What Skeptics Are Doing Wrong

Jason Rennie


I've had the privilege of spending time recently asking questions in the infidels.org web forums. I was asking questions about contradictions and errors in the bible. Great lists were produced and challenges issued to read Farrell Till's Skeptical Review. I did read a few articles and was left feeling that the arguments didn't amount to much. Originally this article was going to be about the nature of skepticism and why people strive so hard to disbelieve in Christianity. However, while thinking about what I was going to write I had something of a revelation from on high and ended up with this idea for an article.

Have you ever noticed how many different directions skeptics attack the Bible from? They attack it from as many directions as they can: contradictions in the bible, the absurdity of the Genesis account, the absurdity of miracles, the illogic of 'belief in God', the problem of evil and on and on. Thankfully these days the skeptics publish a lot of information electronically. If all their literary diarrhea was printed on paper I fear there wouldn't be a tree left standing on the planet.

However, I would assert that all of their writing and musing is so much smoke and mirrors. They have a completely wrong-headed approach to attacking Christianity. Unfortunately, many Christians seem to be taken in by this approach and struggle with doubt as a result.

To paraphrase the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, "if the resurrection is bogus then so is Christianity in its entirety". If the resurrection is a real historical event, then by extension everything else is true. This means of course that any contradictions are merely apparent rather than actual, any absurdities are apparent rather than actual, the creation account is true, miracles are real and on and on. The whole of Christianity stands or falls simply on the historicity of the resurrection.

Next time you are thrown into doubt by some complex argument about contradictions in the Old Testament, or are confronted with the "proof" that science has disproved the existence of God (as if it could even hope to ask the right question!) remember that Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection, not on anything else. I must remember Paul's words in Colossians 2:8, "See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." Always look back to the cross; everything else is a side issue. Remember, when being involved in a discussion about Christianity, come back to the cross. If it is true, you are right; if it is false, nothing matters anyway, everything else is a side issue.

This is where skeptics seem to be going wrong. They produce huge lists of contradictions, long-winded and high-sounding arguments about the non-historicity of the book of Daniel, gross misquotes from the book of Ecclesiastes, proof that the flood could never have happened and that even if it did where would you stick all the animals...but it doesn't matter. If the skeptics really want to make any inroads among Christians then they need to attack the resurrection. Any other "converts" they get are likely from among people that were desperate to leave Christianity anyway because they wanted to sell themselves to one of the many idols the world offers in place of God.

Some skeptics seem to understand the truth about Christianity and its dependence on the resurrection. Acharya S seeks to remove the resurrection by casting Christ as a collection of stolen pagan myths. G.A. Wells and others try this tactic as well. JPH and Glenn Miller have done some sterling work to show these efforts for the nonsensical ramblings that they are. Many like the Jesus Seminar and John Shelby Spong attack the resurrection by recasting Jesus as some holy man and moving much of the gospels to the realm of fiction rather than fact. Barbera Theiring in her vaguely lucid moments claims that Jesus and his surrounding history are largely fabrications, and that one needs to read behind the texts. The poor scholarship and lacking credibility of these authors and others of their ilk can be easily seen when a bit of digging is done into their research. But at least they are on the right track. They seem to understand Christianity's true weak point. The only place worth attacking if they want to make any difference.

The Jesus-myth approach seems to be the best approach as far as I can tell. As soon as one admits to the existence of a historical Jesus, then one is stuck with the accounts of the gospels as having some basis in fact. As Frank Morrison found out (author of Who Moved the Stone), once you give any weight at all to the historicity of the gospels it all unravels very quickly and you are stuck with a Messiah that, on the balance of the evidence, appears to have risen from the dead. Unless one has a philosophical predisposition to reject resurrection as a possibility, none of the other possible explanations seem to hold any weight at all. Best to stick with Christ as myth, because any sort of a historical Jesus keeps looking like he was raised from the dead.

There is some value in skeptical attacks on other sections of the Bible. It is good to understand the Bible as a whole. I may never have looked at apparent atrocities in the Bible, and attempted to understand them properly if not for skeptical questions in that direction. Also, with the skeptics attacking all of the different parts of the Bible, believers have (after the arguments have been taken to pieces) an even greater confidence in Bible as a reliable account. Without many of the skeptical attacks on the various sections of the Bible a lot of great ministries and resources would probably not exist. All of these differing lines of attack in the long run seem mainly to strengthen rather than weaken my trust in the reliability of the Bible and the character of God.

I suspect that skeptics like all of these other arguments because they often hinge on bits of the Bible, or facts of history that are unfamiliar to many. These attacks are muted thanks to the great work of many fine apologists and historians. But at the end of the day, all of the arguments can easily be resolved by going back to the resurrection. If Christ rose, then it is true. If he didn't then bits and pieces of it may be true, but the message loses any value it had. So, skeptics, I challenge you to successfully attack the resurrection. Two thousands years of trying and the same tired and well-refuted arguments being recycled time and again would indicate that you are doomed. Put all of the long and complex arguments about semantics, the lists of contradictions, the Old Testament verses that contain numerical errors, on hold. They all count for naught if Christ rose they are all explainable, all resolvable in some form, they must be by definition. Stop attempting to use obfuscation and misdirection to launch attacks; they can be entertaining but ultimately ineffective. Go for the main prize: disprove the resurrection. I expect you will come up short.


