Torley Presents Alter's Case Against the Resurrection

It is far from clear that the NT authors would record every miracle they saw. Do you know what the dominant mindset of people at the time and place were? (Again, this is something that only a trained historian familiar with the culture of the time would know.) Even today, in my native Indonesia, it is common for people to claim that they witnessed miracles or saw supernatural phenomena. None of this resulted in anything written down - they are regarded as regular occurrences by such people. On the whole, this sounds like the typical Jesus myther argument of “why don’t we have any contemporary accounts of Jesus?”

This is also not clear to me. You are not taking into account the role of oral vs written tradition. Nor is it clear whether throwing skepticism into a historical account written decades after the fact doesn’t make it impossible to know anything about the ancient world. Again, there’s no clear, robust, professional criteria being spelled out before you’re making these statements of incredulity.

This is not an adequate rebuttal. First of all, you’re still stating that each of the 17 occurrences are doubtful, most of them by multiplying together prior probabilities without rigorous consideration of the written evidence from the Gospels and how that affects the probability.

Secondly, you have not answered the question of whether it’s justified to classify 17 improbable occurrences equally. As a lot of people in this thread have argued, things like Communion and the good thief, even if improbable or straight out wrong, are immaterial to the overall reliability of the Gospels.

Thirdly, it’s common for many improbable things to happen during a 24 hour time period if you’re just taking into account prior probabilities (which are difficult to assign rigorously anyway). Today I attended an Indonesian festival in Boston (something very rare, only happens once a year). A temperature sensor on my experimental apparatus broke (having never broken in the last 2 years). I spent two hours thinking about information theory (never did this ever - I am a physicist, not information theorist). That’s already three improbable occurrences in the life of one person on a relatively mundane day. By these standards, my diary entry would be regarded as a mythological fabrication. This is just not the way to do history.

That is not what I’m arguing at all. I certainly don’t ascribe to the Resurrection based on faith alone. Rather, the question is whether it is rational and reasonable for any person to hold to a conservative view of the reliability of the Gospels (among other things). Clearly it is, since scholars like NT Wright, which are respected in the field by both secular and Christian scholars, do so. It would be a different story if you could argue that no scholar regards the Gospels as reliable, and no reasonable replies can be made to the arguments against their reliability.

I certainly don’t think it is possible to show that it is irrational to disbelieve in the Resurrection based on historical evidence alone. Bayesian analysis depends ultimately on your priors. If you believe that a theistic God doesn’t exist, then the prior for a Resurrection is very, very low, and so no amount of historical argumentation will overcome that. So unless you can prove that it’s irrational for anyone to be an atheist (which is a difficult, and different thing to prove), it is impossible to do this. I believe that my opinion isn’t an anomaly among Christians.

Thus, Alter has done little to change the state of affairs. If any Christian apologist believes that all parts of the Gospels are unanimously approved by all the NT scholars in the field, they are wrong and uninformed, and we didn’t need Alter to tell us that. But in my opinion that was never the point of Christian apologetics.

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Hi colewd. Not precisely, no. What I would maintain now is that rational attempts to demonstrate the truth (or likelihood) of the Christian faith should be abandoned. However, attempts to (i) rebut spurious objections to the faith, (ii) clarify precisely what it is that we believe, and rebut crude caricatures of the faith, and (iii) present arguments for the plausibility (as opposed to the high probability) of the Christian faith, should in my opinion be continued. I hope that clears things up for you. Cheers.

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Can some one please concisely enumerate out these 17 things?

That’s the point. In evolutionary science we have good reason to affirm common descent.

When some one asks for details outside our view as of our ignorance of the details is evidence against common descent, we suppose to ways to connect the dots. The details remain outside our view, and this is just speculation. However it can demonstrate that the dots are not in principle impossible to connect. The creationist objects derisively that this is a “just so story” and we just tell unsubstantiated fairy tales. The argument is a misdirection, because the part of the story outside our view isn’t why we affirm evolution. It is the part in our view that leads us there.

Same with th Ressurection. Alter comes with dots to connect as if it is impossible or improbable to connect them. The just so story objection arises in attempts to connect the dots. The whole story is dismissed as a fairy tale without actually ever engaging the evidential reasons that historians think this points strongly to the Ressurection or some other anomaly.

