Contradictions in the Resurrection Account

A Swiss Army knife with dozens of crazy "blades"Since Easter was yesterday, I’d like to rerun a post about the resurrection story.

How many days did Jesus teach after his resurrection?  Most Christians know that “He appeared to them over a period of forty days” (Acts 1:3).  But the supposed author of that book wrote elsewhere that he ascended into heaven the same day as the resurrection (Luke 24:51).

When Jesus died, did an earthquake open the graves of many people, who walked around Jerusalem and were seen by many?  Only Matthew reports this remarkable event.  It’s hard to imagine any reliable version of the story omitting this zombie apocalypse.

The different accounts of the resurrection are full of contradictions like this.  They can’t even agree on whether Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover (John) or the day after (the other three).

  • What were the last words of Jesus?  Three gospels give three different versions.
  • Who buried Jesus?  Matthew says that it was Joseph of Arimathea.  No, apparently it was the Jews and their rulers, all strangers to Jesus (Acts).
  • How many women came to the tomb Easter morning?  Was it one, as told in John?  Two (Matthew)?  Three (Mark)?  Or more (Luke)?
  • Did an angel cause a great earthquake that rolled back the stone in front of the tomb?  Yes, according to Matthew.  The other gospels are silent on this extraordinary detail.
  • Who did the women see at the tomb?  One person (Matthew and Mark) or two (Luke and John)?
  • Was the tomb already open when they got there?  Matthew says no; the other three say yes.
  • Did the women tell the disciples?  Matthew and Luke make clear that they did so immediately.  But Mark says, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”  And that’s where the book ends, which makes it a mystery how Mark thinks that the resurrection story ever got out.
  • Did Mary Magdalene cry at the tomb?  That makes sense—the tomb was empty and Jesus’s body was gone.  At least, that’s the story according to John.  But wait a minute—in Matthew’s account, the women were “filled with joy.”
  • Did Mary Magdalene recognize Jesus?  Of course!  She’d known him for years.  At least, Matthew says that she did.  But John and Luke make clear that she didn’t.
  • Could Jesus’s followers touch him?  John says no; the other gospels say yes.
  • Where did Jesus tell the disciples to meet him?  In Galilee (Matthew and Mark) or Jerusalem (Luke and Acts)?
  • Who saw Jesus resurrected?  Paul says that a group of over 500 people saw him (1 Cor. 15:6).  Sounds like crucial evidence, but why don’t any of the gospels record it?
  • Should the gospel be preached to everyone?  In Matthew 28:19, Jesus says to “teach all nations.”  But hold on—in the same book he says, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans” (Matt. 10:5).  Which is it?

Many Christians cite the resurrection as the most important historical claim that the Bible makes.  If the resurrection is true, they argue, the gospel message must be taken seriously.  I’ll agree with that.  But how reliable is an account riddled with these contradictions?

I’ve seen Christians respond in three ways.

(1) They’ll nitpick the definition of “contradiction.”  Contradictions, they’ll say, are two sentences of the form “A” and “not-A.”  For example: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” and “Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.”  Being precise helps make sure we communicate clearly, but this can also be a caltrop argument, a way of dodging the issue.  These sure sound like contradictions to me, but if you’d prefer to imagine that we’re talking about “incongruities” or “inconsistencies,” feel free.

(2) They’ll respond to these “inconsistencies” by harmonizing the gospels.  That is, instead of following the facts where they lead and considering that the gospels might be legend instead of history, they insist on their Christian presupposition, reject any alternatives, and bludgeon all the gospels together like a misshapen Swiss Army knife.

  • How many women were at the tomb?  Obviously, five or more, our apologist will say.  When John only says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, he’s not saying that others didn’t come, right?  Checkmate, atheists!
  • Why didn’t all the gospels note that a group of 500 people saw Jesus (instead of only Paul)?  Why didn’t they all record the earthquakes and the zombie apocalypse (instead of only Matthew)?  Our apologist will argue that each author is entitled to make editorial adjustments as he sees fit.
  • Was the tomb already open or not?  Did Mary Magdalene recognize Jesus or not?  Did Jesus remain for 40 days or not?  Should the gospel be preached to everyone or not?  Did the women tell the disciples or not?  Was Jesus crucified the day after Passover or not?  Who knows what he’ll come up with, but our apologist will have some sort of harmonization for these, too.

Yep, the ol’ kindergarten try.

(3) They’ll try to turn this weakness into a strength by arguing that four independent stories (the gospels aren’t, but never mind) shouldn’t agree on every detail.  If they did, one would imagine collusion rather than accurate biography.  Yes, biography and collusion are two possibilities, but another is that this could be legend.

