The Magician-Free Illusion of Objective Morality

Based on the frequency it has been posed to me, Christians find that objective morality is particularly convincing evidence of their God. The “Moral Argument” contends not only that objective morality is a thing that exists, but that a God is required for it…. therefore God.

Despite my persistent asking, no one has ever given me an example of this objective morality. However, moral argument proponent William Lane Craig was kind enough to provide a definition that I think we can work with. “To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so,” he writes.

The evidence presented for the existence of this objective morality tends to rely exclusively on appeal to emotion, appeal to intuition, scripture verses or references to Nazis. Of course, none of these things are actual evidence.

I have yet to be presented with a compelling case that objective morality exists. As far as any philosopher or layperson has demonstrated, morality is subjective. Any objectivity you cling to is as illusory as the flat, stationary ground we stand on while the sun goes down. More importantly, I trust you will see that this illusion requires no external magician to explain it.

Evaluating Behavior

Objective or subjective aside, I think we can all agree that morality is primarily concerned with behavior, and determining which behaviors are better than others. Some will simplistically label behaviors with a binary “right” or “wrong” system. Most, however, will be sophisticated enough to acknowledge that morality is more of a spectrum.

For the sake of illustration, let’s imagine that we can plot actions on a two-dimensional grid. In the center, we would find the most moral action – point A. For all other potential actions, we would evaluate their morality based on the distance from point A. The further from the center, the less moral. The closer, more moral.


So points D and E are equally moral, though less moral than C, which is in turn less moral than B. This evaluation of distance is true regardless of whether you believe it or not. In this way, we can objectively evaluate behavior. The moral argument seems sound so far.

All the Starting Points

However, if you’ve been around humans for any length of time, you may have noticed that determining a “most moral action” is likely to cause some disagreement. To determine it, some would factor in theology, or ideology, or pragmatism, societal pressures, or perhaps merely personal preference. This perspective is unique to each individual. As such, we end up with a new graph.


We are now confronted with the view that determining the morality of an action depends on the point from which you measure. Actions B, C, D and E are different distances from the different purple dots. Our observation of the present, and analysis of history, tells us that this accurately reflects how humans make decisions about behavior. Different groups, right down to different individuals, choose their own starting point and act accordingly. And these starting points change over time.

Of course, that there are many adopted starting points tells us nothing about the existence of an objective point A. Indeed, by the apologist’s definition, point A needs to be correct whether anyone believes it or not.

But you can see that any given action will have an objective assessment relative to each subjective starting point. And, of course, a person standing at any given point feels equally entitled to the objective correctness of their view as anyone standing at any other point. It is all relative.

At this point, you may protest that while everyone has an opinion, some opinions simply must be more right than others for we “just know” in our head/heart/gut that generosity is more moral than genocide.

Animal Kingdom

Let’s set aside human morality for a minute and take a look at behavior in the animal kingdom.

Apart from the advantages of warm-bloodedness, one of the keys to the flourishing of mammals on the earth has been their tendency toward being social animals. Despite varying degrees, the list of social mammals is extensive… bats, cats, chimps, dogs, dolphins, elephants, gerbils, gorillas, horses, hyenas, leopards, lions, meerkats, orca, rabbits, rats, wolves and zebra, to name a few.

It is a common misconception to think of the phrase “survival of the fittest” in terms of the slowest gazelle in a herd, who will more likely be dinner than a parent. But it is to the advantage of a species to exhibit what biologists call reciprocal altruism — when an organism acts in a manner temporarily reducing its fitness while increasing another organism’s fitness. The sacrificing organism carries the expectation that the other will act in a similar manner at a later time. Such actions increase the fitness of the species.

For example, vampire bats who fail on a given night’s hunt will beg another bat for food. The fed bat may regurgitate some blood to sustain the other member. While any bat may donate to any other bat, researchers have found that the sharing does not happen proportionally. Bats are most likely to share with relatives, next most often with bats from the same colony, and least likely with those from outside the colony. This is an example of tribalism — a hierarchy of loyalism to those most likely to further an individual’s genes or species.

Of course, some animals go beyond altruism and develop negative reciprocity where individuals who fail to provide for the group are punished or shunned by the group. These non-cooperative individuals are excluded from breeding, thus ensuring the next generation is more likely to have the altruistic traits. For example, macaques that find food without giving food calls to others become the target of aggression. Domestic horses that are fed separately within sight of the group will be attacked upon return. As such, these animals learn social consequences of their actions.

In more complex social structures, individuals are allowed levels of individual expression so long as that expression does not jeopardize the group. While elephants are lead by a matriarch, she will listen to and accommodate requests from adults and juveniles alike. Some elephants become popular while others do not, outside of leadership and lineage. Dolphins researchers identify that each individual dolphin has a unique whistle that identifies him to other members of his pod, and that the pod will respond uniquely depending on the perceived behavior of the individual.

Naturalist Morality: Well-Being

Christian apologists tend to hold that morality is a trait unique to specially created humans, so would think of animal behavior as instinctual rather than moral. A naturalist would claim that social behavior has given some species an evolutionary benefit and these were honed in millions of years of natural selection. Either way, one could identify a moral system that would arise from the behavior of social mammals.

As for all animals, the key priority would be survival of the species, followed by the flourishing of the group and then individual self-preservation and preference. Morality would be determined by a blend of…

  • altruistic reciprocity – a kind of do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you “golden rule” (as made popular by the writing of Confucius some 500 years before the events of the New Testament)
  • consequentialism – if everyone in society acted a certain way, what would the consequences be? what are the consequences of an act to the individual?
  • tribalism – greatest loyalty for those closest in genetics or proximity… family, clan, tribe, species, territory, continent, planet (for when Independence Day happens for real), universe
  • individual rights – when not in direct conflict with the needs of the group, the preference of the individual is honored. (My right to swing my fist stops at the point your nose begins.)

Such a moral code would require no divine revelation as it would be determined solely by biological and evolutionary necessity and advantage. We will call this naturalistic moral system “well-being”.

The Necessity of God

A moral system based on natural “well-being” requires no divine revelation to find consensus. Biological and evolutionary necessity and advantage are all that is needed.


“Well-being” is not “borrowing from a religious world view” as a theist may charge, though the confusion is understandable. On the “obvious” moral values — murder, theft, assault, kindness, and the like — the various surviving world theologies are predictably aligned with natural survival traits. (Theologies or ideologies that promote destructive behavior will ultimately go extinct as adherents disappear.)

Please be clear, I am not advocating that a “well-being” morality system is in any way objective. It is every bit as subjective as any other theology or ideology, despite having my personal endorsement. No, I present it here to demonstrate that what theists point to as objective morals “divinely written on our hearts” is adequately, if not superiorly, explained without need of a supernatural source.

But you may object, this “well-being” morality doesn’t explain how we know that witcheshomosexuals and atheists must be put to death, where to buy slaves and how badly to beat them, that rape victims should be forced to marry their rapist, that the teaching of a woman is less desirable than that of a man, and that polyester / cotton blends are immoral. That’s true. Those things have nothing to do with well-being. For those judgements, you would need a never-changing decree from a god.

It might come as a surprise to you, but if you don’t follow everything listed in the paragraph above, then you have created your own subjective morality where you evaluate what is right and wrong using your own personal criteria. I applaud this… a system to decide is much better than an inflexible, incomplete, authoritative decree.

Well, Why Should Anyone Care about Well-Being?

It is about at this point that I hear theists throw up their hands and question why a secular-minded person would care about well being in the first place. (Maybe they throw in a “since we’re just a collection of atoms” for good measure.)

This is obviously a non-sequetor to the moral argument being presented, since the assertion is that objective morality is independent of anyone agreeing or adhering to it. If it’s ok to ignore objective morality, it must be ok to ignore subjective.

This is like discussing the relative health merits of jogging vs. eating a bag of potato chips, but trying to end the discussion by asking why anyone should even care if they are being healthy. Obviously, many people do not care about their own health. You cannot make someone care about health, despite what may seem like self-evident reasons. This has no bearing on an attempt to evaluate the health benefit of actions. We just agree to a common reference point that health is better than non-health, whether such an assumption is justified or not.

Two people have to agree to a common goal in order to commonly evaluate morality. That’s just the way it works. That’s why all morality is relative.

If we can agree that well-being is better than not-well-being, then discussion can begin. If we can’t, we can’t. No god required.

This is the only life we know we have, and the only society and planet that we are likely to have access to in our lifetimes. That is plenty of justification for a typical secular person, not that it matters.

Burden of Proof

Obviously, the assertions “if God exists, objective moral values exist” and “objective moral values exist” are positive claims that require proof. They do not need to be disproven. I could be completely wrong in every word I wrote, and they would remain unproven assertions.

