When The Passion of the Christ was released to movie theaters in 2004, it erupted into a storm of excitement and controversy. Many believers used the film as a witnessing tool, inviting friends, coworkers, and family with the intent of eliciting conversation. Others found themselves convicted by the story, and took its message as a call to change, including a Texas man who felt inspired to confess to the murder of his girlfriend.1 Documentaries such as Changed Lives: Miracles of the Passion and Impact: Passion of the Christ have chronicled the enormous popular response to the movie around the time of its debut. Critics attacked the film for its excessive amount of violence and its anti-semitism (in 2006, director Mel Gibson made openly anti-semitic remarks in a notorious DUI stop2). The Passion was a worldwide phenomenon, one which seemed miraculous to some and nefarious to others.
The story of Jesus is undoubtedly a significant one in Western culture, and countless Christian apologists have used its popularity to make calls for repentance, for conversion, and for allegiance. What one thinks of Jesus is often portrayed as the most important thought a person can ever think in their lifetime. To the devout, the choice between salvation and damnation is very real, and since their salvation hangs on the life and identity of Christ, it becomes of central concern to them if Jesus really was (or is) like the Jesus of the gospel. In Man, Myth, Messiah, Pastor Rice Broocks takes up the defense of what might be called the traditional view of Christ, comparing it to historical scholarship and meeting the objections of skeptics. The book is a sort of sequel to Broocks’ 2013 bestseller God’s Not Dead that inspired the 2014 film of the same name, and for which I wrote a lengthy, chapter-by-chapter critique. Man, Myth, Messiah has us moving on from the arguments for God to the arguments for the Christian faith.
Foreword and Introduction
Gary Habermas, one of the leading scholars on the resurrection, provides the foreword to the book, introducing Broocks and laying out the progression of the chapters in the text. Although Habermas addresses the author as “Dr. Broocks,” stating that he obtained “a research doctorate from Fuller Seminary” (p. xii), the bio at the back of the book elaborates that Pastor Broocks’ doctorate is in “missiology,” (p. 273) or missionary work. For the sake of not creating any confusion between Mr. Broocks’ credentials and those of others mentioned in the text who have doctorates in history, New Testament, or philosophy, I will address the author with titles more along the lines of his work in evangelism, as in “pastor” or “reverend”.
In the foreword, it is stated that the minimal historical foundation of Christianity is “so strong that skeptical scholars even accept its bedrock truths.” If this is the case, Habermas asks, “why wouldn’t someone take the next step and believe?” (p. xiii) This is an interesting question for Professor Habermas to pose, given that he admitted in a debate last year with James Crossley that philosophical assumptions and “worldview aspects” are necessary to bridge the gap between the historical data and the involvement of the supernatural.3 This will be discussed later at more length, but one answer to why not believe could be that the skeptic has other reasons to doubt the worldview assumptions Habermas references. Another answer could be that the skeptic finds there is sufficient grounds to doubt the conclusions of certain “skeptical scholars” who accept the minimal facts. As we will see, there is a lot to these subjects that makes a mere appeal to consensus, even critical consensus, a weak basis for belief.
“It seems you are expected to be respectful in what you say about any other religion or revered religious figure – except Jesus Christ,” Rice writes in the introduction, musing over an article on influential people in Newsweek. “Mysteriously, people feel the liberty to malign, disfigure, and reimagine Him as they choose.”4 Oddly, though, the sole example of disrespect and disfigurement that Broocks identifies is the article’s message that “we are really unable to know much about Jesus historically,” coupled with a referral to the work of Muslim sociologist Reza Aslan. Our author laments that there was no Christian perspective given, and mocks the lack of fair and balanced journalism. This is not uncommon in the secular media, Broocks says, where “historical methodology is kicked to the curb in favor of pushing the narrative of skepticism”, and Christians are “disqualified” from being credible spokespersons. (p. xvi)
On the other hand, it may be that Newsweek is just a bad example. The magazine has changed ownership and focus just in the last several years, shifting to more opinion and commentary-based content. A recent Pew Research Center study on trusted news sources revealed quite a number of outlets generally seen as reliable,5 which would’ve made for a much more interesting and robust look at how secular media really treats the story of Jesus. Relying on his single example, Broocks says: “This type of consistently slanted presentation has contributed to the dramatic shift in the religious beliefs of those in the United States – especially those under thirty.” However, this claim appears to be pure speculation, as it is accompanied by no citations, save the familiar data on the ‘rise of the Nones,’ which makes no such declaration itself. Worse still, it seems contradicted by other Pew Center research like the 2010 study that showed atheists and agnostics in the U.S. to be among the most religiously knowledgeable in general, and on Bible and Christianity in particular, coming in third behind Mormons and white Evangelicals.6
Nonetheless, I share with Pastor Broocks his frustration over religious illiteracy and misrepresentation in the media. Atheists are no strangers to these problems, and it was from a desire to counter such misrepresentation that I wrote my critique of God’s Not Dead. I also think there are questions worth investigating about religions and religious figures, and I think the thesis in Man, Myth, Messiah that “the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith” is a thesis meriting consideration. Despite the fact that believers and the willing-to-believe are the intended audience of this book, I find skeptics can benefit from assessing and revisiting the views they doubt, too. It’s not only good to know why you believe what you believe, but to know why you disbelieve what you disbelieve, as well as to re-evaluate our respective positions.
Chapter 1: Man, Myth, or Messiah?: History’s Greatest Question
Reverend Broocks begins the first chapter with a reminder that “we must be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads.” (p. 2) This is a praiseworthy commitment to have, but I’ve found it has also shown up in other places where it functions more to give the appearance of objectivity than to serve as an active principle. In the chapter, Broocks rightly criticizes UFO and 9/11 conspiracy theories, both of which have often been defended with similar invocations to a relentless pursuit of truth, even while sometimes distorting and obscuring the facts. It’s not all that surprising that a pastor thinks a confirmation of Christian faith is where the evidence leads, but the true test of this will come in the discussion of the evidence and the opposing views.
The life and sacrifice of Jesus, our author writes on page three, is “rejected as an impossibility by skeptics who readily accept absurd and irrational explanations of our existence, especially if they are devoid of any moral implications.” Impossibility seems a strong word here, but the unqualified use of “absurd” and “irrational” for non-theistic beliefs on our origins may be the bigger offense. Does Rice mean string theory, the multiverse, or just the general idea of an uncreated universe? What makes these explanations absurd or irrational, as opposed to religious explanations? What about all the skeptics who reserve judgment on the question of our cosmic origins, knowing there is presently too little information? In the very next sentence, Broocks goes after those who frame all religious beliefs in a simplistic manner to dismiss them as blind faith. Why not extend such criticism to include naive dismissals of skeptical and atheistic perspectives as well?
As a further example, we may turn to Pastor Broocks’ apparent conflation of atheism with materialism and materialism with naturalism and physicalism. To be sure, there is overlap among these ‘isms’, but naturalism, materialism, and physicalism can mean different things depending on how they are used. Professor John Shook has distinguished between several varieties of naturalism in his work, noting that “only some varieties of naturalism rely only on physics or the notion of matter, and naturalisms frequently have contentious relationships with metaphysics”.7 The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for naturalism makes a similar observation: “Different contemporary philosophers interpret ‘naturalism’ differently.”8 Even Broocks’ explanation that the materialist “believes that nature is all there is” runs into trouble when “nonphysical realities” like information, mathematics, reason, and the laws of logic are brought against it, since the understanding of the term ‘nature’ is not always equatable to physical or material reality (see, for example, the non-reductive varieties of naturalism at the two sources just mentioned).
I have argued elsewhere in greater detail that atheism is no religion, but a few brief remarks are in order for Rice’s justification of his view above. Interestingly, his definition of religion seems to be practically indistinguishable from a combination of metaphysics and ethics. It’s metaphysical in focusing on beliefs about the nature of the world and human beings, and it’s ethical in focusing on implications for how we should live. While these aspects can be seen as important parts of a religion, it’s questionable if they are sufficient to define religion. Religious practices and faith are at least two other components that seem central to understanding religion, and yet are much less evident in atheism (some would say because they are absent). There have also been atheists who are outspokenly anti-metaphysical, such as Nietzsche and Camus, suggesting that there are significant inconsistencies in Broocks’ argument here.
Continuing on, our author gives a short history of some of the major players in the historical Jesus question over the last couple centuries, including David Strauss, Albert Schweitzer, and the Jesus Seminar. “The claim that Jesus was resurrected,” he says, “is not just an article of faith, but it is also a statement that can be examined historically.” (p. 15) A supernatural explanation, or miracle, faces problems when it comes to historical examination, however. Later in the chapter, Mr. Broocks explains how historians establish probability rather than absolute certainty. The issue here is that a miracle like the resurrection is an improbable event by definition, as I elaborate in my article Why the Resurrection is Historically Improbable. Miracles are the topic of chapter 8, though, so I will save this for further exploration later on in this review.
Stressing the importance of the resurrection, Rice states that the convictions of the early Christians played a role in leading to the eventual overtaking of Rome, not by military might, but by “heart-piercing truth and relentless love.” In support of this comment, a quote from Will Durant is provided:
The excerpt is from Durant’s 1944 book, The Story of Civilization: Part III, Caesar and Christ, and “drama” is a good word for this passage. More recent accounts of early Christianity in the Roman empire have called into question this romanticized image of Christian victory. New Testament historian Candida Moss has cast doubt on the martyrdom narrative in her book The Myth of Persecution, as has biblical scholar Bart Ehrman in several of his books. The notion that the survival and growth of Christianity in its first few centuries was spectacular and divine has also been persuasively taken apart by historian Richard Carrier in Not the Impossible Faith. More will be said on this when we come to look at the alleged persecution of the disciples and its implications for Christian faith.
Shortly before the end of the chapter, we almost get some humble acknowledgement of the limits of our objectivity from Pastor Rice. We all see the world through unconscious assumptions and biases, some of which may come from our upbringing or culture. Someone “raised to deny the existence of the supernatural would simply dismiss the evidence for the resurrection before even examining it,” says the author. “Biases can also result from people living in rebellion against the true God and giving their hearts to such idols as money, power, and status.” Tellingly, perhaps, there is no explicit consideration that bias can be religious in nature. To be fair, Broocks has scolded believers who never think beyond what their family or church teaches them, but his emphasis only on non-believers in this statement on objectivity is curious. Why can’t someone raised to deny the supernatural look sincerely at the evidence for it and reach an informed decision to stay an unbeliever? It’s as if reverend Broocks wants to communicate that – to borrow a section title from his prior book – unbelief is always the product of not thinking.
The evidence for the resurrection is “so compelling, as determined by the most trustworthy historical standards, that denying the event is unjustifiable, if one truly approaches the evidence objectively and openly.” (p. 20) Broocks sets a high standard for the remainder of his book, one which I aim to show he does not meet.
Chapter 2: The Minimal Facts: What Even Skeptics Believe
Since 1975, Gary Habermas has been cataloging scholarly sources on the resurrection of Christ to establish certain trends, or ‘minimal facts’, accepted by most historians. In Man, Myth, Messiah, the number of these sources is given as “more than 2,200,” pulled from the 2007 book The Case for the Real Jesus. Just two years earlier, in a paper published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Professor Habermas numbered his sources at “more than 1400”.9 In the three decades Habermas took compiling those initial 1400, he averaged a survey of around 47 publications a year. Yet afterwards, in a mere two years, he managed to survey a whopping 800 additional sources for his list. Of course, some may point out the qualified use of “more than” in both of the total figures, but this ambiguity actually exposes a general problem with Habermas’ research. As Richard Carrier has noted, Habermas has not released his data – which is already quite selective in its reliance on only English, German, and French written sources – and so the trends he extrapolates from it are greatly presumptive.10
On this flawed backdrop, we come to the alleged facts in chapter two that “even skeptics believe.” These facts are built on solid historical criteria, according to Broocks, like multiple and independent attestation, a close proximity to the events in question, and the presence of details too embarrassing to have been invented. With the exception of the last criterion, I find this standard reasonable. Embarrassment is a sticky issue in many ways, particularly because of how it rests on judgments about the sorts of things that would’ve been contrary to the purposes of an author living in the very distant past. Perhaps in some cases where we have a good deal of information on the norms in a given society, it can be plausible to make an argument from embarrassment as a supplementary defense of historicity, but even then there are challenging questions about individual attitudes and ‘hierarchies’ of tolerable to intolerable embarrassments.
Before laying out his first minimal fact, our author sets his sights on Jesus mythicism. Denying the historical existence of Jesus is a “pop culture”, “blogosphere” thing, a “tabloid” level absurdity, says Rice, while suggesting a visit to Jerusalem would sway most rational minds. “And you don’t need a scholar or historian. Any tour guide can set you straight.” Although I am not a mythicist, I have to admit I find ridiculing mythicism to be unproductive as well as uncharitable. Broocks aspires to always be prepared to give an answer for his faith with gentleness and respect, per 1 Peter 3:15-16, but on more than one occasion he opts instead for resorting to strawmen and ad hominem attacks on his opponents. “The real motivation for skeptics to deny that Jesus really lived is not a lack of evidence,” he claims. “They often desire to attack Christianity in any way possible because of the evil perpetrated by self-proclaimed Christians.” (p. 28) Claims like these, whether or not they’re true of some mythicists, seem spectacularly inadequate at dealing with mythicists like New Testament scholar Robert Price, Dominican priest Thomas L. Brodie, or historian Richard Carrier.
Fact #1: He Was Crucified
Historical sources are even part of the supporting case for the first minimal fact, making it especially unnecessary to wage such a verbal war on mythicism. Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, and the Talmud are cited as evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus, and all have been used to endorse historicity, too. While there are issues with each of these sources that leave them open to objections, I think at least the first two are fairly reliable, for the same reasons I gave in my review of God’s Not Dead. It’s worth stating that this first fact, crucifixion, is really not an argument for the resurrection in itself, but more of a stipulation to it. Naturally, it could be that Christ was crucified and remained dead after; the crucifixion is more a part of the minimal facts case to deter the objection that Jesus appeared alive later because he had never actually died. Since I don’t make that objection, I will not offer a critique of the first fact.
Fact #2: His Tomb Was Found Empty
The second minimal fact is the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb by a group of his women followers. Saying that all four gospels depict women as the first to arrive at the tomb, Broocks notes that the testimony of women was “usually dismissed in ancient trials. So no first-century author would have ever made the story up.” (p. 31) Here is an example of the embarrassment criterion in action. The unstated assumption is that women were so distrusted in those days that the presence of them in the resurrection narrative, when they could’ve been omitted or replaced, makes the story more likely to be true. However, even the historian Josephus hung his entire accounts of the incidents at Gamala and Masada on the testimony of women.11 The fact that Rice is careful to say that “usually” the testimony of women was dismissed is also important. If there were instances in which women were treated as reliable sources – including by one of the most prominent historians of the era – then why should we think women in the resurrection story were too embarrassing a detail for the empty tomb to have been made up?
