In every culture, stories are begun (and go on to prosper) because they explain something important to us. In Christian circles, it’s often the best sermon illustrations that are passed on, from one to another. But I’ve come across two illustrations that preachers regularly use that are untrue. What should we make of them?
Paraplegics and lottery winners
The first example involves a reasonably famous illustration about the happiness of paraplegics and lottery winners. In the illustration, a study has supposedly found that one year after winning the lottery and one year after the accident that caused the paralysis, both paraplegics and lottery winners are equally happy.
However, if you read the original study (PDF), you’ll find that that’s not what it says. In the study, a group of lottery winners were interviewed between one month and 18 months after their win, and a group of paraplegics were interviewed between one month and 12 months after their accident. They were asked to rate how happy they were at this stage in their life on a scale from 0 to 5, where 0 was “not at all” and 5 was “very much”.
The average score for the lottery winners was 4.00 and the average for the paraplegics was 2.96. As the study points out, the level for the paraplegics was surprisingly high (being above the mid-point in the scale). But that’s not the point. Somewhere along the line, someone has decided to simplify the facts for the purpose of the illustration. But how much can you simplify the facts before they are distorted? I struggle to see, given the timing of the original interviews, how the data can be interpreted to describe what people felt like 12 months after the event. And I find it even harder to swallow how a happiness rating of 4.00 is effectively the same as one of 2.96. (I am not aware of any statistically credible way of saying that this difference is negligible.)
Now, on this one, you can hardly blame the preachers. If you look at wikipedia’s Psychwiki article on the Hedonic Treadmill, you will find the same study referred to and explained like this:
Lottery winners, for example, may experience an initial emotional high, but report about the same level of happiness they previously held after time passed. Similarly, paraplegics reported below average levels of happiness for about two months on average after the accident but eventually returned to the set point they previously held.
This isn’t what the study showed. But the desire to make it say what we want it to say is very strong—for Christian and non-Christian alike!
The death of Christ
But my other example is particularly Christian. I have heard many times now that Jesus died on the cross from asphyxiation. Apparently the weight of his body dragged him down, crushing his lungs and making it impossible to breath, so that Jesus had to raise himself up in agony, pushing on the nails in his feet, to take another breath.
It’s a breathtaking story (sorry). But it isn’t true.
The asphyxiation theory was proposed by a Frenchman called Pierre Barbet, in his 1953 book A Physician at Calvary. But a whole series of experiments (involving people tied to crosses, not nailed) by Frederick Zugibe (Chief Medical Examiner for Rockland County, New York, for 33 years) has shown that it is only possible to be asphyxiated if your hands are nailed above your head. (You can read his conclusions at the bottom of this page). If Jesus was crucified on a normal, cross-shaped cross, then he didn’t die from asphyxiation. He could breath the whole time. I am not saying that crucifixion wasn’t miserable; I’m just saying he didn’t die by asphyxiation.
Questions and reflections
Now, I have to confess that I’m not sure quite what to do with all of this information, and I look forward to your thoughts. But here are some of my questions and reflections:
- What drives human beings to approximate the data to suit their own conclusions? Why do we want to say that the paraplegic and the lottery winner were exactly the same, when clearly they weren’t? Is it that the speed of communication or the ease of communication keeps trumping the importance of truth?
- But perhaps this is the bigger question for me: how often and how much do I gild the lily in my apologetics and preaching for the sake of bolstering my point?
- Why do we pass on the information about Jesus being asphyxiated? It isn’t related anywhere in Scripture, so it’s not really important is it? If you go and read the original chapter by Barbet, you’ll see that it was part of his explanation of the love of Jesus—that he raised himself up in agony to breathe so that he could talk to his disciples. So how did this idea enter evangelical folklore?
- Should, therefore, preachers check their illustrations regularly before they use them? Or is life too short, with these sorts of discrepancies not mattering much after all?
Whether we like it or not, the parts of our sermons that get passed on most often are the illustrations. They rapidly become part of our folklore because the illustrations are the part of the preaching that captures our imaginations. This tells us something significant about communication. But if this is true, it also leads to a sobering conclusion: perhaps the facts of the text—the things that God most wants us to hear—are not always the things that are most easily passed on. All the more reason for preachers to work hard on communicating what the text puts in front of us, and all the more reason for congregations to keep reading the text.