A Rebuttal to Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason” – Letter VIII



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Letter VIII

The “tale of the resurrection,” you say, “follows that of the crucifixion.” You have accustomed me so much to this kind of language, that when I find you speaking of a tale, I have no doubt of meeting with a truth.

From the apparent disagreement in the accounts, which the evangelist should have given of some circumstances respecting the resurrection, you remark, “If the writers of these books had gone into any court of justice to prove an alibi, (for it is of the nature of an alibi that is here attempted to be proved, namely, the absence of a dead body by supernatural means,) and had given their evidence in the same contradictory manner, as it is here given, they would have been in danger of having their ears cropt for perjury, and would have justly deserved it.”

Hard words, or hanging, it seems, if you had been their judge. Now I maintain that it is the brevity with which the account of the resurrection is given by all the evangelists, which has occasioned the seeming confusion and that this confusion would have been cleared up at once, if the witnesses of the resurrection had been examined before any judicature.

As we cannot have this viva voce examination of all the witnesses, let us call up and question the evangelists as witnesses to a supernatural alibi. Did you find the sepulcher of Jesus empty?

One of us actually saw it empty, and the rest heard from eye-witnesses, that it was empty. Did you or any of the followers of Jesus, take away the dead body from the sepulcher?

All answer, No. Did the soldiers or the Jews take away the body? No. How are you certain of that? Because we saw the body when it was dead, and we saw it afterwards when it was alive.

How do you know that what you saw was the body of Jesus?

We had been long and intimately acquainted with Jesus, and knew his person perfectly. Were you not affrighted, and mistook a spirit for a body? No, the body had flesh and bones.

 We are sure that it was the very body which hung upon the cross, for we saw the wound in the side, and the print of the nails in the hands and feet. And all this you are ready to swear? We are, and we are ready to die also, sooner than we will deny any part of it. – This is the testimony which all the evangelists would give, in whatever court of justice they were examined, and this, I apprehend, would sufficiently establish the alibi of the dead body from the sepulcher by supernatural means.

But as the resurrection of Jesus is a point which you attack with all your force, I will examine minutely the principal of your objections. I do not think them deserving of this notice, but they shall have it.

The book of Matthew, you say, “states that when Christ was put in the sepulcher, the Jews applied to Pilate for a watch or a guard to be placed over the sepulcher, to prevent the body being stolen by the disciples.” I admit this account, but it is not the whole of the account.

You have omitted the reason for the request which the chief priests made to Pilate – “Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, whilst he was yet alive, “After three days I will rise again.”

It is material to remark this, for at the very time that Jesus predicted his resurrection, he predicted also his crucifixion, and all that he should suffer from the malice of those very men who now applied to Pilate for a guard. “He shewed to his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders, and chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.” (Mathew 26:21)

These men knew full well that the first part of this prediction had been accurately fulfilled through their malignity, and instead of repenting what they had done, they were so infatuated as to suppose, that by a guard of soldiers they could prevent the completion of the second. The other books, you observe, “say nothing about this application, or about the sealing of the stone, nor the guard, not the watch, and according to these accounts there were none.”

This, Sir, I deny. The other books do not say that there were none of these things. How often must I repeat, that omissions are not contradictions, nor silence concerning a fact a denial of it?

You go on, “The book of Matthew continues its account that at the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn, towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher. Mark says it was sun-rising, and John says it was dark.

Luke says it was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women, that came to the sepulcher. And John says that Mary Magdalene came alone.

So well do they agree about their first evidence! They all appear, however, to have known most about Mary Magdalene.

She was a woman of a large acquaintance and it was not an ill conjecture that she might be upon the stroll.” This is a long paragraph; I will answer it distinctly.

First, there is no disagreement of evidence with respect to the time when the women went to the sepulcher. All the evangelists agree as to the day on which they went and as to the time of the day.

It was early in the morning; what court of justice in the world would set aside this evidence, as insufficient to substantiate the fact of the Monet’s having gone to the sepulcher, because the witnesses differed as to the degree of twilight which lighted them on their way?

