Lee Strobel is a well-known defender of the Christian worldview who has not only written several best-selling books but also maintains his own website. On the other hand, Hemant Mehta is a well-known defender of the atheist stance who has written at least one best-selling book and also maintains his own website. Mehta, known as the “Friendly Atheist” and the man who “sold his soul on e-Bay,” recently persuaded Strobel to answer some questions posed by his atheist friends. In the interests of a friendly exchange of views, Strobel in turn asked his Christian theist friends if they would submit some questions for atheists to answer. Seven of Strobel’s friends complied. Atheists will not be united in their answers to these questions, just as theists will not be united with Strobel in his answers to the questions from atheists. Nevertheless, it is important that nonbelievers answer the challenge, and so here I offer my set of answers to Strobel’s Christian theist friends.
Q. Christian apologist Mike Licona: “What turns you off about Christianity? Irrespective of one’s worldview, many experience periods of doubt. Do you ever doubt your atheism and, if so, what is it about theism or Christianity that is most troubling to your atheism?”
A. There are two questions here, one about turn-offs and the other about doubt. Some things about Christianity which turn me off are that it motivates discrimination against gay persons, opposition to abortion rights, and, in some places of the world, discouragement of the use of birth control. Another thing which turns me off is that Christians often seem to be too certain about their worldview; they don’t have enough doubt. Of course, I have some doubt about atheism, but my doubt varies according to the god being considered. My doubt is minimal when I consider the existence of the Christian god; it is almost certainly the case that this particular god doesn’t exist.
Q. Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig: “What’s the real reason you don’t believe in God? How and when do you lose your faith in God?”
A. That this is a rather odd and possibly disingenuous question can be revealed by deleting one word from the question and asking Craig: “What’s the real reason you believe in God?” The reason I don’t believe in God is that it doesn’t make good sense to me. On the other hand, the “real reason” could be that there exists a good god who is causing me not to believe in God and who has fended off a bad god who causes theists to believe in God. Although the evidence for this hypothesis is weak, it is still a possibility. I lost my faith in God when I was about 19 years old when I was persistent in asking questions and reading skeptical writers.
Q. Author and Christian pastor John Ortberg: “How can you create a meaningful life in a meaningless universe?”
A. While the universe as a whole appears to have no meaning and to be indifferent to human needs and wants, it is simply in the nature of humans to create meaning. We humans are born with certain biological desires, urges, and needs, and with capacities to seek satisfaction of those propensities. These biological realities provide the foundation for a meaningful life. Different people emphasize different predispositions and circumstances to create meaningful lives. For example, I have created a meaningful life which emphasizes seeking the truth about the Big Questions.
Q. Resurrection apologist Gary Habermas: “Utilizing each of the historical facts conceded by virtually all contemporary scholars, please produce a comprehensive natural explanation of Jesus’ resurrection that makes better sense than the event itself.” “These historical facts are:
- Jesus was killed by crucifixion
- Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them
- The conversion of the church persecutor Saul
- the conversion of the skeptic James, Jesus’ half-brother
- The empty tomb of Jesus.
These “minimal facts” are strongly evidenced and are regarded as historical by the vast majority of scholars, including skeptics, who have written about the resurrection in French, German, and English since 1975. While the fifth fact doesn’t enjoy quite the same universal consensus, nevertheless it is conceded by 75 percent of these scholars and is well supported by the historical data if assessed without preconceptions.”
A. I dispute most of the so-called “facts” suggested by Habermas, and even if one were to tentatively accept them, the resurrection hypothesis is the poorest of many available explanations for them. In the first place, we don’t have any report from an eyewitness of any of the events surrounding the crucifixion and alleged resurrection of Jesus. This fact alone means that the stories offered in support of the alleged resurrection don’t even come close to the “extraordinary evidence” which would be required to overrule our initial very strong conclusion that “dead men don’t come back to life” inferred from billions of cases with no exceptions. The four Gospels contain the only detailed narratives offered in support of the alleged resurrection, and they were written by unknown authors using unnamed and unknown sources (if any at all) 30-90 years after the alleged crucifixion in a language different from the one in which Jesus and his followers apparently spoke. Rather than journalistic or historical accounts, they are best regarded as collections of rumors, speculations, fabrications, embellishments, misunderstandings, mistranslations, and religious advertisements. There is nothing there to “hang your hat on.”
