November 20, 2016
Would Finding Jesus’ Corpse Falsify Christianity?
Dr. Craig, my question has two parts.
First, would agree that if the body of Christ were to be found that this would give good reason to think Christianity is false? Assuming of course that we could know that the body was in fact Christ's body. This seems to be a reasonable proposition in my view.
Now, the question I'm wrestling with is this: you examine and refute a number of natural explanations for resurrection of Christ and the facts surrounding this event. However, if it should so happen that archaeologists find Christ's body tomorrow morning, then one of those natural explanations for the resurrection of Christ would have to be true! Yet you have ardently maintained that they could not possibly be true. Is this at all problematic philosophically?
Thanks for your time.
In answer to your first question, Tom, the discovery of Jesus’ remains would, of course, give good reason to think Christianity to be false. Paul told the Corinthians, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (I Corinthians 15.14). Jesus’ resurrection is essential to Christianity.
Moreover, I have argued at length that the resurrection of Jesus entails the raising of Jesus’ body that was crucified and laid in the tomb. The word “resurrection” meant the raising up of the dead body. The prominent New Testament scholar Dale C. Allison, Jr., is emphatic:
nowhere in the Bible or in old Jewish or Christian literature does the language of resurrection refer to a materially new body, physically unconnected to the old. A resurrected body is always the old body or a piece of it come back to life and/or transformed. . . . Resurrection meant bodies in the ground coming back to life. To rise from the dead was to rise from one’s tomb.
Paul’s understanding of the resurrection is that it involves a transformation of the earthly, mortal body into a supernatural body, not an exchange of the mortal body for another body. Let me mention four reasons to think that Paul believed in a transformation of the earthly body to the resurrection body.
1. In I Corinthians 15.51-2 Paul is clearly speaking of intrinsic change in the body, not of an exchange of bodies. The Greek verb allasso has the same range of meanings as our English word “change.” Typically, it means intrinsic change in a single subject. For example, we say to old friend, “My, how you’ve changed!” Sometimes, though, it can mean “exchange,” as when we say, “I changed money at the airport.” When allasso is used as “exchange,” the verb is typically active and takes a direct object or prepositional phrase. For example, in Romans 1.23 Paul says “they exchanged the glory of God for images.” But in I Corinthians 15 Paul never says, “We shall change bodies.” Rather he says, “The trumpet will sound and we shall be changed.” The passage only makes sense as intrinsic change.
2. Paul’s verbs of sowing and raising in I Corinthians 15.42-4 have the same implicit subject. “It is sown. . . , it is raised. . .” Four times Paul repeats this. To escape the implication of numerical identity one would have to mistranslate the passage so that the verbs take different subjects: “One is sown . . . , one [i.e., a different one] is raised. . . .”
3. Paul’s use of the pronoun “this” in I Corinthians 15.53 points to our mortal bodies or nature that must be changed. Four times he affirms that this perishable must put on imperishability; this mortal must put on immortality, indicating the transformation that must take place in our mortal bodies.
4. Paul elsewhere speaks of the change that our mortal bodies will undergo in the resurrection. For example, “He will change our lowly body to be similar to his glorious body” (Philippians. 3.21). Again, “He who raised Christ from the dead will make alive your mortal bodies also” (Romans 8.10-11). And again, “we await adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8.23).
For these and other reasons, the vast majority of contemporary commentators agree that in the resurrection Paul envisages a transformation of the earthly body. Accordingly, we can say with respect to the resurrection, “no corpse left behind.” So if a corpse were discovered, no resurrection took place.
Now, as you rightly observe, this still leaves it an open question whether “we could know that the body [discovered by archaeologists] was in fact Christ's body.” I doubt that we could, given what we know. But that’s a question for another day.
As for your second question, “if it should so happen that archaeologists find Christ's body tomorrow,” it wouldn’t follow that one of those natural explanations for the resurrection which I have examined and refuted would have to be true. What would follow is that some natural explanation for the resurrection would have to be true, perhaps one which I have not examined (e.g., space aliens?). In any case, I have never claimed that these naturalistic explanations “could not possibly be true.” You’re guilty of rhetorical hyperbole here. What I’ve clearly maintained is that these naturalistic explanations do not pass the criteria for being the best explanation of the evidence. They fail in explanatory power or explanatory scope or are implausible or ad hoc, and so forth. This is the way in which historical (and, one might add, scientific) hypotheses are normally evaluated. If they were impossible, they wouldn’t even be in the pool of live explanatory options but would be dismissed as one of the “crazies.” So they are possible explanations of the facts, but, I have argued, they’re not the best. Now if suddenly the data to be explained came to include the fact that Jesus’ corpse has been found, then the resurrection hypothesis would be a singular failure as an explanation of that fact and so no longer the best explanation!
So there’s just no problem here. We can be glad, moreover, that given the evidence, we needn’t be worried that what you imagine will ever transpire.
 Dale C. Allison, Jr., “The Resurrection of Jesus and Rational Apologetics,” Philosophia Christi 10 (2008): 315-338. When Allison says “or a piece of it,” he is referring to the bones of the deceased, which were, in fact, the principal object of the resurrection in Jewish belief and, hence, carefully preserved in ossuaries for the resurrection day.