[UPDATE in the middle of the post…]
Today is Easter, the greatest holiday (holy day) in the Christian year. When I was a little kid, I used to think that was nuts–everybody knows Christmas is the best holiday! And then even when I got older, I didn’t understand why they called it “Good Friday,” since it seemed pretty awful.
Of course, the reason this day is so special, is that it marks Jesus’ triumph over death. It is the fulfillment of various prophecies, including Jesus’ own predictions about His fate. I love the story (and I use that term in a neutral sense–non-believers can at least appreciate it on its literary and symbolic merits) for many reasons, but one of them is that it shows the impotence of physical might. Here’s a Man walking around preaching the truth, and the authorities are threatened by Him. So they ultimately torture and murder Him. But so what? That doesn’t stop Him or His message. The truth is stronger than their clubs and nails.
In this post I want to make two claims:
CLAIM #1: Jesus’ resurrection is the most plausible explanation of the evidence we have.
In previous posts I have argued that it just doesn’t make sense to me that the followers of Jesus would know full well that He didn’t come back from the grave, and yet would tell people that He did, even though this lying would result in their own deaths (for some of them).
Scoffers thought this was a silly argument. After all, don’t we have countless examples of people being willing to die for causes in which we don’t believe? For example, what about the infamous Kool-Aid drinkers?
Yes, we do have such examples, but my argument wasn’t: “People were willing to die for Christianity, therefore it must be right.”
Rather, I was saying that I didn’t find it plausible that people would be willing to die for something that they knew was false. So if Jesus said He was going to be killed but then come back from the dead, and it turned out that His followers just stole and hid the body, then those followers would know he wasn’t God after all.
So I grant that people are willing to die for things I don’t believe in, and I grant that people are willing to defend things that deep down they know aren’t true (especially when doing so is advantageous to them), but I don’t think people are so eager to die for things that they don’t believe in.
As a final point on this, surely we can all agree that H.L. Mencken was no sucker when it came to organized religion. When I was an atheist, I eagerly read Mencken’s Treatise on the Gods, and I have to say I was underwhelmed. For one thing, Mencken conceded that the various books attempting to “blow up” (his phrase) Christianity had failed. (I resolved that I would do a better job in my own such book.) But what surprised me even more, was that Mencken himself thought the best explanation for the spread of Christianity was that this guy Jesus just so happened to have predicted his own resurrection…and holy cow it came true! This was consistent with Mencken’s explanation for medicine men and other shamans in earlier times. Mencken conjectured, for example, that if the floodwaters were rising, and some guy did a dance and the floodwaters receded, that people would think he did it, and then ascribe all sorts of authority to him.
Thus, by the same token, Mencken conjectured that this guy Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection, and by some fluke it actually happened. [UPDATE: See the comments below. Actually it’s more accurate to say that Mencken thinks Jesus was nailed to a cross, everybody thought he was dead, he was put in a sepulchre, and then he woke up and believed he had just fulfilled the prophecies. Because of that amazing occurrence,] that’s why we know about him today.
(NOTE: I read Mencken’s book many years ago, and it’s possible I am mischaracterizing his views. I’ve skimmed his discussion of the New Testament but can’t find the spot I have in mind, where I believe he says that he thinks Jesus really did come back from the dead.)
CLAIM #2: If you don’t think you need a divine savior, then something is wrong with you.
In the comments of previous posts, we got into the familiar argument over how a loving God could demand loyalty from all of us, at the threat of eternal hellfire. My response was that I think really what is going on, is that God says to us, “It’s totally up to you. I give you the choice to be with me forever in paradise, or you can reject My offer. Your actions towards others are important, but they don’t trump this crucial decision.”
So heaven is spending eternity in the direct presence of God Himself, whereas hell is spending eternity in the absence of God, knowing that you “chose poorly.”
The follow-up to my answer was a different argument, now saying, “That’s not fair. So a murderer gets to go to heaven, while a really nice agnostic goes to hell?”
So I have two things to say to this. First, note that it is indeed a different argument. At first, people were mad that God was too judgmental, but now they’re mad that He’s not judgmental enough. Supposing for the sake of argument that God exists, what is He supposed to do? If He creates us so that we exist as well, then that leaves the options of (a) Him being with us or (b) Him being separate from us, or (c) Him ending our existence. In my understanding, God is basically telling us that we don’t get to choose (c), but we do get to choose (a) or (b). That strikes me as both kind and very fair–true, we don’t get to choose not existing, but other than that, it’s up to us.
The second thing I want to say is that I disagree strongly that an agnostic who helps little old ladies across the street and doesn’t use the f-word is “a good person.” Yes, he might be good compared to most other humans, but he’s far from perfect. And until you contemplate the life of Jesus, and the standard He set for us (both in His commands and His actions), you don’t even realize how badly you are playing the game of life.
So this is why the most important “act” or “work” you can do in this life, isn’t to refrain from homicide (as I think many agnostics believe). Rather, the most important thing is for you to humble yourself and admit you have a problem. Then you can start improving, and ironically you will end up living a much better life (even according to conventional standards) once you do that.
I think in God’s value system, somebody who did something really bad, but has sincerely repented and understands just how bad it was, is a “better person” at this moment than the person who did a litany of lesser offenses, but now offers no apology for them and in fact is outraged at the very idea that a God might hold him in judgment. And I have to say that this seems eminently fair to me.