Secondly, there is no disagreement of evidence with respect to the persons who went to the sepulcher. John states that Mary Magdalene went to the sepulcher, but he dost not state, as you make him state, that Mary Magdalene went alone.

She might, for anything you have proved, or can prove to the contrary, have been accompanied by all the women mentioned by Luke. Is it an unusual thing to distinguish by name a principal person going on a visit, or an embassy, without mentioning his subordinate attendants?

Thirdly, in opposition to your insinuation that Mary Magdalene was a common woman, I wish it to be considered, whether there is any scriptural authority for that imputation and whether there be or not, I must contend, that a repentant and reformed woman ought not to be esteemed an improper witness of a fact.

The conjecture, which you adopt concerning her, is nothing less than an illiberal, indecent, unfounded calumny, not excusable in the mouth of a libertine, and intolerable in yours.

The book of Matthew, you observe, goes on to say, “And behold there was an earthquake, for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it, – but the other books say nothing about any earthquake.”

What then? Dost their silence prove that there was none? – “nor about the angel rolling back the stone and sitting upon it.” – What then? Dost their silence prove that the stone was not rolled back by an angel, and that he did not sit upon it? – “and according to their accounts, there was no angel sitting there.”

This conclusion I must deny. Their accounts do not say there was no angel sitting there at the time that Matthew says he sat upon the stone. They do not deny the face, they simply omit the mention of it, and they all take notice that the women, when they arrived at the sepulcher, found the stone rolled away.

Hence it is evident that the stone was rolled away before the women arrived at the sepulcher, and the other evangelists, giving an account of what happened to the women when they reached the sepulcher, have merely omitted giving an account of a transaction previous to their arrival.

Where is the contradiction? What space of time intervened between the rolling away the stone, and the arrival of the women at the sepulcher is no where mentioned, but it certainly was long enough for the angel to have changed his position from sitting on the outside he might have entered into the sepulcher and another angel might have made his appearance, or, from the first, there might have been two, one on the outside rolling away the stone and the other within.

Luke, you tell us, “says there were two, and they were both standing; and John says there were two, and both sitting.” It is impossible, I grant, even for an angel to be sitting and standing at the same instant of time, but Luke and John do not speak of the same instant, nor of the same appearance.

Luke speaks of the appearance to all the women and John of the appearance to Mary Magdalene alone, who tarried weeping at the sepulcher after Peter and John had left it. But I forbear making any more minute remarks on still minuter objections, all of which are grounded on this mistake that the angels were seen at one particular time, in one particular place and by the same individuals.

As to your inference, from Matthew’s using the expression unto this day, “that the book must have been manufactured after a lapse of some generations at least,” it cannot be admitted against the positive testimony of all antiquity. That the story about stealing away the body was a bungling story, I readily admit, but the chief priests are answerable for it.

It is not worthy either your notice or mine, except as it is a strong instance to you, to me, and to every body how far prejudice may mislead the understanding.

You come to that part of the evidence in those books that respects, you say, “the pretended appearance of Christ after his pretended resurrection; the writer of the book of Matthew relates, that the angel that was sitting on the stone at the mouth of the sepulcher said to the two Maries, (Matthew 28:7) that the disciples did not go to Galilee on the day of the resurrection.

You certainly have read the New Testament, but not, I think, with great attention, or you would have known who the apostles were. In this place you reckon Luke as one of the eleven and in other places you speak of him as an eye-witness of the things he relates.

You ought to have known that Luke was no apostle, and he tells you himself in the prefact to his Gospel, that he wrote from the testimony of others. If this mistake proceeds from your ignorance, you are not a fit person to write comments on the Bible.

If from design, (which I am unwilling to suspect,) you are still less fit. In either case it may suggest to your readers the propriety of suspecting the truth and accuracy of your assertions, however daring and intemperate.

“Of the numerous priests or parsons of the present day, bishops and all, the sum total of whose learning,” according to you, “is a b ab, and hic, haec, hoc, there is not one amongst them,” you say, “who can write poetry like Homer, or science like Euclid.” If I should admit this, (though there are many of them, I doubt not, who understand these authors better than you do) yet I cannot admit that there is one amongst them, bishops and all, so ignorant as to rank Luke the evangelist among the apostles of Christ.