However, I do believe I have properly demonstrated plausible naturalistic explanations for this intuitive morality that theists appeal to.

Moreover, if this theoretical objective morality does exist, it is of no practical use to we humans, since we cannot identify it. If we could, Christianity would not have thousands of denominations.

The morality you cling to is subjective, your own personal cherry-picking interpretation, because the objective one is no more identifiable than the square root of zero — and no more useful in a proof.



If you’re interested in more on this topic, allow me to suggest any of Matt Dillahunty’s clear discussions on morality, like this one.



Two Weeks of Four Weeks to Live

On April 25 of this year, I added a brief comment to the description of my photo-of-the-day entry, “Was rescanned this afternoon. Still cancer-free.”

My particular cancer, Myxoinflammatory Fibroblastic Sarcoma, has a high recurrence rate and spreads quickly, so I will be scanned multiple times a year for the rest of my life. I probably won’t mention clear diagnosis on social media going forward, but it was novel in April to have had my first post-surgery scan. Ideally they will become boring and routine.

That said, late on May 13 I received a call from the cancer centre to let me know that my x-rays were not clean after all. The doctors found a spot in a right-side rib that was concerning and that they couldn’t identify. I was to report to radioactive medicine the following Wednesday for a bone scan. The caller used the phrase “nothing to worry about” at least five times in the brief call. That’s one of those phrases that seems less genuine the more often it is used.

My mind couldn’t help but leap back to my original diagnosis last fall when my lead oncologist told me, probably more casually than he intended, that “If it gets in your chest, you’ll have about four weeks to live.”

I’m obviously not trained in medicine, but my amateur understanding is that my rib is in my chest. And my math skills are still pretty solid.

This news came as my teens were already scattering to their weekend activities and a week of living at their mom’s house. I hadn’t processed enough to try to wrangle them back and give them this nebulous bit of news. With nothing really to do or to report, I didn’t see a reason to lend any weight to their weekend. Though that decision still bothers me a little, so perhaps it was not the right one. I’ll continue to evaluate that.

The net result was an anvil of uncertainty hanging over my weekend and following days. At one time in my life, the test itself might have been a bigger deal. It required reporting to nuclear medicine first thing in the morning to be injected with a radioactive cocktail that would then need three hours to circulate in my blood enough to permeate bone. Then an hour of needing to hold perfectly still (with some straps to “help”) on a bed slab as square-meter camera panels slowly panned all around me. For a severe claustrophobe, it wasn’t quite as bad as an MRI, but as it was an inch from my nose for way too long. I’ll perhaps ask to have some magazine articles taped to it for next time.

I was told to expect a call in 3-5 days with results, good or bad. “We don’t believe that no news is good news,” the nurse told me. I was too out of it to think to ask if those were business days or planetary rotations. (I foolishly didn’t consider the possibility of those biblical “unspecified time period” days.)

I’ve had the opportunity (“pleasure” is the wrong word, perhaps “honor”) recently to speak with individuals who are having their own cancer scares. My advice has been that the not-knowing waiting-to-hear period is actually the worst part of all of it. The part to live through. Once the diagnosis has been made, the body and mind can snap into battle mode and take whatever seeming torture the treatment brings as steps forward. But in the time of waiting, the mind is left to speculate and mine is capable of conjuring unnatural darkness. (Fed all the more by scraps of rational possibility.)

The mind also has amazing abilities to protect us from realities too big to handle. Distractions and responsibilities allowed me to live the remaining days with a sense of a cloud, but mostly unaffected in general tasks. And, frankly, I’ve already made a lot of peace with the reality of the temporary nature of my life. Any of us could be hit by a bus any day… I just might have the fortune / misfortune of seeing mine coming. I don’t fear or lament the end of me, but merely ache for the impact to my children and others left. (My personal mortality issues are quite different, perhaps for another day.)

But nor will my brain leave me in peace, rather the next eight days were punctuated with random assaults. “If I’m not going to be here, why am I paying this cable bill?”, it would question. “You have one month, and this is what you’re doing?” was common, perhaps loudest when mowing my dandelions.

The greatest trigger was anyone asking me to look ahead past the next week. “Do you have plans for the summer?” is well meaning conversation, but I had to bite back hard to not retaliate with a sharp, “I won’t be here.” Kids and life require some forward looking, but I was completely incapable. There was a big black curtain separating the day I was occupying and those purely hypothetical future squares on the calendar. They were days of existing, but not living.

One of those days was my birthday. Years ago, birthdays became crisis and crossroads days for me, not in any way something to be celebrated… more of an anger renewal. My kids and I had the day before my birthday off of school and work for Canada’s Victoria Day, so we hit the zoo, despite the sn0w-like rain, and had a great time together with a special dinner and daughter-crafted cake. That left my mind undistracted on my actual birthday… not a good idea.

I was ready for either news. Either way was welcome.

On Thursday, 13 days after the original call, I finally heard. It was an administrator talking to me and not a doctor, so that automatically meant good news, but also less information. The spot on my rib was “not cancer” and “unconcerning”. What is it? Since I’m stubbornly unwilling to make an appointment with my doctor only for clarification beyond his call instructions, that revelation will have to wait for my next scans in August.

It’s just a few days past the news now, but I’m looking again at the dandelions that have since sprouted. I have an indeterminate time here, is that what I’m doing?

MQFABSS #6 – What Would Change Your Mind?

The final question from My Questions For a Bible School Student was highly unoriginal. It has been asked in countless debates between theists and atheists, and should continue to be asked every single time.

The answer that most theists give is some variation of “nothing”. You can imagine what it would take for you to change your mind about the love of your spouse, your biological relation to your children or parents, your own name, or your memory-wiped history as a secret spy assassin. Are you really honest with yourself if your answer is “nothing”?

Question From Me

What would make you change your mind about your faith?

Answer From Student (with my commentary)

“The Apostle Paul lays out in chapter 15 verse 17 of 1st Corinthians what would make me change my mind about my faith: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” If this is the case, then Paul writes two verses later that, “we are to be pitied more than all men,” for we have falsely testified about God.”

From this, I infer that you mean that only evidence that Christ has NOT been raised would make you change your mind.

Of course, Christ being raised from the dead is a positive claim, and it is the positive claim must be proven, not the negation. I cannot expect someone to prove that Santa doesn’t deliver all the presents… we would want evidence that Santa does deliver presents.

The question is… is there sufficient evidence to believe that Christ DID rise from the dead? (For those interested, I looked in detail at An Evidence Attested Resurrection? earlier this year.)

“I know Christ is risen from my experience, which is likewise in agreement with countless other believers as well.”

As we explored in the previous question, personal experience is not a reliable way to know anything. Billions of other believers in thousands of other faiths had equally visceral and compelling personal experiences, and you would consider them to be mistaken. (As they would consider you.) How do you know that you are not fooling yourself, as I once fooled myself?

But more to the point, since disproving Christ’s resurrection would cause you to change your mind, and since the way you know this is from your experience only, then what would change your mind is for you to doubt your own experience. To doubt experiences that you agree cannot be easily distinguished from well-known psychological and neurological phenomenon.

It sounds like you owe it to yourself to take an honest, dispassionate look at those experiences. Since you build your entire faith upon them, it would be good to be sure.

“But thats the beauty of faith, my salvation is riding on me. Because God’s word is true, this hope will not be put to shame (Rom. 5:5).”

I assume that the assertion that “God’s word is true” is similarly established only by personal experience.

“It is not what I have done, for I am not perfect and surely cannot meet God’s standard.”

“In order to know that Christ was not raised from the dead and that there is no God, I myself would have to be God.”

I guess that depends on your definition of “know”, which is always slippery.

Though, again, you appeal to the proof of a negation, which I would again point out is a logical fallacy. It is the positive claim that requires evidence. You would similarly have to be God in order to know that there are no unicorns, fairies, Smurfs, nor the pantheon of gods sitting at Mount Olympus. Do you accept all of these as existing, since only an omniscient being can know for sure?

Fortunately, to know that Christ was raised from the dead would not require you to have to be a god. Mere mortals could know that there is a god. All it would take is evidence, and a god willing to provide it.

My Response

Concluding this exercise, I will endeavor to answer my own question. What would it take for me to change my mind about the existence of God?


That’s it. That’s all. Sufficient evidence.

You may rightfully ask, “But Paul, what kind of evidence would possibly be good enough for you?” And this is an excellent question.

My answer? I don’t know what evidence would be sufficient for me to accept the existence of God… but if there is a God, HE KNOWS what it would be, and he chooses not to reveal it.

Until then, I wait. Unconvinced.

MQFABSS #5 – All in my Head?

It’s been a while since our last My Questions For a Bible School Student. Today, we look at the factor I find most-influential to people of faith — personal experience.