Kyle Gerkin responds:The following is a letter Kyle sent to Jason. My own thoughts below.

I am a friend of J.P. Holding who also happens to be a Skeptic. I believe he told you I might be writing you in regard to the guest commentary you did for tektonics.org. And, as you can see, I am. I enjoyed your article "What Skeptics Are Doing Wrong". To a large extent, I agree with you. As you noted, Skeptics have spent a lot of time and effort compiling huge lists of Biblical contradictions, atrocities, failed prophecies, disagreements with science, etc. Mostly, this amounts to wasted breath. Not because these points have no validity, but because they are not decisive and thus will sway very few. For just about any given Biblical "difficulty", there are two possibilities:

  1. The Bible is wrong.
  2. The difficulty can be explained in a manner consistent with Biblical inerrancy.

But which is it? For every exhaustive list of Biblical problems Skeptics produce, Christians have an equally exhaustive list of explanations. Which way a person goes on any individual issue depends largely on their predisposition. Christians are predisposed to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt; Skeptics are not. Skeptics might point to the sheer volume of Biblical problems as favoring their view, but Christians who hold to the inerrancy of scripture are unimpressed.

So the question is, why, especially in face of numerous problems, do (conservative) Christians consider the Bible inerrant? In other words, what separates the Bible from every other document of ancient history? If everything from Gilgamesh to Homer to Virgil is a mix of fact, myth, hearsay, and exaggeration produced by men, what demonstrates that the Bible is the infallible word of God?

Well, maybe nothing. At least not in a clear cut fashion. But why would a Christian even entertain such a possibility? There must be some event in the Bible so incredible, for which naturalistic explanations are so ridiculously improbable, that divine authorship is actually the more parsimonious model. And, of course, there is: the resurrection of Jesus.

So, as you stated in your commentary, it all comes back to the cross. I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that, "If the resurrection is a real historical event, then by extension everything else is true." But, if the resurrection is a real historical event, it certainly goes a long way towards demonstrating that everything else is true. On the other hand, I think we can both agree with your paraphrase of Paul that "if the resurrection is bogus then so is Christianity in its entirety".

Thus, as a Skeptic, I suppose I should follow your advice and, "go for the main prize: disprove the resurrection." However, I cannot disprove it. But then, I don't think you can prove it either. So the best I can do is give you my reason for rejecting the resurrection and listen to your reason for rejecting mine.

For any given recorded historical event, we cannot say with absolute certainty whether it actually occurred or not. After all, there are always four possibilities:

  1. The person is telling the truth and such an event really happened.
  2. The person is telling the truth but they were mistaken about the event they thought they witnessed.
  3. The person is telling the truth but they were delusional and/or hallucinated the event.
  4. The person is lying.

Of course, based on various factors (author's proximity to the event, author's motives for lying, corroborating sources, etc) historians try to determine with a reasonable degree of probability which of the four possibilities was the actuality. This probability will rise or fall depending on the amount of historical material available for study. Yet, because history is not reproducible, we can never fully eliminate any of the possibilities, no matter how remote they may seem.

Well, that's all wonderful for theory, but in practice we must go with the option which is favored by the evidence. Sure, maybe Caesar never crossed the Rubicon and it was all a public relations legend circulated later, but the evidence certainly does not support that. Similarly, a Christian might argue that, in theory, perhaps Jesus survived the crucifixion in a comatose state and was revived three days later, but the balance of the evidence points to a resurrection. And that's that.

Ah, but there is a crucial difference here. The Resurrection falls under a different standard than the Crossing of the Rubicon, because it is a supernatural event. Men cross rivers all the time (you have probably done it yourself), but men are not normatively raised from the dead. In fact, some argue that no one has ever been raised from the dead. And most everyone would agree that it has only happened a few times (Jesus, Lazarus), if at all. If men were being supernaturally resurrected today (even just a few!) under scientific conditions which could eliminate the possibility of fraud, the Resurrection of Christ would fall under exactly the same standard as the Crossing of the Rubicon or any other normative event. As it stands, the Resurrection, along with every other supernatural event that is not normative (i.e. every other supernatural event) does not fall under the criteria of ordinary historical analysis.

Thus, the question is: what level of historical evidence is sufficient to establish a supernatural event? The answer: no level of historical evidence is sufficient to establish a supernatural event. Why? Because historical evidence always leaves open the possibilities 2-4 enumerated above. And as long as those possibilities are open, one must default to them in favor of a supernatural explanation.

But isn't this anti-supernatural bias? Perhaps. But it is a bias based on the very solid footing of the uniformitarianism principle. More or less, this principle assumes that the world operates pretty much the same today as it has through out the past. A popular way of putting it is that "the present is the key to the past." Yes, it is an assumption, but it is certainly a reasonable one, and a principle which almost everyone really subscribes to (consciously or not) the majority of the time. Indeed, Christians are usually skeptical of supernatural events outside of the Bible because of uniformitarianism.