I will not press this point; any man may fall into a mistake, and the consciousness of this fallibility should create in all men a little modesty, a little diffidence, a little caution, before they presume to call the most illustrious characters of antiquity, liars, fools, and knaves.

You want to now why Jesus did not shew himself to all the people after his resurrection. This is one of Spinoza’s abjections and it may sound well enough in the mouth of a Jew, wishing to excuse the infidelity of his countrymen, but it is not judiciously adopted by deists of other nations.

God gives us the means of health, but he dost not force us to the use of them. He gives us the powers of the mind, but he dost not compel us to the cultivation of them. He gave the Jews opportunities of seeing the miracles of Jesus, but he did not oblige them to believe them.

They, who persevered in their incredulity after the resurrection of Lazarus, would have persevered also after the resurrection of Jesus. Lazarus had been buried four days, Jesus but three; the body of Lazarus had begun to undergo corruption, the body of Jesus saw no corruption.

Why should you expect, that they would have believed in Jesus on his own resurrection, when they had not believed in him on the resurrection of Lazarus? When the Pharisees were told of the resurrection of Lazarus, they, together with the chief priests, gathered a council, and said, “What do we? For this man doeth many miracles.

If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him. Then from that day forth they took counsel together to put him to death.” The great men at Jerusalem, you see, admitted that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, yet the belief of that miracle did not generate conviction that Jesus was the Christ.

It only exasperated their malice and accelerated their purpose of destroying him. Had Jesus shewn himself after his resurrection, the chief priests would probably have gathered another council, have opened it with, what do we? And ended it with a determination to put him to death.

As to us, the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus, which we have in the New Testament, is far more convincing, than if it had been related that he shewed himself to every man in Jerusalem; for they we should have had a suspicion, that the whole story had been fabricated by the Jews.

You think Paul an improper witness of the resurrection; I think him one of the fittest that could have been chosen; and for this reason – his testimony is the testimony of a former enemy. He had, in his own miraculous conversion, sufficient ground for changing his opinion as to a matter of fact; for believing that the have been a fact, which he had formerly, through extreme prejudice, considered as a fable.

For the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, he appeals to above two hundred and fifty living witnesses and before whom does he make this appeal? Before his enemies, who were able and willing to blast his character, if he had advanced an untruth.

You know, undoubtedly, that Paul had resided at Corinth near two years; that, during a part of that time, he had testified to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ; that, finding the bulk of that nation obstinate in their unbelief, he had turned to the Gentiles, and had converted many to the faith in Christ; that he left Corinth, and went to preach the Gospel in other parts; that, about three years after he had quitted Corinth, he wrote a letter to the converts which he had made in that place, and who, after his departure, had been split into different factions, and had adopted different teachers in opposition to Paul.

From this account we may be certain, that Paul’s letter, and every circumstance in it, would be minutely examined. The city of Corinth was full of Jews. These men were, in general, Paul’s bitter enemies.

Yet, in the face of them all, he asserts, “that Jesus Christ was buried; that he rose again the third day; that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve; that he was afterwards seen of above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part were then alive.”

An appeal to above two hundred and fifty living witnesses is a pretty strong proof of a fact; but it becomes irresistible, when that appeal is submitted to the judgment of enemies. St. Paul, you must allow, was a man of ability; but he would have been an idiot, had he put it in the power of his enemies to prove, from his own letter, that he was a lying rascal.

They neither proved, nor attempted to prove, any such thing, and therefore we may safely conclude, that this testimony of Paul to the resurrection of Jesus was true; and it is a testimony, in my opinion, of the greatest weight.

You come, you say, to the last scene, the ascension; upon which, in your opinion, “the reality of the future mission of the disciples was to rest for proof.” I do not agree with you in this.

The reality of the future mission of the apostles might have been proved, though Jesus Christ had not visibly ascended into heaven. Miracles are the proper proofs of a divine mission and when Jesus gave the apostles a commission to preach the Gospel, he commanded them to stay at Jerusalem, till they “were omitted the mention of the ascension. And John, you say, has not said a syllable about it. I think otherwise. John has not given an express account of the ascension, but has certainly said something about it.

