Ten Turning Points: Some Objections to the Resurrection

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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:

  1. Science shows that dead people stay dead.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 or 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.

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34 Responses to “ Ten Turning Points: Some Objections to the Resurrection ”

  1. I’m not sure the growth of the early church is really evidence of anything. All successful religions start with a small group of people and rapidly expand within a few decades. But anyways…

    What I’ve become much more interested in is the Ascension of Jesus. I’ve seen no discourse on the subject whatsoever but, to my understanding, it’s just as central to Christian theology as the Resurrection: if Jesus was not raised to the right hand of God, surely he was not divine nor did he conquer death. Rather than being an afterthought, I think this subject deserves dialogue. So, what reasons are there to believe in the Ascension, an event even more improbable than the Resurrection?

  2. Nathaniel,

    The ascension doesn’t seem to demand much by way of evidence. If we can establish that Jesus rose from the dead, we have sufficient basis to know that he conquered death.

    Still we do have evidence of his ascension:

    1) eyewitness reports
    2) the theology of the Holy Spirit (see John chapters 14-16), and
    3) he’s not on earth now.

    With respect to 3, our belief in his ascension is downstream of our belief in his resurrection. He rose physically from the dead, he spent time among his followers for 40 days, then he left.

  3. I’m not sure the growth of the early church is really evidence of anything.

    (NB: nothing personal meant toward Nathaniel)
    I see comments like this all the time, most often from atheists or agnostics. Let me point out the irony: how is it that the folks whose very motto is “show me the evidence” are the same folks who claim “the cell isn’t evidence for anything” or “history isn’t evidence for anything”!?!?!
    This very phenomenon is strong evidence that some folks’ “scientific muscles” are profoundly damaged! The mind that is actually (as opposed to propagandistically) science-oriented treats everything as evidence. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g!

  4. So what is the actual growth rate threshold for social movements that, once surpassed, require an appeal to the supernatural to plausibly explain?

    And did early Christianity meet this threshold? And what other social movements, if any, might also meet this threshold?

  5. You do realize, don’t you, that this wasn’t a post about evidences for the Resurrection? It was a post about objections, and why they don’t succeed. I’d sure be interested to read what you think about that.

    I mean, suppose the early growth of the Christian movement had no evidential value whatsoever. I would lose one brief example I used to illustrate my point here.

    And suppose we just let go of that question. Then we might have a better opportunity to talk about the point.

    I did promise at the end of this post that I would soon write on why I believe the Resurrection happened.

  6. *1. Science says dead people stay dead.*

    Nothing much to say here, except that even if Jesus came back from the dead supernaturally, it doesn’t actually necessarily follow that God raised him from the dead (or even that God exists). Evil spirits, some supernatural energy – who knows? This is not to say these are great ways to bolster this objection, but we should really point out that “God did it” isn’t the *only* kind of supernatural explanation – there are limitless kinds of supernatural explanations.

    *2. A resurrection is so improbable…*

    The resurrection has a low prior probability, just like any other type of supernatural explanation for some event. This low prior probability exists because there are so many supernatural claims of similar character, and so many that have been debunked, and so few (read “none”) have been concretely established.

    Its not arguing in a circle to suggest that supernatural explanations have a lower prior probability. It doesn’t magically vanish even supposing some form of theism is true. For again, there are so many claims of divine intervention, today and throughout history that can be accounted for by mundane explanation.

    This is analogous to UFO abduction stories. Even permitting the existence of aliens, who on rare occasion have visited earth and snatched people, the prior probability of any given alien abduction story is still extremely low. Even if we had one confirmed case, we would still have so many disconfirmed cases, and the best explanation for any given story would be an explanation that does not appeal to aliens, barring some extraordinary evidence.

    *3. The resurrection was a fable*

    It could be a fable, or just bad history. And it simply just doesn’t take long for fables, myths, misconceptions or movements to start. UFO cults, abduction lore, conspiracy theories, other mystic movements can and have arisen and spread quickly. Sure its rare that one would eventually become the worlds biggest religion, but so what? Rare doesnt necessarily mean implausible or that supernatural explanations are more probable.

    Also, some argue there really wasnt any exceptional growth rate of Christianity, during the early church: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/improbable/luck.html#18.2

  7. d,

    This low prior probability exists because there are so many supernatural claims of similar character, and so many that have been debunked, and so few (read “none”) have been concretely established.

