This argument is largely an adaptation of arguments previously made by many apologists, so if it seems familiar I have likely stolen some ideas. I’ll investigate some facts around the supposed resurrection and try to work out what the best explanation is.
Before we begin I will state that for the purposes of this discussion I will be treating the works contained within the bible as historical documents (that is, documents from history), not as scripture or inerrant or even reliable. I hold these positions, but to assume them here would be circular reasoning. I shall attempt to come at them from a neutral position, without assuming anything about their reliability that I can’t back up with sources from respected historians. I will also attempt to take the consensus of experts in their field as the default position for the purposes of this argument.
Also before we begin, I will just state that we are certain that Jesus existed. Ehrman is the most respected non-Christian NT historian I can think of and he compared the belief that Jesus didn’t exist to belief in Young Earth Creationism. There is virtually unanimous consensus that Jesus existed among NT scholars, and even the rare proponents of Christ Myth Theory admit that they are basically alone in their beliefs. It is not a hypothesis worth considering, given scholarship on the issue. If this is a problem for you, you should probably read some more on the issue. Ehrman dealt with this issue here and here.
The first thing we have to establish is that Jesus was crucified and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. This first point is largely uncontroversial, Ehrman writes that the crucifixion is one of the most sure facts in history1 (referenced in a multitude of Christian, Jewish, and Roman sources) and that Jesus was most likely buried in the aforementioned tomb2. Ehrman has since changed his mind on the tomb for what I consider to be dubious reasons (for some responses to Ehrman on this issue, see here and here and here), but other important scholars like Géza Vermes3 and Dale Allison4 still assert that Jesus was buried roughly as the Gospels describe. Gary Habermas is a noted expert on the facts surrounding the resurrection, and has surveyed that around 75% of relevant scholars affirm the empty tomb.5
Looking at the claim that the women who found the tomb found it empty, we have a few ways of evaluating it. When discussing biblical events, scholars have come up with a few heuristics that allow us to determine reliability. The empty tomb accounts satisfy the criteria of multiple attestation, lack of legendary embellishment, embarrassing features of the narrative, use of proper names, public knowledge of the burial and the tomb’s location.
It is notable that throughout history, from Celsus to modern scholars, opponents of Christianity have tried to explain the empty tomb rather than deny it. According to reports that are found in Matthew 28:11-15, Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 108) and Tertullian (On Spectacles 30), for almost two centuries or more, the Jewish leaders tried to explain that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ disciples stole His body. This means that the Jewish hierarchy even acknowledged the fact that Jesus’ body was no longer there.
It is attested to in every Gospel, and a strong argument can be made that the creed discussed in the next section also includes the implication of an empty tomb. According to the late historian of ancient Rome and fellow at Oxford, A. N. Sherwin-White, “even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.” And with respect to historical reconstruction, he says that “we are seldom in the happy position of dealing at only one remove with a contemporary source.” The empty tomb, in light of the multiple reasonably close sources attesting to it, is quite likely. If you are still unconvinced of the empty tomb, I’d like to hear an alternate explanation for the early beliefs and accounts, and why your explanation is better than mine.
Ehrman also tells us that the legend of the resurrection began at the latest two years after Jesus was crucified6. Ehrman refers to an early Christian source, a creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. A very early Christian creed, which James Dunn dates to 18 months after Jesus’ death.7
So we have an early belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Given what we know about the early church from Acts, this must have originated from the Apostles. There is no other plausible source for this creed. And indeed as atheist New Testament scholar Ed Perish Sanders says:
That Jesus’ followers had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.8
And as the resurrection-denying giant of NT Critisicm Gerd Ludermann says:
It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.9
Let’s examine the claims of the Apostles as they appear in Acts. Acts 2:29-32 records Peter’s words:
“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.”