Another argument made in favor of this alleged fact is that the Roman and Jewish authorities could easily have squashed the Christian movement by producing the body of Jesus. Since they did no such thing, it must have been because the body was missing. Again, though, this is quite an assumption. The New Testament itself claims that the disciples did not begin preaching the risen Christ until about seven weeks after the ascension (see Acts 2), at which point the corpse was likely decayed beyond recognition. Add to that the small size of the early Christian sect, as well as the fact that the earliest Christian writings come 20-25 years after the death of Jesus, and it just doesn’t seem the Romans or Jews would have had the motive to hound Christians over what they were not exactly forthcoming with in the first place.
Skeptics of the empty tomb have often claimed it is unlikely that Jesus would have received a proper burial. In what may be one of his stronger counter-arguments in the chapter, Broocks responds to this objection by contending that leaving the body on the cross would have violated Roman laws urging respect for occupied peoples. “Jewish law expressly commanded bodies of the condemned be buried so that the land would not be defiled,” he states on page 32. Supporting these claims are two sources: Josephus and the Digesta Iustiniani.
As Leonard Rutgers explains, Josephus mentions certain religious freedoms the Romans did extend to the Jews, such as to “gather freely in thiasoi, observe the Sabbath and the Jewish festivals, send money to the Temple in Jerusalem, and enjoy autonomy in their communal affairs,” as well as being “absolved from compulsory enrollment in the Roman military.”12 But to call the Romans tolerant of Jewish customs would seem to be a step too far. Rutgers goes on to say that, “Roman laws of the first century C.E. that relate to Jews give the impression that tolerance or intolerance was nothing but a by-product in the formulation of a given policy. Conscious efforts to be tolerant or intolerant do not seem to have been frequently made.” Indication of this even comes from Josephus, who notes in book 2, chapter 9 of The Jewish War how Pilate spent money from the sacred treasury to build an aqueduct, and then sent undercover soldiers to disrupt the mob of protest that ensued.
In book 48, title 24 of the Digesta Iustiniani (Digest of Justinian), we read: “The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial.” Broocks cites New Testament scholar Craig Evans saying that burial would have been expected in the time of Jesus. In a paper commenting on the Digesta, Evans notes that most of the text is drawn from Roman jurist Ulpian, who lived from about 170-223 C.E. “Ulpian,” writes Evans, “goes on to say that ‘the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted’. A statement in the lex Puteolana (at II.13) gives the impression that Romans, as did Jews in Israel, had burial pits reserved for criminals and others buried without honor.”13 Evans refers to a book by J.G. Cook that discusses the lex Puteolana. “Some of the corpses were denied burial,” Cook remarks, “apparently at the discretion of the magistrate,” and common burial pits “‘were in use already in the second century BC.'”14 Cook and Evans both mention a particular passage in the Digest that specifically states that permission for burial is not always given, “especially where persons have been convicted of high treason.” (48.24.1). Evans argues in his essay that the mention of treason does not apply to Jesus, but the passage appears to give treason as an extreme example rather than the only exception.
Bart Ehrman names a number of historical sources describing how crucifixion victims were often left to rot on the cross:
There are a few important things to take from all this. First, there is reasonable doubt that Roman officials in the first century respected Jewish practices and beliefs as a matter of habit. We have seen both scholarly argument and a historical example for this, and it is perhaps further instructive to consider the Jewish-Roman war that arose just a little over three decades after the purported death of Jesus. Second, while it seems that some crucifixion victims were allowed to be buried in special cases, others were denied burial. Although it’s not entirely clear what all the circumstances were that could lead to a denial, the “stereotyped picture that the crucified victim served as food for wild beasts and birds of prey,” as conservative Christian Martin Hengel once remarked,16 suggests that being left on the cross was not a punishment reserved for only the worst of traitors. As a third point, there is a lack of clarity in this material about what kind of burial was allowed in which cases. It’s fair to assume that since giving the body to “relatives” is mentioned by Ulpian, the relatives would likely bury their beloved in a family tomb or something of the sort. Yet when the body is that of a troublemaker or perceived criminal who supposedly had a lot of enemies among the Jewish leaders, the law in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 could have been respected and the Sabbath could have been honored simply by burial in a common grave. Since Pastor Broocks’ main objection to improper burial is Roman respect for Jewish law, this possibility, conceded by both Evans and Cook, poses a significant problem.
Surprisingly, the “unanimous” early church tradition on the site of Christ’s grave is another supporting argument made in defense of the empty tomb. “Custom required Jesus to be buried outside the walls,” Mr. Broocks states, “so the tradition for the site’s location had to go back to within ten years of the resurrection.” (p. 32) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the earliest known site to be identified with the tomb of Jesus. Eusebius reports in his Life of Constantine that the tomb had a pagan temple built over it by the Romans to “obscure the truth.” Under Constantine, the temple was then demolished and replaced by a church. Constantine’s own mother allegedly found the “true cross,” which proved its power by restoring a corpse to life. Curiously, though, there is no evidence prior to the 4th century that links the location to the resurrection story. In her book, Christians and the Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins, historian Joan E. Taylor argues that Constantine chose the site as part of his campaign to Christianize paganism, and the temple he built over was never constructed with the purpose of concealing the tomb of Christ. The absence of early veneration for any alleged site of Jesus’ grave, especially from Paul’s trip to Jerusalem, is a strong argument against the empty tomb legend.
It’s worth noting that Gary Habermas does not include the empty tomb among his minimal facts because 1/4 of the scholars he surveyed are skeptical of it, which Rice notes as well. Our author tries to dismiss the divergence here: “This drop is likely due to the profound implication of an empty tomb. If Jesus were buried after His death, then the empty tomb would be a decisive additional piece of evidence for the disciples encountering a physical Jesus.” (p. 31) However, we have just seen numerous reasons why the empty tomb is a questionable ‘fact,’ reasons all based in historical evidence. In addition, if the empty tomb is so critical to the Christian faith, then it seems the very same reasoning could be used against Broocks and other believers to suggest that bias is why they favor an empty tomb.
Fact #3: His Disciples Believed He Appeared to Them
As certain as Christ’s crucifixion, Broocks says, is the fact that his followers had experiences of him after his death. We find these appearances mostly in Paul and John, but Acts is also included with the caveat that the historical reliability of the text is disputed. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, often regarded as an early Christian creed by scholars, reads:
Rice calls this a “credible list” of witnesses, and makes special mention of how Paul and James were skeptics before their conversions. What exactly about this list is credible? The appearances to the five hundred are frequently talked about by apologists as if we have five hundred eyewitness accounts, when all we really have is this one account saying that five hundred people saw the risen Jesus. No gospel or other early Christian document tells of these unnamed, mysterious five hundred. Most of the individuals identified in this list have left us no first-hand account of their experiences. Notice also that there is nothing said about women being the first to find the tomb – in fact, a tomb isn’t even mentioned at all.
There is an unexplained dissimilarity between the experiences of Paul and James. The story of Paul’s conversion is that he was a Jew persecuting Christians up until his vision on the road to Damascus. Thus, Paul was a skeptic converted by an appearance. James, on the other hand, is considered a skeptic merely because of biblical references to divisions in Jesus’ family (i.e. Mark 3:21, John 7:5), and we are given no information for when James became a believer, whether it was before or after the alleged appearance discussed in 1 Corinthians 15. Christian scholar James F. McGrath shares this view, explaining that “even if there were antagonism or otherwise soured relations between Jesus and James, this does not in any way lead to the conclusion that the estrangement lasted until Jesus’ death.”17 This matters because, as apologists like Broocks assert, the conversion of a skeptic due to a post-resurrection appearance is a more surprising deal than the report of a devout believer that they witnessed a miracle.
So what about Paul? The vision described in Acts stands out in some ways from the other appearances. Paul hears a voice and sees a light so blinding that he falls to the ground and loses his sight. In Acts 9, his companions hear a voice, but see nothing; in Acts 22, they see the light, but don’t hear a voice. What’s odd about labeling this a postmortem appearance is that Paul had never met Jesus while Jesus was alive, and in his vision Paul doesn’t see Jesus – only a bright light – he only knows (or assumes) it’s Jesus based on the voice. This experience is quite similar sounding to a hallucination, and what’s stranger still is that it is not distinguished in any way from the other supposed appearances spoken of in the early creed.
Could multiple people have hallucinated the same thing, or something quite like it? Broocks declares the Christian message “is not based on some corporate self-delusion triggered by the disciples’ grief over having lost their beloved leader; such a scenario would have required a much longer period of time to develop.” (p. 38) But why think this?
On the hallucination theory, philosopher Keith Parsons writes:
Not all hallucinations require a good length of time, either, as Matthew McCormick explains.
We’ve already seen that not all experiences of the risen Jesus are equal. Paul’s vision in Acts is very different from the appearances in John 20. Other appearances, to the five hundred, to James, or to unspecified apostles, are so devoid of any description that it would be sheer speculation to imagine what those experiences might have been like. Worse yet, since Paul is thought to have relayed an early creed pertaining to appearances to some of the same people we find in the gospels, this creed raises doubts about whether the sources we have are truly independent. Perhaps John and Acts relied on the same material Paul relied on. Noting this problem of ambiguity, there just doesn’t seem to be any reasonable grounds for claiming that the postmortem appearances were shared by so many people that hallucination is out of the question. To make that argument, we would need more and better evidence for the array of alleged experiences.
Fact #4: Proclaimed Early
For the fourth fact, Broocks provides the earliness of the preaching of the resurrection. Because “creeds require time to become standardized, the original teaching had to have originated years earlier” (p. 37). Habermas is cited as claiming that such teaching must go back to within fewer than five years of the death of Jesus. This is said to be a consensus view of even critical scholars, but we have previously seen the flaws in the survey approach used in Habermas’ resurrection research. Nonetheless, if we assume that the resurrection was preached so early after the crucifixion – which I am actually willing to grant – is this a fact supporting the historical reality of Christ’s resurrection?
This is where the trouble with assessing miracles through historical method becomes especially apparent. The reports of Joseph Smith’s vision of the angel Moroni are very close to the time he supposedly had his vision. Likewise, as Matt McCormick argues, there is substantial evidence surrounding the Salem witch trials:
…The trials were part of a thorough, careful, and exhaustive investigation. The investigators deliberately gathered evidence and made a substantial attempt to view it objectively and separate truths from falsehoods, mistakes, and lies. In the court trials, they took great care to discern the facts. The accusers must have become convinced by their evidence…
The witch trials were historically recent, so we have hundreds of the actual documents that were part of the evidence. We have the signed, sworn testimonies of the eyewitnesses claiming to have seen the magic performed – not as it was repeated and relayed for decades to others, but immediately after it occurred. We have whole volumes written by witnesses to the trials, such as those by Cotton Mather and John Hale.20
Should we then believe Joseph Smith really was a prophet, or that those convicted in the witch trials really were witches? I should say not. The reason why involves a lot of what has already been covered. What we know (or don’t know) of those reporting the event, of the time and place in which they lived, and of the subsequent developments and advances in our general knowledge has to play a significant role in our approach, beyond a basic consideration of criteria like multiple and independent attestation, closeness in time, or embarrassment.
Additional facts are presented in the chapter that have already been touched on at this point, in one way or another. These involve Paul, James, the growth of the early church, and the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. To say brief words on the latter two, however, I find the absence of any figures or statistics on the growth of the church makes such a ‘fact’ indefensible, and the purportedly embarrassing nature of Jesus’ baptism hangs on an incredibly thin supposition that it “could” be seen as implying the superiority of John. I mention a study by Keith Hopkins in my review of God’s Not Dead which argues that Christians composed only 10% of the Roman population by the year 300. If the early church exploded in the miraculous way many Christian apologists claim it did, these are the kinds of studies that need to be produced to substantiate their claim. As for John and Jesus, Mark 1:7 effectively eviscerates any notion of embarrassment: “And this was [John’s] message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.'”
As a conclusion to my (very long) review of this chapter, I want to make one last argument regarding these minimal facts – one which I believe greatly reduces their persuasiveness on top of all that’s been said so far. Throughout the chapter, Pastor Broocks makes frequent note of how “all four gospels” mention the crucifixion, the women at the tomb, Joseph of Arimathea requesting the body, John baptizing Jesus, and “supernatural confirmations of Jesus’ ministry” (p. 30, 31, 41). These remarks are misleading in that they give the impression that such details are independently and multiply attested by more sources than is likely accurate. The Two-Source Hypothesis in New Testament scholarship, which is the consensus view among even most conservative scholars, has it that Mark was a primary source for both Matthew and Luke. This is even addressed somewhat in the very next chapter of the book, and it’s a little suspicious why something so obviously pertaining to the historical criteria is put after the minimal facts case. The importance of this is that something which appears in all four gospels may only really be independently and multiply attested in two gospels once we take parallel passages into account.
Let’s take the women at the tomb as our example. After stating that this is found in all four gospels, Rice says, “This fact is significant because the testimony of women was usually dismissed in ancient trials.” The significance the author sees here is not just the reporting of women at the tomb, but clearly also the reporting of women at the tomb in four sources. Yet when we look at Mark 16:1-8, Matthew 28:1-8, and Luke 24:1-12, we find a number of similarities and parallelisms, from the two Marys to the fear of the women to the presence of men/angels (one in Mark) in white clothing and more. We even find some plausible spots where the authors of Matthew and Luke changed the text from Mark, such as Matthew 28:8, which adds that the women were not just afraid, but “filled with joy,” and so ran to tell the disciples what they’d found – quite an improvement over Mark’s original ending, where the women “said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” None of these details occur in John’s gospel. This illustrates how Matthew and Luke relied on Mark, and it changes the scope of attestation for the women at the tomb from four to two sources. If Helmut Koester is right, though, about Mark and John sharing a passion narrative source that is also represented in the Gospel of Peter, then the evidence for women at the tomb comes down to a lonely single attestation.21
When we move outside the realm of guesswork based on a questionable survey, and go into dealing with the problems and arguments that historians deal with, the picture becomes far more complicated with respect to which sources are reliable and for what reasons. The minimal facts case not only faces objections from a methodological perspective, for inferring a supernatural explanation out of historical data, but also from an evidential perspective.
