This is the MS. of my Easter Submission to the _Touchstone_ newspaper
(Bryan/College Station, TX). informed comments welcomed privately.
Resurrecting an Old Debate
Doubting John Lenz
_Is_ there a God? _Was_ there a God? _Must_ there be a God?
Is the existence of god(s) an historical or a philosophical question?
A local cult, more pervasive than the one in Waco, holds that, some
1,960 years ago, their god, the only true god out of some 10,000 "false gods,"
came (to just as unlikely a locale) and died. He beat death, inspired his
friends, and left. He'll destroy the world when he has a mind to and if you
don't like it, he'll punish the whole lot of y'all, abysmally, eternally. If
not in Korea in 1992, somewhere, some day, when you least expect it.
Is this the way gods behave? Maybe anti-monopoly principles should be
invoked. There's no possibility of a second opinion as in the heady days of
polytheism. You thought AT&T was overcharging?
The most successful ancient heresy of Judaism is not my topic.
Rather, this is a week to reflect on its self-averred hinge and sole
foundation stone, the best known resurrection of all. What an opportune time
to celebrate ancient history and its vital role in our time, our heritage, and
our intellectual life. Right? Surely now, if ever, is the occasion to
correct gently the two Texans who said (yes), "Why study a foreign language?
English was good enough for Jesus Christ." Even on the frontier, the hunger
is there, palpable, for Greco-Roman-Judaic antiquity.
The issue of sources for the resurrection is simple. Some say, "Yes
he did!," some say, "No he didn't! Who says so?" Those saying so are a few
followers writing twenty to sixty (!) years after Jesus' death. They often
contradict each other; they give various and confusing accounts of the risen
Jesus--what most needed documenting. The doubters didn't write anything that
survives. Maybe they didn't even notice the fuss. A few books were burned
and centuries later, everyone was happy.
Did it happen? Not by any criteria we use to judge history. A funny
thing: Faith in Jesus depends upon the resurrection, but belief in the
resurrection requires faith. You don't have to study medieval logic to know
that this argument is as circular as a snake eating its own tail. Those who
place faith above empirical knowledge are nicely boxed in, when they need to
prove their god by reasoning for a factual resurrection!
Yes, the New Testament text is fairly secure--textually. Jesus
probably lived. This makes a man, not a ghost, historical. The Shroud of
Turin, too, only shows someone's death.
The scriptures reflect controversies of the later first century A.D.
We don't know anything about their authors or dates of composition. They give
wildly different dates for Jesus' birth and none at all for his death. They
were written to strengthen and explain one faith. We can see where and why
they shift their stories. Mentioning a few, lamentably few, historical facts
here and there does not make them histories; science fiction might mention
We have no first-century sources apart from a handful of partisans,
whose accounts partly depend on certain common sources. Relying on the
gospels and Paul is like using Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin to prove the truth
of Marxism. Hear, here, hearsay. There are no, nope, no other sources, no
pagan ones, NONE. This is the key point. Jewish writings are, of course,
decidedly hostile; and a risen Messiah would have meant most to them, of
anyone. They were waiting for just this, yet did not believe.
As an historical matter, it is easy to punch our fingers in the holes
in current arguments for the plausibility of the resurrection, once and only
once, of a dead man, this dead man.
"Who moved the stone?" is a useless question; only one man, Joseph of
Arimathea, buried Jesus in the first place. Two days later, women (one, two,
three, or more) went to anoint the body, expecting to move the stone
themselves. When they found the stone out of place, they didn't cry, like
modern hucksters, "no human being could have moved that stone."
Only Matthew introduces the story that an angel moved the stone. Of
the four gospel-writers, only Matthew places a guard over the tomb. Matthew
patently adds these details--the guard, the "very large stone," and the
bowling angel--in his apologetic version. How could the writers of the New
Testament lie while living witnesses survived? Easily. They were partisans,
writing for the like-minded. They needed to answer the charge, widespread as
we know among contemporary Jews (Mt. 28.15), that the disciples had stolen the
body. A 1st-century-A.D. Roman law found in Palestine actually prescribes
severe penalties for stealing bodies or moving grave-stones.
"Where's the body?" is an inane local slogan. Where's Caesar's?
Where's Jesus' tomb? (Don't be blinded by "No-body" like the Cyclops in
"Followers were willing to die for him." And for David Koresh, and
for Adolf Hitler, and, and .... The centrality of the resurrection actually
underlines the intriguing fact that Jesus' life and activities did not
convince _anyone_ of his divinity. Miracle-workers were nothing new.
Other individuals have been resurrected, other gods have appeared,
Romulus, Mohammed, Apollonius and others have supposedly ascended into heaven.
T.H. Huxley showed that numerous "miracles," which no one now believes, are
better attested than ancient ones. As Edward Gibbon wrote, men follow the
superstitions of their ancestors more than the evidence of their own senses.
To all that add the common pattern of a dying god, reborn with the return of
Spring, which J.G. Frazer wrote volumes about.
Above all, Jesus's alleged resurrection represents a major-league
denial of human death. About 55 B.C., Lucretius wrote beautifully of this as
the fount of religion.
Of course there is good in Christianity. Bertrand Russell harshly
insisted that no good could come from falsehood; Plato's "ruling myth" is a
better model. ("Tradition!") But whatever is good in the Christian
philosophy should be able to survive reliance upon an unverified, blatantly
mythical past event. But then we'd have to let people think ....
Consider the odd Christian combination of a personal god with a
particular faith in history: "There is a god because (i) there _was_ a god
and (ii) because I have this feeling in here." Yet the historical question,
like any question about the existence or not of a defined deity, is a simple
"yes" or "no" question. It should have nothing to do with one's ultra-sensory
communicative powers or invisible hotlines. But it does, because accepting
the resurrection can only be an act of faith.
Faith rests on history, but history rests on faith! Christian focus
on the resurrection as an historical question almost makes the existence and
nature of gods uninteresting questions. Do Christians despair of having
better reasons? But, after all, only the claims of one historically-bound
sect are at issue here. In the grand scheme of things, these are as parochial
as any others.
Curiouser and curiouser (Alice 3:16).