Monday, June 10, 2024

Wisdom in polytheism or agnosticism?

(Yes, I'm still here, I've just been busy with other things. I might return to blogging regularly again, you never know...)

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

He saved others?

During the crucifixion narrative, in Mark 15v31 it says: 
"In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself!"
This seems a bit like an anachronism to me, because at this point in the story, Jesus hasn't 'saved' others. He has healed a lot of people, sure. And the Greek word for heal appears to be the same word as for rescue or save; σῴζω (or 'sōzō'). But it makes no sense for people observing the crucifixion to make any connection between someone healing people of diseases and having the ability to rescue themselves from the cross. Its like they are saying 'oh, he was a doctor, he must be a good escapologist as well...'; it makes no sense, in the context.

Where it does make sense is later, after Jesus gained a reputation for being a saviour - one able to save others from going to hell. Once there are Christians who believed in Jesus as saviour, it would make sense to look back on the cross and wonder why he couldn't save himself.

For these reasons I think this detail in the crucifixion story is not historically accurate, but was probably a literary construct, written by a Christian some time after the fact, putting words into the mouths of his imagined characters. I can't see how anyone would have really said that, when watching a real crucifixion.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Living God?

I found myself wondering about the nature of God the other day. Specifically, what does it mean when the Bible (e.g. Deut 5:26, Josh 3:10, 1 Sam 17:26, 2 Kings 19:4, Psalm 42:2, Isaiah 37:4, Jer 10:10, Dan 6:20, and elsewhere) describes God/YHWH as 'The Living God'?

One of the problems here is that it is actually really hard to define 'life'. offers a huge list of definitions, the first two of which are:
  1. the condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally. 
  2. the sum of the distinguishing phenomena of organisms, especially metabolism, growth, reproduction, and adaptation to environment.
Other definitions are a bit woolier than those. Basically, when we apply the word 'life' to an animal or plant we are talking about something which is growing, adapting, consuming, excreting, changing, etc.

But what happens when we apply that same word to God? Is God growing? Does he adapt? Does he consume and excrete? Fundamentally, does he change? The book of Hebrews suggests that he does not. So if he never changes, in what sense can we claim that he is alive?

Growing up in church I heard sermons claiming that the emphasis here was to contrast our God, who is real and alive, with the gods of the surrounding nations, who are dead or imaginary.  But, of course, I eventually realised that nobody believes their own gods are dead or imaginary, surely everyone believes that their own gods are real and alive? It really wouldn't surprise me to discover that worshipers of Dagon (or whoever) back in OT times made jokes about worshipers of YHWH following an imaginary or dead god. If that's the point, it's just propaganda.

But suppose that's not it. Suppose the point is not to say our God is alive and yours is dead. What would the meaning be then? If a god is worth worshiping, surely we can assume that he's alive, we don't have to keep repeating it? One possible meaning, that I've heard discussed on podcasts, but have not found much about in written form, is perhaps that there was a dying-and-rising-god mythology about Yahweh long before anyone told stories about Jesus dying and rising. The story goes that the dying-and-rising myth was a common trope in many cultures and religions, and it's possible that it was part of the pre-exilic Hebrew religion as well. Yahweh was considered 'the Living God' because for a time he was believed not to have been living at all, but came back from that, and that is something worthy of worship. It's not just 'our God is alive, your god is dead', but rather 'our God has power over death, can you god do that?' Of course, this is all speculation, but it is interesting.

Beyond the question of 'in what sense is God alive?' lies the opposite question of 'in what sense was Jesus dead between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?'

I think most Christians have never really thought this through - I certainly didn't when I was a Christian. If they'd stop and think about it, I think most believers probably would come up with something like this: The man Jesus, before crucifixion, was made up of a living body and some form of indwelling soul or spirit. When he was crucified, the indwelling soul or spirit left the body and the body died, but the indwelling soul or spirit didn't die and went somewhere else for a few days. When the resurrection happened, the indwelling soul or spirit was put into a renewed (and improved)  reanimated version of the human body and Jesus became a walking, talking, living being once more. I guess for most believers in that sort of thing, the indwelling soul or spirit is the real person of Jesus and the body was just a body. So in this picture of things, the real Jesus didn't die on the cross. The real Jesus just went somewhere else for a few days. Either to harrow hell, as some would have it, or to go to paradise as Luke's Jesus says from the cross, maybe both, I don't know how long it takes to harrow hell. But if he didn't really die on the cross, then how can his death atone for anything?

The more I dig into it, the less sense concepts of living and dying make in the Christian worldview. Maybe I need to read some Thomas Altizer and get to grips with the idea of what would happen if God really died on the cross, and stayed dead! But that's something to think of some other time.

Monday, May 27, 2019

An impersonal relationship with God?

What exactly is a "personal relationship" with God?

Lots of (mostly evangelical) Christians claim to have one, but I've rarely heard anyone actually explaining what they mean by the phrase.

In life, I have professional relationships with some people and personal relationships with others. I guess the main thing that defines the personal relationships is that I see those people socially. We do things together. We see each other, even when we don't need to see each other. We have shared experiences. Probably they know things about me that other people don't know, and I know things about them that other people don't know.

Is that how it is with God? Do individual Christians know things about God that only they know, and other Christians do not? Are Christians with a personal relationship with God able to express his preferences on various issues?

If you have a personal relationship with God, could you tell me which Star Trek movie is his favourite? Or does he have a favourite character in Game of Thrones, and who is it? Does he prefer rap music to metal? Which is his favourite Spice Girl? Indeed, what is his favourite colour?

I could have a good go at giving answers to each of those for people I have personal relationships with. If you can't come up with answers to that sort of question for God, do you really have a personal relationship with him? Do you actually interact with God, socially? Or is it just a phrase that you use?

