More Thoughts on Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God”

reason_for_godIn a previous blog post (here) I gave a brief overview of Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age for Skepticism. I mentioned that I would provide a more detailed look at one chapter in the book, called The Reality of the Resurrection, which is what I will do in this post.

Towards the end of this chapter Keller makes the brazen claim that:

[T]he resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact much more fully attested to than most other events of ancient history we take for granted. (219)

Wow. That is quite a bold statement, so let’s look at the rationale that Keller provides in order to back up his claim.

The author starts off the chapter with the following argument:

Most people think that, when it comes to Jesus’ resurrection, the burden of proof is on believers to give evidence that it happened. This is not completely the case. The resurrection also puts a burden of proof on its nonbelievers. It is not enough to simply believe Jesus did not rise from the dead. You must then come up with a historically feasible alternate explanation for the birth of the church. You have to provide some other plausible account for how things began. (211)

I have to admit, I was completely floored when I saw that Keller was trying to shift the burden of proof onto the nonbeliever. Does he really think that an alternative legit explanation for the resurrection and the beginnings of the church is hard to come up with? Because it really isn’t. The impetus for the belief in Jesus’ resurrection can quite simply be put down to individual hallucinations and mass psychoses. It is not uncommon for people undergoing intense grief to have visions of their dearly departed loved ones. It happens a lot. This can spread and develop into mass psychoses/hysteria. It is also possible that there were only individual hallucinations of a postmortem Jesus which over time developed into accounts of mass sightings. It simply is not hard to come up with legit explanations other than Jesus really was resurrected.

I’m not saying that those who saw a resurrected Jesus necessarily were simply suffering from grief-stricken hallucinations, but it is a completely feasible explanation. Does Keller say anything about this possibility? Not really. He dismisses it, saying:

[The hallucination hypothesis] assumes that their master’s resurrection was imaginable for his Jewish followers, that it was an option in their worldview. It was not. (216)

Elsewhere he similarly states that while skeptics argue that people of the first-century “were credulous about magical and supernatural happenings” and thus could have easily been gullible idiots who ate up a story about a resurrecting Jesus, this line of reasoning, while ostensibly sounding like a plausible argument, is flawed because “we are ignorant of the historical and cultural context” of Jesus’ time. The reasoning as to why Keller says a resurrection would not have been imaginable for Jews is that “the idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death, was inconceivable” (215).

I have to disagree. Just because the idea of God resurrecting one person ahead of time before everyone else was not already a mainstream Jewish belief, it definitely does not mean that it is “inconceivable” that the belief could have arisen amongst some Jews when faced with postmortem encounters with Jesus. If some of Jesus’ followers did merely have hallucinations of a postmortem Jesus , I don’t see how it could not have been interpreted by those followers, or by subsequent ones, as evidence that God resurrected him from the dead. I mean, if they had visions of a postmortem Jesus, they would interpret this as being indicative of the fact that God had vindicated him from his humiliating execution at the hands of the Romans. The followers who had the visions of Jesus may very well have not taken them to mean that he was physically resurrected, but it wouldn’t take a creative genius for someone down the road to take the next step and elaborate on the visions by saying that Jesus had been physically resurrected.

Another weak point in Keller’s opening argument is that he doesn’t seem to notice that his logic is going to backfire. He says that, “if you disbelieved the resurrection you then had the difficulty of explaining how the Christian church got started at all… You must then come up with a historically feasible alternate explanation for the birth of the church.” By changing a few words in this argument, one can make the same argument for other religions, such as Islam. I can just as easily say, “If you disbelieved the Mi’raj of Muhammad you then had the difficulty of explaining how the Islamic movement got started at all … You must then come up with a historically feasible alternate explanation for the birth of Islam.

