An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Part Two: The Case for Jesus
Chapter 9: Support of Deity: The Resurrection — Hoax or History?
- One of the things McDowell, and the many apologists who have modeled their approach after his, does over and over again is to exaggerate the importance of the questions addresses. I mentioned in the previous video how even when McDowell was supposing for the sake of argument that Jesus was a liar when he told people he was God, Jesus could be no mere opportunistic con artist. No, he was the perpetrator of the most monstrous deception in history. He couldn’t just be a fraud; he had to be the fraud.
- And it’s with that in mind that I present the following quote, from the first paragraph of this chapter:
- “After more than seven hundred hours of studying this subject and thoroughly investigating its foundation, I have came [sic] to the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon the minds of men, OR it is the most fantastic fact of history.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 203)
- Not just a hoax, but the worst, most evil and dastardly hoax ever! How am I supposed to take this man’s arguments seriously when he is so warped by his bias for Jesus that he even inflates the importance of his hypothetical phony Jesus beyond the point of absurdity? Not that he’s actually talking to me — I know, and I’ve pointed out already, that he’s talking to people who already believe this stuff. He is admittedly preaching to the choir. But even so . . .
- So. The resurrection is important. Very important. The most important event in the life of Jesus, actually, because without the belief in the resurrection, the Christian church would not exist today.
- The resurrection also distinguishes Christianity from other world religions, McDowell says. No other major religion claims that its founder rose from the grave.
- McDowell also quotes Wilbur Smith saying that if Jesus’s repeated promise to die and return came true, then everything else he ever said must be true, too. The resurrection, then, also functions as a validation of the life and ministry of Jesus, upon which the doctrines of Christianity are based.
- So the resurrection is important. Jesus said he would be resurrected, Christians believe he was, hence Christianity. So how do we know the resurrection actually happened?
The Historical Approach
- The resurrection of Jesus was not a spiritual event, but a physical one. Jesus was dead and returned to life, literally. Or, as McDowell puts it:
- “The resurrection of Christ is an event in history wherein God acted in a definite time-space dimension.” (p. 211)
- The question of whether or not the resurrection took place is an historical question, then, not a doctrinal or theological one. It either happened — actually, at a particular point in space and time — or it didn’t.
- This is a bold claim, but it’s not bold for the reason McDowell thinks it is. He wants it to be bold because it’s the fearless declaration of a great truth with the power to impact the life of every single person for all eternity. It’s actually bold because it’s a preposterous claim for which there is absolutely no compelling evidence.
- In arguing that the resurrection of Jesus occurred as an event in history, McDowell is attempting to force reality to match his proposition, rather than shaping his proposition to match reality. And that’s a losing game. The world is not as we would have it be. The world is as it is. And we have no reason to believe the resurrection of Jesus was ever an actual occurrence in the world.
The Testimony of History and Law
- The section begins with McDowell saying:
- “When an event takes place in history and there are enough people alive who were eyewitnesses of it or had participated in the event, and when the information is published, one is able to verify the validity of an historical event (circumstantial evidences).” (p. 215)
- McDowell then goes on to tout the “historical” accounts of the resurrection from the New Testament. But here’s the point McDowell misses: if the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, and was well known to have happened at the time — and the Bible says the resurrected Jesus was seen by over 500 people, don’t forget — then why isn’t it accepted as an historical fact by anyone other than Christians?
- Why are the only accounts of it those written by the worshipful followers of Jesus? Where are the Jewish scholars grappling with the implications this unprecedented event might have on their faith? Where are the records of Roman authorities flipping out over a man they publicly executed walking out of his tomb three days later?
- The followers of Jesus a few hundred years down the line did change the course of history — in the west, anyway — but the resurrection of Jesus seems to have had almost no impact at all on its immediate historical surroundings. Nobody other than the most devoted members of the Jesus cult seems to have cared.
