What do we know about Jesus’ burial?

In his final reply to my review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, Professor McGrew takes issue with my claim that the story of Jesus’ burial is improbable at multiple points, accusing me of doing a priori history, of relying on doubtful assertions by Biblical scholars, of making too much of the argument from silence” (which he rejects in toto), of finding contradictions between the Gospel burial accounts where none exist, and of arrogantly alleging that the Gospel authors, who were far closer to the facts than we are today, must have fabricated details in their accounts, simply because they clash with our contemporary interpretation of Jewish law at that time. Am I guilty as charged? Or is it Professor McGrew whose understanding of history is faulty?

While reading Professor McGrew’s reply, it immediately struck me that there was one thing that he didn’t do: namely, quote from contemporary Biblical scholars who support his position. That’s because there are very few Biblical scholars who would agree with McGrew’s claim that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are internally consistent, free from contradictions, and free from historical inaccuracies. With the exception of Ehrman’s contentious claim (which I defended, but did not endorse) that Jesus’ body was probably left to hang on the Cross for several days before being dumped in a burial pit, all of the other assertions made in my review regarding Jesus’ burial fall squarely within the mainstream of Biblical scholarship. In setting himself in opposition to the conclusions reached in my review, Professor McGrew (who is a philosopher, not a historian) is arraying himself against an entire field of scholarship.

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The elephant in front of the cross

In a recent post over at What’s Wrong With the World, Professor Timothy McGrew asks, Did Jesus’ Mother and the Beloved Disciple Stand at the Foot of the Cross? Professor McGrew’s answer is a decisive yes. Readers will recall that last year, in a lengthy review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, I summarized the reasons for rejecting the historicity of this episode in John’s Gospel (see here for the arguments I presented). My arguments were taken directly from Alter’s book – a book which Professor McGrew has not deigned to read. Relying instead on the brief summary contained in my post, he roundly declares that he finds these arguments unconvincing and unsubstantiated. Had he consulted Alter’s book, however, he would have found scholarly citations in abundance, as well as the answers to some of the questions he poses in his post.

In this post, I intend to address and rebut Professor McGrew’s objections, and to supply further documentation to back up the claims I made previously. But before I continue, let me begin with the candid admission that I may be wrong, in casting doubt on the historicity of John’s account of Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple standing near the foot of the cross. I have done a lot of digging and delving on the subject during the past couple of weeks, and I acknowledge that the issue is not as cut-and-dried as I had previously believed. Nevertheless, if I were a betting man, I’d still bet against the episode’s ever having happened, for reasons I’ll explain below. As I pointed out in my previous reply to McGrew, my chief concern is with those claims which a fair-minded historian would consider probable, when judging matters on purely historical grounds. Hence the title of my last post: Why there probably wasn’t a guard at Jesus’ tomb.

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Why there probably wasn’t a guard at Jesus’ tomb

Christian apologist Professor Tim McGrew recently defended the historicity of Matthew’s account of the guard at the tomb, in a post put up by his wife, Dr. Lydia McGrew. Professor McGrew’s post was written in response to a challenge he issued to me, in response to my (generally positive) review of Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry (2015), which was published at The Skeptical Zone last year. Not wishing to address the bulk of Alter’s arguments, which he considered unconvincing, Professor McGrew challenged me to narrow the focus of our discussion, by listing three of Alter’s arguments which I had found particularly convincing. The first topic on my list which Professor McGrew chose to address was the question: was there a guard at Jesus’ tomb? However, it turns out that McGrew’s argument for the historicity of Matthew’s story of the guard is based on faulty math – a surprising flaw, coming from a man who has written extensively on the subject of Bayes’ Theorem and its role in Christian apologetics. Before we have a look at the math, though, I have a special announcement: Michael Alter himself has decided to weigh in on the controversy, and I have included his remarks in this post.

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How should TSZ handle racism and hate speech?

Elizabeth Liddle, who founded this Website, has recently declared that racist remarks on TSZ should be deleted. Moderator Alan Fox would like to additionally ban hate speech, incitement to violence, and discrimination, where these are proscribed by law. However, at the present time, nothing in the Rules of this Website prohibits racism or hate speech. And how does one define these terms, anyway? In this short post, I’d like to offer a few tentative proposals.

It seems to me that a rule that bans racism alone would be too arbitrary. Why ban racism but not sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia or transphobia?