Question From Me

How can an outsider know the difference between claims of personal experience of the Holy Spirit, nearly identical claims of personal experience of other faiths, and commonly observed psychological processes like apophenia or confirmation bias?

Answer From Student (with my commentary)

“This is actually a very valid question.”

Finally, I did it!

“Honestly, you just have to take things back to Scripture and see whether or not they line up with it.”

Uh oh. I knew it was too good to be true. It appears that I was not careful enough in the formulation of my question. My intention in using the word outsider was to convey the kind of person who is fully neutral to the claims of any religion or holy book. I take full responsibility for this opacity and will rephrase below for posterity.

One cannot use scripture to validate personal experience while, at the same time, using personal experience to validate scripture. (This thought continued below.)

“As an example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints claim to hold to both the Bible as well as their extra-biblical writings and have the same sort of experience with the Holy Spirit. They affectionately call it a “burning in the bosom.””

It is interesting that some religions are built on top of others. Each subsequent religion is, from a purely statistical and probability science perspective, less likely to be true than a new religion built from scratch. For Islam or Christianity to be true, Judaism must be true, and are therefore less probable to be true than Judaism. For Mormonism to be true, both Christianity and Judaism must be true, and so on.

“However, when looking at the fruit of their work and what they preach, it does not line up with what the Bible teaches. Their gospel, their salvation and their experience with the Holy Spirit is by grace, “after all [they] can do” (2 Nephi. 25:23). It is not by faith and grace solely, but by works.

I would interject here that among the thousands of Christian denominations, and even among the earliest Christ followers and New Testament writers, there is no consensus view on the role of faith, grace and works. Whatever your position on this (or nearly any doctrine), there are equally passionate, researched and well-intentioned believers who disagree with you.

You may say that those who disagree with you are missing the point, or are not true Christians. (Possibly treading closely to the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy.) And you may be right. I certainly would have agreed with you in my past.

However, the point is that 100 people could honestly and reverently approach the Bible looking for confirmation or condemnation of something, and come away with 100 different answers. It is a pity that the will of God could not be made more clear. Perhaps that’s why so many make an appeal to the personal experiences that prompted my question.

When looking and discerning if someone has had a genuine personal experience of the Holy Spirit, just take it to what the Bible says and see whether or not they are seeking this experience for their own gain or interest. Examine the fruit. Matthew 7:16 says that it is by the fruit that people will be recognized.”

Long after senility has robbed me of my children’s names, I will probably still be able to rattle off Galatians 5:22-23… “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

But here’s the thing… Christianity does not have a monopoly on these things. Obviously, I know many Christians who exemplify these qualities — perhaps my father more than anyone. But at the same time, if I had to give you a top 10 of people I know who most closely match this description — the majority would NOT be Christians. I know first hand that it is entirely possible to achieve this ideal without the Holy Spirit. Anecdotally, I might even argue one is more likely to achieve it without God.

Are you saying that the reaction of the person having the experience is a factor in the genuine nature of the experience? Would you argue that every encounter with Holy Spirit is 100% successful in producing fruit? Does that mean that the Holy Spirit has never spoken to a non-believer?

My Response

When I have discussions with Christians about why they believe what they believe, it rarely comes down to evidence or logic or reason. With those who have been willing to talk it through with me, the faith is held ultimately due to some variation of personal experience. Something purely internal. Something felt.

Allow me to rephrase the question to perhaps get to a more pointed answer…

Adherents of all religions around the world claim internal, emotional personal experiences as part of the confirmation for their faith. By what means can you assertain that your encounters with the Holy Spirit are any more genuine than those equally vigorously claimed by a non-Christian, or are something more than commonly observed psychological processes like apophenia and confirmation bias?

Unfortunately, emotions and feelings are not a way to know something. Research in fields like psychology and neurology tell us how the brain is influenced by factors of environment, fatigue, emotions and specific stimuli to produce conditions of intense personal impact. Combine this with apophenia — the human tendancy to apply patterns and meaning to random data — and we have a delicious recipe for feeding our own delusions.

When I was a Christian, there were many times when I felt the presence of God, or God speaking to me. Looking back, those most vivid were all associated with times of emotional vulnerability (camps and youth retreats — over-sugared, under-slept, strange environments, new experiences, intense interpersonal circumstances), programattical manipulation (the well-known psychology of crowds, rallies, music and charismatic speakers) or extreme stress. Those experiences were real enough that I’m reliving them just typing this… but rationally, I cannot differentiate any of them from purely natural responses.

The tricks of emotional manipulation are well known and practiced by movie makers, speech writers, sales people and church leaders. (Just imagine if car salesmen could convince you to fast as few days before walking on to the lot.)

I cannot and would not say that anyone’s personal experiences are not real and sufficient for them, but they are meaningless to anyone other than you. Personal experience cannot be transfered. I would ask you this… if a Muslem (or Jew or Mormon or Buddhist or Satanist) tried to convince you of the validity of their faith based on the convictions of their personal experiences, would that be good enough for you to convert? If not, why not?



How would you have answered this question? How would you have responded to the answer? Where did I go wrong, or too far, or not far enough? Or miss the point? Let me know in the comments below.

Stay tuned for the final question in the series.

MQFABSS #4 – No Leg to Stand On

By now we all know the drill for My Questions For a Bible School Student. This time we look at miracles, and the lack of evidence for them.

Question From Me

A miracle happens when God lends supernatural intervention in the natural world, often in areas of healing. From the outside, these claimed miracles are indistinguishable from medical intervention or natural processes. Why is God willing to perform invisible miracles, but unwilling to regrow the limb of an amputee?

Answer From Student (with my commentary)

“In order to make a claim saying that all miracles are indistinguishable from medical intervention or natural processes, one would have to know every single miracle that has happened on the earth. The reality of it is, is that there are supernatural accounts of healing all over the world and it is not hard to find accounts of these online.”

Shortly after posing this question to you, I discovered the Why Won’t God Heal Amputees? website where one of the How Stuff Works guys makes a bit of a hobby out of this particular question. He has yet to find a record of a human having a limb regenerated by any means, natural or supernatural. I did my own searches and have come up empty. Did you find one?

I did not mean to make a claim about all miracles (which would have been attempting to prove a negative), and should have been more clear that I have yet to hear of a claimed miracle that was distinguishable from medical intervention or natural processes.

My reasserted search, at your behest above, still did not find any exceptions to alter my observation. I would be interested to see any counter-examples anyone might provide.

“Jesus Himself did not always perform miracles when he could have, but rather we see Him slipping into the back. An example of this is in Acts 3. We read a story about a man who had been crippled from birth that Peter and John healed. Jesus would have surely passed by this man during His earthly ministry many times and yet did not heal him. We don’t know when the Father has decided to bring healing or not bring healing. God is not here to serve our needs and desires and Christians need to be careful to not be expecting everything from God, for this really is just manipulating Him to serve us. We may do great things and glorify God with the healing that He provides, but to seek our timing over His is putting Him in a box and not bowing to the will of the sovereign God. The delayed timing and prolonged suffering may serve as a way to bring glory to God by one to faith at some point. In the end, our wisdom is so short sighted and we do not know the whole picture nor will we ever because we are so incapable.”

My Response

When I underwent surgery in January, the doctors had prepared me for the chance that I myself might wake up as an amputee, potentially losing fingers or my entire right hand. While a Luke Skywalker robot limb might have been cool, fortunately for the question at hand (no pun intended), we do not have to confuse the specifics of “why won’t God heal Paul’s amputation” with a general “why won’t God heal ANY amputation”.

Your answer addressed the more common question of why God chooses to answer some prayers and not others, treating my question more along the lines of the common “problem of evil” or “problem of suffering” track. The “God works in mysterious ways” answer is generally what one would expect for that line of real struggle. However, it misses the point I was hoping to drive to.

Believers have claimed supernatural medical miracles healing cancer, heart attacks, paralysis, strokes, blindness, dementia, diabetes, deafness, kidney failure, addictions, sprains, strains, allergies, depression, headaches, colds, soreness, hangnails, heartburn, hiccups, general boo-boos and many more. Among the populations of people who have suffered these conditions over history, God chose to heal some and not to heal others, because reasons. Okay.

But in all my investigation and that of others more vested, we do not find a credible claim of a miracle where a lost limb is restored. God found reasons and cases to intervene in the universe for all of the above, but not a single amputee has been worthy enough or needy enough or met whatever God’s criteria are. Across the whole population, in all of recorded history. People with lost limbs are truly the most God-foresaken humans in the world.

The point of the question is this… until someone can show the difference between a miracle and a merely uncommon (and sometimes not even uncommon) occurrence, there is no reason to accept or assert a supernatural cause. With more than 7 billion people on earth, one-in-a-million events happen 7000 times a day. No causation is implied or required.

