Book Review: UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God

Book Review: UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God October 5, 2009

(Editor’s Note: This review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)

If you’ve been around the atheist blogosphere, you probably know the name Christopher Hallquist, author of the blog The Uncredible Hallq (I’ve always wondered, does he get more skeptical when he gets angry?).

Well, it seems he’s come into his own, because last month in the mail I got a copy of his new book, UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God: Debunking the Resurrection of Jesus, which was published earlier this year by Reasonable Press. Here follows a short summary of the book and my review.

The book begins with a brief history of skepticism, from the Roman con-artist Alexander and his nemesis the satirist Lucian, to Franz Mesmer and the spiritualism craze of the 18th century, complete with mediums who could levitate, summon ghosts on command, or communicate using psychic powers. Since most of us rightly consider these claims to be dubious, Hallquist argues, we should apply David Hume’s criteria for judging miracle tales and conclude that the Christian resurrection story, which is much longer ago and even less well documented, is even less likely to be true.

There are some great nuggets of information in here, particularly Hallquist’s account of an e-mail conversation with Craig Blomberg, one of the experts interviewed in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. Blomberg complains that Strobel’s book “heavily paraphrased” [p.50] and oversimplified their actual conversation, and that he ultimately gave up on trying to correct all the inaccuracies that Strobel introduced. There follow discussions of textual evolution in the New Testament, of the way legends tend to grow and mutate in the retelling, and the general lack of skepticism or a tradition of critical inquiry in the ancient world. Another bit I particularly liked: to drive the point home, Hallquist quotes a Christian magician, Andre Kole, who defends the historicity of Jesus’ miracles even while complaining that people tend to misremember his shows and believe he performed far more impressive tricks than he actually did! [p.75]

Building on this argument, Hallquist argues that Jesus may have been similar to a modern faith healer, performing “miracles” that relied mainly on the placebo effect and his devotees’ faith in him. These stories then grew in the telling, becoming far more impressive than they originally were.

As for the alleged resurrection and post-death experiences, Hallquist notes that even the Gospels portray the risen Jesus as a strangely ethereal phenomenon, appearing and disappearing without warning depending on who seems to be looking, and often describes his glorified body in mystical, visionary terms. He discusses the modern parallel of UFO abductions, pointing out their similar dreamlike and hallucinatory qualities, and brings up the nice point that stress – such as at the death of a loved one – can make such visions more likely to occur. The closing chapters ably dismantle some common apologist arguments relating to biblical prophecy, the Shroud of Turin, and religious attitudes toward skepticism and doubt.

Having finished the book, I have just two complaints, one small, one large. First, the minor: There were a lot of typos in this book – grammatical missteps, missing letters, missing words or incorrect punctuation. On average, I counted one such every few pages at least. It obviously doesn’t detract from the soundness of the arguments, but it was distracting. I imagine Reasonable Press, a fairly small printing house by the look of it, doesn’t have a great deal of money to invest in proofreading, but still.

Second: The one hypothesis that this book doesn’t consider, and that I found conspicuous by its absence, was that Jesus was an entirely mythical figure who was gradually “historicized” into a real human being. All the arguments Hallquist presents about legendary development, exaggeration of rumors and the like would apply equally well, maybe even better, to this hypothesis. This is an alternative that I think deserves serious consideration, and if there’s a future edition, perhaps it will address it.

With those caveats, this is a short, smart book, one that’s worth your while to pick up and read. Most of the skeptical material on Jesus’ resurrection was not new to me, but if you haven’t read extensively on the topic, it’s a useful and fairly comprehensive primer on how an atheist can best respond to these apologetic claims. What I personally found most illuminating was actually the background material – the mediums and spiritualists of past eras who claimed supernatural powers, and the skeptics, like Harry Houdini, who took them on. This is material that I think will be new to most readers, and there are some powerful lessons to draw on here. Hallquist cleverly points out that plenty of spiritualist “miracles”, like the alleged levitation of one D.D. Home (which was supported by three signed eyewitness testimonies) are backed by evidence as good as or better than the evidence for anything in the Bible.

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