Why it is so unlikely that Christianity is True

Excerpt from “Why I am not a Christian” by Keith Parsons

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This monograph will have an unusual format. It begins with an essay based on the opening arguments of my debate with Dr. William Lane Craig on the subject “Why I am/am not a Christian.” This debate was held at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, on June 15, 1998, before an audience of approximately 4500 (about 4450 of whom supported Dr. Craig). Dr. Craig defended his Christian beliefs, and I gave my reasons for disbelief. At the end of the debate I felt confident that I had defended my view effectively and had rebutted Dr. Craig’s points. The reactions of others who witnessed the debate or viewed the videotape (available from Prestonwood Baptist) encourage me in that conclusion. I would therefore like to present an elaborated and extended version of those arguments as my opening essay.

The remainder of the book will consist of chapters that provide more detailed support for the arguments in the opening essay. In these chapters I extend my critique and rebut anticipated replies and objections from Christian apologists. I also give lengthy quotations from authoritative sources in support of my claims. Parenthetical references in the opening essay will refer the reader to the chapter number where the relevant points are elaborated and supported. This format allows me to open with a succinct case in the mode of Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I am not a Christian.” While that essay reflected Russell’s literary brilliance, it has been criticized as superficial and dismissive. The documented corroboration and detailed argument supporting the claims of the opening essay should obviate that criticism.

I would like to thank Ed Buckner and the Freethought Press for inviting me to do this book and all others whose comments and criticisms were offered.


Why I Am Not a Christian


Can belief argue with unbelief or only preach to it? When worldviews clash, is rational debate possible, or only a hostile exchange of epithets and rhetoric? Positions too far apart cannot find enough shared ground even to begin a debate, and there is no question that believers and unbelievers often simply talk past one another. The problem is this: Knowledge claims are never evaluated in a vacuum. When we assess a particular claim, we do so in the light of background knowledge. That is, the credentials of a claim are evaluated by how well it is supported by what we already believe and by our standards of rationality or justification. However, what “we” count as background knowledge or appropriate standards might differ so radically between Christians and non-Christians that rational debate is a practical impossibility.

Generations of Christian apologists have assumed that fruitful communication is possible. They have assumed that enough common ground exists for reasonable debate between belief and nonbelief. I share that assumption. That is, I think that Christians and nonbelievers share enough background beliefs, values, and standards to engage in fruitful debate about the reasonableness of Christian claims (though some of the wilder effusions of creationists and fundamentalists tempt me into doubt).

Christian apologists argue that Christian claims are well grounded vis-à-vis the background knowledge they share with unbelievers and that, therefore, unbelievers should acknowledge Christian truth. My argument is just the opposite, i.e., that given only what we (scientifically and philosophically literate Christians and non-Christians at the beginning of the twenty-first century) share in our background beliefs (about science, history, the Bible, and everything)and excluding any specifically Christian “revelations”Christian claims are poorly supported and therefore less reasonable than unbelief. I shall endeavor to appeal only to common sense and to invoke no premises Christian apologists cannot accept, or at least concede.

In this century the Christian religion will become 2000 years old. During those twenty centuries it has not only survived but flourished. Christianity began as a nondescript sect, despised by pagan and Jewish intellectuals (when they bothered to notice it), and subject to sporadic persecution. In the early fourth century the Roman Empire became Christian. By the end of the first millennium, except for a few pagan holdouts in the north and a Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula, Europe had become Christian. Christian missionaries set sail on the voyages of discovery and conquest of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and soon reached every part of the globe. Now a third of the world’s six billion people are at least nominally Christianand the religion continues to grow rapidly, especially in Asia and Africa.

Christianity has inspired a rich cultural and intellectual tradition. Many of the greatest paintings of the Renaissance masters represent Christian themes. Christian music from Amazing Grace to the Missa Solemnis achieves a beauty and depth seldom reached by other music. The King James Bible is one of the treasures of the English language; its sound resonates in many of the great works of British and American literature. Some of the greatest intellects of the Western world have been Christian theologians and philosophers. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to name only two, are among the handful of thinkers who may be mentioned in the same breath as Plato and Aristotle. Christian charities have alleviated want and brought education and medical care to many needy areas.

Yet Christianity has a Janus-face. As we note, the Christian religion has inspired much of the world’s great art, literature, and musicbut many of history’s most horrifying crimes were committed in the name of Christ. Christianity has encouraged scientists to seek to know God by understanding nature, but Christianity has also been the most powerful force of obscurantism. Great pioneers in all fields have sufferedand continue to sufferthe ignorant opposition of priests, preachers, and inquisitors. Christianity has comforted, uplifted, ennobled, and empowered. It has also degraded, persecuted, terrorized, and polarized. Both the highest and purest love and the basest and cruelest fanaticism are legacies of Christianity.

So, on balance, has Christianity been a force for good or ill in human history? Why are we even asking this question? Is not the only relevant question whether Christianity is true? It is an appropriate question because not all defenders of Christianity appeal to its truth. People often defend religion by adducing its allegedly good effects on society. This is a stock claim of right-wing politicians and of the recent plague of “Dr. Lauras”common scolds and busybodies who have appointed themselves guardians of other people’s morality. To assess such a pragmatic apologetic we need to ask whether Christianity is likely to make us better and happier.

The problems with Christianity begin with the Christian Bible. What are we to make of stories like that of II Kings 2? That chapter relates how the prophet Elisha was approaching the town of Bethel when a group of boys jeered him. Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord and two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the children. I once asked a Christian philosopher about this passage. He bit the bullet and said that God must not permit his holy prophets to be mocked. I concluded that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were not holy prophets since I had often mocked them but had not yet been mauled by she-bears.

Then there is the passage in I Samuel 15 where the prophet Samuel, speaking in the name of the Lord, orders Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites: “Spare no one; put them all to death, men and women, children and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and asses” (I Samuel 15). What did the Lord have against camels and asses (not to mention babes in arms)? Were the Amalekites so evil, even their infants and animals, that they merited utter extirpation? Scripture is full of such atrocities. Tom Paine spoke truly:

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon rather than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and for my part, I sincerely detest it as I detest all that is cruel (Paine, 1974, p. 60).

There is nothing to add to this but “amen.”

When confronted by such passages in debate, Dr. Craig has offered two sorts of responses: (a) God has the right to do whatever he wants to humans and (b) that this argument counts only against Biblical literalism, not Christianity per se. I find both replies woefully inadequate. First, it strikes me as monstrous to suggest that God would have the right to do anything whatsoever to us. What would give him that right? Surely not his omnipotence, since might does not make right. Is it the alleged fact that God created us? Suppose I were to create a race of sentient androids, fully as capable of suffering as humans. Would I then have the right to inflict capricious cruelty upon them? If Dr. Craig insists that I would, he must be moving in a moral universe that does not intersect my own.

The second sort of reply raises the question of just how literally we should take the Bible. Dr. Craig and other apologists often want parts of it to be taken very literally indeed (e.g., the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning by women followers of Jesus). Apologists cannot take scripture literally when it is ideologically convenient but as myth, allegory, or symbol when it is not. We need a consistent and independently justified set of interpretive principles. However, even if we do take the horrific passages as myth or metaphor, their spirit is still cruel and vindictive, and they still merit the censure so eloquently expressed by Paine.

The Christian Bible bequeathed a legacy of cruelty; the Church wasted little time in acting on that legacy. Even Christian historians such as Paul Johnson grow eloquent recounting the persecutions, pogroms, crusades, witch-hunts, inquisitions, and religious wars whereby countless persons were burned, butchered, tortured, or thrown into dungeons by God-fearing fanatics (Johnson, 1976). In his recent best-seller Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen traces the long disgraceful record of Christian anti-Semitism (Goldhagen, 1996). The hatred sown in Martin Luther’s rabid anti-Jewish diatribes was reaped at Auschwitz. Forrest G. Wood’s book The Arrogance of Faith details Christian complicity in the genocide of American Indians and the defense of slavery (Wood, 1990). (See Chapter One of this monograph for supporting details.)

