Explaining Easter Away
Christianity stands or falls with the Empty Tomb. If an archeologist could take us to the skeletal remains of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, we might as well close the doors of Christ Covenant, disband the Church, and go home. There would be nothing left of our Faith worth believing. It behooves us to ask, therefore: Can we know for sure that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day? In our blogs over the next few weeks, I hope to interact with this question.
One of the most formidable opponents of the orthodox understanding of Easter is a scholar from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill called Bart Ehrman. He has made a small fortune writing books claiming to dismantle the central claims of the Christian Faith: the inerrancy of Scripture, the Divinity of Christ, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning? The question is, of course, do his arguments hold water?
At first glance, for the uninitiated, Ehrman’s writings are certainly impressive. He is a learned scholar and a gifted communicator, a master at highlighting apparent inconsistencies in the gospel accounts, presenting suppositions dressed up as facts, and preaching the “all the best critical experts know what your pastor hasn’t the guts to tell you” liberalism—all in an effort, it seems, to browbeat the average layman into submission.
The best advice I have for those planning a venture into Ehrman’s writing (and that would definitely not be something I would recommend for the immature Christian) is: Don’t take his word for granted about anything! Look to see if he lists any concrete evidence to back up his assertions. Read men like Ehrman with the mindset of a Trey Gowdy, the famous Federal Prosecutor turned US Representative for South Carolina, the Pit Bull of Congress—The Trey Gowdys of the world aren’t easy to bully; they aren’t the kind of men you tell what to believe.
So, when you hear Ehrman solve the problem of the Empty Tomb by saying things like: ‘There was no empty tomb, because there was no tomb; Jesus probably wasn’t even was buried at all. In all likelihood he was thrown into a common grave to decompose alongside the rest of the crucified felons.’ At one point in How Jesus Became God, Ehrman even suggests (with John Dominic Crossan) that the body of Jesus was possibly even eaten by dogs. No doubt, this rather nicely solves the problem of the empty tomb and the absent corpse. But what evidence does Ehrman produce to back up the rather wild assertion that this particular fate happened to this particular man? Yes, you guessed it, NONE! Essentially his argument goes something like this: it often happened to others, it could have happened to Jesus, so it probably did! He makes this kind of move all the time.
Another line of questioning for a Gowdy-type interrogator to pursue: Do all the scholars agree with the “critical” experts? What about Evangelical scholars like Reformed Theological Seminary’s Michael Kruger (See his blog here, some of his messages here, and a list of short videos by Kruger and other evangelical scholars interacting with Ehrman’s material here)? Why aren’t evangelical scholars part of the “everybody knows the Resurrection is isn’t what really happened” club? I imagine Ehrman would answer this question by saying, something like “While these men are certainly intelligent, don’t get me wrong, I would have to say the objectivity of their scholarship is hampered, and perhaps even undermined by religious dogma. Faith and science just don’t belong together.”
This is where a Gowdy-type prosecutor would go in for the kill: “Can you explain precisely how the traditional understanding of the resurrection is unscientific?”
“Well, I mean,” Ehrman might joke, “everybody knows that when people die they stay dead.”
In my minds eye, I see Gowdy continue with one of his signature, and ever more withering stares, “Yes, but isn’t that precisely the issue at stake. I don’t think there is an evangelical scholar alive who would dispute what you said about ordinary men. But isn’t the whole point of Christianity that Jesus Christ wasn’t just an ordinary man. He was also the Son of God?” “Tell me again, how Science has any tools to challenge that assertion?”
At the end of the hearing, I imagine Gowdy’s summation: “So, when all is said and done, Mr. Ehrman, the central, underlying claim in all your books is that because you confidently assume miracles can’t happen, therefore you conclude with even more confidence that the resurrection didn’t happen. By this logical hey presto, any alternative, naturalistic explanation you care to invent automatically holds more water when it comes to explaining what probably might have, could have, or should have happened in Jerusalem all those years ago.”
If he was willing to be honest, Ehrman would have to admit that an anti-supernaturalistic prejudice lies behind almost every line in his books. His foundational premise appears to be: history must be studied from the perspective of naturalistic materialism—We have no right to assume a kind of “God of the gaps” miracle to explain what we don’t know. That’s too convenient; we need to think harder—he makes this kind of argument repeatedly.
The key point to take home here is that such thinking has everything to do with philosophy and nothing to do with science. The real question for Ehrman to answer: Given the sense of the Divine God has placed in every human heart, what we know about the majesty of the cosmos (and its inbuilt witness to the Creator—Psalm 19:1ff), and the intricacies of life on earth (John 1:4), do we have any right to study the universe and its history without beginning with God and factoring in the supernatural?
The Scripture tells us only a fool would take such a step (Psalm 14:1ff). God has not left this option open to us. No one has a right to deny the undeniable (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:18ff). Beginning your study of anything from an atheistical perspective is the spiritual equivalent of deliberate dementia—forgetting what God says everyone knows.
While much so called science today begins with Descarte's famous dictum, “I think therefore I am.” Right reason under God begins in exactly the opposite place with the Creator’s voice: “I am therefore you think!” This is a much safer assumption with which to begin our study of history. There really can be no logic (and certainly no certainty) without it.