The devil in the details

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

Before we start this week’s main topic, I want to pick up one loose end from last time, about a point Craig made that I didn’t have time to cover. Craig’s historical argument centers around three points: the empty tomb, the (perceived) post-resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith. Regarding that last point, he says this:

A Messiah who failed to deliver and to reign, who was defeated, humiliated and slain by His enemies, is a contradiction in terms. Nowhere do Jewish texts speak of such a “Messiah.” Therefore, it’s difficult to overemphasize what a disaster the crucifixion was for the disciples’ faith. Jesus’ death on the cross spelled the humiliating end for any hopes they had entertained that He was the Messiah.

In other contexts, of course, Craig would argue that Jesus did fulfill the Messianic prophecies, and that the cross was not “the humiliating end for any hopes” of Jesus being the true Messiah. But just here, just now, he’s denying any Biblical connection between the Old Testament Messiah and Jesus. And that’s the great thing about apologetics: you don’t have to tell a consistent story from one point to the next. All you have to do is come up with a plausible answer for the question of the moment.

So we’re ready for the big argument. Are the empty tomb, the “appearances,” and the origin of the Christian faith best explained by an actual resurrection, or by some other explanation? Craig has an approach, and a warning. Here’s the warning.

[D]on’t be misled by unbelievers who want to quibble about inconsistencies in the circumstantial details of the gospel accounts… [M]inor discrepancies don’t affect our case. Historians expect to find inconsistencies even in the most reliable sources.

Because everybody knows those sources are fallible, biased, and imperfect. But Craig isn’t going to come right out and say that the Bible is only a fallible record of imperfect and unreliable men. He’s going to simply gloss over that particular problem.

This is apologetics, remember. Inconsistencies are perfectly normal. If Mary saw an angel come down from heaven and tell her that Jesus had risen from the dead (as Matthew and Luke report), and she responds by running to the disciples and—apparently forgetting that God raised Jesus from the dead—tells them that someone has stolen the corpse and she doesn’t know where it is (as John reports), then hey, no biggie. Why let mere contradictions stand in the way of perfectly good dogma?

Craig has another list of 6 criteria he wants us to use to establish which explanation is the best. According to Craig, the best explanation will:

  1. Have greater explanatory scope than other explanations.
  2. Have greater explanatory power than other explanations.
  3. Be more plausible than other explanations.
  4. Be less contrived than other explanations.
  5. Have fewer conflicts with other accepted beliefs, and
  6. Will meet conditions 1-5 by a wide margin over other beliefs.

That last one seems a bit contrived to me—if it’s best, then it’s best. “Point spread” doesn’t matter. But let’s see how well he does in applying those first 5 criteria to actual explanations.

The first hypothesis he addresses is the so-called “Conspiracy Hypothesis.”

According to this hypothesis, the disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about His appearances, thus faking the resurrection. This was the very first counterexplanation for the empty tomb, as we’ve seen, and it was revived during the eighteenth century by European deists.

This is a bit distorted. Matthew’s gospel claims that a number of Roman guards—eyewitnesses to the actual events at the tomb—were going around telling people that disciples took the body. He accuses them of having been bribed to do so, but provides no evidence to substantiate that charge. Thus, Matthew’s story is, at best, a record of early eyewitness testimony against the resurrection, not any early conspiracy hypothesis. The conspiracy hypothesis holds that the disciples who lied about the “appearances” were the same disciples who stole the body, but there’s no mention in Matthew about disciples lying or being the same disciples as those who stole the body.

Under criterion #1, Craig concedes that this hypothesis has sufficient explanatory scope to cover what he calls the “three facts”—the empty tomb, the “appearances” and the subsequent faith of the disciples.  He takes issue with its explanatory power (criterion #2), though.

Take the empty tomb, for example. If the disciples stole Jesus’ corpse, then it would be utterly pointless to fabricate a story about women finding the tomb to be empty. Such a story would not be the sort of tale Jewish men would invent.

Nonsense. Craig is trying to use Jewish misogyny as a pretext for discrediting the conspiracy hypothesis, but he hoists himself by his own petard: if women were indeed held in such low regard by the disciples, then there’s no reason to think the disciples would necessarily involve them in the conspiracy, or even trust them to know about it. There’s no plausible reason why we ought to be surprised by the fact that the story describes women as being the first to find the tomb empty. If the body was gone, then of course they would find the tomb empty!

And by the same token, of course, there’s no plausible reason to assume that the apostles themselves necessarily had to be in on any “plot” to move the body, if there was even any pre-arranged plot to begin with. It could just as easily have been a spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment impulse, by a handful of rank-and-file believers, to rescue the remains of Jesus from the custody of the Sanhedrin (which, as far as most people knew, is what Joseph’s tomb really was).

Craig next tries to argue that the Gospel story is too simple for the conspiracy story to be a valid hypothesis.

