Answering Objections to Visions: Part Four

Defending Visions: Part Four

This will probably be my final post on the subject of visions in this series. I want to concentrate on answering one final objection to the kind of visionary hypotheses of Christian origins that I happen to advocate. This argument concerns the disciples' expectations of Jesus. I wish to address the argument of an online Christian apologist, Robert Turkel, who uses the writing name "James Patrick Holding". But before I proceed to answer his argument, I want to make some preliminary comments. First of all, I have been wrestling with hesitancy in writing this post. It's not due to a lack of confidence in my reply to Mr. Holding's argument. Rather, it's because I am opening a can of worms or so I fear. The fact of the matter is that I am taking quite a risk in replying to Mr. Holding's argument. For some reason I have never been able to fully understand, I believe that Mr. Holding has an obession with always having the last word in a debate or exchange with someone. Just as bad is what I consider to be Mr. Holding's overconfidence. It's not enough to simply think that he may have done a good job in answering an argument; rather, I have seen him brag about destroying an argument. Likewise, it's not enough that Mr. Holding simply think that he has answered someone; rather, I have seen him act as though he gave someone a good intellectual flogging. It's this egotism of his that makes me wince.

I try a different approach. I try and let readers decide for themselves whether I have answered my critics or I have successfully argued a point. Sometimes I might come across as more confident than my argument warrants. For this apologize to readers. I want to be able to articulate my arguments and let readers decide for themselves if I have met my stated burdens. Having said this, I will adopt this tone for these posts. I simply leave it to readers to evaluate my arguments and see if they hold water. The exception I am willing to make is if I feel that a rude, cocky, and all-around obnoxious spin-doctor needs a douse of humility or perhaps a dose of his/her own medicine then I will drop the niceties and turn quite confrontational myself. So I write this essay in response to Mr. Holding and I will leave it to readers to judge whether I am successful or not; I simply trust the intelligence of readers. I doubt that Mr. Holding's readers will read this open-mindedly or in its entirety to see if I, perhaps, have a good argument. I suspect that many of Mr. Holding's readers have gotten to the point where they see him as a faultless guru who simply cannot be wrong and will only read what he has quoted in terms of rebutting my arguments without having to see anything written by me. As much as I regret this, I have come to accept that many Christians only want their doubts quenched and will only read rebuttals to atheists and skeptics like myself, only, ever, with the intention of seeing us refuted, stomped on, intellectually flogged (and perhaps even bullied into salvation, hopefully).

I will state my argument here and perhaps only write one rebuttal to what Mr. Holding has written if he responds to me (I have no doubt that he will and I predict it as utterly inevitable that he will. I don't believe he can pass up an offer to respond to what he admitted is a rising star in biblical academia). I really lack any desire to drag out any exchange with him ad infinitum but I am not always sure where to draw the line. Where do I simply stop, having said my piece, and then move on? I don't want to get into a prolonged exchange with him because I dread that it will only charge his ego. I believe Mr. Holding's is overconfident as it is and I regret the thought of having contributed to that and I fear that a prolonged exchange like this will likewise bolster his ego. This is the last thing I want to do! Having aired these concerns, here into the murky waters we go....

1.) Holding's Argument Against "Visions" and "Hallucinations"

Mr. Holding's chief argument against the hypothesis of visionary origins was stated in response to atheist philosopher Keith Parsons. Readers will recall that Parsons contributed a chapter to the skeptical anthology The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, writing a rebuttal to the arguments against theories of hallucinations by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli. I have to state here that I do not agree with Parson's rebuttal actually. I believe that Parson is not familiar with the relevant social-science literature on visionary experiences involving A.S.C. and I don't particularly think that his rebuttal arguments for Kreeft and Tacelli are particularly effective (this may well make a good post one of these days on here!) Holding states his main thesis as follows:

"Here is why I regard the hallucination theory as completely untenable: As noted in the link above, "expectation plays the coordinating role in collective hallucinations". The critical problem here is that the disciples were not expecting a resurrection; any hallucination of Jesus would be interpreted as, if anything, his "guardian angel" (an exact twin), but not as a ghost of Jesus himself, nor especially as Jesus resurrected."

In this statement, Holding linked to a response he wrote to Bible skeptic Farrell Till of The Skeptical Review. Holding's argument is that the disciples would not have been expecting a resurrection, at least not as defined by Jews at the time of Jesus. The core of Holding's argument is that the Greek word "anastasis" when employed in reference to the resurrection referred to what conservative theologian N.T. Wright termed a "tranphysical" body. This is a glorified, immortal, imperishable, body of flesh that rose from the dead. Holding argues that no Jew would have been expecting anyone resurrected in this kind of body and, hence, it would've taken an actual transphysical body to convince the original disciples of Jesus that this is precisely what Jesus had.

