The Empty Apologetic

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 9: “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?”)

We come at last to the big question: did God raise Jesus from the dead? It’s chapter 9 out of 10 chapters, which is pretty strange if you think about it. Here’s a book whose goal, as stated on the front cover, is “defending your faith with precision and reason.” His tone throughout the book has been triumphalistic: the glorious truth of the gospel is driving back the dark clouds of doubt and criticism, and atheists are retreating, noisily but inevitably (at least to hear him tell it).

And yet he’s only just now tackling the problem of convincing us that Jesus really rose from the dead. Why? What better defense of the Gospel could there be than a Savior raised by God from the dead? If Jesus really rose, then there’s no point in appealing to superstitions about how the universe began, or whether it’s “fine tuned,” or where morals come from. And if he didn’t rise, well, all those superstitions and rationalizations aren’t going to help. Yet here we are, at the end of the book, reluctantly broaching the topic. It’s like he wanted to be sure we had to wade through 8 chapters of superstition and excuses before he dared expose the reasoning that permits him to conclude that Jesus really rose. Surely by now the skeptics will have gotten fed up and left, and only the truly gullib faithful will remain.

It’s safe, Jesus. You can come out now.

I have been an ex-Christian for going on 12 years, and even so it surprises me how poor the arguments are for Jesus’ actual resurrection. Craig begins, as usual, with a triumphal story about how he heard a Jewish scholar, Pinchas Lapide, give a lecture whose surprising conclusion was that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Impressive, eh? Craig boasts, “Nothing so illustrates the historical credibility of Jesus’ resurrection as the fact that this Jewish scholar was convinced on the basis of the evidence that his God, the God of Israel whom he worshipped, had raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.”

In other words, that’s the best he’s got, really. A faithful, Orthodox Jew who, for whatever reason, has adopted a Judaized version of the resurrection story (without all the Trinitarian/Incarnation stuff), as being properly glorifying to his own supernatural God—a believer in his own right who is borrowing from the Christian legend in order to enhance his own traditions. Given the history of Christianity, that’s a bit of poetic justice, but as for evidence…? Well, let’s look at it, as summarized by Craig.

It seems to me that the evidence can be summed up in three independently established facts: (1) Jesus’ empty tomb, (2) Jesus’ appearances alive after His death, and (3) the origin of the disciples’ belief in His resurrection. Furthermore, I think that the best explanation of these three facts is “God raised Jesus from the dead.” I’ll call this the resurrection hypothesis.

Notice he’s identifying these 3 claims not as claims that need to be historically evaluated, but as “independently established facts.” This is a claim that has two rather immediate problems. The first is a problem of proportion: if Jesus has been publicly executed, and his dead body interred in the presence of a number of witnesses, and he subsequently shows up alive again, that is the resurrection. You don’t look Jesus in the eye and say, “Excuse me, Lord, but I need to run and check whether your tomb is empty, and then question your disciples to see if they have faith, so that I can tell whether or not you’ve come back from the dead.” A real post-mortem appearance by a living Jesus would make the other two claims about as helpful as lighting a candle under the noonday sun.

Right away, then, we’ve got an indication that there’s something a little funny about claim #2. Why, if Jesus really were alive and kicking after his burial, would you need claims 1 and 3 to try and prove that he’d been resurrected? The answer might lie in claim 2 itself. Notice that it’s not about Jesus actually literally being physically alive and visible and audible and tangible. Claim 2 proposes that there were “appearances” of Jesus after his death. That’s a very interesting word. It’s not a word you use of real live people, typically. Ghosts and angels and demons have “appearances” (and disappearances), but that’s because they’re not physical. They can produce physical manifestations, according to all the stories, but their bodies are made of spiritual stuff, and so it takes some kind of voluntary exertion for them to “appear” on the earthly plane.

Go back to the story of Lazarus in John 11. According to the story, Lazarus, too, was raised from the dead. Lazarus is described as coming out of the tomb, and people saw him and went to help him out of his bindings, but nobody would call that an “appearance” of Lazarus, as though he were apt to abruptly disappear again. Lazarus was supposed to be literally, physically raised from the dead. He doesn’t “appear” because he’s just there, and you see him just like you see anyone else.

