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#18 Dale Allison on the Resurrection of Jesus

August 20, 2007

I am very curious to know what response you have for Dale C. Allison’s recent book, Resurrecting Jesus. Allison is a Christian believer, but he has an interesting spin on the post-resurrection appearances of Christ, which I do not believe has received an adequate response in the literature on the Resurrection yet.

There is quite a substantial amount of research in the field of parapsychology that has led scholars to believe that recently dead persons can show themselves as alive after they die. These appearances can be seen by more than just one person, and they happen at different times and in different locations.

Perhaps the empty tomb is a not in the first stratum of tradition (i.e., many scholars have argued that 1 Cor 15:3-5 does not imply an empty tomb), and perhaps the appearances were not originally seen as physical. But when somebody like Paul and Peter saw this phantasm of Jesus after he died, they modified the Jewish conception of the Resurrection, which was peripheral at the time in Judaism, to fit what they obviously saw with their own eyes, something that seemed adequate enough for them to appropriate the Jewish conception of resurrection into a new Christianized doctrine.


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I’ve never seen a better presentation of the case for scepticism about Jesus’ resurrection than in Allison’s Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T. & T. Clark, 2005). He’s far more persuasive than Crossan, Lüdemann, Goulder, and the rest who actually deny the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. That Allison should, despite his sceptical arguments, finally affirm the facts of Jesus’ burial, empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection and hold that the resurrection hypothesis is as viable an explanation as any other rival hypothesis, depending upon the worldview one brings to the investigation, is testimony to the strength of the case for Jesus’ historical resurrection.

Let me share here a few thoughts in reaction to the main lines of Allison’s argument.

Proclivities and Doubts

He begins his investigation by confessing both his reasons for wanting to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and his reasons for doubting it. His four reasons for having a proclivity toward affirming Jesus’ resurrection are: (1) The teaching of Jesus is left hanging without a dramatic, post-mortem endorsement; (2) a God who intervenes in history is preferable to the distant God of Deism; (3) Jesus’ physical resurrection is a compelling affirmation of the goodness of the material world; and (4) Jesus’ resurrection gives hope for personal immortality (pp. 214-9). I myself share all of these proclivities.

At the heart of Allison’s doubts about the resurrection is the philosophical problem of identity over time. It never ceases to fascinate me how philosophical issues intrude into what appear to be purely scientific or historical discussions. Allison finds it difficult to make sense of the identity of the resurrection body with the mortal body in cases in which the mortal body has been completely destroyed (pp. 219-28). If spatio-temporal continuity is a necessary condition of identity over time, then the discontinuity caused by the dissolution of the mortal body implies that the resurrection body is at best a duplicate of the mortal body but is not identical to it. So it would seem impossible in such a case to hold that that very body will be raised.

It’s odd that this concern should cause Allison to have doubts about the literal resurrection of Jesus, since in Jesus’ case the mortal body was not destroyed, so that no spatio-temporal discontinuity existed to preclude identity. It was clearly the body in the tomb that was raised (hence, the empty tomb). Even if, in cases in which the mortal body has been utterly dissolved, God has to create a brand new look-alike out of nothing, how could this conclusion possibly impact an investigator’s assessment of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection?

Allison says that in such a case Jesus’ resurrection becomes the exception, an aberration. I think this assertion is highly doubtful. In Jewish belief the primary object of the resurrection was the bones of the deceased (hence, the Jewish practice of preserving the bones in ossuaries for the eschatological resurrection), and skeletal remains are amazingly durable, existing even from prehistoric times. Moreover, the world’s population explosion guarantees, barring worldwide catastrophe, that there will always be more recently deceased than long deceased. But leave that aside. These doctrinal issues are just irrelevant to a historical assessment of our sources. Suppose we say that when the eschatological resurrection occurs, God elects to raise the (skeletal) remains of any of the dead whose remains still exist and to create new bodies for those deceased who have no remains. How could this possibly affect one’s estimation of the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection?

I frankly think that Allison’s real problem is just the all too common prejudice against physical, corporeal immortality. He says, “I believe, rightly or wrongly, in a future existence free from the constraints of material corporeality as we have hitherto known them. . . . I do not believe that our life in the world to come in any way depends upon the recovery of our current flesh and bones; and if not for us, why for Jesus?” (pp. 225, 344). Philosophical problems about identity are then exploited in the attempt to justify this prejudice. But those problems at most show that the resurrection bodies of people whose mortal bodies have been utterly dissolved are duplicates of those bodies rather than the numerically identical bodies. That does nothing to undermine a doctrine of physical, corporeal immortality. Allison’s scepticism is therefore just an unjustified bias.

Notice that having a duplicate body does nothing to preclude personal identity of the deceased and resurrected individual if one believes, as Allison does, in the reality of a soul distinct from the body. Jewish belief was that when the body died, the soul went to be with God until the eschatological resurrection, when the remains of the dead would be raised, the body reconstituted, and the soul re-united with the body. By postulating such an intermediate state between death and resurrection, personal identity was ensured, even in cases in which there were no remains to be raised. Problems with personal identity arise only for the theologian who is a materialist or who denies the intermediate state of the soul after death. Since Allison is a dualist, there should be for him no problem at all concerning the personal identity of those raised by God from the dead.

All this goes to show the irrelevance of doubts about bodily identity in the case of those whose mortal bodies have been destroyed to the question of Jesus’ literal resurrection. To summarize, such doubts are irrelevant for three reasons: (1) What is critical in the resurrection of the dead is not bodily identity, but personal identity, which is guaranteed by the enduring soul; (2) Jewish belief was that the bones of the dead would be raised, so that strict bodily identity is not at issue; (3) in Jesus’ case bodily identity is unproblematic.

I’ll not delve, therefore, into the knotty question of whether spatio-temporal continuity is, in fact, as Allison assumes, a necessary condition of physical identity over time. I simply note that this is hugely controversial, so that it is far from obvious that God could not create a physical object, destroy it, and then re-create that very same object (see Trenton Merricks, “There are No Criteria of Identity over Time,” Nôus 33 (1998): 106-24, who argues that there are no informative, necessary and sufficient conditions of identity over time). In that case, the bodies of those raised from death can be identical to their mortal bodies whether or not these latter have perished.

The Facts of the Matter

Turning, then, to the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection itself, let’s consider first Allison’s treatment of the empty tomb. He does not agree with your hypothesis that the empty tomb is a late developing legend, despite his evident theological disdain for it. It is highly significant in this context that Allison makes a strong case for the historicity of Jesus’ entombment by Joseph of Arimathea (pp. 252-63). One of the ironies of his treatment of the burial and empty tomb narratives, which is apparently unnoticed by Allison, is that virtually the same arguments which lead him to his confident and unqualified verdict of “highly likely” for the burial by Joseph (e.g., multiple attestation, lack of legendary embellishment, embarrassing features of the narrative, use of proper names, public knowledge of the burial and the tomb’s location) also support the historicity of the empty tomb, which he deems “with great hesitation” to be “historically likely” (pp. 332, 362)! There is clearly a double standard operative here, born out his distaste for material continuity between the mortal body and the resurrection body.

Allison examines seven arguments for the fact of the empty tomb ranked in order of increasing strength.

1. The earliest Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb. The Jewish charge that the disciples stole the body presupposes that the body was missing (Matt 28:11-15). Allison disputes this argument because of the uncertainty of the age of the Jewish polemic. But in confessing that it escapes him why this passage “bears ‘the mark of a fairly protracted controversy’” (p. 312), Allison overlooks the developing pattern of assertion and counter-assertion in the tradition history that lay behind Matthew’s guard story:

Christian: “The Lord is risen!”
Jew: “No, his disciples stole away his body.”
Christian: “The guard at the tomb would have prevented any such theft.”
Jew: “No, the guard fell asleep.”
Christian: “The chief priests bribed the guard to say this.”

