I am posting my arguments from my recent debate with “Nick the Christian” on Theology Web:
It is my contention that the average person, even someone with only a high school education, can make a reasonable decision about the historicity of the Resurrection claim without immersing him or herself in the books of scholars, and, can be fully confident that his or her conclusion regarding this claim rests on solid evidence.
There is a story in Buddhism that one day the Buddha was walking through the countryside and came upon some farmers using a water buffalo to work their fields. For some reason or another, the Buddha caused the water buffalo to start speaking to the farmers in a human language for an extended period of time.
I’m not sure how strongly Buddhists believe that this event is historical, but for the sake of my argument, let’s assume that at least some Buddhists consider this event to have really happened. How could we know whether it did or didn’t? Could we interview the farmers? No. The Buddha lived thousands of years ago. The farmers are dead. Can we examine the talking water buffalo? No. The water buffalo is dead. So what other evidence could we examine?
Are there any contemporary documents that describe this event, and if so, can we compare them to see if they corroborate one another’s story? In our imaginary investigation of this ancient claim, this is what we find:
1. Four anonymously written manuscripts, each describing the event with many minor and a couple major discrepancies. We are able to date these manuscripts to have been written at least three, probably four decades after the alleged event. We are also told by writing experts that two, and possible three, of the manuscript authors borrowed heavily from the first manuscript in writing their stories.
2. The writings of a non-Buddhist man, living during the same time period, who converted to Buddhism because he claimed that the water buffalo appeared to him in a “heavenly vision” on a desert highway and spoke to him in a human language, also.
3. The writings of one Buddhist man living 90-100 years after the alleged event who stated that undisclosed sources told him that at least two of the four anonymous manuscripts were most likely written by the original farmers who heard the water buffalo talk.
You chuckle to yourself when you read this and say to yourself, “Water buffalo cannot talk! This is a superstition!”
However, you know that your cardiologist is a Buddhist. So you ask him about this story and the evidence to support it. “Doctor Z, you don’t really believe that water buffalo can talk, do you?” with a grin on your face.
You are taken back by the look on your cardiologist’s face. You have obviously offended him.
“Yes I believe that the water buffalo talked. Look at all the evidence that says it did. Do you think all these people were lying?” he snaps.
“But why don’t we hear of water buffalo talking in human languages today?” You ask.
“That was a special era. The gods don’t perform such miracles anymore,” he says.
“That’s convenient,” you think to yourself.
Your Buddhist cardiologist then goes on to explain that people in that culture, in that time period, did not believe, and had never believed, that water buffalo could talk, so the fact that people in that culture came to believe that at least one water buffalo talked, is strong evidence that the water buffalo in the story really did speak, to a group of farmers, in a human language, for over a half an hour, several thousand years ago! He also states that many water buffalo believers were killed for their talking-water-buffalo beliefs and that this too is evidence that the water buffalo must surely have talked.
As you leave your cardiologist’s office, you shake your head, and ask yourself how such an intelligent, educated man could believe that water buffalo can talk. “Aren’t there many more probable, more naturalistic, explanations for why this ancient belief developed other than that a real live water buffalo was speaking perfect Hindi to a group of farmers several thousand years ago??”
Now, Reader, take this same level of skepticism and apply it to every one of Nick’s claims of evidence for the reanimation of the dead, decomposing body of a man who died two thousand years ago, named Jesus of Nazareth. Is the evidence for Nick’s claims any better than the claims for the talking water buffalo? I say they are not. I say that Nick’s evidence is based on the assumption that a very, very improbable, never-heard-of-before-or-since event is the more likely cause for why early Christians came to believe in the reanimation of a dead corpse, than that their belief came about due to any one of a long list of much more probable, and much more naturalistic, events.
Again, I can’t disprove the Resurrection, but I believe I can demonstrate that the probability of the reanimation of a dead human corpse is just as unlikely as a water buffalo speaking fluent Hindi or English.
Now to address Nick’s points:
Let me first say that I believe that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus was a real person, who lived in first century Palestine, who did something to upset Jewish authorities, who asked the Romans to crucify him, which they did. Beyond that, I think the evidence is very sketchy. Although I tend to believe that Jesus was a real historical figure, it is odd that this man allegedly created such a huge ruckus in the most rebellious province of the Roman Empire but yet not one of his contemporaries, such as Philo, said one word about him. “A conspiracy of the Jews and Romans to hush this embarrassing story.” Some Christians say. Possible. But not probable. I don’t question Jesus’ historicity. I question his importance in the Palestine of his day as described in the Gospels, and, I question the miracle claims about him. Three hours of complete darkness covers the entire world and no one in Athens, Alexandria, Rome, China, or the lands of the Mayans says one word about this unprecedented solar phenomenon??
Nick believes that the empty tomb is historical fact. Again, reader, I ask you to ask yourself this question: Are there any more probable, more naturalistic explanations for an empty tomb other than that an ancient middle-eastern god reanimated the body of a dead and decomposing Jewish prophet? For instance this one: What if Arimathea moved the body on Saturday night, after Passover, in the cover of darkness, with Pilate’s permission, and tossed the body into an unmarked hole in the ground in another section of the garden. He had only put Jesus body in the tomb to prevent it being up on the cross at the start of Passover. The women show up the next morning, find an empty tomb, and, voila, the “empty tomb/resurrection” story takes off like wild fire.
