Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Christopher Hitchers on "The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.

Chapter ten, "The Tawdriness of the Miraculous and the Decline of Hell," is about miracles. This is the chapter I expected under "The Metaphysical Claims of the Religion Are False."

Hitchens opens the chapter by recounting the fable of a man who couldn't stop telling this story of a miraculous long jump he performed on the island of Rhodes. Eventually his friends grew weary of the story and one of them said "Hic Rhodus, hic salta," "Here is Rhodes, jump here!" In the same way, religions claim validation by miraculous deeds of the past--events like the Exodus, the resurrection of Jesus, or the flight of Muhammed to Jerusalem. "Has the art of resurrection died out," asks Hitchens, "Or are we relying on dubious sources?"

The Scottish philosopher David Hume was the most devastating critic of miracles. Defining a miracle as a disturbance of what is normal or expected, Hume points out that miracles also involve a decision. When Moses saw the burning bush, he had two possible interpretations: (1) the laws of physics have temporarily been suspended, or (2) I am delusional. Which is more likely? Hume continues that when you consider reports of miracles that you didn't actually witness, you have to adjust the odds accordingly. You must further adjust the odds when you are considering reports of miracles by people who lived thousands of years ago and whose testimonies have been past down in books that may or may not have been corrupted.

Hitchens challenges the reader to compare miracle claims with claims of UFO sightings. On what basis can we reject UFO sightings as the ramblings of lunatics, and yet accept testimonies like Matthew 27:51–53 ESV, "And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many"?

Hitchens' challenge is fair, and my response is in two parts. First, the empty tomb and resurrection appearances are necessary but not sufficient for faith. Second, the continuing work of the Holy Spirit is necessary but not sufficient for faith. The three in tandem (empty tomb, resurrection appearances, continuing work of the Holy Spirit) are sufficient for faith.

The empty tomb and resurrection appearances are necessary but not sufficient for faith. Many Christians may be shocked to read that sentence, but I'll explain. First, the empty tomb and resurrection appearances are necessary for faith. N.T. Wright covers this wonderfully in The Resurrection of the Son of God and (the more readable) Surprised by Hope. He argues that the early church needed both an empty tomb and resurrection appearances in order to believe. If someone presented the corpse of Jesus, the resurrection appearances would have been dismissed as delusions. If there were no resurrection appearances, the empty tomb would have been a mystery, but it probably would have been dismissed as grave robbery. But because there was both, the early Christians concluded that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Paul himself notes that if there is no resurrection, there is no Christianity (1 Corinthians 15:12–19).

Hitchens counters that the resurrection doesn't prove Jesus was God. True. But, we have no other record of anyone else raising himself or herself from the grave, so the resurrection of Jesus at least gives us a reason to consider his claims to be unique. When you put that together with the claims that he made about himself, the divinity of Jesus is not a reach (the Transfiguration perhaps is the tipping point). If he's not God, then he is the most supernaturally powerful human being ever, who for one reason or another decided to deceive millions of people throughout history into thinking he was God. As C.S. Lewis noted, this would make Jesus the most demonic figure in human history.

The empty tomb and resurrection appearances may be necessary for faith, but are they sufficient grounds for faith today? I would say that they are not. I think Hitchens (well, Hume really) nails this. Why do we accept the supernatural claims of the Bible and not those of other religions? Why do we believe in the resurrection of Jesus and not UFO claims?

There has to be something in play that makes Christianity's claim of the miraculous more credible than other religions' claims. Richard Dawkins says that most people don't believe in thousands of gods; some people just go one god farther. Along the same lines, Christians reject thousands of miracle claims made by competing religions. What basis do we have to accept the resurrection?

The continuing work of the Holy Spirit is necessary but not sufficient for faith. Galatians 3:1–6 ESV says:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain- if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith- just as Abraham "believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"?
Notice in this passage what the basis is for Paul's arguing for justification by faith and not works of the law--they received the Spirit by faith. Reception of the Spirit by faith was evidence that Paul's Gospel was true and the judaizers was false.

In 1 Thessalonians 1:4–5 ESV, Paul writes, "For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake." Paul's preaching was validated by miraculous works of the Spirit.

Finally, in 1 Corinthians 2:3-5, Paul writes, "And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." Again, demonstrations of the Spirit accompanied Paul's preaching, validating his message.

Christianity needs the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the continuing work of the Spirit to be valid. With just the ancient testimonies, there is no reason to accept its claims over those of other religions. With just the Spirit, it is an existential philosophy with no grounds in history. But with both, it is a valid (and in my opinion, compelling) faith option.

Why do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus and not in UFO's? Because the work of the Holy Spirit in my life and in the life of my church validates the message of the Gospel. Could personal transformation be explained by means other than the Holy Spirit? Perhaps. But I don't think so. Maybe I don't have stone-cold logic to prove that it is so, but everything inside of me says that it is so.

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