The Apostles vs The New Atheists

The resurrection of Jesus is a game-changer. It either happened, or it didn’t. If there was no resurrection, Christianity is a joke. No other religion rises or falls on the veracity of an historical event, and that’s one of the many things that make Christianity unique among the world religions. For those that claim to be Christian, they can often feel compelled to try and defend every single statement or event in the Bible. Their faith can start to feel like a house of cards, and if uncertainty about anything in the entire Bible comes into question, the whole thing comes crashing down. But if we look back to the very first followers of Jesus (the Apostles) we can see that their faith was based on something quite simple.

They saw Jesus alive after he was executed.

I recently read a book called Irresistible by Andy Stanley, and I thought this excerpt really helped to convey this sentiment effectively:

Perhaps it would help to imagine a debate with atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on one side and apostles Peter and Paul on the other. Dawkins and Harris would deliver their typical blistering critique of all things Old Testament. They would argue persuasively for a 13.8 billion-year-old universe and a 4-billion-year-old earth. They would highlight God’s genocidal directives to the ancient Jews and then turn right around and point out the lack of evidence for a Jewish exodus from Egypt to begin with. They would rail persuasively about the dangers of religion and cite in excruciatingly clear detail the atrocities carried out in the name of God. Here are a few actual quotes that would fit well in their closing arguments.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 51

“It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.” – Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 67

“To be fair, much of the Bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and “improved” by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors, and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to one another, spanning nine centuries.” – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 268

“The fact that my continuous and public rejection of Christianity does not worry me in the least should suggest to you just how inadequate I think your reasons for being a Christian are.” – Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 4

How would Peter respond? How would Paul respond? I think Peter, who had no formal education, might respond something like this:

“Fellas, I’ve never given much thought to the age of the earth. So I can’t really comment on any of that. Perhaps Paul can. I’m certainly familiar with the God of the . . . what did you call it again . . . the Old Testament? I know my people’s history, including God’s instructions to Moses and Joshua. I’m sure the reason I’ve never questioned those stories is because of how and when I was raised.

But gentlemen, none of that . . . in fact none of what you’ve said . . . has anything to do with my decision to follow Jesus.

Sam, you referenced the inadequacy of my reasoning. Allow me to explain my reasoning. I only have one. One reason, that is. When my teacher was arrested, I ran. When asked if I knew him, I lied. When the Romans crucified him, he died. In that moment, I was like you. I had no faith. I had no reason to believe. I didn’t know what to believe. When the women burst into the room early that morning to tell us the tomb was empty, I didn’t assume a miracle. I’m no fool. You ever seen a crucifixion? Of course not. Let me tell you, nobody survives crucifixion. I assumed someone had stolen the body or perhaps the women had gotten confused and went to the wrong place. But I was curious. So I went to see for myself. Before I knew it, I was running. And yes, hoping. But as John and I stared into that empty cave, we didn’t know what to think. Later that day, Mary Magdalene found us and insisted she’d seen the master, alive. But I wouldn’t allow myself to believe it. I’d just spent three years chasing a confused rabbi. I wasn’t going to spend another season chasing ghosts. Besides, I had a price on my head. If I wasn’t careful, I would end up a ghost myself. So that night, as was our habit, the boys and me, we found a safe house just outside of town. The doors were locked and we were huddled together whispering about everything that had happened. And that’s when he came. Nobody saw him walk in. I swear to you the door was locked. But we looked up and there he was. Very much alive.

Fellas, I can’t argue with anything you’ve said. But I would like to clarify one thing. My reason for believing isn’t something I’ve heard or read or had read to me. I believe what I believe because of what I saw. I watched him die. And I know for a fact, Nic and Joe buried him. But God raised him. And fellas . . . I saw him. That’s the reason . . . that’s the only reason . . . for my hope.”

Perhaps Paul’s response would go something like this:

“Gentlemen, you believe religion is dangerous. I wholeheartedly agree. I weaponized Judaism. I arrested, jailed, tortured, and oversaw executions in the name of God. Sam, you aren’t fond of Christians. I wasn’t either. But while you and your friends are content to attack with your pens, I used a sword and a noose. I wasn’t content to write about it. I got deputized and did something about it. My intent was to stamp out The Way, as we called it back then. And yes, I was absolutely convinced I was doing God’s work. Religion can indeed be a dangerous thing.

But then something happened.

You’ve heard about it. I was on my way to Damascus to do more violence in the name of religion when I went blind. But it was while I was blind that I began to see. Richard, you mentioned weird stories. Well, this is a weird one for sure. But I’m just telling you what happened. I heard a voice. The voice asked, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Well, I had a hunch, but I asked anyway, “Who are you, Lord?” And gentlemen, I don’t expect you to believe me, but the voice said: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Jesus, as in crucified and buried Jesus. Long story short, I was commissioned by the God I thought I had been serving all along to take the message of Jesus to the Gentile world. Which is exactly what I did. And from what I understand, nobody in your modern world disputes that that’s exactly what I did. The only thing you can dispute is why I did it.

So, Sam, Richard, why in the world would a die-hard Pharisee like me do an about-face and serve the very person whose memory I set out to destroy? What’s your theory?

If you’re going to dismiss the Christian faith, it’s not enough to discount the credibility of my Jewish ancestors. You’ve got to discount me! Oh, and one last thing. Richard, for the record, there’s really only one weird story that matters. The one Peter told you. The one Matthew and Luke documented. And if you think about it, it’s not much weirder than something the two of you believe. You believe all of life arose from a single organism. Peter and I believe a full-grown man arose from a single tomb.”

It all comes down to Jesus and the resurrection. Click here to learn more

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