Friday, April 22, 2011

Lee Strobel's Easter Story

Last week the Wall Street Journal published Lee Strobel's story of how he pulled himself out of atheism to become a Christian.  It's a familiar story to anyone who's read his apologetic books.  Essentially, when his wife converted to Christianity, he studied the religion in order to debunk it and wound up convinced himself.
For nearly two years, I explored the minutia of the historical data on whether Easter was myth or reality. I didn’t merely accept the New Testament at face value; I was determined only to consider facts that were well-supported historically. As my investigation unfolded, my atheism began to buckle.

I'm curious what facts he evaluated other than the New Testament.

Was Jesus really executed? In my opinion, the evidence is so strong that even atheist historian Gerd Lüdemann said his death by crucifixion was “indisputable.”

I've never heard of Lüdemann but Strobel was kind enough to link to his Wikipedia page, where we learn that Lüdemann was no mere 'atheist historian' but was in fact a German New Testament scholar. He wrote that "only about five per cent of the sayings attributed to Jesus are genuine and the historical evidence does not support the claims of traditional Christianity." For that bit of heresy he was dismissed as Chair of New Testament Studies. Wiki also cites that Lüdemann was convinced that 'his previous Christian faith, based as it was on Biblical Studies, had become impossible: 'the person of Jesus himself becomes insufficient as a foundation of faith once most of the New Testament statements about him have proved to be later interpretations by the community'.

So when exactly did Lüdemann say that the crucifixion of Jesus was 'indisputable'? Was it before, or after, he published his book on the historicity of Jesus? Is it possible that this 'atheist historian' no longer believes the crucifixion is on firm historical grounds? Sadly, Strobel doesn't say, and I'll wager that not very many of his readers are eager to find out.

Was Jesus’ tomb empty? Scholar William Lane Craig points out that its location was known to Christians and non-Christians alike. So if it hadn’t been empty, it would have been impossible for a movement founded on the resurrection to have exploded into existence in the same city where Jesus had been publicly executed just a few weeks before.

This of course assumes that the only reason a tomb can ever be empty is because a dead person walked out of it. Who confirmed beforehand that a dead Jesus was actually buried there? Who can confirm that the body of Jesus wasn't stolen or deliberately moved elsewhere before the tomb was discovered to be empty? If we find an empty hole in the ground at a graveyard, our first assumption isn't 'Resurrection!'

And how would a skeptic show off a non-empty tomb? Exhume someone's private property? Parade a rotting corpse through the streets? Better hurry with that--after only a few weeks the body's decomposition would make it unrecognizable. Most of all, why would a resurrection skeptic bother? Who gets worked up over the wacky claims of cultists enough to go to the trouble of trying to debunk them? Oh sure, after decades and centuries, when Christianity became a strong political force, someone might have wished they could produce the dead body and snuff a powerful religion, but of course by then it would be too late.

But in the weeks and months after the crucifixion, when the first written account of it didn't appear for decades afterwards, what non-Christian would even bother? Strobel and Craig want us to assume that within hours of the resurrection, Christianity was gaining converts by the thousands, and that if someone had only produced the body soon enough the whole religion would have been nipped in the bud. But that's not what happened. Christianity was a tiny fringe cult in a culture littered with them, and curiously enough, the early evangelists like Paul had better success planting churches in non-Jewish regions. It seems the farther away from Jerusalem Paul went, the easier time he had convincing people of his faith. Could that be because people in Jerusalem knew something that, say, those living in Rome did not? And of course, by the third and fourth centuries, when Christianity was strong and powerful, no debunking was possible.

For a modern-day illustration, the members of the Heaven's Gate cult were led to believe that an alien spaceship was hiding in the tail of comet Hale-Bopp which was on its way to Earth. They made this claim publicly, and shortly afterward they collectively committed suicide so that their souls would be transported to the UFO and taken to points unknown. But mark my words, if in three hundred years, Heaven's Gate becomes a major world religion, its apologists will ask critics why NASA didn't launch a probe to investigate the comet. Of course the answer is simple--because NASA has better things to do than to make sure that no one anywhere makes a false claim about the universe.

Besides, even Jesus’ opponents implicitly admitted the tomb was vacant by saying that his body had been stolen. But nobody had a motive for taking the body, especially the disciples. They wouldn’t have been willing to die brutal martyrs’ deaths if they knew this was all a lie.

This is non-starter argument. Grave robbers steal bodies all the time, particularly of those who may have had mystical powers or significance. And its possible that the body wasn't stolen but merely moved. After all, according to the gospels, Josephus had to bury Jesus quickly because it was almost sundown before the Sabbath. Suppose that on Sunday morning he moved Jesus' very dead body to his final resting place before the women arrived. Wouldn't that be an explanation for an empty tomb?