But haven’t Christians repented of their past evils and grown into a force for tolerance? Did not Pope John Paul II recently express sorrow for the Catholic Church’s past persecutions? In 1983 (350 years after the occurrence) the Church even repented its treatment of Galileo. Is this not (belated) progress?

Public pronouncements by Christian spokespersons have changed; blatant expressions of intolerance are no longer fashionable. Some Christian activists have glibly mastered the language of inclusiveness and pluralism and have turned such language to their own uses. For example, even radical-right moralists, with nauseating hypocrisy, claim not to despise gay people; they “hate the sin” while “loving the sinner.” Still, one does not have to dig very deep to hit the hard bedrock of bigotry beneath the shifting sands of rhetoric. Religious Right activists, caught with their guard down, are a wonderful revelation. Listen to Pat Robertson talking politics when he thinks the microphone is off or to D. James Kennedy’s sermons to his choir as he spits hatred at anybody who disagrees with him. Recall the head of the Southern Baptist Convention who just a few years ago said that God does not hear the prayers of a Jew, or the more recent Baptists who say that women are unfit to serve as ministers.

When confronted with the “holy horrors” of Christian history, the standard apologetic line is that the perpetrators of such horrors were not acting in the “true spirit of Christ” or according to the “true” Gospel message. This line always rings hollow. It sounds like the strained apologetics of academic Marxists who admit the horrors of the Gulag but who deny that the Soviet Union was a true communist society.

One thing Marx and Jesus definitely had in common was their insistence that what matters is not abstract theory but how a scheme works out in practice. As Jesus said of false prophets “By their fruits shall ye know them (Matthew 7:15).” Communism may sound great on paper, but if every society that attempts to implement it becomes a totalitarian nightmare, so much for Marxist theory. When Poland suffered under General Jaruzelski, the Poles had a bitter joke: “Where does the true socialist society exist? On the moon.” The same may be said of the “true” Christian society. If anyone wonders what a society run by the Robertsons and Falwells would really look like, they should read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1986).

Still, someone might object that Christianity should be judged in its pure, revealed form rather than by its admittedly shoddy practice. But the monstrous doctrine of hell is part of that alleged revelation. The greatest Christian teachers exhausted their vast powers of eloquence offering lurid depictions of hell (see Bernstein, 1998). Surely these revolting fantasies are the most misshapen progeny of the human imagination. All the most orthodox divines, Calvinist as well as Catholic, taught that one of the chief joys of heaven is the viewing of the torments of the damned (Johnson, 1976, p. 342). Tertullian cackled with glee as he anticipated seeing pagan philosophers writhing in the flames. Surely Paine was right. Such doctrines have corrupted and brutalized humanity. Cruel dogmas make cruel people. (See Chapter Two for supporting details.)

More fundamentally, the Christian concept of human nature is at odds with the aims of an open, democratic, and pluralistic society. Christianity insists that human nature is depraved, a beast that must be caged. Since humans are evil, they must be controlled by higher authority imposed from above. Christians talk about faith, hope, and love, but obedience is the prime Christian virtue (“There is no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey” says the old hymn). Since submission to authority, whether human or divine, is the chief Christian duty, Christianity lends itself naturally to authoritarian political schemes. We should not forget that the Church supported Franco in Spain and King Leopold in the Congo. In short, the City of God does not run on democratic principles.

So, will Christianity improve society? I guess it turns on what we regard as “improving” society. If we want the regimented, authoritarian society of The Handmaid’s Tale, the answer is “yes.” So, when the pundits tell us that religion will improve society, they need to be frank about the fascism they are recommending.

