Dear Michael Licona,
You do not know me. I am one of those loud mouthed, non-believing, outspoken atheists. But here is the thing–I have a heart–and I have a brain–and I think what happened to you is extremely unfair.
Imagine my surprise when I read in Christianity Today that you had been forced out of your job, and let go from another lofty position, simply for a single paragraph you wrote in a massive tome you had written. A tome defending your faith and very beliefs no less!
As a writer, who firmly supports the freedom of speech of all peoples, I found the reasons for your recent ostracism and subsequent dismissal to be wholly inadequate.
As I understand it, you theorized that a part of the Christan New Testament was written metaphorically–specifically Matthew 27–a strange little verse where the dead Saints reanimate, then march down the streets of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ Resurrection.
I have often wondered about this strange little bit of scripture which seems to have its similarities to modern day zombie fiction than anything of the sort known to us in history. Even when I was a practicing Christian (of three decades) it made little sense to me. Moreover, the importance of the miracle seemed irrelevant–as it does nothing other than to glorify the power of the risen Christ. It doesn’t seem to do anything more than that, in my opinion.
I am willing to concede I could be wrong, however. It may very well be a whole exegesis of our bodies as they are to be in the afterlife–but that would be assuming too much–because I don’t believe in an afterlife. As an atheist, the verse in question is of little to no importance to me. If a Christian wanted to convince me of the “historical” trustworthiness of scripture, I would strongly urge them to shy away from citing the “zombie” scene as a way to convince skeptics. It just won’t fly. But I digress.
Your idea that Matthew 27 is probably a metaphorical interpretation of the glory and power of Christ, it seems to me, to be a more accurate description of an incredible event which is all but missing from the annals of genuine history. How could it be that such a shocking display of power–literally the dead rising out of their very graves and marching down the streets of Jerusalem–was forgotten by all who supposedly witnessed it so that not a single mention of it exists outside of scripture but for one small mention in the book of Matthew? Why did not the other Gospel writers see fit to mention it as well, I wonder? Were they recording a different history than the one Matthew recorded–or perhaps–is Matthew a bit fond of turning regular mundane events into tall tales? Nothing wrong with a little embellishment–it makes the story more compelling.
Indeed, the very idea of Matthew 27 strikes both terror and awe into the reader. Just imagine the awful horror of the onlookers slowly turn to amazement and awe–truly a sign the Lord is risen! I understand the themes at play here–it doesn’t mean I think they happened in reality.
At best, such a story is far fetched, and I for one cannot believe it to be a literal, reliable, account of history. Namely because, as we both know, people in mass numbers climbing out of their graves like a George A. Romero styled zombie flick isn’t at all a real possibility.
Now, I know there are many apologetic, theological, and religious rationalizations which take offense at the secular, third party, skeptical view that the reanimated Saints are considered to be icky ole’ zombies. If memory serves, the Christian apologetical tract claims that they may have been fully revitalized, restored, Saints who had once again had their vitality breathed back into them by the very breathe of God! The same divine breath which blew on red mud and forged the first man and woman (forgetting that he would make woman, a second time apparently, from a rib).
I understand the defense–that apologetic rationalization–that they were not zombified Saints, of the undead sort which creep their way into low budget Hollywood films, but rather, according to Christian belief, a real parade of living Saints! My problem is, I don’t buy the apologetics. It’s logic is all too often ickier than zombie logic.
My loyalty is not to the best sounding claim–or even the claim which best supports my beliefs–but instead, to the claim that demonstrates itself.
Understandably, I will not be winning the admiration of Evangelicals who, pardon my crass candor, have their heads rattling around in the echo chambers of faith. If they want to believe in “magical zombies that aren’t really zombies” because they read it in a book which has all kinds of incredible tales of talking snakes, talking donkeys, and wizardry and magic the likes which would put Harry Potter to shame–then that’s their prerogative. I can even tolerate their silly professions of it being historically accurate, even as we both know history has no record of such magic wonders–only hearsay of such–untrustworthy anecdotal stories no different from the magical tales and anecdotal hearsay found in every other religious culture the world over.
