Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 30, 2009 in Guest Post,Historical Jesus

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A guest post by Kris Komarnitsky, author of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? (also available in the UK and as an ebook).

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According to well-known proponent of Jesus’ resurrection Dr. N.T. Wright, “The empty tomb and the ‘meetings’ with Jesus, when combined, present us with not only a sufficient condition for the rise of early Christian belief, but also, it seems, a necessary one. Nothing else historians have been able to come up with has the power to explain the phenomena before us.”1 This view – which is really the idea that Jesus’ resurrection is the only plausible explanation for the Christian origins evidence before us – has been popularized by lay authors like JP Holding (The Impossible Faith) and Lee Strobel: “I had seen defendants carted off to the death chamber on much less convincing proof!”2 It has also filtered down to the lay blogosphere: “The evidence is simply overwhelming. If you believe in gravity, you have to believe that Christianity is also true.”

But is it really true that there is no other plausible way to read the Christian origins evidence except to conclude that Jesus resurrected from the dead? Well, like most complex topics, that is probably a matter of personal opinion. Many non-believers dismiss Jesus’ resurrection out of hand based on the evidence that a God does not seem to intervene within human history in such a physically direct way. But what happens when non-believers engage people like those above? The answer is probably a lifetime of going back and forth on every single piece of Christian origins evidence without much progress. I do not know many people who would be interested in such a thing, but there is one particular piece of evidence that I found intriguing – the rise of early Christian belief referred to by Dr. Wright above.

Beginning my own inquiry into this topic several years ago, I took as my starting point the beliefs and traditions expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, widely recognized amongst scholars on both sides of the aisle to be the earliest known Christian beliefs and traditions, in existence well before any of the gospels were written:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

In considering the possible causes of these beliefs and traditions, notice that Dr. Wright does not appeal to the historical reliability of the gospels. He is saying that even aside from the gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb and “meetings” with Jesus, nothing else historians have been able to come up with has the power to explain early Christian belief. In other words, he is temporarily granting for the sake of argument the position of many in non-traditional scholarship that the gospels are mostly legends, including the discovered empty tomb tradition.

If the discovered empty tomb tradition is a legend, not only is Jesus’ resurrection effectively ruled out, but so are several non-traditional explanations for the rise of early Christian belief, like the stolen body theory, the moved body theory, and the theory that Jesus only appeared to be dead and then resuscitated. With these ruled out, there is only one explanation that jumps out at me as a plausible cause of the two-pronged belief that Jesus died for our sins and was raised. That cause is the human phenomenon of cognitive dissonance reduction. Basically, this is the human tendency to rationalize a discontinuity between reality and one’s current beliefs in such a way that current beliefs are modified or added to instead of being rejected. Sometimes this results in extremely radical rationalizations. We have solid examples of this from other religious movements in history, such as the Millerite movement, the Sabbatai Zevi movement, and others.

This theory has of course been proposed before and the controversy surrounding it can be seen in Dr. Wright’s strong disagreement with it, followed by Dr. Robert M. Price’s response to Wright’s critique. According to Wright, “The flaws in this argument [that cognitive dissonance caused early Christian belief] are so enormous that it is puzzling to find serious scholars still referring to it in deferential terms” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 698; full critique pg. 697-701). Price responds to Wright’s critique with:

…there are many viable explanations [for the rise of the belief that Jesus resurrected], not least Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance reduction, whereby more than one disappointed sect has turned defeat into zeal by means of face-saving denial. Wright suicidally mentions this theory, only to dismiss it… with no serious attempt at refutation [emphasis added].

I agree with Price; Wright does not adequately rebut this idea.

If cognitive dissonance was the cause of these beliefs, the other traditions in 1 Cor 15:3-7 seem easily accounted for as part of a growing religious sect. A few individual hallucinations of the beloved leader would not be unusual, nor would a fringe legend of a simultaneous appearance to over 500 people (the latter seeming a reasonable conclusion given that this appearance tradition does not show up in any other literary source). If there was a need to designate leaders in the new movement – those who had the ability to teach, preach, and defend the group’s new beliefs – the traditions of the appearances to the Twelve and to all the apostles could simply be designations of authority. This would be consistent with the hierarchical structure in the two appearance traditions – Peter apparently being the leader of the group known as the Twelve (“he appeared to Peter, then to the twelve”), James apparently being the leader of the group known as all the apostles (“he appeared to James, then to all the apostles”). We know too that an appearance of Jesus was required in order to confer authority to someone in the early church, for Paul says, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor 9:1). This explanation for the group appearance traditions has of course also been suggested before. For example, Dr. Stephen Patterson says:

Both the Twelve and the church have everything to gain by the assertion that the risen Lord had also appeared to the Twelve. Including the Twelve in the appearance formulae probably derives from a decision on the part of the early church to expand the sphere of authority that was originally confined to the “pillars” to include the Twelve as well. It is not so likely that it derives from an actual experience of the risen Jesus….[This] could also be said about the claim in 1 Cor 15:7 that Jesus also appeared to “the apostles”… [We] have in this expression a second authority-bearing designation from earliest Christianity… The inclusion of “the apostles” in this formula… derives from an ecclesial decision to expand the sphere of authority beyond James to include others who could be trusted with the task of preaching. (The God of Jesus, 1998, pg. 234-236)

Lastly, there would naturally have been an immediate need, almost reflex, in a growing religious sect to ground their beliefs in sacred scriptures. The third-day belief could be a byproduct of this engagement with Jewish scriptures, with some likely scriptural candidates being Hos 6:2, a Jewish sacred third day tradition, and Ps 16:10 (this would be consistent with the creed’s assertion that Jesus was raised on the third day “in accordance with the scriptures”).

If this is how these beliefs and traditions came about, it makes sense that later legends would be built on them, like a discovered empty tomb on the third day after Jesus’ death and corporeal post mortem “meetings” with Jesus where people touch his body. Further, if the gospels are mostly legends, the frequent argument of Christians that the presence of Jesus’ corpse in the tomb would have doomed the new movement, fails. This argument fails because the burial account in the gospels could simply be an integral part of the discovered empty tomb legend (experts confirm the two traditions are tied together verbally and grammatically). The question to ask is, what normally would have happened to the body of a crucified criminal from the lower classes which was allowed to be removed from the cross in deference to Jewish burial sensitivities? The answer seems to be – a ground burial, probably in the Kidron or Hinnom valley, with nobody attending except for an indifferent burial crew who only cared to mark the site with whiting or a pile of loose rocks to give warning of uncleanness.

doubting jesus resurrectionIn short, it seems to me that there is a plausible natural explanation for the rise of the beliefs and traditions in 1 Cor 15:3-7, exactly what Wright is asking for. If true, this comes full circle and impacts on the historical reliability of the gospels. Why? Because 1 Cor 15:3-7 is used by traditionalists as “external evidence” for the historical reliability of the gospels, including the gospel burial accounts, the discovered empty tomb, and the corporeal postmortem appearances. But if there is another plausible explanation for the rise of these beliefs and traditions, there is nothing about 1 Cor 15:3-7 itself that supports the conclusion that the gospels are more likely historical rather than legendary expansions of these beliefs and traditions. One can always reject a plausible natural explanation for the rise of the beliefs and traditions in 1 Cor 15:3-7 on the conviction that the gospels are historically reliable, but to avoid being circular, such a person would need to modify their argument for gospel reliability to not enlist the help of 1 Cor 15:3-7.

- Kris Komarnitsky

  1. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003), 706. []
  2. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998), 356. []

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{ 112 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk November 30, 2009 at 6:10 am

My usual response to the “empty tomb” argument: Look, I have an invisible miniature unicorn on the palm of my hand. Do you see it? No? Well, there; that proves it is invisible!

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Thomas Reid November 30, 2009 at 6:32 am

Reginald Selkirk: My usual response to the “empty tomb” argument: Look, I have an invisible miniature unicorn on the palm of my hand. Do you see it? No? Well, there; that proves it is invisible!  (Quote)

But of course this response does not engage the argument. To be analogous, in your story there would be many witnesses around to testify that there actually used to be a miniature unicorn on your hand.

Additionally, since I doubt you believe live miniature unicorns exist, and since you haven’t provided an argument saying you doubt Jesus existed (neither does the author), the bit about the actual object referenced is also not analogous.

So your response would be more appropriately framed as: “Look, I have an invisible rock on my hand. The fact that you can’t see it proves it is invisible”.

But the issue before us is not trying to prove the invisibility of a rock by demonstrating that you can’t see it right now, but rather, what on Earth did Selkirk do with that rock that used to be on his hand?

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Reginald Selkirk November 30, 2009 at 6:48 am

Thomas Reid: To be analogous, in your story there would be many witnesses around to testify that there actually used to be a miniature unicorn on your hand.

I don’t need to produce witnesses. I just need to produce a book claiming there were witnesses. Probably the same book that insists the invisible miniature unicorn is real, and then I call the one passage from the book a “fact” and use it to support the other passage.

So your response would be more appropriately framed as: “Look, I have an invisible rock on my hand. The fact that you can’t see it proves it is invisible”.

You idiot, we’re talking about miniature unicorns, not rocks.

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ayer November 30, 2009 at 7:00 am

Komarnitsky: “In other words, he is temporarily granting for the sake of argument the position of many in non-traditional scholarship that the gospels are mostly legends, including the discovered empty tomb tradition.”

