Heaven and the Burden of Evidence

Stephen Hawking, great man that he is, seems to have upset a few people with his observations on the non-existence of heaven:

“I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,”

Good for Stephen.

For far too long we’ve had to put with the banal maunderings of bone-headed religionists seeking to co-opt Hawking to their ’cause’ by virtue of their inability to comprehend the true character of his metaphorical reference to god at the conclusion of ‘A Brief History Of Time’:

In his bestselling 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, Hawking drew on the device so beloved of Einstein, when he described what it would mean for scientists to develop a “theory of everything” – a set of equations that described every particle and force in the entire universe. “It would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God,” he wrote.

It is nice, therefore, to see Hawking set the record straight and ‘come out’ once and for all as both a philosophical naturalist and a confirmed monist, not that I expect that will prevent religionists citing his conclusion to A Brief History of Time out of context.

Inevitably, The Guardian have published a response to Hawking’s comments, by Maurice Wenham, which neatly illustrates the intellectual flaccidity of the religious mind and its abject lack of understanding of the nature of science:

…Stephen Hawking’s headlined observation about death, that an after-life “is a fairy-story for people afraid of the dark” is both sad and misinformed. Openness to the theoretical possibility of there being 11 dimensions and fundamental particles “as yet undiscovered” shows an intellectual humility strangely at odds with writing off the possibility of other dimensions of existence.

Hardly.

The theoretical possibility of there being 11 dimensions and as yet undiscovered fundamental particles comes from Hawking’s work on M-Theory, an extension of string theory which, itself, derives from efforts to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Although M-theory is arguably more of a hypothesis than a fully rounded theory at its current stage of development it is, nevertheless, the product of the logical development of theoretical ideas derived from other scientific theories (quantum mechanics and general relativity) for which there is an ever increasing body of experimental and observational evidence to support the theoretical predictions made by those theories. M-theory, like string theory itself, may easily prove to be a dead end in the search for a grand theory of everything but it is, for the time being, an avenue of inquiry that both theory and evidence suggest is worth pursuing.

If and when the possibly existence of a heaven can be postulated on a similar basis then this will merit consideration. Until that point, however, it can safely be dismissed for its wholesale lack of either evidentiary or logical foundations.

Or can it, as Wenham continues by making the claim that he has actual evidence for the existence of an afterlife:

Strangely enough, my theory that there is a form of life after we die is not some sort of wishful thinking. It’s based on evidence. If the brain is a computer, then, when I was studying where Stephen Hawking now teaches, I came on a mass of data of which the most convincing, the neatest, explanation was that death is not the end of life. It wasn’t the most comfortable nor most obvious of conclusions, but the forensic case was forceful and beautiful, providing “simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations”. The best exposition I found was by the then director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in London, Professor Sir Norman Anderson, in The Evidence for the Resurrection (later republished as part of Jesus Christ: The Witness of History). My disturbing conclusion was that, if it happened once, as seemed beyond reasonable doubt, then I needed to revise my whole world view. What you see is not all you get.

So, Wenham claims that his ‘theory’ of an afterlife is supported by a ‘mass of data’ and a forensic case based on different but independent corroborating observations which verify the historicity of the resurrection story and he even provide a source citation for an exposition of this forensic case which he attributes to a Professor Sir Norman Anderson.

Given that Wenham has put what he believes to be ‘evidence’ on the table, I suppose we should do him the courtesy of taking a look at what he has to offer, even if it seems, at first glance, to be rather unpromising.

As Professor Sir Norman Anderson is cited here as primary authority, we should begin by checking his background and what we find is that Sir James Norman Dalrymple Anderson OBE QC, to give his full title, was an English missionary and noted academic Arabist who died in 1994 aged approximate 86 years of age. Anderson was indeed a Professor of Oriental Laws at the University of London but was, first and foremost, regarded as an evangelical missionary and a prominent figure in the House of Laity in the General Synod of the Church of England, serving as the House’s first chairman from 1970 to 1979.

An impressive CV, certainly, but not one that inspires me to take any of Wenham’s claims about evidence for the resurrection story as gospel  – Nullius in verba, and all that.

So, it seems we need to look beyond Wenham’s appeal to authority and examine Anderson’s actual exposition of the evidence, a copy of which you can read for yourself here.

There’s a bit of general waffle to skip over before we get down to exposition of evidence, but I have to say that, to a sceptic, Anderson’s opening gambit seems rather unsatisfactory:

On what documents, then, is the Easter story based? Primarily, on the written testimony of six witnesses (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and Peter), supported by the testimony of the whole primitive Church.

Now it is not sufficiently realized what strides modern research has made in determining the date and authorship of these written records. In the nineteenth century a number of unbelievers, equipped with considerable scholarship, made the most strenuous efforts to prove that the Gospels were written in the middle of the second century, A.D. (or about a hundred years after the events described), when legend and imagination could have played their part. But this attempt has failed, crushed under the weight of historical proof which grows in strength with the passage of the years.

The written testimony, then, is extraordinarily early. Let us concentrate attention on three examples.

So Anderson is relying solely on the canonical texts of the New Testament and offers no archaeological evidence and no corroboration from any independence sources, which presents something of a problem given that none of these texts provides a contemporaneous account of the resurrection story and the authorship of all but seven of the Pauline epistles are matter of considerably dispute both as to when they were written and by whom. Of the 23 references cited at the end of Anderson’s text, 21 directly reference passages in the New Testament, one refers to a book entitled ‘Readings in St. John’ and the last remaining ‘reference’ merely states that Anderson ‘is here concerned to take nothing for granted, although he himself fully accepts the divine inspiration of these records’ in regards to an assertion that the New Testament texts must be regarded as eye-witness testimony.