This is brilliant rhetoric, and excellent in a debate, but also a horrible way to find truth.

I agree with this.

I think this is where misunderstanding arises. Personally, when I ask questions regarding what happened and how it happened it is NOT to question common descent, as I accept common descent. But people often do take it as an attack on common descent.

I think defenders of evolution fall back on common descent because for them it is a safe haven. Perhaps they see the following as a valid argument, but I don’t:

We know that the vertebrate eye had to evolve because vertebrates have eyes and they share a common ancestor with species that do not have eyes, and the common ancestor of both did not have eyes. So we don’t need to demonstrate that eyes can evolve by mutation/selection, neutral evolution, random genetic drift, or any other proposed evolutionary mechanism.

Since we know eyes must have evolved, the details just don’t matter.

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Hi @dga471,

Thank you for your response. I’d like to address the points you raised, although I’ll be varying the order in which you wrote them, somewhat.

I certainly don’t ascribe to the Resurrection based on faith alone. Rather, the question is whether it is rational and reasonable for any person to hold to a conservative view of the reliability of the Gospels (among other things).

No. The question I sought to answer in my OP was: is it irrational for a person that’s prepared to grant the existence of a personal God Who is able to work miracles and reveal Himself to people (as the Jews do), to reject the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus as too weak to warrant his/her assent? I think the answer is no. The apologists’ case for the Resurrection is full of holes that you could drive a truck through. Over and over again, the same bad old arguments keep getting recycled.

I certainly don’t think it is possible to show that it is irrational to disbelieve in the Resurrection based on historical evidence alone. Bayesian analysis depends ultimately on your priors.

That’s true. But the question I’m asking is whether it’s irrational to disbelieve in the Resurrection based on historical evidence alone, if you’re a believer in God who is open to the possibility of miracles and Divine revelation. And I would answer that it’s not. The apologists’ case is simply too weak - especially with reference to the alleged burial of Jesus in a new rock tomb, owned by Joseph of Arimathea. Historically, that’s unlikely - and yet it’s pivotal to the case for the Resurrection.

It is far from clear that the NT authors would record every miracle they saw.

You are quite correct. When I wrote that P(Evidence | Story 1) is high, I didn’t mean that it was over 50%; I just meant that it wasn’t low, that’s all. But the real point I was making was that even if P(Evidence | Story 1) were high, it wouldn’t follow that P(Story 1 | Evidence) is high.That’s a mathematical point, and it’s vital to the current debate.

I also alluded to the fact that the “Evidence” (from the New Testament) is several decades later than the events reported in Story1. You objected:

You are not taking into account the role of oral vs written tradition.

Some years ago, Professor Bart Ehrman wrote a book on how the early Christians remembered Jesus, and on latest scientific findings concerning the fallibility of human memory. On the Amazon Web page, there’s an interview with Ehrman. What follows is a brief excerpt:

Q: How have scholars traditionally explained the gap of time between when Jesus was alive and when the Gospels were written, and why is that problematic?

A: Many scholars have somewhat unreflectively maintained that the Gospels ultimately go back to eyewitness testimonies to Jesus’ life and that they are therefore reliable; or that oral cultures preserve their traditions with a high degree of accuracy. I realized several years ago that these views can be tested by what we actually know, based on modern detailed studies, about eyewitness testimony (psychologists and legal scholars have studied the subject rigorously), about the reliability of memory (psychologists have delved into this question assiduously since the 1930s), and about the ways traditions are preserved in oral cultures (as we now know based on anthropological studies since the 1920s). As it turns out, what many New Testament scholars have assumed about such matters, in many cases, is simply not right. Many of their assumptions are not only unsupported, they have been shown to be highly problematic in study after study.

