Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Resurrection Factor - Part 2

Chapter One of McDowell's book The Resurrection Factor (TRF) is called: The Struggle. It opens with a couple of quotes. Here is the first quote:

"I have had few difficulties, many friends, great successes; I have gone from wife to wife, and from house to house, visited great countries of the world, but I am fed up with inventing devices to fill up 24 hours of the day."
(Suicide Note)
Ralph Barton

If you have read any articles or books by Evangelical Christians, you already have a good idea what point McDowell has in mind: Success, fame, fortune, friendship, and marriage cannot bring full and lasting happiness. Only a close relationship with God can make life meaningful, purposeful, and happy. Believing in Jesus and accepting him as your Lord and Savior will give you a close relationship with God, make your life meaningful, and give you full and lasting happiness, and this is something that ONLY Jesus can do for you.

TRF makes two main points in support of Christianity: (1) Jesus rose from the dead, (2) Believing in Jesus will make your life happy and meaningful. My main interest is in closely examining McDowell's argument for the first point. But I will make some comments on point (2) in passing.

The two points appear to be somewhat independent of each other. It could be that Christianity or faith in Jesus does have some practical personal benefits, even if Jesus did not in fact rise from the dead. (This might be the case for purely psychological reasons, or it might be that Jesus is a powerful disembodied spirit who is able to help people, or it might be because God has pitty on foolish Christian believers and does extra favors for them, in spite of their mistaken beliefs about Jesus.) Also, it is possible that Jesus rose from the dead, but that faith in Jesus does not bring happiness or meaning to a person's life.

However, there does seem to be a connection between McDowell's two points. If Jesus did truly rise from the dead, then the idea that he is still alive today would be reasonable, and Jesus could still be performing miracles, helping people to cope with problems, and providing strength for believers to live good and happy lives.

On the other hand, if the lives of Christians are no more happy or purposeful than the lives of non-Christians, then the widespread Christian belief that Jesus is an all-powerful being who is constantly helping Christians to live happy and meaningful lives would be a delusion, and this would also cast doubt on the Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead. So, I would turn the second point on its head, and argue that the fact that Christians appear to have no significant advantage over non-Christians in terms of living happy and meaningful lives provides reason to be skeptical about the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

For one thing if Christians share a widespread delusion that Jesus is a great help to them in their personal lives when this is not actually the case, then skeptics can be forgiven for suspecting that other Christian beliefs, such as belief in the resurrection of Jesus, might also be delusions. More importantly, if there is no convincing evidence indicating that Jesus has the power to help believers live good and happy lives in this century, then that would give us reason to doubt that Jesus had the power to defeat death itself in the first century. If Jesus does not have god-like powers now, then it is reasonable to infer that he did not have god-like powers two thousand years ago.

So, let's return to the sad case of Ralph Barton. It turns out that Mr. Barton not only went through four wives, but that he suffered from bipolar disorder; he was manic-depressive:

At the height of his popularity, Barton enjoyed not only the acquaintance of the famous, but a solid and impressive income. All of this concealed a terribly unhappy life. He was beset by manic-depressive disorder, and each of his four marriages ended in divorce.
(from: viewed 11/25/08).

Bipolar disorder makes people much more likely to attempt suicide. So, it might not have been the lack of Jesus that led Mr. Barton to kill himself, but bouts of depression and anxiety that were the result of his mental illness.

Bipolar disorder has a definite genetic component, so if Ralph Barton had accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior, it is not clear that his life story would have had a happier ending. Does McDowell want to make the claim that accepting Jesus as one's personal savior will fix the genetic defects that a person has inherited? I don't think he would be so foolish as to make such a dubious claim that could be easily investigated and scientifically disproven.

But mood disorders are not entirely genetic, and in any case counseling, psychotherapy, and other psychological factors can help a person to cope with these kinds of mental illness. So, even if accepting Jesus as his savior might not have cured Mr. Barton, Christians might claim that Jesus could have given him strength to deal with his bipolar condition.

But if Jesus has the power to strengthen and encourage and lift the spirits of millions of Christian believers, then we would expect to see a significantly lower rate of suicide among Christians than among non-Christians. What are the facts? Here is some relevant information from
  • Among the most common faith groups in the U.S., Protestants have the highest suicide rate; Roman Catholics are next; Jews have the lowest rate.
  • Followers of religions that strongly prohibit suicide, like Christianity and Islam, have a higher suicide rate than those religions which have no strong prohibition (e.g. Buddhism and Hinduism.)