Maybe I am not following, but I don’t see in the quote from N.T. Wright where he is granting this (even for the sake of argument). I am somewhat familiar with his work, and as I recall he regards the empty tomb account to be as fully historical as the Corinthians material (because of multiple attestation, etc.). See, e.g.:

N.T. Wright: “The historian has to offer a plausible hypothesis of why the disciples used the language of resurrection. My hypothesis is that there were two things: an empty tomb and sightings of Jesus. An empty tomb by itself doesn’t mean that much, nor do visions — many people have had visions, particularly after somebody they love has just died. Given the accounts of the empty tomb and of the sightings, however, I think the historian is faced with two parts of an arch with the piece in the middle — the resurrection — missing. The question is: Are these just two isolated phenomena?”
http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2636

However, I do appreciate the fact that Komarnitsky recognizes that the atheist bears a burden of producing an alternative explanation of the facts, and not just dismissing the resurrection because naturalism is the default position.

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Josh November 30, 2009 at 7:12 am

Every time I am reminded that there are people who argue for the historicity of the resurrection, I realize there’s pretty much no point to having debates.

“However, I do appreciate the fact that Komarnitsky recognizes that the atheist bears a burden of producing an alternative explanation of the facts, and not just dismissing the resurrection because naturalism is the default position.”

Explanation of what facts? Do you feel any obligation to explain the holy texts of any of the other world religions? I highly doubt it. I’m pretty sure we CAN just dismiss the resurrection on face value, for the same reason we dismiss Sathya Sai Baba on face value

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Mark November 30, 2009 at 9:09 am

“If there was a need to designate leaders in the new movement – those who had the ability to teach, preach, and defend the group’s new beliefs – the traditions of the appearances to the Twelve and to all the apostles could simply be designations of authority.”

Wow!! Amazing!! So let me get this right for the Logic course I will be teaching at Luke University soon. You theorize these people somehow:

1) Got the word out to one another
2) Happily agreed on a leadership hierarchy and point-by-point charter with no documented objections
3) Pledged impeccable allegiance to one another
4) Conspired to perpetrate, perpetuate (and sacrifice their lives for) the most implausible work of fiction ever conceived
5) Literally gave their lives up as they committed

merely to “SAVE FACE”????

WOW!! If only crafting the constitution of the United States had been that easy!

WOW!!

I feel jolted.

So I guess your theory destroys Luke’s assertion that the ancient middle easterners who allegedly received God’s word were merely “ignorant and superstitious” buffoons. Because your conspiracy theory–if true–esteems them as pure genius on the level of history’s greatest diabolical masterminds.

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Edson November 30, 2009 at 9:15 am

“I’m pretty sure we CAN just dismiss the resurrection on face value, for the same reason we dismiss Sathya Sai Baba on face value”

But that doesn’t explain whether the resurrection factually happened or not. It is just a reactionary attitude – dismissing without investigating contemplatively.

If you dismiss that simplistically “at face value” things that matter the most to humankind, that is a dangerous way of living in this world.

Too easily, you brush-off the resurrection of Jesus by claiming you do not feel obligated to. Of course, you would not have been obligated if you didn’t take the initiative to deny what others asserts as truth. But you do and you must provide the reasons why you deny it.

Kris does that. And say it is Cognitive dissonance on part of disciples who could not stand to concede defeat but zealously and cleverly managed to gather some appropriate Old Testament verses, pertaining to the resurrection, to invent the cult to recover their disappointment.

Obviously Kris is not a believer and will find every way to not believe, but at least, he tries. But you don’t.

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John D November 30, 2009 at 9:35 am

Edson: But that doesn’t explain whether the resurrection factually happened or not. It is just a reactionary attitude – dismissing without investigating contemplatively.

Strange comment from someone who just dismissed the challenge issued by Josh.

Do you hold the Jesus resurrection story to the same epistemic standards as all other miracle claims or don’t you?

This is what common sense atheism is all about, as far as I understand. It is also the essence of John Loftus’s outsider test.

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ayer November 30, 2009 at 9:47 am

Josh: Explanation of what facts? Do you feel any obligation to explain the holy texts of any of the other world religions? I highly doubt it. I’m pretty sure we CAN just dismiss the resurrection on face value, for the same reason we dismiss Sathya Sai Baba on face value

I think I will just quote Luke (from this blog on March 14) in addressing your question. The New Testament is not only a “holy text,” it is a source document that it evaluated and mined by scholars like any other ancient text (secular or religious). As Luke said:

Lukeprog: “The case for the Resurrection doesn’t depend on inerrancy or even the general reliability of the gospels. The case for the Resurrection of Jesus is stronger than any case that could be made for other ancient miracle claims (that I know of). The number and quality of the sources is much greater. And the case for the Resurrection is a historical one that can be made without appeals to Christian doctrine. The case can be made using either of two competing (and widely accepted) approaches to historical method: (1) the Bayesian path (which Craig rejects, but with which others have argued persuasively) and (2) the argument to the best explanation (ala McCullagh), which is the strategy used by Craig, Licona, and others.”

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Reginald Selkirk November 30, 2009 at 9:48 am

Edson: But that doesn’t explain whether the resurrection factually happened or not. It is just a reactionary attitude – dismissing without investigating contemplatively.

What does it mean to investigate something contemplatively?

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Josh November 30, 2009 at 10:23 am

Ayer,

Well, first of all, I disagree with Luke, because I see basically no evidence for the resurrection. For example, the Iliad is certainly a book of myth, but it turned out to say the much vaunted “true things about the world” when it turned out that Troy was a real place. Does this mean we should believe in Achilles?

Moreover, I made an explicit comparison not to an ancient miracle but to a MODERN god-man who exists right now and has millions of followers. Of course, anyone can see that the claims of Sathya Sai Baba are ridiculous—but people still believe in him. It is precisely this example that makes me highly, highly, highly skeptical of ancient miracle claims, even if we had written documentation of millions of people. Luke also frequently brings up the hindu milk incident.

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SteveK November 30, 2009 at 10:27 am

Explanation of what facts? Do you feel any obligation to explain the holy texts of any of the other world religions? I highly doubt it. I’m pretty sure we CAN just dismiss the resurrection on face value, for the same reason we dismiss Sathya Sai Baba on face value

I’ve never understood this line of thinking. How does asking me to explain Claim X, undermine the support I already have (or don’t have) for Claim Y? If I can give you solid reasons for thinking a Hindu was involved in or witnesed a supernatural event, does that mean the resurrection event didn’t occur? Of course not.

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Tony Hoffman November 30, 2009 at 10:36 am

The case for the Resurrection doesn’t depend on inerrancy or even the general reliability of the gospels.

Well, it does rely on the general reliability of the New Testament. And the New Testament is a religious document, told by proselytizers, for the purpose of proselytizing. Which might have a little impact on its reliability.

Historians look for eyewitnesses, impartiality, a multiplicity of sources, and external corroboration. The New Testament fails on all four fronts.

The 4 Gospels are best explained as all basing their stories on Mark and Q, so calling them 4 independent documents is highly misleading.) The Gospel writers were anonymous, they were Greek speakers, none of them were eyewitnesses, and the earliest we have was written at least 40 years after Jesus’ death. Paul never met Jesus, etc.

Why all this unjustified concession of historical reliability to the New Testament? It appears to me that it only can be viewed favorably when compared to most other religions, but we’re not talking about a very high bar here.

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Thomas Reid November 30, 2009 at 10:38 am

Reginald Selkirk:
You idiot, we’re talking about miniature unicorns, not rocks.  (Quote)

Well, I know you are talking about miniature unicorns, and I am also assuming (safely, I trust) that you don’t think such entities exist. However, what anyone who proposes a hypothesis for the fact of the empty tomb is doing is offering an explanation for an entity that was present at a certain spot and can no longer be found at the same spot. So the question is not, is there an invisible Jesus in the tomb, the question is, what happened to the Jesus that was in the tomb?

Let X = Jesus’ body in tomb
Let P = the visibility of Jesus’ body in the tomb

It seems the argument you are assuming others fall for is this:
1. If X then ~P
2. ~P
3. X

That is fallacious, of course. It is also irrelevant to the discussion. What is relevant is the following:
1. If X then P
2. ~P
3. ~X

What explanation could there be for ~X? That is what any ‘empty tomb’ discussion is about.

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Walter November 30, 2009 at 10:44 am

Edson:Obviously Kris is not a believer and will find every way to not believe, but at least, he tries. But you don’t.  

I tend to run into this attitude from believers quite a lot i.e. that we are doing all we can to not believe. This skeptic has tried every way TO BELIEVE!

Try as I might, I can’t seem to be able to force myself to believe that an itinerant Jewish preacher sprung out of the ground after a few days of being dead, materialized into a closed room to eat some fish, and flew into the air — like superman — in front of a handful of disciples. Not to mention walking on liquid water and feeding thousands of people from one lunchbox.

But hey, I guess I am doing everything I can to not believe such obvious TRUTH as told by the superstitious men who penned the sensational stories in our bible.

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Tony Hoffman November 30, 2009 at 11:07 am

Thomas Reid: So the question is not, is there an invisible Jesus in the tomb, the question is, what happened to the Jesus that was in the tomb?

You appear to have missed the point of the analogy. The question is, why are we talking about a tomb when it makes even more sense that the resurrection was the result of cognitive dissonance, and the tomb a later embellishment that enhanced the story? In other words, why should we believe there was a tomb, especially given what else we know – that Paul never mentions it, that Jesus was likely buried in the ground, that Joseph of Arimathea is an obscure and contradictory figure, and the story of the tomb, in the words of Hollywood, “plays” so well when you consider its use in proselytizing?

