Dismissing Minimal Facts With Minimal Effort, Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I introduced the “minimal facts” approach to Christian apologetics and briefly touched on three events surrounding the resurrection that apologists claim are beyond criticism. As it turns out, the cases for the crucifixion, burial, and empty tomb of Jesus are not as airtight as apologists would have you believe. There are still a couple more “facts” worth addressing, and as you can imagine, they’re quite problematic as well.

4. Jesus appeared to people post-resurrection.

From the historian’s perspective, we don’t have independent sources for many of Jesus’ purported post-resurrection appearances. The Emmaus road experience is only found in Luke. The Sea of Tiberias appearance is only reported by John. An appearance to “five hundred brethren at one time” is only mentioned by Paul, as he quotes an early church creed while writing to the Corinthians.

The creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15 is often cited as evidence that Christians believed from a very early date that Jesus had appeared to others after his resurrection. However, the fact that Christians believed something had happened is not necessarily related to what actually did happen. This will come up again.

Apologists will claim that this creed arose far to early for legends to develop surrounding the resurrection. Nonsense! How long did it take for nutcases to start claiming that 9/11 was an inside job, Sandy Hook was a false flag operation, or Tupac was still alive? And that’s with the wealth of information available in an Internet-connected society! How quickly will legends spring up when all your information comes from the rumor mill buzzing around town?

Might these supposed appearances have a naturalistic explanation? We do know that grief-induced hallucinations are surprisingly common, and we also know that stories tend to grow in the telling. Maybe one or two of the disciples had such an experience and told the others. Over time, the experiences of a few disciples evolved into the experience of all the disciples, seeing Jesus at the same time. This is certainly a more plausible explanation than the dead coming back to life.

5. The disciples came to truly believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

How one responds to this “fact” depends on how it is phrased. I don’t know of any scholar who disputes that the disciples and earliest Christians believed that Jesus rose from the dead — but far fewer would conclude that Jesus actually did.

It should be pretty obvious that belief has no inherent relation to the truth of a proposition. People believe in the power of Jesus, astrology, crystals, homeopathy, CrossFit, Santa Claus and all kinds of incorrect ideas.

Moreover, people sincerely believe in incorrect ideas. Apologists often object that no one would allow themselves to be martyred for proclaiming what they know is a lie. Agreed, but who said the disciples were lying? They may well have been sincere in their belief that Jesus rose from the dead — sincerely wrong.

So we see that, as usual, Christians have trouble getting their facts straight, but even if we were to grant apologists all of their claims, the minimal facts approach still suffers from a fatal flaw.

Think of it like a magic show, with the classic trick of the magician sawing their lovely assistant in half. Unless you’re a stage magician yourself, you might not have access to all the ins and outs of how magicians perform their tricks. All you have are a handful of facts that you and the rest of the audience have all observed.

  • The assistant is a whole person before lying down in the box.
  • The magician saws through her.
  • The assistant appears to be split in half.

If you can’t figure out the trick, do you immediately assume that the magician has real magic powers? Or do you pick from a list of unconfirmed but entirely mundane explanations? Perhaps the saw is fake. Maybe there’s a secret compartment, or a mirror. The supernatural is probably dead last on your list, right below secret alien technology.

The minimal facts should be treated the same way. We simply don’t have access to all of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and its aftermath, and, barring some monumental archaeological find, we probably never will. Somehow, when communicating to humanity the most important story in history, God has left us to play connect the dots without all the dots. The information available to us is simply not enough to get the full picture of these three days in Judea two millennia ago, and certainly not enough to determine that a crucifixion victim rose from the dead.

 

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Dismissing Minimal Facts With Minimal Effort, Part 1

The minimal facts approach has become a popular approach to Christian apologetics, and I can see why. It allows believers to run an end-around on one of atheists’ favorite topics: confusing and contradictory Bible passages. It basically says, “Hey, let’s set aside these 200 questions where scholars disagree and focus on these four where they do!”