I suspect, for many Christians, what they actually have is an impersonal relationship, if it's even a relationship at all. Following a set of guidelines is not a relationship, even if you get an 'inner stirring' while doing so.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The power of storytelling, and the problem of probability.

I’ve recently listened to the debate between Michael Shermer (skeptic) and Luuk Vandeweghe (Christian apologist) which took place in Sequim, Washington, USA, in March 2019, and was broadcast on the Unbelievable radio show and podcast a couple of weeks later.

It was a debate on biblical miracles, in front of a mostly Christian audience. It's fair to say that Vandeweghe won the debate. But I don't think he won the debate because he is right and has the facts on his side, I think he won the debate because he's a great storyteller, and told a compelling story of early Christianity which sounded entirely plausible, and therefore believable. Shermer never got the chance to take the story apart, and so wasn't able to counter the power of a good story.

Christians have always had great storytellers and great stories. But just because they have great stories, perhaps even the greatest story ever told, doesn't make the stories true. Sometimes fiction is more interesting than real life.

So let's break down Luuk Vandeweghe's story and see if it holds up to scrutiny. Obviously I'll only comment on a few aspects of it here, but I'll try and give the gist of the whole and be accurate in a few direct quotes.

He began by acknowledging that he was telling a story: "I want to tell you a story..." and used a repeated refrain to link together all the different characters he told us about: "They weren't liars and they weren't fooled".

He started his story in 66AD with a story about the emperor Nero in Rome, told by Tacitus. Vandeweghe doesn't tell us that Tacitus was only ten years old in 66AD, and wasn't there, and wouldn't write this account until at least 30 years later, he implied an accurate report of the events in AD66. He told how Nero took Christians, nailed them to crosses, and burned them as torches for his garden parties. He then told a tale of someone at the Colosseum, who could have saved their family members from being torn apart by wild animals if only they had denied Christ, but who chose to stay faithful. He said: "Tacitus tells us Christians gained the sympathy of the people because they never did this, they suffered, they endured, and they won over the hearts of Rome during that era, because they never went back on their testimony".

The problem I have with this, is that Tacitus says no such thing. Tacitus does not recount the story of the people at the Colosseum being given the opportunity to deny Christ and live. As far as I know, those stories come from 2nd century writings like the Apocryphal Acts, and writings like the Epistles of Ignatius, it's not in Tacitus. And the 2nd century writings contain a lot of stories that serious historians laugh at. They are not history. But here, a storytelling Christian has merged aspects of real history, with some ambiguous interpretation, with probably fictional stories, to make the story he wants to tell. This is not history, this is apologetics, and if the truth has to be bent along the way, so be it.

The storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

Here's what Tacitus actually said:
"Consequently, to get rid of the report [that Nero had ordered the fire in Rome], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed."
This does say that Nero blamed the fire of Rome on Christians, and had some Christians crucified, some burned as torches, and some torn by beasts. It doesn't say that any of them were given the option to deny Christ and be saved. And while it does say that the people of Rome had some compassion for the Christians, it doesn't say that this was because they were faithful to their beliefs.

Luuk made the claim that "the early martyrs weren't liars", but on the evidence of Tacitus, we don't actually know what the early martyrs said. They pleaded guilty to something, but Tacitus is unclear on what. Possibly the crime of setting fire to the city?

But the storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

The apologist's story now goes a couple of years before AD66 to the supposed martyrdom of Peter. Here, the apologist does that usual apologetic trick of overstating his case: "According to all the earliest sources that we have, Peter is the man who inspired Mark to write his gospel". Really? All the earliest sources? Paul doesn't say it, Acts doesn't say it, even Mark doesn't say it, secular historians like Tacitus and Josephus certainly don't mention it. In fact, most of the earliest sources we have do not mention the gospel of Mark or any connection between it and Peter. I think our earliest source on the supposed link between the two is Papias in the early to mid 2nd century. And there are reasons to question whether the writings Papias was talking about are actually the same thing as the book we now call Mark. And quite a few historians question the reliability of Papias. Most of the claims we have for a link between Peter and Mark are late 2nd century, possibly a whole century after the death of Peter, certainly more than a century after the death of Jesus. Yet the apologist declares, with apparent certainty, that the miracles in Mark came from the eyewitness accounts of Peter and that he died for his belief in those miracles.

I'd like to insert a little parenthesis here about probability. I'll continue with Luuk's story in a minute.

Here our apologist made three historical assertions in quick succession. These are:

  1. Peter witnessed the miracles of Jesus.
  2. Peter told the stories to Mark who wrote them down.
  3. Peter died because he would not abandon his belief in these miracles.
For the overall story to be true, all three of these need to be true. If one is false, the whole story is proven false. But historical reconstruction doesn't work in absolute truths, it works in probabilities.  The way probabilities work is that the probability of the whole is found by multiplying the probabilities of the individual components together. That is Ptotal = P1 × P2 × P3.

Suppose you think there is an 80% probability that each of these three statements is true, the probability of the overall story would be 0.8 × 0.8 × 0.8 = 0.51 or 51%. That's not a statement of high certainty, is it? But suppose we doubt the stories of Papius and think that it is unlikely that Mark's stories come from Peter, perhaps allocating that a 20% chance, and we think there's only a 50% that Peter actually saw miracles, and we think there's only a 30% chance that he would not have been martyred if he had changed his story, then we get 0.2 × 0.5 × 0.3 = 0.03 or only a 3% chance that the overall story is true!

In order for you to have (say) a 75% (or higher) probability in the overall claim, you actually need at least a 90% certainty in each of the three claims. Few historians would be likely to stake their claims that high.