Another argument of Keller’s in this chapter is that the accusation that “the empty tomb and accounts of eyewitnesses were merely fabrications” cannot be true. Why? Because:

The first accounts of the empty tomb and the eyewitnesses are not found in the gospels, but in the letters of Paul, which every historian agrees were written just fifteen to twenty years after the death of Jesus. (211-12)

After quoting 1 Corinthians 15.3-6, he goes on to say:

Here Paul not only speaks of the empty tomb and resurrection… but he also lists the eyewitnesses. Paul could not have made such a challenge if those eyewitnesses did not exist. (212)

Uhh, so apparently Paul’s letters contain “accounts” (plural) of the empty tomb, despite the fact that Paul never once mentions an empty tomb. Keller performs a nice sleight of hand on the reader by saying that 1 Cor. 15.3-6 mentions an empty tomb when all it actually says is that Jesus was buried and raised. Not quite the same thing, and though I’m sure the less meticulous reader wouldn’t notice this sleight of hand,  the actual skeptic out there is not going to be impressed. Heck, the skeptic is probably going to say that the fact that Paul never actually mentions the empty tomb is indicative that he was unaware of such a tradition!

In fact, more than a few scholars of early Christianity (e.g. Yarbro Collins, Gerd Luedemann) would say that those who had the visions of the victorious postmortem Jesus actually understood it as a spiritual resurrection (not physical), and that Paul then drew upon this tradition in 1 Corinthians 15 (which is seen in the fact that Paul does not mention an empty tomb), and that later on the author of the Gospel of Mark related this belief of a spiritually resurrected Jesus with a fictive account of an empty tomb, which then snowballed into the mainstream belief that Jesus’ resurrection was actually physical, not just spiritual.

Also, how on earth can Keller say that “every historian agrees [that Paul’s letters] were written just fifteen to twenty years after the death of Jesus”? The first letter to the Thessalonians, which is generally agreed by scholars to be the first epistle of Paul’s that we have, is typically dated to have been written at about 50 CE. The last letters of Paul found in the New Testament are thought to have been written sometime during 55-58 CE. So were Paul’s letters written “just fifteen to twenty years after Jesus’ death” (i.e. between 45-50)? No. It is agreed by New Testament scholars that they were written from about 50-58 CE, which would be twenty to thirty years after Jesus’ death.  While that wasn’t crucial to Keller’s arguments in the chapter, it is nonetheless indicative of a lack of knowledge on matters relating to early Christianity.

Another argument in Keller’s arsenal is how women are portrayed in the Gospels as the first witnesses to the resurrection. The argument runs like this: the testimony of a woman was not considered terribly reliable or used in Jewish courts, therefore it was not advantageous for the church to broadcast that women were the initial witnesses to the resurrection, as to do so would undermine the credibility of the resurrection claim. This line of argumentation then climaxes in the conclusion that the only reason women were depicted as being the initial witnesses to the resurrection would be if they really had been the first witnesses.

Regardless of what you think of this sort of argumentation (and it can be argued that this type of reasoning is simply a false dilemma), it ultimately cannot help answer the question as to whether the resurrection actually occurred, because even if women were indeed the first witnesses, it still could have been hallucinations! The strangest aspect of this section of Keller’s argument was how he followed it up. He says:

N.T. Wright argues that there must have been enormous pressure on the early proclaimers of the Christian message to remove the women from the accounts. They felt they could not do so — the records were too well known. (213)

But isn’t that exactly what the Apostle Paul did in 1 Corinthians 15?! Paul mentions a bunch of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection in 1 Cor. 15.1-10, yet completely neglects to mention women as being the initial witnesses!

This chapter abounds in strange leaps of logic. For example:

Paul’s letters show that Christians proclaimed Jesus’s bodily resurrection from the very beginning, that meant the tomb must have been empty. (214)

While I would agree that you cannot disentangle earliest Christianity from the belief that God resurrected Jesus from the dead, it takes a huge leap over a giant chasm to then say “therefore the tomb must have been empty.” Keller also says:

No one in Jerusalem would have believed the preaching for a minute if the tomb was not empty. Skeptics could have easily produced Jesus’s rotted corpse. (214)

I wonder why Keller doesn’t mention the skeptics’ reply to this, which is that Jesus’ body would have been disposed of like many other crucified corpses were. It’s been a while since I’ve read about Roman practices in regards to crucifixion, but I remember that some scholars (such as John Dominic Crossan) argue that the corpses of crucified criminals were regularly thrown into pits by the Roman soldiers, and that these pits contained lime (?) which semi-dissolved the bodies (which also explains the apparent dearth of skeletal remains of the victims of crucifixion).