Chapter 3: We Can Trust the Gospels: Why the Bible is Reliable
Opening the third chapter, Broocks tells a story of his father’s recollection of events from the Second World War. Some seventy years after the fact, his dad’s memory of “notable incidents” remains quite clear. This anecdote introduces the discussion of the reliability of the gospel authors as eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry. Interesting as its point is, the story really tells us little about the reliability of eyewitness memory. Although I would not personally question the accuracy of a veteran’s memory unless there was good historical evidence conflicting with it, there are many psychological studies showing that we often profess confidence in our memories even when shown clearly contradictory evidence. Elizabeth Loftus and other psychologists have found that doctored photographs, or even asking someone to imagine an event that never happened, can come to feel very real to a person, to the point that they will insist on the accuracy of their memory over the accuracy of the evidence later shown them.22
Unfortunately, Man, Myth, Messiah, like so many apologetics books, does not seriously consider the question of how trustworthy eyewitness testimony really is. Instead, in chapter three we get arguments for the general reliability of the gospel authors. “The primary reason many dismiss the Gospels,” Pastor Rice says, “is because they reject the possibility of any supernatural events or miracles.” (p. 45) There is perhaps some truth in this statement, just as there is in stating that most people would dismiss the accounts of the Salem witch trials because they purportedly tell of real supernatural witches, or that most would reject abduction stories because they describe fanciful encounters with extraterrestrial beings. We each have a certain threshold for belief that ties into our background knowledge, our reason, and our personal experience. This does not mean, however, that a reluctance to accept some specific story of a miraculous event shows we are unwilling to hear out any such report whatsoever. On the contrary, that itself can sometimes be an excuse to dismiss a critic’s points, refusing to hear out the other side.
The gospels are recognized by scholars as historical biographies, Broocks claims, “the same type that would have been common in the Greek and Roman world two thousand years ago.” This is indeed a widely popular view among scholars, and, as Rice goes on to explain, their “style of writing was not a daily chronological account of someone’s life but an arrangement by the writer of the details that seemed most important in making the overall moral lessons clearer.” (p. 46) Richard Burridge’s seminal study, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, contrasts the gospels with ancient biographies, noting several similarities in structure and features, while also illustrating how biographies in antiquity differ from those we read today. This makes a further remark by Broocks seem somewhat misleading, because although the gospels are not “in the form of legends or myths,” there are examples of ancient biographies reporting legends and myths without always distinguishing them as such.
Historian Tomas Hägg reminds us:
Labeling the gospels as biographies does not ensure their historical accuracy. Nevertheless, Broocks swears that “scholars who honestly compare the Gospels to the literature of the day recognize that these writings represent biographies based on eyewitness testimony, which faithfully document Jesus’ life, ministry, and most importantly, His resurrection.” (p. 47-48) Of course, the implication here is that scholars who disagree with Rice and company must not be honest in their examination of the gospels. For someone so critical of skeptics who make up their minds before the evidence is presented, Pastor Rice oddly doesn’t seem bothered by his own premature attacks on the opposition in his books.
The fact that [Matthew, Mark, Luke and John] were the authentic authors of these biographies of Jesus has been accepted since the very beginning of the Christian faith,” we are told on page 48. “However, during the past few centuries, skeptics have questioned the traditionally assigned authorship as a strategy to dismiss the authority of their content.” This is a puzzling comment for one very big reason. On the same page, our author agrees that the strongest evidence for traditional authorship is that “the testimony of early church leaders is nearly uniform on who wrote each book.” What makes this an issue is that, as Broocks observes repeatedly in the text, each of these noted church leaders – Irenaeus, Papias, Clement, Tertullian, and Origen – was writing during the second century or later. We do not begin seeing the traditional attributions on gospel manuscripts until that time, either. In what way, then, was the traditional view accepted “since the very beginning of the Christian faith”? We know that Broocks doesn’t think the second century was the beginning of the faith, because in numerous arguments he attempts to draw things back to within 5-20 years of Jesus’ death, when the gospels did not yet exist. Even if we assume his favored date is around 80 CE, by which time all the synoptics may have been written, the church leaders are still several decades away, and Rice’s insistence on the spread of the faith in its early years seems a further area of conflict.
In defense of the authorship of Mark, four main claims are made: i) The writing style suggests the author knew Aramaic; ii) Peter is mentioned more frequently than in other Gospels; iii) The presence of details known “only” to Jesus’ community, like “Alexander and Rufus” in 15:21; iv) Mark was not a major figure, so his name wouldn’t have been associated with a gospel unless he really had written it.
For i), no further information is given. Bart Ehrman writes that “the overwhelming consensus today, for lots of technical linguistic reasons, is that the Gospels were all written in Greek,” and their authors “were not lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants from Galilee.”24 Even so, it isn’t clear what about knowing some Aramaic would point to Mark rather than to any number of early Christians. ii) is referenced with Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which has been critiqued thoroughly by scholars, and which I have reviewed separately. As I note there, Mark uses a number of sources that interact strangely with the presence of Peter, challenging the hypothesis that Peter was Mark’s eyewitness. iii) faces problems, too, including the commonality of the names Alexander and Rufus,25 and their absence from the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke. If the inclusion of their names was meant to indicate an eyewitness source, it is hard to imagine why Matthew and Luke omitted them. Lastly, iv) is somewhat of a question-begging argument given that, as Broocks says, John Mark was known to early Christians through his mention in Acts and Colossians. 1 Peter even has him as a companion of Peter, which could be part of an older tradition, and would’ve been of interest to someone wanting to attach authority to a gospel.
Defending Matthew’s traditional authorship, we get another four main arguments: i) A statement from the church father Papias; ii) Change of Levi to Matthew, which wouldn’t be done “unless it was his own” name; iii) Change of “his house” (Mark 2:15, Luke 5:29) to “the house” (Matt. 9:10); iv) Jewish knowledge and command of Greek fit with the tax collector and Levite view of Matthew.
Papias is reported by Irenaeus as saying, “So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.” Like Broocks states, however, the Gospel of Matthew known to us is in Greek. In the New Bible Commentary, D.A. Carson elaborates:
Again, even if Matthew simply incorporated some sayings in Hebrew or Aramaic, it’s hard to understand what about such a detail would point to Matthew as the author, rather than to any other Aramaic or Hebrew speaking early Christian. ii) and iii) are frankly weak suppositions. Mark and Luke each mention Matthew (Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15) and Levi the tax collector (Mark 2:14, Luke 5:27), though they never explicitly connect the two. It could well be the author of Matthew knew the names were for the same individual, or it could be he assumed they were. Also along these lines, Matthew eliminates a Greek word in Mark, autou, that means “of him,” which is what distinguishes the two versions of “his house” and “the house” that Broocks is referring to. In more literal form, the text of Mark and Luke reads “the house of him” (te oikia autou). Many scholars have noted that Matthew does a lot of editing and abbreviating of Mark in his gospel, as well as with other sources,27 and so this alteration doesn’t require the assumption of Matthean authorship. Finally, iv), while likely denoting a highly educated person of a Jewish background, is not a fact synonymous only with a tax collector. One problem that casts further doubt on all these arguments is the use of source material like Mark and Q in Matthew. If the author was in fact Matthew the tax collector, an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, then why would he have relied so heavily on the work of others, rather than his own recollection?
Compared to Mark and Matthew, surprisingly little is given in support of the traditional view of Luke in the chapter. Rice’s principle evidence is: i) The “we” passages in several chapters of Acts, putting Luke with Paul, and ii) the uniform endorsement of authorship by early church fathers. We have already seen some reasons to think ii) is not so persuasive. The works of these church fathers that are thought to have been written the earliest (Irenaeus and Clement) still come a full century after the date when Luke is believed to have been composed. Justin Martyr, who wrote 40-50 years before the aforementioned church leaders, did not appear to know the names of the gospels, although he cites them extensively. In Justin’s writings, the texts are simply called the memoirs of the apostles. Uniform agreement is shaky ground here too, since we do not find the Christian apocrypha called by other names, and yet a lot of believing Christians wouldn’t accept that as an argument for the authenticity of the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, or the Apocryphon of James.
The “we” passages, on the other hand, are a more interesting aspect of Luke-Acts. One notices, as New Testament scholar Burton Mack points out, that the passages are “limited to the journeys in which travel is by sea”.28 This is a weirdly specific restriction if such passages indicate the author was a companion of Paul, since Paul also spends a good chunk of the book traveling by land. In his paper “By Land and By Sea: The We-Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages,” Vernon Robbins provides numerous examples from ancient Greek and Roman literature showing that first person plural narration was very typical in stories of sea travel.29 Certain writings like Vergil’s Aeneid and one of Alcaeus’ poems even show a switch in perspective when describing a voyage by sea. Because this was a literary convention in antiquity, it should not be presumed that the use of “we” in Acts 16 and so on is evidence for Lukan authorship.
As one further note on Luke, Broocks dates the text to the 70s C.E. based on a couple aspects of Acts, such as the description of certain riots and the end of the text prior to Paul’s death. I argue in my review of The Case for Christ that these sorts of claims are not compelling because of the wealth of alternative explanations. It could be that the Book of Acts we have is unfinished, that the author simply focused on the spread of the gospel rather than on Paul’s life, or that another volume was planned and never completed. Likewise, there are plenty of conceivable alternatives to Rice’s speculation that the author of Acts mentioned the riots involving early messianic movements because they were “fresh” in everyone’s memory. He may have done so to separate the Christian movement from those that engaged in rioting, or just for historical comparison. In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus mentions three of the same characters cited in Acts,30 and yet this is not seen as reason for supposing the Antiquities must have been written much earlier than the 94 C.E. date commonly assigned to it. Luke is generally dated no earlier than 80, which makes sense with its use of Mark and other source material.
Two primary arguments are made for the traditional authorship of John’s gospel: i) The author of the text appears to reference himself as an eyewitness in 19:35, and ii) the disciple “whom Jesus loved” allegedly takes the place of John’s name because John is the author.
Regarding i), there is no actual statement in the verse that the eyewitness was the author of the gospel. John 19:35 reads: “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.” A close reading of the surrounding context raises further issues. The preceding verse describes how a soldier pierced Christ’s side, causing blood and water to come out. Quite a legend developed around this figure, known as Longinus, who is often believed to be the same centurion in Mark 15:39 and Matthew 27:54. According to this tradition, then, it’s Longinus who is the one testifying in verse 35, referring to his testimony in the other gospels that Jesus was the “Son of God.” John 19:36-37 can be read as furthering this idea, where there is a reference to scripture saying, “They shall look on him whom they pierced.” This interpretation seems to fit better with the context, not to mention the absence of any clear identification with John’s author in 19:35.
Footnote 4 clarifies that Richard Bauckham, one of Broocks’ own sources, disagrees with the traditional attribution for the Gospel of John. No word of this appears in the chapter, though, and it puts an interesting twist on ii). Scholars consider passages like John 9:22 and 12:42 to be strong evidence for a late first century dating of the gospel. John the Evangelist, as an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, would not have made the mistake of claiming the early Christians were kicked out of synagogues before the destruction of the temple, the hypothesized Council of Jamnia, or other significant splits between Jews and Christians. Bauckham favors a different John – John the Presbyter – as the author of the gospel, who lived later than the apostle John and was not himself an eyewitness. Although Bauckham does think John’s author relied on other eyewitness material, those arguments can be questioned and rejected for reasons given in my review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. The central point here is that the epithet “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, even if intended for the gospel author, is not a guarantor of either eyewitness testimony or traditional authorship.
History and Histrionics
Bolstering his case for the reliability of the gospels, Broocks makes a number of fantastical assertions in the remainder of chapter three. The manuscript evidence for the gospels, he says is “vastly greater” than for any other piece of ancient literature, “totaling almost 5,800 Greek manuscripts.” (p. 55) Yet nothing follows to explain that the overwhelming amount of these manuscripts are from centuries after the death of Jesus. On this apologetic exaggeration, Matt McCormick writes:
This picture of the quality and quantity of the evidence also gives the lie to another statement from Pastor Broocks: “The wealth and quality of the data has allowed New Testament scholars to accurately reconstruct the originals with an accuracy of 99 percent.” The big problem here is we do not have any original documents for the New Testament to justify that astronomically high rate of accuracy. What’s been reconstructed are hypothetical originals, since all we have to work with are copies of copies of copies, and, as Rice correctly notes, the earliest copy we have found so far is a credit card sized fragment of John dating to the early second century.
Comparing the transmission of the gospel to the rabbinic preservation of the Torah, our author alleges that this kind of oral tradition “would not have become corrupted in the short interval between the events and the writing of the Gospels.” (p. 57) As remarked upon at the start of this chapter review, though, Man, Myth, Messiah does not deal with psychological studies on the trustworthiness of memory. It is simply asserted without support that the oral tradition would not have been corrupted. I have already shown that there is reason to doubt this assertion, but an additional issue is that we cannot merely presume the early Christians were trained in, or knowledgeable of, methods of oral preservation even remotely comparable to rabbinic tradition. This is another point where Bauckham disagrees with Broocks.
In discussing the archaeological evidence for reliability, Broocks focuses on “locations, topography, and people,” including things like the discovery of Bethlehem, the pools of Siloam and Bethesda, coins with Caesar’s image, and so forth. None of it differs much from similar claims made in The Case for Christ, and all of it suffers from the same problem. As Lee Strobel himself has pointed out, the discovery that Troy was a real city in ancient times does not mean the rest of The Iliad is also historical fact. In my article, The Historical Errancy of the Bible, I discuss several historical discrepancies in both the Old and New Testament, citing numerous historians and scholarly works. Even though the gospels may be accurate in some of their descriptive background content, they are not universally accurate, and it would be tremendously unwarranted to assume they are.
Closing out the chapter, Pastor Rice makes some frankly astonishing criticisms of Bart Ehrman. Skeptics all have their “favorite rants,” just like we hear in political campaigns, but they’re really rhetorical devices more than “knockdown arguments.” (p. 61) Funny, since the exact same thing can be said of apologists. Broocks borrows so much in this chapter from the bestsellers by Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel, and phrases quite a bit of it in such similar terms, that his throwaway line against skeptics is more a self-indictment than anything else. Following on from this, our author asserts that Ehrman takes textual inconsistencies and from them “concludes that the testimony must, therefore be dismissed in its entirety.” (p. 62) What work of Professor Ehrman’s is this taken from? Well, none, in fact. The source Broocks gives is a link to a blog post at the Apologetics 315 website. On the post, you’ll see that its author, Robin Schumacher, cites Dr. Ehrman twice, and neither instance has anything to do with Broocks’ claim. Reading the entire piece by Schumacher, I’m at a loss to find something even remotely like the allegation mentioned. Perhaps this is something Schumacher would agree with Broocks about, but this is speculation without any concrete substance in Ehrman’s writings.
