative now and he cites a skeptic who has warmed to even the claims that the disciples saw Jesus after his death on the cross.
However, the first thing I see, when someone uses “experts agree,” is an appeal to authority, which can be a logical fallacy if being used as evidence of a claim. The fact that a majority of doctors had once believed that bloodletting was good therapy does not actually prove anything as far as the reliability of the practice.
So, to a critical thinker, this is a red flag. He is starting with an appeal that is not a true argument for his further claims or at least not any more than “a consensus of scientists believe” disproves the outliers who disagree with their conclusions.
But, more than that, the devil is always in the details and there is a bit of a bait and switch in his presentation. The acceptance of any empty tomb is not the same thing as the real issue at hand which is resurrection. It is possible that something else could explain the disappearance. An empty tomb is not itself proof of the miraculous.
So what about this shift in thinking?
Well, it is no secret that the Western world is falling into unbelief, Christianity is losing influence, and to the point that the ‘liberals’ may have long left the room. In other words, it could be polarization, where nobody in the moderate middle ground survived, and thus only ‘conservatives’ see theology as being a worthwhile pursuit.
When something falls out of popular favor, like eugenics or white supremacy, then it is not really a big surprise when the hardliners are all that remains.
As a young person, I remember an Evolution versus Creation debate at a local university campus. Such an event would not even be hosted by such an institution. The 2014 Ken Ham vs Bill Nye rhetorical battle was held at the Creation Museum for a reason. And it is not because either of these men are taken seriously or viewed as credible by the mainstream.
The point is most people may simply have moved on and the plurality of those remaining, the current theologians, are the fundamentalists. There is much talk about the collapse of the center and this change Habermas mentions could be a product of that rather than anything related to the evidence.
We also have a resurgence of flat earth theories (and the rise of Socialism on the other) which is certainly not an argument for those beliefs. I guarantee more than 350 pages have been written in defense of Marxism and yet that does not convince me in any way, shape, or form that this ideology is the right way forward. No, this does not prove or disprove anything as far as the resurrection, but why waste time on this kind of appeal if there’s better evidence?
2) Paul Is Generally Accepted, Even By Skeptics
Of all the writings in the New Testament those of Paul, the Apostle, are the most compelling and probably because this man (despite his own claims to the contrary) is so eloquent in his presentation. I do find his focus on spiritual transformation to be more inviting than Mathew, Mark, or Luke. And also his ability to be the odd one out as far as important matters of the faith.
He was a controversial figure, even in the early church, and often put on the defensive by those fighting to preserve the Jewish tradition from Gentile converts. The account of his Damascus road encounter obviously convinced the right people of his change of heart. And this acceptance is significant, it is at least an answer to those modern-day Pauline skeptics, namely feminists and contemporary Judaizers, who would have us believe he was in conflict with Jesus.
That said, both Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and Muhammad claimed to have had dramatic encounters. Both were committed to these revelations they had received and able to convince a large body of people of these claims. It is always amazing to me how even a fundamentalist Christian can scoff at claims of angels delivering inerrant teachings or laugh off the flight to Medina on the Burāq, all the while accepting Biblical claims.
In short, I absolutely believe that Joseph Smith and Muhammad existed as real people. I also have no reason to doubt that they did not believe what they claim to believe or even that they had some sort of trip and conversion experience. But the truth of their existence and conviction does not mean their most extraordinary claims are actually reliable. It does not matter how many people recorded their lives or believed what they said.
So, of course, a man named Paul existed, and perhaps he did have an encounter with an apparition. I will accept that he was brought into the church. There is no reason to take issue with any of this. And I’m sure, if he was indeed out there killing Christians, this was a very welcomed development. And yet there are also those raised Christian who become Muslims or atheists. A conversion experience does not prove the extraordinary claims of a particular religion.
