Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?

August 28, 2018


Summary: Until roughly the nineteenth century, the argument for the resurrection stood on the firm ground of biblical history. But following the advance of biblical criticism, the historical case for the resurrection was almost wholly discredited. Many scholars regarded it as firmly settled in skepticism. Yet remarkably, in modern times, it has made a startling come back. Could skepticism itself now be on the run? Read here to find out. Click here to subscribe to future posts.  

The Impossible Faith


In his lengthy volume, Not The Impossible Faith, popular atheist thinker, Richard Carrier, wrote the following: “...there was nothing improbable about Christianity’s success—entirely natural factors...supply all the [explanation] needed...” [1]  


Richard Carrier is a voice for the American freethought movement. His areas of specialization include philosophy and ancient history. His various books and articles have obtained him popular attention, gaining him an audience across the secular web. His work in specific areas, such as the historicity of Jesus, has earned him a reputation as a leading supporter of the “Christ Myth Theory.” Today, Richard speaks to numerous atheist societies on the subjects of naturalism and early Christian history.    


Beginning with his Introduction, Carrier poses the question: “Is the ‘prior probability’ of a miracle...greater than...any...natural cause…?” [2] He then roughly concedes: “though miracles must be...rare...it is still possible to have enough evidence to establish a…‘miracle’...” [3] Carrier then proceeds: “If the evidence for the resurrection [is]...unassailable, then we, too, should believe Jesus rose...” [4] The remainder of his book is then spent attempting to show that the resurrection of Jesus may be dismantled by naturalist arguments.


Carrier’s work certainly comes across as fairly rigorous. His copious and endless arguments appear impressive and exact. As he frequently urges, the notion of a crucified God “entered Jewish society in pre-Christian Palestine.” [5] Unfortunately, Carrier’s book is also filled with numerous scathings, which strike the reader at times as being downright sarcastic. Sadly, despite such defects, his work has managed to convince scads of atheist hopefuls that skepticism has won.  


But are Richard’s arguments nearly so decisive? Is the Christian faith just a cornfed religion? Or, does the case for Jesus’s resurrection stand as firmly historical, despite such blistering attacks? Typically, Christian laymen view the case for Christianity as an improvable mystery which can only be grasped by faith. But could the heart of the Gospel be more resilient than expected, perhaps even capable of addressing our toughest questions?   


The Easter Challenge


Some time ago, I interacted with these issues personally. I was seated with my computer in the midst of a sprawling fitness lobby. Out of nowhere, a young college age student walked up to my table and sat down, fully aware that his actions had obviously startled me. He looked into my eyes with a penetrating gaze—one which was clearly intended to start a conversation. Then shifting his sights rapidly in both directions, he launched into a series of introductory questions.


“Why exactly do you believe in Christianity?” he asked me. His curiosity had been stirred as I described for him my vocation. “There doesn’t seem to be any good reason to believe in the Bible, particularly because of our lack of solid evidence.” Emboldened, he continued, “And how could we prove the gospels? Christians don’t typically offer skeptics reasonable answers. That is in fact why I am no longer a Christian. I simply can’t receive such stories based on nothing but blind acceptance.”


Listening to his problems, I began to grasp the issues. For each of his queries could actually be fully addressed. Through drawing upon current Life of Jesus scholarship, many, if not most, of his doubts could be resolved. As noted atheist Bible scholar, Bart Ehrman has written: “there is historical information in the gospels….[Hence] whatever else you might think about the books of the Bible—whether you believe in them or not...they are still books.” [6]    


I therefore proceeded to lay out my basic evidence. I offered to the young man a simple case for the resurrection. For the idea that we don’t possess a single trace of solid evidence is a relatively recent notion, and a dubious one at that. Returning to Bart Ehrman: “The fact that [the Gospels]...[are] documents of faith has no bearing on...whether [they] can...be used for historical purpose.” [7] Quite to the contrary, through examining the gospels using scholarly standards, the case for the resurrection winds up looking fairly impressive.   


Demonstrating this, however, depends upon a key assumption—namely, we don’t need to refute every “Easter Objection.” In fact, doing so would be practically logically equivalent to assuming that skepticism is right and that Jesus has not risen. Experts in Argument Theory recognize that this is a logical fallacy, which has been technically referred to as petitio principii (i.e. "begging the question"). Skeptics who thus debate along these worn familiar lines become guilty of assuming the conclusions of their arguments.  


The chief defender of this insight is American philosopher, Peter Klein. He is a retired professor of philosophy from the University of Rutgers (1981-2016). Critiquing our commonest models for motivating skeptical doubt, Klein denotes one of the foremost errors in all of philosophical inquiry. Referring to it as the “Eliminate All Contraries First Principle,” Klein shows why adopting this rule inevitably leads to doubt. [8] In so doing, he proves convincingly that administering this test results in conclusions which virtually insure our disbelief.  