    Similar character – in what way are they similar? Debunked – by science? Please give a few examples and explain how they are similar and how they were debunked.

  8. d,
    Can you give a few examples of miracle claims and explain how they are similar to the resurrection and how they were debunked? Thanks.

  9. d,

    Then can you provide an actual accurate number that tells us what the real growth rate was?

    This, from an atheist-friendly source says 40% growth rate per decade along with the comment “That really is tremendous growth”.

  10. SteveK:

    So then are we saying that 40% per year growth for new movements is a sure sign of divine intervention?*

    (*) The link explains how Mormonism and atheism in the 20th century have slightly higher growth rates.

  11. I’m not sure the growth of the early church is really evidence of anything. All successful religions start with a small group of people and rapidly expand within a few decades.

    Oh, I don’t think such a flippant analysis will work. Paul wrote, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block for the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” Translation – hard sell.

    Y’gotta pick other religions whose founder was humiliated and executed by the State.

  12. @Tom
    You did state the rapid growth of the early Christian church as evidence; it immediately follows the statement “It even recognizes that the evidence might point plausibly toward Jesus’ rising from the dead”

    But if Jesus did come back to life after death, it’s still a huge stretch to then say that he must also have physically ascended to…a different dimension? And then eternally. It’s far more unlikely than the resurrection itself. What eyewitness accounts are there of this event? I know of none. “He’s not on earth now”? Really? Neither is anyone else who lived in his time period. What’s your point?

    @Doug
    Your statement is a little disoriented, I think. In context, my contentment is that a small religion rapidly expanding is not evidence that its claims are true “as evidenced by history”. And for the record, I never said “show me the evidence”, but I did ask for reasons that people believe in the Ascension because I’m interested. Please refrain from assigning attitudes and statements to me that I’ve not actually communicated.

    @Mike Gene
    Oh, Christianity definitely had a niche- poor people, which is most people; it also offered a message that anyone can come to know God at a time when religious leaders were the only intermediary. How is that a hard idea to sell?

  13. Nathaniel,

    I raised the point that Paul raised. Please point to the religions a) whose founders were humiliated and executed by the State and b) that shared a similar growth rate.

  14. Regarding debunking: How, exactly, does one “debunk” a historical (as distinct from scientific) claim, short of producing a witness who can say, “I was there, and the alleged events didn’t happen”?

  15. Nathaniel, you point out most helpfully,

    @Tom
    You did state the rapid growth of the early Christian church as evidence; it immediately follows the statement “It even recognizes that the evidence might point plausibly toward Jesus’ rising from the dead”

    I knew that, actually, thank you. I also said,

    You do realize, don’t you, that this wasn’t a post about evidences for the Resurrection? It was a post about objections, and why they don’t succeed. I’d sure be interested to read what you think about that.

    I mean, suppose the early growth of the Christian movement had no evidential value whatsoever. I would lose one brief example I used to illustrate my point here.

    And suppose we just let go of that question. Then we might have a better opportunity to talk about the point.

    I did promise at the end of this post that I would soon write on why I believe the Resurrection happened.

    And now I have said it again. Since apparently it wasn’t clear enough the first time, let me expand on it.

    I mentioned the early growth rate of the church as an illustration. It was not the point of the post. If I had not mentioned the church’s early growth, the post would have still had exactly the same message and exactly the same point; for the early growth of the church was not the point.

    What that means is that all the time you spend on this one illustration is time you are spending on missing the point.

  16. Further, you said,

    The eyewitness account is in Acts 1.

    My point in saying “He’s not on earth now” is that a man who had died and was resurrected, who conquered death so as never to die again, might still be on earth and stay forever–but that’s not the case. He’s not on earth now. That means that he’s somewhere else. That’s a piece of evidence in support of the ascension.

    (Please don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m saying it’s anything more than that. I know that it’s a piece of evidence, it’s not the whole evidence, it’s not an explanation, it’s not a description of where he went or how he got there. But it is indicative of his having gone somewhere, alive, not on earth.)

    Could you explain the metaphysics and/or the math, please, that makes the Ascension less likely than the Resurrection?

