Why Christianity Is Believable: Part Four

Two data: That’s all I need.

The two facts are (a) an empty tomb, and (b) enthusiastic disciples. Let’s see what might follow.

After his death by crucifixion Jesus was buried in a tomb owned by a secret follower, Joseph of Arimathea.  Jesus’ tomb was a cave sealed with a rolling rock of some sort.  The four Gospels record many other such details of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.  For the present purpose, however, almost all of these details can be set aside as we focus on just one: the empty tomb.

Each of the four Gospels records that the tomb was empty (save for the graveclothes left behind).  Now, perhaps the Gospels are mistaken or dishonest about this.  But why, then, when rumors of Jesus’ resurrection began to circulate in ancient Jerusalem, did neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities (neither group being friends of Jesus or his followers, as all accounts from that time indicate) simply go to the tomb and produce the body? For that matter, why didn’t any skeptic simply find out where Jesus had been buried and investigate? Given the premium that preachers like Peter were placing upon the resurrection of Jesus (as we have seen in a previous post), surely production of his corpse would have sufficed to smother Christianity in its cradle.

It seems more likely that the Gospel accounts are correct in their assertion that the tomb was empty.

Now, perhaps Jesus’ body was not in the tomb because he had revived and escaped.  This explanation (which goes back to the eighteenth century at least) faces considerable obstacles. First, why would the Roman executioners, skilled in their terrible craft, be mistaken about Jesus’ condition and allow him to be buried alive? Second, given the tortures of the standard pre-crucifixion flogging of Jesus, and of the crucifixion itself, how likely is it that Jesus would be healthier after a number of hours in the tomb than he was before? How much more likely that, even if he had been buried alive, he would have died from exposure or loss of blood? Third, the graveclothes in which Jesus was wrapped, if they were typical of the time (and why would they not be?), would have been made of linen fiber—extraordinarily difficult to break—in which Jesus’ body would have been wrapped tightly from neck to foot, with a separate cloth for the head. Even an escape artist might find such an arrangement challenging.  A victim of crucifixion freeing himself from such encumbrances is, may we say, an unlikely scenario.

Still, is it not possible that a barely-alive Jesus could have been elaborated into a later myth of resurrection? Well, the myth would have had precious little time to form. Few scholars doubt that Jesus was crucified sometime around A.D. 30, and most agree that Paul wrote to the Corinthians (in the New Testament book called “I Corinthians”) about the resurrection less than thirty years later. Myths that shape whole communities usually take a lot longer than that to form–generation after generation–as anthropologists and historians recognize.

The idea of myth-making runs into further trouble as it provokes the prior question as to whether these disciples were likely candidates for an enterprise of this sort. It could be, of course, that the disciples engaged in a different sort of plot entirely.  Perhaps they themselves purloined the dead body of Jesus precisely in order to foment the idea of resurrection and to forestall the devastating blow against their nascent movement of the corpse’s discovery.  A third alternative is that the disciples hallucinated and came to believe their master was alive when in fact he was dead.  Whichever of the three options one selects, one must deal with the second main datum to be explained: the extraordinary attitude of the disciples after Jesus’ reported resurrection.

The Gospels portray the disciples almost all as either cowardly or despondent during Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. Given the widespread Jewish belief of the time that Messiah would return in divine power to destroy precisely the Gentile oppressors who were now crushing Jesus, it is entirely understandable that the disciples were thrown into a confusion of terror and despair. The Gospels tell us only what we would expect to hear about such followers at such a time.

What needs to be explained, then, is the subsequent confidence of such followers in such a terrifically unlikely story: that the leader of their little band had in fact been raised to new life by God and had empowered them to bring the good news of his victory over evil to the entire world. Zeal was one thing, perhaps commendable in a land with little hope of freedom. But ancient Jews, according to what cultural records we have, were not more credulous about the possibility of resurrection than are most of us are today. Resurrection was the hope of some, yes, but as a reality to be enjoyed only in the awaited Messianic kingdom and as a general resurrection of all God’s people at the end of days.  One lone resurrection as the divine vindication of a crucified Messiah seemed an utter contradiction in terms, and organized Judaism soon moved to stamp out any such idea.  The Christians, however, persisted, and many lost careers, families, and even their lives for their faithfulness to this one message: God raised Jesus from the dead, and God eventually will raise you, too, if you believe.