At its core, the minimal facts approach is an argument from ignorance. The apologist presents a series of facts and asks the listener, “How can you explain these facts without the resurrection?” The apologist thus attempts to shift the burden of proof onto the listener, asking them to disprove a theory that the apologist has yet to prove!

It is possible, however, to play the apologist’s game and face their “facts” head-on. While the apologist asserts one unified explanation for all presented facts (namely, the resurrection), non-believers aren’t required to provide one unified alternative explanation.

Moreover, these alternatives don’t necessarily have to be the most plausible explanations on their own, just more plausible than a man rising from the dead. This is a relatively easy bar to clear! However, how one addresses the minimal facts depends on which specific ones are being presented.

1. Jesus was crucified.

This fact is uncontroversial (among non-mythicists), but also unspectacular. I feel fully comfortable agreeing for the sake of argument that Jesus, like all men, died. Finally, believers and non-believers find common ground!

2. Jesus was buried in a tomb.

This is where it starts getting controversial. Scholars such as Bart Ehrman have noted that Romans were not in the habit of granting traitors a proper burial, choosing instead to dump their bodies in a common grave. However, in How God Became Jesus, writing specifically to counter Ehrman, Craig Evans claims that we do have examples of Roman clemency to crucifixion victims, noting that “Peacetime administration in Palestine appears to have respected Jewish burial sensitivities” (p. 77).

So if Pilate could have allowed Jesus to be buried, the question becomes: did he? The story of Joseph of Arimathea does appear in all four gospels, but it is not without its own difficulties. For one thing, there is no town of Arimathea known to history. For another, different gospels give different reasons for the specific choice of the tomb. Matthew says Joseph buried Jesus in “his own new tomb” (27:60), but John says it was chosen simply because “the tomb was nearby” and it was time to prepare for Passover (19:42).

It is also sometimes claimed that a character like Joseph of Arimathea would be an unlikely invention. After all, didn’t the Sanhedrin just get through condemning Jesus to death? Why now introduce a sympathetic council member?

Two problems here. One, if Evans is right and the Romans did allow some crucifixion victims to be buried, it would be appropriate for a member of the council to ask Pilate for the body so the burial rites could be performed. And two, the gospels have a running theme of Jesus appealing to the most unlikely members of society. He’s already dined with tax collectors at this point, why not win over one of the Sanhedrin? Multiple gospels even quote a Roman centurion exclaiming beneath the cross, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 et al)

3. The tomb was found empty.

Oh boy. I recently did a whole post on contradictions in the resurrection accounts, but it’s hard to be brief when faced with the sheer incongruity of the whole scenario. Given that this event is supposed to be the turning point in human history, the watershed moment of the entire Bible, you would think God would inspire the gospel writers to keep their stories straight.

Apologists expect us to look at stories of women finding an opened or unopened tomb both guarded and not guarded by one or two men or angels before or after fetching the disciples or telling no one, and take away “Well, we can all agree that the tomb was empty!”

Regarding the women who ostensibly discovered the empty tomb, apologists raise the same point as with Joseph of Arimathea. According to them, the “criteron of embarrassment” makes it unlikely that the gospel writers would invent a story where women, legal non-entities at the time, are the ones who make the discovery. But is this really embarrassing, or is it entirely consistent with a character like Jesus who eschews social norms and appeals to the lowest strata of society?

For the sake of argument, let’s say we ignore all objections and grant the apologist all three of these points. Is resurrection the only explanation? Here’s my pet theory — and remember, it just needs to be more believable than a holy zombie.

Jesus is crucified. Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for the body, but Pilate, still peeved from being dragged into the whole affair, refuses the request. Not wanting to admit failure, Joseph tells Jesus’ followers that he has secured the body and buried it in a tomb. The next morning, the stone is rolled away and followers find the tomb empty.

