The ancient fable behind disbelief in Christ’s resurrection.
“With most men, unbelief in one thing springs from blind belief in another.”
German scientist and satirist George Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799)
Atheist and agnostic skeptics of Jesus Christ’s resurrection suggest that there would be no resurrection controversy if certain people would just quit tenaciously clinging to belief in ancient fables. And perhaps the most appropriate Christian response to this suggestion is: They have no idea just how right they are! The materialist/naturalist belief system which underlies disbelief in God is the ancient fable which renders the historical facts surrounding Christ’s resurrection (and the world as a whole, in fact) nearly impossible to make sense of.
Most disbelievers in Christ’s resurrection are likely blissfully unaware of just how far New Testament scholarship has swayed in favor of Jesus’ resurrection in the last 40 years. Readers are strongly encouraged to view a You Tube video titled The Historical Evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection That Even Skeptics Believe:
In this video, New Testament scholar Gary Habermas explains that, among New Testament scholars, if you talked about the empty tomb in the 1970’s “there would be a lot of snickering, and nobody but evangelicals who published in that area would accept it.”
If you mentioned post-resurrection appearances in the 1970’s, “Everybody would have laughed.” However, Habermas reveals that, “Today, the majority of New Testament scholars, theologians, historians, and philosophers who publish in the area [including atheist and agnostic academics…not just Christians] believe in the empty tomb.”
“In the 70’s, if you talked about bodily [post-resurrection] appearances of Jesus, they’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s nice. Go back to your church and talk about it, but don’t do it on a university campus.’”
Today, however, belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the predominant view within New Testament scholarship.
As Habermas puts it, “Today, bodily resurrection is the predominant view in the academy.” Habermas also notes that, “Raymond Brown (probably the most prominent New Testament scholar in America), shortly before his death, said that the majority of contemporary theologians are conservative today.”
Habermas titles his argument for the resurrection of Jesus the “minimal facts argument” since it is based only upon the data that is granted, in his words, “by virtually all scholars on the subject, even the skeptical ones” (such as atheist and agnostic scholars). These five “minimal facts” are as follows (as detailed in his book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus):
1) Jesus died by crucifixion
2) Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
3) The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.
4) The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.
5) The tomb was empty.
Habermas explains that the following phrase will receive virtually no dispute among contemporary New Testament scholars (whether Christian, agnostic, or atheist):
“Jesus earliest followers had experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus.” (Scroll forward to 52 minutes into the video to view Habermas make this statement).
So how do atheist and agnostic scholars who accept the truth of the above statement make sense of it in light of their disbelief in Jesus’ resurrection? This article provides a good example of an atheist New Testament scholar who struggles to explain the historical facts surrounding Jesus’ resurrection through the lens of his belief system:
“…Atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann maintains a priori rejection of the supernatural and yet he says, ‘It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.’ Although he accepts the historical evidence he concludes that the best explanation for it is that everybody who thought they saw the resurrected Jesus actually hallucinated. Peter hallucinated because he was overcome by grief for denying Jesus, Paul hallucinated on the road to Damascus, James the skeptical brother of Jesus hallucinated, and all the five hundred who saw Jesus at one time hallucinated.”
It does not take a mathematician to conclude that the probability of several individuals having the SAME hallucination is infinitesimally small. Habermas comments on the absurdity of this proposition in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus:
“Although the hallucination theory enjoyed some popularity over a hundred years ago and still has a few adherents, it suffers from a number of problems.”
“First, today we know that hallucinations are private occurrences, which occur in the mind of the individual. They are not collective experiences.”
“…Imagine that it is the middle of the night. You wake up your wife and say, ‘Honey, I just had a dream that we were in Hawaii. Come back to sleep and join me in the dream and we’ll enjoy a free vacation together.’ It would be impossible for her to do so, since a dream exists only in the mind of the individual. It cannot be shared with another person. Likewise, a hallucination cannot be shared.”
Similarly, Michael Lacona notes in his essay Were the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus Hallucinations?:
“Gary A. Sibcy is a licensed clinical psychologist, with a PhD in clinical psychology, who has an interest in the possibility of group hallucinations. He comments:
‘I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination, that is, an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent.’”
If it is not the historical facts which cause skeptical New Testament scholars such as Lüdemann to reject the possibility of Jesus resurrection (if favor of absurdly improbable explanations, such as group hallucinations) what is the source of their skepticism?
Their skepticism is anchored in their materialist/naturalist worldview, which says that only the material/natural world (and not immaterial entities such as God) are real. So when a skeptical New Testament scholar accepts the historical truth of post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus, but denies the possibility of resurrection, he is reasoning as follows: “Since there is no God, and only the natural/material world is real, there can be no such thing as a resurrection…since people do not rise from the dead as a result of natural causes.”
Notably, likely nobody has ever argued that Jesus rose from the dead as a result of natural causes. Rather, believers in the resurrection believe that Jesus rose from the dead as a result of supernatural causes….divine action. Likely nobody, then, would disagree with the statement, “Assuming that there is only a physical/natural world, and no God, there is no reason to believe that a person would raise from the dead.” Therefore, the resurrection controversy is really just a controversy of worldviews: materialism/naturalism vs. Christian theism.
A solution to the controversy can be reached by realizing that it is much more than just the widely accepted historical facts surrounding Jesus Christ which are difficult to make sense of when viewing the world through the lens of the materialist/naturalist worldview. In fact, MOST OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE is difficult to make sense of when viewed through this lens.
