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.