No serious biblical scholar, today, seriously believes Peter to be the author to the two canonical epistles attributed to him. The linguistic skill and sophistication of these epistles, both written in Greek, is not what would be expected of a simple fisherman whose first language was Aramaic, although this is typically explained away by way of a reference in the first epistle (canonical order) which indicates that the letter was written with the assistance of an amanuensis (secretary). That said, this same epistle refers directly to events which took place long after the period during which a putative historical Jesus is believed to have lived in Palestine. The opening salutation, for example, appears to refer to the diaspora, which did not occur until AD 136, while the main text refers to the persecution of Christians during the reign of the Emperor Nero (AD 54-68) which did not begin until immediately after the Great Fire of Rome (AD 64) – the date of both the fire and the beginning of the persecutions is verified by independent sources, the great Roman historian Tacitus and the biographer Suetonius. The evidence, therefore, suggests that both were written after the presumed date of Paul’s execution (AD 67), possibly as much as a century afterwards.

As fascinating as the subject of biblical scholarship is, I’ll forego any further detailed examples of uncertainties that surround both the authorship and dating of the texts that Anderson cites as evidence for the historicity and note simply that the earliest texts on offer here are the seven undisputed Pauline epistles, all of which can at best be treated as hearsay – Paul, by his own admission, was a convert who claimed only to have has a vision of the resurrected Jesus – the famous Road to Damascus story – and was not a first hand witness to any of the alleged events set out in the four gospels. All of the other texts are believed to be late in date than these epistle and date to a period in which the Pauline version of Christianity was being adapted and modified to suit the social and cultural mores of a Hellenic audience. The Gospel of Mark, which is widely thought to be the earliest of the Synoptic gospels (c. 70 AD) includes several passages which appear to exist primarily to explain Jewish customs and practices to a non-Jewish audience, placing it firmly within the Pauline apostolic tradition even if its thought, by some scholars, that Mark (and the other Synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke) all draw on an earlier source (dubbed ‘the Q’) the date and form of which (either a written document or oral tradition) is presently unknown.

One cannot, therefore, place much store at all in the proposition that the canonical texts of the New Testament should be treated as reliable historical documents nor as written testimonies of individuals who actually witness the alleged events of the resurrection. Anderson merely assumes that these texts are provide an accurate account of historical event as a matter of personal belief buttressed, in part, by the wholly mistaken belief that it would require a considerable passage of time for ‘legend and imagination’ to have played a part in modifying these stories to the extent that their historicity could no longer be asserted with any confidence whatsoever. Anderson’s exposition of the supposed evidence for the resurrection story was originally published since which time evidence from studies of the emergence of cargo cults in the South Pacific has clearly demonstrated the extreme rapidity with which the myth-making process can take hold and eradicate entirely any semblance of their actual historical origins.

By far the best known of these cargo cults is that of ‘John Frum’, which appeared seeming out of nowhere on the Pacific Island of Tanna in what is, today, Vanuatu in the late 1930s. Exactly who John Frum is, was or might have been is a complete mystery, although some speculate that the name ‘John Frum’ might be a corruption of ‘John from America’, but what is clear that whatever historical origins the cult may have had, these were entirely shrouded in myth and legend in a matter of a few year – certainly less than a decade – to the extent that when the Island was visited by David Attenborough in the 1950’s, no one could be found who could give any kind of contemporaneous historical account of the real ‘John Frum’ even amongst those who were living on the Island at the time the cult emerged.

Far from providing a ‘mass of data’ and/or a forensic case for the historicity of the resurrection, Anderson provides nothing more than a stream of self-referential arguments in support of the proposition that the resurrection story is true because it says so in the Bible.

This isn’t evidence, its Christian apologetics and Anderson follows the more or less standard format of trying to prove the veracity of his beliefs by sententiously knocking superficial holes in a series of straw men derived from the common counter arguments advanced by other, much more exacting Biblical scholars, while providing no independent corroborating evidence whatsoever in support of his own beliefs.

Anderson’s evidence for the historicity of the resurrection story and, by extension Wenham’s evidence for the afterlife amounts to nothing more than their mutual belief in scripture and irrespective of the sincerity with which this belief is held, it is still, from the perspective of a non-believer such as myself, or Stephen Hawking, nothing more than wishful thinking.

And if that offends Wenham, or anyone else, that’s just tough – he’s perfectly entitled to believe and to have his right to hold those beliefs respected by others. What he has no right to expect, however, is any respect for the substance of his beliefs from those of us who take the view that he is clearly living in Cloud-Cuckoo Land if he thinks that the Bible is a historical document that genuinely proves both the historicity of the resurrection story and the existence of heaven.

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  • arthur

     Hi, I agree with the article in general, but should we be so fast to dismiss Sir Norman Anderson QC? A Queen’s Counsel is an elite barrister. He was also the head of Advanced Legal Studies at one point. Surely a lawyer would have some idea on how to work with evidence? 

  • Both the Old and the New Testaments are fascinating amalgamations of ancient legends.  They should be studied for their true value, namely an insight into how the minds of men worked in the past and how human thought and belief developed.