Freethought Archives > Walter R. Cassels > Supernatural Religion 





WHEN the evidence of the Gospels regarding the great central dogmas of ecclesiastical Christianity is shown to be untrustworthy and insufficient, Apologists appeal with confidence to the testimony of the Apostle Paul. We presume that it is not necessary to show that, in fact, the main weight of the case rests upon his Epistles, as undoubted documents of the apostolic age, written some thirty or forty years after the death of the Master. The retort has frequently been made to the earlier portion of this work that, so long as the evidence of Paul remains unshaken, the apologetic position is secure. We may quote a few lines from an able work, part of a passage discussed in the preceding chapter, as a statement of the case: "In the first place, merely as a matter of historical attestation, the Gospels are not the strongest evidence for the Christian miracles. Only one of the four, in its present shape, is claimed as the work of an Apostle, and of that the genuineness is disputed. The Acts of the Apostles stand upon very much the same footing with the synoptic Gospels, and of this book we are promised a further examination. But we possess at least some undoubted writings of one who was himself a chief actor in the events which followed immediately upon those recorded in the Gospels; and in these undoubted writings St. Paul certainly shows by incidental allusions, the good faith of which cannot be questioned, that he believed himself to be endowed with the power of working miracles, and that miracles, or what were thought to be such, were actually wrought by him and by his contemporaries ... Besides these allusions, St. Paul repeatedly refers to the cardinal miracles of the Resurrection and Ascension; he refers to them as notorious and unquestionable facts at a time when such an assertion might have been easily refuted. On one occasion he gives a very circumstantial account of the testimony on which the belief in the Resurrection rested (1 Cor. 15:4-8). And not only does he assert the Ressurection as a fact, but he builds upon it a whole scheme of doctrine: 'If Christ be not risen,' he says, 'then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.' We do not stay now to consider the exact philosophical weight of this evidence. It will be time enough to do this when it has received the critical discussion that may be presumed to be in store for it. But as external evidence, in the legal sense, it is probably the best that can be produced, and it has been entirely untouched so far." [802:1] We have already disposed of the "allusions" above referred to. We shall in due time deal with the rest of the statements in this passage, but at present it is sufficient to agree at least with the remark that, "as external evidence," the testimony of Paul "is probably the best that can be produced." We know at least who the witness really is, which is an advantage denied us in the case of the Gospels. It would be premature to express surprise that we find the case of miracles, and more especially of such stupendous miracles as the Resurrection and Ascension, practically resting upon the testimony of a single witness. This thought will intrude itself, but cannot at present be pursued.

Evidence for Resurrection and Ascension
The allegation which we have to examine is that the Founder of Christianity, after being dead and buried, rose from the dead and did not again die, but, after remaining some time with his disciples, ascended with his body into heaven. [802:2] It is unnecessary to complicate the question by adding the other doctrines regarding the miraculous birth and divine origin and personality of Jesus. In the problem before us certain objective facts are asserted which admit of being judicially tested. We have nothing to do here with the vague modern representation of these events, by means of which the objective facts vanish, and are replaced by subjective impressions and tricks of consciousness or symbols of spiritual life. Those who adopt such views have, of course, abandoned all that is real and supernatural in the supposed events. The Resurrection and Ascension with which we have to deal are events precisely as objective and real as the death and burial -- no ideal process figured by the imagination or embodiments of Christian hope, but tangible realities, historical occurrences in the sense of ordinary life. If Jesus, after being crucified, dead, and buried, did not physically rise again from the dead, and in the flesh, [803:1] without again dying, "ascend into Heaven," the whole case falls to the ground. These incidents, although stupendous miracles, must have been actual occurrences. If they did not take place, our task is at an end. If it be asserted that they really did take place, their occurrence must be attested by adequate evidence. Apologists, whilst protesting that the occurrences in question are believed upon ordinary historical evidence, and that Christianity requires no indulgence, but submits itself to the same tests as any other affirmation, do not practically act upon this principle, but, as soon as it is enunciated, introduce a variety of special pleas which remove the case from the domain of history into that of theology, and proceed upon one assumption after another, until the fundamental facts become enveloped and, so to say, protected from judicial criticism by a cloud of religious dogmas and hypotheses. [803:2] By confining our attention to the simple facts which form the basis of the whole superstructure of ecclesiastical Christianity, we may avoid much confusion of ideas, and restrict the field of inquiry to reasonable limits. We propose, therefore, to limit our investigation to the evidence for the reality of the Resurrection and Ascension.

