Monday, August 31, 2020

Countering the Resurrection Argument (Short Version)

(Note what follows is a transcript 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. 

We see this in bible stories like when Elijah called down fire and the prophets of Baal could not, the crowd called out to Yahweh as the LORD because the miracle was evidence of Elijah’s teaching. 

In this video I’m going to give a condensed version of a much more detailed video countering the argument for the resurrection of Jesus. If you like what I say here or want to challenge me, I encourage you to listen to or read the full video with the link in the description. 

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.

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, would the jury accept or reject that claim? Would you want the jury to accept that claim?

Even if someone was recently convinced by apologetic arguments to be a “mere theist”, why should the regard the 5 pieces of testimonial evidence we have to the resurrection of Jesus over the other pieces of testimony we have for a wide array of miracle claims for contradictory religions like Hinduism, Mormonism, or Islam?

Apologists like Mike Licona like to argue that reality has a supernatural dimension and list off a few cases of miracles, but when they do this they commit the fallacy of understated evidence. This is when you quote a general fact when it supports your conclusion but the specific detailed facts actually count against 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 of miracle claims that happen in support of contradictory religions 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.

This leaves the Christian with a trilemma: 

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. None of the miracles actually occurred and the testimony is based on fabrications and legends.

My next point is to show how the skeptic position that none of the miracles actually occurred is the most likely. This is due to the nature of the types of miracle claims.

Miracles can come in two types, each with two subsets for a total of four categories:

Minor Improbable Miracles - An event where something that seems unlikely occurs in a religious context but the event can have a naturalistic explanation. Like praying to find your keys, opening your eyes and then immediately seeing them. 

Major Improbable Miracles - An event where something that seems very unlikely occurs in a religious context but never the less the event can still have a naturalistic explanation. 

In both cases the fact that a miracle occurred is completely unverifiable. It’s possible for it to have happened, but neither side can prove it, and neither the skeptic or the theist can assume their side to be the case without begging the question. This does not mean either side is unjustified or irrational in holding to their respective opinions on the matter, but that’s a complex rabbit trail I explore in the longer video.

The next two kinds of miracles are as follows:

Non-verifiable Physically Impossible Miracles - These are supposed events where something physical impossible happens, but it is claimed in a non-verifiable context or time or the type of miracle itself is inherently unfalsifiable by its nature. The resurrection of someone in the far past would be a good case. It should be noted that some of these miracles would be verifiable in a specific timeframe, but would lapse shortly after their conclusion. 

Verifiable Physically Impossible Miracles - These are the kinds of events we can say we do not have any instances of - because if we did they’d be demonstrated. This is the sort of thing where we have strong empirical evidence of an amputee having a limb regrown, or better yet continual miracle of rocks floating spelling out “Jesus Christ is God’s Son Who Died for Your Sins” in a holy place. Or the best example - only believers in the One True Religion being able to perform a specific physically impossible miracle.  In fact god supposedly performed these kinds of verifiable miracles in the bible, at least in the time-limited sense, including by apostles after Jesus’s death with no explanation of why they stopped. 

Since three of the four kinds of miracles are of the sort that can’t be verified one way or the other, and we lack any examples where we can empirically verify a physically impossible miracle occurred we have come up with something called Methodological Naturalism. This is the idea that in science, history, and other areas of study, as part of our methodology we presume that metaphysical naturalism is true.

Apologists like Mike Licona argue against methodological naturalism saying that if an empirically verifiable, physically impossible miracle occurred in front of a scientist's face, they’d be bound by the principle to not say anything about it.

This however is a caricature since skeptics, scientists, and historians don’t hold to methodological naturalism as an a-priori first principle to not be violated. It’s held posteriori, after consideration of the evidence. If we gain instances of an empirically verifiable physically impossible miracle occurring, you can bet we would drop methodological naturalism.

In fact this is the kind of thing atheists and skeptics have asked believers for in order to convince us. 

To illustrate this, consider this thought experiment. 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!

This sort of situation is an example of a tough argument against theism: The problem of divine hiddenness. The issue is that when apologists reply to the hiddenness argument, their answers are at odds with the resurrection argument. To avoid a rabbit trail the point is that apologists have to argue that god wants to remain hidden for morally justifiable reasons, like not robbing people of their free will to believe or disbelieve. However if that’s the case then they have to give up the argument for the resurrection because god wants his existence and revelation to be ambiguous. 

This all might seem too quick a dismissal of miracle claims, but even if the apologist comes up with a reason to reject methodological naturalism they’re still left with the problem of not having an objective, principled reason to accept their miracle claims yet reject others of contradictory religions. The problem is that the probability that we’d have the testimonial evidence of a charismatic religious leader performing miracles in the past is not very low at all! We have all sorts of miracle claims with that kind of testimony or better!

After all, the only evidence we have for the resurrection is testimonial evidence from 5 mostly pseudonymous sources, with most of them written decades after the event.  We can find living witnesses testifying to miracle claims of Sathya Sai Baba and other gurus, mystics, or preachers.

If they can’t give us an objective reason to accept their claims over the others, then after their cumulative case apologetic they’re left with at best a “mere theist” believing that all the miracles occurred but that none of them provide evidence for any specific religion. Or perhaps that none of the miracles occurred and at best we’re left with a deistic god.

Things get even worse if you look specifically at the bible and consider the total evidence rather than just cherry picked “minimal facts” that are typically presented.

In fact we know that the story of Jesus’s life, miracles, and resurrection grew in the telling as sources closest to the event are the most sparse, with the latest testimony having the most developed theology and mystical attributions to Jesus. We also know that at least two false supernatural claims were added to the bible stories. The earliest manuscripts of Mark end without a resurrection appearance, but the later copies that are included in almost all bibles today have Jesus appearing and claiming that believers will be able to drink poison and handle snakes without being harmed, as well as being able to heal the sick.

This was falsifiable even back in biblical times. Imagine if we didn’t need apologetics to prove christianity was true, we would just need a trip to the zoo and some bleach!

The other story is in Matthew where it is claimed that on Jesus’s resurrection the saints rose from their tombs and entered Jerusalem and appeared to many. This is an extraordinary event that is claimed nowhere else in the gospels, and lacks any mention from contemporary extra-biblical sources like first century Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In this case we would expect evidence, so absence of evidence actually is evidence of absence! 

I go on at length in the longer video with other problems in the bible to give us even more reasons to be skeptical of it’s miracle claims; but the main thrust is that we do have specific reasons to be skeptical of them and accept the obvious - these stories just aren’t true. Perhaps it started with a single bereaved follower’s dream or hallucination who spread their story and other disillusioned followers had sympathetic dreams themselves and the stories grew in the telling and a new movement is formed, resulting in a early creed that Paul quotes maybe 5 years after the crucifixion. Eventually the storys grow into what was written down decades later in the gospels by pseudonymous greek Christians. 

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!

Remember if you liked what you heard here or have objections, please give my longer video a listen or read!

Thanks for watching! 

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