Reconciling the crucified messiah (and a new way to read the Bible)

I’ve done a lot of introspection this Easter season on what Christianity is, if not truth. It doesn’t seem rational to abandon a widely held worldview without at least trying to explain why it has been accepted in the first place. So how would a naturalist explain the origin and adoption of a worldview which centers around a crucified leader, and does that explanation make sense?

The birth of Christianity in 200 words or less

CrossesA charismatic sectarian from Galilee speaks out against the religious establishment and preaches repentance in preparation for the end of days – an end which infers Israel’s divinely mandated world domination. His followers eagerly anticipated this grand reversal of fortune but then he was killed because his message and growing profile was seen as a threat to the Roman state. Something happened that led to a belief that he may have been resurrected and this coupled into a hope that maybe his mission wasn’t done. The resurrection hypothesis and the apocalypse hypothesis fed off of each other, along with a few select passages in Psalms and Isaiah, to reinforce the story. Paul comes along and is inspired by the story but is compelled to more fully explain why the messiah was killed. He develops an extensive reformulation of the Judaic sacrificial system into a robust atonement theology which grows to become the foundation of Christendom. Collectively we are left with an intriguing story of sacrificial love, redemption, acceptance and hope that offers a remedy for our desire to belong and a salve for our deepest fears.

The birth of a new perspective

The kind of explanation given above may not be new to those who have already examined these things from a critical perspective, but it is to me. You see, when all your information has come from inside the Christian bubble the logic flows in reverse. You start with the assumption that Jesus came to offer salvation and so had to die – not that he died and so that needed to be explained. This is a complete reversal to the order of operations that I’ve known my whole life and if I’m honest I have to admit that it makes a lot of sense.

The psychology we encounter from this new perspective goes well beyond the New Testament. The Old Testament as a whole is dripping with angst. Israel is sick of being a doormat. They sit at the junction between Egypt and all other world powers and are constantly caught in the crossfire. Some have suggested that the bulk of the Tanakh is effectively the rallying cry of a trampled people, saying “we have conquered once, we will conquer again”. That may be a bit of a short sell but the overall theme seems correct.

The birth of a new revelation

Valentin de Boulogne: Saint Paul Writing His EpistlesThere have been many revelations for me on this journey. It is amazing how many of the mysteries of the Bible begin to unravel once you allow yourself to see it as a human creation. The dynamic between history and theology becomes one of cause and effect. Theology is no longer a message handed down on high from God but rather a very real psychological and emotional response to the events of our world. Ironically, this has given me a profound respect for the beauty of the humanity that can be found in the Bible; more so than ever before.

On this journey I have finally allowed myself to ask “Why did the author write this?”, instead of “What is God saying to me?”. As a Christian, I treated the Bible like something of a textbook; an instruction manual to be studied. I wanted to understand what God was saying. I was oblivious to the experiences, desires and perspectives that its authors brought to the text. In retrospect it’s a bit embarrassing to admit how blatantly I ignored this, though I still find myself befuddled when trying to parse a Christian explanation of how the Bible is the product of both God and man. I guess it’s easier to just act like it came straight from God and gloss over the human role.

Where I once sought divine guidance, I now see an epic anthology that chronicles a psychological struggle to cope with the chaos of a world outside of our control and the tensions that strain our will. It’s not hard to see how this has spoken to us throughout the centuries. We all fight to see our way through the obstacles that life hurls our way and to resolve the conflicts that torment our soul (metaphorically speaking, of course). How comforting a prospect it is to suggest that this isn’t just chaos; that behind it all there is a magnificent plan that ends with a glorious victory! The full embrace of the Christian message can give us peace and rest. Who doesn’t want that? I for one wish it to be true, but that is a verdict which seems more distant with each step that I take. My rest will not be found where I am engaged in an unending struggle for truth.

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30 thoughts on “Reconciling the crucified messiah (and a new way to read the Bible)

  1. Travis, do you mind if I ask, when you say “something happened that led to a belief that he may have been resurrected” what do you mean? This is where natural explanations have the hardest time, so how would you fill out “something happened” with your current understanding?

    Also, some of your terms “charismatic sectarian” and “apocalypse hypothesis” seem like they might be unjustified and unnecessary interpretations of Jesus and his message. Would you be interested in spelling out what you mean by these?

    • I won’t deny that I was being intentionally vague. The point was not to propose a detailed account of everything but rather to highlight the psychological elements that may have been at play.

      I’m not in a position to suggest a fully worked out natural explanation for the resurrection at this time but I will offer two thoughts:
      1) It’s not sufficient for the resurrection hypothesis to be the most probable, the probability we assign it has to be better than 50% or the cumulative set of possible natural explanations still outweighs the resurrection hypothesis.
      2) The objections to wrong/unknown tomb theories do not seem very strong to me.

      I have some yet undocumented reasons for associating Jesus with an apocalyptic sect. Here are a few glimpses into where that comes from:
      1) Despite the fact that we tend to focus on the moral teaching, he spoke more than anything about the “kingdom of God” and it is difficult to completely dissect this concept with his more direct apocalyptic teaching.
      2) Prior to Jesus, the title “Son of Man” is only known in an apocalyptic context.
      3) Second temple Judaism was far from constrained to the dichotomy of Pharisees and Sadducees that we are given in the gospels. Jesus appears to dislike both groups. That would put him in a different sect.
      4) Why was Jesus associated with John the Baptist at the start of his ministry and what might John’s profile tell us about Jesus’ background?
      5) What did Jesus quote when answering John the Baptists’ question in Luke 7:22? Was it Isaiah 61 or was it 4Q521?

      I know that isn’t much but hopefully it helps clarify some of the underlying ideas.

      • Hey Travis,
        I was just reminded of your “Where I am” post. I really like it, it shows how much you’ve studied and are approaching these questions with sincerity and humility. It reminds me of my own journey with some respects. Retrospectively, I think the two most important things for me to reconvert were 1) thinking it was possible for Christian theism to be moral and 2) pressing the reset button on all claims and doctrine, requiring a burden of proof for me to gain any new belief (i.e., about the atonement, about the relevance of a certain letter).

        Anyway, sorry about that tangent. I’ll respond to your highlights because I think these would be important considerations for you. About filling out a natural explanation for the rise of Christianity, it is impossible to objectively assign a probability. It is also impossible to objectively assign a probability that the Big Bang occurred. Even if we could somehow, we would have the problem that statistical inference relies on an arbitrary cutoff. Statistical significance has been arbitrarily set at p<0.05 for most analyses for the reason that it simply works well enough. "Well enough" being the operative term. But, there have always been anomalies. The world tends to refuse to be as rigid as we would like it to be.

        As far as the wrong/unknown tomb, even if this were the case, we would still need to explain the rise of Christianity and equally importantly the particular shape of its beliefs, specifically the modifications to the Jewish conception of resurrection. After I reconverted for a while I thought that the empty tomb narratives were legend because they are absent in Paul, but that did not keep me from believing in the resurrection. I now know of pretty good arguments that the empty tomb narrative is early tradition and the scholarly arguments of Richard Bauckham support an eyewitness tradition rather than telephone game oral tradition.

        I was afraid that your idea of “apocalyptic sect” might be based on particular historical Jesus portrayals. But, you may not be too far from me. When you say “apocalyptic sectarian” do you mean that he walked around arguing with Pharisees and Sadducees and talked about the end times frequently? When I think of “Kingdom of Heaven” I think it refers to the rise of Christianity after the resurrection, how there is a transformation of individuals and communities after believing in God’s creative power to endow Jesus with a strange new physical body, then how these transformed people/communities affect the world at large with love for the earth, the animals, and it's people. And, no one seems to understand what “Son of Man” means. Going by Jesus answer to the high priest in Mark 14:61-62 it seems to be related to a particular conception of the messiah. Regardless of all this, I think the most apocalyptic (in the technical sense) thing Jesus talked about was final judgment. And, Jesus did not criticize the Jewish sects because he wanted to branch off necessarily. He merely criticized hypocrisy and abuses. His respect of the Torah suggests he was aiming for a better representation of God’s plan for Israel.

