Jesus…and some other stuff

“I’m here because when I realised I was an atheist, I decided to crash-test my atheism.”

Question from Rob:
Hi there,

1.I’ve been reading through some of the discussions on the site. I just wanted to explain why I believe what I believe but at the same time ask about your approach to evidence. You say in one post that you hold to an atheist position because of an absence of available, substantive evidence for God. But I can’t find anywhere on here a thorough discussion of the evidence of Jesus’ life as recorded in the new testament. Sorry if I’ve missed something!

For example, you say that the claim that Jesus is God doesn’t stand on its own merit, partly because the writers of the gospels wanted their readers to believe they were true (“whether or not they were true”). But the question of their motives is irrelevant – indeed they tell us of their motives (eg Luke – “I wanted to write an orderly account…so that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Or John – “These things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that by believing you may have life…”). Similarly, some of the most reliable and thorough accounts of the holocaust are written by Jews who have motives (to open people’s eyes to the horror of what happened and to ensure it never happens again), but these motives don’t render their accounts untrue. On the contrary – they are particularly passionate about preserving the truth, and so their accounts are the best place to go. All recorded history is biased in some way, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate it.

The question then is “ARE they in fact writing the truth, as they claim to be?”. And I think it’s important to realise that these accouts were not written in a vacuum, as it were. They reference real places, and real dates, and real people. And into that context they place this extraordinary life. And what persuaded me as I looked into this was that if they had fabricated all these stories, the accounts wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple of weeks – because the inhabitants of the towns where these astonishing events were supposed to have happened before large crowds would have been the first to pipe up and say “Hang on, I’ve lived in Capernaum/Bethany/Jerusalem etc all my life, and that never happened.” Worth remembering too that 1st century Jews were far less religiously gullible than we are – any claim to be God in such an entrenched monotheistic culture was outrageous (as indeed it proved), so Christianity never had a tougher audience than the very society in which it began (who would be hugely suspicious, and who had access to the people and places named in the gospel accounts and therefore every opportunity to disprove it if they could).

Added to this is the question of the disciples’ own transformation. If we think they made it up, we must ask “Why would they make this up?”. They had nothing to gain – in fact they lost everything and nearly all were martyred for what we would then be saying they knew to be untrue (as an aside, this sets them apart from, say, suicide bombers today – both groups sincerely believe that their views are true, but the disciples were in a unique position to KNOW if their stories were UNtrue). Furthermore, something transformed them from a terrified and defeated group locked in a room fearing the worst (after Jesus arrest, trial and execution), to a fearless, committed and convinced group of preachers and missionaries. The Bible explains that what happened was Jesus appeared to them risen, and that is what they preached.

There’s lots more I could say, I just wanted to begin a slightly fairer discussion on the subject of evidence.

2. Perhaps you could clear something up for me. I’m always confused when atheists campaign against Christianity (in particular) and other religions. Thank you for a balanced and reasonable approach on this website! But why do the so-called New Atheists have such an agenda against Christianity? If faith is a virus, as Dawkins suggests, should he not be pleased as he sees competitors in the gene pool being disadvantaged and losing a lot of street cred (which I have, believe me!), rather than rail against it. For if I’m merely a sack of particles that will soon be redistributed underground, why should it matter to me what other sacks of particles think whilst they are “alive”. How indeed can I think evaluate that a world without “religion” would be better for subsequent generations (if that is the driving force) without importing some external set of values about what is “good” or “bad”?

3. And a cheeky personal one for you! Do you see all these messages merely as things that need rebuttal? Is there no part of you that gets tired of having to explain away and thinks “Wow, maybe this is true!”?

Arguments based on Jesus are rather popular with Christians, so we’ve been through a few.

  • In the comments here I looked at the extra-Biblical documents mentioning Jesus.
  • Shortly afterwards I examined the mention by Josephus in particular.
  • Something more relevant to your point: in the comments here I respond to Simon Greenleaf’s well-worn piece, Testimony of the Evangelists.
  • Most relevant of all: back on the old site, I responded to the argument that the apostles wouldn’t have made it all up, as put forward by Lee Strobel.
  • .
    To respond to your piece directly, as briefly as I can (naturally, comment if you want to delve into something):

