Thursday, 3 April 2014

History Lessons

I had a chat the other day with a man I have butted heads with a couple of times in the past (see here, here, here and here!)

He started to tell me about some very unusual experiences he had about 50 years ago that seemed to suggest a supernatural explanation. I asked him what he made of those experiences and he told me he was sure there was a natural explanation because "there is nothing supernatural." I asked him why he ruled out the realm of the supernatural a priori, it seemed he wasn't looking for the right answers but the right kind of answers.

Anyway, I made a few observations about how he had gone about showing why I should believe his story. He had first of all told me about an independent source in the USA who had a similar experience. He told me about others who were with him who saw the same thing at the same time. He told me about things that he saw and heard that were completely foreign to his expectations.

I went over these things with him: he cited independent attestation, he cited multiple eyewitnesses, he cited what historians call the criterion of dissimilarity (i.e. different from what you had known or would have expected). I asked him, if these things are signs of the historicity of an event, then why does he not believe in the resurrection of Christ, because the report of His resurrection fulfils all these criteria and many others.

I told him that the resurrection has multiple independent attestation, because we have not only the sources used by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but we have the writings of Paul and the other apostles, as well as the creedal statements found in the writings of the New Testament that obviously pre-date the writings of the epistles.

We have a multiplicity of eyewitnesses, in every account we find that there were a number of occasions in which the risen Lord Jesus appeared to groups of disciples. It was not just one person who said he saw Him and spread the report, there were many people who saw Him many times over the course of 40 days.

The resurrection accounts fulfil the criterion of dissimilarity - Jews in the first century had absolutely no expectation of a Messiah who would die, never mind be crucified, never mind rise again. The inter-testamental period was one of violent struggles for freedom, and political deliverance was what the nation was expecting. The Jews also only had an expectation of a general resurrection on the last day, so the idea of a resurrection was not in their consciousness. It is not a story they would have or could have invented.

Other historical criteria include the criterion of embarrassment, that is, things that seem to cast doubt or reflect badly on the case you are making, and would not get included in a fictitious account. Events from the life of Christ that would fulfil this would be, for instance, when He said He didn't know the time of His return, when He healed the blind man in two stages, when He cursed the fig tree, when His brothers didn't believe in Him, and His own family thought He was beside Himself. It's not that there aren't good explanations for these things, but the striking thing is this, the writers don't give an explanation. If this was made up then the writers would have gone out of their way to make sure the readers didn't infer something from these stories that wasn't in keeping with their intention, but the events are just recorded without explanation or clarification.

In terms of the resurrection, events that would fulfil this criterion would include the following:
The gap between the burial and the guard being placed at the tomb - if you were wanting to eliminate the possibility of accusation that the disciples stole the body then you would have the soldiers supervising the burial, putting the stone to the door and being there the whole time, but Matthew doesn't record that - why not? Because that's not how it really happened.
The discovery of the empty tomb by women. This is something that no first century Jew would have made up because women were not permitted to give testimony in that culture. They weren't a very politically correct bunch back then and they didn't think women were sensible or reliable enough to act as witnesses. Why then are they the first witnesses to the empty tomb in all the Gospels? Because that's how it really happened.
The fifty days between the resurrection and the disciples preaching His resurrection. If you were making up a story about the resurrection why would you have the heroes of the story waiting seven weeks to tell it? You wouldn't make that up, the only explanation is that this is the way it really happened.

My friend told me that there's no way people could accurately remember and report on things that happened 30 years previously. I pointed out that the sources go back far closer than 30 years, but that's besides the point really, he had just been telling me about something that happened to him 50 years ago, so why should I bother to believe him then? He told me he and his wife had been married for 56 years, and while you wouldn't expect him to remember everything from that day, he would remember something. Somethings in life are unforgettable, being with the risen Christ would definitely fall into that catagory.

In terms of historical credibility then, the resurrection of Jesus Christ stands strong. The reason people don't believe isn't intellectual, it's moral and volitional. If Jesus Christ is risen then it has massive universal, individual and eternal ramifications - He is who He claimed to be, the Son of God and the Judge of all humanity (Romans 1 v 1-4; Acts 17 v 30-31).

I put it to him that he had to make his choice, there's no doubt the disciples claimed to have been with the risen Christ, and if he thinks they weren't then they either lied or were mistaken. He said they were lying, then I went through the implications of that with him showing him that couldn't be, so he said something about Muslims blowing themselves up and that doesn't mean they're right. So I agreed with him but told him that what it does mean is they think they're right. "Exactly!" he said, and without even noticing he did it he jumped to the other option. I pointed this out and told him he was now abandoning the view that they were liars. So we examined the option that they were mistaken and showed that couldn't bear the weight of credibility. He then said that people make up all sorts of things for power, so again, without even realising, he had abandoned the view that they were mistaken and had gone back to the view they were lying. At this stage I stopped him and told him as sincerely and kindly as I could to stop playing games and defending turf. I asked him to take this seriously because there is a lot riding on it, and he wasn't being honest with the facts. Sadly he's not alone in this. The people who shout loudest about reason and evidence are so often those who are most unreasonable and most unwilling to go where the evidence points. I closed my discussion by telling him that this conversation about the resurrection is not just to have a good debate, but my desire for him was that he would be saved, because he had God to meet and eternity to face and sins to answer for, and only the risen Christ could save him.

The fact of the resurrection of Christ is not just evidenced in history, but it can be experienced personally. He is still saving souls and changing lives, because, as the Bible says, "He to save...since He always lives..."