- Is that because Jewish and Roman authorities persecuted those early Christians and deliberately suppressed the truth? Or because these non-Christian writings referring to the resurrection have simply been lost? Or is it maybe because, even in the credulous, superstitious world of the First Century Middle East, the story of an executed cult leader returning from the grave, hanging out for a month and then ascending bodily into the sky never to be seen again, leaving no evidence behind, was just a bit too neat for most people?
- “Ambrose Fleming asserts that there is nothing in the Gospels that would cause a man of science to have problems with the miracles contained therein . . .” (p. 216)
- If you don’t think the bit in the Gospels where the dead person comes back to life and subsequently floats up to Heaven would cause a man of science to have problems, I don’t really know what else to say to you.
- Ambrose Fleming, in case you don’t know, was a prominent English scientist and engineer who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. He was also an occasional preacher and an evolution denier. I’ll look elsewhere for insights into the mind of a man of science, thank you.
The Resurrection Scene
- Jesus was dead. McDowell leads us on an invigorating roll through the viscera of his Lord and Savior to establish this fact. Jesus was scourged, beaten, brutalized, then nailed to the cross. And when he came down off the cross, he was definitely dead.
- The relish with which so many evangelical Christians describe the suffering of Jesus remains one of the most off-putting aspects of their faith.
- After Jesus died, he was taken to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. This wasn’t standard practice for either the Romans or the Jews, to allow executed criminals to be buried in tombs, but the Gospels say that’s how it went, and McDowell sees no reason to doubt them. (They contain references to actual people and places, afterall.)
- McDowell does have a big problem with a statement by Charles Guignebert in his book Jesus, where Guignebert (a professor of Christian history who taught at the Sorbonne and rejected the supernatural claims about Jesus) suggested that the body of Jesus was probably cast into a pit — that is, buried in a common grave with other executed criminals.
- McDowell rages against this statement for two and a half pages, calling it “utterly unfounded” and criticizing Guignebert — who, I say again, was a scholar of the history of Christianity at one of the most prestigious universities in the world — for ignoring the “perfectly straightforward” narrative of the Gospels.
- Most of McDowell’s objections to Guignebert are based on details in the Gospels. For instance, Guignebert ignores details of the preparation of Jesus’s burial (why record them if they never happened, McDowell asks), and the description of the tomb itself, and fails to explain why the Jews asked that guards be posted at the tomb, or why the women and Peter and John visited the tomb if there was no tomb.
- Why would a document produced by people who worshipped Jesus and wanted others to believe he had returned from the dead contain details meant to testify to that occurrence if it didn’t actually occur? Again, it doesn’t exactly take a genius to discredit McDowell’s objections here.
- McDowell finishes with this:
- “The evidence clearly speaks for itself, but Professor Guignebert refuses to acknowledge the evidence because it does not agree with his worldview that the miraculous is not possible. The French professor draws his conclusions in spite of the evidence, not because of it.” (p. 229)
- Project much, Josh?
- The Gospels are not evidence. The Gospels are claims. If I announce that someone I know was dead and then returned from the grave, that is not evidence. That is a claim that requires evidence to be accepted.
- As for Guignebert’s worldview preventing him from accepting claims of miracles — that’s right. But again, McDowell disingenuously characterizes the naturalistic worldview as some arbitrary, a priori thing, when it’s not. It’s based on experience. Show me evidence — real evidence, not claims you’re insisting should be accepted as evidence — that miracles occur, and then we’ll talk. Until then, McDowell can jump up and down and bitch about my anti-supernatural bias all he wants. If he wants to overcome that bias, all he has to do is convince me miracles are an actual thing that happen. And if they are an actual thing that happen, that shouldn’t be too difficult.
- So anyway, Jesus was placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and the tomb was sealed with a heavy stone. And a guard was placed at the tomb at the request of the Jewish authorities, to prevent the disciples from stealing the body of Jesus and trying to falsely claim that he had been resurrected. The guard was probably a Roman, and Roman guards faced the death penalty for quitting their posts. But even if the guards at the tomb of Jesus were Jewish temple guards, rather than Roman soldiers, the discipline and competence of the temple guards was nearly as impressive as that of the Romans.
