Like many ideas, or systems, Christianity has a central theme to it, which without causes it to collapse. Whether it be a car, a watch or a refrigerator, there are critical components which if removed cause it to be something else. Moses seems to have recognized he was a contingent component in God’s plan, which could have gone on without him, when he said, “Send someone else…” (Exodus 4:13). In contrast to Jesus praying, “If there is another way to do this, let us do that instead!’ (Paraphrase). While Moses’ brother, Aaron, could have done what Moses did, no one else could have done what Jesus did. While many others could have died in the same fashion Jesus did, no one else could have been raised again from the dead.
The absence of Moses, as a contingent figure, does not render Judaeo-Christianity incoherent, while Jesus seems to be essential to the New Testament, making Him the engine, or essential component, which drives Christianity. Kenneth Samples, in ‘God Among Sages’ argues that other religions stay much the same without their main figures while a Christless Christianity is completely incoherent. Islam remains Islam in the absence of Muhammad, Buddhism does not fall apart even if Buddha was proven to be a purely mythological figure.
What this gives Christianity is a testable/falsifiable component. If the evidence for the life of Christ and His resurrection comes up short, it can be dismissed as an adequate truth claim.
The Historical Problem With The Resurrection
The problem being history, unlike scientific experiments, for instance, is not happening over and over again. While history may repeat itself as some events are similar to others, such as wars, conversations and sporting events, they are not the same— as in, they are not accounted for in terms of some underlying or more fundamental principle, like a law of physics or chemistry. But a denial of historical inquisition, based on the objection history is relative, or inaccessible, is self-refuting because it is presupposing that a genuine knowledge of history exists to come to this conclusion.
The Scientific Problem
John Warwick Montgomery, in Law History and Christianity, writes:
“But can the modern man accept a “miracle” such as the resurrection? The answer is a surprising one. The resurrection has to be accepted by us just because we are modern men–men living in the Einstein-relativistic age. For us, unlike the people of the Newtonian epoch, the universe is no longer a tight, safe, predictable playing field in which we know all the rules. Since Einstein, no modern has had the right to rule out the possibility of events because of prior knowledge of natural law.” The only way we can know whether an event can occur is to see whether in fact, it has occurred. The problem of “miracles,” then, must be solved in the realm of historical investigation, not in the realm of philosophical speculation.” [ref]John Warwick Montgomery, Law History and Christianity[/ref]
It is unlikely Montgomery is dismissing philosophy as a method of seeking out truth or to ascertain whether a miracle has taken place, rather one must investigate specifically using historical methods, and one may have a specific background, or philosophical assumptions at work, such as “God exists.”
Defining A Miracle
It seems appropriate to define ‘miracle.’ It should be understood here as the act of a divine entity, or what would never happen in nature if it were left to itself. In Miracles, C.S. Lewis does not believe miracles violate the laws of nature, but are an act of personal agency which take place outside of nature that are absorbed into the historical timeline and nature proceeds henceforth. Miracles, as portrayed in the New Testament, were restorative, or they authenticated a genuine messenger of God, they were never for amusement, but, “so that we might know God has authority…” (Matthew 9:6).
The Theological Problem
While we, as Christians, do believe in a God who set up normative laws of nature, should we believe God occasionally violates these laws? How can God set the laws of nature aside without causing nature to lie to us, or without being arbitrary? One might respond in saying that the laws of nature are not immutable like the laws of logic and it is not contradictory to say ‘dead men rise’ while it is to say that true and false statements can be simultaneously true. It would then be the case our understanding of these laws is limited to our experiences of them and for a restorative act to occur would be akin to a computer programmer leaving a troubleshooting hatch in a piece of software in order to restore its function. Any act would not be God arbitrarily stepping in, but would be God acting in accordance with His nature and bringing nature back to its purpose.
The New Testament is so emphatic about the final resurrection of believers, that it renders itself meaningless in the absence of a literal, physical resurrection. (John 5:29) Consider Jehovah’s Witnesses who maintain that Jesus was not raised physically, but spiritually, yet they maintain that there are many who will receive bodily resurrections on earth in the end. If Christ has not been physically raised, do those who anticipate a bodily resurrection hope in vain? (1 Corinthians 15:14) any degree of compromise on this matter renders the whole system of Christianity incoherent.
The Problem of Probability
What of the uniformity of nature? We seem to live in a world where axe heads sink, (2 Kings 6:1-7) wine is made by a fermentation process, and dead people stay dead. (John 2:1-10). Suppose, occasionally, wine came out of our faucets, and gravity sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t and where the dead occasionally returned to life, we would live in a very chaotic world, a world in which miracles would be impossible to identify even if they happened on a regular basis. One could not differentiate between an act of nature and a divine act. David Hume, in an Enquiry Concerning Human Reason, went so far as to say that “a wise man proportions his belief according to the evidence.” He argued from the regularity of nature and asked, and I paraphrase,
‘What is more likely: that the whole natural order is suspended, or that a dead man has risen?’
The problem with Hume’s argument from probability is facts determine facts, not probabilities. While Hume did provide a valuable check against naively accepting miracles, he does so by taking on an anti-supernatural bias, or a position known as “philosophical naturalism.”
Hume says that one’s past experience, in favor of naturalism, amounts to a full proof against the minute change a miracle has taken place.
Hume’s philosophical assumption only admits the occurrence of natural acts and his paradigm is unable to account for any type of intelligent agency in the world. On this note, if one were to accept this, it would rule out the soft sciences such as archaeology, which attempts to understand human agency. Furthermore, Hume is wrong about the nature of a scientific law. The laws of nature are not immutable like the laws of logic or mathematics, they are statistical and representative of our experience. Hume’s reasoning also does not admit the beginning of the universe, whether it be through a big bang, or otherwise, since it too was a singular event that cannot be reconstructed and is unaccounted for in terms of our physical laws. C.S. Lewis noted, in Miracles, that as soon as one admits that there is human thought, that animated matter can have true thoughts which correspond to reality, they have already admitted miracles, because thoughts are immaterial which are outside the realm of nature.
The uniformity of nature provides the historian with a framework for examining miracle claims in history and the Bible which does not seem to be written in isolation from the time and space it claims to have taken place in.
If a miracle has taken place, this would definitely challenge our understanding of the laws of nature, or our uniform experience. Without a theistic premise, one is warranted in explaining miracles away as anamolous, but if the uniformity of nature has been overridden by an act of agency one is equally obliged to account for it in terms of rational agency.
Further, Hume goes on to say that ‘the miraculous is never/seldom said to take place amongst civilized people, but are chiefly said to abound amongst the ignorant and barbarous nations.’
[ref]An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Of Miracles, Book X[/ref]
Here, Hume is assuming to know the intellect of people who claim to have seen miracles, that claims to the miraculous come from those without the background knowledge to differentiate between a natural and an unnatural act. The problem is, evidenced by ancient burial rituals, an understanding existed that the dead stay dead and the deceased were done with their bodies and to burn or bury them would have no consequence. It does not seem to take a contemporary intellect to know this, and in the case of the resurrection of Jesus, even his disciples had their reservations about His resurrection. Did the disciples not stand in awe when Jesus calmed the storm, recognizing no human thought or command can control the weather, thus realizing there is a deterministic factor in nature? (Mark 4:39) Even the miracles Jesus performed amazed his audience as much as the wisdom expressed in his teaching and they both authenticated each other. A resurrection simply did not fit with their expectations.
Sorting out the Problems
The case for the resurrection of Jesus begins with some key premises:
• New Testament documents are reliable.
• As witnessed in the New Testament, Jesus claimed to be God.
• Jesus’ claim to divinity was vindicated by a unique and unprecedented convergence of miracles, ultimately his resurrection.
• Therefore, Jesus is not lying when he claims to be God, given that a true miracle would be a signature of a genuine act of God.
It is generally agreed amongst scholars that there are some minimal facts, regarding the resurrection of Jesus, which need explaining. There are attempts to refute these, which will be demonstrated next.
• Jesus died by crucifixion; a professional executioner pierced his side.
• He was buried.
• His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
• The tomb was empty (the point of contention).
• The disciples had intersubjective experiences which were believed to be literal appearances of the risen Jesus (the most important point).
• The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers and were beaten and, eventually, killed for their faith.
• The resurrection was the central message.
• They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
• The Church was born and grew. Before 33 AD Christianity did not exist and by 50 AD it was a widely known religion.
• Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
• James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic and brother of Jesus).
• Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic).
Naturalist objections, such as the twin theory, or the wrong tomb theory, all seem to suggest that the debate in not around whether or not the tomb was empty, but why it was empty. Could Christianity have survived an identifiable corpse of Christ? It would seem that it would have died off immediately if Christ had not reason and our hope was in vain.
The naturalist objector to the resurrection, in light of the evidence, is rationally obliged to provide a viable alternative for the origin of the Christian faith and its early success, in lieu of an actual resurrection.
[David Hume, an Enquiry Concerning Human Reason.]
[John Warwick Montgomery, Law History and Christianity]
[C.S Lewis, Miracles]
[William Lane Craig, The Son Rises]
[Norman Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind]