(Note: What follows is a transcription of the video)
What if I told you that I believed that god raised Jesus from the dead, but that I did not believe that Jesus was the son of god, and denied that belief in his death and resurrection was the path to salvation and eternal life in reconciliation with the one true god, Yahweh.
That would just sound crazy.
I want you to think about why that sounds crazy. It’s not hard to find an answer: Because we assume that miracles are evidence for the truth of the philosophical and theological teachings of the miracle worker.
This assumption goes unstated when apologists use the argument for the resurrection, but it is absolutely central to the argument. The principle is even endorsed in the bible in 1 Kings 18:
36 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” 38 Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. 39 When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD—he is God! The LORD—he is God!”
The story of Elijah is about him demonstrating that his god is the true god where as the prophets of Baal worship a false god, because Elijah’s god can work miracles but the prophets of Baal can’t get their god to do the same. The idea is that like god sending fire from the sky to burn a wet alter or a person rising from the dead, it would be evidence for the truth of the teachings of the miracle worker.
I want you to keep this thought in the back of your mind as we go through this video countering the argument for the resurrection of Jesus.
I am countering the resurrection argument in a very specific way, my aim is to debunk the argument as it is used specifically as a means to convert non-Christians into Christians, as well as to counter the idea that Christians remain in their faith due to any supposed strength that is in the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus.
Typically the resurrection argument is presented as the capstone to a “cumulative case apologetic” presented by Chirstians to convert atheists and agnostics into new believers.
The plan is to first use a series of arguments to convince the skeptic that a monotheistic god exists, and then to bridge the gap from theism to Christianity with the argument for the resurrection. My purpose here is to show exactly why this doesn’t work.
The argument for the resurrection comes in many forms, but they all eventually come back to referencing the bible’s stories about Jesus being crucified and resurrected. They all are based on testimonial evidence for a miracle occurring in the past, and unfortunately for Christians – testimony can not be used in an evidential way to justify belief in a miracle claim in the world we live in.
That’s what my first argument will be addressing.
What if I told you that I woke up in my bed in New Jersey this morning, then had lunch on the moon, but then was home here on earth for dinner?
You probably wouldn’t believe me.
Now let’s pretend we were in the universe of Star Trek The Next Generation, my same statement about waking up on earth, eating lunch on the moon, and then being back on earth for dinner would be extremely plausible and you wouldn’t bat an eye at that same statement if you were living in that universe.
The difference is the background knowledge in each case. In Star Trek, there are transporters that can span an incredible distance in a second, not to mention galaxy class starships that make such a feat possible. In the real world, only a handful of human beings have undergone the training and incredible journey via rocket spacecraft to make it to the moon, a process that takes a lot longer than a day.
Now what if my statement was about me doing something physically impossible that no level of technology can overcome? How much more unbelievable is that?
Our entire lives we build on this background knowledge of how the world works. Science reveals to us that the regularities in the way the physical world behaves can be quantified by certain mathematical equations. It is predictable, it always behaves according to these equations - which have come to be called the laws of nature.
When philosopher David Hume formulated this argument, he defined a miracle as a “violation of the laws of nature” which he admitted a god could do, if one existed. I think it’s a pretty good definition, but many apologists spend a lot of time attacking it for some reason that I don’t quite understand since the argument doesn’t depend on that definition at all. So for our purposes we could still formulate the argument saying that god governs the behavior of physical reality according to specific mathematical equations so that it behaves that way regularly, but a miracle is when he allows that regularity to be interrupted.
The end result is the same - the regular way the world behaves is incredibly reliable. So reliable that I have never experienced something physically impossible happening. I’ll bet you’ve never witnessed something physically impossible happening either. In fact among my social group I have not heard of anyone experiencing anything in their lives that was literally physically impossible. Given that I’m addressing the use of the resurrection argument on someone who was presumably an atheist or agnostic until the cumulative case argument recently made into some kind of mere theist - chances are they haven’t experienced something physically impossible happening; otherwise they probably wouldn’t have been an atheist and agnostic.
So what is it that is supposed to convince us that something physically impossible has happened? After all, just because we have never experienced something, doesn’t mean it can’t happen - right? We can’t simply assume miracles can’t happen.
Christians and other religious believers would tell us the testimony of others should be enough to justify belief in miracles. After all, we get an incredible amount of our beliefs purely through testimony from other people. All that cool science we learn about? Most of us don’t do the experiments to prove anything, we simply learn about it, maybe from a more trusted source like a peer reviewed text book, and we simply accept it and move on.
The problem is that while testimony is absolutely a valid way to infer knowledge, testimony also has its faults. Many of us have been lied to. Or someone was just incorrect and by trusting their testimony we were incorrect by inference.
So at the end of the day we have to weigh two sources of knowledge and see what we trust more: The reliability of our inductive experience of the world where presumably you’ve not really experienced anything physically impossible happening vs. testimony claims about physically impossible things happening in ways you can’t verify.
Given the two, my first argument is that I trust my inductive experience of the world more than I trust testimony which I know can be faulty. I have a lot more inductive experiences of the way the world works adhering to the laws of nature than I do of testimony always being reliable.
This was Hume’s point - testimony in principle can’t overcome our inductive experience of the world. My argument is that this is true in almost all cases, with only one exception for young children getting testimony from their parents when they are too young to do anything but accept that testimony from a reliable source and treat it as knowledge. That said, in almost all cases we are right to be skeptical when someone tells us something that wildly violates our background knowledge.
This doesn’t mean our background knowledge is always correct. After all, some of the most memorable science lessons involve learning something that generally violates our background knowledge - and then having that fact be demonstrated to us in verifiable experiments.