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Aphrodite’s head: Eight questions for Douglas Axe

Over at Evolution News, Dr. Douglas Axe argues that merely by using very simple math, we can be absolutely certain that life was designed: it’s an inescapable conclusion. To illustrate his case, he uses the example of a rugged block of marble being transformed by natural weather processes into a statue of a human being. Everyone would agree that this simply can’t happen. And our conclusion wouldn’t change, even if we (i) generously allowed lots and lots of time for the statue to form; (ii) let each body part have a (discrete or continuous) range of permitted forms, or shapes, instead of just one permitted shape; (iii) relaxed the requirement that all body parts have to form simultaneously or in sync, and allowed the different parts of the statue to form at their own different rates; and (iv) removed the requirement that the different parts have to each form independently of one another, and allowed the formation of one part of the statue to influence that of another part.

In his post, Axe rhetorically asks: if we’re so sure that a rugged block of marble could never be transformed by the weather into a human statue, then aren’t we equally entitled to conclude that “blind natural causes” could never have “converted primitive bacterial life into oaks and ostriches and orangutans”? In each case, argues Axe, the underlying logic is the same: when calculating the probability of a scenario which requires many unlikely things to happen, small fractions multiplied by the dozens always result in exceedingly small fractions, and an event which is fantastically improbable can safely be regarded as physically impossible.

In an attempt to persuade Dr. Axe that his logic is faulty on several grounds, I’d like to put eight questions to Dr. Axe, and I sincerely hope that he will be gracious enough to reply.

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Fact vs. Opinion: A Distinction without a Difference?

My interest was recently piqued by an article in The Atlantic (October 23, 2018) claiming that “Americans over 50 are worse than younger people at telling facts from opinions, according to a new study by Pew Research Center.” Author Alexis Madrigal summarizes the results of the study: “Given 10 statements, five each of fact and opinion, younger Americans correctly identified both the facts and the opinions at higher rates than older Americans did.” But is the fact vs. opinion dichotomy a viable one? Philosopher John Corvino thinks not. In a hard-hitting article titled, The Fact/Opinion Distinction (The Philosophers’ Magazine, 4 March 2015), he surveys several attempts to elucidate the distinction, and concludes that they all fail.

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Resurrection redux II

In this post, I’d like to comment on some issues that have been raised by readers over at Professor Joshua Swamidass’s Peaceful Science forum, in response to my article on Michael Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, which convincingly demolishes Resurrection apologetics. But before I do that, I’d like to discuss the Christine Ford case, and its relevance to the evidence for the Resurrection.

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Michael Alter’s bombshell demolishes Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection

It is not often that I encounter a book which forces me to undergo a fundamental rethink on a vital issue. Michael Alter’s The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry is one such book. The issue it addresses is whether the New Testament provides good evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. Prior to reading Michael Alter’s book, I believed that a Christian could make a strong case for Jesus’ having been raised from the dead, on purely historical grounds. After reading the book, I would no longer espouse this view. Alter has convincingly demolished Christian apologists’ case for the Resurrection – and he’s got another book coming out soon, which is even more hard-hitting than his first one, judging from the excerpts which I’ve read.

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Climate change killed the aliens and will kill us too: a case study in GIGO

Ever wondered why we haven’t met any aliens yet? Live Science Senior Editor Brandon Specktor thinks he knows the answer: technologically induced climate change (caused by excessive energy use) may have killed them all off, and it’ll kill us off too, if we don’t get our act together real fast and switch to sustainable sources of energy. In an eye-catching article titled, Climate Change Killed the Aliens, and It Will Probably Kill Us Too, New Simulation Suggests (Live Science, June 6, 2018), Specktor breathlessly reports on the findings of a new study by Adam Frank et al., titled, The Anthropocene Generalized: Evolution of Exo-Civilizations and Their Planetary Feedback (Astrobiology, Vol. 18. No. 5, published online May 1, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1089/ast.2017.1671). Dr. Adam Frank is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester, New York.

Spektor’s summary of the study’s findings is sobering:

The results, as you might expect, were generally pretty grim. Of four common “trajectories” for energy-intense civilizations, three ended in apocalypse. The fourth scenario — a path that involved converting the whole alien society to sustainable sources of energy — worked only when civilizations recognized the damage they were doing to the planet, and acted in the right away.

