Arnold Lunn (1888-1974) – Skiing Expert, Agnostic, and Christian Apologist

Arnold Lunn was born to a Methodist minister, but he was himself agnostic and a critic of Christianity—until he was 45 years old, when he converted to the faith. Today is the anniversary of his death in 1974.

Lunn was a professional skier and full-time enthusiast. He founded the Alpine Ski Club and the Kandahar Ski Club. He brought slalom skiing to the racing world, and he’s the namesake for a double black diamond ski trail at Taos Ski Valley.

Lunn credited his agnosticism to the wholly unconvincing cause of Anglicanism. He looked in vain for persuasive arguments for the existence of God and the truth of Christianity. Later he Book Cover-Arnold Lunn-The Third Daywould say that “an odd hour or two at the end of a boy’s school life might not be unprofitably spend in armouring him against the half-baked dupes of ill informed secularists” (The Third Day, xvii). He wrote in criticism of the faith and debated Christianity’s prominent defenders.

Despite his religiously agnostic stance, Lunn found that problems for scientific naturalism proved equally recalcitrant. This created a dilemma for him. But his vigorous opposition to Christianity was guided by an intellectual honesty that was helpless before the evidence he exhumed. In due course he gave up and converted to Christianity. All the energy he had devoted in the cause against Christianity he now mustered on behalf of Christianity. He published several books in support of Christian belief.

He famously debated two major critics, C. E. M. Joad and J. B. S. Haldane. The inside flap of his book The Third Day observes that Lunn was an effective apologist “because he has learnt apologetics in the controversial arena.” But Lunn is unusual for having taken alternate sides in this arena. As he wrote in a pamphlet, “I can imagine no better training for the Church than to spend, as I did, a year arguing the case against Catholicism with a Catholic, and a second year in defending the Catholic position against an agnostic.”

Lunn was prolific. He wrote manuals in skiing and mountaineering, fiction, memoirs, and popular books of Christian evidences. Personal letters between himself and both Joad (Is Christianity True?, 1933) and Haldane (Science and the Supernatural, 1935) were published, as well.

Here are a few excerpts from his book in defense of the resurrection of Jesus:

Substantial Truth Under Circumstantial Variety

William Paley pointed out that human testimony is generally to be accepted when the “substantial truth” of witnesses survives despite “circumstantial variety.” This principle is practiced in courts of law when evaluating testimonial evidence presented during trial. The rule applies also in weighing the testimony of eyewitnesses to Jesus following his resurrection from the dead. Arnold Lunn puts the point this way:

If it could be proved that the various accounts which we possess of the events of the first Easter Sunday and of the subsequent appearances of Jesus to the disciples were not wholly consistent so far as details are concerned, this fact might be difficult to reconcile with any theory of direct inspiration or Biblical inerrancy but would not invalidate the evidence so far as the central fact of the Resurrection is concerned. (70-71)

Lunn is not conceding anything. He is not supposing that there are real contradictions in the eyewitness testimony. His point is that even if there were discrepancies, this would not disqualify their common testimony that Jesus did rise from the dead.

The “Collective Hallucination” Hypothesis

Lunn writes with good humor when he responds to a longstanding objection to the resurrection claim.

The anti-miraculist does not deny that the disciples believed that they had seen the risen Lord, but he asserts that they were victims of ‘collective hallucinations’. Anti-miraculists suffer from the collective illusion that a polysyllabic phrase is a satisfactory substitute, both for proof and for explanation (74, with italics added here).

So, was it the risen Lord whom the disciples saw in the flesh, or did they merely imagine that they did?

To begin, circumstances must be abnormal for any normal person to hallucinate, and more so for groups of people. Next, eyewitnesses were slow to acknowledge that it was Jesus whom they had encountered during his post-resurrection appearances. It is a curious thing that Mary Magdalen, for example “saw our Lord and mistook him for the gardener” (75). This happened, as well, when a group of disciples encountered Jesus on their way to Emmaus. The disciples in the Upper Room thought they saw a ghost. In each case, those who were present had to be persuaded that it was, in fact, Jesus who appeared to them. Whatever it was that did the trick for them, it wasn’t some hallucinatory experience. Their initial experiences did not immediately issue in recognition or faint apprehension. For they had no genuine expectation that Jesus would be raised from the dead. “They didn’t run away with their first impressions, and tell unauthenticated stories of a miracle. They examined their first impressions and only by examination learned of their miraculous truth” (75). The disciple Thomas (the “doubter”) sought to preserve the utmost sobriety in consideration of evidence and would not even accept the testimony of his closest peers without firsthand experience.

It is indeed ironical that those who cannot accept the Resurrection of Jesus because it is unique are driven to postulate something no less unique, a ‘collective hallucination’ of a type not paralleled in all the records of human illusion, an illusion which has had an infinitely greater effect on the course of history than any admitted fact. (77)

The Origin of Primitive Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus

The real difficulty for any critic is to make sense of “the origin of a belief so contrary . . . to human experience” and to the expectations of Jesus’ disciples. They would have to have been desperate fanatics to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus before the gaze of those who had crucified their Lord, and to endure physical persecution and martyrdom. Somehow they managed to rock their world with their message, as countless numbers came to believe on the basis of their testimony.

The Empty Tomb

It has always impressed me that, though the tomb of Jesus was well-known to his disciples, there is no evidence of veneration, such as you would expect from family and friends with deep affection for a charismatic leader. As Lunn says, “From the moment that the women return from the Garden the tomb of Jesus passes, historically, into complete oblivion” (The Third Day, 83). If the disciples had not been convinced of the resurrection, they might well have regarded it as a shrine; they would have remained in Jerusalem rather than devote themselves to worldwide proclamation of a gospel they knew to be false.

Lunn examines several anti-miraculist hypotheses meant to explain the empty tomb. He calls these “anti-miraculist” because they are, without exception, motivated by a positive denial of the supernatural:

  1. Jesus did not die on the cross, but recovered in the tomb from which he subsequently escaped.
  2. The women made a mistake and went to the wrong tomb.
  3. The sepulchre in which Jesus was first buried was never intended to be a permanent tomb. Joseph of Arithmathea removed the body and transferred it to another sepulchre.
  4. Strauss’s proposal: It is quite possible that it [the body] was thrown into some dishonourable place with those of other executed criminals, and in this case his disciples may have, at first, had no opportunity of seeing the body. Later, when they preached the Resurrection, even their opponents would have found it difficult to recognise his body and to provide proofs of its identity.
  5. The disciples stole the body from the tomb.

Lunn demonstrates that “a reconstruction of the situation” answers each of these objections and reveals them to be due to an anti-miraculist bias.

Secularism and the Decline of Morality

Lunn had a way with the pen. “If a man be nothing more than first cousin to the chimpanzee, he has no logical ground of complaint if he is put behind bars” (The Third Day, xi; italics are mine). As religion declines, so too does morality decline. Atheism dooms humanity to a denial of what makes human persons human and worthy of moral respect. Even if true, the effect is most unpleasant. I would add that if we are little more than a bundle of nerves and their impulses, operating mechanically in a purely physical and deterministic world, it should come as a a real surprise that we are capable of noticing this “fact” and finding it disturbing.

The “Aesthetics of Argument”

Lunn lamented the Revolt Against Reason (the title of a book published in DATE), manifest not only among notional Christians but also by scientific materialists. He happily owned the accusation that he was a Christian rationalist. Evidence was, for him, the only sure path to responsible belief. Emotionalism and the general neglect of reason exact a costly loss of confidence and a failure of witness.

To counter this trend, Lunn called for what he termed an “aesthetic of argument.” He says, in the introduction to his book that details the case for the resurrection, that his aim is to convert the unconverted. He was converted under the pressure of evidence, and ever after it was his lifelong ambition to assist others along that path. He was convinced that public debate, especially at universities, was a valuable investment in this cause. For it ensured that more would attend to the arguments out of curiosity about the outcome of a debate than they would at a church-sponsored meeting.

This has been my experience, too.

