Charles Blow: Heaven for the Godless?

Posted by Kendall Harmon

So in August, Pew asked the question again. (They released the results last week.) Sixty-five percent of respondents said — again — that other religions could lead to eternal life. But this time, to clear up any confusion, Pew asked them to specify which religions. The respondents essentially said all of them.

And they didn’t stop there. Nearly half also thought that atheists could go to heaven — dragged there kicking and screaming, no doubt — and most thought that people with no religious faith also could go.

What on earth does this mean?

One very plausible explanation is that Americans just want good things to come to good people, regardless of their faith.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* International News & CommentaryAmerica/U.S.A.

43 Comments
Posted December 27, 2008 at 12:04 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Harry Edmon wrote:

I believe what is behind this all is a belief that you get to heaven because of your works.  Since people do not want to think their works are not good enough, they generalize to the point that all “good” people go to heaven.

December 27, 3:11 pm | [comment link]
2. Jeffersonian wrote:

Let’s call this a “spiritual bailout plan.”  A sign of the times.

December 27, 3:18 pm | [comment link]
3. R. Eric Sawyer wrote:

In addition to #1, I think this arises from not thinking very clearly about what we mean by heaven- is it simply an extended and enhanced version of this present life, or is it a union of the bride and bridgroom, a total union with all truth (or rather Truth) in whom there is no darkness at all? If it is the latter, our errors, and more emphatically, the persistance with which we cling to those errors when confronted with the Truth, with “I AM that I AM” becomes very relevent indeed. How can I be united with Truth, while at the same time holding fast to that which I (now) know to be a lie? To simultaneously ebrace truth and deny it?
There has been a fair amount of discussion of this idea on my blog lately, and have had some interesting discussion with a lot of neo-universalists. It’s pretty rampant.

December 27, 3:30 pm | [comment link]
4. D. C. Toedt wrote:

I suppose we can’t conclusively rule out the truth of the Christian exclusivist view, just as we can’t conclusively rule out the existence of the Great Pumpkin. Until reasserters can come up with a convincing case in support of that view, however — a case that doesn’t assume we have a can-opener — they shouldn’t take offense (nor be surprised) that the overwhelming majority of humanity has never accepted it; while truth isn’t a numbers game, that fact is one that can’t properly be ignored.

December 27, 4:12 pm | [comment link]
5. Harry Edmon wrote:

One of the problems we have in the Church is incorrect preaching of the Law - which results in incorrect preaching of the Gospel.  We swing between legalism and antinomianism.  We always must remember that there are three purposes of the Law:
1. A curb against lawlessness (civil use).
2. To show us our sin and drive us to the Savior.
3. To act as a guide for the saints.
The most important of these is #2, since this is where the Law drives us to the Gospel, and thus serves the Gospel.  It is #2 that is most misunderstood.  God’s standard for salvation by the Law is perfection, and we fail this all the time.  Most people refuse to accept that God demands perfection, and thus we end up with the results of this poll.

December 27, 4:14 pm | [comment link]
6. Jeffersonian wrote:

I suppose, DC, it’s a matter of whether one believes Holy Scripture or not.  If one does, it’s unavoidable that one also believes in Christian exclusivity.  If one does not, one can make it up as one goes along, “interpreting” theology, ecclesiology, canons in the way that is most expedient for the moment.

But look at it this way:  If you are right, we all go to Heaven in the end.  If we reasserters are right, we go to Heaven and you don’t.

December 27, 4:37 pm | [comment link]
7. teatime wrote:

I don’t think that a poll, a secular one at that, is a reliable gauge of religious views, which tend to be complex. It’s not possible to answer a basic “yes” or “no” to the question “Can non-believers go to Heaven?”

I spent more than 35 years in the RCC, and that church’s teachings aren’t cut and dried on the matter—there are exceptions and qualifications. Obviously, the rules don’t apply to primitive peoples who have not heard the Gospel or been evangelized and those who live in Communist regimes who are systematically kept from religious thought and belief.

But I was taught that this also applies to people in modern society who have not been taught about Jesus properly, and that’s a bit frightening when you think about it. It puts the onus on US! Those of us who have been given the gift of faith are called to witness faithfully to it in the world. If we Christians fail to share the Good News with others and if we, by our actions and omissions, actually turn people away from Jesus, it’s WE who can be condemned and not the non-believers who may seek to know God but are turned off by religious people.

And this is exactly why I’m so troubled by the goings-on in our Church. We DO need to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel and teachings but schism and lawsuits can turn off the watching world.

December 27, 4:43 pm | [comment link]
8. Karen B. wrote:

I wonder if one of the factors at work here isn’t a fear of sounding “extreme.”  Evangelical Christians get such a bad rap in the press and media in general (witness the reaction to Sarah Palin and her faith), that it can be hard to witness, especially to strangers, and testify to the uniqueness of Christ and salvation in Him.

During my 3 years in the States from 1999 - 2002 (while caring for my dying mom and settling her estate after her death) I used to lead Alpha groups at my TEC church in SE Florida.  I remember a couple of instances when a non-believer or very nominal Christian in my groups asked very hard questions.  One such time was someone really attacking my work as a missionary among muslims—“how could you possibly think you need to convert muslims to Christianity?! they have their own religion and it’s just as good as ours.”  It was SO tempting to reply “well maybe you’re right” or get defensive in such situations, and/or kind of water down the whole issue of calling others to convert.  But what I’ve found is the best reply in such circumstances is to revert back to my personal testimony and a restatement of WHY the gospel is good news.  Something like this:

1.  I’m not God.  I can’t know for sure if any Muslims can “get to heaven.”  I trust that God is good and just, and I know that Scripture says that the Lord desires that all would be saved.  I have to trust that God will do all He can to ensure that those who are sincerely seeking Him will be saved.

2.  But I do know that Christ has saved me.  He has given me joy, hope and a purpose.  By the Holy Spirit I have found power and grace to overcome some long-standing sins and have at least begun to see real transformation in my life.  I’m not who I was before I knew Christ.  Hallelujah!

3.  If I am to take the Bible seriously, I have to live and wrestle with the passages that say there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved, and that Jesus is the only way to the Father.  Those are hard words for us to hear.  But think of it this way.  What if I’d had stage 3 terminal cancer and had been healed by some new drug, that miraculously seemed to cure all cancers and would be made available freely to anyone who asked for it?  Perhaps there are other good cures for cancer out there… but I KNOW this one cure works and saved me.  Would I not want everyone to know and would I not want to make sure it is offered as widely as possible to everyone?  That is the Gospel.  If we know we have been truly freed from sin and redeemed by Christ, we want others to find the same freedom.  Perhaps God can save them in other ways.  But He has told us this way, Jesus, “works.”  We can share a sure thing - what great news we’ve been given!

Anyway, I don’t always succeed in witnessing clearly or boldly.  Far too often I let the fear of sounding extreme intimidate me.

I’d love to see this same survey offered privately (perhaps a written form submitted anonymously), and then compared with the results of this survey.  I think one would find a big difference.  One may actually believe Christ is the only way to be saved, in accordance with classical Christian teaching, and yet hesitate to admit such publicly to a surveyor.  I bet that’s a very big factor here.

