All things consideredApril 5, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
The writer or writers at apologetics.org have noticed my commentary on their recent apologetics series, and though they carefully avoid linking to any of my posts, they do want try and address my points.
There is running commentary on another site by Deacon Duncan concerning this argument for the resurrection. Now what it is failing to do (among other things) in order to argue against these facts is not accounting for all of the virtually undisputed facts taken as a whole.
I can’t help thinking this is just a bit unfair, since they’ve only presented 3 facts so far (at least in the series I’m addressing), and I have accounted for them all, both individually and as a group. I do like the way they toss in the parenthetical “among other things,” as though they really have a lot more answers and just can’t be troubled to share them at the moment. But let’s go ahead and deal with this argument, and see exactly who is, and is not, addressing all the indisputable facts as a whole.
According to apologetics.org, there are “six tests which historians use in determining what is the best explanation for given historical facts,” and “[t]he hypothesis ‘God raised Jesus from the dead’ passes all these tests.” The six tests are as follows:
- It has great explanatory scope.
- It has great explanatory power.
- It is plausible.
- It is not ad hoc or contrived.
- It is in accord with accepted beliefs.
- It far outstrips any of its rival hypotheses in meeting conditions (1)-(5).
William Lane Craig (who they do link to!) cites each of the above tests and asserts that the resurrection hypothesis passes all of them. Let’s look first at the scope of the explanation. According to Craig (as quoted by apologetics.org), the Christian hypothesis explains three things: “why the tomb was found empty, why the disciples saw post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and why the Christian faith came into being.”
One might be tempted to argue that “three things” is hardly a “great explanatory scope.” You could argue that the three points raised are only a sample or summary of a much wider scope, unless you consider a number of facts which ought to fall into the same scope, and are mysteriously not included. For example, if God raised Jesus from the dead as an immortal and divine Savior, the most fundamental and obvious consequence would be that He would still be here, especially given that his stated purpose in going through death was to make it possible for man and God (i.e. Himself) to be united forever.
For another example, if God literally raised Jesus from the dead, why was he not seen alive by anybody but believers? You could cite Paul as a counter example, but even in Paul’s case it specifically states that the other eyewitnesses of the event “heard the sound but did not see anyone.” And Paul was in the process of undergoing a dramatic change in beliefs, so it’s at least arguable whether he was even a real unbeliever at that point.
We could look at similar questions about why Jesus’ body did not behave like a physical body, if in fact God physically raised Jesus from the dead, or why a number of witnesses reported not recognizing Jesus at first, or why the Ascension story was necessary, or why area residents reported that disciples had taken the body, or why the “Body of Christ” is so doctrinally divided, or why we need a Bible, and why the Bible stopped being written. Perhaps I’ll devote an entire post to that someday. Meanwhile, let’s continue with Craig’s argument.
Regarding the “great explanatory power” of the resurrection “hypothesis,” Craig claims that it explains a few other things: “why the body of Jesus was gone, why people repeatedly saw Jesus alive despite his earlier public execution, and so forth.” But again, there are a number of indisputable facts which it does not explain, notably the fact that Jesus does not show up in real life, not for saints, not for sinners, not for seekers. He does not show up to edify the weak, or to correct the errant, or to rebuke those who corrupt the faith. If you pick and choose a few carefully selected facts, you can make the argument that resurrection “explains” those facts much better than any alternative, but you’d still be failing to address the facts as a whole.
As for the plausibility of the hypothesis, Craig simply asserts that “given the historical context of Jesus’ own unparalleled life and claims, the resurrection serves as divine confirmation of those radical claims.” In other words, the implausibility of the resurrection seems almost plausible when considered in the light of the other implausible claims men make about the words and deeds of Jesus’ life. Craig has confused plausibility with gullibility. Yes, the resurrection was just the last in a long list of “miraculous” events men expect us to simply believe in just on their say-so. It’s “plausible” in the fiction writer’s sense of the word, but if we’re talking about fiction, then apologetics isn’t what it used to be!
We’re supposed to be talking about historical evidence, and from a historian’s perspective, “plausibility” is drawn from how consistent an idea is with real world truth. If we see God performing the sorts of miracles attested to in the Gospels, then the real-world observation of similar events can lend plausibility to the Gospel and the story of the resurrection. The fact that we don’t, however, means that any attempt to justify the plausibility of the resurrection by appeal to prior miracles is simply passing the buck back to a collection of stories that are equally implausible—especially since Jesus ought to still be here doing those miracles, if God did indeed raise him from the dead.