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ayer November 30, 2009 at 11:32 am

Tony Hoffman: In other words, why should we believe there was a tomb, especially given what else we know

For numerous reasons outlined by William Lane Craig:
“An examination of both Pauline and gospel material leads to eight lines of evidence in support of the conclusion that Jesus’s tomb was discovered empty: (1) Paul’s testimony implies the historicity of the empty tomb, (2) the presence of the empty tomb pericope in the pre-Markan passion story supports its historicity, (3) the use of ‘on the first day of the week’ instead of ‘on the third day’ points to the primitiveness of the tradition, (4) the narrative is theologically unadorned and non-apologetic, (5) the discovery of the tomb by women is highly probable, (6) the investigation of the empty tomb by the disciples is historically probable, (7) it would have been impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty, (8) the Jewish polemic presupposes the empty tomb.

Source: “The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus.” New Testament Studies 31 (1985): 39-67.”

http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/tomb2.html

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Thomas Reid November 30, 2009 at 11:44 am

Ah Tony, thank you. If you are right, then Selkirk’s analogy is even worse than I thought! For there is no invisible miniature unicorn in Selkirk’s right hand (no invisible dead body), there is a physical miniature unicorn in Selkirk’s closed left hand (the body is still buried somewhere, likely in the ground on your view). One should still substitute any object with evidential support, like a rock, for a made up unicorn, unless any of you are arguing that there was no Jesus.

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Kris K. November 30, 2009 at 11:48 am

Hi Folks,

It’s really interesting to see people’s response to my article, and to see them appear so quickly. Just a few quick comments:

1] Ayer, you don’t see in the quote from N.T. Wright where he is granting for the sake of argument that the discovered empty tomb and “meetings” with Jesus are legends. But if he isn’t, then his challenge is circular, for how else can anyone propose something other than the discovered empty tomb and the gospel “meetings” with Jesus as the cause of early Christian belief?

2] Mark, your conclusion that the earliest Christians had to be diabolical frauds for the appearance traditions to the 12 and the Apostles to be group designations of authority does not follow. From our perspective 2000 years later, the emergence of such traditions for the sake of giving authority might seem like an implausibly large lie. But from the perspective of the earliest Christians, the inaccuracy would not have been of much consequence if they genuinely believed Jesus was raised from the dead, some of the Twelve and the apostles saw Jesus individually, many or all of the Twelve and the apostles shared in group ecstatic experiences where it was believed Jesus was present, and such an understanding added to the authority that the Twelve and the apostles deserved and needed. According to controversial Mormon historian Grant Palmer, a similar well intended and from their point of view minor distortion of the truth happened in the early Mormon movement:

“On 25 March 1838, Martin Harris testified publicly that none of the signatories to the Book of Mormon saw or handled the physical records…. [Rather, Harris said he and the others saw the golden plates] in vision or imagination….His statement, made at the height of Ohio’s banking-related apostasy, became the final straw that caused Apostles Luke S. Johnson, Lyman E. Johnson, and John F. Boynton, and high priest Stephen Burnett and seventy Warren Parish to exit the church. (An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, 2002, pg. 204)”
Can we be sure from this that Martin Harris did not believe in the Book of Mormon and that he was a diabolical fraud? Hardly. As Palmer points out, Stephen Burnett, one of those present at Harris’ testimony, reported on Harris’ steadfast belief in the Book of Mormon despite knowing that the nature of his witness to it had been exaggerated: “he [Harris] was sorry for any man who rejected the Book of Mormon for he [still] knew it was true….[Harris lamented that] he never should have told that the testimony of the eight was false, if it had not been picked out of him but should have let it passed as it was…” (pg. 204).

3] There seems to be an undertone from some in the conversation here that the non-believer bears the burden of proof; that Jesus resurrected unless an alternative explanation for the Christian Origins evidence can be presented. While I do think the lack of an alternative explanation is a powerful argument in favor of Jesus’ resurrection, it does not follow that Jesus then resurrected. It is also worth noting that many people already find various theories to be a plausible alternative to the Christian Origins evidence. Along these same lines, it is interesting too the comment by someone that “Kris is not a believer and will find every way to not believe.” Can’t someone look into this stuff being honest about their doubt without being accused of having some desperate underlying desire to have it come out one way or the other? This actually leads to a final point. The non-believer should have no problem if the Christian Origins evidence can be assembled toward the conclusion that Jesus resurrected from the dead; after all, in any complex problem where there is some ambiguity and gaps in the evidence, there are often multiple different ways to read the evidence, and obviously there are many people who see a coherent pattern in the evidence leading to Jesus’ resurrection. But I wonder how the believer would react to a hypothesis of Christian origins that, even though they disagreed with it, they had to admit it was a reasonable and honest – an honorable – position.

That’s it for me. All the best.

Kris K.

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Fortuna November 30, 2009 at 11:52 am

ayer;

To give your quote from Luke some context, perhaps you could have gone on to include this:

lukeprog:

Our earliest written accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection (1) were written only by Christian evangelists, (2) were compiled 20-70 years after the events they describe, (3) are so old they cannot be confirmed by physical evidence from the time, (4) come from a superstituous age of many similar mystery cults, (3) are internally contradictory, (4) and are contradictory between sources, too.

We have much better evidence than that for the angel Moroni’s revelation to Joseph Smith, the Hindu milk miracle of 1995, visitation by space aliens, the dancing sun at Fatima, and many other modern phenomena. And yet most Christians do not believe those were genuine events.

Why not? After all, the evidence is much better for these than for the ancient Resurrection of Jesus!

I can tell you why. Christians do not believe those things happened because they are so inherently improbable that they are much more likely to have a natural explanation than to have actually occurred.

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Mark November 30, 2009 at 12:17 pm

“I’m pretty sure we CAN just dismiss the resurrection on face value, for the same reason we dismiss Sathya Sai Baba on face value”

Congrats, Josh. That is the most fallacious (not to mention laziest) comment I have seen posted to this site so far. Your use of the word “WE” to lend your statement credibility is enough reason to dismiss your viewpoint entirely.

“Try as I might, I can’t seem to be able to force myself to believe that an itinerant Jewish preacher sprung out of the ground after a few days of being dead, materialized into a closed room to eat some fish, and flew into the air — like superman — in front of a handful of disciples. Not to mention walking on liquid water and feeding thousands of people from one lunchbox.”

Hey Walter, so you have tried to “force [your]self” to believe? That is admirable– although it sounds painful. Seems to me like atheism may serve as a sort of laxative for your spiritual constipation. Hey, whatever gets you through the night, right?

“..Jewish preacher **springing** out of the ground after a few days of being dead, materializing into a closed room to eat some fish, and flying into the air — like superman — in front of a handful of disciples…..”

I must observe you frame things in the same cartoonish way Luke does. Do you treat everything in life like this? “I’m not going to the hospital to see my terminally ill relative so I can have some yahoo with a stethoscope pop into the room and spew a bunch of medical drivel in my face!” That’s how you sound.

Aw come on Walter, really? Do you take everything this literal? If I say “Walter get lost” are you really going to get lost and need help being found by rescuers? No, you don’t take everything that literal; you just need to reduce Christianity to caricature so you can lazily dismiss it as preposterous. It’s the oldest trick in the book. Please get a new shtick would ya? ;)

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Mark November 30, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Kris said: “Mark, your conclusion that the earliest Christians had to be diabolical frauds for the appearance traditions to the 12 and the Apostles to be group designations of authority does not follow”

Kris, that is YOUR conclusion, not mine. But nice try. ;)

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Steven D. November 30, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Mark: Do you take everything this literal?

How about this, Mark: “I have a hard time believing that a man rose from the dead, that this man was God, that he materialized into a room, and that he flew into the clouds and into heaven.”

These are extraordinary, literal claims, no matter what language you use.

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SteveK November 30, 2009 at 12:44 pm

While I do think the lack of an alternative explanation is a powerful argument in favor of Jesus’ resurrection, it does not follow that Jesus then resurrected.

The argument in favor of the resurrection relies on it’s own facts that can be tied directly to the events in question (dates, textual data, archeology, etc). Alternative explanations rely on facts that may or may not apply to the event.

Yes, we know people lie, forget or otherwise make stuff up – but do any of these facts apply to the resurrection event, or not? How would a person know if one or more of these DID apply to the event? There would be evidence that it applied (dates, textual data, archeology, etc). Is there evidence of lying, forgetting or making it up?

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Josh November 30, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Mark,

“Congrats, Josh. That is the most fallacious (not to mention laziest) comment I have seen posted to this site so far. Your use of the word “WE” to lend your statement credibility is enough reason to dismiss your viewpoint entirely.”

I admit, I was being intentionally inflammatory. However, I hope my point was not lost upon you—the burden of proof is definitely on the claim that Jesus resurrected and the biblical evidence pretty much does not count at all, for the reasons I outlined more thoroughly in my followup post to Ayer.

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Steven D. November 30, 2009 at 12:51 pm

SteveK: Is there evidence of lying, forgetting or making it up?

When the only evidence comes from biased parties, does there need to be?

We had way more evidence that Saddam had WMDs, and that turned out to be wrong, coming from biased sources. At least we had the ability to check it out for ourselves. And still people cling onto the belief that they existed.

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Steven D. November 30, 2009 at 1:19 pm

EDIT:

When the only evidence for the resurrection comes from biased parties, does there need to be evidence of lying? How could there be? One can only offer alternate explanations of the evidence.

“At least we had the ability to check it out for ourselves”.

That was an unfortunate sentence. Consider it stricken.

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SteveK November 30, 2009 at 1:20 pm

When the only evidence comes from biased parties, does there need to be?

Where is the evidence that they were biased? Jews at that time weren’t particularly biased toward thinking that a resurrection like that could happen.

But to answer your question, YES, there does need to be evidence. It does not follow that because they were biased in some way, Jesus wasn’t resurrected. They call that one a non-sequitur.

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Reginald Selkirk November 30, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Thomas Reid: However, what anyone who proposes a hypothesis for the fact of the empty tomb is doing is offering an explanation for an entity that was present at a certain spot and can no longer be found at the same spot.

What is their evidence that there ever was any such Jewish person with a Mexican name? And their evidence that he was buried in a particular tomb? Why, it’s the same book which tells us that the resurrection occurred!

Just as the same book which tells me that Paul Bunyon was born in the state of Maine also tells me about his creating the Great Lakes.

I also don’t think it is appropriate for you to be questioning my sincerity. It reminds me of the way theists point out that Pastafarianism is a joke religion. The only difference between Pastafarianism and Christianity in that regard is that the former is an acknowledged mock religion.

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Tony Hoffman November 30, 2009 at 1:51 pm

SteveK: Is there evidence of lying, forgetting or making it up?

Yes. Too many to count. The Gospels are inconsistent and contradictory all over the place, for one. Paul warns his followers about false preachers of the religion, so we know that either Paul or other early Christian preachers were lying.

But much more obviously, on what grounds would you excuse the early Christians from those activities (lying, forgetting, or making stuff up) that you must accept as necessary for to deny every other religion?

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Walter November 30, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Mark:
Aw come on Walter, really? Do you take everything this literal? If I say “Walter get lost” are you really going to get lost and need help being found by rescuers? No, you don’t take everything that literal; you just need to reduce Christianity to caricature so you can lazily dismiss it as preposterous. It’s the oldest trick in the book. Please get a new shtick would ya?   

So I should not be so literal, huh? Then Jesus did not “literally” resurrect or ascend? OK, I can agree with that.

I have read these type of debates for years, and it seems like the same arguments get presented from both sides over and over again. There is definitely nothing new under the sun. Some people cannot imagine Christianity being false while others of us can’t believe due to a lack of sufficient evidence to prove the extraordinary claims in the bible. Plus many, like myself, have an anti-supernatural bias.

BTW Mark, I thought you were “jumping ship” off of this blog?

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Jeff H November 30, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Mark: Kris said: “Mark, your conclusion that the earliest Christians had to be diabolical frauds for the appearance traditions to the 12 and the Apostles to be group designations of authority does not follow” Kris, that is YOUR conclusion, not mine. But nice try.   

That’s not his conclusion at all. Your counter-argument is the whole “why would the disciples die for a lie?” thing. But people have an amazing ability to deceive even themselves, and that’s what cognitive dissonance is all about. It’s not a conscious process where people examine their beliefs and the actual events and then decide to convince themselves of something. It’s a process of rationalization that occurs, at least partially, at the subconscious level. It’s a well-documented effect, including being shown in doomsday cults. They said the end of the world was going to come on such-and-such a day, and it didn’t come…well they must have delayed it then! Or how about…we’ve just travelled around the countryside for three years with this guy that must have been the Messiah, but now he’s suddenly been killed…well, he must have been resurrected!

Again, this isn’t a conscious thought process. But it happens. It happens quite a bit, actually. It’s a very plausible explanation.

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Paul November 30, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Luke –

I look forward to your post of “Doubting the existence of Jesus”

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SteveK November 30, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Tony,

The Gospels are inconsistent and contradictory all over the place, for one.

If that’s your yardstick by which to measure, they why do you accept anything in the text as being historically accurate?

But much more obviously, on what grounds would you excuse the early Christians from those activities (lying, forgetting, or making stuff up) that you must accept as necessary for to deny every other religion?

I excuse them because I don’t see the evidence to support the claim. I excuse other religions as well if there is no evidence to support the claim of lying, forgetting, etc. In those cases, I deny them for other reasons.

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Tony Hoffman November 30, 2009 at 2:53 pm

Me: The Gospels are inconsistent and contradictory all over the place, for one.
SteveK: If that’s your yardstick by which to measure, they why do you accept anything in the text as being historically accurate?

You asked for evidence of lying, forgetting, or making it up. I mentioned inconsistency and contradictions. This is not a “yardstick” point — I am using the thing to measure itself. And it is inconsistent and contradictory.

If you want to look at yardsticks versus the New Testament, I’ll mention the real world as a good one. In my experience, God doesn’t appear and miracles do not occur, ever. But people lie, get confused, religions get started, the credulous get misled, and cultists convince themselves that they are not deluded. Using that yardstick, it’s pretty obvious how to properly measure the various claims of the New Testament.

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SteveK November 30, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Okay, Tony, I accept that you are using the thing to measure itself. What is inconsistent and contradictory about the resurrection account that gives you reason for concern?

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lukeprog November 30, 2009 at 8:21 pm

ayer,

While I stand by every word in that paragraph, it should be noted that I think the historical case for the Resurrection of Jesus is extremely weak…

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ayer November 30, 2009 at 8:32 pm

Kris K.: 1] Ayer, you don’t see in the quote from N.T. Wright where he is granting for the sake of argument that the discovered empty tomb and “meetings” with Jesus are legends. But if he isn’t, then his challenge is circular, for how else can anyone propose something other than the discovered empty tomb and the gospel “meetings” with Jesus as the cause of early Christian belief?

Kris,
I think in describing his challenge as circular you are on better ground, because I believe Wright is overstating the case here if he is implying that all other explanations have zero plausibility. The way Craig makes the case is using “inference to the best explanation”–i.e., the resurrection is the BEST explanation, but that does not mean other explanations have no plausibility whatsoever–they are just less plausible than the resurrection (unless God is ruled out as nonexistent a priori).

The problem with the hallucination hypothesis (even the “cognitive dissonance reduction” version) is that no 1st century Jew would need to come up with a physical resurrection to save face–they could simply assert that Jesus’ spirit had been assumed into heaven and that they had receive nonbodily visions (a la Stephen or Peter in Acts) confirming that God had vindicated his ministry. This would save face nicely while avoiding a contradiction with established Jewish doctrine that there would be no resurrection until the end of time.

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ayer November 30, 2009 at 8:37 pm

lukeprog: ayer,While I stand by every word in that paragraph, it should be noted that I think the historical case for the Resurrection of Jesus is extremely weak…  

I understand, I was just pointing out to Josh that to say the Gospels give us no facts whatsoever is incorrect. They should be treated historiographically like other ancient texts, not dismissed entirely because they are “holy books.”

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lukeprog November 30, 2009 at 9:06 pm

ayer,

Yup, agreed.

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Mark November 30, 2009 at 11:50 pm

How about this, Mark: “I have a hard time believing that a man rose from the dead, that this man was God, that he materialized into a room, and that he flew into the clouds and into heaven. These are extraordinary, literal claims, no matter what language you use.”

Of course it’s an extraordinary claim! He is an extraordinary God! If he couldn’t do extraordinary things, then he wouldn’t be God!

I submit your problem is not with the resurrection; your problem is with God. For if you accepted the possibility of God, you would not even bother analyzing his capabilities.

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Walter December 1, 2009 at 4:31 am

Mark: How about this, Mark: “I have a hard time believing that a man rose from the dead, that this man was God, that he materialized into a room, and that he flew into the clouds and into heaven. These are extraordinary, literal claims, no matter what language you use.”Of course it’s an extraordinary claim! He is an extraordinary God! If he couldn’t do extraordinary things, then he wouldn’t be God!
I submit your problem is not with the resurrection; your problem is with God. For if you accepted the possibility of God, you would not even bother analyzing his capabilities.  

Even if there is a deity which created this universe it does not automatically mean that Jesus was that deity. We can argue all day long about historical methodologies and Bayesian probabilities, but the bottom line is that theists believe by faith, not evidence. We all have access to more or less the same evidence, yet we come to polar opposite conclusions.

I believe that Jesus existed but was just a man — one who developed a cult following that later embellished stories about him.

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Tony Hoffman December 1, 2009 at 7:53 am

What is inconsistent and contradictory about the resurrection account that gives you reason for concern?

Jesus makes an appearance after being resurrected or he doesn’t. The nature of Jesus’ resurrected body — why was he not seen in Mark, seen in others, walked through walls and had people put their hands inside them, then in another he’s touching them and eating fish to prove he’s flesh, etc.

Do you really think these are all consistent and non-contradictory? And that’s not even touching the historical problems, which are much, much more significant.

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Paul December 1, 2009 at 8:02 am

Paul: Luke –
I look forward to your post of “Doubting the existence of Jesus”  

Misspoke slightly when I said this – considering that this post wasn’t written by Luke. I should have said

It would be interesting to see a post about doubting the existence of Jesus. I think that would lead to an interesting and lively discussion.

I don’t know if Luke doubts whether Jesus actually existed (physically). And I don’t intend to imply as such.

But, afaik, the extra-biblical evidence that he existed is nearly non-existent.

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Reginald Selkirk December 1, 2009 at 12:04 pm

ayer: I understand, I was just pointing out to Josh that to say the Gospels give us no facts whatsoever is incorrect. They should be treated historiographically like other ancient texts, not dismissed entirely because they are “holy books.”

For some definition of “fact.” Would your definition of “fact” include the fact that Paul Bunyan was born in Maine, the fact that Captain Ahab had a wooden leg, and the fact Joseph Smith returned returned the Golden Plates to an angel after he translated their contents?

The Gospels perform poorly against claims that should show up in the extra-Biblical record of the time. Events such as the massacre of the innocents as described in Matthew, the census of Quirinius as described in Luke, and the events during and after the death of Jesus H. Christ (earthquakes, mid-day darkness, undead prophets walking the streets, etc.).

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Josh December 1, 2009 at 1:59 pm

Tony,

I’ve seen the resurrection contradictions argument come and go many times and this is one of those things where I think it’s useless. The theists have fancy ways around the contradictions and when it comes down to it, the piddling details do not make the story.