Therefore, my question to Christians in general (and you in particular, Jason) becomes: how can one justify overturning uniformitarianism and opting for a supernatural explanation when naturalistic explanations (even highly unlikely ones) are available?


J. P.'s thoughts: By now it has become abundantly clear why I am pleased to embarking on the Scholarly Diplomacy series with Kyle in particular. This is one guy who's not going to act like the whole Christian edifice is overturned because Chronicles says Solomon took 4000 baths while Kings says he took 5000. It's a ridiculous type of argumentation, and it would be if you used it on a secular document as well. I believe in the inerrancy of the Bible -- but I do not think that we need to press the panic button to the extent that some like Harold Lindsell have, i.e., "If there is one mistake, you can't trust ANY of it!" Practically speaking that is all wrong. If there is one mistake, then what you have is a collection of documents that could still theoretically include inerrant messages -- or just put it this way, the truth! -- which must then be evaluated on their own merits. And a theoretical proven error in Kings would not wash off on John and cause John to be suspect, under such a rubric. Both Skeptics and Christians are guilty of this fallacious "all or nothing" approach at times.

Kyle asks, "...why, especially in face of numerous problems, do (conservative) Christians consider the Bible inerrant?" This he uses to lead into the resurrection, but I'll add a few cents in as well. Over years of study I have found that the vast majority of "problems" invite easy answers. I won't detail that here; it's all over the site, but it comes down to that a fair study of the texts in context, and using the same criteria one might apply to a secular document, resolve nearly all the problems. These days Skeptics don't get the benefit of the doubt from me because the vast majority simply don't know or care about such things.

As for the crux, the Resurrection itself: Well, I've asked Kyle to take a gander at my piece de resistance -- The Impossible Faith -- as an apologetic for the Rez as the best available explanation. I will say as well that I am nowhere near as inclined to accept a uniformitarian view. Indeed, when Kyle says, "Christians are usually skeptical of supernatural events outside of the Bible because of uniformitarianism," he can exclude me from that crowd at once. For me, hearing that some pagan deity is credited with a miracle means this: "That's nice. So what do you expect me to do about it?" (You can see some of my thoughts on this here.) I consider the "normative expectations" argument to be out of bounds and counter-intuitive. It's very dangerous to assume that the present gives the key to the past, in my view -- perhaps because I have found that people and things in the past were far different in other ways.

I look forward to a productive discourse.


From here on, material being responded to will be in italics.

Jason responds:

I enjoyed your article "What Skeptics Are Doing Wrong". To a large extent, I agree with you. As you noted, Skeptics have spent a lot of time and effort compiling huge lists of Biblical contradictions, atrocities, failed prophecies, disagreements with science, etc. Mostly, this amounts to wasted breath.

No disagreement here.

Not because these points have no validity, but because they are not decisive and thus will sway very few. For just about any given Biblical "difficulty", there are two possibilities:

But even if the bible turns out to be in error on a small point it doesn't then all automatically become false. It simple means that inerrancy would need to be abandoned.

Christians are predisposed to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt; Skeptics are not. Skeptics might point to the sheer volume of Biblical problems as favoring their view, but Christians who hold to the inerrancy of scripture are unimpressed.

To be fair when the "mountain of problems" turns out to be, for the most part, a combination of misreading of the text that borders on the criminally negligent and a complete ignorance of the setting of the varied documents, then it seems reasonable to suggest that the the problem is not with the documents.

I wouldn't go quite so far as to say that, "If the resurrection is a real historical event, then by extension everything else is true." But, if the resurrection is a real historical event, it certainly goes a long way towards demonstrating that everything else is true. On the other hand, I think we can both agree with your paraphrase of Paul that "if the resurrection is bogus then so is Christianity in its entirety".

Absolutely. The original statement was simply hyperbole. But it is certianly true that if the resurrection is a real event then it does pretty much vindicate the Christian message.

For any given recorded historical event, we cannot say with absolute certainty whether it actually occurred or not. After all, there are always four possibilities:

Fair enough. I see no problem with that.

[B]ecause history is not reproducible, we can never fully eliminate any of the possibilities, no matter how remote they may seem.

All history will ultimately be a best probable explanation, so this is fair enough, but I suspect you mean the above more as a rule of thumb rather than a hard and fast rule.

Ah, but there is a crucial difference here. The Reurrection falls under a different standard than the Crossing of the Rubicon, because it is a supernatural event. Men cross rivers all the time (you have probably done it yourself), but men are not normatively raised from the dead. In fact, some argue that *no one* has ever been raised from the dead. And most everyone would agree that it has only happened a few times (Jesus, Lazarus), if at all. If men were being supernaturally resurrected today (even just a few!) under scientific conditions which could eliminate the possibility of fraud, the Resurrection of Christ would fall under exactly the same standard as the Crossing of the Rubicon or any other normative event. As it stands, the Resurrection, along with every other supernatural event that is not normative (i.e. every other supernatural event) does not fall under the criteria of ordinary historical analysis.

Do you realise that you are basically asking me (if I was to agree to this) to do the equivalent of participating in a boxing match after having both my arms cut off?/P>

You want to claim that a resurrection is impossible because we don't see them happening under conditions we observer today. But think about what you are asking.