        I hope that’s not too much for one sitting!
        -Brandon

      • Perhaps Albert Schweitzer had it right 100 years ago when he described Jesus as a deluded failed apocalyptic prophet who really did think the of time was coming.

    • Brandon,
      I appreciate the kind words. I don’t see myself reconverting in the near future but I’m open to the possibility as I continue gathering data. I have definitely already hit reset on any doctrinal presuppositions. Perhaps the biggest obstacle from a theological perspective comes in justifying why it is OK to pick and choose and to look past the things that don’t fit.

      About filling out a natural explanation for the rise of Christianity, it is impossible to objectively assign a probability.

      My comment about the resurrection hypothesis requiring > 50% probability was not meant to suppose that an objective assessment could be made. I only mentioned it because it seems that this is too often forgotten. It’s quite possible to think that the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation for the data without thinking that it is better than the cumulative sum of all alternatives. I might put myself in that camp at the moment.

      As far as the wrong/unknown tomb, even if this were the case, we would still need to explain the rise of Christianity and equally importantly the particular shape of its beliefs, specifically the modifications to the Jewish conception of resurrection.

      It was pretty much the point of this post to highlight some of the psychological factors that could encourage the adoption of Christianity. With respect to the shape of its beliefs, you’ll have to elaborate. For both issues it isn’t clear to me why naturalistic accounts are inferior.

      I was afraid that your idea of “apocalyptic sect” might be based on particular historical Jesus portrayals.

      If you’re referring to theories which suggest that Jesus was a militant zealot then you’re correct to observe that I’m not convinced by those – though I do think that he was perceived by the Roman state as something akin to a zealot.

      When you say “apocalyptic sectarian” do you mean that he walked around arguing with Pharisees and Sadducees and talked about the end times frequently?

      Yes, but I also mean that he would have been part of, or at least influenced by, existing communities who had unusually strong fascinations with the end times.

      When I think of “Kingdom of Heaven” I think it refers to the rise of Christianity after the resurrection

      That is the traditional understanding but when I survey everything I have a hard time seeing how it is not related to the eschatological concept of the messianic kingdom.

      no one seems to understand what “Son of Man” means

      Perhaps, but its usage prior to Jesus reveals that it is most likely apocalyptic in nature. It was used extensively in Ezekiel (an apocalyptic prophet), it was used in Daniel as a reference to the same eschatological figure as you noted in Mark, and it was used in 1 Enoch for a similar messianic figure. Furthermore, Jesus’ interpretation of Daniel as a future event is a problem for me after having looked at the prophecies in detail.

      • Hey Travis,
        I affirm your use and conception of probability now that I understand it better and see it your bar graphs. If you don’t mind, what I’d like to share with you is a little bit of new information and new perspective, something just to add to your assessment. Actually it may not be new to you, but it might be. 🙂

        With respect to the shape [early Christianity’s] beliefs, you’ll have to elaborate. For both issues it isn’t clear to me why naturalistic accounts are inferior.

        Here is a list of some Christian modifications of the Jewish concept of resurrection from the scholarship of of NT Wright’s which I know you are interested in from your “Where I am” post.

        (1) Within ancient religions there tended to be a spectrum of afterlife belief. For example, Pharisee versus Sadducee and the variety of Pagan afterlife beliefs. However, in Christianity there is virtually no spectrum of afterlife belief. Rather, there is unanimity.
        (2) The Jewish conception of resurrection is imprecise, but the Christian conception is that of transformation to an incorruptible new body which is an added precision.
        (3) The Jewish conception of resurrection was that it occurred at the eschaton, whereas in Christianity Jesus was the “first fruit” of this resurrection, uniquely happening before the eschaton.
        (4) Christians uniquely interpreted the resurrection as a call to change one’s life in the here and now, “Die to your sins and live to Christ.”
        (5) In Judaism resurrection is a metaphor for the restoration of the political entity of Israel, whereas in Christianity resurrection is a metaphor for the believing community that is transformed by their trust in God.
        (6) In Judaism the Messiah was expected to be a warlord and never die thereby excluding resurrection, however in Christianity the Messiah met a violent death and was then resurrected.

        When we consider all of these, the most important question is, why were these particular modifications adopted and with consistency? One explanation that fits well is that these modifications and their consistency results from a historical epicenter, namely a very early conviction and testimony of this kind of “resurrection”. I think the disciples experienced an unexpected phenomenon of Jesus being back but with this strange body that do things like enter locked rooms and the disciples are so stunned the text says things like they “dared not ask who it was”. What a strange phenomenon! They did not know what to call this phenomenon, so they labeled it “resurrection”.

        What would I expect someone like you to get out of this? It might increase the probability of the resurrection hypothesis a little higher.

        That is the traditional understanding [of the “Kingdom of Heaven”] but when I survey everything I have a hard time seeing how it is not related to the eschatological concept of the messianic kingdom.

        Why not both? 🙂 There’s a concept forged in the mind of John Dominic Crossan if I remember correctly called “realized eschatology”. Crossan has a reputation as a “liberal” Christian which is pejoratively tossed around. Regardless, this concept is a beautiful insight to Christianity and lauded by the likes of NT Wright. Realized eschatology suggests that the Kingdom is realized in the present, through transformation of individuals and communities towards love and care for the earth, while we look forward to the Kingdom’s perfect reign in the new creation at the eschaton. Realized eschatology is seen in “die to your sins, live to the Messiah”, baptism, and being “in the Messiah” as opposed to “in Adam”.

        So, the point here is that Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven need not be forced in a dichotomous relationship of present time versus the eschaton, but rather speaks of both in realized eschatology and the future new heaven and new earth.

        Furthermore, Jesus’ interpretation of Daniel as a future even is a problem for me after having looked at the prophecies in detail.

        I looked at your post on 70 weeks. The truth is no one knows exactly what these passages in Daniel should be interpreted given its vagueness and no one knows when it was written either. Regarding the comment at hand, we honestly don’t know if Jesus interpreted Daniel 7 and 9 to be entirely messianic and not having to do with any past events (i.e., Antiochus IV Epiphanes). Why would we need to force a dichotomy here? Why can’t it be both past events and an interpretative reservoir?

        Let me also tell you how I approach Mark 13. It is clearly foretelling the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, but the question is in the chronology of the Son of Man. Why did the author place the coming of the Son of Man immediately after the destruction? Is this exactly where Jesus placed it or is does it represent authorial assemblage of two separate prophecies expressed by Jesus? One prophecy is the destruction of the temple which has a sign, the desolating sacrilege. The other prophecy is the eschatological coming of the Son of Man for which no one knows the hour. I actually think the author compiled it this way because the author did not know the temple would be destroyed before the eschaton, not because this was clearly expressed by Jesus. What do you think about this kind of idea?

    • Hey Brandon,
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’ve encountered NT Wright’s discussion on the resurrection but haven’t yet examined it closely. Looking at this list I’m still having a hard time seeing why the naturalist account is inferior for explaining the Christian view of resurrection. To wit:

      (1) Within ancient religions there tended to be a spectrum of afterlife belief. For example, Pharisee versus Sadducee and the variety of Pagan afterlife beliefs. However, in Christianity there is virtually no spectrum of afterlife belief. Rather, there is unanimity.

      This seems dubious. 1 Corinthians 15:12 tells us that some in Corinth didn’t believe in the resurrection. Now throw in the gnostics and Marcion and the millenia of debate among Christians over the proper understanding of the resurrection. I don’t see unanimity.

      (2) The Jewish conception of resurrection is imprecise, but the Christian conception is that of transformation to an incorruptible new body which is an added precision.

      To define the Christian conception this way assumes the unanimity of #1. Regardless, this particular attribute can also be seen as having been rooted in the form of Judaism to which Jesus and his followers were most closely aligned. The apocalyptic literature tends to reflect a resurrection hope and leans toward an incorruptible or spiritual body. The view of the resurrection body as eternal and angelic is most clearly presented in Daniel 12:2-3 and reiterated by Jesus in Luke 20:36.

      (3) The Jewish conception of resurrection was that it occurred at the eschaton, whereas in Christianity Jesus was the “first fruit” of this resurrection, uniquely happening before the eschaton.