I just feel bad that they had you fired for trying to defend the very same faith they take for granted–because you were brave enough to ask a simple question. “What does it mean–if I am mistaken?”
What does it mean, if Matthew 27 is not entirely historically sound?
And for asking that noble question–you were silenced. To them, it too closely resembled doubt. So to stifle that apparent doubt you were censored. To them, you were (perceived) not to be pulling your weight in towing the party line. So they cut you lose, and let you go. So long. Farewell. Auf Weidersehen.
What else could it be other than ostracism of the ignoble kind? I have never heard of two Literary philosophers, who have devoted their life study of poetry, quibbling over the meaning of a line of sentimental poetry and taking it so seriously that the others dissenting views were seen as some kind of offense. To have one turn around and accuse the other of the wrong interpretation–but more importantly–for failing as a scholar simply for his difference of opinion. Such a notion is patently absurd! How small-minded and impolitic would it be for a modern professor of poetry to demand his colleagues resignation simply because he didn’t agree with his colleague’s interpretation of T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats, or William Blake, for example?
If I were still a Christian–the very fact that you were treated this way would have me ashamed to associate myself with such a cowardly and cynical institution. One which has no patience or tolerance for other points of view–and which will strip you of your basic human right to express your beliefs freely if it finds you in violation of the sacred and inviolable creeds it has erected for itself–especially with regard to irrelevant topics such as whether or not “zombies” or “divinely risen” are historically viable or merely metaphorical.
I am sorry that you were shunned by the majority of your close colleagues and associates, not to mention fellow Christians, who idly sat by and did nothing to rally to your defense or protest your unfair treatment. I fear they may either be too proud or too fearful of their position–not wanting to lose their status of a “good” Christian, busy doing the work of a loving and merciful God. What hypocrisy! What vainglory!
Obviously they are confused. It is clear to me that they are in service not of God, but instead worship a paper-idol while the teachings of a gentle and mild savior are lost on them. Infallibility of the Bible is more important to them than the truth–their creeds more sacred than courage. It seems to me their hearts have grown cold and their loyalty is no longer to the service of a just God, but to an ancient book. What a pity. What a shame.
If God is in any way real–a big what if from where I stand–what does he care if you read his book one way or another? Is not the Holy Spirit the corrective agent in revealing God’s true word to the ardent practitioner of faith? At least, this is what we are told. Even so, I am afraid that a person in your line of work can either be a historian or a believer, but not both. Belief is fine and all–but I would much rather have the truth–starting with what we can know.
Please realize, that although your peers seem to have turned their back on you–and hypocritically silence you and send you into exile–even as you continue to live by your convictions–just know that you have an atheist friend who would never shun, ostracize, or silence you simply for disagreeing. I do, however, reserve my right to ridicule what I perceive to be entirely basely beliefs–some of them potentially dangerous many more absolutely absurd–but, even so, here I find myself siding with you–that belief in zombies, even Holy reanimated corpses brought back from the afterlife as so frequently happened in the ancient Greek stories and myths–should not be taken so literally–nor does it need to be.
Indeed, I would love nothing more than to maintain an open discourse, keep the channels of thought open, perchance to better understand and continue, in our search for the truth, to learn new perspectives that we may have not encountered before. Does this make me more loving and compassionate than those that would hold the rigid and dogmatic doctrines of an unyielding ideology over your head and threaten to pummel you with them at the slightest hint of (perceived) heretical dissent? I’d like to think so. At least, in the sense that I am a better Christian than they are–even as I am no Christian at all.
What’s more, I wish you luck in your future endeavors, and although you may be facing hard times, just know there is always a better tomorrow. Don’t give up hope. But more importantly, do not give up your search for the truth, and never stop asking questions! The search for the truth and understanding does not end with an ideology–it is merely the starting point in a much bigger journey.
Your Atheist Friend,