May 24, 2009
Proof of the Resurrection
If it is impossible to provide proof of Jesus’ resurrection, must one then assume that it never occurred? Below, Dr. Craig offers three reasons why arguing one must deny the resurrection because of a lack of physical evidence is mistaken. He demonstrates how the skeptic has misunderstood the scope of the resurrection claims, how the argument for the resurrection is not deductive but an inference to the best explanation, and how the resurrection functions as vindication of Jesus’ radical claims. The apologist does not claim to have incontrovertible proof of Jesus’ resurrection, but he does claim to have good reasons for believing it happened.
I’ve been seeing an argument against Jesus’ resurrection making the rounds on the internet. It says basically:
1. If it cannot be established that Jesus transformed into a supernatural body after he rose from the dead, then the Resurrection cannot be established.
2. It cannot be established that Jesus transformed into a supernatural body after he rose from the dead.
3. Therefore, the Resurrection cannot be established.
It seems to say that even if Jesus somehow survived death, there is no evidence whatever that he rose in an immortal/indestructible body. Therefore, the argument grants a resurrection of sorts, but not the supernatural kind the New Testament describes. Thus, the divine claims of Christ cannot be established by resurrection evidence.
An illustration that often accompanies the argument is that of a man who claims to be impervious to gunfire and can melt objects with lasers from his eyes. Even if he demonstrates this, should one believe his further claim that he could withstand a nuclear-bomb blast? The skeptic says no, because a nuke explosion is so much greater than mere gunfire and lasers.
In the same sense, even if Jesus came back to life, that is infinitely inferior to his more amazing claim to be God! Can you help?
Proof of Jesus’ resurrection
The argument seems to assume that one must establish proof of Jesus’ resurrection by proving He had a supernatural body after He was raised. This really isn’t an argument against Jesus’ resurrection, Don. Rather it’s an attempt to prove that you can’t justifiably infer Jesus’ resurrection on the basis of empirical evidence. It’s an attempt, not to refute the resurrection of Jesus, but to undercut a historical argument for Jesus’ resurrection. As such, it’s of interest to Christian apologists but needn’t be of concern to most Christians, who don’t base their belief in Jesus’ resurrection on historical evidence.
This objection to a historical case for Jesus’ resurrection owes its origin to Greg Cavin, who published an article about it in the journal Faith and Philosophy a number of years back. The nerve of the argument is that even if everything the Gospels report concerning Jesus is established to be true, the inference to Jesus’ resurrection is unwarranted because “resurrection” in the full Jewish sense of that term meant entry into an immortal, indestructible bodily condition. But how could you prove that the post-Easter Jesus could have survived a nuclear bomb blast? If you can’t prove that, then you haven’t proved his resurrection in the full, theological sense of that term.
I have to say in all candor that this objection has always struck me as a mere cavil. It could be pressed, perversely, even by one of the very eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, such as doubting Thomas, which surely suggests that something has gone awry here.
In fact, the argument goes awry at a number of levels. First, the Christian apologist doesn’t claim to have proof of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, the apologist needn’t be understood to be arguing for Jesus’ resurrection in the full, theological sense of the word. You’ll notice that in my own case, what I identify as the Resurrection Hypothesis is the statement “God raised Jesus from the dead.” That’s all I mean by “resurrection.” Such a claim is an assertion of a miracle, an event caused by God which is naturally impossible. As Cavin himself argued in another context, that all the cells in Jesus’ body should naturally come back to life is incomprehensibly improbable, so that even his own outrageously improbable Twin Theory (a.k.a. the “Dave” Theory, after the Kevin Kline movie) is preferable to such a naturalistic hypothesis. So if the Resurrection Hypothesis is, as I claim, the best explanation of the evidence, then one is justified in inferring a supernatural act of God on behalf of Jesus. Whether this event also involved Jesus’ risen body being invested with properties of invulnerability, indestructibility, etc., can be left open questions for theological reflection.
Proof of Jesus’ resurrection – Arguing an inference to the best explanation
Second, the objection seems to misconstrue the case for Jesus’ resurrection, even in the full sense of that word, as a deductive argument rather than as an inference to the best explanation. The objector seems to think that the Christian apologist needs to be able to deduce logically from the evidence that, e.g., Jesus could have survived cholera or an automobile crash. But that’s not the way an inductive argument works. For any data set there will be an infinite number of hypotheses which are consistent with the data. To use a well-known example, think of a set of points plotted relative to two axes. There is an infinite number of lines that could be drawn through those same points, some curving wildly before connecting the dots. But does that means that a scientist drawing a smooth curve through those points is making an unjustifiable inference about the implications of the data? Of course not! He infers that the relatively straight line correctly interprets the data on the grounds of its comparative simplicity.
Similarly, in inferring that Jesus was risen from the dead in the full, Jewish sense of that term, one is inferring to the best explanation of the data. Here the religio-historical context of the event is the key to its proper interpretation. Given its Jewish context, if the God of Israel has raised Jesus, thereby vindicating his allegedly blasphemous claims by which he put himself in God’s place, then the most natural inference is that Jesus’ resurrection has occurred in advance, ahead of the general resurrection which was the Jewish hope. This conclusion is especially manifest if Jesus predicted his death and resurrection by Israel’s God, for he was speaking of resurrection in the full Jewish sense. It would be grossly ad hoc and unJewish to assert that a better explanation was that Jesus was raised but was still susceptible to, e.g., malaria or being electrocuted. Such a hypothesis is consistent with the data but fails hopelessly as an inference to the best explanation.
