Timothy Keller: Dishonest Reasons for God (Chapters 13 and 14)

I began my critique of Keller’s The Reason for God with an exposé of everything up through Chapter 1, then Chapters [2] [3-5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10-12]. Here I will conclude with Chapters 13 and 14. Today, Keller returns to his usual pattern of simply lying; lying about what evidence there is, and about what evidence there isn’t; and lying by leaving out all the evidence against him, thus crafting an illusion of being right. All to dupe his audience into not checking. Although even more often this time, he is the one who has been lied to. He repeats a lot of false claims, by gullibly trusting his fellow Christian authors not to have lied to him. He should have learned. Never trust a Christian apologist. Always fact-check what they say.

But whether liar or fool, Keller now deploys his folly in aid of the claim that Jesus really rose from the actual dead. And that his doing so, proves everything else Keller has said. Which is a non sequitur that requires no rebuttal. And really, this is only Chapter 13. Chapter 14 is just a bunch of bullshit about the trinity and god’s secret thoughts and plans, which is about as relevant to factual reality as discussing what color hat Satan wore the day he rebelled in heaven or whether he ever had a wife and how tall she was. It doesn’t warrant even a word of rebuttal. Chapter 13, though, is all about how we can be sure Jesus was totes raised from the dead!

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The Prior Probability of a Dead Man Rising

I’ve already fully refuted countless times all the nonsense arguments that we can warrant believing Jesus rose from the dead. I discuss the matter most thoroughly and succinctly in my chapter on the subject in The Christian Delusion. I expand on that again in The End of Christianity (pp. 53-74), and there also discuss the problem of the prior probability of god things in general (pp. 282-84).

What’s a prior probability, you say? The prior probability is the base rate of things like that happening at all. The more unusual an event, the more evidence you need to believe it. But since “we are wrong” always has a base rate, too, the prior is never zero (except for Cartesian-style knowledge); even when we’ve observed zero instances of a thing, we have observed nonzero instances of people like us being wrong about what does or doesn’t exist. But even then, some things we are just so very unlikely to be wrong about. And yet, good enough evidence can always turn that around. So is the evidence that good?

The evidence as a whole must be more improbable (on any other explanation than the unusual one proposed) than the event itself. For example, if an event has odds of a million to one against, then the evidence must be a million times more likely if that event happened than if it didn’t. And if an event has odds of a trillion to one against, then the evidence must be a trillion times more likely. And so on. Otherwise it’s not good enough. The odds still favor the claim being false. And that’s a logically necessary fact. If the evidence isn’t that good, then the evidence is insufficient to believe in that claim. Even if it’s true. Which shouldn’t shock you. Most things that exist or have happened we are not warranted in believing, because we simply don’t have enough evidence to know that they did. That includes many mundane things we know often do happen—like Julius Caesar shaving on a specific day. But it’s all the more true for fabulous things we have never verified happening, nor have any plausible basis for believing can ever happen—like Julius Caesar crossing a lake of magma on a winged horse.

Mundane things are always vastly more likely. Consider Christianity. A few people, at first mistaking visions or dreams of a risen Jesus as an actually risen Jesus, and then decades later wholly other people who weren’t there faking elaborate stories of it, is the most likely explanation of all the evidence we have. By literally billions to one. It requires assuming nothing we don’t already know happens with alarming frequency across the world and throughout history, and have documented scientifically as actual phenomena. This theory explains its lateness, its gradual exaggeration over time, its peculiarities and contradictions, its implausibilities and mysterious lacking of sources. It explains why our earliest source by far (Paul, predating all other sources literally by decades) only knows of anyone seeing the risen Jesus in dreams or visions, and has no knowledge of anyone finding the body missing, or seeing “the risen Lord” in any other way than mystically. His only cited source even for Jesus’s death and burial, is scripture. As he tells it, the first time anyone “sees” anything, it’s in fleeting revelations and mass ecstasies. The evidence thus comports with the mundane explanation. Not with the supernatural. And that’s just not good enough.

For instance, the only narrative of an appearance to “all the brethren,” above a hundred men, recorded, is that of Acts 2; and yet only for that event does Paul say Jesus appeared to more than one person “at the same time” (meaning all the other occasions were individual and fleeting), yet clearly, it is not really even Jesus who is appearing in that story. Accordingly, Paul mentions no one confirming Jesus was actually there. Even the Gospels record instances in which someone else was mistaken for the risen Jesus, or some doubted it was him, and yet still many believed these to be real encounters with him (Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20; John 21). So the highest standards of evidence simply were not being employed in those days. And that shoots down any attempt to prove the amazing. The evidence just isn’t that amazing.

In short, this is not what we call “reliable evidence,” even for a mundane event, much less a magical one.

So there isn’t anywhere near the kind of evidence we’d need to believe Jesus rose from the dead. And even if he did, there isn’t anywhere near the kind of evidence we’d need to rule out far more likely causes of such an astonishing thing, chief among them sorcery and space aliens. Even apart from his surviving, by con or grit, or being switched in for a lookalike—both of which require no supposition of unknown powers, yet would produce all the known evidence, and are therefore already more likely than magic, even being as unlikely as they are. After all, we don’t even have any good evidence Jesus actually died. It was common to misdiagnose someone as dead in antiquity; and it still happens even today, when we have modern technologies to assist us in preventing it. Was Jesus confirmed dead by a modern physician using a cardiometer and EEG? No. By any physician at all? No. By any known test whatever? No. Do we even so much as have any record from any eyewitness to the fact of his having died? No.

So really, this whole resurrection business is already a dead letter, right from point one. And that’s even before we get to twins or lookalikes pulling off a con to launch a church movement. And that’s even before we get to decades of legendary development preceded by mere dreams and visions…which are the only thing that Paul, our only surviving eyewitness source, says launched the church movement. We need go no further to explain it. Or to explain the wild myths of the Gospels. Which can be traced to no known eyewitness source, for any detail in them. And which come from foreign authors writing in a foreign language, a whole average lifetime later (as well as a couple wars and famines after the fact), when we can verify not a single eyewitness was still alive. We need no further explanation for the ensuing stories and beliefs.

