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September 2, 2018 GMT

Two months ago a column appeared in the “Faith” section of the Idaho State Journal in which the author attempted to prove that Christ’s resurrection was a historically-verifiable event.

The column was written by Aaron Hayes, and seemed to have been prompted, in part, by columns of mine in which I have expressed an atheistic viewpoint. Mr. Hayes’ argument was largely the usual array of Biblical quotations, and he also proposed an explanation of why I (and my ilk) might find his argument unpersuasive.

On that latter issue, Mr. Hayes told his readers that a person’s “interpretation of the evidence, based on one’s worldview or presuppositions, is often as important as the evidence itself,” and he pointedly suggested that “a philosophical commitment to naturalism or a bias against people of faith can also play a role in resurrection studies.”

I think that comment was directed at me, on the assumption that I, as an atheist, have made just such a “philosophical commitment,” am biased against Christians, and consequently incapable of an objective assessment of the Biblical evidence that he presents.

Am I biased against Christians? Well, I find the basic doctrines of Christianity to be false. It follows that I consider those people who accept those doctrines to be mistaken, insofar as they do so. I don’t think this is a case of bias, but of judgment.

As to my “philosophical commitment,” to naturalism, it is certainly true that I am not convinced that supernatural beings exist, nor that supernatural events occur, but I do not regard that conclusion as particularly “philosophical;” it simply reflects my understanding of the findings of science.

Neither is it a “commitment,” if by that is meant that nothing could make me change my mind. It is far more likely, I think, that it is Mr. Hayes who has made a “commitment,” a specific commitment to the historical occurrence of the resurrection, which is, after all, a belief that Christians are required to profess.

In any case, my “naturalism” affects only one element of an assessment of an historical fact: its intrinsic probability. The resurrection of the dead is certainly a conceivable event, but, even in the age of miracles, it was rare. Its intrinsic probability is therefore quite low, which means that the evidence for such an event must be exceptionally strong if we are to be persuaded that it actually occurred.

The only evidence cited by Mr. Hayes are those passages in the New Testament. Is the N.T. a trustworthy source of historical information? What historians know about it is that it is an ancient document, and essentially a compiled and edited collection of stories and letters, most of which emerged from an otherwise inaccessible oral tradition.

The authors of the component texts, with the exception of Paul, are unknown. All of the stories deal with the life of Jesus and the religious movement which he founded. Some of the historical events related in N.T. are corroborated by other ancient documents; most are not.

Historians also know that, by the time that the N.T. was created (sometime in the 4th century C.E.), a great many stories about Jesus had been circulating within Christian communities, and Christians had long quarreled with one another about what they should believe — especially regarding the nature of Jesus and his message.

The stories selected for inclusion in the N.T. were said to be those that were most “authentic,” but there is every reason to believe that one thing “authentic” meant was, “in agreement with what the Christian church authorities have decided are the essential doctrines of the faith.”

In other words, the N.T. represented the church’s effort to put an end to the squabbling and impose uniform beliefs upon the faithful, i.e. to create a Christian orthodoxy.

The evidence of that intent is plentiful. Though the N.T. editors may have felt compelled to include a specific story because it was widely known and respected, if it contained serious doctrinal defects, they altered it.

The ending of the gospel of Mark, for example (verses 16:9 through 16:20), was clearly not the work of its original author, but added by someone else. And that was done because Mark (at least in the copies of Mark that they had), contained no account of Christ’s post-death appearances, which had become part of official doctrine.

So the N.T. is a collection of texts selected and edited to establish and propagate a particular religious doctrine. As a repository of facts it is about as trustworthy as the Communist Manifesto. Certainly it provides evidence of something, but, at least with respect to Christ’s resurrection, that something is only what some Christians believed, not the truth of those beliefs.

The doctrine of the resurrection was, to be sure, not only what the church hierarchy taught, but a belief that was attractive to many of Christ’s followers. It replaced despair with hope.

It assuaged the grief caused by his death, and gave them a reason to perpetuate the movement. The corollary doctrine of Christ’s sacrificial atonement for human sin and promise of salvation was also an appealing one.

And, the occurrence of a resurrection was not totally implausible to people of the time, who had heard tales of resurrections, and who, because they had no scientific understanding of the world whatsoever, believed in the possibility of miracles. Even then, not all Christians were convinced. The unanimity of Christians on the resurrection was, to some extent, a consequence of those who didn’t believe it leaving the church.

As a footnote to the “naturalism” argument, it’s worth mentioning, I think, that there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who reject naturalism and believe in supernatural beings and events, and who also, just like me, are unconvinced by the Biblical evidence for Christ’s resurrection.

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.