Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006)
Table of Chapters
- Main Argument - Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story
- The Rubicon Analogy
Rebutting Lesser Arguments
Many devout believers will take issue with what I have said so far in the essays listed in the table above. So far, they have yet to give any good reason to actually come to a different conclusion. But some really bad arguments keep cropping up again and again, so often that they deserve rebuttal here.
I. The Two Lamest Arguments Ever Made
“You are wrong because the Bible is infallible.” Yes, this is a direct quote from a critic of the original version of this essay, and he was not alone. This is the lamest argument in the universe, but it has been made so many times I must say something about it here. To claim the Bible infallible is to say the Bible is true because the Bible is true. This is circular reasoning, a non-argument. If you wish to call a book infallible which claims the main character was born both before 4 BC (when Herod was king: Matt. 2:1) and in 6 AD (when there were no kings and the Romans took over: Luke 2:1-3, see my essay The Date of the Nativity in Luke), or that Darius was the son of Xerxes (Daniel 9.1: Xerxes is the Greek for Ahasuerus, which is Hebrew for Xerxes)–when in fact he was the father of Xerxes (and son of Hystaspes, see elsewhere my Note on Daniel)–then I can only offer an invitation for you to step into the real world, and hope you accept.
McDowell advances fulfilled prophecies as a proof of the resurrection (1st ed., § 10.2A; 2nd ed., § 9.4A.1B-2B), but this fails as an argument, since the predictions can too easily have been invented after the fact, or even, for instance, inspired dreams or visions of Jesus that were interpreted as a confirmation (see the principles discussed in my review of Newman). This does not mean miracles and prophecies are impossible, but it does mean that, in all actual cases I am familiar with, we cannot know if they happened. Usually, just as Herodotus reporting the existence of giant ants is dismissed for the sole reason that it is implausible, so we must dismiss men walking on water. Lacking any reason to grant them more merit than none, this is the only sensible response. But for the specific reasons to discount most miracle stories, see my Main Argument, as well as my discussion of Purtill and the rest of my Review of In Defense of Miracles.
Indeed, the Bible fails, on one occasion or another, every check against plausibility, and thus cannot be infallible. Not only does it fail by proposing absurd miracle accounts such as hoardes of zombies walking in Jerusalem, three-hour-long eclipses, and massive rock-splitting earthquakes, which are attested nowhere else despite their awesome scale (Matthew 27:45-53, cf. Thallus), or the attribution of insanity to possession by spirits, and the recording of demons entering and drowing a herd of pigs (Luke 8:26-33), but also by recording events as factual that neither the author nor any friendly source could ever have witnessed (such as secret conversations of Jews and officials: Matt. 27:62-65; 28:11-15), and claims that do not fit the known facts, such as when Jesus was born or the succession of Persian kings (mentioned above). In the end, the Bible is very fallible, and to believe otherwise is to cling to a blind faith indeed (see the Secular Web’s section on Biblical Errancy). A man who believes without thinking is no kin or kindred of mine, and he will have to excuse me for being inexorably different of mind and spirit in the profoundest of ways.
The second lamest argument ever made is the wicked threat: “There will be a ‘time’,” one thoughtful would-be savior of mine wrote, “when we will all have all the ‘evidence’ we need to prove our beliefs correct or wrong. By then it may be too late.” This was the kindest way it was put by dozens of Christians. “I will dance with glee in Heaven as you roast in Hell!” said another. It surprises me that for all this man’s devotion and sincerity, he somehow missed the most important lesson any man can learn: threats are the hallmark of a wicked creed. A God who would create a hell, or allow any good person to fall there by mere error, would be a wicked god by definition, and anyone who admired such a god would be just as wicked, and therefore those Christians who admire such are truly frightening. They have taken evil and called it good, under the banner of self-righteousness, and by this they justify the most horrible ideas and wishes–and then have the gall to pretend they believe in love.
II. “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic?”
The claim is often made that Jesus must have been God–or else he was a liar or a lunatic; and since both can be dismissed on the evidence, as he was the greatest moral teacher and behaved like a sane man, therefore he was God. Josh McDowell devotes his seventh chapter to this argument (in both editions). Though this does not bear directly on the resurrection, it does relate indirectly. So I briefly address it here. First, this argument has already been well-criticised by others: see Lord, Liar or Lunatic? by James Still, The Trilemma– Lord, Liar Or Lunatic? by Jim Perry, and A False Trilemma by Robert Price.
