DEBATE – Did Jesus physically rise from the dead?

Deur Dr. Abel Pienaar op 1 Oktober 2011

Die debat was goed. Natuurlik was daar uiteenlopende sienings van hoe die geleentheid afgeloop het. Ek gee my aanbieding deur vir die wat dit sou wou lees. Ek het ongelukkig geen toegang tot Mike Licona se notas nie, maar die wat sy kant wil hoor kan gerus die video opname van die aand se debat (binnekort beskikbaar) bestel by www.dialoognet.co.za. Hier is 'n paar reaksies op die debat:
"Dr. Abel Pienaar has only been an acquaintance until now but last night he became one of our leading South African intellectuals in my humble opinion and someone who we will definitely hear and learn a lot more from still. In essence Abel won the debate hands down..." – Willem
"Dit was duidelik uit gisteraand se debat dat hierdie argument [dr. Pienaar] geensins ernstig geneem kan word nie. Dr. Pienaar se opponent het hom telkens tereggewys as hy bloot stellings maak en hy het dan bloot 'n volgende perd opgesaal. Geen van hierdie [dr. Pienaar se argumente] bly staan as dit logies en eerlik bekyk word nie." – Thenack
"Die 'twis'gesprek ... was vir my hoogs onbevredigend!" – Dr. Chris
"Ek het nogal nie die debat as twisgesprek beleef nie. Ek dink beide Mike Licona as Abel Pienaar was uitstekende debatteerders en dit was vir my goed om hulle debatstegniek te kon ontleed." – Willie

DEBATE:  University of Pretoria, 26 September 2011
Dr. Abel Pienaar (SA, Philosopher) and Dr. Mike Licona (USA, Christian Theologian)

Opening statement

I would like to thank the organisers for this opportunity to discuss issues of such vital importance with such a seasoned debater as Dr. Mike Licona.

Because, whether you are a believer; fundamentalist, evangelical, moderate, liberal, agnostic (like myself) or a nonbeliever, coming to understand what the resurrection of Jesus actually is, and is not, is very important.

Just as Mike, I started out as a committed Bible-believing Christian. I was certain that the Bible had been inspired by God. Maybe that's what drove my intense study. I mean, if these are the actual words of God, spoken to us, mere mortals – surely knowing them intimately was the most important thing in life. So my search started. Then over a period of time, what I found led me to change my mind about the Bible and therefore what I thought about the resurrection of Jesus.

I did not change my mind willingly; I prayed about it, I wrestled with it; I resisted it with all my might. But at the same time I thought that if I was truly committed to God, I also had to be truly committed to the truth. Isn't it the same thing?

And it became clear to me that my former views of the Bible as the inerrant revelation from God, were wrong. The Bible was not God's words, it was human words and thoughts. Why do I say this?

Well as you know, the Bible is filled with discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable contradictions, especially when you read it as a historical document. For example, Moses did not write the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did not write the Gospels. As you know, there are other books that did not make it into the Bible that at one time or another were considered canonical – other Gospels, for example, written by Thomas and Mary.

Now even Christianity Today (June 2011), one of America's biggest Evangelical Christian magazines, had an article published were Christian theologians said that they now agree that Genesis 1 and 2 should rather be understood metaphorically than literally. Even one of their most prominent Christian scientists, Prof. Francis Collins said that he now agrees that Adam and Eve could not be understood as literal.

Even the Exodus, described in the Old Testament, probably did not happen as described. The conquest of the Promised Land is probably based on legend. The Gospels are at odds on numerous points and contain a lot of nonhistorical material. And most theological scholars now agree that it is hard to know whether Moses ever existed and what, exactly, the historical Jesus taught. The historical narratives of the Old Testament are filled with legendary fabrications and the book of Acts in the New Testament contains historically unreliable information about the life and teachings of Paul.

