(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 9: “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?”)
For as much energy as he has put into dissecting certain critical theories of the Gospel, William Lane Craig ends his defense of the resurrection on a decidedly flat note: just under 3 and a half pages attempting to defend his so-called “resurrection hypothesis,” and even those consist mostly of just saying, “Yep, I win here too.” I think in the interests of academic honesty, I should go over some of the important factors Craig is leaving out.
First of all, Craig fails to define what his so-called resurrection hypothesis is, beyond quoting the snippet “God raised Jesus from the dead.” I suppose we can take it for granted that, as Craig is a Christian apologist writing for a conservative, evangelical Christian audience, he means the hypothesis that the God of the New Testament, by supernatural and miraculous powers, physically raised Jesus from the dead, in a tangible, physical, living body that other people could see, hear, and touch. That’s not nearly an adequate specification, but it’s more than what Craig provides, and it’s reasonably consistent with accepted conservative tradition on the subject, so I suppose it will have to do.
Now for the criteria.
1. Explanatory scope. The resurrection hypothesis has greater explanatory scope than some rival explanations like the hallucination hypothesis or the displaced body hypothesis by explaining all three of the main facts at issue, whereas these rival hypotheses explain only one.
Now we see the self-fulfilling nature of Craig’s selection of the “main facts.” There are all kinds of relevant facts that bear on the historical question of whether or not Jesus literally and physically rose from the dead, like the fact that within a very short time after his alleged resurrection, even the disciples believed that he had really gone (Acts 1) and the fact that he was not seen by any non-Christian between his “resurrection” and his “ascension.” But those aren’t the “main” facts according to Craig. He wants us to focus exclusively on the facts that, in his mind, are best explained by a resurrection, so that he can conclude the resurrection is the best explanation for those facts.
But let’s think about those facts. Does a literal, physical resurrection really explain the empty tomb? No, in fact, it doesn’t. If God magically brought Jesus back to life, that doesn’t make his body go *poof* and disappear, it just makes him sit up and start breathing again. Physical bodies can’t walk through solid stone, so after his resurrection, he’s still in the tomb, waiting for someone to let him out. You can imagine that this “physical” body actually had some kind of magical power that allowed it to disappear and walk through solid stone, but that’s a contrived addition, as we’ll discuss below. So an uncontrived resurrection hypothesis predicts a tomb with a living Jesus in or near it, not an empty one.
Does it explain the appearances? Well, again, not really. If Jesus’ body magically came back to life, then he would be recognizable to his disciples. The nail holes in his hands and feet, and the spear hole in his side, for example, would be (pardon the expression) dead giveaways. God raising Jesus from the dead doesn’t explain why so many of his own disciples, including those nearest and dearest, completely failed so many times to recognize him, even in extended, up-close, personal encounters.
Does it explain the origin of the disciples’ faith? That might be a matter of opinion. It’s entirely possible that it was the disciples’ faith that was the origin of the resurrection, rather than the other way around. But here’s the real catch: if Jesus was able to inspire true faith in his disciples by physically showing up in a physically resurrected body, and if he wants us to have the same faith, then he could and should still be here, in his physically resurrected body, maximizing the number of people whose faith has the same basis as the early apostles. The resurrection hypothesis fails to explain why the disciples’ faith would have an origin that our own faith—by God’s choice—is denied.
2. Explanatory power. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the resurrection hypothesis. The conspiracy hypothesis and the apparent death hypothesis, for example, just do not convincingly account for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances, and origin of the Christian faith…
Unless, of course, you stop to consider the likely psychosocial consequences that might plausibly arise if the corpse of a popular Messiah were to mysteriously and scandalously disappear immediately after his brutal and unexpected death. Even without the emotional trauma of watching a beloved prophet die by crucifixion, believers today routinely perceive God as “showing up” and “speaking” to them through a variety of “spiritual” manifestations that are regarded as being just as true as a tangible physical appearance. How much more likely would such subjective experiences be if they served, psychologically, to vindicate the believers’ faith in their failed Messiah, and turn physical defeat into spiritual victory?
Just a few disciples, acting without the knowledge or consent of the others, could have removed the body and thus triggered the unique set of conditions that would suggest to the disciples that something—dare we say—supernatural might have happened to God’s Anointed. Craig wants to separate the empty tomb from the likely consequences that would result, so that he can divide and conquer, calling each piece of the story a separate theory that’s inadequate to explain the whole. But he makes no such separation between the alleged resurrection and it’s supposed consequences, of course!