I want to stress that this conclusion holds even if you are a mere theist, especially a “recently convinced mere theist”. After all, a god can exist but just not interfere in the physical world. Even if a god could resurrect someone, in your inductive experience of the world how many times have you witnessed god raise someone from the dead? It’s a virtual certainty that even if a god exists, it doesn’t do that.
Does my moon lunch scenario become any more plausible if I amend it to say “God transported me to the moon for lunch and then sent me back home to Earth for dinner that same day”?
If I were to try and use a defense in a murder trial that my concealed carry gun levitated out of my holster and fired on my hiking companion in the middle of the woods all to the sound of a demon taunting us, would the jury accept or reject that claim? Would you want the jury to accept that claim?
Perhaps you might be thinking that this is a little too quick of a dismissal, regardless of how practical my inferences above might be. After all, this is supposed to be about the resurrection argument being used on a newly converted mere theist who now believes that supernatural agents can interfere with the material world.
Wouldn’t it be closed minded to just reject the total evidence we have available regarding the physically impossible occurring, even if the counter evidence we have is all based on testimony?
I still think that even in this scenario, when the newly convinced theist starts to consider the total amount of evidence for miracle claims, they should still reject the testimonial evidence for those miracles occurring or be forced into disconnecting a miracle occurring from providing evidence for the truth of a religion. Let’s talk about why.
Different Levels of Miracles
Even Christian apologists will differentiate between levels of miracles.
The first level of miracles I like to define are those kinds of events that in principle could be the result of random chance and have a purely naturalistic explanation, but seem unlikely and so one is at least tempted to infer supernatural causation due to a religious context.
This level of miracle has two sub classes:
Minor Improbable Miracles - Events that are physically possible though surface level unlikely, but seemingly too trivial or likely to have occurred anyway. These events are the sort that your average believer might say that probably was just pure chance and good luck rather than divine intervention. This would be like praying to find your keys and then when you open your eyes you immediately see them.
Major Improbable Miracles - Events that are physically possible but highly unlikely to occur, but do occur in a religious context. Now it’s admittedly possible these events could happen by chance and no divine intervention occurred, but it seems very unlikely and the religious context makes believers want to admit this as a miracle. A good example would be a person diagnosed with cancer going back to the doctor a few weeks after their initial diagnosis, but the night before they went to their church and were prayed over by the entire congregation. Lo and behold when they get their next check the cancer has gone into spontaneous remission. That happens naturalistically, albeit in a small percentage of cases including in non religious contexts - but the religious context gives the believer a reason to think it was a miracle.
Very often, atheists and skeptics will say that in either of these scenarios we should immediately reject the supernatural explanation because any possible naturalistic explanation, however unlikely, is far more likely than a divine agent causing a miracle.
This has some weight with me personally, but then I’m still an atheist, and I tend to weigh my inductive experience of the regularity of the physical world very highly.
But I do think that is not the only reason I think we ought to prefer the naturalistic explanation for these miracles. Still, atheists often go too far with this line of reasoning, they go so far to claim that the theist is being unreasonable or irrational for believing these kinds of possible-but-improbable-miracle claims.
One of the best defenses of the reasonableness of justified belief in these miracle claims comes from Christian theologian and apologist Randal Rauser.
Here he references Alvin Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology, where he points out a Christian who has a properly basic belief in Christianity, either due to an innate sense of the divine telling her Christianity is true, or just being raised in a Christian context and being given testimony from his trusted authority figures in life like her parents. What’s key here is that this Christian belief is a Properly Basic Belief; it is pre-evidential.
Given this set of background knowledge, it is entirely rational for this Christian to come across testimony of a Major Improbable Miracle happening in a Christian context and attribute that event as the divine action of her god.
This is because literally everyone assesses the plausibility of a claim on how it comports to their background knowledge. Since the truth of Christianity is part of this Christian’s background knowledge due to the rules set out in Reformed Epistemology, it’s reasonable for her to believe it’s a miracle.
Conversely, Randal readily admits that what is doing the work here is the background plausibility structure of the Christian’s life experience - not the evidence of the specific miracle claim. Indeed Randal readily admits that an atheist hearing the same evidence is similarly rational and justified in rejecting the miracle claim and attributing the event to purely unlikely natural circumstances.
I happen to think that Randal’s account here is a good one. If there is anything wrong with his account it is because there is some problem with Plantinga’s Reformed Epistemology, which I am granting as valid for the sake of argument here.
But wait, if I am granting that it’s rational for a Christian to believe in these Improbable Miracles, wouldn’t I also have to grant it is rational in the case of a newly convinced mere theist to be convinced these miracles have occurred?
No, because what is doing the work in Randal’s scenario is the pre-existing basic belief in a specific religion, which the mere theist does not have. The mere theist in this hypothetical case is not considering the total amount of evidence on offer.
Let me demonstrate this by way of a few examples of Improbable Miracles. I’m going to use some audio from Christian apologist Mike Licona recounting his “reasons to believe reality has a supernatural dimension” from his debate with atheist Matt Dillahunty:
“Pat when she was a junior in high school she was awakened early one sunday morning and it was dark in her bedroom. And then she closed her eyes and when she opened them then about three feet from her was the illuminated face of a friend she hadn’t seen for several years. She thought this is weird, it’s kind of freaky, about 3 feet in front of me illuminated in the dark just this face looking at me. She closed her eyes but when she opened her eyes again that face was still there but right to the side and behind it was now the face of what she interpreted to be Satan or a demon. It was red, it had a wicked smile and it frightened her. She thought she was dreaming or hallucinating and she closed her eyes, pinched herself, still there when she opened her eyes. She closed her eyes, pinched herself, biting her tongue, opened her eyes….it’s still there!