And most New Testament and History academic scholars agree that many of the New Testament books were written by later writers claiming to be the apostles. For example, Jesus' disciples were lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking peasants from Galilee, while the anonymous writers of the Gospels, as we can see from their writing, were highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians who probably lived outside Palestine (with their minds fixed on converting the world and running the church.)

These later writers wrote thirty-five to sixty-five years later. They were not eyewitnesses to any of these things, and were basing their stories on oral traditions that had been passed down for decades, among people with an agenda to convince others to believe in Jesus. And sadly the list goes on and on...

There is simply too much evidence, and to reconcile all of the hundreds of differences among the Biblical sources requires so much speculation and fancy interpretive footwork, as seen here tonight, that no person can honestly say they know for sure.

The words of Percy Shelley keep on ringing in my ears: "If God has spoken, why is the world not convinced?"

Except, of course, if you say "I believe it, and need no evidence of truth, I just believe it!" or "It's a matter of blind faith!" But then you can believe anything, is that not so? We do need evidence, isn't that what tonight's debate is all about? Isn't that why Mike is trying to set you all at ease that the resurrection did really happen?

My research led me in a different direction than the one Mike is going. For me what I found made me question important aspects of my faith. Eventually, not long after I left the Church, I came to the place where I still believed in God, but understood the Bible in a more metaphorical sense: the Bible seemed to me to contain inspired literature, but it was still the product of human hands and contained all the kinds of mistakes that any human undertaking will bring. But there came a time when I left the faith.

This was not only because of what I learned through historical criticism of the Bible, but because I could no longer reconcile my faith in a theistic God with the state of the world, that I saw around me. There is so much senseless pain and misery in the world that I came to find it impossible to believe that there is a good and loving theistic God, a being up on a throne above the clouds, all seeing, all knowing, who is in control.

There had to be another way of understanding God, maybe as a life force, maybe as energy ... I don't know, but the Bible's theistic king-God on a throne ... no more!

So, why am I here tonight, debating Mike on the resurrection of Jesus? I think, mostly, I'm here because I honestly believe that to get closer to the truth we need to be open and brave. We should ask the hard questions. And a hard question is: Is Jesus really God? And can a physical resurrection confirm that? Or do we need to understand it as a metaphor? That Jesus was only an ordinary man, living a life that was exceptional, just as many other examples of exceptional people? What can the resurrection mean in a modern, scientific world? What can it mean to me, who still want to live a spiritual life?

Now, if Mike had said, he believed that Jesus was resurrected by God, and that this is his religious assumption, then I could have agreed with him, in the sense, that this is his belief – just as Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have their beliefs. It doesn't mean it is necessarily true, it only means he wants to believe it, that's why we call it blind faith.

And as a philosopher (a lover of truth) I could even understand that this belief of his made him live in a certain way and that he felt it made him a better person. But Mike did not say that, he actually claimed that the resurrection can be proven historically. He even spoke about facts ... he spoke about the "Minimal fact approach", he said that in this approach, he only regards the New Testament as an ancient volume of literature containing twenty-seven separate books and letters ... and in there the evidence is so strong that nearly every scholar that studies the subject, even the skeptical ones, accepts it.

Really? Really, nearly every one? I'm a skeptic, I don't accept it. And his claim that it can be proven with strong evidence, as fact? Well the way I understand fact is that it can be proven, with hard evidence, it can be submitted to scrutiny etc. For example, when today a homicide is committed, and the police (CSI) detectives come in to the crime scene, they begin searching for little scraps of evidence, looking for a strand of hair, a fingerprint or traces of DNA. Then slowly they build their case, a case that can be proven later in a court of law.

Now, if Mike said there is proof of the physical resurrection, I want to see it! And I want to judge for myself if it is reliable evidence. Can it withstand all my skepticism or even the questions raised by the scientific method?

So, what proof does Mike and Christianity at large present? The Bible.

What, only that? Yes, but remember at least he is working with the minimal fact approach! This means that he claims to only consider data that meet two criteria: data that has strong evidence and data all scholars agree on.