What evidence could be regarded as sufficient to establish the reality of such supposed occurrences? The question is one which demands the serious attention and consideration of every thoughtful man. It is obvious that the amount of evidence requisite to satisfy our minds as to the truth of any statement should be measured by the nature of that statement and, we may as well add, by its practical importance to ourselves. The news that a man was married or a child born last week is received without doubt, because men are married and children are born every day; and, although such pieces of gossip are frequently untrue, nothing appears more natural or more in accordance with our experience. If we take more distant and less familiar events, we have no doubt that a certain monarch was crowned, and that he subsequently died some centuries ago. If we ask for proof of the statement, nothing may be forthcoming of a very minute or indubitable nature. No absolute eye-witness of the coronation may have left a clear and detailed narrative of the ceremony; and possibly there may no longer be extant a sufficiently attested document proving with certainty the death of the monarch. There are several considerations, however, which make us perfectly satisfied with the evidence, incomplete as it may be. Monarchs are generally crowned and invariably die; and the statement that any one particular monarch was crowned and died is so completely in conformity with experience that we have no hesitation in believing it in the specific case. We are satisfied to believe such ordinary statements upon very slight evidence, both because our experience prepares us to believe that they are true and because we do not much care whether they are true or not. If life, or even succession to an estate, depended upon either event, the demand for evidence, even in such simple matters, would be immensely intensified. The converse of the statement would not meet with the same reception. Would anyone believe the affirmation that Alfred the Great, for instance, did not die at all? What amount of evidence would be required before such a statement could be pronounced sufficiently attested? Universal experience would be so uniformly opposed to the assertion that such a phenomenon had taken place, that probably no evidence readily conceivable could ensure the belief of more than a credulous few. The assertion that a man actually died and was buried, and yet afterwards rose from the dead, is still more at variance with human experience. The prolongation of life to long periods is comparatively consistent with experience; and if a life extending to several centuries be incredible, it is only so in degree, and is not absolutely contrary to the order of nature, which certainly under present conditions does not favour the supposition of such lengthened existence, but still does not fix hard-and-fast limits to the life of man. The resurrection of a man who has once been absolutely dead, however, is contrary to all human experience. If to this we add the assertion that the person so raised from the dead never again died, but, after continuing some time longer on earth, ascended bodily to some invisible and inconceivable place called Heaven, there to "sit at the right hand of God," the shock to reason and common-sense becomes so extreme that it is difficult even to realise the nature of the affirmation. It would be hopeless to endeavour to define the evidence which could establish the reality of the alleged occurrences.

Proportionate evidence
As the central doctrines of a religion upon which the salvation of the human race is said to depend, we are too deeply interested to be satisfied with slight evidence or no evidence at all. It has not infrequently been made a reproach that forensic evidence is required of the reality of Divine Revelation. Such a course is regarded as perfectly preposterous, whether the test be applied to the primary assertion that a revelation has been made at all, or to its contents. What kind of evidence, then, are we permitted decorously to require upon so momentous a subject? Apparently, just so much as Apologists can conveniently set before us, and no more. The evidence deemed necessary for the settlement of a Scotch peerage case, or a disputed will, is, we do not hesitate to say, infinitely more complete than that which it is thought either pious or right to expect in the case of religion. The actual occurrence of the Resurrection and Ascension is certainly a matter of evidence, and it is scarcely decent that any man should be required to believe what is so opposed to human experience, upon more imperfect evidence than is required for the transfer of land or the right to a title, simply because ecclesiastical dogmas are founded upon them, and it is represented that, unless they be true, "our hope is vain." The testimony requisite to establish the reality of such stupendous miracles can scarcely be realised. Proportionately, it should be as unparalleled in its force as those events are in fact. Evidence of the actual death of the person requires to be as complete as evidence of his resurrection. One point, moreover, must never be forgotten. Human testimony is exceedingly fallible at its best. It is liable to error from innumerable causes, and most of all, probably, when religious excitement is present, and disturbing elements of sorrow, fear, doubt, or enthusiasm interfere with the calmness of judgment. When any assertion is made which contradicts unvarying experience, upon evidence which experience knows to be universally liable to error, there cannot be much hesitation in disbelieving the assertion and preferring belief in the order of nature. And when evidence proceeds from an age exceptionally exposed to error, from ignorance of natural laws, and the prevalence of superstition, and religious excitement, it cannot be received without the gravest suspicion. We make these brief remarks, in anticipation, as nothing is more essential in the discussion upon which we are about to enter than a proper appreciation of the allegations which are to be tested, and of the nature of the testimony required for belief in them.