* * *

For any young person who aspires to the work of an apologist, I cannot recommend enough a close study of the life and work of Arnold Lunn. One could do with more admirable leaders in this field of Christian theology and practice.


  1. There is a brief interesting review of the Lunn-Joad correspondence in here.
  2. C. E. M. Joad, a vociferous critic of Christianity, later converted to Christianity, and subsequently was, in his own way, a defender of the faith. See The Recovery of Belief (1952).
  3. There is an inspiring brief biography, written by Bernard O’Connor, Archibishop of Melbourne. Here’s the link to my own marked copy.
  4. A review of Lunn’s book The Third Day is to be found in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 35.137 (March 1946): 118-21.
  5. Science and the Supernatural, a compilation of the letters between Lunn and Haldane, is available online here.

◊ ◊ ◊

Other posts in this series . . .


Death Is a Big Deal—Mortal Motivation Theory in Psychology

Death is a big deal. Most of us know it, or acknowledge it. Those of us who don’t are in denial—a fairly typical way of coping with unpleasant or unwelcome realities.

A handful of psychologists have developed a theory about how the fear or anticipation of our personal demise influences the way we make sense of our world.

On their view, our notions about death drive much of our behavior, and in ways we little suspect. This may seem obvious for some people, organizations, religious groups, and such. But these psychologists propose a completely general thesis with universal application. What is most controversial is their claim about each of us as individuals:

At a more personal level, recognition of our mortality leads us to love fancy cars, tan ourselves to an unhealthy crisp, max out our credit cards, drive like lunatics, itch for a fight with a perceived enemy, and crave fame, however ephemeral, even if we have to drink yak urine on Survivor to get it.

This movement within the field of psychology has come to be called “terror-management theory.”

Some who demand an evolutionary explanation for our psychological constitution, in all of its rich complexity, apparently feel some uneasiness about the proposal. But Sheldon Solomon, one of the theory’s chief architects, doesn’t seem to be fazed by this. He has no trouble referring to a human person as a “breathing piece of defecating meat.” I would imagine we have evolution to thank for that.

His book, a co-authored treatise, is called The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. William James (1842-1910), the philosopher and psychologist, provided the authors with their title in his own reference to death as “the worm at the core” of the human condition. I suspect, though, that similarities between their conception of human persons and William James’s don’t extend much further than this borrowing.

Also, I wonder if they’ve thought very deeply about how the Christian religion locates the problem of our mortality within the total picture of human meaning and purpose. More likely than not, they would explain the hold of a Christian worldview on the minds and psyches of so many people as a fear-of-death management-system. That would make for an ironic parallel and discontinuity between their perspective and that of the Christian Bible.

That the anticipation of death reverberates throughout our sensibilities and actions has been thought before. The authors themselves credit Ernest Becker (1924-1974), author of The Denial of Death, for setting them on this particular research path. But the notion may have special appeal in a social context dominated by scientific naturalism. In such a context, one advantage of their theory is that it lends support to convenient debunking of claims about life after death. Doctrines of immortality are reduced to coping mechanisms. And that’s about all there is to it.

If belief in immortality provides a person with psychic support in the face of death, it may be supposed, then we have a psychological explanation for his belief in immortality.

Or not. The trouble is, the move made in this explanation for belief is a non sequitur. For a doctrine might actually be true and a believer in immortality might actually be justified, on reasonable grounds, for affirming that doctrine, even if immortality does provide believers with psychic support. In fact, belief in immortality would be a triple advantage if (1) the doctrine of immortality is true, (2) there’s good reason to affirm the doctrine, and (3) the doctrine provides powerful psychological support (in the form of hope, for example) in a world of mixed blessings.

Of course, the believer must reckon with the specter of a modus tollens reversal:

  1. If the doctrine of immortality is true, then the doctrine of scientific naturalism is false.
  2. The doctrine of scientific naturalism is true.
  3. Therefore, the doctrine of immortality is false.