Firstly, there is no such thing as all scholars agreeing on something, for then the sciences' process of being open to revision would be denied. Secondly, data that has strong evidence ... and the strong evidence comes from where? Wait for it ... The Bible!

Yes and a few other sources, really other sources? Yes, Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian and the Talmud. OK, and these sources confirm that Jesus rose from the dead? Oh, not ... they only contest to the fact that Jesus was crucified. And what does that prove regarding the resurrection? Yes people like Cicero calls it the most horrendous torture and Tacitus in the second century refers to it as "the extreme penalty", but this is only about Jesus' death. And what does that prove? I think, evidence for Jesus death, nothing about his resurrection. (I'll come back to this point later in the debate.)

You see Mike's only so called evidence for the resurrection, again, comes from the Bible. Why? Because he believes it is the word of God. Ok, but I don't!

I think the Bible is a book written by human hand. A Book filled with, not only history or even facts, but also by legends and myths. To me the Bible is no more the word of God than the Torah, Quran or any Upanishads or Sutras. It is filled with human stories.

Ancient people, people of antiquity, struggling with their world and trying to understand how things work. They started telling stories: Rain comes down when the gods cry and thunder is god's voice and so on. It really doesn't count as proof. It's contaminated or rather it's compromised by the fact that it proclaims stuff that I think is built on a pre-scientific worldview.

I mean, the writers of the Bible believed the earth is flat, we know today it is not. The writers' world view was so different from ours, I mean their world had three storeys. Ours none, its round. Their view of the cosmos generated amazing legends of gods.

And they believed in heroes. O how they believed in Heroes! Special people who were connected to all three realms of the universe: a divine being is his father, an earthly woman his mother, he would do miracles, be killed, go down to Hades and be resurrected and given a new body (similar to that of the stars) and ascend to heaven, and I'm not even talking about Jesus. I'm talking about myths that are so much older that the Jesus story: Dionysus, Mithras, Odysseus, and Hercules, even Thor could be counted among them.

Yes, myths can have a historical core and mostly do. Myths are also open to be changed, rewritten, reinterpreted and expanded because of a changing environment. Often two contradictory versions of the same myth will live side by side, as we can see in the Genesis 1 and 2.

Myths allow contradictions to natural law, of time, of place, of events. Supernatural explanations, miracles and 'God did it'. These are not historical facts but mythological narratives.

So, when Mike starts quoting, interpreting and presenting the Bible (or Paul) as his only proof of the resurrection, all I hear and see is myth. And other church fathers like Irenaeus also don't really inspire me with confidence. They were all people that at that time really believed that the resurrection did happen, but remember it was then a time of myth, legends, talking donkeys, witches and wizards. The stuff Walt Disney movies are made of!

Just look at Jesus, as presented in the Bible. He is a typical mythological character, covering all three storeys of the cosmos, with powers: Luke and Matthew supply Jesus with a miraculous birth (not so Mark and John). The same miraculous birth was applied to Siddhartha or as most of you know him: Buddha.

Then Jesus dies violently (just like each and every god forming the core of the so-called mystery cults), descends into Hades or Tartarus (Acts 2:27; 1 Peter 3:19; 2 Peter 3:4). He is resurrected, appears to some special followers who become leaders in the new cult, and ascends to heaven from which he would return to judge the living and the quick.

All evidence I see is that of a typical myth.

And nowhere are the contradictions to natural law, supernatural happenings, different time, places and events, that are so typical to mythology, more evident than in the differences among the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' resurrection.

There are four accounts, which in itself is OK, I mean, seeing an accident can leave people with different interpretations, according to their personality, position when the accident took place etc. But when the differences are discrepancies that cannot be reconciled, we have a problem!

Here let me stress the point: We don't have the originals of any of these Gospels, only copies made later, in most instances many centuries later. These copies all differ from one another, very often in the accounts of Jesus' resurrection. Scholars have to determine what the originals said on the basis of these later manuscripts. In some places the decisions are quite straightforward; in others there is a lot of debate.

