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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Christianity and Women: Challenge to Loftus


From John Loftus' 'Debunking Christianity' blog, this afternoon, accompanied by the cartoon at right:

"I am against sexism, most emphatically, without any doubt at all. In fact, one of the main reasons I do what I do is because of what religion has done and continues to do to women. I argue against religion for that reason alone."
My response:

Resolved: That the Gospel of Jesus has done more to help more women than any other teaching in the history of Planet Earth.

I challenge you, John.

I issue this challenge assuming that John is sincere, and because millions of other people agree with him that Christianity has harmed women terribly. 


Supplemental question: if my claim turns out to be true, John, would that open your mind to rethinking your rejection of Christianity?


Update: Loftus declined to debate, but his followers insisted on my making the case for my position, anyway.  I subsequently did so, with a seven-part series, beginning here.   Needless to say, Loftus never responded substantively, though I did stir a few other hornet's nests. 
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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why Mark Driscoll is wrong about Avatar.

Why Mark Driscoll is (partly) wrong about Avatar

Mark Driscoll, the intense, eloquent, and stand-up-comic-gets-religion-hip pastor of the megachurch Mars Hill Fellowship in Seattle, which I sometimes attend, kicked up a stir last year when he described the even more
 popular Avatar movie as "the most demonic, satanic film I've
 ever seen."


As a world religions scholar, coming to his comments a bit late (I don't go
every week), I think they raise the important question of how Christianity relates to other faiths in a particular interesting way. 

Quite a bit of what Driscoll said (reported in the Seattle P.I.) makes some sense.  But I think he misreads how art relates to Gospel, and how Christianity relates to other religions. His approach is typical of one popular Christian model of religions -- a view that depicts all religions other than Christianity as essentially wrong, immoral, and even demonic. This is opposed to a view that portrays all religions as just happy trails up the same spiritual mountain. I think there's a better and more biblical alternative to both. 

In what follows, (I.) I'll quote Driscoll's comments.  (II.) I'll respond to what he says about art and world religions.  (III.) Finally, I'll offer an alternative model of religions that I think is more bibilical, less obnoxious (or, obnoxious in a more enlightening way), and makes better sense of reality, especially what you find when you look honestly at world religions.

I hope Mark reads these comments: visiting his church many times, I not only find his sermons often profitable, and his jokes (often) funny, but I've also noticed evidence of humility and willingness to learn new stuff under his sometimes blustering demeanor.  Aside from writing two books on how Christianity relates to other religions, this is also the subject of my dissertation.  I'll keep the analytical stuff at the end brief: even a hobby horse needs its rest.   

I. Driscoll's comments

"The world tempts you to sin, to use people, to disobey God, to live for your own glory instead of his own, to be a consumer instead of generous, that’s the world system.

"And if you don’t believe me, go see Avatar, the most demonic, satanic film I’ve ever seen. That any Christian could watch that without seeing the overt demonism is beyond me. I logged on to christianitytoday.com and the review was reflective of Christianity today, very disappointing. See, in that movie, it is a completely false ideology, it’s a sermon preached. It’s the most popular movie ever made, and it tells you that the creation mandate, the cultural mandate is bad, that we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t develop culture, that’s a bad thing.

"(It teaches that) primitive is good and advanced is bad and that we’re not sinners, we’re just disconnected from the divine life force.  (It's) just classic, classic, classic paganism, (saying) that human beings are to connect, literally, with trees and animals and beasts and birds and that there’s this spiritual connection that we’re all a part of, that we’re all a part of the divine.

"It presents a false mediator with a witch. It presents false worship of created things rather than Creator God in absolute antithesis to Romans 1:25, which gives that as the essence of paganism. It has a false incarnation where a man comes in to be among a people group and to assume their identity. It’s a false Jesus. We have a false resurrection. We have a false savior. We have a false heaven. The whole thing is new age, satanic, demonic paganism, and people are just stunned by the visuals. Well, the visuals are amazing because Satan wants you to emotionally connect with a lie."

II. Marshall's Commentary 

I. "The world tempts you to sin, to use people, to disobey God, to live for your own glory instead of his own, to be a consumer instead of generous, that’s the world system."

So it does. But let's be clear what we mean by "the world," here. It's not true that every non-Christian belief system teaches us to be ungenerous. Some Yanomano Indians in Amazonia, a violent tribe among whom murder and gang rape were accepted norms, were afraid to embrace Christianity because they found missionaries so stingy with their goods, and didn't want to be damned for stinginess, a terrible crime in Yanomamo culture. Northwest Indians, likewise, would shame most any Middle Class Presbyterian for generosity at a potlatch.

Neither are the Navi obvious poster-children for self-centered hedonism.

Nor is it true that every non-Christian religion teaches us to disobey God. Most tribes in Africa were aware of the existence of one Supreme God who created all things, and demands justice, even before missionaries arrived. The same was true of many tribes in Asia, the Americas, Australia, and Polynesia. In fact, I would argue that if anything, Avatar misrepresents tribal societies by failing to recognize that many of them were well aware of a just creator God, though they also often recognized their own sin and alienation from Him.

