Home » Other blog comments » Conversation on evidence for the resurrection

Conversation on evidence for the resurrection

This is a summary of some recent dialogue posted in the comments section of a recent blog post by Robert Martin of The City Bible Forum in Melbourne.
Nothing new added here – this is simply just a re-capture of comments material.

I was with you for a moment there, Rob.
Not agreeing, mind you, but I was keeping up with the internal logic of what you were saying.

But then this at the end:
history has shown there is a way to resolve the conflicting claims of religion. It is through the one who comes and claims to be ‘the way the truth and the life’ and lives an extraordinary life, death and resurrection consistent with this claim.

…And thus the logic collapses in on itself once again. The unfalsifiable and unassailable assertion that I have the one true truth.

You know my position on the resurrection, Rob. Show us the video evidence, or it didn’t happen.

Robert:

Paul,

Thanks for your comments and I appreciate you accepting my internal logic. ;-)

I completely understand how you reject that claim, but I did want to put it in there to demonstrate very briefly why I believe what I do. In terms of the resurrection, have a look at this presentation I delivered earlier in the year. It’s fairly comprehensive, but would love your thoughts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7E2zMq8IRC4

Thanks for the interaction!

Rob

Thanks for the link, Rob. This is certainly edifying in terms of understanding what Christian scholars believe and what their evidence is.
However, I assume you realise that none of this has any impact on the views of a sceptic? It provides some grist for the mill when preaching to the less-informed converted, but there is no additional basic argument that makes the assertion any more compelling.

Here’s a superficial response to some of the points:

You say that science, mathematics and philosophy can’t tell us about whether or not the resurrection happened. They’re the wrong tools.
That’s correct, but each of these tools can give us some insight into the rationality and likelihood of miracles. And another tool, history, can complement these by showing examples of extraordinary claims that turned out to be unsubstantiated hype.
In fact, while there are plenty of extraordinary claims that have not been investigated fully and objectively, every single one that has been, ever, in the history of civilisation, has been shown to be not a miracle, not supernatural.

Unfortunately the investigative journalism approach, at least in this instance, doesn’t provide us with anything else that could be considered as proof. It’s not even objective.
Using the gospels of the bible as evidence for other truths in the bible is begging-the-question. “It must be true, because it’s in the bible, and the bible says that everything in the bible is true.”

The New Testament letters are the same thing. Everything supporting the bible’s claims was prepared by folks with a vested interest in the cause.
It wouldn’t make sense for any of the early bible writers to include – in the bible itself – any contradictory claims.
Conveniently, there is no Book of Trevor, in which the claims of the resurrection were debunked by Trev, who discovered Steve behind the tomb dressing himself up in drab robes and sheep’s blood, preparing a diabolical little party trick on those already convinced by the divinity of the living JC.

You cite other examples, including WWII journalism and historical accounts of Augustus, and the fact that we don’t reject these historical details. I assume you realise that again there is no convincing argument here.
Historical accounts of Augustus winning, say two dozen battles against the odds, is remarkable. But it doesn’t require any special leap of faith to accept. Further evidence and discovery might reveal he only won a dozen of those, and was actually defeated most of the time. This might require a major re-think of aspects of Roman history. But it wouldn’t affect our current world views at all. And if there were claims based on written accounts that somehow Augustus won his battles on his own while riding a winged horse, modern historians wouldn’t be likely to take them seriously.

On the “six historical facts”, no fundamental truths there either.
Eyewitness accounts again amount to hearsay.
The other points about the rise of Christianity and changes in the behaviour of the personalities involved are not evidence of the resurrection of course. Arguably the modern rise of Mormonism (14 million, according to Wikipedia) is far more abrupt and astonishing than the rise of Christianity from the 1st C. AD. And this is a movement, (in modern times, with all our education, experience, enlightenment and scepticism) based on the visions of a man who was apparently told to translate the divine golden plates he dug up somewhere. Conveniently, the physical golden plates were taken away again by one of his angelic visions before anyone – other than his closest disciples of course – had the chance to give them a really good going over.

You conclude that the sceptical view “betrays philosophical pre-suppositions”, rather than relying on actual evidence. And with this, again, there seems to be a complete dismissal, and even reversal, of the concept of the burden of proof.
That’s a more polite way of saying that you’ve got things arse-about.

Robert:

Paul,

Again I apologise for not getting back to you sooner. But here we are – a new week and new opportunities to discuss.