Now she’s really terrified. She closes her eyes and does the last thing she knows to do: she prays the lord's prayer. When she opens her eyes both faces are gone. She looks over at the clock and it’s 2:30 in the morning. That’s Sunday morning. Sunday comes and goes, she wakes up Monday morning and she comes downstairs, her mom is fixing breakfast, her dad’s reading the newspaper at the table. When he sees Pat he puts the newspaper down, turns it around, pushes it towards her and points to a picture on there, you can see on the right. He says Pat isn’t this a friend of yours that you hung out a few years ago? She said yeah, why? He said Saturday night she was at a Logits and Mescina concert in Norfolk at the Scope, that’s the big like arena there.
After the concert her and a bunch of friends went up to the top row and they were just hanging out and she leaned up against a curtain, she thought there was a wall behind it, well there was no wall! And so when she leaned back she fell down 20 feet, hit concrete, they take her to the hospital, and she died at 2:30.”
Here I will reference a miracle of Sathya Sai Baba, recounted here (apologies for any mispronunciations):
Sathya Saibaba, the Master of miracles cancels an ardent devotee’s heart surgery.
An old lady from Madras once had a sharp pain in her chest. Her husband rushed to their family doctor, who in turn referred them to a heart surgeon. The lady was put to a through test. To the shock of her husband and her, the doctor revealed that there appeared three blockages in her heart. The doctor also suggested that an immediate heart operation has to be done. The lady however refused to undergo the operation without the consent of the Lord of her heart, Sri Sathya Sai Baba. She also ignored the medicines prescribed for the pain.
The Lord is the only succor for a lost heart. That night, the lady had a wonderous dream where Sathya Saibaba took a piece of paper, drew a heart and crossed it. The lady woke up with tears of ecstasy, “Baba I know not the significance of the dream, but I am aware that my heart problem has been taken care of!”
A miraculous cure just came about naturally!Can there be a dearth of miracles by Sathya Sai Baba in the devotees’ lives?
The next day, the elderly couple visited the doctor again and the lady went through the same tests, a second time. To the utter astonishment of everyone, the results simply did not show any trait of a heart ailment. The blocks were absent and hence the heart surgery was ruled out! The husband related to the doctor, the wonderful dream that his wife had the previous night. He however wanted to make sure about the medicines that she had to take for her heart condition to be stable. When the prescription was produced, the doctor just crossed it exactly the way Satya Sai Baba had done in the dream! Surging gratitude from the heart flowed down as tears on the cheeks of the devotee!
Now here is another story Mike Licona tells from his debate with Matt Dillahunty. He is recounting an email from an atheist describing a case of extreme answered prayer:
And my dad was a deacon in a church and we went to church. And we had this all night prayer meeting, it was a small church, but we really needed money and we had this all night prayer meeting. Well now I’m going to pick up the email and quote him verbatim.
One time my church desperately needed $7,641 in order to keep going. After an all night prayer meeting my dad went to go pick up the mail and in it was a check for exactly $7,641 from someone who didn’t even know the church needed the money, but had heard one of the pastors speak a few years ago.
My dad contacted the giver and she said that after she had heard the pastor speak she felt god wanted her to put some cash into an annuity and give it to our church. The process took several years and just days before she decided to close the account and send the accrued money to the church and it happened to be the exact amount that was needed - right after an all night prayer meeting.
Next I will interject with two miracles performed by Joseph Smith, the founder of the mormon religion, referenced here on Wikipedia that contains further references for the claims:
Oliver B. Huntington reported that, in the spring of 1831, Smith healed the lame arm of the wife of John Johnson of Hiram, Ohio. This account is corroborated by the account of a Protestant minister who was present. However, he did not attribute the miraculous healing to the power of God.
After apostatizing and denying that Smith was a prophet, Fanny Stenhouse recorded an experience in which she said she saw Smith miraculously heal an old woman who had been bedridden for years. In her account, Stenhouse avers that this was not a fake healing. However, she attributes it to an occultic or otherworldly power not directly associated with God.
Now I could go on and on, recounting Mike’s retelling of Near Death Experiences and then reading Near Death Experiences of people around the world who observe non-Christian faiths talking about how they saw things that were in line with their religion’s version of the afterlife, and those who claim to have seen figures of all the world's religions co-mingling in some kind of feel-good-afterlife party.
What Licona and many apologists do is commit the fallacy of understated evidence. This is where the general fact of a situation supports one's conclusions, but the specific facts of that same situation end up undermining your conclusion.
The general fact that there are a lot of non-verifiable, implausible miracle claims would seem to support the idea that a supernatural realm exists. However once we look more closely at the data, the specific details undermine the idea that the supernatural exists, or at the very least that miracles can serve as evidence for the truth of a specific religion.
We see a wide variety of equally well attested miracle claims that would be strong evidence for contradictory religions. This ends up putting the theist in a trilemma:
Some of the miracles occurred, but not the others - but we are left with no objective way to determine which were true and which were false.
All of the miracles occurred, but then miracles can’t be used as evidence for the truth of the theological teachings of the miracle workers
None of the miracles actually occurred and the testimony is based on fabrications and legends.
To understand why we are left thinking the most probable option in the trilemma is that all these improbable miracle claims are false we need to look at that second class of miracles I alluded to earlier.
Miracles that have no natural explanation
The second class are miracles that do something physically impossible. These miracles would have no naturalistic explanation whatsoever. Examples of these sorts of things abound in religious texts and other accounts. Raising people from the dead after a sufficient period of time has elapsed past death would be a great example.
This category, much like the previous one has two types.