  • Of course the fact that the authors of the Gospels wanted to convince people of the divinity of Jesus doesn’t simply invalidate the idea, because they’d want to convince people just as much if Jesus were actually divine as if he weren’t. It certainly doesn’t support the idea, though. We expect bias, but it’s not easy to get a clear picture of an event if all known sources are explicitly biased the same way.
  • Best guess is, the Gospels first saw wide distribution about 30 years after the fact. That doesn’t sound like much, but back then it was the high end of the average lifespan. Consider that combined with the estimated literacy rate in the area: 3% or less. By the time the story was exposed to criticism, few citizens who would have seen Jesus pre-crucifixion were still alive, and few if any of those could have written a contrary account at the time. Nor would they have bothered if they could, in most cases, because as far as everyone but Jesus’ followers was concerned his death was a non-event – just another self-proclaimed Messiah easily scooped up by the authorities. Placing real places and people in the stories therefore wasn’t much bolder than Winston Groom writing JFK and the White House into Forrest Gump.
  • Your last paragraph on the subject is very directly addressed by what I wrote on the old site years ago. Here I’ll just say that even if they knew it was untrue (and there are scenarios floating around where the apostles were taken in like everybody else), then sticking to their story and maintaining their following (instead of having everybody turn on them) was actually quite a good survival strategy in the short term. The first apostle to die after Judas apparently did so eleven whole years later, despite persecution by both Romans and Jews.
  • .
    Religion isn’t the only source of altruism. Richard Dawkins and the “New Atheists” are against religion itself, not trying to wipe out the religious. They, and I, see it as beneficial to religious people for them to abandon their faiths, which is part of why they attack those faiths. They’re doing people a service. (They seem to attack Christianity more often than other faiths simply because Christianity is the major faith in the countries where they live, and therefore the most immediate instance of religion. Their criticisms usually apply to other faiths, however.)

    Religions often claim to be the only absolute authority on what is good and bad, but that’s only true if the religion is. Otherwise you’re appealing to an authority which isn’t there. There are many ways to measure merit on objective bases, rather than absolute, which are actually known to exist. Historical experience and research, common sense, the law, the minimisation of harm, the maximisation of resources and our instinctive empathy and altruism are examples. Any of them can be challenged, but especially if they all agree on something then you can reason that something is good or bad. You literally have a reasonable basis.

    We care for others, knowing that they’re sacks of particles, because we are sacks of particles and we know what it’s like. It can be hard sometimes, and we generally don’t like to see other sacks suffer. We’re wired that way, thanks to millions of years of interacting with sacks like ourselves.

    When those who disagree with you have apologetics organisations like CARM which devote tremendous resources to producing material that they challenge others to “explain away”, you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining whether you’re right or wrong. The sheer volume of Christian apologetic is proportional to the sheer amount of Christian proselytisation (and by extension the sheer number of devout Christians), and by itself says nothing about the truth of the subject matter.

    I’m here because when I realised I was an atheist, I decided to crash-test my atheism. I came to a place where all the great big arguments would be championed by the faithful, to see whether they were in fact convincing and whether I’d missed something. They weren’t convincing at all, and now I run the place.


    10 thoughts on “Jesus…and some other stuff”

    1. 1. I don’t think I agree on the “bias” thing. You seem to be suggesting that the bias in this case (that they really want people to believe what they have to say) renders their accounts unclear as far as historicity is concerned. If something is true, it doesn’t become less true simply because I write an account about it that has the express purpose of persuading you that it’s true. Nor is te reliability of my account affected, in that instance, by my motives. Take the holocaust example – the Jewish accounts are the best place to go precisely BECA– USE those writers are the ones who are most passionate to communicate what happened, and most concerned that people understand. So when it comes to the gospels, why be so quick to discard the accounts of those who were in the best position to record his life, and most passionate about doing so.

      As for the average lifespan, I think you’ve done a bit of statistical gymnastics there! The average life expectancy naturally takes into account the high rates of infant and child death. It doesn’t mean that few people lived above 30! Jesus’ mother was watching as he died as a 33 yr old or thereabouts. So there would have been plenty of eyewitnesses around. Not to mention the children of eyewitnesses (eg Mark refers to Simon, “the father of Alexander and Rufus”. Implication: go and ask Alex and Ruf about what their dad did if you want to check! Paul refers to the 500 brothers to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection (“most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep”); implication: hundreds of eyewitnesses you can check with, Corinthians).