In one aspect of the resurrection narrative there is little debate: it appears that the final twelve verses of Mark's Gospel are not original to Mark's Gospel but were added by a scribe in a later generation. And the Gospel of Mark is very important. Firstly, it's the oldest of all the Gospels, written shortly after 70 CE. Secondly, as we know today it was copied and used by Matthew and Luke's writers.

Mark ended his Gospel at what is now 16:8, with the women fleeing the tomb and not telling anyone what they had seen. Terrified, the women ran away and did not share the news (Mark 16:8). This is how the oldest copies of the gospel of Mark end, no resurrection! A later editor then added verses 9-21 to bring this gospel's ending in line with the other gospels. So, if this is true, what else did the scribes add, interpret or change? And how can we know?

In mythology this of course is not a problem, you can add, subtract and even create new characters. Because it's about telling a grand tale of the gods and they could do anything! Walk on water, die and then come back to life, whatever, but they always had powers! Like our superheroes today – Superman, Spiderman, Green Lantern, our modern myths.

And when you present Paul and the New Testament as your only strong evidence of a physical, historical resurrection of a man, then you have a problem. What can we say about the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels?

All four agree that on the third day after Jesus' crucifixion and burial, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty. But, and it's a big but, on virtually every detail they disagree.

Who actually went to the tomb? Was it Mary alone (John 20:1)? Mary and another Mary (Matthew 28:1)? Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Mark 16:1)? Or other woman (Luke 24:1; see 23:55)? Can the real eyewitnesses please come forward!?

Had the stone already been rolled away from the tomb (as in Mark 16:4) or was it rolled away by an angel while the women were there (Matthew 28:2)? Whom or what did they see there? An Angel (Matthew 28:5)? A young man (Mark 16:5)? Two men (Luke 24:4)?

If they told someone, whom do they tell? (all the Gospels differ on whom). What do the disciples do in response? Do they not believe the women because it seems to be "an idle tale" (Luke 24:11)? Do they have no response because Jesus himself immediately appears to them (Matthew 20:9)? Or do they go to the tomb to see for themselves (John 20:3)?

The questions just keep on piling up! On virtually every issue at least one Gospel is out of step. One point in particular seems to be irreconcilable:

In Mark's account the women are instructed to tell the disciples to go meet Jesus in Galilee, but out of fear they don't say a word to anyone about it. But if Matthew is right, that the disciples immediately go to Galilee and see Jesus ascend from there, how can Luke be right that the disciples stay in Jerusalem the whole time, see Jesus ascend from there, and stay on until the day of Pentecost?

These are just some of the discrepancies in the accounts of Jesus' resurrection. There is really not enough time, and I haven't even really touched on the problem with Paul, oral tradition or NO eyewitness accounts ... there is really not enough time.

First rebuttal

I'm not contesting the fact that the writer is Paul. I'm not even contesting the fact that Paul really believed, as most Christians today, in the physically resurrection. I'm contesting the fact that you say you can prove it historically.

Mike does believe it, that's clear to all, but he can't claim it as a historian, even if he happens to be a professional historian. When he claims it, he can only claim it as a believer, in his case a Christian believer.

Mike tries very hard to prove that Jesus rose from the dead. He tries to show that his arguments are objective facts, which are not like other religion-truth claims. He tries very hard to come across as an objective historian. The minimal facts approach – again, what facts?

But in actual fact his religion's truth claims are subjective in nature, just as any other religion's are. He says other religions' truth claims are only a matter of reading their holy scriptures and believing it. It is a matter of an inward feeling or the number of impacted lives. But in actual fact, it's exactly what he is doing.

Mike claims to present historical proven facts, so much better than any other religion's so called subjective historical facts. He even said: "Miracles in other religions can be dismissed with a plausible opposing theory, whereas we [Christians] have seen that opposing theories fail to answer the facts regarding Jesus' resurrection."

Christians' truth claims can scientifically be proven, he says. Again ... really?