No appeal to the supernatural required! We know historically that Pilate was a dick to the Jews, and we certainly know that people lie to save face. I believe this hypothetical scenario accurately explains the facts presented in a wholly naturalistic manner.

But there are yet more “minimal facts” to address! My next post will go into the purported post-resurrection appearances of Jesus and the rapid growth of Christianity.

Atheists Do Love to Sin – But There’s A Catch

For some reason, I’ve recently encountered multiple unaffiliated Christians making the same obnoxious claim about atheists. “See, all atheists secretly believe in God — they just choose to deny him because they want to remain in their sinful ways!” In order to make this statement, a believer must dismiss all atheists who found errors and contradictions in the Bible, or who have never had any supernatural experiences, or fail to see God react to human suffering, or see no logical reason to think any god exists, or who were raised without faith and just never changed — you see my point. So where did these believers even get such a crazy idea?

Romans 1:18-32 has Paul making a few broad claims about what he calls “unrighteous” individuals. First, they are well aware of God’s righteous nature; not only has “God shown it to them” (v. 19), but it has been revealed through creation, “clearly perceived…in the things that have been made” (v. 20). Are the unrighteous ignorant according to Paul? No, they actively “suppress the truth” (v. 19), and when it comes to belief in God, “they are without excuse” (v. 20).

Second, these individuals aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are. (I’m sure some Christians love this part.) “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (v. 22), and so “their foolish hearts were darkened” (v. 21). It’s easy to make the connection to the oft-quoted psalmist writing “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1).

Third, God has written off these people, allowing them to follow their base instincts like feral animals. Paul repeatedly states that God “gave them up”: to “impurity” (v. 24), to “dishonorable passions” (v. 26), to “a debased mind” (v. 28). As if he hadn’t already made himself clear, Paul concludes this section by reiterating that these wicked people know exactly what they’re doing:

Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (v. 32)

So that settles it, right? Well, no. Surprisingly, a 2000-year-old book speaking in vast generalizations may not have captured the true motives of each individual non-believer.

To Paul’s first point, it’s apparently quite easy to look at the majesty of creation and not see the Christian god in any of it. For the last hundred thousand years, mankind has studied nature and seen all kinds of gods that are not Jehovah. Even though the Bible asserts that “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), civilizations throughout the millennia have gazed upon the night sky and seen a wide variety of pantheons represented, from Egyptian to Greek to Chinese and beyond. Modern astronomy has opened our eyes to the vast wonders of the universe without any inherent appeal to a deity.

Paul’s second point boils down to “You think you’re so smart!” Foolishness is by no means the proprietary domain of atheism. A Christian can declare, “Atheists are fools for not believing!” just as much as an atheist can say, “Christians are fools for believing!” Name-calling is no substitute for rational debate. I’d encourage both sides to give the other a chance to support their beliefs before we start dropping F-bombs.

If I were a Christian, I’d have deep misgivings about Paul’s third point. Imagine the implications of a God that gives up on people! Why would a loving god with the power to change anyone’s heart ever decide not to do so? Are some people just not worth it to him?

Christians, you know this can’t be the case. Haven’t you ever had a speaker at your church give an epic testimony of being lost in a quagmire of drugs, sex, or crime, only to be saved by the grace of God? If God didn’t write off Jeffrey Dahmer, David Berkowitz, or Nicky Cruz, why would he write off anyone?

So if the idea that “atheists just want to sin” has only dubious scriptural credentials, why does it remain so persistent? Is there any real-world support?

Here I must divulge a little trade secret: not all atheists have good reasons for rejecting God! I’m sure there are atheists who grew up in restrictive Christian households and, after seeing how much fun the rest of the world was having, decided “I want some of that!” So they rebel, ditch church, and go have themselves a good time.

However, pretending that all atheists reject Christianity for these reasons is just an excuse for believers to disengage. It’s way easier to reduce complex motivations to digestible stereotypes, and simpler to spout well-worn platitudes than wrestle with a tough argument.