3.Plausibility. The plausibility of Jesus’ resurrection grows exponentially once we consider it in its historical context, namely, Jesus’ unparalleled life and radical personal claims, and in its philosophical context, namely, the evidence for God’s existence. Once one embraces the view that God exists, the hypothesis that God would raise Jesus from the dead is no more implausible than its rivals.
In other words, if we bought his superstitious arguments in favor of God’s existence, we’ll probably fall for the resurrection story as well. In that context, perhaps, the resurrection might not sound so implausible. Once you accept the premise that everything the Bible says is true (including the bits that contradict each other), then it becomes much easier to prove that Jesus somehow rose from the dead.
The catch is that the New Testament is not an unbiased historical document. It’s evangelistic propaganda, produced via an informal collaboration between members of a common religious sect, for the purpose of convincing people that Jesus was the Son of God and/or God the Son. To blindly endorse their claims as the “historical context” of Jesus’ alleged resurrection would be like accepting the Book of Mormon as the historical context for Jesus’ manifestations in the Americas (as told by Mormons). Granted, assuming your conclusion makes the conclusion easier to reach. But that’s not really plausibility, that’s just gullibility.
Which brings us to criterion #4: is the resurrection hypothesis less contrived than other alternatives? “Being contrived,” Craig informs us, “…is a matter of how many new suppositions a hypothesis must make that are not implied by existing knowledge.” On that score, the resurrection hypothesis fails spectacularly, because it requires a number of new suppositions which in turn imply discrepancies for which additional suppositions must be contrived, which in turn have further difficulties, and so on. It’s what gives theologians their job security: the never-ending stream of contrivances needed to try and make theology sound like the truth.
Craig, of course, tries to downplay this problem by claiming that only one new supposition is needed, namely, that God exists. That’s not remotely true, but even if it were, it makes the resurrection hypothesis no less contrived, due to the sheer magnitude of this one contrivance. If there’s a God who loves us enough to die for us, why doesn’t He show up in real life so that each of us can see Him and interact with Him and so on? Well, you see, we have to make a new supposition, not implied by previous knowledge, that some crucial factor is preventing Him from showing up. But how can any factor outside of God, the all-wise and all-powerful Creator of all, prevent Him from doing what He wants? Let’s make another new supposition, not implied by previous knowledge, that some other factor compels God to allow the first factor to limit His behavior even though technically He has the power to overrule it. And on and on and on.
When it comes right down to it, most of the definition of what “God” means, and what it means for Him to exist, boils down to theologians inventing new suppositions, not suggested by previous knowledge, for why God’s nature and behavior are so rife with inconsistencies and contradictions. Thus, even if “God exists” were the only part of the resurrection hypothesis that was contrived, the sheer magnitude of that one contrivance would suffice to put the resurrection hypothesis at the very bottom of the list, by quite a wide margin.
But it’s not the only contrived detail of the resurrection hypothesis by any means. Craig has emphasized over and over, in the past several pages, his contention that the Christian story of resurrection comes neither from pagan nor from Jewish concepts of what a resurrection. The Christian doctrine of resurrection is a new supposition, not suggested by earlier ideas of what resurrection was. It’s a wholly contrived definition that tries to mix the credibility of a physical reanimation with the woo-filled credulity of the stories where Jesus turned invisible, walked through walls, disguised himself as various strangers, and then poofed away again.
Also, the resurrection theory has to resort to contrived explanations for why there was no living Jesus in the tomb when the stone was rolled away. Some stories have the angel claiming that Jesus has run off to Galilee, or perhaps he was hiking down to Emmaus in disguise, or whatever, but relative to the resurrection hypothesis, these are contrived—there’s no reason for Jesus to go any place other than where the disciples expected to find him (or at least his corpse), and thus no reason for the tomb to acquire anywhere near the prominence it has in the Christian story.
