a crucifix affixed to the outside of a church wall in france
Reading Time: 12 minutes (Paul Keiffer.)
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been looking at a short Easter video made by newbie-ish apologist Sean McDowell, who is the son of venerable Christian apologist Josh McDowell. Like his daddy and all of his daddy’s friends, he suffers from the usual shortcomings of apologists — which this video brought into focus all at once somehow. In this video, Sean McDowell sought to answer three big important questions through the use of one Gospel myth: the Resurrection of Jesus. So far, he’s been batting zero! Today, we tackle Sean McDowell’s third big question, and we’ll see if he manages to salvage his reputation a bit this time around.

a crucifix affixed to the outside of a church wall in france
(Paul Keiffer.)

(Previous video posts: First Question; Second Question; 2B: The Cruel Dilemma.)

The Real Order of Operations.

In his Easter video, Sean McDowell uses the Resurrection myth to PROVE YES PROVE three big important questions he thinks people have about life.

YouTube video

Here’s how:

First, he asked if “God” exists, meaning his god, of course, in the form he imagines that being to take. Like all other apologists before him, he failed at this task. Also like all other apologists before him, he failed to notice that his faulty logic could be used to poorly prove that literally anything exists — from leprechauns to Zeus to Hogwarts. He failed entirely to eliminate his competition, but he also failed to present compelling logic for his own preference.

Second, he asked which religion, out of all the religions ever, was “true.” Of course, since he’s a Christian apologist he came out on the side of the product he sells. When a Christian asks that question, almost every time it’s because that person already decided what the answer was, and just wants to backfill a little to feel more secure. And again, he failed hard there. His historical assertions were completely wrong, for a start. Perhaps worse, though, he used nothing but nonstop logical fallacies to come up with a complete non sequitur (“does not follow”) conclusion that was entirely unrelated to his premises and arguments. Then, he threw in a blatant manipulation attempt (in the form of a cruel dilemma) to gain compliant buy-in from his audience.

Now we’re on to his third question:

“Is there life after death?”

The reason I’m listing these questions in order now is because Sean’s going at this thing bass-ackwards. He should be asking #3 first, then #1, then #2 (though really, his answer to #2 simply rephrases #1; it shouldn’t, being a very distinct question, but evangelicals tend to muddle them together).

Nested Assumptions: Making an “Ass” Out of “U” and “Me.”

In this video, Sean makes a whole host of assumptions here. The video’s all but a shorthand of evangelical talking points. But the ideas he’s messing with build upon earlier assumptions that nest within each other. He doesn’t bother even naming these nested claims, much less supporting them. That’s because in his tribe, this stuff’s absolutely assumed to be true from the get-go.

I doubt most evangelicals even think about these base assumptions, much less follow them to their conclusions using actual logic instead of fundie-bizarro-logic.

Sean can leap right to the stuff he really wants to talk about because of that long tradition of assumptions.

Reality tells us a different tale. Before he can even get into whether or not his religion’s the One True Religion Out of All Religions Ever Invented, which should logically be his last question as well as completely distinct from his first, he’s got a long ways to go.

A Short List.

Here are just a few questions that Sean just takes for granted as being answered:

  1. Does a supernatural realm even exist in the sense that religious believers think it does? Where is it, and why can’t any believers in this realm pony up credible support for its existence?
  2. Do any beings we’d recognize as beings exist in that realm? How can we tell?
  3. Can those beings reach through to this universe? How do they do it (mechanism)? How do we know?
  4. Can humans meaningfully interact with those beings? How can we tell?
  5. How do we meaningfully assess those beings’ desires? By what means would we know if we’re wrong?
  6. Is there some part of humans that lives on after death in the way religious believers imagine? After death, does that part of us go anywhere? How do we know?
  7. Where is the afterlife? How do we get there?
  8. Once there, how long do we stay? Is there anywhere else we go next? And how do we know that?
  9. During this lifetime, can humans meaningfully impact their afterlife existence? How can we know that what we’re doing has anything to do with any afterlife stuff — or that we’re pursuing the correct choices at all?
  10. What makes any one believer’s answers to these questions more credible than another believer’s answers? By what mechanism do we discard claims, bearing in mind that we’ll be using them on all claimants?