Not so with Jesus. We see this in the story of Paul’s conversion: Jesus supposedly “appeared” to Paul, but the people who were with him saw no one. (Luke claims they heard the voice, but later records Paul stating that they did not hear the voice.) In other words, these are subjective appearances—which explains why they only happened to believers, and also explains why Claim 2 needs help from Claim 1 and Claim 3.

With that in mind, let me propose an alternative to Craig’s “resurrection hypothesis,” which I’m going to call the “missing body hypothesis.” It’s not unlikely that some of Jesus’ disciples truly loved him without necessarily believing in his deity. Let’s suppose that a few of these disciples moved Jesus’ body without the knowledge or consent of the other disciples, and went back to their villages, disillusioned and grieving. The apostles, on finding the tomb empty, were shocked and dismayed (as one might expect), and this trauma on top of the violence of Jesus’ death made them more susceptible than usual to the kind of post-bereavement hallucinations people often experience upon losing a loved one. These hallucinations, taken in the context of their Messianic fervor, were interpreted as “appearances” of a resurrected Savior (in a suitably spiritual body, of course), and were accepted on faith as a genuine resurrection. In the face of skeptical criticism, however, believers soon convinced themselves that this resurrection was physical, in order to make the story sound more convincing to outsiders (and possibly to themselves).

With that alternative in mind, let’s look at Craig’s evidence, starting with the empty tomb.

Here I’ll summarize five lines of evidence supporting the fact that the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of His women followers on the Sunday after His crucifixion.

His “summary” goes on for nine and a half pages! I’ll summarize:

  1. The historical reliability of the story of Jesus’ burial supports the empty tomb.
  2. The discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb is independently reported in very early sources.
  3. Mark’s story is simple and lacks legendary development.
  4. The tomb was probably discovered empty by women.
  5. The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection presupposes the empty tomb.

I’m only going to hit the highlights here because (as I’ll discuss below) I think the empty tomb is probably the only fact in the whole story. But one or two of Craig’s points deserve comment. For example, under point 1, he writes:

As a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention.

Notice how well this fits the missing body hypothesis. Sure, the gospels tell us that Joseph was secretly a Christian. But publicly he was known as a member of the very Council that put Jesus to death. That’s plenty of reason why some rural Christians, in Jerusalem for the holy day, might think that Jesus’ body didn’t belong in Joseph’s tomb, especially if their minds were clouded with grief and outrage over Jesus’ death at the hands of Joseph’s Council.

Second, just in general principles I’ll note that once again Craig is giving the gospel writers way too much credit as “independent” sources. Two sources are genuinely independent when they have no connection to one another other than being common witnesses to the same event(s). The gospel writers, by contrast, were leading members of a community founded explicitly for the purpose of preaching a common message. They do show occasional independence by contradicting one another, and that is indeed significant. Given the extent of their collaboration, however, it is deceptive and misleading to refer to their agreements as “independent” corroboration.

Lastly, under point 5, Craig mentions the story in Matthew in which the Sanhedrin allegedly bribes the guards to say that disciples stole the body. Matthew reports that the “disciples stole the body” story was widely circulated in Palestine “to this day,” thus inadvertently corroborating the missing body hypothesis. There’s reason to believe that Matthew was simply inventing the whole “guards around the tomb” story in order to discredit all the locals who were saying disciples took the body, but it’s worth noting that Matthew knew there was a story that needed to be discredited, so by Craig’s historical criteria we can now call the missing body hypothesis an established fact.

Despite the flaws in Craig’s arguments, though, I’m inclined to think that, in fact, there really was an empty tomb. As I said above, it’s probably the only fact in the whole resurrection story (after the death-and-burial part of course). It’s just too peculiar for there to be so much focus on the tomb, otherwise.

Let me illustrate. Suppose you have a friend who is, well, fill in your own stereotype for a sexually unattractive male. One day he tells you he has a new girlfriend named Helga, from Germany. You express a certain amount of skepticism, but he insists that if you stop by on the weekend, he can prove it. So you stop by. Instead of his girlfriend being there, though, you find that he has prepared for you a bunch of web pages, maps, photographs, and newspaper clippings proving, beyond all reasonable doubt, that Germany really exists.