1. Was Jesus killed by crucifixion? Although he might have been, this has not been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt. We have no reports of eyewitnesses who were at the right place and time and who verified that Jesus was dead when removed from the cross. Who are the persons who could have made this confirmation? Presumably, they were Joseph of Arimathea and the Roman centurion in charge of the crucifixion squad. We have no reports from these men and we have no narrative in which either man is described as actually checking Jesus for signs of life after he was removed from the cross. Yes, there is a story in one Gospel that the centurion told Pilate that Jesus was dead, but this story is uncorroborated and doesn’t come from the centurion himself; at best it is a rumor. Even if the centurion made the alleged report to Pilate, how could he have known that Jesus was dead when Jesus had not been removed from the cross and examined? He couldn’t; he would have been guessing. The coma hypothesis may be just as likely to be true as the death-on-the-cross hypothesis. After all, Jesus was only on the cross for seven hours at most, and victims of Roman crucifixion typically remained alive on crosses for days before they died; the method was designed to prolong suffering. The hypothesis that Jesus was merely in a coma is supported by a few details from the narratives we are given. One is that the two thieves supposedly on crosses beside Jesus were still alive and apparently conscious after seven hours on the cross. Another is that although the thieves’ legs were broken, which could have hastened death, Jesus’ legs were not. Some people think that Jesus could not have survived the alleged thrust of a spear into his side. If this really occurred, then Jesus’ chances of survival via a coma would have been significantly diminished, but there are at least seven good reasons to believe that this alleged spear thrust did not occur, which space and time limitations make it impossible to discuss here. In the end, the case supporting the hypothesis that Jesus died on the cross is not as strong as Habermas and others would like us to believe and certainly not beyond a reasonable doubt.
2. Did Jesus’ disciples believe that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them? The authors of the Gospel narratives say that the disciples believed this. But these authors were not disciples themselves. We don’t know who they were. If their stories about the beliefs of the disciples are not pure fabrications, and they could be, then we still don’t know how the authors obtained their information about the disciples. The authors give us no details about any interviews with the disciples. There is no documented chain of evidence. All we have is a story about alleged appearances and belief. How might disciples come to believe that Jesus had appeared to them and that he had risen from the dead? The hypothesis that he did come back to life and then met with them is the least likely of several hypotheses.
3. Was there a conversion of a church persecutor named “Saul”? The New Testament includes three different descriptions of Saul’s alleged conversion experience, and the three differ in some details. One wonders why Saul couldn’t get his own story straight. Nevertheless, suppose that Saul did have a conversion experience roughly like what is described; so what? Saul’s alleged encounter with Jesus is very different from the alleged encounters of the disciples. Saul hears a voice and identifies it as being Jesus’ voice even though he never met the man! Saul sees a bright light; he doesn’t see or touch Jesus. We have no eyewitness reports from persons who supposedly accompanied Saul on the road to Damascus. All in all, if the story of Saul’s experience has any truth to it at all, it appears that Saul had a hallucination while on his journey, and this hallucination formed the basis for a religious conversion. This type of thing happens from time to time, even today in modern times. The fact that the converted Saul classifies his experience as an appearance of Jesus like those occurring to others actually undermines the believability of the other alleged appearances. That Habermas and others actually present Saul’s conversion experience as a piece of evidence to support a cumulative case for the alleged resurrection of Jesus shows how weak their case really is. There is nothing much of value here.
4. Was there a conversion of a skeptic half-brother of Jesus named “James”? At least one writer in the New Testament would have us believe so. But where is James’ written testimony about this? It is nowhere to be found, and thus at best this alleged conversion is based on a rumor. Even if there was a conversion, the Bible story leaves many questions unanswered. Before the crucifixion what exactly was James skeptical of? That Jesus never committed a sin? That Jesus always spoke the truth? That Jesus performed miracles? That Jesus was authorized to forgive sins? That Jesus had a direct connection to God? That Jesus was the Messiah? That Jesus was the Son of God? Exactly which beliefs of James changed as a result of his supposed conversion? After the crucifixion, did James believe that Jesus unexpectedly survived the crucifixion? Did James believe that Jesus came back to life? If so, on the basis of what evidence did he draw this conclusion? Was his conclusion a rational one? What role did James’ grief over his half-brother’s supposed death play in the development of his beliefs? We really don’t know the answers to these questions. We can’t interview James now and we don’t have a documented and verified report from him. The alleged conversion of James the skeptic does little to support the resurrection hypothesis.
5. Was there an empty tomb of Jesus? According to the four Gospels, there was. But the story that Jesus was placed in a tomb of Joseph of Arimathea and that later the tomb was found to be empty may be pure fabrication and/or based on unsubstantiated rumors. But suppose that this story is true; so what? It is compatible not only with the resurrection hypothesis but with several other hypotheses more likely to be true. If Jesus was placed in the tomb and the tomb was later found to be empty, we still just don’t know how the tomb came to be empty! Did Jesus, recovering from a coma or coming back to life, push back the stone and walk out on his own? Did he miraculously pass through the walls of the tomb? Dead or alive, was he carried out by others? If so, by whom? Unfortunately, we have no eyewitness reports of anyone who watched the tomb, from the inside or the outside, from about 4 PM on Friday until about 6 AM on Sunday. If there were any guards posted at the tomb at all, which is unlikely since we have only one uncorroborated story that there were guards (Matthew), these guards were not posted till sometime on Saturday. And thus, there were at least 12 hours during which the tomb was apparently unwatched by anyone! The best guess is that Joseph of Arimathea removed Jesus, dead or alive, from the tomb shortly after he placed Jesus in the tomb and after the women left the area outside. Why would he do this? If Jesus was dead, then perhaps Joseph wanted to bury the religious leader elsewhere to avoid tampering or publicity, to comply with the wishes of friends or family, or to vacate the tomb for later use by his own family. If Jesus was still alive, then perhaps Joseph wanted to hide this fact from Jesus’ enemies and to secure medical aid for the injured man.
There are several “comprehensive natural” explanations of the narratives about Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath which make better sense than the resurrection hypothesis. Either Jesus died on the cross or he did not. If he died on the cross and was placed in a tomb by Joseph, then it is most likely that he was removed from the tomb by Joseph himself, who had the opportunity, the means, and the motivation for this act. The tomb was found empty on Sunday by the women and then speculations about this discovery became rampant. The different alleged sightings of Jesus thereafter are probably best explained by hallucinations, dreams, misidentifications, misunderstandings, and pure fabrications. On the other hand, if Jesus did not die on the cross, but went into a coma, and was placed in a tomb by Joseph, then he was probably discovered to be alive and was removed from the tomb by Joseph who was uniquely situated to provide protection and medical care. Then later, after sufficient recovery from his wounds, Jesus may have had a few meetings with his followers and then left the area, never to be seen again. Other alleged encounters were probably based on hallucinations, dreams, misidentifications, misunderstandings, and pure fabrications. In either case, Jesus’ disciples may have come to believe, erroneously, that Jesus had come back to life after being dead. They so strongly wished this hypothesis to be true that they lowered their standards of evidence and came to believe that it was true, just as Habermas and other Christians have done so today. Believers and nonbelievers alike should carefully read Habermas and Licona’s book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus to familiarize themselves with probably the best case ever made for the resurrection of Jesus, a case which nevertheless fails to convince the reader operating within a rational framework.
Q. Christian philosopher and apologist Paul Copan: “Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?”
“And, second, granted that the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil, does the concept of evil itself not suggest a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate, so that if things ought to be a certain way (rather than just happening to be the way they are in nature), don’t such ‘injustices’ or ‘evils’ seem to suggest a moral/design plan independent of nature?”
A. Copan’s first question is based on two weak and unconfirmed presuppositions. The first is that the universe began to exist a finite time ago. But what is meant here by “began”? There are different types of beginnings. Certainly we can say that there was a rapid expansion of the universe from a very small volume to a very large volume, approximately 13.7 billion years ago, an event commonly called the ‘Big Bang,” and that this was a type of beginning, either a “dissolution,” a “transformation,” or both. Yet, at this stage of our science, we don’t yet know how this came about or what, if anything, happened before this event. Some cosmologists think that a very tiny volume of matter-energy simply popped into existence out of nothing, but others think that matter-energy has always existed in some form, but in a very compacted speck just before the Big Bang. Speculation abounds but nothing is close to being settled on the matter.