[W]here are the scriptural proof texts, the evidence of fulfilled prophecy? Why isn’t Jesus described as emerging from the tomb, as in later forgeries like the Gospel of Peter?

Again, Craig is assuming that there was only one group of disciples who did everything: stealing the body, inventing the “appearances,” writing the Gospels, and so on. But there’s no real reason why this would necessarily be the case. If the body was removed without the knowledge or consent of the apostles, and believers gradually incorporated their own post-bereavement hallucinations into a full-blown resurrection “experience,” there’s no reason why they’d feel compelled to follow any particular theological format.

He tries to raise similar objections to the “appearance” stories.

A fabricator would probably describe Jesus’ resurrection appearances in terms of Old Testament visions of God and descriptions of the end-time resurrection (as in Daniel 12:2). But then Jesus should appear to the disciples in dazzling glory. And why not a description of the resurrection itself? Why no appearances to Caiaphas the high priest or to the villains on the Sanhedrin, as Jesus predicted? They could be then branded as the real liars for denying that Jesus did appear to them!

Strangely, Craig applies these questions only to the conspiracy theory, and not to the “Actual Resurrection” theory, where they’d be a much better fit. To be believable, a lie must be plausible, so when Craig pictures what a conspiracy of liars would say, he ends up listing all the things that would be most consistent with what the Bible tells us about God—things that, in fact, never actually happened. In the topsy-turvy world of Christian apologetics, this discrepancy counts as evidence in favor of an actual resurrection, because it’s more likely that liars would invent Old Testament style stories than that God Himself would really behave that way in real life.


Meanwhile, the stories as told in the New Testament are perfectly consistent with the possibility that the story-telling disciples were relating their own personal hallucinations, if they themselves didn’t know what really happened to the body. Take away Craig’s assumption that the body-snatchers had to be the same disciples as the story-tellers, and his whole objection crumbles.

Craig’s next objection is that the conspiracy hypothesis fails to account for the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus resurrection—assuming, once again, that only one group of disciples could possibly have been involved. If the apostles were not in on the decision to remove the body, then there’s nothing preventing them from deciding to explain its disappearance by believing in a resurrection.

According to Craig, though, the big weakness in the conspiracy hypothesis is criterion #3, plausibility.

One might mention here objections to the unbelievable complexity of such a conspiracy or the supposed psychological state of the disciples; but the overriding problem that dwarfs all others is that it is wholly anachronistic to suppose that first-century Jews intended to hoax Jesus’ resurrection.

Craig’s argument is that Christianity is such a radical departure from prior Jewish tradition that there would be no apparent benefit, from the viewpoint of a first-century Jew, in inventing such a thing. You don’t prove that your rabbi is Messiah by resurrecting him, because Messiah, by definition, isn’t supposed to die.

In other words, Craig is once again taking the conspiracy hypothesis to task for difficulties that really apply more directly to the Actual Resurrection hypothesis. Christianity is so inconsistent with everything the Jewish God has allegedly achieved up to that point that it makes no sense. This is an inconsistency that far transcends the conspiracy hypothesis and strikes directly at the heart of Judeo-Christian theology itself.

Christians use various rationalizations to try and reconcile the two, but the fact remains that, as Craig insists, Jesus is not the promised Old Testament Messiah (if there ever was one). He simply does not fit the stories. And the “Messianic” prophecies are all firmly entrenched in an Old Testament context, so they are inconsistent with any New Testament fulfillment. The only way to make Jesus into the Messiah (someday) is to assume that at some point in the future God is going to revert back to the Old Testament again, with temples and priests and sacrifices and the whole thing. And that makes it kind of hard to argue that the Old Testament was some sort of temporary scaffolding that was fulfilled and replaced by the New.

Meanwhile, this lack of consistency between Judaism and Christianity is a perfectly plausible outcome for a wholly unintentional evolution of Christian belief. Craig is quite right to object that Christian theology fails the intelligent design test. It’s just not what a “conspirator” (human or divine) would come up with, given the precedents set by “God’s chosen people” up to that point. But if we allow for the possibility that the body-snatching disciples acted without the knowledge or consent of the others, then it’s not just plausible but almost inevitable that the crucifixion, far from extinguishing Christianity, would send it off in a radically new direction.

Imagine, for a moment, Harold Camping saying, “Oops, the Rapture didn’t happen in May and the world didn’t end in October? I guess the Bible must be wrong then.” Raise your hand if you think that would ever happen. Nobody? How about the Millerites? The “Great Disappointment,” which ended up producing the Seventh Day Adventist church and its “Prophet” Ellen G. White?

Believers don’t give up believing just because of the odd publicly humiliating and theologically catastrophic failure of their core foundational beliefs. Sure, some give up and fall away, but True Believers know better. The important thing is to keep on believing; i.e. you need to find some new narrative that somehow reconciles the, um, “recent complications” with the essential dogma. Sure, the Romans might stamp out a few messianic cults by the simple expedient of crushing the leadership, but sooner or later somebody is going to have a vision, and there you are.