By the way, Ayer + Luke, I never said the bible should be dismissed immediately because it’s a holy book—for example, many of its claims about non-religious issues may be interesting. I said that the religious claims could be dismissed almost immediately, because we have an overwhelming amount of evidence that people are not trustworthy when it comes to religious claims.

Nonetheless, Reginald points out that the bible may even be untrustworthy when it makes other claims. I don’t really know know where the bible’s ratio of substantiated vs. unsubstantiated (non-religious) claims falls compared to other holy texts, however.

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lukeprog December 1, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Paul,

I’m pretty radical about the historic Jesus. I’m basically aligned with Bob Price on that one: Jesus may have existed, but we know next to nothing about what he was really like because it’s all buried in legend.

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ayer December 1, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Josh: I said that the religious claims could be dismissed almost immediately,

I’m not sure what you mean by this. The overwhelming consensus of scholars (including liberal scholars) is, for example, that the disciples had experiences that they believed to be of the risen Jesus (what those experiences actually consisted of is the subject of dispute, as in the original post above). Is that what you mean by a “religious” claim of the New Testament?

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Chris December 1, 2009 at 8:12 pm

Hi Luke,
You might be interested in a book I just reviewed on the resurrection: http://greatcloud.wordpress.com/2009/11/29/book-review-did-the-resurrection-happen/.

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SteveK December 1, 2009 at 9:35 pm

Tony,
Josh’s comment to you was reasonably accurate, although I wouldn’t say there are ‘fancy ways’ to explain these. That sounds too much like trickery or deceit. Still, his point is reasonable. The contradictions are not genuine contradictions and the inconsistencies can be chalked up, in part, to the writing styles of different individuals summarizing/reporting historical events.

Multiple individuals emphasizing different parts of a story and omitting other parts – maybe even misreporting a few details – yet telling the same mainline story.

Pick up two newspapers and read different reports about the same event and see if the same kind of ‘contradictions and inconsistencies’ show up there. None of them would cause you to think the event never occurred, or that the reporters were lying, would it? That would require OTHER EVIDENCE, and that is precisely what I said you lack in the case of alternative explanations for the resurrection.

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SteveK December 1, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Josh,
This…

I said that the religious claims [in the bible] could be dismissed almost immediately, because we have an overwhelming amount of evidence that people are not trustworthy when it comes to religious claims.

is question begging and it’s not allowed.

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drj December 1, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Josh’s comment to you was reasonably accurate, although I wouldn’t say there are ‘fancy ways’ to explain these. That sounds too much like trickery or deceit.

I’d use the word ‘strained’ instead of ‘trickery or deceit’… when one looks at the (often outlandish, odd or even absurd) stories invented to harmonize apparent discrepancies in the gospels or other books, ‘strained’ often captures their essence perfectly.

The contradictions are not genuine contradictions and the inconsistencies can be chalked up, in part, to the writing styles of different individuals summarizing/reporting historical events.

You make divinely inspired authorship sound like a rather mundane endeavor! I do find it odd, that allegedly divinely inspired texts, would be so subject to the foibles and imperfections of human testimony. One might almost get the impression that there was no divine inspiration at all. God can incarnate, and resurrect, but didn’t bother to straighten out his eye witnesses? In any case…

Sure, most aren’t genuine contradictions in the formal sense, but they are certainly discrepancies. Harmonization are usually possible, but often require even more ‘fancy’ work. Each strained harmonization undermines the over all persuasiveness of the resurrection theory.

The gospel stories certainly suffer enough of these discrepancies, to seriously undermine the confidence with which a reasonable person can view their accounts of the supernatural.

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Reginald Selkirk December 2, 2009 at 6:26 am

SteveK: Josh,
This…
is question begging and it’s not allowed.  

That is not question-begging, that is a probabilistic argument. After all, the Christian believes that Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Bahai, Mormons, et al. are all unreliable in their religious claims.

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SteveK December 2, 2009 at 7:11 am

drj,

Sure, most aren’t genuine contradictions in the formal sense, but they are certainly discrepancies. Harmonization are usually possible, but often require even more ‘fancy’ work. Each strained harmonization undermines the over all persuasiveness of the resurrection theory.

Discrepancies can be minor or major as I already pointed out. Harmonization takes no more ‘fancy work’ than disharmonization – which is what you advocate – however disharmonization takes a bit more straining of the mind in order to make it appear reasonable.

Because of the kind of discrpancies Tony mentioned, it is reasonabe to conclude that the event the text is attempting to report never occured? I don’t think so. A reasonable person needs a decent reason to think that – and “People lie/forget/deceive all the time, therefore they lied/forgot/deceived” doesn’t work for me.

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Tony Hoffman December 2, 2009 at 7:11 am

SteveK: The contradictions are not genuine contradictions and the inconsistencies can be chalked up, in part, to the writing styles of different individuals summarizing/reporting historical events.

And there go the goalposts. So, we go from there is no evidence of contradictions or inconsistencies, to those instances are not “genuine” or can be “chalked up” to different styles, etc.

You seem have this odd notion that in order to suspend belief about a supernatural claim the skeptic must provide evidence against that claim. To be clear, you are making the argument (that the claims of the NT are true because there is no evidence of lying, forgetting, or making stuff up), and you carry the burden of proof. E.g., if you want to claim that you have found the termination of pi it is not up to me to prove that pi has no termination. So, to be clear, your original argument does not fly even were we to find no contradictions and inconsistencies in the NT. But, as it turns out, we do.

Now it seems that you acknowledge that there are inconsistencies and contradictions in the New Testament, including the Resurrection story, but these somehow now do not matter. But yes, they do matter to your original (fallacious) argument, because they provide evidence for what you say we do not have – people not getting their stories straight.

I didn’t ask if you or anyone else could contrive explanations for inconsistencies and contradictions, as I can easily provide ad hoc explanation for any story, no matter how outrageous. That fact is that those inconsistencies and contradictions do exist within the NT, and with them goes poof your claim of having no evidence that there’s no evidence of lying, forgetting, or making stuff up. It looks like you believe that your documents are reliable for reasons that are circular.

Btw, the reporter analogy fails, as it always does, because reporters report the mundane, and we need no extraordinary proof to believe that a mundane event, ones that we experience every day, occur. We do require it of all supernatural events, except for theists who demand it of every other religion except theirs.

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ayer December 2, 2009 at 7:25 am

Tony Hoffman: Now it seems that you acknowledge that there are inconsistencies and contradictions in the New Testament, including the Resurrection story, but these somehow now do not matter. But yes, they do matter to your original (fallacious) argument, because they provide evidence for what you say we do not have – people not getting their stories straight.

Perhaps it matters to a fallacious argument, but not to historiography as it is practiced every day. The historian assumes that all documents of history are subject to people “not getting their stories straight.” So what? That is why criteria are applied to separate out those portions deemed more reliable from those deemed less reliable (e.g., multiple and independent attestation, the criteria of embarrassment, etc.). This applies to the New Testament as well as every other document of history.

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Tony Hoffman December 2, 2009 at 7:30 am

Ayer,

Why don’t you find this story believable?

Another miracle was the flowing of water through Muhammad’s fingers when his companions got thirsty and had no water except a little in a vessel. They came to him and told him that they had no water to make ablution nor to drink except for what was in the vessel. So, Muhammad put his hand in the vessel, and the water started gushing out between his fingers. So, they drank and made ablution. They were one thousand five hundred companions.

I suspect that every reason you cite I would easily duplicate as my reasons for being skeptical of the claims of the NT.

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Tony Hoffman December 2, 2009 at 7:34 am

That is why criteria are applied to separate out those portions deemed more reliable from those deemed less reliable (e.g., multiple and independent attestation, the criteria of embarrassment, etc.). This applies to the New Testament as well as every other document of history.

Yes, history only makes probabilistic arguments about what occurred in the past. And that is why historical evidence for Jesus fails — because the probability of Christianity being the product of phenomena observed in every other religion are far greater than the probability of a one time only, supernatural event occurring. The Christian who claims to base his faith on historical evidence completely misunderstands that History is incapable of supporting his conclusion.

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ayer December 2, 2009 at 8:23 am

Tony Hoffman: The Christian who claims to base his faith on historical evidence completely misunderstands that History is incapable of supporting his conclusion.

If you take that as an a priori position, that’s fine, but that is not what the author of the original post is doing. He is offering a competing explanation of the agreed-upon historical facts. He is not arguing that the resurrection cannot a priori ever be an explanation, but that his explanation is better.

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Tony Hoffman December 2, 2009 at 8:47 am

If you take that as an a priori position, that’s fine, but that is not what the author of the original post is doing.

Mine is not an a priori position, i.e., I am saying that if you’re going to claim to use history as the means at which you arrive at your Christian faith then you your faith is not justified. This is essentially the same as the OP.

For the sake of argument I would concede that there is a “1 in Everything” chance that the resurrection occurred, but if I look at it that way I must compare this probability to the greater probability that other religions and reports of supernatural events that are not true have occurred. In other words, I can’t use history to say it supports the NT only, and at the same time ignore the fact that History provides even greater evidence of false, mistaken, and otherwise incorrect reports of supernatural events being believed by its followers.

Now, if we had a greater than 0 set of instances of Jesus appearing in real life to us and performing his miracles, that would upset the apple cart, and the historian would have a whole other set of data from shared experience to use. But because every instance of supernatural events occurring in real life is exposed to be the result of a mistake, deceit, or ignorance of natural phenomena, the likelihood of this occurring only further decreases.

The only a priori assumption here that I see is by that of the theist, who I believe would like a theistic God be considered a priori (and supposedly arrives at Christianity as providing the best option on which to justify this premise), but I think this argument is circular and fails on numerous other grounds — principally parsimony, but also problem of evil, etc. But please don’t let that sidetrack us now, as I think this would only sidetrack us on the more obvious problems we’re discussing here.