“The last scenario is the most frightening,” [leading study author Adam] Frank said. “Even if you did the right thing, if you waited too long, you could still have your population collapse.”

But a model is only as good as the foundation upon which it is built. And it turns out that Frank’s model is built on a foundation of sand.
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If God expects us to pray for others, does that make Him a monster?

Scrolling through some recent comments, my attention was caught by this one, posted by keiths:

Besides not panning out scientifically, intercessory prayer doesn’t even make theological sense.

An old OP on the topic:

The (il)logic of intercessory prayer

So I checked out keiths’s OP, which describes the hypothetical case of a woman named Mary, suffering from a terminal illness, whose friends decide to pray for her. Keiths cuts to the chase:
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Feser’s fourth proof and the mystery of existence

If the Aristotelian argument for a purely actual Being (which I critiqued in my previous post) is the backbone of Feser’s five proofs of God’s existence, the Thomistic proof is the beating heart, as it gets to the very core of what God is: Pure Existence itself, according to philosophy Professor Edward Feser. Today, I’m going to argue that this notion of God is utterly nonsensical. But it is not merely the argument’s conclusion which is flawed: the Thomistic proof also rests on shaky foundations, as the real distinction it posits between a finite thing’s essence and its existence is a highly dubious one: the main argument cited in support of it actually points to a matter-form distinction, instead. The second argument for a real distinction between a thing’s essence and its existence establishes nothing of the sort: all it shows is that whatever causes a thing to have existence also causes the nature or essence of that thing. A third argument for the essence-existence distinction illicitly assumes that the term “existence” names a single perfection, which is inherently simple and unlimited.

In addition, Feser’s Thomistic proof trades on an equivocation between the notion of a Being whose essence is identical to its own existence and that of a Being whose essence is Pure Existence – an equivocation which is grounded in the background metaphysical assumption that the concept of “existence” is a simple and unlimited one. In reality, as I shall explain below, the concept of “existence” is neither simple nor complex, neither limited nor unlimited, but rather, indefinite – which is one reason why the attempt to characterize God as Pure Existence, or Being itself, is doomed at the outset. Finally, any attempt to construe God as some sort of activity – whether it be Pure Existence, Pure Actuality, or Thought thinking Itself, or Love loving Himself – is radically mistaken, either because it reifies an abstraction (Existence exists, Actuality acts) or because it generates an infinite regress (Love loves love loves love…). In plain English: We need to think of God first and foremost as a noun, and not merely as a verb – in other words, as an Agent, rather than simply as an unlimited act of thought or love or “be-ing.”

Despite its flawed conception of God, Feser’s Thomistic proof is not without its merits: Continue reading

Flawed logic and bad mereology: why Feser’s first two proofs fail

In today’s post, I’m going to chop down two of Professor Feser’s proofs for God’s existence at the roots: namely, his first proof (in which Feser argues for the existence of a purely actual Being) and his second proof (in which he endeavors to show that an absolutely simple Being exists). Among Feser’s five proofs, his first proof has a special preeminence, as Feser uses it to deduce other attributes of the purely actual Being – its unity, immutability, eternity, immateriality, incorporeality, perfection, goodness, omnipotence and omniscience – which, taken together, warrant it being called “God.” Feser’s second, third, fourth and fifth proofs borrow from the arguments developed in Feser’s first proof, when deducing these same attributes, so if it turns out that the arguments Feser puts forward for these attributes rest on flawed assumptions (as I’ll show they do), then all five of Feser’s proofs of God will be flawed, in their conclusions at least.

So what’s wrong with Feser’s first two proofs? Continue reading

Has Feser proved that God is almighty, all-knowing, good, capable of free choice and loving?

In this post, I’ll be looking at chapter 6 of Dr. Edward Feser’s book, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, which deals with the nature of God, and I’ll be evaluating his arguments which purport to show that God is omnipotent, omniscient, good, capable of free choice and loving. I decided to begin by examining these “personal” attributes, because they’re the ones that really interest most people. Without these Divine attributes, any argument establishing that there exists an uncaused, fully actualized, necessary being, devoid of parts, whose essence is identical with its own act of existence could not be fairly called an argument for the existence of God, as such: it’s merely an argument for an Uncaused Cause.