I am claiming that we have a 1 time special miracle event the resurrection of Jesus (the others were more akin to resuscitation).

If it happened like that everyday, then it wouldn't be miraculous and you would in effect be free to argue that there was nothing special about the event.

But instead because it was a one of special event you are claiming (in effect) that it couldn't of happened because we don't observe it happening today. Which is exactly the point with 1 of world changing miracle events.

I'm sure you can see how this is not exactly a reasonable claim to be making.

Thus, the question is: what level of historical evidence is sufficient to establish a supernatural event? The answer: no level of historical evidence is sufficient to establish a supernatural event. Why? Because historical evidence always leaves open the possibilities 2-4 enumerated above. And as long as those possibilities are open, one must default to them in favor of a supernatural explanation.

Actually I doubt somehow that you really ascribe to this position.

Think about what your saying.

If I was to offer the following as an alternative to the resurrection :

A time travelling cabal of insurance salesman led by a clone of Elvis, who faked the resurrection and the whole history of Israel's encounters with God to allow them to set up the "Act of God" clause in insurance law.

You, assuming you really do ascribe to the above are claiming that this is actually a more reasonable explanation because it doesn't actually invoke the supernatural anywere along the line.

But I doubt if faced with those as the only 2 alternatives you're going to jump at the one I just offered as more plausible because it involves only "naturalistic explanations".

Yes, the example is silly, but if you are to insist that it is more probable because it only invokes "naturalistic explanations" then I think it is fair to conclude that you are really only grasping at any alternative regardless of how ridiculous it may turn out to be. And if you wish to do that, well fair enough, but don't pretend that such an approach is reasonable.

So the question is, when does it become reasonable to invoke the supernatural?

I think it is far fairer to use a slightly more realistic principle in evaluating the evidence.

What "ad-hoc" assumptions are needed to make the explanation plausible? Do the alternatives require any far-fetched assumptions that clash wildly with your everyday experience?

The explanation of all of the events surrounding the resurrection of Christ as presented in the bible requires only one such assumption. That being that YHWH actually exists, and a sub-assumption (I suppose) that he is as portrayed biblically. You might say this is an unreasonable assumption, but you need to look at the actual alternative explanations and see what sort of assumptions are required for them to work.

Invoking the supernatural shouldn't be a problem, it is just another "ad-hoc" assumption that is being made.

You just need to weigh which assumptions seem the most reasonable and decide from among the alternatives yourself. The trick is to be impartial while doing it.

But it is a bias based on the very solid footing of uniformitarianism principle. More or less, this principle assumes that the world operates pretty much the same today as it has through out the past.

But as I noted above we are talking about a one of a kind, unique event. Christians aren't claiming this happens everyday, they are claiming the event is unique. So appealing to a uniformitarian presupposition about the nature of the universe is useless. Nobody is claiming anyway that the resurrection would not be a violation of this general principle.

Indeed, Christians are usually skeptical of supernatural events outside of the Bible because of uniformitarianism.

Actually I think this is mostly because they haven't really thought about it. All other genuine supernatural events do actually fit into a biblical worldview.

Anyway Thanks for the email Kyle, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Do you actually have an alternative account of the resurrection that takes into account all of the factors we see surronding the event ?


Kyle responds:

bible turns out to be in error on a small point it doesn't then all automatically become false. It simple means that inerrancy would need to be abandoned.

Agreed. That is all that I meant.

To be fair when the "mountain of problems" turns out to be, for the most part, a combination of misreading of the text that borders on the criminally negligent and a complete ignorance of the setting of the varied documents, then it seems reasonable to suggest that the the problem is not with the documents.

Fair enough. I admit that many (though certainly not all) "problems" can be resolved by making some reasonable assumptions and placing things in the proper social context.

All history will ultimately be a best probable explanation, so this is fair enough, but I suspect you mean the above more as a rule of thumb rather than a hard and fast rule.

I mean for it to be the rule in theory, if not always in practice.

Do you realise that you are basically asking me (if I was to agree to this) to do the equivalent of participating in a boxing match after having both my arms cut off.

I don't exactly expect you to agree with it. After all, if you agreed with it, you probably wouldn't be a Christian.

You want to claim that a resurrection is impossible because we don't see them happening under conditions we observer today. But think about what you are asking.

Not quite. I am not saying the rez is impossible. I am saying that, based on all our experience, a rez *appears* to be impossible (in the sense that it contravenes the laws of nature). Thus, I believe we are required to treat the claim with extreme skepticism.

I am claiming that we have a 1 time special miracle event the resurrection of Jesus (the others were more akin to resuscitation)....I'm sure you can see how this is not exactly a reasonable claim to be making.

I actually thought about this objection when I was writing the original email. I guess what I'm arguing is that it's not fair to subject "1 time special miracle events" to historical analysis. I'm not saying they can't happen - merely that they are outside the province of historical analysis.