Let’s be blunt: perhaps the disciples were liars and made the whole thing up.  They would have to persisted in a large and sustained conspiracy, lasting decades.  Philosopher Thomas Morris reflects at length upon this possibility:

This is from the beginning an exceedingly odd sort of agreement—a number of different people get together, concoct a story, and agree to lie about it, each promising not to break and tell the truth.  It is crucial to their agreement that they’re all liars, but how in the world can you trust liars to keep their end of an agreement?  Any supposition that the apostles of Christ met after his death and entered into this sort of agreement is especially hard to swallow.  Here a number of ordinary men [and women, we should add] from walks of life in which the truth mattered, who had just spent an extended period of time with a charismatic leader whom most non-Christians recognize as one of the greatest moral teachers in history, are supposed to have met together after the death of their leader and, to further his work, agreed to tell outrageous lies about him?  This is just too bizarre. (See Morris’s book, Making Sense of It All.)

Furthermore, since it is likely that at least some of the ancient traditions about their deaths are true, then some of the apostles died for what they must have known was untrue.  How likely is that?  At some point, surely at least one of them would have blown the whistle to save himself.

Even if all of the traditions about their martyrdoms are untrue, however, what motive would the earliest Christians have for teaching such a thing? They did not attempt to seize political power by exploiting this story. There was no commercial angle to be played. They risked suffering the same terrible fate as Jesus’ at the hands of the same powers. They gained only a few thousand converts for the first several decades. Why would they lie?

Perhaps they did not lie, therefore, but instead were deluded.  Again, however, how likely is this possibility?  As Morris cautions, “a mistake can only be so big.” How did the whole group become convinced of the success of a cause and a person who had apparently been an utter failure? Did they simply make up the reports of appearances of Jesus (such as those cited by Paul in the letter quoted above), or did they actually have such experiences as figments of wishful thinking? Did they all possess such powerful imaginations—imaginations, let us remain blunt, that in this case crossed over into sustained psychosis—that they believed that they had seen Jesus, talked with Jesus, and been commissioned by Jesus before his ascent to heaven? Furthermore, did they do so with apparently no dispute about these matters among the central core of followers, even as the historical records show that the early church disagreed about very many other, much less critical, matters?

It is at least logically possible that the whole thing was a massive exercise in group fabrication of an intentional or unintentional sort. Airtight proof is never obtainable in matters of history. Each serious inquirer into this historical question, however, must fairmindedly assess the various explanatory options and select the one that fits the data best. Christians are among those who believe that God really did raise Jesus from the dead, and that this event is the once-for-all historical guarantee of the authenticity of Jesus’ life work.

And at least one more historical matter requires explanation. Why have millions of people, across dozens of cultural lines, including highly-trained scholars and professionals around the world, come to believe the same truths as those first-century Jews—including this truth of the resurrection of Jesus? Can they all be simply credulous?  All taking refuge in wish-fulfilment?  All setting aside their critical faculties for one wild, desperate hope? Of course, one must fairly ask the same question about any other religion or philosophy, but note this interesting fact: no other religion makes this sort of historical claim. No other religion puts it all on the line: Did this event happen or not?

That’s the sort of hard-headed empirical argument–historically empirical, to be sure, not laboratory-observable empirical–that Richard Dawkins and Company should appreciate, no?

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This discussion is adapted from my book, Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Oxford University Press and InterVarsity Press).

26 Responses to “Why Christianity Is Believable: Part Four”

  1. Gordon Tisher

    Unfortunately, the enthusiastic disciple argument applies equally well to Islam, Sikhism and Mormonism, all of whose disciples were martyred early on for their beliefs.