By "the world," Driscoll may mean "Hollywood." If so, again, not even Avatar is that thoroughly debased. Yes, sex outside of marriage is cool in any Hollywood movie. Yes, this movie also glorifies worship of a Mother Nature spirit. Avatar is, I think, both wrong in its theology, and naive in its anthropology. Men and women live in harmony on Pandora -- but among the close-to-nature Yanomamo, men cut off their wives ears if they strayed, or shot them with arrows, and raped other women whenever the opportunity presented itself.  In that sense, Avatar "tempts" viewers to act not worse, but better than savages in a state of Nature usually did.  Can it make both errors at the same time? 

"And if you don’t believe me, go see Avatar, the most demonic, satanic film I’ve ever seen. That any Christian could watch that without seeing the overt demonism is beyond me."

Perhaps this is less a negative commentary on Avatar, than a positive commentary on Mark Driscoll's movie-going habits.  Of all the slasher films, hard-core porn, and sadistic movies out there, (which, yes, I've managed to miss, too), it is beyond me how Avatar could even appear on a very long list of satanic movies. 

What is a demon?  Christians define them as evil spiritual beings. (Though the word in Greek was ambiguous.)  What is Avator?  It is a science fiction movie about an imaginary world. Are any spiritual beings depicted as evil in that movie? On the contrary. The planetary Mother Spirit is depicted as life-giving and protective.  Arguably, there are no beings that fit the Christian definition of "demons" in the film. 

True, Christians have often described the gods and goddesses worshiped in other religions as "demons," by definition.  There are hints of this already in the Bible.  But throughout Christian history, serious believers have created great art in which the gods and goddesses of Paganism were given imaginary positive roles in fiction.  John Adams, no Satan-worshipper, called Abigail "Diana" (after the goddess) in an early letter to her.  Dickens' ghosts are a late example of a long-standing Medieval motif.  One can find many such baptized "gods" in the Chronicles of Narnia.  The difference between (say) the river "god" in Prince Caspian and the Mother Goddess of Pandora (Eywa) is that the former is imminant, limited, and entirely under the control of the Lion, Aslan, while no on in Avatar seems to believe in God. 

But to depict a spirit in fiction is not the same as to worship one. And not every spirit or "daemon" need be Satanic. Socrates believed a "daemon" or personal spirit was guiding him: yet early Christians often recognized him as a kindred spirit, even as a symbol of or preparation for Jesus.

I agree that Avatar does promote a naive paganism.  But to call it "satanic" is to ignore moral distinctions.  What, then, do we call deities that wear garlands of human skulls, to which natives tear out the hearts of their neighbors? 

"It’s the most popular movie ever made, and it tells you that the creation mandate, the cultural mandate is bad, that we shouldn’t, we shouldn’t develop culture, that’s a bad thing."

True, Avatar offers a stark contrast between the real or potential evils of science and technology, and a naive picture of early man in harmony with nature. True, that's not how tribal society really was, most of the time.  It is, however, how Genesis depicts earliest man and woman. 

And who can deny that science is often used to destroy the environment and exploit weaker tribes?  Has Mark never heard of the conquest of the Americas?  The Atlantic Slave Trade?  Mutiny on the Bounty?  The Opium Wars in China?  The Goa Inquisition?  All of these horrors were inflicted on relatively backwards peoples by means of so-called "Christians" with advanced technology. 

But let's get beyond caricatures, and back to biblical realism about both "primitive" and "advanced" tribe.  A more realistic and complex picture of the dynamics when the two meet is given in another beautiful movie, The Mission.  The Mission is the (slightly fictionalized) story of Jesuit missions in South America.  The tribal peoples to whom the missionaries go are no noble savages: they tie visiting missionaries to a cross, and launch them over a waterfall.  Later missionaries teach the tribe Christianity, music, and the arts of civilization -- until Spain and Portugal demand their land, attack the village, and murder and enslave the now civilized inhabitants, and the Jesuits who defend them. 

History is more like The Mission than Avator.  In fact, The Mission is based on the actual history of a Jesuit kingdom in Paraguay that lasted for more than a century. I agree with Pastor Mark that technology has created a lot of good.  During the Cold War, it also almost destroyed the world.  The Mission is, aside from the lush visual invention of Avatar, The Mission is a greater piece of art because it goes beyond propaganda to explore real human complexity.  But Avatar is a good reminder of the dangers of technological arrogance -- one that it doesn't hurt us to keep in mind. 

"Primitive is good and advanced is bad and that we’re not sinners, we’re just disconnected from the divine life force, just classic, classic, classic paganism, that human beings are to connect, literally, with trees and animals and beasts and birds and that there’s this spiritual connection that we’re all a part of, that we’re all a part of the divine.

Again, paganism is not inevitably pantheistic: in fact, hundreds of pagan peoples around the world were aware of the Creator God, though they felt distant from Him.  Lin Yutang, who called himself a pagan, said that Chinese pagans "always believe in God."  Greco-Roman civilization was also recovering an awareness of God when St. Paul and the first Christians arrived (Paul appeals to this awareness in Acts 17).  This is one of the reasons (as Augustine seemed to recognize) that Christianity won the empire. 

"It presents a false mediator with a witch. It presents false worship of created things rather than Creator God in absolute antithesis to Romans 1:25, which gives that as the essence of paganism. It has a false incarnation where a man comes in to be among a people group and to assume their identity. It’s a false Jesus. We have a false resurrection. We have a false savior. We have a false heaven. The whole thing is new age, satanic, demonic paganism, and people are just stunned by the visuals. Well, the visuals are amazing because Satan wants you to emotionally connect with a lie."