This is what happens when there are only three claims being combined, Luuk's overall story has many more claims. If even a few of these have low probability, the likelihood of the overall story becomes very small. However, this reasonable application of probability in history is completely masked by compelling storytelling. A good story makes something plausible sound like something probable. They are very far from being the same thing. I'll try the sum at the end of this post... but now back to the story. 

Luuk now makes something entirely up. He says to imagine the evangelist Luke in the crowd, watching the crucifixion of Peter. Where did that come from? I've never heard that claim before. It would sure help the apologist's case if the author of Acts was there at the events he describes in his book, or the events he alludes to, because -of course- the martyrdom of Peter is not actually recorded in Acts. If Luke was there and if he witnessed Peter not denying Christ and being crucified as a consequence, and if he wrote that in his book, that would indeed be good evidence. But the thing is, this didn't happen, he didn't see it, he didn't write it. This part of the story is a complete red herring.

But the storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

Although the chain of evidence Vandeweghe is trying to build has already been broken with the lie above, he carries on and makes a big deal of the historical reliability of Luke's writings. He portrays Luke as a top notch historian who interviewed named eyewitnesses, including Mary the mother of Jesus. He claims that every time a minor character is named, this is probably because Luke has interviewed the eyewitness in question, and has told their story. It makes a great story, but this is also a highly doubtful claim. Nothing in there can be stated with certainty.

Scholars have long known that Luke used Mark as his primary source, but freely changed the bits he didn't like and added in other stories to bulk out his gospel. While the opening statement of Luke's gospel does sound like a claim of historical scholarship, not everyone is convinced. Indeed, from all I've read on the subject of Luke (and Acts, for that matter) I am reasonably convinced that the final edition of Luke, including the dedication to Theophilus, is a 2nd century expansion of an earlier gospel that made no claim to scholarship. Look at the first couple of chapters of Luke compared to most of the rest of the gospel, they're not even the same genre; chapters 1 and 2 are a musical! If you start reading Luke's gospel at chapter 3, it reads like the start of a book. I think chapter 3 is where the original gospel began and chapters 1 and 2 were added on by whoever was compiling this book for Theophilus. If the compiler was someone called Luke, this can't have been the same character who Paul named in his letters a couple of generations earlier. The apologetic as to why the evangelist Luke was the same as the companion of Paul is quite convoluted and there are good counter-arguments. Its certainly a low probability claim, not a certainty. Yet Vandeweghe relies on Luke's 'unbroken line of evidence' to support his case.

The storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

The chain of evidence now jumps to an individual I have thought a lot about recently, James the Just, the alleged brother of Jesus. Luuk invokes Josephus at this point. As with Tacitus, Josephus was a child at the time of the events of interest occurred, and was not there to witness them. There is also suspicion that the works of Josephus have been edited by later Christian redactors. Certainly the 'Testimonium Flavianum' has evidence of someone tampering with the text, and if it wasn't for the words 'the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ' in the passage about James, there would be nothing about the story in Josephus for us to think that James was martyred for anything to do with the Christian faith. He was executed as a lawbreaker. Maybe he was just a lawbreaker who was executed, and who has accrued legends after his death. People considered to be martyrs do seem to attract stories of great deeds and holiness.

Luuk repeats the oft-told apologetic about how James was a skeptic and became a believer and became leader of the early church. Having invested a lot of time reading up on this and thinking about it, I am really not convinced that this is in any way historical. I think that James the Just was co-opted by the 2nd century church as one of 'their' early martyrs and turned into Jesus's brother in the stories. See my blog post about that here. For me, this is a really weak link in the story.

Once again Vandeweghe repeats the completely non-historical claim that James only had to do one thing to avoid being martyred, he had to deny Jesus. This statement has no basis in history. At best it is simply assuming a detail of one story fits into another story, at worst it is pure fiction.

But the storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

The apologist next made the claim that the Sanhedrin who killed James were the same group of people who killed Jesus. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't. Given the years that separate the two events, death of Jesus around 30 CE, death of James around 69 CE, it is unlikely that the group members would be the same, and even if one or two were the same, the chance that they would connect the two events in any way is tiny.

Vandeweghe concluded his story by invoking the words of the Babylonian Talmud, a book written between 500 and 600 CE. He described how the Talmud referred to Jesus as 'a sorcerer', and claimed that this belief "went right back" to the trial of Jesus. His point being that by using the word translated here as 'sorcerer' the Jews were acknowledging that Jesus actually performed magic. This is not the word for a trickster, this is the word for the real deal. In other words, the accusers of Jesus believed his miracles were real, even if they believed they were of diabolic origin.

And so, by following a chain of 'evidence' from 66 CE back to Jesus himself, the apologist concluded his case that the miracles of Jesus were real, because the Sanhedrin at the time believed they were real. It was a strong story. The fact that it is not based in history is irrelevant. Vandeweghe won the debate.

But, of course, there is no chain of evidence linking the Sanhedrin in Jesus's day with a book written about 5 centuries later. And even if there was, there are a few details in the Talmud that should give us pause for thought. The Talmud story of "Yeshu the sorcerer" names his five disciples, tried with him, as "Matai, Nekai, Netzer, Buni, and Todah". None of those names feature in the gospel accounts. And in the gospels, Jesus is tried alone, not with his disciples. Maybe Yeshu the sorcerer and Jesus of Nazareth are not the same character? If that's the case, then the apologetic case fails. The dates also do not line up. If you look at the Talmudic timeline, then Yeshua the sorcerer lived and died a generation or so after Jesus supposedly did.

The storyteller told a good story, does it matter that it is probably not true? 

Is Luuk Vandeweghe a liar, or has he been fooled?