To sum up the argument so far, the Christian Bible if full of atrocities ordered or committed by God. Christianity produced St. Francis, but it also produced Grand Inquisitor Torquemada and the authors of Malleus Malleficarum, the witch-hunter’s handbook. Today’s Religious Right dreams of a golden age when we will truly have one nation under (their) God. History shows that a Holy Inquisition would be more likely than a golden age. Christianity has preached hatred, soaked the earth with blood, and filled the mind with supernatural terrors. It seems clear that my first point is established: A rational, conscientious person may doubt the beneficial effects of Christian preaching and practice. A pragmatic apologetic based on the alleged good effects of Christianity therefore fails.

Of course, many Christians are as appalled by the “holy horrors” of Christian history as I am. Some, such as the Episcopal Bishop of Newark, the Right Reverend Shelby Spong, are strong opponents of fundamentalism. Others, such as the Reverend Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have fought the good fight against the theocratic efforts of the Religious Right. Further, there is no doubt that many ordinary people have found strength and inspiration in their Christian faith. So, can there be a sort of Christianity that preserves the good things while getting rid of the bad? I do not know. I do know that, as Voltaire, Paine, Ingersoll, Russell, and others showed, the “old time religion” was often very bad.

We turn now to the central question of this essay: Is Christianity true? St. Paul lays it on the line. In I Corinthians 15:14 Paul states unequivocally “if Christ was not raised, our faith is null and void.” No one can ask for fairer than that. I do not believe that Christ was raised from the dead so I regard the Christian Gospel as null and void.

My argument against the Resurrection is simple:

(1) To be made credible, extraordinary claims must be extraordinarily well supported.

(2) The alleged Resurrection of Jesus is a very extraordinary claim.

(3) The supporting evidence is not good, so we should remain skeptical of the Resurrection.

I regard the first premise as uncontroversial. No rational person believes everything he or she is told. Some things are discounted, even when told with a straight face by persons who are otherwise presumed reliable. Why? Well, there are some things we just regard as too implausible to accept unless we are told by a very reliable source. We can imagine cases where the claim would be so outrageous we would not even believe a most trustworthy person. Suppose that saintly Mother Teresa had told a reporter that she flew to pick up her Nobel Peace Prize, not in an airplane, but simply by flapping her arms. Could the reporter be blamed for not believing in flying nuns, even when told by so respectable and (heretofore) credible a person?

The lesson is that if we rationally regard a claim as extremely implausible, we will rightly demand very strong evidence before we accept it. How should we approach the claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? With an open mind, certainly, but as one wag put it, if your mind is too open, your brain will fall out. In other words, being open minded does not mean that we must empty our minds of preconceptions or suspend critical judgment. On the contrary, we can only rationally evaluate a claim in the light of what we already regard as true and reasonable.

Moving to the second premise, how implausible should one initially (i.e., before examining the specific evidence) regard the claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? Well, as I note in my opening remarks that depends crucially upon what other beliefs one already has. Perhaps it would be simpler to start by saying why I begin with a high degree of incredulity.

The Resurrection claimed by Christians is a physically impossible event. That is, unaided nature could not have accomplished such an occurrence. It could only have been accomplished by the miraculous intervention of a supernatural beingthe God of the Bible in this instance. The previous three sentences do not express my stipulation but my understanding of what Christians are claiming.

Now I do not believe in a God who can perform miracles. I have considered what seem to me to be the strongest arguments for the existence of God and have found them wanting (Mackie, 1981; Parsons, 1989; Martin, 1990). Also, the existence of so much apparently gratuitous evil in the world seems to me excellent reason not to believe in an all-powerful, all-good God (Parsons, 1989; Drange, 1998). Therefore, I regard any claim that God has brought about a particular physically impossible event as having a prior probability of close to zero. So, given my background beliefs, I have every right to demand very good, even compelling evidence before I accept the claimed Resurrection.