“But it’s improbable Jesus was misdiagnosed as dead!” doesn’t even work as an argument. Because the evidence we have, actually doesn’t make that improbable at all—in the stories we are told in the Gospels, he “died” so unusually early, everyone was actually surprised by the report of it; and again, no physician ever confirmed it. But even if we assumed that was improbable, it’s still thousands of times, in fact billions of trillions of times, more likely than “magic did it!” How often have people been misdiagnosed as dead? Throughout history, a lot; including in numerous well-verified scientific cases. How often have people been magically resurrected from the dead? Not a single time has that ever been reliably documented. Does misdiagnosis require the violation of any physics or biology known to us? No. Does resurrection? Yes. So the improbability of a totally new and wondrous physical power also attaches to resurrection; no such thing attaches to misdiagnosed death, or a con pulled by a twin. Nor any of a dozen other explanations that also require no new powers to imagine, yet fit all the known evidence. Like it starting with dreams, and stories being fabricated a lifetime later.

What’s the prior probability of there being any magical power to raise people from the dead? Below the threshold of all reliable human observation. What’s the prior probability of mistakes and lies drumming up a mere belief in a magical event? Well within the range of established human experience. The difference indeed is many billions to one. So a mundane explanation is already billions of times more likely than a fabulous one. And the evidence accords with it perfectly well. Which is the problem. We need evidence that’s billions of times less likely on all mundane explanations together, than on this fabulous one alone, before we can even start talking about the plausibility of such magic having anything to do with it. Otherwise, it’s just absurd. And that’s the end of it.

Did the risen Jesus appear in body, to be verified by hundreds of Roman Senators and Hindu and Persian and Chinese and Mayan scholars, and thus simultaneously recorded by all, and all their individual records of the fact verifiably preserved down to today? Were that the case, we’d have strong evidence something miraculous happened and that this Jesus was definitely superhuman; we could even just about take his word for having been raised from the dead, since someone capable of that would hardly waste time lying about a comparably trivial matter of restoring a corpse to life. The latter is a technology already within physical understanding (it will likely be a reality within a century), but a man who can magically appear simultaneously across the earth is already demonstrating extraordinary powers, and thus changing the paradigm of what’s possible. But alas, that didn’t happen. Nothing like that ever happens. That’s why we know it’s so absurdly unlikely to have ever happened.

We can conceive of technologies that will restore a corpse to life, without proposing any new physical power; and we can be certain life exists in our universe that is already millions of years more advanced than us and thus would without doubt have this ability. It’s simply astronomically unlikely such life has ever reached earth, or even knows about earth, much less that it would hide and meddle in ancient human religions in such a trivial and silly way. And yet, as astronomically and xeno-psychologically improbable as that is, it’s still more likely than magic. Because magic requires positing new powers; which is always less likely than known powers. And space aliens resurrecting Jesus requires imagining only known powers; even it’s one unknown (space aliens) is scientifically certain to exist somewhere. Our only improbability for it is that aliens would be here, and meddle in such a way. But magical explanations require the same improbability (why would a god be here, yet hide, and still do something so parochial and silly? …see my last entry in this series), as well as the added improbability of even existing in the first place, without any comparable evidence for it (or for its inevitability), ever having been found, even after centuries of ardent seeking.

So if you think “Space aliens did it!” is absurdly unlikely, you must agree “Magical spirits did it!” is even more absurdly unlikely. And by the same logic, even proposing Jesus (or some colleague of his) accomplished it through sorcery is more likely. Because if we are granting “there is magic,” the mere supposition that there is magic is always more likely than the far more highly specific and bizarre supposition that a very specific God exists and effected that magic, and did so for a very specific and bizarre reason (a reason even weirder than any space aliens would have needed, as again I explain in my last entry). Thus, “Yahweh incarnated himself to die and raise himself from the dead in order to magically remove an evil spirit magic from the entire human populace” is by definition far less likely than “there is magic, and someone used it.” Consequently, even the belief that Jesus simply used sorcery, actual magic, to persuade people to follow his teachings is more likely than the Christian hypothesis. Far more likely.

So if you think “Sorcerers did it!” is absurdly unlikely (and it is; it’s even more absurdly unlikely than “aliens did it”), you must agree “God did it,” and did it “to remove some weird spirit magic from the human race so they could eventually escape into another universe successfully,” is even more absurdly unlikely. So that means, by the logic of evidence, you need less evidence to believe aliens or sorcery did it, than you need to believe the Christian theory of it. So if you agree there isn’t anywhere near enough evidence to believe aliens or sorcery did it—and there isn’t, and yet there is no better evidence that anything else did it or for any other reason—then you must agree there isn’t anywhere near enough evidence to believe the Christian theory of it, either.

And that’s the end of rational belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

See my discussion of this whole problem in my speech Miracles and the Historical Method. But see also John Loftus, “Christianity Is Wildly Improbable,” in The End of Christianity, who elaborates on just how massively improbable the Christian theory is, packed as it is with bucketfulls of absurdities. Even the Christian apologist Lydia McGrew (who also has to fudge the evidence in the same ways Keller does) has allowed the prior probability of a miraculous explanation could be no better than 1 in 10 to the 40th power, which is 1 in ten-million-billion-trillion-trillion. Good luck with that.

The Evidence Sucks

Keller insists that if Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, “you must then come up with a historically feasible alternate explanation for the birth of the church” (p. 202). But we’ve already done that. Hundreds of fully qualified experts, professors and doctorates in the field, have provided numerous entirely plausible accounts of what happened and why. Does Keller cite or discuss or even mention a single one of those from the peer reviewed academic literature? Nope. Because Keller is a liar. He doesn’t want you to know what hundreds of real experts have said about this. He certainly doesn’t want to have to confront them and test his weirdo theory against theirs.

But the real trick Keller is going to pull here is more subtle, yet very common. You’ll have met with it again and again when dealing with Christian apologists and their acolytes. The trick is this: to conflate “the birth of the church” with “the writing of the Gospels” an entire lifetime later. The Gospels have nothing whatever to do with the birth of the church. They did not exist during the birth of the church. They did not arise near the birth of the church. They were not even written in the same country or language as the birth of the church. Nor were they written by anyone who was there during the birth of the church. They don’t even name any sources who were; much less tell you what they actually said or thought or why.