As I said, this isn’t a definitive list either. It’s only a start. And Christians have never answered any of them in any kind of credible manner.

(Also, and I’m sure this point represents pure coincidence, all real-world signs point to “nope” in the first question and successively louder laughter as the list progresses.)

It’s up to you to decide how many of these questions need to be answered before you’d sign up with a religion and start complying with its demands for time and resources.

I’d sure want at least most of them nailed down.

Non-Answers In Disguise.

All religions — and even different flavors of the same religion — offer different and frequently contradictory answers to all of these questions. Also, bear in mind that no believers from any religion have ever come up with tangible, objective, credible, repeatable measurements or real-world observations supporting a single question I posed.

If a religious believer can’t even adequately answer the first question, that largely negates the questions that follow.

Most folks who’ve tangled with Christian apologetics know how they answer these questions. Indeed, their party lines were tired-sounding generations ago, and mostly rely on using the Bible as both the source of their claims and the proof for them.

I doubt Christians will ever come up with anything satisfactory in answer to these questions. If anybody ever does find evidence supporting even the first question, that person will likely be a scientist, not a theologian or apologist whose entire job consists of rationalizing Christians’ total lack of credible support.

(You may count on this: If that day ever arrives, it’ll also be the day that apologists will stop sneering at “scientism.” The only reason they do that now is that real science never supports their wackadoodle ideas.)

The very best that Sean can do, then, like his predecessors, is manipulate people into thinking his religion has answers that it just doesn’t.

Argument #3:

“Is There Life After Death?”

So okay, Sean should have dealt with this question first and only after a whole bunch of other answered questions.

But we’re here now, and this is what Sean has to say about what the Resurrection says about life after death.

To start, he refers to a popular 1990 movie called Flatliners (it recently got a remake).

In this movie, a bunch of medical students seek evidence for life after death. Sean expresses mild surprise that they didn’t study philosophy or anything, instead opting (because they were medical students, duh) to “flatline” each others’ hearts — in effect, to put themselves into a state of technical death before reviving themselves again. After cautioning his young followers not to repeat this “morbid” experiment, Sean says the med students’ thinking makes perfect sense:

If we want to know what’s on the other side, talk to someone who’s been there and who can come back to tell us about it. But Jesus didn’t die for fifteen seconds, or even for a minute. The biblical accounts say Jesus died and he came back on the third day. [. . .] If Jesus has risen from the dead, this life is not all there is. It continues AFTER — into eternity.

So therefore, we can totally trust what the Gospels say about Jesus’ account of being dead.

Sidebar: Silly Silly Apologists!

After restating his three questions, Sean then gives us this smarmy-git of a look, like he’s annoyed he even had to talk about this topic when IT’S OMG SO OBVIOUS, GYAHH, WHY DO Y’ALL NOT SEE THIS:

jfc this guy's face annoys me
(Source, 6:17 in.)

Sean provides a great illustration of why apologists interest me so much. They’re this perfect storm of condescension and arrogance combined with a total lack of self-awareness and towering irrationality. And yet they think they’re the only adults in the room who can actually think.

Maybe that’s why, when Sean shows up in his video’s comments to answer a critic, he comes off so poorly:

oh my sides
Sean quotes himself parroting his tribe’s store of junk history to hand-wave away a dealbreaker.

Sean’s much-adored “Dr” title comes from theology and apologetics. He is by no means qualified to make these pronouncements about real history. So his credibility derives only from the power of his sources, and we’ve already seen what his sources are: his daddy’s friends’ work and the tribe’s long-established talking points.


So now, let’s turn our attention to his reasoning in this third question.

Debunk #3:

Using Fictional Stories Poorly As PROOF YES PROOF.

Hilariously, Sean once again reaches for an old movie to demonstrate a claim of his. He’s showing his age here; both movies he reaches (this and 2001’s The Body) for came out decades ago.