  2. John Stackhouse

    Well, it really doesn’t, Brother Tisher. Sincerity says nothing about truth, of course–that’s your point, and it’s a good one. The point here is the particular belief in question: Jewish people becoming convinced of a single-person resurrection of a crucified claimant to Messiahship. It’s a completely counter-intuitive belief for them, not just for us. It is also a literally falsifiable belief–falsifiable by the Romans, the Jews, or by skeptical early Christians. And instead of being falsified, it takes root and blossoms quickly and strongly.

    Thanks for helping me underline this point, because it really is the important difference between Christian claims and every other claim in every other religion I can think of.

  3. Gordon Tisher

    So your argument is that sincerity + implausibility implies truth? By that argument we should all become Raëlian.

    Was the Christian story so counter-intuitive in its context?

    From Osiris to Mithras, the dying and resurrected god or demigod is a fixture of near eastern religions throughout history.

    In Judaism, the idea of the Messiah dying for sinners (in the second-temple-era _Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs_, frex) and resurrected on the third day (the recently-published “Gabriel’s Revelation” tablet) existed in the same time frame as the beginning of Christianity.

    So I would argue that the Christians’ claims were not so counter-intuitive after all.

    Surely Joseph Smith’s golden plates and divine spectacles were not exactly the stuff of everyday intuition either.

  4. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for the conversation, Gordon!

    My argument is that for such people, in such numbers, to be convinced of such a thing requires a sufficient explanation.

    It was indeed counter-intuitive. The early disciples were not people deeply impressed with “dying and rising god” scenarios, however much other people might have been so impressed in the broader Hellenistic context. They were first-century Levantine Jews, and the work of a wide range of scholars shows that none of the first-century Jewish varieties were anticipating a single resurrection (versus a general resurrection) of a crucified Messiah (a contradiction in terms). (The work of N. T. Wright and L. W. Hurtado are good places to look for the rise of early Christ devotion.)

    Joseph Smith’s claims were unusual, of course, but not completely out of keeping with the context of certain strands of nineteenth-century American culture: hence the general dismissal of him as a fraud or madman but the fertile ground among a minority for his claims. (I’m relying on standard histories of Mormonism, such as those by Klaus Hansen, Jan Shipps, and Richard Bushman, as well as more general histories of nineteenth-century American religious culture such as Nathan Hatch’s.)

    There is no such fertile ground for the claims the early apostles made for Jesus, as far as I know. That’s the argument I’m making.

    So, I’m asking, why would a significant number of people disposed strongly against these particularly counter-intuitive claims of early Christian preaching become soundly convinced of them? What is the cause adequate to this effect?

    I should say again, perhaps in a different way, that I hardly think everyone will be convinced of this argument. Being convinced by such an argument requires a number of conditions to be met, as is always the case in historical dispute, particularly when ideology, privilege, and more is also in play.

    I offer it, however, as what I think is a strongly plausible argument and one to which I have not yet encountered a strong counter-argument.

  5. Gordon Tisher

    The Jewish sources I mention are from Israel Knohl, “‘By Three Days Live’: Messiahs, Resurrection and Ascent to Heaven in Hazon Gabriel”, The Journal of Religion 88, #19 (2008).

    I’m afraid that the argument fails for me on the principle of total evidence. My cynical view is that people have killed and died for a mind-boggling variety of impossible beliefs before breakfast throughout history.

    That is not to ignore the fact that the argument is simply one plank in the house you are building. It’s just a pet peeve of mine that apologists in my experience seem to lean very heavily on it.

  6. John Stackhouse

    Well, pet peeves notwithstanding, I think apologists lean on it because it’s a pretty important and pretty strong argument! I think it has to be carefully argued–and not overargued (as in “Q.E.D.” and the like)–but I don’t want to back away from the genuine scandal and provocation that are central to the preaching of the cross and resurrection.