3) More Sources Than Alexander the Great
Habermas spends significant time in his lecture discussing the typical criteria for accepting a source. There is more proof of Jesus, according to what is acceptable by normal academic standards, than there is of Alexander the Great. Which is no surprise given that Jesus arrived on the scene later and spawned a religious movement through his teaching.
And yet while most everyone agrees that George Washington was a real person, that he crossed the Delaware river, this doesn’t mean that they must accept his ideological perspective or believe the mythology about the cherry tree. Historic texts, like reporting of events in our own time, can be almost entirely fact, yet also be embellished or just incorrect on details.
The biggest lies are always laced with facts. It is how so many people are snookered. A charlatan will make many credible claims to establish themselves. They may have credentials and compelling stories. The New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty, won a Pulitzer Prize for his glowing coverage of the Soviet Union. That he included many verified facts in his accounts does not mean his writing was not deceptive.
The reality is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If I were to list off my activities for the day, that I went to Dunkin for coffee, to the gym after that, and then broke Usain Bolt’s 100 meter sprint time, would finding independent verification of the first two claims bolster the last claim that I’m now the fastest man alive?
Most of the Bible being reliable does not mean every claim being made is true. Being correct on a million mundane facts does not prove any of the most extraordinary claims contained. No, it does not even suggest we should be less skeptical. Maybe this makes some of us uncomfortable, but this is a normal burden of proof that we place on those who are outside of our own belief system, why not use the same standard for ourselves?
The big difference between Jesus and other historical figures is that nobody is telling me to devote my life to Alexander the Great. It is one thing to believe that Abraham Lincoln existed as a real person and a significant figure, and quite another to say that he resurrected from the dead and ought to be worshipped as God.
4) We Can Trace the Narrative Back
Most of the New Testament was written down long after the events took place, this is something generally agreed on by all sides, and Habermas does have an interesting response for those who would use this as a basis for skepticism. This, I believe, is where a general consensus is good enough. It is silly to argue that Jesus did not exist or that the narrative was entirely fabricated well after the fact.
And yet, again, this tracing narrative back, using catchy phrases to suggest that these things had been established early and then were passed along made me think of modern memes or protest chants that are created in response to real events.
Michael Brown, for example, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Soon a phase, “hands up, don’t shoot,” became the rallying cry and is a short version of this idea that Brown was gunned down while simply trying to surrender. However, both a St Louis County grand jury and a US Department of Justice investigation cleared the officer of wrongdoing, the actual evidence points to the teen being in a physical altercation with the officer, and the catchy chants, therefore, are not an accurate representation no matter how popular.
The thing is, if we can’t get things right even days after the actual event, does gap or no gap matter?
It really does not.
5) Why Die For A Lie?
Joan of Arc was an extraordinary young woman. She managed to inspire her people to fight and is a wonderful icon of faith and courage. But eventually, she fell into the hands of the English, who had every reason to hate her guts, and they put her on trial for ‘heretical’ exploits. There is every indication that she was cooperative to the point that there was no justification for her execution and had likely been forced to violate the terms so they could kill her.
The martyrdom of the disciples of Jesus is something many Christian apologists tout as being hard evidence of the resurrection. As in who would die for something that they know is a lie? And this is indeed is proof of the commitment that these men had made to the Gospel message.
But let’s consider what happened to the Millerite movement when their prophecies about the Second Coming proved to be false. Did they give up their delusion or even entirely reject the teachers that had misled them? Some did. But, as with Harold Camping, who spiritualized the prediction post hoc rather than admit being wrong, this is what is now the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.
So why do people remain committed to something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary from an outsider’s perspective?
It is this little thing called confirmation bias, we become emotionally attached to the things we believe and to the point of being blind to the obvious. As the saying goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” And people who have had their belief system falsified will simply modify as much as necessary and then move on as if nothing happened. Why? Well maybe because it is too hard to start from square one, to admit being wrong, or perhaps because the community and values feel too important to give up?