(from: viewed 11/25/08)

So, if you are worried about becoming suicidal, you should give serious consideration to avoiding Christianity, especially the Protestant form of it that Josh McDowell is trying to sell. Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists have lower suicide rates that Christians. Since no actual figures are cited above, the difference in rates might be small, but the point is that that there is no obvious or significant advantage to being a Christian, at least when it comes to suicide.

So, the sad case of Mr. Barton does not help McDowell's case for Christianity. It in fact hurts his case for the resurrection, because it points to a widespread delusion among Christian believers (about how Jesus is powerfully changing Christian lives to give them full and lasting happiness, and strength to cope with the problems of life), and it casts doubt on the ability or power of Jesus to overcome death.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Resurrection Factor - Part 1

Every Christian apologist makes a case for the resurrection, and each of the leading apologists has a somewhat different case to make. Gary Habermas, William Craig, and Richard Swinburne are the leading defenders of the resurrection of Jesus, but many others have published books and articles defending this basic Christian belief.

As with the Trilemma, I'm going to start my commentary on this topic by critically examining the case that Josh McDowell makes. I will focus on his book The Resurrection Factor (San Bernardino, CA: Here's Life Publishers, Inc, 1981, hereafter: TRF). McDowell also covers this topic in Chapter 10 of Evidence that Demands a Verdict (revised edition, 1979, hereafter: EDV), and in Chapter 9 of The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1999, hereafter: TNE). But in both the EDV and TNE, there is very little comment by McDowell, mostly just quotations of theologians, scholars, and other apologists. TRF appears to have more of McDowell's own thinking and logic, so that an actual argument is put forward explicitly.

I plan to walk through TRF one chapter at a time, starting at the beginning, and working my way to the end:

Chapter One: The Struggle
Chapter Two: Obvious Observations
Chapter Three: Security Precautions
Chapter Four: Facts to be Reckoned with
Chapter Five: Several Attempted Explanations
Chapter Six: One Theory is as Good as Another
Chapter Seven: The Circumstantial Evidence
Chapter Eight: He Changed My Life

Friday, November 21, 2008

Jesus and the doctrine of Hell - Part 1

One of my Top Ten Reasons for rejecting Christianity is that Jesus taught the doctrine of Hell. Before I get into the details of this objection, let me give a general overview of the problems.

Moral Objections to Hell
Jesus taught that some people will experience eternal torment as a punishment from God. This belief in Hell implies that God is cruel and unjust. But God is by definition a perfectly good person, so God cannot be either cruel or unjust. Therefore, by teaching the doctrine of Hell, Jesus has falsely characterized God as being cruel or unjust. But if Jesus has falsely characterized God as being cruel or unjust, then clearly Jesus is not the divine Son of God, and Christianity should be rejected.

Biblical Objections to Hell
Furthermore, the Bible teaches that Jehovah is a merciful and loving person who views humans as loving parents view their children. If the Bible is correct in this characterization of Jehovah, then the doctrine of Hell is false. So, if the Bible correctly characterizes Jehovah as a merciful and loving person who views humans as loving parents view their children, then Jehovah would not punish any human with eternal torment. Thus, either the Bible is seriously in error about the character of Jehovah, or else Jesus is mistaken in teaching that Jehovah will inflict eternal torment on some humans. If the Bible is seriously in error about the character of Jehovah, then Chrisianity should be rejected. If Jesus is mistaken in teaching that Jehovah will inflict eternal torment on some humans, then Christianity should be rejected. Therefore, Christianity should be rejected.

Historical-Cultural Objections to Hell
Finally, the doctrine of Hell is not taught in the Old Testament, but instead arose in the time between the Old and New Testaments, prior to the ministry of Jesus. Since the doctrine of Hell is not taught in the Old Testament, and since we can account for the origin of this idea naturally, apart from divine revelation, and since the doctrine of Hell is logically inconsistent with some of the teachings of the Old Testament, we can reasonably conclude that either the Old Testament was not inspired by God, or else Jesus believed in Hell not as the result of divine inspiration, but as the result of uncritical acceptance of faulty human ideas about God. If the Old Testament is not inspired by God, then Christianity should be rejected. If Jesus believed in Hell as the result of uncritical acceptance of faulty human ideas about God, then Christianity should be rejected. Therefore, Christianity should be rejected.