Let’s drop any preconceptions and find the best explanation.

Photo credit: ThinkGeek

Acknowledgement: This list was inspired by one composed by Richard Russell.

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10 Reasons the Crucifixion Story Makes No Sense

Does God exist?  You wouldn't think so given the bizarre crucifixion story.It’s Good Friday, and I’d like to rerun one of my most popular posts, about the crucifixion. 

I’m afraid that the crucifixion story doesn’t strike me as that big a deal.

The Christian will say that death by crucifixion was a horrible, humiliating way to die.  That the death of Jesus was a tremendous sacrifice, more noble and selfless than a person sacrificing himself for the benefit of a butterfly.  And isn’t it worth praising something that gets us into heaven?

Here are ten reasons why I’m unimpressed.

1. Sure, death sucks, but why single out this one?  Lots of people die.  In fact, lots died from crucifixion.  The death of one man doesn’t make all the others insignificant.  Was Jesus not a man but actually a god?  If so, that fact has yet to be shown.

It’s not like this death is dramatically worse than death today.  Crucifixion may no longer be a worry, but cancer is.  Six hours of agony on the cross is pretty bad, but so is six months of agony from cancer.

2. What about that whole hell thing?  An eternity of torment for even a single person makes Jesus’s agony insignificant by comparison, and it counts for nothing when you consider the billions that are apparently going to hell.

3. Jesus didn’t even die.  The absurdity of the story, of course, is the resurrection.  If Jesus died, there’s no miraculous resurrection, and if there’s a resurrection, there’s no sacrifice through death.  Miracle or sacrifice—you can’t have it both ways.  The gospels don’t say that he died for our sins but that he had a rough couple of days for our sins.

4. Taking on the sin vs. removal of sin aren’t symmetric.  We didn’t do anything to get original sin.  We just inherited it from Adam.  So why do we have to do anything to get the redemption?  If God demands a sacrifice, he got it.  That’s enough.  Why the requirement to believe to access the solution?

5. The reason behind the sacrifice—mankind’s original sin—makes no sense.  Why blame Adam for a moral lapse that he couldn’t even understand?  Remember that he hadn’t yet eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, so who could blame him when he made a moral mistake?

And how can we inherit original sin from Adam?  Why blame us for something we didn’t do?  That’s not justice, and the Bible agrees:

Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin (Deut. 24:16)

6. Jesus made a sacrifice—big deal.  Jesus is perfect, so his doing something noble is like water flowing downhill.  It’s unremarkable since he’s only acting out his nature.  What else would you expect from a perfect being?

But imagine if I sacrificed myself for someone.  In the right circumstance, I’d risk my life for a stranger—or at least I hope I would.  That kind of sacrifice is very different.  A selfish, imperfect man acting against his nature to make the ultimate unselfish sacrifice is far more remarkable than a perfect being acting according to his nature, and yet people make sacrifices for others all the time.  So why single out the actions of Jesus?  Aren’t everyday noble actions by ordinary people more remarkable and laudable?

7. What is left for God to forgive?  The Jesus story says that we’ve sinned against God (a debt).  Let’s look at two resolutions to this debt.

(1) God could forgive the debt of sin.  You and I are asked to forgive wrongs done against us, so why can’t God?  Some Christians say that to forgive would violate God’s sense of justice, but when one person forgives another’s debt, there’s no violation of justice.  For unspecified reasons, God doesn’t like this route.

And that leaves (2) where Jesus pays for our sin.  But we need to pick 1 or 2, not both.  If Jesus paid the debt, there’s no need for God’s forgiveness.  There’s no longer anything for God to forgive, since there’s no outstanding debt.

Here’s an everyday example: when I pay off my mortgage, the bank doesn’t in addition forgive my debt.  There’s no longer a debt to forgive!  Why imagine that God must forgive us after he’s already gotten his payment?

8. The Jesus story isn’t even remarkable within mythology.  Jesus’s sacrifice was small compared to the Greek god Prometheus, who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to humanity.  Zeus discovered the crime and punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock so that a vulture could eat his liver.  Each night, his liver grew back and the next day the vulture would return, day after agonizing day.  The gospel story, where Jesus is crucified once and then pops back into existence several days later, is unimpressive by comparison.