- This is all a very long-winded way of asserting that the tomb where the body of Jesus had been placed was closed and very tightly guarded by men who knew what they were doing.
- And let me remind you that all of this information, which McDowell spends pages of this chapter parsing to extract every last detail about where Jesus’s body went after the cross, comes from the New Testament, which is not actually evidence of anything. The Gospels contain accounts not only of the guards watching the tomb, but also of the angels who greeted visitors to the tomb after Jesus had risen. Yes, that’s the “straightforward narrative” of the Gospels that McDowell wants us to accept, that only our unfair anti-supernatural bias will prevent us from swallowing whole.
- After the death of Jesus, the disciples, who believed Jesus to be dead, fled and were preparing to abandon their sect until suddenly they were galvanized and found a new strength and purpose. The frightened disciples suddenly became determined apostles who were eventually martyred for their faith. Only the resurrection of Christ could account for such a dramatic transformation.
- That, or an embellished, self-serving account that wasn’t written down for at least several decades after the events, intended to convince people that the cowardly and discouraged disciples had been inspired by the risen Christ. Remember, we’re still using the New Testament as our source. The mindsets of the disciples, their plans following the crucifixion, their new purpose after encountering the resurrected Jesus — that’s all part of the story. There are no historical sources for that other than the stories being told by the early church itself about its by-then revered founding members.
The Post-Resurrection Scene
- McDowell begins this section with an extraordinary quote from Winfried Corduan’s book, No Doubt About it:
- “If ever a fact of ancient history may count as indisputable, it should be the empty tomb. From Easter Sunday on there must have been a tomb, clearly known as the tomb of Jesus, that did not contain his body.” (Winfried Corduan, NO DOUBT ABOUT IT, p. 222)
- The empty tomb is an indisputable fact of ancient history! Not only that, if ever a fact of ancient history were indisputable, it’s the empty tomb! Not the construction of the Great Pyramids — which still exist, so I’d call them both ancient and pretty fucking factual. Not the ancient Olympic Games — which were recorded and about which we actually know quite a bit. Not the death of Julius Caesar — which doesn’t compel skepticism with supernatural claims. No, none of those, nor any other fact of ancient history for which there is surviving evidence and which does not contradict commonly understood principles of life and death — the empty tomb of Jesus.
- So my question is, if the empty tomb of Jesus is an indisputable fact of ancient history — if ever there were such a fact! — where the fuck is it? Where is this tomb, the location of which was clearly known to many people, which was the site of the most extraordinary and important event that ever happened? For the rest of the chapter, McDowell constructs his arguments on the assumption that the empty tomb existed and required an explanation, either natural or supernatural, but what evidence is there that there was an empty tomb other than “the New Testament says so”?
- The answer is, there isn’t any. There is no evidence. There’s a claim and a set of assumptions based on that claim. McDowell and the parade of apologists he quotes in his book find an impressive variety of ways to assert that the empty tomb was real, but they don’t even attempt to explain what happened to it, why its location was lost forever, why not even the church which was supposedly founded in the aftermath of the fantastic resurrection of Jesus which occurred at that tomb, could remember where the empty tomb was. McDowell quotes William Lane Craig, he quotes Corduan, he quotes J.N.D. Anderson, and they all say the same thing: well, people of the time surely knew where the tomb was. Its location must have been very well known in Jerusalem following the resurrection. Okay. So where is it?
- We don’t even see evidence of people claiming a particular site as the tomb of Jesus until hundreds of years later. Today there are several sites thought by the faithful to be the site of the tomb, including the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Garden Tomb, and there’s no actual evidence that either of those is the place, or, indeed, that there ever was a tomb where Jesus’s body was buried in the first place.
