Sunday, April 02, 2017

Magnificent Obsession by David Robertson (a response, Part 3)

Dear D,

While these posts may appear in quick succession, several months have passed since I read the last chunk of your book and formed my thoughts on it, so sorry if this appears a bit disconnected from the previous posts. My comments on the first three chapters of your book can be found here, and my comments on chapter four are here.

Now we get to Chapter 5 "Marvellous" in which you tackle the subject of the resurrection. You believe it happened, and you believe this because you believe that the Biblical stories are true. I don't think you have really given us any story of how you came to believe that these stories are true so far.

For myself, I believed that these stories were true because my family and Church family all believed that these stories were true and managed to embed that belief in me from an early age. I may not have made any personal commitment to be a Christian until I was in my late teens, but the fundamental belief in the truth of the Bible was always there from the word go. I suspect that much the same is true of you. We are both products of a Scottish Christian upbringing.

Suppose you weren't though. Suppose you happened upon this book with no preconceptions about its author or authority. What would it take to convince you that this book conveys truth? I've wrestled with this question in other posts on this blog, so I'll leave it out for now, but I do think there is something in John Loftus's "Outsider test for faith" idea.

Anyway, the resurrection... or rather, sin. You start by talking about sin. Indeed, you get to the doctrine of total depravity quite rapidly. I always find it interesting that the so called 'good news' needs to start with the 'bad theory' - once you've convinced people that they are bad, then you can sell them your way of fixing the perceived problem that you gave them in the first place.

Before really getting into the question of sin, though, you jump (abruptly) to the question of evidence. Your imaginary correspondent apparently raised this question somewhere off stage left. And you skirt around this issue in a really unsatisfying way by saying:
"There is plenty of evidence for what I assert. I can't list it. Whole books have been written..." 
Most of these books you don't cite, so I'm not sure how your reader is supposed to test your claims.

But the central claim of this chapter is that, unlike most of the other things you claim, that you can prove the resurrection. Strong claim. So let's look at your proof.

At least you start from common ground here: "Resurrections just don't happen." At least we agree on that. Then you dismiss a few straw-man theories, the 'swoon' theory, the 'conspiracy' theory and the 'cock-up' theory. All of these theories are bunk, I'll agree with you there, but the fundamental flaw in all of these theories is that they accept some of the details of the gospel story as true and accurate, and only cast doubt on one or two details. This is 19th century rationalism - only people who believe that the Bible is true, but that miracles don't happen have to resort to such theories. How about the theory that the whole thing is fiction? You don't go there. And yet that is the most likely scenario.

Resurrections just don't happen. But stories of resurrections do happen. Loads of them. This story could be complete fiction. Why don't you even consider this 'theory'? Because your responses to all the theories rely on the assumption that some of the details in the gospel stories are true, and from this basis you will attempt to prove that other details in the same stories must also be true.

Your first port of call is Bauckham's book (which I read and reviewed six years ago), which you take to be conclusive proof that the gospels were written by actual eyewitnesses. The assumption is that if someone who was there wrote this, then the story is completely accurate. Really? Read some of the actual eyewitness testimony from the Salem Witch Trials! People who were actually verifiably somewhere at a given point in history can and did report absolute nonsense about what they apparently saw. With the gospels we don't even have that.

Next you raise the old turkey of the women. If this was made up, surely the fabricator would have made a man the central character!? Why? Why would a man go to the tomb? Culturally, it was the women who would go to embalm the body. In the context of the story, it has to be the women who are the first witnesses. The story demands that the women discover the empty tomb, whether the story is true or not.

Then you take the conflicting gospel reports head on and claim that the fact that they disagree with one another somehow makes the accounts more likely to be true. You don't really address the actual irreconcilable differences between the stories, you do broad brush strokes and paint a picture that works. Its a shame that a detailed look at the evidence shows the opposite. Have a look at my post "Why did the angels say what they said?" for more on this.

Next you (once again) use the evidence of some details in the story to demonstrate that other details in the story are true. The if the resurrection appearances are true then the resurrection must also be true. Well, yes, but claiming that 500 nameless people saw Jesus at one unspecified time, in an unspecified location, doesn't really help us much. As far as I know, the only other reference to 500 people (other than in Corinthians) who could have seen the resurrected Jesus comes from the Gospel of Nicodemus which specifies that there were 500 guards placed at the tomb. Not sure I believe that story, maybe the author of 1 Corinthians 15 did...

Finally you cite the evidence that nobody dies for a lie. Well, aside from the fact that that we know some folk have died for lies (Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, springs to mind), this doesn't help us much - the stories of the martyrdoms of the disciples are part of the same literary tradition that contains the Bible stories. Once again, you are using one part of a story to prove another part of the same story.

You close the chapter with anecdotes about people believing in the resurrection. The fact that people believe it is not in doubt. Whether they have good grounds for believing in it is the question, and I'm not sure your case for that is very strong.



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