We shall not limit our inquiry to the testimony of Paul, but shall review the whole of the evidence adduced for the Resurrection and Ascension. Hitherto, our examination of the historical books of the New Testament has been mainly for the purpose of ascertaining their character, and the value of their evidence for miracles and the reality of Divine Revelation. It is unnecessary for us here minutely to recapitulate the results. The Acts of the Apostles, we have shown, cannot be received as testimony of the slightest weight upon any of the points before us. Briefly to state the case of the Gospels in other words than our own, we repeat the honest statement of the able writer quoted at the beginning of this chapter: "In the first place, merely as a matter of historical attestation, the Gospels are not the strongest evidence for the Christian miracles. Only one of the four, in its present shape, is claimed as the work of an Apostle, and of that the genuineness is disputed." [806:1] We may add that the third Synoptic does not, in the estimation of anyone who has examined the Acts of the Apostles, gain additional credibility by being composed by the same author as the latter work. The writers of the four Gospels are absolutely unknown to us, and in the case of three of them it is not even affirmed that they were eye-witnesses of the Resurrection and Ascension and other miracles narrated. The undeniably doubtful authorship of the fourth Gospel, not to make a more positive statement here, renders this work, which was not written until upwards of half a century, at the very least, after the death of Jesus, incapable of proving anything in regard to the Resurrection and Ascension. A much stronger statement might be made, but we refer readers to our preceding arguments, and we shall learn something more of the character of the Gospel narratives as we proceed.

Evidence of New Testament writers
Although we cannot attach any value to the Gospels as evidence, we propose, before taking the testimony of Paul, to survey the various statements made by them regarding the astounding miracles we are discussing. Enough has been said to show that we cannot accept any statement as true simply because it is made by a Gospel or Gospels. When it is related in the first Synoptic, for instance, that Pilate took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood: see ye to it" (Matt. 27:24) -- an incident to which no reference, be it said in passing, is made by the other Evangelists, although it is sufficiently remarkable to have deserved notice -- we cannot of course assume that Pilate actually said or did anything of the kind. A comparison of the various accounts of the Resurrection and Ascension, however, and careful examination of their details, will be of very great use, by enabling us to appreciate the position of the case apart from the evidence of Paul. The indefinite impression fostered by Apologists, that the evidence of the Gospels supplements and completes the evidence of the Apostle, and forms an aggregate body of testimony of remarkable force and volume, must be examined, and a clear conception formed of the whole case.

One point may at once be mentioned before we enter upon our examination of the Gospels. The Evangelists narrate such astonishing occurrences as the Resurrection and Ascension with perfect composure and absence of surprise. This characteristic is even made an argument for the truth of their narrative. The impression made upon our minds, however, is the very reverse of that which Apologists desire us to receive. The writers do not in the least degree seem to have realised the exceptional character of the occurrences they relate, and betray the assurance of persons writing in an ignorant and superstitious age, whose minds have become too familiar with the supernatural to be at all surprised either by a resurrection from the dead or a bodily ascension. Miracles in their eyes have lost their strangeness and seem quite commonplace. It will be seen, as we examine the narratives, that a stupendous miracle, or a convulsion of nature, is thrown in by one or omitted by another as a mere matter of detail. An earthquake and the resurrection of many bodies of saints are mere trifles which can be inserted without wonder, or omitted without regret. The casual and momentary expression of hesitation to believe, which is introduced, is evidently nothing more than a rhetorical device to heighten the reality of the scene. It would have been infinitely more satisfactory had we been able to perceive that these witnesses, instead of being genuine denizens of the age of miracles, had really understood the astounding nature of the occurrences they report, and did not consider a miracle the most natural thing in the world.

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