Consider for a moment the parts of a car and what makes it a car rather than a non-car. One could take parts away until it is a heap on one’s lawn, such as spark plugs, wires and so on. It might lose function but would still be a car. Now set this analogy aside and extend it to ideas and world views.
What components does Christianity have which make it what it is and not something else, causing it to fall apart? What would be the engine driving it?
Moses seems to recognize he was a contingent component in God’s plan when he says, “Send someone else…”. Exodus 4:13. This is in contrast to Jesus, in Matthew 26:39, praying, ‘If there is another way to do this, let us do it!’ (Paraphrase). The absence of Moses does not render Judaeo-Christianity incoherent, while Jesus seems to be essential to the New Testament.
Kenneth Samples, in ‘God Among Sages’ notes that other religions stay much the same without their key sages, while a Christless Christianity is completely incoherent. In short, Christ is the engine which drives Christianity.
Christianity not only hinges on the life of Christ, which most higher critics do not contest, but the key component of Christianity, setting the teachings of Jesus apart as either being divine, or benign madness, is that a man confirmed dead for 3 days has returned to life, a resurrection he, himself, foretold. (Matthew 12:38-45).
This gives Christianity a testable/falsifiable component. If the evidence for the resurrection comes up short, it can be dismissed at an adequate truth claim.
THE HISTORICAL PROBLEM
The problem being history, unlike scientific experiments, for instance, is not happening over and over again. While history may repeat itself in the sense 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.
John Warwick Montgomery, says in “History, Law and Christianity”,
THE SCIENTIFIC PROBLEM
“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.”
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 various background, or philosophical assumptions at work, such as “God exists.”
THE THEOLOGICAL PROBLEM
The New Testament is so emphatic about the resurrection of believers, in the last days, 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) Clearly, one iota of compromise on this matter renders the whole system of Christianity incoherent. What seems to be at stake here is everything, as French theologian and mathematician, Blaise Pascal puts forth in his wager, and considering what is on the line the evidence warrants examination, not mere belief for the sake of belief, as some misconstrue Pascal’s wager. If one believes, and they are wrong, nothing is lost, however, if one does not believe and they are mistaken, everything is lost.
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 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 flippantly 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 favour 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, this would rule out the soft sciences such as archaeology, which look for acts of 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 represent our experience with nature. 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. CS 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 rationally obliged to explain miracles in naturalistic terms, 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,
“Thirdly. It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations; or if a civilized people has ever given admission to any of them, that people will be found to have received them from ignorant and barbarous ancestors, who transmitted them with that inviolable sanction and authority, which always attend received opinions.”
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, there was an understanding that the dead stay dead and the deceased were done with their bodies and to burn or bury them would have no consequence for the deceased. It does not seem to take an modern day genius to know this, and in the case of the resurrection of Jesus, even his disciples had their reservations about him rising. Did the disciples not stand in awe when Jesus calmed the storm, recognizing no human thought or command can control the weather, thus recognizing 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.
SORTING OUT THE PROBLEMS
The case for the resurrection of Jesus begins with some key premises:
New Testament documents are reliable.
2. As witnessed in the New Testament, Jesus claimed to be God.
3. Jesus’ claim to divinity were vindicated by a unique and unprecedented convergence of miracles, ultimately his resurrection.
4. 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.
So far, the term ‘miracle’ has been taken for granted and it should be clarified before proceeding. From now on the term ‘miracle’ will be defined as the act of a divine entity, or what would never happen in nature if it were left to itself. CS Lewis, in ‘Miracles’ does not believe miracles violate the laws of nature, but are an act of personal agency which take place outside of nature, but are absorbed into the historical timeline and nature proceeds henceforth. William Dembski, in “The End of Christianity” proposes that miracles are akin to a programmer leaving a back door for troubleshooting. 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.
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 and his side was pierced by a professional executioner.
2. He was buried.
3. His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
4. The tomb was empty (the point of contention).
5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus (the most important point).
6. The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers and were beaten and, eventually, killed for their faith.
7. The resurrection was the central message.
8. They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
9. The Church was born and grew. Before 33 AD Christianity did not exist and by 50 AD it was a widely known religion.
10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
11. James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic and brother of Jesus).
12. Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic).
Note, that none of these points say why the tomb was empty on the Easter Sunday, only that it was empty.
The following are some of the popular responses to the minimal facts.
The Swoon Theory or Resuscitation Theory
This theory suggests that instead of Jesus dying on the cross, he seemed dead and was able to stumble out of the grave, get out of his burial linen and make his way to meet the disciples. This is somewhat believable, since not all crucifixions were intended to result in death, but were meant to inflict pain. Could this have been the case with Jesus?
The points, in the minimal facts, which this theory fails to account for are points 1 and 3. The physician, Luke, goes into careful detail of the execution and notes that the pericardial sac was punctured which caused water to come from Jesus’ chest. Furthermore, Jesus was not just crucified, but was beaten to the brink of death and hung on a cross. If one managed to remain alive after this, feigning death, and to roll away a tombstone and make their to to their friends and disciples, surely they would not be immediately worshipped as Lord, but would be given immediate medical attention.
The Hallucination Theory
This theory is probably the least popular among mainstream scholars, but has gained some notoriety with scholars. The theory goes that Jesus’ disciples were so grieved at his death that they all shared a common hallucination of the risen Lord. However, this theory is inadequate in accounting for points 3, 4 and 6.
It is highly unlikely that this hallucination would have lasted long enough to transform them into bold proclaimers of the gospel after having lost hope after their master had died. Eventually the reality of the situation would have set in. Furthermore, resurrection was not part of their expectation, and to have a shared hallucination, even if they were taking the same hallucinogenic drugs, would be more than unlikely.
This theory also does not account for point 12. Paul was not of the original 12, yet was a violent persecutor of the church, and unable to share in the hallucinogenic frenzy of the disciples. However, some have suggested he was driven to helping the church after having been overwhelmed with guilt for persecuting it for so long, that he had his own personal “vision” of sorts. While a change of heart is possible, it does not account for Paul’s sincere conversion and searching into the truth claims of Christianity. While his writings do evidence much sorrow and remorse (1 Corinthians 15:9; Ephesians 3:8) his ministry was much more than a humanitarian one of trying to make up for the past.
The Impersonation/twin Theory
This theory is that rather than the actual Jesus appearing to the disciples, it was a lookalike or even his twin brother. This presupposes some sort of conspiracy to deceive the disciples before Jesus was even killed.
While this theory does explain many of the above points, it does not account for the wounds which the disciples saw and touched, nor does it account for point 11. If one is on a quest to convince people you are God, your family is not a good place to start and James, being the brother of Jesus, would have known about any differences between Jesus and his alleged twin, not to mention the disciples who spent 3 years getting to know Jesus.
The Theft Theory
This theory suggests that the disciples snuck past the two armed guards posted at the tomb and snuck off with the body, perhaps in order to hatch some plan to propagate Christianity.
This objection faces some serious problems. It fails to account for points 3, 6, 9 and 10. The disciples, who had run away from Jesus and denied him while he was being beaten, were suddenly transformed into bold proclaimers of the gospel on account of having stolen the body and the object of their faith was in a tomb rotting. This does not account for the for the quick development of the Christian faith, or why the disciples would have died for what they knew to be a lie. Paul’s creedal confession in 1 Corinthians 15 shows Paul had received a confession, that it wasn’t his own and that this confession was early, within 6 months of the Cross, according to Gary Habermas.
In Tough Minded Christianity, I Howard Marshall writes in his essay on ‘Raised for Our Justification.’
Regarding 1 Corinthians 15:3-5.
‘The fullest text of this kind is the summary of the gospel, as it was handed down to Paul, and preached by him in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, according to which “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,” followed by a reference to His burial, and resurrection. It is universally agreed that here Paul cites a succinct account of the gospel that was shared with other Christians, and was not his own idiosyncratic version of it.”
C.F. D Moule of Cambridge University says, ‘The birth, and rapid rise of the Christian Church…remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself.’ – The phenomenon of the New Testament.
Myth and Legend
This theory suggests that the development of Christianity came after the death of Jesus and legend built up around this character Jesus. Scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan and Bart Ehrman suggest there is a huge difference between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of Christianity, and to try and recover any truth about him at this point, beyond the myth surrounding him, is impossible.
What this theory does not account for are points 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 & 11.
As mentioned before, belief in the risen Jesus began early. For myth and legend to develop, it is said it takes up to 40 years for a story to begin going through significant revisions and to become far removed from what it actually was, because trails grow cold and primary sources die off, allowing for tales to be spun. Consider apocryphal sources, such as the supposed gospel of Peter, which tell of a giant cross emerging from the Tomb. These sources are dated so far from their events that there is clearly time for much theological reflection to build around the original event.
The most amazing point is that the Jews who converted to Christianity gave up Saturday as their day of worship and began worshipping on Sunday, in recognition of Sunday being the day Jesus was raised. Why this is significant is the sabbath was the central point of Jewish social identity, their holy day to reflect on the Torah and to gather. That they gave this up so readily shows that there was something worth giving it up for. This is clearly more than a cult that developed around the Jesus of mythology.
St Augustine takes the existence of the Church to be a miracle in itself. That it survived persecution in its early stages, that Christianity was not quickly put to sleep when it was a threat to the Roman empire, shows there was something backing the belief of the early church. It can be said that Christianity never would have survived an identifiable tomb containing the corpse of Christ and Jesus most certainly was buried in an identifiable tomb, that of a prominent member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-61). Furthermore, this tomb was not enshrined as would be expected of a tomb of a prophet or significant religious leader, which goes to show that the tomb was empty.
What are the alternatives? William Lane Craig says, in his work ‘The Son Rises.’, “Anyone who denies this explanation is rationally obligated to produce a more plausible cause of Jesus’ resurrection, and to explain how it happened.”…“We see the debate occurring not about whether the tomb was empty, but why it was empty.” – Murray Harris, Raised Immortal.
What implications does this have?
One may reason from the top down, using arguments for the existence of God and use such arguments as part of the background information that if there is a God who acts that there can be acts of God, or one can be reasonable in recognizing such acts if they have taken place.
One may say this responds to other arguments against God’s existence, such as the problem of divine hiddenness. Why, if God exists, has he not made his existence more obvious. The degree to which we can justifiably assert he exists is not proportionate to what is at stake. If the arguments for the resurrection are good and hold against counter arguments, one is justified in saying God has made his existence obvious to humanity at least once in human history, an event which we can still access meaningfully today.
Furthermore, this cascades into other arguments against the existence of God, such as the arguments from evil. One may object against the existence of God by pointing to evil in this world and this argument would be significant if it were not the case that God were doing something about reconciling the world to himself through himself, God incarnate. The suffering Jesus went through allowed God to relate to the suffering of humanity in a very real way.
If the resurrection truly did happen, this sets Christianity apart from its peers as being not just a testable religion, but a very personal religion, one in which God can be known and experienced.
History, Law abd Christianity – John Warwick Montgomery.
The Son Rises – William Lane Craig.
How Jesus Became God – Bart Ehrman
The Resurrection Fact. – John J Bombao & Adam S Francisco.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. – Thomas S Kuhn.
A Treatise of Human Nature. – David Hume.
For suggested reading, “Alive” by J Warner Wallace, which deals specifically with the resurrection, or a better intro to the subject of forensic logic and recovering the past, in light of the present, his “Cold Case Christianity” goes into much more detail.
Hume on miracles, an enquiry.