When we look at the nearest sources we have, within the known lifetime of the only eyewitnesses living, we hear nothing about the wild resurrection tales in the Gospels. Instead, the only thing we hear about anyone being witness to was a mystical Jesus, in visions (and ancient authors did not commonly distinguish dreams from waking hallucinations, so “visions of Jesus” may have simply meant in dreams). No tomb found empty. No body touched. No doubting Thomas incident. And none of the other fabulous things; like the blotting out of the sun, the earthquakes that cracked the very rocks asunder, the horde of undead descending on Jerusalem, the space monster flying down from the sky and magically paralyzing men, the telekinetic tearing of an eighty-foot-high public temple curtain.

Nope. None of that is in Paul. Just “revelations” (Romans; Galatians; 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Corinthians 111 Corinthians 9; 2 Corinthians 12; etc.). All of which, mere fleeting encounters, experienced internally, by individuals; not lasting events or with crowds, except the only episode Paul says happened all at once (though that again fleeting), which (as I already noted) corresponds to only one story later told, that in Acts 2, where only visions of lights and a feeling of the spirit occurred. Not unlike the Fatima sun miracle. Just an amorphous hallucination or illusion—coupled with everyone being in an ecstatic state and “interpreting” it the same way…and our not getting to hear from anyone there who wasn’t convinced by it.

Is it hard to explain the evidence this way? No. We have abundant scientific evidence that these kinds of experiences occur, in countless religions and cultures throughout history. We have no such evidence for miraculous resurrections. We have vast and decisive evidence that wholly fake stories about religious events easily and frequently arise within decades (especially after a lifetime has passed from when any witness lived), and are rarely gainsaid; and when they are, we rarely get to hear or read what any gainsayer said. We have no such evidence for miraculous resurrections. (See On the Historicity of Jesus, index, “visions,” “myth,” “forgery,” and “rapid legendary development.” But just consider Saint Genevieve as an example: fake stories within a decade, gainsaid by no one on record.)

And Paul, our earliest and only eyewitness source, records exactly what sounds like what we’ve scientifically observed everywhere else, and not at all like any actual miraculous resurrection. Only after he and everyone else is dead, do we start hearing about the more fabulous versions of events. Versions composed in foreign lands, in a foreign language, by unknown authors, using no known sources, and checked by no known witnesses, in an era of widespread illiteracy, credulity, and superstition. Is it hard to explain how those stories could come to be full of poppycock? Not at all. It happens all the time. And especially in those very conditions.

Not a single thing you might think is improbable about this, even when all multiplied together (so as to produce the total improbability of any whole scenario mainstream experts have imagined), comes anywhere near the improbability of even “aliens did it,” much less “magic,” and even less “God’s convolutedly bizarre blood magic scheme.” Its probability will be billions of times higher than aliens, and thus billions of billions of times higher than magic, and thus billions of billions of billions of times higher than the Christian theory of the evidence. The Christian theory of the evidence is just about the most improbable explanation of it you could ever conceive. Even before you get to the fact that the evidence does not comport with it. At all.

That’s right. The Christian theory does not explain why the marvelous stories appeared only a lifetime later, in foreign lands and language, by no one who was there, nor anyone who could prove they even knew anyone who was there, while the earliest and actual eyewitness evidence conforms to the mundane anthropological theories of visions and delusions and only much later invention of the fabulous. The Christian theory does not explain why the only people who ever “saw” a risen Jesus, were a few fanatics, and one lone outsider, in one single place on earth, in a culture awash with hallucinations and dreams believed to be real contacts with the divine, rather than to millions of people the world over, including the most rational and educated. The Christian theory does not explain why there is no Jesus to visit us even now, so we too can confirm he lives. The Christian theory does not even explain why Jesus didn’t know about germs. Or that slavery was wrong. Or that Moses and Adam and Eve didn’t exist. Or that God doesn’t live in outer space. The Christian theory does not explain why true believers can’t do any miracles. Or why believing in Christianity confers no more powers or effects than many another faith or philosophy.

In other words, the evidence comports exactly with the mundane theory, especially when coupled with the demonstrable fact that all evidence against it was destroyed, while countless forgeries and fakes were preserved. It does not comport at all with any fabulous theory—there is indeed no more evidence for that Christian explanation, than there is for aliens or sorcery.

And that’s a problem.

So Keller lies.

Lying about Paul

Keller quotes 1 Corinthians 15, and then flat out lies to his readers about what it says, even after showing them the passage! “Here Paul not only speaks of the empty tomb,” Keller says (p. 204). Um. No. Paul never says anything about an empty tomb. Paul says scripture tells us Jesus was buried. Paul says nothing about anyone checking the grave after. Much less finding it empty. There is never any mention of an empty tomb in Paul. Period. And it’s simply lying to claim otherwise.

Of course, the usual way tombs get empty is not magic. Look at the frequency for the causes of missing bodies that have been verified in reliable evidence: all are misplaced or stolen, or misdiagnosed as dead. Countless cases known. Not a single case is known of a body going missing by consequence of magic. So in fact, a resurrection is literally the last explanation one should ever credit for such a state of affairs. Unless and until you can actually rule out the other, well-known causes. And we can’t. Because we have no access to the evidence. And no access to anything we can confirm was said by anyone who was actually there. Try ruling out those other far more likely causes in a court of law today. Watch as you get laughed out of court.

“But the conjunction of a stolen or misplaced body and bereavement visions is an improbable coincidence!” Actually, no, it’s not. A missing body could actually have caused the bereavement visions, by triggering even greater hope in a miracle. This is called a dependent probability, when the probability of one event (bereavement visions, a well-documented scientific phenomenon) is actually substantially increased by another event having occurred (like losing track of a body). Likewise the sequence of hallucinations Paul describes, which looks like a causal cascade: one reported event, causing the next, as one charismatic leader inspires those below, within a group highly prone to hallucination, and fanatically expecting a miracle to vindicate them. These are not independent probabilities.

But let’s assume there was a missing body (there is no evidence there was, from any source—like Paul, who would know), and let’s assume the two events, the missing body and the cascade of inspired hallucinations, were indeed independent events, and thus independent probabilities, such that their happening independently became even more powerful in convincing the gullible to believe. Even if we multiply those two probabilities together, to get the probability of their conjunction, we still end up with an explanation billions of times more likely than magic.