Friday, November 14, 2008

McDowell's Trilemma Argument - Part 2

On page 104 of Evidence that Demands a Verdict (revised edition - hereafter EDV), McDowell presents a tree diagram of the various logical possibilities concerning Jesus. At the very top of the tree is the following statement:


Two branches come down from that statement to two other statements below it:

Claims were FALSE.................Claims were TRUE

The diagram indicates that it is true that Jesus claims to be God, and the diagram indicates that if this assumption is true, then there are only two logical possibilities: either the claims were false or the claims were true.

The first thing I notice is the use of the present tense in the basic assumption "Jesus claims to be God". This is an odd way to speak of a person who died 2,000 years ago. One expects the use of past tense verbs in this circumstance: "Jesus claimed to be God." I suppose that this is just a subtle expression McDowell's Christian viewpoint: Jesus rose from the dead and possesses an eternal body and eternal life. McDowell prefers to speak of Jesus in the present tense.

Since we ordinary mortals have no reliable way of determining what the claims of a supernatural heavenly Jesus might be. We only have access, in terms of ordinary knowledge and sensory perception, to the words of the historical Jesus. Any assumptions about what Jesus "claims" about himself must be based on evidence concerning the words and actions of the historical Jesus. So, it is more proper to speak of what Jesus claimed (past tense) about himself:

Q1. Is it true that Jesus claimed to be God?

McDowell himself uses the less-biased language of past tense to state the basic assumption of his Trilemma:

(see the chapter outline on p. 103 of EDV).

Jesus claimed to be God.
(the first sentence of section 2A, on p. 104 of EDV)

A second point that I notice about the tree diagram, is that in the statement of the basic assumption ("JESUS CLAIMS TO BE GOD") the word "claims" is a verb (present tense), but in the statement of the two basic logical alternatives (that are supposed to be derived from that assumption), the word "claims" is a noun (plural). So McDowell moves from talking about the activity of claiming to the categorization of entities called "claims". This seems a bit unclear, and could hide an ambiguity or logical error in McDowell's reasoning. I will discuss this point in greater depth later.

A third initial observation is that it is odd for McDowell to speak of "claims" in the sense of a plural noun. The basic assumption of the Trilemma is concerned with just one claim attributed to Jesus: his (alleged) claim to be God. So, I would have expected the logical alternatives to be stated in terms of a single claim:

The claim was FALSE.................The claim was TRUE

In refering to mulitple "claims", McDowell casts doubt on the comprehensiveness of his proposed logical alternatives:

Claims were FALSE.................Claims were TRUE
If we are dealing with multiple claims, then there is also the possibility that some of the claims were true and some were false, which would be a third possibility in addition to the possibility that all of the claims were false and the possibility that all of the claims were true. The possibility of a third alternative would invalidate the logic of McDowell's argument.
(Q1) appears to be a question about what Jesus said or did not say to other people during his life (his earthly life, since to talk about what Jesus said after his earthly life was over is to assume that there is life after death). If Jesus had said to some of his followers, "I am God.", then one might reasonably conclude that Jesus claimed to be God.

Before I go into the historical question about what the historical Jesus said or claimed about himself, I will try to clarify the meaning and logic of this first part of McDowell's Trilemma argument. The first question of clarification concerns the initial assumption of the argument:

1. Jesus claimed to be God.

Q2. What does statement (1) mean?

Scenario 1:
  • Suppose that the historical Jesus did say "I am God."
  • Suppose that Charles Manson has also said, "I am God."
Have Jesus and Charlie made the same claim? While it might be tempting to say that Jesus and Charlie have made the same claim, and this might be an acceptable use of the word "claim", this would be a misleading thing to say. If we are doing careful interpretation and criticism of an argument, then we should distinguish between uttering a declarative sentence, and asserting a proposition, and the word "claim" should be used only to mean the latter.

The personal pronoun "I" has a different reference when Jesus utters the sentence "I am God." than when Charles Manson utters the sentence "I am God." Thus, although they would have uttered the same declarative sentence, they are asserting different propositions:

3. Jesus of Nazareth is God.
4. Charles Manson is God.

Jesus was asserting proposition (3), while Charlie was asserting proposition (4), and these are different propositions. So, to characterize this situation accurately, we should say that Jesus and Charlie are uttering the same sentence, but are making different claims.

The reverse is possible as well. Two different declarative sentences can be used to assert the same proposition or claim.