  17. @Mike Gene
    How is a religious leader’s execution relevant? If he was truly resurrected, how would this be a stumbling block at all?

    @Tom
    Let’s say Acts was written by Luke as tradition dictates; if that’s the case, it’s a third-hand account at best.

    Why is it more unlikely? Generating a mathematical ratio to explain why I think so would be impossible, but intuitively it just seems a lot more unusual. I mean, as others have pointed out, there have been cases where people have been pronounced dead for a period of time but have come back alive. Being resurrected after three days in the condition Jesus was in seems incredibly unlikely, but flying into a cloud and living forever? That’s just crazy, and requires breaking a few more physical barriers than the resurrection.

    I apologize that I’ve strayed from the OP, but I’ve just seen so much dialogue about the resurrection and I wanted to spice things up a bit. I will digress any further points.

  18. Nathaniel,

    Could you point to some credible historian who considers Luke-Acts unreliable? How many historians agree with him or her? Or is this “third-hand … at best” thing just your uninformed opinion?

    I’m going to drop the discussion on the ascension since it’s only a matter of your subjective impression.

  19. Nathaniel

    How is a religious leader’s execution relevant? If he was truly resurrected, how would this be a stumbling block at all?

    Exactly. If he was truly resurrected, it would not be a true stumbling block. But recall you are proposing that a religious leader was apprehended by the State, publicly humiliated and executed, but then many people went on to overlook this. In reality, when the State takes this type of step, it is displaying its power. It is sending a message to the population that the true power resides in the State. This method usually works, but it backfired in the case of Jesus.

    Look, all I am saying is that if you expect me to embrace your superficial and flippant dismissal of growth in early Christian, you’ll have to demonstrate that we should dismiss such details when making comparisons.

  20. 2. 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.

    I actually think this objection is very effective. In fact, it works quite well against a strict evidentialist approach that has become popular among many contemporary Christian apologists. Let me be clear up front, I am not opposed an evidentialist approach of any kind, however I think there are limits to such an approach.

    For example, the resurrection, if occurred at all, happened 2000 years ago. We don’t know where the tomb is or was and all the eyewitnesses of the empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus are long dead. In other words, we don’t have that much evidence to work with from the get-go.

    Furthermore, what evidence that the so-called witnesses did leave us by way of written testimony is substandard from the standpoint of modern forensics. To try to spin in such a way so that it looks more modern and respectable is just that– spin.

    The rise of evidentialism is response to presuppositional apologetic approach that was popular 50 years ago. In one sense it’s good that the pendulum has swung over in that direction. Presuppositionalism, as Paul Copan points out is plagued with it’s own problems. To begin with writes Copan, presuppositionalism,

    “engages in question-begging—assuming what one wants to prove. It begins with the assumption that God exists, and then concludes that God exists. Such reasoning would get you an “F” in any logic class worthy of the name!”

    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2012/03/12/questioning-presuppositionalism/

    I think that the pendulum needs to swing back some in the other direction. However, I don’t think an effective apologetic is a case of EITHER presuppositionalism OR evidentialism, rather it’s a case of BOTH/AND.

    For example, a naturalist who rejects miracles a priori is going to assign a probability of zero to any kind of supernatural explanation. If we are going to convince such a person we need to begin with his/her presuppositions.

  21. JAD,

    Your last post is actually very encouraging to read. Let’s finally admit (Christians), that from a historical, evidential standpoint – you can’t conclude that Jesus rose from the dead. You can’t exclude, with any degree of reliability, the myriad of possibilities that could explain the existence of testimonies in the canon that do not require some of those events actually occurred (500 witnesses, resurrection, etc), either known or unknown.

    More than that, it belittles the scholarship and history to claim absurdities such as, the resurrection probably happened, and we can base this conclusion on nothing but the methods available to and employed by all historians. No, I’m sorry – that fails, big.

    I think you are exactly right JAD – the credibility (though its waning in some circles) of science, empiricism and evidentialism in general has motivated apologists to take them up in arms. But they can only be your enemies, unless some new and compelling evidence is unearthed.

    The “historical” cases for the resurrection, and other miracles cannot stand on their own in evidentialist waters. They have to be bolstered by an alternate epistemology… but arguing on that front hasn’t the advantage of the credibility of empiricism, and the waters are far more murky.

  22. @JAD

    I think that the pendulum needs to swing back some in the other direction. However, I don’t think an effective apologetic is a case of EITHER presuppositionalism OR evidentialism, rather it’s a case of BOTH/AND.

    That is a good point, JAD.
    From the historical documentation available to us, we can conclude that the early Christian church really believed that Jesus was alive 3 days after His death, and that they believed the implication of a bodily resurrection.
    Historically speaking, we can’t confirm (or deny, really, unless one is a metaphysical naturalist) the miracle itself (only the before and after testimony).

    I like Edgar Andrews’ approach in Who Made God?. He starts with the hypothesis that God exists and runs with it. In this light, the events of that Passover take on a deep significance.
    This is one of those things that separates the sheep from the goats – it filters out those who love God from those who hate him. Those who love Him will take this event and run with it, to Him; those who hate Him will dismiss it and continue in their unbelief.

    d: for once we agree, it seems 🙂 What we disagree on here is that empiricism is the only valid way of knowing; one does have to be willing to give up metaphysical naturalism and embrace Christian Theism to move forward with Christian belief, living the Christian life, and being adopted into God’s family.

  23. Victoria,

    Hmm, well I completely misread you on other posts then, as I thought you were firmly in the camp that said otherwise, especially given some of the videos and other material you have linked too… well, I’m glad we actually agree on something!

    PS – and I don’t think empiricism is the only valid way of knowing!

  24. @d
    Yeah 🙂

    I don’t know if you saw my other post where I described how I came to faith in Jesus Christ, but basically it was not because someone gave me a history lesson. God wooed me as a man would woo his beloved (easier and more natural for a woman to think in those terms than it would be for a man, I suppose). As I got to know Him, I learned why I could trust His word, and more importantly, why I needed His redemption. I know how the woman in Luke 7:36-50 must have felt; as a physicist, I was naturally interested in the evidentiary basis for my new faith, so it was sort of ex post facto for me, but I realized that I gave up my atheism because the documents (the NT) showed me a real Person, who lived, died and lived again – not in some abstract way, but in real history, for me. I doubt that I would have believed that apart from the Spirit of God showing it to me – the very real working of an objective being in my experiential knowledge. This is why I bring up experience in addition to evidence – either one without the other is lacking. Without the evidence(documents), how would one be able to make sense of the experience and ground it in something objectively real; without the experience of the Holy Spirit, I would have never have accepted the evidence(documents).

  25. “…atheism in the 20th century have slightly higher growth rates.”

    Growth rates and atheism in the same sentence! The truth is atheism doesn’t have a growth rate. It is and has been about 4% for decades.

  26. and, mind you, we are talking about how a man would win over a very skittish and reluctant woman (because she knows she is so out of his league, and completely unworthy of a man like him), to convince her of his love and that he is in earnest. He would show her his heart and that he is worthy of her trust – that her heart would be safe in his care. And we are not talking about just a man, but a king, and not just a king, but The King (not Elvis!) Would he overwhelm her with his presence and demand as her sovereign that she submit to him? He could, but He does not, for he wants her love to be freely given (or else it would not be love).

  27. Let me clarify a couple of things:

    (1) I think that there is very good historical evidence that the New Testament documents (compared to other ancient documents) are historically reliable and that the first century disciples believed passionately that the resurrection of Jesus took place. I think that evidence is so good that a fair minded skeptic would agree that an historical space-time resurrection of Jesus is at least one of the explanations for the disciples belief.

    Of course, as a Christian I think it’s the best explanation. However, I don’t think that the Christian apologist necessarily needs to convince the skeptic it’s the best explanation. Using a baseball analogy the apologists job is simply to get on base (even a walk will do) not hit a home run every time. Apologetics after all is not the same as evangelism.

    (2) Most of the skeptics reject or explain away the the historical evidence for the resurrection, not because it is unreliable, but because of they are committed to a world view that allows no room for God and the supernatural. I think that an effective apologetic needs to take this into account. If nothing else at least recognize that no amount of evidence is going to convince certain people. Sadly we see a parade of these kinds of people visiting forums like this one who have no interest in having a fair minded dialogue and discussion. I can’t even put myself in these peoples shoes because it strikes me as being very dishonest and disingenuous. Furthermore, I don’t have the time for that kind of nonsense.

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