Sunday, March 13, 2011

Is Christianity Falsifiable?

During these discussions about the evidence for the resurrection, I have occasionally been asked what would prove to me that the resurrection did not happen. Or to put the question differently, is the resurrection falsifiable? If it is, then Christianity is falsifiable because Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:14 that if Christ has not been raised, our faith is in vain. Only if the resurrection didn't happen is Christianity falsified.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, a skeptical blogger, addresses the question of whether religion is falsifiable in Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable:
The earliest account I know of a scientific experiment is, ironically, the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal. 
The people of Israel are wavering between Jehovah and Baal, so Elijah announces that he will conduct an experiment to settle it – quite a novel concept in those days! The priests of Baal will place their bull on an altar, and Elijah will place Jehovah’s bull on an altar, but neither will be allowed to start the fire; whichever God is real will call down fire on His sacrifice. The priests of Baal serve as control group for Elijah – the same wooden fuel, the same bull, and the same priests making invocations, but to a false god. Then Elijah pours water on his altar… to signify deliberate acceptance of the burden of proof, like needing a 0.05 significance level. The fire comes down on Elijah’s altar, which is the experimental observation. The watching people of Israel shout “The Lord is God!” – peer review.
And then the people haul the 450 priests of Baal down to the river Kishon and slit their throats. This is stern, but necessary. You must firmly discard the falsified hypothesis, and do so swiftly, before it can generate excuses to protect itself. If the priests of Baal are allowed to survive, they will start babbling about how religion is a separate magisterium which can be neither proven nor disproven.
The story of Elijah and the priests of Baal presents a good framework for our discussion of what would falsify the resurrection, and consequently, Christianity. (Although, needless to say, I reached a different conclusion from Yudkowsky about whether Christianity has been falsified. He relied on his interpretation of tangential issues in the Old Testament--not on the resurrection.) Of course if something directly contradicts the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead, then the resurrection would be falsified. However, evidence that actually disproves a supernatural event is not easy to come by. 

Joseph Smith home - upstairsFor example, this website addresses the claim of Joseph Smith that the angel Moroni appeared to him at night when he was a teenager. The author gives a photo of the Smith residence and says that his five brothers would have slept in the same small room, three to a bed, but none of them woke up and noticed the magnificent visitation or even their brother having a conversation (and a powerful spiritual experience) all night. This seems to at least falsify the idea that the angel was present in the room, as opposed to just in Smith's mind. It is consistent with a hallucination. However, it is also consistent with the event in Matthew 2:13, where an angel appears to Joseph, the father of Jesus, in a dream. So the visitation to Smith has not been disproven, but it is consistent with either a normal dream or a hallucination. This means that absent more compelling evidence for Smith's claims, we would be wise to exercise healthy skepticism.  

How do we then approach the question of falsification of the resurrection? This is where Yudkowsky's ingenious interpretation of Elijah and the priests of Baal is helpful. Just like God, through Elijah, raised the burden of proof by pouring water onto the wood on the altar and into the trench, it appears that God has raised the burden of proof for the resurrection by leaving no plausible naturalistic explanation for the evidence. 

Since the death of Jesus, skeptics have tried to explain away the resurrection--starting with the claim that the disciples stole the body. Since then, they have put forth the swoon theory, the twin theory, the wrong tomb theory, conspiracy theories, and the hallucination theory, among others. All have major flaws and most have been discarded. Some skeptics, like David Hume and Bart Ehrman, have attempted to stay above the fray and simply dismiss the evidence by saying, essentially, that the supernatural is always the least likely. But this approach has been refuted using Bayes' Theorem. To say that the supernatural is the least likely, regardless of the evidence, is mathematically fallacious, as non-theistic philosopher of physics John Earman demonstrates in Hume's Abject Failure. 

In 1 Kings 18:20-29, the priests of Baal frantically called on the name of Baal all day long without response, and Elijah began to taunt them: "Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened." They shouted louder, leaping around the altar and slashing themselves with swords--to no avail.

This brings to mind the efforts to explain away the resurrection, in the context of Psalm 2:1-4. "Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. 'Let us break their chains,' they say, 'and throw off their fetters.' The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them."

In 1 Kings 18:33-39, Elijah prepared his sacrifice, asking God to reveal to the people that He is the God of Israel and that Elijah was His servant. Fire from heaven fell down on the altar and consumed the offering, the wood, the stones, the dust, and the water in the trench. God accepted Elijah's sacrifice. 

