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A response to Pastor Popovich

June 4, 2018 GMT

Though I am not the only atheist who writes columns for the Idaho State Journal, I suspect that it is to me that the pastor of the First Baptist Church, Mike Popovich, referred in his column of 5/18/18 entitled “The Case for God.”

Mr. Popovich describes me as “not so much an atheist who proclaims there is no God, but more of an anti-theist who often focuses on the Christian God and tries to make a case against His existence.” This is, in part, a mistaken characterization of my position, because I deny the existence of all supernatural beings with equal conviction, whether they are angels, devils, gods, fairies or leprechauns.

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Mr. Popovich is correct, however, that I have a special animus toward Christianity and the Christian God.

I have studied Christianity with some intensity because it is the dominant religion in the country I inhabit. I have also studied other religions, and concluded that many Christian doctrines are, compared to those of other faiths, misguided and pernicious, and have led Christian-influenced cultures into a variety of morally and environmentally disastrous practices. Hence I particularly dislike it.

As to Mr. Popovich’s column, Bart Ehrrman, a well-known scholar of Christianity, makes a surprising observation about evangelical Christians — whom he knows well because he was raised as one. He calls fundamentalist Christians “children of the Enlightenment,” because they believe that their religious convictions are objectively true, and can be proven to be so.

Mr. Popovich exemplifies this belief. His column seeks to persuade readers that Jesus’ resurrection actually occurred. He admits that he cannot “prove” this claim, but he asserts that the evidence for it is “compelling,” and “is that of eyewitnesses and it is written.” He quotes the letter of Paul (1 Corinthians, chapter 15), in which Paul describes Christ’s death, his resurrection on the third day, his appearance to: Cephas (Peter), the Twelve, “five hundred of the brothers and sisters,” James, and “all the Apostles.”

I agree with Mr. Popovich about a great many things: I agree that Jesus and Paul were real persons; I agree that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in the 50s, C.E.; I agree that Jesus’ life was at least partially described in the Christian Bible, and that he was put to death on a cross in the early 30s, C.E. I also agree that Paul’s account of the resurrection was based upon a circulating story that may well have originated not too many years after Christ’s death. And I concur with the view that the resurrection, whether it occurred or not, was a crucial element in the history of Christianity.

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But where are the “eyewitness” accounts of that resurrection that Popovich promises us? Paul wasn’t an eyewitness. In fact, the Bible mentions no eyewitnesses to the resurrection. It does tell multiple stories of events following the crucifixion, and in all of them the resurrection occurs, but they disagree on almost every other detail of those events.

Popovich must be thinking of those who are said to have encountered Christ after his death. But, with one exception, none of those eyewitnesses’ testimonies are “written.” Paul himself is the only “witness” who claims (in the text of 1 Corinthians immediately after Popovich’s quote) that he encountered the risen Christ. Interestingly, that encounter was in the form of a vision, and Paul seems to treat it as equivalent to the other sightings he lists.

If it is true that there were sightings of Christ after his death, one plausible explanation would be that he didn’t die on the cross after all. There are scholars who believe this to be the case, citing the fact that his legs were not broken, which was the Romans’ traditional coup de grace for crucified criminals.

Other scholars think he died, but regard the entire tomb story as a fabrication. It’s unlikely that the Romans allowed Christ’s body to be taken down quickly, as the Bible reports. The Romans cared nothing about Jewish customs, and crucified bodies were customarily left on the cross to be eaten by scavenging animals. Moreover, when bodies were taken from the cross, they were usually put in mass graves. Considering that the entombment story serves as convenient circumstantial evidence of the resurrection (the tomb is occupied, sealed, then discovered to be unoccupied), it’s probably a fiction.

Others take most of the tomb story seriously, but argue that Christ’s body was, in fact, removed by his followers and buried elsewhere.

Mr. Popovich would have us regard Paul’s account of Christ’s resurrection as trustworthy, but Paul was hardly a disinterested observer. The Christian movement was moribund after the crucifixion. Jesus’ followers had thought he was the Messiah, destined to assume power and end the persecution of his people. His humiliating death destroyed that expectation. It was only Paul’s promulgation of the doctrines of Christ’s death as atonement for mankind’s sins, his godhood (as established by his resurrection), and the lack of any need for his followers to adhere to Jewish law, that rescued the movement. Trusting Paul’s testimony on the resurrection is like relying on Trump’s assessment of the size of his inauguration crowd.

Those who share Mr. Popovich’s assumptions may find his argument persuasive. For those who don’t regard the Bible as an unimpeachable historical source, who don’t think gods exist, and don’t believe that miracles are possible, his “case” fails. Even his claim that he has at least established what Christians believed about the resurrection, is untrue. The Bible tells us only what some Christians believed, and what became the dogma of the church.

A footnote: Christians have traditionally understood Christ’s resurrection as an act performed by God the father. Popovich never describes it thus. Instead, he uses odd sentences like “Jesus is the Christ who resurrected from the dead.” I admit that the doctrine of the Trinity complicates things, and that Protestants have always been fixated on Christ, but do Baptists actually believe that Christ resurrected himself?

Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU’s Oboler Library in 2006.

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