So, since I have my skeptic hat on, and we already know that the disciples had been looking for a literal earthly kingdom, what is to say they did not pick up and run with an alternative rather than return to the lives they had before. I mean, even most agnostics will claim that Jesus was a good teacher, so this could be justification for building a mythology to sell this better way. For radicals the ends often justify the means, lying is not forbidden if for a righteous cause in Judaism.
Anyhow, if backed in a corner, if you’re likely killed even if you do recant, why not refuse to go along with what your persecutors want? I doubt Joseph Smith would have given his tormentors the satisfaction of admitting that he never had his angelic encounter. That doesn’t make Mormonism true. No, this is just how we are. Pathological liars are so convincing because they believe their own lies. What Jesus taught was revolutionary, people die for less all of the time.
Is That Really the Best We Have?
I know that I’m not going to win many fans amongst my Christian audience by giving an honest answer to the apologetics they offer. I’m sorry, it may work for many who already buy-in, it may be enough to convert a few, but I simply cannot be impressed.
That said, I do appreciate Habermas for his admitting that the Gospels do not always agree perfectly, and also admire those who can engage in the long form of argument too tedious for my own tastes.
Still, all said and done, these sorts of arguments can never span the gap between the extraordinary claims and the most capable skeptics. It is nibbling around the edges of proof and really only ever evidence that is convincing to those who come in with the right presuppositions—like those claims of the miraculous as an explanation to things not yet explainable.
In his questions and answers follow-up, Habermas mentions how many do not believe for emotional (rather than rational) reasons. He points to C.S. Lewis as someone who fell away from faith over the death of his mom before his eventual rise as a Christian thinker. However, the same is also true for why people believe. We want a world with purpose and meaning, and the Gospel narrative provides this. It is harder to give up a comprehensive belief system, even if it makes no truly testable claims.
It just feels like apologetics always relies on strawman versions of skepticism. Even if I fell totally into unbelief, I could never dismiss all of Scripture. But I also have seen, first hand, how incapable people are at getting the facts right, how they see what they want to see and delude themselves. I know because I’ve made the error of pursuing something, in sincere faith, that could be falsifiable and was forced to swallow the hard reality of my self-deception.
Most who profess belief in Jesus will never be so bold as to risk it all on something that can be disproven. They believe things that are written in a book, they attribute their good fortune to God’s goodness or try to accept the bad as being loving discipline, without ever putting it to the test as they would if they had actual faith. It is as if they hope if they never question then maybe the dream of eternal reward will come true and thus run from any chance of encountering a serious refutation.
The thing is if the resurrected Jesus needed to appear to Peter, James and Paul before they would believe, then why not appear to us all?
Is there an answer to this that doesn’t come off like an excuse?
It isn’t like the creator of the universe lacked the budget. And that the most important decision in our lives would come down to believing the eyewitness testimony of a handful of first-century men, this seems rather odd. Don’t get me wrong either, the Biblical narrative is quite fascinating, the miracles, angelic visits, and promise of life after death to those who believe, it is wonderful. The teachings of Jesus have led to a more compassionate era. Still, the claims like the virgin birth, walking on water, and raising the dead aren’t exactly things a rational person would accept without seeing these miraculous events for themselves.
The biggest problem with the apologetics of Habermas is that it relies on a false dichotomy. A reader doesn’t need to be able to accept that a source is perfectly reliable to believe some of it is true. There is a multitude of possibilities as to why the disciples would go with the resurrection narrative. First, it is much easier than saying they wasted their last few years. Second, it sells the teachings of Jesus better than anything else. And third, it can’t be falsified, how does anyone disprove what they claim to have seen?
This is not to say that the disciples were delusional or lying either. My point is that it is too easy to see an argument as being stronger than it is. It is annoying, perhaps, that we can’t rely on apologetics to do the heavy lifting of the Gospel, nevertheless, the only resurrection of Jesus many people will see is that which is embodied in us. What that means is self-sacrifice and bridging the gap of unbelief with the substance of love.
Talk is easy, actually taking up the cross is not…