If only one body goes missing every million, and only one in every million fanatical religious groups have such a cascade of inspiring visions (which frequencies are certainly far lower than actual), then the probability of their conjunction is 1 in (1,000,000 x 1,000,000), which is 1 in 1,000,000,000,000, or one in a trillion. But the probability it was aliens is surely less than even that. I’d say certainly a hundred trillion to one. And the probability it was sorcery is at least a billion times less likely than that, which means a hundred-billion-trillion to one. And the probability it was the bizarre, convoluted story the Christians contrived is at least a billion times less likely than that. And that means the Christian theory has odds against it of at least a hundred-billion-billion-trillion to one. So now we are comparing two theories, one that’s a hundred-billion-billion-trillion to one, and the other that’s merely a trillion to one. And no evidence exists to tell them apart. That means the latter theory, of a merely lost body and natural cascade of visions, remains a hundred-billion-billion times more likely than Christianity.

And that’s at best. Really, as I’ve already pointed out, Christianity is even less likely than that.

So, no. We don’t have any credible evidence for the Christian account of what happened.

And that’s even if we grant there was an empty tomb. Yet judging from Paul never mentioning it, we can conclude there probably wasn’t one. (We also have evidence there wasn’t, from the fact that Matthew reveals—in attempting to address newly crafted rebuttals of it—that no one had ever heard of it before Mark invented it: see Proving History, p. 128.)

So Keller is lying when he says Paul attests an empty tomb. Keller isn’t lying when he then says Paul claims Jesus “also appeared to five hundred people at once, most of whom were still alive at the time of his writing and could be consulted for corroboration” (p. 204). But as I just noted, that isn’t useful information. Because we don’t get to hear (even from Paul) what those people saw. Was it just like something akin to what Acts 2 embellishes, and thus really more like the Fatima ecstasy? And thus not all that remarkable? We can suppose so, as (unlike magic) we know scientifically that that kind of mass ecstasy happens; and Paul gives no indications it was otherwise. And that was the only occasion of a mass experience known to Paul.

So there Keller is just conflating, again, what’s in Paul with what’s in the Gospels. But Keller resumes lying when he says “Paul insists that he was faithfully recounting the testimony that had been handed to him” (p. 204). Exactly the opposite is the case. Paul never says that, much less “insists” on it. To the contrary, in Galatians 1 he swears up and down that nothing he recounted was handed to him by any human being. He swears he only knew the gospel by direct revelation, and never even spoke to any apostle, or anyone in Judea, until he had already been evangelizing for three years; and when he did, he only spoke to one or two apostles, and they merely confirmed what he’d already been preaching. He never saw them again for another fourteen years. He says even then, they taught him nothing—except to give more alms to the poor.

There is no passage where Paul says anything he taught came from any eyewitness or apostle. It always came direct to him in visions of the Lord. When he describes how he learned the gospel he went on to preach for three years in Arabia before meeting a single apostle, he says “I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel I preached” was not “handed down” by men, but “I received it” direct from the Lord “in a revelation” (Galatians 1:11-12). So when he reminds the Corinthians of the gospel he preached to them, he says “I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel I preached” was the gospel “I received” (1 Corinthians 15:1-3). Exact same words in the Greek. What gospel did Paul receive, that he preached to all his would-be brethren? The gospel he received by revelation. Just as he says of the Eucharist: “I delivered to you, what I received from the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:23). The Lord. Not apostles. Never once does he say he received any gospel from men. To the contrary, when asked where he got it, he outright denies he ever received it from men.

Keller also lies when he says “Paul was claiming” in his letters “that the reports of the resurrection he conveys were taken intact from the mouths of the people who actually saw Jesus” (p. 204). A total lie. Paul never says that. He also never describes any “reports of the resurrection.” From anyone. Keller is deceiving his readers into thinking Paul actually discusses appearance narratives like we find in the Gospels. He is counting on his readers never checking. After all, who wants to read all the tedious letters of Paul, tens of thousands of mostly dull words, that never get to anything interesting like what the witnesses actually saw or experienced? Alas, in fact, there are no “reports of the resurrection” in Paul, much less anything resembling the Gospels. Even the sequence of visions Paul relates in 1 Corinthians 15 corresponds to no Gospel narrative we have. And contains no details. Other than to make clear that everyone else’s experience, was the same as his. Which he tells us was an internally experienced vision.

Just Getting Everything Wrong

Then Keller says false things like “during the pax Romana travel around the Mediterranean was safe and easy” (p. 204). Given that Paul himself tells us he was shipwrecked three times, jailed and beaten repeatedly, and encountered numerous dangers, one can wonder why Keller would think ancient travel was safe and easy. Actually it took months, was very expensive, and always bore dangers (as food and water were not ubiquitous, and bandits and angry crowds could be stumbled upon anywhere). This is an important point, since it made “fact checking” anything Paul said about what happened decades ago, several countries away, among few witnesses, next to impossible to verify. And indeed, all the evidence we have, shows no one we know of did any fact-checking (see Chapter 13 of Not the Impossible Faith).

Likewise, Keller says absurdly false things like that “historical accounts were not allowed to be changed” (p. 204). All the Gospels change things from prior Gospels. Subsequent Gospels continued to change everything. There are several different versions of Acts. And Acts repeatedly changes history from what Paul himself said happened. And Paul is an actual eyewitness who was there! Changing history was routine. In fact, forgery, including fake histories, biographies, and letters, was the norm among Christian writing. Most Christian Acts, Gospels and Epistles of the first four centuries were forgeries and fakes, by a ratio of as much as ten to one! (See Element 44 in Chapter 5 of On the Historicity of Jesus.) Jews and pagans faked and altered their religious histories, too. And all three groups doctored manuscripts to make them say different things as well. (See Element 9 in Chapter 4 of OHJ, and index, “interpolations.”)

