The historical Jesus

Over at Evangelical Realism, we’re starting to look at William Lane Craig’s arguments for a historical resurrection. You can head on over if you’re interested in the full critique. Meanwhile, I’d like to take a look at a topic where I think a certain number of skeptics are mistaken (to the very great glee of apologists like Craig).

There is no serious question that the Gospel is false in its supernatural details. Believers argue in favor of the miracles because they’re believers, but the real-world evidence is pretty consistently against such stories. Some critics, however, have thrown the baby out with the bath water, by proposing that Jesus himself did not really exist either.

Frankly, I think that’s nonsense. If we go back to the origins of Christianity, there’s nothing special about the name “Jesus.” Obviously, somebody had to invent the religion. God did not create it ex nihilo. It didn’t just drop down out of the sky. We can tell from its flaws and human-centered superstitions that it’s a man-made product. Why, then, would one particular name (“Jesus”) be any less likely to be the name of the man who invented it?

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Denying the Undeniable—and failing

A few people have questioned what I call “the Undeniable Fact” (i.e. that God consistently fails to show up in real life), on the grounds that believers will surely just insist that He does show up, to them at least. My argument, however, is that believers cannot deny the Undeniable Fact without inevitably demonstrating the truth of what I say. Luckily for me, O ye of little faith, a commenter named Nathan has taken issue with my claims, thus giving me a chance to document my contention. He writes:

What evidence do you have that God does not show up? According to the Bible, Jesus was God, in which case God most definitely has shown up. Obviously this can be discounted if you believe that the Bible is wrong on that account, but it is no less substantiated than your own claim.

Notice, his first challenge is to demand evidence of God’s failure to show up, and yet by that very question he provides evidence that what I say is true. If I said, “You faith in the existence of carrots is questionable because carrots do not show up in real life,” you wouldn’t refute me by asking for evidence that carrots do not show up, you’d easily demonstrate my error by directing me to the produce section of the nearest grocery.

God does not show up in real life. He shows up in the stories men tell, like the story of Jesus in the Bible, but He does not show up in real life, even for Nathan. Nathan can challenge my source of knowledge, and question whether I have any actual evidence, but for him, at least, his very question provides the evidence. God does not make any real-world, in-person, face-to-face appearances in Nathan’s life, which means that, for Nathan at least, what I said is entirely true: the Undeniable Fact is indeed undeniable, with the Inescapable Consequence that his faith is necessarily faith in men. God has not personally showed up in his life to give him an opportunity to develop a faith in God, so faith in man is his only option.

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God vs suffering

Over at the other blog, we’re wrapping up William Lane Craig’s attempt to look like he’s solving the problem of evil without actually confronting the real issues. Interestingly, one of his arguments suggests that the problem may be unsolvable by evangelical Christians.

Craig’s argument is that God might have a good reason for allowing human suffering, if it allows us to attain a better knowledge of Himself. According to Christian teaching, the Ultimate Good for mankind is to know God, and therefore it’s possible that a good God might co-exist with human suffering (which Craig has substituted for the more difficult problem of evil). But even if we assume that knowing God is a good thing, there’s nothing about this assumption that makes God any more likely to co-exist with suffering, and in fact makes it a whole lot less likely. See below the fold for the reason why.

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Verifiable worldviews

If you ask young-earth creationists what they think about postmodernism, you’ll find they generally consider it the height of liberal apostasy. Truth, they’ll tell you, is absolute, and not just some postmodernist “social construct.” If you then point out some of the scientific evidence against a literal Genesis creation, you’ll catch them in a bit of hypocrisy. Everybody has a worldview, they’ll tell you. Theirs is a Christian worldview, and yours is a materialistic worldview, and the same evidence can be used to support either one. In other words, your evidence can’t disprove their creationism.

Whether you call it “postmodernism” or whether you prefer the more verbose “everybody has a worldview,” the result is the same: you’re claiming that it’s impossible to tell what the real truth is by comparing your conclusions to the evidence. Worldview (allegedly) overpowers the evidence, and colors one’s conclusions to the point that all conclusions end up being subjective and irrelevant. That’s postmodernism in a nutshell—the very doctrine the creationists condemn as liberal apostasy. But creationism can’t survive without it.

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Contextual gullibility

Following up on yesterday’s “Rabbit Math,” post, let’s look at the interesting question of why people revert to using rabbit math when they have a far superior math at their disposal. Granted, it’s harder than rabbit math, but still, you can do a lot better than rabbit math without getting into theoretical physics. People can do better, and in other contexts they do think more clearly. But somehow, in religious contexts, they become gullible to the point of actively participating in fooling themselves. Why is that?

I can think of 3 reasons. One is fear: fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of the unexpected, etc. We’re small creatures in a big world, after all, and therefore it’s appealing to adopt a mode of thinking that’s tuned in on reassuring us there’s some friendly Big Guy up there taking care of us. “Rabbit math” makes it easier to reach the desired conclusion, therefore it’s preferable to many people.

Another reason is laziness. It’s easier to jump to superstitious conclusions than to go through all the work of digging out all the facts, sorting the relevant from the irrelevant, analyzing the data, and drawing rigorously logical conclusions. In some ways it’s arguably a more efficient use of your time and resources: if you can tell when it’s going to rain by assessing “the mood of the sky god,” and if you’re right as often as you would be if you spent years charting barometric pressure, humidity, temperature, wind velocity, and so on (especially if you’re not terribly good at the latter), then maybe you are just as well off with the superstition. (Speaking as a devil’s advocate, that is).

I think there’s a reason that’s far more compelling than either of these two, however.

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Gospel Disproof #11: Rabbit math

In the world of Watership Down, the largest number in rabbit language is five, because rabbits can only count to four and thus anything more than that is “five.” The author doesn’t go into rabbit math in detail, but if we think about it, this is really a pretty simple mathematical system. The sum of anything more than 2+2 is five, the product of anything more than 2×2 is five, five minus anything is probably going to be five, and there is no division because rabbits can only multiply.

This strikes me as resembling certain modes of thinking. The whole appeal is its simplicity. Anyone can do it. Granted, there are some drawbacks: if all you know is rabbit math, most of real math will be incomprehensible to you. But rabbit math has a way of dealing with that incomprehensible complexity. It’s all just “five.” That’s all you can say, and in rabbit math that’s all you need to know. Much better than real math, which gets notoriously harder the farther you go. Even people who like math are going to have to do considerable work to master more than the basics. Rabbit math is easier.

You’re right, I’m thinking about religion. Granted, there are a lot of people who think religiously without going all the way to rabbit-math-level oversimplifications. But that’s the limit towards which religious thinking tends. Its appeal is that it simplifies things, and has a place to stick the incomprehensible. Magic (or miracles, if you prefer) covers everything beyond a certain level of understanding, and in religious thinking that’s all you need to know.

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