(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 9: “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?”)
The big problem with the story of the resurrection is that it’s not consistent with what we see in real life. The Gospels require a God with a certain set of characteristics, motives, and abilities, such as would be unmistakably obvious if they were actually present in the real world—and they’re simply not there. It is this fact, more than any other, that justifies interpreting the New Testament in a skeptical light.
William Lane Craig, however, is determined to make the best case he can for the resurrection. And that’s just awesome. Once we’ve seen this, we’ve seen the best Christianity has to offer.
Craig begins by insisting, once again, that the Gospels give us multiple independent accounts of Jesus appearing to various people after his death. I’ve mentioned before that this is incorrect, given the collaborative, message-focussed environment in which the Gospels were written, but perhaps an illustration would help.
Ted and Shelly are driving down the road one day when they see an minor accident up ahead, with a policeman and a wrecker already on the scene. Being bloggers, they stop and ask the policeman what happened.
“Oh,” says the policeman, “some bimbo piled into the back end of the car in front of her. She says he passed her, cut her off, and slammed on his brakes, but she had her cell phone out and was probably just texting to her friends and not paying attention to the road. She’s just using road rage as an excuse.”
That afternoon, they both go home and each reports the story on his/her blog. Ted reports that a woman was texting while driving, and caused an accident, and goes off on a rant about texting. Shelly reports that a man deliberately caused a woman to have an accident and that there was little hope of the woman receiving justice due to the sexism of the reporting officer.
Do Ted and Shelly’s blogs constitute independent accounts? Yes and no. They are independent accounts of how the accident was being reported, but they are not independent accounts of the accident itself, because neither Ted nor Shelly saw it happen. The common elements in Ted’s and Shelly’s accounts are due to the fact that they’re sharing a common source for the story, not due to the fact that they’re independently verifying the original incident.
This is exactly what we have in the Gospel accounts. The four Gospels (and other accounts) are not independent verification of the events they report, they’re merely independent witnesses to the fact that a common story was being told. Craig consistently confuses the distinction between the two, and tries to make it sound like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are somehow independently verifying that Jesus really did appear. But that’s a distortion of the facts. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are only offering independent verification of the fact that stories about appearances were being told. John might have enjoyed the distinction of providing an independent verification, were it not for the fact that his accounts typically don’t match the stories told by the other three!
But lets assume for a moment that there really were a bunch of people who thought they saw Jesus alive after his death. Does that mean Jesus literally and physically rose from the dead? After all, people have seen Elvis too. Craig tackles this problem in the next section, and he begins by appealing to 1 Cor. 15.
In 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, Paul describes the differences between the present, earthly body and our future, resurrection body, which will be like Christ’s. He draws four essential contrasts between the earthly body and the resurrection body.
The earthly body is: But the resurrection body is: mortal immortal dishonorable glorious weak powerful natural spiritual
Now only the last contrast could possibly make us think that Paul did not believe in a physical resurrection body.
Cue the orchestra, it’s time for the big dance number. Craig is in trouble here because the New Testament accounts are quite explicit in ascribing to Jesus’ “resurrection body” some demonstrably non-physical characteristics, like the ability to spontaneously change shape, disappear, and walk through walls. Quite apart from semantic sleight-of-hand based on Paul’s use of a single ambiguous term, we can observe physical bodies and we know that they do not have the characteristics and abilities that the resurrection stories associate with Jesus’ post-mortem body. It will be a true test of Craig’s mettle as a debater if he can tap-dance his way around this one.
But what does [Paul] mean by the words translated here as “natural/spiritual”?
The word translated “natural” literally means “soul-ish.” Now obviously, Paul doesn’t mean that our present body is made out of soul. Rather by this word he means “dominated by or pertaining to human nature.” Similarly when he says the resurrection body will be “spiritual,” he doesn’t mean “made out of spirit.” Rather, he means “dominated by or oriented toward the Spirit.” It’s the same sense of the world “spiritual” used when we say that someone is a spiritual person.
When you can control the definition of the words used by the Bible, you can control the meaning of the Bible, and can change it to be whatever you want, just by changing the definitions. (That’s why God would have to be an idiot to think a Bible-based religion could ever work for real people.) It’s true that there is a sense in which we use “spiritual” to mean something like “a spiritual person.” But that’s not the context Paul is using here.
Contrary to Craig’s argument, the mere juxtaposition of “soulish” vs “spiritual” is not all we have to go by in assessing Paul’s intended meaning. Paul also goes to some lengths to explain that the resurrection body is heavenly rather than earthly—a distinction that is mysteriously missing from Craig’s list of contrasts, even though it’s the very next portion of the text. Let’s look at 1 Cor. to see why.
So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural [soulish] body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural [soulish] body, there is also a spiritual body. So also it is written, “The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural [soulish]; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.
According to Christian tradition, Jesus, the “last Adam,” existed in heaven before his incarnation. Heaven is not a physical place (otherwise it would get in the way when the satellites flew over Jerusalem taking pictures for Google Maps), so it makes sense that Jesus would not have a physical body while in heaven before his incarnation. What’s more, Jesus himself is alleged to have told his disciples that “a spirit does not have flesh and bone, as you see I have” So a spiritual body is not a body of flesh and bone, according to Luke’s account.
