Tish Harrison Warren thinks it’s critically important that Jesus DID rise bodily from the dead

April 17, 2022 • 1:00 pm

And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

—1 Corinthians 15:14 (King James version)

The quote above is one I use in Faith Versus Fact to help demonstrate that truth does matter to many believers—that factual claims of religion are often vitally important to sustaining the faith. If it were all just a made-up story, or a long metaphor, people wouldn’t be nearly as religious.  And this holds for many faiths. If John Frum didn’t exist, and his followers knew it, there wouldn’t be cargo cults.

This point is demonstrated by Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren’s new Easter column in the NYT. In fact, she takes the exact opposite stand of Tim DeRoche described in my previous post. DeRoche argued that there’s no compelling evidence that Jesus was resurrected, but it didn’t matter anyway. In contrast, as you can tell from Warren’s title, it’s crucial for Christians to believe that Jesus was bodily resurrected. Such are the conundrums in a world where science is increasingly putting the lie to religious claims.

Click to read:

Warren uses two poems to argue for the importance of Jesus’s bodily resurrection: Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter” and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” The first argues that the Resurrection really happened; the second that its truth transforms the world, offering the possibility of redemption.  And Hopkins tells us why the first is so vital for Harrison: for if Christ be not risen, then is Harrison’s preaching vain, and her faith is also vain. That is, the resurrection has to be true because if it isn’t, Harrison is wasting her life, as are the many Christians, who like her (and unlike DeRoche) depend on the literality of the Crucifixion/Resurrection tale.

Now I’m not being completely fair to Warren. She has one other reason why she thinks the Resurrection happened:

I believe, in part, because I doubt my doubts and I doubt my doubt about my doubts. I can keep going. Round and round, round and round.

But at the end of the day, there’s this unflinching claim to reality: an empty tomb, as Updike says, a stone rolled back, “not papier-mâché, not a stone in a story.” And I, like every person who encounters this claim, have to decide if Jesus’ earliest followers died for something they knew to be a lie.

The first sentence is pilpul: you don’t believe something because you doubt it and then don’t doubt it and go back and forth. That proves nothing.

But what about the second argument? After all, people wouldn’t die for something if it wasn’t true, would they? But of course Jesus’s followers could have died even if he hadn’t been Resurrected. They could have died simply because he was a charismatic leader with a message they fervently believed in. After all, Jim Jones, who was not resurrected, persuaded over 900 people to die in Jonestown.  Further, what about all those Christians who died and never saw the Resurrection, or all those Muslims or Hindus or Jews who died without believing in a Resurrection? To say that if people die for a belief then that belief must be true is the height of self-deception. And that’s all the evidence that Harrison has.

Here Harrison is accepting one of the many bogus arguments apologists make for the truth of the Resurrection story (another is that it was reported by women, and people wouldn’t believe women back then if they weren’t speaking the truth). Here’s evidence that a main reason for her self-forced belief is because it offers her what she wants:

Jesus promises a future when everything is made new. But the only real evidence that that is any more than wishful thinking is rooted in history, as solid as a stone rolled away. The Resurrection happening in truth, in real time, is the only evidence that that love in fact outlasts the grave, that what is broken can be mended, and that death and pain do not have the final word.

Not everything will be redeemed in our lifetime but, even now, we see newness breaking in, we see glimpses of the healing to come. We believe that, because “He is risen indeed,” we can know God and our lives can participate in the life of God, that our own biographies and mundane days collide with eternity.

If Jesus defeated death one morning in Jerusalem, then suddenly every revitalization, every new birth, every repaired relationship, every ascent from despair, every joy after grief, every recovery from addiction, every coral reef regeneration, every achievement of justice, every rediscovery of beauty, every miracle, every found hope becomes a sign of what Jesus did in history and of a promised future where all things will be made new.

I don’t see any “glimpses of the healing to come”. Do you?

In other words, If Christ be not risen, then is her preaching vain, and her faith is also vain. To make a syllogism again (I’m not good at that!), because Harrison knows that her preaching and faith are not in vain, yet they would be in vain if Christ hadn’t risen, then he must have risen.  This is what’s known as confirmation bias.

Of course the Passover story is equally bogus, and I’ll criticize that, too—when the NYT starts presenting it as if it were fact.

A secular case for Christianity?

April 17, 2022 • 11:15 am

One problem with Bari Weiss and some of her acolytes is that they’re religious. I don’t hold that too strongly against them, but a journalist believing in religious dictates is a journalist who doesn’t care about evidence. It’s a journalist who falls prey to the bane of journalism—confirmation bias.

But a secular case for Christianity? Why not a secular case for Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism? It turns out that you could make a similar argument for all religions, but it’s an argument that involves gutting Christianity of everything that characterizes it: in particular, the belief that Jesus came to earth as God/The Son of God, was crucified and resurrected, and this story, taken as true, affords all who believe it the chance for eternal life. Author Tim DeRoche, instead, makes the “little people” argument for Christianity: he avers that even if the story isn’t true, the myth is good for the well being of yourself and society.

Click to read (if you subscribe; it may be paywalled otherwise):

DeRoche is described on the site this way:

Tim DeRoche is the bestselling author of Huck & Miguel, a modern-day retelling of Huck Finn set on the LA River. He is also the author of A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools. His third book publishes in 2022.

I won’t dwell on his piece very long. DeRoche was brought up religious, drifted away from Christianity, and then returned to the faith when he married a “devout Christian”. That got him thinking about the religion and whether he was, indeed a true Christian, especially because that he didn’t fully buy into the Christian myths of crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation. But he was married to a Christian and going to church. What could he do?

He joined online communities that call themselves Christians, but not because they accept the Christian mythology. Rather, they are “Christian” for three reasons:

a.) Christianity helps you find meaning in your life.  I won’t deny that this is true for many; it’s just that I prefer to find meaning without relying on stories whose veracity I doubt. And of course there are the downsides of religion, too numerous to mention.

DeRoche:

This community is where you’ll find the parkour artist Rafe Kelley, an avowed rationalist, interviewing Jonathan Pageau, an Orthodox icon carver, talking about “bridging the mythological and scientific worldviews.”

It’s where Paul Vander Klay, the pastor of a dwindling Dutch Reform congregation in Sacramento, amassed over 20,000 YouTube subscribers by doing hours and hours of commentary on the biblical lectures of nonbeliever Jordan Peterson—much to the chagrin of some leaders of his denomination.

It’s where the Catholic Bishop Robert Barron engages with the cognitive scientist John Vervaeke on the failure of our institutions—including our Catholic ones—to help people find meaning in their lives.

Lots of folks in the Meaning Crisis community do not believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on this day, Easter Sunday. But everyone is willing to listen across the chasm of faith and try to understand the root causes of our current discontent: the political rancor, the economic insecurity, the lack of trust in institutions, the mental health crisis, the collapse of the birth rate.

But the root causes of our current discontent are secular ones. It’s not clear to me how Christianity (or faith itself) can deal with those “root causes”, much less the discontent they produce.   It might make you forget them, or, as Marx posited, help the desperate and downtrodden find solace in the presence of a heavenly father and the promise of better life to come (“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”). But if, like DeRoche, you don’t believe in that stuff—in heaven or maybe not even in God—what solace do you get?

b.) Christianity helps you live a better life. 

Just as any serious Christian thinker must contend with the dark history of Christians persecuting others in the name of their faith, every serious secular thinker has to contend with the fact that these stories—from the Hebrew Bible on through the New Testament—seem to contain a tremendous store of wisdom about how to live a good life and build a healthy society.

Two responses:  The Bible also contains a lot of stuff that would worsen life: like the need to leave one’s family to follow Christ, or about how not to strike your slaves the wrong way, or about how women should not speak. To pick and choose the “wisdom” you use to lead a better life requires a winnowing process that, as we all know, presupposes a non-Biblical and secular point of view.

Second: secular humanism contains a lot more wisdom about how to life a good life and build a healthy society. If you want to do those things, don’t read the Bible, read the great secular ethical philosophers of the past and present, whose views are based not on superstition but cogitation and reason.