Sound suspicious? If he really had a girlfriend, there ought to be evidence that’s a lot more directly applicable than just proving the existence of the place she supposedly comes from. And in the same way, a genuine resurrection ought to produce something a lot more important than the tomb this so-called Messiah allegedly came out of. Nobody talks about the empty tomb of Lazarus, for obvious reasons. Yet the empty tomb of Jesus is the dominant element of all the gospel stories.

It doesn’t make sense for a guy with a real girlfriend to focus primarily on the existence of Germany as “proof” that he really has a girlfriend, and likewise it doesn’t make sense for Christians with a genuinely-resurrected Messiah to focus so consistently on the empty tomb as “proof” Jesus really rose. But by the same token, if you were simply inventing a resurrection story out of whole cloth, it seems unlikely that you and your collaborators would arbitrarily fixate on this one trivial detail as the dominant evidence of your story. We see it as an important detail, but that’s just because Christians have been harping on it for 2,000 years or so. If there were no pre-existing Empty Tomb tradition, there would be no real impetus to invent one. This peculiar emphasis is most consistent with the missing body hypothesis.

Feel free to disagree and/or criticize—my hypothesis is simply a summary of the conclusions I find most convincing so far, but I’m open to new information and alternative explanations. One thing I am sure of, though, is that the missing body hypothesis is a ton more consistent with the real world than what the resurrection hypothesis is.

We’ll pick this up again next week with the postmortem “appearances” of Jesus. Stay tuned.

4 Responses to “The Empty Apologetic”

  1. Paul King Says:

    I think that there are good reasons to question the Empty Tomb story.

    There is no mention of the story prior to Mark.

    The disciples were supposedly not around to see what happened, so where did the story of the burial come from ?

    Mark’s story has the tomb found only by two women who told nobody. It is later Gospels that add a story of it being generally known to the disciples.

    It is certainly plausible that the details of the burial are all additions to the story (perhaps derived from Isaiah 53:9). This explains why the story does not appear prior to Mark, and why Mark’s story suggests that the Empty Tomb was not known until well after the fact.

  2. pboyfloyd Says:

    The tomb is a metaphor for death. Was Jesus dead when he was taken off the cross? Well, living people don’t get taken to a tomb. Empty tomb is a metaphor for death defied. If there was death the tomb should contain the body, unless death has been defied(not deified, hehe).

    But we can’t use these ‘accounts’/’reports’ to historically verify the existence of the spiritual realm to ourselves or to others surely. I mean come on, water into wine, multiplication of foodstuff, walking on water, bringing back a dead friend, GOD even talks out of the frickin’ clouds(for God’s sake!), and you’re STILL not convinced?

    Talk about a ‘hard sell’!!

  3. Swimmy Says:

    I find the argument here convincing, but by the conservation of expected evidence, if the lack of Jesus-walking-around talk is evidence against Jesus’ resurrection, the presence of Lazarus-walking-around talk is evidence for Lazarus’ resurrection.

    Are you familiar with Carrier’s survival hypothesis?

    I think it’s quite interesting. Not quite sure what to make of it on the whole, but it’s certainly more likely than a resurrection story.

  4. rwahrens Says:

    I find it totally UN-convincing. First, I hear you using the names of the “gospel writers”, and calling them apostles. There is NO evidence that the writers of the gospels were, indeed, apostles. It is well established that the names of the four books were simply attached in later centuries for convenience sake. None of the men who wrote them were alive, or at least, old enough, to be eyewitnesses to the events they relate. Second, there isn’t any evidence, from what I’ve read, that early christians really thought of the gospels as historical, but according to both Carrier and Ehrman, these were most likely simply religious tracts written for different audiences at different times and places, for purely religious reasons. At the time these were written, there was no scholarly tradition of historical writing in the same sense we have today. Indeed, Luke specifically says he isn’t writing as an eyewitness!

    Since they were never intended to be historical, this whole discussion is of little use except to lend credibility to modern christians who are under the mistaken impression that they are supposed to be, simply because you agree to argue the finer points of these documents. Your efforts are better directed towards debunking the whole rotten thing.

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