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.

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