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ayer December 2, 2009 at 10:27 am

Tony Hoffman: The only a priori assumption here that I see is by that of the theist, who I believe would like a theistic God be considered a priori (and supposedly arrives at Christianity as providing the best option on which to justify this premise), but I think this argument is circular and fails on numerous other grounds

No, it’s not a sidetrack, I think you have hit on the key issue. When Craig debates the resurrection as the only issue in the debate (e.g., in his debate with Richard Carrier) he specifies that for the resurrection to be the best explanation, God’s existence has to be part of the background information. Obviously if God does not exist then God cannot have raised Jesus from the dead. He then points to the other arguments for God (cosmological, moral, etc.) as indicating we have good reasons to believe God exists.

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Thomas Reid December 2, 2009 at 11:11 am

For Kris or anyone else:
Suppose cognitive dissonance is the explanation for the rise of beliefs in the early Christians. Why do you suppose they rationalized to a belief in the bodily resurrection versus some other explanation to minimize the tension that would otherwise result in their minds? A number of other hypotheses would be available to soothe the dissonance.

If you are trying to resolve the two supposed incomptabile beliefs of “Jesus was the Messiah” and “Jesus is dead”, examples of other less risky, less fantastic, propositions would be:

1. Jesus will be resurrected in the future.
2. Jesus was only a prophet for the true Messiah, who is still on the way.

If they knew he was dead and buried somewhere, it wouldn’t make much sense to invent a claim that they knew could be so easily disproven – not when other claims could have been rationalized and not subjected to the same falsification.

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Tony Hoffman December 2, 2009 at 11:11 am

Ayer,

But you understand that the whole argument based on historical evidence then dissolves in circularity, right? In other words, in order to make an argument that there is good historical evidence for Jesus (God), one has to assume that Jesus exists. If that’s the best Christians have got then I’m amazed that Craig has ever been deemed to win a debate.

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SteveK December 2, 2009 at 11:55 am

Reginald Selkirk: That is not question-begging, that is a probabilistic argument. After all, the Christian believes that Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Bahai, Mormons, et al. are all unreliable in their religious claims.  (Quote)

Not entirely true. I accept that some of these people may have been involved in a supernatural event of some kind just as a Christian may have been.

What’s the probability of a supernatural event occuring? I’d like to see your numbers and then I’d like you to explain how that probability translates into “therefore all religious claims in the bible can be summarily dismissed”.

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Paul Wright December 2, 2009 at 12:32 pm

ayer:
No, it’s not a sidetrack, I think you have hit on the key issue.When Craig debates the resurrection as the only issue in the debate (e.g., in his debate with Richard Carrier) he specifies that for the resurrection to be the best explanation, God’s existence has to be part of the background information.Obviously if God does not exist then God cannot have raised Jesus from the dead.He then points to the other arguments for God (cosmological, moral, etc.) as indicating we have good reasons to believe God exists.  

Even if we grant Craig’s natural theology arguments, has Craig shown that the god argued for is one who’d be likely to raise Jesus from the dead? It seems Craig’s arguments for a specifically Christian God rest on the resurrection, which makes those arguments circular, at least.

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SteveK December 2, 2009 at 1:38 pm

Paul Wright: Even if we grant Craig’s natural theology arguments, has Craig shown that the god argued for is one who’d be likely to raise Jesus from the dead? It seems Craig’s arguments for a specifically Christian God rest on the resurrection, which makes those arguments circular, at least.  (Quote)

What does it even mean to show this beyond ‘showing’ it with arguments?

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Paul Wright December 2, 2009 at 2:54 pm

SteveK:
What does it even mean to show this beyond ’showing’ it with arguments?  

Perhaps that wasn’t clear. I don’t mean to say that Craig should show something apart from argument. I was specifically responding to Ayer’s point that Craig argues from natural theology and morality that there’s a creator God (who is good), and then from that conclusion and the NT evidence Craig argues that Jesus was resurrected by God. In Craig vs Ehrman, for example, Craig says “That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.”

Does Craig have an argument that the God he argues for from natural theology has an interest in raising Jesus from the dead? (Genuine question: he might, as I’ve not seen all his debates, but I don’t recall him mentioning it when he debated with Ehrman or Carrier).

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Tony Hoffman December 2, 2009 at 3:00 pm

Thomas Reid: If they knew he was dead and buried somewhere, it wouldn’t make much sense to invent a claim that they knew could be so easily disproven – not when other claims could have been rationalized and not subjected to the same falsification.

Number one, identifying a body (without modern forensics) in the modern world is pretty near impossible after just a few days, let alone after weeks, months, and years. So the whole myth of “easily disproven” is really a canard.

Mormonism grew in the face of its obvious falsehoods, and still grows today. The ability to disprove a religion’s claims has very little to do with its successs.

Cognitive dissonance means that the earliest followers of Christ who saw him killed would have been victims, not the designers, of a false belief. Why must Christians always assume that early Christians were not either fooling themselves, or convinced the same way converts to other religions are convinced today? Think about how a charismatic crazy person like David Koresh or Jim Jones can attract dozens and hundreds and even thousands of believers, despite the fact that they are obviously charlatans or crazy people to most outsiders.

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Paul December 2, 2009 at 3:47 pm

I cannot get past this
“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”

Original sin is perhaps mankind’s worse invention. Staring with this non-sense as the basis ought to be sufficient to be skeptical of everything that follows from it.

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SteveK December 2, 2009 at 4:01 pm

Tony,

Why must Christians always assume that early Christians were not either fooling themselves, or convinced the same way converts to other religions are convinced today?

Because we need to justify that conclusion with something. For starters, I’ll accept a claim of some kind as the first step toward justifying that conclusion. Do we have any early document or historical artifact that suggests or outright claims that they were fooling themselves? I don’t recall, so I’m genuinely asking.

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Tony Hoffman December 2, 2009 at 4:54 pm

SteveK: Because we need to justify that conclusion [that early Christians may have been fooling themselves, or were convinced the same way followers of other religions are today] with something.

No. We. Don’t.

Not only does it appear that you’ve skipped over my earlier comments but also the Enlightenment and the world we now inhabit as its result.

You’ve glossed over the significant problems you face that have been outlined in this post and now appear to sieze at the bizzare notion that we need a contemporaneous document or artifact to dismiss the claims of early Christians.

Tell me, on what grounds do you dismiss Zoroastrianism, the Greek Gods, the mystery religions, and who knows what else?

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ayer December 2, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Tony Hoffman: Ayer,But you understand that the whole argument based on historical evidence then dissolves in circularity, right? In other words, in order to make an argument that there is good historical evidence for Jesus (God), one has to assume that Jesus exists. If that’s the best Christians have got then I’m amazed that Craig has ever been deemed to win a debate.  

I’m afraid I don’t follow you; the arguments of natural theology provide us with good reasons to believe the monotheistic God exists. The historical facts supporting the resurrection of Jesus provide us with good reason to believe that that monotheistic God is the one described by Christianity (as opposed to other monotheistic religions). Why is that circular?

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ayer December 2, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Paul Wright: Does Craig have an argument that the God he argues for from natural theology has an interest in raising Jesus from the dead? (Genuine question: he might, as I’ve not seen all his debates, but I don’t recall him mentioning it when he debated with Ehrman or Carrier).

Yes, I believe he addressed that in the Ehrman debate. Jesus’ radical claims to be Messiah and Son of God (which got him crucified for blasphemy by the authorities) were vindicated when God raised him from the dead. Within the relgio-historical context, the resurrection shows that Yahweh is the monotheistic God pointed to by the arguments of natural theology.

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ayer December 2, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Paul: Original sin is perhaps mankind’s worse invention.

Actually, as Chesterton said, original sin is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically verified on a daily basis by simply reading the newspaper.

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lukeprog December 2, 2009 at 10:21 pm

I think thermonuclear bombs are probably mankind’s worst invention.

But they will come up with even worse things. Just wait.

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Thomas Reid December 3, 2009 at 4:01 am

Tony Hoffman:
Number one, identifying a body (without modern forensics) in the modern world is pretty near impossible after just a few days, let alone after weeks, months, and years. So the whole myth of “easily disproven” is really a canard.

That’s true, identifying the correct body would grow more difficult with time. But the point is, why rationalize to the requirement that there be no dead body, when doubt could be cast if someone produced any dead body?

Mormonism grew in the face of its obvious falsehoods, and still grows today. The ability to disprove a religion’s claims has very little to do with its successs.

Agreed.

Cognitive dissonance means that the earliest followers of Christ who saw him killed would have been victims, not the designers, of a false belief.

OK, what do you mean by “victims”? Do you mean they believed in someone who ended up dying, or do you mean that they merely had hallucinations of him after his death? If the former is true, then yes they would be the designers of the “bodily resurrection false belief”, and anyone who proposes cognitive dissonance has to contend with the strange conclusion that they rationalized to a belief that could be falsified and that was not necessary to save face. But if the latter is true, then unless you don’t believe miracles can occur, I don’t see how there is any case of cognitive dissonance at all. For then there is no dissonance if someone claims that “Jesus is Messiah” and “earlier believers than myself saw him after he died”.

Why must Christians always assume that early Christians were not either fooling themselves, or convinced the same way converts to other religions are convinced today? Think about how a charismatic crazy person like David Koresh or Jim Jones can attract dozens and hundreds and even thousands of believers, despite the fact that they are obviously charlatans or crazy people to most outsiders.  