I’m glad you admit that science and maths can’t tell us whether the resurrection happened. Yet, I’m concerned with your definition and discussion of ‘proof’. Also, I don’t think I said that “It must be true, because it’s in the bible, and the bible says that everything in the bible is true.” I outlined 6 historical facts which need to be explained – some of which are recorded in the Bible. I think that the Bible’s explanation, best explains these facts. Further, we can’t reject the Bible outright as an historical source. It must be admitted into a discussion into the resurrection because it is a document which emerged in history and that fact must also be explained.

I take the argument from bias, but the key question is, not ‘were they biased’ (because they obviously were), but ‘what caused them to be biased?’. Otherwise this argument becomes pointless and there is no point in reading anything because everyone is biased – e.g. don’t read the God Delusion because Dawkins is biased!!

I admit it would be interesting to see the Book of Trevor!! Yet, it’s non-existence is perhaps reason to think that perhaps the biblical narrative has some truth?

When considering the resurrection, and any historical question the important thing to ask is, ‘what is the inference to the best explanation?’ You can’t ‘prove’ it happened (and you can’t prove it didn’t) as it is not mathematics or science. The key test is: then what best explains the facts??

You have outlined some weaknesses in my theory (I disagree, but there isn’t time to go into that in detail now – FYI – the rise of Mormonism is actually comparable with the rise of early Christianity – see the work of Rodney Stark). But aside from pointing out weaknesses, can you reconstruct a plausible alternative? ie. can you better explain the 6 facts I outlined?

Would love your input again.

Rob

Hi Rob,
I had started preparing a more comprehensive response on the philosophical impasse of Christianity and atheism, which we have now reached in this discussion. But it was way too long for the comments section here, so instead I’ll just make some shorter clarifications of the arguments I was trying to make earlier.

When I used that quote – “It must be true, because it’s in the bible, and the bible says that everything in the bible is true…” – I wasn’t trying to ascribe that quote to you, or even suggest that it was directly paraphrasing something that you said. I was simply trying to highlight the logical fallacy of using the Bible itself as historical evidence of any miracle, including the resurrection.
It is possible that there are various ‘unbiased’ historians that will attest to some of the historical events recorded in the Bible. However, Christians – including Christian scholars and historians – are the only people that will say the Bible is a factual historical record on the divine miracles of Christ. Again: You may find independent historical reports of folks saying that the resurrection occurred. There may be a dozen of these reports, or even an account that there were 500 or even 10,000 eyewitnesses. But this is not “evidence”! It is not a record of facts. It is hearsay.

It is a testament to the success and power of early Christians and the compelling aspects of their ideas and ideals that Christianity continues to endure so strongly now. You can point to the lack of any “Book of Trevor” to support the claim of the resurrection. But Bible sceptics look at this differently. If any such hypothetical counter-claims ever existed, it is obvious that they would have been found and destroyed, perhaps very early in Christian history. It is just another reflection of the adage that history is always written by the victors.

As to any alternative explanation, I don’t have any. But then, I’m not making any claims that require defending. This is the point about burden of proof: Bible sceptics do not have any case to answer, because we do not need to explain a lack of a claim.
When I try to rationalise to myself your so-called “six historical facts”, I do so in the context of the entire history of Christianity, and in fact all human superstition prior to it. The various chapters of the Bible have been hand-transcribed, hand-copied and even re-written countless times over the past 2000 years, and until the relatively recent invention of the printing press, this was done entirely and exclusively by those dedicated to the faith. This fact alone exposes it to the sceptic and renders it a work obviously prepared by vested interests.

The consequences of all the “changes” reported that coincide with the early rise of Christianity are not special, and that is why I cited the rise of Mormonism as a comparison, which you seem to agree with. In a period of less than 200 years, a 14-million-strong worldwide movement has arisen from an origin of a single prophet with an extraordinary claim of direct divinity. Joseph Smith also started with a small core group of eyewitnesses to the divine golden plates (the Mormon miracle) and, conveniently, no remaining falsifiable evidence for them. Furthermore, the high priests of Mormonism have also re-written history, changing their rules as they progress in the face of outside scrutiny. The origin of the Church of LDS is also a matter of historical record, as are the changed beliefs and lives of the earliest Mormons.
I assume you agree with me that the founder of Mormonism was either deeply deluded, or (more likely) an audacious and highly charismatic con man. (Presumably you would be Mormon today rather than a ‘garden variety’ Christian if you bought into any of their insanity.) The point is that human history is replete with examples of ideologies and movements that have appeared, grown and expanded with the dogmatic fervor of their followers, who all view their ideologies with perfect internal consistency. They all have their own historic accounts that demonstrate their intrinsic truths.

To the non-believers, although Christianity may be more successful than many (or indeed all) of these, it is fundamentally no different in its nature to any of them. If the Bible is true about the resurrection, this should be a fact that is obvious and undeniable to all of humanity, and not just the privileged few that have been born into Christianity or converted by their peers, and have then been gifted with some kind of special ability to look beyond their scepticism.

Robert:

Paul,

Thanks for your comments. I have a few things to say in response (as I’m sure you expected ;-) )

There is a lot to say, but I’ll just hone in on your comments about alternative explanations. I think you miss my point about providing an alternative explanation. I’m not saying that I’m trying to prove the resurrection, I’m saying that there are 6 historical faces that require explanation. I think the best explanation is a resurrection – you reject that – yet you fail to provide an alternative hypothesis. Hence, using the scientific method, surely in that absence of a better hypothesis, we need to accept the one that best explains the facts? Would that be fair? You can’t duck the issue of burden of proof. Skeptics DO have a case to answer if a reasonable case has been set forward which explains the facts. Skeptics MUST provide a better alternative explanation.

You could change the argument to be the same as a climate change skpetic – i.e. ‘a climate change skeptic has no case to answer because there is no need to explain a lack of a claim’.

Thoughts?

Also, you need to be careful in distinguishing the sociological growth of an organisation with the origin of the beliefs of an organisation. I don’t think any of my arguments said that Christianity was true because it grew so fast. Yet you do need to explain where the original beliefs of the Christian faith came from, which were different to the prevailing culture.

Rob

Rob, I missed this response somehow, so the timing might be a little on the late side. Here goes, anyway. The conversation point is now about alternative explanations and burdens of proof, etc.

To summarise your position, your claim is that there are six historical “facts” that support the claim of a divine resurrection, and that the occurence of the resurrection is the best possible explanation for the combination of these facts. You also refer to the burden of proof, and challenge sceptics that they must provide an alternative explanation to cover off the “six historical facts”.

With respect, Rob, I don’t think you fully appreciate the concept of burden of proof as it applies to extraordinary claims.
When proposing an extraordinary claim – and I think we would both agree that re-animation of a 3-days-dead corpse is an extraordinary claim – the burden of proof is upon the claimant, and not the sceptic.

Occam’s Razor applies. We assume a more rational explanation is more likely (in fact, obvious), ahead of one assuming a supernatural intervention.
The number of alternative, more likely and more natural explanations to the resurrection claim is uncountable. To put it in the bluntest possible terms, the original witnesses were either deceived, were the victims of ‘groupthink’ or some other mob behaviour, or they just made it up. Just because a historian records that “500 witnesses” saw a re-animated Jesus walking around with holes in his hands doesn’t make it true. Maybe those people were confused. Maybe there weren’t really that many. Maybe he lied because it was a great story to tell.

I don’t know, and I don’t care. I am not obliged to elucidate any alternative theory.
There is no burden of proof required to disprove an outrageous claim.

“…You could change the argument to be the same as a climate change skpetic – i.e. ‘a climate change skeptic has no case to answer because there is no need to explain a lack of a claim’. …”
This is correct, unless these people are also climate scientists making a specific claim supported by observations. In burden-of-proof terms, amateur climate change sceptics indeed have no case to answer.

However, the big difference between climate change and the resurrection, is that there is independent, reproducible scientific data demonstrating that climate change is real. The claims of climate change are based on falsifiable research data. The claims of the resurrection are hearsay.

“…I don’t think any of my arguments said that Christianity was true because it grew so fast. Yet you do need to explain where the original beliefs of the Christian faith came from, which were different to the prevailing culture.”
Again, no. To repeat, I was using the history of Mormonism to illustrate a point, about it how rapidly it has taken hold of a certain section of society in the US in a space of less than 200 years. It has some similarities to Christianity in this respect, because it was also against the mainstream prevailing culture in the US.
If you think I need to provide an explanation as to where the original Christian beliefs came from and how it could arise against such an antagonistic cultural backdrop, I simply point to Mormonism as another example. Christianity is not “special” in this regard. You don’t need to resort to divine miracles as an explanation for the emergence of a popular movement.

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