Unapologetic — What Is the Real Proof of Resurrection?

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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.

Everyone else is here, can’t be the wrong place…

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.

An undeniably beautiful image, right?

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.

Close is not the same as complete. Not even close.

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?

The possibilities are endless.

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…

How Orthodox Christianity Triumphs Against the Odds

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Christianity was systematically opposed and oppressed in the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox church, said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, was heavily persecuted under Marxist rule. Atheism was promoted in government schools, speaking against it outlawed, and it seemed that Orthodox Christianity did not stand a chance against this irreligious secular state.

During that dark period, thousands of church leaders were killed. Many more were imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals or the “gulags” to do forced labor. From 1917 to 1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested and 95,000 of them were executed by firing squad. Later, from 1937 to 1938, in another anti-religious purge campaign, 168,000 Orthodox clergymen were arrested and, of them, 100,000 shot. Religion was ridiculed in the public sphere, believers were harassed and deprived of parental rights, church properties were seized by the state and buildings, including the beautiful Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, were destroyed:

Cathedral_of_Christ_the_Saviour_(destruction,_1931)

The Russian Orthodox church, that extended into the Americas (where they didn’t kill the Native populations like their Western counterparts) and had an estimated 54,000 parishes in Russia before WW1, was reduced to only 500 parishes in the 1940’s under the Communist dictatorship. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 left Russian Orthodox churches in Japan, United States, Manchuria, and elsewhere effectively orphaned and without support. Patriarch Tikhon, in 1920, issued a decree for these churches to operate independently until normalcy could be restored and, as a result, many of these churches (because of financial hardship and/or need of pastoral care and governance) were turned over to the Orthodox churches of their national homelands—which is why there is the current disorganized mix of Greek, Antiochian, ROCOR and OCA parishes in America.

However, Orthodoxy has since triumphed over Marxism in Russia. An average of three churches a day are being opened by the Orthodox faithful in Russia, there are currently 40,000 churches and, at the current pace, that number may double in the next decades. In addition, there are now 900 active monasteries (down from 1000 pre-revolution) and this is an expansion based on demand. This resilience against the odds, against the world’s only other superpower besides the United States, is a testament to the strength of Orthodox religious tradition. Orthodoxy in Russia could not be driven into extinction by one of the most powerful and brutal regimes in human history and is as strong today as ever.

The divided (and dying) church of America

America has traditionally divided up according to ethnicity or race. Churches (Protestant, Roman Catholic or otherwise) are not exceptional in this regard. Many churches, including Mennonites and Amish, came as a result of immigrants taking their religion with them rather than as a missionary endeavor. It is not a surprise that traditionally German churches, like the Lutherans, are mostly populated by white people nor is it unexpected that people go to churches that are reflective of their own cultures or where their own language is spoken. People tend to gravitate to other people who look like them.

But this “homogeneity principle” also extends beyond skin color as well. A church that is racially or ethnically diverse is probably homogeneous in other ways (things like level of education, political affiliations, etc) and thus not truly diverse. For example, American Mennonites, from the most progressive or liberal to the most ultra-conservative and traditional Old Order end of the denomination. are (with the exception of a few adoptions and inner-city outreaches) ethnically homogenous. But, as centuries of divisions have proven, that shared genetic ancestry and skin color certainly does not make us the same. And so it is with Protestantism in general. A multi-ethnic church probably has very little diversity in terms of educational level, ideological bent, or income and this is because we prefer to be with people who share something in common with us.

The end result is that everyone claims that they are loyal to Christ and his love. Yet, in reality, there are hidden loyalties that are actually taking precedence. We are divided by our loyalties to our race, our religious/cultural heritage, national/political identities, denominational affiliations, personal preferences, and feelings or any combination of the preceding items. In other words, our pet issues and petty differences are what truly matters to us despite what we profess. And this doesn’t get better for those who are non-denominational or believe they are independently guided by the Spirit and are truly only loyal to themselves. Saint Paul, the Apostle, said that the Spirit brings unity to the body (Ephesians 4:1-6) and spoke out against disunity brought about by their misplaced loyalties:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, a in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10-15)

Note, Paul calls out even those who claim “I follow Christ” in his rebuke and that is not because Christ is not the head of the church either. No, it is because loyalty to Christ means loyalty to his church, to true believers past and present (and future) who together represent his body, and who we are to seek Communion with rather than chase after our own personal ideals. True Christianity is about forbearance, forgiveness, and humility, realizing our own fallibility and showing mercy to others as we have been shown mercy by God. It is little wonder that many are confused about Christianity in America and increasing numbers are checking-out of their denominational and ever-dividing churches. It is because many professing Christians say one thing and do another. They say they love as Christ loves, even call someone a “brother,” but are completely unwilling to sacrifice anything of true consequence to themselves in love for the body of Christ.

Is Orthodoxy any different from this?

Yes and no.

At the time I am writing this there is a break in Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarchate of Constantinople over a Ukrainian schism. In 1992, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, some Ukrainian Orthodox wanted their independence from Moscow (understandably so given regional politics) and, unfortunately, went ahead without having appropriate permission. Making matters worse than they already were, Archbishop Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, decided to recognize the schismatics and over the protests of Moscow. This, of course, is not acceptable, important church decisions have been always made by a council or through the correct channels, rather than independently, and this is reminiscent of the unilateral decision-making that divided the Roman Catholics from Orthodox in the Great Schism.