      All but mythicist theories allow that people actually thought that they had seen Jesus after they thought he was dead. As such, the Christian account doesn’t carry an advantage in explaining this facet.

      (4) Christians uniquely interpreted the resurrection as a call to change one’s life in the here and now, “Die to your sins and live to Christ.”
      (5) In Judaism resurrection is a metaphor for the restoration of the political entity of Israel, whereas in Christianity resurrection is a metaphor for the believing community that is transformed by their trust in God.

      Seems to me like #4 and #5 are essentially the same. I’m not sure whether this tells us much about the resurrection but I’ll offer some thoughts anyway. First, it seems that this dichotomy does not adequately account for some of the second temple developments in Judaism. That literature seems to reflect a shift, particularly within the apocalyptic texts, from a political eschatology to a moral eschatology – that is, the eschatology shifts to the exaltation of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked. This was most likely driven by growing division between sects in Judaism and animosity between those who viewed themselves as the righteous poor and those who were the wealthy religious authorities of the day. It’s not difficult to see how this bridges into the Christian perspective.

      (6) In Judaism the Messiah was expected to be a warlord and never die thereby excluding resurrection, however in Christianity the Messiah met a violent death and was then resurrected.

      See the response to #3 above.

      I think the disciples experienced an unexpected phenomenon of Jesus being back but with this strange body that do things like enter locked rooms and the disciples are so stunned the text says things like they “dared not ask who it was”. What a strange phenomenon!

      Yet he still has holes in his body. Another possibility is that the multiple accounts of an unrecognized Jesus are clues into a naturalistic explanation where, after being unable to find Jesus’ body at the tomb, there are occasions where they mistakenly thought that they saw Jesus out and about (after all, corrective lenses were still 1300 years away). You only need one person claiming to have seen Jesus before the others become susceptible to the same phenomenon. These experiences then becomes seeds for belief and the more developed tellings of his appearances.

      They did not know what to call this phenomenon, so they labeled it “resurrection”.

      Given the circumstances, identifying Jesus as having been resurrected and exalted doesn’t seem so unexpected if Jesus taught that people would be made like angels at the resurrection (see #2 above) and that the time was near.

      So, the point here is that Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven need not be forced in a dichotomous relationship of present time versus the eschaton, but rather speaks of both in realized eschatology and the future new heaven and new earth.

      I understand this view but it also looks very much like a post-hoc rationalization imposed on top of the unmet expectations of the original message. How might we determine which interpretation is correct?

      The truth is no one knows exactly what these passages in Daniel should be interpreted given its vagueness and no one knows when it was written either.

      Yes, but that is largely a Christian perspective. I think the evidence points strongly in a particular direction and that the Christian acceptance of that understanding has been stifled by the implications it carries regarding Jesus’ interpretation of the text.

      Why would we need to force a dichotomy here? Why can’t it be both past events and an interpretative reservoir?

      This again smells of post-hoc rationalization. How do we know whether the text was intended to have a “double meaning” or if we’re just making excuses to fit a desired interpretation?

      I actually think the author compiled it this way because the author did not know the temple would be destroyed before the eschaton, not because this was clearly expressed by Jesus. What do you think about this kind of idea?

      I think it’s possible that Jesus believed that the temple would be destroyed as a prelude to, or part of, the coming eschaton. He recognized that the current temple did not align with Ezekiel’s vision and was not fit to serve as the final product. The “third temple” would be introduced in the end times and built by God himself (some good discussion of this here). The destruction in AD 70 may have simply been a fortuitous coincidence that bolstered the apocalyptic hopes of the burgeoning Christian movement.

      • Hey Travis,
        Let, me know if these long comments are wearing on you! I just love talking about this especially with someone like yourself who is well read and critically thinks.
        I don’t think it would be helpful to reply to all your criticism of the 6 modifications of the Jewish conception of resurrection. I should also mention that NT Wright examines other first century messianic movements who were also reading apocalyptic texts like Daniel and provides good reason that if Jesus had not “resurrected”, Christianity should not look the way it does. For example, why not pick a messianic successor? Why not continue spreading Jesus’ teachings and not claim something like resurrection? This seems like a reasonable and probable thing to do when your leader unexpectedly meets his violent death. Just say God has exalted him in heaven, made him an angel, and try something different. Why say Jesus had the identity of God which is blasphemous? The point is, naturalist hypotheses have their work cut out for them given messianic test cases.

        I think the better naturalist accounts (I’m mostly thinking of Gerd Ludemann) do take an early testimony for the resurrection seriously as evidenced by the 6 modifications and the pre-Pauline creed, and so on. In one such naturalist account, Peter had an ecstatic experience and was charismatic enough to persuade others of the same experience. It’s a sort of chain effect. But, the wrench in the spokes is always Paul. This is where naturalist accounts are the weakest, IMHO. If Paul and Peter independently had visionary experiences of the same type and content, that’s pretty difficult to reconcile with naturalism, something else is going on. These are not guys who started with any sort of co-agenda, and Paul stresses the independence of his experience in Galatians 1 (i.e., Paul was removed from any sort of charisma in Peter).

        Also, if you take group appearances seriously (i.e., you don’t just chalk it up to fabrication), then the naturalist’s problems multiply substantially. You basically need an impostor that is not just convincing but also a good magician and who is not scared of the wrath of God. Then, you need to trick Paul. It’s just getting more and more contrived. The resurrection hypothesis is more elegant, it explains the range of data and the in a better way, not requiring any ad hoc assertions.

        With that said, even if you concluded that the resurrection hypothesis is superior by the rules of historiography, you could easily reject the resurrection. You can say that most of the data is fabricated or that historical consideration is not sufficient reason to adopt a belief in something this extraordinary. So, lining up things in terms of rationality is not always going to generate faith. Ultimately, you need to make a judgment based on how you are compelled and what intellectual risk you are willing to take.

        There is one thing I wanted to reply to, when you said: “This again smells of post-hoc rationalization. How do we know whether the text was intended to have a ‘double meaning’ or if we’re just making excuses to fit a desired interpretation?”
        Travis, you had mentioned that “Jesus’ interpretation of Daniel as a future event is a problem for me”, so what I am suggesting is not post-hoc rationalization, I am suggesting we cannot prove that Jesus did not see it as both a vague reference to to something historical like Antiochus and providing messianic or apocalyptic prophecy. We cannot say with any confidence that “Jesus got it wrong”. If Jesus wrote a detailed commentary of Daniel and never mentioned Antiochus, we could have more confidence in this sort of claim.

    • Brandon,
      No problem with long comments. This blog exists specifically for this purpose – to work through the data and gain from other perspectives. The difficulty is finding the time to write and respond.

      NT Wright … provides good reason that if Jesus had not “resurrected”, Christianity should not look the way it does. … The point is, naturalist hypotheses have their work cut out for them given messianic test cases.

      My point is that the evidence seems to equally fit both “he was resurrected” and “people believed that he was resurrected”. I don’t see how those test cases favor one over the other.

      But, the wrench in the spokes is always Paul. This is where naturalist accounts are the weakest, IMHO. If Paul and Peter independently had visionary experiences of the same type and content, that’s pretty difficult to reconcile with naturalism, something else is going on. These are not guys who started with any sort of co-agenda, and Paul stresses the independence of his experience in Galatians 1 (i.e., Paul was removed from any sort of charisma in Peter).

      I wouldn’t say that Paul and Peter had visionary experiences of the same type and content. Paul makes it clear that he was already familiar with the Nazarene message prior to his conversion and it is equally clear that there were conflicts between his perspective and the Jerusalem perspective.

      Also, if you take group appearances seriously (i.e., you don’t just chalk it up to fabrication), then the naturalist’s problems multiply substantially.

      That dichotomy, that the claims either represent truth or are a fabrication, always bothers me. Perhaps that wasn’t your intent but I encounter it often. There are many other naturalistic possibilities that fall under the category of confabulation and/or memory reconstruction. There have been plenty of occasions where I have mixed up memories or unintentionally embellished to create an event that never happened. The best naturalist account of everything probably includes a combination of historical truth, confabulation, misinterpretation, maybe some hallucination and, yes, some fabrication – but not complete fabrication.