No doubt there are some iffy things in Avatar, but let's not get carried away. 

How can a character in a fictional movie be called a "false Jesus?"  Is Aslan also a "false Jesus?" How about the Passover Lamb in the Old Testament? 

Jesus told about a man who was mugged and left for dead, and a "Good Samaritan" who came along to save him.  Is that story a "lie?" Does the fact that the Samaritan "saved" the mugging victim make him a "false Jesus?"  Obviously not: it was a story, told for the purpose of teaching us to treat people kindly. 

Clement of Alexander described Jesus as a fulfillment of Homer's story of Odysseus.  Like Odysseus tied to the mast of his ship, Jesus was tied to the cross, suffering so that we could all come home to Heaven.  Clement knew of course that Odysseus had love affairs with TWO female deities on the return trip.  How could he not know, then, that Odysseus was a "false Jesus?" 

Simple.  Clement understood the distinction between fiction and reality.  One of the functions of fiction is to give us symbols by which to talk about things in the real world. 

The visuals in Avatar are good, not because of Satan, but because of the technology Mark tells us we shouldn't scorn.  (And that he effectively makes use of as a backdrop for his sermons.)  More than anything, the planet Pandora reminds me of C. S. Lewis' Perelandra.  If Lewis had had a computer, he might have made a world that looked something like this. 

What about the "false resurrection?"  Again that comes in many works of fiction: the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, Superman, Neo in one of the Matrix films, Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Odysseus also "comes back to life" by being untied from the mast of his ship.  In fact, something like a resurrection happens in about half our movies.  Does that make them all "satanic?"

This reminds me of Justin Martyr's much-mocked theory that the devil imbedded stories of a god dying and rising in pagan cultures, to trick people away from Christ. 

One might equally-well suggest that the Holy Spirit inspired James Cameron into making a film in which central Christian truths have been planted so that we can explain them to our friends -- pointing out the errors of his iffier beliefs, as well.   

III.  How should Christians understand other religions? 

Speaking of the devil, C. S. Lewis tells us that Satan sends errors into the world in opposite pairs, so we will go from one extreme to the other.  Two extremes in understanding religions are "exclusivism" and "pluralism."  I don't think they are from the devil, exactly -- there is some truth in both, and they may both be sincere mistakes -- but I do think there has to be a better solution. 

A. Exclusivism is the idea that only one religion is true, and the rest are almost entirely in error.  That's what the word "exclude" means: if a fraternity excludes women, it has no women.  An exclusive theology finds no truth in other religions. 

There are three big problems with the "exclusivist" model of religions: (1) it is impossible; (2) it ignores some facts about the Bible; and (3) it ignores a lot of facts about religions. 

Exclusivism is impossible, because it is impossible to keep all truth out of any successful religion, or even out of a good movie.  Mohammed was a murderer, rapist, war-mongerer, and slaver: yet his teaching that there is one God who made all things is, from a Christian point of view, true.  Avator is, Mark tells us, a demonic movie: yet he is also offended that it is full of Christian truths. 

Exclusivism is unbiblical, because the Bible shows that God does sometimes speak through other religious traditions.  God spoke to Pharoah, the kings of Babylon, and Pilate's wife, in dreams.  God spoke to the Wise Men through the stars and apparently their own cultural assumptions.  When Paul arrived in Athens, he preached about the "unknown God" whom the Greeks already worshiped in ignorance, quoted Greek philosopers, and used Greek words for God. 

Christians raised as exclusivists often seem to feel uncomfortable with the good things they find in non-Christian religions.  Is that healthy?  Should we pretend Buddhism doesn't really teach compassion?  That Gandhi was not a great spiritual leader? 

B. Pluralists, by contrast, tend to think all religions are equally true, "paths up the same mountain." 

People who take this position often have a hard time saying what that mountain is, though.  They can't say we all need Christ, or that would exclude non-Christians.  They can't say we all seeking God, or that would exclude Buddhists and secular humanists.  Following a philosopher named John Hick, some say the mountain we climb is "the Real," though we can never know what the Real is.  So apparently the secret to getting along is to agree on being really vague about what we believe! 

In the end, pluralism is just another compromise religion -- like Bahai, Sikhism, Unitarian Universalism -- that grows more dogmatic as time goes by.  Pluralists think they know the truth -- essentially, spiritualized cliches from the European Enlightenment -- and that truth logically excludes orthodox Christianity and Islam.  So there's no getting away from saying, "I think I see the truth more clearly than some other people."   

What's the biblical solution?

Jesus said, "Don't think I've come to abolish the Law and the Prophets.  I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill." 

This is the core intuition of what I call "fulfillment theology."  It is naive to say "All religions are just as true and good as one another."  But natural phenomena are never the same or of the same value as one another.  The world of religions is full of oppression and lies, as well as beauty and truth.  Religious people cut hearts out at the top of an Aztec pyramid, bury charioteers in the tomb of a king, and burn heretics at the stake.  Can all that come from the Real?   