I don't think Vandeweghe is a liar. I just think he fundamentally believes the Christian story, and so lines up a bunch of historical data in a way that is coherent with the thing he believes anyway. He's doing good apologetics and bad history. He's been fooled.

So, how unlikely is his story? Here is a list of the links in his story, together with my estimates of probability for each of them. Assuming they are all required to prove the case, and therefore the probabilities multiply together, I'll do the sum and see just how probable or improbable I think the story is... I'll not allocate anything a zero probability as that messes with the calculations.
  • Christians in the time of Nero were martyred for being Christians. (60-95% likely)
  • They could have saved themselves by denying Christ. (20-50%)
  • Peter witnessed the miracles of Jesus. (10-90%)
  • Peter told the stories to Mark who wrote them down. (20-60%)
  • Peter died because he would not abandon his belief in these miracles. (20-80%)
  • Luke witnessed the martyrdom of Peter. (5-10%)
  • Luke interviewed the people who knew Jesus. (10-50%)
  • James the Just was the brother of Jesus. (5-95%)
  • James was martyred because he was a Christian. (5-50%)
  • James could have saved himself if he'd denied Jesus. (20-50%)
  • The same people who killed James killed Jesus. (5-30%)
  • The Talmud story of Yeshua the sorcerer is about Jesus. (10-60%)
  • The Talmud story goes back to the time of Jesus. (5-20%)
  • The Sanhedrin believed that Jesus could do miracles. (5-70%)
Here I've given reasonable ranges of probability from typically skeptical at the low end (actually, some of these should go way below 5% in that case) to fairly generous credulity at the upper end.

If we do the skeptical sum, we end up with a probability of 1.5 × 10-12%, or 0.0000000000015%. That is about a one in 600 Billion chance of it being true. Not very likely, in other words.

Even if we go to the generous end of the scale, the probability of all of Vandeweghe's story being true is 0.02% or about a 1 in 5000 chance. Still not very likely.

With 14 links here, in order to obtain a probability of more than 50% we need to have more than 95% confidence in all of the links in the chain. If we want the overall probability to be 75% or more, our confidence in each of the 14 links would need to be 98% or higher. Historical probabilities almost never go so high. You basically can't conclude a historical fact on a long chain of cumulative evidence. (Which reminds me that I never completed the 2nd part of my review of Cold Case Christianity... maybe someday...) 

Of course, it is possible that Jesus was real and his miracles were real even if the apologist's story is false or partially false, but that's not the point here. The point here is that you cannot prove something historical by telling stories like this, even though they seem plausible to people who want to believe the story.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Dr Sean George’s miracle and the God behind it

On a recent edition of the Unbelievable show, the story of Dr Sean George was presented by Sean himself and then discussed with some sceptics. I’ve mentioned this story before when it was on the Hinge podcast, but this new show goes into the story in far more detail. To get the whole story, you’ll need to listen to the podcast. But, in brief, Dr George’s story goes like this:

He had a heart attack in a remote part of Western Australia, staff at a small medical clinic tried CPR, etc., to revive him for an extended time, but eventually gave up and declared him dead. When his wife turned up, she prayed for him and his heart restarted. Despite being dead for an extended period of time, and having multiple organ failures, he eventually made a full recovery with no brain damage. He is back to being a professional medical doctor. There are a few other details in the story about third parties receiving ‘revelations’ and knowing what would happen apparently in advance of the events.

So it sounds like a miracle happened. Dr George certainly believed that God did it. But let’s think about this.

Suppose, for a moment, that Sean George is right in his belief. God intervened, restored him to life and miraculously prevented all the problems, loss of brain function, etc., that usually follow from lack of oxygen flow to the brain for multiple minutes. What does this tell us about God? It tells us that God can intervene and over-ride human physiology, saving those who would otherwise die. It tells us that God can and does give direct revelation to individuals about the future, and about things happening elsewhere in the world. It tells us that God can do these things, but that most of the time he doesn’t do them. He can, but he doesn’t. Most people who experienced what Sean George did have simply died. Even though some of them had someone praying for them. What does this tell us about God? It tells us that he has power, but generally chooses not to use it. He probably won’t save you when you ask. He’ll probably let bad things happen to you, even when he could stop them. That doesn’t actually sound like a God worthy of worship. Would you worship and pray to a God who, most likely, will not act upon those prayers and will, most likely, let you suffer and die, even though he could intervene? Why worship a God like that?

I guess the reason most Christians worship a God like that is because of a future, post-mortem hope in the resurrection. The belief that God can and will raise them to glory, even after they have died. There’s a huge assumption here. We’ve already seen that God generally does not do the things that he can do. So even if he raised Jesus to a resurrection body and glory in heaven, this is absolutely no guarantee that he will do the same for them, or for you. Sure, some of the bible writers made statements that make the ‘evidence’ of Jesus’ resurrection sound like a promise to do the same for you, but a written document is no guarantee, even if it claims to be. The same document says that if the church elders pray for you, you will be healed. Time and time again this promise has been proven false.

So if Sean George’s miracle working God is real, this in no way guarantees anyone will get healing in this lifetime, or a glorious afterlife in the future!

But if that God doesn’t exist, isn’t Sean George’s story so remarkable that it must prove that something ‘supernatural’ is going on? Even if that God isn’t real, surely the truth is out there?

I guess that depends on what you mean by ‘supernatural’. Certainly something weird and unusual happened, but was it beyond natural? In other words, was it impossible by natural means?

The thing is, it certainly happened. I'm not a hyper skeptic. I think that enough people have confirmed the story to demonstrate its overall reliability as a real event. Sean George's heart stopped for an extended period of time. Most other people who have heart stoppages for that length of time do not recover and live fully restored lives. But was he properly dead?