      The resurrection hypothesis is more elegant, it explains the range of data in a better way, not requiring any ad hoc assertions.

      I agree.

      With that said, even if you concluded that the resurrection hypothesis is superior by the rules of historiography, you could easily reject the resurrection. … So, lining up things in terms of rationality is not always going to generate faith.

      I do not think that there is anything hyporational about questioning the veracity of data that is distinctly divergent from our everyday understanding of reality and which has been produced by people who were committed to that divergent view. Is it also less rational to question those who claim UFO abductions and out-of-body experiences than to accept their claims at face value?

      Travis, you had mentioned that “Jesus’ interpretation of Daniel as a future event is a problem for me”, so what I am suggesting is not post-hoc rationalization, I am suggesting we cannot prove that Jesus did not see it as both a vague reference to to something historical like Antiochus and providing messianic or apocalyptic prophecy. We cannot say with any confidence that “Jesus got it wrong”.

      I won’t deny the possibility of some sort of double fulfillment but if we let go of our presuppositions and treat this the way we would treat any other normal human claim then we would most likely find that the best explanation was that Daniel was not written to present a double fulfillment and that Jesus understood it to only speak to a future event. Why? Because anything beyond this is an added complexity that is not at all evident in the text until we superimpose the need to accept that Jesus was not wrong.

      • Hey Travis,
        I know what you mean about finding time to write! Don’t ever worry about this though, days, weeks, months, even after new blog posts. I understand how busy life gets.

        You said: “There are many other naturalistic possibilities that fall under the category of confabulation and/or memory reconstruction. . .”
        These are interesting possibilities. I’ve read some of Elizabeth Loftus’ work on false memory and its implications for eyewitness testimony in law court. And, in the 90’s we found out just how problematic law court eyewitness testimony can be when DNA became permissible evidence, the majority of exonerations with this new evidence had been convicted primarily on eyewitness testimony. So, this is something we need to take seriously. Ultimately, my reasoning on this is that the more important and monumental a memory is, the more likely it will form with relative stability. Especially when the memory is not associated with trauma (i.e., resurrection is associated with joy and amazement). I don’t have objective evidence to support this notion, however. Also, if multiple people experience the event, they can test each other’s memories. The fact that you know you had “mixed up memories or unintentionally embellished to create an event” suggests to me that you were able to check the veracity of your memory somehow, either by asking someone, or looking for forensic evidence to adjudicate the question. So, having multiple people experience the phenomenon of “resurrection” would act in the same way to make a sort of community-verifiable memory.

        You said: “The best naturalist account of everything probably includes a combination. . . ”
        I agree with your astute observation!

        You said: “I do not think there is anything hyporational about questioning the veracity of data that is distinctly divergent from our everyday understanding of reality. . .”
        I completely agree! I guess what is fascinating is that someone could look at the data say, “Yes, resurrection seems to be the best fit” and yet still reject it.

        You had brought up alien abduction and extraordinary claims of this nature. There are some apologists that say that these cannot stand up to reason, but I had already decided these claims are so improbable a priori that it makes me hard to take cases seriously. For example, in alien abdution an intelligent life form happened to evolve anthropomorphically on an extraterrestrial planet across the galaxy then traveled lightyears to randomly take up a human and put them back with a traumatic memory and go undetected by all of our scientific and forensic investigations? It’s laughably absurd.

        It does seem plausible to me that something mindfully created our universe, a Creator, with a specific and purpose in mind, and revealed himself by manifesting his mind in a human. It’s also plausible that this Creator would bring his servant back to life to vindicate the servant’s message. From that wide-viewed perspective I find the Christian story to be plausible in ways that alien abduction is certainly not.

        As far as out-of-body experiences and near-death-experiences (NDEs), these seem to occur only in the brain. In that way they are similar to dreams, so I think many worldviews have no problem explaining them including the naturalist worldview.

        You said: “. . . we would likely find that the best explanation was that Daniel was not written to present a double fulfillment and that Jesus understood it to only speak to a future event.”
        I think of it as God partnering with the creativity of the author of Daniel to later use these magnificent images to explain something about Jesus. The author probably did not know this would happen. If you’re an open theist (God doesn’t know the future because it does not exist yet), then maybe even God did not know exactly how it would pan out. My guess is that frankly Jesus did not care if Daniel represented past historical events. Jesus can assign meaning to the text regardless of its original meaning and use it to teach others. If I am not mistaken, this is how messianic texts were being used, in Israel’s seeking of redemption through the Messiah. Jesus’ hermeneutics of Daniel were appropriate for first century Israel, even if they are deemed inappropriate for our modern notions of reading the text. If you want to say that Jesus’ hermeneutics were inferior, then you’re really condemning the culture Jesus was born into. Who are we to be chauvinists in respect to this ancient hermeneutic?

        Jesus did not to necessarily “correct” hermeneutics or even to dispel the notion of supernatural demons or teach science, Jesus had a specific agenda in mind to teach ethics, to teach about the Kindgom of God, to rebuke those who abuse others with power, to live among friends, to cure, and to make a place of atonement to go into history for all people who seek it.

    • Brandon,
      Rather than take a deep dive into the role of memory, misperception and other factors at play in a naturalist account I want to step back and look at the big picture. Maybe some day I’ll do a page with a pie chart that lists the percentages I would assign to all the different ways that people try to explain the resurrection accounts but for now I’m content to try and summarize it in words.

      I guess what is fascinating is that someone could look at the data say, “Yes, resurrection seems to be the best fit” and yet still reject it.

      First, let me point out that I’m trying to avoid rejecting anything. I’m trying to lay all the options on the table and see what is most likely true while accepting the possibility that new data will shift my judgments. Now let’s picture that pie chart I mentioned. For my purposes in this illustration, let’s give the “actually resurrected” hypothesis 45% of the pie. Now picture five other slices of different colors consuming the other 55% of the pie, some big some small, but none defining an actual resurrection. That big 45% piece dominates and looks like the clear winner. But now instead of asking “which theory is most probably true”, let’s ask “did the resurrection actually happen”. When we do this, those five slices consuming 55% all need to be colored the same color and the situation has changed. So what it comes down to is how we dissect the probabilities, which amounts to defining which question are we trying to answer. I don’t feel like I’ve done the research and given enough thought to really fill-in the pie chart yet but this scenario is the general sense I have for now. Does that explain it?

      From that wide-viewed perspective I find the Christian story to be plausible in ways that alien abduction is certainly not.

      Please recognize that the contrast you’ve provided is highly selective – that is, you have highlighted the difficult aspects of the abductee’s backstory while simultaneously limiting the difficulties of the Christian backstory. While I agree with the conclusion in principle, it is a bit of a dishonest comparison. Just as the abductee has to deal with the baggage you offered, the acceptance of the Christian worldview carries much more baggage than the “vindication of the servant’s message”. As I noted in an earlier response, a big hurdle for accepting the Christian worldview comes in justifying why it is OK to pick and choose and to look past the things that don’t fit. For example, you hint at something interesting when you say that Jesus didn’t come to “dispel the notion of supernatural demons”. Does this mean that you reject demonic possession? If so, how do you interpret the gospel accounts in this regard?

      Jesus can assign meaning to the text regardless of its original meaning and use it to teach others. … If you want to say that Jesus’ hermeneutics were inferior, then you’re really condemning the culture Jesus was born into. Who are we to be chauvinists in respect to this ancient hermeneutic?

      We are people with the benefit of a wealth of information and writings at our fingertips, which allows us to identify the historical correlations and literary parallels from an objective standpoint, distanced from the biases of an emotionally invested interpretative hope and with the distinct ability to see what actually happened next. Call me a chauvinist, but I think this big picture perspective truly is advantaged over somebody living 200 years after the text was composed, having extremely limited resources, influenced by a narrow interpretive context and trying to predict what will happen in the near future.