Sean uses Flatliners to try to support his assertion that a Near-Death Experience (NDE) is the same as actually being dead and that it can give us meaningful information about what may await us after death.

(We poked tons of holes in this idea last year. Lately, evangelicals have been turning to NDEs as PROOF YES PROOF of the afterlife, but their misunderstandings of it make their attempts backfire hard.)

In Sean’s opinion, which derives from and mirrors those of his apologetics pals, people who go into NDEs have effectively come back from death. In this fictional movie, the medical students in Flatliners come back with all kinds of experiences of life after death!

However (in Sean’s argument), they weren’t “dead” for long enough to matter. So really, Sean tells us, we should “talk to” Jesus, who was totally dead longer than anybody.

That is seriously the logic he’s going for: this fictional movie shows life after death, but big whoop! We should look at Jesus’ resurrection instead, because he was clinically dead for way longer than these fictional movie characters were.

(Mr. Captain: *spluttering* “WHY DID THESE WORDS HAPPEN. WHY.”)

Um, Newsflash: Flatliners Is Fictional.

Why doesn’t Sean reach for actual medical knowledge to make his case? Why does he reach for a fictional movie?

Because he can’t.

Because real medical knowledge would only contradict his point.

See, flatlining is really not a big deal, according to Elise, the nurse who wrote the excellent, delightfully-profane (and unfortunately short-lived) blog, End of Shift Report. Here’s some of what she had to say about NDEs:

Adenosine is a predictable but pants-shittingly scary way to fix a heart that’s racing out of control—it works by stopping your heart and trusting that it will start again, hopefully in a rhythm that’s better than the old one. If you ever get to sit around and shoot the shit with a bunch of ICU staff, you will inevitably witness the old pissing contest: who’s pushed adenosine for the longest pause between heartbeats? Some people lose their pulse for a second or two; some for five. A pause of 10 seconds is pretty crazy. A pause of 30 seconds is fucking ridiculous, and at that point they probably get their heartbeat back because we code them.

Nobody is spending long enough pulseless from an adenosine push to actually die.

Seriously, we have little old ladies in afib pull pauses like that all the time. Most people don’t even black out during the pause. You aren’t going to even begin to approach brain death, real death, with an adenosine push.

The [NDE] study would’ve been more reliable if they had followed cardiothoracic surgery patients with valve replacements. Those guys lose conduction all the fucking time, and unless your ICU squad is absolutely crackin, they’re probably going to be pulseless for at least 30 seconds, maybe as long as a full minute. Nowhere near brain death, of course, no wall of rotten white brain flesh on their CT scan, but at least long enough for their eyes to roll back in their heads. Your heart can straight the fuck up stop for at least 10 seconds before your brain notices, and maybe longer if you’re a hundred-year-old gomer whose brainpan is used to weird rhythms and saggy pressure.

In truth, brain death represents real death. Once someone experiences brain death, they don’t return from that.

Thus, a “flatliner” never actually dies, so they’re not really coming back from real death.

Circular Reasoning Again.

But Sean doesn’t forget his first love, circular reasoning.

The classic example.

On his third question, Sean once again reaches for the Gospels’ Resurrection accounts to support his claims about the Gospels’ Resurrection accounts.

However, since these stories are the source of his claims, they do not represent valid support for the claims as well.

Otherwise, we could PROVE YES PROVE that Hogwarts is real by looking only at the Harry Potter books, that the Greek gods are real by looking only at Hesiod’s Works and Days, and that Sasquatch is real by watching terrible TV shows about Sasquatch hunters (some of whom call themselves “Squatchers and their activities “squatchin’;” I genuinely wish I did not have those words burned into my brain-meat forever, buuuuut here we are).

The problem with this strategy is simple, though:

These accounts exist nowhere else but in the Bible.

Why Sean Uses Circular Reasoning So Often.

Apologists can’t reach outside the Bible for contemporary information about Jesus’ life, because Jesus exists nowhere else. He most particularly cannot be found in any contemporary accounts written between 30-35 CE.