The kind that are not empirically verifiable, like one off events. One example would be if a prophet were to tell a scientist who is measuring the momentum of a particle that particles exact position. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that we can not know the exact momentum if we also measure the exact position, so it would be a miracle to have both values - but we could never verify if the value given was correct. Miracles could be empirically verifiable in the moment, but then quickly lapse into being non-verifiable; like Jesus walking on the surface of unfrozen water. While verifiable to those present it quickly would become unverifiable once he got off the water
The other version of this miracle are kind that are empirically verifiable*, so ones where we would have extensive empirical evidence regarding someone having an amputated limb and living that way for some time (reliable medical records, photos, videos of them without the limb, etc) only to have the limb re-grow; preferably with the miracle taking place via video. Another could be a set of rocks floating in the air continuously for thousands of years in an area that spell out “I am the lord god and Jesus is my son” written multiple times in multiple languages. Finally there is a third example that is not often considered: God continually working miracles that are physically impossible through adherents of the One True Religion consistently and in empirically verifiable ways.
This last example is very important because in all but a few cases, the empirical verifiability of a miracle is a time-limited thing. An amputation a couple hundred years ago healed by prayer would be empirically verifiable to those at the time but would not be verifiable today. The event lapses into being non-verifiable. Only the second kind where the miracle was done in perpetuity could it be verified over time; or where we have believers able to do the miracle throughout generations.
Now when evaluating this second class of miracles we should note that the first class of these physically impossible miracles are a lot like the other classes of what I call “improbable miracles” they’re not verifiable. In order for either side to not beg the question, we can not really know whether these miracles actually occurred.
What’s more if we just accept all testimony about these kinds of non-verifiable miracles at face value, then various contradictory religions around the world have many testimony based claims of this sort; meaning that the miracles no longer can count as evidence for the truth of the theological teachings of the miracle workers.
So much like the previous category we are left with a trilemma:
- Some of the miracles occurred, but not the others - but we are left with no objective way to determine which were true and which were false.
- All of the miracles occurred, but then miracles can’t be used as evidence for the truth of the theological teachings of the miracle workers
- None of the miracles actually occurred and the testimony is based on fabrications and legends.
What gets interesting is that the final category of the physically impossible miracle ends up being evidence for the option where none of the miracles have occurred.
Because in principle there is nothing categorically impossible or different about the empirically verifiable miracles happening vs. any of the other kind. In fact, all the kinds of miracles are exactly on a par for god to enact.
The fact is that the kind of repeated, empirically verifiable demonstration of otherwise physically impossible miracles would be the best kind of evidence for a supernatural being, and if such miracles were only able to be performed by followers of one religion, then it would constitute incredible evidence for the truth of that religion over the others.
Why? Because then our experience of the world would give us contemporary evidence to interpret miracle claims from the past – and allow us to discern between the wide variety of miracle claims of contradictory religions.
This is a case where the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
We are told that miracles of this sort used to occur in the past. The Christian bible portrays the apostles and prophets performing verifiable miracles, some even after Jesus’s death. We are given no reason to believe that these types of miracles should have stopped while the other non-verifiable ones supposedly continue, yet we don’t see verifiable miracles occurring. So, their contemporary absence counts against the historical claims being true.
This is one of the principles that justifies the use of what is called Methodological Naturalism - the idea that in science, history, and other areas of study, as part of our methodology we presume that metaphysical naturalism is true. Much like a random person telling you god whisked them away to the moon for lunch with Jesus but sent them back to earth in time for dinner at home, we disregard these unverifiable miracle claims.
Note that this is the case even if we are a theist. Theists would reject my lunch on the moon claim just as much as an atheist would, and for the same reasons. They just make a special exemption for their specific miracle claims, and when pushed why they make an exemption for their preferred miracles the only answer they can resort to is their subjective religious experience. While this may provide a rational basis for the specific believer, it carries no weight when convincing someone else – because every religion’s believers have contradicting subjective religious experiences to justify belief in their miracles.
Christian apologists really don’t like Methodological Naturalism. Here we can listen to Mike Licona on the subject from his debate with Matt Dillahunty:
Second, Matt goes by methodological naturalism to say that in science we are bound, or barred I should say from investigating the supernatural. That’s bunk. We are not barred. Now a lot of scientists tie their hands behind their back - that’s called methodological naturalism where they’re not allowed to consider the supernatural but let me tell you methodological naturalism simply stated is a safe space for skeptical scholars and scientists where they can hide from serious consideration from solutions that involve supernatural or god, you know those trigger words for them because it makes them uncomfortable.
OK, before we get to the meat of his objection to methodological naturalism, I wanted to point out Licona’s invoking culture war terminology like “safe spaces”. Licona knows he’s playing to an audience of Right Wing Conservative Christians, they are the ones who pay his bills after all. The point is that he’s invoking what is culture war rhetoric to tie the idea that belief in the resurrection is justified by the methods of history to cement his position as one opposed to methodological naturalism which is espoused by “snowflake liberals and atheists” to shield against Christianity.
Such rhetoric has no place in a serious consideration of philosophical argument, but since he went there I feel it’s important to point out his blatant hypocrisy. As someone who grew up in the 1980’s inside the evangelical culture bubble I’d like to point out that Evangelical Christians are the ultimate champions of all time when it comes to creating “Safe Spaces”. Note that Licona is a professor at Huston Baptist University, a private Christian college whose mission:
"seeks to develop students of character and competence by providing opportunities to engage in a Christ-centered community focusing on academic success, spiritual formation, interpersonal development, and physical well-being."