      • Hey Travis,
        Sorry, I did not mean to imply that your methodology is incoherent or in any way inferior. By using probabilistic judgments to consider many possibilities, I think you have a good and honest approach! It’s refreshing to engage someone like you when I consider the other conversations I tend to have. When I had said that it amazes me that people can sort of buy into resurrection arguments and still reject it, it was mainly a comment on the amazing capacity of humans to construct worldviews.

        You said: “For example, you hint at something interesting when you say that Jesus didn’t come to ‘dispel the notion of supernatural demons’. Does this mean that you reject demonic possession? If so, how do you interpret the gospel accounts in this regard?”

        This is certainly a good topic for illustrating approaches to some of the problems with Christianity.

        I have a strong science background and was an agnostic/atheist for several years. During this time I had basically ruled out ideas of supernature by application of Occam’s Razor. Nothing seems to require a supernature for an explanation and I could find no persuasive testimony for one, therefore why should I believe in one? With this I flushed out the idea of Satan, demons, ghosts, angels, etc. Fast forward to now, I am inclined to continue rejecting the supernatural for even more reasons. Two of them are 1) This category is not in scripture, and 2) some technical definitions of supernatural end up including scientific theories such as Big Bang and abiogenesis. I think most people do not want ghosts and abiogenesis to mingle like this.

        Regardless, it’s clear that Jesus referred to demons and Satan in the Gospels. Just reading how demons were diagnosed in the Gospels, it seems that they were an ancient explanation for what we consider neuropsychiatric illness with organic causes. But, this raises the interesting question, why did Jesus not correct the ancient explanation? Maybe he did not know. Maybe we are wrong. Or, maybe Jesus knew and did not care to contest this ancient understanding. One thing interesting about the bible its natural philosophy (or science) is never more advanced than contemporary cultures. It seems that God does not care to reveal how nature works, he knows we can figure this out on our own. What is revealed in scripture has more to do with theology.

        Demons are relatively easy to deal with in comparison to angels and Satan. At this time I think angels might be an interpretation of certain natural but providential occurrences. They could also be literary devices. Satan is the hardest to deal with. Many modern theologians such as CS Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and Greg Boyd use Satan to explain natural evil. This seems to soften the blow of the problem of evil (a whole other topic. . .). But, again Satan as an explanation of natural evil may not be an existent free and rational agent that causes havoc, rather just an ancient explanation of natural evil and a personification of temptation.

        Sorry I can’t keep from this tangent because I’m rereading Job at the moment and it’s more brilliant than I ever imagined. What’s interesting about the “definitive book on innocent suffering” is that it sort of gives an explanation by saying that Satan is the one doing all the harm, but then it ultimately seems to say (and I haven’t gotten there on my reread) that humans are incapable of understanding the reason God permits evil and suffering and that it’s foolish to think we can bring God down and put him on trial as if he were a human (i.e., it’s foolish to construct a problem of evil for the Creator of the moral fabric). So, should Satan really end up as a necessary component of the ultimate explanation? I don’t know. . .

        Tangent over. I think I’ve gone overboard already just to say that with Occam’s Razor we can rule out some of these things and retain the Christian message. It doesn’t matter if Jesus was casting out demons or curing mental illness or that Satan is a literal being or a personification of temptation.

        You said: “Call me chauvinist, but I think this big picture perspective truly is advantaged over somebody living 200 years after the text was composed, having extremely limited resources, influenced by a narrow interpretive context and trying to predict what will happen in the near future.”
        Sorry about my use of a pejorative word, I don’t think you are a chauvinist! I really do agree with you on this. I guess what I would want to say is that we should take this informational advantage into account. I think it’s harder to say Jesus was wrong for using the text as he did when we are cognizant of our informational advantage. If Jesus came into the world for the first time in the modern era I would expect his prophecy of eschaton and judgment would be in different words but retain the same meaning. But we simply cannot disentangle Jesus from the first century or Judaism.

    • Hi Brandon,
      I appreciate your general approach and how you seem to prefer letting reason and common sense overrule some of the doctrinal heritage of Christianity. Over time I had definitely drifted to a more liberal brand of Christianity but eventually I realized that I was just manipulating doctrine into what I wanted it to be rather than what it probably was meant to be. I can’t seem to escape the conclusion that the best explanation for all of the content that informs a Christian worldview is 100% human. Adopting a more traditional conclusion makes me feel like I’m just making excuses and twisting and contorting the data so that it fits the rest of my worldview. It feels dishonest.

      Given your journey I suspect you understand what I’m saying, but you’ve also settled (for the time being) on a worldview that lives with this tension. If you accept that the Christian source data is sometimes wrong about “how the world works”, what makes you think it’s right about “who God is” – particularly where you don’t have corroborating evidence from elsewhere? Why believe that “what is revealed in scripture has more to do with theology?” Why don’t the problems with the testimony on the empirical world count against its viability as the primary source on the spiritual world?

      • Hey Travis, you said: “I can’t seem to escape the conclusion that the best explanation for all of the content that informs a Christian worldview is 100% human. Adopting a more traditional conclusion makes me feel like I’m just making excuses and twisting and contorting the data so that it fits the rest of my worldview.”
        It must have been a journey full of surprises and letdowns, a difficult journey. I admire your intellectual honesty especially since it seems that you tried to hold onto faith but could not.

        You asked: “If you accept that the Christian source data is sometimes wrong about ‘how the world works’, what makes you think it’s right about ‘who God is’ – particularly where you don’t have corroborating evidence from elsewhere?”
        Just a fantastic question, Travis! I had to really think about it. . .

        The human condition is that we came onto the scene several hundred thousand years ago with basically no knowledge, then developed language and belief systems. We have a remarkable freedom to develop and construct beliefs that are true or false precisely because of our limited knowledge, especially of the remote past and future, and our freedom and tendency to hypothesize.

        Given this aspect of the human condition, how should God communicate? I think God values effective communication. God gave the ancient Hebrews living in a world of myths precisely that – a myth that accurately described particular aspects of the creation and the Creator. And, God, through Jesus, went along with the demon explanation, but also taught of the Kingdom of Heaven.

        Why are these examples of effective communication? Because God spoke to the ancients in ways they could understand. If God had given the ancient Hebrews a scientific narrative about the Big Bang and biological evolution, this would be incredibly difficult to swallow. If Jesus had challenged the demon explanation, it would put in jeopardy the message of the Kingdom of Heaven because it would require more intense communication and a radical divergence from first century views of reality.

        Now we are at a point in history in which our informational advantage is becoming extreme. The printing press, the Scientific Revolution, and now the internet among other advancements have afforded this. We have two basic options:
        (1) The explanation for this “selective communication” is that it does not represent any sort of divine inspiration, rather an invention of the human imagination. Any sort of Creator would have done it differently, dropping earth-shattering knowledge bombs to verify the message, for example.
        (2) The explanation for this “selective communication” is actually a divine signal emerging though the noise of an ancient worldview. The Creator was intentional, even knowing that an informational advantage would eventually develop, but it’s precisely the informational advantage that allows us to discern how the Creator tends to communicate selectively, how the signal emerges though the background noise.

        There’s another reason for not correcting certain human misconceptions. God values us putting our trust in him, things we call faith and hope. This means only certain evidence can be available and highly verifiable evidence would compromise our ability to develop faith and hope. This raises a mind-boggling question: why would the Creator value faith and hope? It seems to create a reality in which we “have no need for the God hypothesis” and with an astonishing freedom to construct belief systems as evidenced, somewhat ironically, by the range of Christian denominations. I honestly don’t have a very good answer for why God values faith and hope. . . I can interpret this reality by agnosticism because it’s a sort of low risk intellectual default. I can interpret this reality by deism because it is possible that scripture is entirely out of the human imagination in such a way that it is not at all reality-directed. Or, I can interpret this reality by Christian theism because it is possible that scripture is divinely inspired in such a way that it contains a signal from God. And, at this point the last option is what I am compelled to believe, often in a mysterious way, but with its foundation on considering the testimony about Jesus in the New Testament.

    • Hi Brandon,
      I really do appreciate that you recognize an intellectual honesty in my journey. That’s pretty important to me. It has been a difficult and interesting journey and it’s far from over.