Amputees are not healed because there is no god willing or able to heal them. If an all-powerful god exists, he restricts his interventions to invisible natural processes. No rationalization changes the fact that this is indistinguishable from a universe where there is no god at all. And no god at all explains all of the evidence perfectly, no brain contortions required.

If this topic intrigues you, definitely check out Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?

(Image: Danielle Orner is a writer, actress, motivational speaker, cancer survivor, and amputee.)


How would you have answered this question? How would you have responded to the answer? Where did I go wrong, or too far, or not far enough? Or miss the point? Let me know in the comments below.

Stay tuned for question #5. Almost done.

MQFABSS #3 – Evidently Damned

The third ask from My Questions For a Bible School Student was by far the most personal to me. While it poked a little at the common misguided idea that free will is God’s top priority, it wasn’t specifically aimed at debunking a doctrine. Instead, it is just a hard look at my personal eternal destiny.

Question From Me

It is written that God chose to directly reveal himself to Satan, demons, Moses, Judas and others who all maintained their free will to reject the deity. If God chooses the level to which He will reveal himself, but at the same time is the creator of seeking minds that genuinely require greater evidence to believe than He will provide… are such minds not unavoidably destined for hell?

Answer From Student (with my commentary)

“Scripture tells us that God has already revealed Himself through His word.”

I would invite you to read that sentence aloud. This kind of statement is known as circular reasoning, or sometimes begging the question. It contains no actual information.

“He sent His Son, Jesus Christ to live on the earth and to pay the penalty for our sin. John 1:14 says that the “Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us,” and then Jesus Himself says in John 14:6 that “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Hebrews 1:1-2 also attests to the fact that God has revealed Himself in the past through the prophets, but now through His Son. Even though the people in His day such as the Pharisees saw God revealing Himself in human form, they still chose to reject Him (John 1:10). In their “wisdom” they did not know Him (1 Cor. 1:21). He has revealed Himself equally to all men through creation as well (Rom. 1:20). Man who continually rejects God despite the fact that He has clearly revealed Himself is unavoidably destined for hell due to his own sin, for the wages of sin is death, and all have sinned (Rom. 3:23, 6:23).”

You agree with my premise… some whom the Bible claims were offered physical, direct evidence remained free to reject God. This would mean that God has the full spectrum of evidence available to him without interfering with his version of free will.

However, since I personally do not have adequate evidence to believe in the existence of a god, my “rejection” of him is conceptual and not personal. Unlike the privileged selected some, I do not have a chance to reject him on the basis of his merits. As I will be equally condemned as those who believe-yet-reject, have I not lost my free will on this matter?

Perhaps I would like to punish Jennifer Connelly for rejecting me, though she is unaware that I exist. (I’m right there on social media, Jennifer. Do a Google search.)

“There is not a distinction between the “intellectual” and the “common” man, for the gospel is not hard to understand; no greater evidence should be required.”

My question was not about understanding, it was about belief. The concept of the tooth fairy is not hard to understand. Santa Claus is not hard to understand. That does not make them believable figures to an informed adult.

You use the word “should”, but it is one almost entirely without meaning. Evidence is either adequate for an individual, or it is not. (I think of question 1, where the evidence of evolution by common descent is beyond adequate for 99.9% of scientists who actually work in the field day-to-day, but is inadequate for 40% of non-scientist Americans and you.) In such a world, who could determine a standard for “should”?

“Pharaoh leading up to Israel’s exodus out of Egypt would be one who you classify as a “seeking mind that genuinely requires greater evidence to believe.” It is clear that sin hardens the heart, for it is unmistakably clear that Pharaoh received great enough proof of God through the plagues, and yet still chose to be hardened by sins deceitfulness (Ex. 7-12). God created Pharaoh, and yet this leader of Egypt ended up rejecting God’s signs and drowning in the Red Sea in one of God’s great acts of salvation toward those who did put their faith in Him (Ex. 13-14).”

It is interesting that you bring up Pharaoh, as he is the same example I would use in this discussion. Exodus 9:12 states unambiguously that “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses”. According to the Bible, the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, not sin. Pharaoh had no choice in the matter. Bible God picks and chooses.

Hebrews 11:6 sums this up well, for it is only through faith that we are able to please God, and when we do He will reward those who earnestly seek Him.”

The last time I was at a church service, I looked around over the congregation from my seat in the balcony. I could not imagine that any of the worshipers in the building that day had earnestly sought God more than I. Than I do still. I knew most had not. I doubt I will see a reward.

“Ultimately, man will come up with nothing if he puts his trust in man’s wisdom in proving God, for 1st Corinthians 1 says: “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing”; “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom,” and, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor. 1:18, 25, 27). Here is an interesting article on the matter as well!

The article cites nature, purpose, and history as places to find God. Those are among the places I have found him to be glaringly missing… topics for further entries, perhaps.

My Response

My question was, essentially, about predestination.

Ephesians 1:11 tells me of my unlucky non-selection by God. “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”

Your answer focused on the idea that I’ve already received enough evidence, as if our brains have actual choice over what it chooses to believe. With what I currently have evidence for, I could no more believe in the reality of the God of the Bible than you could believe in the reality of Spider-Man. If someone threatened to immediately shoot you in the head unless you honestly and truly believed in your heart in the existence of Spider-Man, you could not do it.

I cannot control what kind of evidence will convince me that a god exists, and I cannot control what kind of evidence will be supplied to me of said existence. Since I cannot control either side of the equation, I have no choice in the matter.

Assuming my mind was created by a god, then he is in full control of both sides of the equation. The ball is in his court. If I burn in hell, it will be because a god planned it to be that way.



How would you have answered this question? How would you have responded to the answer? Where did I go wrong, or too far, or not far enough? Or miss the point? Let me know in the comments below.

Stay tuned for question #4.

MQFABSS #2 – Prophecy Legends

Here is the second answer provided to me in the My Questions for a Bible School Student series, again with some commentary and response from me. As explained in more detail in part 1, my comments are meant to provide some intellectual challenges and potentially-new information of the kind that I wish I had confronted at the Bible school stage of my life (or sooner). Please assume a gentle tone, as tone is not easily conveyed.

Now let’s talk about prophecy…


Question From Me

Why is it more reasonable to believe that Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled by actual historical events in Jesus life, rather than view them as legends that sprung up among wishful thinkers who wanted connections to their old book?

Answer From Student (with my commentary)

“Again, this question boils down to whether or not you believe in the legitimacy of Scripture. If you believe that the Old and New Testaments are self-contained and consistent within itself, then it will be the most reasonable explanation.”

The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations lists over 40 New Testament-era books written about Jesus that were not included in the Bible canon because they were considered fiction, not counting those we don’t know about lost to history. These 40 compared to 4 gospels (or 27 New Testament books). On a statistical basis, how can one say that accuracy is “most reasonable”? Even if there is a mountain of external evidence for the four selected, surely fraud is the default position given the numbers.

If you already believe it’s true, then it seems true?

“To reject this one would have to completely ignore the fact that Jesus, after His resurrection appeared to more than five hundred eye witnesses (1 Cor. 15:6) who could have contested to His resurrection if it were a fake.”

On what basis would a person consider this appearance to be a fact?

Interestingly, this verse is literally the only place — biblical or extra-biblical — that this 500 person claim is made. And Paul, the person who made the claim, explicitly says in the same verse that he was not one of them. He was not a witness, by his own words. (Some say this passage is actually a creed that Paul is reciting, but that just makes the history on it murkier.)

For the sake of argument, let’s say that I take to the news and claim, “Donald Duck performed a concert for 500 fans 10 years ago.” Whom would you propose should come forward to contest this? You weren’t at the concert, on that basis would you speak up? Who could possibly provide evidence that such a thing didn’t happen?

Alternately, how do we know that this wasn’t highly contested at the time?

“The life and death of James is very highly recorded by many sources,”

Do you mean the James, the brother of John, who was reported killed by Herod in Acts 12? The only other source I can find is a mention by church historian Eusebius written in the fourth-century — he quotes a lost work by Clement of Alexandria who himself is retelling a story “from those who had lived before him”. That was 300-year-old fourth-hand gossip at the time of writing.

Or perhaps you mean the James, brother of Jesus, mentioned in one sentence of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities 20.9.1? For the sake of argument, I could leave out my “fruit of a poisonous tree” objections of the earlier Testimonium Flavianum forgery, and count this. But as James’ death isn’t mentioned in the Bible, this would still be just a single source.

“and it would be completely illogical for those who gave their lives for this ‘superstition’ that Josephus mentions to die in such brutal ways for something that was either a lie, or not even thought of at that time.”