Copan’s other weak and unconfirmed presupposition behind his first question is that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life. For him to even to use the term “finely tuned” is to engage in a kind of question begging, for the term too easily leads to the question “By whom?” The so-called “fine tuning argument” is much ado about nothing, or almost nothing. Yes, if some things about the universe had been different, then other things would be different. Yes, if some constants or features of the universe had been different, life as we know it may not have existed. But the same could be said about millions of other things! For example, if some constants or features of the universe had been different, suns as we know them may not have existed; black holes may not have existed; rocks may not have existed; atomic bombs may not have existed. Why cherry-pick life for this examination? On the other hand, if some constants or features of the universe had been different, life as we do not know it, unfamiliar life, may have existed. But there are more fundamental problems with the so-called “fine tuning argument.” First, we don’t know if or which constants or features of the universe could have been different from what they are! Just because we can imagine them being different from what they are doesn’t necessarily mean they could actually have been different. All the options of our imaginations are not necessarily manifested in physical reality. Secondly, even if physical reality “allowed” for the constants or features of the universe to be different from what they are, we don’t know the range of values which they could take on. And thus, if the actual range were to be quite small, then life would not be improbable and the universe would be merely “grossly tuned” for life.
Now moving on to Copan’s second question: First, he may be correct that “the major objection to belief in God is the problem of evil.” Second, he is correct that the concept of evil itself suggests a standard of goodness or a design plan from which things deviate. But if the former is true; the latter is false. The concept of evil suggests a standard of goodness, but not a design plan. The standard of goodness has been developed by evolution, by trial and error, and by rational thinking over the course of primate and human history. It has come from us and was not imposed on us from the outside. Our standard of goodness supersedes any ideas about gods. This is why we are able to evaluate different gods, or ideas about them, by comparing them to goodness criteria. We know that a god who is all-knowing and all-powerful cannot be good if he stands by and simply allows a tsunami to kill a quarter million people. We know that a god who is all-knowing and all-powerful cannot be good if he causes a person to suffer from cancer for a “good reason” but does not personally and unambiguously inform the victim about that “good reason,” or if this god could have achieved the same “good reason” without causing the suffering in the first place. The best explanations of evil in the world do not involve gods at all.
Q. Radio host Frank Pastore: “Please explain how something can come from nothing, how life can come from death, how mind can come from brain, and how our moral senses developed from an amoral source.”
A. Nobody can yet give certain explanations for any of these things. By and large, however, the hypotheses offered by atheists to account for these different things make better sense, seem more likely to be true, than those offered by theists. We can see that over the course of history, explanations once given by theists have been discredited, one by one. This process will continue. If one thinks rationally about the evidence, one must conclude that God almost certainly does not exist; thus, theistic explanations really never get off the ground. But let’s take a closer look at one item on Pastore’s list. How can something come from nothing? Many, perhaps most, atheists do not think that something can come from nothing, but almost all theists do! In fact, almost all theists think that the entire universe came from nothing! Atheists are not the ones needing to provide an explanation here; theists are. How could any person behave in such a way to cause something to come from nothing? Has any person ever been observed to perform this feat? And yet, this is exactly what the theists think some super person has done.
Q. Christian apologist Greg Koukl: “Why is something here rather than nothing here? Clearly, the physical universe is not eternal (Second Law of Thermodynamics, Big Bang cosmology). Either everything came from something outside the material universe, or everything came from nothing (Law of Excluded Middle). Which of those two is the most reasonable alternative? As an atheist, you seem to have opted for the latter. Why?”
A. Some of us atheists object to Koukl’s presumption that something came from nothing. We think that something has always existed. If there was nothing at all, then how could something come from nothing? This seems to be an unlikely hypothesis, if not a preposterous idea. But even if something came from nothing, then Koukl’s analysis of the options doesn’t seem adequate. If something came from nothing, this might be uncaused or caused. If caused, then the cause might be the action of something material or something immaterial. If material, it might be personal or impersonal. If immaterial, it might also be personal or impersonal. Thus, a thorough analysis leads to at least six different alternatives. Of these, the best seems to be that something did not come from nothing; it came from something! But if something came from nothing, then the best of the remaining alternatives seems to be that a nonpersonal material something caused something else to come from nothing. This fits best with our observations of the world. Koukl’s apparently favored hypothesis seems to be the worst of the lot. Have we any evidence that any nonmaterial person has ever caused anything to come from nothing? No, we do not. Do we even have any evidence that a nonmaterial person exists at all? No, we do not. And thus, although it is not irrational to speculate about it, it is irrational to believe Koukl’s favored hypothesis.
 Mehta, Hemant. The Friendly Atheist.