The explanation above probably comes off as Greek to those outside of Orthodoxy and took some time me to wrap my own head around. However, it is also a good way to illustrate a key difference between Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic perspectives of authority in the church. In Roman Catholicism, the Pope, as “Vicar of Christ” and supreme by his own decree, rules the roost. Protestants, by contrast, essentially believe that every man (and his Bible) is their own Pope and need not be accountable to anyone besides themselves. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, do not see even their highest-ranked individual as being infallible or outside need to be accountable and rather (like the early church) build upon consensus and through councils—which means even Peter, the first amongst equals, can be set right as need be.

(On an aside, Anabaptists, in that they believed in individual submission to the group, were traditionally sort of a half-step between Orthodoxy and Protestantism in this regard. The difference being that Anabaptists are only accountable to the local church (and what they cherry-pick from Scripture or early church writings) rather than the universal church and an ordination faithfully passed down, generation to generation, from the time of the Apostles. This unique Anabaptist perspective, while still preserved by the Amish and other Old Order groups, has been largely supplanted by Biblical fundamentalism in “conservative” Mennonite churches and secular/progressive group-think in the “liberal” side—both sides with zero real accountability to the historic church including even their own Anabaptist forebears.)

The Ukrainian schism, while a black mark on the testimony of the those who caused it if left unresolved, is actually proof the triumph of Orthodoxy over the spirit of division or unity formed around the wrong loyalties. The consensus across the Patriarchates seeming to be that the Ecumenical Patriarch went outside the bounds by recognizing the Ukrainian schismatics. The unity of the church is not mere unity for the sake of unity, but a unity of Spirit that doesn’t neglect sound doctrine or the traditions (“whether by word of mouth or by letter,” 2 Thessalonians 2:15) passed down by the church. In other words, the established Orthodoxy has more authority than any one person or group within the church. Orthodoxy is something that transcends all individuals in the church and protects against both abusive patriarchs and also the divisions over personal opinions. The Spirit of truth, the foundation of Orthodox tradition, is what preserved correct doctrines against heresy and false teachers.

Orthodoxy is what delivered the Biblical canon. The same Biblical canon that many Protestant fundamentalists and other separatists idolize as an infallible object equal to God while simultaneously not recognizing the authority of the church that wrote, authenticated, and compiled it for them. It is strange that a council was only good for that one thing, creating a collection of books that can’t be changed, and not anything else before or after, isn’t it?

But, I do digress…

Yes, Orthodoxy is messy because, as with the church of Acts, there is still a difference of opinion, politics, legalism, favoritism, and imperfection. We can’t get away from conflict, not even in the church founded by Christ himself and that is disheartening to us idealistic types. But that was also the case from the earliest days of Christianity and that is why there was a need of the Jerusalem Council recorded in the book of Acts. The church had councils to establish who was right or wrong and how to correctly interpret Scripture.

Orthodoxy (that is to say “right opinion”) is something worthwhile and should be the goal of every Christian. It is that sincere desire to find and hold to what is true that is leading many from the ranks of the most divided and disillusioned branches of Christendom and to the “ancient faith” of the Orthodox Christians.

The triumph of Orthodoxy…

Like King Josiah hearing the Scripture read for the first time, many are discovering the elegant theology and awe-inspiring, aesthetic appeal, and ancient beauty of Orthodox worship. Divine liturgy carries depth, history and meaning unrivaled in an age of flashing lights, cheap gimmicks, and consumerism. This is why people from all denominational backgrounds are finding a home in Orthodoxy today. The majority of those in my parish is not “cradle Orthodox” in that they were born in the Orthodox church and this seems to be the trend. In fact, nearly half of the million Orthodox Christians in the United States are converts and I am just one of the many who did.

It is very exciting to see the interest of those who have read this blog and want to know more. Several are either now attending services, have visited or are planning to visit when they have a chance. There is one, in particular, a single lady born into a conservative Mennonite church, never baptized and made a member, who left the church disillusioned by the pettiness, abusive leadership and message of condemnation, describes the Antiochian parish she is currently attending as “St Philips is beauty for the mind and spirit. A haven, a calm, a refuge,” adding that it is the “truest example of Jesus words put into my own, ‘Come just as you are.'” I have also had the pleasure of conversing with several who are converts from Anabaptist background, including a man who is my cousin through marriage, and have had the same hard-to-put-into-words experience I have had.

To be clear, the Orthodox church, like other churches, did come over with ethnic communities from Greece, Russia, Syria, Africa, Egypt and other parts of the world. Many Orthodox churches in America did often start as a part of an ethnic community and a decade ago may have been compromised mostly of people from one ethnic background. However, as that immigrant population declines it is being replaced by those who come from all sorts of Christian backgrounds. In my own parish, there is everything from non-denominational to Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic. Many of these converts were, like me, at the end of their ropes with religion as it had been presented to them, some agnostics, who were drawn to Orthodoxy through various means and have been forever changed by the experience. The most recent converts at my parish: Two women, one of them a Mennonite pastor, who were Chrismated and welcomed home a few weeks ago.

There is a great documentary on religious “nones” called “Becoming Truly Human,” that describes the journey of various people who have left the version of Christianity they were raised in and have simply stopped attending any religious services. There is clearly a need for an answer, people long for a connection to the historic church, worship that transcends current fads and trends, something real and authentic, and Orthodox Christianity provides this. Orthodoxy, made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), has withstood the persecution of the past century like it did in the first century and is a bastion for the faithful. Orthodoxy, the church that Jesus promised the “gates of hell would not prevail against” (Matthew 16:18), has and will continue to triumph against the odds.

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