I needn’t point out the divisiveness of Christianity or of other religions, for DeRoche does that above. The question is whether the world would be better off now had religions never existed. I can’t prove that it would be—though that’s what I think—but neither can DeRoche prove that it wouldn’t be.

c.) Christianity’s rise is correlated with moral improvement in the world. 

And most everyone, Christian and secular, is willing to contend with realities that our modern culture has chosen to ignore. Namely, that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the most successful meme in the history of the world. And the spread of that meme over the last 2,000 years has largely been correlated with decreasing levels of slavery, war, crime, poverty, and general suffering.

Of course, the spread of the “Islamic meme” over the last 1500 years has also been correlated with moral improvement, though most of that moral improvement, as Steve Pinker documents, has actually taken place in the last couple centuries.

But do I really have to inform DeRoche that correlation is not causation, and a lot of things have happened in the last several millennia? The rise of rationality, science, transportation, commerce, democracy, and communication have also been correlated with moral improvement, an indeed, those features might indicate a genuine causal relationship. This is the case that Steve Pinker makes in his two books The Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now. (For a short read on his case for reason and secularism as pivotal in morality’s advance, go here or here.) Pinker makes the opposite case from DeRoche, and Steve actually has data and arguments, not just correlations.

I won’t go on, but I will say that I’d love to hear Pinker debate DeRoche on the subject: “Resolved: Christianity is the main cause of moral improvement in humanity.”

Jesus will fix everything—if the resurrection happened!

April 11, 2022 • 11:45 am

Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren continues to proselytize for Jesus in the op-ed section of the New York Times, but this time she does it by proxy—by interviewing one of her friends who was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. Click on the screenshot to read:

 

Now I don’t want to be too hard on her friend Timothy Keller, who founded an evangelical Christian church in New York City. After all, the guy is dying.  And he’s finding his final comfort in Jesus and, especially, in the resurrection, as many Christians do.  I for one wouldn’t want to be comforted by superstitions at the end, but hey, he’ll never find out he was wrong.

No, what bothers me more than Keller’s clinging to the myths of Christianity is his claim below that all things will be put right on Earth, but only if the resurrection happened. If that’s not true, then things will go on sucking. (Note, however, that there is absolutely no tangible evidence for the resurrection.)

At first I thought that Keller meant that all things will be set right after you die if the Jesus story be true. Or that somehow we would all come into God’s Kingdom on Earth (not in heaven) when the trumps sound and Jesus comes back at the Rapture.  But I read the passage below twice, and it doesn’t seem to say that. I interpret to me this: IF THE RESURRECTION HAPPENED, then some day (day not specified), God “is going to put everything right.” That is, we’ll keep living our lives on Earth, but all evils will vanish.

You read this and tell me if Keller doesn’t mean that. (Warren’s question is in bold, Keller’s response in plain type. My own emphasis is in italics.

In your latest book, you wrote that our culture is experiencing a “crisis of hope.” Where do you find hope? What hope do you offer to others?

If the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened, then ultimately, God is going to put everything right. Suffering is going to go away. Evil is going to go away. Death is going to go away. Aging is going to go away. Pancreatic cancer is going to go away. Now if the resurrection of Jesus Christ did not happen, then I guess all bets are off. But if it actually happened, then there’s all the hope in the world.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he says there are indelible human longings that only fantasy, fairy tales or sci-fi can really speak to. He says that all human beings have a fascination with the idea of escaping time, escaping death, holding communion with other living things, being able to live long enough to achieve your artistic and creative dreams, being able to find a love that perfectly heals. Tolkien says: why do we have those longings? And as a Christian, he thinks the reason is that we were not originally created by God to die.

We all deep down kind of know that this is the way life ought to be, and if the resurrection of Jesus Christ happens, then all those things are literally going to come true for us.

That’s the reason you have this paradox. On the one hand, the resurrection is a kind of very concrete thing to talk about, like “What is the evidence for this historical event?” Probably the single best book on this subject in the last 100 years is N.T. Wright’s book “The Resurrection of the Son of God.” [JAC: There’s new evidence?]

Yet if we come to the place where we accept it, then suddenly there’s no limit to what kinds of things we can look forward to. I know some of your readers are thinking, “I can’t believe there’s a person with more than a third-grade education that actually believes that.” But I do. And these last few months, as we’ve gotten in touch with these great parts of our faith, Kathy and I would both say we’ve never been happier in our lives, even though I’m living under the shadow of cancer.

Now I’m not sure exactly what Biblical exegesis tells us that Earthly evil will vanish if the resurrection occurred. Yes, the resurrection supposedly affords us a chance to find bliss in eternity (in Heaven, remember), but that doesn’t even hold for all Christians. Whether you believe in salvation through faith or salvation through works, the sheep will still go up and the goats will be fried.

As for “knowing the way life ought to be” in our hearts, well, the way we “know” how life should be will vary among people. And anyway, who says that the way life “ought to be” is the way God will make it? After all, aren’t God’s plans a mystery? Further, what the resurrection has to do with all this is unclear, save that it’s an example of eternal life for one person and a purported miracle.

Keller goes on to say that his belief gives extra power to the holiday of Easter.  As I said, if this makes Keller feel better, more power to him, but the theology behind his reasoning eludes me. Surely there are some ex-Christians among the readers who can explain.

More curious is why The New York Times continues to publish this kind of stuff. If we use the Chicago Maroon editors’ view that op-eds with factual inaccuracies can’t be published, this one should have immediately been spiked. The NYT has no astrology column, and it has no comics. Why does it have this kind of theobabble?

Tish Harrison Warren presents her readers’ prayers for Ukraine, but God doesn’t seem to be listening

March 14, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Once again Tish Harrison Warren is spreading Christian dogma in the pages of the New York Times, and once again I’m baffled that her unevidenced superstition is being purveyed to the paper’s readers.

The typical liberal religionist rationalizes praying to God as simply a form of meditation or a way to get emotional support. When pressed, such people may say that they don’t really think God even hears prayers, much less answers them.

But that’s not Reverend Warren. This Anglican priest is sure that God hears prayers. In her column on sin last week, she asked for readers to send samples of what prayers they were saying for Ukraine, and how that prayer made them “feel”. To wit:

She added, after this poll, that “We may mention some of your thoughts in next week’s newsletter.” I was pretty sure she would; after all, that’s a ready-made column. And sure enough, she did. Click on the screenshot to read:

It’s important at the outset to realize that for Warren, prayer is not a meditative, feel-good exercise. She really thinks God hears the diverse prayers she presents. My question is this: if God hears them, why doesn’t He stop the carnage of Ukraine, or give Putin a stroke? But I can’t ask her that stuff.

Nor does she mention the famous single-blind study of prayer that showed that intercessory prayer to God to help cardiac patients heal faster showed absolutely no effect (there was, as I recall, one significant effect, but in the direction that prayer worsened one criterion for healing).  Earlier, Galton studied the effect of prayer for the longevity of British royals and showed no effect when royals were compared to other upper-class Brits with similar healtcare and nutrition.

Taking into account all studies, the Wikipedia article on “Efficacy of prayer” sums it up tersely in the first paragraph:

The efficacy of prayer has been studied since at least 1872, generally through experiments to determine whether prayer or intercessory prayer has a measurable effect on the health of the person for whom prayer is offered. Empirical research indicates that prayer and intercessory prayer have no discernible effects.

In short, there is not an iota of evidence that prayer works, but people still pray. You’d think that in the face of this evidence, people would confect other reasons for praying, as they often do, but would stop pretending that God hears prayers and sometimes acts on them.

And I doubt that Reverend Harrison would sign on to faith healing, a staple of some Christian sects. But what else is praying to God to change Putin’s mind, or make Russian soldiers want to go home, than a form of faith healing? And she subscribes to that form of faith healing.

Warren:

Each morning over the past few weeks, I have woken up to the chirpy voices of my children. I’ve gotten them off to school and their daily activities, poured a cup of green tea and sat down to pray for Ukraine.