Please research how you know how the apostles died. The Bible describes Judas and James, son of Zebedee, so you can just focus on the other ten. What sources tell us how they died? What sources tell us why they died? Could any of them have saved themselves by recanting their claims? (Spoiler – There are no church-accepted sources that tell us any of this. It comes only from sources considered apocryphal and outright heretical. But please research yourself.)

As a short-cut, I do actually go through all twelve fates in my recent An Evidence Attested Resurrection? post, along with my thoughts on the idea that resurrection wasn’t what the apostles were looking for. (Which is, I suppose, tangentially related to the “wishful thinking” prophecy question.)

Here is a link listing forty-four separate messianic prophecies that Jesus fulfilled in His life with the Old Testament prophecies and New Testament fulfillments.”

I’m quite familiar with the lists (some are 100 or 300 long) of supposed prophecy fulfillments. Unfortunately, none of them can be confirmed to have been fulfilled. Most aren’t even prophecies, just cherry-picked phrases from irrelevant passages. Embarrassingly, two of these prophecy fulfillments were based on errors in the Greek translation of the Hebrew (virgin will give birth, and two donkeys on Palm Sunday). See my Prophecy or Easter Eggs? Jesus’ Secret Origins post for excruciating detail.

My Response

When I was at Lucasfilm, I had the pleasure of working with the story group whose responsibility it was to ensure that new stories added to the Star Wars universe were consistent with the established stories. Often we would point out ways that the new stories could connect with the old. To borrow your phrase, the Star Wars universe was “self-contained and consistent within itself”. And yet, it is fiction. It was written to be thus.

My question was, why is it more reasonable to look at the gospels as prophecy fulfillment rather than a sequel designed to fit the original work? The gospel writers often made explicit connection, so they had access to the old material when writing the new, and demonstrated clear motivation to make the fit.

Your answer asserted Jesus’ resurrection as fact, along with the life of James. While these did not address the question of prophecy, this was presumably to help attest to the general reliability of the gospels (though these examples were from Corinthians and Acts).

However, there are at least 40 false gospels that you would call fiction, many of which contain details you consider historical (Pilate, resurrection, etc). In addition, there are other gospels for other non-Jesus messiahs from other Jewish sects at the time, with some historical details about Roman occupation. In addition, there are non-Jewish religious texts from the same region and period, prior to Constantine making Christianity the state religion. All of these you consider to be fiction. Per my question, since the vast majority are fiction, why would treating these remaining four also as fiction an unreasonable position?

I’ve written before that for a prophecy to be a falsifiable prediction, it must be made clearly and demonstrably prior to the events predicted, intended to be a prediction, an extraordinary non-mundane claim, answerable by a single clear verifiable occurrence, not open to interpretation and not something people are actively working to fulfill. Of the list you supplied, I don’t see any that match. Oddly enough, the Jews are heirs to these prophecies, and they are not convinced either.

I completely agree with your assessment that “this question boils down to whether or not you believe in the legitimacy of Scripture”. It is reasonable to take the writers at their word, only if you already take them at their word.



How would you have answered this question? How would you have responded to the answer? Where did I go wrong, or too far, or not far enough? Or miss the point? Let me know in the comments below.

Stay tuned for question #3.

MQFABSS #1 – Literal Interpretation of Genesis

If you have been following this blog, you may remember My Questions for a Bible School Student. After some illness and class catch-up, the Bible school student (BSS) replied with their obviously long-considered answers. With the student’s “I’m comfortable either way” permission to post the answers, I will do so here, one at a time along with some commentary and response. If you’d like to read just the answers given to me, follow the purple text.

BSS gave me a warm off-the-record preamble about their intentions and desired reaction in the tone and substance of their answers. Thank you.

BSS, I’d like to give a similar forward. When I was your age, I would have answered these questions virtually identically to the way you did. That may sound condescending, but it is not intended as such. I have great anger that my Christian education did not treat me with the respect to paint a full picture of the realities of the Bible text and history. And more than that, I have deep regret that I did not take upon myself to evaluate and question the claims in-depth on my own. Everything I write here are things that I wish someone had said to me at your stage of life, and that I would have had the guts and resolve to investigate fully — to strengthen myself in truth. Truth has nothing to fear from information.

Whatever you may think, I care about you a lot and greatly respect your mind, and so I will do my best to be gentle while trying to challenging you. Forgive me if I miss the mark I am setting. You owe it to yourself to look at your beliefs without the lenses of indoctrination. I’m not sure you can do this in your environment, but I hope that you can. After that, whatever you decide is fine with me, as long as your decisions are fully informed.

For the rest of my readers, you are a fly on the wall… though I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section.

Question From Me

Charles Darwin knew nothing of genes and could certainly never have imagined modern gene sequencing technologies. From this data rises phylogenetic trees that perfectly fit every organism on earth based entirely on common genetic characteristics, without reliance on fossils, morphology or vestigial traits. This same data shows sites of ancient endogenous retrovirus attacks across varied species, the equivalent of finding the same hair in the same place on photocopies around the globe. Millions of Catholics and other believers accept this as evidence of a common designer and have integrated the billions of years of evolution into their faith, much like the then-heretical acceptance that the Earth goes around the sun generations ago. Why is it important to assert a literal interpretation of Genesis rather than a figurative one that accommodates new knowledge?

Answer From Student (with my commentary)

“You are completely right in saying that Charles Darwin could have not guessed any of the modern gene sequencing technologies around today. There are many circulating theories as to how the world and live on it came to be, but there is only one that has not changed, and this is the Bible.”

In conversation, it’s common for a typical average person to use “theory” as a synonym for guess or idea… in scientific parlance, this would really be a hypothesis. However, when a scientist talks about a theory they mean an explanatory concept that has reached the highest level of scrutiny, affirmation, and consensus that can be achieved. A scientific theory is more valuable than a scientific law (which are really just observations without exception). A scientific theory has been so rigorously tested that it is virtually synonymous with fact and is used as the basis for all other science. (See Germ Theory, Theory of Gravity, Plate Tectonics, Heliocentrism, etc.) I mention this only because you are using the former usage (hypothesis) of theory, while I am using the latter (most-reliable explanation), so we’re bound to have some miscommunication as a result.

The Theory of Evolution does not actually discuss the origins of the cosmos, our universe or even life. It addresses only the diversity of life on Earth. You are correct in saying that there are many hypotheses being researched in the non-biological fields of cosmology (origin of the universe) and abiogenesis (origin of life). Some have more compelling evidence and explanatory power than others, but all must adapt or be discarded when new information comes to light. This is one of the greatest strengths of the scientific method.

“It must be noted in your question though that there is a great difference between comparing the theory of evolution through ERVs and observable science such as the earth going around the sun, as well as the earth not being flat.”

Heliocentrism, the concept that the Earth goes around the sun, is a scientific theory. It is not directly observed, but is a functioning model that explains all known evidence. The same is true of the Theory of Evolution. In the scientific community, there is no difference at all between them. I’m uncertain as to what “great difference” to which you might refer.

That said, I specifically chose ERVs because there is no requirement to speculate about the past to observe them. You can go out today, take genetic samples from any still-living organism, sequence the genome and observe the ERV attack sites in everything from ferns to frogs to felines to flamingos. The ERV markers are as directly observable as germs under a microscope, air pressure with a barometer, or acidity with a pH meter.

You didn’t mention phylogenetic trees, but I find those to be even more definitive compelling evidence of common descent. Again, it is repeatable science that can be directly observed in present day.

“Where did these ancient endogenous viruses come from? For they too must have had a beginning somewhere.”

As I mentioned, millions of Christ believers accept that the ERVs evolved in a process guided by God from the initial life that the God of the Bible started. Others hold that abiogenesis happened via purely natural processes, but your preference on this is unimportant to my question. For the sake of this one discussion, I’d be willing to concede that God is the original cause that lead to ERVs.

I’m more curious if this question from you is an acknowledgement that common ERV attack sites are found in the DNA of all modern living plants and animals. That’d be some common ground.

“If one were to adapt a figurative reading of Genesis rather than a literal, this completely discredits the creation account, for there is no reason to doubt the writings of Moses on how the heavens and earth were created.”

That you used the phrase “the writings of Moses” bristles me a little bit, and tells me where you are at… in the same place I was in Pentateuch class at my bible school, going along with church tradition rather than scholarship. I would normally say “the writer of Genesis”, but those particular books were written by multiple authors over the course of centuries. I beg you to read What Did Moses Write? at the faith-friendly BibleHub as an introduction to the topic. If you can handle it, perhaps go from there to my post The Greatest Retcon Ever Toldand learn about the evidence behind the documentary hypothesis. At very least, ask some pointed questions to your professors about the scholarship about the origins of the first five books of the Old Testament.

