November 28, 2005

Season of Skepticism

Here is my submission for this year to my church's locally authored Advent Devotional. I suppose it's more apologetic than devotional, but that's no surprise considering the source.

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. —Luke 1:1-4

It's Christmas season again, and with it comes the inevitable garland, plastic Santas, and holiday sales. Judging by the TV programming, the public school music selections, and the lawns of most of my neighbors, it would seem to be a fully secularized holiday. The One whose birthday we once celebrated has become a non-value-added tradition of an unenlightened era.

But (faithful Christians aside) is Jesus fully absent from public attention? Not by a long shot! As "tolerant" and "inclusive" as this culture claims to be, Christmas seems to be the season of slander and skepticism. Perhaps you've caught one of the annual TV specials or news exposés on the "real" Jesus, where the media is very eager to "correct" our simplistic, "faith-based" view of the biblical stories. As Christians committed to the Truths that Luke and the other authors of Scripture have carefully and earnestly commended to us, such contrary claims should be cause for confusion, irritation, or outright anger. As one who has studied apologetics extensively, I've learned to smell a rat, and these spurious attacks on the historical claims of Christianity are particularly frustrating for me, since I know that people are being needlessly influenced by them.

I wish I had the space to deal with all of the modern accusations and criticisms against the Jesus of the Bible, but perhaps this is a case where teaching men to fish is more beneficial than just passing them out.

The first thing to notice is that this kind of scrutiny and criticism is reserved almost exclusively for Christianity. When have you ever seen an ABC special on the "real" Muhammad, or an interview with a New Age celebrity that asked hardball questions, or a Hollywood depiction of the early church in contrast to the excesses of paganism, or a news exposé on Christian martyrdom in the Sudan or China? My daughter once told me that she would believe Christianity to be true if for no other reason than for how it is singled out for persecution. Methinks they doeth protest too much.

Another thing to notice is that the complaints and alternate stories offered by the skeptics change with the seasons. What was in vogue to claim against Christianity one century or decade is passé the next. For instance, in the early 1900's some scholars attempted to argue that Jesus never actually existed as a historical character, but in light of the various extra-biblical Jewish and Roman documents found that reference Him, this theory has lost credibility. And it was once claimed that the New Testament was written one or two hundred years after Christ's death, thus giving quarter to myth and inaccuracy, but now even the most critical scholars accept that the documents were written in the lifetime of the apostles. Even the very first accusation against the followers of Jesus — that the body had been stolen — has fallen on hard times. If the skeptics could manage to find a criticism that worked, and stick with that, then it might be easier to take them seriously.

Archaeology is often brought to bear against various points of Scripture in what has not yet been found or what seems to be found to the contrary. For example, there was a time when the Hittite nation, the Davidic kingdom, and even Pontius Pilate were thought to be mythical. Later excavations of cities, tablets, and inscriptions have affirmed these and other points of biblical history. Because of the messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, and the fact that our earliest Old Testament copies dated from a thousand years after Christ, there was once speculation that it was partially authored or tampered with by the early church fathers. But the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which date before the birth of Christ) in the 1940's put this theory to bed. Even though there are still a few open historical questions, it should be remembered that the archaeological trend is toward confirmation of the Bible.

Many of the objections to Scripture are merely based on the presuppositions of the skeptic. For instance, one of the "Christian" scholars that is regularly interviewed for these Jesus exposés is John Dominic Crossan. This fellow has gone on record as saying that he does not believe that God interferes with His creation. Consequently, he begins his analysis of the Bible with the assumption that the miracles must be mythical or allegorical, and he then sees the task of theology to peel away these "fictional" layers to get at the underlying "reality." These kinds of critics end up "discovering" a Jesus in Scripture that is made in their own image.

Conspiracy theories make up a good deal of skeptical thinking, and some of these are real doozies. It has actually been proposed that Jesus was a space alien, or the leader of a hallucinogenic mushroom cult. Only slightly more respectable are the ideas that Jesus had a secret twin brother who showed up just in time to be crucified, or that He didn't really die on the cross, He revived in the tomb and reappeared to the disciples who mistook Him for the first fruits of the resurrection. (Need I refute the idea that a scourged and crucified body could be mistaken for the "Lord of life?") Perhaps the latest theory is the re-popularized notion that the resurrection appearances were the product of mass hallucination on the part of the disciples. Now these are all interestingly imaginative theories, but unless we are given some sort of tangible evidence to the contrary, which never seems to be forthcoming, then we are justified in sticking with the unanimous testimony of those writers who had the most direct access to the facts (i.e., the authors of the Bible).

