Review of "The Resurrection Factor" by Josh McDowell (1982)
Jerry Wayne Borchandt
[Note: the following review originally appeared in the July/August 1982 issue of The American Rationalist.]
Josh McDowell is fundamentalism’s popular apologist, proselyter, and propagandist. He is said to be a persuasive speaker on the secular college campus as well as a favorite writer within fundamentalist circles. McDowell "has spent hundreds of hours over thirteen years combing the annals of history" for the historical evidence to prove the claims of Christianity. As a traveling speaker for the Campus Crusade for Christ he is insured a vast audience for his point of view.
McDowell’s most recent book, The Resurrection Factor, purports to demonstrate to any "rational" person "the historical evidence that a supernatural event emptied the tomb" of Jesus. According to McDowell, the fundamentalist has the weight of history to support his beliefs; the skeptic to the contrary is merely lost in his own "philosophical outlook," unable to honestly face the historical proof that Christianity is true.
What is McDowell’s evidence that is claimed to be impressive enough to prove the Christian tenet of the resurrection? Basically, his "evidence" falls into two categories. First, "the New Testament provides the primary historical source for the information on the resurrection." One might have thought that a scholar who has spent years "combing the annals of history" would have been able to approach the problem from a different perspective. Instead of providing the "historical evidence" which would prove the reliability of the New Testament, McDowell does quite the opposite in using the New Testament to "prove" his "philosophical outlook."
McDowell’s second line of argument is weaker still. He supports his belief in a literal rendering of the New Testament by relying on various fundamentalist authorities. This selective use of sources marks the very defect in McDowell’s work that he claims is found in the skeptical opposition, namely an unstated reliance on a particular presupposition. It shows also that McDowell relies more on contemporary fundamentalist rhetoric than on the "annals of history."
By confining the "evidence" to the New Testament, McDowell’s case for the resurrection is immeasurably impaired. The Gospel accounts of the risen Jesus are discordant and contradictory. Although the general scenario of the resurrection is similar in all four Gospels, the particulars of each account are at odds. One should read Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20 and record in parallel columns the events described therein. The disharmonious narratie should be blatantly obvious even to a fundamentalist.
The discordant resurrection narratives are damning evidence against the trustworthiness of the Gospels. McDowell knows this and offers a defense. As an appendix to The Resurrection Factor, McDowell includes an excerpt from Johnston Cheney’s The Life of Christ in Stereo which attempts to harmonize the disharmonious Gospel narratives. A close examination of Cheney’s work reveals that his attempt at harmony entails juggling the chronological sequence of some Gospel narratives while simply ignoring the most discrepant accounts altogether.
(When is a biblical literalist not a biblical literalist? When he or she comes face to face with biblical contradictions).
The problem with the narratives are intensified by McDowell’s curious notion that the Gospel (at least Matthew and John) are eyewitness accounts and thus reliable (contradictions and all). Most biblical and secular scholars know otherwise; the authors of the Gospels are considered anonymous. According to the scholar Joseph Tyson, in his A Study of Early Christianity, the Gospel of Matthew was probably written between 80-100 by an unknown Jewish Christian living perhaps in Syria. Tyson also states that "we must admit our complete ignorance" about the authorship of the Gospel of John.
Modern scholarship disallows the fundamentalist assertion that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses or were derived from eyewitness sources. Instead, the Gospels seem to be derived from oral traditions and from unknown documents. We cannot authenticate the New Testament accounts of the resurrection by use of historical evidences or modern scholarship (indeed, such methods confute the assertions of fundamentalism). This should not trouble McDowell, though, because he does not use historical evidence or modern scholarship as he conjures up his case for the resurrection.
In reality, the Gospels are based on hearsay. McDowell unwittingly damages his own case by admitting "that a witness must testify concerning what he has firsthand knowledge of, not what had come to him indirectly from other sources" before such testimony is legally admissable.
McDowell offers a strange example of hearsay in the resurrection narratives. He says that the testimony of the angel Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (in Matthew) would be hearsay about the risen Jesus if not for the fact that the appearance of Jesus to the two Marys collaborated the words of the angel. Oddly, McDowell fails to realize that the testimony of "Matthew" concerning what the two Marys saw or did, including the appearance of Jesus, is itself, at best, mere hearsay.
The Resurrection Factor is not the promised historical defense of Christianity but instead is mere Christian propaganda. It is modern propoganda in defense of ancient propoganda (the New Testament). Such a treatise can convert only the uninformed and convince only the already convinced. Perhaps McDowell is unable to muster up the "evidence that demands a verdict" that would truly do battle with the modern rationalistic critique of Christianity. Perhaps no such evidence is available.
– Jerry Wayne Borchandt