I recently made a YouTube video entitled “11 questions that atheists cannot answer,” which attracted a multitude of responses from atheists, many of whom attempted to answer my eleven questions. Some of the answers were decent and somewhat plausible, while others were not. Below I have presented my two most important questions, along with the answers offered by professional atheist Aron Ra. The intention of this blog is to demonstrate why Aron Ra’s answers are insufficient.
The first question: How do you explain why the early Christian martyrs preached for decades, saying they saw the risen Christ?”
Shall we start with Paul? As I understand it, he seems to have seen a flash of light and heard voices that his friends around him couldn’t hear. Some scholars think that he had a stroke, and this lead him to write an awful lot of irrational nonsense for the rest of his life; sometimes claiming to have personally witnessed things he’s never actually seen, which is the Christian tradition.
Aron has misrepresented Paul. In the book of Acts, Luke shared the story of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus three times. Paul, formerly known as Saul, was a zealous Jew who was traveling to Damascus with the intentions of hunting, imprisoning, and murdering Christians. “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’ The men traveling with Paul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus.” (Acts 9:3-9).
Paul regained his eyesight a few days later and began preaching for Christianity for decades, despite much persecution. He was whipped, stoned, bitten by a snake, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and eventually beheaded by Nero. We have zero evidence that Paul had a stroke, so such an assertion is (as Aron put it) “irrational nonsense.” Other nonsense is Aron’s assertion that Christians have claimed to have witnessed things they’ve never seen.
Paul detailed his experience and what he saw in his letter to the church of Corinth (1 Corinthians 15):
“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you have received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word. I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you 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 disciples, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
Remember, the crux of any religious faith is pretending to know things that you don’t or can’t really know. This is already enough to inspire martyrdom, especially when one believes their salvation depends on and rewards martyrs for their stoic faith against all reason, for being ridiculed for ridiculous beliefs, regardless whatever religion it is.
To suggest that the crux of any religious faith is “pretending to know things that you don’t or can’t really know” merely exposes Aron’s biases. As historian and Christian apologist Michael Licona has pointed out, many early Christian martyrs can be distinguished because they not only believed in Jesus Christ (as other martyrs have believed in their gods), they saw the risen Christ and spent forty days with him after his resurrection. They had a first-hand way of determining whether Christianity was the truth. Other martyrs in other religions have never made such a claim. For example, no Muslim suicide bombers have ever claimed to have seen Allah. Allah is aloof and transcendent. They believed what was written in the Quran. So Aron has presented a false analogy because he has made comparisons between two groups based on similarities in only martyrdoms and not based on the content of the groups’ claims.
Furthermore, Aron’s words imply that my thought process is as follows: “because early Christian believers were martyred, the Christian faith is true.” This is fallacious reasoning. My argument is that the best explanation for the fact that early Christian martyrs such as Peter, James and Paul continued to preach about Jesus for decades despite significant physical persecution and gory death potential is to give them credit for what they clearly stated: they saw the risen Christ.
In the 3rd Foundational Falsehood of Creationism, I explained how religious martyrdom occurs in most religions, if not all of them: especially those claiming a personal relationship with their god, as many of them do. They all make the same pleas about changed lives, and healing, and miraculous blessings, and all that too.
This includes claims of actually meeting their gods in person, seeing them, hearing them, and sometimes even touching them. Because you have to know them. Pretending to be friends with someone who can bend reality is all part of the God game.
So the first question that you think an atheist can’t answer is one this atheist has already answered ten years ago. Why would you think that an atheist can’t answer this? Like everything else you believe, this too doesn’t make any sense. Anyone studying comparative religions can answer this, regardless whether they believe in any god.
I am among those who claim to have had personal, spiritual experiences as I have seen and heard Jesus in dreams and visions. God has given me many signs, many times and the spiritual world is very active in the lives of billions every day all over the world. The experiences I have had have changed my life and have driven me to boldly share the Good News with others.
And why are we only talking about Christianity? What makes y’all so special?
God is all merciful (which means he forgives sins) and all just (which means he punishes sins). Yet the two concepts are incompatible. An all forgiving God cannot punish sins, while an all punishing God cannot forgive sins. Through his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins, the Passover Lamb of God Jesus Christ reconciled this incompatibility and opened the gates of heaven to the undeserving. Jesus was uniquely qualified to make the sacrifice and pay the price for our sins because he has never sinned. A sinner could not pay the price for sins. Only one free from sins can pay that price.
“The second question. How do you explain the rise of Christianity, to between five and six million by 313 A.D. when it was finally legalized, from such humble roots?”