Likewise, the Ascension story is a wholly contrived attempt to account for Jesus’ absence following his alleged resurrection. There is no reason for him to depart (and no actual, literal, physical heaven over the Mount of Olives for him to depart to). As an omnipresent deity, there’s nowhere he can go to where he wasn’t already present, and nowhere he can depart from without still being where he used to be, so the incidental location of a physical body is pretty much irrelevant to how close he is to the things he needs to do. And even if you allow that he did depart, you still need to contrive some new supposition, not implied by existing knowledge, to account for his ability to appear to Paul after his alleged ascension, plus an additional new supposition to account for his failure to do the same for anyone else after Paul.
By contrast, the hypothesis that requires the fewest additional suppositions is the hypothesis that a few disciples removed the body without the knowledge and consent of the others, resulting in the others jumping to the conclusion that this mysterious and shocking disappearance was the sign of a supernatural event. The gospels tell us that the tomb’s owner was secretly a Christian, meaning that other people did not know he was anything but a member of the Council that condemned Jesus. Thus, we do not need any contrived assumptions about what would motivate a disciple to remove the body from his tomb, because there’s already a reason in the story.
Likewise, existing knowledge extensively documents the human tendency to adopt superstitious explanations, and to perceive subjective perceptions and feelings as though they were objective real-world events, even apart from such interesting psychological phenomena as post-bereavement hallucinations. We don’t need to contrive any new assumptions to account for the disciples’ natural tendency to deny the defeat of their leader, and we have evidence even within the story itself that records the gradual embellishment of the gospel narrative over time. In fact, the “Human Frailty” hypothesis even explains God’s failure to show up in real life, and the frequent disappointment of Christians who trust in God, and the fact that most believers learn by experience not to expect anything more from God than could be delivered by ordinary happenstance and an imaginary friend. The resurrection hypothesis doesn’t even come close.
5. Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs. I can’t think of any accepted beliefs that disconfirm the resurrection hypothesis—unless one thinks of, say, “Dead men do not rise” as disconfirmatory. But this generalization based on what naturally happens when people die does nothing to disconfirm the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.
Since Craig is having trouble thinking, let’s help him out. The resurrection hypothesis is disconfirmed, not just by the accepted belief that we don’t actually see God raising anybody from the dead, but also by such accepted beliefs as the fact that physical bodies do not turn invisible, walk through solid stones and locked doors, and disguise themselves so that even their closest friends and associates don’t recognize them. We also have the accepted belief that women who meet angels flying down from heaven telling them that God raised Jesus from the dead typically do not run to the apostles and say, “Someone stole his body and we don’t know where they’ve taken it.”
We could add the accepted belief that when you want something badly enough to die for it, and you’re omnipotent, omniscient, and all-wise, and you do what it takes to get what you want, and you succeed, you do not then turn around and flee as far away as you can from the thing you worked so hard to obtain. The whole point of Jesus’ death and resurrection, according to the Gospel, was to restore the relationship between God and man as it originally existed in Eden and presumably is supposed to exist in eternity. Yet He does not show up to participate in that relationship He allegedly worked so hard to make possible—not even for those who are already believers. They have to settle for a “spiritual” relationship that, in practical terms, is indistinguishable from an imaginary one. This disconfirms pretty much the whole Gospel.
We could add other disconfirmations, like Jesus’ failure to appear to, say, the guards who were allegedly the only non-Christian eyewitnesses to the resurrection event itself, but at least we’ve looked at a sample.
Craig closes with his sixth criterion, which is really not a criterion at all, but rather just a framework within which to boast about how much greater his beliefs are than anyone else’s.
6. Exceeds other hypotheses in fulfilling conditions 1–5. There’s certainly little chance of any of the rival hypotheses’ ever exceeding the resurrection hypothesis in fulfilling the above conditions. The bewilderment of contemporary scholarship when confronted with the facts of the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith suggests that no better rival is anywhere on the horizon. Once you give up the prejudice against miracles, it’s hard to deny that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the facts.
Gotta love that little jab about “prejudice” against miracles, as though there’s something wrong with being skeptical about things that aren’t consistent with what we observe in the real world. Of course we’re skeptical about them. Inconsistency with real-world fact is the definition of what “false” means! But if miracles weren’t inconsistent with what we see in real life, then nobody would call them a miracle. Craig claims his resurrection hypothesis isn’t disconfirmed by accepted knowledge, and yet he has to appeal to miracles to make his claim work. Tells you pretty much everything you need to know about his triumphalist (and ill-founded) boasting.
We have one chapter left to go, and it won’t take long, so if anyone has any requests for another book to go through, now’s the time to propose it.