My nine-year-old daughter* and I, both atheists, are teaming up to review children’s apologetics book Cold Case Christianity For Kids, by J. Warner Wallace. The introduction to the series is here; posts in the series are being linked up there as I go along.
*She is in fact now 10. She was 9 when we sat down to review this chapter. One of these days I’ll catch up with myself, although I hope I manage it before she turns 11.
(This is a longer post; we were getting close to the end of the chapter and finishing it all in one lot seemed simpler at this point than breaking the narrative yet again.)
At somewhere around this point in the narrative, according to my notes, Katie and I seem to have diverged into a brief aside about what Jesus’s death is meant to be about in Christian narrative; the belief that we’re all sinners who can’t get into Heaven and thus Jesus had to die in payment for our sins. I can’t remember how we got onto this, but remember being interested to see what she’d make of it, as it’s a theology I’ve always found quite horrifying. Katie, as it happened, focused on another detail entirely; she didn’t see why death was necessary according to this theory.
“But wouldn’t it be really, really painful?” she asked me, referring to Jesus’s death. “And wouldn’t the pain be the payment? I mean, supposing you got shot in the face for everyone’s sins – even if you survived it, wouldn’t it be really painful being shot in the face? Wouldn’t that be the payment?”
Good point. I can’t remember how I answered it. Anyway, we got back to the story.
To recap, Jeffries had been steering the cadets through the line of apologetic argument that consists of listing possible explanations for why the disciples went round preaching the resurrection to everyone, finding objections to every explanation other than ‘Jesus really did rise from the dead’, and then declaring that, since that’s the only explanation that we haven’t refuted, it must be the correct one. Katie had neatly spotted the key flaw in this; that miraculous resurrection is unlikely enough that, even if reasons make all the other explanations highly unlikely, we are still not going to be left with a situation where miraculous resurrection becomes the most likely. The cadets/Jeffries had the following list:
- Jesus didn’t really die – He fainted, woke up, and walked away.
- The disciples were so upset about Jesus dying that they imagined they saw Him alive.
- The disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about the resurrection.
- The story of the resurrection was added on many years later as the story of Jesus became a legendary fairy tale.
- Jesus rose from the dead.
…and had got as far as refuting point 1, though not to Katie’s satisfaction. On with the story; since only three cadets ever seem to get to say anything in this class, it’s Hannah’s turn to refuting the next point.
Hannah wants to mark off one more: “I don’t think they imagined it either. We read that five hundred people all saw Jesus at the same time and in the same way. They could not all imagine the exact same thing.”
So, hang on; did she and Daniel also read 1 Corinthians? That’s an odd thing for children tasked with researching the resurrection to decide to read; the gospels, yes, but there would be no reason for them to realise that this particular letter had any information in it. Of course, what’s more plausible here is that she and Daniel just read an apologist’s work on the subject. If so, that would also explain both why Daniel’s knowledge of the resurrection evidence seemed to be helpfully structured in the form of a minimal facts list rather than referring to specific gospel references, and also why Hannah erroneously thinks that the report of the appearance to the five hundred has them all seeing Jesus ‘at the same time and in the same way’, which in fact isn’t stated in the appearance report at all.
Jeffries, having apparently not heard of the Fátima miracle, agrees that there is “no such thing as a ‘group dream’ or ‘group hallucination'”. No, but there’s such a thing as religious fervour stirring large groups up into a state of mass hysteria.
Jason speaks up now: “But couldn’t the disciples have lied about it? Or maybe somebody else lied about it years later and added the story of the resurrection to the legend of Jesus?”
“Aha!” declares Jeffries. “That’s where the fourth piece of evidence comes in. The disciples were willing to die for what they claimed about the resurrection. Awfully hard to understand unless they were telling the truth. Who would die for something they know is a lie?”
I initially thought Jason’s question was a response to Hannah’s point about the report of five hundred people seeing Jesus; that he was trying to point out that we don’t know whether five hundred people actually did see Jesus, or whether rumour and exaggeration added this particular claim on to an already-existing resurrection belief some years later. As such, it’s a perfectly valid point, and one that someone should have made, but on rereading it I realised this bit was actually meant to refer to points 3 and 4 on the original list; it seems no-one is going to take any issue with taking the one-off report of five hundred people seeing the risen Jesus at face value. Jeffries also tells us that points 3 and 4 have other problems which they’ll have to talk about later as they’re almost out of time, so I guess we’ll hear more about them in subsequent chapters.
Katie, meanwhile, was busy thinking of other possible explanations the cadets might have missed; Theft And Fraud By Persons Unknown was apparently next on her list, closely followed by Alternative Supernatural. “What if the guy who stole him decided to pretend to be him? To put his clothes on and make wounds in his hands to look like him? For the praise? Because he saw all the praise Jesus was getting and wanted some? Let’s say your best friend dies and you see someone who looks like him. You see some slight differences, but do you think you care? You’d be like ‘You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive!’ And if this reincarnation stuff is true, how do you know ghosts aren’t? He floats up to heaven, he gets absorbed into God – he’s a ghost! Oh, my god, I’m coming up with twenty different explanations!”
I asked her if she wanted to hear my thoughts on what they were saying, and she agreed she did. I explained about the Bible not, in fact, saying that all the five hundred people who were supposed to have seen Jesus saw him ‘in the same way’ – we don’t have any details at all on what they thought they saw. I also explained that I’d read one historian saying that grave robberies were common in those days.
“Well, that makes sense,” Katie said. This is, I pointed out to her, a disturbing thing to hear from your child in response to information about people stealing bodies from graves; to my relief, it turned out that this was because she’d learned about grave robbing when studying Ancient Egypt last year. She agreed that this could account for a missing body. (It wouldn’t on its own account for the claims of resurrection appearances – I still think the most likely explanation is that these started as grief hallucinations and went on to some kind of religious fervour-induced mass hysteria experience – but that’s a bit complicated for a child and, as it was late and Katie wasn’t seeming desperately interested in getting more details, I don’t think I went into that at that point.)
Back to the book; Jason admits that the empty tomb is harder to explain away than he thought, but when Jeffries asks him “Explanation #5, that Jesus rose from the dead, seems to be the simplest explanation, doesn’t it?” Jason replies “Maybe, but I’m still not sure.” Good answer, Jason; this side of the story sounds convincing when it’s all you’ve heard, but it’s a great idea to find out more about the other side of a story before you make your mind up. (Yes, I know my headcanon is that Jason is secretly an evangelical Christian plant placed in the group to steer the conversation to religious issues. If he is a skeptic, though, good on him for not falling for the first superficially convincing argument he hears.) Chapter ends.
Katie, two chapters in, declared herself unimpressed with the arguments so far. “I’ve been able to disarm every single thing they throw at me,” she said, “so, unless they’re stepping up their game… I’m thinking that they’re probably not going to be able to convince me.”