Heck, being as the Bible began to get written decades later, even it does not represent contemporary information about him. As far as the historical record of those years is concerned, Jesus didn’t exist. Heckies, until the first few books got written and released, neither did his followers.

So no, we don’t actually know that Jesus resurrected himself. We don’t know what he might have said to his followers after coming back from “death.” We don’t know how persuasive the Resurrection stories might have been in those early years.

Most especially, we don’t know anything about the afterlife from the Gospels.

And we can’t talk to Jesus, as Sean suggests, because Jesus never talks to anybody. His ghostwriters never used their stories to meaningfully answer any questions someone might have about anything.

Those ghostwriters were selling a product, not writing a medical treatise or a micro-history.

“Sufficient Cause” Problems.

We also run into issues with “sufficient cause,” amusingly enough, with Sean’s logic. His logic seems to run along these lines (paraphrased):

Just coming back from death isn’t enough. Someone must come back from an extensive period of death. Being “dead” for even a minute doesn’t compare to being “dead” for a half-weekend. Jesus’ claim was that he’d been “dead” for a half-weekend, which is longer than the fictional characters in Flatliners were dead. Therefore, we should trust his accounting of what death was like.

[Mr. Captain: *uncontrollable spluttering* “WHY WHY WHY. I WANT ANSWERS.”]

Obviously, Sean doesn’t support any of these claims, either.

How does he know that being dead for a minute is beat by being dead for a half-weekend? Compared to eternity, both timeframes are ridiculously short. How much could anybody be reasonably expected to figure out about the afterlife after spending even a day-and-a-half there?

In fact, evangelicals have had to come up with some big hand-waving routines to explain why Jesus’ half-weekend dead justifies him forcing the wickedness of eternal torture on those who reject his “good news.” They usually land on him having crammed the entire experience into those hours so it totes counts. So why is a minute not enough?

(A few years ago, the r/atheism subreddit had fun with this exact problem, by the way.)

Lastly, why would Jesus need to experience death before he could share information about it? Isn’t he omniscient, the 100% incarnation of an omnimax god? Why doesn’t he already know what the afterlife involves for his human pets?

And the Gospels Themselves.

It’s not like the Gospels contain anything really meaningful about Jesus’ time dead or the afterlife itself, anyway.

It’s like Sean’s never actually read these accounts.

However, I just did. 

So I know damned well that they don’t say a thing he’s implying they say. Has he forgotten that his audience can access these stories fairly easily for themselves?

In fact, the four Resurrection accounts provide no meaningful information at all about the afterlife. Literally all they reveal is that Jesus blips into sight here and there, eats broiled fish (Momo would like that!), and admonishes various of his followers to believe him and lead his future followers. Then he floats away. Largely, that’s it. He explains nothing.

Of course, even if Jesus had said anything meaningful after “coming back from death,” we would still need to test it before accepting it. And Christians have fallen down hard on that count for centuries.

Gosh, it’s almost like Sean’s kinda missed the whole point of the Resurrection myth. Whatever it’s ultimately about, it doesn’t actually represent PROOF YES PROOF that there’s some sort of life after death. 

A Solid Zero Out of Three.

It amuses me to know that Sean McDowell positions himself as the next rising apologetics star in evangelical Christianity. His reasoning is downright embarrassing — and yet it’s exactly what I’d expect out of someone been immersed his whole life in his tribe’s very worst approximation of rational inquiry.

He apes and mimics the process of evaluating truth claims, but clearly has no idea how it’s done. He knows that support for claims is important, but lacks any for his own so resorts to the intellectual dishonesty of logical fallacies, naked emotional manipulation, and extensive utilization of junk history.

Ultimately, all he offers anybody offer the same old glurge and bad reasoning that his daddy and those other older apologists offer, just with an added fratchoad flourish and 20% more condescension.

But since that’s all evangelicals want, they’ll likely adore him and think his work is amazing. Evangelicals don’t care much for change. They’d rather continue a tradition of failure than figure out how to succeed.

NEXT UP: LSP! Then, we’ll check out the medical side of resurrection and why the reality of death represents such a problem for evangelicals. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...