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Atheists and Easter Apologetics

The last few years have seen a shelf-load of worthy books debunking what is called the New Atheism. I’m sure it is a mighty good thing to explain and expound St. Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs of God’s existence, but it seems to miss the point. I’d rather present the reality of God’s work in the world and show that there is one event which, if it really happened, proves the existence of God.

If God does not exist, then the material world is a closed system. If there is no God, the physical world is self-creating and self-reliant. If there is no God, then there are no interruptions in nature from an extraterrestrial intelligence. The material world works according to the laws of physics, and even if there are mysteries that cannot be explained presently, they will be one day. In fact, if there is no God, then the physical world must work according to the laws of nature and nothing else.

But if it can be shown that there is a force that interrupts and alters the ordinary working of nature, and if that force operates in an intelligible and rational way, then there must be an intelligent being, which religious people have always identified as God. We call an intelligible and rational interruption in the laws of nature a miracle. The interruption in the normal operation of the physical world is intelligible and rational if it has a reason and an understandable purpose. An interruption that is random or arbitrary would not necessarily indicate a supra-physical intelligence.

All that to say this: If there are miracles—indeed, if there is a miracle—then there is a God. The problem with many miracles is that they might be attributed to natural causes or to natural causes that we do not yet understand.

This is where the Easter miracle comes in. If one miracle can be shown to have happened, then the case is proven. One miracle breaks the whole idea that the world is self-contained, self-creating and self-reliant, and that one miracle that atheists most studiously avoid is the miracle of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Hume and human understanding

The eighteenth-century skeptic David Hume argued that, when weighing the evidence for a miracle, one had to consider which was more probable: that a person would lie or that a given miracle would take place. So he writes in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention) ‘That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.’  . . . When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates, then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion (section X, part 1, No. 91).

In other words, if someone believes a miracle has taken place, he is either lying or has been lied to. If the claimed miracle is greater than the possibility of a person being deceived or deceiving, then that claimed miracle must be rejected.

Hume’s argument seems watertight, because it is based on the assumption that the physical world is watertight. His conclusion rests on his first premise that the physical world is a closed system. What Hume is really saying is that miracles are impossible because miracles are impossible.

But the definition of a miracle is an interruption in what is expected to be a closed system. That’s why it’s a miracle, and that’s why it is unexpected, unusual and unbelievable. By its very definition a miracle breaks into the closed system, and to deny a miracle by simply saying it can’t happen is to skirt the argument.

One miracle to rule them all

Christianity stands or falls on the miracle of the Resurrection. St. Paul addresses this very question in the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians:

I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. . . .

[I]f Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile (1 Cor. 15:3-8, 14-17).

Put simply, if Christ is not raised from the dead, then the whole Christian religion is vain. It’s all or nothing, and all depends on the evidence for Easter. While five philosophical proofs are useful, arguments about the existence of God should really begin with the Easter argument.

Did the first-century Jewish preacher Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead or not? If he did, then miracles are possible, and God exists.

Christians claim that the historical human being Jesus of Nazareth was executed then physically rose from the dead. He was seen alive by many people and then was seen to vanish into the invisible realm. Here we have the most revolutionary and radical question of human history: Did it really happen?

There are only three options: that Jesus rose from the dead as Christians contend; that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t really die; or that he died but his body somehow disappeared, and his disciples came to believe that he had risen from the dead. The first question therefore is, “Did Jesus really die?”

Did Jesus really die?

After his trial, Jesus of Nazareth was tortured by flogging. The Romans flogged a criminal with whips that had pieces of glass, pottery, and metal tied into the cords. Not only was Jesus flogged to within an inch of his life, but his executioners were professionals whose jobs depended on them doing a thorough job.

His flogging was public, and so was his execution. He was taken through the city streets and crucified in a public place. Furthermore, his enemies themselves were present to make sure the job was done. This is recorded in the Gospels, and the basic facts match what we know of Roman customs of the time, so there is no reason they should be doubted.

Taking Hume’s idea that we must believe the option that is easiest to believe, to believe that Jesus was not killed on that dark afternoon is more incredible than to believe he was. If he was not killed, then the disciples made up the story of his execution. But why would devotees of a religious preacher make up the story that he was executed as a criminal and that it was a public event? Many people saw it take place. We must conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

Nevertheless, some theorize that it wasn’t really Jesus who died. It was perhaps his brother James, who resembled him; or it was Judas, or a celebrity lookalike who stood in for Jesus. Again, it takes more credulity to believe these theories than the simple truth. The reason Judas kissed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was to confirm his identity, and in the courtyard of the high priest Peter was certain who he was denying. An impostor or a stand-in? Surely when things became deadly the patsy would have denied that he was Jesus Christ.

Jesus only fainted

Another theory is that it was Jesus on the cross, but he didn’t really die. Perhaps he was drugged and simply passed out. The Gospel says a soldier offered him painkiller, but he refused it. If Jesus only passed out, we must believe that the man was flogged so that the torture ripped great chunks of flesh from his body. After dragging the heavy cross through the city streets, he was nailed to it by professional executioners who, instead of breaking his legs to hasten his death, stabbed him with a spear through the heart. Water and blood came from the wound, and modern medical experts testify that this happens only after death.