As for reasons to doubt the Genesis creation stories, the order of creation will be enough for this discussion… the earth first (debris and samples from space are billions of years older than the oldest samples on Earth), light (without a sun), plants (without a sun), the sun and moon, stars (though the light from them would not reach the earth for millions of years), fish and birds (even though birds are the last to appear in the fossil record), land animals and finally humans last (the most believable part). The ordering is the tip of the iceberg for scientific problems in the creation account, but that alone is beyond plenty of reason to at least doubt. It became so for me and began my quest to prove the Bible to be scientifically accurate, leading through unsatisfying rationalizations from non-scientist apologists, to where I am today.

“When approaching Scripture, we must always be careful not to read our own agenda into it to get out of it what we want to say. It must be read for what it is saying, regardless of whether or not we like the answer or it suits our fancy.”

When approaching science, we must always be careful not to read our own agenda into it to get out of it what we want to be true. We must follow whatever the evidence (all of the evidence) is saying, regardless of whether or not we like the answers or it suits our fancy.

“Observable science has never disproved the Bible, it is only the theories that have sought to disprove what Scripture says. In 50 years from now, new theories will be seeking to prove and disprove this and that, whereas the Bible will continue to remain unchanged.”

It is the positive claim that has the burden of proof to support their assertion, it is not up to anyone else to disprove it. (For example, you don’t need to disprove the existence of unicorns. If I said unicorns were real, it would be up to me to prove it.) The Bible needs to prove its positive claims, not wait to be disproven.

As I’ve mentioned, millions of people around the world accept the findings of cosmology, paleontology, geology, genetics and evolutionary biology while still fully placing their faith in the allegorical teachings of Genesis and their salvation to Christ.

Scientists will keep on learning and ruthlessly questioning the ideas of yesterday when new information appears. There is no attempt by science to disprove the Bible. The Bible is irrelevant to Christian scientists and secular scientists alike. It is the study of the material world, regardless of opinion about a non-material world. There is no agenda other than to find truth, no matter what the truth is. If you feel that the best of humanity’s learning contradicts with your beliefs, then you are bringing that bias.

“If I lose my mind tonight, I know that what I say will not change the reality of Scripture. However, if one of these worldly scholars or evolutionists loses his mind, their words will have the power to change the theories, for these are based on man’s wisdom, whereas Scripture is based on God’s wisdom.”

I suspect you are projecting religious authoritarianism onto the realm of science. There is no single scientist (or even group of scientists) who could ever have the power to change a theory or invent ideas. The scientific method is known for peer-review and a requirement for repeatable results. If a German scientist can’t reproduce a Russian scientist’s results, then the community does not accept the initial results, no matter who proposed them. There are no authorities, only evidence.

That is in stark contrast to the Bible. What if, for the sake of argument, Paul the Apostle didn’t actually see Jesus, but was just a man who saw hallucinations. You know from your studies that some in the early church suspected this to be true. Paul has enormous sway over the theology of millions, with no way for anyone to verify or duplicate his claims. All of Christianity is just taking his word.

There’s a saying that goes something like… if every book on earth were destroyed today and every mind erased, eventually mankind would recreate science and it would look nearly identical to today’s because scientific truth is discovered, not invented. However, none of humanity’s religions would survive because they cannot be discovered, only invented… new, unrecognizable religions would take their place.

My Response

After a preamble with examples of observable science, my question was, “Why is it important to assert a literal interpretation of Genesis rather than a figurative one that accommodates new knowledge?”

You started by challenging the validity of the science, but with a sweeping denial that suggests you may not be familiar with the claims you are denying. You would not have had to address the science at all in order to answer the question. If the science aspect is of interest to you, you should be able to find some quick secular resources on the claims of the sciences I listed… cosmology, abiogenesis and evolution. It is common debate advice to become as familiar with your opponent’s position as they are. You would be unimpressed with someone unfamiliar with the Bible, but said, “it’s full of errors.” Be able to argue both sides in order to connect with the person you want to convince. If you don’t care about the science, just leave it alone.

Your one phrase that directly addressed my question was, “if one were to adapt a figurative reading of Genesis rather than a literal, this completely discredits the creation account.” I happen to agree with this (more later), but you didn’t explain why that would be bad, in your opinion. That’s what I wanted to learn from you. What theology would be impacted if you treat Genesis 1 – 2 as allegory, as so many Christians do? Why are these Christians wrong, in your opinion?

Instead you continued on with some assertions about the reliability of the Genesis accounts, and a warning to not come to the Bible with preconceptions. From the outside, this is ironic, after you rejected out-of-hand science that doesn’t line up with Bible account preconceptions.

Lastly, you emphasize twice that the unchanging nature of the Bible is superior to the changing nature of science. By this logic, we were better off before we knew about germs. Better off before bicycles, cars and airplanes. Better off with a 1923 encyclopedia than the internet. Of course, you mean to say that the original word was perfect and therefore stands for all time. But we know that this word has been edited many times over many centuries, so is not really unchanging. And what we have does not hold up well to new knowledge, at least not without significant interpretation.

While I do not agree with them, I have great respect for those who harmonize science and faith, like those who run the BioLogos ministry. They have many excellent articles on these topics. Here is one that talks about endogenous viruses in the context of creation. If I had not once held such dogmatic views on scriptural inerrancy, I might still be a Christian of their ilk… for they do not attempt the intellectual dishonesty of denying observable science. That cognitive dissonance was too much for me.

However, I do agree with you, BSS (see Reduction to Allegory). Accepting evolution means rejecting the creation story, and Adam and Eve. Without that, the rest falls apart quickly. I wrote my thoughts on this subject in (Adam)ant Doctrine. I suspect this is what you meant, but that you land on the other side of this fence.



How would you have answered this question? How would you have responded to the answer? Where did I go wrong, or too far, or not far enough? Or miss the point? Let me know in the comments below.

Stay tuned for question #2.

An Evidence Attested Resurrection?

There are times I miss being enveloped in the dry-but-rich four-part harmonies of my old Mennonite church. Around this Easter time, the music pastor would break out the mismatched plodding melody and joyous lyrics of I Serve a Risen Savior. In the chorus, the congregation liltingly professes, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.”

Popular apologist and leading defender-of-the-faith, philosopher William Lane Craigcommonly admits he “believed in the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of my personal experience, and I still think this experiential approach to the resurrection is a perfectly valid way to knowing that Christ has risen. It’s the way that most Christians today know that Jesus is risen and alive.”

Yet Craig, and others like him, understand that their individual purely-internal woo cannot serve as evidence to an outsider. They defend a theology that requires the resurrection of Jesus be a historical event, as the Apostle Paul (probably) wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

TL;DR warning! Click here to jump to conclusions.

Anyone who has spent any time in a pew has probably repeatedly heard the mantra that “the resurrection of Jesus is the best attested fact in history” (or some variation of this). It passed through my ears many times. This phrase was taught, without qualifier, in Accelerated Christian Education textbooks. While it may well have morphed from John A. T. Robinson’s similar claim in 1973’s The Human Face of God about the burial (not resurrection) of Jesus, can this assertion be backed up in any way?

I’d like to take a look at the four so-called “facts” that the Dr. Craig ilk systematically present in any articles, books, lectures or debates on the historical resurrection. From these facts, Craig argues that Jesus rising from the dead is the only reasonable hypothesis that explains them. More on that later.

Jesus Lived

OK, Craig doesn’t actually claim this one, but it seems a reasonable inference from (and prerequisite to) “Jesus was buried”. The Jesus who has been conclusively proven to have risen from the dead must have irrefutable proof of having lived, right?

This will be worthy of an entire entry at some point, and I am by no means dogmatic on the non-existence of a historical Jesus. My world view doesn’t change a breath if there was a Life of Brian-style figure on whom the Jesus legend was based, or if the character was created whole-cloth or as an amalgam of multiple historical men. That said, I find the hypothesis that the figure of Jesus was purely a non-historical myth to be a compelling one.

The point here is that, outside the Bible, there is remarkably little evidence that Jesus even walked the Earth. The first extra-Biblical (and Biblical, for that matter) references to Jesus are from decades and centuries after the alleged events. The earliest of these are almost certainly forgeries, and even then all merely attest to the beliefs held by Christians rather than lend historical weight to them. A report of what someone believed is not an endorsement of the factuality of the belief.

I don’t see how we could convince a jury of even this first one.

Jesus Was Crucified

Craig doesn’t claim this fact either, but in a way I’m surprised. Of all the things that the extra-Biblical sources on Jesus do allegedly attest to, it is the crucifixion.

