My eleven-year-old daughter and I, both atheists, are reviewing J. Warner Wallace’s children’s apologetics book ‘Cold Case Christianity For Kids’. Links to all posts in the series are collected at the end of this introductory post.
Chapter 8: Resist Conspiracy Theories: Discover Why Lies Are Hard to Keep!
“Final chapter!” I announced to Katie. “What do you think of the book so far?”
“It’s a whole load of nonsense,” she told me.
I asked her what she expected to happen in the last chapter. “I presume that Jeffries is going to come up with some sort of nonsense, stretching the truth, ignoring huge issues, to make it seem like Christianity is true even though there are huge flaws in it?” she suggested.
So, subtle there, but I think if you read carefully between the lines you can spot a hint or two that my daughter was less than impressed with this book. What do you think?
Anyway… after this chapter there’s still an epilogue and a final section from Wallace pushing apologetics, so we’re not quite there yet, but this is the home stretch. As we go through, I’ll update my predictions for this chapter to see what I got right and what I got wrong.
It’s the last session of the cadet academy aka Bible class, and Jason ‘has spent the entire week thinking about what Jeffries said’. Foolishly, I thought for a moment this meant that he’d realised it was their last chance to solve the skateboard mystery that everyone else seems to have stopped caring about and that he’d spent the week thinking over something Jeffries said on the subject in hopes of figuring things out. I know, I know, I’m naive sometimes.
Jason has actually, of course, spent the entire week thinking about what Jeffries has said about Jesus. At the beginning of the session, before Jeffries has come in, he tells the others he still has his doubts because he wonders if the disciples who wrote about Jesus were ‘all just lying’.
Dr Sarah’s prediction accuracy tally, two paragraphs in:
- Apostles’ Conspiracy Theory Strawman Argument: check
- Skateboard-to-apologetics segue: nope. Wallace has actually changed things up a bit in the final chapter and decided just to plunge straight in with the apologetics.
So, the running total is one right, one wrong, and three remaining to be seen.
Back to the chapter. We have a grey insert box defining the word ‘conspiracy’ and telling us that successful conspiracies are ‘incredibly hard to pull off’. “If you think you know about a successful conspiracy, it wasn’t successful! If it had been, you wouldn’t know about it!” Wallace tells us.
“That, or there’s a chance that it was actually completely successful but you’re actually from a different time period and it bamboozled the people of that time period but you’re from a different time period so it hasn’t bamboozled you,” Katie pointed out. Which was kind of irrelevant with regards to Christianity, which I don’t believe to have been a conspiracy at all, but I didn’t bother getting into that one as I just wanted to push on through.
Insert Character, faced with Jason’s doubts, replies “But remember what Jeffries said about the fact that the disciples didn’t have a good reason to lie? Why would they all choose to suffer like they did if they were only lying?”
Hah! And, to emphasise this, I’m just going to skip ahead and quote Jeffries from a bit later in the chapter:
“Worse yet, they suffered like we described a few weeks ago. They were under incredible pressure to change their story, but they never did.[…]”
Hah! What did I tell you? Well, all right, technically what I told you was that the line would be ‘they died for their beliefs and never recanted’, but this is close enough. Dr Sarah’s prediction tally, three paragraphs in: Two right, one wrong. Not bad going.
Anyway, back to where we were… in comes Jeffries, ‘holding a stack of graduation certificates’. A stack? Just how many were there of the nameless, wordless other class members who didn’t get to be part of the plot at all? Quite a lot, apparently, unless the stack is because Jeffries wrote these graduation certificates on stone tablets. I feel sorry for the other cadets, condemned by the plot to week after week of sitting voicelessly while Jeffries lectured on evangelism and the few people for whom Wallace bothered to think of names lapped it all up.
And – surprise, surprise – Jeffries’ planned subject for the day is also an explanation of why Christianity wasn’t just a big conspiracy. Convenient, that, isn’t it?
“I’m confident he was listening in. Which he really should not be doing,” Katie told me. She might have a point.
We do in fact have a brief skateboard-to-apologetics bit inserted at this point, but not the one I was expecting; Jeffries asks the cadets how they know there was ever a skateboard mystery at all. How do they know it wasn’t all a big conspiracy cooked up by the custodian, the owner of the skateboard shop, and Lacey? Well, because that wouldn’t make any sense, that’s why. Ding ding ding! So now you can see why Christianity wasn’t all just a big conspiracy on the part of the apostles! And Wallace/Jeffries proceeds to give an explanation of what’s needed for a successful conspiracy theory that probably would have interested me if I hadn’t been all ‘strawman, bored now’ about it. I might go back to it some time if I’m having to deal with a ‘scientists are all conspiring to put autism in vaccines’ theory or whatever.
Oh, and we get this:
“[…]Remember what Hannah said a few weeks ago? There were five hundred people who said they saw Jesus all at one time.”
Er, no. There’s a claim in one of Paul’s letters, in what might be a formal creed, that Jesus appeared to ‘more than five hundred people’, but we have no details at all of what this ‘appearance’ involved, and it’s not mentioned in any of the other accounts of the resurrection appearances.