Ehrman concludes his interview with a take-home message:

The Gospels we have are not stenographic accounts of the things Jesus said and did. They contain stories that had been passed along by word of mouth decades before anyone wrote them down. If we understand what psychologists have told us about memory and false memory, and about how we sometimes actually invent stories in our heads about the past; if we understand what sociologists have told us about collective memory and how our social groups affect and mold the ways we preserve our recollections of past events; and if we understand what anthropologists have learned about how oral cultures not just cherish and preserve but also alter, transform, and even invent their traditions, we will have a much clearer sense of what the Gospels are and of how we should understand the stories they tell about the historical Jesus.

Even today, in my native Indonesia, it is common for people to claim that they witnessed miracles or saw supernatural phenomena.

I would like to hear more about this.

I’ll address more of your points in my next post to you. Stay tuned…

Happy to oblige.

a. Was the Last Supper a Passover meal? And did Jesus tell his disciples to drink blood?
b. Did Jesus die on the Jewish Passover?
c. Do the Gospels accurately represent Jesus trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin?
d. Was Pontius Pilate reluctant to convict Jesus?
e. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and subsequent death
f. The chief priests’ mockery of Jesus on the Cross
g. The story of the good thief: fact or fiction?
h. Jesus’ last words on the Cross: fact or fiction?
i. Did Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple stand at the foot of the Cross?
j. The three hours of darkness: fact or fiction?
k. The earthquake at Jesus’ death: fact or fiction?
l. Was the Veil of the Temple torn in two?
m. Were Jewish saints raised at Jesus’ death?
n. Blood and water from Jesus’ side?
o. Was Jesus buried in a new rock tomb?
p. Was there a Guard at Jesus’ tomb?
q. The women visiting Jesus’ tomb on Sunday: does the story add up?

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Hi @dga471,

Back again. I’ve just posted a list of the 17 claims, which will be useful in the discussion that follows.

First of all, you’re still stating that each of the 17 occurrences are doubtful, most of them by multiplying together prior probabilities without rigorous consideration of the written evidence from the Gospels and how that affects the probability.

I didn’t claim that the probabilities could be multiplied, although some of them could be. Clearly f is dependent on b, which is to some degree dependent on a. Claim c also bears some relationship to b, as does q. However, claims d, e, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o and p are each capable of standing in isolation: one could accept any one of these claims while rejecting the others, and vice versa - although some points raised in h would weaken claim i, and a rejection of i also undermines claim n.

All in all, I think it would be fair to say that there are at least ten logically independent occurrences on this list. All of them, I would maintain, are historically improbable, and all of them are alleged to have occurred over a 24-hour time period. If you want to multiply them out, feel free to do so. For argument’s sake, we can assume that the probability of each occurrence is 1 in 10. Then for 10 such occurrences, the combined probability is 1 in 10^10 - and that’s over a very short time period. The number of such occurrences clearly matters. You mention three improbable things that happened to you. 1 in 10^3 is seven orders of magnitude higher than 1 in 10^10. I’m not attempting to make a rigorous argument here; I don’t believe I need to. Ten highly improbable alleged occurrences over a period of just 24 hours should serve as a red flag to any trained historian.

Secondly, you have not answered the question of whether it’s justified to classify 17 improbable occurrences equally. As a lot of people in this thread have argued, things like Communion and the good thief, even if improbable or straight out wrong, are immaterial to the overall reliability of the Gospels.

Please scroll down to the section titled “Why we need an incident-by-incident approach to Gospel reliability” in Part A of my OP. It’s about 1,000 words. I’m not going to cut-and-paste it here.

The point is that if one or more of the Gospels allege that Jesus did X, and it turns out that he didn’t, then that does weaken the case for the historical reliability of the Gospels. And the question of whether Jesus asked his disciples to drink blood at the Last Supper is of vital importance to over 1.5 billion Christians. Please don’t tell me that’s “immaterial to the overall reliability of the Gospels.”

Thirdly, it’s common for many improbable things to happen during a 24 hour time period if you’re just taking into account prior probabilities (which are difficult to assign rigorously anyway).

I wasn’t merely taking into account prior probabilities. See my post #45 above, here.

That’s already three improbable occurrences in the life of one person on a relatively mundane day. By these standards, my diary entry would be regarded as a mythological fabrication. This is just not the way to do history.

  1. Please see my point above about the number of improbable events. The likelihood of 17 (or even 10) such events over a 24-hour period is much lower than that of three such events.