I contend that Acts is fairly reliable in relating to us church history. The accuracy of Acts in most areas is attested to by NT historians, with Martin Hengel stating10:
‘Luke-Acts looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem, which is still relatively recent, and moreover is admirably well informed about Jewish circumstances in Palestine, in this respect comparable only to its contemporary Josephus. As Matthew and John attest, that was no longer the case around 15-25 years later; one need only compare the historical errors of the former Platonic philosopher Justin from Neapolis in Samaria, who was born around 100 CE.’
There are some passages of disputed accuracy in Acts, but the above mentioned section is not one of them. I’ve been unable to find any scholar who takes issue with the above passage. And non-Christian scholar Gerd Lüdemann believes that the section is historical11. We have no reason to doubt it, and it is in line with what we know about the 11 from other sources.
So the disciples that Peter refers to, the 11, believed they were witnesses to the risen Christ. They believed it so strongly that some would die for it, and all would have reasonably believed they would die for it. Notably Peter himself, whose death is recorded by Clement of Alexandria. The 11 are threatened with death or imprisonment as early as Acts 4.
All this points to the fact that the Apostles truly believed what they claimed. We will investigate soon whether they could be correct. It should be noted that I am not claiming “They died for their beliefs, therefore their beliefs are true”. That doesn’t follow. My claim could be better summarized as “They died (or believed they would die) for their beliefs, therefore they truly believed them”.
We have now established that the Apostles all believed they had seen the risen Christ, and that the tomb was empty. Let’s begin then trying to explain these facts
Perhaps the Apostles simply hallucinated Christ’s appearances. This would be plausible, except for the fact that 11 of them would have had to hallucinate simultaneously. And not just hallucinations, but detailed coherent hallucinations that were completely outside the realm of what they expected. This is unlikely. And does nothing to explain the empty tomb.
Some have speculated that someone pretended to be Jesus, or was at least mistaken for him. This again fails to account for the empty tomb. It also seems unlikely given that the 11 knew Jesus well, after spending 3 years with him. It is unlikely they would have all mistaken someone for him, especially to the extent where they would die for it. Remember that these are fairly rational, intelligent people, judging by what they wrote.
Others have speculated that Christ did not really die on the cross, but was taken down and recovered in the tomb. This would be almost as great a miracle as the resurrection itself. Jesus was scourged before he was crucified, a process that often killed. And then there is only one known person to have ever survived crucifixion, who did so after being up there only a few hours and receiving medical attention. Two other people were taken down at the same time and died. It is unlikely Jesus could recover on his own in a cold wet cave.
Some have suggested grave robbers to explain the empty tomb. This does nothing to explain Christ’s appearances to the 11, and is just unlikely. They weren’t all that common, and probably wouldn’t carry off a body with no reason.
Perhaps the women went to the wrong tomb. This is possible, but it doesn’t explain the appearances to the 11. It also doesn’t explain why Peter and John also found the tomb empty, unless they made the same mistake. It is unlikely both groups would.
Now it is true that a combination of these unlikely partial explanations can explain the facts that we’ve looked at. But postulating multiple unlikely events multiplies their already low probabilities, and the resurrection becomes the best explanation.
The McGrew’s (Tim McGrew is the chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University) that I referenced earlier did a similar but more detailed investigation12 to the one I have done and came up with a Bayes factor of 10^44 which is an incomprehensibly huge number. If you think this evidence is weak, then let’s quantify our discussion, and give me an alternative analysis.
So it seems that based on the evidence at hand, the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the facts we have investigated.
- A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman 2008 ISBN 0-19-536934-3 page 136
- Bart Ehrman, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: “Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus” [The Teaching Company, 2003].
- Geza Vermes, The Passion (Penguin, 2005)
- Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus
- Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004
- James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), page 855.