The analogy to Koresh and Jones just doesn’t seem appropriate. Their followers died with them. To be analagous, at least the following would have had to occur:

1. Koresh would have been killed, without his followers
2. Days later, some believers would have claimed they saw him, and would have done so publicly in Waco.

Moreover, in Waco there would have been motivated enemies of Koresh that wanted him dead for political and religious reasons (a modern-day Sanhedrin). If the claim persisted, his killers could have produced a body.

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Paul Wright December 3, 2009 at 4:43 am

ayer:
Yes, I believe he addressed that in the Ehrman debate.Jesus’ radical claims to be Messiah and Son of God (which got him crucified for blasphemy by the authorities) were vindicated when God raised him from the dead.Within the relgio-historical context, the resurrection shows that Yahweh is the monotheistic God pointed to by the arguments of natural theology.  

But that’s an argument from the resurrection to God being the sort of God who’d resurrect Jesus. If someone accepts that, without divine intervention, the resurrection is “fantastically improbable”, and instead claims divine intervention was responsible, they need an argument to the resurrection from whatever divinity they’ve established by other means. Craig may say that he doesn’t see why it’s unlikely that God would resurrect Jesus, but why does he think it likely that God would?

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Tony Hoffman December 3, 2009 at 6:14 am

Ayer: I’m afraid I don’t follow you; the arguments of natural theology provide us with good reasons to believe the monotheistic God exists.

That’s a pretty silly thing to say, as I think the arguments for a montheistic God all fail. And if the arguments don’t prove anything, and they are not axiomatic, they are a faulty premise. Followers of Craig all seem to fail to notice that although he provides (flawed) arguments for God’s existence, and he asserts that assuming that God exists should be axiomatic, he fails to make adequate arguments for either. Two bad arguments do not equal one good one.

But that’s why I didn’t want to bring it up; I thought it would sidetrack us from the overwhelming problems inherent with the historical evidence for Jesus.

Ayer: The historical facts supporting the resurrection of Jesus provide us with good reason to believe that that monotheistic God is the one described by Christianity (as opposed to other monotheistic religions). Why is that circular?

A circular argument assumes that which it sets out to prove. If I say that little green men exist, and that I know this because I once heard them make noise in my attic, I have not proven that little green men exist, or are even more likely to exist. If I don’t assume that little green men exist, the facts of noise in my attic still exists, but the only way I can conclude that little green men made the noise is by admitting my odd little green men premise, when in fact mice, squirrels, raccoons, shifting trunks, burglars, etc., are all better options for the noise that was once made in my attic.

When everything about the noise in my attic can be explained mundanely, we have no reason to assume little green men as a possible explanation. When everything about Jesus’s legend can be better explained in observed, natural parallels with countless other religions, we have no reason to assume the (frankly, very odd) triple God as one, atonement, etc. explanation as a premise that the events described in the NT are supernatural ones.

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drj December 3, 2009 at 6:15 am

Thomas Reid: That’s true, identifying the correct body would grow more difficult with time. But the point is, why rationalize to the requirement that there be no dead body, when doubt could be cast if someone produced any dead body?

If I’m understanding what you are saying correctly, I think you have the point backwards.

Producing a random, unidentifiable body does nothing to cast doubt upon a resurrection claim, for a specific body. I think the point is that even if the correct body were to be produced, one could easily doubt it that it was the correct body. Producing the correct body wouldnt necessarily (or even be likely to) dispel a belief that it had been resurrected, if it could not be identified.

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ayer December 3, 2009 at 7:00 am

Paul Wright:
But that’s an argument from the resurrection to God being the sort of God who’d resurrect Jesus. If someone accepts that, without divine intervention, the resurrection is “fantastically improbable”, and instead claims divine intervention was responsible, they need an argument to the resurrection from whatever divinity they’ve established by other means. Craig may say that he doesn’t see why it’s unlikely that God would resurrect Jesus, but why does he think it likely that God would?  

I disagree that natural theology plus the argument from the resurrection is insufficient. Natural theology shows the existence of the monotheistic God; the resurrection, in its religio-historical context, shows that that monotheistic God is the one described by Jesus and the disciples, whose redemptive purpose is laid out in the Bible.

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ayer December 3, 2009 at 7:07 am

Tony Hoffman: Followers of Craig all seem to fail to notice that although he provides (flawed) arguments for God’s existence, and he asserts that assuming that God exists should be axiomatic, he fails to make adequate arguments for either.

Craig does not argue that “assuming God exists should be axiomatic.” He makes arguments that God is the best explanation of the facts we have; they are valid arguments logically, but the premises are obviously subject to dispute. He claims only that the premises are more likely than not.

Tony Hoffman: When everything about the noise in my attic can be explained mundanely, we have no reason to assume little green men as a possible explanation.

I don’t believe that follows at all. Because a naturalistic explanation is possible, we must exclude all non-naturalistic explanations? I don’t think so. We should go with the best explanation of the facts, without fixing the outcome ab initio by excluding certain alternatives.

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drj December 3, 2009 at 7:19 am

Craig’s natural theology cannot stand on its own.

The core of his belief is derived from his own “self-authenticating personal encounter with the Holy Spirit”. He’s on record saying that there really isnt any type of empirical evidence that would cause him to reconsider the truth of that encounter.

Natural theology is just about showing that its possible to posit theories about the natural world that don’t contradict this experience. But even if it such theories could not be produced, Craig has stated his belief in the truth of his encounter is unshakable.

The “self-authenticating experience” bit is the linchpin that ties natural theology arguments and the resurrection arguments together. Without it, none of the arguments can successfully move past the hypothesis stage, and no reasonable person could rationally accept any conclusions of the arguments as bonafide beliefs. The only reasonable position would be agnosticism.

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Thomas Reid December 3, 2009 at 8:38 am

drj: If I’m understanding what you are saying correctly, I think you have the point backwards. Producing a random, unidentifiable body does nothing to cast doubt upon a resurrection claim, for a specific body. I think the point is that even if the correct body were to be produced, one could easily doubt it that it was the correct body. Producing the correct body wouldnt necessarily (or even be likely to) dispel a belief that it had been resurrected, if it could not be identified.  (Quote)

Sorry for not being more clear on this point. First, remember that this was on the assumption of “early believer” (that is, those who saw him killed and believed they saw him after that) CD.

Now, suppose Jesus was killed and buried in a gravesite, and other people were buried there as well. Days later these early believers start claiming that he was resurrected bodily. If you went to the gravesite and found a lot of bodily remains there, wouldn’t you naturally doubt the claim? Wouldn’t they bear some burden to demonstrate that those other bodies weren’t Jesus’? I think the appropriate response is skepticism.

If someone objects that the grave was unknown or random such that no one knew where he was buried, I don’t think this holds up against the facts of how he died (at the hands of professional executioners) or who was motivated to maintain that he was dead and buried (the Sanhedrin). It is reasonable to think that, again in the early days after his death, his gravesite was known, even if it wasn’t a tomb (which I’m granting just for the sake of discussion).

What I’m getting at is there is no need to claim the fantastic to resolve early believer CD, especially when it would be so easy to falsify the claim or at least cast serious doubt on it. Further, many other claims could have been made that would not put the believer’s life in peril. So CD is not strong enough to explain the origin of belief in early believers.

So that leaves us with “late believer” CD. I’ll say again that I think late believer CD is not a reasonable hypothesis as the source for such a fantastic claim. Rather, it would have to have been added as a purposeful fiction. But then you run up against the ill-fitting conclusion that people were dying for something they knew was fictional.

There is simply no tension between the claims “Jesus is Messiah” and “others before me saw him” (even if it was merely a vision). Are there different claims that a CD proponent assumes are in tension in the late believer’s mind? Do I have the wrong ones? Kris mentions the phenomenon in his post, but doesn’t mention which specific beliefs are in tension. Maybe he mentions them in his book, I don’t know.

Thanks everyone for the conversation on this.

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Paul December 3, 2009 at 9:08 am

lukeprog: I think thermonuclear bombs are probably mankind’s worst invention.But they will come up with even worse things. Just wait.  

Ok, I concede. Perhaps I should have used better terminology. How about instead of “worse invention” I had used “most non-sensical” :-)

Well… perhaps the ontological argument is more non-sensical

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Paul December 3, 2009 at 9:11 am

ayer:
Actually, as Chesterton said, original sin is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically verified on a daily basis by simply reading the newspaper.  

As a retort I quite like this response. I find it to be rubbish but a good response.

Semi in the spirit of jest – does original sin explain why other animal species have been observed to commit murder?

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Tony Hoffman December 3, 2009 at 10:47 am

Craig does not argue that “assuming God exists should be axiomatic.”

I believe he says that belief in God is properly basic, which I understand to be synonomous with axiomatic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s how I understand it.

…they are valid arguments logically, but the premises are obviously subject to dispute.

Let’s be clear here: a logical conclusion based on unproven premises is invalid. We call logical arguments based on flawed premises fallacies, not valid logical arguments.

Because a naturalistic explanation is possible, we must exclude all non-naturalistic explanations? I don’t think so.

This is rubbish. You are free to think it, but don’t expect others to not mock you for asserting something so outlandish.

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ayer December 3, 2009 at 11:06 am

Tony Hoffman: I believe he says that belief in God is properly basic, which I understand to be synonomous with axiomatic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s how I understand it.

That is the epistemology he holds to, but it is not one of the arguments of natural theology I was referring to.

Tony Hoffman: This is rubbish. You are free to think it, but don’t expect others to not mock you for asserting something so outlandish.

Tony Hoffman: Let’s be clear here: a logical conclusion based on unproven premises is invalid.

The premises do not have to be “proven” (whatever that means) for the argument to be valid; they simply must be more likely than not.