I won’t lie, I enjoy being able to do certain things that were verboten as a believer. I drink with friends, I watch R-rated movies, and I still get the same rebellious glee from swearing as an nine-year-old who just discovered the word “ass”. But did I reject Christianity just so I could say “hell” all day long? Hell no!

Look at it this way: saying “atheists secretly believe but just want to sin” is like saying “Christians secretly don’t believe but just want hope in the face of suffering.” Sure, reassurance in times of trouble is a useful side benefit, but it may not necessarily be one’s main impetus for joining the church.

And if your main view of atheists is “they love to sin”, I’ve got bad new for you. Christians love to sin, too! They just take a break on Sunday mornings.

 

Ted Cruz is God’s Tool

You know that old joke about the Christian trapped in rising flood waters, faithful and confident that God will save them? A rowboat comes by, then another boat, then a helicopter hovers overhead, and each time the Christian refuses rescue, saying “God will save me!” In the end, the Christian dies and goes to heaven, and on arriving they ask God, “I prayed and prayed, why didn’t you save me?” To which God replies, “What are you talking about? I sent two boats and a helicopter!”

I was reminded of this joke when reading the usual spate of “thoughts and prayers” messages from Texas’ Republican leadership. I’ve posted before about the uselessness of prayer and God’s seeming indifference to our country’s mass shooting epidemic, but something occurred to me this week that may sound unusual coming from an atheist: what if God isn’t to blame?

I focus on my state’s own Senator Ted Cruz in this situation for a few reasons. For one thing, he happens to be up for reelection this year. For another, he is cartoonishly pro-gun. He is also at the forefront of the Texas Thoughts and Prayers Battalion after every single goddamn mass shooting.

I’m not saying Christians shouldn’t pray for God’s help in the wake of tragedy – it’d be pretty inconsistent and worrisome if they didn’t. But here’s a thought to add to your prayer: what if God has actually provided help in the person of Ted Cruz, but Cruz has somehow completely missed God’s calling in this area? What if Cruz goes to heaven and asks God, “Why didn’t you answer my prayers to stop mass shootings?” and God says, “That’s why you were elected to the Senate! I made you my instrument to enact gun control legislation, to promote background checks and restrict dangerous weapons. You could have saved hundreds of lives – why didn’t you ever try doing something?”

Feel free to substitute your own senators or representatives into this scenario as well. If they are unwilling or unable to use their legislative power to help prevent senseless tragedies, perhaps it’s time to elect someone who will.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Don’t Waste Precious Air on Prayer

Photo by Garon Piceli from Pexels

The Lord’s Prayer is supposed to be Jesus’ model for how his followers should approach God, but if we compare it with God’s nature according to the Bible, there’s no reason to think prayer would actually change anything in the real world.

Why would you pray that God’s kingdom come and his will be done? Could anything possibly stop God’s intentions from being accomplished?

Why would you pray for your daily bread? What kind of loving Heavenly Father doesn’t care for his children’s basic survival? In the same chapter as the Lord’s Prayer, aren’t believers also told not to worry about what they will eat or drink?

Why ask for God’s forgiveness? If God wasn’t already planning on forgiving you, would your feeble supplications change his holy mind?

Why ask not to be led into temptation? I thought it was Satan tempts people – are you telling me God does?

Why ask to be delivered from evil? Wouldn’t a loving God do this without being asked?

Even beyond the Lord’s Prayer, it makes no sense to pray about events from one’s daily life. If that prayer involves the actions or decisions of another person, God could not intervene without violating their free will. For instance, you can’t pray to get that new job without implying that God must work some influence on the hiring manager. You can’t pray for a safe commute without thinking God will nudge some otherwise heinous drivers out of your way.

If that prayer involves the natural world, we already know that God has ceded control over that area. Otherwise, you must believe in a God that makes sure your kid’s soccer game isn’t rained out but doesn’t lift a finger to prevent Hurricane Katrina.

At most, you might pray for God to change your own individual attitudes or shortcomings. However, if you’re self-aware enough to even ask for such things, you’re also self-aware enough to never be sure if it’s God that made the change or if you manifested the change yourself.

Book Review: The Language of God

When I was a believer, I would have been scandalized by someone like Francis Collins. A Christian… who’s okay with evolution?? Burn the heretic! I now know that the truth doesn’t have lines so clearly drawn, and that’s where The Language of God comes into play. Collins, a geneticist and head of the Human Genome Project, attempts to serve as a bridge between science and faith, showing both believers and atheists there is merit to the other side. Does he succeed as a peacemaker? Is the long war finally over?

Let’s get the niceties out of the way first – and yes, there are positive things to say about Francis Collins! Overall, The Language of God is a very readable text. Collins brings in complicated subjects like cosmology and genetics and makes them understandable to the layperson. Even if a reader disagrees with the conclusions Collins draws from certain arguments, it won’t be because they didn’t know what he was talking about.

Collins lives up to his scientific credentials by acknowledging the consensus about the age of the earth and evolution by natural selection. He denies any scientific “conspiracy” suppressing creationism by pointing out that, if anything, scientists are invigorated by new ideas that challenge the existing paradigm, and these ideas succeed or fail on their own merits, not from science’s “atheistic bias”.

Collins takes his fellow believers to task for being dismissive or ignorant of modern science. Astutely, he points out that young people who discover the evidence for evolution after only learning creationism will be led to question other teachings – including the foundations of their Christian faith. He goes back as far as Augustine to show that a literal creationist view of Genesis is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of Christianity.

So where does Collins’ faith enter the picture? The Language of God is bookended by the idea of moral law. Collins does not believe naturalism can explain a “higher standard” of human behavior, noting that altruism “cannot be accounted for by the drive of individual selfish genes to perpetuate themselves.” I’ll let Dawkins debate Collins on this point, but I do think that Collins doesn’t give enough credence to the advantages of altruism on the population level. Surely Collins would acknowledge that humanity flourishes when we all work together – his Human Genome Project would certainly not have been successful without his team setting aside their own individual objectives for a common goal. While Collins believes that the evolutionary impetus leads to tribalism instead of altruism, he must acknowledge that the innumerable denominations of Christianity indicate that religion suffers the same difficulty.

Collins also disagrees with claims that mankind created God as a form of “wish fulfillment”, as he doesn’t think the harsh and strictly just God of the Bible is the type that people would create from whole cloth. But aren’t the vindication of the faithful and an eternity of heavenly bliss exactly why people find Christianity so appealing? More broadly, Collins contradicts himself in a matter of paragraphs by proposing that a universal human longing for God points to an object of that longing. Somehow, Collins doesn’t think the idea of a God “fulfilling” some universal “wish” is an example of “wish fulfillment.” Which came first: the longing or the longed-for?

Collins encounters the same pitfalls as other apologists when addressing the issue of human suffering. He recounts the harrowing ordeal of his daughter’s sexual assault and his own struggle to reconcile his faith with this very personal evil. Collins proposes two reasons why God may have allowed this horrible event to occur. For himself, he believes he now understands that he cannot protect his children from all pain and suffering, and he must entrust them to God. For his daughter, he notes that this experience has allowed her to be a source of counsel and comfort for other women who are dealing with the same issues.

I’m glad Collins and his daughter have found ways to cope with their trauma, but are outsiders going to find these solutions satisfactory? For Collins’ daughter, if the only purpose of suffering is to be able to help future sufferers, wouldn’t it be great if there was some all-powerful being with the ability to end the cycle of suffering permanently? And how is Collins comforted by the idea of his daughter being protected by the same God who fail to prevent the original assault? How many second chances would you give a babysitter who let your child be harmed under their care? Collins precedes his explanation with so many “if” statements he almost seems to be losing confidence himself:

Consider this: if the most important decision we are to make on this earth is a decision about belief, and if the most important relationship we are to develop on this earth is a relationship with God, and if our existence as spiritual creatures is not limited to what we can know and observe during our earthly lifetime, then human sufferings take on a wholly new context.

Emphasis mine, but that’s a lot of conditions for your grand rationalization of human suffering! You’d better be damn sure your God is real, because if our existence is limited to our earthly lifetime, and if our most important relationships are with our loved ones and not with God, you may have wasted your life devoting yourself to a cosmic teddy bear.

These “if” states pop up throughout the book, and they only serve to undermine Collins’ credibility. When addressing the fine-tuning argument, Collins claims that if an intelligent Creator set off the Big Bang, then the unlikely fine-tuning of the universe falls into place. Collins also notes that miracles are not an issue for the theist scientist, because if a being exists outside of nature, then there’s no conflict in positing that this being could make miracles happen.

By making these claims, Collins has now provided an explanation for literally any phenomenon one wants to explore. But Collins has already shown a more naturalistic bent than many Christians, so as a scientist, where does he draw the line? When does he stop looking for naturalistic explanations and accept that “God did it”? Collins never addresses this.

Moreover, Collins’ rationale can be used to support more than just Christianity. If Allah is the one true god, and if Muhammad is his prophet, then of course Muhammad could split the moon in two! How does Collins sort through the supernatural claims of other religions to arrive at Christianity? This is never addressed either.

Even Collins’ stance on theistic evolution (or as he rebrands it, “BioLogos”) fails when held up to scrutiny. Collins is clearly familiar with the “god of the gaps” fallacy as he applies it to intelligent design, but he vehemently denies that theistic evolution falls into the same trap. He weasels his way out by claiming that his ideas are “not intended as a scientific theory” and questions like “How did the universe get here?” and “What is the meaning of life?” are not answerable by science. However, the first question is absolutely the domain of science, and the second is not answered by theistic evolution anyway, so where does that leave Collins? If “BioLogos” is not a scientific theory, perhaps he should not spend an entire book using science to defend his views.

While I obviously have my issues with a lot of Collins’ writing, I must emphasize that I haven’t addressed the hefty chunk of The Language of God where Collins, as a scientist, simply explains the evidence for various ideas that may be controversial to Christians but not to scientists. I think The Language of God could be a good book to give that anti-science family member to show that science and God don’t necessarily conflict. However, because of its various apologetic issues, I hope this book would not be the last word on the subject, but that it would ultimately serve as a springboard into further inquiry.

So You Think You Know Easter

 

      1. Why was Jesus’ particular tomb chosen?
        • It belonged to Joseph of Arimathea
        • It happened to be close by
      2. Was the tomb sealed when the women arrived?
        • Yes
        • No
      3. Who did the women meet at the tomb?
        • One man
        • Two men
        • One angel
        • Two angels
      4. Did the women fetch the disciples before or after encountering the men/angels?
        • Before
        • After
        • Trick question – they fled in terror and told nobody
      5. Where did Jesus first appear to the disciples after his resurrection?
        • On a mountain
        • Indoors/seated at a table
        • In Jerusalem (location unknown)
      6. Where did Jesus ascend into heaven?
        • Jerusalem
        • Bethany

References:

  1. Matthew 27:60, John 19:42
  2. Matthew 28:1-2 (Yes), Mark 16:3-4 (No), Luke 24:2 (No), John 20:1 (No)
  3. Mark 16:5 (One man), Luke 24:4 (Two men), Matthew 24:2-3 (One angel), John 20:12 (Two angels)
  4. John 20 (Before), Matthew 28 (After), Luke 24 (After), Mark 16 (Trick question – remember, verses 9-20 are a later addition!)
  5. Matthew 28:16 (On a mountain), John 20:19 (Indoors), Mark 16:14 (Seated at a table), Luke 24:33-36 (In Jerusalem)
  6. Acts 1:4-9 (Jerusalem), Luke 24:50-53 (Bethany)