That certainly sounds like a particularly expensive “safe space” Christian parents send their teenagers to in order to insulate them from doubts about their faith. If you doubt that really is a Christian “safe space” then you should look at the by-laws of the University Licona works for:
“To assure the perpetuation of these basic concepts of its founders, it is resolved that all those who become associated with Houston Baptist University as a trustee, officer, member of the faculty or of the staff, and who perform work connected with the educational activities of the University, must believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, both the Old Testament and New Testament, that man was directly created by God, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, as the Son of God, that He died for the sins of all men and thereafter arose from the grave, that by repentance and the acceptance of and belief in Him, by the grace of God, the individual is saved from eternal damnation and receives eternal life in the presence of God; and it is further resolved that the ultimate teachings in this University shall never be inconsistent with the above principles.”
Now that is a “safe space”. With that over with, let's get on with Licona’s take on methodological naturalism.
Well so what if I were beheaded here on stage by some terrorists and they fled leaving my headless corpse here on the stage. And then you all leave the auditorium and an hour later you’re outside of the auditorium and you’re talking to the police and media and I come walking out of the auditorium, head attached, smiling, scars on my neck and I said I’ve been to heaven. And god brought me back to verify the truth of Jesus’s gospel message. And by the way Matt while I was up there I talked to this relative of yours that died 10 years ago and they shared with me a private conversation that only you and that relative had that I could not have possibly known.
So is a miracle the least probable explanation? And since historians must choose the most probable we’d have to say anything, even group hallucination is more probable? No. That’s methodological naturalism. That’s the safe space for skeptics.
Licona makes the mistake that atheists, scientists, and historians are committed to the principle of methodological naturalism a priori, as a general first principle not to be violated before engaging in their analysis of any given situation; being ridiculously unable to say anything about an obvious verifiable miracle occurring before their very eyes.
But it is not an a priori commitment, it is in part justified by the past failure of the supernatural to demonstrate itself, let alone do so in consistent ways that would add evidential weight to the teachings of any specific religion.
A good skeptic, scientist, or historian would be open to theistic explanations if the evidence was there; but it’s not. In fact, we have a long history of supposedly miraculous perpetual miracles which are then debunked; leaving us with only the non-verifiable kind.
Licona's second mistake is to use an example of the kind of empirically verifiable miracle that would disprove methodological naturalism as an example of why it's untenable; as if we wouldn't abandon the principle when an event occurs that disproves the rationale we have for believing in said principle! In fact, this kind of miracle is exactly the kind of evidence that many atheists and skeptics have said would convince us that a god exists, to the point where it's a serious argument against the existence of god - the problem of divine hiddenness.
What is striking is that the apologetic answer to hiddenness objections, specifically versions of the argument about god doing empirically verifiable miracles is at complete odds with Licona's thought experiment, but also with the history of miracles depicted in the bible.
Often apologists will cite how god doesn't use obvious miracles because he doesn't want to "force" non-believers into a relationship with himself, even though such miracles occurred in biblical times and places. Were those people "forced" into a relationship or belief in god? If not then such reasoning wouldn't apply here. If god loves all people equally as a maximally loving being, then why do people in the bible get such preferential epistemic treatment? In fact what justification is there for ceasing all verifiable miracles not long after Jesus's ascension?
This point cannot be understated, because the key aspect here is that the imposition of methodological naturalism is a direct consequence of the way the world is right now. If a god exists, then god wants this ambiguity about religion to persist. Consider this thought experiment of a world where methodological naturalism would not be held when it came to historical evaluation:
Imagine our world as it is now, except at every mass in every Catholic church when the priest goes to do communion, he pours water into a clear glass and after saying a prayer the water turns into wine before the entire congregation.
Imagine that this can be studied under controlled conditions. Scientists could verify the water pre-prayer, inspect the priests, control their garments, inspect the wine afterwards. The wine could even be the same type and molecular composition, every time, regardless of the type of water put into the cup ahead of time.
Far from becoming mundane, this would be the highlight of every service, especially since no other religions could replicate this kind of empirically verifiable miracle. One wonders if there would even BE other religions if this world was real.
In such a world with this kind of background knowledge informing our beliefs, we would be able to interpret historical Christian miracle claims in a way not available to miracle claims made by competing, contradictory religions. We would have a solid basis for concluding that the Christian miracle claims were true and reason to doubt the others as false. We wouldn't even have other denominations of Christianity if only Catholic priests could do the miracle!
Imagine how many more people would be Christians in this hypothetical world! Some apologists try to say that even in light of such evidence many would not convert; instead believing like the demons do. In fact to avoid issues with the argument from divine hiddenness they might say that none who do not believe already would become Christians in light of this new evidence, but this doesn't pass the smell test.
Ask yourself if you would believe in this scenario. If you already believe now, would your faith be stronger or weaker?
I for one know with certainty that if such evidence were available, I would convert. Issues with the problem of evil and hell would be overcome by evidence that the Christian god exists. The theodicies I find unconvincing now would be suddenly more plausible and I would have to radically reconsider my notion of what "the good" is. So it cannot be true that no one would convert who does not believe now, because I would!
But this is not our world, and even if a god existed, it wants this kind of ambiguity and a world that is indistinguishable from a world where a god either does not exist or is deistic and doesn't interfere with the universe it created.
If an apologist says god wants the ambiguity then they are conceding this argument about evaluating historical miracle claims including the resurrection, because god wants such claims to be ambiguous.
In philosophical terms, my main point has been that our prior probability of any miracle occurring is extremely low. My second point has been that in most cases, even Christian believers will not believe in new miracle claims based only on testimonial evidence; because such evidence can not overcome our incredibly strong prior probability that miracles don’t occur.
Apologists defending the resurrection argument typically make two points when they address this.
The first and weakest response is that they will appeal to an argument for god’s existence as proof that supernatural causes are live options that should be considered. Both Frank Turek and J Warner Wallace will typically appeal to the Kalam Cosmological Argument as if it were sound, stating something to the effect that “if god can make something come from nothing, then god could interact with our world to raise Jesus from the dead”.