For example, Herodotus claims that in India "there are ants that are in bigness lesser than dogs but larger than foxes." (The Histories, 3.102) Our primary reasons for doubting such an account is that we see no such ants in existence today, there is no record of fossilization and certain biological issues seem to preclude ants reaching such enormous size. However, all those doubts are easily put aside if we posit that the giant ants were a "1 time special miracle event". Thus, when our only evidence is written reports, I feel we must exclude "1 time special miracle events" from the pool of historical options.

[JPH note: One option we may consider here is one that I have seen suggested of similarly strange passages in Pliny's work: For example, his report of men with strange characteristics may have been referring to a distorted account of baboons. But this would not solve all such accounts in Pliny, and I would have no idea what Herodotus' account may have been a distortion of in this case.]

BTW, I am not trying to draw a direct parallel between the giant ants and the rez. I am simply trying to illustrate my point about subjecting miracles to historical analysis.

A time travelling cabal of insurance salesman lead by a clone of elvis, who faked the resurrection and the whole history of Israel's encounters with God to allow them to set up the "Act of God" clause in insurance law.

What's wrong with that?

You, assuming you really do ascribe to the above are claiming that this is actually a more reasonable explanation because it doesn't actually invoke the supernatural anywere along the line.

To be fair, current scientific knowledge appears to preclude the possibility of time travel, so that might actually fall under the heading of supernatural, but I take your point. ;)

But I doubt if face with those as the only 2 alternatives your going to jump at the one I just offered as more plausible because it involves only "naturalistic explanations".

Yes the example is silly, but if you are to insist that it is more probable because it only invokes "naturalistic explanations" then I think it is fair to conclude that you are really only grasping at any alternative regardless of how ridiculous it may turn out to be. And if you wish to do that, well fair enough, but don't pretend that such an approach is reasonable.

I won't. I agree with you, if our only two options were "time traveling Elvis clone" or "genuine resurrection" I would be in the rez camp. But, the point I was making is that, for ANY reported event there are always three naturalistic options which are far more reasonable than a "time traveling Elvis clone". Namely:

2. The person is telling the truth but they were mistaken about the event they thought they witnessed.

3. The person is telling the truth but they were delusional and/or hallucinated the event.

4. The person is lying.

These options may also seem improbable in a given situation, but certainly they are several levels of magnitude more acceptable the "time traveling Elvis clone".

So the question is, when does it become reasonable to invoke the supernatural.

Indeed, that is the question. And my answer would still be "never", for reasons I enumerated above. I think that ultimately, this is what divides reasonable skeptics from reasonable Christians.

I think it is far fairer to use a slightly more realistic principle in evaluating the evidence....That being that YHWH actually exists, and a sub-assumption (I suppose) that he is as portrayed biblically.

Those are mighty big assumptions! Plus, if the resurrection is supposed to demonstrate the validity of Biblical Christianity (which is what you seemed to be arguing in your guest commentary), it's not quite fair to assume a huge part of Biblical Christianity in order to demonstrate the validity of the resurrection.

You might say this is an unreasonable assumption, but you need to look at the actual alternative explanations and see what sort of assumptions are required for them to work.

Agreed.

Invoking the supernatural shouldn't be a problem, it is just another "ad-hoc" assumption that is being made.

Another biggie.

You just need to way up which assumptions seem the most reasonable and decide from among the altenatives yourself. The trick is to be impartial while doing it.

Agreed again.

Actually I think this is mostly because they haven't really thought about it. All other genuine supernatural events do actually fit into a biblical worldview.

Ah, but which supernatural events are genuine and which are not? How can one tell the difference?

Do you actually have an alternative account of the resurrection that takes into account all of the factors we see surronding the event ?

I think a good survey of naturalistic alternatives to the rez is offered by Richard Carrier's essay "Why I Don't Buy The Resurrection Story" found here: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/index.shtml

I'm not endorsing any particular "explanation", or suggesting that any of those explanations is probable. However, the improbable does actually happen sometimes, and as long as such reasonable (as opposed to our time traveling Elvis clone) naturalistic explanations exist, I'm inclined to pass on a supernatural rez.

A strong case in opposition to this point of view would be JP's "The Impossible Faith" piece. I am in the process of working out a response to that which will appear on tektonics as part of our Scholarly Diplomacy series.

Thanks for your comments.


Jason responds, 2/8/03

Fair enough. I admit that many (though certainly not all) "problems" can be resolved by making some reasonable assumptions and placing things in the proper social context.

I would be interested to here what you would classify as unresolveable. Although at this time it doess't matter as we both agree even errors do nothing to invalidate the claim.

You want to claim that a resurrection is impossible because we don't see them happening under conditions we observer today. But think about what you are asking.

Not quite. I am not saying the rez is impossible. I am saying that, based on all our experience, a rez *appears* to be impossible (in the sense that it contravenes the laws of nature). Thus, I believe we are required to treat the claim with extreme skepticism.

I would ask a few questions here. I haven't meant to suggest that such an event was anything but "impossible". That is what makes it significant.

As for contrevening the laws of nature, I have to ask the question, "How do you know this ?".