Ok, let's agree that science, in the natural science way, is different from the way in which a historian works scientifically. Let's consider how historians, like Mike, work differently from the way natural scientists work.

Scientists do repeated experimentation to demonstrate how things happen, changing one variable at a time. If the same experiment produces the same result time after time, you can establish a level of predictive probability: For example, if I want to prove scientifically that a rock can break an ordinary glass window; I simply need about fifty same size rocks and fifty ordinary glass windows. When I throw the rock through the glass it shatters, fifty times. Then I can conclude that I'll get the same result even if I do it a two hundred times.

But as I understand, historians have to work differently. Historians are not trying to show what does or will happen, but what has happened. And with history, the experiment can never be repeated. Once something happens it is over and done with.

Therefore, you can't claim the resurrection as a fact, in the sense that it can be empirically proven. You can't, it's not as if you can repeat it in a science lab. So, we have to settle for reading manuscripts, digging up old cultures; try to reconstruct antiquity and trying to understand what most probably happened somewhere decades ago.

Working, of course, with different levels of evidence; some good and some not so good. All kinds of evidence in order to show what probably happened in the past. And that is all Mike can show, what probably happened. Ok, so Historians can never know for sure, but in some instances the evidence is so overwhelmingly good that there is no doubt.

For example, there is no doubt in my mind that my rugby team, the Springboks won the previous Rugby World Cup. The evidence is strong: video tapes of the final game, newspaper reporting, eyewitness testimony etc. Of course a lot of South African fans believed that because of their prayers and faith, God gave this victory to us as a nation, or the losing team may even believe it's the result of evil cosmic powers.

But this is not part of the proven historical fact that the Springboks won the World Cup, only the results can be counted as strong evidence. OK now, what about a game played two hundred years ago? Well, there may be good evidence, but it won't be as good as the evidence regarding the outcome for the Springboks. Don't you agree?

What about a game played two thousand years ago? The outcome of that game would be much harder to establish. Don't you think? Why? Not so much strong or good evidence.

Therefore my argument is, given the nature of things, there is better evidence for some historical events than for others. And the only thing historians can do is establish levels of probability.

So, historians try to rank past events on the basis of the relative probability that they occurred. And remember, all that historians can do is show what probably happened in the past. Therefore, they can't give historical evidence for the resurrection, because of the nature of historical evidence.

Let me try to explain it regarding the resurrection: In my mind there is nothing historically problematic about Jesus getting crucified. Lots of people were being crucified, probably daily throughout the Roman Empire. And the death of Jesus is part of everyone's understanding of being a human being; we all will die. It proves nothing regarding the resurrection!

If you however claim Jesus was raised from the dead, you are doing it as a believer giving a theological interpretation. Historians have no access to God. Their access is only to what's here on earth, for which we have historical records.

Being raised from the dead is by definition a supernatural happening or miracle. And historians cannot give historical evidence for a miracle. Just as much as no historian can give evidence that the Springboks won the last World Cup because God decided to let them win. They can only give evidence on the outcome of the game itself.

The resurrection of Jesus was not a historical event that can be proved, since historians are not able to demonstrate the occurrence of a supernatural happening. That is part of mythology. So, the crucifixion is a historical event but the resurrection is a mythical statement about God.

To emphasise: The crucifixion can be proven as a historical event but the resurrection is part of mythology, which can't be historically proven.

Why do I say the crucifixion is a historical event? Because there are lots of records that show how the Empire dealt with rebels. It's part of the historical events rooted in the human politics of the time. As C. Sullivan writes in his book, with the great title Rescuing Jesus from the Christians: "Viewing Jesus' death as a religious event (an act bringing about reconciliation between God and humankind) does not harmonize with viewing Jesus' death as a political event (the execution of a potential rebel against the Roman Empire)."

And the resurrection? Well, the basis of Mike's argument for the resurrection lies in his belief that the resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised by God. But as a historian, not a believer, he cannot prove that. He most probably can only prove the crucifixion.