The easy answer here is that arguments for natural theology don’t work. OK that’s my atheistic bias showing through. Stating things in the most sympathetic terms, all arguments from natural theology have counter arguments that rely on competing metaphysical principles that can consistently and rationally be held by others. Whether or not a natural theology argument “works” really boils down to whether or not a person subjectively finds one set of metaphysical principles more plausible than the alternatives.
That said, often when these apologists refer to something like the Kalam they wildly misstate the science on the matter and pretend as if contemporary cosmology proves that the universe came into existence out of nothing, which is strictly false and I recommend watching my video series on that argument for an explanation on why.
The second response apologists will make to my arguments about prior probability is to argue that while the prior probability may be extremely low, we also need to look at the probability that we have the evidence we do for the resurrection if one had occurred vs. if it had not occurred.
I agree we should assess these probabilities; the problem is that the probability of having stories about a charismatic religious figure performing miracles, even on atheism or a non-interfering deism is not low! As covered earlier we can dig up an incredible amount of miracle claims from around the world for contradictory religions.
You may have noticed throughout this presentation that I’ve largely steered clear of criticizing the bible directly, because my arguments don’t inherently depend on whether or not the 5 accounts in the bible of Jesus’s resurrection were good or bad; merely that our evidence amounts in total to 5 pieces of testimonial evidence and that by itself is a problem regardless of the specifics of said testimony.
It is here that apologists may want to interject to appeal to the specifics of the biblical account to try and salvage the argument, often trying to appeal to a “minimal facts” approach. The problem is that a “minimal facts approach” is inherently flawed because it cherry picks specific things the apologists want to focus on and ignores the larger picture that discredits their story. The response to any “minimal fact” apologetic is to say that skeptics don’t believe all of the supposed “facts” are true, that they were made up as part of the story.
Given the first part of my argument, we ought to be very skeptical of any miracle accounts as being trustworthy simply because they contain miracle accounts. However the case against the resurrection gets much stronger once we consider that the 5 pieces of testimonial evidence in the bible for t he resurrection give us a lot of additional reasons to doubt the accounts.
The tale grows in the telling
The earliest accounts of the resurrection do not occur in the first four gospels in the New Testament. It is in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 – where Paul relays what is believed to be an oral tradition:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
This is quite a far cry from the detailed accounts in the gospels, but it covers the basics. What is interesting is that Paul mentions an appearance and puts himself on a par with the apostles; but we know from Acts that Paul only saw a vision of Jesus.
From there we move to the four pseudonymous gospels, each written decades after the supposed resurrection. The names of each gospel were not attached till much later after their publication and each is not written as a history, but more as an evangelistic tract. Each was written in Greek which was certainly not the native language of the Aramaic speaking apostles in 1st century Isreal.
The Gospel of Mark is the earliest gospel, even Christian scholars and historians agree was the first to be written. It is written in a “lower” version of Greek, basically something that the common people would have spoke, not what the educated and privileged few would have. It does not technically include the actual resurrection of Jesus, or at least with the appearance of an resurrected Jesus if we end it at the proper place, all we are left with is an empty tomb. It’s stylistic theme is that of the “Messianic Secret” where Jesus doesn’t really reveal to the masses that he is the messiah.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke were written next, largely copying word for word from Mark, and where they do deviate in the wording it’s largely to “clean up” the Greek into the more high-class version of the language. Each gospel contains their unique and common additions, but roughly 60% of Mark is replicated in Matthew and Luke. This isn’t readily obvious to readers because while Mark is copied, the stories and passages are taken and jumbled up in order, interspersed with new material. Matthew and Luke are also where we see the evolution of the Jesus story where now he was born of a virgin, and it is where we get our first resurrection appearances of Jesus. Each gospel has its own themes, but in each Jesus is far more open about being the messiah than he is in Mark.
Finally, there is the gospel of John, written much later than the others between 90-100AD (Jesus would have been crucified roughly in 33AD). John does not copy from Mark, though lately biblical scholars have arguments about John’s literary dependence on Mark. Still, this is the highest form of the gospel with a far more fully developed theology, with Jesus being the “word of god” present at the creation of the heavens and the earth.
This is the more general fact about how the story grew. We can also see the evolution of the resurrection narrative in each of the gospels. Joseph of Arimathea is a key figure for the argument as he is the person who requests Jesus’s body from Pilate to be “buried in a tomb” appears. This part of the narrative is key because apologists like to point to “the empty tomb” as a piece of evidence for the resurrection, even though the common practice for crucified prisoners was to leave them rotting on their crosses, to be eaten by wild animals or to have what little remained thrown into a common grave.
In order to get an empty tomb narrative, the gospel writers had to invent a way for Jesus to not suffer the traditional fate of those crucified – enter the character of Joseph of Arimathea who asks Pilate for his body and then buries it…for some reason.
Mark tells us that Joseph was a respected member of the very same council that Mark says “all condemned him [Jesus] as deserving death” for blasphemy.
The story gets weirder because the character of Joseph of Arimathea evolves:
In Matthew he is a rich man from Arimathea who was also a disciple of Jesus, laying Jesus in what was supposed to be Joseph’s own tomb.
In Luke, Joseph is now a good and righteous man who was a member of the council but did not agree to their plan and action. He buried Jesus in a tomb that had never had anyone laid in it.
In John, Joseph is again a disciple of Jesus, but we learn he is a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, which seems odd because he presumably was a Jew himself. This time he and his buddy Nicodemus wrap the body with spices in linen cloths according to the burial custom of the Jews and lay it in a tomb where no one had been laid before.
