This last week’s episode of the Unbelievable? radio show was a rerun, but a good one to listen to (if you’re patient, that is). It was a conversation between apologist Jay Smith and atheist Stephen Pilcher concerning the so-called “Easter Challenge“: can you weave together all the NT accounts of that seminal event in Christian theology, the Resurrection?
The show goes as might be expected. Naturally, the apologist thinks he can meet the challenge. And so he tries, pulling together all the disparate accounts with different eyewitnesses, sequences of events, and other information and weaving them into a harmonized tapestry (compliments of Andy Bannister). The atheist isn’t buying it. The apologist hears all of the atheists’ objections, but he doesn’t buy them, either, because he has an explanation that can support his presupposition of the NT’s complete correspondence with actual history. On the whole it reminds me of another creative “enterprise” of affirming and concocting continuity.
Can Star Trek’s continuity over several series and movies be resolved? Despite certain hiccups (the Klingons’ foreheads, anyone?!), a devout Trekkie will tell you, “Sure, if you try hard enough.” The originators of new content were often simply not familiar enough with all the other existing content to produce a seamless narrative and probably nearly as often were aware but intentionally recast certain plot points or character details for the purposes of their current script. Convincing resolutions of continuity errors are debated among the fans, so it was welcome news when ENT finally explained why Klingons’ appearance changed between TOS and TMP. But unlike apologists, Star Trek fans realize that they’re only interested in the effort of clearing up continuity errors in order to preserve an ideal of continuity that was simply not shared by their sources (especially Gene Roddenberry). They were all functioning from within varying perspectives and emphases, and so their material differed.
Smith readily acknowledges that each NT author also had different perspectives and emphases: he clings to this, in fact, since that alone begins to account for the very different ways the Resurrection accounts are presented. But different emphases and perspectives are not enough to explain why the authors of the accounts selected testimony with so many surface incongruities with one another. As is commonly pointed out, for any given complex of confluent events such as those leading up to and following a car wreck, four eyewitnesses will most often have some conflicting testimony, and while those differences can often be explained (bad eyesight, fear of implicating themselves, etc.), they can’t always be believably explained away to be completely reconciled as independent, factual observations. Nor does anyone expect them to be, unless requirements of unfailing factual accuracy are applied ex post facto.
Ok, so the various authors were drawing on different sources, viewing them from different angles. But can we credibly account for the reasons the authors drew on those different sources, especially when they seemed to contradict one another? Yes, each author wrote for his own purpose and to his own audience, but if Luke’s explicitly stated purpose was to consult the various sources and compile them into an “orderly account”, this was his opportunity to do so for a subject of peak importance. Even if he did what he could with what he had available, it’s a shame indeed that the Holy Spirit didn’t inspire him to undertake what Andy Bannister would some two thousand years later!
Granted, if the events took place precisely as Jay Smith thinks they must have, the details could indeed be pulled apart and divvied up over the different NT authors to give us exactly what we have. And I’d like to go further and state that some of the discrepancies can indeed be plausibly accounted for or dismissed. For instance, Smith points out the weak objection that there are “men” at the tomb in Luke’s account vs. “angels” in Matthew’s: in the first century, angels were not pictured with wings, and so may not have been readily distinguishable from humans (cf. Heb 13.2). We can indeed get nit-picky to the point of nonsense if we’re consciously trying to pull apart a story (just ask a defense attorney), and many critics do. Still, how plausible is the intricate aggregation of all the rationalizations required to order to present a single unified account?
As with Star Trek, given the conviction that it all must hang together, continuity can be achieved. Square pegs can be crammed into round holes. This is why it’s hard to dissuade someone from believing in inerrancy: humans are well-suited for coming up with explanations to fit their expectations, even if it requires “explaining away”.
While admitting their own presuppositions, Jay Smith and host Justin Brierley both contended that Pilcher came to the table with certain theological presuppositions of his own. While no doubt true, I think this is mostly irrelevant for Pilcher’s view, but it is telling on the part of Smith and Brierley. As a Christian who believes that in one way or another the Resurrection occurred, my baseline theological presuppositions do not differ so very radically from the Christians on the show. What puts me closer to Pilcher’s views than Smith’s on this issue is only a difference in theological presupposition insofar as the Smith’s theology is based upon certain expectations of Scripture that I do not share.
As Justin Brierley admitted, “We come [to the Bible] with an attitude of faith, and when we see things that are contradictions we will happily say ‘yes’ to something which helps us to reconcile them.” First, notice that their faith is in the Bible, or at best, in God’s intention to give us a crystallized piece of truth (which happens to be the Bible). And so they approach the Bible with a certain expectation that is to be defended at all costs, and consequently they’ll gladly accept anything that appears to help their case, cumbersome and implausible as it may be on its own merit. On the other hand, I come to the NT accounts with an expectation that they are a collection of ancient texts consisting of differing people’s takes on a bewildering event that certainly would have easily outlasted the memory of the events surrounding it. If anything, for me this aftershock haze of refracted recollection and attempted reconstruction, which was then visualized by the theological emphases of the different Gospel narratives’ craftsmen, actually serves the purpose of focusing the lens on the event in question: the Resurrection.
If we wake up one morning to find Reuters, the AP, the New York Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, and the Times of India all reporting on the same astoundingly surprising story, will we insist upon a complete harmonization of their accounts before believing the story that induced them all to publish? Will we demand that every single story each paper publishes in their respective issues be inerrant as a condition for believing the basic event they’re recounting? In the end we may not believe their story, but it won’t be because of such unreasonable expectations as those.
No, the first century accounts of the NT do not come close to matching the reporting standards of a modern newspaper — understood, acknowledged, undisputed. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Outside of a presupposition of an inerrant Bible, which I don’t at all share, why should we expect such a thing from Paul, Luke, and the other Evangelists? They wrote decades later than the events they describe, only marginally intending to solidify an already fuzzy remembrance of peripheral details, and they presented the events in ways that applied particular lessons tailored to their respective audiences.
The Easter Challenge, like so many other evangelistic atheist methods, is most successful at putting Christians on the defensive about something they really have no need to be defensive about. We don’t need inerrant, reconcilable Easter accounts in order to place hope in the Resurrection. Losing one’s faith in the Bible’s ability to perfectly convey certain facts does not require a loss of faith in the facts underlying their imperfect conveyance. It requires considerably less blind credulity on my part to believe in the event testified to in the various conflicting and competing Easter morning accounts than to bank my entire faith upon the faultless concord and historicity of those accounts. Sure, we can’t prove the Resurrection, given that the event is only recorded in a Bible that is neither inerrant nor completely consistent internally, but it’s easier to believe in that event for which no contrary evidence exists than to believe that the Bible is inerrant and completely consistent internally, a contention for which contrary evidence abounds and which requires…well, creative explanations to support it.
Luckily, Paul did not say that we had to feign or psyche ourselves into absolute certainty that God raised Jesus from the dead, or that the NT contains an inerrant account of it (what rum luck it would have been for anyone alive before the Inerrant and Completely Trustworthy Account was available!): he said that believing it in our hearts was sufficient. And that I do, continuity errors notwithstanding.