How John Lennox distorts the facts

Ian Robinson / 04 March 2019

This is article orginally posted in 2014.

John Lennox: “Eliminating the Impossible: Can a Scientist believe the Resurrection?”
ABC Religion and Ethics – Posted on 16 April 2014

The Rationalist Society of Australia published the following reply on its website. Lennox’s article is not printed in full here since it is readily accessible on the Internet and the relevant passages are quoted in full in Robinson’s Article.

Ian Robinson: “How John Lennox distorts the facts”
Rationalist Society of Australia – Posted by On 10 August, 2014

John Lennox asks “Can a scientist believe the resurrection?” Like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass anybody can believe anything they want, even “six impossible things before breakfast”, but in so believing they are not behaving as scientists. A scientist doing science wonders what the truth is and follows the evidence wherever it takes them. John Lennox and his ilk already “know” the “truth” and selectively use only such evidence as they can manipulate to point to the conclusion they are already committed to. This is the cardinal sin of scientific investigation: to start off already being certain of the answer.

Manipulation One: “… the early Christians were not a credulous bunch, unaware of the laws of nature, and therefore prepared to believe any miraculous story, however absurd. … The ancient world knew the law of nature as well as we do ….”

Why it´s a manipulation: Lennox´s depiction of the ancient world as a hotbed of scepticism and its inhabitants as champions of Enlightenment is tendentious to say the least. The vast number of obviously false supernatural stories that gained popular and even scholarly credence at that time and right through to the time of the actual Enlightenment certainly puts paid to any suggestion that the early Christians and their contemporaries were constitutionally adverse to accepting weird claims and miracles.

Manipulation Two: “It is … inaccurate and misleading to say with Hume that miracles “violate” the laws of nature. … Christians do not claim that Christ rose from the dead by [some natural] mechanism. They claim that he rose from the dead by supernatural power. By themselves, the laws of nature cannot rule out that possibility.”

Why it´s a manipulation: Lennox distorts Hume´s argument. Hume does not rule out the possibility of supernatural events. His argument focuses on the evidence for them, which in most cases is anecdotal. Hume´s maxim is “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish”. If we ask the simple question: “What would be more likely – that Jesus rose from the dead or that through a process of story generation amongst his committed followers a myth emerged that he had risen from the dead?”, it is clear on Hume´s maxim that it is far more likely that the myth evolved than that the resurrection event actually happened.

Manipulation Three: “The first fact … is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection.” [Actually C.S. Lewis but quoted by Lennox with approval]

Why it´s a manipulation: This is simply not a “fact” at all. The fact is that a small number of committed believers were told many years after the event by other believers that other believers again had seen a man who had risen from the dead and these later believers each included [contradictory] versions of this story in their respective religious tracts written to promote that religion, of which we only have copies of copies made much later again and preserved and not infrequently altered by the self-interested followers of this same religion. No independent contemporary witnesses noticed this amazing occurrence. In these circumstances, believing in the resurrection sounds more like wishful thinking than scientific inquiry. We have no scientific way of knowing whether the event described actually happened or not. But the balance of probabilities is against it. First, eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, especially concerning unusual events. Second, memory is a very selective and creative mental tool. Third, stories passed down by word of mouth are invariably distorted during the transmission process. And fourth, we know there have been countless similar stories of such miraculous occurrences that have proven to be false. So, as scientists, we have no reason to give special credence to this particular tall story. Anyone who believes it is behaving unscientifically.

Manipulation Four: “If the tomb had not been empty, the authorities would have had no difficulty in producing the body of Jesus, demonstrating conclusively that no resurrection had happened.”

Why it´s a manipulation: If the story of the resurrection had been widely and credibly circulating at the actual time of the crucifixion, and the authorities were sufficiently troubled about the spread of the story among a small number of fanatics, they might have tried to produce a body. If they did go to the tomb and found the body missing they might have noted this fact and instigated a search for it. The fact that there are no reports of such an official investigations shows that either

  • The claims were so obviously false that actually going to check them out would be seen as ridiculous, or
  • The embryonic Christian movement was so insignificant that no-one could be bothered trying to refute their wild claims, or
  • The story of the resurrection was made up years later, like the narratives that relate it, and by this time there was nothing to check.
To assume that the Roman authorities in 31 AD were vitally concerned to refute the new religion is to entertain delusions of grandeur. They had a lot of other things on their mind at the time. So the lack of a story about a body cannot be taken as evidence that a body was missing. The facts are easily capable of natural explanation. In this case, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Manipulation Five: “Far more important for them [the early Christians] was the fact that subsequently they had met the risen Christ.”

Why it´s a manipulation: It´s not an established “fact” that anybody did meet the “risen Christ”. The only established fact is that some writers some years later said that they´d heard reports that some people did have a post-mortem experience of meeting him. But again, Hume´s maxim comes in. Which explanation is more likely? That this was a rumour, perhaps based on one or more hallucinations, that got elaborated and expanded on over the years between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels; or that Jesus actually came back to life and went around Palestine calling in on his followers. But why did he only appear to believers?

Manipulation Six: “In first-century Jewish culture, women were not normally considered to be competent witnesses. At that time, therefore, anyone who wanted to invent a resurrection story would never have thought of commencing it in this way. … Its very inclusion, therefore, is a clear mark of historical authenticity.”

Why it´s a manipulation: The opposite conclusion is in fact more plausible. The story appears first in Mark´s Gospel and the central theme of Mark´s Gospel is that it was the outsiders, not the establishment, who recognized Jesus for what he was, so in constructing his account, it is more likely than not that Mark would attribute the finding of the empty tomb to rank outsiders, for example, women.

A scientist can believe in the resurrection, but if they do, they do so not on the grounds of evidence, but for reasons best known to themselves. They cannot believe in it as scientists. We all have more than one persona. John Lennox is described in Wikipedia as a “Christian apologist”. If all his writings are as flaky as this, then he has a lot to apologise for.

Written by Ian Robinson
9 August 2014
Ian Robinson is President Emeritus of the Rationalist Society of Australia.

All the more reason.