Sean McDowell and the Problem With Resurrection Claims

Sean McDowell and the Problem With Resurrection Claims May 5, 2020

Hello and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been kicking around an Easter video made by up-and-coming apologist Sean McDowell. In it, he draws upon the myth of the Resurrection of Jesus to put forth answers to three questions. As we’ve seen in spades, all three of his ‘answers’ turned out to be complete nonsense. Now, I want to show you why resurrections, as a concept, are so silly. Christians have never, ever, ever, ever demonstrated a single one of their miracle resurrection claims as true. Today, I’ll show you why they can’t, and why that matters.

a dying red rose
(Mat Reding.)

(Previous posts about Sean McDowell’s video: First QuestionSecond Question2B: The Cruel Dilemma; Third Question.)

Gatekeeping Doctrines.

Many Christians like to imagine a sort of essential canon for believers in their religion. Almost always, this canon consists of whatever they themselves imagine is essential — not what actually is.

If you’re wondering, my version (devised after years of tangling with all flavors of Christianity) runs like a bit this:

  1. Some sort of powerful being probably exists and Christians have named it “God.”
  2. The idea of Jesus is really important.
  3. An afterlife might or might not exist.
  4. What we do in this life is important, regardless.

For all the foofaraw that Christians raise constantly about gatekeeping their beliefs and robbing each other of the label of “Christian” at every opportunity, these seem to be the only unifying elements of Christianity. Name any doctrine you want, any doctrine in the world, even the insistence that “God” and “Jesus” actually exist at all, and you’ll find fervent Christians who have solid reasons for rejecting that doctrine.

That’s why I find it so funny when evangelicals try to gatekeep essential doctrines. They insist that to be Christian at all, one must believe XYZ. In reality, that’s not even close to the case.

And that’s what we find when we examine the concept of A Super-Literal Resurrection. 

A Claim Too Far, Even For Christians.


The video in question, in case you need it.

In his Easter video, Sean McDowell asserts that if the Resurrection didn’t happen in reality, then there’s no point to even being Christian at all. In fact, if it didn’t happen then Christians are just pathetic losers wasting their time and finite lifetimes on nonsense.

However, plenty of Christians seem perfectly okay with a purely-metaphorical, mythical Resurrection.

As the BBC discovered in 2017, a quarter of surveyed Christians didn’t believe that the Resurrection literally happened.

Oh, are they not TRUE CHRISTIANS™ enough for King Sean?

Because even within the “it totally really happened” crowd, Barna Group discovered in 2010 that more than a quarter of evangelical Christians didn’t even identify Easter as a specifically and explicitly religious holiday, and almost half of right-wing conservative Christians couldn’t identify what the evangelical party line was about Easter:

Showing a perceptual gap between political conservatives and liberals, those on the political “right” were nearly twice as likely as those on the political “left” to say that Easter is a celebration of the resurrection (53% versus 29%, respectively).

(Can’t you just hear Barna’s utter frustration in that writeup? Gives me chills, it does.)

So the Resurrection doesn’t actually represent anything like an essential doctrinal belief, even Christians in the childishly-literalist flavors of Christianity. In fact, these studies tell me that many Christians, even fervent ones, don’t think the Resurrection’s really that important to their overall beliefs.

And boy, it’d super-duper-suck for evangelicals if they ever learned that in fact, the meaning and significance of the Crucifixion myth has changed a few times over the centuries.

Challenging Historicity Claims.

It’d suck even worse for evangelicals to know exactly how unlikely it is that any resurrection occurred at all.

The more I’ve learned about death and the processes involved in dying, the less likely any resurrection account seems.

Sean hangs his entire argument on it totes for realsies happened, y’all. Thus, he faces a major credibility problem right there. But then, we factor in Jesus’ assurance in John 14:12 that his followers would duplicate his miracles and even surpass them in scope:

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.

And here, Sean’s claims of historicity collapse in on themselves and make a black hole.

See, not once, not ever has any resurrection claim turned out to be true — in any religion.