I'm currently writing another blog post about what it means to be alive and what it means to be dead. It'll get published eventually. The problem we face is that it is actually quite hard to define life and death. Life is often defined in terms of death, and death is often defined in terms of life, it's confusing. Clearly, if you define 'death' as 'the state from which no return to life is possible', then Sean was never truly dead. He may have exhibited no bodily (or brain?) function, but that does not mean that return to life is impossible, and Sean is an example which proves that. Sean George's return to life and full health is certainly remarkable, definitely rare, but seems merely to be right at the tail end of the bell curve of possibility. As I say, it certainly happened. And because it happened, it is clearly not impossible. It was exceedingly unlikely, but still on the bell curve of possibility, so could be still within the remit of nature. We don't need to look for a supernatural agent, we simply need to redefine our bounds of knowledge of what is natural.

But. Other weird things happened around the extremely unlikely but still naturally possible resuscitation. People claim to have received revelations from God which seem to have come true, the resuscitation itself occurred coincidentally (as in, at the same time as) with Sean's wife turning up and praying, and so on. Does that not suggest something supernatural was going on?

I'm not going to go as far as 'supernatural', but I'll certainly go as far as 'not currently explained by science'. The problem with science is that it can only be used to investigate the repeatable and the fairly frequent. You can't form and test scientific hypotheses based on a one off event. Weird and rare things happen all the time. Charles Fort and the Forteans who came after him have chronicled loads of weird and inexplicable stuff. Is it supernatural? Probably not. Is it rare? Yes.

But I don't think you need to invoke an infinite, all powerful God to explain the inexplicable. For me, the key to this story is that Mrs George initiated the healing. Doctors and nurses couldn't do it, but she turns up and - wham - he is healed. Why do we need to invoke God here? At face value, Mrs George seems to be the one with the healing power (as I said before).

Maybe we'll never know what actually caused the healing. But one thing is clear to me, if it was a God who intervened here, and yet choses not to intervene in millions of other, similar situations, then that God is not a God worthy of our faith.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Frivolously misquoting the Bible. #1

Just heard someone quoting 2 Corinthians 4: 17-18 on a podcast:
"For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
From a Christian perspective this verse can be a powerful encouragement in troubled times. From a skeptical perspective, however, it could be just wishful thinking. So I wondered if the verses should be rendered like this in a skeptical version of the Bible:
"For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us something that might outweigh them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen could be simply a figment of our imagination..."

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Richard Dawkins, appearance of design, and the Bible

In the opening paragraphs of "The Blind Watchmaker" (1986), Richard Dawkins states that 
"Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose" 
and then goes on to explain that the appearance is misleading, there is no particular designed purpose, and that no designer is required to explain the observed complexity.

Christian apologists and others have given him a hard time over this statement ever since. For the apologists, ID proponents and other evolution sceptics, the apparent face value completely trumps the hidden and complex set of processes which need to be explained to provide the evolutionary story.

So what has this got to do with the bible?

Well, I was thinking about this the other day and I realised that there are several things in the bible which appear to be something at face value, but theologians and apologists have to do a lot of wriggling around to provide complex explanations of why the face value is not the truth.

For example: The literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke, a.k.a. the Synoptic Problem. At face value, it looks as though one or more of the gospel writers was copying from the others. These are not independent stories, told by eyewitnesses, these are stories copied from one source to another and edited to fit the agenda of the author. And yet many apologists will totally dispute this, providing complex but 'plausible' sequences of events that could maybe explain how these supposedly independent gospels could have come to look so similar.

Or, for example: The authorship of the Pauline Epistles. Once I read Romans and Ephesians more or less back to back. While the theology of both epistles is broadly similar (as far as I can tell), the writing style is completely different. If you look at it objectively - at face value - the epistle to the Ephesians looks to have a completely different author to the epistle to the Romans. Indeed, even within the epistle to the Romans, chapters 9-11 seem to be written by someone with a different style to the writer of the other chapters. The face value appearance, based on writing style, is that if Paul wrote most of the epistle to the Romans (Ch 1-8 and 12-16) then he did not write chapters 9-11, or Ephesians, or Colossians, or the Pastorals, etc. And yet apologists will bend over backwards to provide convoluted theories about how people can change their writing style over time, and what we are seeing here is the difference between young Paul and older Paul. But, as far as I can tell (I'm no expert here), there is little evidence from secular scholars of writing style to support such a radical shift in someone's writing style as they get older. Face value suggests multiple authors, some of whom must be pretending to be Paul.

The thing is, sometimes things are what they appear to be at face value, and sometimes they are not. You can't simply dismiss face value, but then again, you have to take complex and convoluted explanations seriously, because sometimes they might be the way things are. Life isn't simple. Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn't. And that - in itself - is a complex issue to resolve.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Hinge - Episode 8 - Miracles

I've been listening to the "Hinge" podcast and have been meaning to blog about my thoughts on it, but have been so busy recently that I've not managed to write any coherent thoughts down before I've forgotten what they were and have moved on to the next thing. I may revisit this podcast in the future and post some thoughts at a later date, but for now here are my thoughts on episode 8.

I suppose I should briefly explain the setup of Hinge, in case you're unfamiliar with it. Basically its written and presented by two friends, one a pastor, one an atheist (former Christian) who decided to take a year off work and explore the big questions about God and Jesus properly, and then present it in ten podcasts, each about half an hour long. Its been interesting so far, but more than a little frustrating, because you simply cannot do justice to the questions they are exploring in only about five hours of audio.