Both the Testimonium Flavianum (a passage found in surviving copies of Flavius Josephus’ first century Antiquities) and Tacitus’ second century Annals reference the death of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate. The latter, and less disputed, doesn’t reference a cross nor resurrection, but both revisit the Christian beliefs about Jesus’ death.

I cede not this point, but find it particularly conspicuous in the apologetic absence.

Jesus Was Buried

Craig’s first claimed fact is that “after his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb”. His evidence is the record in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, along with the letters of Paul — what he calls five independent sources. He also asserts that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, is unlikely to be a Christian invention due to early church hostility toward Jewish leaders.

Please forgive the length of discussion on this initial point. We will make up time with reuse as we go.

Sources – Not Independent

If you read my entry “Who Wrote the Book of Love?”, you’ll recall that Mark was written first and that Matthew and Luke are actually embellishments and expansions of Mark as source material, as attested by centuries of theistic and secular scholars alike.

In 2014, the movie The Imitation Game depicted the life of controversial war hero and father of computing, Alan Turing. The screenplay for the movie was an adaptation of Andrew Hodges’ book, Alan Turing: The Enigma. As such, the movie does not suddenly become a second source to attest the book’s claims. They are two works, but the same source.

So too, the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are at best one source, not multiple sources as disingenuously asserted from pulpits.

You’ll recall the gospels were written a generation after the time of Jesus’ reported death. They were composed in affluent literary Greek rather than the pedestrian Aramaic that the disciples would have spoken. The authors do not claim to be eye witnesses. Regardless of the count, these are not the kind of sources that historians look for.

Paul Doesn’t Help

It is curious that Craig would throw Paul’s letters into the mix. The 1 Corinthians 15 passage has the benefit of being written earlier than Mark — 25-or-so years after the time of Jesus’ death. However, the extent of what Paul writes is the tiny phrase “he was buried”. Nothing about a tomb. Nothing about Joseph of Arimathea. From the textual evidence, Paul might just as well have meant a mass grave, as was the established practice for the dozens of Roman crucifixions each day. The tomb tradition emerged after Paul’s writings.

Joseph of Arimathea

As for the tomb benefactor, Joseph of Arimathea, he debuts in Mark and there are no Biblical nor historical references to him outside of the gospels. (Later tales of Joseph visiting and founding the church in Glastonbury are apocryphal legends started in the 10th century as part of an effort to establish a British church pedigree separate from Rome. Poet Robert de Boron attached Joseph of Arimathea to his 11th century King Arthur legends, casting him as keeper of the Holy Grail. This landed Joseph a mention in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which the Lucasfilm in me could not fail to mention.) As such, naming this official adds no additional evidence or historical legitimacy to the burial assertion.

Is occupational distaste evidence that Joseph could not be an invented figure? The author of Mark made clear efforts to connect his Jesus figure to Messianic prophecies. He would have been aware of Isaiah 53:9‘s prediction, “and he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death.” If there was indeed hostility toward Jewish leaders, what better character to represent the rich and wicked than a member of the Sanhedrin? Joseph’s vocation is literarily perfect, not a historical sore thumb.

Women Found the Tomb Empty

The second presented fact is that “on the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers”. Again, Craig points to the gospels, mentions in Acts and an implication by Paul as multiple, independent attestations. He points out that the testimony of women was unacceptable in the courts of the time, so it is unlikely that female characters would be used in a fictional account.

We’ll start with the gospels again. As above, they cannot be called multiple sources, they were not written close to the time of the events, they are not unbiased, the writers are anonymous and didn’t profess to be eye witnesses. They may be fine as theological sources, but they are not what a historian would like as historical sources. (If they were reliable historical sources, the resurrection would come along for free. Apologists wouldn’t cherry-pick a handful of elements to try to defend.)

The Acts references are 2:29 (“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day”) and 13:37 (“But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.”) But the first one isn’t about Jesus, it’s about David. The second doesn’t mention a tomb at all. As such, these are not independent attestation of Jesus’ empty tomb.

The referenced “implication” by Paul is 1 Corinthians 15:4 (“that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”). Paul gives us a when, but not the whowhat or where. No women. No empty. No tomb. We’ll discuss later, but this phrase doesn’t even lend evidence that Paul was speaking of a physical resurrection. None of the epistles mention a missing body, so lend no additional evidence for this particular “fact”.

As to the unlikely invention of tomb-finding women due to their gender being considered second-class citizens… that’s exactly why the tradition probably started. The expected Messiah wasn’t supposed to die, so the early Christian narrative had to explain how Jesus family, religious leaders and disciples all missed the point. The author of Mark emphasizes that only outsiders recognized who he was, and who more outside than a group of women to serve the literary purpose of discovering the resurrection ahead of the late-to-understand men?

(As I am editing this, the book “Not the Impossible Faith” has come to my attention. I’m told it provides transcript evidence that first-century women were held as trusted witnesses in Jewish, Roman and Greek courts. I haven’t had a chance to investigate myself, but this might be another case of Christian repetition making a common claim go unquestioned by believers.)

Post-Mortem Jesus Appeared to People

The third presented fact says that “on different occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead”. As evidence, Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 list of eyewitnesses is cited, since Paul and other members of the early church would have known these people personally to fact-check. Once again, the records of the gospels and Paul’s letters is held up as a breadth of independent sources.

Paul’s Attestation

Paul includes himself in the list of those to whom a raised Christ had appeared, but neither Paul’s letters nor the account in Acts ever claim that Paul (nee Saul) saw Jesus in raised, physical form.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. (Acts 9:3,5,7)

Science and medicine has learned much about experiences like this, which we now call hallucinations. Fully-real-to-the-experiencer hallucinations happen all the time, all over the world, including religious visions that contradict Christianity. It is clear that most of these experiences are not real. Indeed, we have no scientific evidence of any that are not. While it is possible Paul was an exception, it is certainly the least likely explanation… and not useful as evidence for an actual resurrection of Jesus.

An apologist might say that Paul met with the disciples to get his information, but those are not Paul’s claims. “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” And, after his revelation, “my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia.” Clearly, Paul’s first several formative years of doctrine-forming were purely internal, from his visions only. “I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.

Since the list in Corinthians draws no distinction between Jesus’ appearance to Paul (a vision) and the nature of the appearances to others, should one not infer that all of the appearances in question were understood by the author to be visions? More on this in the next section.

Some have claimed that this section of Corinthians is based on an early-tradition creed that Paul is reciting. While this speculation might make the words closer to the time of Jesus’ death (this is all guessing), it would actually make this even less Pauline attestation and even more heresay.

Gospel Attestation

An apologist might also point to the tale of doubting Thomas, who wanted a physical inspection of Jesus’ wounds. This story is found only in John, the latest-in-the-line and most spectacularly embellished of the gospels, which was written around 50 years after the writings of Paul. As such, we cannot confidently say it is reflective of Paul’s resurrection understanding.

Which brings me back to the repetition that the gospels do not serve as independent sources as they were built upon each other from non-first-hand sources.

Jesus’ Disciples Believed in the Resurrection

The final fact suggests that “the original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite having every predisposition to the contrary.” The evidence is that Jewish beliefs precluded the rising of the dead and the Jewish Messianic expectation of an earthly conqueror. For good measure, it is noted that the disciples were willing to die for this belief.

Disciples’ Belief

The obvious most important question is… what evidence do we have as to what the original disciples believed?

Did they sincerely believe or know that they were seeing Jesus’ actual risen physical body? Or did they understand the appearances to be non-physical appearances of Jesus entity?

Ancient people had no difficulty thinking that a divine appearance was not an actual physical appearance but rather phantasmal. Such appearances are common in all writings of the time – Jewish, pagan and Christian. Historian Bart Ehrman suggests that anyone doubting this “might start with the Christian texts of the second century, such as the Acts of John or the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter or the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, or he might consider the arguments used by Basilides, who was the disciple of the follower of Peter. For ancient people, post-death appearance was not the same as the reanimation of the body.”

But one needn’t look that far, even according to the gospels, Moses and Elijah appeared (and then disappeared) to Jesus, James and John with enough physical presence that shelters were proposed. Did these apostles believe that Moses and Elijah came back to life? Or was this a vision?

Resurrected Jesus himself was more like an X-Men character, doing things normal bodies cannot do. He walks through locked doors. He is some kind of shape-shifter appearing in “a different form” to some and manipulating the appearance of his face to others. It ascended into the clouds. These are more consistent with visions than with a historical physical body.

We don’t actually know what the disciples believed. Paul clearly acknowledges that his appearances are visions, not interaction with physical Jesus. The epistles do not address the nature of their post-resurrection interactions, so we are left with the gospels as our only source.