Naturally, I am skeptical of this argument. The chief basis for my skepticism has to do with the very Greek word "anastasis" itself. I am not an expert in biblical Greek and the last thing I want to do is leave any readers with the impression that I am so I will offer what I consider to be a potential argument against Holding's argument here. I honestly don't know if my argument will succeed-that remains to be seen. At the very least though, if my argument has any substance at all, what I do want readers to do, especially if they're convinced that Holding is really onto something here, is to pause and think. At the very least, I hope that my argument here, if it doesn't answer Holding's argument in its entirety, can at least take the wind out of Holding's sails. In other words, I hope that my argument can at least have the effect of cancelling out the effectiveness of Holding's argument. Perhaps we can reach a stalemate and conclude that the expert opinion of a Greek scholar is needed to settle the question once and for all.

2.) "Anastasis" and the Resurrection

Holding argues that the Greek word "anastasis" specifically refers to the resurrection, that is a risen body of immortal, imperishable, glorified flesh! Holding writes: "The only word that is term-specific to resurrection is the noun form of anistemi -- and that is anastasis." If this is the case, then whenever, "anastasis" refers to the resurrection, any other raising of the dead, if by "raising of the dead" one means a resuscitation, like that of Lazarus, then it must be described by some noun other than "anastasis". Let's look at some examples here:

"Matthew 10:5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans,
6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
7 As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'
8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment...."

The Greek word here is a verb form of "egeiro". It is spoken in in terms of raising people from the dead. Holding might argue that because a verb form of the Greek word "anastasis" was not employed, it couldn't have been referring to the resurrection, that is the raising of a glorified, immortal, imperishable, body of flesh. The phrase "raise the dead" pairs the Greek words "egeiro" and "nekros" not "anastasis" and "nekros", so it couldn't have been referring to the resurrection but rather a resuscitation.

In Matthew 11:5, these same words are used in referring the the "raising of the dead" in Matthew 10:5. It would seem that they folks have been resuscitated and the verb form of the Greek word "egeiro" is used here. In Matthew 14:2, these word pairs are used again, to describe Herod's belief that John the Baptist had risen from the dead. He mistakenly thought that Jesus was John the Baptist. Likewise, in Mark 6:16. However, in some passages, when Jesus speaks of his own "rising from the dead"- the Greek word used is "anastasis" and it's verb forms are employed. Consider Jesus' prediction in Matthew 20: 19. Here Jesus says "They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!" Here the Greek word is "anistemi".In Matthew 17: 9, Jesus tells his disciples "Don't tell anyone what you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." Here the Greek words "anistemi" and "nekros" are used in conjunction with each other.

So, it would appear here, then, that there are two Greek verbs in use here "anistemi" and the verb form of "egeiro" used in conjunction with "nekros". I have to be careful to point out that I am not an expert in Greek but I am willing to make a prediction that I believe that my studies of Greek will bear out. Here goes: "Anistemi" is a verb form of "anastasis", correct? If "anastasis" as a noun, specifically means "resurrection" in the sense of a glorified, immortal, imperishable, body of risen flesh, then I am predicting that whenever the Greek verb form "anistemi" is used in conjunction with "nekros" it can only refer to whatever "anastasis" refers to as a noun. If "anastasis" refers to a resurrection in the sense of a glorified, immortal, imperishable body of risen flesh, then whenever "anistemi" is used as a verb in referring to people being raised from the dead, it can only refer to the actual act, of raising someone from the dead in this kind of body. "Anistemi" when used in any other sense can refer to any "rising" or any sort, whether from sleep, from a chair, or the sun, but whenever it's used in conjunction with "nekros", Christians would have to argue, then, that it can only refer to the action (denoted by the verb) of raising someone in the sense that "anastasis" demands.

