Flat Earth Theory
I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called “Behind the Curve” about the rising popularity of the Flat Earth social phenomenon. If you’re not aware of this, in the past five years, there has been a spike in people, led by proponents like Mark Sargent, who argue the Earth is, in fact, flat. They believe the idea of a globe is a hoax propagated by government and big businesses. And they have a number of pretty clever and imaginative ideas and explanations for circumnavigation, shadows, gravity, flight patterns, etc.
From my perspective, the Flat Earth discussion is more fascinating for epistemological reasons than for physical reasons. In other words, many of the scientific calculations can be tweaked if we just adjust some of our assumptions, say, about gravity. So the math of it all can be debated dependent on some questionable variables.
The bigger issue for me, as a pastor, is the question of why people believe what they believe? What are the factors? And what, if anything, can cause someone to change their beliefs?
In the end, lots of mathematics can be explained away. Additionally, we all know that pictures can be easily and convincingly doctored. Lastly, there’s no doubt about the fact that a century from now, some scientific perceptions will have changed. All of these factors, combined with a heightened spirit of distrust in cultural institutions, make the Flat Earth Theory an actual movement in 2019. Consequently, and somewhat surprisingly perhaps in our modern age, the evidence which has become considered the most convincing in debunking Flat Earth Theory has become….eyewitness testimony from astronauts.
While there has been some appropriate attack made over the years that eyewitness testimony cannot alwaysbe trusted, virtually no one argues that eyewitness account is still likely the most reliable information we have for determining truth, particularly when there is a preponderance of eyewitness testimony in one direction.
Within the past 2 weeks we saw the release of perhaps the most controversial sports journalism of the year. Tyler Dunne wrote a nationally debated article for Bleacher Report titled “What Happened in Green Bay?” A former beat writer for the Packers, Dunne pieced together a series of quotes from ex-players and personnel, some identified and some anonymous, creating a narrative for why the Green Bay Packers failed to win more championships during the prime of arguably the most talented player at the most important position in football.
According to Dunne and his cast of informants, the organization’s lack of Super Bowl wins was due to the palpable tension that existed between then head coach, Mike McCarthy, and MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But who is to blame for the fracture in that relationship? To what extent did any rift really impact the team’s championship aspirations?
If you ask two former Pro Bowlers quoted in the article, Jermichael Finley and Greg Jennings, the problem lay in Rodger’s arrogance and sensitivity.
If you ask others who have worked around the organization for years, the issue was perhaps McCarthy’s stubbornness and complacency, epitomized by the suggestion of some that McCarthy was even skipping team meetings prior to game day in lieu of getting personal massages.
Others, telling stories of ex-General Manager Ted Thompson’s declining physical and mental health, negligence, and lack of intervention in his final years, will cite him as the main culprit.
Any way you slice it, the organization ended up looking terrible. Wasting the most bankable years of one of the most dominant players in NFL history is a big deal. It’s become the lead story of most sports programs and podcasts this past week. And the jury is still out on what the truth really is.
Rest assured, though, what is believed in the end will not primarily be a product of who has the most logical argument or who stated their position most passionately.
For instance, Jennings and Finley have been notoriously bitter and critical of Rodgers since their time with the organization. So you have two witnesses of the events who pin the blame on Rodgers. On the other hand, dozens of other players have come to Rodgers’ defense.
In other words, the 1) amount of witnesses, and the 2) character of the witnesses, play a major role in the plausibility of all the events described.
So while it remains to be seen what the final conclusion will be on who is primarily at fault, I do know how that conclusion will likely be drawn. What will be believed in the end will be the result of the preponderance of eyewitness testimony.
What is the narrative that makes the best sense when accounting for all of the relevant data?
What does all of this teach us about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Believe it or not, this stuff has everything to do with Holy Week, especially Easter.
