Updated: Aug 20, 2018
One of the primary objections many people who are skeptical as it pertains to faith raise about religious people is that most religions claim their sacred texts are authoritative for all people in all times. If we take the Bible for instance—how can a book that was compiled in its final form 1600 years ago in a culture that still believed in things like demons and that also practiced strict patriarchy and slavery be in any way relevant, much less authoritative, for twenty-first century societies? These are really astute and important questions that do not resolve to easy answers. In this series, we will examine several different angles of the debate. For our purposes, we will focus specifically on some of the claims surrounding the life of Jesus.
The first objection we will tackle is that the Bible claims that certain supernatural events happened in the course of the life of Jesus. The argument goes, that societies, prior to the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution believed in things that we know are simply not possible. Throughout the life of Christ, Jesus is portrayed healing people of their sickness (Mark 1:34) , walking on water (Mark 6:49), feeding a huge crowd of people with a small amount of food (John 6:11-12). And of course the most crucial example of this being the central claim of the Christian faith, that Jesus after being dead for three days rose from the dead (e.g. Luke 24:7; 1 Corinthians 15:4). To this remarkable claim, the skeptic might simply counter, we have millions of years of history that tell us a simple, undeniable truth: dead people stay dead.
While it cannot be argued that the normal pattern of natural laws would dictate that people who have died stay dead, we simply want to suggest that this simple observation does not constitute a once and for all statement about the possibility of anyone every rising from the dead. A few arguments that balance the scales of the burden of proof.
1. Most people living now and throughout time have believed in the supernatural
The notion that there is no “unseen” realm or that there are not supernatural interventions in the ordinary world is an ethnocentric, Western perspective. The overwhelming majority of cultures from the global South and the East ascribe events to unseen agents and believe in a spiritual realm of angelic beings and demons. Interestingly, even the majority of people in America believe in some sort of supernatural power (https://www.barna.com/research/americans-believe-supernatural-healing/). The argument that we in modern society have moved beyond belief in the supernatural is simply not true of the majority of people in the world. Now to argue that the majority of people believe something and therefore it is true is obviously not decisive but it should alert us to a certain myopia, and perhaps a certain arrogance to the claim that the supernatural has been superseded in our day.
2. The claim that miracles do not happen is itself a fundamentalist claim
To argue that miracles do not happen because they cannot happen is simply a kind of scientific fundamentalism. This perspective makes metaphysical claims about the way the world works. This is particularly damaging when it comes to historic research. N. T. Wright, using a method he has dubbed critical-realism, argues that there is a very strong historic case that what the New Testament claims to have happened to Jesus is exactly what happened (for further reading see N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God). This explains the shape that the early church took and the way the early Christians modified and adopted the Jewish story. However, over the course of the past two-hundred years, particularly under the influence of a prolific biblical scholar named Rudolph Bultmann, many scholars have approached the claims of the New Testament with the foundational understanding that essential is as follows:
“miracles cannot happen, therefore we know the New Testament claims are at best a legend and at worst a lie.”
But allowing preconceived assumptions to determine conclusions is the definition of fundamentalism. What purports to be a skeptical approach is actually a quite narrow-minded approach that does not take all of the evidence into account. As former Bultmann disciple, Thomas Oden states: “The hermeneutic (method of interpretation) of suspicion has been safely applied to the history of Jesus but not to the history of historians.” He goes on to say what’s need is a “criticism of criticism” (quoted in Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, The Jesus Legend, p. 71).
Allowing preconceived assumptions to determine conclusions is the definition of fundamentalism.
Again, these arguments are in no way decisive one way or another. However, they do color the debate in a shade of gray that allows for a more honest dialogue. Paul tells the Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). You may be understandably skeptical of the claim of a man rising from the dead, but perhaps you may be more willing to doubt your doubts.
Stay tuned for future pieces in this series. To read further see C. S. Lewis, Miracles