December 27, 4:53 pm | [comment link]
9. RoyIII wrote:

Thank you, teatime:  “It puts the onus on US! Those of us who have been given the gift of faith are called to witness faithfully to it in the world. If we Christians fail to share the Good News with others and if we, by our actions and omissions, actually turn people away from Jesus, it’s WE who can be condemned and not the non-believers who may seek to know God but are turned off by religious people.”  Too many conservative Christians refuse to take responsibility for the turns the church has taken.  They seem too satisfied to call those they disagree with heretics and just leave it at that.  My way or the highway.

December 27, 4:59 pm | [comment link]
10. Karen B. wrote:

One other comment.  There’s always the issue of how the survey questions are worded.  They can be very biased, and multiple choice answer formats can be quite “leading.”  Take this line of the article for instance:

In fact, on the question in the Pew survey about what it would take to achieve eternal life, only 1 percent of Christians said living life in accordance with the Bible.

Is that what the researchers THINK is the “correct” Christian answer?  I wager none of us reasserters here on T19 would give that answer.  My answer would be “believing in Jesus Christ and submitting to Him as Lord and Savior.”

Obviously if one is looking for one set of answers it influences how the survey is written.  Perhaps a better set of questions would be more open-ended.  Ask those who identify themselves as Christians:
what do you think the Bible teaches about how one receives eternal life?  Do you personally believe this?  If not, why not?

It’s a lot harder to do that kind of “long answer” / open ended survey questions.  But it makes for a much better understanding of the results when trying to dig deeper in the face of surprising survey results.

I’d really want to see the questions asked by this survey before treating its results as very significant.  I’m sure there is a large degree to which “American niceness” and belief in others’ goodness affects the results.  But drawing too many conclusions beyond that about the degree to which Christians believe the Bible or not are more difficult unless it is clear that the questions truly do reflect what the Bible says and not just what the survey designers think it says.

December 27, 5:03 pm | [comment link]
11. John Wilkins wrote:

How would we verify this? 

What kind of God would it be who willingly was sucking millions of people into hell because they didn’t believe in him?

Is the bible more important than a goodness that would be recognizable by those created in his image?

Jefferson may be right, but he may also be wrong.  He’s taking a chance, based on the notion that his faith is right.

Further, if it is true that God is sucking everyone in to hell, it is a Christian imperative to change people’s minds.  Because hell is for eternity, which may be for trillions of years. 

That’s a long time.

And if I believed it, I’d be happy I wasn’t going also.

December 27, 5:34 pm | [comment link]
12. Todd Granger wrote:

I suppose we can’t conclusively rule out the truth of the Christian exclusivist view, just as we can’t conclusively rule out the existence of the Great Pumpkin.

Quite true, D.C.

One might also observe that you could just as honestly, and perhaps as offensively, stated the parallel; viz., that we can’t conclusively rule out the truth of the home-grown Pelagianism that informs the “inclusivist” view, just as we can’t conclusively rule out the existence of the Tooth Fairy.

It’s all about those unprovable plausibility structures and axioms/dogmas, isn’t it?  Which authorities will you believe?  Because, like rightly viewing a work of art, in which you must give yourself to the art before you can judge its truthfulness*, you can’t know that truth of a philosophical/theological plausibility structure - the coherence, the integrity, the continuity with what came before and the possibility of imaginative understandings of what lies ahead - until you’ve committed yourself to the worldview underlying the structure and the community formed by and conforming to (i.e., living according to) the plausibility structure.

But, again, this is all ground that we’ve covered in the past, without the work’s having borne much conversational fruit.  As ever, I state firmly the unprovability and ultimately personal character of the catholic Christian worldview by any criteria external to that worldview.  Are you willing to state the same for your empiricist worldview?

*I’m mindful of this metaphor from having recently read essays by both Wendell Berry and C.S. Lewis.

December 27, 5:44 pm | [comment link]
13. teatime wrote:

John Wilkins,
With all due respect, what you wrote doesn’t make sense to me. How can “God suck into Hell” people who don’t believe in God or Hell? God created all of us with free will, whether one believes in that or not. Hell is an eternity of existence outside of God’s presence. Those who don’t believe in God choose to live outside of His Presence, in this world and in the next. So, isn’t that what they actually WANT? (This is with the understanding that they HAVE been taught about God and consciously reject Him, of course.)

December 27, 5:45 pm | [comment link]
14. Todd Granger wrote:

What kind of God would it be who willingly was sucking millions of people into hell because they didn’t believe in him?

John Wilkins, without touching properly on the subject at hand, I would suggest that this statement is edging terribly close to idolatry, and has the sound to it of the serpent’s question in the Eden narrative:  Did God really say…?

The near-unanimous preponderance of two millenia of Christian theology, including such 20th century theologians as Barth and Bonhoeffer, would warn strongly against letting our notions of what God “ought” to be like inform our teachings and our beliefs about Who God is.

We should have this discussion - which in Christian eschatology properly understood is about entering the kingdom of God, not “going to heaven” - without recourse to “ought to be’s”.

December 27, 5:50 pm | [comment link]
15. teatime wrote:

RoyIII,
The tradition in which I was raised (RCC) used the H-word (heretic) far more than my understanding could tolerate. The circle of family and friends who nurtured me was comprised of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants—wonderful, loving, and generous people who were all VERY devoted to God and did the very best they could with their lives. Disagreements can be firm yet loving and they don’t need to lead to schism and cries of “heresy!” At least, that’s been my experience.

And people watch and learn from us. Much of the time we may not realize it or maybe we even studiously avoid considering that fact but it doesn’t diminish the reality. I know self-described Catholics who actually have developed Protestant understandings, and vice-versa. We are able to control what we show and teach others; God does the rest. And we need to let Him work without interference.

December 27, 5:56 pm | [comment link]
16. John Wilkins wrote:

Todd, the problem is that the tradition, itself, is an idea about how God Ought to Be! 

Further, empiricism seems to work quite well in almost all parts of our lives.  Why not the religious as well?

December 27, 6:23 pm | [comment link]
17. Larry Morse wrote:

First of all, if you trust this poll, I have a platinum brick to spare which I will sell you cheaply. Do you REALLY believe that polls get at some sort of objective truth. Will a Christian really own up to what he believes by saying so to a faceless voice on the phone? How many people say what they think the poll wants them to say, or who say what is politically correct? For most polls are, as you know, exceedingly subjective, and this one is no different. A poll, for instance, suggests that those polled are telling the truth. Do you really want to bet on this? Second, the polls suggest that their limited numbers are truly representative. Do you really wish to bet your week’s pay that, on religion, such a selection is truly representative? Or that today’s answer would have been yesterday’s and will be tomorrows?  This poll tells us only that lots of Americans don’t think - actually think - about religion very much.