A few decades ago, Christian philosopher Gary Habermas developed something called the “minimal facts” argument for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Habermas’ argument is that even if the Bible is neither inspired (which it is) nor entirely reliable (which, again, it is), the evidence that almost every historian, Christian or otherwise, actually does agree upon still points to Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
Virtually every historian (90%+) agree that:
- There was a real Jesus of Nazareth who died by crucifixion early in the first century because, from the Jewish leaders’ perspective he was guilty of blasphemy, and from the Romans’ perspective he was leading an insurrection. (The writings of Roman historian Tacitus and Jewish historian Josephus, both non-Christians, are more than sufficient extant biblical evidence to confirm these points.)
- Following Jesus’ death, his tomb, which had been guarded by Roman soldiers, was found empty. His disciples believed they witnessed his bodily resurrection both as individuals and in group settings.
- Significant skeptics, like Jesus’ brothers and Saul of Tarsus, a notorious persecutor of the church, flipped from unbelievers to believers, and were so convinced that they too were willing to die for that belief.
- We know historically there were dozens of other self-professed supposed Messiahs before and after Jesus, but Christianity was the only of these religions that persisted with enduring followers whereas the other founders simply died and were forgotten.
The best piece of it all to me is that the Apostle Paul, understanding that the claims of the resurrection are outrageous, challenges readers to test his resources. Look at what he writes in 1 Corinthians 15:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.1 Corinthians 15:3-8
It’s important to keep in mind that most scholars will date the writing of 1 Corinthians within 15-20 years of Christ’s death and resurrection. So when Paul mentions all of these witnesses in his letter to the Corinthians, he’s challenging readers not to take his word for it. He says that he has 500 witnesses lined up who will verify his claims.
Let me put it in modern context. If someone that I deeply respected told me that his friend had invented a time machine over in Madison, WI (an hour from where I live) 15 years ago, and that over 500 people could verify that they had traveled back in time, it would be difficult for me to believe. However, if this guy himself was a credible witness, and for that matter, was even willing to die for his conviction, I probably wouldn’t outright dismiss him, nor would I outright accept his incredible claims. I think what I’d do is drive over to Madison and ask some of those witnesses myself. It’s that important to me. If my entire eternity depended on it, I think I’d be that much more motivated.
Paul is specifically listing all of these characters in 1 Corinthians 15, less than 20 years after Christ’s resurrection, with the expressed intent that skeptics go and ask the witnesses themselves. Why? Because eyewitness testimony, though not always perfectly reliable, is still today the single most reliable information we have for determining truth, especially when there is a preponderance of evidence in one direction.
By the way, I’ve occasionally run into the argument that lots of people throughout history have died for their beliefs, thus making Christian martyrdom unspectacular. What these naysayers fail to understand is that, while yes, there have been many religious martyrs, those martyrs were dying for non-falsifiable philosophies, not historical facts. So, for instance, when a Muslim jihadist dies for Allah, I don’t doubt the sincerity of his belief. But his sincerity does nothing to prove the truth of his belief. This is very different from a 1st-century Christian dying because they believe they literally saw Jesus rise from the grave.
Those early Christian martyrs weren’t dying for theology.
They weren’t dying for a belief system. They were dying for historical facts that they had seen and touched. If they didn’t actually see Jesus, then they’re dying for a lie. You can convince humans to die for sincerely believed, but wrong, ideas. But it’s REALLY hard (as in, historically unprecedented) to get a massive group of humans to die for known lies.
This is the reason that all of the alternative explanations to the resurrection that were raised in the twentieth century by skeptics: Conspiracy Hypothesis, Apparent Death Hypothesis, Hallucination Hypothesis, Displaced Body Hypothesis, or Legend Hypothesis, have all been rejected by most contemporary scholarship for possessing severe logical flaws.
When the Pharisees demanded that they receive some signs from Jesus of his Messiahship, he said that the only sign they’d be given was the Sign of Jonah: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matt. 12:40)
That’s the only thing people needed to believe then. And that’s still the only thing people need to know to believe today.
Always, always, always be pushing people towards the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It’s very tempting in our witnessing to get caught up in conversations about politics, human sexuality, origins, and ethics. If Jesus didn’t rise, any of the rest of Scripture matters. If Jesus did rise, none of my opinions or doubts matter. The preponderance of eyewitness testimony tells the truth. And if the truth is that HE IS RISEN, the implications are endless and eternal.
Posted at Bread For Beggars