And anyone who disagrees with me – who thinks historians can demonstrate that God can make a miracle happen – needs to be even-handed about it and then all claims go. Then Islam can claim their miracles and the Hindus theirs! But with that a little problem rears its ugly head. Muslims and Christians, for example, have conflicting truth claims. And both their conclusions rest on miracles and supernatural happenings.

Thus, my problem: most religions are mutually exclusive. In other words, they possess conflicting truth claims. Both, for example Islam and Christianity claim to be the only true way to God. Yet it cannot be that both are the only way to God. This leaves me with the conclusion that either the exclusive claims of one or both of these religions are wrong, or their truth claims are.

And isn't it the problem we have today; religion against religion, all claiming to have the only truth. Bishop John Shelby Spong hits the nail on the head when he says: "All religions seem to need to prove that it's the only truth. And that's where it turns demonic. Because that's when you get religious wars and persecutions and burning heretics at the stake."

Christians should by now have learnt that a God or faith system that has to be defended daily is finally no God or faith system at all. Mike, your fancy footwork, trying to represent the historical, traditional or Biblical truth of Christianity cannot stop the advance of knowledge, that will render every historic claim for a literal resurrection and faith, questionable at best, null and void at worst.

Even Mike has to admit that there are many conflicting truth claims in Jesus' day; There were other Jewish holy men such as Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the circle drawer. There were other pagan holy men, such as Apollinius of Tyana, a philosopher who could allegedly heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead. He has allegedly ascended to heaven. Sounds familiar?

There were pagan demigods, such as Hercules, who could also bring back the dead. Anyone who is willing to believe in the resurrection of Jesus needs to concede the possibility then, of other people's claims of resurrections and performing miracles; in Jesus' time, down to the present day and in other religions such as Islam and indigenous religions of Africa and Asia.

Because, just as you, they also claim God on their side. The only reason Christianity is the victor, is not because they're right, it's because they won (Constantine and The Council of Nicaea episode ... topic for another day.)

But if you look at it as a mythological and narrative text, then all this doesn't really matter! You understand that it's about pre-modern people trying to get to grips with their reality and in actual fact is telling their story as they understood and believed it, their experience of something bigger than themselves. And that is what myths are all about says Joseph Campbell: "Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble."

That's why I argued that a non-literal reading of the resurrection narratives as myth makes much more sense in the 21st century. Because it helps us to read these stories to reflect on internal and external renewal, to move away from our old selves (ego), our old idols (money, sex, power) and be reborn again: dying to the false self and living as One with each other.

And therefore, you can interpret the concept of the resurrection, which is an old symbolic expression of hope that has had a long history. For example, it was already being applied to the Jewish martyrs in the Maccabean Revolt 150 years before the Christian era. As a metaphor. A metaphor for each one to realize that being truly alive means being resurrected each day anew.

Like another great prophet, Kahlil Gibran once said, "Your daily life is your temple and your religion. Whenever you enter into it, take with you your all."

Second rebuttal

Many Christians don't want to hear this, but the reality is that there are lots of other explanations for what happened to Jesus, that are more probable than the explanation that he was raised from the dead.

None of these explanations can be proven. But they are more probable, because it's understanding it as mythology, not historical facts. I can also come up with a few not so impossible, with possible historical ones, not that I believe it or that it can be proven.

Why was the tomb empty? Charles Freeman's A New History of Early Christianity has a few interesting and very plausible historical explanations. Or why did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? Well, I don't doubt at all that some disciples claimed this.

We, of course, don't have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don't think he is making it up. He knew at least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19). But does the fact that some people claimed to have seen Jesus alive mean that he really did come back from the dead? Is that the most probable historical occurrence? I don't think so!

Let me try a plausible explanation: It is an extremely well-documented phenomenon that people sometimes have visions of their loved ones after they died. For example, a man sees his wife in his bedroom a day after she was buried and a girl sees her dead grandmother. Fans sees their idol, like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Happens all the time. It is extremely well documented. In many instances the person having this experience can see, talk to the dead person, can feel them and even give them a hug.

