‘Can a Scientist believe the Resurrection’ by John Lennox: A Critique

Synopsis

In this piece I present a critique of John Lennox’s argument in his ABC online article ‘Eliminating the Impossible: Can a Scientist believe the Resurrection?’, found here http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/04/16/3986403.htm. I recommend reading it first, as I assume the reader has some familiarity with its structure and broad outlines. Also, in order to keep my critique somewhat focused, I have decided to ignore Lennox’s initial remarks about Hume and the laws of nature, and focus solely on his arguments concerning the empty tomb, and the historical evidence for resurrection appearances. Please note that although I do discuss some issues relevant to broader discussions about the historical reliability of the New Testament and the likelihood of the Resurrection, that is not my primary intention here. The primary purpose of this article is to provide a critique of the specific claims and arguments made by John Lennox in this particular article.

Evidence and Superstition

“The brilliant ancient historian Luke, a doctor trained in the medical science of his day…”

Two points here. First, some non-trivial number of biblical scholars have doubts as to the authorship of Luke-Acts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorship_of_Luke-Acts). One could argue that is not central to the point here, but I think Lennox is painting a picture of excessive certainty, as if there is no doubt who the author was. I believe this is disingenuous in the context of the argument he is trying to make about the reliability of the gospel accounts, and hence he should be more careful in aligning the strength of his claim with the strength of scholarly consensus on the matter.

Second, the use of the term ‘medical science’ is very misleading, and indeed anachronistic. Medicine in the ancient world was nothing like modern scientific medicine. Indeed, the notion of ‘science’ as an empirical enterprise didn’t even really exist. Lennox here speaks as if Luke was trained in modern empirical science and related modes of critical thinking, but that is simply not the case. Roman doctors didn’t even know about such basic things as the germ theory of disease, or that that heart was a pump, and humoral theory was widely accepted. Nothing Lennox said is directly contradictory to these facts, but the point is that once again the language he is using presents a biased, misleading picture of the real situation. Luke was not trained in ‘medical science’ in any meaningful sense of the term, and to say that he was grossly misrepresents the situation.

“Luke here makes it obvious that the early Christians were not a credulous bunch, unaware of the laws of nature, and therefore prepared to believe any miraculous story, however absurd.”

Lennox draws this conclusion on the basis of a single anecdote about Zechariah and Elizabeth, though later on he also mentions a few other examples of skepticism in the NT (e.g. Thomas). But his claim here far exceeds what can be concluded from the evidence he presents. Lennox provides some examples of people expressing skepticism about miraculous claims, and then on that basis concludes that (most? all?) early Christians were ‘not a credulous bunch’. That simply doesn’t follow. I believe there is considerable evidence that the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures in which these events took place were deeply superstitious, full of magicians, rituals, magic artifacts, and miracle workers. There are numerous books on the subject, for example http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Magicians-Greco-Roman-Matthew-Dickie/dp/0415311292/ref=pd_sim_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1T20P8MHD3EA73D8ZG62. Lennox just totally ignores such issues, painting a picture of widespread skepticism which simply isn’t warranted by the few anecdotes he provides as evidence.

“Christianity won its way by dint of the sheer weight of evidence that one man had actually risen from the dead.”

Again, Lennox here is just asserting his conclusion. He has not provided any reason to accept this other than his very dubious claim that most people of that time were skeptical about miraculous claims. I think there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, as I have indicated above. Even today, where literacy is widespread and access to information has never been easier, erroneous beliefs about all sorts of matters are abundant. How many people today believe in ghosts, or bigfoot, or that the moon landings were hoaxed, or that global warming is a myth… the list goes on. I argue, contra Lennox, that there is no reason at all to believe that most people in the ancient world would have required much in the way of evidence or critical evaluation before believing in supernatural miraculous claims; just as it is the case today that, despite our much greater levels of education and the influence of modern science, many people (even most in some cases, depending on the survey) quite readily believe such things.

