Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Dead Ends During a Recent Discussion With a Christian

So apparently one of my coworkers has made it his personal goal to convert me to Christianity. Now to give you an idea, this Christian's entire life revolves around his faith, and he's very much what you'd think of when you picture the home-schooled Christian whose only social interaction comes with those at his church. However, he's a very nice man, and always extremely respectful, so it really didn't bother me at all. Plus, I love sharing my thoughts, especially when it's an opportunity to challenge my assumptions.

So far, most of our discussions have revolved around the historical veracity of the resurrection of Jesus, since believing in the event is one of the foundational creeds of Christianity. The Christian bases most of his knowledge off the work of apologist Lee Strobel. Most of what I know about biblical scholarship comes from Bart Ehrman and my knowledge of Greek and Roman history, which was the focus of my studies in college. Our discussions were all over the place, but what follows were our major sticking points where the Christian diverged so completely from the actual evidence that it was impossible to continue the particular line of argument.

Now, anyone who's done more than a little reading on Biblical scholarship knows that most of the books within the New Testament were not actually written by the authors whose names are attached to them. However, this became the major sticking point because the Christian I spoke with insisted that the authors of the Gospels were in fact Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and that virtually no biblical scholar would disagree. I'm sure that would be news to the large body of scholars who feel otherwise. Nevertheless, most of the following discussions revolved around the accounts in the Gospels, and how they verify each other, which is a severely flawed argument in my eyes since we really don't know the authors, and we know that scribes have made changes to the manuscript over the years (for example, Mark 16:9-20 is an obvious addition to the original manuscript). Plus, there are no non-Christian primary sources from the time that we could use to satisfactorily corroborate the tales in the Gospels. The only outside mention of Jesus comes from nearly a century after his death. That's no where near sufficient evidence to verify the resurrection.

Then I pointed out that the Gospels were passed on orally for at least 30 years, which makes it incredibly likely that the legend grew with the telling before it was ever put to paper. The Christian's answer for that was that the Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean were always double-checking what they were told with the original apostles, ensuring they always had the proper story. However, I find this claim extremely dubious because the slow spread of information in those days meant it was virtually impossible for the apostles or their immediate successors to be everywhere. Besides, would Paul really need to warn against false teachings in his letter to the Corinthians if there wasn't other views being spread about? The early history of Christianity is filled with wildly differing beliefs, much of which were suppressed as Christianity's eventual orthodoxy took shape over later centuries. The idea that early Christians were able to perform rigorous fact-checking seems like wishful thinking to me. Plus, we don't have any evidence of what the various Christian communities believed, so there's no evidence that fact-checking was common practice.

Finally, there's the problem of worldview. I'm very much of the naturalistic view, and the Christian has no problem with supernatural explanations so long as it applies to Christians. The supernatural claims of Greek mythology, for example, were always dismissed. Clearly, there's an exception being made here, but it makes it impossible to argue when then least likely explanation is immediately grasped by one side. I tried to argue using other examples of religions arising, including Islam and Mormonism. However, those were always dismissed because of their own problems. Again, the problems with Christianity were always met with hand-waving or clever explanations for which there is no evidence.

Needless to say, I haven't been convinced to join the other side. However, I did enjoy the discussions, even though I know I won't change any opinions. More than anything, it gives me a very good idea of how apologists work in action, always moving the goalposts depending on where the evidence is lacking.


  1. Well said, and that was my assessment as well when it came to the discussions with Christians. Goalpost moving, easy dismissal of verifiable contrary evidence, special pleading, and using unfounded assumptions to fill critical gaps was just some of the techniques used to maintain what I have grown to consider to be delusions. Most of them are just uneducated and unreasonable.

  2. One of the issues I like to bring up is Jesus supposedly being tempted by the Devil in the desert for 40 days. Presumably, Jesus was along with the devil, and chronologically it takes place before he meets the apostles. So, how can we verify the story is true? Sure, Jesus could have told his apostles about it one night while sitting around a camp fire, but how could they be sure he wasn't making it up or that his experience might have been some kind of delusion?

    Skeptics like to point out that the gospels were probably not written for several decades after the death of Jesus. But we can go even further than that. Matthew purports to present us with Herod being distressed by the visit of 3 wise men to pay homage to the newly born king of the Jews. This is something that would have happened about 60 years before Matthew was written. Who did the author of Matthew get this information from?

  3. Thanks Tom, that's a great point to bring up in future discussions.