Another common ploy is to bring up meaningless associations and observations. For example, it is often noted that the story of Jesus has various similarities to other pagan mythology, or that some of the sayings of Jesus, like the golden rule, are similar to the saying of Buddha or other spiritual figures. Sometimes critics will imply that people are believers based merely on psychological "need" or because they grew up in a Christian nation. Or perhaps they will point out the numerous denominational divisions or examples of hypocrisy in the church. The world is big and history is diverse, and there are plenty of (apparent) connections to be made. But even if we grant the critics each of their observations, it is all immaterial to the point of whether or not Jesus was a historical figure who actually did those things recorded in the Scriptures.

It is probably not by force of reason that you became a believer, and without the work of the Holy Spirit even a bullet-proof case for Christianity will win no converts, but we should at least take confidence and comfort in knowing that God has not left us to the wolves unarmed.

Prayer:

Lord Jesus, thank You that You have given us such an abundant record of Your deeds and words among mankind. Thank You that we are not left to rely on our own speculations about heavenly things, and we delight that our God is a God who is sovereign over history and the men used to pen Your truths. Thank You for giving us Your Spirit to open our eyes to this truth and to hold us fast during times of trial and doubt. Thank you that we are not left unarmed to defend our conviction, but that Your words and ways have the power of truth and that history is ripe with the knowledge of it. Amen.

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21 Comments:

At 11/28/2005 5:04 PM, Blogger daleliop said...

If I read an account by someone claiming to see a UFO, I'd be skeptical of any details they brings up. That's because presumably none of us has ever encountered a UFO in our entire life.

So I don't know if it can be criticised that a person starts to read the bible with an assumption that the miracles are not real. If I never encountered a miracle as spectacular as one described in the Bible, then I should be justified in being highly skeptical of its existence. It would me much more plausible to believe that the one describing the miracle to me is being inaccurate or deceitful. That compounded by the fact that civilizations past were highly superstitious also support my presumption. This isn't to say that the miracles would fall on deaf ears, but upon hearing them I would have a strong inclination to dismiss them and this would be just, as it would go against everything that I know about this world.

 
At 11/28/2005 5:25 PM, Blogger Paul said...

I understand your point. However, there is a difference between an improbable or rare event that would need greater evidence to convince us, and being opposed to the idea of something in principle. In the case Crossan, I have heard him state that he doesn't believe that God would do miracles (i.e., do "cheap tricks" and violate His laws of nature). In all the debates I've heard with him, his rejection of the miraculous elements of Scripture seem to stem from something other than an objective look at the manuscripts and the behavior of the early Christians. And I've heard other individuals who oppose Scripture a priori on the basis of their naturalism. That is, they rule it out as a credible book simply because it contains miraculous stories.

As to the "superstitious" nature of the ancients, I think it is often overrated. I don't think they experienced someone being healed from a terminal disease or raised from the dead any more often than we did — they knew a rare thing when they saw it. I think the "superstition" manifest itself more in their explanations for natural events, or in their acceptance of certain divine histories. Also, I wouldn't necessarily say we are so much more enlightened than they. Simply note the interest in horoscopes and new age materials these days.

 
At 11/28/2005 8:52 PM, Blogger daleliop said...

I understand your first point.

For your second though, what I mean by superstitious is that people back then would be more willing to believe something as supernatural when in reality there was a natural explanation behind it which they were simply unaware of, it was just a coincidence, or it was the work of some con-artists. Not only that, they would be more inclined to attribute supernatural characteristics to these unexplanable events, and/or exaggerate what they saw. For example, misinformation can get people all the time, even today -- think of conspiracy theories, urban legends, and in the past mythological creatures, the Turk and whatnot.

I agree that these days there are lots of people who are still misled or inclined to believe in supernatural things (or extraterrestrials) when nothing is really going on, but that corroborates what I'm saying. Back then the majority of people were like that while these days those people tend to be a minority since we have more knowledge of the working world.

 
At 11/28/2005 10:52 PM, Blogger Vman said...

There's a new dvd out that claims to completely disprove christianity.

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000CAPZBC/104-2983483-8142307?v=glance&n=130&n=507846&s=dvd&v=glance

 
At 11/29/2005 12:50 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

I used to think it was pretty significant that just about every naturalistic explanation for the origin of Christian belief (hallucinations, cognative dissonance, swoon theory, etc.) failed for one reason or another. But I'm beginning to doubt that it's very significant at all. A person doesn't not need to have a philosophical objection to miracles in general in order to be skeptical about specific accounts of miracles. I believe in miracles, but that doesn't mean I'm going to believe every story I hear. I think even those of us who believe in miracles in general are skeptical about specific instances of them, and well we should be. We'd be gullible to buy into any miracle story we hear just because we believe miracles can and do happen.

