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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Which Religion?, Pt 2

Nothing in history may be proven the way a mathematical statement may be proven. I have never seen George Washington. No one I know has ever seen George Washington. But, on the overwhelming probability that such a man existed, I believe it to be true. It is an objective claim, which may be analyzed for probability. As we go on, consider that as I show you evidence. I cannot take you to a past event I claim happened, or show you the streets or heaven or pits of hell, but I may present enough evidence for the thinking person to draw a conclusion.

Let us examine an objective claim of Christianity - the most important one by far. Three days after Jesus died, he rose from the dead. If this claim is true, then Christianity teaches it alone. Islam proclaims that Jesus did not die on the cross and the other religions which claim Jesus as a 'great teacher' don't even mention it. If Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity alone knows it and Islam is directly contradicted.
Let us then consider the evidence.

(1) The early Christian community knew of and believed in the Resurrection of Christ. Our earliest available source is found in the letters of the apostle Paul, just twenty years after Christ's death. 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 is one such example, citing a creed which appears to date to the very early 34 AD. The earliest possible date for the crucifixion is 29 AD, with most scholars accepting 33 AD. How likely is it that a false resurrection story would be so accepted as to become a creed within a year of Jesus' death - even accepting the most extreme date of 5 years? Given that most of Jesus' original followers were still alive at this time, how probable is it that they would allow such a lie to be tolerated? The Bible tells that Jesus appeared to many of his followers - at least two of which were certainly known by Paul (Galatians 1:18-20). Would they have allowed Paul to continue believing they had seen the resurrected Jesus if they had not? If I wrote a biography about a much loved someone who died 30 years ago and included in it facts contrary to what people knew of the person, would they accept it as true and pass it on as the gospels were?

Unfortunately, as suggestive as it is, this is an inconclusive argument. Perhaps the apostles and other disciples were caught up in a whirlwind religious movement and were too afraid to stop it. Of course, there is no historical evidence of any of the formerly devoutly Jewish apostles recanting. If it had not happened, it seems extremely unlikely that all eleven would keep their place. Particularly since, without Christ, they would have reverted to their old Jewish faith and would have considered what they were proclaiming and teaching others to proclaim blasphemy of the highest order. So while this cannot prove the matter, keep it in mind as we continue as a pretty strong piece of circumstantial evidence.

(2) Martyrdom might improve the credibility of our witnesses. Church tradition records that ten of the apostles were killed for proclaiming Jesus as the resurrected son of God (Paul makes 11) and John was exiled to the Isle of Patmos. Of these, 4 are essentially undisputed. John's exile, Peter being crucified upside down on an X shaped cross, James and Paul being decapitated - with Paul's predeath persecution very well documented in 1 Corinthians, of undisputed authorship: "In labors more abundant, in beatings above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths often. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once was I stoned, three times I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeys often, in storms on the water, in danger of robbers, in danger by mine own countrymen, in danger by the heathen, in danger in the city, in danger in the wilderness, in the sea, among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness ". Five more are mostly agreed upon and date to very early traditions (Andrew hung from an olive tree, Thomas, who's martyrdom is well attested but the exact method - skewered with spears and then burned alive - appears to be a later addition, Matthew beheaded, Simon's crucifixion and James the Lesser thrown from the top of the temple). These men all could have saved their own lives if at any point they had denied that Jesus Christ was the resurrected Son of God.

Even before they were executed, Jewish custom required that any blasphemer be completely cut off in an elaborate shunning ceremony. Their wives, if they had any, their children and their friends would not associate with them. Their hopes of good jobs, political power or any kind of community prestige were all lost. How probable is it that they faced all of that for a claim they knew to be a lie? Not very.

