Monday, October 12, 2009

Early Challenges to Christianity

Often, throughout internet debates, we hear the claim that what the early Christians and disciples said must be true, because it was said during the lifetime of witnesses. That it could be checked. Verified. That what they were saying was so outrageous, it would be been easily debunked if it wasn’t true.

The implication being, of course, since it was not debunked—it must be true.

So what kind of skeptics would we be looking for? Well…they would need the right mixture of opportunity and motive. Without both, they would be unable to debunk Christianity.

Opportunity. If a potential convert, living in Ephesus, was told by a Christian Missionary regarding this Jesus who came back from the dead, would the person have sufficient ability to verify the facts? Assuming they wanted to debunk Christianity—what would they do? Where would they go? They would have to travel to Jerusalem, hunt down the correct persons, ask the right questions…a difficulty.

Motive. What of a potential convert in Jerusalem? Perhaps they had opportunity, but lacked the motivation. Think of all the wacky claims permeating the world today. Doomsday cults. Heaven’s Gate. Michigan Militia. Scientology. How much do you know about Scientology? Even if you do not believe it to be true—how much effort have you put in debunking it?

Even the major religions—how much effort have you put in debunking Mormonism, if you do not believe it to be accurate? Have you read the Qur’an, in order to debunk it?

See, the reality is this—most of us have beliefs in place already excluding other beliefs. We lack the motivation to debunk claims, because we don’t believe them to be true in the first place. We don’t debunk everything all the time, because it would be exhausting.

Yet there is a fellow uniquely qualified—the Apostle Paul.

According to Christian tradition, Paul was active in and around Christianity very close to the time of Christ. He was in Jerusalem, and had access to the High Priest. According toGary Habermas, Paul was saved within 1 ½ years of Christ’s death.

Here was a guy with opportunity.

Also according to Christian tradition, Paul was actively persecuting the Church. He was willing to go outside Judea, to hunt Christians down!

Here was a guy with motive.

We have, in simple words, our perfect skeptic. Access to early Christians and their teachings; desire to demonstrate Christianity false.

But here is where the wheels fall off the bus. There are two (2) possible scenarios—either (prior to his conversion):

1) Paul had heard the story of the Jesus’ resurrection as given in the Gospels; or
2) Paul had not.

Let’s look at the first scenario—assume Paul had heard the story of Jesus, the empty tomb, and allegedly being seen by the disciples…

The facts were not enough to convince Paul it was true.

Remember, the conversion of Paul came--not because he was argued into it, not because his careful investigation of facts, not Dr. Habermas’ “minimal facts,” nothing whatsoever to do with the physical evidence on the ground—it came due to a miraculous vision from God!

I am stunned when Christian apologist act as if these facts are so certain and obvious that I, 2000 years later, should accept it as “historical certainty” when a fellow who was much closer to the events in time, person, locale and culture--was not convinced by these facts! If Paul, within the 1 ½ years of after Christ’s death, was not persuaded then, why should I be now? If the only thing that could convince such a well-placed skeptic was a miracle, shouldn’t this raise questions as to the viability of the facts? Shouldn’t this raise question as to what was being claimed?

Giving us our second possible scenario—assume Paul had NOT heard these claims. In 1 Cor. 15:3-7, Paul gives a creed regarding the Jesus’ resurrection, which he prefaces with “I delivered to you what I received…” Many apologists indicate the phrase—“what I received”—refers back to Paul learning these things from Peter and James following his conversion. (See Galatians 1:18-19)

What a minute…if he didn’t know this was what Christians claimed; how would he know what to debunk? If Paul didn’t learn what Christians were saying until after he became a Christian, he was in no position (despite being a skeptic) to refute it!

Here is our perfect skeptic—Paul. He either knew the gospel message or did not, prior to becoming a Christian. If he did, then the facts alone were insufficient to convince a person of that time, there is even less reason to think they would be convincing now. If he did not, then the claim skeptics would have debunked the Christian claims is invalid—apparently they were not proclaiming their beliefs loud enough for anyone to know what they were.

I would like to see how Habermas and Licona and Craig explain these facts were insufficient to convert Paul—a person within a few years with both opportunity and motive to investigate. Why should I believe them now, even father removed in opportunity, and with less motive?


  1. I've seen that argument applied to just any Jews at the time, but you make a good point that Paul would be better equipped to research the claims. The silliest is Paul's "witnessed by 500." I've heard that used in church. To think it would be easy for someone from the other side of the Mediterranean to investigate that claim is hard to believe.

    I would be curious too about those apologists' claims. My guess is they wouldn't care because they can assuage people's fears (and their own?) by repeating their claims loudly and frequently enough. It seems to me the only other option is to turn to the big conspiracy theory -- that the only ones who don't believe the claims are those who harden their hearts towards God. "Satan did it."

  2. In the years after the Civil War, the cult of Robert E. Lee controlled how history was written in the south and the cult of Grant and Sherman controlled how history was written in the North. There were plenty of eyewitnesses who could have contradicted the received versions of events, but they were often ignored. Happily, accounts from outside the cults were preserved and historians today have a more balanced view of things.

    I think that the first draft of history tends to be heavily influenced by the interests of those who hold political power at the time. It often takes some time to gain the perspective necessary to look at all sides of the issues.

    I don’t have any reason to think that those who could have challenged the majority opinion about Jesus would have gotten a fair hearing during the lifetime of those eyewitnesses who were invested in the orthodox version. Had their accounts been preserved, we might now have a more balanced picture of what was going on. Unfortunately, only the orthodox version of things was preserved.

  3. I would like to see how Habermas and Licona and Craig...

    I would like to see these guys open their mouths and (to risk mixing my metaphors) not lie through their teeth. I'm not holding my breath.

  4. Here's another point. Doesn't this claim of "I was a staunch enemy of Christianity, but am now convinced" just smack of charlatanism. Recently I wrote about Grady McMurtry. "Former evolutionary scientist turned biblical scientific creationist." Wow. Former opponent becomes persuaded. That makes it credible. You dig into these stories of "former atheists turned Christian" and you find that their atheism was very superficial, if not outright non-existent.

    Also note early Christian hostility to Jews, mirroring modern Christian hostility to atheism. This story of plucking this top student away from this famous rabbi (Gamaliel) sounds rather ideal. Kind of like Richard Dawkins losing his top student to young earth creationism. The whole thing kind of sounds fake to me.

  5. Yes, it does, Jon. My question, too, is what was “persecution”? Because of Acts (a book I do not trust) we envision murdering and torture and prisons. What if Paul mocked Christians? Would that be persecution?

    Heck, in our world, the fact Mel Gibson charged full retail price on a DVD about Jesus is considered persecution by some! You but have to question a Christian, and many cry “Come see the violence inherent in the system! Help, Help, I am being repressed!”

  6. I'm always suspicious about "what would have happened" arguments. Why should we believe that it would have happened? Are there similar examples of what would have happened actually happening?

    AFAIK (but I'm no historian), there are zero cases in antiquity of any miraculous claims being scientifically and skeptically debunked. If it never actually happened under any circumstances, then why should we even consider the hypothesis that it would have happened under some particular circumstances?

    Even in modern times, we have very few (if any!) examples of superstitious claims being successfully suppressed by skeptical investigation, and only a fraction of claims are even subject to skeptical investigation: mostly claims that have already achieved widespread belief.

    In addition to the lack of empirical justification for what supposedly would have happened, relatively few documents have survived from antiquity, and we know that for many centuries Christian institutions were the the predominant repositories and maintainers of antique documents; Christian institutions do have a bias towards preserving documents that support their ideology and suppressing or at least neglecting documents that challenge or contradict their ideology.

    Given these very obvious counter-arguments, I cannot see the promulgation of Habermas' et al. argument as a difference of opinion or a mistake; I'm really forced to conclude either intentional mendacity or an incompetence so profound as to suggest cognitive defect.

  7. We also need to remember that most early Christians were illiterate proletarians.

    We can't expect that those folks would've had enough critical thinking skills to doubt what their intellectual superiors were telling them.

    You really make a strong argument for the reason Christianity spread so easily with no fact checking.

    Did anyone do fact checking at all back then? I doubt that skepticism was fashionable in the 1st century CE at all! Questioning was for educated, privileged philosophers.