An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 3: Researching the Resurrection
Chapter 14: The Circumstantial Evidence — Are There Any Supporting Facts That Point to the Resurrection?
The Timothy McVeigh Story
- Strobel talks of the lack of eyewitness evidence in the Oklahoma City bombing case — no one saw Timothy McVeigh build the truck bomb, no video footage recorded him parking the truck or leaving the scene before it detonated, etc. — and yet he was convicted of the crime because the prosecutors were able to use circumstantial evidence to construct a case establishing his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
- “Eyewitness testimony is called direct evidence because people describe under oath how they personally saw the defendant commit the crime. While this is often compelling, it can sometimes be subject to faded memories, prejudices, and even outright fabrication. In contrast, circumstantial evidence is made up of indirect facts from which inferences can be rationally drawn.” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, pp. 244-245)
- “Having already considered the persuasive evidence for the empty tomb, and eyewitness accounts of the risen Jesus, now it was time for me to seek out any circumstantial evidence that might bolster the case for the Resurrection. I knew that if an event as extraordinary as the resurrection of Jesus had really occurred, history would be littered with indirect evidence backing it up.” (p. 245)
The Thirteenth Interview: J. P. Moreland, Ph.D.
- J.P. Moreland, Ph.D. Doctorate from University of Southern California, chemistry degree from University of Missouri, master’s degree in theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, professor of philosophy and ethics at Talbot School of Theology. Articles published in AMERICAN PHILOSOPHY, METAPHILOSOPHY, and other journals. Author or editor of books like CHRISTIANITY AND THE NATURE OF SCIENCE, and THE CREATION HYPOTHESIS.
- Strobel asks Moreland for five examples of convincing circumstantial evidence that Jesus rose from the dead.
- “Moreland listened intently to my question. ‘Five examples?’ he asked. ‘Five things that are not in dispute by anybody?’” (p. 246)
Exhibit 1: The Disciples Died for Their Beliefs
- Real bad start, considering he just said he was going to give us five examples of things that aren’t in dispute by anybody.
- Moreland describes how depressed and discouraged the followers of Jesus were following his crucifixion, since anyone who was crucified was believed to be accursed by God.
- “[Moreland:]‘Then, after a short period of time, we see them abandoning their occupations, regathering, and committing themselves to spreading a very specific message — that Jesus Christ was the Messiah of God who died on a cross, returned to life, and was seen alive by them.’” (pp. 246-247)
- Source? The Bible.
- Moreland describes the hardships faced by the disciples: lack of reliable food and shelter, public ridicule, beatings, imprisonment, and ultimately, torture and execution.
- “[Moreland:]‘For what? For good intentions? No, because they were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had seen Jesus Christ alive from the dead. What you can’t explain is how this particular group of men came up with this particular belief without having had an experience of the resurrected Christ. There’s no other adequate explanation.’” (p. 247)
- Strobel brings up followers of other religions who have died for their beliefs — Muslims, Mormons, members of the cults of Jim Jones and David Koresh. Moreland insists that there is a difference between the disciples and those other religious followers: the disciples claimed to have personally seen Jesus, witnessed his death, and seen him after his resurrection. If their claims weren’t true, they were dying for something they knew wasn’t true.
- “[Moreland:]‘And when you’ve got eleven credible people with no ulterior motives, with nothing to gain and a lot to lose, who all agree they observed something with their own eyes — now you’ve got some difficulty explaining that away.’” (p. 247)
- Source for the claim that the disciples were “eleven credible people with no ulterior motives”? The Bible. They never wrote a single word. We have no idea what sort of people they were, or what they saw or thought they saw, or how they died, or even if they actually lived at all, because the only source for the disciples — for their names, for their association with Jesus, for everything about them — is the Bible, which was not written by anyone in their group, and probably not even written by anyone who knew anyone in their group, and church traditions which did not originate for the most part until centuries later.
- “I smiled because I had been playing devil’s advocate by raising my objection. Actually, I knew he was right.” (p. 247)
- Oh, see there, brothers and sisters? It wasn’t even a real objection. Lee was just playing. There are no real objections.