Do you violate the laws of nature when you catch a ball and prevent it falling to the ground ? I'm guessing you don't think so. But according to whast we understand about gravity the ball should fall to the ground. So in a sense you are violating a "law of nature". Obviously this isn't what you mean by "violating a law of nature" (or perhaps it is, but that would be very odd). But of course you are not violating it by preventing the ball hitting the ground. Why not ?

I would suggest, and I suspect you would agree, that you would object based on the fact that your an intelligent agent catching the ball. But does this make for a violation of a law of nature ? No. Because the laws of nature operate "All else being equal" (If only I could remember the latin and look all smart now :D ).

Of course no laws of nature are operating when you prevent the ball hitting the ground because you are an agent acting in the world, making things "unequal" and influenceing the outcome.

But how is God anyless and agent ? How do you know what you term "a violation of the laws of nature" is not simply God stepping in and doing the work ? Violating no more natural laws than you do when you catch a ball ?

I think you are right to look skeptically at the event, but there is a difference between skeptical appraisal and presuppositional bias.

I actually thought about this objection when I was writing the original email. I guess what I'm arguing is that it's not fair to subject "1 time special miracle events" to historical analysis. I'm not saying they can't happen - merely that they are outside the province of historical analysis.

What sort of analysis can such an event be subject to? The only sort of analysis that can be done on a miracle event is historical analysis after the fact. The events are at best unpredictable and not reliably repeatable. Historical analysis is all you have going.

For example, Herodotus claims that in India "there are ants that are in bigness lesser than dogs but larger than foxes." (The Histories, 3.102) Our primary reasons for doubting such an account is that we see no such ants in existence today, there is no record of fossilization and certain biological issues seem to preclude ants reaching such enormous size. However, all those doubts are easily put aside if we posit that the giant ants were a "1 time special miracle event". Thus, when our only evidence is written reports, I feel we must exclude "1 time special miracle events" from the pool of historical options.

As JP noted it is entirely possible that Herodotus was mistaken and I would agree it is not reasonable to look firstly to "1 time special miracle events" for explanation. Why would you start there ? Clearly Herodotus saw something ( I'm not familar with the event in question but I assume you are refering to things he actually claimed to see and that it was in the context of an eyewitness report ), if you can find a good alternative that appears to fit the context then this is a good explanation. It is reasonable to question the veracity of the story but it is instantly reasonable to conclude that he is lying or didn't know what he was seeing ?

What's wrong with that? )

Nothing -- I even have two pieces of iron clad evidence to back it up, and why Elvis is essential to the story. Christ's last words on the cross "Abba Abba" are merely a corruption of Elvis's catch phrase "Uh-huh Huh!", and as it patently obvious Israelite is simply a corruption of Elvisite. ;) (JP note -- Jason is of course being facetious, but if you doubt anyone could ever use this as evidence, go to Amazon.com and look for a book called "The Elvis-Jesus Mystery" or something like that!)

I won't. I agree with you, if our only two options were "time traveling Elvis clone" or "genuine resurrection" I would be in the rez camp. But, the point I was making is that, for ANY reported event there are always three naturalistic options which are far more reasonable than a "time traveling Elvis clone". Namely:

2. The person is telling the truth but they were mistaken about the event they thought they witnessed.

3. The person is telling the truth but they were delusional and/or hallucinated the event.

4. The person is lying.

But this is why asking the question is important. How likely are the other 3 explanations ? It is possible they might suffice but as they get more elaborate and need to explain away more and more data you really have to watch for when they cross the line into time travelling insurance salesman country. I picked the example because it was silly and obviously not a credible alternative, but when I've looked at the alternatives I do find them heading in this direction. In a lot of instances it seems that they are only more "believeable" becasue the person advocating the position will adopt any position apart from it being true.

People have accused me of wishful thinking for believing in the resurrection and deluding myself because I need it to be true etc. But the reverse is just as likely whether they will admit it or not. If the resurrection is real then it calls for change and people hate to change. I'm not suggesting you are doing this but it is worth keeping in mind that any observer looking at and assessing this event will have strong motivations for finding a conclusion that suits them irrespective of the evidence. The upshot is bias is inevitable for anybody looking at this and I would encourage anybody reading this to watch for such bias in themselves before they hurry to accuse others of it.

These options may also seem improbable in a given situation, but certainly they are several levels of magnitude more acceptable the "time traveling Elvis clone".

I don't know. I've looked at some of Acharya S.'s material and I think my alternative is far more plausible ;)

Indeed, that is the question. And my answer would still be "never", for reasons I enumerated above. I think that ultimately, this is what divides reasonable skeptics from reasonable Christians.

Is it really reasonable to conclude "never" ?

If all of the likely explantions can be rendered unlikely why is it unreasonable to look at unlikely ones.

Those are mighty big assumptions! :) Plus, if the resurrection is supposed to demonstrate the validity of Biblical Christianity (which is what you seemed to be arguing in your guest commentary), it's not quite fair to assume a huge part of Biblical Christianity in order to demonstrate the validity of the resurrection.

What is being assumed ? Apart from the Gospel accounts being accurate in so far as the authors knew them to be.

Is that really unreasonable unless you can find a motive for why the authors would make the events up, especially in ligt of how badly the sources of the events if not the authors themselves are portrayed.

