Some time ago, literary critic Stanley Fish observed that religion was “transgressing the boundary between private and public and demanding to be heard.” And that’s a dangerous thing because, as Mr. Fish sees it, religion is based on claims that are excluded from tests of “deliberative reason.”
Take the resurrection of Jesus Christ. “The assertion that Christ is risen is not one for which evidence pro and con is adduced in a judicial setting.” Mr. Fish worries that the growing influence of such non-critical beliefs is threatening liberalism.
There’s more than a little irony here. Stanley Fish, along with the other architects of postmodernism, ousted objective truth and reason in favor of subjective truth and personal experience decades ago.
Among trenchant critics—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett being the most persuasive—people who believe in the Resurrection are under the spell of an authority directing them to sacrifice intellectual freedom on the altar of superstitious tradition. This makes religious faith coercive, if not dangerous.
Princeton religion professor, Elaine Pagels, picks up on that point in her book The Gnostic Gospels. Ms. Pagels asks, “Why did orthodox tradition adopt the literal view of resurrection?” Pagels suggests that it was a strategic move by an imperialistic Church to silence freethinkers throughout the ages, i.e., those who understood Christian doctrines for their figurative value. From Valentinus to Nietzsche, those who relied on personal experience over apostolic revelation found themselves shoved into the heretical ghetto by the Church patriarchs.
Dan Brown’s fantasy, The Da Vinci Code, goes even farther. The book’s premise is that Christ’s resurrection, and other events supporting his divinity, was one of many “just-so” stories foisted on the hapless masses by a fourth-century church-state. Why? To expand its power base by suppressing the “true” followers of Christ, namely, those who understood the symbolic (versus literal) significance of Jesus and his life.
If Christ’s bodily resurrection is true, it is the most important event in all of history. But if it is symbolic, the name Jesus Christ has no more significance than Clark Kent. As the apostle Paul himself asserts, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” On the other hand, if Christ is raised, we are left with one and only one conclusion: he is the Lord and Savior that he claimed to be. And that makes all the difference. So which is it?
Let’s apply a little of Stanley Fish’s “deliberative reason.”
A Resurrection Ruse?
The most credible arguments against the traditional account involve some sort of conspiracy theory or “Passover plot.” Critics allege that after Christ’s death, the disciples hatched a plan to steal his body and fabricate a “risen Savior” for political or financial gain.
Among the many implausible features about such theories is that they depend on men like Peter, who just hours before had denied his leader three times, to rise to a level of heroism unsurpassed by New York City firemen. Not only did this cowering band of misfits need to sneak past a Roman guard and remove a one-ton stone, they had to psyche up enough courage to sneak past them again—this time with the body that these highly disciplined soldiers had been stationed to secure on penalty of death.
But even if such a conspiracy scheme was possible, it collapses under the weight of historical evidence, as acknowledged by some not-so sympathetic authorities. For instance, historian Michael Grant admits, “Their testimonies cannot prove them to have been right in supposing that Jesus had risen from the dead. However, these accounts do prove that certain people were utterly convinced that that is what he had done.”
And then there is Duke professor E.P. Sanders who says, “That Jesus’s followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences, I do not know.”
Even for the impartial critic, nothing short of steadfast belief could explain how a band of cowards could be transformed into men of valor overnight. Despite the constant threat of torture, alienation, imprisonment, and death, the disciples held firm to their account of a resurrected Messiah. They surely had ample opportunity and motive for coming clean about the “cover-up,” or, at least, for reconsidering their testimony. Yet, although nearly all of the Apostles were martyred for their faith, there is no evidence that any one of them ever recanted.
The behavior of the disciples only makes sense once we accept that they actually believed that the incredible story they were telling was true.
Some have attempted to associate the Apostles’ actions with the ever-ready martyr wish of religious fanaticism. But this only further invalidates the charge of conspiracy. Yes, men may suffer and die for what they believe to be true, but it goes against human nature to suffer and die for what they know to be false. Nobody knows that better than the former Special Counsel to President Nixon, Charles W. Colson.
All the President’s Men
In his book, Loving God, Chuck Colson writes about his involvement in the Watergate conspiracy. Colson describes “handpicked loyalists” who believed passionately in their leader, and who had sacrificed everything—lucrative personal careers, privacy, and family—for the sake of their leader and their noble cause.
These were men who had the power and prestige of the highest office in the land. Men whose leader was victorious, having just won a landslide election. Men who, with a word, could mobilize the military and fire personnel, or order a private jet or limo. Men who had everything to lose from a failed cover-up. Yet with all that was at stake, Colson writes that this small inner circle “could not hold a conspiracy together for more than two weeks.”
Unlike Christ’s disciples who faced beatings and execution, the Watergate conspirators faced, at most, a prison term, embarrassment, and an end to the perks and clout of the White House. But within weeks after hints of the cover-up reached Judge Sirica, “the natural instinct for self-preservation was so overwhelming that the conspirators, one by one, deserted their leader, walked away from their cause, [and] turned their backs on the power, prestige, and privileges,” writes Colson.
In contrast, the disciples were powerless men whose unpopular leader had been defeated and who quickly found themselves guilty by association. Yet these “marked men” boldly entered Jerusalem, the most hostile place on Earth, to deliver their thoroughly unwelcome message—a message that would have been readily contested by any number of persons had the counter-evidence existed.
Applying “Deliberative Reason”
A while back, the Discovery Channel aired The Lost Tomb of Jesus—a James Cameron production documenting the “discovery” of a cave containing the remains of Jesus and his family. The filmmakers had reached their conclusion based on “close work with world-famous scientists” involving paleography and DNA analysis.
Nevertheless, Amos Kloner, the Jewish archaeologist who wrote the official report on the cave years earlier, concluded, “It’s completely impossible [that Jesus was buried there]. It’s nonsense. There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb.”
But just think—if this cave did contain the remains of Jesus it would be nigh impossible to verify 2,000 years later. Although DNA might be able to establish the relationships between those buried in the cave, it couldn’t establish a positive ID on any one of them. And who is to say that the inscriptions on the ossuaries haven’t been tampered with, or that the names—which were all quite common in that period—weren’t those of another family? That said, in the days, weeks, and months after Jesus’s death, the discovery of his corpse would have been certain.
Both the Jewish leadership and the Roman authorities were not only highly motivated to quash any resurrection ruse, but they had the political muscle and wherewithal to extract confessions and find the body, if indeed it existed. That no such evidence came forth is reflected in the late-first-century account by the Jewish historian, Josephus:
Now there was about this time Jesus… [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Antiquities 18.3.3)
There are several remarkable things about this passage. First, Josephus was a member of the community most offended by the Christian message. Second, there is no hint of criticism about the reports of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances; to the contrary, Josephus seems to give credence to the apostolic account. Third, Josephus’s indictment of his countrymen and his Roman rulers was sure to rile both groups, and stands as a testimony to his objectivity. And lastly, this first-century account runs counter to the historical revisionists who propose that Christ’s divinity was a concoction of a fourth-century theocracy.
The disciples’ case is so strong that Irwin H. Linton, a lawyer who has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, writes that the Resurrection “is not only so established that the greatest lawyers have declared it to be the best proved fact of all history, but it is so supported that it is difficult to conceive of any method or line of proof that it lacks which would make [it] more certain.” Even for lawyers not inclined to accept the Christian message, Linton goes on to say that they have been “unable to refute the irresistible force of the cumulative evidence upon which such faith rests.”
It would seem, to an objective observer, that this claim has passed the “test of deliberative reason.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “Resurrection of Christ” by Raffaellino del Garbo in 1510.