So instead of weighing the "resurrection hypothesis" against, say, the "hallucination hypothesis," it seems the best approach is to weigh the "resurrection hypothesis" against the possibility that there's a naturalistic explanation that we're just not aware of. We don't need to come up with a specific theory and then pit it against the resurrection theory. We can just say, "Well, I don't know what happened, but surely it's more likely that there's some natural explanation than it is that a dead man came back to life." Isn't that how we treat most miracle and UFO stories we hear? Even when people tell me they themselves witnessed something spectacular, I don't know what actually happened, but just because I don't know what actually happened doesn't mean I'm not justified in thinking something happened other than what they're saying.

And if you want to give an alternative explanation other than resurrection, i don't think you necessarily need to justify it. If you can give a naturalistic explanation that at least possible, then even if there's no particular reason to believe that it is true, the mere possibility of it forces you to weight the probability of a resurrection miracle against the probability that there's some natural explanation whether you know about it or not.

One possibility that has often jumped out at me is this: Suppose Peter, by himself, had some kind of vision or hallucination which caused him to believe that he had seen the risen Jesus. Suppose Jesus really did expect to be crucified, relayed that to his disciples, and also predicted his resurrection. Even if Peter had lost hope after Jesus was crucified, it would still have to have been in the back of his mind as an "If only..." or "Oh how I wish..." It's not that far fetched.

Now suppose that Peter was so convinced that he had seen the risen Lord that he rushed to tell everybody else. Suppose further that a few of them believed him wholeheartedly, and they kicked themselves for doubting in the first place. They were so excited about it that they came back the next day and said they saw him too. Now they didn't actually see him; they just wanted everybody to think they did. I mean think about it. Wouldn't you love to be able to tell people that you saw the risen Jesus? What motivates people to tell fantastic UFO and miracles stories? Whatever it is, the same thing could've motivated a few of the disciples to say the same thing.

And after a few of them say the same thing, the rest of them become even more convinced. They don't want to be out of the loop, so of course they start claiming they saw Jesus, too.

Now this seems to answer the question of why they were willing to die for their beliefs. They did not actuall see Jesus themselves; however, they totally believed Jesus was risen. They believed each other that they had seen the risen Jesus, even though each individual (except Peter) knew they hadn't.

And this would also explain Paul's 500 witnesses. Paul defends himself in Romans saying, "Have I not seen the Lord?" In John, the author gives himself credibility by saying he had witnessed and even touched Jesus. Apparently, there was some prestige with having seen the risen Jesus. Now suppose 500 people or more all believed that Jesus really was risen. They totally bought into it. It is not too far fetched to imagine that many of them claimed to have seen Jesus even if they didn't.

Even if we grant that Jesus actually appeared to many people--all of the disciples, and maybe 120 people in one gathering--it still seems possible if not probable that many people claimed to see Jesus even if they didn't. People just have a tendency to want to tell fanstatic stories that they themselves participated in. That's why there's so many UFO stories.

This, to me, seems like a much stronger argument against resurrection than anything I've heard or read from any skeptic or anybody opposed to Christianity. But I believe the resurrection happened. I think the evidence justifies it. It's strange to me sometimes that I, being a Christian, can come up with better arguments against Christianity than anything I ever hear from non-Christians.

Sam

 
At 11/29/2005 1:16 AM, Blogger daleliop said...

That's a pretty good argument, Sam. But if you came up with that explanation yet you still believe in the resurrection, then you must have even better reasons for believing in the ressurection hypothesis, right? It'd be interesting to here them sometime.

 
At 11/29/2005 1:39 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Well I hope to get to them sometime.

 
At 11/29/2005 2:51 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

I guess I should point out that there are a couple of holes in my theory. First, the evidence seems to suggest that Jesus did appear to people in groups. It seems unlikely that people would lie about group appearances, since everybody else in the group would know they were lying. Second, it doesn't account for the empty tomb. The empty tomb seems to have had a lot to do either with their belief that Jesus was raised, or at least with how they argued that Jesus was raised. If they used it to argue for Jesus' resurrection, then it must have been public knowledge.