“Most of our evidence comes from the New Testament and it may surprise many that, in comparison with many other ancient works of literature, the New Testament is by far the best-attested document from the ancient world”

True but largely beside the point. The question is whether the documentation available provides sufficient evidence for the supernatural claims being made. Arguing that the documentation is better than that available for many other events in the ancient world is simply beside the point. Many accounts from the ancient world contain a mixture of the plausible, the dubious, and the very unlikely (though scholars don’t always agree which is which of course). For example, the generally reliable Roman historian Tacitus has some rather dubious claims about Vespasian conducting miraculous healings in his court. As far as I know, no scholars argue for the likely historicity of these events, despite the fact that they are documented relatively early. The point is, one of the main things ancient historians do is sift through documents to determine which parts are likely to be historical and which parts are not. In doing so they consider a wide range of different factors, not least of which is the plausibility of the claims. Historians don’t simply say that because one event is better documented (or documented sooner afterwards) than something else, it is therefore more likely to be historical. History isn’t that simple.

The Empty Tomb

“If the tomb had not been empty, the authorities would have had no difficulty in producing the body of Jesus, demonstrating conclusively that no resurrection had happened”

On what evidence does Lennox base this claim that the authorities would have had no difficulty in producing the body of Jesus had the tomb not been empty? What makes him so sure that the authorities either knew or cared where Jesus was buried? Or perhaps the body was moved and its location was lost (or at least lost to the authorities)? Even the world-class scientific organization NASA couldn’t keep track of the original footage of the Apollo 11 moon landings. More than a few famous artifacts and documents have simply gone ‘missing’, even from some of the world’s leading museums (e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/dec/10/row-british-empire-museum-artefacts). Now granted this isn’t precisely the same thing, but my point is that mistakes, screw-ups, and incompetence abound. Can we really be so sure that the ancient Jewish or Roman authorities could not possibility have encountered any difficulty that would have prevented them from producing a body?

“If they had had the slightest evidence that the tomb was empty because the disciples had removed the body, they had the authority and the forces to hunt down the disciples, arrest them and charge them with tomb-robbing”

Lennox is making a lot of assumptions here. First of all, he is assuming that the authorities cared at all about what happened to Jesus’ body or who stole it. It seems very plausible to me that, with the leader of the sect dead, neither the Romans nor the Jewish leaders had much reason to pay any attention at all to the remaining Christian movement, at least at this very early stage. Second, Lennox is assuming that the authorities had the capability to find and punish those responsible. Even today in many places in developed countries, with much greater police resources and forensic technology, the majority of murders (and other crimes) remain unsolved (e.g. http://www.timesrecordnews.com/news/2010/may/24/unsolved-homicides/). Third, how does Lennox know that the authorities didn’t arrest any of the disciples (or something like it)? Granted, we have no documentary evidence for it, but why should we? We have very little documentary evidence of anything from that period. For instance, we do not have one single example of a first century document attacking Christian beliefs (we have some from the second century but not the first, I think Celsus is among the earliest http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celsus). So how can we be so sure that exactly the sorts of things Lennox is talking about did not happen, and we simply have no record of them?

“Tomb-robbers would not have taken the corpse, and left the valuable linen and spices.”

How does Lennox know that the valuable linen and spices were left? Luke and John both mention ‘strips of linen’ being left, and John also speaks of ‘the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head’. Were these the only pieces of linen that were originally used? We don’t know, but Lennox seems to assume that they were. I don’t see any reason to share this assumption.

“How could any tomb-robber have removed the stone when the guard was there?”

Was there a guard there? Only Matthew mentions any such thing. And Matthew also, in the same passage, gives us details about a private meeting between the chief priests and elders in which they devise a plan to announce that the disciples had stolen the body. How did Matthew know about that conversation? I doubt any of the disciples were invited. For these and other reasons, a number of scholars think the the entire section about the guards is a later addition. I’m sure Lennox and others would dispute this, but the point is Lennox doesn’t even mention the issue. He just treats the presence of guards as if it is an established fact.