But, perhaps you object, the 9/11 terrorists died for what they believe. Countless examples exist in history of people dying for causes which cannot all be right. If you had that thought, you are not alone. But, what appears on the surface to be a major problem with my logic is actually a case of completely different matters. Muhammad was oppressed for visions he had - he needed only to trust himself. The September 11th terrorists trusted Muhammad and saw nothing for themselves. The disciples, on the other hand, were all persecuted and almost all executed for claiming to see exactly the same thing. Eleven people do not lose their friends, their families, their religions and their lives over something they know to be a lie. An entire community of believers would not tolerate such a fabrication.

(3) The rest of the evidence is, while perhaps more intellectual, less appealing to my mind, so I will skim it.
The enemies of Christians never deny that the tomb was indeed empty until hundreds of years later (as far as history tells us). Given the importance to Christianity, it seems as if their enemies (if able) would have refuted the resurrection far and wide. They didn't. Second, and actually summing up a number of points, the resurrection, if false, is a terrible story. The gospels paint the disciples as not understanding when Jesus predicts his own death and being heartbroken when he was crucified. Surely a fictional story could have included how confident they were of his conquering death from the start, especially if they were in an organized lie anyway. They also might eliminate some of their own difficulties. Personally, I think my gospel would mention how I alone stayed fast by the tomb, waiting for the resurrection. I (were I a first century Jew) certainly wouldn't say Jesus appeared first to women! I might, if a body still existed in the tomb, describe how the power of God had fashioned Jesus a new body from the dust. I certainly would not tell the story actually in the gospels, so foreign to our native thought! Still, some object.

Counter theories come in four main flavors. (1) Jesus didn't really die on the cross and then convinced everyone he came back to life. (2) The body was stolen. (3) Most impressive group hallucinations ever. (4) My favorite: everyone went to the wrong tomb. Oops.

Since our evidence already contradicted 2 and 4, let us quickly address the other 2. The first claim, called the swoon theory, is nonsense. Secular history records that two friends of the Jewish Historian Josephus found three of his friends being crucified and had them removed and given medical attention. Two of them died anyway. The swoon theory would have us believe Jesus lived for three days with no food, water or medical help, rolled his own stone away (bound in grave clothes), overpowered the guards and then made such a pretty face that his disciples thought his body perfected. I am not sure how they explain his ascension into Heaven.

The other claim, a massive group hallucinations, is pretty funny. While group hallucinations have been documented to occur, they are not lengthy in duration. The Bible claims (and the disciples who were exiled and killed claimed) that Jesus appeared over 40 days, ate with them and allowed them to touch him. Consider that theory then debunked.

We are left with a terrifying proposition. Historical evidence demonstrates that any reasonable man or woman will accept the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let's review the whole skeptical story: a group of Jesus' followers accepted a lie within 5 years, that the disciples fabricated a very detailed story in that time (see Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and 1 Corinthians) and then lost their families, fortunes, friends, power and ultimately their lives defending that lie, a lie against the religion they had been faithful to their entire lives, a lie they had crafted against their own character, against the character of the day (by having Jesus appear to women) and without making things any easier for themselves (by claiming Jesus had appeared to many, a claim which if untrue would be easily debunked). Unless we can swallow all of that as truth, we must believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Given the strong evidence we have already seen for a massive Designer who created the universe, this is not inconsistent with reality.

From the resurrection, all of Christianity is built. If, after seeing this, you still cannot believe, I must doubt the intellectual nature of your problem. It isn't a matter of what is believable, but on what you choose to believe. I hope none of you are quite so hardened as to refuse to consider the mountainous evidence. If it is true that Jesus rose from the dead, there is no reason to doubt the central claim of Christianity. We need now only to find out what Christianity really teaches (examining the accuracy and preservation of the Bible, as well as sound principles of Bible analysis). But, against my feelings of the matter being closed, I will provide more examples of Christianity's monopoly on truth. But, if you can't accept how plain this is, I don't know what I can do for you.

To quote G. B. Hardy:
"Here is the complete record:
Confucius' tomb: occupied
Buddha's tomb: occupied
Muhammad's tomb: occupied
Jesus' tomb: EMPTY"