  Moreover the argument about who goes to hell and who doesn’t is as unprofitable a one as you can engage in because no one has any substantive objective information - although those of us who have been married before have an an inside track. CS Lewis has the only practical answer: God hasn’t told us what he has planned for non-Christians and there is no reason why He should. And for some reason, He hasn’t even told us what Heaven or Hell actually are, nor are we sure how good or bad you need be to receive a ticket. Is it enough that one’s believes in the Great Commandment? Can one love God with one’s whole heart and soul and make it to heaven?

    For the nay-sayers above, what can one tell them that will enlighten? Nothing, indeed. Here we are , up to our old tricks, trying to justify God to mankind, calling God into account. The nay-sayers above will very shortly have their answer, but I stay mindful of Descartes’ gamble and Job as well. Larry

December 27, 7:06 pm | [comment link]
18. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Karen B. [#8] writes:

What if I’d had stage 3 terminal cancer and had been healed by some new drug, that miraculously seemed to cure all cancers and would be made available freely to anyone who asked for it? Perhaps there are other good cures for cancer out there… but I KNOW this one cure works and saved me.

Karen, please be careful in attributing your cure to anything in particular. You probably know that, when medical researchers test a new drug, they go to great lengths to track as many variables as they can. The researchers want to be reasonably confident that patient cures (if any) were indeed the work of the new drug, and not of some other factor or combination of factors.  Otherwise, they’d risk confusing coincidence with causation.

Here’s a classic example: Common peptic ulcers were long thought to result from excess stomach acid brought on by stress, diet, etc. Treatments included reducing stress, changing diet, and even surgery. It turned out, however, that “cures” from those treatments were largely coincidental:  Two Aussie physicians won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for showing that such ulcers are in fact caused by a bacterium that is easily treatable with cheap antibiotics.

I’ve known Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and even atheists who seem to live as happy and blessed a life as any born-again Christian.  That makes it hard to accept that belief in the reasserter version of Christianity is a unique ‘cure’ for humanity’s ailments.

December 27, 8:04 pm | [comment link]
19. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Todd Granger [#12] writes: “Because, like rightly viewing a work of art, in which you must give yourself to the art before you can judge its truthfulness ....”

Huh?  Reasserter dogma doesn’t base its truth claims on ‘art,’ but on the putative existence of historical facts. I can imagine only one way to “give yourself” to an historical fact for purpose of judging its truthfulness:  to simply assume its truth. Doing so, however, would amount to a repudiation of every standard of historical scholarship that I’ve ever heard of.

(In any case, Todd, the “give yourself” aphorism strikes me as utterly devoid of real meaning. You’re a physician; I know you’ve heard the old saying that one doesn’t need to have given birth to be an obstetrician.)

December 27, 8:15 pm | [comment link]
20. jkc1945 wrote:

Universalism is anathema to me, personally, and I confess a fundamentalist belief in the total efficacy of the cross of Christ, for myself. 
But….... what do I do with a scripture like this one:  “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation.  For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the Living God, wo is the Saviour of all men, specially of those who believe.” (I Ti. 4:10)
What do I do with the word “specially?”  What is the implication of it, with regard to those who are not believers?  My point is this. . . all those of us who insist on clear and literal readings of scripture must take into account scriptures like these, which at least imply that God’s salvation, Christ’s sacrifice, may reach way farther than we imagine.

December 28, 8:59 am | [comment link]
21. Timothy wrote:

>Teatime wrote: “It puts the onus on US! “

A Catholic bishop once remarked that his greatest fear was that after death while under going final purification (purgatory) that the Apostle Peter wouls toss the bishop some keys and tell him to lock up after everyone leaves.

Yes, the onus is on us to evangelize well.

December 28, 6:03 pm | [comment link]
22. Todd Granger wrote:

Doing so, however, would amount to a repudiation of every standard of historical scholarship that I’ve ever heard of.

D.C., the “standards of historical scholarship” - which are at least to some degree culturally conditioned (do we write history the way that Herodotus, or the writer of 1 and 2 Kings, or a chronicler of the Tang dynasty did?) - are standards precisely because those who employ them have committed themselves to a plausibility structure to which those standards conform.  That’s what I mean by “giving oneself” to a plausibility structure, what Polanyi meant by the personal character of all knowledge.

I’m not sure I understand how the comment about obstetricians is pertinent.  As an orthodox Christian, I am able to have some idea of what it meant for the Word of God to have humbled himself to taken on the form of a slave and to have died on a cross, without ever having been God myself.  (Though you may object that I am merely imagining such a thing.  Indeed, that is possible - but it is also possible that I have imagined that I was born.  That the world of sensory data may simply be an illusion - as in some ancient Eastern thought - is not one that can a priori be rejected.)

And John Wilkins, I don’t argue that empiricism doesn’t “work”, but you’re making a methodological assertion, not a metaphysical (or philosophical or theological) one.  The problem with empiricism is when its proponents starts making metaphysical demands; viz, insisting that empiricism is capable of determining what is real and what isn’t.

December 28, 6:06 pm | [comment link]
23. William Witt wrote:

To what Todd Granger has already said about the communal and tradition-constructed nature of all knowledge, including historical scholarship, I would merely add the following:

D.C. has jumped rather suddenly from questions about salvation (who gets to “heaven”) and Great Pumpkins to questions about history.  This would at first appear to be a category mistake.  The former are questions about metaphysics, the latter questions about empirical events.

Questions about metaphysics cannot be answered historically; and neither metaphysics nor history can be “proven.”  The kinds of “convincing case” that one makes for questions of metaphysics—What is the nature of reality? Why are we here? What is the meaning of things?  Where are we headed? What has gone wrong?  Is there a solution?—are not the kinds of questions for which “convincing cases” can be made using the kinds of reductionist court room cross examination that DC constantly invokes.

And, yet, DC is partially right.  There is one area where Christian claims differ considerably from claims about the Great Pumpkin.  Christian claims are rooted inexorably in history.  If, for example, it could be proven historically that Jesus of Nazareth was not “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” then Christianity would be effectively discredited.

Yet, when it comes to question of salvation—who will get to “heaven”?—the kinds of historical questions are not such as can be established by post-Enlightenment historical method.  Specifically, the historical claim is two-fold: 1) not simply “Jesus rose from the dead,” but “The God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead”; 2) God was acting in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to “reconcile the world to himself.”

How could “every standard of historical scholarship that I’ve ever heard of” even begin to address such historical assertions.  Is God a character in the empirical universe that we could put him on the witness stand and cross examine him?: “Did you really raise Jesus from the dead? Answer ‘yes or no.’ ”  Is “every standard of historical scholarship that I’ve ever heard of” even capable of taking seriously metaphysical claims as to God’s having acted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

It would seem that there are two key empirical markers for the two historical claims: 1) the empty tomb; 2) the appearances to the disciples.  Insofar as such things can be established historically, they seem to be as well established as any historical events can be.  If one has reason to believe that the God of Israel might well do something like “raise Jesus from the dead,” or act in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth to “reconcile the world to himself,” then these empirical markers are confirmation of those metaphysical claims. And, yet, there is nothing to prevent the skeptical historian from denying or reinterpreting the events.  If one believes that there is no God of Israel or that, if a god exists, raising people from the dead is just the kind of thing that such a god would not do, then, one can always suggest alternative explanations.