Paul, on the other hand, is explicitly explaining what he means by the difference between the soulish body (which he equates with Adam’s physical body that became “A LIVING SOUL”) and the spiritual body, which he equates with the “life-giving spirit” of the “last Adam” from heaven, i.e. Jesus. The first Adam, he explains, is “from the earth”—according to Genesis, his body was literally made out of dirt from the ground. Just as the earthy body is made of the substance of the earth, so the heavenly body is made of the substance of heaven. In that sense, then, the heavenly resurrection body is a spiritual body, and that’s why it’s incorruptible and glorious and all the rest.
Paul knew that the “soulish/spiritual” contrast was possibly ambiguous, and so he went on to give us the clarification that Craig somehow omits. By “spiritual body,” Paul means explicitly the kind of spiritual bodies possessed by the spirits in heaven, from which Jesus himself supposedly descended. We know that’s what Paul meant by soulish vs. spiritual because he took the trouble to elaborate on the earthly/heavenly contrast he was trying to make. But he failed to convince the Church that the resurrection body was indeed heavenly, and now even his own words have been repurposed to mean something other than what he wrote. Whoever controls the definitions, controls the meaning.
Craig tries to make the point that the “appearances” of Jesus must be genuine, literal, physical appearances, because the New Testament makes such a clear and careful distinction between an actual appearance and a mere vision. Except of course when it doesn’t, but hey, who’s counting?
Paul, and indeed all the New Testament, makes a distinction between an appearance of Jesus and a vision of Jesus. The appearances of Jesus soon ceased, but the visions of Jesus continued in the early church… A vision, though caused by God, was purely in the mind, while an appearance took place “out there” in the external world…
Paul could rightly regard his experience on the Damascus road as an appearance, even though it took place after Jesus’ ascension, because it involved manifestations in the external world like the light and the voice, which Paul’s companions also experienced to varying degrees.
To be strictly accurate, though, we should point out that there are places in Acts where it admits the other people saw no one and in fact did not hear the voice either. Paul’s Damascus road experience is really more of what you might call a “heavenly vision”—which is exactly what Paul called it in Acts 26. According to the Bible, though, this vision is just as much an “appearance” of Jesus as any of the others, which is consistent with Paul’s declaration that the resurrection body is a heavenly one rather than an earthly one.
Next, Craig tries to argue that “every resurrection appearance related in the gospels is a physical, bodily appearance.” That’s either a blatantly false statement, or else Craig is using a definition of “physical” that is not well-informed by how real physical bodies actually behave with respect to things like sealed tombs and locked doors. While there are aspects of these stories that appear designed to convince us that Jesus was physically real, these “proofs” aren’t anything that haven’t been attributed to other spirits in the past (e.g. physically touching the spirit’s body Gen. 32, and giving food to spirits, which they then eat Gen 18).
Craig tries to argue that “it’s very strange that we have a completely unanimous testimony in the gospels” that the appearances were physical. But that’s nonsense of course. First of all, the Gospels aren’t independent records of Jesus appearing, they’re only independent records of the existence of a common story. And secondly, of course, these appearance stories are emphatically not stories of a non-spiritual manifestation, since they clearly record Jesus as doing non-physical things, in addition to displaying the same “proofs” that, oddly, spirits like God always seem to display.
But the big reason Craig’s argument is nonsense is because there’s a perfectly good reason why a spiritual resurrection story would naturally gravitate towards a more materialistic interpretation: people are naturally materialists! People know that if Jesus did not rise materially and physically, then he did not really rise at all. That’s the tremendous irony of the gospels: Christians have rejected the notion of a spiritual resurrection body because even they know that a “spiritual” body really means an imaginary one.
Craig next tries to argue that the resurrection stories couldn’t have evolved from declaring a spiritual vision to declaring a physical one because “physical, bodily appearances would have been foolishness to the Gentiles, and a stumbling block to the Jews.” I think he’s trying to say that the Greeks and Jews would have been more likely to believe in non-physical visions of an ascended Jesus, but that’s kind of a red herring. The Jews and Greeks would both gladly deny that Jesus really rose from the dead, and claim that Christians were only seeing visions. That problem, however, is precisely why Christians would need to move away from a spiritual resurrection and begin asserting one that was physically real, if they wanted to assert a genuinely real resurrection as opposed to a mere ghost-story-ish vision.
Craig wraps up his resurrection arguments by accusing critics of just being biased against miracles. This is why he saved the resurrection accounts for the end of his book: you have to buy the superstitious arguments about God first, so that he can appeal to belief in God to gloss over the huge discrepancies between what we read in the stories and what we see in the real world.
As the agnostic Australian philosopher Peter Slezak nicely put it in our debate, for a God who is able to create the entire universe, the odd resurrection would be child’s play!
Right, so let’s see some child’s play then. You can’t really call it “testing God” if you’re looking for nothing more than God’s child’s play.
But we don’t see any such thing in real life. It’s not that we’re biased or hostile or rebellious or closed-minded. Imagine a world just like ours except that every memory or record or artifact related to Christianity is absent—nothing is left but reality itself. What is there in that objective reality that’s a real, loving, interactive God? Not just men superstitiously attributing things to some kind of Higher Power, but a real Heavenly Father type Who wants His children to see Him and hear Him and know Him so they can be with Him forever?
If you see that happening in the real world, do me a favor and take a video of it so I can look it up on YouTube. And don’t blame me for being skeptical until you do.
We are getting really close to the end of this book. Next time, Craig tries to debunk the skeptical critiques of New Testament tales. Stay tuned.