Saturday, June 16, 2012

Poke it with a stick - The Resurrection

This is my fifth post reviewing the 1995 debate on "Does God Exist" between Dr. William Lane Craig and Massimo Pigliucci, held at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The other four are: Dr. Craig's opening words, "The origin of the universe", "The complex order in the universe" and "The existence of objective moral values".

Dr. Craig's fourth argument in favor of the existence of God is "The historical facts concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus".

First, a brief impression of his previous arguments: the first two are somewhat technical - the cosmological and teleological arguments. They might be hard to follow for the uninitiated - which is most of us. I'll guess that the majority of people not having at least an introductory course in argumentation and rhetoric under their belt, and a passing acquaintance with current cosmology, will be at the mercy of the two opponents in this debate.

The "existence of objective moral values" argument discussed in my prior post is just an appeal to your instinct - and not to your intellect. It didn't - as presented by Dr. Craig - really make a sound argument - let alone present evidence - for objective moral values and how we might validate their objectivity. Consequently, he doesn't move his overall "God Exists" thesis forward.

This post's argument is even more indirect. It is however, probably effective when delivered to believers because they're prepared to accept the Bible as (at least) reliable enough. I'll admit to being biased against the "historical facts of Jesus" argument primarily due to my own journey through Christianity. When I really looked, only the Bible claimed that Jesus existed and was resurrected, and those claims weren't even formulated in writing until a good twenty years after his passing. Every subsequent claim of Jesus and his resurrection leads back to 1) the Bible; 2) hearsay (e.g. see Josephus )

Dr. Craig:

Fourth Argument

4. The historical facts concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The historical person Jesus of Nazareth was a remarkable individual. New Testament critics have reached something of a consensus that the historical Jesus came on the scene with an unprecedented sense of divine authority, the authority to stand and speak in God's place. He claimed that in himself the Kingdom of God had come, and as visible demonstrations of this fact he carried out a ministry of miracles and exorcisms. But the supreme confirmation of his claim was his resurrection from the dead. If Jesus did rise from the dead, then it would seem that we have a divine miracle on our hands and, thus, evidence for the existence of God.

Notice how tentative this begins when you read the words. "New Testament critics have reached something of a consensus that ...". It sounds a lot different when you hear it as Dr. Craig delivers it - that's part of his magic. So we get an assertion that scholars "somewhat" agree that Jesus had a divine sense of authority ... yadda-yadda-yadda. What Jesus felt about himself is irrelevant, and Dr. Craig immediately zooms past that to attempt the case for the resurrection. This is kinda sneaky: he gets to toss the term "consensus" at the audience, then drills right into "facts" that he hopes you'll believe support the argument. With any luck, that throw-away word "consensus" will be still ringing in your ears, you'll associate it to his "facts", and you'll interpret it as "there is consensus on these facts" - even though he didn't explicitly say there was consensus on the "facts" that he subsequently presented. Sneeeee-keeeee.

Next - "supreme confirmation of his claim was his resurrection from the dead" , and the conditional "if he was resurrected then it's proof of God". It appears Dr. Craig's whole argument here hinges on this, just as we suspected. Since there are no reliable first-hand reports of either his death or resurrection, we can assume that there's more eloquent word-smithery in our immediate future.

Dr. Craig resumes:

Now most people would probably think that the resurrection of Jesus is something you just accept on faith or not. But there are actually three established facts, recognized by the majority of New Testament historians today, which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus.

Fact #1: On the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus' tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers. According to Jacob Kremer, an Austrian scholar who has specialized in the study of the resurrection, "By far most scholars hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb."{13} According to D. H. Van Daalen, it is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.{14}

AHA! Dr. Craig's introduction to Fact #1 is another nice piece of word-smithing. He declares "three established facts, recognized by the majority of New Testament historians today, which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus". Notice that he doesn't say that the majority of scholars believe that the purported facts are "best explained by the resurrection of Jesus" - it's Dr. Craig supplying this. This is indirect. The audience won't notice - I surely didn't - but you can see it when it's written down.

There is a lot of contingent, conditional, indirect truthiness here. We know what truthiness is.

I'll beat a dead horse here and point out that Fact #1 relies wholly on words from the Bible. No independent confirmation is available. There is no implication that such confirmation ever existed.

Dr. Craig's second "fact":

Fact #2: On separate occasions different individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death. According to the prominent New Testament critic of Vanderbilt University Gerd L├╝demann, "It may be taken as historically certain that . . . the disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which Jesus appeared to them as the Risen Christ.{15}These appearances were witnessed not only by believers, but also by unbelievers, skeptics, and even enemies.

ummmm ... more hearsay.

More "facts":

Fact #3: The original disciples suddenly came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus despite having every predisposition to the contrary. Jews had no belief in a dying, much less rising, Messiah, and Jewish beliefs about the afterlife precluded anyone's rising from the dead before the end of the world. Nevertheless, the original disciples came to believe so strongly that God had raised Jesus from the dead that they were willing to die for the truth of that belief. Luke Johnson, a New Testament scholar from Emory University, muses, "Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was . . . ."{16} N. T. Wright, an eminent British scholar, concludes, "That is why, as a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him."{17}

Dr. Craig makes claims about the disciples personal dispositions toward a dying and rising Messiah without having any possible way of making that claim. We can reject this as a bare assertion. Adding quotes from other scholars is a nice way to weave his bare assertion into a scholarly analysis, but does nothing to establish fact.


Attempts to explain away these three great facts--like the disciples stole the body or Jesus wasn't really dead--have been universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. The simple fact is that there just is no plausible, naturalistic explanation of these facts. Therefore, it seems to me, the Christian is amply justified in believing that Jesus rose from the dead and was who he claimed to be. But that entails that God exists.

Entails. I love the use of the word "entails". It sounds so logicky!

Seriously though, Dr. Craig makes an impressive-sounding closing, as if three bare assertions combine to make a not-bare-assertion. There is "just is no plausible, naturalistic explanation of these facts" because there are no facts. Plausible, naturalistic explanation is not needed here. He signals the implausibility of this with the tepid "it seems to me, the Christian is amply justified in believing ...". He's not saying "Thus every reasoning being in the universe must assent that this is undeniably, unassailably true". He's saying "you guys that already believe this are okay to keep on believing it".

This fourth argument is worthy of being included in a Sunday Sermon, but not in a discussion of how reality works.

Next up, the "argument" from personal experience.

1 comment:

  1. "But there are actually three established facts, recognized by the majority of New Testament historians today, which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus."

    I don't see anything at all "sneaky" about that. The syntax and grammar are really basic. Same with the "something of a consensus" paragraph.I can't find in any of his phrasings the implication that most scholars in that field believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Obviously they don't, and it would be foolish of him to make a claim so demonstrably false. I imagine he'd argue instead that most are relegated to a place of cognitive dissonance and conspiracy theories based on what he would describe as evidence that points to a conclusion that they reject out of hand.

    He contends that there are three facts that have been agreed upon by scholars which he believes are best explained by a resurrection. That's pretty clear. It seems to me like you're starting with your conclusions and moving backwards from there. I bet for any atheist who debates him, you wouldn't question an assertion made out of "academic consensus" or at least research the claim before declaring it "hearsay". I guess it makes sense with the name of the blog and all. Don't worry, plenty of Christians have the same problem.