(BTW, check out this intellectual cowardice from Gary Habermas, one of Sean’s daddy’s friends. In that link, Habermas sneers at non-Christian resurrection claims. Apologists contort to dismiss other religions’ claims while pushing forward their own, then refuse to apply the same standards to their own religion that they use on others.)

Shouldering the Burden of Proof.

One of two things is going on with Sean’s claim of a literal Resurrection:

  • Jesus’ resurrection was literally the only one that’s ever happened all through history, or
  • Resurrections represent a type of dramatic miracle that his god makes happen sometimes.

Either way, he’s under a big burden of proof here. It’s one he simply cannot shoulder. No extra-biblical evidence exists for any aspect of Jesus’ life at all. Nor has anybody ever offered credible support for any resurrection claims.

And hilariously, Sean marvels in his video that the characters in the 1990 movie Flatliners did not choose to study “philosophy or religion” to answer their questions about life after death.

Dude, of course they didn’t.

Philosophy and religion present no real evidence for the claim of life after death.

Unfortunately, Sean grew up misinterpreting these disciplines’ output as valid evidence for that claim, and his tribe has been well-trained to make the same exact mistake he does.

Literally, all Christians have instead of evidence are arguments, most of which hinge upon circular reasoning.

A reminder.

How the Real World Operates.

By contrast, those fictional medical students did something Sean McDowell and his entire pack of fellow apologetics shills would never do: they tested their ideas. 

They chose to stop each others’ hearts to invoke death, then “resurrect” themselves.

As Sean says, that’s a “morbid” experiment. I join him in hoping nobody tries this at home.

But we don’t have to conduct our own experiments (thank goodness).

As it turns out, real doctors could have told the “Flatliners” exactly what happens after someone’s heart is stopped. And real doctors have already figured out where real death occurs, and what happens to our bodies after that.

In the doing, they’ve demonstrated just how unlikely any resurrection claim is to be true.

The Real Death.

The “flatliners” stopped each others’ hearts to induce Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). But they weren’t snuffing out their own brains. Maybe the reason for it is simply that when this movie got made, we still thought cardiac death was a form of real death.

Many people still think that.

In reality, however, most “deaths” remain negotiable. Our negotiation tools involve sufficient lead time, a “crackin” good emergency medical team, and a supply of organs, fluids, and medications at the ready. As Elise tells us in End of Shift Report,

But we’ve learned to cheat even that [cardiac] death, sometimes, if we’re lucky. We can, if we’re willing to break ribs and insert tubes and flood the body with toxins, restart the heart. We can even support a fatally wrecked heart for a while with ventricular assist devices. What was once death is now closer to failure.

So if we’ve blurred the line between life and death, what’s left? Is there anything that can be so damaged that we can’t compensate for it? Is there anything that truly goes beyond failure into death? Oh yeah. Definitely yeah. The brain is still the most complicated, delicate, poorly understood, and easily destroyed organ. The body can compensate for a certain amount of damage to the brain, and it might be said that a person with varying degrees of brain damage or delirium might even be in brain failure, if you squint and don’t get too technical. But brain death is something else. [. . .]

Cardiac death is negotiable. Brain death is for reals.

Nobody’s ever come back from brain death. Once the brain dies, everything else must follow.

Brain death is the real end for humans.

That’s the beginning of the last journey anyone ever makes.

And that’s a dealbreaker problem for Christians.

Why Real Death Represents a Real Problem for Christians.

In one of the Gospels I read yesterday, Mark, we find this assertion in verses 14-18. Its anonymous author attributes this quote to Jesus himself:

14 Later as they were eating, Jesus appeared to the eleven and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen.

15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In My name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not harm them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will be made well.”

Heck, the Gospels don’t even show Jesus performing some of those stunts! But as I’ve noted, we also read about Jesus’ prediction that his followers would not only duplicate his miracles but surpass them.

So the Bible tells us definitively: Christians will totally work miracles that beat even the ones we know from the Gospels. And that claim very much includes raising people from the dead, which Jesus did not only for himself but also for Lazarus.

So why have Christians never resurrected anybody?