There are even documented instances of groups of people having such visionary experiences together. Especially when there is a common belief among them. The Blessed Virgin Mary for example or Holy Hindu gods, appear to groups of believers all the time. There are thousands of eyewitnesses at such events.

Do I think that they really appeared to them? No. Or that the little girl's dead grandmother really did come back from the dead to visit her grieving granddaughter? No. Do I think, they think it really happened? Yes, I do.

Mike says, Jesus' closest followers and Paul claimed they saw him alive afterward. Does this mean he was really raised from the dead? No, it means that they, like so many thousands of other people, had a real-seeming, tangible experience of a person after he died. They experienced what they experienced, and they interpreted it in terms that they knew. Because in their pre-modern world view, people came alive and ascended to the heavens all the time.

I am decidedly not saying that Jesus was not crucified. I'm not even saying the tomb was not empty. I'm not saying that his disciples did not really believe he appeared to them and ascended to heaven. Believers believe that all these things are true. But they do not believe them because of historical evidence. They take the Christian claims on faith, not on the basis of proof. There is no proof.

When I came to understand that the Bible was a mixture of history and mythology – human stories about how they perceived and experienced their world – I could not help but see the human ideas and human thoughts. It didn't destroy my sense of awe and wonder in the world. It did not make me lose my integrity or morals. In actual fact, my spirituality became much more real and grounded.

Yes, this way of thinking about the world is human-made. But what kind of thinking is not human-made? People, we are humans! Of course we will think like humans. No one can think any other way – not even people who claim that they think the thoughts of God as God has revealed them. Even that notion is a human idea – an idea that people have because it was handed down by other people living before them, since the time that someone came up with the idea.

And looking at Mike's arguments regarding the resurrection of Jesus, I'm not convinced that it's not a human idea, just as Paul and the four Gospel writers weren't exactly on the same page about Jesus. Why? Because of their human ideas that clashed!

Firstly, Paul was writing before any of the Gospels were written. Did you know that? About fifteen years before Mark, our oldest Gospel. Secondly, Paul and the Gospel writers were all writing after Jesus' death, and as people who had an agenda to prove that Jesus was God (their human idea) they told the stories of Jesus' words and deeds in the light of their own theological understandings. So did Paul. So did all the Bible writers. And they didn't agree on lots of stuff. Anyone who has experienced a church meeting will understand how the different views, beliefs and egos can clash!

Just a small taste: Was Jesus in doubt and despair on the way to the cross (Mark) or calm and in control (Luke)? Did Jesus' death provide atonement for sin (Mark and Paul) or not (Luke)? Did Jesus perform signs to prove who he was (John) or did he refuse to do so (Matthew)? Must Jesus' followers keep the law if they are to enter the Kingdom (Matthew) or absolutely not (Paul)? It really all depended on what the writer's agenda, theology and ideas were.

To me, typically human agendas played out through the writers. To further illustrate this point: John's Gospel – the last of our Gospels to be written, probably some twenty-five years or so after Mark's. John is the only Gospel that indicates that Jesus is "the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." His theology and his interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus is thus colored by his agenda. Clearly evident, John (our latest Gospel) changed the day and time of Jesus death. Why?

It may just be because the writer of the Gospel of John wanted to show that Jesus is the Passover lamb, whose sacrifice brings salvation from sins. Exactly like the Passover lamb, Jesus has to die on the day (the day of preparation) and the time, sometime after noon, when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple. In other words, John has changed an historical date to make a theological point; John has created a discrepancy so as to get his human idea over to his readers.

I see therefore more and more evidence of a human book and not as Mike tries to prove, an inerrant book of God. And therefore all this so called evidence can only work and bring everything together, if Mike concludes that the resurrection is an action of God.

Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. And that of course means, it cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history. It's a supernatural and Divine intervention. And that is outside the scope of an historian!

Closing statement

The Christian message about God, Christ and the salvation he brings, is based on myth!