Keller also repeats several old, false canards:

  • The Christians “adopted a set of beliefs that were brand-new and until that point had been unthinkable,” therefore Jesus must have risen (p. 208), because how else could they be convinced to adopt such novel beliefs? That isn’t true though. Not a single thing the Christians did or taught was new. Everything had been said, proposed, or adopted by some sect or group before them. Their only novelty was in what slate of things they gathered together, or what words they put it in, or how they described or taught it. But none of those things they gathered up and taught was notably new, much less unthinkable. That’s why Keller never cites a single example. Or any peer reviewed literature making any such claim. Christians like to think they’re special. But they aren’t. No more than any other religion or world philosophy. On this point, see my whole chapter on it in Not the Impossible Faith (pp. 129-34), summarized in The End of Christianity (pp. 60-62). Of course, Keller’s argument is also illogical. The castration of the savior god Attis is unique in history, totally new when contrived, and yet became popular, sweeping across several continents. Is it therefore true?
  • “Virtually all the apostles and early Christian leaders,” Keller asserts, “died for their faith” (p. 210). Also not true. Only very few are known to have been killed (the rest we have no idea how or why they died); and we don’t at all know for what belief they imagined themselves dying. So this is evidence of nothing. See my article Did the Apostles Die for a Lie?
  • “How do you account,” Keller asks, “for the hundreds of eyewitnesses to the resurrection who lived on for decades and publicly maintained their testimony, eventually giving their lives for their belief?” (p. 210). We have no such accounts. We don’t know what the testimony was of even a single eyewitness to the resurrection. Except Paul, and he tells us it was only an inner vision…and certainly seems to assume the same of everyone else. And again, for every single one of the others, we don’t know if they died for anything, or what they died for, or even—for nearly all of them—if they even remained believers! We don’t know they never changed their story. We don’t know how many recanted or gave up or switched to a different savior. We don’t even know what their story was; and we can’t establish even a singe one was alive by the time the Gospels came to be written.
  • “No other band of messianic followers in that era,” Keller insists, “concluded their leader was raised from the dead—why did this group do so?” (p. 210). Actually, we don’t really know that. Some could well have made such claims about their leader, and simply not been as successful. How could we know? We don’t get to read any of their literature. But even setting that aside, the answer to Keller’s question is almost too easy for words. Why did only this group come up with that scheme? The same reason only one group of Pagans claimed their god was castrated to death, and only one group of Americans claimed Jesus flew to America and inspired prophets to write a new book on magical gold plates, and only one group of Indians invented a Buddha, and only one group of Arabs claimed a new earth-shattering revelation from Gabriel. In other words, Keller’s question is stupid. Every religion does something no one else thought of.
  • Keller asks, “what changed their worldview virtually overnight?” (p. 210). But it wasn’t all that changed; it was actually within the known parameters of the worldviews of the time, in fact conspicuously so (see Chapters 4 and 5 of On the Historicity of Jesus). And it wasn’t overnight. They were an organized sect for years before they had this new “revelation.” The Qumran scrolls show many counter-cultural Jews were playing around for hundreds of years with many of the ideas that would eventually coalesce into Christianity. We have no idea how long the Christian sect was working the scriptures and praying their way into hallucinatory ecstasies before finally hitting upon their Jesus-savior system. And then Paul and other Apostles had to evangelize for decades to build even a dozen churches. A hundred years later, Christians remain practically unheard of even by the most politically informed and experienced people in the empire (see Chapter 18 of Not the Impossible Faith). Moreover, its worldview evolved and changed continually decade after decade. It did not begin looking anything at all like the Christianity of Timothy Keller.

It’s by repeating these kinds of falsehoods, that Christian apologists fabricate a fake set of circumstances designed to make Christianity look amazing, and not, as the actual historical facts establish, quite typical and ordinary among its peers. Christianity looked just like a Jewish mystery cult, with all the same features peculiarly popular at the time: resurrected personal saviors, conveying eternal life to their followers through baptism and communion. No where else in history or geography was such a storyline so rampantly popular. You won’t find such notions in ancient China or Mesoamerica or India or Persia. And yet, right in the midst of just such a fad, some Jews invent one. That doesn’t look miraculous. That looks mundane.

But What Happened to the Body!?

Keller repeats standard Christian apologetic nonsense like this:

  • “No one in Jerusalem,” Keller insists, “would have believed the preaching for a minute if the tomb was not empty” because “skeptics could have easily produced Jesus’s rotted corpse” (p. 205).

That’s simply not true. Here is what you’ll learn from my three chapters in The Empty Tomb:

First, if the body was lost, misplaced, or stolen, or Jesus never really died, the tomb would have been empty. And when bodies disappear, all known evidence establishes it’s vastly more commonly by being lost, misplaced, or stolen, or the body not actually being dead, than by magic. So this isn’t even a logically valid argument for the resurrection. But it’s also factually uninformed…

Second, under Jewish law, bodies were legally unrecognizable after the third day. It’s thus tellingly convenient that we are told that’s how long Christians waited before claiming to “see” him risen. Indeed, they didn’t even tell anyone else this for a whole fifty days! By which time, identifying a body was impossible. It was totally inadmissible in court, and thus entirely deniable by anyone who was as committed or deluded as these Christian fanatics were; and entirely useless to anyone else, who wouldn’t be able to tell.

Third, it was a capital crime to desecrate the dead. No one could have dug the body up or paraded it outside its tomb (until a year had passed, authorizing ossuary reburial of the denuded bones). And proving any body, in what would have been a mass grave, was Jesus, and not someone else, would not have been possible by the forensic and legal means then available. The Gospels are simply lying when they claim Jesus was given an illegal burial in a special tomb; all Jewish convicts were buried together in a graveyard or tomb complex owned by the Sanhedrin, as specifically part of their sentence, and to prevent defiling innocent corpses (by segregating criminals from them).

Fourth, Paul says the body that dies, is not the body that is raised. He describes a belief in 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5 that resurrection bodies are pre-assembled and waiting for us in heaven, and that our bodies of flesh will be cast off and destroyed. We will switch from one to the other, and rise in the new glorious body. Paul never mentions anyone believing the corpse of Jesus was what rose. He only mentions people believing he rose in a new, different body. And such a teaching is immune to presenting the body. That body was just a discarded shell. Jesus lived on in a new, fancier one. And if it came down to just the two options, which is more likely? That this is what the first Christians taught, or that magic exists?

Fifth, in the book of Acts, curiously, neither the Romans nor the Sanhedrin ever notice an empty tomb; nor is the existence of one ever used as an argument by any Christian missionary depicted. The latter is inexplicable enough. But to all the authorities, an empty tomb would be evidence of the capital crime of graverobbing or the escape of a convicted criminal. Yet no one ever investigates these crimes. No one ever mentions them. No one ever accuses the Christians of them. It’s as if no one even knew there was an empty tomb. Gosh. Why do you think that is? Could it be…that there was no empty tomb? Ockham’s Razor, people.