As I pray, images fill my mind: photos I’ve seen of tanks rolling into cities, of a Ukrainian man weeping over his dying son, of mothers and babies crammed into subway stations, of a Ukrainian soldier’s funeral. The contrast between my safe home and the war raging 6,000 miles away feels overwhelming. I feel helpless. There is little that most ordinary people here can do, besides donate money and pray.

Somehow I think the imbibing of not just tea, but “green tea” is significant here, but the subject is too deep for me.

The above shows the patented combination of personal vulnerability and “deep theological reflection” that, said Religion News, makes Warren “a rising star in Christian spiritual writing”. If that’s the case, then the pool of religious writing talent is no deeper than its theological lucubrations.

Warren continues:

But I believe that prayer is indeed powerful, often in ways we can’t account for. War, whatever else it is, is spiritually dark, even demonic. . .

Demonic? Does she think that there are malevolent sprites involved? (Remember Pope Francis accepts the existence of demons.)  But below you see where Warren avows not just belief in a divine being, but the fact that said Being has ears that can hear all the world’s prayers:

Last week I asked you to share prayers that you have offered for Ukraine. We received hundreds of beautiful responses. It was a profound experience to read so many prayers from people all over the world and of various faiths. It often felt intimate and tender, as if you were allowing me to read your journal or private mail. Thank you for that privilege. I wish I could share all of the responses, though I trust that God has heard each one.

What makes her trust that God has heard each one? That’s a pretty powerful God, but it also shows that, unlike many liberal believers, she accepts a personal god, not just a renamed “universe” or “spiritual feeling”.  I would love to interview the good Reverend, just to find out what she really believes. We can start with the Nicene Creed.

Anyway, here are a few prayers she got. To a cynical antitheist like me, the prayers are a mixture of virtue flaunting before God, Warren, and the The New York Times, mixed with a bit of self-flagellation. Here’s one. It doesn’t sound that bad, but remember that it’s supposed to be addressed to God, not The New York Times:

Dustin Valero in California wrote that he uses his tradition’s prayer book. He prays “for the Ukrainians, including the church in Ukraine,” that they would have “a deep resolve and a deep sense of togetherness in the midst of trauma.”

He explained, “When I pray specifically for the church in Ukraine, while praying through this communal prayer book, I feel connected to the global body of believers. Their suffering is my suffering. Their cares are my cares. I consider them to be the peacemakers who can leverage love and faith in the midst of this darkness. I know my safe place on the couch is much different from their lived reality. I fight apathy and distraction in my day to day, and this prayer keeps suffering and hope closer to the front.”

In the one below, Sam is asking God to affect the mental processes of Russian soldiers. Moreover, he thinks that a). God hears this and b). God has the power to do this. But why don’t they? They already want to go home, but if they tried they’d be court-martialed.

Sam Rood in Brooklyn wrote, “My co-workers in Odessa have been praying that ‘a holy fear’ would fall upon the Russian soldiers so that they have an overpowering desire to go home. I’ve adopted that prayer.”

He continued, “My Ukrainian brothers and sisters understand that the Russian soldiers are not their true enemy. Their desire isn’t that they suffer or die but that they return home and they can all live in peace. Though fighting and even killing may be necessary, we remember our common humanity and shared need for peace.”

All of this comprises specific avenues of “praying for peace.” People have been praying for peace for centuries, but the important thing is this: God doesn’t seem to listen, at least not until a few million people have already died.

Below: a woke prayer, which indicts America as well.

The Rev. Canon Patrick Genereux from Iowa wrote: “When reflecting on Ukraine, I begin by being mindful of the murder and mayhem that we, the U.S., inflicted on Vietnam, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and any other places in the world, just as the Russians are doing in Ukraine. I pray for the forgiveness of these people for what we have done to them. I pray for the church in its blessing of war out of fear of reprisals. I pray to be forgiven for my part in these sins as both a priest and at one time a member of the military.”

He also wrote, “My prayers focus on all those whose lives will be forever changed — Ukrainians, Russians, Europeans, and in the end, us all. I pray for the most innocent victims of all wars, the children.”

And one last prayer that asks God to soften the Pharoah’s heart:

Many readers said that they are praying for Putin to repent of his actions and turn away from pursuing war. Here is an excerpt from a prayer from Pamela Thacher in New York: “God, please allow Putin to reject his thirst for war and punishment and greed, and whatever goal he had for his war, let him pursue it through other means. I pray for their leaders, of course, and especially the extraordinary President Zelensky.”

Now one can’t help but be touched by the sympathy that these people show toward the Ukrainians, but don’t we all? Nevertheless, I can’t help but feeling frustrated that they also believe that God is listening to them and—especially—that they seem to believe in a a benevolent God despite the strong and palpable evidence that God is letting awful stuff happen in Ukraine right now.  God is allowing babies, pregnant mothers, children, and cancer patients to be killed. Why is he doing this? Please tell us, Dr. Warren, and if you say, “its a mystery,” then you have no warrant at all for knowing what God is like.

This is the problem of moral evil, which, along with the problem of physical evil, like cancer and earthquakes, is truly an Achilles heel of theology. Any person who looked at the world, especially in the last two weeks, and still retains a belief in a god, much less a benevolent god, is either blind, brainwashed with faith, or both. But that was also true during the Second World War.

So tell us, Reverend Warren, if God is really listening, why doesn’t he stop the war? He could, you know. He’d just have to soften Putin’s heart.

Peter Nothnagle’s take on the Nativity

December 25, 2021 • 12:30 pm

Occasionally reader Peter Nothnagle has contributed skeptical commentaries on Christianity to this site, for example here, here, and here. And, on the day that Jesus supposedly made his exeunt from Mary, Peter has written me once again. I’m delighted to present his take on the Nativity.

First, his email:

I was writing to one of my prison pen-pals this morning. He had somewhat sarcastically suggested that the gifts of the Three Wise Men were impractical — for a young family with a newborn and living in a stable, diapers and baby formula would have been more welcome than frankincense and myrrh. In my reply I explained that the gifts, and indeed the whole Nativity story, was symbolic — because that’s the sort of correspondence we carry on.

Then I was compelled by the laws of physics to write that up a bit more formally, and I pass it on to you because you have enjoyed some of my other essays.

Without further ado:

On the Nativity

Peter Nothnagle, December 24, 2021

Here’s what you need to know about the birth of Jesus, celebrated, for various reasons, on December 25 of the modern calendar.

The capital-N Nativity is described in two of the four canonical gospels – written down perhaps a century or more after the events they describe. All other documentation and commentary is based on these two accounts. It’s noteworthy that the earliest gospel, the one attributed to Mark, doesn’t suggest there was anything at all remarkable about Jesus’ birth; and the still earlier (i.e., closer to any historical events) letters of the apostle Paul don’t even say that Jesus was “born” in the first place – the verb he uses translates to “made” or “manufactured” – it’s the same one he used to describe the creation of Adam. I am convinced, as faithful WEIT readers may recall, that the first Christians had never even heard of a human Jesus on earth, but worshiped him as a celestial archangel.

But every children’s Christmas pageant, every “living nativity scene” staged on a church lawn, every Christmas card illustration of the birth of Jesus, mashes together the contradictory birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In Luke, Joseph and his heavily pregnant fiancée Mary have traveled to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem to participate in an empire-wide census (which history does not record), only to find no lodging, and took shelter in a cattle shed where Mary gave birth, and choirs of angels announced it to shepherds. No wise men. But the gospel of Matthew, which was probably written earlier than Luke, has a completely different account – Joseph and Mary are married and are residents of Bethlehem, and Jesus was apparently born without fanfare in the family home, and, much later, “wise men from the east” showed up to bestow gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. No shepherds nor angels. Their gifts are symbolic, as is the whole story – put into the story to foreshadow the rest of the arc of Jesus’ life: gold is an appropriate gift for a king; incense is a gift for a god; and myrrh is a scented ointment applied to a dead body.