One can suggest that the women went to the wrong tomb; one can suggest that the disciples stole the body; one can suggest that Jesus was never buried in the first place (John Dominic Crossan); one can suggest that the empty tomb story is a later legend that arose after it was impossible to verify or discount the reality empirically. 

Similarly, one can suggest that the appearances were hallucinations, or the exaggerated claims of con artists, or, subjective visions, or, rather than objective realities, were simply the subjective impressions that Jesus was in some sense “still alive.”

One can multiply such alternative imaginary scenarios all day long.  Although they have no basis whatsoever in the actual texts, because the biblical writers are long dead, they cannot be refuted.  One’s imagination can run wild.  If one does not wish to believe that the God of Israel would do things like raise Jesus from the dead, or reconcile the world to himself in Jesus Christ, one will necessarily do so.

But, of course, such alternative explanations will not be based on ““every standard of historical scholarship that I’ve ever heard of.”  Rather, they will reflect an alternative metaphysical explanation of the kinds of things that the god we believe in (whether the God of Israel, or the Great Pumpkin, or the god of Enlightenment individualist autonomy) might or might not do.  If the god we believe in is not the God of Israel then we will necessarily always have to produce alternative historical explanations to accord with our metaphysical assumptions.

December 28, 7:32 pm | [comment link]
24. D. C. Toedt wrote:

William Witt [#23] writes: “It would seem that there are two key empirical markers for the two historical claims: 1) the empty tomb; 2) the appearances to the disciples. Insofar as such things can be established historically, they seem to be as well established as any historical events can be.”

I think not.  You left out a few other empirical markers of equal or greater importance. For example:  • The texts on which traditionalists rely are thought to have been written down not just years but decades after the events portrayed, in a different language to boot; • human memory is not a camera, and human storytelling is not a videotape replay; both are manifestly fallible, especially as decades pass and stories are retold; • the surviving texts have some pretty glaring inconsistencies and contradictions against common experience, about which I’ve written elsewhere; • the early church was evidently riven with factionalism, raising questions of possible bias, subtle or otherwise, on the part of the texts’ authors;  • the man who claimed Jesus’ body without so much as a by-your-leave to his disciples, and who hastily put the body in a nearby tomb to avoid profaning the Sabbath, is never mentioned anywhere else in the texts, raising questions whether he moved the body to a permanent resting place after the Sabbath and did not deign to inform the hoi polloi Eleven.  I could go on ....

If “Christian claims are rooted inexorably in history,” it would seem meet and right to take these facts seriously. 

Many reasserters, however, evidently prefer to dismiss these facts as inconsequential.

Therein lies a key difference in our thinking, I submit.

December 28, 8:31 pm | [comment link]
25. Br. Michael wrote:

Note how DC moves far beyond the text we have, in order to speculate as to its nonhistoricity.  DC is simply a materialist and a non-believer.  The supernatural simply does not happen.  Thus it is pointless, that is total waste of time, to argue with him.

Of course a history written 30 years after the event need not be inaccurate and, as Paul’s letters show, history was being written down at a very early date.  But DC is a determined non-believer and reasoned argument with him on this topic is pointless

December 28, 9:00 pm | [comment link]
26. Larry Morse wrote:

Me. Toedt is quite wrong in this, tha the human memory is not a camera. In Christ’s day, as in many other cultures, the memory as a precise function was widely practiced and, like a fine knife, kept honed. This was a necessity because so much that was utterly crucial - e.g., genealogies - has to be committed to memory. And we know that the Jews had men whose primary task was to memorize portions of the Torah so that, when asked, they could repeat it word for word, And I know a number of people even now, when memory is of small consequence, who can repeat enormous portions of the Bible word for word. The synoptic gospels may be written from oral reports - indeed, they probably are - but that is not the same thing as saying that they are therefore inaccurate. They differ because they come from different oral threads, but that they are synoptic ought to tell one something.  L

December 29, 12:55 am | [comment link]
27. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Br. Michael [#25] writes: “Note how DC moves far beyond the text we have, in order to speculate as to its nonhistoricity.

Br. M., what I’m trying to do is to construct a coherent model that takes into account not just the claims made in the texts, but also other facts that we’re fairly confident are true.  I think of that as attempting to connect the dots, which is a bit different than speculation.

——————————————

Larry Morse [#26] writes: “In Christ’s day, as in many other cultures, the memory as a precise function was widely practiced and, like a fine knife, kept honed.”

You’re quite right, Larry.  We have concrete evidence that shows compellingly, not just that this phenomenon existed in Christ’s day, but that this is precisely how the tales about Jesus were accurately propagated, unchanged, across the miles and the years. That’s why, for example:  • the four canonical gospels never conflict in any significant respect; • ‘Luke’ simply summarized the extant oral accounts, never feeling the need to do a careful investigation of his own; • all factions of the early church uniformly preached the exact gospel originally proclaimed by the Twelve, with no one ever coming up with variations of their own along the way;  • Paul never regarded the Jerusalem branch of the church and its gospel as his adversary;  • he was never concerned about the preaching of deviant gospels to ‘his’ Gentiles;  • he never warned against forged letters purporting to be from him.  Scholars certainly have no reason to think that any of the stories about Jesus might have evolved as they were passed along from one person to another in the decades before they were written down in the versions we have today.

December 29, 8:33 am | [comment link]
28. William Witt wrote:

DC raises a number of imaginary objections, none of which addresses the two key points I mentioned—the empty tomb and the appearances:

• The texts on which traditionalists rely are thought to have been written down not just years but decades after the events portrayed, in a different language to boot;

Mere decades is no time at all in an oral culture in which there are numerous eyewitnesses to either challenge or correct.  Through translation from Greek back into Aramaic, Joachim Jeremias has established (through rhyme schemes, puns, etc.) that the sayings of Jesus in the synoptic gospels go back to an Aramaic original.

The earliest account of the appearances is Paul’s account in 1 Cor. 15, written in 55 AD.  Mark’s gospel is the first written account of the empty tomb, written sometime in the 50’s or 60’s.  Is DC suggesting that within twenty to thirty years of the events, Paul and Mark imagined appearances that no one claimed ever happened, or that there was no one living at the time Mark wrote who could say, “We’re sorry.  The tomb was not empty.  In fact, we can show you where Jesus is buried”?

Is DC suggesting that realities change when accounts are translated from one language to another—that appearances become no appearances because they are recounted in Greek rather than Aramaic, or tombs that were non-empty are suddenly remembered as empty if the writer records the event in a different language?

Is DC suggesting that the battle of Thermopylae never took place because Herodotus wrote decades after the event?  Is William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich not to be trusted because Shirer wrote in English rather than German?  Are the numerous Memoirs written by millions of people in history obviously untrue because they are written later in life, decades after the events took place?  Because I am old enough to have a child’s memory of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and the 1969 moon landing, does that mean that my memories of these events must be faulty because they took place decades ago?