      I understand the idea of God communicating within the cultural framework, but it isn’t clear to me from your explanation why you think there is a signal in the noise. All other communication throughout the course of history appears to be thoroughly human. What is it about the Judeo-Christian tradition that makes you think that there actually is a divine signal buried in the noise?

      This explanation also bothers me because it says that God favored a particular time and place to reveal himself but keeps a distance from everybody else. It’s a bit like a father who continues to speak baby-talk to his kids well into their teenage years even though he is completely capable of doing otherwise and knows that they will have a better relationship if he would just speak to them on their level.

      God values us putting our trust in him, things we call faith and hope. This means only certain evidence can be available and highly verifiable evidence would compromise our ability to develop faith and hope.

      Just yesterday I updated my Where I Am page to add “divine hiddenness” to the cons side. This explanation where God keeps his distance because he values faith just feels like another excuse for his apparent absence. As above, that kind of behavior does not correspond with the way our other relationships flourish. This is particularly unsatisfactory for people like myself who have begged God to reveal himself as their faith crumbled and have received nothing but silence in return.

      I can interpret this reality by agnosticism because it’s a sort of low risk intellectual default

      I don’t choose this because it’s low risk. I arrive at this because it is the honest response to questions for which I have yet to find sufficient reasons and evidence to accept a particular answer. It also seems to be the appropriate starting point for making attempts to answer those questions. Defaulting to something other than agnosticism introduces an unjustified bias from the start.

      • Travis, I see a lot of similarities between our journey except I hated Christianity, whereas you seem to be more sober about your consideration. That’s a good thing. I have so much respect for your position. People like you and Howie are who I really love talking to.

        I would definitely agree with you that the typical explanations for divine hiddenness are unsatisfactory. Such as God is hidden so we can freely love him. Can I not freely love or hate someone I can see and talk to? The truth is we simply have no answer and not even a satisfactory idea IMHO.

        You asked: “What is it about the Judeo-Christian tradition that makes you think that there actually is a divine signal buried in the noise?”
        For one, it teaches creation ex nihilo which is consistent with the Big Bang. It’s fascinating because a powerful creator deity could easily remove all hints of evidence of the creation event, so if this deity exists, this evidence was placed intentionally, perhaps as a beacon that points towards the deity’s power. The Big Bang is a place where the God hypothesis is resistant to Occam’s Razor which means even our modern ideas of naturalism are being challenged here. And, what’s more is that with Dark Energy it seems that the universe is on a sure course to eternal nothingness. This universe is a onetime deal, consistent with the God of the scripture.

        Then, in the Judeo-Christian tradition God is concerned with our behavior which it says flows from our heart (i.e., our mind). Yet, we find ourselves captive to selfish and corrupt desires. Also, throughout history cultures have been trying to find a way to make themselves right with gods or the universe, we have been performing religious rituals, sacrifices, and meditating/praying to reach a rightful status, a justified status, being at one with the higher or the universe or something. Naturalism says the former is solved by adherence to the principles of humanism and the latter is merely primitive psychology. But, I find myself captivated to cynicism even if I think humanism is good in theory. I do not have the power to submit to its principles. As for the latter, if this is primitive psychology, it is present within me very strongly. Why should I suppress this? Should I dig myself into a pit of meaninglessness and nihilism any further than I am forced by the darkness? Is there not something real about these considerations that are universal across cultures?

        If one do not supply meaning, then the world will devour him or her, and they might not survive the dark night and end up on a cold metal table in a morgue. Either that or one can ignore it, and insert and immerse oneself into a consumerist superficial culture that lives ultimately to maximize their own pleasure while ignoring the problems and the absurdity of the human condition. What if one finds oneself capable of submitting to humanism and this is one’s meaning? Then, does this person wear the badge of humanism to feel morally superior to those who cannot submit themselves? Is he or she ultimately responsible for being able to submit, or does it come from their genetic predispositions and circumstances? I do not judge any of these without applying equal judgment to myself. I tried to assign meaning by seeking high-minded ambitions and I could not shake off this profound cynicism. I wanted to be recognized for my achievements, this is what made my life worth living and I would sacrifice almost anything including time with my family to get there.

        The good news, euangelion, of Jesus is that one’s life really does matter. How one treats the earth, animals, children, people, society, yes it all matters very much. God has entrusted us with caring for these, and God has left a signal in the world, a sign of his power, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ which means that Dark Energy does not have the final say! We are unable to understand the character of God but through Christ we know that he loved the world so much that he would provide a sacrifice that will be the place of mercy, hilasterion, that we have a means of properly approaching God to request for forgiveness and mercy. This is the depth of God’s love, that he cared so much for our conscience and our ability to overcome the darkness that he was willing to be mocked and tortured to death to provide us this blessing. What utter humility is in the cross, that the Creator of existence would suffer it, is beyond me. God is not just love, but also humility. And, this is refreshing considering how selfishness can be lauded as a virtue in individualist cultures.

        I just realized something, literally just now. The reason God values faith is because it transforms us. That’s why Jesus came to give us something to have faith in, so that we may be transformed to join God’s purpose of redeeming the creation while we hope for the new creation. We live as if new creation is here already. If you’ve reached rock bottom or you’ve achieved your dreams and found them to be less satisfying than imagined, there is hope for transformation though faith in God.

        Anyway I could go on and on for hours about euangelion but just to summarize why I think there is a divine signal in the Judeo-Christian tradition is because I find the universe and my own heart to be consistent with this. It is not just the consistency though, it is also that I am compelled to believe it deep from within. And, I have analyzed this to the nth degree trying to deconstruct it into something irrational that should be jettisoned. But, I cannot! It evades the entire category of rationality even though something about the world, evidence, was an essential lens to this point.

        There’s also a dream I had. . . maybe I should tell you sometime, Travis, but until then I’ve already said too much as usual. 🙂 Can’t help it, my friend!

    • Hey Brandon,
      Well said. That was bordering on poetry at times. Overall it was a very informative comment in elucidating your perspective. I’m not surprised to see that there is an experiential and emotional aspect at the core. I am finding more and more that the Christians who have done the research and who can appreciate a naturalist perspective seem to have some kind of experience that helps tip the scales. Makes me think that if the Christian worldview is true then either I’m not wanted or it just isn’t my time yet.

      As to your divine signals, I’m not sure whether the Bible teaches creation ex nihilo nor whether the big bang starts with “nothing”. That’s ongoing research for me, so I have little more to say at this time.

      The second signal roughly equates to the argument from desire, correct? Do you think that naturalism cannot account for this at all or do you just think that the best explanation is that there actually is something out there to strive for? I touched on this a bit in this post, suggesting that it is not difficult to understand the psychology of wanting there to be a plan behind the chaos. I think a naturalist would say that this originates in our desire for control (which is a reasonably adaptive desire – many animals will chew off their own leg when caught in a trap) combined with the recognition that we are often at the mercy of forces outside our control.

      Sounds like you went through some fairly difficult times looking for meaning after losing your faith. I had some of this but it wasn’t very intense and didn’t last long. I think I fared better than most. Ultimately I think I just realized that if I was honest I had already spent 99.9% of my life not focused on ultimate meaning and instead just living in the moment, which meant that very little would change in that regard. Conversely, the fact that this may in fact be my only life has inspired me to put more thought into how I spend my time. This has pushed me toward a lifestyle that is the opposite of the consumerist superficial culture you mentioned. For example, I’ve become a fan of the lifestyle choices endorsed by Mr. Money Mustache. We’re moving in a couple weeks so that I can gain about an hour a day back from my commute to spend with my family instead.

      Perhaps another thing that kept me from slipping into nihilism is that I couldn’t justify why I should feel nihilistic. What exactly is it about fulfilling an ultimate meaning that is better than fulfilling our subjective meaning? I’m not sure, but one of these seems difficult to grasp while the other seems entirely obtainable.

      • Hey Travis,
        Thanks for your kind words. Also, congratulations on getting to move closer to family. I feel you on that because I commute about 2-2.5 hours a day! I just finished writing this response after sitting down thinking, “Oh I’ll respond to Travis, just a short little something” and all this came out! I’m just longwinded I guess.