My aim here is to evaluate Dr. Feser’s arguments in chapter 6, critically but fairly, in order to establish what they can tell us about God’s personal attributes, assuming that there exists an Uncaused Cause of the sort argued for by Feser in chapters 1 to 5 of his book. As we’ll see, Feser’s arguments for a personal Deity don’t prove much. All they establish is the following: (a) that everything depends on the Uncaused Cause, but not that it is capable of doing absolutely anything (or even anything which is consistent with its nature); (b) that universals exist in the Mind of the Uncaused Cause (a conclusion Feser argues for in chapter 3), but not that it actually knows any true propositions, let alone all true propositions; (c) that the Uncaused Cause is one-of-a-kind and free from defects, but not that it is benevolently disposed towards us; (d) that the Uncaused Cause is self-fulfilled and complete as a Being, but not that it is capable of free choice; and (e) that the Uncaused Cause brings about whatever is necessary for things to exist – whether it does so intentionally is another matter, however – but not that it cares about what happens to those things in the future, let alone that it cares about our future. After reviewing each section, I’ll discuss how Feser’s arguments could be strengthened, to make them more powerful. In addition, I’m going to throw in a bonus gift: I intend to show that Feser’s strong doctrine of the Purely Actual Actualizer (which he argues for in chapter 1) is false and untenable, before arguing that there is no need for classical theists to hold it: all they need to maintain is that God’s existence involves no actualization of potential (even if His activities do).

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Feser’s predestinationism and his bizarre claim that God’s knowledge is non-propositional

Today, I’m going to start looking at chapter 5 of Dr. Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God. I thought I’d begin with Feser’s take on Divine foreknowledge and free will. To cut a long story short: Feser is a predestinationist who professes at the same time to believe that humans possess genuine free will. In order to reconcile these beliefs, he proposes an analogy which at first seems plausible, but which ultimately collapses because it completely ignores our personal relationship with our Creator. To make matters worse, Feser holds that God knows everything that happens in this world, non-propositionally. He proposes another analogy to explain how this might be, but at most, it merely explains how God might know creatures; it fails to explain how He knows what they get up to. I conclude that not only is Feser’s account of God’s foreknowledge incoherent, but his account of how God knows any fact whatsoever about the world is also unintelligible.

This will be a much shorter post than my last one, so there’s no need to crack open a beer (at least, not yet). I’ll explain the picture of Mia Farrow shortly.

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18 really dumb (and not-so-dumb) objections to arguments for the existence of God

On Thursday, I received two books which I had previously ordered from Amazon: Five Proofs of the Existence of God by philosopher Edward Feser, and The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry by Michael Alter, a Jewish author who claims to have discovered no less than 120 contradictions in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection. I’ve also ordered Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead?: A Surgeon-Scientist Examines the Evidence by Dr. Thomas Miller (a surgeon who is also the author of more than 200 scientific papers and the editor of three textbooks on surgical physiology), but that book hasn’t arrived yet. I’m going to blog about all of these books, but today, I’d like to begin by discussing Dr. Edward Feser’s book. Just to be clear: Feser’s five proofs are not the same as St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways. They are taken from the writings of five different philosophers: Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas and Leibniz. Feser refers to the arguments put forward by Aristotle and Plotinus, in particular, as cosmological or “First Cause” arguments, although Aquinas also advances a First Cause argument of his own. Leibniz argues to the existence of an ultimate explanation for the existence of contingent beings, using the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Augustine’s argument is the odd one out: it seeks to establish the existence of a necessarily existing intellect which grasps all abstract objects.

Feser’s book has received glowing reviews from four professors of philosophy, one of whom (J.P. Moreland) described it as “a must-read for anyone interested in natural theology.” Over at Secular Outpost, Bradley Bowen seems to agree. He concludes Part 1 of his ongoing review of Feser’s book as follows:

I don’t know at this point whether any of Feser’s arguments are good or bad, valid or invalid, sound or unsound, but even if they are all weak and defective arguments, I am still very grateful to Feser for providing a case for God that meets some basic intellectual requirements for making a reasonable case for God. Unlike the cases for God by Geisler and Kreeft, Feser’s case is NOT a Steaming Pile of Crap, and it is a great pleasure to consider a case that at least has the potential to be a reasonable and intelligent case for God.

Instead of reviewing Feser’s book from start to finish, I’m going to begin with the final chapter, where Feser refutes eighteen common objections to the arguments he presents for the existence of God. Philosopher Stephen T. Davis described this chapter as a gem, adding that “it alone is worth the price of this excellent work.” I’m going to enumerate these objections and quote some very brief excerpts from Feser’s replies. As we’ll see, most of these objections are puerile and idiotic, but a couple of them are not so ridiculous, and warrant further examination.
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Why I disagree with Cardinal Dolan’s remark that “no country is a ‘hole.'”

This is not intended as a post about President Trump’s recently reported remarks about “s**thole countries,” but about what a Catholic cardinal, Timothy Dolan, said in response to those remarks. The Cardinal tweeted that Martin Luther King Jr., were he alive today, would remind people that “no country is a ‘hole,’ no person unworthy of respect.” In this post, I’d like to explain why I think the Cardinal is perfectly right on the second point and absolutely wrong on the first. I’m also going to try to define a “hole,” and make a tentative list of countries which I think would qualify, at the present time. Readers are welcome to disagree, of course.

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Dr. Lydia McGrew on Six Bad Habits of New Testament Scholars (and how to avoid them)

NOTE: Some readers have asked me for a transcript of Dr. Lydia McGrew’s webinar. Good news: I have now completed the transcript (see below). Additionally, the points Dr. McGrew raised in her talk can be found here. In her talk, Dr. McGrew was responding to an e-interview given by Dr. Michael Licona, a leading Christian apologist for the Resurrection, who is an Associate Professor of theology at Houston Baptist University, and who is also the author of Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017). In his book, Dr. Licona defended the historicity of the Gospels but endorsed the view, common among New Testament scholars, that the authors of the Gospels would have considered it perfectly legitimate to deliberately alter historical details of events, relating non-factual claims as if they were factual, because back in those days, writers of biographies were more concerned with Truth than with mere facts. Dr. McGrew is a conservative Christian writer, but not a Biblical inerrantist. Nevertheless, she felt that by acknowledging the existence of what she terms “fictionalizing compositional devices” in the Gospels, Dr. Licona had conceded too much to skeptics such as Bart Ehrman (whom Licona debated on the reliability of the New Testament back in 2016), and that such a concession undermined his whole case for the historicity of the Resurrection. For this reason, Dr. Grew decided to respond to Dr. Licona by presenting the webinar shown below.

Dr. Lydia McGrew’s webinar is titled, “Six Bad Habits of New Testament Scholars and How to Avoid Them.” Her host for the webinar was Jonathan McLatchie, an Intelligent Design proponent who is currently a Ph.D. student in cell biology and a contributor to various apologetics websites, as well as being the founder of the Apologetics Academy. I’m happy to report that Dr. Lydia McGrew’s Webinar is now available on Youtube. I commend it to viewers, and I can promise you it’s a very thought-provoking presentation, whatever your theological perspective may be. Comments are welcome from people of all faiths and none.

For the benefit of those readers who don’t know her, Dr. Lydia McGrew has a Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University (1995), but nearly all of her published work has been in analytic philosophy, with specialties in epistemology and probability theory. Her curriculum vitae is here. Dr. McGrew is also a home schooling mother living in the Midwest, who is married to the philosopher, Dr. Timothy McGrew, Chair and Professor of the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University (C.V. here).

UPDATE: I’ve now transcribed the whole of Dr. McGrew’s talk, which can be viewed below. I invite readers to peruse it at their leisure. Comments are welcome.

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Craniopagus twins revisited: A response to Professor Egnor

Professor Michael Egnor has kindly responded to my post, The craniopagus twins from British Columbia: A test case for Thomistic dualism (TSZ, November 25, 2017), in a new post, titled, The Craniopagus Twins and Thomistic Dualism (ENV, December 10, 2017). In my earlier post, I had argued that “the twins’ ability to share thoughts without speaking weakens the case for Thomistic dualism, and lends support to a subtle variety of materialism which incorporates top-down causation.” In his response, Professor Michael Egnor gets to the heart of our disagreement and explains why he does not think that the experiment I proposed would serve to test whether dualism or materialism is true. Egnor proposes another test of his own, relating to mathematical abilities. In this post, I’d like to explain why I object to Professor Egnor’s test, before putting forward another one, very similar to it, which I believe could experimentally resolve whether dualism or materialism is true. Finally, I offer a few reflections on the philosophical argument which, Egnor contends, makes materialism logically untenable.

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