• human memory is not a camera, and human storytelling is not a videotape replay; both are manifestly fallible, especially as decades pass and stories are retold;

Of course, this is true. Does this imply that memory and story telling can not be trusted at all?  If so, no history writing is possible whatsoever.  As I asked above, as decades pass, is it possible for non-memories of appearances to become memories of appearances, or memories of bodies in tombs to become memories of empty tombs?

• the surviving texts have some pretty glaring inconsistencies and contradictions against common experience, about which I’ve written elsewhere;

I’ve read DC’s “glaring” contradictions.  They are neither the one nor the other.  There are certainly discrepancies within the gospel accounts, discrepancies of which critical scholars take account.  Between any two witnesses to a historical event, there will be discrepancies because no two people will observe or remember an event in exactly the same way.  If there were no discrepancies, DC would be claiming collusion between the witnesses.

None of the discrepancies include claims by some that the tomb was not empty, or claims by others that no appearances took place.

• the early church was evidently riven with factionalism, raising questions of possible bias, subtle or otherwise, on the part of the texts’ authors;

Indeed.  We know of this factionalism from the very documents that survived, so DC at least believes they are reliable enough when they disclose factionalism.  Despite the factionalism, none of the documents suggests that the tomb was not empty or the appearances did not take place.

Ancient Greece was rife with factionalism.  We possess fewer accounts of Socrates than we do of Jesus: Plato, Xenophan, and Aristophanes.  They disagree in significant detail.  Yet no one suggests we can know nothing about Socrates because the accounts were written decades after his death, or that Athens was full of factions.

• the man who claimed Jesus’ body without so much as a by-your-leave to his disciples, and who hastily put the body in a nearby tomb to avoid profaning the Sabbath, is never mentioned anywhere else in the texts, raising questions whether he moved the body to a permanent resting place after the Sabbath and did not deign to inform the hoi polloi Eleven.

 

As I wrote above:

One can suggest that the women went to the wrong tomb; one can suggest that the disciples stole the body; one can suggest that Jesus was never buried in the first place (John Dominic Crossan); one can suggest that the empty tomb story is a later legend that arose after it was impossible to verify or discount the reality empirically. . . .One can multiply such alternative imaginary scenarios all day long.  Although they have no basis whatsoever in the actual texts, because the biblical writers are long dead, they cannot be refuted.  One’s imagination can run wild.  If one does not wish to believe that the God of Israel would do things like raise Jesus from the dead, or reconcile the world to himself in Jesus Christ, one will necessarily do so.

And DC kindly obliges.

I could go on ....

Past experiences shows you will.  Yet nothing you write or could write can change the reality that the only texts we have that date from the period or that were written by those who could have first hand knowledge agree that the tomb was empty and the appearances took place.  If you believe or claim otherwise, it will not be because of any actual historical evidence.

December 29, 9:45 am | [comment link]
29. William Witt wrote:

BTW, the very same gospel accounts that tell us that Joseph of Arimathea put Jesus’ body in his own tomb, to avoid profaning the sabbath, tell us that the the empty tomb was discovered early “on the first day of the week” (Sunday morning), and that the appearances began that day.  Universal Christian practice of Sunday as the day of worship rather than Saturday confirms the significance of this memory.

If Joseph moved the body, he would have had to have done so sometime between Friday evening and early Sunday morning.  He could not have done so on Friday evening, as the Sabbath begins at sundown. So he would have had to have made all arrangements and done the actual moving sometime between late Saturday evening and early Sunday morning (before dawn)—a very tight time frame.  Apart from the question begging assumption that he would have moved the body—Why would he have done so after having taken a certain amount of risk in claiming it, and only a little over a day after burying it?—why would he not have informed those close to Jesus of such a significant event?  Moreover, moving a body in the middle of the night is not a simple thing to do.  Joseph would have required several assistants.  In addition, the activity of moving the body of a controversial criminal crucified for sedition would surely have attracted attention.  And, of course, Joseph would have confided in members of his immediate family, and likely others.  Does DC really expect us to believe that if Joseph of Arimathea had moved the body that neither he, nor any of the other people either involved in the actual moving, or who witnessed it or heard about it would have said nothing to set things straight when Jesus’ disciples were claiming within a matter of weeks that Jesus had risen from the dead?

DC’s alternative “explanation” suggests a certain desperation in dealing with the evidence.  Any possible alternative is preferable to the clear testimony of the witnesses, no matter how implausible.  Why?  As I wrote above:

If the god we believe in is not the God of Israel then we will necessarily always have to produce alternative historical explanations to accord with our metaphysical assumptions.

December 29, 10:28 am | [comment link]
30. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Wm. Witt [#29] writes:

If Joseph moved the body, .... he would have had to have made all arrangements and done the actual moving sometime between late Saturday evening and early Sunday morning (before dawn)—a very tight time frame. ... Moreover, moving a body in the middle of the night is not a simple thing to do.  Joseph would have required several assistants.

Assuming Joseph strictly followed the rules, he would have had some 10 to 12 hours to move the body.  He and Nicodemus reportedly put the body in the tomb and rolled the stone in place on their own; it would not have been difficult for Joseph and one other to undo what they did.

WW writes:

Why would he have done so after having taken a certain amount of risk in claiming it, and only a little over a day after burying it? ... In addition, the activity of moving the body of a controversial criminal crucified for sedition would surely have attracted attention.

What risk?  If we’re to believe the gospel accounts, Joseph had Pilate’s permission to take the body; there’s no reason to think the authorities cared a whit what he did with it.  The tomb was Joseph’s own (Mt. 27.60), so it’s not far-fetched to think that he wanted the body out of the tomb as soon as possible.

WW writes:

Does DC really expect us to believe that if Joseph of Arimathea had moved the body that neither he, nor any of the other people either involved in the actual moving, or who witnessed it or heard about it would have said nothing to set things straight when Jesus’ disciples were claiming within a matter of weeks that Jesus had risen from the dead?

Joseph and Nicodemus were not unimportant people: the former was a rich man, the latter a member of the council. In contrast, the Eleven were nobodies, probably not unlike a rock star’s entourage. It’s entirely plausible that Joseph moved the body but never saw fit to tell his social inferiors the Eleven. This would be an especially appealing explanation if Joseph didn’t want his past contacts with Jesus (whatever their nature) to become generally known; that’s certainly consistent with his utter disappearance from the history of the early church.

I don’t demand that anyone believe that this is what definitely what happened; I don’t believe that myself.  I do claim, however, that it’s a more plausible an explanation for the empty tomb than the notion that its dead occupant returned to life.

December 29, 11:03 am | [comment link]
31. William Witt wrote:

I don’t believe that myself.  I do claim, however, that it’s a more plausible an explanation for the empty tomb than the notion that its dead occupant returned to life.

Thank you, DC. This last sentence said it all.  Despite the smokescreen of “historical” blustering above, it has been clear all along that your real objections are metaphysical.  The god you believe in is not the kind of god who would do things like raise Jesus from the dead.  Your god is not the God of Israel.