“But it was the way in which the grave-cloths were lying that convinced St. John of a miracle. So, could someone have taken the body and rewound the cloths deliberately to give the impression that a miracle had happened?”

Lennox here is (I presume) referring to John 20:7. I won’t quote it, because the proper translation and interpretation of this verse is quite controversial. See here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_20:7. Some translations use a phrase like ‘folded together’ or ‘rolled together’ to describe the cloths, while the NIV simply refers to the cloth ‘lying in its place’. So Lennox’s argument here is highly sensitive to the exact translation one uses, and what you think the author was originally trying to say. Personally, I think that an argument which relies on such an equivocal detail from the last of all the gospels to be written, should not be granted especially much credence.

Psychology and Hallucinations

“It was also psychologically impossible, since they were not expecting a resurrection”

Really? They weren’t expecting a Resurrection? What about Mark 8:31-33, where Jesus says “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again”. There are similar predictions in Mark 9:30-32, and Matthew 20:17-19. Now, one might argue that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant, as happens so often in the gospels. That is certainly possible, but is it not also plausible that, in the days after Jesus’ death, some of the disciples might have remembered his words about rising again on the third day, and formed expectations on that basis? I’m not claiming I can say for sure what was going on inside their heads, but Lennox seems to think that he can, even despite the fact that his claim evidently runs counter to what the NT says elsewhere.

“Hallucinations usually occur to people of a certain temperament, with a vivid imagination”

The research I have done on the matter indicates that hallucinations are fairly common (e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11166087), though I think it does depend on how one defines one’s terms and how the survey is conducted. A the very least, a citation for Lennox’s source for this claim would be nice.

“But Matthew was a hard-headed, shrewd tax-collector; Peter and some of the others, tough fishermen; Thomas, a born sceptic; and so on.”

As with his comments about Luke, Lennox’s claims greatly overreach the evidence here. As for Luke, scholars are far from united on the belief that Matthew wrote the gospel commonly attributed to him. More importantly, though he may have been a tax collector, what makes Lennox think that such an occupation has anything to do with being ‘shrewd’? Indeed, according to this survey (http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/05/psychologists-are-least-religious-of.html) accountants (the closest thing we have to the profession ‘tax-collector’ today) are among one of the most religious professions. Now of course that evidence is rather silly and not really relevant to first century palestine, but I think it is at least better than any evidence Lennox has presented for his implicit claim that being a tax-collector makes one less likely to hallucinate or form false beliefs. His remarks about Peter and Thomas should be considered equally without basis. ‘Tough fisherman’? ‘Born skeptic’? What does that even mean? Is putting an emotive and unsupported adjective in from of something supposed to constitute some kind of argument?

“Again, hallucinations tend to be of expected events. But none of the disciples was expecting to meet Jesus again. The expectation of Jesus’s resurrection was not in their minds at all.”

See my comments above. This is highly dubious given that Jesus predicted his resurrection, at least if you trust what the gospels say as generally being historical, which I understand Lennox does.

“Hallucinations usually recur over a relatively long period, either increasing or decreasing. But the appearances of Christ occurred frequently, over a period of forty days, and then abruptly ceased”

Again, a citation would be nice. I think there are plenty of other cases of unusual or miraculous events being widely reported for a brief period before ‘dying down’. Two examples I would cite are the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard and the Devil’s Footprints in Devon. One must also consider what evidence there is that the appearances ‘abruptly ceased’ after forty days. What ceases abruptly are the accounts of the gospels, not necessarily the appearances. Acts does continue the narrative, but it focuses mostly on missionary work. I don’t see any particular reason to believe that sightings of Jesus didn’t continue for long afterward, especially in the Jerusalem area. Indeed, people still claim to see Jesus today.

“Hallucinations, moreover, do not occur to groups and yet Paul claims 500 people saw Jesus at once.”