Likwise, whenever "egeiro" is used, it can be "to raise" in any sense, but whenever its verb form is used in conjunction with "nekros" it, logically, can only refer to people raised from the dead as in a resuscitation, never a resurrection, never a transphysical body. I believe that this is the logical outcome of Holding's argument here! Now, here is my prediction. My prediction is that the Greek verb form for "egeiro" will never be used to describe the rising of Jesus, whether by itself, or in conjunction with "nekros". If Jesus was risen in a body of glorified, immortal, imperishable flesh, then the only word that will ever be used of Jesus to describe his risen, glorified body, is "anistemi". How might my prediction bear out? I believe that if I am right about this, then these following examples should bear out my prediction:

Jesus predicts his future suffering, his death, his resurrection, and his future meeting with the disciples in Galilee in Mark 14: 28 "But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee". Here the Greek verb employed is a form of"egeiro" not "anistemi"! In luke 9:22, Jesus predicts of himself: "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life!". Once again, the Greek verb here is of "egeiro" not "anistemi"! Again, the author of John's gospel, apparently writing in retrospect regarding the words of Jesus, had this to say about Jesus' resurrection: "John 2:22 When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said to them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said."

Here the Greek word is "egerthe", not "anistemi"and worse of all, it's paired with "nekros!" If Jesus had a risen, glorified, immortal body of flesh, why isn't the Greek word "anistemi" used in conjunction with "nekros"? This would better fit the meaning carried by the noun-form of the word "anastasis". It gets much worse. Perhaps St. Paul is the most damning of all. He constantly uses the Greek verb form of "egeiro" in conjunction with "nekros". Here are some examples I have seen used before.

"Romans 6:4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life." So, the Greek verb "egeiro" is used in conjunction with "nekros". Why not "anistemi" since this would convey whatever meaning "anastasis" had? Likewise, verse 9 also has the same thing: "egeiro" paired with "nekros" in reference to Christ's resurrection. In 1st Corinthians 15, we find this very strange reference to Jesus rising from the dead:

"But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?"

This should be enough to make one's head spin! Paul is using the Greek word "egeiro" in conjunction with "nekros" and not "anistemi". Why though? Why use the same Greek verb used of people resuscitated like those resusciated by the disciples in the above verses? Why does Jesus use "anistemi" sometimes and yet the verb form of "egeiro" at other times? It would appear that Jesus in one case is saying that he will "rise" in the same way as those whom he had his disciples raise from the dead and these same people, whom Jesus had used as examples to John the Baptist, in efforts to answer his doubts about the Messiahship of Jesus. But why would Paul ever use "egeiro" to speak of Jesus being raise from the dead when "anistemi" would've accurately carried the meaning of "anastasis".

If Holding's argument is that "anastasis" can only refer to the raising of a transphysical body of flesh from the dead, then "the resurrection of Christ" which uses the word "anastasis" as a noun, should mean the same thing as "Jesus raised from the dead" in which "anistemi" would be the verb form used in conjunction with "nekros" to mean dead. "Egeiro" should never be used in conjunction with "nekros" to describe Jesus rising from the dead.

As for Holding's argument that no Jew would've been expecting any individual to rise from the dead before the general resurrection, I have to say that I cannot agree with that. In luke 9:18-19, we read the following:

"Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were were him, he asked them, 'Who do the crowds say that I am?' They replied 'Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life'". The Greek word used here in verse 19 is "anistemi". Now, if it was believed that no one would rise from the dead prior to the general resurrection, why is it that some believed that one of the prophets came back to life and that this "raising" was described by the Greek word "anistemi"? How could anyone get the impression that one of the prophets had come back to life before the general resurrection? If they believed that one of the prophets from long ago was resuscitated, why? Why would God resuscitate a prophet temporarily, only to have that prophet die and then raise him up, transphysically, at the general resurrection from the dead? Finally, if people could become convinced that a prophet from long ago had risen from the dead before the general resurrection, without any one of those prophets from old actually rising from the dead to convince them, how hard would it be to convince the disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead, without requiring that Jesus actually rose from the dead? The disciples of Jesus strike me as being no more literate or educated as many people who believed that Jesus was a risen prophet from old, so if they could become convinced that one of the prophets had risen from the dead before the general resurrection, I don't imagine that it was very difficult at all for Jesus' disciples to believe that he could be risen from the dead prior to any general resurrection.

Here is a question for Christians. If the same words for Jesus' resurrection is used of the "raising-from-the-dead" of all of these people, then whatever Jesus meant by it in reference to his own alleged resurrection would probably have to be the same as what it meant for other people who rose from the dead. If Christians accept the authenticity of these passages and that the disciples really did do these "resuscitations" (Christians do not think of these as genuine resurrections because the body in which they were raised were not glorified, immortal, imperishable, and incorruptible), then wouldn't there be at least a historical precedent in terms of expectation? For Pete's sake, it was the actual disciples bringing these people "back to life"! If the Greek words are the same in referring both to the activity of the disciples and the resurrection prediction of Jesus, then, by all means the disciples should have been expecting Jesus to have been raised from the dead! If the disciples were merely performing resuscitations, at the very least, they should have been expecting Jesus to have been resuscitated. If not, why not?