For he informs us, that Jesus said to Mary, “Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.” This is surely saying something about the ascension and if the fact of the ascension be not related by John or Matthew, it may reasonably be supposed that the omission was made on account of the notoriety of the fact.

That the fact was generally known, may be justly collected from the reference which Peter makes to it in the hearing of all the Jews, a very few days after it had happened, “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we are all witnesses. Therefore, being by the right hand of God exalted” Paul bears testimony also to the ascension, when he says, that Jesus was received up into glory.

As to the difference you contend for, between the account of the ascension, as given by Mark and Luke, it does not exist, except in this, that Mark omits the particulars of Jesus going with his apostles to Bethany, and blessing them there, which are mentioned by Luke. But omissions, I must often put you in mind are not contradictions.

You have now, you say, “gone through the examination of the four books ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and when it is considered that the whole space of time, from the crucifixion to what is called the ascension, is but a few days, apparently not more than three or four, and that all the circumstances are reported to have happened near the same spot, Jerusalem.

It is, I believe, impossible to find, in any story upon record, so many and such glaring absurdities, contradictions, and falsehoods, as are in those books.” What am I to say to this?

Am I to say that, in writing this paragraph, you have forfeited your character as an honest man? Or, admitting your honesty am I to say that you are grossly ignorant of the subject? Let the reader judge.

John says, that Jesus appeared to his disciples at Jerusalem on the day of his resurrection and that Thomas was not then with them. The same John says that after eight days he appeared to them again, when Thomas was with them.

Now, Sir, how apparently three or four days can be consistent with really eight days he appeared to them again, when Thomas was with them. Now, Sir, how apparently three or four days can be consistent with really eight days, I leave you to make out.

But this is not the whole of John’s testimony, either with respect to place or time. For he says after these things (after the two appearances to the disciples at Jerusalem, on the first and on the eighth day after the resurrection) Jesus shewed himself again to his disciples at the sea of Tiberias.

The sea of Tiberias, I presume you know, was in Galilee and Galilee, you may know, was sixty or seventy miles from Jerusalem. It must have taken the disciples some time, after the eighth day, to travel from Jerusalem into Galilee.

 What, in your insulting language to the priests, what have you to answer, as to the same spot Jerusalem, as to your apparently three or four days? But this is not all.

Luke, in the beginning of the Acts, refers to his Gospel, and says, “Christ shewed himself alive after his passion, by many infallible proofs, being seen of the apostles forty days and speaking of the things pertaining the Kingdom of God.” Instead of four, you perceive there were forty days between the crucifixion and the ascension.

I need not, I trust after this, trouble myself about the falsehood and contradictions which you impute to the evangelists. Your readers cannot but be upon their guard, as to the credit due to your assertions, however bold and improper.

You will suffer me to remark, that the evangelists were plain men; who, convinced of the truth of their narration and conscious of their own integrity, have related what they knew, with admirable simplicity. They seem to have said to the Jews of their time and to say to the Jews and unbelievers of all times – We have told you the truth; and if you will not believe us, we have nothing more to say.

Had they been impostors, they would have written with more caution and art, have obviated every cavil and avoided every appearance of contradiction, this they have not done and this I consider as a proof of their honesty and veracity,

John the Baptist had given his testimony to the truth of our Savior’s mission in the most unequivocal terms. He afterwards sent two of his disciples to Jesus, to ask him whether he was really the expected Messiah or not.

Matthew relates both these circumstances. Had the writer of the book of Matthew been an impostor, would he have invalidated John’s testimony by bringing forward his real or apparent doubt?

Impossible! Matthew, having proved the resurrection of Jesus, tells us, that the eleven disciples went away into Galilee into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them, and “when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Would an impostor in the very last place where he mentions the resurrection and in the conclusion of his book, have suggested such a cavil to unbelievers, as to say – some doubted? Impossible!

The evangelist has left us to collect the reason why some doubted. The disciples saw Jesus, at a distance, on the mountain and some of them fell down and worshipped him, whilst others doubted whether the person they saw was really Jesus. Their doubt, however, could not have lasted long, for in the very next verse we are told, that Jesus came and spake unto them.

Great and laudable pains have been taken by many learned men, to harmonize the several accounts given us by the evangelists of the resurrection. It dost not seem to me to be a matter of any great consequence to Christianity, whether the accounts can, in every minute particular, be harmonized or not; since there is no such discordance in them, as to render the fact of the resurrection doubtful to any impartial mind.

If any man, in a court of justice, should give possible evidence of a fact; and three others should afterwards be examined, and all of them should confirm the evidence of the first as to the fact, but should apparently differ from him and from each other, by being more or less particular in their accounts of the circumstances attending the fact: ought we to doubt of the fact, because we could not harmonize the evidence respecting the circumstances relating to it?

The omission of any one circumstance (such as that of Mary Magdalene having gone twice to the sepulcher; or that of the angel, having, after he had rolled away the stone from the sepulcher, entered into the sepulcher) may render a harmony impossible, without having recourse to supposition to supply the defect. You deists laugh at all such attempts, and call them priestcraft.

I think it better then, in arguing with you, to admit that there may be (not granting, however, that there is an irreconcilable difference between the evangelists in some of their accounts respecting the life of Jesus, or his resurrection. Be it so; what then?

Dost this difference, admitting it to be real, destroy the credibility of the Gospel history in any of its essential points?

Certainly, in my opinion, not. As I look upon this to be a general answer to most of your deistical objections, I profess my sincerity, in saying, that I consider it as a true and sufficient answer and I leave it to your consideration.

 I have, purposely, in the whole of this discussion, been silent as to the inspiration of the evangelists; well knowing that you would have rejected with scorn anything I could have said on that point; but, in disputing with a deist, I do most solemnly contend, that the Christian religion is true, and worthy of all acceptation, whether the evangelists were inspired or not.

Unbelievers, in general, wish to conceal their sentiments. They have a decent respect for public opinion; are cautious of affronting the religion of their country.

Fearful of undermining the foundations of civil society, some few have been more daring, but less judicious and have, without disguise, professed their unbelief. But you are the first whoever swore that he was an infidel, concluding your deistical creed with – So help me God!

I pray that God may help you. That he may, through the influence of his Holy Spirit, bring you to a right mind; convert you to the religion of his Son, whom, out of his abundant love to mankind, he sent into the world, that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

You swear, that you think the Christian religion is not true. I give full credit to your oath. It is an oath in confirmation – of what? – Of an opinion. It proves the sincerity of your declaration of your opinion; but the opinion, notwithstanding the oath, may be either true or false.

Permit me to produce to you an oath not confirming an opinion, but a fact it is the oath of St. Paul, when he swears to the Galatians, that, in what he told them of his miraculous conversion, he did not tell a lie. “Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not.”

Do but give that credit to Paul which I give to you, do but consider the difference between an opinion and a fact, and I shall not despair of your becoming a Christian.

Deism, you say, consists in a belief of one God and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what is called virtue. And in this (as far as religion is concerned) you rest all your hopes.

There is nothing in deism but what is in Christianity, but there is much in Christianity which is not in deism.

The Christian has no doubt concerning a future state; every deist, from Plato to Thomas Paine, is on this subject overwhelmed with doubts insuperable by human reason.

The Christian has no misgivings as to the pardon of penitent sinners, through the intercession of a mediator. The deist is harassed with apprehension lest the moral justice of God should demand, with inexorable rigor, punishment for transgression.

The Christian has no doubt concerning the lawfulness and the efficacy of prayer. The deist is disturbed on this point by abstract considerations concerning the goodness of God, which wants not to be entreated; concerning his foresight, which has no need of our information; concerning him immutability, which cannot be changed through our supplication.

The Christian admits the providence of God and the liberty of human actions; the deist is involved in great difficulties, when he undertakes the proof of either.

The Christian has assurance that the Spirit of God will help his infirmities; the deist dost not deny the possibility that God may have access to the human mind, but he has no ground to believe the fact of his either enlightening the understanding, influencing the will or purifying the heart.

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