Believing in the “Impossible”: A Critical Review of JP Holding’s book, “The Impossible Faith.”

Anyone who reads much of what Holding says on the web knows that he majors in ad hominems against those who disagree, and it should be well known that I do not like him. He’s a non-credentialed arrogant hack who has gained a following mostly from the uninformed. No wonder he had to self-publish this book. He claims that one of the reasons Christian publishers won’t publish it (which leads me to think he tried to get it published) is because, in his own words, “I won't write Left Behind style crap, and the market for Christian lit is glutted, unlike the atheist market.” I think there is another reason.

The book reminds me of one of the good college term papers I’ve read, which I’d give him a “A” on if I were grading it, but that’s it. “Good,” in so far as he read a few books and strung together some decent information from which I learned a little. “College term paper,” in so far as he lacks a breadth of knowledge on the issues he writes about beyond that level. Among Christian publishers who are looking to publish in the area of apologetics, they are looking for something better.

On the back cover Holding claims to have 17 years in apologetics ministry. If he’s 38 years old now (a guess), then that means he started his ministry when he was 21 years old. What can that mean? That a 21 year old on the web arguing for Christianity has an apologetics ministry? Hardly. He also claims “It is impossible to estimate the evangelical impact that is possible because of The Impossible Faith.” Since he capitalizes and italicizes the words, “The Impossible Faith” here, it’s hard not to escape the conclusion he’s referring to his own book. Such wildly overstated self-promotional claims usually come from college sophomores who think they know everything simply because they’re not yet informed enough to fully grasp the serious objections to their own arguments.

The “explosive proposition” of his book is that “there is simply no possibility that Christianity could have been accepted by anyone in the ancient world, unless its first missionaries had indisputable proof and testimony of the faith’s central tenant, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Had there not been such indisputable evidence to present, Christianity would have been an impossible faith.” (p. viii) This is a very large claim! It’s widely recognized among educated people that the larger the claim is, the harder it becomes to prove it. But if you think this is a large claim he goes even farther. When discussing the skeptical argument that the disciples stole the body of Jesus, Holding writes: “It is impossible that Christianity thrived and survived while making such audacious claims falsely, and even more incredible to suppose that such claims were made with the full and continuing knowledge that the result in most cases would be rejection, ostracization, and persecution.” Then in the next paragraph he adds, “There are two added layers of difficulty…” So, first Holding claims such a faith is “impossible,” but that’s not enough. He adds that beyond being impossible, “it’s even more incredible...” But that’s not even enough, for he goes on to talk about “two added layers of difficulty.” (p. 97). How he can pile up “two added layers of difficulty” on top of an already “incredible” skeptical argument on behalf of an “impossible” scenerio, is beyond me. Educated people know not to claim more than what their arguments actually show.

His argument has floated around in Christian circles for decades, and maybe even centuries before, with more reserved claims about what it actually shows. It would be interesting to know who first used it. I myself used it as a Christian. But I only claimed the Christian faith was unlikely. The novelty of his approach is that he uses some recent scholarship from the Social Science Group of Malina, Neyrey, and Rohrbaugh, along with McCane’s study of burial customs in the New Testament era--books which someone must have pointed out to him and from which he uses like they were the gospel truth. He obviously picks and chooses what he wants to believe by these scholars, since none of them would affirm the inerrancy of the Bible, and McCane may be an atheist for all he knows.

It’s worth looking at his main argument.

Holding argues that ancient societies highly valued honor much more than we do today, and as such Jesus’ shameful crucifixion and burial would be powerful obstacles to them believing he is the Son of God. Holding asks, “How could a man, subject to such overwhelming disgrace, in a society where honor was so crucial, have come to be recognized as the Son of God? There is only one viable explanation,” that Jesus arose from the dead. (p. 17). Really? Only one viable explanation?

Holding argues that in the ancient world people concentrated not on individual identity but rather on group identity such that there were three strikes against believing in Jesus. Strike # 1 is that Jesus was a Jew, hated and despised by the Romans. Strike # 2 is that Jesus was a Galilean, which added to Roman hatred just like Iraq or Afghanistan is to us today. The Galileans were also thought to be “ignoramuses” by the Jews in Judea. Strike # 3 is that Jesus was from Nazareth, which would cause both Jews and Gentiles to scoff at the idea he was the Messiah. Holding writes: “Ethnically and geographically, Jesus was everything that everyone did NOT expect a Messiah to be.” (p. 27). Everyone? Really?

Holding argues that the resurrection was a major stumbling block in preaching to the Gentiles because a bodily resurrection went against the philosophical thinking of that day, where the body was considered something to be escaped from, and it was strange to Jewish ears because “no one had conceived of the idea of one UNIQUE resurrection before the time of final judgment” (pp. 29-32). Again. “No one”? What about Herod and some others (Mt 14:1, Mark 16:14-16)?

Holding argues that in the ancient world “innovation was bad.” Giving preference to the thinking of the ancestors over innovative ideas was the rule among the ancients. Holding argues this in regard to several particular innovative ideas: 1) Jesus taught that believers should be willing to forsake their families; 2) Jesus reached out to tax collectors and a Samaritan woman; 3) Jesus said the Temple would be destroyed by pagans; 4) Jesus teaching was subversive toward the Jewish perception of patriotism. Since Christianity was such an innovation (an arrogant and exclusive innovation), “it is extremely unlikely that anyone would have accepted the Christian faith—unless there was indisputable evidence of its central claim, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (pp. 33-45). Once more. Is it “extremely unlikely that ANYONE would have accepted the Christian faith…?”

Holding turns next to three other religions, Mithraism, Mormonism and Islam and argues that none of these other religions passes the test as an “impossible faith.” (pp. 47-66). There are differences, no doubt, but they all arose from superstitious people and charismatic leaders. Mithraism actually died out, and by the criteria Holding suggested earlier that an impossible faith would be one that “passed into history” (p. vii) then it should be considered an “impossible faith.” When it comes to Mormonism, like Christianity, he doesn’t mention how persecution actually fans the flames of a movement.

In the short and remaining mostly superficial chapters Holding argues that there are “three pillars” supportive of the “impossible faith”: 1) Miracles; 2) The empty tomb; and 3) The fulfillment of prophecy (pp. 67-75). He argues that the resurrection was not expected by his disciples (pp. 77-82). And he closes by arguing against two old and often debated arguments that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross, known as the “swoon theory” (pp. 83-94), and the “theft theory,” that someone stole the body of Jesus and perpetrated a lie (pp. 95-105).

Overall Holding wildly overstates his case, doesn’t interact sufficiently with his detractors, and bases his arguments on certain implausible assumptions that he doesn’t justify. For instance, Richard Carrier has sufficiently refuted his claims, not once but twice, along with Robert M. Price, Brian Hotz, and recently the combative Matthew Green, but Holding doesn’t mention their arguments or interact with them at all in this book. While I can excuse him for not dealing with Green's recent arguments, I can't with regard to those written before he self-published his book. Why didn't he? He doesn’t interact with the book, The Empty Tomb, either. If he wants to be a scholar, a wannabe, then the one thing scholars do is they show awareness of the relevant literature and interact with it. Holding doesn’t do this in his book, even though he does attempt this outside of his book.

Furthermore, Holding quotes from the New Testament showing no awareness of Biblical criticism, the debates about Biblical inspiration, or whether Jesus actually fulfilled prophecy. Maybe he should take the 100% challenge? To blithely quote from a gospel (or the New Testament) without some understanding of the strata of gospel origins and the debates that ensue from them is just superficial stuff. He also assumes the people in Biblical times were not superstitious people in comparison to our own modern educated societies. He thinks people believed Christianity because of evidence even though they believed in Artemis, Zeus, and Janus, and that's merely college level stuff. [I’ll probably have more to say, but this is all for now].