In response to the Christian proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, the Jewish reaction was simply to assert that the disciples had stolen the body. The idea of a guard could only have been a Christian, not a Jewish development. At the next stage there is no need for Christians to invent the bribing of the guard; it was sufficient to claim that the tomb was guarded. The bribe arises only in response to the second stage of the polemic, the Jewish allegation that the guard fell asleep. This part of the story could only have been a Jewish development, since it serves no purpose in the Christian polemic. At the final stage, the time of Matthew’s writing, the Christian answer that the guard were bribed is given. Given the early date of the pre-Markan Passion story, there is no need to quarrel with Allison’s surmise that the controversy arose between Mark and Matthew, so long as by “Mark” we mean Mark’s tradition.

2. There was an absence of the veneration of Jesus’ tomb. This is best explained by the fact that Jesus’ bones no longer lay there. Allison rejects this argument because the location of the tomb was, in fact, preserved in Christian memory (p. 313). But Allison’s response misses the point. The point is that there was no place where Jesus’ remains were remembered to lie, where they might be preserved and honored. That is not in doubt historically. Allison’s claim that the place may have been an unwholesome criminals’ gravesite and therefore not venerated contradicts his later claim in discussing the burial that people capable of redeeming so shameful an event as the cross could easily have redeemed burial in a trench (p. 354), e.g., the presence of Jesus’ bones sanctified the site. (This is just one of the many internal tensions in Allison’s treatment of the evidence.)

3. The formula cited by Paul in I Cor. 15. 3-5 presupposes an empty grave. Allison thinks that while this consideration shows that Paul may have believed in the empty tomb on theological grounds, it doesn’t show that he had actual historical knowledge of it (p. 316). The weakness of this response is that a comparison of the four-line formula passed on by Paul with the Gospel narratives on the one hand and the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles on the other reveals that the formula summarizes in its second and third lines the burial and empty tomb stories. Curiously, Allison himself recognizes that “I Cor. 15:3-8 must be a summary of traditional narratives that were told in fuller forms elsewhere” (ibid., p. 235; cf. his footnote 133). This is another example of the many internal tensions in Allison’s treatment.

4. The disciples could not have preached the resurrection in Jerusalem in the face of an occupied tomb. Here we find Allison’s scepticism becoming desperate. He says that perhaps the disciples were so convinced of Jesus’ resurrection that they neverbothered to visit the gravesite. This suggestion is, frankly, rather silly when you think about it (they never went back, if not to verify, even to see where the Lord lay?) and contradicts Allison’s own point that the site of the tomb was preserved in Christian memory. Just as silly is Allison’s suggestion that the Jerusalem authorities never inspected the tomb because they “just did not care because they did not take the business very seriously or regarded it as nothing more than a minor, transient nuisance” (319) —this despite their engaging Saul of Tarsus to ravage the early Jesus movement!

5. The empty tomb story lacks theological and legendary embellishment. Allison agrees; this is also one of the reasons he accepts the historicity of the burial account.

6. Post-mortem visions alone are insufficient to account for early belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Although Allison, as you note, makes very heavy weather of visions of recently deceased persons by the bereaved, in the end he admits, “If there was no reason to believe that his solid body had returned to life, no one would have thought him, against expectation, resurrected from the dead. Certainly visions of or perceived encounters with a postmortem Jesus would not by themselves, have supplied such reason” (pp. 324-5). So the tomb was probably found empty.

7. The tomb was discovered empty by women. Probably no other factor has proved so persuasive to scholars of the empty tomb’s historicity as the role of the female witnesses. Allison is no exception.

Allison concludes that “a decent case” can be made for the empty tomb (p. 331). We’ve seen that this is an understatement. The case for the empty tomb is every bit as, if not more powerful than, the case for Jesus’ burial.

But Allison thinks that there is also “a respectable case” against the empty tomb (p. 331). This assertion is surprising. The supposedly respectable case consists of only two arguments: first, “the ability of early Christians to create fictions” and, second, “the existence of numerous legends about missing bodies” (p. 332). But these two considerations show at the very most the possibility that the empty tomb narrative is a legend. That same possibility exists for the crucifixion and burial accounts. This is a possibility we become aware of based on our general background knowledge prior to an examination of the specific evidence. These two considerations do nothing to show that, based on an examination of the specific evidence, the narrative of the empty tomb is a fiction or legend. It’s shocking to me that Allison could think to oppose to specific evidence such a priori possibilities based on general background knowledge.