Ehrman is a skeptic, and he has made a lot off the presentation of apparent contradictions in the gospels. However, views and opinions are often attached to him that he never endorses in his work. Broocks and Schumacher know this, because both have talked about how Ehrman was once taken as a mythicist by some atheists, until he clarified his stance and wrote Did Jesus Really Exist? Apologists sometimes fume over Ehrman because they believe the differences among the gospels actually support the reliability of the gospels, as they show that “the same story is being told by separate witnesses, so the overlapping details are almost certainly authentic.” (p. 62) Ehrman does not kowtow to this belief. Two problems with it are that, like previously noted, it ignores the question of source usage, which could greatly reduce the number of “witnesses,” and the apparent contradictions can undermine confidence that the authors in question were actually witnesses in any meaningful sense. Many Christians place their faith not just in the historical reliability of the gospels, but in their reliability as the word of God. This can produce different approaches to dealing with seeming errors in the text, although not all Christians hold such a conservative view of scripture.
At this point, I think we have seen enough to merit serious doubt regarding Broocks’ case for gospel reliability. More importantly, though, we should take note of the mundane nature of a lot of the claims made in this chapter, and understand that textual and historical accuracy of the sort at issue here does not give us any particularly compelling reason to believe in the resurrection of Jesus or in other Christian doctrines.
Chapter 4: The Crucifixion: Why Jesus Had to Die
It seems as if an all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever-present God should have the ability to carry out its will in whatever way it sees fit. The options available to such a being ought to be practically limitless, especially regarding its own creations. So why would the death of a first century Jewish teacher in Palestine have specifically factored into the plan of the “Most High”? Of all the ways that God could have accomplished things, what sets the life and crucifixion of Jesus apart? These are just the sorts of questions taken up by Pastor Broocks in chapter four, as he attempts to explain the significance of Christ’s death on the cross.
Central to this explanation is the concept of justice. The desire we have for retribution, to see things made right, is what we call justice. Injustice, our author elaborates, is “allowing evil actions to continue without any consequence to the perpetrators. Without punishment, injustice grows and flourishes.” (p. 68) Interestingly, this definition of injustice appears little different from the popular apologetic definition of mercy as ‘not getting what is deserved.’ Of course, Broocks would not wish to conflate injustice and mercy, but this ambiguity highlights a problem that persists throughout the chapter.
A retributive theory of justice argues that wrongdoing must be punished, and typically emphasizes punishments that fit the crime. A utilitarian theory of justice, on the other hand, suggests that punishment should be aimed at deterring people from committing crimes in the future. Some do not think these two theories are all that different, but certain utilitarians will object that retributivism is really only about revenge, and certain retributivists will object that punishing people for crimes they’ve yet to commit is not really justice at all. Rice wavers between these theories by claiming that retribution is just, and that punishment is a just deterrent of repeat offenses. Later on, he writes the following:
The first question here poses a rather astonishing justification of everlasting punishment. It implies that our own earthly way of doing things is just enough that it must reflect on justice beyond this world too, even if to a lesser degree. This lesser degree is, to Broocks’ mind, simply related to severity and duration. What about the acts on earth that don’t merit the death penalty or a life sentence? Perhaps these are not the righteous responses to wrongdoing that we have taken them to be in the past, and so it could be that God’s reaction to sin is not nearly as intense as how some of us react to injustices.
Why would an eternal God be eternally offended by sins committed by finite creatures? None of us might be as morally perfect as God, but neither are we as morally aware as God, as powerful, or as knowing. “If [God] does not judge sin,” Rice claims, “He could not be ultimately loving.” However, this is no explanation for the severity and duration of the judgment. When we deal with misbehavior in children, we take into account their limitations, and neglecting to do so is seen as a failing on our part rather than on theirs. Making the punishment fit the crime also does not usually include lengthening the punishment based on the advanced age of the victim, or intensifying the punishment because the victim is a generally upstanding person. If the character and nature of the victim must play a substantial role in assessing the consequences, it isn’t clear why God wouldn’t be more understanding and less aggressive than we are, as opposed to being quite the opposite.
“Imagine a murderer committing a horrible crime and simply asking to be forgiven and let out jail,” says our author. “Forgiveness can be granted, but what’s missing is a just punishment.” (p. 73) Reverend Broocks doesn’t really ever give a persuasive reason for thinking that any of our sins against God are remotely comparable to the “horrible” crime of a murderer, but what’s ironic is that this very analogy encapsulates what many Christians already believe about salvation. Despicable people can gain forgiveness merely by asking for it from God. Whether or not they’re truly repentant, is it just to release them from punishment? Perhaps it’s merciful, but how is justice still done in such a circumstance? Punishing another person for the crime of someone else is far from just, most of us would agree. Rice uses the story of Jonah to stress that although we all want justice in our own way, God does things differently, and “you can’t outrun the love of God”. Jonah wanted God to judge Nineveh, not let them repent. Yet the message God still sent Jonah to deliver to Nineveh was ‘repent or die,’ not exactly one of love.
Over the centuries, theologians have devised a number of different ideas about why Jesus died and what his death means for us and our relationship to God. These are referred to as atonement theories. Like a number of popular apologists have done, Pastor Broocks presents his own favored model of the atonement in the chapter, and speaks as if his is the gospel truth and the only explanation in town.32 The view he endorses is known as penal substitutionary atonement – common among Protestant Christians – and teaches that Jesus went in our place to pay the price for sin. Proponents of this theory find biblical support for it in several passages, such as Romans 3:22-26 mentioned by Broocks, while critics have given their own counter-examples, including 2 Corinthians 5:14, which talks not of one dying to save all, but of one dying so that all may die. Nonetheless, scholars tend to agree that penal substitution is a later development of the Reform tradition. Other theories like the ransom theory and Christus Victor bear similarities to substitutionary atonement, but focus more on Christ’s sacrifice as part of a supernatural war with the forces of Satan. Moral influence theory claims that Jesus died to effect positive change in humankind, whereas participation models see humans as partaking in the sacrifice of Christ, not merely being part of an exchange.
There is too much subtlety and diversity in atonement theories to go into greater detail here, but this should be sufficient to at least show that there is not as much uniform agreement on the meaning of the crucifixion as Broocks implies in the chapter. In fact, some of those who’ve been engaged in these arguments have specifically called into question the justice of penal substitution. Baptist minister Steve Chalke has described it as “a form of cosmic child abuse,” of a “vengeful Father punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed.”33 James F. McGrath has commented on some of the biblical issues with the doctrine:
Long before the death of Jesus, Psalm 103:9-10 was written, which reads: “He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” These verses seem to suggest, as McGrath observes, that God has never been forced to punish sin, but that he can forgive and show mercy as he chooses. Rice’s declaration that God must punish sin in order to be loving is revealed to be problematic, not to mention the guarantee that, “If there had been another way other than dying in our place, Jesus would have certainly taken that way out.” (p. 84-85) As the incarnate omnipotent creator, would Jesus actually have been so restricted in his options? Broocks references Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane to support his point, but one can easily argue that Jesus prayed for the cup to pass from him because he knew there were other ways. Giving the impression that no alternative was available seems to diminish the will of Jesus, in particular the value and significance of the act that might’ve inspired him to accept his death out of the range of options open to him.
Some of the comments made in chapter four help to underline the objectionable aspects of penal substitution. “God does not see us in the light of our own imperfections,” Rice says on page 83, “but in the light of Jesus’ life.” A popular sentiment to hear expressed in Christian circles is that ‘God meets us where we are.’35 If this means that God knows where we are and how to speak to us, that may be a fair conclusion from Christian teaching, but if what it means is that God accepts us as we are, nothing could be further from the truth – according to Pastor Rice, anyway. We, of course, find it deeply meaningful to be loved and to love others as the imperfect creatures we are, but God would rather see us as someone else, as himself, than see us with all of our flaws. I don’t intend to be uncharitable in saying this, but it is a prominent theme behind substitutionary atonement. In order to drive home the seriousness of the penalty of sin, and the need for a substitute sacrifice, proponents of penal substitution like Broocks have to make us seem like the least lovable beings imaginable. We are so utterly hopeless without God that God himself would rather see a reflection of himself in us than see us.
I was once told by a Christian that the difference between liberals and conservatives is in how they see people. Liberals, she said, believe most people are good, while conservatives believe most people are evil. This is certainly how classical Western political theory has been divided, but what puzzles me more is how many religious conservatives go on to assert that the god they worship is a god of love, and not just a cosmic jailer or peacekeeper. As most of us know, having experienced it, love is not about remaking another person in your image. That is what we tend to think of as selfishness, arrogance, vanity, and, at times, abusive behavior. There is an important sense in which loving someone means believing in them, and believing better of them than they may believe of themselves. Yet this is far removed from finding them so unworthy that you think they need a complete makeover into a whole new person.
Aside from the general subject of the purpose of the cross, chapter four features a few other interesting statements worth commenting on briefly. For starters, the description of crucifixion in the gospels is presented as being so accurate to Roman accounts that it “further confirm[s] that the authors were recording actual events derived from eyewitnesses.” (p. 70) This incredibly far-fetched claim ignores other likelihoods, though. Crucifixion was not uncommon in ancient Rome, and, as we saw above in an excerpt from Dr. Ehrman on the treatment of crucified victims, there was material that went into some detail on the process. It could well be that the gospel authors got their information from either written or oral sources that had nothing to do with with Jesus’ specific crucifixion. Broocks claims in another place that the fossil record and genetic evidence support the sudden emergence of human beings from a single couple, and his citation for this is one book, Science of Human Origins, by Discovery Institute Press. (p. 72) The Discovery Institute is a well known creationist thinktank, and its inclusion as the single supporting source is suspicious in itself, but there have been many scientists and even believing biblical scholars (i.e., John Walton and Peter Enns) who have made strong arguments against a historical Adam and Eve. Broocks’ reference is a lonely exception amidst an overwhelming consensus.
Verses of Isaiah 53 are mentioned along with the remark that they predict Jesus’ death “hundreds of years” in advance. Closer scrutiny of the text invites a number of challenges to the view of Isaiah 53 being any sort of messianic prophecy, though. I have provided several arguments against it in my article, Why Isaiah 53 is Not About Jesus, and since virtually nothing is said in the chapter in defense of the prophetic view, I won’t devote any more space to it here. Broocks makes a couple short comments on racism and division too, suggesting that “God forgiving us of our many sins motivates us to forgive others,” and only “the power of the cross” can overcome many of these barriers. (p. 87) We know this is not how things work in the real world, however, where people are often more complex than the beliefs they espouse. On the very next page, it’s even noted how the ancient Israelites were ordered to keep separate from Gentiles for purity reasons. Religion can be, and often is, divisive. If not racially, then in the categories of in-group and out-group it applies.
Why would God have chosen to save the human race through the sacrifice of Jesus? Unfortunately, at the end of the chapter it still seems as if we have not gotten a very good answer. Indeed, the answer given raises more problems than it solves. As noted, there are alternative theories of atonement on offer, and some of these might be better than others. That said, though, there may also be enough doubt in the reliability of scripture and the minimal facts to remain skeptical of any such theory. What we should take away from the crucifixion of Jesus is a question that already admits of differing perspectives among Christians, so who can blame the person that thinks nothing supernatural or soteriological at all is really shown by Jesus’ death?
Chapter 5: The Resurrection: The Event that Changed Everything
After discussing the significance of the crucifixion, our author moves on to the significance of the resurrection for chapter five. With a brief explanation of Karl Popper’s falsificationism, we are told that Christianity is “the only religion whose central tenet of faith is able to be tested in this manner.” (p. 92) There is, however, a veritable buffet of troubles with this statement.
First and foremost, it should be noted that Popper’s theory is specifically meant to address the demarcation problem, which has to do with the distinction between scientific and unscientific theories. Whether or not a theory can be in principle disproven, or falsified, determines whether or not it is scientific in nature. This is different from falsifying mere claims or statements, something that has been called naive falsificationism. Naive falsificationism does not really provide a way of adjudicating between competing claims, Popper and others have observed, because it’s always possible to introduce ad hoc defenses – to move the goal post – in order to resist falsification. One can argue this is precisely what apologists do with alternative explanations of the minimal facts (we will see some of this below). Why this is a problem for Broocks has to do with the fact that scientific methodology is distinct in some important ways from historical methodology. Since historians are concerned with events in the past, they cannot engage in the same kind of rigorous, repeatable testing that scientists use to falsify theories. Popper is actually very critical of a probabilistic approach to theories, as is used by social scientists and historians.36 As the resurrection is a historical theory in Broocks’ treatment and not a scientific one, the falsification criterion seems highly inappropriate here.
Even if we discard some of the force of the argument, would it tell us something if the resurrection is falsifiable? As just stated, this kind of naive falsificationism is weak to evasive maneuvers. When asked about what evidence would get them to renounce their faith, certain Christian ministers and apologists have said that producing the bones of Jesus would do the trick.37 But think about this as a disconfirmation of the resurrection. Are there ways believers could get around such evidence and still believe? Of course there are. It would be as easy as pointing out that we have no real way of finding out if the bones truly belonged to Jesus. We have no “Christ DNA” on file. Yeshua, the Hebrew name of Jesus, was a common name even in the first century. We don’t have to imagine, though, either. In 2007, Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron released The Lost Tomb of Jesus, a documentary film that chronicled the discovery of the alleged family tomb of Jesus, complete with the bones of Christ himself. It would be an understatement to say the reaction was critical. Scholars, historians, and apologists all swarmed in to denounce the film on a number of grounds. Especially telling was one objection in a Newsweek article: “Good sense, and the Bible, still the best existing historical record of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, argue against Jacobovici’s claims”.38 The film doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, to be sure, but just how falsifiable is the resurrection if scripture can simply be brought to the rescue whenever there’s doubt?
Another issue with Broocks’ statement above is that it’s far too quick to elevate Christianity over other religions. What constitutes a “central tenet of faith” is a matter for debate, but there are other religions that have made historical as well as falsifiable claims. Mormonism is an obvious example which persists in spite of strong counter-evidence to its foundational claims. Any apocalyptic religion or sect is falsifiable in the same way Broocks asserts Christianity is falsifiable. On Buddhism, Rice provides a quote from Sean McDowell and William Lane Craig:
This contrast is an odd one given that the Buddha seems to have been more concerned that people believe his teachings than believe in him. In that respect, it could be argued that miracles might pose a distraction from the Eightfold Path or the Four Noble Truths, for example. These teachings express ideas that are ethical in nature more than they are metaphysical, and so falsification need play no role. Further, some of the ideas relating to suffering and desire are experiential and strike many people as largely intuitive. Not all religions posit the same category of truth claims. Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and some forms of Hinduism emphasize ways of living rather than emphasizing the existence of divine beings or supernatural events. This makes all the difference because while falsification may be a useful tool in dealing with questions about what exists or what happens, it is pretty much impossible to falsify moral principles by any kind of reasonable method, whether they are found in the Tao Te Ching or in the Bible. Broocks, Craig, and McDowell are uncharitable in considering other religions, acting as if they are comparable enough with Christianity to be judged in light of similar concerns.