- Strobel says of the disciples: “If they weren’t absolutely certain, they wouldn’t have allowed themselves to be tortured to death for proclaiming that the Resurrection had happened.” (p. 248)
- Again, the most powerful and obvious objection to the vaunted “die for a lie” argument is to point out that it is based on assumptions about the disciples that are not supported by reliable history. Before you can ask me why the disciples would die for something they knew to be false, you first have to explain why I should believe the disciples lived and died as the Bible and church tradition describes.
- But let’s move beyond that. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that the New Testament and the various church traditions that cropped up in subsequent centuries are giving us an accurate account of the lives and deaths of the disciples. Is it really such an open and shut case? Is there no other plausible reason why they might have died without renouncing their Christianity?
- The website Debunking Christianity has an excellent article on the “die for a lie” argument (link: (http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/2006/05/die-for-lie-wont-fly.html) that brings up a very important question that Strobel and Moreland don’t address: what if the disciples were killed because of their Christianity, but weren’t given an opportunity to save themselves by recanting? The article specifically mentions the execution of Peter, which according to tradition took place in the aftermath of the burning of Rome in the year 64. Emperor Nero blamed Christians for setting the fires and initiated a campaign of persecution against them. Peter was killed because he was a Christian, but because his sect had been identified as a threat, not his beliefs. Whether Peter recanted or not would have made no difference, which means that the “die for a lie” argument does not apply to the martyrdom of Peter, who was the most celebrated of the disciples, and whose supposed death — via inverted crucifixion — is the best known among Christians to this day.
- It’s a baseless assumption that they would have even had a chance to save themselves by recanting. It’s also a baseless assumption that they would have had recanted to save themselves if given the opportunity. In the last video I mentioned the eleven witnesses of the Book of Mormon. These eleven men signed their names, swearing they had seen and, for eight of them, handled the golden plates from which Joseph Smith claimed he had translated the Book of Mormon. All eleven maintained their testimony for the rest of their lives, even after they fell out with Smith and were excommunicated from the church. Seeing as how Lee Strobel and J.P. Moreland are not Mormons, I assume they agree with me that these eleven men were lying when they said they had seen and held the golden plates. But why would they never recant their lies, even after splitting from Smith’s church? What could they possibly have had to gain?
- I might also ask, why did anyone still follow William Miller after the Great Disappointment? Why do people still donate millions of dollars a year to the likes of Benny Hinn or Robert Tilton or Peter Popoff, who have been repeatedly exposed as frauds for decades? Why did people believe Harold Camping when he said the world was going to end last year, despite being wrong about it in the past? Why do some Catholics continue to deny that children were sexually abused by priests? Why do people continue to support politicians who have been revealed as frauds or hypocrites or criminals? Because we all have a powerful capacity for self-delusion, and because the idea of serving a greater good is very, very attractive.
- There’s a marvelous scene in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ that illustrates what I’m talking about. In the scene, Jesus — who has survived the crucifixion and gone on to marry and have children — encounters the apostle Paul preaching the gospel. And it’s the gospel as we all know it — the crucifixion, the resurrection, plus Paul’s own vision of Christ on the road to Damascus. Jesus watches this and approaches Paul afterwards and interrogates him about his testimony. See, Jesus is alive — he knows Paul is making this up, because he knows he didn’t die on the cross, he wasn’t resurrected, he’s right there! And he tells Paul the truth, he tells him his testimony is wrong, that there was no death on the cross, there was no resurrection, that he’s the real Jesus and he’s here, alive. Jesus threatens to tell everyone the truth if Paul doesn’t stop spreading lies about him. And Paul tells Jesus, very calmly, that he created the truth, because he thought it’s what people needed to hear. “You don’t know how people need God,” he says. “You don’t know how happy he can make them. He can make them happy to die, and they die.” Paul goes on to tell Jesus that he — the real Jesus — isn’t important, because it’s the idea of the Resurrected Jesus that’s going to save the world, and he’s not going to stop spreading the message just because the real Jesus objects. Paul says “Go ahead and tell people the truth. The people who believe me will rise up and kill you.” Before they part, Paul says to Jesus, “I’m very happy I met you, because now I can forget all about you. My Jesus is much more important and much more powerful.”
- Now, this is a scene in a film. The scene has no counterpart anywhere in the Bible or Christian tradition, it’s wholly the creation of the novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, the screenwriter Paul Schrader, the director Martin Scorsese and the actors Willem Dafoe and Harry Dean Stanton and the others who made the film. It proves nothing. But does anyone want to argue that human beings in real life aren’t capable of this kind of rationalizing? Most of us can not only imagine it — we’ve been guilty of it ourselves, to one degree or another.
