The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell

My guess is that only one in every hundred Christians takes the time to look into the foundation of their religion in any detail. Josh McDowell’s book, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, is written for such conscientious students, who wish to be able to hold a rational case for their faith when under fire from sceptics. The book also serves as a great information source for anyone, whether sceptic or believer, who wishes to become more informed about Christianity. It is a titanic work of around seven hundred pages. Even that figure is deceptive, because if not for the dual-columns and tiny typeface, this book would be more like a thousand pages. The “New” of the title relates to the the book’s prior publication as a smaller edition, with a later sequel. Both volumes are now brought together as one, with revisions.

I approached this work as a sceptic, but as an open-minded sceptic who is willing to be changed by what he reads, not as one who is simply aiming to reinforce his scepticism. Although I was confident in my stance, I still had many gaps in my knowledge about Christianity. I’m happy to say that I now know a great deal more, and I’ve had some of my opinions changed, as a result of reading. Beforehand, I tended to view the person of Jesus as someone who had no historical substance, but now I’m quite confident that there was an influential first-century figure who had followers and who was executed for his religious troublemaking.

As I was reading, I was trying to ascertain where the real crux of the case for Christ lay. It’s essentially this: what should we do when we come across the presence of the supernatural in a historical text? The sceptic may say, “This is contrary to experience, therefore unhistorical,” whereas Josh McDowell maintains (and I paraphrase), “We must treat all historical texts on equal terms, without judging the value of a text based on an anti-supernatural bias.” I maintain that both approaches are extremes. If the supernatural really had invaded human experience in the distant past, the sceptic’s view is so restrictive that nothing could ever prove this to him. Meanwhile, McDowell relies on an overly simplistic stance on what is essentially historical probability, not fact. A more reasonable attitude would be that when we encounter the supernatural in ancient history, it is a legitimate warning bell that we may be reading something legendary, and so the standard for evidence naturally rises beyond what we would ordinarily demand. Good evidence for something as extreme as the resurrection of Jesus would be corroboration from multiple secular sources of the same time period. But we do not have this; we only have the Gospel accounts of the Christians.

One source for the historicity of Jesus, the Roman historian Tacitus, takes a sceptical stance to Christianity, calling it a “mischievous superstition.” McDowell never draws attention to this pertinent fact, only attempts to use Tacitus’s mention of Jesus as a proof for his life in general. This shows the one-sided bias in his approach.

The size of this book is a bit daunting, but in retrospect there’s a lot less in here than one might assume. Fifty percent or more of the volume is taken up by quotes. This makes it quite repetitive at times, as McDowell often cites lengthy sections by three or four Christian apologists, who are all covering the same ground. Worse still, some of the material is repeated in different chapters. There is also a massive reliance on rhetoric to back up evidence that is fairly flimsy, rather than a straightforward presentation of facts with the onus put on the reader to draw his own conclusions.

While the focus of the book is an attempt to establish the validity of the Bible as both a historical document and the “word of God,” there is a large part at the tail end tackling postmodernism and Eastern mysticism. These are included because the author sees them as contemporary threats to Christianity, but I think a far more important subject to tackle would have been the theory of evolution. It’s certainly far more influential in the West than Zen Buddhism! Evolution renders man’s “sinful nature” as null and void, because it sees all our behaviours as part of our evolutionary heritage, tracing our nastier base instincts to the reptilian brain. And if there is no sinful nature, then there is no need for redemption. So, evolution is one of the greatest threats to the survival of Christianity in the modern world. Yet the book contains nothing more than one passing mention of the topic in the introduction.

Amid the book’s rhetoric, there are occasional moments of very telling admission:

I took the evidence that I could gather and placed it on the scales. The scales tipped in favor of Christ as the Son of God, resurrected from the dead … Be careful. I am not saying that I proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. What I did was to investigate the evidence and weigh the pros and cons. The results showed that Christ must be who He claimed to be … I was not looking for absolute truth but “historical probability.”

After a discussion on the Bible’s continuity, scope of circulation and translation, survival through time in the face of persecution and criticism, the quality of its teachings and prophecies, the scope of its influence on literature and civilisation, McDowell admits: “The evidence presented above does not prove that the Bible is the word of God. But …”

Here is a featured quote by Dr. A.C. Ivy, president of the American Physiological Society from 1939-49:

I cannot prove this belief as I can prove certain scientific facts in my library which one hundred years ago were almost as mysterious as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the basis of the historical evidence of existing biological knowledge, the scientist who is true to the philosophy of science can doubt the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, but he cannot deny it. Because to do so means that he can prove that it did not occur.”

In other words: “I can’t prove Jesus rose from the dead, but hey, you can’t disprove it either!” The fact that McDowell saw fit to quote something so logically fallacious demonstrates the weakness of his own thinking. Any rational thinker knows that one does not have to disprove something. The burden of proof lies upon the one making the astounding claim.

Norman Geisler is quoted, making the following observation on atheists – which he states without qualification or evidence:

Atheists who consistently try to live without God tend to commit suicide or go insane.

I advise anyone interested in Christianity to read this volume, in an open-minded but critical spirit, watching out for those weak arguments that sound good until properly examined. I remain confident that Christianity is a false religion, moreso after reading The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

When all is said and done, the choice of whether to believe in Christianity boils down to how much you want or need to believe and how easily you accept the supernatural in the absence of direct experience or concrete evidence.

When I am dead, If I am confronted by a God who asks me why I rejected his offer of salvation, my only reply can be, “Why did you make it so difficult to see you? Why did you put me in a position where I would have had to betray my own mind in order to accept it?”

For me, reading this book puts the final nail in the coffin of Christianity. Case closed.