In short, the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb emerges from Allison’s scrutiny stronger than ever.

So now we turn to the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. Allison argues for the historicity of post-mortem appearances of Jesus on the part of Peter, the disciples, Mary Magdalene, and others. I should mainly quibble with him here about details, e.g., his attempt to collapse all the appearances into Galilean appearances, despite multiple, independent attestation of Jerusalem appearances. The fact that Mark foreshadows a Galilean appearance (and perhaps narrated only that one, if his ending has been lost) in no wise entails that Jerusalem appearances did not occur first (e.g., to the women, as in Matthew). Contrary to Allison, the story of the disciples’ fishing in John 21 does not represent a return to their old way of life, for neither Thomas nor Nathaniel were fishermen. But let all that pass. Allison agrees with the consensus of scholarship concerning the historicity of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances to various individuals and groups.

Finally, there is the disciples’ coming sincerely and suddenly to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Although Allison doesn’t discuss this as a separate point, he recognizes this fact throughout.

So Allison recognizes the three facts which I have argued are best explained by the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead. What does Allison have to say about explaining these facts?

Explaining the Facts

Allison disagrees with N. T. Wright’s judgement that “The best historical explanation . . . is that Jesus was indeed bodily raised from the dead” (p. 345). Here Allison’s basic complaint is that the evidence for the resurrection cannot challenge the investigator’s worldview which he brings to the inquiry. He observes that for the determined naturalist even abduction by space aliens will be thought a better explanation than the resurrection hypothesis. He takes this to show that “Probability is in the eye of the beholder. It depends upon one’s worldview, into which the resurrection fits, or alternatively, does not fit” (p. 340). Hence, “Arguments about Jesus’ literal resurrection cannot establish one’s Weltanschauung” (p. 342).

This argument is multiply confused. In the first place, historical apologetics for Jesus’ resurrection was traditionally undertaken only after some case for theism had been presented (see my The Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus during the Deist Controversy [Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen, 1985]). So it was not a matter of trying to convince a naturalist to change his worldview based on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. To get the naturalist to change his worldview you give him cosmological, teleological, moral, and other arguments for theism. The question then became, given a theistic worldview, what is the best explanation for the evidence of the empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection?

It’s not clear what Allison’s answer to that question would be. He seems content to knock down more extreme claims about “evidence that demands the verdict” that Jesus rose from the dead (p. 347; N.B. McDowell actually claimed only that the evidence demands a verdict). He never interacts directly with the question of how someone who comes to the evidence with a robust natural theology (e.g., R. Swinburne, S. Davis) should assess the competing hypotheses (see p. 341, note 557).

Second, Allison confuses the fact that probabilities are conditional with their being subjective. Probabilities are relative to a body of information. So probabilities vary as the information varies. The probability that a coin flip will turn up heads is 0.5 relative to the information that the coin is a fair coin; but relative to the information that the coin is biased, the probability of heads will be more or less than 0.5. So probabilities are always expressed conditionally: Pr(A/B) is the probability of A on B, or of A given B. It is therefore crucial to determining accurately the probability of some hypothesis A that our background information B is correct, or we’ll get the wrong estimate. Now, as our coin example illustrates, the fact that probabilities are conditional in no way implies that they “are in the eye of the beholder.”

The truth in Allison’s argument is that the probability of the resurrection hypothesis on the total evidence will depend in part on its probability on general background information in isolation from any specific evidence for that hypothesis. That is just part and parcel of the probability calculus. Letting R = Jesus’ resurrection, E = the specific evidence for that event, and B = our background knowledge apart from the specific evidence, Bayes’ Theorem states

Pr(R/E&B) = Pr(R/B) ⊆ Pr(E/R&B)_

(Stay with me here! It’s not that hard!) The left hand side of the equation represents the probability of the resurrection given both our background information and the specific evidence for the resurrection. Now notice that on the right hand side of the equation one of the factors is Pr(R/B), which is the probability of the resurrection in isolation from any specific evidence. B may include the worldview assumptions one brings to the research. If B includes the fact that God does not exist, then Pr(R/B) is going to be drastically low. This probability is not in the eye of the beholder; everyone agrees with that estimation. Where the disagreement lies is whether God’s non-existence really is a fact and belongs in B.