Yet for all the posts I have read from you over the last several years, I have yet to read a single example of anything even resembling a metaphysical or epistemological argument.  (Sorry, comparisons between the God of Israel and the Great Pumpkin do not make an argument.) You pretend that your objections are historical, but when push comes to shove, your line in the sand is that any historical explanation whatsoever just has to be more plausible than “than the notion that its dead occupant returned to life.”

Once you start with that initial premise, you can, of course, come up with alternative “historical” explanations all day long, but those explanations are not really historical.  They are ad hoc buttresses for a prior metaphysical commitment—and a rather naive one, at that.

December 29, 11:48 am | [comment link]
32. William Witt wrote:

It’s entirely plausible that Joseph moved the body but never saw fit to tell his social inferiors the Eleven. This would be an especially appealing explanation if Joseph didn’t want his past contacts with Jesus (whatever their nature) to become generally known; that’s certainly consistent with his utter disappearance from the history of the early church. 

This is entirely implausible.  Joseph obviously cared enough about Jesus of Nazareth, his social inferior (a Galilean peasant, a nuisance to the religious establishment, and an executed criminal) to risk disapproval by both Pilate and his fellow Jewish leaders, to bury Jesus in his own tomb.  Yet he would have had no concern whatsoever for Jesus’ own family or followers?  Moreover, these followers were spreading it far and wide that Jesus was no longer in the tomb, a tomb that was known to have belonged to Joseph.  Yet Joseph said nothing?  Or no one bothered to to check with Joseph about his take on the events?  Or, again, none of those who had to have known about Joseph’s moving the body bothered to say anything at all?  Again, despite your breezy disclaimers, it is no mean feat to move a body in the middle of the night with only a few hours preparation. (No preparations at all would have taken place on Saturday, the sabbath.)  Someone would have known.  And someone would have said something. I note that DC does not mention a motive at all.  Why remove a body from a tomb only a day after having taken the trouble to put it there?

But we know DC does not mean for any of this to be taken seriously.  In his own words: “I don’t believe that myself.”  How many of DC’s other “plausible” alternatives that he has offered over the years does he not believe himself?

I am curious, DC.  If the events had actually happened pretty much as described in the gospels, would the written accounts be any different than the ones we have? 

DC continues to avoid addressing the universal testimony of the only witnesses we have.  The tomb was empty.  Jesus appeared to many of his followers. One does not have to consider evidence when one has already made up one’s mind about what has to be the case.  One can suggest any number of possibilities, none of which one believes oneself.

December 29, 12:52 pm | [comment link]
33. D. C. Toedt wrote:

William Witt [#31] writes: “The god you believe in is not the kind of god who would do things like raise Jesus from the dead. ... for all the posts I have read from you over the last several years, I have yet to read a single example of anything even resembling a metaphysical or epistemological argument.”

I don’t presume to know the mind of God, and I don’t regard metaphysics as a substitute for observation. I can think of only one reasonably-reliable way to discern whether the Creator might be “the kind of god who would do things like raise Jesus from the dead.”  That would be to examine the available evidence of the real world that God has wrought (cf. Rom. 1.20), as humbly as possible and without presuppositions, and to try to assess whether in fact he did raise Jesus from the dead. My view, necessarily a provisional one, is that the evidence cited in support of this proposition to date is unpersuasive.

By the way, if that’s not an epistemological argument, I’d be pleased to hear what you think might qualify.

——————-

William Witt writes that my historical explorations of the texts and related facts “are ad hoc buttresses for a prior metaphysical commitment—and a rather naive one, at that.

I won’t rise to the bait of responding in kind; I do, however, regret that you feel that way.

December 29, 12:59 pm | [comment link]
34. William Witt wrote:

I don’t presume to know the mind of God, and I don’t regard metaphysics as a substitute for observation. I can think of only one reasonably-reliable way to discern whether the Creator might be “the kind of god who would do things like raise Jesus from the dead.” That would be to examine the available evidence of the real world that God has wrought (cf. Rom. 1.20), as humbly as possible and without presuppositions, and to try to assess whether in fact he did raise Jesus from the dead.

Neither do I presume to know the mind of God.  The mind of God could only be known by revelation, which is precisely the question at issue.  Neither is metaphysics a substitute for observation.  At the same time, the range of possible realities that are available for observation depends entirely on metaphysical commitments.  I regard your claim that you have examined the “available evidence in the real world that God has wrought” with skepticism, especially since you’ve admitted that any historical explanation is preferable to the explanation that the tomb was empty because “its dead occupant returned to life.”

That you claim to examine the historical evidence “without presuppositions” shows your lack of awareness of philosophical discussions in epistemology for the last thirty years or so.  There can be no examination of evidence without presuppositions. That you raise historical objections that would make any historical research impossible shows a bias in your own approach to the biblical documents.  Moreover, that you continue to focus on apparent discrepancies in the evidence as an excuse for not addressing the real agreement in the evidence speaks volumes about your “lack of presuppositions.”

December 29, 2:06 pm | [comment link]
35. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Wm. Witt [#34] writes: ”... you’ve admitted that any historical explanation is preferable to the explanation that the tomb was empty because ‘its dead occupant returned to life.’ “ (Emphasis added.)

Please be so good as to reread what I’ve written, this time more carefully.

———————

Wm. Witt writes:  “That you raise historical objections that would make any historical research impossible shows a bias in your own approach to the biblical documents.”

The fact that historical objections happen to undermine your preferred answers does not render historical research impossible.

In any event, it’s not the case that even an implausible answer is better than none. It may be that the best answer, and perhaps even the only defensible one, is simply, “we just don’t know.”

————————-

Wm. Witt writes:  “That you claim to examine the historical evidence “without presuppositions” shows your lack of awareness of philosophical discussions in epistemology for the last thirty years or so.  There can be no examination of evidence without presuppositions.”

I turn over my king, sir.

December 29, 2:29 pm | [comment link]
36. William Witt wrote:

The fact that historical objections happen to undermine your preferred answers does not render historical research impossible.

DC.,  I apologize if I seem to be sticking like this like a dog with a new bone, but none of the historical objections you have raised undermines my “preferred answers.”  What I wrote was that the objections you raise above—decades between event and written account, discrepancies between accounts, community factionalism, use of different languages—would undermine the writing of all ancient history.  Everything we know about the most significant events in the history of classical Greece depends on sources that are 1) decades removed from the event—Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato all lived decades (or later) after the Persian and Peloponnesian wars and the life and execution of Socrates; Plutarch’s Life of Alexander was five hundreds of years after the Persian Wars, and several hundred years after Alexander the Great; 2) were written by biased and contradictory sources in the midst of community factionalism—Plato was clearly a biased supporter of Socrates; Herodotus and Thucydides had political axes to grind; other accounts of Socrates disagree considerably from Plato; Herodotus and Plutarch are critical of Themistocles, while Thucydides praised him; the Persians, Athenians, and Spartans hated one another, and, moreover, Athens was always a source of political conflict, so there are no neutral historical sources for the period; 3) were sometimes written in other languages—everything that Herodotus writes about the ancient Egyptians and Persians was written in Greek, not in Egyptian or Persian.  Plutarch’s Lives were written in Greek, but half of them are biographies of Latin-speaking Romans. 