9. The Bible itself rejects God’s savage “justice.”  This is the 21st century.  Must Iron Age customs persist so that we need a human sacrifice?  If God loves us deeply and he wants to forgive us, couldn’t he just … forgive us?  That’s how we do it, and that’s the lesson we get from the parable of the Prodigal Son where the father forgives the son even after being wronged by him.  If that’s the standard of mercy, why can’t God follow it?  Since God is so much greater a being than a human, wouldn’t he be that much more understanding and willing to forgive?

If we were to twist the Prodigal Son parable to match the crucifixion story, the father might demand that the innocent son be flogged to pay for the crime of the prodigal son.  Where’s the logic in that?

10. The entire story is incoherent.  Let’s try to stumble through the drunken logic behind the Jesus story.

God made mankind imperfect and inherently vulnerable to sin.  Living a sinless life is impossible, so hell becomes unavoidable.  That is, God creates people knowing for certain that they’re going to deserve eternity in hell when they die.  Why create people that he knew would be destined for eternal torment?

But don’t worry—God sacrificed Jesus, one of the persons of God, so mankind could go to heaven instead.

So God sacrificed himself to himself so we could bypass a rule that God made himself and that God deliberately designed us to never be able to meet?  I can’t even understand that; I certainly feel no need to praise God for something so nonsensical.  It’s like an abused wife thanking her abuser.  We can just as logically curse God for consigning us to hell from birth.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for being unimpressed by the crucifixion story.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Shroud of Turin: An Easter Miracle?

Christian apologetics and atheismThe Shroud of Turin is a 14-foot-long linen cloth with the faint image of a man.  Imagine the cloth going from feet to head along a man’s back, then folding over the head to continue back to the feet.

Many Christians think that it is the burial shroud of Jesus and that the supernatural energy of resurrecting his dead body burned an image into the cloth.  It first appears in history in 1390 in France and was moved to Turin, Italy in 1578.  Fire and water damage from 1532 are visible on the shroud.

Proponents argue that marks from Jesus’s last hours are on the figure—the nail wounds, the scourgings, and the cuts from the crown of throns—but is this the real burial shroud of Jesus?

The first problem is scriptural.  This doesn’t match the story of the empty tomb from the Bible.

[Simon Peter] saw the strips of linen lying there [in the tomb], as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head.  (John 20:6–7)

Strips of linen (presumably for the body) and a separate head cloth is not a single shroud.  And there is no evidence besides the shroud itself to imagine that first-century Jews buried their dead that way.

They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.  (John 19:40)

This wasn’t just a pinch of spice—it was 75 pounds worth (John 19:39).  And yet we see no evidence of all this spice applied to the body in the shroud image.

Next, an artistic problem.  If a linen cloth were laid over a prone person, it would drape over the face.  That is, it would wrap around to some extent.

A typical man’s face is roughly six inches wide.  But it’s more like eleven inches from one ear, across the face, to the other ear.  Granted, the shroud wouldn’t be vacuum-sealed to hug the face completely.  But we would expect to see some wraparound distortion to the image when the shroud was later laid flat.  The image is actually thinner than an ordinary person, not wider, as it ought to be.

Could this have been a hoax or some other fake?  Traffic in holy Christian relics was common during the medieval period—it’s been said that there were enough pieces of the cross to build a ship and enough nails from the crucifixion to hold it together.  And this wasn’t the only shroud—history records forty of them.  Obviously, at least 39 of these must be false.

In fact, our first well-documented discussion of the shroud in 1390 states that it is a forgery and that the artist was known.

(An aside: I’ve written before about the apologists’ Naysayer Argument, that the gospel story must be true because, if it weren’t, we’d have rebuttals from contemporaries.  The Shroud debate nicely defeats this argument.  Our oldest reliable source is a rebuttal of the supernatural claim of the shroud, and yet this obviously didn’t eliminate Christian belief.)

Many problems argue against the shroud being the real thing.  Carbon dating says that the linen is from the 1300s, there is evidence of tempera paint creating the image, 2000-year-old blood should be black and not red, pollen on the shroud seems to be only from Europe and not also Israel, the weave of the fabric doesn’t appear to be authentic, and so on.  Christian apologists have a different way to rationalize away each of these problems, but the most economical explanation, the one that neatly explains the evidence, is that it’s a fake.

There’s a surprisingly large amount of information on this topic.  It is clearly important for a lot of people.  The best that can be said of the shroud is that we can’t prove that it wasn’t the burial cloth of Jesus.  But that’s no reason to believe that it was, at least for anyone who cares about evidence.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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Does the Christian Care About the Poor or Not?

A novel about Christian apologetics and atheist counter-apologetics

The New Testament is brimming with demands that the Christian care for the poor and needy.  Think of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31–46), the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), or the story of Jesus and the rich young man (Luke 18:18–30).