- Strobel, of whom the “die for a lie” argument is a particular favorite, acts as though the only possible reason the disciples would have gone to their deaths without recanting their testimony about Jesus is if they knew it was the truth. But I can think of a few reasons why they might die for a lie. If they believed, as Paul believes in that scene I just described, that their lie was serving a greater good, I think they might. If they believed the teachings of Jesus were valid and beneficial, if they believed others would be helped by believing in the promises of Jesus, even though the disciples themselves knew those promises to be false, I think they might. If they wanted to spare their families and friends the embarrassment and disillusionment of learning that the leader to whom they’d devoted their lives had been a false prophet, I think they might. It’s not difficult to imagine possible motives, other than the actual resurrection of Jesus, for the disciples to choose to die for their beliefs rather than expose them as false.
- And, having said all that, it’s also possible that the disciples did actually recant. But seeing as how the only source for information about the disciples is the church that has venerated them for 2,000 years, how would we ever know about it?
Exhibit 2: The Conversion of Skeptics
- Moreland cites the conversion of “hardened skeptics who didn’t believe in Jesus before his crucifixion” — skeptics like James the brother of Jesus, and Paul, and . . . and that’s it. Two conversions.
- Moreland tells Strobel that the gospels establish that Jesus’s family was embarrassed by his ministry. Josephus later reports that James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and was stoned to death for his beliefs. Moreland says the only explanation is that James encountered the resurrected Christ and was converted.
- Or he converted and refused to recant for one of the reasons I just discussed, or none of this actually happened. Josephus, as Edwin Yamauchi admits in chapter 4 of this very book, is filled with interpolations added by early Christians to strengthen their own claims.
- As for Paul, everyone agrees that Paul never actually encountered Jesus while he was alive. Paul’s own testimony is that he had a vision of Jesus. Now, according to his own testimony Paul was familiar with Christians and their beliefs. He was a Pharisee, he persecuted and executed Christians, one can assume he encountered them and heard from them first-hand what they believed about Jesus. So even if we take Paul at his word and accept that his “road to Damascus experience” actually occurred, all it proves is that Paul saw a vision of Jesus that compelled him to have a change of heart. It doesn’t prove that Jesus actually appeared to Paul, it doesn’t prove Jesus rose from the dead, it doesn’t prove that anything Jesus taught or anyone taught about Jesus was true.
- Strobel compares the conversion of Paul to the revelation of Muhammad, and asks why those who take Paul at face value shouldn’t also believe Muhammad. Moreland argues that Muhammad’s experience took place in a cave and that there are no eyewitnesses to verify this. Paul, and other early Christians, on the other hand, claimed to have seen Jesus during public events that others witnessed, and also to have performed miracles in Jesus’s name.
- Who were the witnesses to Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ? When did this take place? Who were the witnesses to the other post-resurrection appearances? What were their names? When did these appearances take place? Why does Moreland say these post-resurrection conversions had witnesses? Because the Bible says they did. And yet we don’t have names, we don’t have dates, we have very few specifics of location — the origin of the Book of Mormon is far better attested by eyewitnesses than any of this, and yet Strobel and Moreland aren’t Mormons — they reject that much more recent and specific eyewitness testimony, yet they affirm this. I wonder why that is.
Exhibit 3: Changes to Key Social Structures
- Moreland talks about the strong sense of identity and continuity in Jewish culture that allowed the Jews to survive as a separate people for hundreds of years. And yet, despite how precious their religious beliefs and cultural institutions were to them, Jesus somehow convinced many Jews to give up or significantly alter these established structures in order to follow his teachings.
- “[Moreland:]‘But five weeks after [Jesus is] crucified, over ten thousand Jews are following him and claiming that he is the initiator of a new religion.” (p. 250)
- Source for these claims? How do we know ten thousand Jews were following Jesus five weeks after the crucifixion?
- Moreland ticks off five Jewish social structures or traditions that were altered or abandoned altogether by Jews who converted to Christianity: the annual atoning animal sacrifice, the strict obeying of Mosaic Law, keeping the Sabbath on Saturday, worshiping a God who was a single person rather than a trinity, and the concept of the Messiah as a political leader who would initiate immediate changes such as overthrowing Roman rule.
