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.