But we’re to believe that he only passed out or went into a coma? Again, this is more difficult to believe than the reported story. And it gets more difficult.

Let us suppose that Jesus did somehow survive the flogging, the crucifixion, and the thrust of the spear. After he was taken down he was buried. Now we have to believe that he woke up in a freezing tomb on a chilly spring morning. Having suffered a huge blood loss, terrible wounds, a spear in the side, and unspeakable shock and trauma, he stops to unwrap his own tightly wound shroud and head cloth, and he takes care to fold them neatly at the foot of his bed. Then (from the inside) he rolls back a stone from the entrance of the tomb that weighs a couple of tons.

He then stumbles out, naked, and limps up to the disciples on his bloody feet, with his back looking like a butcher shop. His head is covered with puncture wounds and contusions. His side has a gaping wound. He shows the disciples his hands, and gasps out a greeting.

What would you have done? You would have shrieked in horror and realized that your friend had somehow survived a most terrible ordeal, and then you would have taken him home, called the doctor, and put him to bed. Instead we are supposed to believe that the disciples said, “He is risen! Alleluia!”

Again, it takes more faith to believe such an outrageous theory than to accept the simple events as they were related. Hume was right. We must believe the option that is most probable.

Something strange happened to his body

The next category of Resurrection deniers say Jesus really did die, but something else happened to his body. Consequently his disciples came to believe that he had risen from the dead.

Was his body thrown in the dump to be devoured by dogs, as was the Roman custom for crucified criminals? We know from other evidence that the Jews were very careful about burying the bodies of their loved ones, and the details of the story are there in the Gospels. His friends took the body to bury it. If the body had not been buried, why did Jesus’ enemies ask Pilate for guards for the tomb?

Maybe the disciples stole the body. Shall we believe that the eleven men who fled in terror when their leader was arrested suddenly got back together and planned a heist worthy of a Mission Impossible film? Why would they do that? They were as surprised as everyone else by the Resurrection. Would they really plan such a heist to perpetrate a hoax? Is this the sort of hoax anyone would believe? No. You only plan a hoax if the hoax is something people might just fall for.

Did they perpetrate the hoax to start a new religion? Why would they do that? What was in it for them? There was no such thing as starting a religion to be a prosperity preacher back then. As history proved, the only thing they got out of it was the loss of all their worldly goods, persecution, imprisonment, torture, homelessness, and eventually for many, martyrdom.

Did the disciples go to the wrong tomb? If they had, would they have drawn the conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead? No. They would have said, “Whoops, wrong tomb. Hey, we messed up again!” Had Jesus been in another tomb, his enemies would have produced the body and pointed out the disciples’ mistake. Once again, to believe the alternative theory is more difficult than to believe the traditional account.

The “spiritual” explanation

Then we have the modernist theologian’s answer: The Resurrection was not a crudely physical event but a “spiritual reality.” In other words, in some sort of wonderful way the teachings and example of Jesus continued to live in the hearts and minds of his followers and this, if you like, is what Resurrection is really all about.

The problem here is that the simple meaning of the word resurrection is that a body that was dead came back to life. There are spiritual meanings to be derived from this fact, to be sure, but if there were no physical fact, then the spiritual meanings would be meaningless. Saying that the Resurrection was not a physical but a spiritual event is something like a woman on her wedding night denying her husband the consummation of their marriage by saying, “We needn’t be quite so crudely physical as to have sexual intercourse. Marriage is, after all, simply a beautiful spiritual idea.”

The modernist theologian’s reductionist explanation doesn’t account for the simple facts of the whole story. Shall we believe that the apostles went on to follow lives of hardship, suffering, and deprivation, finally being tortured and killed for what was merely a “spiritual meaning” or a “beautiful theological idea”?

When faced with the slow torture of crucifixion or being flayed or boiled alive, don’t you think they would have said, “Hold on! All that Son-of-God-resurrection stuff? You misunderstood! It didn’t really happen! It was only a spiritual meaning. It was a metaphor! A theological construct!”

Finally, we have some biblical scholars’ theory that St. Paul and the Gospel writers invented the Resurrection story to bolster their new religion. There are too many implausible details to go into at this point, but the main obstacle to this conspiracy theory is that St. Paul died only thirty years after the death of Jesus himself, and he reported that the stories he had about the Resurrection were facts he himself had received from others. If Paul or the Gospel writers had made it all up, there were still plenty of eyewitnesses alive who would have corrected them—not least the murderous enemies of the new religion.

The fact of the Resurrection is a good starting point for the debates about God’s existence. Arguments with atheists can move forward in an intriguing way, because the arguments surrounding the Resurrection are more concrete and literal than philosophical arguments. They bring the argument about God down to earth—which is what the Christian religion is all about in the first place.

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