Richard Barns details the ancient roots of materialism/naturalism, and the absurdities that necessarily result from it, in his book The Dawkins Proof for the Existence of God :
“The distinctive of Thales [ancient Greek philosopher, 624 BC – c. 546 BC] was that he was trying to do philosophy without God. Thales and his two successors, Anaximander and Anaximenes…were particularly interested in the question of what ultimately exists.”
“What is everything made of? Thales’ answer was simple: all is water. Perhaps he came to this view because we see water all around us. It’s in the sky and under the earth. Living things all take it in and it can exist as a solid, liquid or gas. However, despite the ingenuity of the idea it is somewhat lacking. How can something dry be made of water? How can fire be made of water?”
“Anaximander, coming after Thales, therefore came to a different conclusion. According to the Pan Dictionary of Philosophy, Anaximander ‘apparently suggested that the first principle must be something indeterminate rather than one particular kind of matter, such as water’. An indeterminate something is not much of an answer though and this was perhaps the reason that Anaximenes, coming after Anaximander, promoted the idea that all is air. According to Anaximenes, air takes on the different forms of everything we see around us as a result of changes in its density.”
It is not difficult for the modern materialist/naturalist to perceive the absurdity of the suggestion that only water (or air, etc.) is real. How can fire, as Barns asks, be made of water?
But much as Thales’ worldview rendered him apparently unable to perceive this absurdity, the modern versions of Thales’ worldview render the current-day materialist/naturalist unable to perceive numerous other absurdities. This is because, as the English playwright Robert Oxton Bolt put it, “A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses; it is an idea that possesses the mind.”
The absurdities which arise from acceptance of the materialist/naturalist worldview are not difficult to grasp. For example, if all is matter, how can there be such a thing as consciousness? Consciousness can no more be “made” of matter than fire can be made of water. As the philosopher John Locke, who was one of the most important Enlightenment thinkers, put it: “It is as impossible to conceive that ever pure incogitative matter should produce a thinking intelligent being, as that nothing should of itself produce matter.”
Carl Sagan was one of the most widely recognized atheist scientists of the 20th century. In his book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, he asks:
“If we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more?”
Here, Sagan gives us a perfect example of a key explanatory failure of the materialist/naturalist worldview: How can an abstract concept (or idea), such as demeaning EVEN EXIST if “there’s nothing here but atoms,” in Sagan’s words? Abstract concepts, by definition, exist only in thought, not in material form. Put another way, if “there’s nothing here but atoms,” then how can one arrangement of atoms be more (or less) demeaning than another? How would a demeaning arrangement of atoms be distinguished from a non-demeaning arrangement of atoms? By a measurement of atomic mass?
University of Delaware physicist Stephen Barr comments on contradiction between the materialist/naturalist worldview and the existence of ideas (or abstract concepts) in Modern Physics and Ancient Faith:
“Cognitive scientists talk about neurons, for example. But ‘neuron’ itself is an abstract concept that arose from the researches of biologists. For the materialist, then, even this concept of ‘neuron’ is nothing but a neurological creation; it also is a pattern of neurons firing in someone’s brain. If this sounds like a vicious circle, it is. We explain certain biological phenomena using the abstract concept ‘neuron,’ and then we proceed to explain the abstract concept ‘neuron’ as a biological phenomenon—indeed, a biological phenomenon produced by the activity of neurons. What we are observing here is the snake eating its own tail, or rather its own head. The very theory which says that theories are neurons firing is itself naught but neurons firing.” (underlining mine)
“…Why should anyone believe the materialist, then? If ideas are just patterns of nerve impulses, then how can one say that any idea (including the idea of materialism itself) is superior to any other? One pattern of nerve impulses cannot be truer or less true than any other pattern, any more than a toothache can be truer or less true than another toothache.”
Indeed, as Barr alludes to above, the existence of truth, much like ideas, cannot be explained through the lens of the materialist/naturalist worldview. If true, the materialist belief that human consciousness is nothing but the firing of neurons in the brain cannot be anything other than the firing of neurons in the brain. If consciousness is nothing but neuronal impulses, how could a true neuronal impulse be distinguished from a false one? By measuring the voltage of the impulse? The modern materialist’s attempt to reduce consciousness to neuronal activity in the brain is no less absurd than the ancient materialist Anaximenes’ attempt to reduce everything that ultimately exists to air.
In our society, materialism/naturalism is often allowed a free “pass” on such questions that it cannot coherently answer. This is because modern western culture has uncritically accepted the view that materialism/naturalism is a “secular” worldview that occupies a sort of neutral ground between competing “religious” views. But, in reality, materialism/naturalism is no less of a “religion” than any other worldview. K.A. Smith comments in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church:
“We all – whether naturalists, atheists, Buddhists, or Christians – see the world through the grid of an interpretive framework – and ultimately this interpretive framework is religious in nature, even if not allied with a particular institutional religion.”
Skeptics of Christ’s resurrection fail to expose their own interpretive framework to the same degree of scrutiny to which they expose Christ’s resurrection. And, although modern western culture declares that people who believe in God and attend church (or mosque or synagogue) are “religious,” and that atheists and agnostics are “non-religious,” religious scholars have been unable to reach anything even remotely resembling a consensus view as to exactly what “religion” is. (Please see my essay Doesn’t Religion Cause Killing? to explore this topic more in-depth.)
When it comes to examining the claims of materialism/naturalism, then, it is the Christian who is the skeptic and the atheist who is the true religious believer. Considering this, what could be more appropriate than to conclude by using a statement made by an atheist…as an indictment against the atheist faith? Outspoken atheist author Sam Harris writes:
“We rely on faith only in the context of claims for which there is no sufficient sensory or logical evidence.”
Is there any sensory or logical evidence for materialism/naturalism?