But like I said, it isn't necessary that my theory is true or even that any evidence supports it. All it's meant to show is that it's possible that there's some naturalistic explanation. As long as it's possible, then we have to weigh the likelihood of something natural happening with something miraculous happening. All things being equal, we ordinarily choose the natural over the supernatural. Even when we can't explain something, we usually assume there is some natural explanation yet to be discovered. The only reason I choose the resurrection theory is because I think the evidence is strong enough to overcome this bias for natural explanations that we all have whether we believe in miracles or not.

 
At 11/29/2005 7:22 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Dale, I think you are entirely right to live in a position of default skepticism about the supernatural. Everyone should admit these occurrences are exceedingly rare, if they ever happen.

The miracle claims of Scripture, however, are strong enough to overcome that skepticism as long as you don't have a philosophical presupposition that the supernatural does not exist.

Christianity doesn't have just one claim of supernaturalism. There are many, that all taken together, create a preponderance of evidence for a large number of open-minded people. However, there are so many psychological factors involved in epistomology that what seems obviously factual for some, will never seem that way to others, even when they all observe the same evidence.

 
At 11/29/2005 9:19 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam, I know what you mean. Sometimes a good critique of Christianity will occur to me that I've never heard expressed from a non-believer. Most of those raised by non-believers are pretty elementary from my perspective. The one's that are the toughest for me to handle are the ones that take a great amount of theological (and philosophical) understanding of Christianity, and most non-Christians are lucky to know the barest essentials of what Christianity actually teaches. The toughest debates are the in-house ones.

I think people do need to be prepared to justify their alternative stories. You can claim anything you like about Jesus (He was a Hindu guru, a space alien, etc), but there's certainly no reason anyone is obligated to take you seriously unless you can come up with some justification for your belief. So far, I've found that every alternative view runs up against one or more fatal flaws. Gary Habermas has an interesting book ("Case for the Resurrection of Jesus") that takes several points of data about Jesus that even the radical skeptics are willing to concede and then measures the various theories against these facts to show their bankruptcy. It is problems like these that are the reason that there is no single, long-standing position held by the critics on what "really" happened all those centuries ago. Although the hallucination theory has indeed made something of a comeback. I think they prefer to call them "visions" these days though.

Another hole in your hallucination theory is that these witnesses not only claimed to "see" Jesus, but they record quite a bit of dialog with Him — important dialog from which we get some key points of doctrine. This means they would not just be suffering from the power of suggestion and desire, but they would be consciously making up theological content that they would be forced to defend with their lives. It's easy to find examples of people dying for what they believe to be true, but this sounds awfully like giving your life for a lie. Perhaps if it could be demonstrated that they benefited from their lies, like the many wives and power of Joseph Smith and Muhammad, but there is no such evidence of this in the early church.

 
At 11/29/2005 9:33 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Vman, the film you mention has a major credibility strike against it right up front in that it attempts to argue that Jesus never even existed. As we discussed on your blog, this is a radical fringe view that taints this effort from the get-go. I'm sure that fans of Dan Brown and Michael Moore would enjoy it though.

 
At 11/29/2005 11:37 AM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Paul,

I agree with you to an extent. I mean I think some alternate explanations are just plain silly and shouldn't be taken seriously. If somebody wants to argue that Jesus survived the crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene, and moved on with his life, they have to have a good argument. But I don't think a person necessarily needs to defend a point of view if all they're trying to show is that it's possible there is some naturalistic explanation that we may not be aware of. The scenario may have no evidence in support of it at all, but as long as it isn't too far fetched, and as long as it doesn't contradict strong evidence to the contrary, I think those scenarios do succeed in demonstrating that something natural could easily have happened.

I think it would be much easier to argue that various people experienced what they took to be the risen Jesus than it would be to argue that they interacted with him or touched him. The touching of Jesus could easily be dismissed as apologetic embellishment that grew up around real appearances.

My scenario occured to me specifically to avoid the charge of "dying for a lie." In my scenario, the people who claimed to see the risen Jesus actually did believed he had risen from the dead. Suppose you or are I were willing to die for our belief in Jesus even though we've never seen him ourselves. We're willing to die for him because we actually believe he's the Christ who died for sins and rose from the dead. Suppose further that one of us decided to make up a story about having seen him with our own eyes. Then we are martyred for our belief in Jesus. Does it follow that just because we lied about seeing him that we're therefore dying for a lie? No, because we would've died for Jesus even if we hadn't seen him or claimed to see him. Do you see what I mean?