Scenario 2
  • On a Monday (about two thousand years ago), Jesus said to Peter, "I am God."
  • A few weeks later, Peter, in a sermon to a crowd said, "Jesus is God."

In this situation, Jesus and Peter have uttered two different declarative sentences, but they have both asserted the same proposition or claim:

3. Jesus of Nazareth is God.

So, we see that two or more declarative sentences, can be used to assert a single proposition, and a single declarative sentence can be used to assert two or more propositions.

I think it is also worth noting that a declarative sentence can be used to assert a proposition and the very same sentence can also be used in a way that does not involve asserting any proposition.

Scenario 3

  • Charles Manson appears before his parol board and says, "I command that you release me from prison this very day. You must obey my commands, because you are mere mortals. I am God, your God."
  • Billy Graham, while engaged in personal Bible study, reads a passage from Psalm 50 aloud to himself:

Hear, O my people, and I will speak,

O, Israel, I will testify against you.

I am God, your God. (Pslams 50:7)

In this scenario, Charlie and Billy both utter the same declarative sentence: "I am God, your God." But Charlie is clearly asserting a proposition, Billy might not be asserting anything. Charlie is asserting the following proposition:

4. Charles Manson is God.

Obviously, Billy Graham is not asserting this proposition. But if Billy is reading the Bible verse out loud simply to focus his mind and to try to get clearer about the meaning or significance of this verse, then Billy might not be asserting any proposition at all. If Billy quotes this verse as a part of a sermon, then he might well be asserting a proposition, but since he is by himself and speaking to no one but himself, he may have no intention of making a claim in this instance.

To be continued...

McDowell's Trilemma Argument - Part 1

There are three main arguments in support of Christianity that you can find in most books that defend the truth of Christianity:

Trilemma - Jesus claimed to be God.
Prophecy - Jesus fulfilled Old Testament Messianic prophecies.
Resurrection - Jesus rose from the dead.

If these three arguments are all weak or invalid, then not much of a case can be made for the truth of Christianity. I don't think that any of these arguments is strong or cogent, so I don't think that a good case can be made for the truth of Christianity.

I have done a lot of reading, thinking, and writing about the resurrection, and intend to write many posts on that topic over the coming months. But I don't want to neglect the other two arguments, so I will start doing some reading, thinking, and writing about the Trilemma argument.

I'm going to begin with an analysis of Josh McDowell's version of the Trilemma, as found in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Chapter 7 (revised edition). This argument has been presented by many different Christian apologists and philosophers. Here are a few examples of other authors who use this argument:
  • John Stott: Why I am a Christian (p.43-46)
  • Paul Little: Know Why You Believe (3rd edition, p.40-43)
  • Pat Zukeran: Evidence, Answers, & Christian Faith (p.140-143)
  • John Ankerberg & John Weldon: Ready with an Answer (p.67-74)
  • Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli: Handbook of Christian Apologetics (p.158-171)
  • Kenneth Boa & Robert Bowman Jr.: 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists (p.203-215)

McDowell's version of the Trilemma might not be the best, but it is probably the best known, so that is where I will begin my analysis.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Resuscitation of the Swoon Theory - Part 1

1.1 Skepticism about the Resurrection of Jesus

Doubt about the resurrection of Jesus is not restricted to atheists and agnostics, nor is it confined to a small circle of liberal theologians. Although the vast majority of Americans consider themselves to be Christians[1], four in ten Americans believe that Jesus was crucified but do not believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead.[2] Three in ten born-again Christians in the U.S. hold this skeptical view of the resurrection, as do about three in ten church leaders.[3] About 4 in 10 Christians in Britain doubt that Jesus rose from the dead.[4]

There are two main forms of skepticism about the resurrection of Jesus. The most common skeptical view accepts that Jesus died on the cross, but doubts or denies that he came back to life.[5] A less common skeptical viewpoint is one that doubts or denies that Jesus died on the cross. There are various sub-categories of this second form of skepticism. Some argue that Jesus is just a legendary figure and thus that the crucifixion of Jesus did not actually occur.[6] Others believe that Jesus was an historical person, but claim that he was never crucified (e.g. someone who looked like Jesus was crucified).[7] Finally, some believe that Jesus was in fact crucified, but doubt or deny that he actually died on the cross.[8] This last skeptical viewpoint is the one that I will defend.