And the "martyrs don't die for a lie,' argument doesn't hold water. There's little to no evidence that the disciples were martyred, and those that we do have a record of dying a violent death were not put to death for seeing a resurrected person but for other reasons, such as encouraging heresy or political meddling. Executing someone doesn't make their religious convictions suddenly become true, particularly since we have no idea what would have happened if they *had* renounced their religious convictions in order to save their own necks. Suppose Peter had said, "Okay, I admit I made some parts up." Would he have suddenly been granted a reprieve, with a firm swat on the bottom and an admonition not to go around telling stories? I hardly think so.

Did anyone see Jesus alive again? I have identified at least eight ancient sources, both inside and outside the New Testament, that in my view confirm the apostles’ conviction that they encountered the resurrected Christ. Repeatedly, these sources stood strong when I tried to discredit them.

Again with the lack of sources. In the New Testament, there are eye-witness sightings, most of them curiously involving a case of mistaken identity. What's more, as each gospel was written, the amount and complexity of the sightings becomes greater and greater, which looks like the growing of a legend.

Could these encounters have been hallucinations? No way, experts told me. Hallucinations occur in individual brains, like dreams, yet, according to the Bible, Jesus appeared to groups of people on three different occasions – including 500 at once!

Collective hallucinations are not impossible, particularly in stressful situations. Here's just one recent account of 5,000 people, told that Mary would appear, who then reported they saw the sun dance in the sky. As for the reliability of 500 people seeing Jesus? Strobel quotes Paul's account in I Corinthians 15, but he wasn't one of the 500. Likely he got this suspiciously round figure from Peter. So a long line of unknown editors, copyists, and redactors have said that Paul said that Peter said that 500 people said that they all saw the exact same thing--namely a resurrected corpse standing on a hill somewhere. Except for the eyewitnesses who looked the risen Jesus in the face and doubted it was him, but neither we nor Strobel get to hear their side of the story.

In the end, after I had thoroughly investigated the matter, I reached an unexpected conclusion: it would actually take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a follower of Jesus.

If your atheism is based on faith, then you're doing it wrong.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The End of the World - any year now

Here's a fun site.  Pick your favorite year--past, present, or future--and find out which folks predicted the world would end in that year.  Who knows--maybe one of these years they'll be right!

I took a close look at the year 1988.  I was attending a Christian college then, and I remember the fuss that was made over a booklet passed around by the cartload.  It was called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture is in 1988, by Edgar C. Whisenant.  Fellow students of mine were getting swept up in the hysteria.  Some of them accelerated their religious evangelizing, since the end was nigh.  Others expressed fear that they were going to get raptured before they could get married and have babies!  I looked at the book myself and didn't follow the logic, but the anticipation was infectious.  My friend was disgusted by the whole thing, and declared that if Jesus happened to be kicking off the Rapture in that year, he would now have to switch the date simply because the thing wouldn't have the same effect if everyone was anticipating it.  In other words, Jesus can't be outsmarted by some guy with a Bible and a Gregorian calendar.

At any rate, the fateful weekend passed, no heavenly trumpet sounded, and our lives continued unabated.  Whisenant responded to the press that the reason he was wrong about the Rapture year was because he had made a miscalculation somewhere--something to do with some ancient culture's calendar not having a year zero or somesuch--and that the Rapture really would happen, only the same time the following year, and this time was for certain!  But I don't recall anyone taking it seriously.

But that hasn't stopped others from making predictions of their own, as this site clearly demonstrates.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Objective Morality must mean we always agree about everything, right?

The Digital Cuttlefish has a brilliant short verse regarding the 20/20 hindsight of morality:

When we ask the loaded questions, “What is moral? What is good?”
“Are there independent standards, what we shan’t and what we should?”
As the most successful culture, it should fill us with delight—
We will always look behind us, saying what we did was right

There's more at the link.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Ray Comfort, Science, and Murder Mysteries

The Atheist Experience TV show, a public access show based in Austin, TX, featured an hour-long phone discussion with professional apologist Ray Comfort recently.  The show hosts, Matt Dillahunty and Russell Glasser, invited Mr. Comfort to call in where the three discussed atheism and the belief in God. 

One particular item that Mr. Comfort touched on stood out to me as evidence of sloppy thinking.  The show hosts mentioned that Comfort dismisses the findings of science, and the hosts speculated that it was because the science disagrees with the conclusions that Comfort has already learned from the Bible.  I was expecting Comfort to make some well-worn argument about the lack of certainty of science or that some other scientists disagree with the general consensus.  Instead, he made a different argument which I thought was interesting.  Comfort said that he doesn't pay attention to what science concludes about, say, the age of the universe or the process of evolution because "science is always changing."  With specific regard to the age of the Earth, he went on, a hundred years ago the answer was a billion years different than it is today, and he even got Dillahunty and Glasser to agree that a hundred years from now the consensus view of the age of the Earth could be a billion years larger or smaller.

