Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Easter Reflection: Were the Apostles Deceived? ... Deceivers?

Let's come clean with the alternatives: Blaise Pascal writes in his Pensees, No. 322,
The Apostles were either deceived or deceivers. Either supposition is difficult, for it is not possible to imagine that a man has risen from the dead.

While Jesus was with them he could sustain them, but afterwards, if he did not appear to them, who did make them act?
Former Notre Dame Philosophy Professor, Thomas V. Morris comments, in his book, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Eerdmans):
If what the apostles reported about Jesus was false, then either they believed it and so were themselves deceived or they knew it was false and so were just deceivers. How plausible is either of these alternatives?

First, consider the claim that the followers of Jesus were themselves deceived, wrongly believing in his miracles and resurrection when no such things had ever actually happened. On this supposition they were themselves just mistaken. But there is something interesting about the concept of a mistake. I can be walking down the street and think I see an old friend approaching but on getting closer realize that I have made a mistake. I can mistakenly believe that today is Saturday when it's Friday. I can make some pretty big mistakes. We call can. But a mistake can only be so big. I cannot mistakenly think I see exactly 419 pink and purple elephants outside my office window, suspended in mid-air. I can't mistakenly think I have twelve arms.
Consider the claim that dismisses the literal interpretation of the resurrection, substituting for it the fuzzy intellectual abstraction that would have us believe that in one sense, a spiritual sense (or in a sense in which we can admit of a spiritually transformed body), Christ is risen, but in another sense Jesus' bones may still be moldering in some Palestinian grave. This is the sort of interpretation that is embraced by urbane contemporary sophisticates who would find the simple notion that Jesus could have arisen, bones and all, from the grave, as impossible to believe as that one sees exactly 419 pink and purple elephants outside his window, or that he has twelve arms. The point, however, is that the biblical Resurrection, like the Cross of Christ, is something scandalous -- something unbelievable in ordinary terms. One can't just mistakenly believe something like that. Morris continues:
The apostles reported detailed encounters with the risen Christ sometime after his death and burial. Would it have made much sense for loved ones to respond to such reports by saying, "Calm down, dear. It was just your imagination"? Pascal says that it is not possible to imagine that a man has risen from the dead. That's too extreme to be a mistake. And there were no cultural expectations in first-century Judaism that a single man might be raised from the grave by God into a new, yet recognizable, form of life. Hallucination is not plausible. Repeated, convergent mass hallucinations are even less plausible, much less plausible. Pascal finds this suggestion absolutely incredible, strictly speaking.

So what of the other possibility? If the testimony of the apostles is false, and it is utterly implausible to think of all of them as deceived by appearances concerning such extraordinary events, then the other possibility, as Pascal points out, is that they never believed for a minute these stories they told about Jesus but were themselves just deceivers. How credible is this supposition?
In another passage in his Pensees, No. 310, Pascal writes:
Proofs of Jesus Christ. The hypothesis that the Apostles were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus' death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost. Follow that out.
Morris comments:
Lying is hard work. When you tell a lie, you don't have reality to back you up. When you tell a lot of lies, one building on the next, you get yourself in an even worse fix. Such deceit requires extraordinary powers of memory as well as imagination. Most of us have a hard enough time remembering things that have actually happened. And when we forget, we can usually rely upon the fact that the truth leaves traces of itself behind -- footprints, documents, memory impressions in other people's minds. But when we concoct an alternate reality, a history contrary to what really has happened, we have only our own memories to rely on concerning what we said happened.

A conspiracy of lies is even more fragile. This is from the beginning an exceedingly odd sort of agreement - a number of different people get together, concoct a story, and agree to lie about it, each promising not to break and tell the truth. It is crucial to their agreement that they're all liars, but how in the world can you trust liars to keep their end of an agreement? Any supposition that the apostles of Christ met after his death and entered into this sort of agreement is especially hard to swallow. Here a number of ordinary men from walks of life in which the truth mattered, who had just spent an extended period of time with a charismatic leader whom most non-Christians recognize as one of the greatest moral teachers in history, are supposed to have met together after the death of their leader and, to further his work, agreed to tell outrageous lies about him? This is just too bizarre. And worse, Pascal points out, from these lies they would have had little to gain and much to lose, as circumstances developed. Only one of them need have cracked and the whole conspiracy would have unraveled. And each of them, knowing that each of the others was lying against the grain of his own personality, would surely have suspected that one of the others would crack, and so would have been all the more prepared himself to tell the truth and cut his losses, distancing himself from the others in times of increasing pressure and persecution. Further, recall that we are talking about a message that itself emphasized the importance of walking in the truth. The hypothesis that the followers of Christ were just deceivers is just too out of step with everything we know about them, about their circumstances, about their message, and about human psychology.
The citations from Thomas V. Morris's Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life are from pp. 173-176 of that volume. The quotations from Pascal's Pensees are also from Morris's book.

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