Saturday, October 08, 2005

True Skepticism Cuts Both Ways

My Apologetics Log series on the infancy narratives started today. It will last for several weeks, concluding on December 24.

There was another illustration of the significance of this subject earlier this week in my ongoing discussion with Jon Curry on Greg Krehbiel's board. Curry's latest list of alleged Biblical errors includes a vague reference to "contradictions" in the infancy narratives and a claim that Josephus surely would have recorded the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem if the event was historical.

Curry, like other critics of Christianity, would have to propose hundreds of hallucinations, memory losses, misunderstandings, and other widespread errors among eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Jesus and the apostles in order to give a naturalistic explanation for documents like Luke and Acts. Yet, as soon as he comes across even a single passage in such a document that he considers a plausible error, he claims that he can't believe that the passage is correct or that the document is inerrant.

One of the alleged Biblical errors Curry has been emphasizing is the difference between Matthew's account of Judas having hanged himself and Luke's account of Judas having fallen headlong. Curry singled out this alleged error when he was trying to make a point in our discussion, so he apparently thinks that this is one of the most difficult errors in the Bible to explain. I explained to him that the differences can be reconciled if Matthew was focusing on what Judas did, whereas Luke was focusing on what happened to Judas' body and how what happened to his body reflects the sort of shameful life that he lived. Luke mentions that "he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out" (Acts 1:18), so it isn't unreasonable to suggest that Luke's focus is on what happened to the body. If Judas hanged himself, the falling headlong would be a result of a broken rope, a broken branch (suicide by hanging is often done by jumping from a tree), or somebody removing the body later. Is there some difficulty involved in reconciling these passages in Matthew and Acts? Yes. But to keep these things in perspective, let's consider one of Jon Curry's difficulties as a skeptic.

Curry argues that Paul was hallucinating when he thought he saw the risen Christ. Although I went into detail to defend my explanation of the Judas passages, Curry still hasn't gone into detail to explain his hallucination theory. Hallucinations are rare. Paul gives us some information about his psychological state prior to becoming a Christian (in Philippians 3, for example), and what he tells us isn't consistent with what we know about the conditions under which people experience hallucinations. Similarly, the accounts of Paul's experience in Acts (written by a companion of Paul) don't suggest that he was in a condition in which hallucinations would be likely. And how would Paul's subjective hallucination result in his travel companions seeing the light, hearing the voice, and falling to the ground? How would a hallucination cause Paul to lose his eyesight? How would a hallucination give Paul the ability to perform miracles? How would a hallucination bring Ananias to Paul? Why would hundreds of other people, such as those mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, corroborate such a hallucination with similar experiences of their own? Why wouldn't Paul have later realized that it was a hallucination, much as people who experience an optical illusion or hallucination today often change their mind later on? If Paul was in the sort of condition that would have made him susceptible to hallucination, wouldn't he have realized that he was in such a rare condition and have considered the possibility that he was mistaken? For example:

“U.S. Navy SEALS are arguably the most elite fighting force in the world. Before becoming a SEAL, the candidate must complete a grueling ‘Hell Week.’ All of the candidates are put through intense exercises and experience extreme stress during the week on only a total of three to five hours of sleep. As extreme fatigue and sleep deprivation quickly set in, most of the candidates experience hallucinations. According to several SEALS interviewed, most hallucinations occur while the candidates, as a team, paddle in a raft out in the ocean. One believed that he saw an octopus come out of the water and wave at him! Another thought he saw a train coming across the water headed straight toward the raft. Another believed that he saw a large wall, which the raft would crash into if the team persisted in paddling. When the octopus, train, and wall were pointed out by the candidates to the rest of the team, no one else saw them, even though they were all in the same frame of mind. Most of them hallucinated at some point, but none of them participated in the hallucination of another.” (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], p. 106)

I doubt that the Navy SEALS are convinced that their hallucinations were real experiences, never considering the possibility that their sleep deprivation, for example, may have misled them. And if Paul did hallucinate, he and his travel companions must have experienced multiple hallucinations or other psychological disorders simultaneously:

"Gary Habermas has pointed out to me in personal conversation that Goulder's hypothesis also has little plausibility in that it requires the conspiration of at least four separate psychological disorders occurring simultaneously in Paul: a conversion disorder (these are not, contrary to Goulder's representation of them, hallucinatory in character), a visual hallucination, an auditory hallucination, and a messianic complex involving the belief that one had been commissioned by God." (William Craig, in Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli, editors, Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Figment? [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000], p. 196)

There are all sorts of problems with the hallucination theory (for more details, see here, for example). Curry's theory about Paul having hallucinated is far more difficult to accept than my explanation of the Judas passages. Critics like Curry will repeatedly swallow camels while straining gnats.

One of Curry's common arguments is to claim that ancient people were gullible and to dismiss widespread testimony of the miraculous on the basis of such vague references to gullibility. Curry cites an article by Richard Carrier to support his argument. Read Carrier's article here. Then read Glenn Miller's response here. The difference in the quality of the two articles is stark. (See also Christopher Price's answer to Carrier here and J.P. Holding's articles on various historical figures and gods mentioned by Carrier.)

As Miller documents, Carrier repeatedly cites historical and legendary figures who are different from Jesus in highly significant ways and who had followings of perhaps 1-3% of the population. Yet, Carrier uses these examples to reach the conclusion that almost everybody in the ancient world was gullible. Miller correctly draws a parallel to our age:

"The recent (2002) legal action in the USA against the psychic hotline of Miss Cleo involved 6 million callers, out of an adult population base around 200m--3%."

Miller gives example after example of Carrier's bad reasoning. J.P. Holding does the same in his responses to Carrier.

Even if we accepted all of Carrier's claims, which we shouldn't, his argument doesn't even address something like fulfilled prophecies that wouldn't be affected by an alleged gullibility of ancient people. And Carrier acknowledges that there was a minority that wasn't so gullible. We know that men like Paul and Luke were highly educated. Some of the early sources, like Paul and James, had been skeptical. You can't cite something like widespread belief in ghosts or widespread belief in horoscopes to dismiss twenty-first century witnesses as gullible, nor can you cite material like Richard Carrier's to dismiss first century witnesses as gullible. You have to make case-by-case judgments. An eyewitness like Paul or a demonstrably knowledgeable and reliable source like Luke (see here and here) is highly unlikely to have experienced the sort of widespread hallucinations, memory lapses, misunderstandings, remarkably bad judgments, and other errors that the theories of skeptics would require.

There are difficulties in defending Christianity. But there are worse difficulties in defending skeptical theories about the evidence. When somebody like Jon Curry decides to renounce Jesus Christ, he ought to have spent less time reading sources like Farrell Till and Richard Carrier and more time reading conservative scholarship. People swallowing camels like a hallucinating Paul shouldn't be straining at gnats like how Judas could have fallen in addition to hanging himself. Skeptics regularly attempt to dismiss miracle accounts with theories that they would never accept in defense of Biblical inerrancy. But the defenders of inerrancy don't need to put forward such theories. We don't need to appeal to mass hallucinations, widespread memory loss, and such in the manner that skeptics do in defending their theories.

As we go into this Christmas season, and we see the usual media stories about the infancy narratives and skeptical web sites claiming to refute the Biblical accounts, we need to keep in mind that true skepticism cuts both ways. Be skeptical of the skeptics, and you'll see that what they swallow is more implausible than what they reject.