Likewise, God accepted the sacrifice of Jesus for our sins and proved it by raising Him from the dead. The resurrection confirmed all the teachings of Jesus as being from God, including His claim to deity, and through it, God fulfilled the repeated prophecy of His Son that He would be delivered into the hands of sinners to die and be raised on the third day (Matthew 16:21, Matthew 17:22-23,  Matthew 20:18-19, Mark 8:31, Mark 9:31, Mark 10:34, Luke 9:22, Luke 18:31-33, Luke 24:7). 

As Paul said to the men of Athens: "God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Easter Faith of the Early Church

Crucifixion of Peter
As I said before, the resurrection of Jesus is supported by three pillars: the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances of Jesus, and the Easter faith of the early Christians in the face of severe persecution. In order to undermine the historical support for the resurrection, a skeptic has to give viable naturalistic explanations for all three. 

We have already discussed the evidence for the empty tomb and examined the possible explanations for why Paul and the other apostles claimed to have seen Jesus postmortem. What remains is a discussion of the Easter faith that sprung up in a climate of severe persecution and grew into the dominant world religion.

The late orthodox Jewish rabbi and theologian Pinchas Lapide came to the conclusion that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead, and said in The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, that if the faith-shattering cry of Jesus on the cross, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" had been the end of the story, the movement would have died right there. The Jews believed in a faithful, just God who never abandoned the righteous.

He concluded: "If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception--without a fundamental faith experience--then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself."

So the final question is this: What caused the Easter faith of the early followers of Jesus that grew into four million Christians by 300 AD? Did a group of simple men perpetrate the most masterful hoax ever, while preaching an ethic of love, faithfulness, and truth? And even if they could and would do it, what would have motivated them?

We know from Paul's letters that he used to be a zealous, successful Pharisee who persecuted the church, and he gave it up for imprisonment, persecution, and poverty. Writing from prison, he said, "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:7-8). 

What could possibly have motivated him? Note that I am not asking what did motivate him--we can never know exactly what combination of factors lead other people to do what they do. However, if Jesus did not appear to Paul as he claimed, there should be other possible explanations for his willingness to sacrifice everything for his hope in the resurrection. What are they?

Liberal theologian and church historian Ferdinand Christian Baur rejected the resurrection and the other supernatural aspects of the primitive church for most of his life. But shortly before he died he concluded that the conversion of Paul was an unsolvable psychological puzzle which was a miracle in and of itself, and according to Philip Schaff, this led Baur to "bow before the greater miracle of the resurrection of Christ, without which the former is an inexplicable enigma."

Why did Stephen, when he stood before the Sanhedrin, gaze into the heavens and boldly report, "Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55-56), echoing the words that earned Jesus the death penalty? And when they rushed at him as an angry mob and stoned him to death, how could he have cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" as he died?

Pliny the Younger describes the Christian martyrs in much the same way in his letter to Emperor Trajan in 112 AD--that true Christians would die before they cursed Christ or worshipped pagan gods, like Pliny ordered them to do. And their conduct was blameless. He wrote:
In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement.
They affirmed, however, the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food -- but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. Even this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition. 
So eighty years after the death of Christ, His followers were still known for their loyalty to Him. They were still true to His word and fearless in the face of death because of their hope of eternal life.

The movement continued to grow after the stoning of James by the Sandedrin in 62 AD, and after the deaths of Paul and Peter during the severe persecution by Nero, who lit up his 64 AD garden party with torches of burning Christians and put them to death in other horrific ways for the amusement of the Romans. And it continued to grow through many subsequent waves of persecution when Christians were ordered to recant or be executed. As Tertullian observed, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."

Paul lays it on the line in 1 Corinthians 15:15 by saying that if Jesus had not been raised, then he and the others would have been "false witnesses of God because we testified against God that He raised Christ." He makes it very clear that the truth of the resurrection is crucial, and if it didn't happen, the apostles would have been false witnesses against God. He leaves no room for any wishy-washy thinking about faith being such a beautiful thing that there is no need to worry about pesky things like facts. And the hope of the later martyrs was grounded in the historical fact of the resurrection that the apostles themselves were willing to die for.

If we take into account the whole panoply of human motivations, how does the Easter faith make any sense if this resurrection did not happen?