They might have been mistaken about the events reported, but it is unlikely they made them up wholesale or even polished the events to cast them in a favourable light. Is it assuming a large part of biblical Christianity to assume that about the documents ? I don't think more than that needs to be assumed about the documents and I think it may be somewhat unreasomable to assume less.

It would be unreasonable to conclude they reported the events correctly, they could have been mistaken, but i'm only assuming if anything that they are reporting accurately what they saw and experienced. I'm not assuming inerrancy to prove inerrancy which seems to be what you are thinking.

Invoking the supernatural shouldn't be a problem, it is just another "ad-hoc" assumption that is being made.

Another biggie.

Unless you rule them out a priori does that make it an untenable assumption ? I don't deny it is a big one, but that isn't the same thing. What sort of assumptions need to be made in the case of an alternative.

Actually I think this is mostly because they haven't really thought about it. All other genuine supernatural events do actually fit into a biblical worldview.

Ah, but which supernatural events are genuine and which are not? How can one tell the difference?

In a lot of cases it doesn't really matter. If Herodotus actually did see dog sized ants, it is pretty cool if he did, but beyond a certian coolness factor what difference does it make to me today ? Many other miracles really do fall into this bucket. The resurrection is different, I'm sure I don't need to tell you why.

I'm not endorsing any particular "explanation", or suggesting that any of those explanations is probable. However, the improbable does actually happen sometimes, and as long as such reasonable (as opposed to our time traveling Elvis clone) naturalistic explanations exist, I'm inclined to pass on a supernatural rez.

How closely have you looked at the offered explanations ? I'd be happy to discuss specifics with you, but just pointing in the direction of some and going "Well some of them are kind of good" isn't really the same thing. Ultimately specifics would need to be delved into. Given what we both have riding on the outcome of the question it is worth looking at closely.

A strong case in opposition to this point of view would be JP's "The Impossible Faith" piece. I am in the process of working out a response to that which will appear on tektonics as part of our Scholarly Diplomacy series.

Good I hope you do look at it closely and think about it. Only one of us can be right in this. Either you are in far more trouble than you realise and need life saving treatment or I (and JP) are wasting our lives promulgating a lie. The problem being we both bet our life on the outcome.

Thanks for the response and apologies again for the tardiness of my reply.


Kyle responds, 2/9/03:

I would be interested to here what you would classify as unresolveable.
Although at this time it doess't matter as we both agree even errors do
nothing to invalidate the claim.


Yes, I believe it is in our interests to let that pass until another time, as that topic would likely send us off on a rather lengthy diversion. And we agree, after all, that the rez is the central issue. 

As for contreving the laws of nature, I have to ask the question, "How do
you know this ?".

Do you violate the laws of nature when you catch a ball and prevent it
falling to the ground ? I'm guessing you don't think so. But according to
whast we understand about gravity the ball should fall to the ground. So
in a sense you are violating a "law of nature". Obviously this isn't what
you mean by "violating a law of nature" (or perhaps it is, but that would
be very odd). But of course you are not violating it by preventing the
ball hitting the ground. Why not ?

I would suggest, and I suspect you would agree, that you would object
based on the fact that your an intelligent agent catching the ball. 


That's not exactly how I would answer it. I would say that the person catching the ball is doing sufficient "work" to keep the ball from coming to rest against the ground. This is the same principle of physics by which jet engines do sufficient work to keep a plane aloft. 

does this make for a violation of a law of nature ? No. Because the laws
of nature operate "All else being equal" (If only I could remember the
latin and look all smart now :D ).


The Latin is "ceteris paribus" (I swear I didn't look it up). Do I look all smart now? In any event, I think your conception of the laws of nature is a bit off base. More below. 

Of course no laws of nature are operating when you prevent the ball
hitting the ground because you are an agent acting in the world, making
things "unequal" and influenceing the outcome.


I know what you're trying to say but your physics are wrong. The laws of nature are operating just the same whether an agent is acting or not. An agent doing work falls within the pale of natural law. 

But how is God anyless and agent ? How do you know what you term "a
violation of the laws of nature" is not simply God stepping in and doing
the work ? Violating no more natural laws than you do when you catch a
ball ?


This is certainly possible. As is a scenario where a powerful alien race intervenes and does the same thing. But such possibilities are hard to establish without any additional (verifiable) examples of such action.

What sort of analysis can such an event be subject to ? The only sort of
analysis that can be done on a miracle event is historical analysis after
the fact. The events are at best unpredictable and not reliably
repeatable. Historical analysis is all you have going.


I should have been more clear about my specific thesis from the start. My rephrased thesis is as follows: 

A "1 time special miracle event" should not be considered the best explanation for a written or oral report that is not corroborated by demonstrably independent accounts or decisive material evidence. 

In the case of the rez, all we have are non-independent written reports. However, if a demonstrable independent account existed (say the Mormons were right and a golden record from the Americas, reliably dated to around 30 AD, told of the rez) then it would difficult to dismiss. Similarly, if material evidence was offered in corroboration (say Jesus returned let us feel his wounds ala Thomas) skepticism would become untenable. 

