Upcoming Resurrection Debate in the Houston Area

Here is a preview of an upcoming debate on the resurrection to be held at a Houston-area church. I have never heard of either of these debaters. From today’s Houston Chronicle.


A couple of observations:

(1) Any skeptical debater is going to have to give a convincing account that explains why the Disciples, who were clearly a dejected, demoralized, and frightened lot after the crucifixion, were back some time later fearlessly proclaiming a risen Jesus. Several became martyrs—notably both Peter and Paul—something hard to conceive if they were defending an intentional fabrication. Perhaps many have died for their lies, but the notion is stubbornly counter-intuitive for most audience members and would be a tough sell. Most of us imagine that if we were given the choice of admitting our fraud and being executed, we would spill all the beans we head.

The job here, then, is to explain how intelligent, sane, educated, and honest people might come to believe that something marvelous has happened when it did not. This is not an easy job either since much of the information is not well-known to the public at large. For instance, the influence of hallucinations and visions on history is not well known, but in ancient times, big events often turned on such experiences:

“Caesar is said to have taken orders from “voices” to invade countries. Drusus was said to have been deterred from crossing the Elbe by the sudden appearance of a woman of supernatural size. Atilla’s march on Rome was checked by the vision of an old man in priest’s raiment, who threatened his life with a drawn sword…. Constantine fought a battle in the year 312 because of hallucinations and was converted to Christianity by “voices”…. Mohammed had auditory and visual hallucinations … which were used by him in his calling as a prophet … the Christian emperor Charlemagne was thought to be directly inspired by the angels.” (F.H. Johnson, The Anatomy of Hallucinations, 1978, pp. 12-13)

Numerous other examples could be adduced. Joan of Arc heard heavenly voices calling her to save France. Martin Luther recounted that he often would confront physical manifestations of Satan. Even in 1914, the “Angels of Mons” were seen, leading the British soldiers into battle.

There is in fact a rich literature of psychological research on hallucinations, apparitions, visions, etc that may be consulted. Maybe start with Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations.

2) Berg mentions a key point that has to be driven home again and again: There were no eyewitnesses of the purported resurrection. In fact, the only first-person report of an encounter with the risen Christ is Paul’s claim in I Corinthians 15. Allow me to quote myself on that point, from Why I am not a Christian (Secular Web):

“Paul’s claim to have encountered the risen Jesus (I Corinthians, 15:3-9 is especially important because it is very early and it is a first-person report (the only undisputed first-hand report of an encounter with the risen Jesus in the Bible). However, it is unclear whether Paul is claiming to have physically witnessed the risen Christ or whether it was a vision. The Greek text is ambiguous. Apologists have claimed that the Greek verb horao employed by Paul in verses 5-8 always refers to physical sight and not visions. However, Paul himself, in Colossians 2:18, uses the same verb to denigrate false visions. Also, as Reginald Fuller says: ‘The appearances [in I Corinthians 15:5-8] are characterized by the verb ophthe [the aorist passive form of horao] literally ‘was seen’ … but when used with the dative, ‘appeared.'” Fuller notes that this verb is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) to describe theophanies and the appearance of angels. He comments on the angelic appearances:

‘The emphasis rests on the revelatory initiative of the angel of God, who desires to make himself manifest, not upon the experience of the recipient. Thus the question as to how they see, whether with the physical eye or with the eye of the mind or the spirit, is left undetermined and unemphasized; it lies entirely outside the horizon of interest.’” (Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives, 1971, p. 30)

In short, we have no first-hand report of the resurrection itself. Nobody claims to have been there when Jesus emerged from the tomb. Further, the only undisputed first-hand report of an encounter with the risen Christ is Paul’s, which seems to have been a visionary or hallucinatory experience. All other reports are second or third hand at least, and were first recorded in the form that we now have them decades after the purported events. As Berg puts it:

“Would you believe a 100-year old story about a group of religious fanatics in some backwater having extended conversations with a ghost because somebody this year decided to write it down?”