MICHAEL LICONA, associate professor of theology at Houston Baptist University, speaks while Lawrence Shapiro, philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, listens Thursday. The two were participating in an open dialogue between Christianity and atheism on the resurrection of Jesus, at Findlay’s Winebrenner Theological Seminary. (Photo by Kevin Bean / The Courier)


“An open dialogue between Christianity and atheism” on the resurrection of Jesus grew heated at times at Winebrenner Theological Seminary Thursday. But the speakers — Michael Licona, Ph.D., from Houston Baptist University, and Lawrence Shapiro, Ph.D., from the University of Wisconsin-Madison — had debated the topic before, and near the end of the discussion spoke of friendship with each other.

Licona is an associate professor of theology. He is a preeminent scholar whose expertise lies in the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and the historical reliability of the Gospels.

His academic books include “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach” and “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography.”
Shapiro is a philosophy professor whose research focuses on the philosophy of psychology. His research spans philosophy of mind and philosophy of psychology. His books include “The Mind Incarnate” and “The Multiple Realization Book,” the latter of which was co-authored with Thomas Polger at the University of Cincinnati, as well as articles in The Journal of Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

The moderator was Bacho Bordjadze, a mission team leader for Ohio State University’s Cru student ministries group.

Licona, in his introductory remarks, said if atheism is true then sometime the stars will die out, and nothing of human life will have value. Whereas in Christianity, God exists and we are made in his image, so humans have intrinsic value and there is “real meaning” in life.

He started by talking about the writings of Paul. Paul, Licona said, was a Jew and thought Jesus was a false prophet — then he had an experience in which he believed the risen Jesus had appeared to him. He converted, and became one of the church’s most able defenders.

In Galatians, which Licona said every scholar agrees was actually written by Paul, Paul references learning about the life of Jesus from those who had walked with him, including Peter, James, and later John. Paul wanted to make sure he was preaching the same message, Licona said.

And the message was that Christ died, was buried and was raised the third day, then appeared,

Licona said. He said there are reports of Jesus appearing to the apostles, both individually and in groups.

Licona said there is no such thing as absolute certainty, but they look at what is most probable.

One hypothesis is the resurrection. Another is that it was a hallucination — the disciples having been through the trauma of Jesus’ death, and then perhaps drinking or using drugs.

“Maybe there was another reason they called Jesus the most high God,” Licona said, to laughter.

But psychology tells us that hallucinations are — like dreams — things we experience individually, not as a group.

“They’re not collective,” Licona said.

Licona spoke of the supernatural dimension to life, and said there have been many accounts of people who were clinically dead, who had near-death experiences.

Licona himself had a friend who was in a horrible car accident in the 1980s. He was in the hospital in a coma and at 4 p.m. one day members of his church, who were at a church picnic, prayed for him. Miles away, at 4 p.m., the man came out of his coma — and later that night, so did everyone else in his room, Licona said.

Another example Licona gave went like this: A woman saw the face of a friend she hadn’t seen since middle school, imposed on the face of a demon, at 2:30 a.m. one night. She prayed the Lord’s prayer and the faces were gone. The next day her father, reading the paper, noted that the girl whose face she had seen had been injured, taken to the hospital, and died — at 2:30 a.m.

“Those things don’t work with atheism,” Licona said. “But they happen all the time.”

Shapiro opened his remarks by asking how many in the audience believed in the resurrection.

Most raised their hands. Then he asked how many — no matter what he was going to say that evening — would continue to believe. Most raised their hands again.

That’s good, Shapiro said, as it shows that their belief is based on faith.

“You’re telling me that you have faith” and he didn’t want to discourage them from that, he said.

But he said some things you believe based on faith, while others you believe because they are justified. And a belief is justified only when there is good evidence, he said. Scientists say there are millions of planets that could support life — but, Shapiro said, he’s unlikely to live long enough to see that claim justified. He said the resurrection is similar, in that there is not the evidence necessary to justify the belief.

Things that are less likely to happen need stronger evidence to convince people, he said.

For example, “Bigfoots –Bigfeet? — they’re very rare,” Shapiro said.