Because Allison thinks that probability is just in the eye of the beholder, his way of determining what belongs in B is to look within and analyze introspectively what you believe. He advises, “we need to scrutinize not just the texts but also ourselves” (p. 343). What he fails to advise is that we scrutinize the evidence and arguments for the beliefs that go into B. Introspection is no substitute for argument. Traditional proponents of the argument for Jesus’ resurrection understood that fact and provided arguments for God’s existence. I should add that some knowledge of Jesus’ life, ministry, and personal claims should also be included in the background information in estimating Pr(R/B). The claim is that relative to background information inclusive of such facts the prior probability of the resurrection need not be thought to be inordinately low. So one may agree with the naturalist that relative to naturalism, the resurrection is hopelessly improbable. But that isn’t the end of the debate. The question will then be what justification one has for one’s relevant background beleifs.

Third, Allison fails to take into account the differing degrees of conviction or tenacity with which people hold their background beliefs. He tends, again, to consider only the extreme case of people who approach the evidence “with the sure and certain conviction that there is no God” (p. 340). But suppose that the person’s atheism is just a cultural veneer, thoughtlessly or lightly held as a result of being raised, for example, in Soviet or Chinese society. Such persons may well be led to abandon their atheism as a result of seeing that the resurrection “does not fit” into such a worldview. If they become convinced that the evidence is better explained by the resurrection hypothesis than by rival hypotheses, then they may well change their worldview in order to accommodate the better explanation.

Or suppose someone is agnostic but open and searching with respect to God’s existence. Such a person might also adopt a theistic worldview because he is convinced that the evidence is better explained by the resurrection hypothesis than by rival hypotheses. Not only is this possible, but it in fact happens frequently. Allison has given no good reason for thinking that such a change of worldview must be irrational.

Nonetheless, I think there is the germ of a serious objection in Allison’s remarks to the historical argument for Jesus’ resurrection. The so-called “odds form” of Bayes’ Theorem states:

Pr(R/E&B)   Pr(R/B)   Pr(E/R&B)
_________ = _________ _________
Pr(not-R/E&B)   Pr(not-R/B)   Pr(E/not-R&B)

The odds form of Bayes Theorem gives us the ratio of the probability of the resurrection on the total evidence and the probability of the resurrection’s not occurring on the total evidence. If the ratio is 1/1, then R and not-R have the same probability; the odds of R’s occurring are 0.5 or 50%.

Now whether the resurrection is more probable than not will be determined by the ratios on the right hand side of the equation. To determine the first of them, we ask which is more probable given the general background information, R or not-R? To determine the second, we ask which makes the specific evidence more probable, R or not-R? We’re asking here which best explains the specific evidence we have, R or not-R.

Allison sometimes seems to suggest that this last ratio has a value very close to 1/1. That is to say, the evidence is about equally well-explained by either R or not-R. For example, he writes,

Ostensible encounters with the newly departed are . . . not uncommon, however one explains them. Further, . . . people often perceive apparitions not as ghostly shades but as solid, as wholly real. So what prevents the unorthodox . . . from regarding the resurrection appearances, ‘transphysicality’ and all, as instances of a wider phenomenon? Mix in a little Jewish eschatology and the pre-Easter expectations of the disciples and, one might claim, there it is.

What then of the empty tomb? It too does not demand divine intervention. Those who confidently reject every miracle and all supernaturalism will naturally find it easier to think that someone moved or stole Jesus’ remains than that Jesus came back to life. Why there is anything here to challenge a worldview escapes me (p. 347).

Allison spoils his argument by casting it once again in terms of trying to challenge a confidently held naturalistic worldview, which is, as we have seen, a red herring. Leave that aside, and what remains, I think, is a significant challenge to the argument for Jesus’ resurrection. Allison seems to claim that the explanatory power of R and not-R are roughly the same. That implies that if a miracle like the resurrection is even somewhat more improbable than not-R relative to the background information alone, then the probability of R on the total evidence will come out as < 0.5, which would seem to undermine a purely historical case for Jesus’ resurrection.