      Furthermore, you seem to imply that there was silence during that 30 year gap, which is not true: the preaching of the resurrection started a matter of days after the resurrection. These were itinerant preachers, teaching people with urgency. As they neared the end of their lives, they wanted to preserve the accounts in writing. But the content of their message had already been the subject of intense public scrutiny and had been widely proclaimed during all those years.

      As for the disciples sticking to their story as a “survival strategy”, we’re clutching at straws there, surely. 11 years of persecution followed by execution doesn’t sound like the great fruit of a masterful survival plan. And let’s not forget that Peter’s instinct was nothing of the sort – he denied even knowing Jesus within a few hours of Jesus’ arrest, and that was when interrogated by a servant girl!

      My point on your reaction to the evidence is illustrated again in your response: the fact that you see this not as evidence to be evaluated, but necessarily as something that needs “to be explained away”. I notice you are critical elsewhere on the site of others operating with a priori assumptions, and yet you appear to do the same: you assume that the gospels cannot be true, and therefore any purported evidence for their truthfulness is only ever something which needs to be explained away. It’s not, as you say, that “there’s no available, substantive evidence”. I know many people who are far more intelligent than I am (and who may or may not be more intelligent than you, I don’t know – in any case they’re up there with the sharpest minds I’ve come across!!) who say that there is ample evidence. So it seems to be less clear-cut than you make it out to be – perhaps because as long as your a priori assumption is that there is no God, you will conclude that evidence for God cannot possibly be evidence for God, but only a fallacy for which there MUST be an alternative explanation. At that point we’re in danger of being like the Pharisees, who even as Jesus performed miracles in front of them were plotting “how to destroy him”. They’d made up their minds, and even seemingly knockdown evidence had no effect. Now obviously you’re entitled to think whatever you like, but I think it’s a step too far to claim to be open to considering evidence when whatever evidence is put before you is automatically deemed not to qualify as evidence because it contradicts your starting position that there is no God. If that makes any sense…!

    2. You’re right, we’re not yet on the same page regarding bias.

      We agree, for one thing, that the accounts we have which are even close to contemporary are all biased in favour of the divinity of Jesus. My main question is, where are the ones which aren’t? Two powerful factions, the Jewish and Roman authorities, each had a vested interest in denying the Resurrection even if it did happen. Between them, did they not once make the equivalent of a press release? Assuming there were even actual claims of the resurrection at the time, there would have been official responses and anti-Christian propaganda, and it’s entirely lost to us.

      From the end of WWII, to pick up on your analogy, there’s a wealth of Holocaust denials, Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda and pre-Nuremberg cover-up attempts available to us. We dismiss them, but they’re there. With Jesus we only get accounts from the minority side.

      This brings us back to bias. The fact that the accounts are biased one way doesn’t weaken the case for their side, and it might even help that case if we knew that they were all the accounts that were written. However in the case of Jesus it’s reasonable to think that there’s another side of the story we may never hear. Since the event, therefore, the balance of documentation has shifted in favour of the Resurrection with the loss of the contrary accounts and denials which must have existed, making it sound more likely to be true than it would have at the time.

      If I’m looking at the lifespan issue too simplistically, Rob, so are you. All types of death were more common in those days, not just infant death, and life was hard. Jewish peasants especially worked themselves into early graves, and there was no useful medicine to speak of even among royalty. Jesus’ mother Mary, in her late forties, would have looked like and been treated as an old woman. (See Madame de Pompadour, a French aristocrat in the eighteenth century, at just 43.) Anyone who was alive when the Gospels came out and old enough to have been at the crucifixion was at best middle-aged.

      Before that time there was hardly silence. After the first claims of the Resurrection, what followed was an army of proselytisers doing their best to win Jerusalem over for Christ. As you say, the story would have been the subject of intense scrutiny at least by a few, but again, where is the material they would have produced in response? Lost, or disposed of. Without any documentation one way or the other, and most people unable to read in any case, it was one man’s word against another’s, and if anyone could shout down the opposition it was the first Christians.

      That reminds me, the literacy rate is a simpler matter. If people were around for the first Gospel “launch” who remembered a different story, chances are they couldn’t write The Jesus Delusion in response.

      In case you haven’t realised, I can’t ask Alex and Ruf about what their dad did. Nor can I check with any of the 500 brothers, none of whom are named. Witness accounts of witnesses are not witnesses, especially vague accounts.