        You said: “Makes me think that if the Christian worldview is true then either I’m not wanted or it just isn’t my time yet.”
        From my perspective it must be the latter. Maybe 3 weeks ago I had this dream that the world knew something horrible was on its way. The world was coming to an end and there was an air of anxiety. There were two speakers on the world stage, transmitted to every TV and all over the internet. The first speaker gave an elaborate speech that we should accept our fate, it’s all over and there is no God. The second speaker said we should never have trusted in something that does not exist. There is no God. As the hour drew closer, I walked into an empty church and saw some weird things that did not make sense which I’ll omit. Next, I saw a scroll open up and knew what it was. It was a covenant between us and God. I said, “From the God of the Covenant” and knew that it stated whoever trusts in God will be vindicated. Then, the scroll was stamped with fire and smoke. . . And, I woke up sweating.

        The weird part is that the idea of covenant is incredibly peripheral to my theology. This is not what I would expect to dream about. You’re the third person to know about this dream besides me and my wife. I’m sure if the wider atheist community knew about it, I would never hear the end of it. They say I am deluded, indoctrinated, dishonest, manipulative, a “dickhead”, and an idiot.

        You said: “The second signal roughly equates to the argument from desire, correct? Do you think that naturalism cannot account for this at all or do you just think that the best explanation is that there actually is something out there to strive for?”
        To answer this honestly, I would say. . . well, when I said that I think Christianity is consistent with my heart I mean in the ways it describes my relationship with good and evil. I recognize the good but just can’t bring myself to getting on board with it quite often. Maybe the most tangible example was addiction to pornography. I hated this and knew it was detrimental to me and my marriage, but I was stuck. I wouldn’t say that Christianity is therapy for addiction. But, I think having faith is transformative because it puts things in a new perspective and by virtue of this empowers change. So, in that sense Christianity describes my heart.

        And, I definitely wanted Christianity or something like it to be true before I reconverted. I will not pretend that desire is perfectly separable from intellectual pursuit. I think desire is integrated into much of our worldview, more than rationalists would like to admit. But, the problem is that desire is not necessarily reality-directed. If I want to be rich, that does not change the fact that I am not rich. If I want to be related to someone famous that does not change the fact that I am not.

        However, there is one situation in which desire could be reality-directed. This idea is from Alvin Plantinga. A powerful Creator could introduce desire in order to cultivate belief. This does not have to happen magically, but through the way the world is designed or through evolution or other natural means. This reasoning argues against Freud who said that theism was ultimately due to yearning for a father figure and also evolutionary psychology which says that theism is an accident of evolution.

        You said: “Perhaps another thing that kept me from slipping into nihilism is that I couldn’t justify why I should feel nihilistic.”
        Your response to the threat of nihilism is impressive. And, I’m looking into MMM now. 🙂 I suppose someone trying to rationally argue for nihilism won’t get many converts. When I get the nihilist feeling, it does not seem like a rational thing at all. Of course, I could say, “You are going to die and humanity will become extinct and the universe will become a dark desolate place, so why have hope or meaning?” But, it’s not the argument that causes the nihilistic feeling, it’s something else. It’s like when dark thoughts meet negative emotions and spiral into something terrible.

    • Brandon,
      I saw the title of the most recent post on your site and was reminded of your comment about a dream you had. I thought maybe you would describe it there but I can understand why you might not want to put it out there for scrutiny. I’m honored that you felt comfortable enough to share it here.

      The weird part is that the idea of covenant is incredibly peripheral to my theology.

      I assume this dream has had an impact in part because you think that it might be in some sense from God. Is the “weird part” about covenant theology the primary reason for considering that this may be divine? I’ve had dreams that featured people who were acquaintances 20 years ago and with whom I hadn’t interacted since. It seems that the content of our dreams can be quite unpredictable. I think a dream would be most impactful if I could identify something in it which was previously completely foreign to me – that was in no way possibly assembled from prior experience and was then found to correspond to something in reality. Does this dream have anything like that?

      A powerful Creator could introduce desire in order to cultivate belief.

      That is certainly possible but it is unfortunate that he would do it in such a way that we can just as easily attribute it to an unguided process.

      But, it’s not the argument that causes the nihilistic feeling, it’s something else. It’s like when dark thoughts meet negative emotions and spiral into something terrible.

      You are perhaps the textbook case for William James’ Will to Believe argument. I hope you don’t talk yourself out of belief again if this is what the world looks like without it. I honestly can’t relate to this kind of perspective. I’ve often wondered whether our temperament ultimately plays the most significant role in our religious belief (I touched on this a bit here). If you haven’t found it already, I recommend the Unapologetics blog (and in particular the post I linked to). I’ve contemplated what it would mean to accept Christianity on purely pragmatic terms but I can’t bring myself to do it. I don’t see how belief is a choice and I cannot tolerate pretending to believe something.

    • Thanks. I’m curious, however, what exactly it is that you’re agreeing to when your blog’s about page says that you acknowledge Jesus as your savior?

      • I mean I agree with your “profound respect for the beauty of humanity that can be found in the Bible.” The psychology that allows us Christians to allow our very lives to rest on one text is exceedingly unfathomable. Yes, the Bible and Christian faith are ways for mankind to have peace and hope in a world of chaos. But as you obviously understand, what is that peace and hope if it’s not true? Your search for truth is not uncommon, and even Christians struggle with doubt – is there really some elusive God up in the sky, when science can seemingly explain him away?
        There are answers to these doubts. Science and God can live in harmony (I believe in macroevolution along with God’s creation of the world). The beauty and serenity that comes from knowing in the deepest part of your being that God created an “ideal man” in Jesus and sent him to gruesomely die on a cross, somehow reconciling humanity to his perfection, is absolutely astounding. That feeling is something I would not want to give up just because God seems unprovable by earthly standards.
        I want to explain why I say “I agree completely.” Naturalism has always somehow seemed very rational to me. Instead of just ignoring the beliefs of others, I deeply yearn to understand what others believe. As Paul says, “To those not having law I became like one not having law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law…I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save someone. I do all this for the sake of sharing the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” Christianity is not just a delusional religion trying to share its false peace with others, but it is a deep rooted transformation that causes humans to love others at all costs. Paul, as one of the greatest disciples of Christ, constantly changed his mindset in order to understand and share the blessing of the gospel with others. This change of mindset did not cause him to loose faith, essentially because (now I assert that) his faith was not merely psychological, but he intrinsically accepted the existence of God as absolute truth. This acceptance urged him to preach the gospel even if it meant risking his life.
        I admire that you actually sought an explanation for the widespread worldview of Christianity. I also respect your current worldview. I know you want to see the peace of Christianity as a truth, so I implore you to deeply consider that it is truth. At this point, no amount of evidence or logic could detract me from knowing that there is something beyond earthly life, something beyond death, and a purpose for humans during this life (to act as Christ acted, awaiting his return). I am not trying to be narrow minded or unaccepting of other views, but I am just trying to stress the point that Christian faith is different that other religions and beliefs in the sense that for ages, Christians have been filled with a knowledge of absolute truth that is comforting and joyous beyond anything else known to humanity.
        I’m so sorry for the length, but I just wanted to explain myself. Feel free to respond or email me with any questions.

  2. Hi Travis,

    I think there’s some truth in what you say here, and perhaps an unjustified assumption too.

    Most critical/secular historical scholars believe Jesus existed and we can know lots about him, and I would think most think that Jesus could be viewed as an apocalyptic prophet, miracle-worker and teacher. That more or less fits in with what you say.

    Then they ask how did he go from being a prophet/teacher to being viewed by his followers as the son of God? Some say he was known by his followers in his lifetime as son of God, some say they started to see him as divine within a few years of his death and apparent resurrection, and some say it took decades to get to that belief.

    The middle of those views seems to becoming the most common among historical scholars – e.g. Larry Hurtado, one of the recognised experts in this area, and recently Bart Ehrman. So how did good Jewish boys come to believe in something that would once have been blasphemous to them?

    Hurtado says it was visionary experiences of Jesus. Ehrman also believes the disciples had visionary experiences of Jesus, as does Maurice Casey, Gerd Ludemann and others. These latter 3 are not christians and I’m not sure whether they think these visions led to belief in Jesus as son of God, but there is some commonality there.