So the question is whether R and not-R really do have roughly the same explanatory power.

Consider, then, the post-mortem appearances. Undoubtedly, Allison’s most interesting contribution to the discussion of the resurrection of Jesus is his thorough investigation of the parapsychological and psychological literature concerning visions of recently deceased persons on the part of the bereaved. Allison goes to great lengths to show how similar these can be to the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. Like proponents of the eighteenth century natural explanation school, Allison actually uses such visionary experiences to defend the historicity of the Gospel appearance stories against those who think them wholly legendary. But in the end, this ruse proves to be a Trojan Horse, for now the resurrection appearances can be explained as typical bereavement visions.

Allison’s familiarity with the literature is daunting. Pages 279-82 of his essay contain only 16 lines of text and nearly 200 fine lines of references! But his very strength as a bibliographer becomes a weakness, since he tends to accept all reports uncritically, lumping together serious studies in journals of psychology with New Age popular books and publications in parapsychology. Most of the so-called veridical visions of deceased persons are gathered from parapsychological literature of the late nineteenth century. What is wanting is a careful sifting of the evidence and a differentiated discussion of the same. Allison’s discussion reminded me of literature I’ve read on UFO sightings, in which the serious is mixed with the ridiculous, leaving one in great uncertainty about what to make of such experiences.

Still in my own work I’ve preferred to just grant for the sake of argument the hypothesis that the disciples experienced visions of Jesus and then ask whether such an explanation better meets the critieria for being a best explanation when compared to the resurrection hypothesis.

Take, for example, explanatory scope. The vision hypothesis has narrow explanatory scope. First, it says nothing to explain the empty tomb. Therefore, one must either deny the fact of the empty tomb and, hence, burial or else conjoin some independent hypothesis to the vision hypothesis to account for the empty tomb. Allison’s response to this critique is to remind us that explanatory scope is not the only or even most important criterion for theory assessment and that historical events typically have complex causes (pp. 347-8). Well and good; still, all things being equal, the simpler hypothesis will be preferred, and I agree that we must also consider the vision hypothesis’ explanatory power, plausibility, and so forth before making our final judgment. Its failure to explain the empty tomb is a major deficit of the vision hypothesis.

Again, the vision hypothesis says nothing to explain the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Although Allison makes a great deal out of the alleged similarities between the post-mortem appearances of Jesus and visions of the recently departed on the part of the bereaved, the overriding lesson of such fascinating stories is that the bereaved do not as a result of such experiences, however real and tangible they may seem, conclude that the deceased has returned physically to life—rather the deceased is seen in the afterlife. As Wright observes, for someone in the ancient world, visions of the deceased are not evidence that the person is alive, but evidence that he is dead!

Moreover, in a Jewish context other, more appropriate interpretations of such experiences than resurrection are close to hand. Dunn demands,

Why did they conclude that it was Jesus risen from the dead?—Why not simply a vision of the dead man?—Why not visions ‘fleshed out’ with the apparatus of apocalyptic expectation, coming on the clouds of glory and the like . . .? Why draw the astonishing conclusion that the eschatological resurrection had already taken place in the case of a single individual separate from and prior to the general resurrection? (Jesus and the Spirit [London: SCM, 1975], p. 132).

As Dunn’s last question indicates, the inference “He has been raised from the dead,” so natural to our ears, would have been wholly unnatural to a first century Jew. In Jewish thinking there was already a category perfectly suited to describe the disciples’ postulated experience: Jesus had been assumed into heaven. Thus, Allison’s invitation to “mix in a little Jewish eschatology and the pre-Easter expectations of the disciples” backfires.