- Why else would ten thousand Jews be willing to change or forsake their cherished traditions so quickly, Moreland argues, unless they had seen Jesus risen from the dead?
- So ten thousand people — which is a lot of people now, and was a stupendous number of people 2,000 years ago — personally saw Jesus after his death. And these encounters were of a sort that allowed these ten thousand people to be sure that the person they were seeing was, in fact, the same man who had been crucified and buried. They weren’t ten thousand people who believed Jesus had risen from the dead, or who thought they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, or who had been convinced by someone else’s testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead — Moreland is claiming that all ten thousand of them saw Jesus risen from the dead for themselves. Ten thousand people. Why, then, is there nothing about this in history? Why does this sound so much like something somebody made the fuck up? Ten thousand people see a man who has returned from the grave, and we read nothing about it outside church scripture and tradition but a few reports of some related hearsay written decades later? I call bullshit.
- Like the conversions of skeptics, the changes in social structures by Jews converting to Christianity only proves that they changed their social structures. It proves nothing about Jesus or the resurrection.
Exhibit 4: Communion and Baptism
- Moreland cites the emergence of the rites of communion and baptism as evidence for Jesus’s resurrection, since without the resurrection early Christians would have no reason to celebrate Jesus’s death on the cross via communion, or begin baptizing members in the name of “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” thus elevating Jesus to the status of God.
- Same argument as the last two exhibits: the emergence of these new rites only proves what people believed, not what was true.
- Also, Strobel asks Moreland how we know baptism and communion were initiated by the church to honor Jesus and not merely adopted from other religions. What’s Moreland’s response? That there were no other religions with such rites to borrow from, that baptism was taken from Jewish customs, and “[Moreland:]‘. . . third, these two sacraments can be dated back to the very earliest Christian community — too early for the influence of any other religions to creep into their understanding of what Jesus’ death meant.’” (pp. 253-254)
- It’s the only argument they have.
Exhibit 5: The Emergence of the Church
- Finally, Moreland talks about the emergence of the church, which he describes as a major cultural shift. And historians naturally look for events to explain major cultural shifts in history. If not for the resurrection of Jesus, how could Christianity have grown from an obscure sect to the dominant religion in the Roman Empire?
- One might ask a similar question about the spread of Islam, or Mormonism, or Scientology, or any movement that grew despite adversity to eventually find success from humble beginnings.
- Again, for what feels like the twentieth time here, this doesn’t demonstrate the truth of what people believed, only that they believed it. Moreland quotes C.F.D. Moule, who wondered rhetorically what secular historians would use to fill the “hole the size and shape of the Resurrection” torn in history by the emergence of Christianity. Well, I’m no historian, but how about the belief in the Resurrection? All the emergence of the church proves is that people believed in its claims. It doesn’t mean the message was true — it means the message was compelling to enough of the people who heard it to drive the expansion of the church.
- “. . . the willingness of the disciples to die for what they experienced; the revolutionized lives of skeptics like James and Saul; the radical changes in social structures cherished by Jews for centuries; the sudden appearance of Communion and baptism; and the amazing emergence and growth of the church.
“Given all five uncontested facts, I had to agree with Moreland that the Resurrection, and only the Resurrection, makes sense of them all.” (pp. 254-255)
- How dishonest or deranged must you be to claim that these five facts are uncontested?
Taking the Final Step
- Moreland offers Strobel one more category of evidence: the Christian experience of people encountering Jesus personally, and reporting that he has changed their lives. Moreland then describes his own conversion experience as a chemistry student in 1968, how he examined the evidence for Christ and concluded that it must be true.
- Strobel protests that other religions furnish their followers with life changing experiences, as well, so Moreland revises: don’t just blindly trust experience; rather, follow the evidence. But if the evidence leads you to believe that Jesus truly was resurrected, subject it to an experiential test.
- What the fuck is he talking about?
- “[Moreland:]‘The experiential test is, “He’s still alive, and I can find out by relating to him.”’” (p. 256)
- . . . What the fuck is he talking about?
Next: Conclusion: The Verdict of History — What Does the Evidence Establish — And What Does It Mean Today?