These birth narratives are not historical accounts, they’re prologues to a myth – and they were intended to be read that way (by any literate person in the early 2nd century) and not simply to be believed as literally true. They weren’t even part of the first draft of the gospels! Open your Bibles to Matthew, chapter 13, verses 53-55 and you’ll see that when Jesus went back in his home town and taught in the synagogue, the locals were astonished by his wisdom, basically saying, isn’t this the village carpenter’s son? How does he know all this stuff? But what they don’t say is, isn’t this is the kid who was visited by Magi bearing royal gifts, the one the soldiers were hunting for that time they killed all the male children? What this shows us is that whoever wrote chapter 13 hadn’t read chapters 1 and 2! I think that’s because the entire birth narrative was a later addition – note that chapter 3 reads like it was originally the beginning of the gospel.

The Nativity stories in the gospels aren’t straightforward historical accounts – they’re much more interesting than that! They make for a really funny scene in The Life of Brian, though.

I’m not trying to spoil anyone’s holiday fun – I’m really not. It’s just that I like to get to the bottom of historical puzzles, and I find that the truth of any historical event is actually more interesting, and indeed, more useful, than any (commercially-inspired) traditional notions about it. I hope and trust that all readers will enjoy the seasonal holiday to the fullest and celebrate in whatever manner they wish!

Tish Harrison Warren says that Christian virtues dispel racism

November 14, 2021 • 11:45 am

I subscribe to Tish Harrison Warren’s NYT column for the same reason I sniff the milk when I already know it’s gone bad. Masochism, I suppose.

Today we have a very confused column from the Anglican priest, whose schtick seems to be to take a conventional and approved moral position, inform us how virtuous she is on the issue, and then inform us all how her Anglican faith has buttressed her virtue. I’m not sure what the Times sees in this approach unless it wants to either valorize faith in general or convert people to Anglicanism.

Click on the screenshot to read, or make a judicious inquiry:

Today the issue is racism, which she properly decries, but of course opposing racism is nothing new. The “added value” here is her explanation of how her Christianity helps with her anti-racism.

The first part of the column is her declaration that America is founded on slavery and white supremacy, and that attacks on Critical Race Theory are made by white supremacists to allow white Americans to avoid confronting the sordid past of their race. The last bit is partly true, but the first—that criticizing CRT is a manifestation of racism—is not.

Warren:

I don’t remember the first time I was taught that the Civil War was not fought because of slavery. I am a white Texan, so this idea was simply in the ether, as were myths about “good slave owners” and the “Lost Cause.” I knew that America had a racist history, but when I was a child, the details of what that meant were blurry and vague.

This experience is common. There is objective truth to our nation’s history, based in research and primary sources. But as Clint Smith describes in his book “How the Word Is Passed,” in America we too often tell a slanted version of our history to protect the feelings of white people. Smith highlights how an intentional disinformation campaign, which began shortly after the end of the Civil War, has altered the way much of America narrates our racial past. He looks at the convenient lies that white people often rely on to belittle the horrors of the past, the way we exclude stories that might trouble or challenge us.

I’m wondering if she’s adhering to the claims of the 1619 Project here, as she comes awfully close.  Nothing she says differs from what Nikole Hannah-Jones or Robin diAngelo says.

She then tells us about the aspects of Christianity that help her realize how soaked America is in racism and white supremacy. But before she does that, she says this:


The question before us as a nation is simple: Are we willing to tell the truth about our history or not?

My convictions about this question are deeply shaped by my Christian faith. White Christians do not appear to be any better than the culture at large at truthfully telling the story of America. But the Christian doctrines of sin and grace require truthfulness, even if those truths make certain people feel guilt, shame or discomfort.

First, White Christians are WORSE than others about “telling the true story of America” (i.e. recognizing racism). Look at this article from NBC News (click on screenshot).

 And who could answer “no” to the first question? The problem is that “truth” differs among people. To Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Revolutionary War was fought so America could keep its slaves. Not true. Also to Hannah-Jones, America was founded on slavery, which is the dominant strain in our history. That’s debatable, even among historians. Don’t forget that she also said that America dropped nukes on Japan in WWII even though we knew Japan was going to surrender because, well, we’d made the bomb and wanted to use it. That’s also untrue. So is Nikole-Smith, the truth-teller about America, adhering to her goals?

But I digress. She’s not the only one, as there are debates, even among liberals, about the degree of structural racism in America  and how it influence our history. So yes, we should tell the truth (and, to be fair, many white folks don’t want it told), but a lot of what passes for “history” is debatable, especially around race, for it consists not of empirically verifiable facts but in interpretations of facts.

But then she admits that White Christians aren’t any better than anybody else (and, in my view, probably worse than atheists) in apprehending historical truths. So what good is Christianity if it doesn’t help anybody else but Reverend Warren? She is being personal rather than general, which limits the value of her argument.

Here are the aspects of Christianity that, according to Warren, are supposed to foster anti-racism:

Recognition of evil. 

Christian doctrine also understands sin and evil not only as individualistic, voluntary decisions to do evil but also as a communal, atmospheric reality. We are born into communities with sinful assumptions and narratives about the world that drive oppressive and destructive behavior. However unintentionally, we give our assent to these ways of understanding and acting in the world.

I’m sorry, but racism didn’t pose much of a problem for Christianity until  the twentieth century. In fact, many Christians used their faith to support slavery and promote racist attitudes. As for whole communities being racist, well, we have purely secular explanations for that—explanations better than the fact that we’re born sinful.

Truthfulness.

The gospel presented in scripture demands that we “walk in the light,” that we not try to hide or minimize the truth of what’s wrong with us or our history.

Fine. Then why aren’t Christians “better than anybody else” on the issue of racism? As for distorting history, well, let’s just say that the Christian myths that Warren embraces and preaches to her flock are dubious at best. Jesus as a miracle-working son of God/part of God? The Resurrection? If Christians are going to get straight with history, then they’ll have to discard a lot of their faith.

Repentance for sin.

Christian doctrine also understands sin and evil not only as individualistic, voluntary decisions to do evil but also as a communal, atmospheric reality. We are born into communities with sinful assumptions and narratives about the world that drive oppressive and destructive behavior. However unintentionally, we give our assent to these ways of understanding and acting in the world

John McWhorter would have a few words on this paragraph as showing the similarities between Woke anti-racism and religion. The repentance in the former case involves abject apologies by the Sinful.

Anti-idolatry.

The Bible also lends us the tremendously helpful concept of idolatry to help understand racial evil. John Calvin wrote that the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.” Our loves are disordered. Our idols, which are often unknown to us, are not usually bad things in themselves, but instead are things that we have loved and exalted too much. There is, of course, nothing wrong with being white. God designed the specific amount of melanin in my skin. But America has — and has always had — an idolatry of white culture and power. Our history makes that clear.

Here she stretches to draw an analogy between political and racial attitudes on the one hand, and false gods on the other. Whether you find that comparison valid is up to you, but it doesn’t move me.

But the main thing that Warren overlooks—probably deliberately—is that the Bible itself has been used to justify slavery, and, as far as I know, says nothing about racism and nothing negative about slavery.  From the preceding link:

“Christianity was proslavery,” said Yolanda Pierce, the dean of the divinity school at Howard University. “So much of early American Christian identity is predicated on a proslavery theology. From the naming of the slave ships, to who sponsored some of these journeys including some churches, to the fact that so much of early American religious rhetoric is deeply intertwined . . . with slaveholding: It is proslavery.” Some Christian institutions, notably Georgetown University in the District, are engaged in a reckoning about what it means that their past was rooted in slaveholding. But others have not confronted the topic. “In a certain sense, we’ve never completely come to terms with that in this nation,” Pierce said.

Why did Christianity become anti-slavery? Because of secular humanistic morality, which realized that slavery was immoral. The religious, as they so often do (viz., gay marriage) change their morality only after society itself has started changing because of secular morality.

We all know that time and again, the Bible condones or even approves of slavery. (n.b.. Slaves back then were not mostly blacks, but simply conquered people of all hues. But the same principle applies: the Bible doesn’t criticize one population from enslaving others.) The Wikipedia article “The Bible and Slavery” is a good start. God, it seems, didn’t adhere to Christian principles!