Allison himself admits, “If there was no reason to believe that his solid body had returned to life, no one would have thought him, against expectation, resurrected from the dead. Certainly visions of or perceived encounters with a postmortem Jesus would not by themselves, have supplied such reason” (pp. 324-5). The remaining question is whether such bereavement visions in conjunction with the discovery of the empty tomb would have led to the disciples’ belief and proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

The answer would seem to be, no. At the most, such a circumstance would have led the disciples only to say Jesus had been translated or assumed into heaven, not raised from the dead. In the Old Testament, figures such as Enoch and Elijah were portrayed as not having died but as having been translated directly into heaven. In an extra-canonical Jewish writing called The Testament of Job (40), the story is told of the translation of two children killed in the collapse of a house. The children are killed when the house collapses, but when the rescuers clear away the rubble their bodies are not to be found. Meanwhile, the mother sees a vision of the two children glorified in heaven, where they have been translated by God. It needs to be emphasized that for the Jew a translation is not the same as a resurrection. Translation is the bodily assumption of someone out of this world into heaven. Resurrection is the raising up of a dead man in the space-time universe. Why, contrary to Jewish eschatological beliefs, the disciples proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection remains unexplained on Allison’s hypothesis.

Or consider explanatory power. The vision hypothesis arguably has weak explanatory power even when it comes to the post-mortem appearances. Suppose that Peter was one of those individuals who experiences a vision of a deceased loved one. Would this hypothesis suffice to explain the resurrection appearances? Not really, for the diversity of the appearances bursts the bounds of anything found in the psychological casebooks. Jesus appeared not just one time, but many times; not at just one locale and circumstance but at a variety of places and circumstances; not to just one individual, but to different persons; not just to individuals, but to various groups; not just to believers but to unbelievers and even enemies. Positing a chain reaction among the disciples won’t solve the problem because people like James and Paul don’t stand in the chain. Allison is compelled to construct a composite picture by cobbling together unrelated cases of visionary experiences of different types, which only serves to underline the fact that there is nothing like the resurrection appearances in the psychological casebooks.

Or consider plausibility. One way in which Allison’s hypothesis is implausible is its construal of the appearances as merely visionary experiences. Paul, and indeed all the New Testament, makes a conceptual (if not linguistic) distinction between an appearance of Jesus and a vision of Jesus. The appearances of Jesus soon ceased, but visions continued in the early church. Now the question is: what is the difference between an appearance and a vision of Christ? Allison cannot answer this question, musing, “One can only wonder in what ways, if any, Luke and Paul imagined the original christophanies to differ from later experiences” (p. 261). The answer to this key question is, I think, fairly clear: a vision, though caused by God, was purely in the mind, while an appearance took place “out there” in the external world. It is instructive to compare here Stephen’s vision of Jesus in Acts 7 with the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Though Stephen saw an identifiable, bodily image, what he saw was a vision of a man, not a man who was physically there, for no one else present experienced anything at all. By contrast the resurrection appearances took place in the world “out there” and could be experienced by anybody present. This answer is important, for no matter how real, how tangible, how opaque, visions of the departed may seem to the bereaved, the departed only appear to be external physical, objects. The bereaved always recognize afterwards that what they experienced was a vision of the deceased. The early church was familiar with visions of Jesus, and the resurrection appearances were not visions.

One could go on, but instead let me say a word about the empty tomb. Naturalists may find it easier to accept the hypothesis that someone removed the body, but how shall we assess this hypothesis independently of naturalistic presuppositions? It will again fail to have broad explanatory scope, since it aims to explain only one facet of the evidence, namely, the empty tomb. It does seem to have adequate explanatory power with respect to the empty tomb, though it might not explain such details as the discovery of the grave clothes, if that detail can be shown to be historical (it is independently attested). Perhaps the greatest weakness of the hypothesis will be its implausibility and ad hoc-ness. Allison suggests that some unknown necromancer may have stolen Jesus’ body for use in magic. But the texts he cites in support of this conjecture are non-Jewish, non-Palestinian, and non-contemporary—in other words, irrelevant to Jesus.

Well, much more deserves to be said, but I think you get my drift. I think that someone with a robust natural theology can show that Pr(R/B) should not be thought to be extraordinarily small and that Pr (E/R&B) can be shown to be higher than Pr(E/not-R&B). See my Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994).

Allison’s essay will the subject of a session of the Evangelical Philosophical Society chaired by Michael Licona, featuring papers by Steve Davis, Gary Habermas, and me, with a response from Dale Allison himself, at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature in San Diego, November 17. The papers should be eventually published in the journal Philosophia Christi.

- William Lane Craig