Disciples’ Predisposition

As for the disciples’ predisposition against a resurrection, we know that Jews were looking for the messiah to be a great warrior and king. When Jesus was crucified, the man they thought was Messiah failed all expectations. They would have turned to the scriptures to see where they went wrong, and found passages like Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 referring to the righteous one’s suffering death and vindication. With precedents like Elijah and Enoch, it’s not a stretch to assume their vindicated Messiah was in heaven and coming back to finish what he started and establish the earthly kingdom. If he’s exalted, he’s not dead. Eventually, as the stories grow over the years, this exaltation turns into a resurrection. Belief in the resurrection prompts visions (like Jesus’ face in toast today) and tales of visions, and the legend grows. Or something like that… the point is that the disciples predispositions were turned on their heads and had to pivot. The change can be explained as much by Jesus’ death itself as by a claimed resurrection.

Willingness to Die

As to the claim that the disciples were willing to die for their belief in the resurrection, this is quite a specific claim… not only must the apostles die as martyrs, but also in a situation where recanting would have saved them. So what evidence do we have for the disciples’ fate?

The Bible records the death of only two disciples: Judas Iscariot (with two conflicting accounts, one suicide and one bursting) and James, son of Zebedee, whom Herod had “put to death with the sword.” John speaks of “the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God“, but does not clarify any details about Peter’s demise.

What do non-Biblical sources tell us about the deaths of the others? John is said to have died of old age. The Acts of Peter ends with Peter accepting a voluntary crucifixion. The Acts of Andrew tells of Andrew being martyred on an X-shaped cross. The Acts of Philip spins a tale of Philip dying upside-down hung from iron hooks, thousands dying in a resulting abyss, and Jesus scolding him. Bartholomew may have been crucified in Armenia or beheaded in India. The Acts of Thomas records that Thomas was stabbed in India, and also that he was the twin brother of Jesus! (Parent Trap resurrection-switch theory, anyone?) Matthew, um, probably died of natural causes or maybe we don’t know. There are too many guys named James to know, but maybe stoned by Pharisees or crucified in Egypt. The Acts of Thaddeus has Jude dying naturally. Simon the Zealot was either crucified with Jude (who died naturally) or himself dying naturally in Edessa. Unfortunately, even early church fathers considered all of these second-century-or-much-later apocryphal (yet entertaining) works to be spurious and heretical. They are rejected out-of-hand by Christian scholars of all eras.

There is no historical evidence that the apostles died, or were willing to die, for the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead. This is merely assertion based on legends that even the most open-minded Christians reject.

(Of course, we have plenty of examples in history of people willing to lie and die for a cause they believe has a greater good beyond their lives. See Joseph Smith.)

Bonus Facts: Jerusalem Zombie Attack!

This isn’t a fact listed by apologists, but if we’re considering the gospels as authoritative historical accounts, then we should probably heed the words of Matthew 27:51-53

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

With the Romans crucifying hundreds of people every day, it is reasonable that this particular carpenter’s son doesn’t appear in any records. Earthquakes aren’t a daily event, but not every one will be noted in the detailed Roman documents.

However, it seems entirely unreasonable to think that “many people” returning from the dead, taking walks in the most important city of the region, and appearing to “many people” would not be an event worthy of mention in at least one secular annal.

Similarly, but less spectacularly, the synoptic gospels all record three hours (noon until three in the afternoon) of “darkness” coming over “all the land“. One could read this as a heavy cloud over local area, but Luke adds the striking detail “for the sun stopped shining“. No external sources, including the meticulous Chinese culture of the day, record any such three hour physics-defying event.

These are but two examples of the gospel writers inventing details (people, private events, even public events) that never happened to communicate their message through symbols, metaphors and parables. We also have dozens of apocryphal gospels and writings that tell us that Christians were making up stories without remorse, as it supported specific views. Given this, even if there are historical nuggets to be found in their works, we have no way to know which details are history and which ones are allegory without corroboration of outside sources. As far as evidence goes, none of it is solid.


Despite the long-held opt-repeated claim of great attestation, the “four facts” of the resurrection of Jesus have only two sources — the gospels and the epistles.

The epistles, which were written first, do not mention a tomb, Joseph of Arimathea, women visiting a tomb, or a missing body. The limited mentions of post-death appearances clearly indicate visions when specific, and make no distinction between visions and other types of appearances — treating all the same. No physical appearances of Jesus are specified.

This leaves the gospels as the single source for these alleged facts. And as such, it is a strange exercise to arbitrarily label some of the gospel claims as facts, then use those as evidence to support the explanatory (less factual?) claims from the same source.

Historians try to determine what is most probable about the past based on available evidence. If one was to play along with this game of cherry-picking isolated elements as factual, they would need not look beyond naturalistic explanations. Most missing bodies don’t go missing because of miracles. Most appearances of gods and dead people are hallucinations. Most religions are started on false ideas (all but one?). Even if there are some that are miracles, most are not. By definition, a miracle would be the least likely explanation. A miracle may have happened, but it is least probable, so cannot be attested.

But that aside, the entire idea of using four details found only in the gospels as proof of the gospel’s claim that Jesus was raised from the dead is really no different than presenting four details from Harry Potter books to prove the existence of Voldemort from the Harry Potter books. (If there’s no Voldemort, where did Harry get his scar?)

If you believe that the gospels are historically accurate and reliable, then you already accept a miraculous resurrection as part of the package. You don’t need to do any kind of rationalization. It comes along as part of the deal, and you have no need for external validation.

If you don’t accept the gospels as accurate and reliable, then you don’t see the four facts as facts at all. No rationalization for a burial, empty tomb or post-mortem appearances are needed, as you would view the mundane details as equally unsupported as the resurrection claim. At least you should, since there are no external validations for them.

The hymn was right. The reason to believe this Easter season are the warm feelings you feel, not external evidence.


This article is the product and amalgam of my lifetime of study as a devout Christian, followed by listening to hundreds of hours of debates over the past several years, featuring people like Bart Ehrman, Richard Carrier, Robert Price, Matt Dillahunty, Peter Atkins, David Silverman and others, alongside the reading of many books on the subject by some of the same authors. I regret that I didn’t have time to further footnote and document. If any of the individual ideas presented here were insightful, they belong to the group above.

Craig often appeals to a consensus of Biblical scholars as his authority. During my writing, I was made aware of Gary Habermas’ 2005 survey Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?  in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. Of those publishing on the subject, Habermas finds “approximately 75% favor one or more of these arguments for the [historical] empty tomb, while approximately 25% think that one or more arguments oppose it.” While, that is obviously a majority in favor, it is far from the unchallenged verdict that Craig represents. It also does not adjust for the (presumably) overwhelming majority of publishing Biblical scholars who have a theological bent to believe. Has anyone seen any stats on the secular proportion of Biblical scholars?

My Questions for a Bible School Student

“Hey Paul! Long time no see! I was wondering if you could do me a favour? Lately I have been really interested by your blog posts and for one of my classes here at (Bible college) I need to talk to someone who may have some questions or issues with Christianity so I thought I would ask you! In response to these questions I’ll try my best to try and answer them as well to the best of my ability, though I may need some time to do it! Thanks so much for your consideration in doing this!”

Sure, my young friend, I’d be honored to ask you some questions. Let’s go…


Charles Darwin knew nothing of genes and could certainly never have imagined modern gene sequencing technologies. From this data rises phylogenetic trees that perfectly fit every organism on earth based entirely on common genetic characteristics, without reliance on fossils, morphology or vestigial traits. This same data shows sites of ancient endogenous retrovirus attacks across varied species, the equivalent of finding the same hair in the same place on photocopies around the globe. Millions of Catholics and other believers accept this as evidence of a common designer and have integrated the billions of years of evolution into their faith, much like the then-heretical acceptance that the Earth goes around the sun generations ago. Why is it important to assert a literal interpretation of Genesis rather than a figurative one that accommodates new knowledge?


Why is it more reasonable to believe that Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled by actual historical events in Jesus life, rather than view them as legends that sprung up among wishful thinkers who wanted connections to their old book?


It is written that God chose to directly reveal himself to Satan, demons, Moses, Judas and others who all maintained their free will to reject the deity. If God chooses the level to which He will reveal himself, but at the same time is the creator of seeking minds that genuinely require greater evidence to believe than He will provide… are such minds not unavoidably destined for hell?


A miracle happens when God lends supernatural intervention in the natural world, often in areas of healing. From the outside, these claimed miracles are indistinguishable from medical intervention or natural processes. Why is God willing to perform invisible miracles, but unwilling to regrow the limb of an amputee?


How can an outsider know the difference between claims of personal experience of the Holy Spirit, nearly identical claims of personal experience of other faiths, and commonly observed psychological processes like apophenia or confirmation bias?


What would make you change your mind about your faith?

To you, dear reader… how did I do in asking college-level questions? How would you answer them? Let me know in the comments below.