A quick note: When I first read this claim, I assumed Paul must be making it up. After all, this is the same Paul who seemed quite happy to misrepresent himself to potential converts if he thought it would win them over. A few years ago, I started thinking about it a different way; was there any event in the early church that might have genuinely been misinterpreted as a mass appearance, as rumours grew? There was, I rapidly realised; Acts 2 tells the story of a huge public sermon leading to mass conversion among the audience. The standards for what counted as an ‘appearance’ don’t seem to have been that high (from Luke’s description of Paul’s conversion, it seems Paul didn’t even see Jesus in his road-to-Damascus moment), so it’s quite plausible that an event at which a large crowd of people experienced some sort of religious ecstasy could have been interpreted, by eager members of the early church, as Jesus ‘appearing’ in some form to them to cause this ecstasy. So I now suspect that the ‘more than five hundred’ story actually refers to the Pentecostal sermon described in Acts 2. At any rate, that sounds a lot more plausible than the idea that there was a genuine mass vision of a resurrected Jesus which, for some reason, absolutely none of the other NT authors consider worth mentioning.
“And how could all these people stay in touch with each other to get their stories lined up, especially since they were scattered all over the Roman Empire?”
I have to wonder whether Wallace really believes that this mention of ‘more than five hundred people’ was only made after the purported five hundred had each individually been carefully interviewed, the interview records compared for consistency, and the process then repeated some time later to see whether anyone was willing to crack and confess to it all being a conspiracy. That is, after all, what he seems to be implying here. Who does Wallace believe would have been tracking down these people, checking their stories, and using any inconsistencies to blow the roof off the Christianity story? Who does he think would have bothered? People who didn’t believe in the early church’s claims wouldn’t have joined it, and authorities who suspected them of breaking laws or creating a public disturbance would have arrested and tried them on those suspicions; who does Wallace think would have been going to enormous effort to debunk it?
(Side note: Also, why does Wallace think the ‘five hundred’ would have ‘scattered all over the Roman empire’? That’s quite an assumption to make about a group of people about whom we know nothing. He honestly seems to be inventing this stuff as it suits him.)
Jason says that maybe the disciples managed a successful conspiracy because they were good friends and that helped them stick to their story, and Wallace/Jeffries comes up with the rather odd claim that this wouldn’t apply to Matthew, because, apparently, he wasn’t their friend:
“He wasn’t raised around the other disciples and wasn’t their friend when he met Jesus. Instead, he was a tax collector named Levi, disliked by the others.[…]”
So… anyone know of anything to support the idea that Matthew, whatever his status when he first met the disciples, didn’t become friends with them in the supposedly three years that they all lived and journeyed and strove towards a common goal together? Or is this another place where Wallace seems to have just invented stuff? I mean, yeah, I don’t believe in the conspiracy theory anyway, but this is a weird argument. But it did set Katie off on another thought; she thinks that Jesus would have pushed them into being friends whether they wanted to or not.
“‘You’re all worshipping me so you should all be friends in peace! Even though I’m going to bully you into believing in me so I’m secretly a huge jerk!'” she hypothesised. “Jesus is really a huge jerk, though, isn’t he?”
And on that note, I will break this post here and return for the next part of the chapter, in which the skateboard mystery finally, and underwhelmingly, gets solved. If you’re on the edge of your seats… well, don’t be, it’s soooo not gonna be worth it.
One thing I have been enjoying about this read is Katie’s comments, in the midst of all of the crap that is happening it’s good to hear of a twelve year old with her head screwed on right. You’ve done a good job there!
I doubt I would have been as perceptive as Katie at that age. My excuse is that I’m a “preacher’s kid”, so it took a while to get past all that.
Do you plan to involve Katie in your review of the R.G.Price book? I’d be curious what her response might be to the mythicist idea.
But it was a big conspiracy! The owner of the shop is this town’s Leland Gaunt (Needful Things), giving out cursed skateboards. Lacey got caught in his trap, and turned to the Order of Custodians to help her contain its evil. Alas, they were unsuccessful, and now the owner is using Jeffries to plant seeds of doubt about this conspiracy so that no one will take it seriously if it comes to light. As prophesied, they are all doomed.
(I’ve lost track of who half these characters are and how they fit into Wallace’s story, so my theory might not all quite fit, but that in itself shows how unreliable the Gospels are, yeah? It’s only been a few weeks for me, not decades later.)
I always knew Christians were not above straight up lying to proselytize (like with the fake $20 bills), but I never realized that was explicitly Bible-approved. Thanks for bringing that passage to my attention.
Dr Sarah says
Thank you! She’s awesome, isn’t she? She’s actually only just turned eleven. 🙂 Smart kid!
Dr Sarah says
In that case, kudos to you for getting past it; I don’t think I’d ever have managed that if I’d been brought up with a religious background! The only reason I investigated religion as I did was because I came from a family where my parents were from completely different religious backgrounds and deliberately didn’t bring us up with any religion.
I can’t see Katie being interested in discussing mythicist books at all; throughout CCCFK, she had plenty to say on the general points Wallace was making but nothing, understandably enough, on the specific claims he made about the Bible. I’ve done enough reading to spot when he was misrepresenting something, but Katie didn’t know what to make of it, so she mostly just listened to what I thought.
Dr Sarah says
(snoooorrrrrrt) I discovered when I compared the end to some earlier bits that Wallace had actually lost track of his own story, so you’re still doing better than he did. And you have a much better plot. 🙂
Hmph. It’s a glib inference: tax-collectors are referred to disparagingly in the Gospels, therefore, tax-collectors were generally disliked, therefore this tax-collector would have been disliked.
Even though Jesus made some pointed remarks about how being a sincerely penitent tax-collector was better than thinking of oneself as righteous because one wasn’t a tax-collector.
Katie seems to have independently inferred these verses. So if the apostles had disliked Matthew, they were actually disobeying Jesus.
Another thought that occurred to me is that disliking Matthew for three years for having been a tax-collector is also implicitly showing disrespect for Jesus’ judgement; they’re implying that Jesus made a mistake in accepting a tax-collector as a disciple.