This is a much more probable explanation for an empty tomb. In addition, maybe there was no empty tomb. Paul says in I Corinthians that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again. Early Christians could have based this belief simply upon false sightings of a risen Jesus. “Buried and risen” does not imply the existence of a known, hand-hewn tomb. The empty tomb detail appears nowhere in Paul’s writings. Nowhere. It first appears in Christian writings with the Gospel of Mark, written circa 70 AD, four decades after the alleged event! That is plenty of time for a legend to develop, regardless of Christian denials that it is impossible for a legend to develop in that time period. Dear Christians, prove to us that it is impossible for a legend to have developed with in forty years among uneducated, Galilean peasants, two thousand years ago. You can’t. No matter how improbable you say it is, you cannot say “impossible”. And a very unlikely, very improbable naturalistic explanation is much more probable in our collective human experience to be the explanation for this early Christian belief than a never-heard-of-before-or-since miracle explanation of the reanimation of dead human flesh.
What about the claims of multiple people seeing the reanimated body of Jesus at the same time? Would five hundred people lie? Think about this, folks. THOUSANDS of Roman Catholics, all in the same place, all at the same time, believe that the Virgin Mary has appeared to them. Why couldn’t the “five hundred” mentioned by Paul have had a similar miracle experience??
“All four gospels mention an empty tomb so we have multiple attestation.” No. You have two sources, and more probably, just one. Everyone by now knows that the authors of Matthew and Luke borrowed (plagiarized??) heavily from Mark, and it is conceivable that the author of John borrowed the boiler plate story from the Synoptics to which he added his high Christological, never-mentioned-once-in-Matthew-Mark-or-Luke sermons. Bottom line: we have zero evidence from the first 35-45 years of Christianity that proves that even one Christian believed in an empty tomb until the appearance of Mark’s gospel. And here is another important point: Just because the earliest Christians believed there had been a resurrection, does not mean that they believed the resurrection occurred as described in books (the four gospels) written 40-70 years later! I will agree with Nick that early Christians believed that Jesus had been resurrected, but there is no proof they believed in an empty tomb.
Nick frequently mentions that Christianity was a shameful belief system and that people would not join a shameful belief system unless something really phenomenal had convinced them of its veracity. One only has to look at recent history to see numerous new cults formed based on very embarrassing, shameful beliefs, ie, the Jim Jones cult, Heaven’s Gate, etc.. Gullible people fall for some of the dumbest and most shameful claims imaginable. Why should we believe it was any different two thousand years ago??
Christians seem to believe in a false dichotomy: Either the Bible is 100% true, or it is all a lie. This is black and white thinking and I believe very erroneous. I don’t believe that the early Christians fabricated these stories. I believe that the early Christians sincerely believed that their dead prophet and leader had risen from the dead and would soon (in their lifetimes) return to re-establish the New Kingdom on earth. But as we see today, people who have experienced the sudden death of someone they love, someone whose existence forms the basis for their very happiness, are very prone to “see” and believe things that are not true.
Regarding Paul: I believe that Paul truly believed that he had seen Jesus. But many, many people down through history have believed that Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, or dead Uncle Billy have appeared to them. That doesn’t mean they really did. And, yes, Paul’s conversion from a devout Jew to Christianity is odd, but there is a Muslim mullah in Israel today who only a few years ago was an ultra-orthodox Jewish settler and rabbi!! That is an odd conversion! Strange conversions do happen. You don’t need to see a ghost for it to occur.
As for James: Are there any more probable, more naturalistic explanations for why the brother of Jesus would join “the Way”? Christians won’t like it, but here is one possibility: Since James was Jesus’ brother, he could claim that Jesus had appointed him his successor. The church in Jerusalem was telling its new converts to sell all their possessions and put the money in a community fund, a fund for which the Church leaders would have control. “Hmmm? Working all day in a small carpenter’s shop in Nazareth or leader of a movement with access to a lot of money and power.” “But what about James martyrdom?” Christians will ask. We have no idea why the Jewish high priest killed James. Maybe he just didn’t like Christians. We have no proof that James was given a chance to live if he would only deny the Resurrection.
“Several non-Christian scholars believe that the early Christians had resurrection EXPERIENCES.” So what? Believing a miracle happened and evidence that the miracle really did happen are two very, very different things. EP Sanders did not say that he believed the disciples really did see a walking, talking dead corpse.
And I love it when Christians quote Lapide. One Jewish scholar—out of hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish scholars, sages, and rabbis, who have existed for the last 2,000 years, who all believe the Resurrection claim is preposterous and ridiculous—believes that the Resurrection was an historical event, and we are expected to brush aside the views of every other Jewish scholar who has ever existed? My goodness.
The truth is that the overwhelming majority of Jewish scholars reject the Resurrection claim. The overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars reject the resurrection claim. Therefore a very sizable percentage of the world’s monotheists believe that the Christian claim of the reanimation of the dead corpse of Jesus of Galilee is a superstitious legend or a ridiculous fabrication. These very educated, very intelligent scholars do not buy Nick’s evidence. These many thousands of very educated, very intelligent scholars think Nick’s (Christianity’s) evidence is pathetically weak and unconvincing. The improbability of this miracle event having been historical is therefore not based on the rants of a bunch of God-hating atheists. It is based on the lack of good evidence, a lack of good evidence that any reasonable person with a high school education should be able to easily see.
In my humble opinion, Nick has presented no better evidence for us to believe in the reanimation of the dead flesh of a first century Jewish prophet than the claim that an ancient water buffalo spoke fluent Hindi for half an hour to a group of dumbfounded farmers.<!–