Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Smoke and Mirrors of Apologetics

Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny
The D.A.'s got to build a case. Building a case is like building a house. Each piece of evidence is just another building block. He wants to make a brick bunker of a building. He wants to use serious, solid-looking bricks, like, like these, right?  [puts his hand on the wall]  Let me show you something.  [he holds up a playing card]  He's going to show you the bricks. He'll show you they got straight sides. He'll show you how they got the right shape. He'll show them to you in a very special way, so that they appear to have everything a brick should have. But there's one thing he's not gonna show you. [turns the card flat] When you look at the bricks from the right angle, they're as thin as this playing card. His whole case is an illusion, a magic trick.  

When discussing the historicity of the resurrection with Christian apologists, I never argue that the supernatural is impossible.  Instead I argue that reason and experience dictate that the overwhelming majority of supernatural stories are the product of things like wishful thinking, gullibility, and ignorance.  Most apologists are willing to concede this point because they believe that the supernatural claims of every religion but their own are false.  I then argue that there are no objective criteria by which to identify those few supernatural claims (assuming there are any) that are in fact the product of legitimate supernatural events rather than the product of wishful thinking, gullibility, and ignorance.  As a result, even conceding that there might be a God who could raise a man from the dead if He chose to do so, I still have to assess the probability of that having occurred as very small compared to the probability that the resurrection stories are ancient myths and legends.

If it is the first time that I have discussed the issue with a particular apologist, he will inevitably conclude that I have either not carefully looked at all the evidence or that I have not thought about it in the right way. He will then try to guide me through Habermas and Licona's "minimal facts" approach or Lee Strobel's courtroom analogies or Tim and Lydia McGrew's Bayesian analysis to show me how it really is rational to believe that the resurrection was a historical event.  One very pleasant gentleman told me that he was working on a paper which would show that confidence in the resurrection can be achieved by looking at the big picture in the way that an engineer does.   However, when I examine these approaches, I invariably find that like Vinny Gambini's hypothetical D.A., they are simply attempts to present the evidence from an angle at which its playing card thinness is harder to see.

The essential and insoluble problem with the historical case for the resurrection is that the evidence that the event occurred consists of ancient supernatural stories which are (1) of indeterminate authorship; (2) based on unknown sources; (3) recorded decades after the events they purport to recount; and (4) written solely from the perspective of fervent religious belief.  No matter how pretty a facade the apologist tries to create, those bricks aren't going to carry the historical weight.

It's like the mortgage backed securities that brought the world banking system to the edge of collapse in 2008. Using complex analysis, Wall Street's financial engineers put together piles of no-doc, pick-a-payment, liar loans and sliced and diced them into tranches that looked like AAA bonds to the ratings agency.  Unfortunately, they never really solved the inherent problem of garbage-in/garbage-out.  All their complex analysis was smoke and mirrors.

Christian apologists love to talk about the "facts" upon which scholars agree, but all these facts are derived from those ancient supernatural stories which are (1) of indeterminate authorship; (2) based on unknown sources; (3) recorded decades after the events they purport to recount; and (4) written solely from the perspective of fervent religious belief.   No matter how many scholars look at those stories, trying to determine what actual events occurred decades before they were written can never be more than an educated guess. Even if we can all agree on what the best guess is given the evidence we have, the evidence we have is still highly problematic.


  1. Here’s what bothers me. If a Christian is asked, “How do you explain the golden plates Joseph Smith found?” they reasonably reply (and inherently understand) they need not treat the claims of Mr. Smith as factual—they must respond to is Joseph Smith’s CLAIMS to find golden plates.

    Yet when discussing the Gospel accounts, I am told “How do you explain the empty tomb?” Even after lengthy discussion, they almost get the fact we don’t have to respond to the empty tomb—only the claims about the empty tomb.

    But when it comes to the appearances, if we dare question the accounts’ accuracy, we are accused of castigating the disciples as liars. Again, we need only address the claims--not the actual events within.

  2. That's the magic of the "minimal facts" approach. They have been trained to mentally fill the gap between claims and events (assuming that they even recognize it) with the consensus of scholars. It really is a very clever device for generating rabbit trails upon which to send the skeptic.

  3. Has Michael R. Licona considered the raising of many saints story in Matthew in light of questions of Markan priority?