    Some Christians do want to back away and say things like, “Well, we can’t really know: it’s just a matter of faith”–as if to say so is either more pious or more intelligent. But I have to say, Gordon, that I stand with both Peter and Paul–I know that sounds self-serving, but I’m trying to be simply straight with you and any other reader–in nailing my colours to this particular mast. I think it can bear this weight and I think it should.

  7. Ranger

    Sorry to butt into the discussion (and I probably don’t have time to follow it all), but I had some thoughts that might contribute:

    1. Since you all are (sort of) discussing it, this year’s SBL will have a presentation by Knohl on his interpretation of the Gabriel Revelation Tablet. As you both probably know, the vast majority of scholars have suggested that he is reading into the text things that simply aren’t there in order to make the finding more controversial. In other words, it should be a very lively SBL session as he presents his case and has others respond.

    2. I think Gordon is right that people are willing to die for all types of things. That said, I disagree concerning his assessment of STJ belief. Even if we allow mystery cults and other non-Jewish ideas to have permeated Galilee by the early 1st century (something I find highly implausible concerning the archaeological work that’s been done in Galilee thus far), it seems to me that the Jews would know the difference between myth and reality.

    Even if we find the arguments of pre-Christian dying/rising god parallels (although as you all know many of the non-fertility resurrection claims come from post-Christian texts) as persuasive, they are all clearly intended to be otherworldly types of resurrections. But the groups in the locale that we’re speaking of (Qumran, Pharisees, Zealots, etc.) in STJ believed in a “thisworldly” physical resurrection at the end of time. Even the Gabriel Tablet (if Knohl’s reconstruction is correct) seems to speak of a very different situation than normative STJ belief or early Christian proclamation…but we’ll have to see what happens at SBL for more precision on what can be said concerning the tablet.

    The disciples of Jesus on the other hand were willing to face persecution (and sometimes death) for the claim that a person in history, literally, physically rose from the dead, which seems to both fit STJ belief about resurrection (physical resurrection), but also be radically different (one person in the middle of time).

    Maybe I’m dead wrong, and I do not claim to be a scholar in all fields of ANE culture, but I do know something about STJ and what happened in Jerusalem seems radically different to me than any pagan parallels that I’ve studied.

  8. brgulker

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    I just wanted to post a brief “thank you” for this series of posts. It’s been quite helpful and enjoyable for me to read someone who’s thoroughly worked through many of the questions I’m currently asking of myself and of my faith.

    Thank you!

  9. BrianT

    I do not share the illustrious backgrounds of the writers on this blog, but I do have an opinion.
    I believe the question is one of probability. Probability forms the nexus between cause and effect. What would be more probable; that the early disciples would die as sincere, but deluded individuals or that the followers of other religions would meet death in a sincere, but deluded manner? In the case of the disciples the grounds for their actions were immediately verifiable. They could, and did, verify the empty tomb. They also verified that the resurrected Jesus, who appeared to them and others for an extended period of time, was the same person whom they had physically known for a period of three years.
    The followers of other religions, even Christians who were martyred in later periods of history, did not have the same luxury of verifying the facts that formed the basis of their faith and actions. It seems to me that the early Christians were more probable to have acted upon verified facts that any one else we have talked about. They occupied an unique position in space and time and the Christian claim is exactly that: The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was an event in space and time!

  10. James

    We are, no one can doubt, considering a highly improbable event. Speaking for myself, I’ve never met anyone who was raised from the dead (in the full-fledged walk-through-doors, converse on the road manner of Jesus). I’ve never met anyone who’s told me they knew of anyone who was raised from the dead. I’ve been following the news for nearly six decades, and I don’t recall reading a report of anyone saying they’d been raised from the dead or met some one who’s been raised or said they’d met someone who’d been raised. Dead people rising is an extremely rare event—I think it’s fair to say an event that doesn’t occur—nowadays.

    If I can credit WikiAnswers, I Kings, 2 Kings, John, Matthew, and Acts report the raising of nine individuals and Matthew (27:52) reports the rising of many. My guess would be that in all of recorded time, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other report risings and raisings (of a full-fledged sort). Given my own understanding of the nature of death, I attribute to none of these reports even a scintilla of evidentiary value.