Fulfillment thinkers say all history is part of the redemptive story God is telling of the human race, centered around Jesus of Nazareth.  This unfolding story embraces the history of other tribes -- maybe even planets?  The Holy Spirit has sown truth in cultures around the world (universe?  multiverse?) that prepares us for Christ. Fulfillment thinkers like Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Mateo Ricci, C. S. Lewis, and Don Richardson have given many examples of this.  But one cannot deny that evil is at work, too. Christians are therefore called to test each tradition, text, and teaching, hold to and redeem what is good, and rebut and reject what is harmful and vile.  We work on the assumption that God got to the host planet long before missionaries arrived.

(A portrait of Perelandra, by James Lewicki.)

Saturday, May 28, 2011


The End of Christianity? 

Dang. First Harold Camping predicts the end of the world in May. Now John Loftus predicts The End of Christianity in July.

What shall I predict for September -- the end of the Seattle Mariners' playoff chances?

No, not yet.  I'm not that bold. 


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Alexandre de Rhodes in Vietnam



I've only visited Vietnam once, a visit that lasted about ten minutes. That short visit, however, was only part of a highly memorable trip. I traveled through mountains along the southern border of China where every village spoke its own language and wore its own clothing: Yao with peaked red hats, Miao, Hani, Han, at least two kinds of Dai. The scenery was so beautiful coming back that I got off the bus to take pictures, then hitchhiked with a gem smuggler back to the next main town. (I took this picture of a minority family bringing groceries and kids home from market from out of the window of the bus.) The smuggler operated a mine in the mountains of Vietnam, hiring Hmong tribesmen to carry gems down the mountain -- he gave me one, which unfortunately I lost. This counted as an honest trade in the border regions: I felt comfortable spending the night (on another trip) at the home of jade smugglers, and even a local church businessman smuggled Hyundais: it was those who dealt in heroin or women that bothered me.

A series of Dai villages near the border seemed like Shangri La -- straw roofed huts, girls with flowers in their hair, a popular hotspring next to rice paddies.

But locals told me I was the first American to visit the area since they'd shot American pilots down in the Vietnam War. China had has its own Vietnam War, and the bridge between the two nations, called Friendship Bridge, was new, the previous (Friendship?) bridge having been blown up. I was allowed to cross it without a visa, or any kind of check, for a short visit to Vietnam.

Recently I read a book about a western visitor who spent much longer, and had a remarkably deep impact on that country.

His name was Alexander de Rhodes, the Jesuit founder of Vietnamese Christianity, and one of the creators of the written Vietnamese text.

Few people know about Rhodes. He might be described as a disciple of the great Mateo Ricci -- he followed Ricci's methods of finding good in Vietnamese culture, and seemed to borrow some of Ricci's ideas in the Chinese classics. But in some ways he was more successful than Ricci. In 25 adventurous years in and largely out of Vietnam, training lay Christian leaders, with very few missionaries, the Vietnamese church grew to some 300,000 -- about the same as in China and in Japan after most of a century, larger fields with more missionaries, and which by any reasonable measure count as successes in their own right.

And de Rhodes (and a few colleagues) did all that with little in the way of European hard power, and much (it seems) in the way of diplomacy, wisdom, love of Vietnamese culture, and perhaps a little divine preparation. By contrast, the Inquisition in Goa, India -- established on the suggestion of Francis Xavier -- burnt dozens of infidels to death, imprisoned thousands, and forbid even the mildest "Hindu" customs. It was like the contest Aesop describes between the wind and the sun to see which could get the coat off a man: cruel force was used in Goa, and gentle persuasion in Vietnam.

I'd like to share a few exerpts from Peter Phan's wonderful book on Alexander Rhodes, Mission and catechesis : Alexandre de Rhodes and inculturation in seventeenth-century Vietnam.

Rhodes's methods of preaching, on visiting a town in Tonkin for the first time:

"As soon as the Porguguese ship reached shore, a crowd rushed out to see who the newcomers were, where they came from, and what merchandise they were bringing in. De Rhodes took advantage of the people's curiosity to clarify in fluent Vietnamese (to their surprise!) the purpose of his mission. He explained that while most of the people who had just arrived were Portuguese merchants seeking to trade goods adn arms, he had a precious pearl to sell so cheap that even the poorest among them could buy. When the people wanted to see the pearl, he told them that it could not be seen by bodily but only by spiritual eyes. The pearl, he said, was the true way (dao) that leads to the happy and everlasting light."

De Rhodes reflected:

"Having heard of the Law which they call dao in the scholarly language and dang in popular tongue, which means way, they became all the more curious to know from me the true law . . . I decided to announce it to them under the name of the Lord of heaven and earth, finding no proper word in their language to refer to God . . . I decided to employ the name used by the apostle Saint Paul when he preached to the Athenians who had set up an altar to an unknown God. This God, he said, whom they adored without knowing him, is the Lord of heaven and earth."

Dao here is the Chinese word 道, which means not only road or way, but morality (for Confucius, whom the Vietnamese also read), and the Supreme Principle of reality, for Lao Zi.
The Chinese also spoke of "Heaven and Earth," and Jesuits in China most often called God the "Lord of Heaven." De Rhodes didn't know the Chinese classics as well as Ricci, or he might have used the terms Shang Di and Tian, or their Vietnamese equivalents. Still, the term he used would surely have been well-understood in China, Japan, and Korea -- and apparently Vietnam.

Comparing the Gospel to a pearl goes back to Jesus' "Pearl of Great Price." Early Christians told a beautiful story about Jesus as a pearl salesman who was also a doctor. The analogy would, of course, have been readily understood in sea-hugging Vietnam.

"One of the converts, whose Christian name was Lina, opened a residence for the poor. There was also near the church in Van No, a leprosarium which the missionaries frequently visited. Many lepers became Christians."

Outreach to the poor and to lepers is a near-constant in Christian missions.

"Amidst these successes, there began opposition to the missionaries, especially on the part of Buddhist monks. They challenged de Rhodes to a debate."

The opposition eventually developed into overt persecution. In his debates with Buddhists, de Rhodes may have been more clever than Ricci. Ricci would debate directly, which could be a lose-lose proposition: win the argument, and you cause the Chinese to lose face; lose the argument, and you lose the argument.

By contrast, when De Rhodes was asked to debate, he invited an educated Vietnamese Christian (Ignatius) to argue the Christian side on his behalf. Ignatius was "very well versed in all their books and possessed special grace for disproving all the errors of these idolators." The downside of this approach was that persecution was directed at the Vietnamese Christian, who as I recall was eventually martyred.

Some Buddhist monks also converted to Christ, though.

Rhodes was willing to use what Don Richardson calls "redemptive analogies:"

"I noticed one custom among them that might suggest that our holy faith had been preached at one time in that kingdom, where nevertheless all memory of it has been obliterated by now. As soon as children were born, I often saw the parents put a crossmark on their foreheads with charcoal or ink. I asked them what good this would do to the child and why they daubed this mark on its forehead. 'That,' they used to tell me, 'is to chase away the devil and keep him from harming the child.' . . . I did not neglect to disclose its secret to them by explaining the power of the holy cross. This often served me as a means of converting them.'"

This is like stories in the Old Testament, in which God gives Pharoah or the king of Babylon a riddle, then sends Joseph or Daniel to explain its meaning.

De Rhodes took a nuanced and complex approach to Vietnamese beliefs, Phan argues. He opposed practices that he saw as immoral, appealing both to the Gospel and to folk wisdom to oppose such things, when possible. (As did Augustine, in City of God.) What he saw as good, he adapted. He strongly opposed introducing European practices that would set Vietnamese apart from their own culture.

De Rhodes comes across, in Peter Phan's book, as a wise, humble, yet dynamic and spunky missionary. He set the Vietnamese church up as a truly Vietnamese institution. As a result, Christianity spread rapidly during those first decades, and to this day, there are some 7 million Christians in Vietnam, mostly Catholic.

There is a lesson for missions in this contest between wind and sun that I hope we never forget.

A stone monument originally erected in 1941 in Hanoi, and placed in 1995 in the garden of the National Library, gives a strictly historical account of Rhodes’ life and works, aside from the following quote, which underlines the friendship he helped establish between the Gospel and Vietnam, his greatest legacy:

"I left Cochinchina in my body, but certainly not in my heart; and so it is with Tonkin. My heart is in both countries and I don’t think it will ever be able to leave them.”

Thursday, May 05, 2011


Did Osama bin Laden Rise from the Dead?

And how about the other guy with the beard? A response to Ex Christian.

Five days ago, American Navy Seals landed near a brick-walled compound an hour's drive from Islamabad, ran upstairs, and shot Osama bin Laden in the head. They then flew out to sea in a helicopter and tossed his body into the salty brine. He is now, some commentators noted, "swimming with the fishes."

But is he? Is it possible that on the third day, Allah breathed new life into his lungs? Might it be that, with his new "resurrection body," he is even now dining on fresh sushi and gambiting in the surf with dolphins -- or perhaps staging an amphibius return to terror prominence?


Or is Osama, as the cartoon to the right suggests, now in a place hotter and drier even than Pakistan?

There are, of course, other options. From a Buddhist perspective, one might imagine his life essence entering the body of a slug that slithers painfully across a damp rock in the rubble of the stone Buddhas in the Hindu Kush mountains that his Taliban friends blasted to smitherenes in 2001. Atheists naturally assume that his story has now played out, full stop.

"So why talk about Bin Laden resurrecting?" You may ask. "Does someone claim to have seen that murderous old reprobate again?"

Putting your response intemperately like that introduces two questions about any historical event. First, what is the evidence for it? And second, how plausible is it in the abstract? Given our "universal" experience of death, is resurrection even possible? And even if someone were to claim to see Osama bin Laden alive again, doesn't his character make him one of the last people on earth for whom God would do special favors?

Which raises yet another question: if Osama is the last person, who would be the first?

Two weeks ago, after Easter, I posted a blog about the resurrection of Jesus. I pointed out that the claim that Jesus rose also prompts these two universal questions: (1) Is there any historical evidence for the claim? (2) Is it plausible a priori to believe such a thing? I argued that the probability of the resurrection being true is a combination of these two factors. I gave some answers to the first question, and also directed readers to more in-depth resources on the subject. (By historian N. T. Wright and philosophers Tim and Lydia McGrew -- let me also add Gary Habermas, who is now writing an exhaustive study of this subject.)

McGrew, for instance, argues that the purely historical evidence for the resurrection is overwhelming. He makes a case that if the prior probability (2) of the resurrection is only one in 10^40, the historical evidence (1) is so good that it is still 10,000 to one that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Skeptics have exuded much greenhouse gas scoffing at the huge probability McGrew gives for (1), the resurrection. And I admit it seems unlikely that ancient historical evidence could really rise to that level. One skeptical philosopher has apparently claimed that there is a one in four chance that some sort of "brain in the vat" scenario is true, and we are all living in some sort of computer simulation (or at least he is). I don't buy that, either. But even if there is a one in ten thousand chance the world is unreal, obviously the ancient world is, well, history too.

