Apr 30, 2011

Hell - not just a pizza shop?

I had written some bullet points for this post, but publishing it didn't work and they got lost in limbo. I'll come back to it some time.

Apr 27, 2011

so anxious

"As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind—the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. . . . It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. . . . What again could this astonishing thing be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves?"
-Gk Chesterton

Apr 19, 2011

Jesus died. Case closed?

“Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980's? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof? Well—no.” - Richard Carrier, 2006

(Picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

Thanks RC, you make a good point, in that if your analogy is a good one, Christianity is in evidential trouble. Let’s examine it, making some quick comparisons to the claimed resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

As a test for myself and to save time and effort, I’ll do this response from the top of my head, or mostly anyway, so it may be a little fast and loose; but anyone who reads it will get the general idea. I’ll also add a little to this if I find time I’ll also link in some of my favourite sources, some of which are easy to access on the web.

Carrier is here implicitly talking about the gospels. What are these things and is he being fair in his characterisation? To start with, in one sense, yes. RC gets his maths right, insofar as modern scholarship generally dates the gospels to around 40-50 years - and the final one, John, a little later - after the key events in question, i.e. those surrounding the death of Jesus.

Yet if we grant that, the analogy fails in at least these four ways (assuming we can substitute ‘evidence’ for ‘proof’, given that the subject of discussion is not pure mathematics):

1) The gospels are not the only literary evidence we have for the resurrection
2) The gospels do not contain merely religious content as implied by the comparison to ‘tracts’
3) The gospels are tied back to eyewitness testimony and not entirely ‘anonymous’
4) The resurrection was not an isolated or free-floating event or claim; it occured in a unique historical matrix and had real consequences.

Also, incidentally the synoptic gospels (i.e the first three) can be quite reasonably dated, within the bounds of mainstream scholarship, to within (i.e. prior to) 40 years after the death of Jesus, particularly Mark's gospel. Further, the gospels compare extremely favourably, in documentary evidence and proximity to the source, to other ancient records and writings – if we judge these ancient historical accounts by criteria reasonable for their context, they stand out.

1) The resurrection was a central belief of the early church, found in various of the letters written in the first century, including those of Paul (and slightly later writings such as 1 Clement), with most of his letters accepted across the board as being written before the standard dates for the gospels. Notably, we find this belief and the importance of eyewitness testimony to be the centre of an early creed, found in 1 Cor 15:3-7 and dated to within a decade, or considerably less (the letter itself, which repeats an earlier formula, was written prior to 60AD), of the death of Christ. Paul adds to the early creed (by my reading) his own experience of the risen Jesus, albeit one of a different kind to the others. This resurrection appearance resulted in his conversion from persecutor to missionary. As the next numbered point indicates, other aspects of the gospel accounts receive 'outside' corroboration. To expect hostile witness to the resurrection itself however strikes me as at best slightly absurd. Anyone who believed in the resurrection would, I'd expect, be a Christian; so that the only sources advocating that event are Christian is only to be expected. But that belief in the resurrection was early is a matter of historical fact - a fact which stands in contrast to the general vague modern-day application of the term 'myth' to Christian belief. What you do with it is up to you.

2) The gospels fit broadly into a genre of Greek biography (
comments on related things here), with Luke being reasonably classed as historiography. The term ‘tracts’ is one designed to elicit derision from Carrier’s readers; perhaps the actual arguments aren’t strong enough to do all the work required for such inflammatory claims to fully pass. The gospels talk about real places and real people, as corroborated by contemporary sources including historical accounts and archaeological evidence. This differs from some other religious accounts, which are far more clearly mythological in character. We don’t have access to all of the contemporary historical accounts that might help give context, but, for instance the early secular historians Tacitus and Josephus both refer to the existence and death of Jesus. I've looked quite closely into the controversies over Josephus and the case for an historical core of the most controversial passage seems to be the mainstream position.

3) I leave arguing this to Richard Bauckham, in “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” – it’s about what the title suggests it’s about. Available in university libraries. More info on the general reliability of the NT here,
here and elsewhere.

4) The resurrection was not an isolated miracle. Jesus was known as a miracle worker – it is a consistent theme of the gospels and is attested in the Talmud (see 2nd 'Evidence' video.)
Jesus’ resurrection started the church – a community originally focussed around Jerusalem, convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead – and quite willing to suffer for this claim. Later tradition indicates many of the eyewitnesses were persecuted and killed in the name of Jesus, but even disregarding this it is clear that they changed their lives and patterns of worship and culture significantly. What caused this abrupt change? Finally, the early Christian community was itself no stranger to miracles, as the book of Acts attests. Something happened at Easter and it didn’t all stop there.

† If you want a proper treatment of the issue, try something like NT Wright’s ‘the Resurrection of the Son of God’. I only got 30-40% of the way through it on my last attempt over the span of a few weeks, but hey, it’s worth a try.

(As a side point, some of Carrier's other contentions are discussed on this website - I've only skimmed thru' these responses.)

Apr 18, 2011


I really like proteins. They're pretty awesome. I may even write a poem about them if other things begin to seem less important. If you also want to fold proteins, check this out; download this little programme and get to it! There's even music as you go. http://fold.it/portal/ It seems you can be part of The Cause of Science in this way, as well, contributing to actual research. (I get to do the tutorial problems for a lab, but don't let that stop you participating for entertainment.)

On Fairy Stories

(For some reason I can't insert spaces in between lines. Perhaps I shall have to learn html to fix this.) Anyway, this is courtesy of JRR Tolkien, fairly well regarded in the genre of fantasy literature: (I've only skimmed parts of this long essay; one day I shall get around to reading it, along with various other files and books lying around, in full) "... it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath. ... But in God's kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know."

Apr 7, 2011

not skilled to understand

This is one of my favourite songs. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jazyUn4LMgA Maybe I'll blog a bit more in the next couple of weeks. I'm thinking, or hoping to think, a little about 'the origin of universe and of life', 'the place of religion in the public sphere', 'contingency and macroevolution', 'the rationality of naturalism', 'what human nature is' and such trifles; as well as natural law theories and the molecular basis of cancer, protein structure and medicinal chemistry for uni. Also, the dynamics of small groups and how one might reach tertiary institutions with the truth about Christ will also occupy some of my thought-time, all going well. I'm looking forward to actually doing some reading. If you're reading any interesting books, in any field (preferably non-fiction, though I can stretch to that for some people), let me know; I'd be interested in hearing what you think.