    So there seem to be two views that are most justified by the scholars – (1) that Jesus saw himself as a prophet, perhaps the Messiah, he was mistaken, but the disciples had some sort of psychologically induced visionary experiences that led to them believing he was resurrected and son of God, or (2) he really was son of God, he really was resurrected, and his followers saw him and realised he was son of God.

    I think (2) explains everything better, including the rise of christianity, the millions of apparent healing miracles reported today, etc. And that is all based not on the Bible being “written by God” but purely on what secular scholars believe are the historical facts. Nothing from the christian bubble at all!

    So that is where I suggest the unjustified assumption comes in. You reject the Bible as handed down from God, but you seem to jump to the assumption that that means it can’t be telling historical truth about Jesus. As we can see, it very well might be telling the historical truth sufficient to believe.

    Thanks.

    • Thanks Eric.

      You reject the Bible as handed down from God, but you seem to jump to the assumption that that means it can’t be telling historical truth about Jesus. As we can see, it very well might be telling the historical truth sufficient to believe.

      I will suggest that a more appropriate characterization of this view would be “if we reject the Bible’s content as having been directed by God to present truth then this significantly raises the probability that its representation of Jesus is in some way inaccurate due to the subjective distortions of its authors (whether deliberate or not). The portion of my experience of how the world works which carries the most consistent agreement with the experience of everyone else does not accord with some of the descriptions in the Bible, so it is reasonable for me to suspect that these may be products of a subjective distortion.”

      That’s a mouthful, but what I’m trying to say is that this perspective is not unjustified because the justification comes from comparing the described reality with the experienced reality and recognizing that humans sometimes distort (intentionally and unintentionally) their descriptions of reality. The ways in which we make the discrimination between true reality and distorted reality will vary from person to person and depends on many things, but it does not mean that somebody is unjustified if they suspect that a particular description more likely presents a distorted view of reality. Please also forgive the use of the word “distort”, which I know often infers deliberate deception. That was not my intent, but I couldn’t find a better word for “intentionally or unintentionally presenting a description which does not correctly match reality”.

      On a complete tangent, you mention “millions of apparent healing miracles reported today” and I’m wondering if you have a particular resource for examining this (aside from Keener’s book). I’m having trouble finding good sources that offer objective evidence.

      • Hi Trav, just two comments:

        “if we reject the Bible’s content as having been directed by God to present truth then this significantly raises the probability that its representation of Jesus is in some way inaccurate due to the subjective distortions of its authors (whether deliberate or not)”

        I think this overstates the case. It means the NT is just the same as everything else we know about – yes, “in some way inaccurate” but in many ways accurate. The historians tell us that the NT is in many ways a better basis for historical knowledge than most ancient texts because (a) there are many independent sources (not so for much history), (b) there are many, many copies of the text (making it easier to ascertain the original text – not so with most ancient texts) and (c) the originals are close to the events (much closer than most ancient texts).

        So the NT may not be inerrant, but it sure is a reasonable basis for history, which I think your comment doesn’t recognise.

        “I’m wondering if you have a particular resource for examining this (aside from Keener’s book).”

        I am constantly on the lookout for decent case studies and fair-minded examinations. I think we need to take a sampling approach. Keener estimates there are of the order of 300 million christians who claim to have observed or experienced a healing miracle, and he references hundreds of cases (I’ve never counted how many – it may be thousands). Then some people have investigated some of them in more detail, rejected some and accepted others – e.g. the Medical Commission which examines alleged miracles at Lourdes found only a small number had sufficient documentation to conclude they were miracles.

        We can conclude then, on the basis of this sample, that if we examined the 300 million claims, some would be found to be urban myths, some mistakes, some would be unclear, some would be plausible but have insufficient documentation, and a few would have sufficient documentation to judge that something very unusual happened after christian prayer. If the proportion of well-documented cases found at Lourdes was typical, there might be millions of well documented cases out there.

        Some people refuse to accept any evidence as enough, but I think most reasonable people would say this result is very challenging. I am coming to think that it may be the best evidence of all for christianity.

        I have summarised the cases I have found so far in Healing miracles and God, and you can go from there to more detailed examination of the cases. I hope that helps.

        Thanks again.

    • Eric,
      I agree that the NT offers a good basis for understanding historical events. I do not agree with those who want to throw the whole thing out simply because there are errors or inconsistencies. I’m simply noting that without the assumption of divine guidance for its content we are both free and reasonable to make judgments about historicity of various elements. These judgments will be based on our understanding of reality from our own experience, consideration for the psychological factors brought by the authors, and many other influences on the text. In extra-biblical texts this most often leads us to dismiss the accuracy of the more fantastical elements. I don’t see why the Bible should be treated any differently.

      Regarding healing miracles, I will definitely be taking a closer look at your page. Thanks for the link. I tend to agree that these could be the best evidence for Christianity. Miracles and prophecies have the potential to go beyond metaphysical claims to offer empirical evidence of things which defy a naturalistic account of the world. So far my review of prophecies has only discouraged belief, but I still have a lot to investigate regarding miracles. On that note, I would be interested in your take on one of my first posts – a demographic analysis of prayer for healing.

      Thanks for the dialog. This kind of “peer review” is exactly the reason I created this blog in the first place.

      • G’day again, thanks for the positive response. I don’t intend to go on and on, but only while I think I have something positive to say.

        “In extra-biblical texts this most often leads us to dismiss the accuracy of the more fantastical elements. I don’t see why the Bible should be treated any differently.”

        The key to my approach was treating the NT exactly the same way we treat other historical documents, which is what historians do, and then deciding what we learn from that. The “fantastical” elements can only be partially assessed historically (e.g. what people thought at the time, how strong the evidence is) but a final decision on them will depend on our philosophy and how open we are to the existence of God.

        A theist will be able to accept the possibility of the miraculous, a strong atheist will not accept it under any circumstances, but it seems to me that an open-minded semi-sceptic (which may be where you are at just now) would not eliminate the possibility of the miraculous in the life of a person like Jesus. Exactly how you decide such a question is an interesting question, but saying it’s impossible seems a little unwise at this stage.

        “So far my review of prophecies has only discouraged belief”

        I guess you’re talking about Biblical prophecies? I think OT prophecies are not primarily predictive, and I don’t think they can be used as an argument for christianity. Some prophecies are quite remarkable (Isaiah 9:1-7 for example), and some are interesting (Ezekiel’s prophecy re Tyre seems to have got it about 75% right), but others appear less successful. One problem is that things we call prophecy may have been warnings, and things we think are something else the NT sometimes uses as if they were prophecy.

        I have heard some remarkable modern day prophecies too, and also some that were crap, so I don’t think they can in general be used as proof either, though if one receives a remarkable and successful prophecy it might convince the individual.

        I’ll answer your question re healing prayer on the other post.

        Thanks again.

  3. Hi Travis

    I appreciated your analysis. One particular point you raise that I think is important in understanding the unusual nature of the Jewish religion is that they were in essence a small inconsequential people who were always being put upon by others. This seems to have led to four outcomes:
    1) to develop an origin story that made them seem more significant than they really were;
    2) to focus on the faults of their forefathers to explain why they had reached the parlous state in which they found themselves;
    3) to develop apocalyptic genre and focus where given their fairly dismal current experience they concluded that there was some glorious future awaiting them either at the end of the age or in some indeterminate future life;
    4) as a logical consequence of the first three points messianic movements started to develop which saw the Maccabean rebellion and continued hope for independence after the Romans colonized them.

    Biblical scholars focus on the ‘honesty’ in the Jewish history that they argue makes it unique and more credible. However I do wonder whether if it was the only type of history that would make sense to explain their current circumstances. The Book of Kings seems deliberately written to explain why they were a conquered people.

    • Thanks Peter. I agree on all points. While I don’t doubt that there is a factual core underlying the history we have in the Tanakh – and the redactors sometimes cite their sources – we may never know just how much Ezra and his forerunners spun those into the text that we have today. It’s a fascinating exploration that is only enhanced by acknowledging the psychological factors at play.

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