Sam Harris, Christ’s Resurrection, and the Nature of Belief
Sam Harris has helped lead the new brigade of militant atheists in their charge against God. His bestseller, The End of Faith, attempts to persuade the reader that all religions, including Christianity, are not only useless, but often quite harmful. In truth, he does an outstanding job showing some of the problems with false religions like Islam, and he also effectively repudiates perversions of Christian doctrine that attempt to pass themselves off as authentic. What he fails to do, however, is accurately assess true, New Testament Christianity, a fault that lies at the heart of much modern, atheistic writing.
As a case in point, Harris asked the question: “What should we believe?” He answered:
We believe most of what we believe about the world because others have told us to.... In fact, the more educated we become, the more our beliefs come to us second hand. A person who believes only those propositions for which he can provide full sensory or theoretical justification will know almost nothing about the world (2004).
Harris then proceeded to discuss how to assess the validity of what we should or should not believe that other people tell us. He gave three sources of information and analyzed the validity of each. First, he proposed the scenario of an anchorman on the evening news claiming that a fire in Colorado had burned 100,000 acres. Second, he listed as a source of information numerous biologists who claim that DNA is the “molecular basis for sexual reproduction.” And the third source of information he listed was the Pope, who claims that Jesus is the Son of God, was born of a virgin, and was resurrected bodily after death.
After some discussion, Harris concluded that the first and second sources of information are reliable and should be trusted, but the third, the Pope, is not. What is interesting about Harris’ discussion is why he concluded that the story about the fire on the evening news is trustworthy. He elaborated:
Given our beliefs about the human mind, the success of our widespread collaboration with other human beings, and the degree to which we all rely on the news, it is scarcely conceivable that a respected television network and a highly paid anchorman are perpetrating a hoax, or that thousands of firefighters, newsmen, and terrified homeowners have mistaken Texas for Colorado. Implicit in such commonsense judgments lurks an understanding of the causal connections between various processes in the world, the likelihood of different outcomes, and the vested interests or lack thereof, of those whose testimony we are considering. What would a professional news anchor stand to gain from lying about a fire in Colorado? We need not go into the details here, if the anchor on the evening news says that there is a fire in Colorado and then shows us images of burning trees, we can be reasonably sure that there really is a fire in Colorado (2004).
It is not surprising that Harris follows this explanation with his statement about mistrusting the words of the Pope pertaining to the resurrection of Christ. In this regard, he is right: the Pope’s “word” on the resurrection is no more authoritative than the word of Sam Harris. But notice the straw man Harris has built. He rightly attacks the false belief of the Pope’s infallibility, but he does not address the real evidence that validates Jesus’ resurrection. Were we to put the evidence for the resurrection beside that of the news story, the resurrection would have unquestionably more “commonsense judgments” to commend it, making it much more “reasonably sure” than a modern news story.
Analyzing the resurrection of Christ in light of Harris’ filter of evidence, it is “scarcely conceivable” that several hundred eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15:6) of the resurrected Christ simply concocted the story to further their agenda. What would ordinary fishermen, farmers, or businessmen and women stand to gain from perpetuating such a hoax? The reward for their testimony was that many of them were stoned, killed with the sword, tortured, or imprisoned for nothing more than saying that they knew Jesus came back to life. Thousands of their peers listened with interest to their evidence, assessed the value of the witnesses and other information, such as the empty tomb of Christ, and were forced to conclude that the resurrection had, indeed, occurred (Acts 2:41). Many among the most educated classes, including the priests, who would have had numerous reasons to deny the validity of the evidence, were convinced of the truth of Christ’s resurrection (Acts 6:7). The many “infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3) offered for the resurrection are recorded in the most reliable documents ever to come down to modern man from any historical repository (see Butt, 2004). In fact, so powerful are the various evidences for the resurrection (see Butt, 2002), that, knowing what we know “about the casual connections between various processes” and humanity’s “success of our widespread collaboration with other human beings,” it is inconceivable that the resurrection of Christ is a hoax. The Pope is an easy target. The real evidence for the resurrection is not.
Butt, Kyle (2002), “Jesus Christ—Dead or Alive?” Reason & Revelation, [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/121.
Butt, Kyle (2004), “Archaeology and the New Testament,” Reason & Revelation, [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2591.
Harris, Sam (2004), The End of Faith (New York: W.W. Norton).