      I said quite good, not masterful. We agree that signing up for lifelong persecution wasn’t ideal, but they were stuck with it, and better to be persecuted than dead at any given moment. Peter’s repeated denials, if they happened, would have taught him that he was too well-known to easily disappear. At that point they had a choice between a small group of stalwart followers and nobody at all, against not only the Romans but a larger group of former followers who a short time ago had demanded Jesus’ blood.

      You’re right again, Rob, I don’t see this stuff as substantive evidence for the existence of God. However I’m not assuming the non-existence of God a priori in response, except hypothetically. Let me explain.

      Your thrust is to supplant the Gospels with an argument by elimination. Stop me if I’m wrong, but what you’re ultimately trying to argue is, “No interpretation of the Gospels really makes sense or is very likely except the straightforward interpretation that Jesus really did rise from the dead.”

      Since I disagree, you force me to present alternative interpretations, or “explain away” the Gospels, because the response to an argument by elimination is to produce alternatives. I’m not saying, “Since I know Jesus didn’t rise up, it must have happened like this.” I’m saying, “If Jesus didn’t rise up, it could have happened like this, or this, or…and that’s just what I can think of.” I examine the story and find that it’s less clear-cut than you think it is.

      It’s the right thing for me to do, too, because to defend your point you’ve been compelled to poke holes in my alternatives. I hate to tell you this, but the number of possible alternatives are limited only by the known facts (almost none) and the imaginations of skeptics. That, above all, is why the one interpretation involving an absolutely unique event with no physical evidence to support it is not finally very likely.

      The Gospels are available, substantive evidence that some people from slightly after Jesus’ time said that he rose from the dead. It’s a long way from there to available, substantive evidence for the existence of God.

      Incidentally, there are more intelligent atheists than me just as there are more intelligent theists than you. We agree, I think, that even some of the intelligentsia can and indeed must be wrong.

    3. It’s probably worth saying my starting point in all of this would not be to talk about evidence for the reliability of the gospels, but rather the gospels themselves and the rest of the Bible. Evidence won’t change a human heart, but the Bible can and does. I believe (although I accept that you would strongly disagree) that many of the arguments about evidence and alternative hypotheses fall away once we see what the accounts really say (not to mention the coherence and unity of 66 books by so many different authors written over such a huge period of time). Anyway, that is to open up a whole new debate…! My point is merely that evidence is not the place I would start. Nonetheless it is perhaps THE issue that has risen to the surface in our age, and it’s not at all an unreasonable one, and so I appreciate the importance of engaging on these questions.

      It’s an interesting point you make about the absence of written counter arguments. Perhaps slightly anachronistic, though. Things just weren’t done by way of “press release” or equivalent, and debates were not carried out in the written media, but by public proclamation. More significant, I would say, is that the people who opposed the Christian message thought that their efforts need only be concentrated on the “there and then” uprising of the pesky sect of Christians. So whilst the gospel writers were keen accurately to preserve their teaching for subsequent generations, it’s unlikely that their opponents would have thought that it was a debate that would rage on for generations – and therefore their energy went into persecution, arrests etc (which ought to have been enough to extinguish the sect). There’s an account of the Jewish council in Acts 5 which illustrates this (if you’ll humour me for a minute and allow this in support!). Gamaliel is advising the Jewish council what to do about the apostles; his suggestion is to leave them alone, on the grounds that if this uprising if of man, it will fail, but if of God, then it will be unstoppable. And he cites two previous uprisings that had simply petered out as examples. In other words, to the extent this is false, we’ve done enough by killing their leader – they’ll be dispersed in due course. No need to enrich future generations with written counter-arguments, because there would be no such sect in future generations, they thought. What they surely WOULD have done is to produce the dead body of Jesus, and that would have killed off even the most vocal and persuaded Christian. I don’t think it’s blinkered of me to say that it’s reasonable to assume that they couldn’t. In any case, once the accounts WERE written down, the low literacy rate doesn’t prevent people from denouncing them as false (even the illiterate would have known from the prior preaching and from someone else’s reading what the claims were). So they may have been ill-equipped to write a response, but they could nonetheless have rubbished the written records such as they were. And if we say the low literacy rate prevents even this, then we end up saying that the low literacy rate made the written accounts almost useless (either positively or negatively), so limited was their accessibility.