You can only say what Keller is saying if you assume that the Gospels, written decades after Jesus actually died, are accurate when they say that Jesus’ body was placed in a tomb. But the skeptic would argue that the narrative about Joseph of Arimathea putting Jesus’ body into his own tomb is legendary and a secondary accretion to the story of Jesus’ execution, which maybe arose out of a need for Christians to cover up the ignominious handling of Jesus’ corpse. That is the skeptic argument as I know it, but unfortunately Keller leaves the reader in the dark about any alternative explanations.

Another stinker of an argument that Keller resorts to is this one:

Virtually all the apostles and early Christian leaders died for their faith, and it is hard to believe that this kind of powerful self-sacrifice would be done to support a hoax. (218)

Sure, maybe they would not have sacrificed themselves to support their own deliberate hoax, but they would surely have done so if they had seen hallucinations and mistaken them for the real thing. Geez, people are more than willing to sacrifice themselves for religious reasons. Some extremist Muslims are more than happy to sacrifice themselves for the cause of Allah. Buddhist monks immolate themselves. And so forth. This type of argumentation from Keller simply has no bearing regarding the question of whether Jesus really was resurrected from the dead.

In a nutshell, as is typical throughout this book, Keller refuses to interact with actual skeptic argumentation. He just winds up reiterating the same arguments, saying that the skeptic “must face and answer” questions such as “why did Christianity emerge so rapidly, with such power?” (219) I wonder how he would explain the rapid emergence of Islam. Does the fact that Islam grew from a handful of believers to one and a half billion in such a a short time prove that Islam is from God? Using Keller’s logic, then yes it does.

On a final note, I don’t think one should be surprised that this chapter is impotent in its discussion of the resurrection of Jesus. After all, out of the ten footnotes that this chapter contains, nine of them were references to works by N.T. Wright! I am a fan of Wright’s writings, but this chapter definitely would have benefited if the author had attempted to provide a fair and balanced discussion of the resurrection and pointed the inquiring reader to other people besides the conservative Christian scholar N.T. Wright.

In summary, all you get in this chapter is under-informed discussion that has the sole purpose of assuaging the doubts of Christians who are only looking to have their Christian beliefs reaffirmed. It is not aimed at skeptics or their arguments.

3 responses

  1. I think you were still kinder than you needed to be. For example, take Keller’s quote about the apostles dying for their faith. Really, we know how the apostles died? We have no historical evidence how these people died, or even how many of them actually existed. The “evidence” of their deaths pretty much all comes from extremely dubious apocryphal writings full of other content most apologists would reject.

    And though he says “Paul’s letters show that Christians proclaimed Jesus’s bodily resurrection from the very beginning,” I see Paul emphasizing a spiritual resurrection and rejecting a bodily one in his letters.

    As for dating Paul’s letters — that’s all pretty circular based on when he died, which we have no historical data about. All we have is vague church traditions and Eusebius (hardly a reliable historian) writing centuries later. Heck, I Thessalonians has a clear reference to the fall of Jerusalem, either in 70 or 135 CE. (The Bar Kochba revolt appears to suit some NT references as well or better than Titus’ earlier sacking of Jerusalem.)

    • I think you were still kinder than you needed to be.

      Heh! I was actually trying to soften my language down a little bit! Sometimes I feel like a curmudgeon criticizing the faith that I am a part of. But I just had to criticize this book. It actually kind of embarrasses me that this tripe is regarded as the pinnacle of Christian apologetics. I guess that is why I dislike apologetics.

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