The Case for Christ

June 26, 2008

I promised a couple of weeks ago that as soon as I finished reading The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel, I’d post a full review. Well I’ve found a couple of reviews that are much more extensive than I could ever be bothered writing, so instead of writing a full review here, I’m just going to Book Coverlink to those, and pick out maybe a couple of things I took from it.

There’s one tiny thing that I did find a little convincing. I’ve already said how it’s pointless trying to compare evidence for the gospels with evidence for secular documents, because they deal with very different issues, but one thing that was repeatedly said was that if the gospels weren’t true and Jesus genuinely hadn’t risen from the dead, then the apostles and the early Christians wouldn’t have claimed so for the rest of their lives, leading them eventually to rather gruesome deaths at the hands of the Romans. This was a problem for me whilst reading; I could dismiss a lot of the other things, but this kind of stuck. So I’ve thought about it myself, I’ve been reading around a little bit, and I think I’m past it.

The review I linked to above has a section on this assertion (the first part of “The Circumstantial Evidence”, near the bottom, page 246), which makes the assertion that plenty of people have died for their faith in the past, Mormons and Muslims for example, which doesn’t prove that what they’re saying is true. This only partly answers my problem. The objection in the text is that although plenty of people have died for something they believe is true, none would die for something they know is false, which if Christ didn’t rise from the dead, the disciples would know, since they were the witnesses of it.

Book cover 2Since finishing this book I’ve started on ‘The Portable Atheist’, a collection of exerpts by various authors, put together by Christopher Hitchens. There are a number of chapters by or about David Hume, the famous Edinburgh philosopher, which half addresses this problem. Hume says that miracles are miracles because they go against the human experience, they’re not what we normally see. This amounts to as great a proof as any human experience can provide. Therefore, if there is human testimony which supports the occurrence of a miracle, you have to weigh that testimony against your own, subtract the difference of strength between them, and then you will naturally incline on the stronger side, albeit with a diminution of certainty.

He goes on to state that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact, which it endeavours to establish: And even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.” In simpler terms, is it more likely that the testimony come from someone who was deceived, or trying to deceive, or is it more likely that it’s true and the miracle took place? I think that in all cases I can think of, it’s more likely to be untrue.

Even the miracle of the sun at Fatima, where 70,000 people were reported to have seen the sun move and dive down towards the earth, can be explained using this logic, as Richard Dawkins writes in Unweaving the Rainbow. Would it be more likely that these 70,000 people were deceived into thinking the sun moved, or that the rest of the world were deceived into thinking it didn’t move whilst it actually did? That the people wouldn’t have been burnt up by the sun? That the physical effects of the sun’s nearness would be felt by the whole planet and would likely still be measurable? (In reality apparently there is some inconsistency in the reports of the crowd; Wikipedia says that some saw it dive down whilst others saw it zigzag. There are also no photographs of the event, despite photographers and reporters being in the crowd.)

The reliability of the gospels

May 29, 2008

You may remember quite a while ago a rant I posted here about a couple of Canadian evangelicals who were trying to convert me but actually ended up getting swayed more by me than I did by them. They left me with a book called The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel for my own perusal. I’ve been reading revision books and more recently Catch 22, so I haven’t got around to reading it yet, but I’m about halfway through, and when I finish I’ll be sure to post a more in-depth review. The first 2 chapters, however, are specifically about how reliable the gospels are in regards to being passed down faithfully and having been written by eyewitnesses or disciples of eyewitnesses, and I have a couple of points. You’ll have to excuse me, I’ve rather stupidly left my copy somewhere so I don’t have it in front of me.

Strobel constantly reaffirms and asserts that when he was making this ‘2-year spiritual journey’ from effective atheism to committed Christianity, he approached the subject with an open mind and like lawyers in a court case would, but it’s clear from the text that this simply isn’t true. He seems very up to date on polemics in modern Christian theology and he often just takes the experts’ words at face value without questioning it at all (typical of a religionist to use arguments from authority rather than reason), even though his language would make you think he’s probing deeper all the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was never an atheist; he never takes the skeptic’s point of view and I could do a better job of grilling these experts.

I’d also like to mention that, unlike most journalists and certainly unlike a court case, Strobel only addresses one side of the story. Not a single time so far has he spoken to anyone who doubts the literal interpretation of the gospels and the orthodox doctrine of the evangelical church, even though he’s devoted a whole chapter to interviewing Greg Boyd, who does little more than dismiss the evidence and research of the Jesus Seminar (a liberal Christian group who separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus of faith). He never speaks to anyone from the Jesus Seminar.

Strobel and Metzger (some expert he’s interviewing at the beginning) constantly compare the evidence in favour of the New Testament to evidence in favour of other documents such as biographies of Caesar or someone else. But in this they are totally missing the point! If Mother Theresa or George “I cannot tell a lie” Washington — Totally off topic but does anyone else think that phrase of his is ironic? He was physically capable of telling a lie, so “I cannot tell a lie” in itself is a lie… duh — anyway if Mother Theresa or George Washington or anyone else that doesn’t normally lie told you that they woke up at 7am that morning, you’d believe it just like that, but if they told you that a pink elephant crash landed in a field from the sky, then disappeared, you wouldn’t!

It doesn’t matter at all how well the gospel story is preserved, or how trustworthy historians believe these ancient writers to be. The important question to ask is which possibility is more likely: that Jesus really did perform all these miracles and really did rise from the dead, or that early Christians and the writers of the gospels were either lying, lunatics or mistaken? I think the latter is much more plausible. A magician’s show might seem wonderful and supernatural, but nobody but naive children genuinely believe it to be magic. We should apply this same level of skepticism to the gospel stories, particularly since the deity of Jesus is not supported in any contemporary document outside the gospels. Think about it, if all this genuinely did happen, any historian or journalist worth his salt would be all over it! And yet there’s very little to support it, even within the Jewish community.