    Further, death is an event that would be very hard to explain physiologically. We could look at other vital body parts, but since the irreversible cessation of brain function is criterial of death, let’s look only at it. As a result of the cessation of intracranial blood flow, the cells of the brain are deprived of oxygen and, I assume, other vital “supplies.” Further, I assume (and a cell physiologist would know), there then occur among the cells of the brain certain (the physiologist would know them) processes of deterioration that cannot, by any known means or occurrence, be reversed. I suppose that after three days the deterioration would be markedly less than after thirty, but markedly greater than after thirty minutes or three hours—at any rate, very substantial. I believe that any competent cell physiologist would regard the process after three days as being utterly irreversible.

    The probability of life commencing again after death is vanishingly low.

    Therefore, reports of its occurrence should be discounted even if they appear the render an occurrence quite probable.

    No doubt followers of Jesus believed he had risen from the dead. The evidence of this belief is rather compelling—one has to go no further than I Corinthians 15 to find it so.

    The best evidence of the actual occurrence of Jesus’ recovery from death is not the empty tomb. It is the appearances—the best evidence of which, I would argue, is Paul’s, I Corinthians 15:5-8.

    The empty tomb is evidence of the disappearance of a corpse, and given the antecedent improbability of death’s reversal, one must desperately seek and accept even improbable explanations rather than resort to so extremely improbable an explanation as death’s reversal. We know that grave robbing was a rather frequent occurrence in antiquity, and that there necromancers could fetch a good sum for the body parts of holy men and crucified men. We also know that Matthew recounts widespread reports of Jesus’ grave having been robbed. (28:11-15) The probability of Jesus’ body being stolen is not extraordinarily low. The probability of its being raised in astronomically low.

    Similarly, consider the notion that “first-century Jews could not have imagined that a single man would be raised from the dead: unless it really happened, they’d never have believed it.” How do we know the limits of the first-century Jew’s imagination? How do we know how disposed was she (say, the grief-struck Mary Magdalene) to believe she had seen the Lord? We know that people nowadays do report having seen those they have loved and lost. We should desperately seek, and I would judge can rather easily find, explanations of Mary’s and Peter’s and the others’ belief in Jesus’ having been raised other than the actual occurrence of this unlikely event.

    There’s much credulity to be discerned in this take on two data. There’s little believability to be discerned in the evangelists’ and Paul’s reports of the resurrection.

  11. Bryan Owen

    Thanks for offering this series of postings. I have enjoyed them very much and have learned a great deal as well. In addition to your published writings, Professor Stackhouse, I highly recommend to readers of these postings N. T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God. It may well be the definitive study and defense of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.

  12. Bryan Owen

    Thanks for offering this series of postings. I have enjoyed them very much and have learned a great deal as well. In addition to your published writings, Professor Stackhouse, I highly recommend to readers of these postings N. T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God. It may well be the definitive study and defense of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.

  13. Bryan Owen

    Thanks for offering this series of postings. I have enjoyed them very much and have learned a great deal as well. In addition to your published writings, Professor Stackhouse, I highly recommend to readers of these postings N. T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God. It may well be the definitive study and defense of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.

  14. Redcrosse Knight

    A fine effort, James, but you’ll have to do better than recycle Hume’s old circular argument (‘miracles don’t occur; therefore accounts of miracles are not to be trusted’).

  15. John Stackhouse

    Indeed, James’s version of David Hume’s skepticism actually helps make my point: OF COURSE the antecedent probability of Jesus’ being resurrected is, and was, effectively zero. That’s why we use the category of “miracle” rather than the category of “weird things that happen only once in a while.”

    If one says, “Miracles cannot happen because I’ve never seen one,” well, you can refute that for yourself without me doing it, can’t you? Black swans, etc.

    If one says, “I am strongly inclined, even ‘desperately’ [good word, James!] inclined to seek a non-miraculous explanation for this event,” I sympathize. If you are going to stick to your presuppositional guns, that is indeed what you simply have to do.