The evolution of Joseph of Arimathea is important because as we stated it is extremely odd that anyone would go and bury the body of a crucified criminal in 1st century Israel. It is especially odd that such a man would be going to Pilate to request to bury the body of the man he had just condemned.
Apologists like to explain this away as the Jews not wanting dead bodies outside Jerusalem around Passover, hastily burying them before the Sabbath started.
This begs the question of why would Joseph request only the body of Jesus and not also the two thieves crucified besides him, and so instead of an empty tomb we’d have a tomb with only two bodies instead of three? If Joseph hadn’t condemned Jesus but was a secret disciple because he feared the Jews, despite being Jewish himself – why would he publicly request the body from Pilate? Eventually the council would have noticed that the body of only Jesus was conspicuously gone, and when they inquired about what happened to it, Joseph would have been outed.
The story doesn’t make much sense, unless the early Christian writers wanted to find a narrative mechanism to somehow preserve Jesus’s body from being eaten/destroyed/decomposed. As the original lie grew in the telling, so did the character, eventually getting secret motivations for his extremely odd actions.
But why think this is a lie if one is not already overly skeptical of the resurrection account? Because we already know that false supernatural claims were added to the gospel narratives over time.
False Supernatural Claim #1
I alluded earlier that Mark ends without any actual appearances of the risen Jesus. That’s not in the vast majority of Bibles today, which does have an appearance. This is because our earliest manuscripts end abruptly at Mark 16:8. However the later version have verses 9-20 where Jesus not only appears but makes demonstrably false supernatural claims about how to prove that Jesus had risen:
"And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
This is akin to my example of continual, empirically verifiable miracles being done by Catholic priests turning water into wine at every mass. Imagine if we could dispense with complex metaphysical arguments of apologetics and just prove Christianity with a trip to the zoo and some bleach.
Obviously Christians aren’t performing these miracles, and such things were falsifiable even at the time the story was added to the bible. So the authors literally added something everyone who cared could have shown was false.
False Supernatural Claim #2
In Matthew 27:52-53 we learn that on Jesus’s death many of the bodies of the saints were raised, and then at his resurrection they came out of their tombs and appeared to many in the city:
The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.
The problem with this is that it (and the associated claims of the temple veil tearing, an eclipse, and an earthquake coinciding with Jesus’s death) do not appear anywhere else. Not in extra-biblical sources like first century Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus or even anywhere else in the gospels.
This is a problem because as resurrection argument proponents say, we should consider the probability that we would have or lack this evidence based on whether or not it occurred. The fact that we don’t have accounts from any sources of such an astounding event happening is evidence that Matthew simply added a false supernatural event to the resurrection narrative.
We also have other reasons to think that Matthew has a habit of literally making things up in his gospel.
False Prophecy Fulfillment
This comes from Bart Ehrman’s book “Jesus Interrupted”. One of the things that the early Christians did was search through their holy texts, what we now call the Old Testament, and look for ways to explain why what they believed had occurred. In many cases we see the stories about Jesus being written in the gospels to retroactively fulfill OT prophecies. This can be hard to prove, but we have one instance where we can know this occurred. Things got weird because these largely Greek Christians who wrote the gospels were reading the OT translated into Greek, not the original Hebrew.
The author of Matthew, writing in Greek, quotes Zechariah 9:9 where it says the king will enter Jeruselem “on a donkey” and then “on a colt the foal of a donkey”. What the author of Matthew didn’t realize was that part of Zechariah was written in something called “synonymous parallelism” where two lines of poetry say basically the same thing in different words. This is a well understood fact about the Hebrew Bible, known by Old Testament scholars; but Matthew had no idea about it.
So unlike the other gospels Matthew doesn’t have Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, he wants Jesus to fulfil the prophecy! So the author has Jesus ride on both a donkey AND a colt at once. The divine groin muscles must have been miraculously flexible.
This is certainly not the end of the examples I could give, but it is enough to show that we know the gospel authors were adapting the story in order to fit the evangelistic narrative they wanted to tell.
Suspiciously Revised Theology
One thing not often appreciated about the early Christian church was that it was not particularly big in first century Israel. While the first Christians were obviously Jewish, the religion really took off in the other parts of the Roman empire, among the Gentiles (non-Jews). This posed a problem because the early church still held to specifically Jewish laws that made getting converts particularly troublesome. Then, lo and behold a revelation came down from god to revise the troubling bits of Jewish law that held back new converts!
We see this in Acts, where it is mentioned that Peter is given a vision from god that Kosher laws no longer apply to Christians, thereby allowing new Gentile converts to continue on happily with their old cuisine. However this wasn’t the end of theological accomodation and a bigger barrier was the male Gentile penis.
Jews believed that newborn males must be circumcised, and oddly in the Old Testament, Yahweh was described as particularly pleased when the foreskin was removed from Jewish penises (no kink shaming). The first Christians thought that new converts had to keep the Jewish law, which meant Moyles were going to have to operate on some adults rather than Jewish babies.
This obviously posed a problem, a “yoke” or “burden” as described in Acts. Paul was primarily the person bringing the religion to the Gentiles, and he had to have a theological council with Peter and James in Jerusalem. He pointed out exactly how hard this doctrine made it for him to win converts, and eventually the book of Acts tells us that Paul prevails. Peter and James declare that gentiles no longer have to keep all the old Jewish laws, merely abstain from food polluted by idols, sexual immorality, the meat of strangled animals, and from blood. Oddly only one of those really seems to have remained relevant these days, but more importantly there is no basis for why new Christians must follow this subset of the old Jewish laws but not any of the others?