Dillahunty responded that it was very unlikely that science was going to swing back to the answer that the Earth is 6,000 years old as is the common age accepted among Young-Earth Creationists, but I think that was the wrong line to take.  Comfort shrugged his shoulders and said that he didn't know how old the Earth was, but that science doesn't either, so why bother?  Rather than get focused on what the age of the Earth is, as Dillahunty did, I would have hammered Comfort on why he holds a double standard about the method of science, not the results.  And the double standard can be clearly seen when thinking of murder mysteries.

I'm sure Comfort has watched a murder mystery on television or read one in a book, and even if he hasn't the basic formula mirrors that of real murder investigations.  A detective is assigned to solve a murder.  Based on his preliminary investigations, he may suspect, say, the butler.  After further gathering evidence, he learns that the butler has an airtight alibi, so he continues to hunt for evidence.  Then he may suspect the murderer was the victim's neighbor.  After more evidence is gathered, the detective may finally be convinced that the suspect was a jealous lover.  When he's gathered enough evidence, arrests are made, a trial is set, and the suspect is tried before a jury.  It's the same formula, played out countless times, in fiction and in real life, and it works.

I wonder if Comfort, watching an episode of a murder mystery show at home, turns off the television midway through the episode.  I wonder, if having watched the detective announce, "Well the murderer couldn't have been this person because he was out of town on the day of the murder, so I'll continue to search for more evidence," if Comfort would throw his hands up in disgust and say to himself, "Why bother paying attention to what the detective is doing--his answer keeps changing!"

I'll bet cash money that Comfort doesn't feel that way.  I'll bet that Comfort understands all too well that in a criminal investigation, the conclusion may change based upon the new evidence uncovered.  So why does he not understand that the same principle is at work during a scientific investigation?  The process is identical--something happened in the past, be it a murder or the formation of a planet.  The investigator, either a detective or a scientist, searches for clues and evidence to how the event came about.  Initial suspicions may have to be thrown out or modified as more evidence is uncovered.  Finally the investigator announces, to a district attorney or to the scientific community, what he believes to be the final solution to the mystery, and he presents his evidence, and even then the answer may change if new evidence is brought to light.

I'll also wager that Comfort understands all this.  He doesn't dismiss the initial findings of criminal investigations because he understands perfectly that additional evidence can change the conclusion.  But he does dismiss the findings of scientific investigations--not because the answer may change as new evidence is uncovered--but because the findings contradict what he has decided the answers should be.  He has decided ahead of time that he wants the formation of the universe, our planet, and life to mirror what the Book of Genesis laid out long ago.  If science agrees with Genesis, then he's fine with that.  If not, then he waves his hand and declares the scientific method as invalid.  This double-standard held by Comfort is either blatantly dishonest or an example of self-delusion.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Episode 19 - Bart Ehrman - God's Problem

This episode of Cold Beer for the Skeptic's Mind features Bart Ehrman, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Northern Carolina, Chapel Hill. Today's excerpt comes from his book called God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer.

You can subscribe within iTunes or download it directly from here.

I hope you enjoy it. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Quote of the Day

One of the most fascinating features of early Christianity is that so many different Christian groups were saying so many contrary things. It is not just that they said different things. They often said just the opposite things. There is only one God. No, there are many gods. The material world is the good creation of a good God. No, it comes from a cosmic disaster in the divine realm. Jesus came in the flesh. No, he was totally removed from the flesh. Eternal life comes through the redemption of the flesh. No it comes through escaping the flesh. Paul taught these things. No, Paul taught those other things. Paul was a true apostle. No, Paul misunderstood the message of Jesus. Peter and Paul agreed on every theological point. No, they were completely at odds with one another. Peter taught that Christians were not to follow the Jewish law. No, he taught that the Jewish law continued to be in force. And on and on and on, world without end.

Not only did those on every side in all of these debates think that they were right and that their opponents were wrong; they also maintained in all sincerity and honesty that their views were the ones taught by Jesus and his apostles. What is more, they all, apparently produced books to prove it, books that claimed to be written by apostles and supported their own points of view. What is perhaps more interesting of all, the vast majority of these apostolic books were in fact forged. Christians intent on establishing what was right to believe did so by telling lies, in an attempt to deceive their readers into agreeing that they were the ones who spoke the truth.

This from Bart Ehrman's newest book, Forged: Writing in the Name of God--Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Episode 18 - Richard Dawkins - The Greatest Show on Earth

This episode of Cold Beer for the Skeptic's Mind features Richard Dawkins, a British evolutionary biologist, an outspoken advocate for evolution and atheism, and a popular author and speaker.  Today's excerpt comes from his recent book called, "The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution."

You can subscribe within iTunes or download it directly from here.

I hope you enjoy it.