- The empty tomb belongs in the same category as the Bible’s original autographs, of imaginary things Christians cite as proof of the truth of their claims. Over and over I’ve heard preachers and apologists declare that the greatest proof of the resurrection of Christ, the towering fact with which we all must reckon to determine our fate, is the empty tomb. But it’s a sleight of hand. There is no empty tomb. There’s no reason to think there ever was. And until I’m presented with a reason to believe that there was such a tomb, where Jesus’s body was placed and from which that body unexpectedly disappeared, I don’t have to reckon with a goddamn thing. The empty tomb isn’t proof of anything other than the credulity of the people who believe in it.
- Of course, the empty tomb wasn’t the only thing that convinced the disciples that Jesus had risen. There was also the post-resurrection appearances.
- McDowell lists 15 separate instances of Jesus appearing to people following his crucifixion, all of which are attested solely by the New Testament.
- Worse than that, four of them — Jesus’s appearances to Paul on the Road to Damascus and later while praying in a temple, to Stephen before his death, and to John the Revelator on Patmos — take place long after Jesus’s supposed ascension to Heaven. Unlike the appearances prior to the ascension, the appearances to Paul, Stephen, and John of Patmos are visions, not instances of Jesus being physically present in front of multiple witnesses. McDowell draws no distinction.
- The most impressive-sounding of the post-resurrection/pre-ascension appearances is, of course, the appearance to a crowd of 500 people. The only report of this appearance comes from Paul, writing in I Corinthians. And not only is Paul writing some twenty years after the death of Jesus, he is not claiming to have been among the 500 himself, and not a single word of the New Testament is written by one of those 500 people, nor are any of them identified anywhere. Apologists will sometimes try to claim that Jesus was seen by 500 witnesses after his death, as though that’s a historical fact that establishes his resurrection. But we don’t have 500 eyewitness accounts. We have one account from someone who doesn’t even claim to have been there, written decades after the supposed event, which apparently didn’t move anyone else to mention it in writing in all that time.
- McDowell cites the reaction of the enemies of Christianity, again recorded only in the New Testament, as evidence that the resurrection was an accepted fact even among non-Christians. The Jews insulted and belittled Paul, but never bothered to disprove the resurrection. And as for enemies other than the Jews:
- “When Paul spoke to the Athenians about Christ, they had no answer for his claims . . . They merely laughed it off, because they could not understand how a man could rise from the dead.” (McDowell, p. 251)
- Reasonable people, those Athenians.
Inadequate Theories About the Resurrection
- McDowell presents more supposed evidence for the resurrection derived from the New Testament, including the transformation of the disciples from pants-pissing cowards to lean, mean, evangelizin’ machines, then turns to addressing what he quotes Corduan describing as “non-miraculous explanations of what happened at the empty tomb”.
- The Swoon Theory. This explanation proposes that Jesus was crucified, but didn’t actually die. Rather, he only appeared to die, and revived while inside his tomb and escaped. McDowell and those he cites reject this for numerous reasons: the (they say) established fact that Jesus was dead when he came down from the cross, the generally brutalized condition of Jesus following the scourging and crucifixion that would have made a far from inspiring presentation to the disciples, and the difficulty of a Jesus who never died apparently allowing his disciples to wrongly believe he had.
- I agree that the swoon theory isn’t very convincing.
- Next: The Theft Theory. Jesus died on the cross and was entombed. But instead of a miraculous resurrection, his body vanished from the tomb because the disciples snuck in and stole it, then falsely claimed Jesus had risen. This theory is rejected because the task of stealing the body of Jesus without being seen by the guards placed at the tomb is deemed too difficult. Also, the disciples were so depressed and demoralized following the death of Jesus, that it probably wouldn’t have occurred to them to even attempt such an operation.
- I agree that the theft theory isn’t very convincing.
- The Hallucination Theory. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus were hallucinations. People did not encounter a physically resurrected Christ; they only believed they did. In rejecting this theory, McDowell makes a few interesting points. First:
- “If true, it means, in Gresham Machen’s words, ‘that the Christian Church is founded upon a pathological experience of certain persons in the first century of our era. It means that if there had been a good neurologist for Peter and the others to consult, there never would have been a Christian Church.’” (p. 273)
- Right. And I think we can all agree that such a notion is utterly preposterous. It’s far more likely that a dead person actually came back to life, right?