But my main focus was on (2), the prior plausibility of the resurrection. In that case, I scoffed at high a priori odds against Jesus rising from the dead. In fact, I argued that the prior probability is so good, that the overall odds of the resurrection may be even higher than McGrew concluded.

A skeptic named Xtian (Ex Christian?) was among those who challenged my arguments. In the rest of this post, I'll use the timely demise of Osama bin Laden to further illustrate four points, then respond to some of Xtian's challenges.

I. Might God play favorites when it comes to resurrections?

We can answer that question easily by asking another: what would happen if Osama bin Laden came back from the dead?

If you're a radical Muslim, you might think that would be a good thing. The Islamic tradition promises a resurrection. Indeed, there are old Muslim stories about Jesus raising people from the dead. In an 11th Century tale, Jesus came across a skull in the desert, of a woman whose soul was in deepest hell. God gave the skull the ability to speak, and it begged:

"Spirit of God, pray that God would restore me to earthly life."

Bin Laden's followers no doubt assume he is now enjoying all the sensual thrills of heaven. But were he restored to life, God's dramatic act on his behalf would no doubt prove a shot in the arm to the radical Islamicist cause. Recruitment to Al Quaeda would go through the roof. A new caliphate might be quickly form. The infidel nations might soon be gathered into the House of Peace.

On the other hand, those of us who doubt Islam is true, let alone radical Islam, see Osama bin Laden as rather less likely to enjoy God's mercy than, say, the anonymous skull in the desert. Perhaps God might raise Osama so as to allow him to repent, and warn humanity of the terrors of hell. But it would seem unfair to give Osama a second chance, before millions of lesser sinners. It would look like rewarding bad behavior.

Intuitively, it seems that if God exists (and skeptics, please hold onto that question for later), and if resurrection is possible, it is more likely that God would set aside the law of Entropy on behalf of some people, than others.

II. What factors favor the resurrection of Jesus a priori?

Several reasons why God caused Jesus, of all people, to rise from the dead can be inferred from the Bible. Some are confirmed even by non-Christians:

(a) Virtue. A Newsweek poll found that most Americans agree that the world is a more charitable place because of the life of Jesus. I and others have made that argument historically in many places.

(b) The nature of Jesus' sacrifice. Socrates prophecied that the best man would die a violent death: "He shall be scourged, tortured, bound, his eyes burnt out, and at last, after suffering every evil, shall be impaled or crucified." Were this to come true (as it did in the death of Jesus), if God is just, would not such a person not be the most likely to be vindicated by His intervention?

(c) Resurrection also rebukes the forces that murder unjustly. If God raised bin Laden from the dead, one assumes recruitment to the Navy Seals would drop precipitously. Likewise, the vindication of Jesus stamped a badge of shame on at least certain forms of tyranny. (Christians have not always taken the right lessons to heart, unfortunately.)

(d) Jesus is also posited to have a special relationship to God, the father, which makes his resurrection much more likely.

(e) I argued that many prophecies, not only in Jewish but in world cultures, seem somehow to point to Jesus as a world Savior. Some of those prophecies, like Isaiah 52-53, speak of God rescuing the savior from death, or bringing him back to life, somehow.

(f) Affirmation of teachings. The Christian view is that the resurrection was not arbitrary, but was the "first fruits" of a general counter-offensive by God in this world against entropy, oppression, and untruth.

Now of course you may find some of these reasons more plausible at first than others. But the point is, they all center on Jesus, and show why (for instance) one can't simply say, as some skeptics have, "110 billion people have lived, and no one else has resurrected. So the odds against Jesus rising are at least 110 billion to one." Even the date on today's newspaper, reminds us that Jesus plays a pivotal role in human history.

III. Is there a Muslim case for Jesus' resurrection?

The Qur'an calls Jesus the "Breath of God," which is where the person who told the story about the skull in the desert got the term. It also calls him the "Messiah." Even from Muslim presuppositions, then, wouldn't God be more likely to resurrect the "Messiah" and "Breath of God," (uniquely called that) than bin Laden, or an anonymous skull in the desert? Especially if God is (as Muslims believe) prone to answer his prayers?

What historical personage might God be more likely to affirm supernaturally, on Muslim assumptions? Possibly Mohammed. But even on Islamic grounds, Jesus would stand close to the front of the line.

IV. "But you're begging the question about God! We don't believe in Him, so the resurrection is off the table."

Several skeptics offered this response to my arguments. To which I answer:

(a) The existence of God can be taken in two ways in this equation: as a constant, to determine the likelihood of the resurrection, or as the variable we are trying to solve. In my earlier post, I took the latter course, and arbitrarily assigned that probability as one in five. I thought I was being pretty generous to skeptics, here, since probably most of humanity believes in God, for what I at least see as pretty good reasons. Anyway, surely the chance that God exists is higher than the chance that nothing does.

(b) But we can also take the existence of God here as the variable to be solved. The resurrection of Jesus is, in part, a function of whether or not God exists. So if you put that question to one side of the equation, the other evidence for the resurrection -- including a priori evidence -- can be weighed against it. If there is good evidence for the resurrection -- and people like McGrew, Craig, Wright and Habermas have I think shown that there is -- and if prior probability is also high, as I argue it is, then all that gives us a pretty good reason to believe God is real.