Turning to the argument, we thus select our model proposal. The principle Christian appeal here is that Jesus rose from the dead. Next, we conduct our inquiry according to skeptical standards, suspending all belief apart from eliminating every contrary. Immediately, we recognize that a potentially massive number of contrary proposals must be tirelessly vetted. Such an exhaustive investigation might never be fully concluded, thus making it conceivably impossible to answer the initial question.


For this reason, Klein reflects: “...when [a detective] summarizes... evidence…[he] does not [deny]...all the contraries to the claim that the culprit did it.” [9] He then derisively questions: “Does [the detective]...have to [prove] that the Ghost of Christmas Past...did [not do] it just to show that all is not right with the world?” [10] We therefore rightly conclude in the case of Jesus’s resurrection that it is wholly unnecessary to disprove, for example, that aliens stole the body. It is simply ridiculous to demand the denial of every contrary prior to justifying belief in the resurrection.


The Problem of Circular Reasoning


But this is not the only discoverable problem with the argument. Skepticism rather holds more dire secrets yet. Instead, it is the process of eliminating every contrary which us why the skeptic’s mode of testing needs revision. To see that, simply notate our principle skeptical appeal as “NR” signifying “No Resurrection.” Then, assign a number to each respective contrary (Ex: NR 1, NR 2, NR 3, etc).  


In each case, notice that the outcome of eliminating the contrary proposal exposes the fallacy previously mentioned. The reason is that negating every Easter Contrary makes the resurrection—the sole evidence for the resurrection! The problem gets even clearer as we observe that it is impossible to argue that “~NR” is true if the resurrection isn’t. In point of fact, the two proposals carry precisely the same assertion. “R” and “~NR” are logically equivalent.


This cannot therefore be a valid way of gathering evidence. The proof is clearly identical to the initial proposition. For as evidence for our claim, we are offering a logical equal, thereby showing we are working with a circular case. What the skeptic is thus demanding for proof of Jesus’s rising is that the defender of the gospel argue a question begging case. Could anything be more patently inconclusive? Surely there are better ways to reasonably establish the Christian faith!


I henceforth attempted to create a better argument. I steered clear of engaging in such fallacious forms of debate. For even Richard Carrier seems to use this sort of questioning, demonstrating that scholars, at times, are unable to spot the fake. In the first chapter of his book, Richard Carrier writes: “...Christians [may have borrowed] the idea of a crucified god….We can’t rule that out….[and] we don’t know...more than that.” [11] Richard thus seems to perceive here a potential strike against the faith.   


But defeating every contrary as we’ve shown proves nothing—whether we’re talking about the resurrection or Richard Carrier’s birthday. Arguing the resurrection is made of the remains of pagan myths is unhelpful if we lack the textual evidence to establish the claim. Thus even if the ascension of Hercules resembles the ascension of Jesus, Christians don’t need to show that the stories are disparate. Rather, what the skeptic needs is evidence of literary borrowing. As it turns out, that is the precisely the sort of evidence which he lacks.


About this, Bart Ehrman writes: “Can anyone cite a…source…that…indicates that people in rural Palestine…worshipped a pagan god who died and rose…? You can trust me, if there was a source like that, it would be talked about by everyone interested in early Christianity.” [12] Ehrman thus debates with known atheist figureheads who argue against the gospel using such fallacious claims. What is perhaps the most interesting point about Ehrman’s discussion is that he himself is not a Christian, but rather—an atheist.


The Case For The Resurrection


We therefore must concede to limit our scope of questioning. In fact, this is precisely what professor Klein suggests. Using the work of famous French philosopher, René Descartes, Klein contends that skeptical doubts must contain some form of evidence. “The...counter-evidence requirement seems quite plausible,” he argues. “Why should any far-fetched hypothesis be worthy of...consideration?” [13] Hence in the case of Easter, what the skeptic needs is an evidenced counter-hypothesis able to topple the resurrection.


This turns out to be far more challenging than one might expect. Upending the resurrection is a very difficult task. In the first place, one has to find some other cause than the resurrection itself, which prompted the Easter message. About this, William Paley wrote (some centuries ago): “The ruling party at Jerusalem had just crucified the founder of the religion. They...who stood forth to preach...must necessarily reproach these rulers with an execution they could not but represent as a murder.” [14]


The notion of inter-religious borrowing therefore seems to strain credulity, since Jesus’s disciples were clearly facing a deadly threat. The motive behind the message would need to be of the sort which would somehow produce the willingness to hazard the danger expected. Again, as Paley notes: “Ordinarily speaki