      Of course I wasn’t suggesting that you could check with Alexander and Rufus. My point was simply that Mark and Paul present themselves as writing verifiable accounts. They wouldn’t have assumed that they were writing to us 2000 years later as their readership. They were writing in the first instance to local people at the time (bear in mind that the apostles had no idea when Jesus was returning, and write and act on the basis that it would be very soon). So I wasn’t presenting that as witness evidence that we could check out, I was presenting it as more evidence that the gospel writers were convinced that they were writing truth, and confident to include details that their first readers could check out.

      I’m not sure “army of proselytisers” is accurate – this was always a minority, always a weak group, few in number. I don’t think we can fairly say that it was their strength in numbers or their ability to “shout people down” which ensured their survival – that’s just not what we read about the early church.

      I guess we can’t resolve the survival plan question: to me it seems absurd to think that they would choose this life, particularly when you read the kind of persecution involved (and how in so many cases it was a straight case of “just stop preaching this, and we’ll release you”, but they would not; to you it makes sense, and is presumably more likely than that they were telling the truth. We shouldn’t forget Paul, though – who had everything to lose: the highly respected Pharisee, persecutor of Christians, converted pretty much in isolation, and willing thereafter to undergo all sorts of suffering (“Five times I received at the hand of the Jews the 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brother; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure”). Not to mention the fact that he preached the same gospel as the apostles for three years before he even met them. No survival interest there, and no less conviction or persecution.

      We can by all means come up with alternative hypotheses, and it’s fair for you to do so. But we must also place the same evidentiary and reasonableness tests on whatever alternatives we suggest. Our ability to think up alternatives does not, per se, reduce the likelihood of the Bible’s explanation, once we abandon a balanced analysis and balanced evidentiary demands.

      Again, though, as much as it is stimulating and encouraging to me to discuss evidence, this wouldn’t be my chosen starting point. The Bible itself is where the power is.

    4. I’m inclined to agree that evidence won’t change a human heart. The strength of some people’s convictions makes them positively immune to evidence. Evidence will however change a human mind, and that’s a good start.

      Certainly we’ve been assuming a certain amount of hypothetical accuracy in the Bible regarding non-supernatural events, and its actual reliability is another subject entirely. I will mention that those 66 books were selected from over 400 candidates, and coherency and unity were criteria in the culling process. That’s why those which didn’t make the cut, such as the Gospel of Thomas, are 1. less than consistent with the others and 2. generally regarded as heresy.

      I agree that we wouldn’t expect any written responses to the first evangelists to be preserved as carefully as the Gospels, and there wouldn’t be much of it in the first place. (3% literacy, remember?) The fact that the surviving material all goes one way doesn’t actually surprise me. That said, it’s still true, and it’s extremely likely that we’re missing the rebuttals.

      Glad you mentioned the body, because this is precisely where the hypothesising comes in. If the apostles or anyone else had any notions of fitting Jesus into the resurrection prophecies without an actual resurrection, the first thing to do even before working out how to do the rest was obviously to retrieve and dispose of the body good and properly before the prescribed three-day mark. So yes, it’s reasonable to assume that the Jews couldn’t lay their hands on it by the events of Acts.

      I didn’t mean to imply that there were a lot of Christians at first, compared to anybody else. They were an army, however, because pretty much all of them were out preaching. Mormons are marching around today on two-year missions preaching stuff hardly anyone believes, and they still win converts. Imagine if they all did it nearly full-time. Likewise, the first Christians didn’t need everyone to believe them, just enough people to bolster their ranks and get the Word beyond those who had access to any contrary accounts.

      I know you find the idea of a hoax perpetrated by the Apostles hard to swallow. Many do. Scenarios have been suggested, however, wherein the apostles were sincere but deceived, either by Jesus himself or by someone else. Since Saul/Paul had never met Jesus before the Road to Damascus experience, almost anyone could have travelled there and posed as Jesus. If they all really thought they were doing God’s work, whether or not they really were, it makes perfect sense that they would willingly suffer.

      No, the existence of alternatives doesn’t reduce the likelihood of a given scenario, but its likelihood then has to compete with the likelihood of the rest of the alternatives combined. Perhaps each one isn’t that likely, but we know something extraordinary happened to create the world’s largest religion anyway so it’s difficult to rule any out. Supernatural action has a tough time coming out as the best or most likely explanation or interpretation.

      I appreciate that you prefer to simply take the Bible at face value and let it work its magic, and that evidence for its reliability isn’t what you’d rather discuss. However if you choose to proselytise then you’re going to be talking to people who do not take the Bible at its word, and see no reason to. Presenting evidence to encourage acceptance of it is something I’d get used to, if I were you.