What is myth? A set of stories, an organization of symbolic images and narratives and as Joseph Campbell says, "metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and the fulfillment of a given culture at a given time."

The death of Jesus was, for me, an act of self-giving love. According to this myth, Jesus was willing to live, and die, for the sake of others. This makes Jesus, just as Socrates, Buddha, Gandhi and many other exceptional role models, an example for me to emulate and live by. This is not because I could prove their self-sacrifice as an historical fact but because it resonates with me on a spiritual level.

In my humble opinion, people need to use their intelligence to evaluate what they find to be true and untrue, especially when it's claimed to come from God. This is how we should live life, every day!

To me the Bible is no more the word of God than the Torah, Quran or Upanishads are. These are human stories, through symbols and metaphors – people struggling to understand their world and its realities. So, just as I came to see the Bible as a very human book, I came to see Christianity and all other religions for that matter, as a very human creation.

It did not descend from on high. It was created, down here on earth, among the followers of Jesus in the decades and centuries after his death. To me all myth should be translated into a modern metaphor or symbol, so that it can make sense to people living in a postmodern, and ever changing world.

Or let me put it another way, we need to translate or re-mythologise the myth of Jesus' resurrection. Otherwise people will be forced, as it is at present, to accept not only the idea that Jesus has risen but the cosmology on which it is based.

We need to find a contemporary spirituality. We need to take responsibility for our planet. We need to take responsibility for each other. We must translate Jesus' real message, not from a god, but a man: "Love one another." The rest I think, is secondary.

To me, as an agnostic, open and still searching – to me living with a different understanding of myself and the world in which I live – death is a normal part of the cycle of life and being human. Like everything and everyone else, I will not be resurrected but recycled.

The New Testament, four Gospels and The Bible are mythological narratives and should be read and studied as that, and not as if they were historical documents telling us exactly what Jesus did, and when and where he did it.

I thank you!
Dr. Abel Pienaar

Abel is die direkteur van SES en 'n spirituele leier van Renaissance Gemeente.
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Die Dans met God

Die Dans met God

Boek:  Die Dans met God (2015) deur Dr. Abel Pienaar. Die eens onaantasbare dogmas wat aan ons as die absolute waarheid voorgehou was, word nou al hoe meer bevraagteken. Dit beteken egter nie dat wanneer iemand nuut dink oor God en geloof, so 'n persoon nie ook spiritueel is nie. Die teendeel is eerder waar. Die boek is beskikbaar in boekwinkels (R189) en kan ook bestel word by Naledi Uitgewers.

DVD: Saam op soek na God

Saam op soek na God

Gewone mense en bekendes word gevra om oor hulle oortuigings en geloof te praat. Vrae soos: Wie is God vir jou?
Het jy enige bewyse van God se bestaan? Ons het gelowiges tot ateïste, new agers tot wikka hekse gaan vra. Die DVD kos R130 maar vir Sentrum (SES) lede net R110.

Boek: Hier staan ek...

Duisende Afrikaanse mense voel verwyderd van fundamentalistiese sienings van Christenskap en verlaat die tradisionele kerke in hul hordes. Hulle voel dikwels skuldig en alleen en is onder die indruk dat daar iets met hulle fout is. Hulle soek nuwe Afrikaanse gespreksgenote en gemeenskappe waarin hulle hul nuwe spiritualiteit kan uitdruk. Hierdie boek is die resultaat van sodanige gesprekke. Beskikbaar by Griffel of bestel direk by Boekblik.

Jesus van Nasaret

Jesus van Nasaret

Boek:  Jesus van Nasaret (2009) deur Prof. Sakkie Spangenberg. "In Jesus van Nasaret is Spangenberg op sy beste. Hy skryf oor die feilbaarheid van die Skrif en verduidelik uit 'n suiwer historiese oogpunt hoe Israel ontstaan en wie Jesus was." Beskikbaar by Kalahari, Exclusive Books, Protea Boekwinkel, of by die skrywer.

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