  2. When all we have available to us are copies of four biographies written 30 to 60 years after Jesus was crucified, then we really have to fall back on probabilities, when assessing the credibility and reliability of the sources. How else can we proceed? We cannot interview the authors of the Gospels or the witnesses to the alleged events.

  3. Using your logic, I could defend any unlikely alleged revelation on the grounds that improbable events happen all the time. I don’t believe any trained historian would buy that defense.

@dga471

The Greek word translated as thief can embrace the category of outlaw that the Maccabees represented: religious revolutionaries.

They would have learned everything about a man who overturned the Temple money-changers!

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Hi @swamidass and @dga471,

I’d like to focus on a specific issue raised in Michael Alter’s book, which had a big impact on me:

i. Did Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple stand at the foot of the Cross?

In his discussion (2015, pp. 170-172), Alter begins by outlining the skeptical position, citing several scholars:

Tinsley (1965, 204; cf. Casey 1996, 188; Corley 2004, 81; 1998, 196n117; Thompson 1995, 61) argues that “The Romans did not permit bystanders at the actual place of execution. John’s account is influenced by his symbolic aim. The mother (old Israel) is handed over to the care of the ‘beloved disciple’ (who represents the new Israel of the Christian Church).” (Alter, 2015, p. 170)

Alter does not stop there, however. He is fair-minded enough to put forward the key arguments made by Christian defenders of the historicity of this episode in John’s Gospel:

In contrast, several writers (Keener 2003, 1141; 1993, 313; Kostenberger 2004a, 547; Stauffer 1960, 179n1) contend that it was not likely that women had restricted access to victims on a cross. They argue:

  1. Passages from T. Gittin 7.1; y. Gittin 7, 48c, 49; b. Baba Metzia 83b represent friends of the victims as standing near enough to be within hearing range.
  2. The soldiers might not have recognized who among the crowds constituted Jesus’ followers.
  3. Soldiers would be less likely to punish women present for mourning.
  4. The prerogatives of motherhood were highly respected in the ancient world.
  5. Women were far less frequently executed than men. (Alter, 2015, pp. 170-171)

So Alter is being fair in stating both sides of the case. At this point, he cites the verdict given by Maurice Casey (1942-2014), emeritus professor at the University of Nottingham, having served there as Professor of New Testament Languages and Literature at the Department of Theology. Casey was the author of Is John’s Gospel True? (1996, London: Routledge), from which Alter proceeds to quote:

Another unlikely feature [in John’s crucifixion scene] is the group of people beside the Cross. Mark has a group of women watching from a long way off (Mk. 15:40-1), which is highly plausible. The fourth Gospel’s group of people beside the Cross includes Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple. It is most likely that these people would have been allowed this close to a Roman crucifixion. If they had been, and they included people central to Jesus’ life and ministry, it is most unlikely that Mark would merely have women watching from a distance. If a major male disciple had approached this close, it is likely that he would have been arrested. (1996, p. 188)

That sounds pretty damning, coming from a self-described independent historian who is also the author of an acclaimed biography of Jesus (reviewed here). Remember: Jesus wasn’t crucified as a common criminal like the two thieves, but as a political criminal (“The King of the Jews”). He would have been shown no quarter by the Romans, whose professed aim was to humiliate rebels.

But what about those Rabbinic sources that seemingly point to exceptions to the Romans’ rigid policy of not allowing bystanders at the place of execution? Alter has a ready response:

Barrett (1978, 551) refutes these apologetics and argues against the historicity of any presence near the cross. He posits that these citations from the Mishnah and the Talmud do not outweigh the military requirements of the execution of a rebel king. Furthermore, he cites Josephus (Vita, 420 f.) who recorded that with special permission he was able to release three friends who were crucified. One friend actually survived. This incident is significant because it demonstrates that permission would be needed to approach the crosses. (Alter, 2015, p. 171)

Alter then cements his case by quoting from a 1998 article by Kathleen M. Corley, Professor of New Testament at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, titled, “Women and the Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus” ( Forum New Series, 1(1):181-217):

The rabbinic sources … commonly marshaled to support such a contention [viz. that Jesus’ mother might have been allowed near the Cross – VJT] either deal with such hypothetical situations that they are hardly germane or describe religious, not state executions … Commonly cited as evidence are Y. Gittin 7.1 (330) or Baba Metzia 83b. For example, Baba Metzia 83b describes R.[Rabbi] Eleazar weeping under the gallows of a man hanged for violating religious law (rape of an engaged woman; Y. Gittin 71 describes a wildly hypothetical situation involving divorce. (1998, p. 196, note 117)

So much for the apologists’ examples, then. I checked out the rabbinic references online, and Professor Corley is correct.

So faced with evidence like this, how should I proceed? I have the verdict of a trained New Testament historian, arguing that John’s account of Mary and the beloved disciple standing at the foot of the Cross is “most unlikely” on several grounds. Furthermore, the exceptions to the “no bystanders allowed” rule cited by apologists all turn out to be bogus.

On the “pro” side, there is the fact that John’s Gospel records the event, seen through the eyes of an alleged witness (the beloved disciple). But when was the Gospel written? About 60 years after Jesus’ death. What’s more, none of the other Gospels make any mention of people standing at the foot of the Cross: in Mark, for instance, the women all observe from afar, which is much more plausible.

So I have two choices: I can choose to accept the historicity of this antecedently improbable incident, based on the testimony of one alleged eyewitness, given 60 years after the event it narrates, despite the fact that the event is not narrated in any of the other Gospels, or I can reject the historicity of this incident, on the grounds that it is intrinsically unlikely, that the three Synoptic Gospels do not even mention it, and that John’s Gospel may not have been written by the mysterious beloved disciple, anyway - or if it was, it could have been altered by his followers, after his death. Which seems more reasonable? If I opt for the first alternative, I have nothing but a late Gospel to support my claim, against a mountain of improbabilities pointing the other way, not to mention the silence of the Synoptic Gospels. But if I opt for the second alternative, I have historical precedent on my side, plus the Synoptic Gospels, and all I have to explain is how the incident got into John’s Gospel. (Short answer: I don’t know, but that’s not such a big problem, anyway.)

What would any rational person do, confronted with such evidence? I believe he/she would reject the historicity of the incident - or at least, acknowledge that it cannot be appealed to when arguing with non-Christians, because it’s dubious on historical grounds. If either of you disagree, I’d like to know why. Over to you.

@vjtorley

Hey… dont stop there!

John says Jesus. STARTS his career by overturning the money tables.

The other 3 gospels say he did this last.

They really cant both be right.

But why are we discussing this book at all? Are we trying to put a smile on the faces of a few Atheists?

Your last posting was MASSIVE!

Atheists are already aware that apologists overstate their claims. There’s a reason that they call them “liars for Jesus.”

I often hear the claim that there is more historical evidence for the resurrection, than there is for Alexander the Great. Such claims are absurd.

I see @vjtorley as making the case for more honesty. And that’s good.

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Yes. I agree with this entirely.

However, we’ve moved past that part to discuss what is actually the honest thing to say. Right?

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This is not an argument. Why are they absurd?

You mean like evolutionary biologists? Who overstates their claims and give an example of a specific claim that is overstated.

That should be obvious. But if it isn’t obvious to you, I guess that’s okay too.

There is lots of historical evidence for the resurrection is there as much for Alexander the Great? Your claim that this is absurd is frankly absurd as I don’t think you have thought this through. If it is obvious you should be able to support the claim methodically versus an assertion that it is obvious.

@vjtorley I’ve started going through these and it matches what we’ve been saying here. This is a Gish Gallop. Do you know what a Gish Gallop is?

https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Gish_Gallop

Do you understand why @dga471 and I, and several professional historians I’ve talked to, all reject this type of reasoning?

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The Role of Historical Apologetics

I think we have very differing views of what apologetics is about and what role it should play in converting people. This might be an interesting topic of discussion in itself. I certainly don’t think any sort of apologetical argument is sufficient to conclusively prove the case for Christianity, such that non-Christians would be irrational to reject it. Maybe some hyper-apologists believe that - and they are wrong, and they were wrong since the time of Jesus.