3.) The disciples would've been expecting an angel and not Jesus.

Except for a passage in Acts that was once cited to me as evidence, I am not all that sure that this would've been the case with Jesus' disciples. Consider the resuscitations that the disciples are believed by Christians to have performed. I ask Christians this: why did no one think that these people who had come back to life (mentioned in the above verses as being raised by the disciples as proof for John the Baptist) were still dead and that they were seeing angels of these dead people instead? In other words, why weren't people expecting the angels of the deceased rather than conclude that the deceased had been raised to life? Consider the confession of Peter to Jesus that he was the Christ and Son of God. Jesus asked who the crowds thought that he was. One of the answers is that people believe that Jesus was actually one of the prophets of old that came back to life. Why didn't the crowds, instead, believe that Jesus was simply the angel of one of the prophets who had died long ago? (I am quite sure that the crowds thougt that one of the Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah or Jeremiah had come back to life and that the crowds were Jewish)

Also, consider the fact that when Herod had John the Baptist beheaded, he concluded that Jesus was John the Baptist who had risen from the dead and that's the reason these miraculous powers were at work in him! Why didn't Herod conclude that Jesus was simply an angel of John the Baptist? Consider the dead raised in the great earthquake following the crucifixion of Jesus. According to Matthew, after Jesus died, there was an earthquake, the tombs were broken open and the dead were raised. Matthew's gospel doesn't add anything in the way of people thinking that they had seen the angels of those who had died, so even Mr. Holding cannot say with complete certainty that this was an expectation of all Jewish people.

4.) The disciples would've been expecting Jesus to directly ascend into heaven.

I have read Mr. Holding argue this in his response to Farrell Till. If I am to accept that Jesus really was buried by Joseph of Arimathea and that this tomb was subsequently found empty, I would probably have to accept that this was, in fact, the original belief of the disciples of Jesus. I would probably have to conclude that the appearances stories came later, perhaps as a anti-Docetic apologetic or an apologetic against would-be critics who might've alleged that the disciples were hallucinating the whole thing. At any rate, I really do not accept the resurrection stories as original but later creations of the evangelists who wrote the gospels. As I have written elsewhere on the subject, I believe that any distinction between visions on one hand and appearances on the other hand would've evolved later as an apologetic by the early Church, against possibly Gnostics such as the Docetics, or even against critics who might've alleged that the disciples were hallucinating or that the visions were self-induced. I believe, then, that the earliest disciples would've believed that Jesus had directly ascended into heaven and only after the distinction between visions and appearances was concieved of by the early Church, would the need to place such a distinction in its historical context arise, thereby creating a gap between the empty tomb and the ascension for apologetic purposes.

In conclusion, I have to say that I really do not buy into Holding's argument. I am not saying that I believe I have actually refuted Holding's argument; only that I might have a potentially powerful rebuttal. I believe that my future studies of New Testament criticism and biblical Greek will bear this suspicion of mine out. But if I do have an argument here, it's my sincere hope that Mr. Holding will not put too much emphasis on his own argument and will offer it as a potential argument. Mr. Holding is not an expert in Greek and I am glad that he acknowledges that he isn't (although from the way that he constantly makes usage of Greek words without referencing his sources, or qualifying his understanding of Greek, you'd never know that he didn't think of himself as an expert in Greek or someone who has mastered it). I am not at all an expert in Greek and I don't pretend to be and I usually go out of my way to qualify my understanding of Greek in my writings, although sometimes I might fall short of it and give a mistaken impression that I know for more than I do. I am sorry if anyone has gotten this impression because, frankly, it was never intended.



exapologist said...

Please don't worry about what Holding or his acolytes think. He's a crank. It's astonishing that anyone listens to someone with a zero-concession policy and information-evaluation practices that are aimed at *winning* rather than *truth*. How can someone listen to a person (like Holding) who doesn't allow himself to a sympathetic hearing of arguments and evidence in conflict with their own? How can such a person think that such a practice is a reliable method at aquiring true beliefs? How can anyone?

Matthew said...


You're right. My only problem, however, is that so many Christians take him seriously. I don't want so much to give him the time of day rather than answer his arguments less people think that Mr. Holding is the new king of biblical apologetics.