As Craig himself pointed out, the crucifixion would have been “the humiliating end for any hopes they had entertained that He was the Messiah.” It was psychologically the perfect ingredient, in other words, for sending Christianity down a radically different road than the Jewish traditions it had followed previously. Such radical conversions not common, of course, but they’re not unheard of either, especially under conditions like those portrayed in the Gospels.

Ironically, Craig’s next attempt is to attack parallels between pagan resurrection stories and the Gospels. I say “ironically” because he’s just finished telling us all how radically different Christianity was from prior Jewish tradition, and yet now, somehow, pagan resurrection stories can’t have had any influence on Christianity because they’re not Jewish enough.

Many of the alleged parallels are actually stories of the assumption of the hero into heaven… Others are disappearance stories… Still others are seasonal symbols for the crop cycle…

None of these is parallel to the Jewish idea of the resurrection of the dead… For example, in the myth of Osiris, which was one of the best-known symbolic seasonal myths, Osiris doesn’t really come back to life but simply continues to exist in the realm of the departed.

Because a resurrected Jesus in heaven is nothing like a resurrected Osiris in the “realm of the departed.” Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Craig’s argument is that “Jesus and His disciples were first-century Israelite Jews, and it is against that background that they must be understood.” Never mind what first-century Christianity was, even though it was too different from Judaism to be a plausible extrapolation from it, according to Craig. This is apologetics, and the need of the moment is refuting the parallels between the gospel and similar stories found in the same first-century Mediterranean context. So in this argument, it’s Judaism all the way.

Unbelievably, Craig’s next argument flops back to denying that the gospels were tied to or influenced by Jewish concepts of resurrection.

[T]he Jewish conception of resurrection differed in at least two fundamental respects from the resurrection of Jesus.

First, in Jewish thinking the resurrection… always occurred after the end of the world…

Second, in Jewish thinking the resurrection was always the resurrection of all the righteous dead.

Thus, the correct understanding of the Christian doctrine of resurrection means that we must remember that the disciples were Jewish, and therefore their doctrine of resurrection couldn’t possibly have come from the Jewish understanding of resurrection. Wait, what? Pagan resurrections aren’t parallel enough because they’re not Jewish enough, even though the Christian resurrection isn’t Jewish either? Oy vey.

Craig wraps up by calling the conspiracy hypothesis “contrived” (criterion #4), on the grounds that “it postulates motives and ideas in the minds of the earliest disciples and actions on their part for which there is not a shred of evidence.” Again, that’s not an objection that really holds up unless you make the unnecessary assumption that the story-telling disciples necessarily had to be the body-snatchers. Plus it fits Matthew’s allegations of bribery a lot better.

Likewise, Craig’s final objection—that the conspiracy hypothesis contradicts what we know about the complexity and viability of large-scale conspiracies—also rests on the assumption that all the disciples were in on the conspiracy. If the apostles were as surprised as anyone else by the empty tomb, then the rest would follow our knowledge of human psychology very well indeed.

And that’s it for the conspiracy hypothesis. Craig successfully debunks one fairly contrived scenario out of a much larger range of possibilities, while still leaving a loophole big enough for the U. S. Navy to sail through, side-by-side. In the process, he raises issues that are much bigger obstacles for his preferred theory than for skeptical alternatives, and gives us an extensive demonstration of the importance of double-think in modern apologetics.

Next week he tackles the Apparent Death hypothesis (or tries to). Stay tuned.

4 Responses to “The devil in the details”

  1. Steve Wade Says:

    I would love to hear Craig respond to this and your other posts on his book. It seems to me that you have utterly dismantled his arguments. He must be aware of the weaknesses you have exposed. I am beginning to doubt his honesty.

  2. Roi des Faux Says:

    “Believers don’t give up believing just because of the odd publicly humiliating and theologically catastrophic failure of their core foundational beliefs.”

    That is going in my quote file, sir.

  3. HumanisticJones Says:

    “Thus, the correct understanding of the Christian doctrine of resurrection means that we must remember that the disciples were Jewish, and therefore their doctrine of resurrection couldn’t possibly have come from the Jewish understanding of resurrection. Wait, what? Pagan resurrections aren’t parallel enough because they’re not Jewish enough, even though the Christian resurrection isn’t Jewish either? Oy vey.”

    In the words of the great southern orator Foghorn Leghorn:
    “Ah say, ah say, nice kid, but he flip-flops more than a flap-jack stand.”

    That people buy into this crap almost says more about the target audience than it says about Craig’s dishonesty.

  4. Jim Jones Says:

    First, in Jewish thinking the resurrection… always occurred after the end of the world…

    Isn’t that the actual Christian theological position? If not, why do Catholics object to dividing or scattering cremation remains?

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