This week's podcast is a perfect example of how the show doesn't really get to grips with the subject. The topic for this week was basically miracles; do they happen? In the half hour show they discussed three supposed miracles, which I will briefly summarise here:
  1. A situation where a believer was really short of money, did her sums and wrote down exactly how much money she needed to pay the bills, then she prayed about it. Later that week a Christian friend of hers (who knew nothing about the financial difficulty) felt compelled to send a cheque for a specific amount to this woman. When the cheque arrived it turned out to be exactly the same amount of money the woman had calculated.
  2. A situation where a man had a heart attack and the doctors could not resuscitate him, but kept trying for ages. When his wife arrived at the surgery, she prayed and the man's heart started working again. Despite being clinically dead for almost an hour, he eventually made a full recovery, with no brain damage.
  3. A situation where a man was crushed by a car, severing five major arteries and destroying much of his lower intestine. Somehow he survived until the hospital, but his guts were severely damaged and much of them had to be removed. When in hospital, some Christian healer felt compelled to come and pray for the guy and he felt something change in his insides. Some time later an atheist surgeon operated on him and discovered that much of his lower intestine had regrown.
Items 2 and 3 on that list are discussed in Craig Keener's book on Miracles that I really should read some time, but it is massive, so I'll pass for now.

The options presented and discussed in the Hinge podcast were the following:
  1. These were all miracle events, brought about by the Christian God.
  2. These were not miracle events, and some natural (but not explained) process must be at work.
That's it. No third option was even considered. 

For me, the answer to these conundrums does not necessarily need an omnipresent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent God. Indeed, if there was such a God involved, I'd expect different outcomes in each case.

Take the first case, what role does God play here? He basically gets the magic number telepathically from the head of one character and inserts it telepathically into the head of another. And the two characters already know each other. You don't need an infinite God to link these two, if you're prepared to speculate, then a simple telepathic link direct between the two would explain it with no divine agent. In one scenario you have two telepathic links and an infinite God, in the other only one telepathic link is required. Occam's razor would prefer the option with no God. Of course, there is limited evidence for telepathy, but then again, there is limited evidence for God.

You think an infinite God is more probable than telepathy? Are you sure about that?

And what this show failed to even mention is what about the many (hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions) of Christians in financial trouble who work out their financial shortfall, pray about it, and then nothing happens? Nobody sends a cheque. What about them? One anecdote doesn't explain why most of the time God seems to do nothing, and occasionally (I've heard a similar story before) people get just the right amount of money given to them in mysterious ways.

Given the law of large numbers, this could simply be coincidence. According to the story, the financial shortfall was a very specific number, and the mysterious cheque had that exact (and obscure) value, but here I must question the reliability of human memory. Suppose the shortfall was $164.07 and the cheque that arrived was $167.95, I have no doubt that the recipient would think those numbers were close enough for it to be a miracle, and as the story was told and retold over many years, the actual numbers could have been forgotten, but only the 'fact' that they were the same was remembered. Or maybe I'm being a bit cynical. I know my memory isn't perfect, I can't assume that everyone else has a perfect memory.

Turning to the medical miracles (and as far as I can tell - without reading it - most or all of the miracles in Craig Keener's book are medical in nature; nobody seems to walk in water or turn water into wine these days), there is one feature of both stories that was not questioned in the podcast - why does God need to work through an intermediary? In story 2, above, no 'miraculous' healing happened until the guy's wife showed up, then things turned around. In story 3, the apparent miracle only happened after the Christian healer guy turned up and prayed. In both stories it appears that God chose to, or perhaps needed to heal through an intermediary. Why didn't/couldn't he heal directly? I've heard this in many other healing stories - some human healer is involved.

Lets speculate again. What if some people simply have innate healing powers, able to cause healing, regrowth, or resuscitation just by laying on of hands, or something like that? Its like the telepathy thing again, in one hypothesis we have a healing individual and an infinite God, in the other we simply have a healing individual. Just because that individual believes that the power comes from God, doesn't actually mean that any God is involved.

And again, the programme doesn't discuss the stories of those who had heart attacks and then died. Or those who were crushed by cars and then died. The stories presented are the tiniest minority of actual incidents. Most of the time miracles don't happen. Some of the time, people just get lucky. Maybe these miracles were just instances of people at the favourable end of the probability bell curve, who happened to pray at some point in the incident. Maybe they are wrongly attributing their good fortune to God, when there was actually no God involved.

The feedback loop of faith is involved here (which I first discussed in this post). We don't hear the stories of dying people who cried out to God and died anyway. Those stories should cause us to reduce our belief in a God who answers prayer, but we don't do that because we never hear those stories. We only hear the stories of the survivors.

And the other thing implied in the show, but the issue was never raised, is that only the Christian God answers prayer and heals in these ways. What about those who call out to Allah and don't die? We never hear about them. What about those who cry out to Krishna? What about the prayers of Mormans, or Moonies, or whatever? The narrow focus on only two possibilities in this show (i.e. option A "The Christian God exists" or option B "There is nothing supernatural") rules out a whole host of interesting possibilities ad speculations. Reality isn't black or white.

Personally, I don't think these miracle claims are enough to demonstrate that the Triune God of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is the only way to explain the weird stuff discussed. But I also don't think that Hinge takes seriously the possibility that weird stuff can happen without there being a God. From observation and from reading I am quite sure that weird and inexplicable stuff happens all the time, and our current understanding of the universe simply cannot explain it. But that doesn't mean we need to jump straight to God as an explanation.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Resurrection and the 'Minimal Facts' approach.

James, brother of someone.
I've recently read "The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus" by Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, and discussed that book on a weekly basis with one or two Christians for a few weeks in November last year. The case presented in this book seems to be the best case that Evangelical Christianity has that the resurrection of Jesus was a true, historical event.