If they can’t come up with even one objectively-supported, objectively-valid resurrection claim, that knocks the feet right out from under Jesus’ resurrection.

The Debasement of False Claims.

Off and on, Christians — especially evangelicals — make claims about resurrections. It’s a very dramatic kind of miracle, so I can see why. We covered one such claim not long ago.

But whenever we examine resurrection claims, we find out they didn’t actually happen. Either the person making the claim simply suffers from ignorance, is exaggerating vastly, or is flat-out lying to gain attention or money from other Christians. It’s like that for all miracle claims, but it goes double for resurrection claims.

It doesn’t take much to wonder why Christians must resort to false claims: Christian leaders teach that miracles do absolutely happen all the time, but for some reason reality doesn’t play along with that claim. So this is the contortion they’ve decided to go with, instead of critically examining why their religion keeps pushing claims that cannot be supported in real life.

The more false claims litter a group’s landscape, it seems to me, the less likely it is that any individual claim will actually be true. False miracle claims debase Christians’ credibility just as surely as logical fallacies do.

And for some reason, apologists go full throttle on both.

Reckoning Without His Evidence.

Sean McDowell makes all of his assertions with faulty false evidence. Most of it’s stuff his tribe’s leaders have built up over generations, most notably in recent years by his daddy, Josh McDowell of Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and his daddy’s friends.

Like them, Sean plays smoke-and-mirror games with the truth. He uses the same tactics they do, in fact, to the letter.

And I wonder if young adults are figuring out apologists’ dishonest games much earlier than previous generations did.

There’s a good reason why I entered college in the late 1980s as a true-blue Pentecostal, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I firmly believed everything I’d been taught.

Oh yes, I was eager to evangelize my campus by just showing them what I’d learned. I took classes quite literally on the basis of how well they’d offer me real, actual PROOF YES PROOF that supported my beliefs.

I did all of this so I could learn to evangelize better.

Watch That Tree Fall.

Y’all, it did not even occur to me back then that I’d actually find nothing in reality that confirmed my beliefs. It was even more impossible to imagine I’d find only contradictions to my beliefs.

Hoo boy, did I ever crash and burn.

The giant tree that was my faith fell hard, and it fell quickly, and it fell loudly — all because it was hollow. I had utterly lacked the critical-thinking skills needed to question my indoctrination, much less to recognize the truth.

I’d never seen a decent debunking of evangelical claims. I didn’t even know anybody who’d deconverted.

Things are way different now.

The Difference a Generation Makes.

Now, finding the truth is as easy as knowing how to use a search engine — and knowing how to evaluate sources for credibility. Once we figure this stuff out, we share it. And thus, information spreads.

All Christians have in response to this massive cultural shift is the same old game. They dress that game up in younger apologists wearing tryhard youth-pastor costumes because they think these antics attract younger people and keep them around longer, but those younger apologists offer the same old tired arguments and sleight-of-hand, and they deploy them to hide the total lack of evidence supporting Christian claims.

Maybe that’s why I only recently heard of Sean McDowell. He’s only slightly younger than me, but he’s got several books published (some under his own name, most co-written with his daddy and his daddy’s friends). He’s been speaking in youth-group and youth-convention settings for a while now.

Whatever he’s offering, though, it’s not changing anything.

Young-adult retention rates continue to tank. No credible study has ever found a link between apologists’ offerings and better retention. Maybe that’s because apologists only hand-wave away reality.

But that’s kinda the point for evangelicals, isn’t it? Evangelicals hate and fear change more than death itself. They live in terror of being wrong about anything. Apologists give them exactly what their itching ears crave: reassurance, validation, and outright pandering.

Why on Earth would Sean McDowell alter a formula that’s obviously working — for apologists, at least?

NEXT UP: An overview of why science- and history-based apologetics fails so hilariously badly. See you tomorrow, friends!


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Endnote: Medical critiques of “Flatliners” are rare but informative. See: Redwoods 1; Redwoods 2; as well as the inevitable TVTropes page (Obligatory Walkabout Warning!). Also check out Jack London’s short story, “A Thousand Deaths.”

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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