This isn’t a serious obstacle, if the doctrine of scientific naturalism is false. It isn’t an obstacle if there is little evidence or argument that scientific naturalism is true. And since the evidence for scientific naturalism is ambiguous at best, the doctrinaire naturalist still has reason to consider the significance of his life within the framework of the possibility that some doctrine of immortality is true. And this may induce fear for anyone clinging to scientific naturalism.

No naturalistic explanation for the psychic power that derives from hope for an afterlife can dispense with this challenge to naturalism.

So what if belief in immortality aids in managing the fear of our eventual earthly demise? I suppose it’s as likely that the denial of immortality could also be a terror-management strategy. How convenient to think that death is not a threshold of crossing between the known and the unknown, but just the end of it all?

The Stoics advised composure in the face of death on the grounds that when it comes there will be no regret because no one left to regret it. Or at least no basis for fearing it. Why fear now what you won’t fear when it actually happens? But that isn’t the problem, is it, this side of the fatal divide? The real problem is knowing whether there is something in it for us beyond the threshold of death, and knowing, if there is, what it might be, and whether there are different possibilities, depending on your existential and doxastic commitments here and now.

There is room, I think, for more than one version of “mortal motivation theory” in psychology. There is the secularist-naturalist version promoted by the authors of The Worm at the Core. And there is the religiously serious version according to which death is a fitting device for contemplating our place in a super-naturalistically haunted universe and reflecting on where it might all be leading.


For a detailed review of the book in The Chronicle of Higher Education, click here: Mortal Motivation – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education. Direct quotations in this post are from the Chronicle review by Marc Parry.

Sigmund Freud and the Illusion of Peace

Yesterday’s post was about Karl Marx. Today it’s about Sigmund Freud, who was born on this date in 1856. They have this in common—that religion is a subjective response of one sort or another, to be explained away psychologically or sociologically. Feuerbach contended that God is part of the furniture of a dream world. Marx called religion “the opiate of the people,” a drug that postpones the realization of social utopianism. Freud, when writing about religion, spoke of “the future of an illusion.”

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

All were atheists. All traded the idea of God for a vision of reality that gained traction for awhile, then lost steam. Almost no one knows about Feuerbach, and those who do seldom think of him with affection. Marx’s communism, where it exists, is anything but utopian. And Freudian psychoanalysis is now repudiated by most practitioners and theorists in psychology.

The doctrines that God is a projection of the human imagination (Feuerbach), that religion is a drug that holds humanity back from realization of its highest aspirations and greatest potential (Marx), that the idea of God meets some need for a grand Father figure (Freud), are all affectations. They each acknowledge the pervasiveness of religion in the experience of humanity. Each explains away what it does not argue is false. Each imagines a world improved by the deconstruction of religion. And each has failed in its diagnosis of the human predicament and in its prognosis for a religionless world.

Notice, each of these visions for humanity attempts a solution for the human predicament, which they each in their own way attribute to religion. But the attempt to shift responsibility for the human predicament onto God is itself responsible for the human predicament. The strategy has its origin in the Garden, where the serpent alleged that God’s warning and God’s promise would hold the first couple back from realizing the full potential of humanity.

The impulse is the same for every generation. There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11). Today, the false starts toward utopian society are rooted in scientific naturalism, mysticism, political meliorism, and religious fanaticism. In every case, true religion is either denied or obscured. The effect is the same: to steer men and women away from the only sure source of salvation, individually and collectively.

We frantically grasp for some semblance of peace—peace of mind, peace among nations. But our frenzy only makes things worse. It displaces peace. And it ensures that the true source of peace is passed by, unnoticed. That source is too good to be true, too easy for it to really count: “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).

But isn’t that how the achievement of peace should come? Not as an achievement, but as a gift?

Some dates:

  • 1841—Publication of Ludwig Feuerbach’s, Das Wesen des Christentums (English: The Essence of Christianity)
  • 1848—Publication of The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  • 1922—Formation of the Communist Party in Russia and establishment of the Soviet Union (USSR)
  • 1927—Seizure of control of China by the Communist Party
  • 1927—Publication of The Future of an Illusion, by Sigmund Freud
%d bloggers like this: