DEAR RICHARD (if I may), I was pleased to hear that you are planning to distribute free copies of 'The God Delusion' to Muslims. You are an atheist; I am a Christian. But I'm all in favour of anything that gets people thinking: after all, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, 'truth is sharpened by its collision with error'.
In that same spirit, as Easter approaches, may I invite you to reconsider the possibility of what truth may lie at the heart of this biggest Christian festival? After all, as Andrew Wilson – a writer with formidable academic qualifications and a mind perhaps on a par even with your own – once wrote: 'We need evidence for what we believe.'
You once said, I believe, that 'accounts of Jesus' resurrection... are about as well-documented as Jack and the Beanstalk.' But this will not do. As Andrew Wilson has also written, in your book The God Delusion there are 'a surprising number of mistakes in the bit where it talked about the Bible... [including] all sorts of things that a quick flick through a New Testament, or a Google search, could have shown were untrue.'
In an article of this length, space prevents as much of a detailed discussion about the resurrection as perhaps either of us would like. But we can be sure of this: something happened in history which made devout Jews, whose day of worship had been Saturday for more than 1,000 years, suddenly start worshipping on a Sunday. Something happened which meant ten of Jesus' original disciples were ready to be martyred in diverse places for their preaching of a risen Christ. Something happened which meant a whole new movement – the church – exploded into existence out of nothing.
Something happened. Many witnesses claimed to have seen Jesus after his death, in diverse times and places. The tomb was empty. No body was ever produced by the authorities to quash the rumour, no alternative grave site ever pointed to, no grave robber arrested. Sometimes it has been suggested Jesus merely passed out on the cross, but somehow managed to free himself. The theory then goes on to posit that still staggering around from his pre-crucifixion torture, he somehow persuaded his idiot friends he was the victorious Lord of life who had just triumphed over death. But this idea – the so-called 'swoon theory' – has been debunked many times.
Moreover, if someone was making the resurrection story up, we need to be clear that they wouldn't, as first century Jews, put women as the first witnesses to the resurrection, as the gospels do. Why not? Because sadly in that culture women's testimony was regarded as far from valid.
Again and again in the gospels, Jesus is recorded as predicting his death and resurrection before they take place. Again and again, the disciples are recorded as being too stupid to grasp what he is on about. Would they make up both these predictions and their own dullness in understanding them? I think not. Professor FF Bruce wrote: 'The evidence for our New Testament writings is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. If the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded as beyond all doubt.' There's also the question of Old Testament prophecy.
Of course, there is the wider question of epistemology – 'how we know what we know' – and the difference between a belief which is justified and mere opinion. Again I defer to a greater mind than mine, that of Andrew Wilson, and refer you to chapter two of his book 'If God, Then What?' which deals with exactly these questions.
Then there is also the matter of experience. How interesting you want to distribute The God Delusion to Muslim nations: you may be intrigued to learn that many people of an Islamic background are encountering Jesus (of whom they have often never heard) in supernatural encounters and coming to faith in that way. Try Dreams and Visions by Tom Doyle if you want some firsthand accounts. Liars? Deluded? You decide.
Finally we might consider the interesting question of the ongoing impact of Jesus in people's lives: in the town near where I live, Christians are behind a winter nightshelter for the homeless, a food bank, a training agency for unemployed people, a weekly meal for homeless people, a community and counselling centre, a care home, an arts organisation... and other things. Far be it from me to point out the obvious, but I am not aware of any disciples of Jack and his Beanstalk (or indeed atheist-based groups) doing the same.
Richard, when I worked in a newspaper office, a colleague once asked: 'How can I know if God is real?' I replied, 'Why not pray and ask him, if he is there, to show himself to you?' A week later my friend told me he wasn't going to do that. Why? 'Because if there is a God I didn't want to hear from him.' But your mind is more open than that. Isn't it?
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A. The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly series.