It would be easy enough for Christians and atheists to draw lines in the sand, take refuge in their own ideological fortresses, and damn the other side to prove them wrong. However, we live in an intellectual milieu already severely balkanized, so it is salutary, for the sake of argument at least, to start with a less extreme position than my thoroughgoing atheism. Further, I have stated my aim to invoke shared assumptions and background knowledge. Here I shall have to depart from that aim a bit.

Michael Martin has recently argued that the Resurrection must be considered initially improbable even by Christians (Martin, 1998, 1999). Christian philosopher Stephen T. Davis strongly disagrees (Davis, 1999). I think Martin is right, but I shall not enter into this dispute here. I shall concede to Davis that the Resurrection need not be initially improbable for Christians. Still, Christians must surely recognize that it is reasonable for non-Christians to be initially quite skeptical of the claimed Resurrection. Insofar as Christian apologists aim to address the beliefs of non-Christians, their arguments must therefore presume the non-Christians’ prior beliefs, not their own. So I shall assume that Christian apologists, for the sake of argument, will grant me premise two.

Again, how low should we initially assess the likelihood of Jesus’s alleged Resurrection? Let us ask how a non-Christian theistone who definitely believes in a God who can and has performed miraclesshould approach the question of the Resurrection. Let us imagine a conservative but open-minded person who has practiced Judaism throughout his or her life and who now decides, for the first time, to consider the purported evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. With what attitude will such a person approach this study?

Even for such a theist, an initially deep skepticism would be appropriate. Even those who believe in a God who can and has performed miracles will regard any particular miracle claim with skepticism. After all, miracle-claims come a dozen for a dime. Hucksters and hoaxers abound, as do false prophets and false religions. Also, as Hume remarked, humans have a natural love for the marvelous; a glance at the “New Age” or “occult” section of any bookstore confirms this. In a classic essay T.H. Huxley notes that many ancient and medieval documents calmly and matter-of-factly present first-person reports of miracles (Huxley, 1893). We would be credulous indeed if we accepted each of these. So, even theists will regard false miracle reports as vastly outnumbering true ones. Prima facie there is nothing distinguishing Christian miracle stories from those that abound elsewhere.

Further, religious people refrain from jumping out of upper-story windows the same as atheists. A scientist in the laboratory follows the same procedures and expects the same laws to hold whether he or she is religious or not. In general, religious people take the same sorts of precautions and make the same sorts of practical plans as non-religious ones, so clearly they do in fact expect the usual regularities of nature to hold in the overwhelming majority of cases. Hence, they also should be initially deeply skeptical of reports that such regularities have been suspended. After all, when Mary conceived asexually, was not Joseph, presumably a deeply religious person, rightly scandalizeduntil the angel set him straight (Matthew 1:20)?

So, it is entirely in order for us non-Christians, whether theists or not, to approach the Resurrection claim with a deep degree of initial skepticism. Why should Christian miracle-claims, from the beginning, be regarded any differently from the plethora of other such claims extant in historical records? We have every right to demand very good evidence indeed before we accept the Christian claim. Of course, if we are reasonable, our beliefs will change if we are given such excellent reasons, so let us now turn to the purported evidence.

All of the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus derives from human testimony (the so-called “Shroud” of Turin is a medieval forgery). Now David Hume’s famous argument against miracles in Section X of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding has often been interpreted as claiming that human testimony, in principle, cannot establish a miracle claim. I think in principle it could (in practice difficulties abound, as we shall see), but the burden of proof will be on the person claiming the miracle and the burden will be quite heavy since, as we saw, such evidence must overcome a high degree of initial skepticism.

Does the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus meet this heavy burden of proof? Nearly all of the so-called evidence comes from the four canonical gospels. But let’s be honest. What confidence can we have in documents, (1) authored by persons unknown (with the possible exception of Luke, who admits he was not an eyewitness), (2) written four or more decades after the events they purportedly describe, (3) drawn upon oral traditions, and hence subject to the unreliability of human memory, (4) each with a clear theological bias and apologetic agenda, (5) containing many undeniably fictional literary forms, (6) inconsistent with each other (except where one gospel plagiarizes another), (7) at odds with many known facts, (8) with virtually no support from independent sources, and (9) testifying to events which, in ordinary circumstances, we would regard as unlikely in the extreme? (See Chapter Three for supporting details.)

Allow me to pause to note that the above nine claims are supported by a very broad consensus of Christian New Testament scholars. Each of these claims is old hat for a practitioner of higher critical studies of the gospels.

Professor Craig believes that three main points of evidence support the historical case for the Resurrection of Jesus: The post-mortem appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith. I shall explain why I reject each of these pieces of purported evidence. (See Chapter Four for supporting details.)

The post-mortem appearances: Professor Craig places much emphasis on the formula recited by Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-8, where Paul lists various alleged witnesses of the risen Jesus: Cephas (Simon Peter), “the twelve,” over 500 at once, James (Jesus’s brother), all of the apostles, and finally Paul himself. This passage is important because (a) it is very early, (b) it names or refers to numerous alleged witnesses of the risen Jesus, and (c) it gives Paul’s own testimony, the only undisputed first-person report of an encounter with the risen Christ in the entire New Testament.

The early date of the formula is irrelevant. Contrary to a claim frequently made by Professor Craig and other apologists, legends can and do spread almost immediately, despite the opposition of eyewitnesses, and sometimes even with the connivance of eyewitnesses. Consider Elvis and Bigfoot sightings, “Bermuda Triangle” disappearances, alien abductions, crashed saucer stories, and other such goofy legends. Such stories spread quickly, often despite the testimony of eyewitnesses and the efforts of would-be debunkers. Surely people are not more credulous now than they were in the First Century. In short, it is a demonstrated, abundantly documented fact that legends do develop and spread quickly. (See Chapter Five for supporting details.)

Getting back to Paul’s testimony, in this passage he is not arguing with skeptical unbelievers. He says that he is passing on (paradidomi in Greek) a tradition that he has received. Paul is not trying to convince the Corinthians by adducing objective historical evidence, he is reminding them of a tradition which they already accept as authoritative. In fact, Paul was simply re-asserting the kerygma, the basic Christian proclamation that, in accordance with the scriptures, Christ died “for our sins,” rose on the third day, and appeared to various witnesses.

Paul’s formula gives no details as to where, when, or under what circumstances the appearances supposedly occurred. It does not mention the empty tomb; the phrase “was buried” in no way implies independent knowledge of an empty tomb tradition. It gives no place or date for the alleged Resurrection. The Gospels and Acts know nothing of an appearance to 500; surely they would have reported such a remarkable event. Paul does not make clear whether the appearances were physical or visionarythe Greek text is entirely ambiguous on that point. More importantly, we know nothing of the reliability of any of the so-called witnesses. How reliable were Peter or James? How do we know that the “500,” if they really existed, did not suffer a mass hallucination?

But does not the very existence of such a tradition at such an early date imply its historicity? Does not the very fact that the list of witnesses had been definitely formulated before Paul indicate that there must be a kernel of historical truth here? Essentially this is an argumentum ad ignorantiaman appeal to ignorance. We simply do not and cannot know how that list got formulated. As so often happens with historical investigation, the trail runs cold just at the point of greatest interest. Without begging many questions, apologists cannot assume anything about the nature of the “appearances,” the reliability of the alleged witnesses, the lack of legendary accretion, or anything else that would support the historicity of that tradition.

What then about Paul’s own “eyewitness” testimony? As noted earlier, if we accepted all of the “eyewitness” reports of miracles from old texts, we would be credulous indeed. Is Paul, then, particularly credible? On the contrary, Paul himself states that he was given to ecstatic visions. In II Corinthians 12 Paul tells of being “caught up as far as the third heaven” (verse 2) and not knowing whether he was “in the body or out of it” (verse 2, repeated in verse 3). He reports that when he was “caught up into paradise” (verse 4) that he “heard words so secret that no human lips may repeat them” (verse 4). Clearly, this is an account of a mystical vision. Why not conclude that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ was of a similar kind?

