Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Lee Strobel: Skeptic Believer

I read an old interview of Lee Strobel, in which he lays out his evidence-based case for belief in the Christian narrative.  Strobel says that he was an investigative journalist with a background in law, who was also an atheist and a skeptic.  And it was his regular practice to check out everything he was told - to seek out the evidence.  And that's what made him such a jerk, he says. 
we used to pride ourselves on being skeptical and actually had a sign in our newsroom that said, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out!” In other words, where are the facts? Where is the proof? Where is the evidence? - Strobel
It's a little unclear what message we should take from a statement like that.  Is he saying that being skeptical is what made him a jerk in the past, but he no longer has that problem?  Or is he saying that his skepticism is what gave solid justification for the belief that he adopted?  If his Christian faith is based on solid evidence, and skepticism is what brought him to that evidence, as well as his success as an investigative journalist, then why does he equate skepticism with being a jerk?  It's puzzling.  At any rate, Strobel uses his credentials as a skeptic to bolster his case that his conversion to Christianity is based on solid evidence. 

So what is this evidence?  Strobel bases his case on two main questions: Did Jesus claim to be the son of God, and if so, did he prove it with his resurrection?  Regarding the first of those questions, he notes that the in Gospel of Mark (the earliest gospel in the NT), Jesus refers to himself as the "Son of Man", which Strobel takes to mean that he is divine, based on the use of the term in Daniel 7 of the Hebrew bible.  But there seems to be a problem with that.  The Old Testament uses that phrase numerous times to mean mankind as distinguished from the divine.  And Daniel 7:13 is no different.  It speaks of a divine being who is like the son of man (or like an ordinary man).  In other words, that divine being is not himself the son of man, because he is divine, but he has the appearance of being like a man.  So if Jesus calls himself the "Son of Man" in the tradition of the Old Testament, he is not making a claim of divinity.  And this is consistent with the rest of the Gospel of Mark, which contains no account of a divine birth, nor any claims of Jesus actually being the son of God.  Those claims didn't come until the later gospels.  But many Christians overlook the word "like", and see Daniel as prophesy of Jesus, who (in Mark) says he is the son of man.  And Strobel, being a good skeptic, makes the same mistaken interpretation, but says that this alone wasn't enough to convince him.  He needed more evidence.

As convincing evidence of the resurrection, Strobel gives us the five 'E's:  Execution, Early accounts, Empty tomb, Eyewitnesses, and Emergence of the church. 

The execution by crucifixion would definitely have killed him, and there are five secular sources of confirmation for this, he claims, including Tacitus, Josephus, and the Talmud.  But these references are not contemporaneous, the earliest of them being written some six decades later, and there is considerable doubt among  historians as to whether they are truly independent, because the Christian legends were already widespread by that time.

As for early accounts of the resurrection, he notes that it is found in all four gospels, as well as 1 Corinthians, which is dated to as early as 2 to 5 years after the event, he claims.  Actually, the original Gospel of Mark contained no mention of the resurrection, but that was appended only in later manuscripts.  Older manuscripts of Mark end with the discovery of the empty tomb.  Also, most scholars date 1 Corinthians to the range of 53-57CE.  And twenty years is plenty of time for a legend to get started.

The discovery of the empty tomb is virtually beyond dispute, he says, and any alternative accounts of the body being stolen, aside from being ridiculous, are simply confirmation that the tomb really was empty.  I have always been puzzled by Christians' easy dismissal of any possible alternative accounts for the body being missing.  Why couldn't the Roman authorities, who didn't want it to become an object of veneration by cult members, have disposed of it in the night when nobody was around, for example?  This seems like one of many perfectly plausible scenarios, but skeptic Strobel doesn't buy it.  He thinks coming back from the dead is much more reasonable.

The 515 eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus are all attested in the bible, and nowhere else.  Earliest among these accounts is Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15.  Paul describes the 500 who saw the resurrected Jesus, as well as his own encounter with Jesus.  But I have to wonder whether Christians actually read what Paul says.  Verses 42 to 50 make it clear that the resurrected Jesus is a spirit - not a body in flesh and blood:
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. - 1 Corinthians 15:42-50
See also 1 Peter 3:18.  In fact, Paul never mentions seeing Jesus in the flesh.  Nor is there any independent account of the resurrection.

Finally Strobel sees the emergence of the church within "a few weeks" as strong evidence, because thousands of people from Jerusalem saw all these things and had no doubt that they were true.  History concurs that there was a small cult of followers in the years after the death of Jesus, but little evidence (even in the bible) that it had swelled to thousands until Paul began spreading the word in earnest, and once again, most scholars place this a few decades later.  Compared to the rise of Mormonism, this doesn't appear to be extraordinary.

In summary, Strobel having once been taken with the idea of becoming a Christian, seems to have abandoned any semblance of skepticism.  His five 'E's add up to a rock-solid case in his mind.  But the evidence that he finds so persuasive is nothing that an actual skeptic would find conclusive, given the wealth of scholarly and historical information that casts serious doubt upon it.  All this information is simply dismissed by Strobel.  And that doesn't even include any scientific understanding that makes the whole Christian narrative extremely unlikely in the first place.  So Strobel buys this narrative despite all the red flags that should serve as a clear warning to any real skeptic, and yet he claims that his skeptical propensity to "check it out" is in full force.  As far as I can tell, it seems that once he decided to become a Christian, his interpretation of evidence was governed entirely by his belief.  And from that point on, any claims of being a skeptic are worthless.  Oh, and evidently, now that he has become a believer, being a skeptic makes you a jerk.

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