How some politicians and religious leaders can juggle the hypocrisy is beyond me.  I’ll grant that the Bible can be picked apart and made to say just about anything, but isn’t charity a prime demand?

[Jesus said:] Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. (Mark 10:21)

[John the Baptist said:] Anyone who has two coats should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same. (Luke 3:11)

If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17–18)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)

Jesus and Santa Claus

What is Christianity?  And how does Santa Claus help?Harriett Hall (the SkepDoc) wrote a clever story about two kids trying to figure out whether the tooth fairy really exists or not.  Inspired by that, and in keeping with the season, I’d like to imagine two kids arguing about Santa.

It was early December, and little Jerry had begun to doubt the existence of Santa Claus.  He made his case to his younger brother Kyle.

“I don’t think Santa is real.  I think it’s just Mom and Dad buying us presents,” Jerry said.

“Prove it,” Kyle said.

“Okay, why are there all those Santas on the street corners ringing for money?  How can Santa be at all those stores at once?”

“They’re not the real Santa, just his helpers,” Kyle said.  “And maybe they’re just testing us to see if we’ll still believe.  I’m going to believe, because if you don’t, you don’t get presents.”

“But I recognized one of them—it was the father of one of my friends.”

“Then those are just ordinary people imitating Santa, raising money for a good cause.  Anyway, I’ve seen Santa on TV at Thanksgiving—everyone has.”

Jerry sees that he’s not making any progress, so he gives up.  On Christmas afternoon, he’s alone with Kyle and tries again.  “Remember that video game that you told Mom about and then you forgot to tell Santa?” Jerry said.  “But you got it anyway.  Mom must’ve bought it and written on the package that it came from Santa.” 

“Mom just told Santa,” Kyle said. 

“But how can Santa get around the world in one night?”

“My friends all say that Santa is real.  Anyway, Santa has magic.  And the cookie plate we leave out for Santa always has just crumbs on Christmas morning.”

“With the Junior Detective kit that I got this morning, I dusted the cookie plate for fingerprints, and they were Mom’s.”

“Mom set out the plate, and Santa wears gloves.”

Jerry gives up for the year.  On Christmas afternoon the next year, he tries again.  “Lots of the older kids don’t believe in Santa.  They say that their presents only come from their parents.”

“Sure,” Kyle said.  “Santa only gives presents to those who still believe in him.”

“A few months ago, I was snooping in Dad’s sock drawer, and I found every letter we ever wrote to Santa.”

“Why not?  Santa didn’t need them anymore and each year just gives them to Mom and Dad for keepsakes.”

“The only fingerprints on our presents are Mom’s or Dad’s.” 

“Mom and Dad always get up early on Christmas.  They could’ve rearranged them.”

“Last week, I found all our presents hidden in a corner in the attic.”  Jerry pawed through some of the torn wrapping paper.  “I wrote my initials on the bottom of each package.  And look—here they are.  That proves that Santa didn’t bring them here last night.”

“I asked Mom, and she said that Santa is real.  Anyway, how do I know you didn’t write your initials on the wrapping paper this morning?”

Like little Kyle, if you’re determined to believe something, you can rationalize away any unwelcome evidence.  (By rationalize, I mean taking an idea as fact and then selecting or interpreting all relevant evidence to make it support that idea.)

It’s tempting to list the many ways Christians rationalize.  They rationalize away contradictions in the Bible, the oddity of a hidden God, or why so much bad happens to the people God loves.  They can find a dozen reasons why a particular prayer wasn’t answered, even though the Bible promises, “Ask and ye shall receive.”  But the Christian says that he’s simply defending the truth: “I’m not rationalizing; I’m right.”

In five minutes we can see flaws in others that we don’t see in ourselves in a lifetime.  Perhaps this episode with Jerry and Kyle will encourage us to see our own rationalizations.

I recently came across the Galileo Was Wrong; The Church Was Right blog.  That’s right, it argues for geocentrism, an earth-centered universe.  With a little work, even the nuttiest theory can be given a scholarly sheen, so imagine what a few thousand years of scholarly work can do to a religion.  Any Christian can point to centuries of scholarship to give a patina of credibility to their position (but, of course, so can Muslims, Hindus, and those in many other religions).

I can’t prove Santa doesn’t exist.  Nor can I disprove the existence of leprechauns, Russell’s Flying Teapot, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or God.  The thoughtful person goes where the evidence points rather than accepting only the evidence that supports his preconception.

And Jesus is Santa Claus for adults.

Photo credit: Robot Nine