What about the “appearances” to the disciples? All except the most conservative scholars agree that Mark, the oldest gospel, originally ended with verse 16:8 and included no account of appearances to the disciples. As G. A. Wells noted, the appearance stories recounted in the other two synoptics are full of inconsistencies:

Matthew, following hints by Mark, sites in Galilee the one appearance to them that he records: the risen one has instructed the women at the empty tomb to tell the disciples to go to Galilee in order to see him (28:10). They do this, and his appearance to them there concludes the gospel. In Luke, however, he appears to them on Easter day in Jerusalem and nearby on the Emmaus road (eighty miles from Galilee) and tells them to stay in the city “until ye be clothed with power from on high” (24:49; Acts 2:1-4 represents this as happening on Pentecost, some fifty days later). They obey, and were “continually in the temple” (24:53). Luke has very pointedly changed what is said in Mark so as to site these appearances in the city (Wells, 1996, p. 100).

So the synoptics give no coherent account of the post-mortem “appearances.” Apologists often insist that the gospel authors wrote in close consultation with the original eyewitnesses and that this ensures their accuracy. In that case, why are the accounts so inconsistent?

Suppose that, shortly after the crucifixion, one or more of the disciples did experience an “appearance” of the risen Jesus. Why not regard these experiences as hallucinations or visions? Psychologists tell us that hallucinations by normal, non-psychotic persons are much more common than most people think. Often they seem very real. People suffering severe reactive depression and a sense of loss and isolation are especially prone to hallucinations. Given their state of mind after the crucifixion, it would not be surprising if one or more of the disciples experienced a vivid hallucination of Jesus. Biblical scholar Gerd Lüdemann carefully examined the post-Resurrection “appearances” and concluded that they can all be explained as visions (Lüdemann, 1995). (See Chapter Six for supporting details.)

Now for the empty tomb legend: Professor Craig adduces Paul’s testimony in the I Corinthians 15 formula that Jesus was buried as evidence for the empty tomb. Presumably, this phrase shows that Paul, or whoever composed the formula, had knowledge of an independent empty tomb tradition. But reciting such a liturgical formula no more implies knowledge of an empty tomb than singing “John Brown’s Body” implies knowledge of where John Brown is buried. So, Paul’s use of the phrase does not indicate any such knowledge on his part. As for the origination of the phrase, Kee, Young, and Froelich offer a plausible hypothesis: “The minor observation is that he was buriedpossibly an apologetic note introduced to attest that Jesus had really died, rather than having merely swooned or disappeared, as enemies of the Christian faith sometimes claimed” (pp. 56-57). So the phrase may have entered the formula as an apologetic aside rather than as a reflection of an empty tomb tradition.

Professor Craig also argues that, had the stories of the empty tomb been fictitious, the prejudices of the day would have dictated that men be portrayed as the discoverers of the empty tomb. But the gospel accounts say that the disciples fled into hiding with Jesus’s arrest. Among the closest followers of Jesus, only the women were left to care for the body. Further, it was customary for women to be involved in the process of preparing bodies for burial (Schroeder and Nelis, 1963, p. 287). Therefore, it is not very surprising that female followers of Jesus would be depicted as discovering the empty tomb. Besides, for the gospel writers, the discovery of the empty tomb was not nearly so important as its subsequent confirmation by the (male) disciples.

More fundamentally, as the Right Rev. Shelby Spong states:

[T]he discovery of an empty tomb would never have issued in an Easter faith. If there had been a tomb, and if that tomb had been found empty, it would have meant only that one more insult had been delivered to the leader of the tiny Jesus movement. The disciples, whoever they were, would have concluded that not even the dead body of this Jesus had been spared degradation. No Easter faith would have resulted from an empty tomb. Therefore such a tradition could not have been primary. It was but a story incorporated later into the narrative (1994, p. 228).