Less surprising is the uncharitable treatment of skeptics, whom we have already seen maligned in preceding chapters. “[A]nyone who examines the evidence fairly will inevitably come to the conclusion that the resurrection happened,” says Rice. Skeptics cherry-pick what they believe out of bias, and “assume from the beginning that all supernatural claims are false, for nothing exists outside of nature.” (p. 96) We’ve critiqued these assertions before. Merely having a worldview does not automatically mean one is committed to screening everything through it and dismissing all contrary evidence right off the bat. Naturalists and theists do have specific background beliefs and experiential knowledge, and these may take some persistent effort to dislodge at times. Again, though, this does not mean the skeptic or the believer has necessarily made up her mind in advance of any and all further information. What should worry Broocks more is another question. If even just most supernatural claims are false – which many Christians do seem to believe in the case of other religions – then where does this leave the resurrection?
On the theory that the disciples hallucinated a risen Jesus, our author argues that it is “primarily promoted by nonmedical writers without any real knowledge of the subject.” (p. 96) He goes on to object that vivid hallucinations do not occur in groups and the disciples did not expect the appearances. Proponents of the hallucination theory may not all have medical degrees, but they often do reference medical literature and medical experts. Keith Parsons cites a number of studies and books in his essay on the hallucination theory in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, as does Matt McCormick in Atheism and the Case Against Christ. The fact that neither of these texts is addressed at all in Man, Myth, Messiah, despite having gained a fair bit of notoriety in skeptical and atheist circles, makes one wonder why Broocks is avoiding the more heavy-hitting engagements of his arguments. As for the disciples expecting the appearances, Acts 23 makes it clear that resurrection was commonly debated at the time, and the apocalyptic nature of the earliest Christian documents (i.e., 1 Thess. 4:15-5:4; 1 Cor. 15:51-52, Mark 1:15, 13:30, etc.) suggests that there was some basis for expecting a resurrection after all.
Other alternative explanations discussed in the chapter are the late legendary invention of the resurrection, the swoon theory, and the stolen body theory. With the last of these, Broocks merely declares that “virtually no competent scholar” defends it because it only explains the empty tomb. (p. 98) Although I agree that the first two are not particularly strong arguments, for many of the same reasons as Rice lays out, the remark on the stolen body theory is really not a counterpoint. No rule forbids a best explanation from drawing on multiple related hypotheses fitting all the data. The overall probability of that explanation may decrease depending on its constituents, but that doesn’t de facto mean the resurrection is the better explanation. Such a dismissal of the stolen body theory is, I think, an example of moving the goal post, as is the claim that the disciples were not expecting appearances. Rice notes the disciples fled, yet this presumes a great deal about why they fled. What exactly it means psychologically to expect an appearance is questionable, too. There are cases of people having bereavement hallucinations who would say they were not expecting them. If the apologist tries to suggest that those folks must’ve expected to see their loved one because they did hallucinate, then there’s no reason to think this logic can’t work just as well for the disciples.
Somewhat surprisingly, Broocks introduces a paragraph-long quote from Bart Ehrman by stating that the “problems of all alternative explanations have been recognized by even some of the most ardent skeptics.” (p. 98) Dr. Ehrman does discuss how apologists relentlessly attack the alternative theories, but the context Rice puts his words in gives the misleading impression that Ehrman agrees with the apologists. The next few sentences beyond where Broocks ends the quote are revealing (italics are mine):
Clearly, this shows that Bart the “ardent skeptic” does not actually recognize the problems alleged by Broocks and his fellow apologists. He prefers to remain uncommitted for an altogether different reason, though he’s careful to explain why the resurrection is less plausible than its alternatives.
“Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate test for the truth of the Christian faith,” writes Pastor Broocks. “The resurrection then supports the Scripture’s divine inspiration and reliability, not the other way around.” (p. 102) Anticipating an accusation of circularity here, Rice breaks down the argument further in an attempt to set things straight. The beginning premise, he explains, says “that Jesus existed and that His crucifixion by the Roman leader Pontius Pilate is part of the historical record. Therefore, His resurrection is the best explanation of the historical facts that even skeptics recognize as true.” But the first premise he gives is actually stated: “Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead in history.” (p. 105) This formulation seems to sneak in the resurrection as part of the historical record, even though it is supposedly the explanation of the historical data. The reason this matters is because while Josephus and other non-biblical sources can be claimed as historical support for the existence and crucifixion of Jesus, no such non-biblical sources establish the resurrection itself. Especially if we concern ourselves with the very earliest material, historical attestation of the resurrection is confined to the New Testament.
A comment from Gary Habermas helps tease this problem out:
What we have here seems to be the idea that the resurrection is a well-attested fact of history, and not just the best explanation of the minimal facts. Thus, the preservation of scripture is irrelevant to it. But as noted, the historical source material for the resurrection is confined to the New Testament. Even many of the minimal facts that allegedly show the resurrection to be historical are derived right from scripture and nowhere else. It appears that either Broocks is equivocating in his use of the term “history,” or his argument is circular, despite his protests to the contrary.
Is reverend Rice perhaps the one really assuming his conclusion first? He has named the resurrection as the foundation of Christian faith, and in the rest of the chapter he describes several other conclusions that he thinks come from it, like the accurate preservation of Jesus’ teachings, the identity of Jesus, the divine inspiration of the biblical authors, and so forth. The quote from Habermas seriously calls into question the falsifiability of the resurrection by throwing out one of the major ways it can be critiqued. Skeptical arguments are addressed with dismissive allegations of presumptuous bias, as well as ad hoc rationalizations. It certainly seems as if Broocks has invested tremendously in the resurrection. The arguments, on the other hand, prove far less drastic.
Chapter 6: Dispelling the Myths: The Uniqueness of the Jesus Story
When I first began to question my religious beliefs several years ago, the impetus for that re-examination was Jesus mythicism. Through the wonder of the internet and the brazenness of select (non-scholarly) books, I encountered the idea that Christianity borrowed from other ancient myths and pagan religions. Jesus was not as unique as believers thought, but shared many things in common with Horus, Mithras, Osiris, and other dying-and-rising gods. At the time, these purported parallels did shake my faith, though it was not long until the cracks in the copycat savior stories started to grow exponentially. The more I read into the alleged similarities, the more I realized they suffered from glaring problems, and, worse still, many who propagated the similarity claims seemed largely unconcerned with the accuracy of what they’d go on repeating.
From this introduction, it’s probably not surprising that I find little to disagree with in Pastor Broocks’ sixth chapter, looking at supposed pagan parallels to Jesus. Religulous and Zeitgeist take most of the heat – two films that have been criticized by atheists and skeptics as well as believers. Tim Callahan expertly takes apart Zeitgeist in an online article for Skeptic, and P.Z. Myers has long been a vocal critic of Maher and Religulous. Misinformation, originating on any side, ought to be exposed and addressed rather than justified on the grounds of victory ‘by any means necessary.’ Skepticism makes its strongest criticisms on the basis of standards of rational argumentation and reasonable belief.
Mythicism, Rice says, typically falters in three ways: sources, scholars, and substance. “Skeptics typically make assertions out of thin air, or they quote earlier writers who made the same claim but also failed to cite any original sources.” (p. 130) This issue first became especially apparent to me in the work of Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, who are also mentioned by Broocks. In The Jesus Mysteries, for example, the duo often leave important claims either unsourced, or they cite a dubious source as if it were uncontroversial. Freke and Gandy lack relevant scholarly credentials, qualifying them for the second criterion in the list, too. Additionally, some parallels, like the performing of miracles, are common to so many religions that by themselves they can hardly be claimed as evidence of one tradition borrowing from another.
Relying on the work of historians and religious scholars, our author dismantles a number of alleged similarities between Jesus and pagan figures ranging from Horus and Osiris to Mithras and Krishna. Krishna was not crucified, Mithras was not born of a virgin, and Osiris wasn’t really resurrected so much as he was reassembled. Appolonius of Tyana and Dionysius are also noted towards the end of the chapter, but are given very short discussion. Honestly, though, brevity is excusable when much of the material being considered just doesn’t bring a lot to the table. Certain parallels like a December 25th birth-date are practically laughable, since no early Christian source ever actually designates that date as the birth of Christ. People may latch onto these ideas because they sound conclusive and some folks don’t know any better, but these sorts of easily refuted arguments run the added risk of damaging one’s credibility in the eyes of others when the errors are discovered.
On the other hand, there are exceptions that don’t quite conform to the sweeping generalizations sometimes made by Broocks. Earl Doherty, Robert Price, and Richard Carrier have written fairly well-sourced and honest mythicist texts that are not as easy to dismiss, and they even appear to agree with apologists on many of the criticisms of mythicism. It would have been more interesting to see some of their claims taken up in the chapter, instead of the usual pop culture level material. Nonetheless, as an initial response to the common copycat savior claims, Rice’s sixth chapter is essentially on point, particularly in explaining how the origin of Christianity is better situated in a Jewish historical context than in a Roman or Egyptian context. As we’ve seen, there are far stronger critiques of Christianity that can be made than mythicism.
Chapter 7: Jesus the Messiah: Son of Man, Son of God
Prophecy is an interesting phenomenon. Claims of divine omens and special knowledge of the future have been around for possibly as long as the human species has been around. Today, many people reject most of these claims, although there are plenty who continue to believe in certain popular seers and prophetic scriptures. Joe Nickell and other skeptics have done great work revealing how the alleged predictions of a famous figure like Nostradamus are mired in ambiguity, confusion, and presumption.40 Still, some continue to believe in the accuracy of such prophecies, despite evidence to the contrary. In the 1950s, social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter studied a UFO cult in Chicago that predicted a coming apocalypse. Their work, published as the classic text When Prophecy Fails, coined the term cognitive dissonance to explain how some groups deal with contradicted expectations. As the date of the expected end came and went, Festinger and his colleagues observed that the UFO believers adopted different ways of explaining away the prophetic failure, many of which tried to avoid an outright admission of error. A 1999 paper by Lorne L. Dawson documents similar strategies among other apocalyptic groups that have had to confront disconfirming evidence.41
It’s true that most of us don’t like to be shown we’re wrong, and we may be slow to accept facts that challenge our beliefs, or we might simply refuse to accept them. This goes for atheists as well as for theists. But there is perhaps a stronger resistance in those who intimately align themselves, their loved ones, their future, their well-being, and practically their everything to a doctrine. When you invest so much in a belief, like the members of the UFO cult in Chicago, that in itself can become a powerful reason to stay committed to that belief even when the facts speak against it.
Chapter seven strives to establish that Jesus is the messiah promised to the Jews. Curiously, the introductory quote declaring that the best interpretation of history and scripture recognizes Christ as the messiah is not from a New Testament scholar, a Professor of Old Testament, or a historian of early Christianity. It comes instead from Stephen C. Meyer, a proponent of intelligent design and fellow at the Discovery Institute. Meyer has a BS in earth science and a PhD in the philosophy of science, so what exactly makes him qualified as an authority on textual interpretation and ancient Jewish messianism is a mystery. Earlier in the book, we saw Pastor Broocks get upset over just this sort of thing with Reza Aslan, and Aslan’s credentials are at least closer to the subject he wrote on than Meyer’s are to his comment. Apparently, you get a pass when you’re on the ‘winning’ team!
Leading up to his eventual discussion of the purported messianic prophecies of Jesus, Rice offers some rebuttals to the kind of humanistic optimism that disputes the need for any supernatural savior. “The assertion that we can be our own salvation,” he says, “is a belief – a faith system.” Without the Holy Spirit, we are “at the mercy of our genes, our fleshly proclivities, and societal pressures,” and once we realize this, it “leads to an existential despair”. (p. 141, 143) This is pretty much a religious doctrine of its own, though, in the sense that being in need of salvation implies that we are lost or in peril. Maybe it is true that there is an element of faith behind believing in our ability to save ourselves, but this is also related to what one believes we need to be saved from. Broocks and his fellow apologists assert that we are too broken to fix ourselves, yet this seems premised on an assumption about the extent of our corruption that no other soteriology is required to share.
Of course, some atheists have seen that we are without salvation and they have despaired. But this longing for hope does not mean the Christian brand of it is true, or even that it is truly fulfilling. Albert Camus saw that we are at the mercy of a world which does not answer to many of our hopes, needs, and desires, especially for cosmic unity, order, and clarity. Yet Camus realized that not even God could redeem us from this absurdity, since it arises from the fact of who are as conscious creatures in a silent universe. “What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me?” he asks in The Myth of Sisyphus. “I can understand only in human terms.”42 To believe in ultimate meaning is to deny the reality of the world that confronts us, preferring comfort to lucidity. Camus argued that a life without hope does not have to be a life of despair. Despair overcomes us when our hope is disappointed, rather than from the absence of hope. She who lives with the absurd lives without hope because she is content with what this world has to offer.
Rice makes some significantly confused statements on pages 143-144:
Physical laws, it deserves to be pointed out, help us understand how the universe works in large part because they have been tested through a variety of experiments and controlled studies. They have shown themselves to be accurate descriptions of reality by standing up to scrutiny under conditions designed to reduce the potential for error. What spiritual laws have been so well demonstrated? Unfortunately, reverend Broocks doesn’t really say what these laws are, let alone how they have been established as laws. From the context, it appears that he thinks these spiritual laws are found in scripture, but then it’s hard to ignore the fact that the biblical texts are pre-scientific literature. Whatever our author has in mind, it’s highly unclear why the so-called laws should be regarded as laws instead of as metaphors, or as primitive understandings that have long since been superseded.
The reference to Freud is no less confused. Although psychoanalysis has increasingly fallen out of favor since the 20th century, the criticisms of the theory have been directed primarily at its lack of scientific rigor. If this was Freud’s problem, would a “spiritual” alternative really fare any better? There are more than a few concerns with Christian psychology or “Biblical counseling” – one major problem being that the focus is often placed on scripture and doctrine instead of on recovery. The language in Broocks’ quote above is very suggestive of this approach, laying the blame on how we “choose to act” while dismissing subconscious behaviors. A great deal of neurological research opposes this single-minded emphasis on personal responsibility as the ‘root of all evil,’ however, and there have been suicides that have resulted during Christian counseling.43 And when the fault always lies with the patient and not with the counselor, even such tragic consequences can still be brushed off and imagined as further confirming the therapy.
In chapter five, we got a quote from Gary Habermas essentially showing that the resurrection is an unfalsifiable article of faith. Here we see another way in which the beliefs of Broocks and those in his camp are not really reached by following the evidence “wherever it leads.” Rice brings spiritual laws and responsibility into the equation in an effort to try and illustrate the need we have for a savior. In doing so, he ends up putting himself at odds with the discipline of psychology, much like he does with respect to history by invoking Popper and miracles, and as he does where biology is concerned through his endorsement of creationism. The worldview Broocks espouses forces him to re-evaluate the evidence around him, rather than the evidence compelling him towards his worldview. Yet more indication of this is that he thinks “the essence of being human” is having the choice between good and evil, and this is why God gave Adam and Eve the ability to fail in the garden. (p. 144) This is a theologically troublesome opinion for many reasons, not least of which is that as the creator of human beings, God could have given us any essence he wanted. Making us free agents absolves God of so many things, from the Fall to the Flood and beyond, but it also places a tremendous burden of responsibility on us. So big, in fact, that Christians have said it takes God himself to save us from it.