Proof of Jesus’ resurrection – The resurrection demonstrates God’s validation of Jesus’ claims
Third, this same point applies with respect to justifying Jesus’ claims to divinity. The argument is not that only a divine being can be raised from the dead or that Jesus’ divinity can be deduced logically from his resurrection. Rather the claim is that given the religio-historical context of Jesus’ own radical self-understanding and blasphemous personal claims, not to mention his activity as a miracle-worker, exorcist, and herald of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom, God’s raising Jesus from the dead is most plausibly understood as God’s ratification of those claims.
I recall a wonderful illustration of this sort of inference related by the Christian philosopher Tom Morris in his book Making Sense of It All (pp. 177-180). Tom writes:
For many years I did not myself understand how exactly miracles were supposed to function as marks of divine truth until I met a most extraordinary man. I was living in a vacation house out in the woods on seven acres of land with two other graduate students during my first semester at Yale. A man from the adjoining property introduced himself one day and told me that the night before we had moved in, he had found a motorcycle gang camped in the woods between our houses. It was three a.m., he said, when he appeared among them and persuaded them to leave. He explained that he often roamed the woods at night and hunted when he couldn’t sleep because of old war injuries. Unzipping his windbreaker, he showed me the .44 magnum long-barreled handgun in a shoulder holster he always carried with him. “Sometimes makes the folks at the bank a little nervous,” he added with a smile and a wink.
Subsequent visits and inquiries on my part led to some war stories that were definitely movie material. He was in a special unit trained in all the relevant martial arts. He could kill at a distance with any projectile—a ballpoint pen, a number two pencil. He and a Shoshone Indian were the only members of his unit to make it back from the Second World War. And that was after he had been shot by a tank. I was invited to feel the hole in this bear-of-a-man’s shoulder, while the stories grew in drama. Jumping from planes behind enemy lines, slitting open German attack dogs mid-leap, capturing and eliminating Nazi offers with piano wire. The strategies, the close calls, the exciting escapes. Better than in the movies. One day I saw a medallion on the front bumper of his pickup truck inscribed with the name of a town in Connecticut and “Honorary Police Chief.” I asked about this.
‘Oh, it was nothing’,’ Tom. ‘I was just drivin’ down the street one day a few years ago and I see out behind a building four guys beatin’ up some cop they had on the ground. Well, I couldn’t let that happen, so I got outta the truck and stopped it. The mayor thought it was nice of me to help out, so he made me honorary chief of police.’
I asked, ‘What happened to the four guys?’ He replied, ‘Let’s just say they had a nice long stay in the hospital.’
The stories got more elaborate, and I began to wonder whether they could possibly all be true. We had gone far beyond any of the war and spy stories I had ever heard or seen on the big screen. At a certain point, anyone would become unsure that all this could possibly be true.
Then, one day, sitting on an outdoor deck playing my guitar, I was stung by the largest, most menacing-looking wasp I had ever seen. The sting was extremely painful and the spot on my left calf immediately began to redden and swell. I became dizzy. Within a minute or two I couldn’t walk. The pain was terrible, the swelling was huge, and a housemate had to practically carry me over to the neighbor’s for a ride to the hospital. Upon opening his back door, he looked at my face and said, ‘My God, Tom what’s wrong with you?’ We explained quickly as he ushered us into his house.
‘Sit down,’ he said, motioning to an armchair beside us in the den. I did, with pain. I expected him to get his keys, but instead he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Now, don’t worry about a thing. I’m going to have to do something to help you out, but you may not want to watch.’ I did want to watch. I’m a philosopher. I’m incurably curious. ‘We’ve got to stretch out your leg,’ he said as he pulled it by the foot, lifting it and propping it up on his own knee as he squatted in front of me. He then joined his two burly hands, thumbs sticking up, and with a sudden, violent motion, crammed them into the back of my left knee, hitting it so hard I thought I was going to see my kneecap bounce off the ceiling (and only this year, sixteen years later, have I had a little trouble with the knee). He then raked his thumbs down the length of my calf hard, two or three times. Then he looked up and said, ‘Stand up. You should be fine within a couple of minutes.’
I stood up, unassisted, with almost no pain. I put weight on the leg, testing it. No pain, I looked down and was shocked to see that the swelling was almost gone, a little bump where a large egg-sized hill had been. ‘You OK?’ he asked. I was OK, and so were all his stories.
‘How did you do that?’ I asked. He said, ‘Oh, it’s just a little trick we needed when guys would get screwed up from the night jumps. We had to be able to fix anything.’ From that time on I ceased to doubt any of his stories, however dramatic.
And not too long afterward, I realized that there was a connection between how the events of that afternoon had enhanced the credibility of all his extraordinary stories and how miracles were supposed to do the same for Jesus’ teaching and for the extraordinary claims about him made by early Christians. Remarkable actions corroborate remarkable stories. If, in order to explain some astonishing deed, you have to postulate that a person is in touch with some source of knowledge and power far beyond the ordinary, and it is just some such rare status that would be needed to render the claims about that person credible, then witnessing that deed or hearing about it from some very trustworthy source can serve to raise the credibility of the stories, even to the point of banishing all practical doubt. This is what happened with me and my neighbor, and it is just what . . . could happen with our judgment about Jesus.
The miraculous act of God’s raising Jesus from the dead is plausibly taken to be God’s vindication of Jesus’ radical personal claims for which he was crucified as a blasphemer. In light of God’s raising Jesus, Jesus’ personal claims to divinity take on a new credibility. The resurrection is God’s imprimatur on those extraordinary claims.