    But that is not the only rational option. It is simply the only rational option for someone who has ALREADY decided, BEFORE coming to this argument, that any recourse to divine action is out of the question.

    I have used the gentle word “presupposition,” by the way, rather than the words “bias” and “prejudice,” because I respect an atheist who finds it awfully hard to believe that there exists a good and powerful God as Christians say there is. I think such a person has good reason, in other words, to be convinced that God doesn’t exist, and therefore that person can’t tolerate a theistic explanation for the data of Jesus’ putative resurrection.

    Still, let’s be honest with each other and recognize that your refusal to entertain a theistic explanation rests on beliefs you have formed on other grounds and that those beliefs therefore keep you from following my argument to my (preferred) conclusion.

    And you’ll have to decide, as life goes on, whether you continue to have adequate grounds to insist that there is no God, or no God of this sort, at least, and therefore that you are right to attribute the data in question to grave robbing, mass delusion on the part of early Christians, and the like–explanations that from my point of view as well seem “desperate” indeed.

    Most people, however, are open at least in theory to supernatural agency and, in particular, to the existence of a God who can and might intervene in the normal flow of things. For those people, the argument I have suggested above is worth seriously considering as indeed a rational argument.

  16. James

    God exists.
    God can do anything.
    Therefore anything can happen. .
    Since anything can happen, all our knowledge of what’s plausible and probable is to be shunted aside, and all standards historians ordinarily apply when trying to sift evidence and get at what actually happened are rendered irrelevant.

    Suppose we grant there exists a god, and that he can intervene in the normal flow of things. He is then a god who did not act to intervene when Anne Frank was arrested and taken to Bergen Belsen to die of typhus, while the sergeant who arrested her lived long and prospered. He did not intervene when a twenty-years-old’s father was run over by a passing vehicle and died. He did not intervene when Jerusalem was laid waste forty years after Jesus died. He did not intervene when the tsunami struck Samoa. Yet, as an unimpeachable source tells us, when Jesus died he did intervene to tear the curtain of the temple in two, shake the earth, split rocks, open the tombs, and raise many bodies of the saints, who thereupon entered the city and appeared to many.
    When an event needs to be believed, it can be accounted for by God’s intervention. When there’s an event we can’t help but find reprehensible, we devise ways to put it out of God’s reach. This seems arbitrary.

    So also to attribute ton God only “some” supernatural agency? Why only “some”? If it’s supernatural, what’s to limit it? We can and should believe anything, and put aside ALL the canons of evidence. When the net comes down, and the baseline shifts as convenience requires, all the balls are in.

    I forbear to look at what seems to be clearly the strongest evidence, that of the appearances. But the empty tomb’s probative value is very slight. There’s the difficulty that none of the letters of Paul, nor those attributed to him, make any mention of its happening, so all the evidence is reported forty years or more after the fact. There’s the disagreement as to who the witnesses are, and as to whom they spoke or even whether they spoke. But above all, there’s the fact that the evidence, if it’s factual, is evidence only of the fact of disappearance, nothing more. Absent the evidence of the appearances–the only evidence of a risen Jesus–there’s no fact but a missing body. Bodies can easily be stolen (so if I were telling the story years later and wanted to bolster its credibility, I’d put some guards at the scene), and there’s evidence that they were stolen with some frequency–especially bodies of holy men and the crucified.

    There’s no need in this instance to do epistemology or metaphysics or historiography, to discuss presuppositions and theism. The evidence of the empty tomb proves little, and nothing of interest.

  17. John Stackhouse

    I don’t actually care all that much about the empty tomb, either, in terms of quarreling over its historical proofs (although I do believe there was an empty tomb and all the rest of it, being a pretty traditional Bible-believer as I am). The main concern at the heart of these posts is this, namely, to posit a cause equal to the effect: What could have happened back then and there (cause) to prompt these people to say and do the things they did (effect)?