- There’s another reason why the post-resurrection appearances could not have been hallucinations, or “visions,” as McDowell also calls them:
- “The hallucination theory is not plausible because it contradicts certain laws and principles to which psychiatrists say visions must conform.” (p. 273)
- So we should disregard the laws of nature whenever they would rule out supernatural claims related to Jesus, but we should carefully consider the psychiatric criteria for what is a vision when deciding whether or not the post-resurrection appearances described in the New Testament were hallucinations. Remember: Science that seems to affirm a religious belief is good. Science that contradicts a religious belief is bad.
- “Generally, only particular kinds of people have hallucinations. . . . The appearances that Christ made were not restricted to persons of any particular psychological make-up.” (p. 273)
- And the source upon which we can base any conclusions whatsoever about the psychological make-up of the disciples and other supposed witnesses to the resurrected Jesus is what, exactly?
- The Wrong Tomb Theory. This is the proposition that the women who visited the tomb and discovered it empty simply were at the wrong tomb. McDowell finds this dubious for several reasons: the women’s visit to the (correct) empty tomb is attested repeatedly in the Gospels, the location of Jesus’s tomb would have been fresh in everyone’s mind since he had only died a few days ago, and surely either the Sanhedrin or Joseph of Arimathea would have corrected such a mistake very shortly after claims about the empty tomb began to circulate. Also:
- “Do you think that you or I or these women or any other rational person would forget so quickly the place where a dearly loved one was laid to rest just seventy-two hours earlier?” (p. 280)
- And yet this is apparently exactly what happened — and not merely following the death of Jesus, but the miraculous, religion-creating, world-changing resurrection of Jesus. The site where this incredible event took place has been totally forgotten.
- And there’s one more excellent reason to reject the Wrong Tomb theory, McDowell reminds us:
- “Furthermore an angel, sitting there on a stone, said, ‘Come, see the place where the Lord lay’ (Matt. 28:6). Are we to believe that the angel was also mistaken?” (p. 281)
- Right? Everyone knows that angels — which are totally real and reported as being present by the straightforward, unembellished, exactingly historical gospels — don’t make mistakes like that! How could anyone seriously argue that they were at the wrong tomb when the angels were literally right there?!
Conclusion: He is Risen, He is Risen Indeed!
- McDowell concludes the chapter with another appeal to the empty tomb, declaring confidently that the only rational conclusion is that the resurrection of Jesus actually occurred.
- I don’t think either the Swoon theory, the Stolen Body theory, or the Wrong Tomb theory, are very good alternative explanations for what happened to Jesus’s body. But that’s mainly because they do far more work in that regard than is even necessary. To construct a theory to account for the empty tomb of Jesus, you must first grant that there was such an empty tomb. And I see nothing compelling me to make this assumption. What happened to Jesus’s body after his death? I don’t know. Standard practice was burial in a common grave. I’ve also read that the Romans sometimes simply deposited the bodies of executed criminals outside the city and let nature take its course.
- If for some reason Jesus’s body was placed in a tomb, my assumption is that it remained there, and that stories about an empty tomb were just that — stories. McDowell protests that such false claims would have been immediately refuted by the Jewish authorities who had Jesus arrested in the first place, but how do we know they weren’t? A story that is shown to be false isn’t automatically abandoned by everyone who believes in it. Some followers of Jesus may have refused to accept the evidence presented against their conviction. The human capacity for self-delusion is incredibly powerful, as this book demonstrates.
- McDowell closes the chapter with this:
- “The verdict is in. The decision is clear. The evidence speaks for itself. It says very clearly: CHRIST IS RISEN INDEED!” (p. 284)
- That must be some evidence! I wonder when he’ll start talking about that.
Next: Continue Part Two: The Case for Jesus
Chapter 10: Support of Deity: The Great Proposition