The point is that revising theological doctrine to make life easier makes one more skeptical of the truth of your doctrines in the first place. It’s easier for Christians to see this by giving them an example from a non-Christian religion:
In 1978 the leader of the Mormon church had a divine revelation! He rescinded the long existing ban on black people or people with “questionable heritage” (aka having a black ancestor) serving in the priesthood roughly when there was a large amount of Mormon converts in Brazil and a new Mormon Temple was built there. The temple would have been non-functional without the ban being rescinded; along with threats that Mormon affiliated BYU would lose access to federal funds due to racist policies.
Do any Christians really think that there was a timely divine revelation to the Mormons in the late 70’s? Why should we think that there was an expedient revelation in the first century?
How the Gospels Got Written
When apologists charge skeptics to provide an account of how the testimonial evidence was produced if there was no resurrection it is not hard to come up with answers.
We have cases throughout history where when the teachings of a charismatic leader are empirically falsified, there are cases where the believers re-interpret the teachings in a non-falsifiable way. I’ll provide one example, from 1844 and the Millerites.
A man named William Miller predicted Jesus would return on March 21, 1844. When that didn’t happen the prediction was revised to October 22, 1844. This inspired a large movement in the US with many giving up their earthly possessions in anticipation. When it failed the movement coped in different ways, with one being what led to the Seventh Day Adventist denomination which exists to this day. Hiram Edison reinterpreted the “cleansing of the sanctuary” that was predicted to have occurred in heaven, not on earth as the Millerites mistakenly predicted.
So what happened when Jesus died? Perhaps one disillusioned disciple, maybe Peter, had a dream or grief inspired hallucination. The idea that Jesus died for our sins and redeemed us, that he has ascended into heaven. Perhaps they even thought that god gave him a new heavenly body to replace his destroyed one that was thrown in a mass grave.
Once the story spreads from Peter, others bereaved followers have similar dreams and religious experiences and over time the story grows in the telling. Eventually Paul is stricken with guilt at his violent persecution of the new cult, perhaps even having a seizure and a vision of Jesus. Eventually taken to the Christians and proclaiming his conversion, his sight eventually returns in their care and a new zealot is born.
Over an even longer period the story evolves further into the gospel narratives among Christians in Greece who scour the greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures to find ways Jesus fulfilled the messiah prophecies. Eventually the story is written down by a crude literate follower, which then adapts and evolves to be cleaned up and grows in the telling in the other gospels.
As for murdered followers or why someone would “die for a lie” we have even worse evidence that most of the disciples themselves were actually persecuted than we have for the initial miracle claims themselves. For the cases where we do have good evidence of a disciple being killed for their Christian beliefs we can point to plenty of cases where religious believers die for their beliefs. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism was killed by a mob in a jail, after he and his disciples suffered violent persecution continually throughout the United States.
Skepticism of the Bible
The point of all this is to show that we have good reasons to be highly skeptical of the early Christian sources who wrote our primary testimonial accounts that serve as “evidence” that Jesus rose from the dead.
This, combined with the fact that when testimonial evidence is presented for non-Christian miracle claims, even Christians will reject that testimonial evidence, even in cases where we can find living witnesses providing testimony of non-Christian miracles. A Christian may claim that their special divine revelation of a properly basic belief in Christianity gives them rational justification for accepting their Christian miracle claims and rejecting other religions miracle claims – but then they have to give up the argument for the resurrection as being established on historical or any kind of objective grounds.
It doesn’t make much sense to say that the argument for the resurrection only works if one already believes Jesus rose from the dead based on special divine revelation!
Finally, it’s important to note that this isn’t pure atheistic dogma. I’m not insisting on methodological naturalism being part of how we evaluate historical claims because we must operate as if there was no god in order to be objective.
Even if one is a mere theist, recently converted by apologetic arguments that a god exists, you still would be stuck operating on a kind of methodological naturalism. If you don’t then you have to give some kind of basis to reject the mountains of testimonial evidence we have for non-Christian miracle claims and yet retain the Christian ones.
Some apologists attempt to give us a basis for doing so, saying that Jesus’s teachings seem incredibly moral vs. the teachings of other religions, but this is a poor argument. Appealing to things like the morality of the teachings gets Christians nowhere. Morality is often cultural, and culture is awash in traditional religious teachings which is then dependent on the area. In the US and EU, Christianity informs some of our sense of what is moral, or what we consider as “traditionally prohibited”. But in India, Hindu morality would largely impact what one would traditionally think of as moral or immoral. In the middle east, Islam would. In each case of course the teachings of the miracle workers in that area would seem “more moral” than the teachings of miracle workers of religions dominant in other areas.
The point is, even if apologists could get someone to give up the methodological naturalism I espouse, they’d be stuck with having to accept the same kinds of evidence for contradictory religions. This then undercuts the entire point of miracle claims – they would no longer serve as strong evidence for the truth of a religion’s theology and philosophy! Imagine believing god raised Jesus from the dead, but not being a Christian, it sounds absurd!
At this point, the only thing left for a Christian to base their religion on isn’t arguments and evidence, it’s purely subjective religious experience and supposed divine revelation. The “properly basic belief” espoused by Christian philosophers and apologists. The justification that works equally as well for any other religion’s theology and dogma. I’m not actually arguing against this as a rational justification for belief. What I am arguing is that the argument for the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t work on its own to convince skeptics or mere theists that Christianity is true. Maybe a Christian will respond that they accept the resurrection argument and reject the other miracle claims because of their “properly basic” belief that Christianity is true - but they must recognize that what’s doing the work there is their subjective religious experience, not anything specific to the evidence regarding the resurrection!
The question I leave any believers with is whether or not they actually feel as if they have this special divine revelation from god that their religion is true, especially in a pre-evidential way. Do you really have that? And if you do, why should non-believers take your word over the experiences of another religion’s believer?
These are hard questions that I don’t think have any actual answers.
Thanks for watching!