So every single one of your objections to the historical trustworthiness of gospels would count just as much against the trustworthiness of our only sources for the history of ancient Greece.  If your historical criticisms mean that we cannot trust the gospels, then the same criticisms mean that we cannot trust any ancient historical writings, and historical research is, indeed, impossible.

Numerous historians have compared the gospels with other ancient historical writings and have argued that they stand up in comparison with other ancient writings, e.g., Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge University Press, 1992), or more recently, Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006).  The single reason that some (not all) historians are skeptical of the gospels is that they contain miracles, but that represents a metaphysical prejudice, not a historical judgment.

December 29, 3:41 pm | [comment link]
37. Br. Michael wrote:

DC, Mr. Witt has you dead to rights.  You do indeed speculate without a shread of evidence and it is all in support of your basic assumption:  “The supernatural does not happen and the dead do not come back to life.”  Thus you speculate:  “Anything but this!”

December 29, 3:51 pm | [comment link]
38. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Wm. Witt [#36] writes:

... every single one of your objections to the historical trustworthiness of gospels would count just as much against the trustworthiness of our only sources for the history of ancient Greece.  If your historical criticisms mean that we cannot trust the gospels, then the same criticisms mean that we cannot trust any ancient historical writings, and historical research is, indeed, impossible.

Here’s a crucial distinction, which so often gets lost in the discussion:  Historians of ancient Greece do not urgently argue that everyone in the world should change their entire lives, not to mention the fundamental way that they view the universe, on grounds that Event X supposedly happened in the days of Plato and Socrates.

If anyone did so, I daresay we would focus just as much critical scrutiny on the question whether Event X actually occurred as I do on whether Jesus was actually raised from the dead, and whether that necessarily meant he was God incarnate

To repeat a hypothetical analogy I’ve used before:  Suppose I’m getting my annual physical checkup. My doctor tells me he wants to remove a small skin tag by freezing it off with liquid nitrogen, right then and there.  Of course I’ll let him — it’s not a big enough bet to warrant further investigation or concern.

But now suppose my doctor also says that his hernia check of my scrotum revealed lumps that he was certain would someday turn into cancer. I should let him amputate both testicles right then and there, he says, to avoid possible future problems and to gain the inestimable happiness that would come with a lower testosterone level. That would be a huge bet, far bigger than the doctor’s asking me if he can freeze off a skin tag.

Speaking for myself, before agreeing to such a life-changing course of action, I would want a good deal more information, and to confirm that both the doctor’s diagnosis and his prescription were consistent with the available evidence.

Granted, that’s an out-there analogy. But I hope it illustrates my point about the reasserter claim that Jesus was raised from the dead and therefore we should accept him as God.

December 29, 5:07 pm | [comment link]
39. Todd Granger wrote:

At the same time, the range of possible realities that are available for observation depends entirely on metaphysical commitments.  (William Witt)

D.C., when it comes down to it, you have never admitted the truthfulness of this statement.  Instead, you have always - even when you claim to have read and understood Polanyi and Newbigin (and one could add any number of 20th century epistemologists, particularly those working with the philosophy of science) - fall back on the false assumption of the “objectivism” of the exclusivist claims of materialist empiricism.  Exchanges with you would be considerably more fruitful (and by that I don’t mean your “conversion” to the orthodox Christian way of thinking) if you would get out of the hole that you mistake for an Olympian height from which you make pronouncements about what is and what isn’t possible.

December 29, 7:45 pm | [comment link]
40. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Todd Granger [#39] quotes William Witt [#34]:  “At the same time, the range of possible realities that are available for observation depends entirely on metaphysical commitments.”

Todd, WW’s phrase “the range of possible realities” brings to mind the “true for you but not for me” trope, which ought to be an uncomfortable fit for reasserters. 

One metaphysical commitment that’s proved quite useful is that there is a single ‘reality’ — wrought by the Creator, we theists would say — that is imperfectly observed by fallible humans.  Operating within that particular commitment, we might rephrase WW’s statement thusly:  Among all the things that do go on in the universe, the ones that we we notice, and thus the ones we observe, are determined in part by our presuppositions about what might be going on. Those presuppositions can sometimes be so intense as to amount to pre-commitments that inhibit our ability to observe what lies outside them.

Suppose it never entered our minds that Event X might have happened. Or suppose we considered the possibility but rejected it as impossible.

In either case, we’d be in danger of overlooking or even disregarding clues that, in fact, Event X did happen. The history of science is full of examples of this phenomenon; anyone who watches the TV series House, M.D., or any of the CSI-type cop shows, can see plenty of fictional examples.

The reverse is also true:  If we commit ourselves in advance to the proposition that Event X did happen, we put ourselves in danger of overlooking or even disregarding clues that it might not have. That, I submit, is the trap into which many reasserters have fallen:  They are so committed to the (separate but linked) propositions that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that he was/is God incarnate, that they are disregarding evidence suggesting that maybe he wasn’t

I plead “not guilty” to the charge of being pre-committed against the reasserters’ christological propositions.  So far as I can tell, I’m not one to disregard evidence; I place a high value on facing the facts. After decades of agnosticism, I was eventually persuaded by evidence (observed by others, of course) suggesting strongly that there is a Creator ‘who’ is approximately analogous to a loving father. I was aware of that evidence all along, but was unable to connect the dots in that way on my own; with a lot of help, I was finally able to see how the puzzle pieces could be fitted together in that way.

I’m likewise aware of the christological evidence cited by reasserters. But I’m also keenly aware of other evidence of witness fallibility that’s familiar to lawyers, scientists, journalists, police detectives, etc. Not only am I unable to connect the christological dots in the way reasserters do, I find myself compelled to do so in a different way — one that seems literally incomprehensible to my reasserter friends here because of their own metaphysical pre-commitments.

(It’s going on 3 a.m.; I’m going to try to get back to sleep.)

December 30, 4:47 am | [comment link]
41. Todd Granger wrote:

Todd, WW’s phrase “the range of possible realities” brings to mind the “true for you but not for me” trope, which ought to be an uncomfortable fit for reasserters.

On the face of it, you’re right, D.C.  But I think that we may safely assume that this isn’t the meaning that Dr Witt was giving the phrase.

One metaphysical commitment that’s proved quite useful is that there is a single ‘reality’ — wrought by the Creator, we theists would say — that is imperfectly observed by fallible humans.  Operating within that particular commitment, we might rephrase WW’s statement thusly:  Among all the things that do go on in the universe, the ones that we we notice, and thus the ones we observe, are determined in part by our presuppositions about what might be going on. Those presuppositions can sometimes be so intense as to amount to pre-commitments that inhibit our ability to observe what lies outside them.

Quite true.  (And I’m certain this is what Dr Witt meant by the phrase I quoted.)  This is one of the fundamental assertions underlying critical realism and of Polanyi’s pointing out the personal character of all knowledge.  As to “intense” pre-commitments that inhibit our ability to observe what lies outside them, I would offer up the Cartesian dualism of the objective and the subjective, and the materialist empiricism that derives from Descartes’ search for certain knowledge, as prime examples.