The first Christians were oppressed and impoverished renunciates, justified by their rejection of personal wealth. That’s the “humble beginning” you’re talking about. That worked for people who didn’t have any financial or political power—until they got some of course. Then they flipped the script to renounce the teachings of Jesus in favor of Prosperity Gospel, as if the eye of a needle is somehow big enough for rich evangelists to fly their private jets through.
Christianity rose the same way all religions rise, from a grass roots following to one with a strategic advantage for manipulation of the masses that is then revised and forcibly imposed by the state.
While Rome was initially tolerant of many different religions, once Christianity was politically promoted over all others, it was soon illegal to be anything else.
If you have the political power to murder an infidel on the word of one or two witnesses, that will do a lot to promote your particular religion, whatever it is. But it is important to note that had it not been for Constantine pushing it on everyone militarily, the old hippy socialist religion would have died out as humbly as it began, like all other religions of that time.
Why did you think an atheist couldn’t answer this question? There are some Christians who give this answer. If you ask this same question of a Muslim or a Sikh, would you not get the same explanation? Their religions both rose the same way yours did, and Islam is now growing much faster than yours, even though it’s much younger. Can you explain that? Because I’ll bet that’s a question you can’t answer. Failing that, I think you’ll blame it on an evil spirit instead.
Instead of addressing the period of time I was addressing in my question, which was between 33 A.D. and 313 A.D., Aron “flips the script” to discuss Christianity post 313 in true “red herring” fashion. Christians gained power once legalized by Constantine and over the centuries following legalization there have been instances of Christians abusing that power. This is true.
Yet my point above is that until 313, Christians were often martyred for their beliefs under the authority of numerous Roman emperors, such as Nero, Marcus Aurelius, and Decius. Martyrdoms were documented by Tacitus, Pliny the Younger (to Emperor Trajan) and Eusebius. They derived no material gains from their beliefs, so to suggest that they “had a strategic advantage for manipulation of the masses” is to ignore their well-documented persecutions and history. Despite such persecutions, Christians numbered between five and six million by 313 A.D. (Wawro, 2008).
Such growth calls to attention the prescient observations of the Pharisee Gamaliel in Acts 5 35-38 when he called on his peers to release Peter and the apostles from captivity:
“Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
Furthermore, Christians were not all “oppressed and impoverished renunciates,” as Aron suggests. Such a suggestion is a generalization based on zero evidence. Well-educated Christians in biblical times included Luke and Paul, while high-status Christians included Phoebe, Lydia, Priscilla, Dionysius, Theophilus and Damaris.
Aron mentioned two other religious groups: Muslims and Sikhs, so I will contrast the early history of those two religions with Christianity.
“Mohamed gained adherents slowly, converting his family and close associates to the new faith. The Quraysh tribe controlled Mecca, the home of Kaaba, a large black stone that had long served as the center of worship. Most of the tribe did not accept the new religion, leading Mohamed and his followers to move to Medina, where the people welcomed the dynamic leader so that he could settle long-standing disputes among feuding clans. In Medina, Mohamed came to wield political, legal, and religious authority, uniting the previous disparate local tribes. Having secured control in Medina, Mohamed and his followers attacked and seized Mecca in 630 CE. By the time of Mohamed’s death in 632 CE, Islam dominated the Arabian Peninsula. Mohamed’s successors took to heart the call for war against nonbelievers.” (Wawro, 2008, p. 116). So in contrast to Aron’s assertion, early Muslims were powerful warriors with legal authority.
Sikhism originated in the Punjab region of India based on the beliefs of its first guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji around 1500 A.D. Nine other gurus followed the first guru and formalized their religious practices. Six of the ten gurus were persecuted and two were tortured and executed for not converting to Islam. Around 1600 A.D., the sixth guru militarized the faith to defend themselves and the Sikhs fought a number of battles to preserve their faith (BBC, 2009). So Aron is correct to assert that the Sikhs faced early persecution.
Unlike Christianity, which is the most widely practiced and geographically dispersed religion (not primarily centered in its place of origin), Islam and Sikhism are primarily centered where they originated. Unlike Christianity, which is based on the writings of forty authors (many of whom were martyred) from three continents, in three languages, and over 1,500 years, both the Muslim and Sikh faiths were founded by one man: a prophet (Mohamed) or guru (Nanak Dev Ji).
Currently, 2.2 billion people follow Christianity, 1.8 billion people follow Islam and 24 million people follow Sikhism. Birth rates in Christian versus Muslim populations demonstrate the potential of Islam to surpass Christianity in size in the not too distant future. Such projections should be taken very seriously by those evangelizing Christianity.
Thank you for your time.
BBC (2009). Origins of Sikhism. Accessed 6/21/2018 at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/sikhism/history/history_1.shtml
Wawro, G. (2008). Historical Atlas: A Comprehensive History of the World. Millennium House, Elanora Heights, Australia.