My review of this chapter began by noting some peculiarities of prophecy claims. One thing that should be clear upfront is that vague, mundane, and self-fulfilling prophecies are unconvincing evidence of divine intervention. It is all too easy for someone to be unspecific enough that multiple interpretations seem plausible, to be educated enough to know when the odds of something happening are good, and to have the power to make certain things come true through their own effort. Psychic predictions provide numerous examples of these flimsy prophecies. If I say that tomorrow you will run into an old friend, you would be right to question me, even if it did happen. It could be that I ran into your friend and told them where you’d be. It could be that such things are bound to occur considering where people live and the common things we all do, like grocery shop, eat out, see movies, etc. And it could be that an “old friend” is just ambiguous enough to apply to a wide range of people you haven’t seen in some time. True prophecy, if there be such a thing, is more than a mere claim and its apparent fulfillment.
Broocks mentions a number of passages where the New Testament authors describe something that happens as a fulfillment of scripture. So Malachi 4:5-6 and Isaiah 40:3-4, he says, prophesied that John the Baptist would herald the arrival of Jesus. Both are fairly imprecise, though, and what they do provide are details that could easily have been made up or misremembered by the gospel writers. Neither passage is clear enough for anyone to have had any idea who or what it was referring to before John, either. The fact that Malachi actually talks of Elijah, later interpreted by the early Christians as “really” meaning that John the Baptist came in the spirit of Elijah, is an added cause for suspicion. Later, Rice cites Zechariah 12:10 and Daniel 7:13-14, which suffer from similar problems. The latter is claimed as prophecy simply because Jesus uses the imagery and term from Daniel, “Son of Man”, in his own teachings, which would have been something virtually anyone in first century Palestine could have done. The Zechariah verse is supposedly connected with Jesus in mentioning “one pierced”, but the Hebrew root daqar is elsewhere used to describe being stabbed (Numbers 25:8, 1 Samuel 31:4) as well as wounded (Jeremiah 37:10). Thus, the passage seems to be about the offense God takes to foreign nations engaging in conflict with Jerusalem, in context with the remainder of the chapter.
Isaiah 9:6-7 notes the coming birth of a special child, according to Broocks, and Micah 5:2 tells of his birthplace. Yet the verse in Micah clearly states that the Bethlehem named in it is a clan, not a city. Further evidence of this is found in 1 Chronicles 2:50-51. The biggest blow to a Christian interpretation of this prophecy is seen in the surrounding context though, with Micah 5:6, which reads, “He will deliver us from the Assyrian when he invades our land and marches into our borders.” Jesus never repelled an Assyrian invasion, needless to say. Isaiah 9:6-7 is a messianic prophecy, but it talks of a great leader who rules over David’s kingdom in a fashion that evokes the kind of earthly political and military messiah Rice admits the Jews were expecting. When verse 7 speaks of “his government,” it’s difficult to see how this could have applied to Jesus during his lifetime. The Isaiah passage also includes practically no useful references to Christ aside from a small handful of very generic epithets.
Psalm 2:1-12 is given as another prophecy, mostly because of its references to the “Anointed” and “son” of God. Impressive as this scripture may seem at first, it becomes less so when one realizes there are other verses about other messiahs, or anointed ones, including even the Persian emperor Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1). The Bible likewise mentions other “sons of God” (Genesis 6:2, Job 1:6, Psalm 82:6 says “sons of the Most High”), who are treated as divine beings. Against this backdrop, Psalm 2 opens up to other interpretations. But, as I argue in my article on Psalm 22, the psalms have long had their primary context as the poetry of David, and ascribing secondary meanings risks the problem of eisegesis, or reading into the text what isn’t there. Since even another psalm talks about plural sons of God, in a manner that may exclude Jesus (God asks them, “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?”), there is no good reason to assume such language in Psalm 2 is prophesying the life of Jesus.
The seventy weeks prophecy in Daniel 9:25-27 is cited as well. According to this argument, the Daniel passage gives a numerical calculation for the arrival of the messiah in Jerusalem. “From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’” Here the “sevens” are periods of seven years, and when we add the numbers up we get 483 years from the time of the decree to the coming of the messiah. Ezra 1:1-3 states that Cyrus gave his edict in the first year of his reign, which would have been 539 BCE. However, 483 years from that time is only 56 BCE. So some apologists contend that the starting date is actually when a warrant is given for Nehemiah to finally allow for the rebuilding of Jerusalem in 445 BCE. Again, though, 483 years from 445 is 38 CE, a few years after the death of Jesus. Others have tried to use the 360 day Jewish lunar calendar to narrow down the dating of the prophecy even further, coming at last to 32 CE.
In his excellent book Bible Prophecy, skeptic Tim Callahan explains a major issue with this calculation of the seventy weeks prophecy:
After a bit of math, Callahan goes on to show that 19 years on the Jewish lunar calendar is roughly equal to the same amount of time on the 365 day solar calendar. One way or another, the prediction is off.
In a footnote, Broocks concedes these discrepancies: “The exact calculation for the appearance of the Messiah is debated, but the fact that the expected time falls in the general time period of Jesus’ ministry is generally agreed.” (p. 263) Except there is no solid evidence for when precisely Jesus was crucified, when he began his ministry, or even when he was born. The calculations above assume Jesus was born between 1 BCE and 1 CE, and crucified around about the year 32. If the Gospel of Matthew is correct in putting the birth during the reign of King Herod, Jesus would’ve had to have been born before Herod’s death in 4 BCE. Many scholars give a 6 BCE estimate, and if Jesus was crucified at age 32, this would put his death in 26 CE, over 10 years before the 38 CE prediction.
Another problem with interpreting this passage in Daniel as a prophecy of Christ is that the last week is inexplicably frozen in time until the Second Coming. Daniel 9:27 clearly has apocalyptic imagery in it, and since no covenant with the Jews was made and no “abomination of desolation” was set up in the temple in the time after Jesus’ death, many believers say the 70th week is still to come… as it has been for nearly 2,000 years. An alternate take on the prophecy sees it as a postdiction mainly concerning events of the 2nd century BCE, and makes sense of some of these lingering details by noting Antiochus Epiphanes’ desecration of the temple with a statue to Zeus. Every such theory likely has its limits and dissenters, but for our purposes, I think we have seen ample reason for doubting Daniel 9:25-27.
“[S]ome Jewish commentators,” Pastor Rice states, claim that Isaiah 53 is about Israel. But their arguments “rest on a faulty understanding of the passage’s context and interpretation.” (p. 157) For many Christians, the chapter is a powerfully worded prophecy of Jesus’ crucifixion. I have a separate article showing in some detail why Broocks’ remark here is dead wrong. Not only does the Jewish view of Isaiah 53 go back at least to the time of the early church father Origen, but it fits better with the textual evidence, the surrounding context, and other scriptures that depict the servant as Israel (Isaiah 41:8, 44:1, 44:21, etc.). The audacity with which Broocks insists that Jewish scholars do not know their own scriptures is both remarkable and ironic.
Closing the chapter, we get a story of a “legendary preacher” who could rattle off from memory where all Jesus can be found in the Old Testament. “Christ is seen in Exodus as the Passover lamb, in Numbers as the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. In Joshua, He was the captain of our salvation; in Judges, he’s our lawgiver.” (p. 169) These examples reveal both the feeble nature of the prophetic claims and the disposition of many believers to see Jesus everywhere when they read their Bibles. Like the UFO cult mentioned before, some Christians seem willing to do whatever it takes to protect their faith in miracles and fulfilled prophecies, not only in the Bible but sometimes in daily life as well. Whole volumes have been written on these subjects, and skeptical arguments, like the disconfirming evidence of a past-due rapture date, are rationalized away in sometimes very inventive responses. Yet the case for Jesus as the Jewish messiah remains sketchy, built as it is on interpretations that are often ambiguous, confused, and presumptuous. One need not even abandon their faith to acknowledge that the Jewish scriptures did not speak of Jesus. We should be as critical of biblical prophecies as we are of similarly flawed claims from outside the Bible.
Chapter 8: Miracles: Evidence for the Supernatural
It’s no secret that plenty of people in our world are desperate for a miracle. Whether we’re talking about signs of a divine presence or acts of healing, miracles provide a sense of hope by seemingly expanding the possibilities confronting us, and giving the impression that someone special is paying attention. Those who claim experience of a miracle often draw a connection to what they or others have suffered, turning an unexplained event into a specific response to pain, hardship, or trouble. Some of us deliberately seek out signs and miracles from above when we feel lost or hurt, and in vulnerable moments we may latch onto even the slightest coincidence as an answer to our plight. We attribute certain miracles to different deities and religious figures, and we sometimes find the miraculous in events that are indistinguishable from the ordinary occurrences of everyday life. The variety of miracle claims invites skepticism.
Reverend Broocks sets out in chapter eight to establish “the philosophical possibility of miracles, as well as the biblical and historical testimony of their reality and the principles by which they work.” “The same faith in [Christ],” he says, “can still produce the kind of results today that it did two thousand years ago.” (p. 172, 174) It’s worth pointing out that not all Christians agree on this second statement. Cessationists appeal to both scripture and experience to argue that the spiritual gifts of the early apostles are not still around today. Along these lines, Thomas Schreiner, a professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes:
Broocks believes that these kinds of healings and miracles are indeed being demonstrated today, but Professor Schreiner’s remarks help to underscore a general problem here. Knowing what we know now about science, medicine, and how easily the mind can be fooled, how confident can we really be that some of the unexplained phenomena witnessed and documented by modern believers are actually akin to the miracles presented in the Bible?
Pastor Rice says his journey as a minister began with a “supernatural encounter” that involved him giving a ‘word from the Lord’ to a stranger. Approaching a young man playing basketball in a gym at Mississippi State University, Broocks informed his fellow student that he felt called on to pray for him, which made the young man’s jaw drop, according to the story. “He had prayed that very prayer the night before,” we are told. (p. 172) This serves as a prime example of the difference Schreiner suggests there is between the miracles of scripture and what gets passed off as a miracle or supernatural encounter these days. There is no healing, no astounding prediction, no command over nature, and nothing all that unusual. One might ask how Broocks could have known what the student prayed the night before, but we don’t find out in the chapter what it was that Rice prayed. Was it the same word for word? Just the gist? Could it have been a common prayer prayed by most believers or by most students? Magicians and self-proclaimed psychics have produced more impressive work using the technique of cold reading. There are so many alternative explanations for this miracle claim that it’s doubtful to hold up under more careful examination.
College campuses are an important setting, though, according to Broocks, “because students can certainly tend to be skeptical. If something happens that is inexplicable in terms of natural causes, they are reticent to ascribe it to being a miracle or a direct result of divine action.” (p. 173) Yet students are also suggestible, which in fact seems to be a big reason behind Rice’s personal concern for student ministry. If college kids are so easily talked out of their faith by professors, would they not be just as easily talked into faith by campus preachers? I believe a bit more in the independent thought of students than this implies; such effortlessly swayed individuals can hardly be called “skeptical” in any rightful sense. But it may be that that most people, not only students, are typically reluctant to think of the merely inexplicable as miraculous. Suggestion and expectation play a vital role as well in the attribution of certain things to divine agency.
Of course, campuses aren’t the only places where Rice thinks faith is flourishing. Spiritual awakenings are happening “all around the world,” he declares, and specific attention is focused on Korea and China. How have these nations experienced a religious resurgence? Broocks mentions attending a meeting in Korea in 1984 that was attended by over a million people. The Christian population in South Korea has grown substantially since the early 20th century, now at around 29%. However, as Phillip Connor at the Pew Research Center observes, the Protestant population in South Korea has actually grown very little since the 1980s.46 Catholics have been on the rise in that time, but still accounted for only 11% of the population in 2005. The unaffiliated remain the largest group. This information, along with the relaxation of religious restrictions in the country over the past several decades, makes the rise of South Korean Christianity look somewhat less “meteoric.” Notably, no argument whatsoever is made to show that Koreans have been converting en masse due to miraculous encounters.
With China, Rice at least attempts to connect its rise in faith with the supernatural. The China Christian Council, he states, estimates that half of the conversions to Christianity in the last twenty years have been caused by “faith healing experiences.” (p. 173) The Council on Foreign Relations does document a steady increase in Chinese Christians since the 1970s, but this increase practically mirrors that among Chinese Buddhists, who outnumber Christians twofold.47 Folk-religionists grew in that time as well, at a much higher rate than Christians did, and they still remain the overwhelming majority religious affiliation in the country. It is tough to explain these comparable religious trends if we’re to suppose that Christianity experienced some special explosion in numbers due to faith healing. On the contrary, Christianity’s development in China seems to fit quite comfortably with the religious development of the nation as a whole.
“In order to dismiss the testimonials of supernatural events,” Broocks claims, “you have to rule out ahead of time (a priori) the possibility of miracles. In other words, in order to believe no miracles have ever happened, one must begin by assuming no miracles can happen.” (p. 175) This attack on skeptics for clinging to a prior prejudice against the supernatural is a favorite talking point of apologists. When the main goal is to make your opponent appear unreasonable, it’s easy to do so by accusing them of refusing to honestly consider the evidence. But Rice’s assertion here is very visibly mistaken. There is a big difference between possibility and probability when it comes to how we evaluate explanations. Although some skeptics have argued against the possibility of miracles, this is certainly not the only available objection. It is not an a priori prejudice to suggest, for example, that the success of naturalistic explanations makes the initial probability of miracles low. This is rather an objection based on observation and evidence: it is a posteriori. The skeptic can acknowledge that miracles are possible and yet unlikely. Nothing commits her to choosing between believing that either some miracle testimonies must be true, or believing that all miracles are impossible. That is a false dichotomy. This mistake will resurface again shortly.
Broocks offers a bizarre argument for the possibility of miracles:
– This Creator (God) would be supernatural in nature and essence.
– This supernatural Creator could interact with our world and cause certain events to happen beyond what solely natural laws could produce. (p. 175)
The third bullet point, or conclusion, does not follow from the two preceding premises. In premise one, it is stated that the creator brings nature “into existence,” though nothing is said about interacting with or intervening in our world. Creation is an act or an event, distinct from other subsequent acts and events like miracles. While this might seem a controversial claim to some, it’s arguable that certain Christian doctrines like the Fall do imply a finished creation, one that is able to experience corruption and sin. Were God still in the process of creation, it can be suggested, there would yet be no corruption. Other teachings like the seventh day of rest also imply that creation is not ongoing.