So if a friend says he saw a bear in the woods, you might believe him, but if he says he saw

Bigfoot you will need more evidence to convince you, “given the extreme rarity of Bigfoot.”

Shapiro said the destruction of Pompeii by a volcano was a very rare event — but people do believe it happened, because there is really good evidence. So, he said, the burden is on Licona to show that his evidence is better than that for the destruction of Pompeii.

Shapiro said there could be different hypotheses for the resurrection including that the witnesses were confused; that the Gospels misreported the testimony; that “super powerful aliens” raised

Jesus from the dead; that Jesus just came back from the dead, but we don’t know how; and that God raised Jesus from the dead.

So we look at each hypothesis, he said.

The evidence for the belief in resurrection needs to be very strong, Shapiro said. A hypothesis is justified only when it does a better job of fitting the evidence than competing hypotheses, he said. And the evidence for the resurrection is not stronger than other hypotheses.

“Was Jesus resurrected? Maybe,” Shapiro said.

He said people are free to accept that he was, based on faith — but that this is not justified, in the sense that there is not enough evidence.

Licona said dead people do not simply come back to life — not by themselves, anyway. But if God exists, and he wants to raise Jesus, that’s a game changer. Licona said if he drops a pencil, it will fall to the floor every time — unless he reaches out a hand, to grab it as it falls. A miracle, he said, is simply the hand of God reaching out.

So he said he isn’t saying Jesus rose from the dead by natural causes — but that God raised him.

One attendee, in questions afterward, asked how each panelist felt about the fact that the apostles were willing to die for their belief. After all, if he knew something was a sham, he would not give his life for it, he said.

Shapiro replied that the apostles genuinely believed Jesus rose from the dead, but that doesn’t mean that there is evidence for it. Licona replied that the apostles themselves had evidence, as they themselves had seen it and knew it was true. Christians today are dying for what they believe to be true, but apostles back in those days were in a position to know, he said.

Bordjadze asked each of the panelists, if you could pose one question to the other to move the discussion further along, what they would ask.

Licona asked Shapiro what would convince him. Shapiro said if he had a time machine and went back and saw evidence, he would be convinced. But, Licona said, how would he know he was not himself having a hallucination? Shapiro replied that what he was saying was that he, personally, would be convinced.

Shapiro asked Licona what it would take to cause him to doubt that God resurrected Jesus.

Licona replied that he does, sometimes. But it’s not because he lacks data– it’s emotional doubt.

But what evidence would it take, Shapiro asked.

Licona said if archaeologists found the bones of someone who had clearly been crucified, with a written text saying the writers had fooled the world, “and it’s signed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” then he would realize he was wrong, he said.

Bordjadze asked if the world would be a better place if more people subscribed to each person’s view and, if so, how?

Shapiro said he is an atheist and regards himself as a good person, who is faithful to his wife and a good father to his daughters. And “I care deeply” about people in need such as refugees. He then said that President Donald Trump is “a very unChristian person,” a philanderer and a xenophobe. Licona said he disagreed, and noted that his own father had come from Honduras, legally. His remarks drew a smatter of applause.

Shapiro said Trump is “one of the most unChristian men I could imagine,” yet 84 percent of evangelical voters voted for him. He also spoke about how easy it is to purchase guns like AR-15s, which garnered some applause but also audible booing.

Licona said atheism does not have specific tenets. Pol Pot and Stalin were atheists –and this doesn’t mean atheists are all bad, only that atheism itself doesn’t specify a way to live.

Christianity, by contrast, spells out things you must do to live according to its principles, he said.
Licona said Shapiro is choosing to do good things, but it is not because he is an atheist.

“I mean, I like you,” Licona said. “I think we have a friendship here.”

“Yeah, I hope so,” Shapiro said.

And, Shapiro said, it is true that atheism itself is not a moral code — but that does not mean that atheists cannot have a moral code.

“So at least we have the agreement that an atheist and a Christian can be friends,” Bordjadze said, to laughter and applause.

The event was sponsored by the University of Findlay Campus Ministries.

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