IV. Some of Xtian's objections to my earlier arguments for the resurrection (and my response):

(a) You say IF God exists and IF he wants to communicate moral truths to humanity, then it's PLAUSIBLE that raising a great moral leader from the dead might be ONE of the ways he would communicate this. Each of those "if"s demand an explanation and cannot simply be assumed. If a god exists, why would he care about humanity at all?

I don't just assume any of these points. In a sense, the existence of God can be the X, here. I'm giving heuristic values to the other variables to try to "solve for X." If these other claims are even remotely plausible, given the McGrew's strong historical argument for the resurrection, and given the additional arguments I add in the second part of my earlier blog, then the resurrection becomes strongly probable.

Many of the tribes around the world that recognize the existence of a Supreme God, recognize that He cares about humanity. Often they pray to Him as "Father," sometimes as "Mother." Furthermore, human beings do feel that God has communicated moral truths to us, in different ways -- through our conscience, culture, prophets. So I'd say this assumption is quite plausible. Again, it doesn't even have to be more probable than not, for my argument to work.

(b) Jews have had (Messianic) prophecies for much longer than Christians and the overwhelming majority do not see Jesus as fulfulling them in the slightest. But of course, you must assume that YOUR particular Christian interpretation of the Old Testament is the correct one to prove the case that Jesus was that "Great Person" God would raise from the dead to teach humanity.

Actually, a large percentage of Jews probably did convert to Christianity, as Rodney Stark argues in The Rise of Christianity. And such brilliant thinkers as Blaise Pascal found them highly convincing -- as do I.

The texts say what they say. It's just a fact that the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 seems to be given life after suffering death for the "sheep" who have "gone astray." One can choose to not see that, or to not see the many other prophetic types and promises in the OT which Jesus fulfills. The way Christians have often treated Jews doesn't help: Elie Wiesel, for example, accusing Jews for Jesus of betraying Jewish tradition, which is a pretty heavy burden to bare, in light of the Holocaust. But such social considerations don't erase the prophesies from the text of the Old Testament.

(c) Your sixth point highlights some very vague parallels between Ancient Eastern writings and Jesus, but again, why do you assume that one must look at these writings through Christian eyes? Couldn't it be PLAUSIBLE that the Judeo-Christian myths are merely echoes of the true religion of Taoism?

The parallels aren't "vague," though I didn't give too many details. In the oldest Indian scriptures, the creator, Prajapati, dies for the salvation of humanity. There are some remarkable parallels in these texts, that the 19th Century Indian thinker Banarjea developed. The Chinese philosopher Yuan Zhiming similiarly describe some remarkable parallels between the Messianic Sage in the great ancient Chinese texts, including the Dao Dejing, and Jesus. Maybe I'll post some of this material in a later blog.

But these are not historical records; they don't even pretend to focus on any real-world event. So it is impossible that Christianity "echoes" what it actually brings into historical focus. Jesus does what Lao Zi talks about: that makes his position as the focus of God's action in the world more plausible. That is part of what the word "fulfill" means.


(d) (You quote) Lin Yutang and other Chinese philosophers as saying "no man has taught as Jesus taught." So what? No man taught like my high school English teacher taught, but I don't think he was raised from the dead.

I guess you understand what he means, here, and are scatting to save yourself the trouble of dealing with it seriously. Lin meant that Jesus was the greatest teacher who ever lived. He also borrowed an ancient Chinese saying, "Blow out the candles: the sun has risen." Is that how you feel about your old teacher? If so, are you sure he didn't rise from the dead?

(e) God doing what you suggest could be anything to fit your pre-conceived ideology. I can posit that IF the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists, and IF he has the ability to turn people into millionaires, then we can believe it is PLAUSIBLE he has turned people into millionaires. Given the right conditions for your god, ANYTHING can be plausible. It doesn't mean such things actually happened.

Now you're just being silly. God is not a monster in space invented by skeptics to mock religion. Defeating death, affirming virtue, and putting tyrants on notice are hardly arbitrary values. And there's plenty of evidence that it "actually happened."

(f) Then comes the second part of your essay, in which you provide historical evidence for the resurrection. And the evidence is...1 Corintians 15 and the fact that there are a lot of Christians. Really? Why don't we have any writings from these 500 "witnesses"?

Who says we don't? The author of the Gospel of John was probably a witness. Mark was probably a witness. Paul was certainly a witness.
But I mentioned several other pieces of evidence, which I encourage other readers to look over more carefully, and with a more open mind, than you seem to have done so far.
(g) How do you know James and the apostles weren't delusional or merely had an vision of a bright light like the Apostle Paul?
People don't all have the same delusions. Bright lights don't have meals with their friends. People don't go to the cross to testify to seeing fireflies or swamp gas.
But these are standard apologetic issues, that are well answered by conventional apologists, and are not really the focus of these two blogs.
(h) Then you refer to other people's books as well as the disputed claim by Habermas that "most scholars admit the tomb was empty," without mentioning that most of the scholars surveyed were already evangelical Christians.
I'm just summarizing the McGrew's argument here, very briefly. I don't know why you focus on a single tangential phrase describing someone else's argument, rather than my own. Also, what's your source for whom Habermas surveyed?
(i) Just because 1st century Palestinians knew what happens to a decaying corpse doesn't mean they "were perfectly aware of the 'facts' of nature." They knew nothing about bacteria and other microbes, otherwise they would've got rid of smallpox a lot earlier. Supernatural explanations were common and resurrection stories were all over the place before Jesus (Osiris and Dionysus, for example).
Here's what Wikipedia says about Osiris, the latter half of which fits what else I've read:

"Plutarch recounts one version of the myth in which Set (Osiris' brother), along with the Queen of Ethiopia, conspired with 72 accomplices to plot the assassination of Osiris. Set fooled Osiris into getting into a box, which Set then shut, sealed with lead, and threw into the Nile . . . Osiris' wife, Isis, searched for his remains until she finally found him embedded in a tree trunk, which was holding up the roof of a palace in Byblos on the Phoenician coast. She managed to remove the coffin and open it, but Osiris was already dead. In one version of the myth, she used a spell learned from her father and brought him back to life so he could impregnate her. Afterwards he died again and she hid his body in the desert. Months later, she gave birth to Horus. While she raised Horus, Set was hunting one night and came across the body of Osiris. Enraged, he tore the body into fourteen pieces and scattered them throughout the land. Isis gathered up all the parts of the body, less the phallus (which was eaten by a fish) and bandaged them together for a proper burial. The gods were impressed by the devotion of Isis and resurrected Osiris as the god of the underworld."

This obviously much less resembles the resurrection of Jesus, than does the "resurrection" of Lois Lane in Superman.

The ancients knew the "facts of nature" in the relevant sense. This is why the Athenians scoffed at Paul when he spoke of Jesus' resurrection at Mars Hill: the forum was founded on the assertion that, as Apollo is said to have noted at a ancient trial there (involving murders in the highly disfunctional family of Agamemnon, after the Trojan War): "When a man dies, the earth drinks up his blood. There is no resurrection."

This is also why Jesus' own disciples were so incredulous when they first heard the news. Whatever stories people like to tell over campfires, in the 1st Century, they had all had intimate first-hand experience of death and decay -- they were fishermen, for one thing.

(j) I can believe that World War II happened because there's plenty of documentation from thousands of independent eyewitnesses, not to mention audio and video recordings. Evidence for Jesus' resurrection (your blog notwithstanding) currently stands at nil.
That looks like naked assertion, in the face of contrary facts. In ordinary circumstances, as McGrew and others show, any event supported by evidence as strong as that for the resurrection, would be universally accepted as almost certainly true.

(k) Pointing to the fact that Jesus was "at the center of many of the greatest reforms in human history" (a point I would dispute)

I should have said "almost all," which is certifiably the case. I was being too cautious.


(l) I have not read your book, "Why the Jesus Seminar Can't Find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could," so I can't comment on your 50 characteristics. However, since this "historical DNA" seems to me to be so pivotal to your arguments, I wonder why you couldn't at least fill me in on what some of those characteristics are. I understand you have to sell books, and I'm not asking for a complete run-down of your book, but couldn't you tell me just ONE characteristic to support the historical truthfulness of the Gospels (besides the ones listed in this particular blog post)?

Thanks for asking that way. Fortunately, I did exactly that in March, focusing on just one of those 50 characteristics and showing why it is historically persuasive -- here's the link.

(m) Again, you refer to other scholars in this field for the "outstanding" evidence but you don't mention exactly what pieces of evidence you find so convincing. Since you have not given any other specific information, I must conclude that you do not have this evidence or you know who has it but don't know what it is. Perhaps you will add more to this post, but I find nothing here that hasn't already been addressed by myself or other commenters on this blog.
Please don't too quickly assume that. I often bite off more than I can chew. This isn't my full-time job, you know. In my on-line personna, I try to be careful in my claims -- I can almost always back them up, if I need to, and in some cases have written extensively on them elsewhere. But I don't feel guilty about making claims without proving each and every point, or even giving all the details. Time is limitted. Arguments from silence are seldom valid, certainly not in this case.

Some of my points are, I think, indisputable. But I've tried to make it clear that what I'm NOT trying to do is offer a definitive historical argument for the Gospel, here. Others have done a much more thorough job of that, and I encourage people to read their arguments, along of course with my Jesus Seminar case for the Gospels.

But what is needed more than anything, for any argument to be persuasive, is an open mind, willing if not to be immediately persuaded, at least to take in the good arguments, give them due weight, and keep your eyes open for further evidence. I hope you'll do that.

Monday, May 02, 2011

My atheism book is now out in Spanish!

For those who do your shopping in Walmarts in Mexico, you're in luck! Unilit, a popular Spanish publishing house based in Miami, has just translated and published my last book, The Truth Behind the New Atheism. Better than half of their audience is in Latin America or Europe.

Who would you like to see read this book in the Spanish-speaking world? Now that Fidel Castro has retired, maybe he has time to do some reading? Or perhaps Abimael Guzman, founder of Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist organization in Peru infamous for hanging dogs and terrorizin peasants, now sitting in a naval jail cell near Lima, might rethink some of the philosophical errors that took him down that dark path?

I may do some speaking the southern US, or further south, to help sell the book. I'm also beginning to edit chapters coming in from Christian scholars for my next project, Faith Seeking Understanding.