Posted on Mar 29, 2012 by Tom Gilson
From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference
Did Jesus rise from the dead? No other question in history matters as much. If Jesus came back as victor over the grave, then nothing else could be the same. No moral teaching, no philosophy, no government, no event in nature, nothing could have an impact approaching that of death’s demise. If on the other hand he remained dead, then all is business as usual, at best.
Skeptics of all stripes raise multiple objections to the resurrection of Christ. I will mention here the three most prominent, in my experience:
- Science shows that dead people stay dead.
- A resurrection is so improbable, no matter what evidence you give for it, any other explanation is more likely than Jesus’ rising from the dead.
- The resurrection is a fable, just like the rest of the Bible.
I can’t deal with these objections in the depth they deserve, but I think I can at least get some ideas on the table. This is partial material for a 40-minute class at church, so I will keep it simple and brief.
Objection 1. Science shows us that dead people stay dead.
I’ve heard this objection in that form many times: “Science shows….” It’s as if the ancients didn’t really get the finality of death, because they didn’t have science. They hadn’t seen the microbes of decay, they didn’t know about oxygen starvation in the brain, or about toxins accumulating when the kidneys quit. Really, the problem with the ancients is they didn’t know they were ancient. They didn’t know how gullible people could be if they hadn’t been taught about entropy.
But then most of them had a lot more direct experience with death than most of us. They knew the laws of nature in much less detail than we do (if they understood them as laws at all), but still they knew that death never reversed itself. Thus they also knew that if Jesus rose from the grave, it was a literal miracle of God.
Today we understand the laws of nature considerably better than then, except for this very fundamental problem: we don’t know what a law of nature is. We can describe a force in terms of its effects, but we don’t know what it really is or why it behaves as it does, at least not beneath a certain incomplete level of analysis. So if one thinks that a resurrection defies science, that’s true in the sense of what science ordinarily deals with. It’s even true in terms of the laws of nature: Jesus’ resurrection broke those laws.
But look again: what did he break? If we don’t really know what a law of nature is, deep down inside itself, how can we say he broke them?
But the answer to this objection is intimately tied to point 2.
Objection 2. A resurrection is so improbable, no matter what evidence you give for it, any other explanation for the resurrection accounts is more likely than Jesus’ rising from the dead.
This objection recognizes that there might be historical of philosophical evidence for the resurrection. It even recognizes that the evidence might point plausibly toward Jesus’ rising from the dead. It might admit to the strangeness of Paul’s (Saul’s) and James’s turnaround to following Christ. It might own up to the unusual, hard-to-explain growth of the early church. It might follow the majority of NT historians in saying that the disciples thought they had experiences of the risen Jesus, or that the women reported an empty tomb.
But it places a brick wall directly in front of the conclusion that Jesus’ resurrection was real. Why? Because there are other explanations for the growth of the early church, and for Paul’s and James’s turnaround, and for the women’s report, and for the disciples’ experiences. These explanations may be strange, unlikely, psychologically and humanly unheard of, but nothing about them could ever equal the unlikeliness of a resurrection from the dead.
And these critics would be exactly right, if there is no God to raise a man from death. Once we allow that possibility, though, the probabilities change. Resurrection becomes a distinct possibility, especially in the rich context of Old Testament preparation for it. It fits into a very complex but still sensible scheme of things.
Is this arguing in a circle? Is it, “You believe in God because you believe in the resurrection, but you believe in the resurrection because you believe in God”? If it is, it’s no worse than the same accusation with “disbelieve” substituted for “believe.” But it’s not that anyway: it’s allowing the possibility of God, keeping all possibilities on the table. It is refusing to reject God’s reality in advance. That’s a rationally responsible position, which has the effect of doing serious damage to this second objection.
Objection 3. The resurrection is a fable, just like the rest of the Bible.
This objection centers on the difficulty of getting a grip on what really happened so long ago. Maybe the resurrection tale grew up over a period of years among a beleaguered religious community that needed something like a resurrection story to keep it going. But the Gospel accounts don’t read like fables. They’re not detailed. They’re not embellished. They don’t idealize any of the leaders but one, Jesus himself; and they even show him in agony in Gethsemane.
Worse than that, though, we have strong reason to believe it couldn’t have happened that way, for the message of the resurrection didn’t take all those years to grow up out of nothing. The message was being preached within mere months of the events, possibly; 3-5 years at most—and that’s based on the majority opinion of secular scholars. The fable theory fails.
Other objections to the resurrection fail similarly. The account stands. What does it stand on, though? Is there any positive evidence for it? Next time in this series I’ll take a look at that question.