I’m sure both of us would agree that Christianity spread fastest through social networks, doing good deeds, and the work of the Holy Spirit itself, not people making “historical bombshells” to unleash on their debate opponents.

It is immaterial to the discussion about the overall reliability to the Gospels with a skeptic. The discussion about the correct interpretation of the Eucharist is an in-house debate among Christians who already have a high view of Scripture, accepted based on faith.

Improbability and Historicity

Per Bayes’ theorem,

P(S1|E) = \frac{P(S1)}{P(E)} P(E|S1).

If P(E|S1) were high, and say P(E) = 1 to be conservative, then to make P(S1|E) low, you have to have a very small value for P(S1). The main disagreement between us is that you think for many incidents in the Gospels, P(S1) is incredibly small. For all of the 17 incidents that I’ve given some thought, P(S1) is at worse 50-50 to me. As you will note throughout my reply to you, I also criticize you for rashly assigning small P(S1) based on unclear and inconsistent historical methodology, and a prejudiced reading of the Gospels.

This is completely missing my point. In 3000 AD, a historian reads my diary entry for 9/29/2018, and using your method of historical reasoning, concludes that the probability of them being true is 0.1%. Thus, my diary is dated to 2150 AD, a fabricated legend made by an overzealous sect of my future disciples with faulty memory :sweat_smile: To me, that is a clear reductio ad absurdum. It shows that there is something seriously wrong with this method of historical reasoning.

It is interesting that sometimes you claim you have the consensus of historians behind you. At other times you switch to your own criteria of how history should be done, assuming that this is what “any rational person would do”. This rings alarm bells to me. You cannot simply wave around “60 years after the fact” without showing that such historical criteria is consistent with what the rest of the field regularly practices. Again, Vincent, can you show to me that your criteria doesn’t completely destroy much of our knowledge of the ancient world?

Precisely. My logic was a reductio ad absurdum. My point is that you cannot simply conjure up prior probabilities based on gut feeling, multiply them together and think that shows anything about history. The whole discussion is meaningless. There needs to be a more nuanced way of dealing with evidence, one that apparently neither of us have a full grasp on.

Alter and "fairness"

Is he really? Did you actually read all of the sources he cites on both sides? By read, I don’t mean do a simple Google search. I mean, can you summarize to me what are the main views of Keener with regards to the historicity of the Gospels? Kostenberger? Casey? Which school of thought was Casey influenced by? Who was his doctoral adviser, and what contribution did he make to the field? How do others view his contributions?

These are not rhetorical questions. As you yourself admit that you don’t have a degree in NT studies, nor have you made any original contributions to the field, I can’t just trust you nor Alter about the state of NT studies.

“Would an impartial historian, reading the Passion and Resurrection narratives in the Gospels, be inclined to dispute their factual reliability?”

Most of us have NO IDEA of what an impartial historian would think. Are you claiming that NT Wright is not an impartial historian? Craig? Keener? Licona? McGrew? Blomberg? Why are Casey, Barrett, and Ehrman impartial historians, but not these people?

Going back to the big picture

I’m going to reiterate my major criticisms:

  1. Lack of clear historical methodology and criteria to accept/reject historicity of events in ancient historical documents. You have not even mentioned once what would happen if you applied your criteria consistently to other ancient documents. Furthermore, it is unclear whether any professional historian (even Bart Ehrman) would accept your criteria.
  2. The Gish gallop: focusing on minor issues. It is quite interesting and telling to me that you claim your incident-by-incident approach to the historical reliability of the Gospels was motivated by John Loftus, who is not a professional historian, but a strong critic of Christianity.
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By the way @vjtorley are you aware of Plantinga’s 2006 argument for dwindling probabilities against historical evidentialist apologetics? I just came across it and it sounds like a more sophisticated form of the “multiplication by priors” that you are implicitly using in this review. I’m really interested to learn more about it. The McGrews have already responded to and dialogued with Plantinga over this. I think this is a better contribution to the debate: even if Plantinga is wrong, at least he’s clear and explicit about his methodology, rather than simply amassing 900 pages of old objections and speculations.

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