- Ed Perish Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus,
- Gerd, What Really Happened, p. 80
- Hengel & Schwemer, ‘Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: the unknown years’, pp. 7-8 (1997)
- Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ‘Acts and the History of the Earliest Jerusalem Church’, in Cameron & Miller (eds.), ‘Redescribing Christian origins’, pp. 165-169 (2004)
On Wednesday I had the privilege of hearing David Robertson speak at Menai Anglican Church. He covered many topics, mainly in the area of evangelism and apologetics in modern culture. I took some notes, here they are in their very rough and unedited form. Perhaps some will be useful:
Proclaiming Christ in a post Christian culture:
- Acts 17:6. What kind of world was being turned upside down? Don’t just influence, turn upside down. Jesus does this. Not politics. Gospel
- Ireland and Scotland changed quickly. Why are people dancing and singing for abortion? Surely if abortion is permissible, it is a bittersweet and necessary evil.
- We are regressing to a Greco-roman pagan world. Not progressive.
- Secular utopianism. Pinker’s enlightenment, ignores bad stuff. Things can only get better. But things aren’t. Advancing to nirvana never happens. Hitler thought he was progressive. Lewis Namier. Most academics were Nazis.
- Religious Fundamentalism. Unthinking Christianity included, but also Islam. Progressive utopian have to believe all religions are fundamentally the same. But Islam is a political system. Welcome them and spread the Gospel
- State fascism. Control of the state over everything. If we remove the church from culture, the state now provides the function of the church: Morality, schools (social engineering, what to think. Safe schools). Values of the elites imposed. Guilty until proven innocent in university sexual assault committees.
- Consumerist dumbed down materialism. Affluenza. Cannot serve both God and mammon. Prosperity Gospel, exported out of the West, is evil.
- New age paganism. Sexuality, mother earth, “cool”. Trying to be different. Nothing new under the sun.
- Sexual confusion and dysfunctional families. Nothing surprising here. Especially pushed in schools, even primary school. Children need a mum and dad.
- Equality: we are becoming unequal. Only focused on sexuality, but finance is more important.
- The church. Society needs Jesus. Don’t patronise poor people, they need the Gospel more than soup kitchens. Australia will become worse soon perhaps. Billy Graham 1959 had long-lasting impact. Moore college had a big impact. Immigrants are an opportunity. But weak on 25-40 year olds, who are sheltered. Tribalism. Struggle with answering objections. And we are going to decline in 10 years without renewal. What can we do: Don’t fight to save Christendom. Make more disciples
- We will never have difficulty in evangelism if the glory of the Lord fills the temple. Don’t let them see us as fake, dead, boring, unreal. Let them think we’re crazy or wrong. But not dead.
- Ireland makes us angry because it’s people shaking their fists at God. Our primary emotion should be sorrow, as God is being mocked.
- How to present our views on social issues? They are shibboleth issues, testing if we are culturally orthodox. Jesus responds with a question to get to the bigger issues. Don’t answer in their framework, take it to a wider framework. Don’t avoid and don’t compromise, but go bigger.
- Sidenote: narratives and metanarratives, new sincerity, end of post-modernism. This is good for us.
- Society has a vision of the church. But it is wrong. The church is for glorifying Jesus and proclaiming the Gospel. Don’t use care for the poor as evangelism, it’s patronising and manipulative.
- Australia has phenomenal opportunities to be useful in Asia for evangelism
In the history of theism, cosmological arguments have been some of the strongest and most widely used justifications for theistic belief. They are very old arguments, some form of the argument was even put forward by Aristotle. In this article I will not put forward any particular cosmological argument, but I will go through the general pattern of cosmological arguments.
Cosmological arguments derive their name from the Greek word “cosmos” which means “world”. The general idea is that we look at some feature of the world, combine it with a logical principle that we call the Principle of Sufficient Reason (or some similar principle), and deduce the existence of God. While some forms of the argument make claims about the entire universe (such as WLC’s famous defence of the Kalam argument), not every cosmological argument considers the universe as a whole. For example, Leibniz’ argument only considers a single contingent object, and Descartes’ argument deduces God from the existence of thoughts about God. So when presenting or criticising these arguments, don’t fall into the trap of always thinking about the universe, just because WLC made that particular argument famous.