    I’m not asking you to set aside normal historical concerns. I’m a professional historian: Why would I do that? There’s nothing I’m asking you to do that a historian cannot do as part of his or her investigation of a very strange event. To be sure, some historians, because of their atheistic presuppositions, will conclude that the evidence is best interpreted by grave robbing, mass delusion, and the rest of it since they believe there is no God to credit for the occurrence. Other professional historians, however, start with a more open universe which could, or does, include a God capable of such intervention and, indeed, a particular God of a particular sort whose intervention in this case and in this way makes a good deal of sense coherent with lots of other things they believe about this God. (That is, this isn’t just a “God can do anything therefore anything can happen” kind of stripped-down deity: This is Yahweh of the Old and New Testaments whose behaviour makes considerable sense when understood in the light of those books.)

    Of course you raise the problem of evil, as well you should. It’s the Number One Reason to disbelieve in such a God. But let’s see that that is the reason, not historiographical questions about what can and cannot constitute a rational explanation for the origins of Christianity. Your beef, as you say, is with the God who didn’t spare Anne Frank and therefore is not worthy of consideration in terms of other sorts of divine intervention. I agree these issues can be intertwined, hence my book on the problem of evil in which this very argument about the resurrection is embedded. I suggest that the argument can work exactly the other way: If God can be understood to have been present in the life and work of Jesus such that we can believe God was actually Jesus–as the early Christians came to believe, despite their radically monotheistic Judaims–then the problem of evil takes on a much different cast. That’s my argument in “Can God Be Trusted?” but I obviously can’t reproduce that now in a comment section on another sort of argument, right?

  18. James

    I agree that something extraordinary happened back then. Peter and the rest were demoralized and had gone to ground, and then they turned around. And I’ve no doubt what turned them was that they came to believe that their Lord was risen indeed.

    It may be far fetched, but the desire to match cause to effect calls to mind the notion that one reason Americans latch onto Kennedy assassination theories that the “the CIA did it” rather than that the unaccomplished Oswald did it is a natural desire to match the immensity of the loss, the effect, to a commensurate cause. Somewhat similarly, a mere belief in the resurrection back then may be all that the evidence will sustain, not something vastly less mundane.

    I think you’re right I am a very thorough-going skeptic. If the evidence did show that Jesus somehow had climbed out of his tomb, talked with Mary, eaten with the disciples, and passed through doors, I d perhaps be flabbergasted, but I’d still be casting about for a natural explanation. And contrariwise, there are liberal Christians who largely share my empiricist doubts, but still find in the historical facts that do (as I and they see it) bear scrutiny a transcendent, spiritual significance that I can’t make sense of but that for them means everything that counts most. (See the (from my perspective) vapid maunderings of Tom Honey (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/10/rev-thomas-honey-deals-with-several-of-the-issues-the-dish-has-been-wrestling-with.html) What divides us, then, is not so much epistemology as metaphysics, not how much we can know, but what it would mean if we did.

    Maybe I should add that I don’t suffer from chronic depression, and I haven’t defrauded or molested anyone of late, and that I immensely enjoyed watching The Wrestler the other afternoon.

  19. Henry Cullihall

    Professor Stackhouse
    How do you define “Christian,” in your posted excerpt, “Why Christianity is believable?”
    Are you stating why you think?
    Fundamentalist/Evangelicalism Christianity is believable?
    Or;
    Why Jehovah’s Witness Christianity is believable?
    Why Gnostic Christianity is believable?
    Why X Christianity is believable?
    Would the “Lost Christianities,” Bart Erhman talks about in his excellent DVD series be included in your definition of Christianity?
    The Valentinian Tradition of Christianity which I have taken some interest in is another one of a multifaceted forms of Christology wrung from the numerous text types floating around Palestine during the first three centuries. It’s a pity we don’t have those bibles.
    It seems to me there has always been a plethora of Christianities floating around.
    I’m sure you know what you mean by, “Christianity,” but I don’t know what you mean.
    To use a native Newfoundland metaphor: What kind of fish are you talking about?
    Sincerely,
    Henry

  20. John Stackhouse

    I’m sorry to have confused you, Henry: I mean by “Christianity” what standard textbooks or dictionaries mean, namely, the broad, orthodox stream of Christianity based on the canonical Scriptures, articulated in the Ecumenical Creeds, and institutionalized in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches.

    So you are quite right: I don’t mean Gnosticism, or Valentinianism, or Marcionism, etc. and et al.

    (And I’m pretty sure Professor Dawkins doesn’t have them in view, either.)

  21. Ben

    Professor Stackhouse,

    What would you say to the common argument that we have no contemporaneous accounts of the life of Jesus, and that therefore it’s possible that He never even existed? (I know you touched on this in an earlier post and pointed out how wacky it is, but I think the objection “we can’t be sure if Jesus ever existed because we have nothing written during when Jesus was supposed to have lived” might be used against this argument.)

  22. John Stackhouse

    Of course it’s possible that Jesus never existed. It would be possible even if we did have first-person journalistic accounts. People have hallucinations; people lie; people say things that aren’t so for a variety of reasons.

    The question in history is always one of probability. What really are the chances that Jesus of Nazareth never existed? There are phenomena–world-historical phenomena–to be explained: the extraordinary literature of the New Testament (if Jesus didn’t exist, who are the religious geniuses behind the parables, let alone everything else in the NT?), the extraordinary testimony of the early church (why did so many people become convinced of such implausible ideas within the lifetimes of so many contemporaries of Jesus?), the extraordinary career of the Christian church (why did the Christian sect, alone of the many cults and religions of the Roman world, conquer and stay in control of the Empire by the fourth century?).

    There’s a lot to dispute and dislike in the history of Christianity. But to spend time “researching” whether Jesus existed strikes me as about as worthless an intellectual inquiry as can be imagined.

    • Ben

      Thanks for the thoughtful response.

      Yes, I’m sure that one who is deeply invested in wondering whether Jesus ever actually existed might come up with all sorts of explanations for who would be responsible for the parables if He didn’t exist. (E.g., “Perhaps they were later written by the gospel writers themselves?”) The whole investigation of whether Jesus existed sounds like nothing more than a conspiracy theory dressed in “scholarly” clothing.

      Paul’s early witness is often explained away as “he-doesn’t-seem-to-talk-about-a-physical-Jesus-who-actually-lived,” the kind of statement that blows my mind with its lack of care in reading Paul. If “born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4), for example, doesn’t mean that Paul thought Jesus actually lived in history, then I’m not sure what does.

    • Ranger

      Bob Price (who is the only scholar with any credentials out of thousands upon thousands to even attempt to claim Jesus never existed) is given a hearing in IVP’s new Historical Jesus: Five Views. I had an early review copy, but I think it’s released soon.

      Anyways, Price gets manhandled and other than having some pretty witty and funny quips, his case comes across as vacuous. The respondents are Crossan, Bock, Luke T. Johnson and Jimmy Dunn, so only one evangelical. It’s obvious from their responses that they are trying to be respectful, but that his arguments require great special pleading (total rejection of Josephus, Tacitus, etc. and the ridiculous claim that 1 Cor. 15 is an interpolation!). The most amusing response comes from mainstream scholar Jimmy Dunn who begins with,”Well gosh! I didn’t realize anyone could still make this claim.” Nobody gives serious creedence to these types of views at SBL meetings or in the major peer-reviewed journals, so it’s not surprising that Dunn would be shocked.

      Of course, the dark corners of the Internet are fruitful fields for all types of seemingly radical claims.

  23. cesarakg

    Too late to make any difference, here is a bit of food for thought: can cognitive dissonance explain the behavior of the disciples after the death of Jesus?

    1. they believe Jesus was God;
    2. Jesus was dead, as no God can be.

    So they tried to conciliate this two things and invented the ressurrection thing to explain the cognitive dissonance.

    Sorry for the engrish.

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