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The Conversation Continues…Is Jesus alive?

September 3, 2011

Sally– You know every time I raise I rival theory you shoot it through with bullet holes. You ask a lot of questions that I can’t answer. But maybe the truth is, ‘we just don’t know’. We are peering through the mist of history and our gaze is forever obscured by the passage of time. Plus, history is written by the winners; in other words, history is biased.

Maybe, we can’t know what really happened to Jesus or the 1st Christians. Have you ever thought about that?

Chris– Wow, you went poetic on me for a second. Not all history is written by the winners, just like not all ‘truth’ is what your colleagues let you get away with.

I’m not sure I agree unless you mean ‘we can’t know anything historically with absolute certainty’. In fact, I’m not sure we can know anything with absolute certainty. None of us are God. The closest rival is Chuck Norris.

Here is a question, ‘how do you even know you are were born into your family?

Sally– Are you mocking me?

Chris– No seriously, how do you know you were born into your family?

Sally– Ummm, my parents told me all about the birth. I have a birth certificate and I’ve seen pictures. I also accidently came across the birth video, which, incidentally, scarred me for life.

Chris – So your parents have never lied before? How do you know they weren’t lying when they told the story of your birth? Documents can be forged, pictures can be faked, and videos can be tampered with.

Sally- This is ridiculous. Based on the evidence I do have I’m more than confident that I was born into my family.

Chris- I agree. Based on the evidence of your parents testimony, the pictures and the documents you are more than reasonable to conclude you were born into your family, which means we can know some things about the past.

Sally- Well, of course we can. But events 25 years ago and events 2000 thousand years ago are not the same thing. Plus, everyone is born, everyone isn’t rising from the dead. If you had a video tape of Jesus rising I would believe.

Well, actually maybe I wouldn’t. Video tapes can be tampered with.

Chris– I know, I know I just wanted to see how radical your skepticism runs. Can we know anything about ancient history in your view?

Sally- Yes, I think we can. But when it comes to historiography we are talking about different levels of certainty from unlikely, to probably, to almost certain that this is what took place.

Chris- I’ll accept that. So what can we know historically that almost certainly took place in your view?

Sally– Quite a lot. For example, we know that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC. We know with a high degree of certainty that the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 AD. We know that Islam spread through military conquests. We know a movement called Christianity began in the 1st century within the folds of Judaism. We know the first Christians claimed that God raised Jesus from the dead. We don’t, however, know that God raised Jesus from the dead in my view.

Chris– Well, when it comes to historical investigation into events that took place in the distant past we need to look at our sources, assess their reliability, and seek to create a hypothesis that explains the events being described. There may be multiple explanations for any given event so we have to assess the relative strengths of each theory.

Historians assess competing hypothesis according to criteria like explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, illumination, degree of ad hocness etc, etc.

Sally– I’ve heard that. Does Ad Hoc mean relying on too many unsupported assumptions to justify your theory? So the more you do that the more Ad Hoc the theory is and the less compelling it becomes.

Chris– Basically.

Sally– Okay fine. How does this address the issue of the resurrection?

Chris– In our first conversation we looked at the earliest written testimony we posses about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, which included appearances to his disciples, five hundred people at once, a skeptic (James) and an enemy (Paul). This eye witness testimony is found in 1st Corinthians 15 in a creedal form that dates from within a couple of years after the crucifixion of Christ.

This is eye witness testimony from an early date. We also find some relevant information in the book of Acts and the Gospels but all we really need is 1st Corinthians 15 for our purposes.

Sally– Right, I’ll admit since we first talked I did some research about 1st Corinthians 15. Scholars do take it very seriously as reliable testimony.

Chris– Well, based on our written sources here are the relevant facts that are agreed to by the majority of scholars in the field of New Testament Studies, including atheists, Jews and Agnostics.

Sally– Wait a minute. The majority of scholars…What rubbish! I’ve heard the majority of scholars claimed by both sides for radically opposed perspectives. You can’t bully me with your claimed scholarly consensus. If brave individuals didn’t challenge learned majority opinion we would make no progress in knowledge. Consensus! Nothing but stock refuge for the intellectually timid.

Chris– Are you done?

Sally– Yes.

Chris– Look, I’m not trying to bully you. I’m not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. A lot of scholars don’t believe that Jesus rose but the majority of scholars including Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ermhan, Gerd Ludemann and E.P Sanders, will grant the facts that I will list. None of them are Christians in any traditional sense (two are atheists) but if you know the field you know they’re major players to be reckoned with.

But keep this in mind, in arguing for the bodily resurrection of Jesus I’m assuming a minority position amongst main stream scholars. For some reason liberal (in theological studies) has come to mean close minded to the miraculous.

Sally– Well, to be honest I don’t read thoroughly in the field of New Testament Studies and I ‘m not sure if I trust your comments on consensus but I’ll hear the ‘facts’.

By the way, does it bother you that most people get there ‘facts’ about Jesus from books authored by biologists and vanity fair writers?

Chris– Would it bother you if Evangelical Christians got most of their facts about biology from a lawyer, an engineer and a cosmologist?