But What about the Women!?

Another example you’ll likely have heard a million times:

  • “Each gospel states,” Keller says, “that the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection were women,” and yet “women’s low social status meant that their testimony was not admissible evidence in court” (p. 204).

100% false. Abundant primary evidence establishes women’s testimony was admissible in all ancient courts of law—Greek, Roman, and Jewish—and regarded by all but the most conservative of Pharisees (whose opinions the Christians uniformly condemned and rejected) as equal to the testimony of men. I thoroughly document this in Chapter 11 of Not the Impossible Faith. Women were only excluded from testifying to a few very specific things, and that because they would not have knowledge of them, or it was disallowed for a woman to have legal power over a man. And when attesting to historical facts, historians regularly trusted women witnesses, including the Jewish historian Josephus. There is no evidence of any disparity in honesty being imagined.

And to the contrary of Keller’s claim that “there was no possible advantage to the church to recount that all the first witnesses were women,” there were actually several advantages to doing so. As I show in NIF. Among them, to preach the gospel that “the least shall be first” (such ironies typify Mark’s Gospel, such as having Jesus tell Simon Peter he must take up his cross and follow; and then having Simon of Cyrene do it instead), to effect an allegory (with the women’s actions and names having a particular symbolic meaning), and to create a story that appealed to women, who actually were playing a significant role as patrons and financiers of the early church.

Note that Mark never says the women were “witnesses.” He says, to the contrary, that they never told anyone what they saw. He thus never cites them as witnesses nor says he learned any of it from them. He’s just making up a story. Very similarly to what Josephus is believed to have done, by inventing women witnesses to the mass suicides at Gamla and Masada. If Mark even cared about creating evidence. Though he didn’t. His treatise never mentions evidence as a concern. Actually, Mark slyly informs his readers that if they are taking his Gospel literally, they are fools doomed to damnation.

Thus there is no sense in which Mark telling this story “could only have undermined the credibility of the testimony” (p. 205). It wouldn’t have done so even if Mark intended this to be understood as testimony. But Mark didn’t even intend that. He is not relating testimony. He is making up a story. To convey a particular meaning. (See Chapter 10.4 of On the Historicity of Jesus for a full accounting of that.) Mark does not imagine you would believe that Jesus insanely withering a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season was someone’s actual testimony. Nor would he imagine you would believe that of his tale that Jesus murdered two thousand pigs by casting spirits into them. Or his claim that Satan could stand Jesus on a mountain so high he could see the whole world (it being well known by all educated persons at the time that the earth was a sphere and no mountain existed of any such height…after all, if it did, everyone could see it, from everywhere in the world).

None of those things are meant to be literally what happened. They are in fact impossible and preposterous. They symbolize things Mark wanted to say. But even if you want to insist he was such a dullard that he really thought these stories were true, you are just admitting he was too stupid and gullible to know these stories were made up. But made up they were.

How Did They Convince So Many Pagans and Jews?

Yet another example of getting everything wrong is the usual fact-challenged hyperbole about how successful Christianity was:

  • “Why did Christianity emerge so rapidly, with such power?” (p. 210).

It didn’t. Its growth was feeble and slow. No faster or more explosive than any other evangelical religion in history. Including Mormonism, Buddhism, and Islam. See NIF, Chapter 18.

Here are some other things Keller ignorantly says in the same vein:

  • Keller claims pagans and Jews “found the resurrection just as inconceivable as you do” (p. 211).

No they didn’t. Resurrection beliefs were ubiquitous and popular among just the sort of superstitious pagans and Jews the Christians recruited from. They gullibly believed in all kinds of sorcery, demonic possession, angelic visitations, and resurrections; you can see this even in their own scriptures.

  • “To all the dominant worldviews of the time, an individual bodily resurrection was almost inconceivable” (p. 206).

No it wasn’t. The idea was popular among the masses, both Jews and pagans. We have numerous tales believed from then, of individual resurrections of ordinary people, as well as incarnated beings and demigods. Sorcerers were widely believed capable of it. Even Herod, the Gospels claim, readily suspected Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected. So ready were even elites to believe such a thing. I document dozens of examples in Chapter 3 of Not the Impossible Faith.

Keller himself gullibly relies here on the atrociously bad Christian apologist N.T. Wright. Wright is an awful scholar whose errors are egregious (as I demonstrate repeatedly in NIF, he gets wrong nearly everything, from resurrection in paganism to the legal status of women’s testimony). And to demonstrate the point, Keller says “N. T. Wright does an extensive survey” of resurrections in pagan sources (p. 206) and found none. Since I found dozens, we have no clearer demonstration of Wright’s total incompetence. He made no extensive survey. He didn’t even know what he was talking about.

So when Keller says “nobody even in the pagan religions believed that resurrection happened to individual human beings” (p. 279, in n. 4), he’s just flat out wrong. Here he might not be lying. He’s just a dupe of the bad scholarship of a fellow apologist. Humorously, in that same note Keller admits of “dying and rising gods” that “those myths existed,” but that no pagans believed “resurrection happened to individual human beings.” Of course, demigods are human beings in exactly the same way Jesus was thought to be, even from the very beginning: Paul outright says the earliest Christians regarded Jesus as an incarnate divinity, a pre-existent angel made flesh, and thus in fact not relevantly different from any of those other dying and rising gods before him. But it’s also just false. Dying and rising gods were just one form of resurrection legend popular among the pagans. They also had countless stories of ordinary people being raised from the dead. So yes, plenty of pagans readily believed “resurrection happened to individual human beings.”

  • “The idea of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death, was inconceivable” to the Jews, Keller claims (p. 207).

This is false. Consider, for example, the Talmudic discussion of the resurrections reported in Ezekiel, which some believed really happened (some people were even claiming to have descended from those resurrected), while only some believed that was merely an allegory (see The Empty Tomb, pp. 115-16). The Bible depicts Elijah resurrecting individual people “in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on.” Herod, again, thought Jesus was the resurrected John the Baptist. And so on.

But more importantly, the Christians were not preaching that the resurrection of Jesus was “in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on.” They were specifically preaching that his resurrection proved the end times were beginning. Paul said that Jesus’s resurrection was “the firstfruits” of the expected general resurrection, thus proving it had begun. And fitting that, we have Jewish texts that describe a belief that in the end, the dead would be raised in stages—in some beliefs, with the messiah first, and indeed before the final apocalypse, as also described in the Talmud (see Element 5, OHJ; and TET, p. 107, with n. 11, p. 198).

