Here is a story of a person who performed miraculous things, inexplicable and witnessed by many people. Lots of people follow this person, believing in the divinity they have witnessed and accepting the divine consequence of the stories they have heard from other followers. This person carried a message from Heaven which has been delivered far and wide. And finally, this person died and bodily resurrected.
And here is a story about a book with some amazing, fascinating, radical claims about the way the world is. The book claims that it is historical, and a great many of the historical and geographical details indeed turn out to be true. The book now exists in millions upon millions of copies all around the world. There were many people able to challenge the factual content of this book at the time of the writings, and yet many people – even people who could easily themselves have checked the facts! – were convinced of its truthfulness.
I’m talking, of course, about “the Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown. And the person I was talking about first is Mama Domitilla, according to the description by her followers.
My point? A book that claims to be true and containing checkable facts here and there, and which is swallowed as truth by large number of people is not true by default. What is needed is clear evidence, and Vocab can provide no more a snifter of positive, historical evidence for the bodily resurrection of Christ than there is for the ascension of Mohammed to heaven on a donkey or to L. Ron Hubbard’s death-cheating passage from this world to the next.
And a story about a resurrecting person with miraculous powers need not be true even though a lot of people believe it. Mama Domitilla allegedly died and was resurrected (after a tour of Heaven) less than 50 years ago. She is still alive today. There are all manner of fact-checking possibilities available to all of us, regarding this case. And of course, those who have checked her out find her to be either deluded or an outright fraud. (see, for instance, www.csicop.org) And yet, it seems to make no difference – she is still regarded by many, many people as the real deal. I’m not one of them. Nor, I’d wager, are you. You’re too smart to believe a story like that. Go read it if you didn’t already. It’s outrageous!
Religions have always been with us, and the idea of divine men bending the harsh rules of nature, and promising us the benefits of these powers, have always been in the cultural landscape of religions. Many religions have converted great numbers of people with their basic appeal to the wonderful notion that the converts can, though actions or confessions, be saved from the hardship of daily life and be part of a grander scheme, protected by an all-powerful God.
Vocab’s claim is that Christianity, out of all the religions, is more than yet another fanciful dream arising from the breathless hopes, dreams and superstitions of the general population. This is a strong claim which requires a lot more evidence than the type Vocab has provided, which have largely been appeals to authority, arguments of the sort “I can’t see how this happened, so it couldn’t have happened” and a conspicuous lack of anything approaching firm historical evidence for the central tent-pole in the Christian creed – the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
The divinity of Jesus is not an ahistorical claim. It can be proven. It would be proven if Jesus appeared to each of us daily and had a little chat. It would be proven if the Bible were an amazing book, full of stuff only an omniscient and omnipotent being could know and say, deep truths that were, and still are, inaccesible to human inquiry but observed to be true. It would be proven if prayers actually worked over random statistical noise. There *are* measurable consequences to the world if Christianity were true – consequences anyone would be able to detect. It doesn’t all happen in a faith vacuum. If anything, the evidence we would have of an omnipotent being should be the strongest, most awe-inspiring and undoubtable evidence we would have of ANYTHING. No-one on earth would be an unbeliever.
I can almost hear you saying “that’s not how it works! You access God only through faith, you can’t expect God to reveal himself in this way to suit your desires for evidence, we must have faith that He knows what he’s doing!” Christians have become entirely used to not expecting actual evidence for the existence of their God, to the point that it seems childish and naive to them when someone like me starts asking for it.
However, if Vocab is right, this kind of thing was EXACTLY what happened at the time of Jesus. Jesus DID appear to lots of people, 500+ according to Paul, after his resurrection – proving to them that he was indeed God. If Vocab is right, this experience WAS so awe-inspiring that it converted skeptics. Right here, in the Gospels, we see described an event where God, indisputably, intervened in the world in such a way that it left no room for faith. The early Christians, if Vocab is right, were Christians not of faith, but of reason: they SAW this stuff happen. Paul converted because he SAW Jesus in a vision, not because of faith.
There is something odd about the fact that this debate is being held at all. The resurrection of Jesus, according to the Christian creed, is of fundamental importance. It is this event, more than any other, that showed humanity the way to Heaven and avoiding Hell, and this distinction is entirely dependant on whether or not you accept Jesus as your saviour – in other words, whether you believe the resurrection of Jesus. This makes the event, if it happened, the most important ever in the history of humanity. And God, in sending his son to die for our sins, seems interested in saving humanity from Hell by giving them this choice. And as I stated, to the witnesses of the resurrection, there was nothing to doubt about this revelation. Jesus went as far as allowing people to touch his resurrected body and, essentially, perform small experiments to verify the truthfulness of this most important fact.
What changed? Why are Christians today content with faith and not evidence? They are, because they have to be – the well of evidence, overflowing beyond any reasonable doubt to a number of people in the right place at the right time – has now dried up. The mindset has to change if one is to remain a Christian after Jesus’ ascension. From there on in, you had no more evidence except the stories of other Christians. Truth comes from trust in other people’s stories, not from evidence. Maybe this is why Vocab seems so easily satisfied by his presentation, lacking in evidence that it is, though rich in confident conclusions based on his own or other autorities’ personal convictions. Maybe that’s all there is left. But believable arguments from trusted sources don’t make for evidence. “The Da Vinci Code” is an example of that. As another, we all thought peptic ulcers were cause by stress and lifestyle – it seemed so plausible! – until evidence forced us to change our views and accept that they are caused by bacteria. We can put too much trust in an idea because we love the sound of it, because everyone else believes it, or because the alternative just seems too far-fetched. Skepticism disallows such cognitive luxury.
Evidence is king.
In the end, as always, the burden of proof lies on the claimant. Vocab’s job was to convince his readers of the resurrection of Jesus.
As a reader, I enjoyed the ride. As a debater, I went in with an open mind, I learned a lot and thank Vocab for keeping the debate on a level of seriousness and politeness most apologist/skeptic debates can only aspire to. But in the echoing lack of evidence, I remain unconvinced.