One hears some interesting things on sports-talk radio. I listen for news about my Nebraska Cornhusker (American) football team. Sometimes, however, the hosts venture outside their fields of expertise. An Omaha station, to whose podcasts I listen, interviewed Harriet McFeely yesterday. She’s an earnest person who sincerely believes in the existence of Bigfoot or Sasquatch, a cryptic quasi-hominid creature alleged to be in excess of 7 foot tall. Just days ago a woman claims to have seen one just east of North Platte, Neb. Claims of Bigfoot (or Yeti) sightings abound but the evidence does not. McFeely is promoting a second Bigfoot Conference to be held in Hastings, Nebraska, in February. Last year 750 people attended and McFeely expects twice that number this year. Knowing what I do about radio, I suspect that the hosts interviewed McFeely because 1) she is genuinely passionate about her hobby; 2) she’s a sweet retired lady; and 3) because it demonstrates their ability to move customers. At least some of the growth of the conference can be traced to the media exposure McFeely received last year on the same show.
One imagines that people might attend a conference like this for a variety of reasons. It might be fun. It might be a diversion. It is interesting and it might be true. Some, perhaps many, of those who attend are true believers looking for affirmation and new leads. McFeely’s husband humored her until he had a “bigfoot experience.” After that, she says, he became a true believer.
The actual empirical evidence for Bigfoot is non-existent. McFeely recounted her experience of feeding a Bigfoot by setting out plates of food, the way she might have left out a late-night snack for a late husband. She was certain that Bigfoot likes chocolate chip cookies since they were gone but (apparently) other things were left. She was certain that Bigfoot ate them because her dog alerts a certain way when there is a Bigfoot about. Apparently, Bigfoot abound in Nebraska.
At every point where McFeely might have supplied us with actual evidence of the existence of Bigfoot she pulled a bait and switch. Where she promised actual evidence offered us subjective impressions and claims that did not follow from her premises.
The most famous evidence for the existence of Bigfoot is a grainy 1967 film. The images were captured near Eureka, California by Roger Patterson. McFeely calls the creature “Patty.”
Remarkably, as McFeely recounted the cookie story, which she suggested was a regular occurrence, I wondered aloud why she did not set up a GoPro camera with thermal imagining (apparently Bigfoot only appear at night)? Where is the scat? Where are the remnants of dinner? Where are the Bigfoot corpses? She claimed that many have seen mature Bigfoot and even juveniles but, again, empirical evidence in an age of DNA studies and ubiquitous high-resolution mobile phone cameras seems remarkably elusive. According to this 2014 article in the National Geographic, hair and other alleged evidence has been tested and found wanting.
As I listened to McFeely, however, I was struck by the similarities between the way that McFeely defended her faith in Bigfoot and the way Mormon and even some Christians sometimes defend their faith. At some point in a conversation with a Mormon, the missionary will appeal to his experience of “the burning in the bosom.” The actual history of Joseph Smith and the rise of Mormonism matters little. Subjectivism trumps objective facts. One suspects that McFeely’s defense of her faith in Bigfoot is just as impervious. She knows that Bigfoot lives, because he lives within her heart.
Biblical Christianity, however, begins with claims about facts and witnesses. It does not begin with the subjective experiences of believers nor even with the subjective experiences of the disciples or apostles. The earliest Christians never claimed that they knew Jesus to be alive because chiefly they had experienced him subjectively nor because the spirit of Jesus was with them subjectively. This is the sort of thing that people say at funerals now: “George is not really dead, because he lives on in each of us.” That is not the Christian truth claim.
The earliest Christian claim was never that Jesus lives because he lives figuratively in believers. Rather, their claim was that the disciples saw him die on the cross (Luke 23:39–49), that they saw his body taken away for burial (Luke 23:40–56), that they saw his improbably empty tomb (Matt 27:62–66), and that they saw him in a resurrected state (Luke 24; Matt 28; John 20). Luke tells us that the disciples saw him visibly ascend (Acts 1:1–11). The Apostle John reports that one doubting disciple, Thomas (John 20:24–30), put his finger into one of the holes left by Jesus’ crucifixion and that the disciples ate an ordinary meal with the resurrected Jesus. The Apostle Paul reports that 500 people saw the risen Jesus (1 Cor 15:6). Those are claims subject to empirical verification.
Matthew reports that the authorities knew that Jesus has been raised from the dead, that the soldiers saw the empty tomb, that the body was not stolen. So, the authorities bribed them to keep them quiet but evidently someone talked.
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day (Matt 28:11–15; ESV).
When Matthew wrote his gospel, whether in the 40s (according to the traditional date) or closer to 70AD, as modern scholars have held, such claims were relatively easy to refute. Either people saw and empty tomb or they did not. Either they ate with him or they did not.
The earliest critics of Christianity doubted that Jesus had been raised from the dead–indeed several of their criticisms anticipated the sorts of arguments the so-called “Higher Critics” would make in the modern period–but they did not doubt that Jesus existed. There was too much evidence, too much reliable testimony to the contrary. We have reliable testimony from the earliest church fathers, who knew the disciples. The early church knew Jesus’ family. On this see Richard Bauckham’s valuable 1996 essay summarizing the evidence.
A final note. Some might be troubled by my appeal to “facts.” Those influenced by late-modern subjectivism doubt the existence of objective reality entailed by talk of “facts.” I will take seriously their skepticism when they start ignoring stop signs. Another source of concern might be the way Cornelius Van Til’s apologetic method is sometimes construed, as if he was opposed to facts and evidence. Of course he was not. He criticized the appeal to “brute,” uninterpreted facts, as if in dialogue with unbelievers we are to allow them to make of facts whatever they will. I am doing no such thing. God’s Word tells us what is the significance of the empty tomb and the eye-witness testimony and when Christ returns he will exact vengeance on all those who willfully denied what was plainly before them and what has been truthfully reported to them in God’s Word.
My point here is to remind us all that the Christian faith is grounded in objective reality. There are wonderful subjective benefits flowing from the objective truth of the faith. Christ has “put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” of his promises (2 Cor 1:22). It is absolutely true that the God who God has said “’Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6; ESV) but the Spirit works in the hearts of those who, by God’s grace, have trusted the report of God’s Word that Jesus was really, literally raised from the dead and that he is seated at the right hand of the Father. Bigfoot may live in Mrs McFeely’s heart but there is not much evidence that he exists in nature. There is, however, every evidence, reliable eye-witness testimony that Jesus was and is (Acts 9).