It was this dualism that Polanyi recognized as false, hence his accentuating the personal character of knowledge on the basis of unproven prior commitments - much like the Augustinian dictum, credo ut intelligam (I believe in order to know), undone by what was essentially the Cartesian dictum, dubito ut intelligam (I doubt in order to know) - though the Augustinian formulation was already being undone by the Thomistic assumptions of “natural” and “supernatural” knowledge along the lines of a dichotomy of “reason” and “faith”.

Suppose it never entered our minds that Event X might have happened. Or suppose we considered the possibility but rejected it as impossible.

In either case, we’d be in danger of overlooking or even disregarding clues that, in fact, Event X did happen. The history of science is full of examples of this phenomenon; anyone who watches the TV series House, M.D., or any of the CSI-type cop shows, can see plenty of fictional examples.

Quite true.

The reverse is also true:  If we commit ourselves in advance to the proposition that Event X did happen, we put ourselves in danger of overlooking or even disregarding clues that it might not have. That, I submit, is the trap into which many reasserters have fallen:  They are so committed to the (separate but linked) propositions that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that he was/is God incarnate, that they are disregarding evidence suggesting that maybe he wasn’t.

See below.

I plead “not guilty” to the charge of being pre-committed against the reasserters’ christological propositions.  So far as I can tell, I’m not one to disregard evidence; I place a high value on facing the facts. After decades of agnosticism, I was eventually persuaded by evidence (observed by others, of course) suggesting strongly that there is a Creator ‘who’ is approximately analogous to a loving father. I was aware of that evidence all along, but was unable to connect the dots in that way on my own; with a lot of help, I was finally able to see how the puzzle pieces could be fitted together in that way.

I accept your “not guilty” plea on face value.  But might I point out (first) that your definition of “facts” is culturally conditioned - or perhaps better, conditioned by your own prior commitments; and (second) that you are still insisting that there is some Cartesian point on which we may stand to judge said “facts” (disputed as to their nature) before or without making the prior (personal) commitments necessary to know anything.

That isn’t to say that we don’t exercise critical faculties of discernment once we’ve made the prior commitments necessary to inhabit a plausibility structure (like catholic Christianity, or materialist empiricism), but we don’t - we can’t - exercise critical faculties prior to making epistemological commitments, because these determine exactly how our critical faculties are shaped.

What you’re insisting “reasserters” (read, orthodox Christians) do is accept the Cartesian/empiricist epistemological commitments.

December 31, 1:50 am | [comment link]
42. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Todd [#41], this thread is pretty much dead, but it’s a useful forum for our continuing conversation ....

Todd writes: ”... you are still insisting that there is some Cartesian point on which we may stand to judge said “facts” (disputed as to their nature) before or without making the prior (personal) commitments necessary to know anything.”

You seem to be saying that I’m infected by Descartes’ desperation for certain knowledge. I think you may be falling prey to the fallacy of the false dilemma. I do have epistemological problems with orthodox Christianity. But that does not mean, as you may be assuming, that I will always categorically refuse to accept the tenets of orthodoxy, absent absolutely-certain knowledge that those tenets are true.

Contrary to what you may be thinking, I have no illusions that humanity will ever achieve certain knowledge about anything. I’m well aware of the lesson, taught inter alia by the history of science, that just about anything we think we ‘know’ could someday be revealed to be materially incomplete or just flat wrong.  That lesson is a major underpinning of my thinking.

I’m perfectly comfortable with our lack of certain knowledge; here’s my stab at explaining why:

(1) Notwithstanding our lack of certain knowledge, at any given time we and our ancestors usually (but by no means always) have had sufficient provisional knowledge to get by.  (This is almost a tautological statement; were it otherwise, our ancestors wouldn’t have successfully reproduced, and we ourselves wouldn’t be here.)

(2) Life is a movie, not a snapshot; the circumstances we call reality are ever-changing.  (This seems to be an inescapable consequence of the fact that, so far as we can tell, every subatomic particle in the universe is in motion relative to at least some other particles.)

(3) As life’s movie plays on, we humans continually learn (imperfectly, to be sure) from our individual- and collective experiences; we use our gifts of memory, reason, and skill to add to our store of provisional knowledge. Each of us acts in a continuing cycle that amounts to an ongoing feedback loop, akin to what the late John Boyd called the OODA loop: observe, orient, decide, act, repeat.  Our- and our ancestors’ OODA loops have presumably been operating since the dawn of time, and seem likely to go on for the foreseeable future, assuming we don’t extinguish ourselves in the meantime.

(We might even be aided in our OODA loops, on an ongoing basis, by the Creator.  I hate to invoke the God of the Gaps to explain the conception of new- and refined ideas, but certainly — pardon the expression — we have no real idea where inspiration and insight come from.)

(4) Even though past trends are not a guarantee of future results, there does seem to be an overall upward trend in the order and coherence of the universe, certainly in our little corner of it.  There’s no ironclad guarantee that this upward trend will continue, but that seems like a reasonable bet.

(5) Indeed, personally I’m willing to bet that, in the end, all will turn out OK. Such a willingness, I submit, can be labeled as a trust in the Creator — more specifically, as an evidence-based faith.

Points 1 through 3 above fit pretty well with my understanding of critical realism, I think. (I like N.T. Wright’s explanation of critical realism in the first part of The New Testament and the People of God.)

So I agree with you that “we don’t - we can’t - exercise critical faculties prior to making epistemological commitments, because these determine exactly how our critical faculties are shaped.”

But that can’t be the end of the inquiry (and I’m not saying you claim otherwise). 

I think we must add this:  Like our knowledge, our epistemological ‘commitments,’ should always be provisional, ever subject to (cautious) change when compelled by newly-revealed evidence or new insights.

And my own (provisional) epistemological commitments are the basis for my inability to connect the christological dots the way that orthodox Christians do.

Reactions?

December 31, 8:39 am | [comment link]
43. John Wilkins wrote:

I’m enjoying the discussion between Witt and DC.  The thing is that:  I have decided to trust the Church in its understanding of the Jesus event and the appearances of the disciples.  I don’t think they necessarily understood its meaning. 

I do make a few assumptions:  myth was the general way people told stories and understood the world.  I see the Jesus event and the stories as “anti-mythical.”  I would also agree that placing Jesus in History is necessary for Christianity to make sense and be relevant. 

I also think that the apostles, by putting God in history also opened up a world where the mythical religions were undermined.  It’s thinking allowed for the progression of intellectual thinking - that the world doesn’t need to be this way forever.  The world can get better.

And that perhaps, it is precisely because Jesus died on the cross and died and rose again that the myth of hell has now been overturned.  he destroyed hell.  So nobody is going there.  Its enough to recognize we do a good job of sending people there on this planet by worshiping money and political power and the infallibility of our own doctrines rather than in the God that returned and preached peace.

December 31, 2:51 pm | [comment link]
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