In the end, every Christian anti-racist virtue that Warren says dispels racism was ignored until secular society started becoming abolitionist. And if you adhere stricly to the Bible, you would not criticize slavery or racism. Rather, you’d support them!

What we see in Warren’s essay is a great big con job. Like most of us, she deplores racism, and that attitude is great. But since Warren converted to Anglicanism from being a Southern Baptist. she’s found a way to twist her new faith to show that it’s really anti-racist. It’s not, and hasn’t been until it took the lead from humanism.

If Warren wants Christians to tell the truth about history, they should begin with the things they believe about the history of their own faith, and examine what the Bible says about slavery. Then they can start making up stuff.

NYT columnist touts the afterlife

October 18, 2021 • 11:00 am

I am not sure why the New York Times hired a religion columnist who touts not just God but Christianity on a weekly basis, asserting things whose truth she cannot possibly know. I’ve beefed about Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren more than once on this site, decrying her anodyne religious palaver.  But this week’s column is the worst, at least from the viewpoint of someone who likes to see evidence behind assertions.  And although the NYT picked a genial and semi-liberal pastor to write the column, she’s still making assertions on par with, “I know that someday John Frum will come back to my island bringing us all riches and cargo, for that is what my ancestors told me.” What galls me is that she’s not only getting big exposure for her unevidenced religious claims, but probably making at least half as much money as John McWhorter, who has much more to say, likes to see evidence behind claims, and turns out two columns per week.

This time Reverend Warren tells us why she believes in God, the divine Jesus and His Resurrection, and her certainty that she’ll have an afterlife. (I don’t know if she thinks the rest of us will, as Warren is adhering to the tenets of Christianity.) It’s a prime example of confirmation bias, and something that clearly has no place in The Paper of Record.

Click to read and weep:

Rev. Warren is upset because her friend and mentor Thomas, the priest who supported her through her ascent to the priesthood, died in an automobile accident along with his 22-year-old child (sex not specified). That would be devastating for anyone. But she finds herself unable to accept that such a major figure in her life is gone for good.  We atheists may have trouble coming to terms with that, too, but that doesn’t mean we start believing that we’ll see our dead friends and loved ones on “the other side”.  Warren:

It feels to me like something went wrong. He can’t die, I think. He’d made plans. He had so much left to do. A journey interrupted.

. . . There is something deep within us that rejects the idea that the road just stops. We feel there must be more. We must be made for more: more conversations, more laughter, more breaths to take, more miles to walk along the trail.

Yes, and there’s something deep within us that thinks that the sun moves across the sky and dips below a flat earth. But science showed that our intuitions were wrong.

Warren then broaches the idea that Jesus himself must have had a story similar to Thomas’s, something like “Prophet, Interrupted”.  Thus we get to the confirmation bias: because Thomas simply can’t have just expired forever, he didn’t! Why? Because the Bible tells us so and because Warren wants that to be true:

The truth is, no one — not priests, not scientists, not the most ardent atheist, not the most steadfast believer — can be 100 percent certain about what happens to us after we die. Each week at church, when we say the Nicene Creed, I affirm that I believe in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

I believe that after I die, somehow mysteriously but also materially Jesus will raise me up to live on this good earth, made new. I believe this because I believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. Specifically, I believe the witness of the disciples and others who lived and died for their claim that they (and somewhere around 500 others) had seen Jesus alive again and spoken to and touched him. That’s ultimately why I believe there’s a God at all and why I believe God has defeated death.

Re the first paragraph, no, none of us can be 100% certain that we live on after death. But we can go on what data we have. That data says that there is no evidence for an immaterial soul that would somehow embody our person, that there is no evidence for anybody coming back from death or giving messages from the afterlife (save Jesus, of course). Finally, as Christopher Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”

As for the second paragraph, she piles one delusion atop another, all coming from taking the Bible literally. For every assertion she makes is based on the New Testament being literally true. Not only was there a historical Jesus (something that many of us doubt), but also that Jesus was a divine being, both the son of God and a third of God. His resurrection, of course, as well as the witnesses, are views that also come from the New Testament. If those are reasons for believing in God and an afterlife, good luck to Rev. Warren.

After all, we know that both the Old and New Testaments contain historical errors. The census of Caesar Augustus, for example, which made Joseph and Mary return to Bethlehem to be counted and taxed, never took place. Jesus told his disciples, “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28, KJV) That’s pretty plain: he was saying that he’d return for a second time during the lifetime of his disciples, which of course didn’t happen. (This statement of course has now been interpreted by theologians as meaning something else.) We’ve been waiting two millennia, and Jesus still hasn’t come back. Why not? Could it be because the whole story is fiction? And could it be that the resurrection of the dead is also fiction?

I’m curious about what makes Rev. Warren so sure that she’ll see Thomas in heaven instead, for example, of being reincarnated as another life form, as some Buddhists believe. What makes her think that the Christian beliefs are the right ones, and all other scenarios about what happens after death are wrong?

She gives the answer away in the last sentence here (my emphasis):

As a priest, when I talk about life after death with others, I tend to keep it objective, theological and creedal. I worry about making resurrected life sound sentimental, like we are just making stuff up, dreaming of what we wish was true. So I try to be evenhanded and factual. But the fact is, I believe this is true, and I believe there are good reasons to believe it’s true, but I also want it to be true.

We’ve already seen that there are not “good reasons” to believe that there’s an afterlife, as there’s no evidence save the assertions of the New Testament, which are repeatedly erroneous. The real reason is that she wants it to be true. And that’s one of the main reasons we have Christianity.

Two statements are relevant here. The first is by the estimable scientist Peter Medawar:

I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of a conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing over whether it is true or not.

Would only religionists who make assertions like Warren adopt that stand!

And the second is an old proverb:

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

And so, in her peroration, when Warren says, “I don’t want to live in a world where everything good suddenly ends,” my response is, “Well, you almost certainly do, so get used to it.”

Why evangelical Christians fear Covid vaccination

May 16, 2021 • 11:30 am

It’s pretty well known that some of the people most hesitant to get vaccinated against Covid are evangelical Christians. In the NYT article below (click on screenshot), two of them do a good thing, urging their fellow evangelicals to get their jabs. Here’s a plot showing that while Jews and white Catholics are pretty down with getting their shots, Protestants, particularly white evangelical and Hispanic ones, are resistant, with fewer than half being “accepters”. (Evangelicals are also less likely to wear masks.)

Why is this? Chang and Carter explain:

The decision to get vaccinated is essentially a decision to trust institutions. Many people do not understand the vaccines’ scientific complexities, regardless of religion. That means getting immunized is a decision to trust “them” — the constellation of scientific and government institutions offering assurances that the vaccines are safe and effective.

But American evangelicals are historically prone to ambivalence toward dominant secular institutions. In fact, a posture of critical evaluation is built into the fabric of our faith. Evangelicals interpret Jesus’ teaching that his followers are in the world but not “of the world” (John 17:16) to mean we should engage with secular institutions with a certain measure of wariness. Some amount of caution is healthy for all communities, not just for evangelicals. No institution is infallible, and critical thinking can be a civic virtue.

What ever happened to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s“? For surely the vaccine is Caesar’s!


But there are other reasons as well:

Unfortunately, in recent years, the evangelical approach to engaging with secular institutions has morphed from caution into outright fear and hostility. Three forces have exploited this inherent ambivalence toward secular institutions. First, conservative media has mastered the art of sowing evangelical suspicion of the establishment to increase ratings. Second, politicians — some Christian and some not — have used evangelicals’ distrust of so-called elite institutions to gain our votes. Third, conspiracy movements such as QAnon and antivaccine campaigns have targeted evangelicals, conjuring fictional enemies intent on destroying our values and, in the case of the vaccines, our actual bodies. All of these forces shape how large segments of the evangelical community perceive the Covid vaccines.

In our vaccination outreach, evangelicals have told us they’re suspicious of the shots for a variety of reasons. Many worry that the development process was rushed, that the vaccines contain a microchip or that they are the “the mark of the beast,” a reference from the Book of Revelation that some Christians associate with a future Antichrist figure. A sharpened distrust of institutions underlies these fears.