I've touched on this subject before (in these blog posts from 2012: 1, 2, 3, & 4), but that was over 5 years ago and I have read much more on the subject since, so it may be worth revisiting my thoughts on the subject now.

The case rests squarely on the shoulders of four or five 'minimal facts', and the discussion goes from there. I guess we need to start by asking what 'facts' are. defines fact as:
  1. something that actually exists; reality; truth
  2. something known to exist or to have happened
  3. a truth known by actual experience or observation
  4. something said to be true or supposed to have happened
This doesn't help us much as the final definition of 'fact' includes the possibility that a fact may, in fact, not be true. To claim that something is a fact, is not necessarily to demonstrate that it is true!

The astounding thing about the 'minimal facts' presented in this argument, is that Habermas and Licona do not, at any point in this book, set out to prove that the minimal facts are, in fact, true facts. There are layers of reasoning and explanation and 'proof' for various things in this book, but they are all based on the assumption that the four (or five) minimal facts are true.

The argument goes like this, if these four (or five) facts are true, then the resurrection appears to be more probable than the alternatives. For the most part I agree with this argument. Where it falls down, of course, are the four (or five) alleged facts.

So what are these 'facts'? Well they are:
  1. Jesus died by crucifixion
  2. After this, his disciples believed that they saw him alive again
  3. Paul, the persecutor of the church, became a Christian following what he believed to be an encounter with the risen Christ
  4. James, the skeptic brother of Jesus, became a Christian following what he believed to be an encounter with the risen Christ
  5. Jesus's tomb was found empty
The last of these is put out of sequence, because this is the least attested 'fact' in there and is not relied upon in the book. Habermas & Licona's case is made using the first four 'facts' and the fifth is simply used as the icing on the cake, as it were.

For Habermas & Licona, these are established as 'facts' because the majority of biblical scholars hold them to be true, irrespective of their personal beliefs. That is, even skeptical and non-believing scholars hold these to be true.

I think that there is a huge selection bias in this. What sort of person becomes a biblical scholar? Only someone raised in a Christian context, who probably began their studies as some flavour of believer. Even if they then abandoned their faith, they most likely started their study of the bible with presumptions that some (at least) of the biblical stories were true and historical.

If you took a thousand Islamic scholars and asked them if Mohammed encountered the angel Gabriel in a cave, I'll bet that the majority think this is historical fact. Just because a majority believe something does not establish it as fact. 

I'll bet if you took all the religious leaders in Judea in 40AD and asked them if Jesus was the son of God, the overwhelming majority would say no he was not. Would that establish the truth? No. So why should a headcount establish historical truth here?

The 'minimal facts' argument is only a valid argument if you can defend the four (or five) facts without an appeal to authority or majority. Habermas and Licona do not do this, so their case is still unproven.

So why don't I believe these supposed facts? Lets take them one by one, starting with the last.

The Empty Tomb

What evidence have we for the empty tomb? Only the gospel accounts, or later texts which are derivative of them. So the empty tomb can only be considered a historical fact if we can accept that the gospels contain historical information. Habermas & Licona don't even attempt to prove that the gospels contain historical information. They simply assume it, noting that some biblical details can be verified from secular historical sources. Then they go further in suggesting that if there is a historical claim in any book in the bible that cannot be verified from secular sources, we should give the bible the benefit of the doubt and take it on trust that the biblical facts are true. Huh? What kind of historian does this? "The Bible" is a collection of 66 books by multiple authors, many of whom are unknown to us. Even if some of those authors included reliable historical facts in their books, this tells us nothing about the reliability of the authors of the other books. If the book of 2 Kings contains historical information, does this imply that the book of Jonah does? Of course not.

So do the gospels contain historical information? Well, certainly there are characters in the gospels who are known to secular history - two Herods, Pilate, and John the Baptist, but that's about it. Aside from the census, recorded only in Luke, there are no historical events in the gospels that can be confirmed using independent sources. Not even the death of Jesus, as we'll see below. So we really have no way of knowing if most of the stories on the gospels have any connection to real historical events.

However, the main problem with the empty tomb is that we would never have heard of it had it not been part of the larger story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is not independent data. Given that, we can't use this as evidence for the 'historical' resurrection of Jesus as it only exists as part of a story that makes this claim. Trying to argue from the empty tomb to the resurrection is like trying to prove that the exhaust ports on the Death Star were badly designed, using the evidence that Luke Skywalker destroyed the Death Star by firing a torpedo into it. The two 'facts' are part of the same story and you can't have one without the other. If one of them is questionable, the other must also be questionable.

There is also no case to be made for multiple attestation within the gospels here, as a couple of centuries of textual criticism have convincingly demonstrated that the account of the crucifixion in Mark is dependent on the Psalms, the accounts in Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark, and that the account in John is probably dependent on Luke. The crucifixion looks like a literary construct, and the empty tomb forms part of the same (fictive?) story.

It doesn't matter if a whole heap of biblical scholars believe this to be history, I'm not convinced.

The death of Jesus by crucifixion

Let's jump to the first (and least contested) of the minimal facts next; Jesus death by crucifixion. Pretty much everyone accepts this as true, right? Indeed, but it suffers from the same problems as the empty tomb - there are no stories of the death of Jesus that don't go on to involve the resurrection. All accounts of the death of Jesus are followed by major miracle claims, and claims that Jesus is or was divine. You really can't separate one from the other. If the stories of Jesus dying on the cross are taken as facts written by reliable historians, then the resurrection is also a fact written by a reliable historian! You can't assume one to be a fact of history, and the other to be questionable. If the resurrection is questionable, then Jesus death by crucifixion is just as questionable. If one is fact, the other should be assumed to be fact. We have no independent data about one that does not also concern the other!