  • “This was not simply a resuscitated body like the Jews envisioned” (p. 208).

Except that’s just what some Jews did envision (as I show in TET, pp. 107-10). And of course the properties displayed by the body of Jesus in the Gospel narratives were not reported by Paul or any eyewitness. They aren’t even in Mark. They were invented two average lifetimes after the fact, by Gentiles. But more importantly, the first Christians believed Jesus had risen in a new supernatural body because they were told this in visions; not because they actually tested it out. And such a resurrection belief was popular among many Jews of the time (as I show in TET, pp. 107-10 and 110-18).

  • “There was no process or development” in the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection (p. 209).

Yes there was. That process is evident in the very New Testament itself: from the spiritual dual-body conception known only by revelation in Paul, to the ordinary conception of a rising corpse implied by Mark, to the supernatural teleporting chameleonic corpseflesh in Luke, to the most ridiculous version in John, whereby, now a full zombie, Jesus rises even with his gory wounds intact! Each stage representing decades of development in Christian thought. And the only one that comes from an eyewitness, or anyone we can establish even knew an eyewitness, is Paul’s.

  • Keller claims “his followers said” that Jesus appeared in certain ways (p. 209).

Who? We have not a single follower’s account of anything. So how do we know what they said? Keller is again conflating the origins of the church (and the actual witnesses, from whom we have only one account, that of Paul, who was not even a follower of Jesus in life), with the Gospels (which come a lifetime later, in a foreign language, in a foreign land, written by unknown persons, with no demonstrable sources).

  • Keller says “they would never have gotten a movement of other Jews to believe it” (p. 209).

And they didn’t, really. The movement was very unsuccessful anywhere for over a century, hardly winning any converts (see Chapter 18 of of NIF). They were no more successful on that front than many other equally novel and bizarre movements against the predominate culture, like Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, Islam, even the ancient worship of Attis the Castrated God. But in Judea, the movement remained minuscule, to the point of soon vanishing altogether. Christianity only started to gain success, when it started preaching to Gentiles. The Jews were largely uninterested.

  • Keller asks, “How could a group of first-century Jews have come to worship a human being as divine?” (p. 209)

Bart Ehrman, an actual expert, answers that more than capably. Some Jews were already worshiping Moses as divine. And worship of angels was commonplace in many Jewish stories and sects. It was only required that they not worship anyone as a substitute for God. But worship as a representative of God was permitted, and indeed expected.

  • “It was absolute blasphemy,” Keller insists, “to propose that any human being should be worshiped” (p. 209) and “no group of Jews ever worshiped a human being as God,” so “what led them to do it?” (p. 210).

No Christian ever preached that any human being should be worshiped. They preached that God should be worshiped through the proxy of his chosen angel. A concept widely practiced among many Jewish sects of the time. Again, Ehrman demonstrates this well enough. See also TET, pp. 108-09; and Element 36 in OHJ. The Christians only preached that Jesus was an eternal incarnate superbeing, and by his resurrection proved to be God’s chosen angelic representative on earth. Fully appropriate and conceivable within the understanding of many Jews of the time. It was not blasphemy by any known principle or law. And what led the Christians to do this? Dreams and visions. Exactly as Paul says. Repeatedly.

So when we look at the actual facts, everything Keller argues dissolves. This is in keeping with the consistent finding in my whole series on Keller: all Christian apologetics dissolves as soon as you put back in, all the evidence they are leaving out.

Conclusion

Keller asks, “What other historical answer can” explain the origin of the church and the evidence that survives? (p. 210) Obviously, that it started as a typical counter-cultural Jewish fringe sect inspired by scripture and visions. No differently than any other apocalyptic cult in the entirety of human history. And that a lifetime later, wild tales were fabricated to sell and explain it, by persons who were never there, and didn’t really know anyone who was. No differently than any other religious movement in the entirety of human history. Indeed, there is more evidence that Mormonism is true, than that Christianity is. The Mormons have numerous actual eyewitness testimonies (something we have not even one of for Christianity), and its wild tales were fabricated literally the very moment it began, when countless persons were available to gainsay it. So if Mormonism is false, Keller’s Christianity is even more so.

Keller is simply playing that same old con game when he says “the early Christians did not invent the empty tomb and the meetings or sightings of the risen Jesus” (p. 211), because he is conflating two entirely different lifetimes of Christians. The actual early Christians, as in the original Christians, did not know anything about an empty tomb or “meetings” with a risen Jesus. They only knew of fleeting visions of a risen Jesus. It was only a lifetime later that foreigners writing in a foreign language invented the empty tomb and appearance narratives. Based on no eyewitness sources we can establish they actually had. This requires no bizarre unproven suppositions. It requires only well established facts of the world: that the devoutly religious make up stories; and that people in cultures that promote a belief that commonplace hallucinations, ecstasies, and dreams are real contacts with the divine, will believe hallucinations, ecstasies, and dreams are real contacts with the divine.

So when Keller asks, “Why would the disciples of Jesus have come to the conclusion that [Jesus’s] crucifixion had not been a defeat but a triumph—unless they had seen him risen from the dead?” (p. 208), he’s really demonstrating a profound lack of imagination, and a profound ignorance of the psychology of religious people the world over. Why did the UFO cult studied in When Prophecy Fails become even more stalwartly sure of their beliefs after they failed? Why did the failed prophecies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses not do them in? Why have all the exposed frauds of the Mormons not ended the church? Why are there still followers of the disgraced and failed messiah Sabbatai Zevi? Why are there still Rastafarians, even after their own messiah outright rejected them and repeatedly insisted he wasn’t their messiah? Why does David Koresh still have followers?

Failure rarely kills a religion. Often enough, failure makes a religion more fanatical. Not less. Christianity thus fits established psychological and anthropological facts. It requires no supernatural explanation. Other messianic movements of the same era may well have also succeeded for a while after their founder’s deaths, but dwindled for lack of effective marketing or message. We don’t actually know. The original Christianity appears to have died out in Judea, too. Or at least we have no more sources for it there, than we have for any other competing messianic cults. It survived only because it mutated into a Gentile religion, a peculiar trick invented not by Jesus or his death, but by Paul’s subsequent industry. And of course, other sects won’t have been employing the same pesher the Christians were; and the Christian approach may simply have survived natural selection as the most saleable.