    5. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy talking about evidence, and I appreciate the increasing need to do so. Indeed I find it affirming for my faith. I guess it’s just important to be aware of its limitations – I’ve had a few friends get to the point of saying “I can see that Christianity is internally coherent and makes sense, it’s just not for me”, which illustrates that for all that we might lay before the human mind, the real barrier to belief is the human will (I don’t know if you see it that way, but the impression one gets reading most of the stuff on this site is that you really passionately don’t want to believe it, and will therefore work hard at thinking of alternatives).

      It’s not right to say that the likelihood of the Christian explanation of the available evidence has to compete with all possible alternatives combined. I can’t, by thinking of 101 bizarre scenarios that are each 1% likely, claim to have established a watertight case against Christianity. By all means think of alternatives, but each alternative has to stand on its own merit. So by suggesting that the disciples took the body. for example, there’s inevitably a whole load of other stuff you’re going to have to explain: that the well-guarded tomb was easily plundered, how come no one noticed that they stole the body from the well-guarded tomb, AND then began preaching in that very city that Jesus was raised AND added in false stories about lots of miracles done over the previous three years purportedly in the presence of those very people, that in their haste and despite being mostly fishermen they were nonetheless able quickly to concoct a story that was not only remarkably consistent with all of Scripture (fulfilling so much in brilliantly unexpected ways) but also captured the nature of the human heart with an unrivalled degree of accuracy and realism, quickly managing to agree all the theology and the history before they dispersed to preach, and thereafter lived a life which was a lie (and they knew it was a lie), and some guy called Paul began preaching the SAME story with the same theology even though they’d never met him to explain the great conspiracy to him, all the while teaching the importance of truth and integrity, and coming up with a way of life and community that works even centuries later and makes sense of the world etc etc. Pretty good for a rag-tag bunch of peasants who’d been stupid enough for the three previous years to spend day and night following a complete fraud and not figure it out. You can pin your eternal destiny to that kind of explanation if you want, but then I admire your faith. (Incidentally, Paul’s account of his conversion reports a flashing light and a voice from heaven – not a human standing with him and his companions – after which Paul lost his sight until Ananias found him in Damascus to restore his sight. Hard to hoax that.)

      The point is, if you really want to come up with alternative hypotheses, you can’t just think of them in isolation in reference to each event. And supernatural explanations only become unlikely once we start to exclude the possibility of God. If there is a God (and I think I’m being fair to you when I say that you would at least say we can’t know that there ISN’T – what you call the “atheist agnostic” position I think (apologies if I’ve misrepresented you)), or even if there MIGHT be a God then these things aren’t at all unlikely, but possible. It can be useful to ask “what would I want God to do if he WERE to appear in human form?” – after all, I’m sure you would be the first to complain if there was NO display of supernatural power by someone claiming to be God. And I think power over creation, power over sickness, authoritative teaching, and power over death are fairly persuasive and obvious examples of what we might expect to see.

      Maybe, just maybe, we don’t have rebuttals because there wasn’t much to say in reply. “Shut up” is the most commonly-recorded rebuttal, and that was better expressed face to face, or via the prison guard or the executioner.

    6. I don’t know about passionately not wanting to believe it, but I do know that I don’t believe it where once I did. When I did, I had never examined it. Once I realised (not decided) that I didn’t, I examined it all the time. The alternatives simply occur to me, and those that don’t have occurred to others.

      If 100 unique alternatives each have a 1% chance of being right, one of them must be. If there are 101 such alternatives but they aren’t mutually exclusive, the probability that all of them are wrong is 0.99 to the power of 101 which is 36.24%, and therefore it’s more likely than not that one of them is right. That’s not watertight, but it is solid mathematics. If you find the right alternatives, whether or not they are isolated from each other, you can confidently challenge a given view. It’s that simple.