I agree that hallucinations per se do not occur in groups, but I think we have more than enough cases of groups large and small reporting seeing and experiencing very strange phenomena. I have compiled a list of such cases here https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwSqSiJGs1DPUE82QVBHcm1XM1E/edit?usp=sharing. I don’t think the Resurrection appearances are unique in this regard. At the very least, Lennox hasn’t bothered to include any sort of comparative analysis as a basis for claiming that they are unique.

Other Matters

“They clearly do not account for the empty tomb – no matter how many hallucinations the disciples had, they could never have preached the resurrection in Jerusalem, if the nearby tomb had not been empty.”

How does Lennox know this? The famous book When Prophecy Fails discusses a number of doomsday cults, and analyses how, in many cases, people continued to believe even after specific predictions about the world ending on a particular day fail to come true. Some people believe that the Holocaust didn’t happen, despite mountains of evidence that it did. I think Lennox here grossly underestimates the ability of human beings to believe things without much evidence, and even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

“To anyone who knows anything about the ancient laws regarding legal testimony, it is very striking that the first reports mentioned in the Gospels of appearances of the Risen Christ were made by women. In first-century Jewish culture, women were not normally considered to be competent witnesses”

I’ve never understood why so many apologists consider this argument to be so compelling. All that it proves is that the stories about the discovery of the empty tomb were not invented whole-cloth in order to make the Christian story sound more appealing. It does not follow at all the that stories must therefore be accurate, or probably historical, or that they could not have become changed over time or before they were written down (remember Paul doesn’t mention the women or the empty tomb, so we are talking about a period of decades until these stories were written down). I accept that the story of the women was not invented. I see no reason why it therefore follows that it is probably true, or true in all the details that Lennox et al would like us to believe.

“The explosion of Christianity out of Judaism and the testimony of millions today are inexplicable without the resurrection”

What about the testimony of millions of Muslims, and the explosion of Islam out of Arabia? What about the testimony of millions of Mormons, and the explosion of Mormonism out of New York? What about the testimony of millions of Buddhists, and the explosion of Buddhism out of Hinduism? Indeed, what of the convictions (testimony would be the wrong word but the devotion can often seem equally religious) of millions of Marxists, and the explosion of this ideology from the writings of an obscure German living in mid 19th century Britain? Lennox’s argument here seems to apply to far too many movements at far too many times in history to be supportive of his case. It seems demonstrably true that new religions or ideologies can develop and spread very quickly, even if we regard them to be substantively false.

“As Holmes said to Watson: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?””

Here is my explanation of events. The body of Jesus was moved, either stolen, or reburied by Jospeh of Arimathea, or relocated by some unknown third party. After that, the disciples had various experiences of seeing and meeting with the risen Jesus. These stories were modified over time through retelling and the foibles of memory, becoming more impressive and coherent then were the original experiences. The Christian movement, on the basis of true conviction and missionary zeal (nothing unique to Christianity, though still admirable) then spread over the course of the succeeding years and decades, just as have many other religions (there’s an interesting piece here comparing the growth rate of early Christianity with Mormonism http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=95). I don’t consider any elements of this account impossible. Unlikely? Perhaps, in some parts. But impossible? I think Lennox has not even come close to establishing that this sort of account is ‘impossible’.

Conclusion

I originally said that this piece was ‘terrible’. I stand by that claim. I contend that, at least in the part of the piece that I have reviewed, Lennox makes very few cogent arguments. He makes assertions without providing any evidence, he makes unjustified leaps of logic, he rules out alternative explanations too readily and without justification, and he is far too confident in the conclusions he draws given ambiguous and complicated evidence. Quite frankly, I think in many ways this piece is an embarrassment. Granted, it is only a short article on the ABC website, but still, I think much better was possible given the space and resources Lennox had at his disposal. My primary purpose in writing this critique was to highlight to any Christians who did find this piece compelling just how lacking in substance I found its arguments to be, and to call Christians to action (as it were) in putting forward more robust, evidence-based, carefully-considered arguments in favour of the resurrection of Jesus. The question is too important for us to simply ignore, or to be satisfied with mediocre arguments on either side.

 

 

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