Theologians have distinguished God’s role as creator from his role as sustainer, the latter of which refers to God’s continual support of, and involvement with, creation. This idea of a divine sustainer stands at odds with the view of deists and other believers who see God as the cosmic watchmaker that built the universe and then stepped back to let it run. One more reason to think that Rice’s argument is a non sequitur is by noticing that deists accept the two premises while rejecting the conclusion, and yet this does not seem to reveal any apparent inconsistency on their part. All it seems to do is confirm what we already suspected – that there is a difference between the act of cosmic creation and the performance of miracles. It could be contested that if God is powerful enough to create, he must be powerful enough to intervene, but this doesn’t look like what Broocks is claiming, and the assumption of a particular causal relationship between the natural and the supernatural is open to questioning. Logically, then, the argument doesn’t work.
Nonetheless, I do not hold the view that miracles are impossible, so I agree with Rice’s conclusion even though I find his argument flawed. I’m even inclined to agree that miracle stories were likely a very early part of the Christian communities that sprung up after Jesus’ death. However, I do take issue with his dismissal of skeptics as disbelieving Christ’s miracles “because of their prior disbelief in their possibility”. Broocks goes after Bart Ehrman once again, though he should know better in this instance. Recall from chapter one that Broocks accepts the task of historians is establishing probability, he cites some of Ehrman’s views on historical reliability, and yet he pretends as if Ehrman has a deep and undisclosed ulterior motivation for being skeptical of the gospel miracles. “How could someone, who had been paralyzed since birth, through the power of suggestion begin to walk?” wonders our author. (p. 178) This just goes to show how reluctant some devout believers are to ask the tough questions about their faith. As accurate as Broocks may think the gospels are, it’s an assumption on his part to think the text is correct about a man being paralyzed since birth and then getting up and walking. What archaeological find, eyewitness reference, or philosophical argument really demonstrates the truth of such a specific detail of scripture?
In an amazingly gutsy sleight of hand, Broocks tries to offer a more definitive argument: “And if the resurrection took place, then the miraculous does not only become possible but probable. Therefore, the accounts of miracles from the New Testament must also be considered possible, which leads to the clear conclusion that they actually happened.” (p. 178) Without mincing words, this is an embarrassing leap into desperation. The most it indicates is that the reverend Rice doesn’t actually seem to grasp some of the important conceptual differences he’s discussed in other chapters. I once had a roommate who, after misunderstanding reports about “vampire” graves in the news a couple years back, said to me with a straight face that this probably means werewolves, Bigfoot, aliens, and other paranormal creatures are real, too. This amusing thought does not take evidence seriously, though, since it acts as if we do not need to be equally diligent with all such claims. No amount of reasoning about one particular miracle, even the resurrection, can make other miracles probable. These are just further non sequiturs, including the leap from possibility to facticity, as if the latter is synonymous with probability. Historians don’t deal in certainties about what “actually happened,” as Rice explained in chapter one, they deal in estimates, in probabilities. And, as I hinted above, miracles run into problems because they are understood as improbable acts of God.
The philosopher David Hume, who critiqued miracle claims during the Enlightenment era, is accused by Broocks of arguing that “witnesses to miracles are illiterate, uneducated, and superstitious, so their testimony cannot be trusted.” Rice thinks that Hume’s “problem” is one of circularity, which he says is due to the assumption that “the everyday experience of all people is that the laws of nature alone dictate all that happens… To summarize, Hume throws out all the evidence for the miraculous by assuming any such evidence could only come from people who are unreliable, for only unreliable people would claim something that is impossible.” (p. 180-181) There is, however, a lot more to Hume than this suggests.
In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume lays out one main argument, followed by five sub-arguments or additional conditions on the acceptance of miracle testimony. The five sub-arguments pertain to the quality of attestation, the temptation to believe wondrous things, the cultural contexts of miracle stories, conflicting religious claims, and the strong desire many people have towards religious claims. Broocks’ first remark appears to be an uncharitable reading of the first and third sub-arguments. What Hume writes is rather different: “there is not to be found, in all history, any miracle attested by a sufficient number of men, of such unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning, as to secure us against all delusion in themselves”.48 This looks more like an admission of the fact that anyone can be mistaken and fooled than a dismissal of miracle reports for coming from ‘stupid’ people. For the third sub-argument, Hume does talk of how “ignorant and barbarous nations” tend to be the ones that have passed down miracle stories, but this just seems to be a reference to the comparatively uneducated state of our predecessors. Ironically, Rice practically hands this point to Hume in saying that:
Convenient! God knows and goes where he can work wonders that will have much less of a chance of being verified by reasonable and rigorous standards of evidence. Rice has an answer for everything, but none of this really explains how Hume’s criteria exclude even the sheer possibility of miracles. Hume’s sub-arguments are reasons for skepticism, taken from observation, and Christian apologists often invoke some of the very same reasons for doubting the miracle claims of other religions.
What about the charge of circularity? J.L. Mackie says that Hume’s central argument is an epistemological one aiming not to show that miracles never can happen, but only that we never have good reasons for believing they have happened. Thus, it isn’t that laws of nature “dictate” everything, but that they form a double-edged sword of sorts for the miracle proponent. Both Hume and the believer in a miracle need the notion of a well-established law of nature; Hume needs it to question miracle claims, and the believer needs it to determine when a claim is miraculous. Broocks recognizes this when he states that “it is because we know the laws of nature that we are able to detect when something unusual or outside of those laws has happened.” (p. 176) The believer “must in effect concede to Hume,” Mackie writes, “that the antecedent probability of this event is as high as it could be, hence that, apart from the testimony, we have the strongest possible grounds for believing that the alleged event did not occur. This event must, by the miracle advocate’s own admission, be contrary to a genuine, not merely a supposed, law of nature, and therefore maximally improbable. It is this maximal improbability that the weight of the testimony would have to overcome.”49
Are there any miracle testimonials that overcome this high improbability? Rice gives very little detail in the chapter, but does list a few stories from a few sources he relies on for documented miracles. His most prominent source is Craig Keener’s massive 2-volume work Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. Because the text is used mainly as a reference for further digging, I will not be discussing its numerous reports here. I recommend those who are interested read the in-depth, multi-part review of the book by classicist Matthew Ferguson. Ferguson’s review is instructive and insightful about many of the issues concerning miracles that we have looked here.
Broocks also cites stories of near-death experiences, one study allegedly showing the efficacy of prayer healing, and a miracle reported in a 1976 book by Richard Casdorph. My article on What Happens After We Die? gives a skeptical response to near-death and out-of-body experiences, as well as other supposed evidence of an afterlife. Epiphenom explains several problems with the prayer healing study in a post at Patheos. Keener and Casdorph have both reported on the supposed miracles of Kathryn Kuhlman, whose work was later studied by surgeon William A. Nolen. Of the 23 people he followed up on, Nolen not only found no evidence of a cure, but he learned “one woman who was said to have been cured of spinal cancer threw away her brace and ran across the stage at Kuhlman’s command; her spine collapsed the next day, according to Nolen, and she died four months later.”50 Needless to say, such tragic endings to faith healings are nowhere to be seen in chapter eight.
Tellingly, the “most common experience” of a miracle, according to our author, is “to see people recover from an illness or an accident after doctors have given up hope.” (p. 189) There is a lot packed into this assertion. What suggests to us when doctors have given up hope? What are the expected rates of recovery for these illnesses and accidents, and how would falling within those rates be miraculous? Can cases of spontaneous remission qualify for a miracle in the way Broocks describes it? As we just saw, Rice knows that a good way to tell what is miraculous is to see when something happens outside the bounds of natural law. Yet so many of the examples he gives in the chapter are far from clear on this. They stand out noticeably from the miracles depicted in scripture, which was mentioned above by Professor Schreiner. To make matters worse, Broocks admits there are “just as many cases, if not more, where there was no healing or miracle.” But rather than rethinking his belief in miracles, Rice doubles down. “The real failure is not to pray in the first place. Usually nothing happens if we do nothing.” (p. 189) One could argue that prayer is doing nothing, especially in the cases where medical treatment is neglected or abandoned in favor of prayer, and patients suffer and die as a result.
I think it’s safe to say that most Christians today do not think the miracles at the center of their faith are on par with the clever deceptions, sideshow tricks, and mildly curious coincidences taken by some people as signs and miracles. Even Pastor Broocks probably doesn’t believe every supernatural claim he hears (although it’s hard to imagine what wouldn’t pass his muster, after reading this chapter). Finding miracles everywhere might seem an exciting way to live, but the reality is that if everything is miraculous then nothing is. The rarity and improbability of miracles is what makes them special and meaningful to many religious believers, yet it’s also what makes them matters of faith, difficult to demonstrate and elusive to interpretation. One need not regard them as impossibilities to be generally skeptical.
Chapter 9: Following Jesus: Answering the Call to Discipleship
For the ninth chapter, reverend Rice provides some remarks on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Since Man, Myth, Messiah is primarily concerned with instructing fellow believers on how to share their faith (p. xxii-xxiii), the bulk of discussion here has to do with what the author frequently refers to as “the cost of discipleship.” There are, of course, different views on what makes a person a Christian, and on how a Christian should live, but at least according to Broocks the most important aspect of following Jesus is telling others the gospel message. Preaching the good news is, he wants to make clear, sometimes a challenging and difficult calling, albeit a very rewarding one, too.
“[W]ithout question, the most ominous and disturbing threat we currently face is terrorism. If you are a follower of Christ, you are often one of the most likely to be the target of this kind of intentional violence.” (p. 193) Broocks claims that terrorist groups like ISIS are killing Christians in particular because they are Christians. ISIS has indeed gone after Christian populations in several Middle Eastern countries, but the simplistic depiction of the conflict as radical Islam versus pacifistic Christianity does not give the full picture.
International organizations like the UN and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation have produced documented studies showing that ISIS has killed many more Muslims than Christians or Westerners.51 Yet the media persistently reports a different narrative. “ISIS Kills Scores of Christians in Retaken Syrian Town,” reads a headline from Newsweek, while The Daily Mail says “Christians face being wiped out from the Middle East within TEN YEARS as they are killed by ISIS.”52 Some news sources point out that ISIS sets demands for Christians, such as choosing between leaving the country, converting to Islam, paying a tax, or facing execution.53 These demands apply not just to Christians but to all so-called infidels. Many Christians in Syria have taken up arms in resistance to ISIS as well, fighting in groups like Sutoro, the Syriac Military Council, or the recently formed and all-female outfit known as the The Female Protection Forces of the Land Between the Two Rivers.54 ISIS has committed horrific and inhumane offenses against Christians, to be sure, as they have done against non-Christians. However, suggesting that there is some special persecution directed at Christians purely because of their faith does not seem to be supported by the facts.
Understandably, Broocks wants to distance his religious views from the kind of religiously-motivated extremism and violence seen in ISIS. Being a follower of Jesus is marked by two significant things, he claims: radical love for God and radical love for others. Hypocrisy among believers tends to come from “the absence of a commitment to surrender everything to the authority and lordship of Christ,” (p. 197) and it was Jesus who taught to “love your enemies.” Of course, this generates a lot of questions for those who believe today. Are Christians really called to love everyone, even enemies like the members of ISIS? Do militant Christian groups live by Jesus’ teachings, or are they actually failing to turn the other cheek and stay silent before their accusers? I am not alleging hypocrisy here against anyone, but these are difficult questions to consider and we live now in a different time. Similarly, the hadith teaches: “Do not let yourselves be ‘yes-men’, saying: ‘If the people are good then we will be good, and if they are wrong then we will be wrong.’ Rather, make up your own minds, if the people are good then you are good, and if they are evil, then do not behave unjustly.” (Jami at-Tirmidhi) It is not just the presence of such teachings that is important, but what they are interpreted to mean.
Rice says that having a radical love for God means “to love what He loves and hate what He hates. God hates sin, plain and simple.” (p. 196) This is a perfect instance where one’s interpretation is key. Some Christians believe that homosexuality is a sin. Following on from Broocks’ statement, then, we can ask what it means to hate homosexuality as God hates it. Does it mean merely abstaining from it yourself? Do you have to hate homosexuality in others, too? If you hate sin as God does, won’t you hate it wherever it’s located? And if you hate the behavior of your neighbor, at what point do you just begin to hate your neighbor? We can certainly dislike how others treat us at times while still loving them as a person. We can even love them while pushing for them to live up to more of their potential, to be a better person. But there is a very fuzzy line we’ve all crossed, when we realize that we don’t accept another person like we think we do. We tell ourselves we want what’s best for them, when all we essentially want is for them to be something they are not. Loving others becomes confused with manipulating others.
Naturally, this is part of why Broocks includes radical love for others as a vital aspect of following Jesus. Speaking of the behavior of the Christians that first impacted him, Rice states that they had a “deep compassion,” they were “nonjudgmental and caring,” and they did not look down on non-Christians. (p. 197) But what was it about these believers that told him they were compassionate, caring, and nonjudgmental? No further details are given. These may be good qualities to have, yet it’s not always an easy matter to tell the difference between genuine concern for others and a concern driven by ulterior motives. Loving people for who they are can look very different from loving people in order to get something from them, be that something a material reward or a profession of support. I would’ve liked to read more from reverend Broocks on his idea of radical love for others.
The right attitude of faith is modeled on Jesus’ instruction in Mark 8 to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow God. Quoting the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis in 1945, Broocks notes that grace is costly because “what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.” (p. 203) What could really cost much of the all-powerful and all-knowing creator of the universe, though? We saw some of the issues surrounding the penal substitutionary atonement view in chapter four. The notion that God had no choice but to punish sin by incurring a tremendous loss is controversial itself. To further imply that God, as master debt-collector, has put an extraordinary price on our salvation because of the debt paid at the cross is even more troubling. It practically renders the sacrifice of Christ entirely pointless. Not only is there an unjust transferral of punishment to an innocent, but we are then made to pay up anyway for the cost of sin.
In a moment of surprising candor, Rice writes: “All truth is from God and can be expressed by anyone, including atheists.” (p. 204) Of course, he doesn’t think everything expressed by an atheist is truth, but this is a commendable and challenging admission if taken seriously. Predictably, though, backpedaling occurs nary a page later.
If Broocks dismisses all atheist objections to his religious views as non-intellectually based, then he need not seriously consider that they might be expressing some truth. This is not to say that atheists are right in thinking that God does not exist, but that they may at least be right in their critiques of arguments like those put forward by Pastor Rice. Conveniently, our author has given himself an out by suggesting that skeptical objections in general are rooted in moral and sexual preferences.