      Again you acknowledge that my alternatives alone are a real challenge to the story by trying to poke more holes.
      – If it was such a well-guarded tomb, why did nobody know the ruddy great stone had been moved until Mary Magdalene strolled right up to it on Sunday morning? Where were all the guards then? Napping? Distracted? Bribed? Co-conspirators? Why’d they use a rock, and not a lock?
      – There were multiple apostles, and not all of them are quoted in the first post-Resurrection sermons. They might have been simple people, but how much brain power does it take to say, “You go preach, I’ll stay here”?
      – Glad you mentioned the other miracles. Why does everyone always start with the resurrection of Jesus? What was so special about that if he’d already raised Lazarus in front of a large audience? Why was there any doubt left at all? Is there evidence for any of Jesus’ other supposed miracles, or is the Main Event the only one it’s even possible to seriously argue for?
      – How do you know the original (verbal) accounts were so brilliantly consistent with the prophecies? The earliest ones you’ve had a chance to read were published at least 30 years later. That’s a lot of time for research, editing, continuity tweaking and artistic effort.
      – If the man Saul heard wasn’t Jesus, then chances are it was someone who wanted to feed him the same story as everyone else was telling. If Saul didn’t even see the guy, it would have been even easier. And temporary blindness would have been ideal to prevent Saul from seeing an impostor; a light source bright enough, such as an explosion or a burning chemical, could do the trick. And there’s your flashing light.

      Supernatural explanations aren’t only unlikely if you exclude the possibility of God. We’re living in a world which might have been governed by a god the whole time, and yet every mystery which has ever been fully solved has turned out to have a natural explanation. Even if there is a god, it’s not likely that it was involved in any given event solely on the basis of documented human experience. There’s just no established precedent.

      I am an agnostic atheist, and you have the right idea. The miracles supposedly performed by Jesus, including his own resurrection, are consistent with a god on Earth wanting to demonstrate who he was. That’s exactly why someone wanting to convince readers that he was a god on Earth would describe those miracles, whether or not they happened.

      Finally, if there were no rebuttals to begin with, that means that the overall case then was about as good as it is now, and it doesn’t convince a lot of people now who don’t already believe. You disagree, but something I’ve been wondering and investigating lately is, who is all the apologetic actually working on as a demographic? At the expense of what group, if any, is Christianity growing? Atheists, people of other religions or just other kinds of Christian, or is it simply population growth? Beyond anecdotal evidence (every evangelical remembers the people they’ve Saved), it’s hard to find actual statistics which show that any substantial audience is really buying it.

    7. Without wanting to turn this into a discussion of the principles of logic, you must be able to see that that’s simply wrong. If you even have even three alternative explanations for three pieces of evidence, each 1% likely, the chance of them all being true is 0.000001. Accumulation of unlikely scenarios gets you deeper and deeper into unlikelihood, not closer to certainty. Again, you owe it to yourself, if you want to rebut the christian explanation of the evidence, to come up with an explanation that covers all the evidence, not just come up with some potential alternatives for isolated events, which hold no water when seen in light of the whole.

      So by “poking holes” in your alternatives, I’m not acknowledging a serious challenge that they pose, I’m trying to help you to see that they’re not in fact a serious challenge becuase they make no sense in light of the evidence we do have. On the soldiers noticing the resurrection, see Matt 28 or thereabouts – they ran to the council to report everything.

      People start with the resurrection I guess because Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection. It’s the most time-efficient point of inquiry, if you like. If it didn’t happen, then our “faith is in vain”. If it did happen, then it shows that Jesus was telling the truth when he predicted it three times, and it shows that when he calls us to trust him to bring us through death, we’re putting ourselves in the hands of the only man in history who has shown himself capable of doing that. The other miracles are great things to talk about, but it’s the resurrection that proves the MOST about Jesus. Lazarus was a slightly different case, because that was resuscitation (ie Lazarus died again some time later). Resurrection is to go through death and come out the other side, as it were, never to die again. I guess the main evidence in favour of the other miracles is so many of them were recorded as being so public – again, it’s hard to claim that whole towns knew about events and were amazed by them if you’re not telling the truth.

      To suggest “tweaking” puts us back into the “the disciples were lying” argument, which we’ve discussed already; worth noting again, though, the public nature of the events they described.

      I’m surprised at your suggestion for how Paul was converted! Forgive me for being cynical, but this is getting beyond absurd: so we’ve got this amateur chemist, who’s got his lump of magnesium or equivalent, jumps out as Saul approaches, manages to blind him, but somehow not the people with him, with a kind of blindness that lasts THREE DAYS, and which somehow Ananias can then heal, he then quickly feeds him a lengthy theology lesson whilst succesfully remaining hidden from the other guys who were with Saul, perhaps using ventriloquism to make them all think it came from the sky… Not one of your better attempts at coming up with alternatives!