So what is it about the world that we can observe? Here are the features that some of the arguments consider (the list is far from exhaustive):
- Aquinas: Change
- Descartes: Thoughts about God
- Leibniz: Contingency
- Kalam: Things beginning to exist
And here are the various principles or forms of the PSR that the arguments use:
- Aquinas: Things are changed by things external to them
- Descartes: Thoughts are invented, told to us by someone else, or about something real
- Leibniz: All contingent things have explanations
- Kalam: Everything that begins to exist has a cause
And each of these attempts to infer from their observation and their principle that God exists. Aquinas, therefore, argues that there is an unmoved mover, Leibniz argues that there is a non-contingent thing that explains contingent things, Kalam argues that there is something outside the universe that caused the universe. Descartes’ case is a bit more complex, where he first rules out inventing the idea of God and shows that using the “someone else told us” explanation only pushes the problem back a stage.
And then the argument goes on to attempt to prove that the thing they deduce, perhaps pre-emptively called “God”, has all the attributes that we normally assign to God. Aquinas shows that God is unchanging because He must be pure actuality and no potentiality, Descartes shows that God is perfect because the idea of perfection can’t have come from anywhere else, Kalam shows that God exists outside the universe to cause it, Leibniz shows that God is all knowing and all powerful because He saw all possibilities and could have created any. They all provide long and detailed explanations of each of the divine properties.
Whether or not these arguments succeed is a matter for further blog posts, Leibniz’ argument is my favourite and I will probably provide an in-depth defence of it at some point. But this gives you a general idea of how cosmological arguments work, with a particular observation, a particular principle relating to that observation, deducing God, and then deducing the properties of God.
In thinking about the post yesterday I remembered a particularly bad response to the problem of evil that I often see Christians deploy. The atheist claims that if evil exists, then the God of Christianity cannot. And the Christian responds by saying something like “As an atheist, you can’t even know what evil is, since you need God in order for moral facts to be true. So without God, there’s no evil. And since you do not believe in God, you cannot believe in evil, so you cannot formulate a problem of evil.”
I think that this is a very poor response, because I think it misunderstands what the problem of evil accomplishes. It is a reductio ad absurdum argument.
If this is a new term for you, then I will give you another example of such an argument. Here we will prove that there is no largest integer. We will do this by first assuming that there is such an integer.
- Suppose N is the largest integer
- For all integers K, K+1 is larger than K
- Therefore N+1 is larger than N
- Therefore N is not the largest integer
- Therefore there is no largest integer
Now, do I have to believe that there is a largest integer in order to make this argument? Premise 1 says that there is a largest integer, so surely I believe that. But obviously I do not. Similarly, the atheist makes an argument like this:
- Suppose God exists
- Since God exists, suppose that evil exists
- Therefore God does not exist.
Does the atheist have to believe premises 1 and 2 for the argument to work? No, of course not. The argument is essentially the atheist deliberately taking on the Christian assumptions, like God and evil (and they might even take our definition of evil) in order to show that these assumptions are false, just like premise 1 “N is the largest integer” is false.
So even if the atheist doesn’t know what evil is, even if the atheist is a moral antirealist who claims that there is no good and evil, they can still validly use this argument. Now obviously I think the argument fails, for reasons I gave yesterday, but the objection in question here is not a good one.
Some Christians think that this objection is the one given by God in Job. The Christian reads God’s monologue at the end of Job and hears God saying “Who are you to question me, I am the Lord, I know good and evil, I have the right to do whatever I want. You do not sit in judgment over me, I sit in judgement over you.”
And that’s right, that is what God is saying. But the right interpretation is not that we have no conception of evil by which we can argue. The right interpretation is that we are too small to understand God’s reasons for doing what He does. And certainly far too small to claim that God has no such reasons. I think the response given to us by God in Job is not the argument “You can’t talk about evil if you don’t know what God is”, I think it is “You don’t know all the reasons I have for what I do”. So in other words, I think God’s response is best charactarized by the use of higher order goods, which might be mysterious to us, in order to explain lower order evils. God does have reasons.