Every sect will resolve its cognitive dissonance differently. For some, when one messiah fails, they find another. For others, they rationalize the failure into a success and keep going. That is simply the approach the Christians came up with. As has many another sect throughout history. There is nothing supernatural about that. Nor anything supernatural about how a few fanatics could convince many distant parties with no access to the real evidence, to follow along. Nor anything supernatural about how a subsequent generation could fabricate wild tales to capture or sell their beliefs, precisely when all the witnesses were gone, and the original churches were fading into obscurity or extinction. When we notice the victorious sect that by a happy accident gained total power centuries later got to decide what evidence survived and in what condition, there is nothing left to explain.

Christianity is just another false religion. Ridiculous in concept, unproved by any credible evidence, and at every level contradicted by all the evidence there is.

7 comments

  1. “Lydia McGrew (who also has to fudge the evidence in the same ways Keller does) agrees the prior probability of a miraculous explanation is no better than 1 in 10 to the 40th power”

    I don’t think this is accurate. What she says is that the evidence is strong enough to overcome a prior even as low as 1 in 10^40, not that she actually thinks that is the prior. Here is what she says, “Bayes factor of 10^44, a weight of evidence that would be sufficient to overcome a prior probability (or rather improbability) of 10^–40 for R and leave us with a posterior probability in excess of 0.9999.”

    She also says in her interview with Luke M., “what we estimate is that you could have this overwhelmingly low prior probability (and I don’t actually think that the prior probability is this low. I think it’s low, but I don’t think it’s this low) of 10^-40 and still give a probability to the resurrection in excess of .9999. And we don’t get to that by saying in fact the evidence gives us a posterior probability in excess of .9999.”

    http://lydiaswebpage.blogspot.com/2011/01/odds-form-of-bayess-theorem.html?m=1

    Reply
    1. That’s a fair qualification.

      Though it remains the only prior she has ever argued for.

      (And of course, her treatment of the evidence to beat that prior is as false and uninformed as Keller’s)

      I’ll reword that sentence to make this clearer.

      Reply
  2. Chris August 31, 2017, 8:06 am

    You don’t seem to have been getting many comments on this series but I just wanted to say I’ve been enjoying it immensely. I’ve not read Keller’s book but I did listen to Steve Shives examination of it a long while back and it’s been really good to read a proper evisceration of the book after all this time.
    Thanks for all you do and please keep up the good work!

    BTW the comment post button below is obscurred when viewing in Firefox. The only way to reach it is to tab down – no amount of scrolling will reach it.

    Reply
    1. Thanks.

      Note that I don’t have any control over how WordPress displays things. But I also don’t observe that problem. My Firefox works fine. So there must be something peculiar about your setup.

      Reply
  3. Kenneth September 1, 2017, 8:33 pm

    Thanks for writing this series, I really enjoyed it. I don’t read many apologetics, I just can’t tolerate the nonsense anymore. Reviews like this one make it fun and instructive, something the originals never could be.

    The most recent one I managed to make it through was “The Case for Jesus” which starts by arguing that the Gospel authors were known by name very early on and had access to eyewitness testimony. It doesn’t get better from there.

    So thanks again and I’m looking forward to your new book later in the year.

    Reply
  4. Grant Willson September 3, 2017, 9:23 am

    Doesn’t your fourth point under But What Happened to the Body?! (and your argument in chapter in the book Empty Tomb) support the contention that Paul argues the ressurected Jesus left a corpse? Isn’t that strong evidence for the historicity of Jesus?

    Reply
    1. No. As I explained even in The Empty Tomb (p. 106), that point is fully compatible with the theory of minimal mythicism, in which Jesus dies and is resurrected in outer space, which fact is known only through visions and hidden messages in ancient scripture. That’s the only plausible theory of ahistoricity, IMO, and it entails Jesus was believed to have literally acquired a body of Jewish flesh that could be killed; it was killed by Satan and his sky demons (as the body of Osiris was in the esoteric version of his myth told to initiates); and that body was buried in one of Satan’s sky gardens (just as Adam’s body was buried in the third heaven in Jewish lore), and left behind as a discarded shell, as Jesus entered and rose in a new supernatural body to ascend to glory.

      -:-

      Note also that I am at no point in my critique of Keller assuming non-historicity. As I’ve written before, I think if we are engaging Christians, we should operate on the assumption of historicity.

      Actually doubting the historicity of Jesus is a debate that can only honestly be had among nonbelievers. Because a Christian absolutely cannot even entertain the idea; which means, really, they can only even begin to listen to the case against it, after they’ve left the faith. Though we can try. But it’s not useful as a strategy if your aim is to show Christianity is false. (Not least because, Christianity could be true and Jesus didn’t exist, by exactly the theory I explain in Chapter 3 of On the Historicity of Jesus; and there are Christians who agree, e.g. the Catholic priest Thomas Brodie.)

      And indeed, if Jesus did exist, then there are plenty of secular theories of his existence, which are all totally plausible and naturalistic and fit the evidence well enough (such as the minimal theory I lay out in Chapter 2 of On the Historicity of Jesus).

      Just as I point out in The Empty Tomb, I personally think there was no empty tomb, and so my largest chapter in that book argues so; but if there was, the misplacement of the body is the most likely explanation of it, and so I wrote a chapter on the case that can be made for that, once we presume there was an empty tomb; but if that’s not true, then the theft of the body is the most likely explanation of it, and so I wrote a chapter on the case that can be made for that, once we presume there was an empty tomb and the body wasn’t misplaced accidentally. Next after that I’d put the survival hypothesis. I just didn’t write a chapter on it, although the matter is aptly addressed in Price’s chapter on rationalist theories in The End of Christianity, Chapter 9, where he also explains he doesn’t think those theories are the most likely, but does agree they are more likely than magic, and shows why the evidence supports saying so.

      Otherwise, note I’ve discussed all this before, in my Empty Tomb FAQ (on the Spiritual Body chapter’s compatibility with ahistoricity; also in my FAQs on theft and burial). See also my conclusion on this same point regarding Stephen Davis’s review of The Empty Tomb.

      Reply

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