In other words, the empty tomb, by itself and considered apart from the post-mortem “appearances,” would only have been evidence of desecration, not resurrection. It becomes evidence for resurrection only when joined to the appearance claims, and, as we have seen, those are unreliable.

Professor Craig’s third main piece of evidence for the Resurrection is the origin of the Christian faith itself. He argues that the Christian faith in a resurrected Jesus has no precedent in Jewish thought. The Jewish conception of resurrection is a general raising of the dead at the end of time, not the raising to glory of a single individual as an event in history. Further, the Christian idea that the resurrection of the righteous will somehow hinge on the Messiah’s resurrection, was wholly unknown. Professor Craig concludes that these new Christian ideas were so radical that only the actual Resurrection of Jesus can account for so extreme a conceptual shift.

But according to the gospels, Jesus’s ministry contained many heretical elements. In Mark 2 Jesus claims authority for the forgiveness of sins, which elicits a charge of blasphemy from the scribes. In Mark 7 he sets aside the traditional dietary distinctions between clean and unclean foods. In Mark 2:28, he even claims to be sovereign over the Sabbath. Further, Jesus’s preaching was full of apocalyptic content. He famously said “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1). In Mark 8:31 and 10:34 he predicts that the Son of Man will die and rise three days afterward.

Given the heretical and apocalyptic nature of their master’s teachings and the experiences, whatever they were, that convinced them that Jesus had risen, the emergence of radically new concepts in the disciples’ minds hardly seems to require supernatural explanation. For the early Christians, the Resurrection of Jesus was the first eschatological event, an event that ushered in the New Age, the coming of the Kingdom. They believed that they were in the end times. As a standard textbook puts it:

[Christianity] … shared with much of Judaism the hopes for the New Age that God had promised through the prophets and seers. But it differed from the rest of Judaism in one crucial point: It was convinced that the New Age had already begun to dawn. More specifically, it believed that God had acted in Jesus of Nazareth to inaugurate the New Age, and that the community itself was the nucleus of the People of the New Age. The basis for this conviction was the belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead (Kee, Young, and Froelich, pp. 52-53).

In other words, early Christians believed that they were in the end times and that the Resurrection of Jesus was the eschatological event that ushered in the New Age, the coming of the Kingdom. Further, Jesus’s Resurrection was not conceived as an event separate from the general resurrection, but only as the first resurrection, soon to be followed by the others at the time of Christ’s Second Coming. Thus Paul calls Jesus as the “firstfruits of the harvest of the dead” (I Corinthians 15:20). Paul continues: “As in Adam all men die, so in Christ all will be brought to life; but each in his own proper place: Christ the firstfruits, and afterwards, at his coming, those who belong to Christ” (I Corinthians 15:22-23).

In all honesty, I simply do not see a gaping, unbridgeable conceptual chasm between belief in a general resurrection at the end of time and the belief that Jesus’s Resurrection was the first event of the coming of the end times. In the presently fashionable lingo, paradigm shifts do occur. If Professor Craig insists that, nonetheless, such a conceptual shift requires supernatural intervention, I simply have to ask: What are his criteria? At what point are concepts so alien that it would require a miracle for someone to shift from one to the other? We need some such guidelines before the discussion can proceed.

In conclusion, I have argued that there are no grounds for regarding Christianity as either good or true. Christian scripture, doctrine, and practice have sanctioned cruelty and made vindictiveness a virtue. The arguments concerning the alleged Resurrection of Jesus cannot bear even a modest burden of proof, much less the fairly heavy one we have placed on them. Throughout I have endeavored to appeal only to premises that Christian apologists can accept or ought to concede. I have nowhere assumed atheism, naturalism, or extreme skepticism. My appeal was to common sense, common knowledge, and scholarly consensus, not to a methodology dictated by Enlightenment ideologies. I therefore take my second point, and the main point of this essay, as now established: Given only shared background knowledge and expected concessions, it is unlikely that the alleged Resurrection of Jesus occurred, and so it is unlikely that Christianity is true.


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