But there is another problem here I think. I agree that the atheist does not have a full grounding for evil, since as I’ve said before, moral facts (and all other kinds of facts) are grounded in God. And I do agree that the naturalist, materialist, physicalist worldview is less well equipped to ground moral facts than a theistic worldview. But put aside for the moment the fact that the atheist doesn’t need to believe in evil to use the problem of evil. But I think in general, atheists do indeed know what is good and what is evil.
Consider Romans 2: Paul claims that the gentiles, those who do not believe in God, know what is good and evil because their conscience testisifes to them. And Paul uses this as an argument that the gentiles are guilty of sin: their conscience told them what is right and what is wrong, and they knowingly did what is wrong. Atheists are not without a God-given conscience, so we are not unjustified in saying that atheists in general do know what is good and what is evil. Not as well as the believer perhaps, and they might not know why certain things are good or evil. But most of them not only believe that evil exists, they are usually right about what evil is. They don’t have God to ground it, but it’s not clear why grounding is necessary for them to deploy a problem of evil argument.
So while I do think the problem of evil argument fails, I think “The atheist doesn’t know what evil is because they don’t believe in God” is quite a bad objection to it.
John Mackie has presented one of the most popular formulations of the problem of evil, it can be accessed here. I will not reproduce all of his arguments, but he attempts to argue that the existence of a totally good, all-powerful God is incompatible with the existence of evil.
Of course, many believers have put forward objections to these arguments over the centuries, and so Mackie attempts to show why those objections fail. I think one of these attempts is no good, and I will briefly explain why.
One of the primary tools of the theist here is the appeal to the higher order good. God may allow the evil of fear to exist so that the higher order good courage might exist, for example. Clearly, courage would not exist without fear, and courage is good. Perhaps in God’s mind, the goodness of courage makes the evil of fear worth it. I don’t intend to imply that we can somehow measure the goodness of the situations and compare them numerically, I certainly don’t want to endorse utilitarianism. I only need to say that there is something about the higher order good case that justifies the lower order evil.
Mackie responds that sure, we can say that. But then we also have 2nd order evils, perhaps cowardice. And now we need to justify the second order evil. And of course, the tempting route for the theist is to justify it using perhaps a third order good. But Mackie says (denoting a second order evil by “evil (2)”):
But even if evil (2) could be explained in this way, it is fairly clear that there would be third order evils contrasting with this third order good: and we should be well on the way to an infinite regress, where the solution of a problem of evil, stated in terms of evil (n), indicated the existence of an evil (n + 1), and a farther problem to be solved.
I think this response is not very good. I think Mackie has assumed without justification that there exist n’th order evils that need to be explained. But it’s not clear to me that that is the case. I couldn’t tell you how high in order evils go, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that good could go a level higher. It’s not surprising that there would be an asymmetry between good and evil, where good is in some sense “more real” than evil. Many classical theologians have formulated notions of good that are convertible with being, so goodness is being and being is goodness. And under an idea like this, we would be shocked to see levels of evil for each corresponding level of good. Eventually, we’d expect to get to a point where good was simply higher than evil, and no equivalent high order of evil existed. There is a sense in which good is “bigger” than evil.
Mackie then moves on to discuss a particular case of the higher order good: free will. Being a Calvinist I am not particularly interested in making a free will defence when it comes to the problem of evil, nor defending a libertarian free will from Mackie’s objections in the paper. But I think this flaw with higher order goods is sufficient for the Christian to remain justified in their beliefs.
“A Theological Sickness Unto Death – Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age” is the title of a paper published in TGC’s Themelios journal. I have read Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks and am working my way through the related A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. For evangelists and apologists wondering what is going on in our culture, and wanting to survey the cultural landscape in order to better strategise our evangelism and apologetics, this article may be helpful.
