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Thursday, September 03, 2015

522 Inept Logicians

Fritz von Uhde imagines Mary’s
encounter with “the gardener”
The debate as to whether Jesus actually rose from the dead stands at the centre of Christianity. As the apostle Paul pointed out, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins”.

That being the case, the doctrine of the resurrection could not be more important.

Amy Hall at the Stand to Reason blog has been regularly fielding challenges from the atheistic 522 Reasons Christianity is False website (apparently the name changes daily; they are at 522 reasons and counting). Still, after reading today’s challenge from atheism, I propose we rechristen their blog 522 Inept Logicians.

Today’s challenge has to do with the resurrection:
“The Bible suggests that Jesus rose from the dead and made appearances to hundreds of people before ascending into heaven. It is unlikely that this would have escaped the notice of Herod and Pilate and the vast majority of the Roman occupiers, not to mention the Jews, who would have either directly witnessed this amazing phenomenon or heard about it from credible sources. This would have provided proof that Jesus was a divine being, prompting Herod and Pilate to convert along with the Romans and the Jews, with Christianity then becoming the official religion of Judea.

Obviously, this did not happen, and the fact that it didn’t suggests strongly that Jesus did not rise from the dead.”
Hmm. Okay. Alan Shlemon promises to take a crack at the question on Stand to Reason, but I promise not to peek at his response. Here’s my take:

What They “Would Have Done

The first thing that comes to mind is that if this is one of the stronger cases our atheist friends can muster against Christianity, things do not look promising for them. People do not operate predictably or mechanically; in fact, they frequently act contrary to their own best interests and our expectations of them. Thus arguments based around what we think people would or should have done are shaky from the get-go.

The 522 Reasons argument boils down to the accusation that the New Testament accounts about what happened after Jesus died are inconsistent with both experience and human nature. But it is entirely insufficient to cherry-pick the statement that Jesus made appearances to hundreds of people and speculate about what should, in your view, have been the logical outcome.

An honest critic of scripture must deal with everything the New Testament says about the post-resurrection appearances of the Lord, not just the statements that can be made to serve a particular argument.

Indulging the Fantasy in the Gospel Accounts

So let’s indulge the fantasy that we can peer into the minds of Jews twenty centuries ago for a few moments and simply look at what the gospels actually say about the Lord Jesus after his resurrection:

·         Matthew describes the Lord meeting Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” near his tomb, then later meeting the 11 remaining disciples in Galilee.

·         Mark also refers to the appearance to Mary Magdalene, and records a meeting in “another form” with two disciples walking into the country. He too documents a meeting with the 11 disciples.

·         Luke has a much more extensive take on the meeting with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, probably the same pair Mark references. There is also a reference to a separate meeting with Simon and a further reference to meeting with the Eleven.

·         John has the most information about post-resurrection sightings. The risen Christ occupies the better part of two chapters. John details the Mary Magdalene appearance, an appearance to the disciples, another appearance to the disciples eight days later when Thomas was famously invited to put out his hand and place it in the side of his risen Lord, and a particularly memorable appearance to seven disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, including exchanges with Peter and John.

Paul Bears Witness

Finally, we should add the testimony of the apostle Paul, which is pertinent and supplementary to the gospel accounts. It is undoubtedly from Paul’s testimony that the 522 Reasons folks get their “hundreds of people” reference:
“He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
This is the first mention of a specific appearance to James and to “five hundred brothers”. Most of us are familiar with Paul’s unique experience on the road to Damascus.

The Consistent Account of the Gospels

The gospel accounts are remarkably consistent in maintaining that:

1.  The Lord appeared only to his followers. Even the appearance to “more than five hundred” was to “brothers”, meaning Pauls fellow disciples. It seems the Lord had no interest in making his resurrection a matter of record to the unbelieving general public. That might surprise an atheist or sceptic to whom the only thing that matters is making a point, but it is entirely in keeping with the dictum that “the righteous shall live by faith”, as opposed to experience or data. It is the consistent teaching of the word of God that he credits as righteous and blesses those who believe without seeing first. He values trust and relationship, not grudging assent to obvious facts. One may certainly argue that it would have made the resurrection more historically verifiable if the Lord had elected to appear to crowds of awestruck unbelievers. But doing so would have been inconsistent with his revealed character.

Since God prioritizes those who place their trust in his character well ahead of those who require evidence to obey him, there is no reason Herod, Pilate, the Roman occupiers or even the Jews would have necessarily heard anything at all about the resurrection. Even if they did, Matthew says the lie that the disciples had stolen the body of Christ was widely circulated, which would account for the failure of these various authorities to take seriously any rumors that may have leaked from the little community of disciples aware of the truth about the resurrection.

Further, when Paul wrote about the more than five hundred witnesses to the resurrection, he added that most of them were still alive at the time. Why would these witnesses fail to share what they knew with the Jews and Romans? The answer is that they didn’t. They spoke out continually and publicly from Pentecost on. Thus, two millennia down the road, Christians continue to acknowledge and preach the resurrection of Christ (and of course to accumulate detractors like the 522 Reasons folks).

2.  The Lord was not easily recognized in his resurrection body. The gospel writers agree that when the Lord appeared, he did not appear exactly as he had during his life. Mark says that he appeared “in another form” and Luke confirms that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” and that their eyes were only opened when he took the bread and blessed it. When he appeared to the disciples, Luke records that they were “startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit”. It was only when the risen Lord interacted with his disciples for an ongoing period that they began to recognize him.

Even if we had no other reasons why the Lord did not elect to reveal himself publicly, this difference in his appearance would explain why the authorities did not react to his resurrection. But the public had their chance while the Lord Jesus was alive. Remember, he himself said, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead”. That being the case, why would the Lord engage in post-resurrection PR when he had already declared it to be a futile exercise?

3.  Even the disciples did not initially believe he was risen. Anyone who believes that if the resurrected Christ had presented himself in public, the Jews, Romans and all of Judea would have converted en masse probably also believes in fairies and unicorns. Matthew records about the Eleven that “they worshiped him, but some doubted”. Mark says “when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by [Mary], they would not believe it”, and that those who heard the testimony of the two disciples “did not believe them”. Luke says the Lord asked the Eleven, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” This reaction seems to me far more consistent with observable human nature than the improbable notion that a visual sighting of a crucified prophet days after his death would have made believers of people who had already rejected the evidence he had provided them through innumerable healings, raising the dead, driving out demons and the provision of wine for an entire wedding and bread for thousands.

Documenting how the disciples failed to trust in and recognized their Master and Lord is not particularly flattering to them, but it does argue for a certain authenticity in their reporting.

What’s More Plausible: Disbelief or a New State Religion?

This pattern of unbelief, even among the closest followers of Christ, seems to me by far the most plausible outcome of seeing a man risen from the dead. The disciples doubted one another. They doubted the women who told them Jesus was risen. They doubted their own eyes. We are all more inclined to believe ghost stories than resurrection stories, more inclined to reject and dismiss than to buy into the words of “credible sources”, assuming such were to be found.

Let the reader be the judge, but what the disciples did is exactly what I would have done. It is exactly what anyone would have done, assuming we are honest enough to admit such things. To imagine the authorities would have believed when Christ’s own followers initially didn’t is several hypotheticals too far for me. Christianity became a state religion because of politics, not miracles, and that too is consistent with human nature. It was co-opted when it was perceived to serve a useful purpose and not a moment before.

That’s my take on it anyway. Alan Shlemon comes at the same challenge from a completely different angle here, to mixed reviews.

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