But did you note the explanation above, which I’ll repeat:

In fact, a posture of critical evaluation is built into the fabric of our faith. Evangelicals interpret Jesus’ teaching that his followers are in the world but not “of the world” (John 17:16) to mean we should engage with secular institutions with a certain measure of wariness. Some amount of caution is healthy for all communities, not just for evangelicals. No institution is infallible, and critical thinking can be a civic virtue.

You can already see the dissonance here, and I’ll quote reader Philip, who sent me this link, who has a few questions:

As if critical thinking and “critical evaluation” (based on rational evidence and the desire to acquire it) constitute the foundation of evangelical skepticism.  Does he include “The Church” in his “No institution is infallible . . . .”?  Would he tell evangelicals that?  And when is critical thinking not a civic virtue?

The first sentence, “In fact, a posture of critical evaluation is built into the fabric of our faith” evoked a guffaw, if not a horse laugh. True critical evaluation by evangelical Christians would lead to the disappearance of the faith, if for no other reason than no Christian, evangelical or otherwise, if sufficiently critical, could demonstrate that their religion—as opposed to the gazillion others on the planet—is the right one. And if you don’t choose the right one, you’re going to fry for eternity.

Kudos to Chang and Carter for trying; theirs is an admirable though an uphill battle. But they really shouldn’t have claimed that critical evaluation and caution are healthy and “built into the fabric of their faith.”

A Christian tries to save my soul by answering my hard questions about religion

August 23, 2020 • 9:15 am

In 2014 I published a piece in The New Republic (click on screenshot) which, despite the title, which I didn’t choose, described ways to turn religious peoples’ debate arguments back on themselves.

Part of that article involved using a “no-god of-the-gap” arguments, asking religious people to answer a series of six questions. The bit below is from my piece:

But we can play the Gap Game, too. There are huge gaps in believers’ understanding of God, and in those lacunae, I claim, lies strong evidence for No God. Here are a few religious gaps:

  • Why would the Abrahamic God, all-loving and all-powerful, allow natural evils to torment and kill people? Why can’t he keep kids from getting cancer, or stay the waves of tsunamis?
  • Why, if God so ardently wants us to know and accept him, does he hide himself from humanity? And, since modern humans originated over 100,000 years ago, why did God wait 98,000 years before sending his son to redress our sins—and then to only a small portion of humanity within a hundred miles of Jerusalem? Or, if you’re sufficiently sophisticated to see God not as a bearded spirit but as The Ground of All Being, why isn’t that Ground obvious to everyone?
  • Why would an omnibenevolent God consign sinners to an eternity of horrible torment for crimes that don’t warrant such punishment? Official Catholic doctrine, for instance, is that unconfessed homosexual acts doom you eternal immolation in molten sulfur. That’s unconscionable. And would a loving God really let someone burn forever because they were Jews, or didn’t get baptized?
  • Why is God in the Old Testament such a narcissistic bully, toying with people for his amusement, ordering genocides in which innocent women and children are killed en masse, and demanding the death of those who work on the Sabbath? How does that comport with the God that Christians and Jews worship today?
  • Why didn’t Jesus return during his followers’ lifetime, as he promised?
  • How do any believers know for sure that their faith is the right one, especially given the presumed penalty for guessing wrong?

Now I didn’t think that these questions would flummox more “sophisticated” believers, but they were designed to plant doubts in the minds of the more open-minded believers, or of those on the fence, and help them realize the intellectual vacuity of Abrahamic religion.

And, sure enough, six years later a Christian came out of the woodwork, emailing me a long screed yesterday giving his answers to the questions above (the writer is a man). To be fair, the guy spent a lot of time on the answers, even quoting the relevant Biblical passages. But the email turned out to be too long to post here.

Instead, I’ll just show you how he answered  three of the questions above (they’re in bold below, and stuff from the email is indented). I’ll say a few words (flush left after my initials), and let readers respond. I have the writer’s complete email with the answers to the other three questions, and will be glad to send them—without the sender’s name—if you’re interested.

If you respond, please be polite: the gentleman did, after all, have my salvation in mind. But be as hard-nosed as you want in the answers. Afterwords, I’ll inform the sender of the comments on this site so he can see the responses.  I have of course eliminated the name or any identifying aspects of the sender; the point here is to address arguments, not “out” a believer.

Here we go, with the sender’s words indented, with all words exactly as sent: typos and other errors are the sender’s.

In this article from 2014 you said that no theologian could provide credible evidence to the “gap” in believers understanding of God. I have a rebuttal to your six gaps. I know it will probably not change your mind about a thing, but if anything I hope that it enlightens you to the fact that some Christians will research and formulate comprehendible arguments. If it means anything to you know this; even as a stranger, i sincerely do hope that you will think about these things and I care enough about your salvation that I bothered to do this for you.

Q) Why would the Abrahamic God, all-loving and all-powerful, allow natural evils to torment and kill people? Why can’t he keep kids from getting cancer, or stay the waves of tsunamis?

A) This question is easily answered by the most simplistic Biblical concept there is. Loving God=freedom for people, freedom=choice. Humanity chose to rebel against God and the consequences is separation from God=death(Gen 3). God holds all things together (Pslm 75:3)therefore going against him, rebelling, sinning and going our own way leads to death(Rom 6:23). He dwelt among us in the garden which was perfect and God(Gen 1:31) (Gen 3:8) and kept all things Holy, once His presence left death and decay gripped all creation. Satan is the accuser, the liar, the murderer of the human family(Jn 8:48) who holds the power of death(Heb 2:4). Because of his pride he first rebelled against God and has sinned from the very beginning(1 Jn 3:8), and he uses that very same pride today to get people to not believe, masquerading as an angel of light(2 Cor 11:14) making sin look fun and beautiful, lying that we will not die for disobeying God (Gen 3:4). The key is though, that God has been using redemptive work ever since the days of Noah (Rom 8:21). All of the Biblical story points to Jesus and how it is God’s plan to save us from the punishment and judgement of our sins by becoming a perfect man (Heb 9:11) fulfilling all of God’s law and dying on the cross, rising again to bring us to life through him (Jn 6:40). So the all loving God was able to make a way for anyone that believes in the Son to live forever by reconciliation with the Father again(Jn 3:16) (Rom 10:9).

Suffering is a permanent sickness for the earth until we go to our true home, heaven (Rom 8:18-26). Even Jesus was not exempt from suffering. It is used as an instrument of obedience. As Wayne Jackson from The Christian Courier says ” all sunshine and no rain creates a desert”. We use suffering as a means to bring glory to God by persevering, enduring, and to become patient, compassionate, loving, kind, and yes even joyful which are all qualities God desires to see arise out of us from trials. The child that gets cancer has hope, hope in Life with Jesus eternally (Matt 19:14). The tsunami victims have hope if they cry out to God to be saved (Pslm 34:17). God also promises we are not alone during life’s trials(2 Cor 1:3-7)(Heb 4:16). Jesus told us that in this fallen world we would suffer but he has overcome the world(Jn 16:33) so we can overcome the world through him( 1 Jn 5:5). Life is not all about the materialistic. There is another life beyond this. Plus God can heal providentially with medicine, wisdom for the doctors, and for the complex design of the human body and immune system are all ways he can work through natural law. It is foolish to think that if God created the world that all of the resources we have available are not created by him either. Who would understand it better than the one who created it all? With no God, cancer consumes the child and they have no hope, no more life, just a cruel and unfair “chance” that is uncontrollable and uncalculated in an uncaring universe.

JAC:  Here the blame falls on humans and (naturally) Satan, with God unable or unwilling to intervene to stop natural evil. Humans, of course, were responsible because Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit, damning all their descendants to both moral and natural evil. Note that, unlike theodicy of “moral evil,” in which humans do bad things to other humans as an undesirable but necessary product of free will, free will here invoked only once: on the part of Adam and Eve. (You can’t invoke free will for stuff like cancer and tsunamis, which do not have any capacity to choose freely. Neither, of course, do we, but here we see the critical importance of libertarian free will in Christianity. If our “choices” are all determined by factors we don’t control, the whole explanation above collapses.)