As JP noted it is entirely possible that Herodotus was mistaken and I
would agree it is not reasonable to look firstly to "1 time special
miracle events" for explanation. Why would you start there ? Clearly
Herodotus saw something ( I'm not familar with the event in question but I
assume you are refering to things he actually claimed to see and that it
was in the context of an eyewitness report ), if you can find a good
alternative that appears to fit the context then this is a good
explanation. It is reasonable to question the veracity of the story but it
is instantly reasonable to conclude that he is lying or didn't know what
he was seeing ?


Without the corroboration of "demonstrably independent accounts or decisive material evidence" I would say yes. 

Nothing I even have two peices of iron clad evidence to back it up, and
why elvis is essential to the story. Christs last words on the cross "Abba
Abba" are merely a corruption of elvis's catch phrase "Uh-huh Huh!", and
as it patently obvious Israelite is simply a corruption of Elvisite. ;)


That's it! I am going to compose a paper espousing that point of view and submit it to the Secular Web immediately!

People have accused me of wishful thinking for believeing in the
resurrection and deluding myself because I need it to be true etc. But the
reverse is just as likely whether they will admit it or not. If the
resurrection is real then it calls for change and people hate to change.
I'm not suggesting you are doing this but it is worth keeping in mind that
any observer looking at and assessing this event will have strong
motivations for finding a conclusion that suits them irrespective of the
evidence. The upshot is bias is inevitable for anybody looking at this and
I would encourage anybody reading this to watch for such bias in
themselves before they hurry to accuse others of it.


I agree entirely. I freely admit that I am just as susceptible to bias as any other person. Although I hope that my recognition of that fact helps to alert me when bias does arise. 

Is it really reasonable to conclude "never" ?

Without the corroboration of "demonstrably independent accounts or decisive material evidence" I would say yes. 

If all of the likely explantions can be rendered unlikely why is it
unreasonable to look at unlikely ones.


In such a case we are, of course, forced to look at unlikely explanations. And the rez definitely qualifies in this regard. 

What is being assumed ? Apart from the Gospel accounts being accurate in
so far as the authors knew them to be.

That's not what you said before. The assumptions you said were required are "...that YHWH actually exists, and a sub-assumption (I suppose) that he is as portrayed biblically." Now, if you wish to change gears and only assume " the Gospel accounts being accurate in so far as the authors knew them to be", that is quite another story. In fact, I might even be willing to grant you that (although I don't think we can rule out some elaboration and creative license). 

Is that really unreasonable unless you can find a motive for why the
authors would make the events up, especially in ligt of how badly the
sources of the events if not the authors themselves are portrayed.

I am going to deal with this in-depth with my look at JP's "The Impossible Faith". For now, I will only suggest the motive of wanting to reinforce and strengthen the faith. 

They might have been mistaken about the events reported, but it is
unlikely they made them up wholesale or even polished the events to cast
them in a favourable light. 

I don't know about that. I think Matthew's constant attempts to tie Jesus in with OT prophecies and parallels smacks of polishing. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke also strike me as such. But that's probably another debate. 

Is it assuming a large part of biblical christianity to assume that about the documents ? I don't think more than that needs to be assumed about the documents and I think it may be
somewhat unreasomable to assume less.

Again, I was responding to the assumptions "...that YHWH actually exists, and a sub-assumption (I suppose) that he is as portrayed biblically." Your assumption about the gospel accounts is far more tenable.  

Unless you rule them out a priori does that make it an untenable
assumption ? I don't deny it is a big one, but that isn't the same thing.
What sort of assumptions need to be made in the case of an alternative.

Again, I will consider this in detail when I present my take on "The Impossible Faith". I don't want to spoil any of the surprises just yet. Suffice it to say that time traveling Elvis clones are not involved.

In a lot of cases it doesn't really matter. If Herodotus actually did see
dog sized ants, it is pretty cool if he did, but beyong a certian coolness
factor what difference does it make to me today ? Many other miracles
really do fall into this bucket. The resurrection is different, i'm sure I
don't need to tell you why.

Herodotus' ants may not affect your life, but you should still have some rubric by which to judge whether a particular supernatural event is genuine or not. Otherwise, how do you know the rez is genuine? 

How closely have you looked at the offered explanations ? I'd be happy to
discuss specifics with you, but just pointing in the direction of some and
going "Well some of them are kind of good" isn't really the same thing.
Ultimately specifics would need to be delved into. Given what we both have
riding on the outcome of the question it is worth looking at closely.

Agreed. And, I'm sure you are getting tired of hearing this, but I am going to delve into the specifics in my item on "The Impossible Faith". I promise I'm not trying to put you off. I'm in the midst of the article as we speak and it ought to be posted soon. I would love to hear your thoughts once it is available. 

Good I hope you do look at it closely and think about it. Only one of us
can be right in this. Either you are in far more trouble than you realise
and need life saving treatment or I (and JP) are wasting our lives
promulgating a lie. The problem being we both bet our life on the outcome.

Actually, I'm making a bigger wager yet. I'm betting my eternity on the outcome. I'm going to be really upset if it turns out I'm wrong - at least you won't know the difference.