 
At 11/29/2005 4:16 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Sam, I see what you mean. In my case the problem with that scenario would be that the Savior I believed in, that I believed was raised from the dead had commanded me not to lie, to love the truth, and that sin has bad consequences. I'm therefore very motivated not to lie, even a 'good' lie. So I couldn't do it, not being the kind of Christian that would die for my allegiance to Christ...why would I then be willing to give up my allegiance to Him just to tell a more compelling story?

 
At 11/29/2005 5:36 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam,

I don't think a person needs to defend their point of view at all; they can believe whatever they like. But if they want to be in the game, so to speak, they need to be ready with some justification. I think you are basically agreeing here, but it sounds like you are willing to accept a loosely plausible justification. It's certainly fine to hold to something tentatively, but if there are knockdown arguments against it, then it's hardly reasonable to hang on. I think the main problem is that most people are not willing to go out and test their views against the facts. This is proved by the fact that I could ask the average vocal atheist if they've ever even heard of Norm Geisler or William Lane Craig (2 big guns in the world of Christian apologetics) and odds are that they'd say "no."

I think I see what you mean on the other point, but I think that Jeff's right in pointing out that Christianity is antithetical to the moral issues that would be involved in being loose with the facts about our Lord. Additionally, if there were no actual resurrection then there's a pile of innocent embellishment going on. For example, the fellows on the road to Emmaus would have made up an entire afternoon's activities with Jesus and a lot of Old Testament exegesis to boot. This would also have involved collusion on the part of the two men who were anxious to run all the way back the others in order to tell them the details of what they had dreamed up. I can't get away from a conclusion of deliberate dishonesty. Then we can compare the martyrdom of each of the apostles (and numerous disciples as well) to, say, the witnesses of Joseph Smith's exploits, many of whom went on record to speak against him or were excommunicated.

 
At 11/29/2005 10:13 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff, maybe you wouldn't lie about something like that, but you'd have to argue that nobody would lie about something like that in order to rebutt my scenario.

 
At 11/29/2005 10:18 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Paul, I think you're right that my scenario is weak in the fact that it requires the disciples and a few others to be more dishonest than we would expect them to be after reading the New Testament. These people were very committed to the Lord. But on the other hand, people often do make misguided decisions. Take, for example, Peter's effort in the garden to save Jesus by drawing his sword. Peter had good motives, but his actions were all wrong. Perhaps some early Christians with good intentions did make up some stuff because they thought it would further the kingdom.

 
At 11/30/2005 9:17 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Sam, you're right that my comment doesn't rebutt your scenario. But it does speak to it's plausibility. At the end of the day most people agree that we are most justified in believing the most plausible explanation for the data.
I assume that you believe in the resurrection. I also assume, therefore, that you find it the most plausible explanation. Perhaps you could elaborate on why you think it's more plausible that He did resurrect than that the numerous disciples making up stories.

By the way, how would your scenario answer the issue of Paul's conversion? He was an enemy of Christ (and the idea of resurrection) when He met Him on the road and converted as a result. It seems you'd also have to say in this case that He converted ahead of time and then wanted to make up a story that would lend himself authority.

 
At 11/30/2005 9:22 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

It's probably worth mentioning that I think there are very strong rebuttals to this theory of yours as well as others, even though I don't have them at hand to bring out (because I'm not really well versed on the defense of the resurrection). I know this is an appeal to authority, so take it as you will.

I heard Antony Flew 'debating' (more like a conversation) with a Christian apologist (Paul, was it Gary Habermas?) on the resurrection. What was interesting to me was that the world's foremost atheistic philosopher (arguably) admitted candidly that there was no viable explanation for the data we have. I remember him repeatedly saying: "There is that..." and having no answer.

He even admitted that Christianity, and all attendant beliefs, was an entirely rational belief, moreso than atheism.

In the end, he even admitted he didn't believe precisely because he was "strongly disinclined" to believe.

(Paul, to whatever extent I've mis-recalled that discussion, please correct me)

 
At 11/30/2005 12:22 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Jeff,

You're right. That was Flew's discussion with Gary Habermas.

I think you have a good point with Paul's conversion. It does not fit neatly in my theory, that's for sure.

I don't have time to go through my own case for the resurrection right now, but I may do a series of blogs on it sometime.

Sam

 
At 11/30/2005 8:54 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sam, I would be interested to hear your take on the resurrection. I've seen good defenses such as that offered by Gary Habermas and also William Lane Craig. I'm always anxious for new insights though.

Jeff, you may have missed my blog on the Habermas/Flew debate, found here.

 
At 12/01/2005 7:41 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

Now I remember, I had forgotten that blog post, thanks.

 

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