Note, too, the Mother-Teresa-like concentration on suffering as a way to glorify God. This is barbaric. “The child that gets cancer has hope in eternal life with Jesus”? Not if the kid is too young to know about Jesus, much less accept him as a savior! And what about tsunami or accident victims that don’t have time to cry out to God to be saved? After all, as the writer said in another part of the email:

Not being baptized does not necessarily mean you will go to hell. Observe the thief on the cross. All he did was repent and that was last minute(Lk 42-43)! We all have been blessed with time to repent and come to Jesus(2 Pet 3:9). Then through acceptance of him, the Holy Spirit leads you to the decision of baptism and repentance(Matt 3:11)(Acts 13:24).

Not if you meet a sudden and unpredictable death, much less if you’re of a faith that doesn’t worship Jesus as the savior (e.g. Islam or Hinduism)!

Finally, if medicine and doctors are all products of God’s wisdom, why was He so late to bring antibiotics to our attention? Or, for that matter, why doesn’t he heal those cancer-stricken kids himself rather than rely on methods that aren’t always reliable? Why is suffering abated in some children but not others? But we must drop these questions and pass on.

Q) Why, if God so ardently wants us to know and accept him, does he hide himself from humanity? And, since modern humans originated over 100,000 years ago, why did God wait 98,000 years before sending his son to redress our sins—and then to only a small portion of humanity within a hundred miles of Jerusalem? Or, if you’re sufficiently sophisticated to see God not as a bearded spirit but as The Ground of All Being, why isn’t that Ground obvious to everyone?

A) He is hidden, or veiled, away from humanity because He is too Holy to be looked at without humans dying (Ex 20:18-20). He has revealed himself through His Word from which he spoke to prophets and patriarchs through dreams and visions and messengers (angels) see (Pslm 147:19) (1 Sam 3:21) (Isa22:14). Also creation displays God’s attributes and wonders and God is evident through all creation (Rom 1:20)(Pslm 19:1-2). In fact, we bear the image of the Almighty (Gen 1:27) and, God’s people also bear fruits that can only come from the holy spirit(Jn 15:16) which reveals a transformation that is visible for all to be recognized as coming from God(Matt 7:16) which shines a light for others to see (Matt 5:16). He also revealed himself through His Son Jesus (Jn 14:9) who was fully God and testified all that we need to know about God in our present state, more shall be revealed later, in eternity we will have all the answers we have ever sought(Pslm38:15). Jesus even says that there are some who would be unbelieving even while seeing (Jn 5:43-47),(Jn 20:29)(Jn 6:36).

Finally, we are to seek God with all our hearts, minds and strength humbly and confidently (Jer 29:13), (Matt 6:23), (Duet 4:29). God’s timing is His own and his ways are not our ways(Isa 55:8), the reason he waited was because everything had to be fulfilled perfectly for his redemptive plan (Matt 8:17), (Jer 33:14), (Acts 7:17), just as we are waiting now for Christ’s return (Jm 5:8). The area that He chose was foretold in prophesy (Pslm 130:8), (Rom 11:1-5) and the milage sure didn’t seem to make a difference for the spread of Christianity. We are now reconciled to Isreal from all nations and peoples who call on His name, great multitudes (Eph 2: 11-18) (Rev 7:9). Why is the ground not obvious to everyone? Because of our hard hearts. Our idolatry. Our carnal desires that we will not give up to taste and see. Our rebellious nature(Ezek 12:2)(Pslm 53:12). Seeking our own ways(Isa 53:6), inventing our own gods and following the god of this age(2 Cor 4:4)

JAC: First of all, several humans in the Bible (e.g. Moses, Abraham, etc.) did see manifestations of God without dying. But what I was talking about here was not a vision of God as a person, but the absence of well documented miracles these days when they were so frequent in Biblical times. (This is a question I discuss in Faith Verus Fact, even including the kind of miracle that would make me a provisional believer.) In the end, the writer expects us to accept God because the Bible says that there’s a God, and the Bible is TRUE. This is another instance of “begging the question” in the correct sense: assuming what you want to prove. The writer has no evidence that the Bible, as opposed to gazillions of other scriptures that make contradictory claims, is the truth.

Which brings us to the last question this Christian tries to answer.

Q) How do any believers know for sure that their faith is the right one, especially given the presumed penalty for guessing wrong?

A) How we know for sure that our faith is correct is that our God has revealed himself (Isa43:12)(1 Cor 4:1)(Duet 29:29)(Ezek 20:5). This was achieved by signs and wonders, prophets, his Holy spirit, his Word, his promises that have been fulfilled(Jos 21:45). No other God is like Him who created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1)(Col 1:16). No other “god” has ever or will ever be able to prove themselves and have faded and passed through the ages, but the word of the Lord endures forever (1 Pet 1:25). So therefore, if someone in a monotheistic religion believes all of this about the one true God, then they must believe Jesus is who he said he was (1 Tim 2: 5-6). If not, they are calling God a liar and the entire Christian religion is false. If Jesus didn’t create the New Covenant through his death and resurrection, then that means we cannot be reconciled to God. We would be stuck having to atone and sacrifice for our own sins which we would all fail at and be lost forever.

My point is Christians can be confident their faith is the right one through faith in Christ, the other religions are not even confident enough to know if they are saved or not! Even the most devout among them still question whether God will have mercy on them based on their actions, which still might not even be enough for salvation no matter how good they have been. But there is a contradiction: if God has revealed himself then how can one not know what God wants from them to be saved? Even better, how does any other religion have a superior way to salvation than God dying in their place for them? Trusting that Jesus is the way is how to be sure your faith is right(Jn 14:6). Jesus is Divine. Jesus is God. And to deny him is to deny God (1 Jn 2:23(Luke10:16).

JAC: Here we have more question-begging. We know that Christianity is the right faith because the New Testament says so, and the Bible must be true. If you doubt the Bible, you “are calling God a liar.” I’d put it more gently: the Bible is the word of humans, not of a god. The second paragraph assumes that we all want salvation, but some religions, like many kinds of Judaism, don’t believe in or expect an afterlife.

Oh hell, I’ll put in one more question and just a snippet of the sender’s response, just to show that he sees homosexuality as a sin:

Q) Why would an omnibenevolent God consign sinners to an eternity of horrible torment for crimes that don’t warrant such punishment? Official Catholic doctrine, for instance, is that unconfessed homosexual acts doom you to eternal immolation in molten sulfer [sic]. That’s unconscionable. And would a loving God really let someone burn forever because they were Jews, or didn’t get baptized?

A) First of all let’s get one thing strait: all sins are punished(Rom 5:12). Not just homosexuality but also lust, idolatry, murder, greed, selfishness, fornication, adultery, hate, theft, lying, idolatry, and blaspemers. No one is good, there is not one(Pslm 53:3). We all have weakness(2 Cor 12:9). Now this is considering that these sins are not repented of that we receive the punishment. . . .

Final thoughts [from the sender]:
• How, after fierce opposition and persecution to the early church, did Christianity spread so rapidly by so few men, with such little resources and survive 20 centuries and is still the biggest religion? Why risk your life and families life for something that is false, and why do so many people suffer for the name of Christ but are still zealous and faithful?

JAC: Lots of people have risked their lives and families for religions that this sender claims are false. QED

• The biggest humanitarian and philanthropic movements in history are influenced and supported by Christians and the church and some examples are: The Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, World Vision International, Samaritans Purse, Water Missions International, Feed the Children, ect. Also most addiction services and many hospitals and nursing homes are started in the name of Christ with Christian values and ethics as their mission statement.

JAC: Do I need to point out that the argument above says nothing about whether the tenets of Christianity are correct? At best it says that belief in Christian tenets can motivate some people to do good. The same holds for the tenets of many faiths.