Sally– Um, yah.

Chris– Anyways, here is the relevant data about Jesus. 1. Jesus died. 2. His tomb was found empty. 3. The Disciples claimed to have seen Jesus risen from the dead. 4. Paul was converted to Christianity. 5. James, the brother of Jesus, was also converted to Christianity. You can get all of that from 1st Corinthians 15.

Sally– Oh, okay well yah, I would probably grant those facts myself.

Chris– The only above claim that is a little controversial is the empty tomb but it is implied by the statement ‘he was buried’. All the other data, however, is basically certain as far as historical knowledge goes.

Only the most radical historical skepticism would deny it and that type of skepticism shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Sally– Why?

Chris– Because it is consistently inconsistent (eg. the proponents are rarely skeptical about their skepticism. They espouse doubt with a certitude that would be tragically funny, if they weren’t so serious).

Sally– Ha.

Chris– I thought you’d like that. Now, you can add to the above facts: 6. The Resurrection was the center of preaching in the early church. 7. The first Christians radically redefined the Jewish notion of Messiah. No one denies that. 8. The message of the Resurrection was proclaimed in Jerusalem, were Jesus was crucified and buried a short while beforehand. Again, basically uncontested. 9. The Disciples lives were transformed from fearful doubters to bold testifiers of the resurrection who were not afraid to suffer for their beliefs. Uncontroversial.

The more you know about the 1st century the more you would be willing to grant the above statements.

So what is the best explanation for all of this data? We’ve seen that the hallucination hypothesis fails and so does the conspiracy theory. What is the one cause big enough to explain all of these affects?

Gosh, think solely of James’ conversion. What would it take for you to worship your brother? I know your brother lovingly terrorized you growing up. How many times did he ‘accidently’ hit you in the head with a tennis ball, snow ball, basketball etc, etc?

My dad fashioned a spear into wood and impaled his brother with it when they were younger (He claims it was an accident). I just went to a family reunion and my uncle was not singing worship chorus’ directed towards my deified dad.

Sally– It would take a miracle for me to worship my brother and die for that belief.

Chris– Exactly.

Sally– Thankfully miracles don’t happen. Well, honestly I’m not sure. But there has to be some smart person with a degree who could explain the above evidence without resorting to a miracle?

Chris– Sure. If you don’t believe in God a miraculous explanation is not open to you. So an intelligent atheist will use their God given brain to come up with some type of theory to explain the above data.

But the question is ‘what is the best explanation’? We are doing what philosophers call , ‘an inference to the best explanation’. We’ve seen that explanations like visions, hallucinations, and conspiracies fail to fully explain.

I mean think of the Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the five hundred, many of whom were still alive when Paul wrote 1st Corinthians 15. Paul tells the Corinthians this so that the skeptical can check it out if they really want to.

If you lied to your parents about living on campus at UBC would you invite them to visit, especially if they were already suspicious you were being dishonest and would take you up on the offer?

Sally– No, obviously not.

Chris– So if Paul is making up the appearance to the five hundred why an open invitation to check it out?

Sally– Well, I don’t know but…

Chris– If God exists the miraculous is possible, right? If you admit God, you admit the possibility of the miraculous; you have no safeguard against it. If you asked the first eye witnesses how to explain all of the above data what answer would they give?

Sally– Jesus rose.

Chris– So maybe he did. The resurrection explains all of the above facts far better than any other theory. It’s the only explanation that really works. Open the door of your worldview a crack to make room for a God who actually acts in history. Bust free from your anti-miraculous dogma that holds your wonder shackled to a flat, static view of reality.

Sally– I, I’m not comfortable with that.

Chris– We’re not after comfort but truth.

Sally– Look, here is the problem. Imagine I was a judge presiding over a class action suit where a bunch of people were suing a hospital for malpractice. A couple of patients died tragically in the same month on the operating table. It looks like mistakes may have been made by the attending surgeons resulting in the fatalities. The grieved families are suing the Hospital for millions.

Chris– Where is this going? Is this a diversion?

Sally– No. Wait for it. Let’s say I’m also on the board of Trustee’s for the Hospital.

Chris- Would that happen?

Sally- I doesn’t matter because here is the point. I wouldn’t be able to judge that case because I have a vested interest in the Hospital. I would be biased. I couldn’t approach the evidence from a position of neutrality.

Chris– Okay. I’m not sure the analogy is perfect but..

Sally– Let me finish. It’s the same with the issue of Jesus rising from the dead. It’s not like studying whether or not Nero lit Rome on fire and fiddled while it burned. If Jesus rose, I have to take him seriously. I might be compelled to change my life. That is problematic for me. I like my life as it is.

I don’t feel a God shaped void in my heart.

I don’t want a God who meddles. Look, i’m not opposed to his (or her) existence I just want ‘it’ to leave me alone. I don’t want a God who sends prophets or messiahs or whatever…

Chris– Wow. That is honest and insightful. You’ve hit on the problem with any kind of Jesus research. You can’t approach the New Testament documents from a neutral position…

Sally– Right.

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