My own observations are these: First, there is a fourth possibility that this “trilemma” fails to consider–simply being mistaken. The real choices are, “lord, liar, lunatic, or fallible human.” Second, it is questionable whether Jesus was so great a moral teacher, as moral teachers go. See my essay on Musonius Rufus, for example, and our section on the Character of Jesus. It is also questionable that Jesus actually claimed to be God. See, for instance, Thomas Sheehan’s book The First Coming. Moreover, Jesus’ claims to be God even as represented in the Gospels are not very clear in their meaning, and it is neither certain what Jesus himself meant nor what his audience thought he meant, or recorded him as saying (see, for instance, questions raised by the Jesus Seminar).
However, even if we can wade through those difficulties (and I don’t believe we can), the fact that such a claim was outrageous, unusual, and unique would not prevent Jesus from being honestly mistaken about it. Besides the fact that many kings claimed this very same thing without a blush in Jesus’ day, the reasons for Jesus’ own belief could have been perfectly convincing to him even if he was occasionally doubtful. For instance, seeing the placebo effects of his charisma on the sick and “possessed,” reading and interpreting signs and prophecies in a certain way, and being told by others he was almost divine in his teachings or actions, and being treated by his followers as if he were divine, even if it was never outright said that he was God, it is easy to see how he could be misled in that day and time into a seemingly rational belief that he was God made manifest as an ordinary human for a particular purpose.
This is all the more so since we know for a fact that many individuals were claiming to be, or were proclaimed to be, messiahs of one form or another in Jesus’ day (Josephus recounts several), and everyone in Judaea was looking for just this sort of thing: God made manifest to liberate Israel–physically or spiritually (see Note 1). The Danielic prophecy was likely on everyone’s mind, since Josephus and Suetonius report that the Jews were expecting a messiah to appear in these very decades. Thus, heightened expectation, eager seeking by the troubled masses, and widespread superstition (cf. Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire) would all make the situation ripe for a case of mistaken identity. It would also have made it hard for anyone to doubt him–so long as his divinity remained proven by his successful preaching, his bold behavior, his high-minded message, and his healings and exorcisms, who could question it? Even a skeptic could not have presented any evidence against it, since demands for proof were met with warnings that God is not to be tested (e.g. cf. Luke 4:12, 11:29, etc.), the time is not yet right, he was on Earth for a different purpose (to be abused and rejected as the prophets predicted, and to suffer and die as a sin-sacrifice on behalf of mankind as the prophets foretold) and so on (cf. Mark 6:4-5)–which would not have to be tricks, but could be sincerely-believed ‘wisdom’. We see some examples of doubters in the Gospels. What could they do? Nothing.
Finally, the issue of insanity is not as, for example, someone like C.S. Lewis represents it. It is quite possible to be delusional or even psychotic and otherwise behave with perfectly rationality, even exhibit the creativity and insight of a genius. That it does not follow that delusional people are “mentally unstable” is well known: a delusional person, with or without a schizotypal personality, can behave very rationally and ordinary in every other respect apart from their mistaken beliefs or experiences: as Claridge McCreery writes in “A Study of Hallucination in Normal Subjects” (Personality and Individual Differences 2:5; November, 1996; pp. 739-747), many a psychotic has been found to be “a relatively well-adjusted person who is functional despite, and in some cases even because of, his or her anomalous perceptual experiences” (see also my discussion of hallucination elsewhere).
It is also all too easy for devout believers to overlook or misinterpret even disturbing signs, if there still happened to be any, and thus such details could easily have failed to be recorded, or been given a different spin (of the latter, Jesus’ treatment of the fig tree, and his conversation with the Devil in the desert, are just two possible examples of madness reinterpreted as genius). But consider also that having such visions and voices do not require one to be insane: hypnagogic hallucinations are an ordinary occurrence for everyone, and it has been observed that visions in antiquity were most common in the early afternoon, the time all Mediterranean cultures enjoyed a post-meal siesta, and they become extremely likely after prolonged periods of fasting or sleep deprivation (such as going 40 days and 40 nights with little food or sleep in a mesmerizing desert landscape). Any manner of delusions could arise from such experiences.