Once again, though, Broocks doesn’t seem to have carefully thought through the logic of this position. There have been plenty of theologians and Christian philosophers who have offered critiques of theistic arguments, such as Tim McGrew, Michael Almeida, and Wes Morriston. Is Rice really going to claim that these believers’ objections are driven by worldly moral and sexual practices, too? It can be granted that Christians are not perfect and can “slip into sin” without really affecting the force of this point. If Broocks tries to maintain his position, it will appear to look much less like a truthful observation than a mere ad hominem attack used to dismiss whatever counter-arguments he doesn’t like. There is nothing about the character of most objections to theism or to Christianity that suggests an underlying moral or sexual motivation, and the fact that such objections can be, and have been, endorsed by believers and non-believers alike basically eviscerates this prejudicial presumption.
The remainder of the chapter consists mostly of advice on ministry and discipleship. Since that is beyond the focus of this review, we will move on to the tenth and final chapter of the book.
Chapter 10: Defenders of the Faith: Prepared to Share the Gospel
“It seems we are good at talking to Christians about being better Christians,” Pastor Broocks writes, “but not good at all in explaining the reasons for the validity of the faith to unbelievers.” (p. 231) Man, Myth, Messiah ends with some recommendation on how to strengthen one’s faith and how to share it with the non-believing. Rice sums up the process in the acronym G.R.E.A.T., which stands for Gospel, Reasons, Empathy, Approach, and Tools. These different terms mean pretty much what you probably imagine they mean. Articulate the gospel, give reasons to believe, be empathetic to others, make your approach engaging, and make use of tools to help you get the message across. These steps can “make any individual a faithful witness and any congregation a place of dynamic outreach to non-Christians.” (p. 228)
There’s not much I want to say on this. As we’ve seen, Broocks and many of his fellow evangelists believe that there are non-intellectual stumbling blocks preventing most unbelievers from accepting Christ. It’s not surprising, then, that their focus is not only on the rational case for belief, but on how to package and market faith in a more appealing manner. There is wisdom to this, in my opinion, because it doesn’t seem that changing a person’s beliefs is always a simple matter of showing them the raw data or evidence. Christians have the Great Commission as a crucial aspect of their faith, steering them towards converting others, but whether or not atheists ought to adopt a similar insistence on conversion is controversial and up for debate.
Rice laments that the “winds of change sweep Western culture, causing massive confusion in the areas of sexual ethics and even gender identity. This is a testimony to the tragic lack of truth needed to adequately anchor our personal lives as well as our societies.” (p. 221) I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wonder why some apologists apparently have such an obsession with the sexual preferences and gender identities of other people. If there is confusion on these issues in Western culture, perhaps it’s confusion that has been created by prejudicial religious values rather than by any great decaying of society. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul encourages his brothers and sisters in Christ to avoid sexual immorality, to control their own bodies, and yet at the end of his admonition, he adds some interesting instruction.
Even though Paul elsewhere condemns several examples of what he considers to be sexual immorality, here he is telling believers in no uncertain terms “mind your own business”! In another letter discussing the temptations faced by Christians, Paul asks:
Of course, many Christians claim that they are not really judging anyone, that it’s God who has judged them. However, this is an unconvincing retort when those evangelizing think of themselves as called by God to witness to others. Broocks put it above as loving what God loves and hating what he hates. This is judging as God judges, and, as we saw, it becomes a slippery slope when one tries to distinguish their distaste for sin in other people from a distaste of other people. Paul seems to suggest watching over your own heart first, rather than preoccupying yourself with the sins of everyone else.
To be fair, Rice does say a lot that is praiseworthy in the chapter about preaching the truth in love. “We need not only to be prepared to give reasons for the hope that is in us but also to do it with gentleness and respect,” he reminds his readers. “Whatever approach we use to engage others with the gospel must include that tone to our dialogue.” (p. 236) Once again, though, these words mean a lot less compared to their interpretation and how they’re put into action.
In my review of Broocks’ first book, God’s Not Dead, I noted a substantial number of quite clearly unloving statements about atheists and skeptics, suggesting that unbelievers are unthinking, that they’re headed for insanity because of their disbelief, and so on. Thankfully, this antagonistic attitude is largely missing from Man, Myth, Messiah. Rice notes he spent “hundreds” of hours exposing himself to skeptical and atheist arguments to prepare for writing God’s Not Dead, during which time he “made sure that no doubts or accusations against God’s truth remained unchallenged” in his heart and mind. “At times,” he says, “I had to use the shield of faith to extinguish the doubtful aftertaste that accompanied these writings.” (p. 222) It sounds as if the New Atheists were a challenge to Broocks, and in this respect it’s maybe understandable that he adopted a caustic and highly defensive posture in his preceding book. It may also be a little telling that he felt he had to ‘spiritually inoculate’ himself after reading criticism of his beliefs.
Personally, I think one of the worst things we can do in any conversation is to puff out our chests, hide behind derisive rhetoric, and refuse to let any contrary ideas under our radar. I’ve observed this in atheists and theists alike, and although it may persuade some of the less confident and the equally dogmatic, it never accomplishes anything in the long run. All of us drop our defenses at times, and as Rice points out, it’s often our friends, family, and loved ones who manage to get to us and ask the tough questions. When the primary focus is reaching other people, we can lose sight of our ideals of honesty and accuracy in a quest to convince, to win over someone. Personal testimonies have the weight they do with many folks because they don’t pretend to be grand demonstrations or disproofs; they are typically far more relatable. Unfortunately, in this day and age – the age of Donald Trump – humility doesn’t sell much anymore. This is why it’s all the more worthwhile, in my view, to recognize that our aim can’t be victory first and foremost. Especially as atheists, but also as denizens of this world, we must remember our humanity and remember to live.
Epilogue: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Reverend Broocks makes clear what his endgame is in the epilogue. “Regardless of your calling and occupation,” he decalres, “the gospel should be your priority. The obstacles that stand in the way must be identified and removed.” (p. 243) Our author’s Christianity is a Christianity of conversion at almost any cost. Not so surprising for a pastor whose doctorate is in missions work. Drawing on the stories of Augustine and John Wesley, Rice emphasizes the need for maintaining faith in times of doubt. Citing the advice of Wesley’s mentor, Peter Bohler, we are told: “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” (p. 250)
Fascinatingly, this is practically the exact opposite to how the book began, with an expressed desire to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Now the reader is encouraged to begin specifically by preaching, by acting as if the claims of faith are true. This is of particular interest given that we’ve seen Broocks frequently criticize skeptics who begin by assuming the supernatural doesn’t exist. Rice likely doesn’t see his ending remarks as assuming the truth of Christian belief at the outset, but it’s difficult to know how else to take them.
Throughout this review, we have seen that many of the arguments for the resurrection and for Christianity in general do not hold up under critical scrutiny. Some of the problems have been pointed out by historians, by philosophers, and even by other Christian scholars. Things are not so simple as is implied by the suggestion that any “honest” evaluation of the evidence on offer will lead to belief. Despite Rice’s persistent attacks on skeptics, there remains ample reason to doubt that Jesus was raised from the dead. As a last ditch effort, certain apologists argue that the involvement of God tips the scales beyond the improbable, since God would surely want to redeem humanity even through the sacrifice of his son.
Michael Martin explains where this thinking goes wrong:
It may be tempting for a Christian like Broocks to blow off a point like this as coming from a preconceived bias against miracles or the resurrection. What it actually shows, though, is the amount of assumption that goes into believing a miracle claim. Hume and other skeptics have noted that these assumptions, along with the weak quality of miracle testimony, comprise a case that is never strong enough to stand up to the much greater likelihood that we have merely been deceived. Thus, Hume concluded his discussion of miracles by stating that the Christian religion is “founded on Faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial as it is, by no means, fitted to endure.”56
Man, Myth, Messiah is a superior book to its predecessor in a few ways, especially in its tone, structure, writing style, and depth of research. I found this a more enjoyable read than God’s Not Dead, although it has little original content in terms of arguments and ideas, and sometimes commits the same intellectual mistakes the first book did. It’s not likely to impact most well-read skeptics, but it seems more intended to be an evangelizing tool, anyway. For those who are looking to dig a bit deeper without hitting all the technical writings, this is an easy and accessible introduction to the resurrection debate.
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2. Gibson charged with drunken driving, CNN.com (Aug. 3, 2006). Retrieved April 9, 2016.
3. Do the minimal facts support the resurrection? Gary Habermas & James Crossley, Premier Christian Radio (Aug. 1, 2015). Retrieved April 9, 2016.
4. Rice Broocks, Man, Myth, Messiah: Answering History’s Greatest Question (Thomas Nelson, 2016), p. xv.
5. Amy Mitchell et al., Political Polarization & Media Habits, Pew Research Center (Oct. 21, 2014). Retrieved April 9, 2016.
6. U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, Pew Research Center (Sept. 28, 2010). Retrieved April 9, 2016.
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8. David Papineau, Naturalism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Sept. 15, 2015). Retrieved April 10, 2016.
9. Gary R. Habermas, Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present, GaryHabermas.com (2005). Retrieved April 12, 2016.
10. Richard Carrier, Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix, Freethought Blogs (Nov. 26, 2013). Retrieved April 12, 2016.
11. Josephus, Jewish War 4.81, 7.399.
12. Leonard Rutgers, “Roman Policy towards the Jews: Expulsions from the City of Rome during the First Century C.E.,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Apr. 1994), p. 57.
13. Craig Evans, “Roman Law and the Burial of Jesus,” Matthew and Mark Across Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2016), ed. Kristian Bendoraitis and Nijay Gupta, p. 57.
14. John G. Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (Mohr Siebeck, 2014), p. 385-386.
15. Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God (HarperCollins, 2014), p. 158.
16. Ibid, p. 158.
17. James F. McGrath, Early Converted Skeptics?, Exploring Our Matrix (Aug. 7, 2009). Retrieved April 14, 2016.
18. Keith Parsons, in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Prometheus, 2005), ed. Jeffery Jay Lowder and Robert M. Price, p. 441.
19. Matthew S. McCormick, Atheism and the Case Against Christ (Prometheus, 2012), p. 84-85.
20. Ibid, p. 58-59.
21. Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels (Trinity Press, 1990), p. 253-255.
22. Elizabeth Loftus, The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994); D.L.M. Sacchi, F. Agnoli and Elizabeth Loftus, Changing History: Doctored Photographs Affect Memory for Past Public Events, Applied Cognitive Psychology 21 (2007): 1005-1022.
23. Tomas Hägg, The Art of Biography in Antiquity (Cambridge, 2012), p. 155.
24. Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted (HarperOne, 2009), p. 106.
25. D.E. Nineham, Saint Mark (Penguin, 1963), p. 422.
26. D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” in the New Bible Commentary (InterVarsity Press, 1994), ed. G.J. Wenham, J.A. Moyter, D.A. Carson and R.T. France.
27. L. Michael White gives such examples in Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (HarperOne, 2010), p. 302-303.
28. Burton L. Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament?: The Making of the Christian Myth (HarperCollins, 1995), p. 230-231.
29. Vernon K. Robbins, By Land and By Sea: The We-Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages, in Perspectives on Luke-Acts (Mercer University Press, 1978), ed. C.H. Talbert.
30. Josephus, Antiquities 18.1-8, 20.97 and 20.171.
31. McCormick, Atheism and the Case Against Christ, p. 40.
32. Two examples would be the concluding chapter in The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, and chapters 3-4 in Evidence for the Resurrection by Josh McDowell.
33. Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Zondervan, 2003), p. 16.
34. James F. McGrath, What’s Wrong With Penal Substitution?, Exploring Our Matrix (Dec. 14, 2007). Retrieved May 8, 2016.
35. For examples: Douglas R.A. Hare, Mark (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p. 27; Anne Marie Drew, Praying Thieves and the God Who Loves Them No Matter What (Church Publishing, 2006), p. 26; Kevin Landis, 8 Seconds: The Cowboy Guide to Riding the Christian Life (Tate Publishing, 2007), p. 127.
36. Stephen Thornton, Karl Popper, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Feb 5, 2013). Retrieved May 11, 2016.
37. Sean McDowell and William Lane Craig, Can I Get a Witness?, SeanMcDowell.org (Mar. 14, 2016). Retrieved May 11, 2016.
38. Lisa Miller and Joanna Chen, Raiders of the Lost Tomb?, Newsweek (Mar. 5, 2007). Archived Mar. 7, 2007.
39. Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 165.
40. Joe Nickell, Nostradamus: A New Look at an Old Seer, Skeptical Inquirer vol. 34.5 (Sept/Oct 2010). Retrieved May 19, 2016.
41. Lorne L. Dawson, “When Prophecy Fails and Faith Persists: A Theoretical Overview,” Nova Religio vol. 3, no. 1 (October 1999): pp. 60-82.
42. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (Vintage, 1991), p. 51.
43. Kathryn Joyce, The Rise of Biblical Counseling, Pacific Standard (Sept. 2, 2014). Retrieved May 19, 2016.
44. Tim Callahan, Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment? (Millennium Press, 1997), p. 172.
45. Thomas Schreiner, Why I Am a Cessationist, The Gospel Coalition (Jan. 22, 2014). Retrieved May 24, 2016.
46. Phillip Connor, 6 facts about South Korea’s growing Christian population, Pew Research Center (August 12, 2014). Retrieved May 24, 2016.
47. Eleanor Albert, Religion in China, Council on Foreign Relations (June 10, 2015). Retrieved May 24, 2016.
48. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Hackett Publishing, 1993), p. 78.
49. J.L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford, 1982), p. 19, 25.
50. James Randi, The Faith Healers (Prometheus Books, 1989), p. 228.
51. Dean Obeidallah, ISIS’s Gruesome Muslim Death Toll, The Daily Beast (Oct. 7, 2014); Rose Troup Buchanan, Paris attacks: Isis responsible for more Muslim deaths than western victims, The Independent (Nov. 17, 2015). Retrieved May 28, 2016.
52. Conor Gaffey, ISIS Kills Scores of Christians in Retaken Syrian Town: Report, Newsweek (April 11, 2016); Simon Tomlinson, Christians face being wiped out from the Middle East within TEN YEARS as they are killed by ISIS or forced to flee persecution, warn Catholic aid groups, The Daily Mail (Nov. 10, 2015). Retrieved May 28, 2016.
53. Eliott C. McLaughlin, ISIS executes more Christians in Libya, video shows, CNN.com (April 20, 2015). Retrieved May 28, 2016.
54. Sofia Barbarani, Meet the Christian Soldiers Fighting for Their Lives Against ISIS, Haaretz (Dec. 16, 2014); Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen, Christian militia in Syria defends ancient settlements against Isis, The Guardian (Mar. 3, 2015); Rachel Bishop and Delil Souleiman, Female fighters form fierce Christian militia to take on ISIS in Syria, Mirror (Dec. 13, 2015). Retrieved May 28, 2016.
55. Michael Martin, in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Prometheus, 2005), p. 49.
56. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, p. 89.