      If you’re interested in church growth worldwide, look into the church in India and China. Some astonishing developments there, despite some intense persecution. My experience, though, is not many people believe it. But that’s exactly what the Bible tells us to expect. There are over a thousand committed Christians at my church, but it’s small in relation to the size of the city. I guess there are a number of explanations, but again I would say that our natural state is to rebel against God, and to want to throw off what we perceive are his shackles (“I rule this place”, as you say). That’s humanity ever since Genesis 3. Amazingly, it’s to the world that sticks two fingers up to God in this way that he steps down and says “Come back – let me be to you a Father and you to me a son”. That is the great news of the gospel. Trouble is, we have this deep-rooted view of God that he’s out to ruin our fun, so we don’t want to know. And it takes a fair amount of humility for any of us to come back. I daresay for you, having very publicly set yourself up as an opponent of the gospel (whether or not that was your intention), it would be a massive step ever to turn back after all the stuff you’ve written and said on here. And look, I’m not honestly expecting to change your mind on any of this. And I’ll leave you alone now, as I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than read my ramblings! I would just want to say that if life ever gets messy down the line, it won’t ever be too late to think again about this stuff. Luke 15: the prodigal son goes back to his father who welcomes him with open arms.

      Thanks for the discussion, and apologies if I ever crossed the line into the offensive.

    8. It’s difficult to offend me, mate. Don’t worry about that. And I welcome ramblings, because they can be the most honest things out of people’s keyboards.

      Mathematics out of the way first. I’m not trying to argue, for example, that Jesus faked his own death AND the apostles stole his body and faked the resurrection AND someone fooled the apostles AND the chroniclers made it all up afterwards. The chances that all conceivable alternatives are true at the same time really is miniscule, and rightly so because some are mutually exclusive and some are redundant. That’s irrelevant, because only one alternative to each Biblical claim (or to the whole story) needs to be true to render it false, so we’re looking for the probability that any of them are true.

      That’s equal to one minus the probability that none of them are true. If we have three 1% chances, that’s either 0.01 x 3 = 0.03 = 3% or 1 – (.99 ^ 3) = .0297 = 2.97% depending on exclusivity. So to bring an established view below 50% beyond doubt, we’d need more, but we’d be off to a start.

      Matthew 28 makes for an interesting point. If you leave out the bits with the angel, here’s what apparently happened: there was a tremor which moved the stone, which the guards went to report without either looking inside the tomb or trying to reseal it. So in fact we have a documented interval during which the tomb was open, unguarded and left alone with Jesus’ followers. Honestly, I barely have to use my imagination.

      I do get that Jesus’ resurrection is make-or-break, but one line of apologetic conspicuous by its general absence is where someone works up to the resurrection by starting with lesser miracles. If the others could be defended with anything like the same enthusiasm, I think that would be quite effective. But apparently they can’t, so it isn’t and nobody tries.

      The tweaking possibility goes back to my Mormon analogy. Stories like that of Jesus (and later, Joseph Smith) can resonate with certain people even in the face of flat-out denial by both secular and religious authorities and a complete lack of evidence, and it gets easier the more distance you put between the events and the audience. If they lied, it was easier to lie more years later, and put some polish on as well.

      If what Saul wrote was true from his own point of view (that’s a big if – to help his own credibility, suppose he exaggerated the event?), then something extraordinary happened to him, and if it wasn’t divine it had to be elaborate. He was an ideal convert however, and worth the effort to convince, whether the risen Jesus or anyone else did it. And it was up to Saul himself to tell people when he wasn’t blind anymore; he chose the moment he was officially cured. Perhaps the full routine isn’t one of the more plausible things I’ve come up with, but as I’ve said all along the alternatives aren’t limited to what I alone can imagine. And how elaborate a scheme has to be to be less likely than a miracle is a larger subject.

      It would indeed be a massive flip-flop for me to accept Christ again and invalidate everything I’ve written here, but I’d do it if I suddenly believed again. It’s happened elsewhere, for example with the blogger formerly known as The Raving Atheist. Having done it, the SmartLX persona could simply vanish from the Web with nary a consequence. I’ve really got very little to lose personally. However you’re getting very close to the Ray Comfort line that atheists are just rebellious Christians in denial. It’s probably true of somebody, but it’s hardly the rule. Some people aren’t just pretending not to believe in God. Believe that.

      Nice talking to you.

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