So is “Jesus really was God” the best explanation of the evidence? Not even remotely. We have six lines of doubt: we do not really know what he said; we do not really know what people at that time thought he said; we do not know whether Jesus was merely mistaken or deluded (which are problems faced by sane people as well as the insane); we do not have an unbiased, unsuperstitious account of his behavior or thoughts; and we do not really know what he actually did, and indeed are not even clear exactly why he was executed or on what pretext. To top it all off, none of his teachings or behaviors or “miracles” are at all suggestive of being acts of God (see my Review of In Defense of Miracles). And this is before we even interject the very real possibilities that he was insane, or that he did lie, since there is no real, reliable evidence to refute these possibilities: psychotics can live otherwise normal, even inspired lives, and there are countless pious and well-meaning reasons for lying (for the greater good–Christianity could have been seen as good for Israel even if it was secretly untrue, as I discussed earlier regarding Paul).
To top it all off, consider a parallel: Alexander the Great thought he was the Son of God. Was he a liar? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he was, his intentions might have been good: to keep the peace in a newly subjugated empire, where the people expected their kings to be divine as an assurance that all was well. Was he insane? Maybe. Maybe not. Even if he was, he accomplished great things nonetheless, such as only a man both rational and wise could have achieved. But the possibility remains that he was genuinely mistaken. For the Oracle at Siwah had proclaimed the story of his divine patrinomy, and his mother saw no reason to deny the honor to her son (and every reason to see the honor she would receive as a result). He had certainly performed godlike deeds and may have truly believed only a son of a god could have been so successful so quickly. For a man in his position, in his culture, this would not be a remarkable conclusion, but would make a great deal of sense, to him and others. Jesus could have been in an essentially identical situation–after all, unlike all the Roman triumphators, no one records that Jesus had a man behind him constantly whispering in his ear, “Remember thou art mortal.”
III. The Fact of Changed Lives
What does the power of belief have to do with that belief being true? As Josh McDowell puts it (1st ed., p. 228, § 10.4A.3B.3C;cf. also 2nd ed., § 9.6A.4B.1-3C):
The established psychological fact of changed lives…is a credible reason for believing in the resurrection. It is subjective evidence bearing witness to the objective fact that Jesus Christ arose on the third day. For only a risen Christ could have such transforming power in a person’s life.
Besides the obvious objection that an idea believed to be true has the same effect on someone’s life whether it is really true or false, there is an arrogant presumption here: that no one but Christians are profoundly changed by conversion to a profound belief. I have heard enough first-hand tales of converts to Buddhism, Islam, Ba’hai, even Atheism (see Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker), to know that McDowell is engaging in snobbish elitism here.
Any belief system that involves a radical break with past belief toward a positive acceptance of new hope or wisdom will have a powerful transformative effect on a person, whether their new belief is true or not. I myself “converted” from an all-but-areligious childhood to Taoism, and its effect on me was certainly profound. Am I so ignorant of the world that I would actually claim that “only the true Tao could have such a transforming power in a person’s life”? No. I am more honest than that, and more aware of the ways of the world. I was overcome by the genius and beauty of a belief, and the hope and wisdom it granted in a shining moment of revelation. But after long examination I found it was not the correct world view, that there were flaws only visible to careful study. The same thing can and has happened to a great many Christians, and I offer Dan Barker as only one famous example. Does that prove that Christianity, like Taoism, however beautiful and good, is nevertheless false? No. Nor does the contrary evidence of transformation prove it is true. Truth and falsehood are not ascertained by measuring belief, but by measuring evidence. The most relevant thing I have written on this matter is Do Religious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other?.
$_SSI = 'vdbk.ad'; include(CSM . 'ii-ssi.php'); ?>
 Robert Turkel questions the use of the word “messiah” here. When I first wrote this I took the reasonable assumption that a religious leader of Jews claiming special eschatological powers granted by God is a messiah. My words even allow ambiguity by saying “of one form or another.” It seems dubious to say that, for example, a man calling himself a Jewish “prophet,” leading “multitudes,” and claiming he would miraculously “fell the walls of Jerusalem” and take the city was not claiming to be a messiah (Jewish Antiquities, 20.167-70; Jewish War, 2.261-4), especially when such men claimed they would liberate Israel with God’s support, the very thing only the messiah was predicted to do (Jewish War, 2.259). However, I will grant that Josephus does not call them “messiahs,” only “imposters” and “prophets.” The real point, of course, remains: Jews were ready to latch onto anyone claiming divine support as a messiah-like prophet, just like Jesus, and there were several such men.
Copyright ©2006 Richard Carrier and Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.