I answer Mr. Holding in much the same spirit that Farrell Till answers him, although, I have to say that you're right in the long run.


DavidD said...

Matthew, I was interested by this series of yours, being both a neurologist and someone who had a road-to-Damascus experience 17 years ago. I am sure today that it was not entirely natural, but then one has to say what "natural" means here. I was certainly breathing during this state. Most of my biological functions were just fine. But there were a few aspects that make me wonder.

First of all it takes an understanding of modern science to know just how bad the phenomenon of garbage in, garbage out can get, from examples like cold fusion, from many things. I can't believe so many people try to argue based on Bible accounts being accurate, and from that draw distinctions like "vision" vs. "appearance".

I know of one experience like mine in the Bible described first-hand, Paul's (I suppose the Old Testament has some, but they seem even more embellished by belief.) There are differences. There may have been no sensory change with my experience. Maybe the sunlight streaming into my room brightened, but I doubt it. It just suddenly became the presence of God as a cognitive change, not a change in perception. It was dramatic this cognitive change, unquestionable, though I did question that a rationalist like me would be in the presence of God. Then God said, "You've always believed in Me." I either heard this subvocally as a voice like mine or mouthed the words myself. I don't remember. That was it for God, but I went through more. Immediately on these words, a cascade of words and images came through my mind to illustrate God's point. I conceded He was right, and I was wrong. It was the greatest debating technique I've ever seen. I would say I had perfect faith for about four hours after that.

Now there's more, but all of that one could push into a category of dream-like episode. Only what is that? Neuroscience knows brainstem mechanisms to produce REM sleep, but that says nothing about what generates the content of a dream or how this could take off in the daytime or some intermediate level of consciousness. Who says all of that has to be natural?

The Spirit is said to do many things for our mind, help with prayers, help with memory, teach us things. I've experienced all of this. Could it all be natural? Of course it could, but is it? So many things of spiritual experiences are just completely unknown except for charlatans like Michael Persinger claiming to reproduce spiritual experiences for magnetic stimulation of the brain that reputible researchers can't reproduce.

So to say such a thing is natural is going to be a guess for a while, unless one wants to say enough of the world is natural that it must all be natural, a conclusion I think is reckless.

The strangest thing to me about this episode, apart from it being God, was this cascade of words and images that took me from being skeptical about this whole thing to having no doubt whatsoever, a state of certainty I never knew before and have only briefly known since. Propose for me a detailed explanation of the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of this event. I'm quite sure I know enough of those disciplines to tear such an explanation to pieces. It's one thing to claim we have a God module in our brain. It's very different demonstrating a wiring diagram for it.

The closest thing I know to what I descibe here is the phrase, "his life passed before his eyes". I haven't looked hard, but I haven't found serious descriptions of such an experience. One just can't say if that ever occurred naturally or not. The only legitimate thing to do scientifically is accept that it is unknown whether this sort of spiritual experience is beyond nature. To argue nothing is beyond nature is philosophical, not science. People can argue that, but I trust experience and science.

I find no significant difference between Paul's experience and mine. No, I didn't see Jesus, but so what? It was a dream-like experience. What do different sensory modalities matter?

There is still that issue about shared experiences, but who says any of the Bible is accurate about those? Not me. I've seen a lot of people at a charismatic church be moved by the Spirit together, myself included. That's almost as hard to explain naturally as an "appearance" if you don't assume trivial responses to excitement.

6 months after my experience, and a second lesser one, I decided as the empiricist I am that either this is real or something in me really wants it to be real, so I should explore it. I've been drawing closer to God ever since, and today recognize what many conservative Christians deny in what Paul wrote, that he's not writing about abstract features of the Spirit, but ones he could experience in a very real way, visually, tactilely, emotionally, cognitively, verbally, all coordinated in a way that makes it as easy to say, "Christ lives in me" or "the Spirit lives in me" as to say I have 10 fingers.

Could all of that be natural? Of course, but if it is I want to know what can do that, because such a natural phenomenon that can give me direction, strength and comfort like this is just as significant as if there really is a God who will do the same thing.

So what difference does the uncertainty make? Christianity doesn't work for a lot of people as it's worked for me. I don't know if they don't do it right or what. But I know there's something to it that can do a lot. I've seen it in me. If it has a natural cause, I don't understand it. If it has a supernatural cause, I don't understand it. I do understand only prejudice makes anyone say it is trivial.