All secular references to the death of Jesus are entirely dependent on the stories told by believing Christians. And as far as we can tell, the earliest believers believed that he was raised just as much as they believed that he died. If they were wrong about one, they could equally be wrong about the other. The observation that one story is miraculous and the other non-miraculous is irrelevant here. In a story containing many unbelievable and impossible events, we can't simply take all the mundane and possible events as probably true.

To establish that Jesus died by crucifixion we would need an account of his life and death that did not feature miracles and did not feature any resurrection claims. As far as I know, no such evidence exists. Literally everything we know about the life and death of Jesus comes to us from the accounts of those who fundamentally believed that he had triumphed over death and had risen. If they were wrong about that, what else were they wrong about?

The conversion of James

I'm even less convinced by this claim than by the empty tomb, even though more biblical scholars are apparently convinced by it. The problem with this 'fact' is that it is not part of the biblical story, even if it is apparently derived from there. I wrote so much on this 'fact' that I decided to make it a separate blog post in its own right, which you can read here. Suffice it to say that I very much doubt the 'fact' of the conversion of James from skeptic to church leader.

The conversion of Paul

This is probably the strongest of the five minimal facts. Most people, even those who doubt the existence of Jesus, believe that there was a guy called Paul in the 1st century, who wrote epistles. That guy claimed, in those letters, to have been a persecutor of the early Christians, and that he had a transformative experience of the risen Christ, becoming an apostle and firm believer in the resurrection.

I read Hermann Detering's book "The Fabricated Paul" a few years ago (indeed, I have an unpublished, half written blog post about it, which may surface eventually, although considering it has been half written since 2013, it may never see the light of day). In this book, Detering makes the case that none of the epistles attributed to Paul were actually written by anyone called Paul. While I'm not entirely convinced by Detering's argument (he makes an excellent case that several of the epistles were written by different authors from each other, but can't really prove that none of them was authentic), I do accept that some of the other epistles were definitely not written by the guy who wrote 1 Corinthians. I'm currently working through Robert M. Price's "The amazing colossal apostle", which makes much the same case, but goes one step further than Detering in claiming that there was no Paul at all. I'll possibly offer some thoughts on that once I get to the end of it.

While both the above books possibly go further than I am willing to go, I am convinced that some of the epistles by 'Paul' were written by others (later) in the name of Paul. That is, some of the epistles are forgeries and pseudepigraphal. That probably entails that some of the historical or biographical 'facts' in some of the epistles are fictional or, certainly, were related by persons who were not there and did not witness any of the events claimed.

Given that, it is tricky to piece together a coherent picture of what the 'real' Paul did, said, experienced, wrote, etc. Even if we take the epistles as all being authentic, it is quite hard to piece together a biography of the letter writer. In what way did he persecute the church? This is unclear. When did he do this? Also unclear. What made his stop the persecution? Fairly unclear. To iron out the uncertainties in the life of Paul, most folk turn to the Acts of the Apostles and find his story there. But there are good reasons not to take Acts as a reliable history. For one thing, it actually contradicts things said in the name of Paul in the epistles. For another thing, it presents Paul and Peter as basically having parallel lives - for every miracle Paul experiences, Peter has an identical experience; their preaching is virtually indistinguishable from each other; they say the same things and do the same things. This is not history, this is someone trying to level the playing-field by demonstrating that these two characters are equal. The Acts seminar's primary conclusion was that the book of Acts was a 2nd century fiction, containing virtually no historical data. If they're right about that, then we really know nothing about Paul's 'pre-conversion' life and persecution of the church, and we hardly know anything about his 'conversion' or 'post-conversion' life either.

Was Paul transformed from anti-Christian-persecutor to believing-Christian-apostle through a visionary experience? Maybe. Is there any link we can make between this experience and the real historical Jesus guy who may have died on a cross a few years earlier? Nope.

So what we are left with is a claim of the conversion of someone from one religion to another. That happens all the time, and in no way provides evidence for the truth of the religion that the person ends up believing in.

The resurrection appearances

Finally we get to this one. I find that this is where Habermas and Licona, and others using this argument completely over-state their case to the point of absurdity. The claim is that all the disciples experienced resurrection appearances.

Really? Well, the gospels and Acts chapter 1 have the disciples encountering the risen Jesus. But none of these writings are first-person claims. As far as I know, we have no writings from Andrew, or Thomas, or James son of Alphaeus, or Thaddeus, or Phillip, or whoever relating their alleged experiences. Of course, Paul does, but he never saw Jesus during his lifetime, so he has nothing to confirm that his vision in any way relates to the real Jesus.

We have a few letters claiming to be written by Peter. None of them relate any post-resurrection experiences. They are far more concerned to claim that the author saw Jesus when he was alive the first time. So that doesn't help us. And of course, the authenticity of these letters is debated, so we really have no data supporting the claim that the author of these letters actually had a post-resurrection experience of Jesus.

Once again, the 'fact' of the resurrection appearances really turns out to be simply an unverifiable claim of early Christians which has been repeated many, many times over the past two thousand years.

We don't know what the 'original' disciples experienced, because they did not tell us. And the stories relating what they apparently did experience (and the stories of their subsequent lives, ministries and martyrdoms) are at best second or third had accounts, and quite possibly works of fiction.

In conclusion

So there you have it, for me, none of the five 'minimal facts' stands up to scrutiny. They are all just unverifiable claims, most of which rely on a particularly orthodox reading of the source documents. I'm not sure any of the "facts" approach the standard of 'balance of probability' let alone 'beyond reasonable doubt', so these claims do not prove that the resurrection happened.

Christianity, to be proven true, needs better evidence. I've been looking for it for years and still can't find it.