In Rieff’s view, therapeutic ideology, rather than Communism, was the real revolution of the twentieth century. Compared to Freud, the neo-Marxists were cultural conservatives who still believed in the notion of authority and the idea of a cultural code. The proponents of Freudian therapeutics, on the other hand, would not countenance authoritative frameworks and normative moral codes. In a therapeutic culture, authority disappears. In place of theology and ethics, we are left with aesthetics and the social sciences. Thus, therapeutic culture was born. This tradeoff would turn out to be so destructive that Rieff would describe the United States and Western Europe (rather than the Soviet Union) as the epicenter of Western cultural deformation.
In contrast to the first and second world cultures whose social order is undergirded by a world beyond the visible and a moral authority beyond the self, third world cultures (contemporary Western cultures) sever the connection between sacred order and social order, limiting the “real” world to the visible and locating moral authority in the self. Similarly, whereas each of the first two worlds sought to construct identity vertically from above, our third world rejects the vertical in favor of constructing identity horizontally from below. Rieff knew the result of this rejection would be nihilism: “Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing.
The construction of a fourth world will involve a recovery of sacred order and, by extension, recoveries of revelation and authority, and of transcendent meaning and morality. Recoveries such as this do not enact themselves; they await a people who will speak and act responsibly. This fourth world “people,” Rieff argues, must articulate and embody seemingly defunct notions of truth and virtue, a formidable task in our radically disenchanted and morally permissive third world culture. Nonetheless, in spite of the formidable challenges posed by third world order, there are already cracks in the foundations; although it once seemed liberating to fire God from his post and live without limits, the third world will soon realize that a world without boundaries is a frightening—not a freeing—place. Thus, a responsible people must arise to manifest the beauty of the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”
The argument is often made that God is immoral because He holds people accountable for their beliefs. But, as the atheist claims, they don’t choose their belief. They are forced to believe or not believe by evidence. We do not “choose our brain”, instead we just apply whatever standards of evidence we use in order to determine what is correct, and involuntarily believe whatever is best supported by the evidence. I think this is in error.
Suppose someone accused me of “refusing to see evidence”, as occasionally happens. Does this seem like something someone could possibly do? It does to me. There’s nothing strange about thinking that someone might actively decide to not change their mind when confronted with evidence. Their belief here is a conscious choice. That seems natural.
There’s also an element of ethics here too, there are beliefs that we ought to hold and beliefs we ought not hold. If I met someone who, for example, believed that all black people were inferior and should be subject to eugenics or something equally horrifying, I’d certainly hold them accountable for that belief. Believing that thing is in itself an evil action, regardless of what other evil actions it might motivate. So in some circumstances, we should blame people for their beliefs.
The effort to remove our own conscious choices when it comes to belief is an effort to remove moral responsibility. It’s an effort to justify intellectual laziness: “Well, since my belief hasn’t changed, there’s nothing I can do to change it”, even when you should do something to change it.
So yes, we do normally think about beliefs being somewhat voluntary, and we normally think of ourselves as being somewhat culpable for our beliefs. Making them totally involuntary and totally amoral is wrong.
I’d contend that we do choose our metric for belief as well. It’s not unreasonable for me to say to someone “your standards of evidence are too weak” when they read some article online that states something strange, and immediately believe it. They might agree, and then in the future choose to adjust those standards. Suggesting that these are involuntary is again just an excuse for laziness or an attempt to remove moral culpability. The fact is that we are responsible for everything we believe, and everything that goes on in our mind.
I also contend that we do in a sense “choose our brain”, as you say. We are capable of introspection, we are capable of modifying our thought patterns. That’s just how we learn. People go to great effort to be rational, to properly think about things and come to right conclusions. And they should be applauded for doing so. People who do not make that effort should be considered responsible for not doing so. This seems very natural.
So no, belief is often thought of as deliberate and often thought of as something that could be blameworthy.