1.2 The Swoon Theory or Apparent Death Theory

The view that Jesus was crucified but did not actually die on the cross is commonly referred to as the "Swoon Theory" or the "Apparent Death Theory" (ADT). Here is my understanding of ADT:

Jesus was crucified, but when he was taken down from the cross he was still alive (i.e. Jesus might have been unconscious, comatose, or even clinically dead, but he had not entered into a state of brain death). At some point after being removed from the cross, without any divine intervention or violation of the laws of physics and chemistry, Jesus recovered sufficiently from the crucifixion to be able to walk and to converse with other people. At some point after being taken down from the cross, Jesus met up with one or more of his disciples, and walked and conversed with the disciple(s). Partly as a result of one or more such post-crucifixion meetings with Jesus, some of his disciples came to believe that Jesus had literally risen from the dead and to believe that this happened because God had raised Jesus from the dead.

ADT assumes that Jesus existed, that he was crucified, and it also accepts the Christian belief that Jesus met and talked with some of his disciples at some point after the crucifixion.

According to one Christian apologist, ADT is “a theory of modern construction” that “first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century.”[10] Another apologist says, “It is interesting that until the 1800s, nobody ever thought that Jesus hadn’t died. Everybody believed he had.”[11] This view of ADT as a modern invention is mistaken. For one thing, there are indications of early doubts about the death of Jesus in the Gospels. Some Gospel passages appear to be shaped by the apologetic purpose of combating such doubts,[12] so skepticism along the lines of ADT might well go back to the first century.

As the New Testament scholar Paul Beasley-Murray points out, doubt about the alleged death of Jesus was publicly expressed as early as the second century:

Almost from the beginning there have been those who have maintained that Jesus did not die on the cross—he simply fainted from exhaustion. According to Celsus, a second-century opponent of the Christian faith, Jesus did not die…[13]

Gerald O’Collins, a Catholic scholar who has written extensively on the resurrection, agrees: “From the start of Christianity various arguments were raised against the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, and even against that of his death.”[14] The idea that Jesus did not die on the cross is also suggested by a passage in the Koran, which was written about 700 CE.[15] So, ADT is an ancient theory that appeared long before the 18th century.

Modern European support for the theory came from German theologians and scholars: first by Karl Bahrdt who suggested (in the 1780s) that the death of Jesus was faked by a secretive religious society,[16] next by Karl Venturini who theorized (in the first decade of the 1800s) that Jesus barely survived the crucifixion with the help of some medical care after being removed from the cross, but not as the result of a planned deception,[17] and then by Heinrich Paulus (in 1828) who produced a more detailed version of ADT, claiming that Jesus appeared to die on the cross but actually survived without any immediate assistance.[18] Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern theology, also supported ADT in lectures that he gave in the 1820s.[19]

Today, most Christian apologists, theologians, and New Testament scholars believe that ADT was refuted about 170 years ago by the German scholar David Strauss. William Craig, a Christian philosopher and leading defender of the resurrection, puts the point this way:

Strauss’s critique really put the nails in the coffin for the apparent death theory. Again, I want to emphasize that no contemporary scholar would support such a theory; it has been dead over a hundred years.[20]

Another Christian philosopher and leading defender of the resurrection, Gary Habermas, agrees with Craig on this point.[21] Contrary to what Craig and Habermas say, Strauss's objections against ADT are weak and defective. Contrary to widespread scholarly opinion, ADT remains a viable hypothesis that is worthy of serious consideration.

One prominent philosopher of religion disagrees with the view that ADT has been refuted. Commenting on a debate between the skeptic Antony Flew and Christian philosopher Gary Habermas, Charles Hartshorne stated his position:

As to the New Testament Resurrection story, the swoon theory … says that Jesus may have been only apparently dead at the end of the terrible hours on the Cross and may have revived later in the tomb and lived for a few weeks longer. I neither believe nor disbelieve this hypothesis. I simply wonder if we can ever know.[22]

This comment implies that ADT has not been refuted by Strauss or anyone else. I will show that Hartshorne's evaluation of ADT is correct. Contrary to widespread opinion, ADT has not been refuted, and it remains a viable hypothesis.

Future Posts

I have been busy writing posts on faith, on miracles, and on atheism for The Secular Outpost blog for the past few months:

I'm planning to start writing posts for my own blog, Cross Examination, focusing on topics that are more specific to Christianity:

- more on my Top Ten Reasons to reject Christianity
- more in defense of the Swoon Theory
- more on the Big Three Arguments for Christianity
(the Trilemma, fulfilled Messianic Prophecy, and the Resurrection of Jesus)