Christian apologists have come up with some real doozies over the centuries, and the argument Ben chooses as his fourth evidence for the gospel is, I have to say, one of the more implausible ones.
A fourth related feature of the Gospels is their proximity in time and space to the events they describe. Given the number of Jewish and Roman authorities hostile to Christianity, it is unlikely that the early disciples would have exposed themselves and their fledgling movement to discredit by making false statements that it would be easy for their opponents to refute.
That’s right: whoever invented this argument long ago, they seriously expect us to buy the claim that believers would never say anything the unbelieving authorities might contradict, because untrue religious beliefs are easy to refute. Just ask any Mormon about Joseph Smith’s police record.
Granted, there are religious beliefs that are easy to refute. The problem is that merely refuting a religious belief does nothing to dispel it. Believers believe anyway. Notice, Ben is posting this argument in response to my post about the story that Matthew tells, in which he accuses the Jewish authorities of lying when they say that disciples stole the body. Matthew is doing precisely what this argument claims no first century Christian would ever do. He’s declaring that the tomb was emptied by a resurrection, knowing full well that it’s common knowledge in that area and at that time that disciples stole the body. Matthew even claims that this story was being spread by guards who would have been eyewitnesses of an event he himself did not see. But so what? He merely accuses them of lying, and that’s all any believer ever cares about. Matthew is free to preach the resurrection, no matter what anybody else says.
If there’s anything believers are famous for, it’s believing. And not just believing, but “believing anyway.” No matter what the evidence, no matter what the refutation, they still believe. And of course this isn’t limited to just Christian believers. Take the birthers, for example. Nobody would dare claim that Obama was born in Kenya when his birth certificate is still on file in the state of Hawaii and we still have photocopies of his birth announcement in the local Hawaiian newspapers. Right? Millions of people believe that he was born in Kenya anyway.
Or take Harold Camping. Every time he’s predicted the date of the Second Coming, he’s been wrong. And he’s just the latest in the long line of end-times predictors, all of whom have also been wrong. Nobody would believe Camping if he made a third prediction about Jesus coming back on a specific date, right? Except, of course, for thousands who not only believed, but who spent their life savings on spreading Camping’s message. Doesn’t matter how good an argument you can make against believing, believers believe anyway.
If you still have any doubts about whether this is a valid argument, turn it around. According to Matthew, the Pharisees knew that God raised Jesus from the dead. It is unlikely that the Pharisees would have exposed themselves to discredit by publicly making claims that Jesus could easily refute just by showing up alive. Knowing that Jesus was the only begotten Son of God after all, knowing that he had warned them that he was going to return and judge them, knowing that he intended to establish God’s kingdom on earth (and not knowing anything about the timing), they would never have instructed the guards to claim merely that disciples had stolen the body. Under the circumstances, it’s clear that the Pharisees are the ones who have the most to lose by lying about what happened, and they’re also the ones who could have been most convincingly refuted if the Christians had been telling the truth.
Believers don’t have that problem, because even if the Pharisees did somehow get hold of Jesus’ corpse and display it, believers would have any number of ways to get around the problem and believe anyway. For example, one of the earliest Christian documents, and possibly the earliest written account of the alleged resurrection, is I Corinthians, which takes great pains to deny that the resurrection body is the same body as the one that gets buried. Just believe in a spiritual resurrection, and it doesn’t matter where the physical body is. Even if later generations of Christians repurpose the original stories and turn them into a physical resurrection, the idea of a spiritual resurrection can get you through that crucial early period.
And while we’re on this topic, let’s look at a specific detail that Ben mentions.
Paul Althaus writes that the resurrection story, “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned”–if false, the Roman and Sanhedrin authorities could have silenced them for all eternity by producing the corpse of Jesus Christ.
As I’ve just mentioned, this is not true, since Christians believe the immortal soul survives the destruction of the physical body, and thus is something separate and apart from it. God could “raise” Jesus in a spiritual “body,” and leave the physical one alone. Anyone who tried to call this a real resurrection would, naturally, run into some serious objections such as the questions Paul had to deal with in Corinth. But then again, perhaps the reason he had to deal with those questions is because he was preaching that God raised Jesus in a spiritual body!
In any case, we also want to notice that Althaus is presenting us with a false dichotomy here: either Jesus really rose from the dead OR the Sanhedrin would have produced his body. That’s two conceivable outcomes, but there’s lots of others. As has already been noted, the Sanhedrin would not have had Jesus’ body if some disciples had stolen it (without the knowledge or consent of the other disciples). Nor would all parties in first century Palestine necessarily have wanted to shut down early Christianity. Christians were a division within the sect of the Pharisees, which was a contentious and troublesome sect with no shortage of enemies. The Romans, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and any number of others would have been more than happy to see Phariseeism weakened by internal conflict and losing members to a new, smaller cult. Any of them could have taken the body and simply kept it or destroyed it.
Let’s also remember that a missing corpse is a long ways off from being a genuine resurrection. We do not have Hercules’ body either, but that doesn’t mean he really ascended to live with the gods on Mt. Olympus. The absence of a body is a mystery, but it’s an entirely mundane and non-supernatural mystery. Entire town were wiped out by the Christmas tsunami, and their bodies were never seen again, but that doesn’t mean they were all resurrected. A genuine resurrection would be accompanied by the kind of evidence that would be nearly impossible to deny: an actual, living, tangible, resurrected person walking around where both believer and unbeliever could see him.
Remarkably, though, the Jewish and Roman authorities not only had no need to deal with that, they had no fear that they would need to deal with that. Again, turn Althaus’ argument around: the story that disciples had stolen the body would not have lasted “for a single day, for a single hour,” if the Christians had produced a resurrected Jesus. Surely, if we are going to question whether or not Jesus rose from the dead, the absence of a resurrected body is more telling that the absence of a dead one, especially given that God allegedly wants us to know about the resurrection.
Ben makes one last claim as part of his fourth argument that I want to address.
The early Christian assertion that the resurrected Christ had at one time been seen by as many as five hundred witnesses belongs to this same category of self-authentication. To fabricate this detail, and then proclaim it authoritatively in the very place where, within living memory, it was alleged to have occurred, would not have washed with even the most credulous of Judaean audiences.
Here we must remember that what we have is not the testimony of 500 witnesses, but rather, the claim by one man, to an audience of Greek believers in Corinth, that Jesus made an otherwise undocumented appearance to 500 believers. Who were those 500 believers? We don’t know. When and where did this happen? Paul doesn’t tell us, and no other New Testament document ever describes any such appearance. To deny that believers would believe such a vague and undocumented (but evangelistic) claim is to fail to understand what it is that believers do with claims that reinforce their faith.
One of the big factors in my own deconversion from Christianity was my involvement in creationism. I saw first-hand what believers do with evidence that contradicts the things they want to believe. I saw first-hand what I was doing with evidence that contradicted my beliefs. To claim, as this apologetic does, that Christianity could be thwarted by the availability of contrary evidence, is to be hopelessly naive about how believers respond to contradiction. For 2,000 years, people have been confronting Christians with credible evidence against their faith, and yet they still do what they have always done, and what you can be sure they will always do.
There are exceptions, of course, and I’m one myself. You don’t have to keep on believing just because other people tell you to. You can consider the evidence, and recognize that the arguments in favor of Christianity are weak and fallacious rationalizations. But it’s hard to do, for reasons that have nothing to do with logic or the rules of evidence. And meanwhile, believers just keep on believing.