• Some of the most influential historical figures that have impacted society and made for a better life include: Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo Da Vinci, Mozart, William Shakespeare, Martin Luther King Jr, ect.
Ect. indeed!  I won’t bother to list the many historical figures or organizations who were Christians and did bad things. As the physicist Steven Weinberg famously said:
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”

An Easter homily by Peter Nothnagle on the “Empty Tomb”

April 12, 2020 • 12:15 pm

JAC note: A bit more than two years ago, I made available to readers a Jesus-themed essay by reader Peter Nothnagle, whose day job is helping record early classical music. His essay, “Jesus: Fact or Fiction,” comprised a talk he gave to the to a joint meeting of the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Iowa City and the Secular Humanists and the Secular Students at Iowa. It came down on the side of Jesus being “fiction”, and here is its summary:

I conclude that the figure of Jesus was invented by one faction in a diverse religious landscape in an effort to create an “apostolic succession” of authority – “our priests were taught by priests that were taught by followers of Jesus Christ himself, in person”. But even if I’m completely wrong about that, it is undeniable that the only evidence that exists for a living, breathing, walking, talking Jesus is weak, contradictory, or simply fraudulent. Therefore no one can be justified in believing that such a person existed.

That essay has since been substantially revised and updated, and you can read it and download it here. It was very popular and inspired a lot of argument on this site.

Today we have a special Easter homily written by Peter seven years ago and also recently revised. It deals with the “miracle” of the empty tomb, and proffers a number of explanations that are purely naturalistic, even if you do believe that there was an empty tomb. It’s a good read for nonbelievers on this Easter Sunday, and I put it here with Peter’s permission. He invites readers to suggest their own explanations.

And, without further ado (Peter added the cartoon):

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The Empty Tomb

Peter Nothnagle, July 17, 2013, revised Easter Sunday 2020

“So how do you explain the empty tomb?”, the Christian asks, assuming it’s a stumper.

According to the Gospel accounts, some of Jesus’ friends and relations (the different versions of the story conflict with each other on this and many other rather important details) visited his tomb two days after his execution (or three days, according to the Gospel of John), only to discover the seal broken, the stone rolled aside, and no body. They were informed, variously by the gardener, an angel, etc., according to which version you read, that the occupant had somehow gotten up and left. This evident miracle is a cornerstone of the Christian faith — who but a god could have pulled it off?

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. The story of the empty tomb is not evidence of a miraculous resurrection from the dead. The story is not evidence in support of the claim, it is only the claim. And the closest thing we have to an original source for the story is the anonymous Gospel of Mark, which was only written down after a whole lifetime had passed. The other gospels, written even later, take great liberties with Mark’s account, and elsewhere in the New Testament the epistles of Paul don’t count at all — Paul’s Jesus seems to have been some kind of celestial being who never even came to earth, and whose death and rebirth took place on some spiritual plane.

In order to believe something so amazing as a days-old corpse coming back to life, we’d better have some really good evidence. A reliable first-hand account by a non-Christian, written down at the time, would be good — like if we had a letter written by one of the soldiers guarding the tomb, which started with “You’ll never believe what happened at work today!” Of course we have nothing of the sort. Evidence might be provided by archaeology, although what that might be, I don’t know. After all, an empty tomb is not out of the ordinary (I’ve seen lots!). Since the Christians are accepting of miracles maybe they could produce something more unequivocal, like a first-century video recording of a body that had obviously been dead for several days coming back to life. That might be persuasive. You object that video technology wasn’t available in the first century? But mere humans invented video recording all by themselves — if there’s a god involved, and this god really, really wanted us to believe, you would think that this god could do it too.

A really strong piece of evidence that Jesus had overcome death would be if he were still among us all these centuries later, but we are told that he was beamed up to heaven the day he was resurrected (Mark 16:9,19; Luke 24:13,28-36,50-51), or maybe it was forty days after the resurrection (Acts 1:3,9). So whoever wrote the stories conveniently incorporated an excuse for why that most persuasive evidence no longer exists.

The only evidence we do have for the resurrection is of the very worst kind — a single fantastic story by an unknown author who didn’t even see it himself, writing from an unknown location at an unknown time for an unknown purpose. Some contradictory retellings (the other three Gospels and Acts) were written even later. All these accounts are preserved only as unreliable copies of long-lost original sources. If we are supposed to believe that anything so, well, unbelievable as the resurrection truly happened, this isn’t the way to convince us!

Christians often address this lack of evidence by saying that there is virtue in believing the story on faith, and that God knows that clear and compelling evidence would take away our capacity to choose freely to believe. Of course, according to the story itself, Jesus didn’t have a problem with demonstrating his resurrection to believers and doubters alike. Also, as a thought experiment, imagine what would happen if someone really did discover a first-hand account of the resurrection written by an actual eyewitness. Would the Christians still deny the importance of clear and persuasive evidence? I suspect not. So the emphasis on the value of accepting the story on faith sounds a lot like an excuse for the lack of evidence, not an explanation for it.

The Christian challenges us to come up with a better explanation for the empty tomb than the miraculous one he accepts on faith. It comes down to a choice between two possibilities:

  • One: An unseen, unevidenced, all-powerful being somehow reached down from His celestial abode, reversed the effects of shock, dehydration, blood loss, and trauma, which were so devastating to a human body as to cause death, and also reversed the effects of days of decomposition, to make a dead man come back to life, with enough of his faculties restored to be able at least to walk and talk (even though, at least according to one account, his body still bore fatal wounds).
  • Two: There is any other explanation which fits the paltry evidence, which is in keeping with what we know about the laws of physics with no miracle required. One such explanation might be “people make up stories”.

If any Christian still wants to pose the question “how do you explain the empty tomb?” as a gotcha for the atheist, let me see if I can think of anything more likely than divine intervention. The best explanation will fit the elements of the story while requiring the fewest additional factors for which we have no evidence. [I suppose I betray my bias when I point out, one last time, that we don’t actually have to explain the evidence or facts, because there are none to explain — we know nothing except what’s claimed in the fantastical Gospel of Mark.]

Off the top of my head, here are ten explanations for the story of Easter morning, A.D. 33, that are all much more likely to be true than the story that Christians believe:

  1. It’s pure fiction, a wholly made-up story fully in keeping with timeless story-telling traditions, having no basis in fact.
  2. Dying-and-rising savior god myths and traditions were common all around the eastern Mediterranean at that time, and this is one of them.
  3. It’s an allegory created to illustrate some theological point, possibly for some esoteric “mystery cult”, in the manner of Masonic rituals today. It wasn’t originally intended to be taken as actually true, but its hidden meaning has been forgotten over the centuries.
  4. The Romans really did execute a first-century itinerant prophet, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave as befitted his social status, the location of which was quickly forgotten. However, as legends about him grew over several generations, the one about his missing body arose and was eventually written down.
  5. There really was a Jesus, but when his followers went to anoint the body they went to the wrong tomb, and, finding it empty, jumped to the erroneous conclusion that he had risen from the dead.
  6. There really was a Jesus, one of whose followers, the wealthy but eccentric Joseph of Arimathea, had Jesus buried in his costly family tomb. But Joseph’s family intervened and got rid of the body, possibly having Joseph put in an asylum to prevent further outrages. Note that Joseph, who should have been a hero to the early Christians, is never heard from again in the Gospels.
  7. There really was a Jesus, some of whose followers removed his corpse from the tomb to a secret location, there to await his expected miraculous return to life. Unfortunately for them, he stayed dead, so they either kept quiet about it, letting the rumors swirl, or they started the resurrection stories themselves to cover their embarrassment.
  8. The local authorities removed the body from the tomb to prevent Jesus’ followers from making it a focus of veneration or unrest, kind of like how Stalin had Hitler’s body destroyed, or the Navy SEALs dumped Osama bin Laden’s body in the ocean.
  9. There really was a Jesus, but he lived and died in the ordinary way, and in order to add weight to his teachings, his followers invented stories of signs and miracles to add to his life story.
  10. It all happened more or less as described, but Jesus was a visitor from another planet, whose people removed the body from the tomb using their advanced technology.

Of course, until we can say for sure if anything happened in the first place, there’s little reason even to speculate about how it happened.

See http://articles.exchristian.net/2004/04/easter-facts-quotes-and-quiz-for-you.html for chapter and verse.