Craig argues that the resurrection hypothesis is “not ad hoc or contrived,” in that “it requires only one additional hypothesis: that God exists. And even that needn’t be an additional hypothesis if one already believes that God exists.” But that’s what we used to call “buying a pig in a poke.” The assumption that God exists is just a plain brown wrapper around a whole lot of other assumptions: that He is a person, that He cares what goes in human lives, that He wants to do something good about it, that He has the power to do so, etc, etc. And if you want to see how ad hoc and contrived the resurrection hypothesis really is, just ask why we don’t see this supposedly risen savior around any more. Oh, he had to go to heaven because…because…, well because we say so. So why don’t we see post-Ascension appearances like Paul allegedly did? Uh…..
Let’s move on. Craig defends the idea that the resurrection hypothesis is “in accord with accepted beliefs” because, well, it “doesn’t in any way conflict with the accepted belief that people don’t rise naturally from the dead.” Yeah, that’s it. Because the resurrection is supposed to be a miracle, it is an exceptional event. Since and exception is, by definition, a variation from what is normal and natural, Jesus’ exceptional resurrection does not conflict with the observed fact that the dead do not live again. Somehow, I don’t think this is quite what the historical test is meant to imply.
What test #5 is really looking for is consistency, i.e. truth is consistent with itself. If someone came up with the hypothesis that Jesus was really a lesbian dressed like a man, no matter what its explanatory scope and power, no matter what its plausibility and lack of ad hoc contrivances, it would fail to be consistent with what we know from other sources. This is the “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” part of the historical test, the common sense part, if you will. Arguing “Oh well, this was an exception” is not a legitimate answer to the test for historical consistency.
By this point, it’s rather moot whether the resurrection hypothesis passes the 5 tests above better than any other hypothesis, since it hasn’t really passed them at all. If we suppose that the very first disciples, in the pre-NT days, believed that Jesus rose in exactly the same spiritual sense as they now believe he comes into their hearts, and if we grant that early Christians were normal people whose behavior and views were comparable to what we see in Christians today, then we have a hypothesis that fits all the verifiable and indisputable facts, including the empty tomb, the widespread belief, the so-called “visions” that were explicitly dis-confirmed by other nearby witnesses, Paul’s early reference to the contrast between the physical body that is buried and the “spiritual” body which is raised, the need for the Church to dispose of Jesus by sending him up to heaven, the failure of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to show up in real life even for believers, and so on.
For example, the empty tomb is easy to explain: some disciples violated the sabbath and moved the body to a tomb more fitting their master’s beliefs about rich men in general. Jesus was famous for teaching that good works were worth violating the sabbath over, and the tomb was not guarded until well after the sabbath, so there would be no real difficulty in pulling off the move. And it wouldn’t necessarily have to have been the disciples (i.e. the apostles), it could be any old handful of believers. The early disciples, after all, were also famous for their squabbles and divisions, so there’s nothing surprising about the possibility that the body could have been taken behind the backs of Peter and John, who would have returned to the original tomb and been quite shocked to find it empty (leading to who knows what speculations, eh?).
If we look at modern Christians, we see that it is quite common for personal, subjective experiences to “blossom” over time into testimonies that are remarkably concrete in their claims, without any sense of dishonesty or lying on the Christian’s part. Start asking around among Christians: it’s not at all hard to find some believer who genuinely believes that he or she has literally heard the audible voice of God, and even seen Him. Accounts of God physically intervening in real life are a dime a dozen (though sadly none of them actually proves out if you make a serious attempt to verify it by the evidence). And it takes almost no time at all; it certainly does not need the decades that intervened between the writing of the New Testament books and the events these books purport to describe.
So when it comes to accounting for all the indisputable facts, the resurrection hypothesis does not even come close. It cherry-picks its “evidences,” it exaggerates the significance of hearsay and downplays the importance of what we can actually confirm in real life, and it rests solidly on the grab-bag assumption that God (as defined by Christians) really is alive and well and actively involved in human affairs (even though we never actually see Him show up and get involved). I shall be looking forward, therefore, to the rest of the “evidences” which apologetics.org promises to provide.