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The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? by Richard Bewes

Occasionally, a Christian friend who knows that I’ve abandoned Christianity will try to “help” me in a nice sort of way (and sometimes in a not so nice sort of way, but that’s another story). I had one of the nice experiences yesterday, when someone gave me a small book to read called The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? by Richard Bewes. I decided to read it carefully, just to see if I had anything new to learn on the subject of the validity of Christianity.

The author begins with a short chapter called “Just Supposing” in which he describes a conversation with a man who feels sorry for Christians, i.e. wasting your lives on an afterlife pipedream. This was excuse for the author to present a “what if you’re wrong?” argument, i.e. there’s a God you’ve ignored your whole life that you’ll have to deal with. This chapter was pointless, and was a hairsbreadth away from the emotionally manipulative fear-mongering that is characteristic of religion.

The author’s brief argument for the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts relies on noting how closely Matthew, Mark, Luke and John resemble each other. He makes no mention of the fact that it’s actually Matthew, Mark, and Luke that are similar, and John is quite different. He claims that since three different people, Matthew, Mark and Luke (if those were the authors) individually told the same account with a high degree of overlap, then the account must be true. He doesn’t mention the highly plausible theory that Matthew, Mark and Luke are all sourced from a single earlier document known by scholars as Proto-Mark, which could equally account for the accuracy, regardless of how genuine or otherwise Proto-Mark was.

The author admits that the earliest fragment of any New Testament book is a piece of John dating from around 125 AD, ninety-five years after the alleged resurrection of Christ, and yet he is happy to state that we possess eyewitness accounts of the resurrection. Let me illustrate the problem. Imagine I were taking the stand in a court case and said, “I have an eyewitness account that the deed was done.” When asked to present this eyewitness account, I would then have to say, “Well, Fred saw it happen, but he didn’t write anything down for twenty years. And I only have someone else’s say-so that it was Fred who wrote it. And I don’t actually have what Fred wrote. What he wrote is long gone. Oh, but somebody else copied it before it was destroyed. No, I don’t have that copy either, but I have another one – or a piece of it anyway. This was from 95 years after Fred witnessed the deed. There you go: your eyewitness account.” I would be laughed out of court! Christians ought not to be making this outrageous statement about eyewitness accounts when they are continually relying on second-hand information.

From this point on, the author assumes his readers are on the same page and that every word of the Gospel accounts can be taken as truth. The Bible says the tomb of Jesus was empty, so it must be true. The Bible says that people saw Jesus afterwards, so this must be true. This is called evidence for the resurrection, and it is the only “evidence” presented. The author goes on to say, “Not even the smallest dent would have been made upon the world unless the disciples had been changed.” He’s saying the resurrection must have happened, because it changed the world. In other words, Christianity must be true, because if it weren’t it couldn’t have grown so big. Well, how about the impact of other major world religions? The impact of Islam is nothing to be sniffed at, for instance. Also, no mention is made of such factors as Emperor Constantine declaring Christianity to be the state religion of Rome in the 4th century. I think that might have had something to do with Christianity’s expansion across the world.

The author mentions the writings of Jewish historian Josephus as further evidence of Jesus as a historical character. Josephus wrote The Antiquities of the Jews in the late 1st century, and the volume states:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

The authenticity of the above passage been disputed since the 17th century, and by the mid 18th century the consensus view was that it had at a minimum been altered by Christian scribes, and possibly was outright forgery. Think about it. We’re reading a Jewish historian admitting that Jesus was the Christ, and Jews do not believe that Jesus is the Christ, otherwise they would be Christians, wouldn’t they? Something smells off. Yet it doesn’t stop Richard Bewes, with his personal agenda, from quoting Josephus and completely disregarding the consensus view of historians on the matter.

Instead of using the available space in the book to provide detailed arguments, the author wastes space by accusing non-Christian readers of having a moral barrier to Christianity. He says it’s not a matter of evidence but a matter of willingness, because we may find the idea of converting to Christianity upsetting. In reality, the Christian is as suspectible as the non-Christian in being swayed by his personal desires. How about people who convert to Christianity for purely emotional reasons, in the absence of evidence? When a belief system is demanding your mind, body and soul, evidence is paramount. Smart people, Christian or otherwise, rule their emotions and don’t allow themselves to be ruled by them.

Doubting Thomas gets the limelight towards the end of the book, Thomas being the man who would not believe the resurrection unless he saw Jesus for himself. The author’s argument is that Thomas should have been able to trust the words of the people he had been living among, those who witnessed the risen Christ. And to us, he likewise says: “The reports of the original first-hand witnesses are enough for faith.” Oh yeah, that would be those first-hand witnesses that we don’t have.

The final page of the book is headed “Check the facts!” and is a list of Bible verses from the New Testament. I think it’s fair to say that the only evidence for the resurrection of Jesus are the writings of the New Testament. Beyond that there is nothing. Are the Gospel accounts real history? That’s the big question, isn’t it? I have yet to hear a convincing argument that they are history. There is certainly no corroborating evidence from other 1st century sources to say that Jesus was a real person. And there’s even a case for the view that the story of Jesus is a retelling of a much older myth of life, death and rebirth. History is full of such saviour God stories which have high degrees of overlap. Even the Old Testament account of Joseph appears to have remarkable similaries to the account of Jesus’ life.

The Resurrection – Fact or Fiction? is a borderline dishonest book, presenting flimsy arguments that bear no weight when scrutinised. The Christian who uses a book like this can walk away feeling that his faith has been strengthened, as long as he doesn’t think too deeply about statements like “We have eyewitness accounts of the resurrection.”