Tony Hoffman: This is rubbish. You are free to think it, but don’t expect others to not mock you for asserting something so outlandish.

Please explain why this is “rubbish.” Are you saying that only naturalistic explanations can be subjected to analysis under Inference to the Best Explanation or Bayesian analysis? Because that would be a fringe position that most atheist philosophers do not take. Indeed, Luke does not take that position:

lukeprog: “And the case for the Resurrection is a historical one that can be made without appeals to Christian doctrine. The case can be made using either of two competing (and widely accepted) approaches to historical method: (1) the Bayesian path (which Craig rejects, but with which others have argued persuasively) and (2) the argument to the best explanation (ala McCullagh), which is the strategy used by Craig, Licona, and others.”
http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=538#more-538

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Tony Hoffman December 3, 2009 at 11:20 am

That is the epistemology he holds to, but it is not one of the arguments of natural theology I was referring to.

Do you have a good link that explains natural theology then, because I’m not familiar with the term.

The premises do not have to be “proven” (whatever that means) for the argument to be valid; they simply must be more likely than not.

I’m not so sure I agree here. You said that Craig’s arguments are logically valid, and I’d say that we reserve that term for arguments like: 1) all squares have four sides; 2) all geometric shapes that have four sides are rectangles; 3) all squares are also rectangles. Craig’s arguments may be formally valid, but the weakness of the premises makes them fallacious (invalid).

Ayer: Because a naturalistic explanation is possible, we must exclude all non-naturalistic explanations? I don’t think so.
me: This is rubbish.
Ayer: Please explain why this is “rubbish.”

Because people who make these arguments for their pet beliefs are typically astrologists, believers in religions you find false, and other assorted quacks. And because every single time these non-natural explanations are subjected to scientific testing they fail. The exception is ignorance of natural causes, which scientific inquiry, through methodological naturalism, destroys as super-natural in causation when it determines the (natural) explanation. I’d also go on to say that a supernatural explanation is just a placeholder for no-explanation / ignorance, but I think you get the point.

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drj December 3, 2009 at 12:24 pm

Thomas Reid: What I’m getting at is there is no need to claim the fantastic to resolve early believer CD, especially when it would be so easy to falsify the claim or at least cast serious doubt on it. Further, many other claims could have been made that would not put the believer’s life in peril. So CD is not strong enough to explain the origin of belief in early believers.

Maybe I’m not understanding the CD theory correctly, but it seems these phenomena are precisely the things it attempts to explain.

It seems a little strained to me to assume that the people in question proceeded to put their most rational, level-headed thinking caps on, to dispassionately weigh the evidence regarding the status of their recently executed friend. I just don’t see the facts of the story proposing any obstacle so severe that it makes the CD explanation implausible or more strained than a real resurrection. The real world is rife with examples of comparable feats of CD.

The CD would explains why these people, with so many hopes and beliefs tied to their brutally executed companion, would behave in irrational ways, and might interpret events in ways that are skewed towards those hopes and beliefs – for instance, making the wrong assumption as they tried to identify a mangled decomposing corpse.

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ayer December 3, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Tony Hoffman: And because every single time these non-natural explanations are subjected to scientific testing they fail.

Here we are dealing with historical investigation and philosophical reasoning, not scientific testing. No historical event, miraculous or otherwise, is subject to the scientific method.

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Tony Hoffman December 3, 2009 at 5:56 pm

Ayer: No historical event, miraculous or otherwise, is subject to the scientific method.

Subject to the scientific method, no; I didn’t say that it was. I think it was fairly clearly what I was saying – that historians look at past events through the prism of our (scientific) time, and seeing as how supernatural events do not occur in real life in our time, historians operate with the reasonable assumption that they did not occur in the past, either. This is very similar to the insight of Newton, that the gravity on earth was the same as the gravity in heaven, and modern physics, that assumes that the speed of life is constant throughout the universe and into the past.

Here we are dealing with historical investigation and philosophical reasoning, not scientific testing.

I’m not sure what you’re dealing with anymore, really. I don’t believe you have not answered my question about whether or not you believe the story of Muhammed providing water to 1,500 through his fingers, and if you don’t, why. I think you have made a foolish assertion – that supernatural explanations are reasonable ones for past events, despite the fact that supernatural explanations don’t stand up to modern scrutiny, and that they are indistinguishable from ignorance. I think you are continuing to pretend that historical scholarship can be used to investigate supernatural claims, which in fact it cannot.

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ayer December 3, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Tony Hoffman: I think you are continuing to pretend that historical scholarship can be used to investigate supernatural claims, which in fact it cannot.

I understand that it your position, which is the same one that Hume took, but you should be aware that it has been widely acknowledged as thoroughly dismantled by John Earman in “Hume’s Abject Failure” (see http://www.amazon.com/Humes-Abject-Failure-Argument-Miracles/dp/0195127382)

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Tony Hoffman December 3, 2009 at 7:30 pm

I understand that it your position, which is the same one that Hume took, but you should be aware that it has been widely acknowledged as thoroughly dismantled by John Earman in “Hume’s Abject Failure

Would you care to offer an argument from the book? I think my position is sensible, and I can’t imagine how it would be thoroughly dismantled.

I find it ironic, though, that you previously referred to the consensus of biological scientists as being fallacious because it was merely an argument from authority, and now you seem to be offering the same here with a book that you proclaim to be “widely acknowledged” to dismantle my position. Isn’t your citation merely an argument from authority, and a rather narrow one at that?

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lukeprog December 3, 2009 at 7:45 pm

ayer,

I think most Christians who mention Earman’s book have never read it. Also, to call it “Hume’s Abject Failure” simply because modern probabilistic logic was unavailable to Hume is kind of absurd, whether or not Hume is correct about miracles and history. I’ll also bet most Christians haven’t read Fogelin’s ‘A Defense of Hume on Miracles.’ Also see John Goyette’s review article of Earman’s book.

I will be writing a series on miracles eventually…

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Thomas Reid December 3, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Tony Hoffman:
Would you care to offer an argument from the book? I think my position is sensible, and I can’t imagine how it would be thoroughly dismantled.

Very briefly, Hume was arguing in a circle:

1. The uniformity of experience demonstrates to us that miracles do not occur.
2. If a miracle occurred, it would violate the uniformity of experience.
3. Therefore, miracles do not occur.

You are assuming a natural explanation is available for all phenomena, and that supernatural explanations are mere placeholders until a true explanation is found. If you are concluding from this that miracles cannot happen, then you are following in Hume’s footsteps. If you are concluding that they are only rare, then you are merely confirming the definition of “miracle”.

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Jeff H December 3, 2009 at 8:06 pm

Thomas Reid:
1.The uniformity of experience demonstrates to us that miracles do not occur.
2.If a miracle occurred, it would violate the uniformity of experience.
3.Therefore, miracles do not occur.

Perhaps I have misunderstood Hume’s argument, or perhaps you are referring to something else that he said that I haven’t read, but this doesn’t seem to me to be Hume’s argument. If I remember correctly, it was something more like:

1. In order for us to know anything about the past with any degree of reliability, we must assume the uniformity of experience.
2. Miracles are, by definition, improbable events that violate the uniformity of experience.
3. Therefore, even if miracles did occur in the past, we would not be able to verify them.
4. Thus, we may reasonably reject the occurrence of historical miracles.

Of course, I make no claim that this is logically valid, but it simply seems to be a bit more in line with what I remember him to have said.

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Tony Hoffman December 3, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Ayer (and Thomas),

Do not confuse my argument with Hume’s, which I have not read. I am not saying that miracles are impossible. I do not rule out the supernatural, for instance.

This is so simple I feel it should not need restating, but I’ll say it as clearly as I can. Given the direct experience we have of lying, mistakes, and people just getting the facts wrong, and the instances we experience of tested miracles (0), we have no justification for inserting an explanation that has no precedent in our experience for all of those which do.

Is it possible that at the shot heard round the world my little green men appeared and fired the first shot from a grassy knoll. Sure, I can’t say it’s impossible. But why should I favor that when the little green men I invoke have no experiential equivalent, and no explanatory power that predicts or isn’t ad hoc? At this point, what distinguishes the practice of History with just “making some crazy stuff up?”

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Thomas Reid December 4, 2009 at 4:22 am

Tony Hoffman: Ayer (and Thomas),
Do not confuse my argument with Hume’s, which I have not read. I am not saying that miracles are impossible. I do not rule out the supernatural, for instance.

OK, we appear to be on common ground then.

This is so simple I feel it should not need restating, but I’ll say it as clearly as I can. Given the direct experience we have of lying, mistakes, and people just getting the facts wrong, and the instances we experience of tested miracles (0),…

I’m with you so far: the many instances of tested, presumably by scientific method, miracles have proven not to be miracles at all. I think you’ll agree with me that, if restricting yourself to the scientific method as a test for truth, then this is true only of those which you are aware.

…we have no justification for inserting an explanation that has no precedent in our experience for all of those which do.

There, right there, is the implied metaphysical claim. You are claiming that because miracle claims have turned out to be false in your experience, then there is no justification for using it as an explanation for any phenomenon. But unless you are defining miracles out of existence (which it appears you are not willing to do when you say you don’t rule out the supernatural), this line of reasoning is circular, and is identical to Hume’s argument which I sketched above. The justification cannot come from the methods of scientific testing (methodological naturalism), because that would require you to know and test every claim of a miracle. Any justification would have to be sourced elsewhere.

It may be reasonable to doubt that a miracle occurred whenever one is claimed (indeed, I do this myself, most people probably do), but that is far different from having justification for believing one did not occur. The former position is reasonable based simply on knowing that miracles are rare, whereas the latter position comes from having some reason to believe why they are not possible.

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Tony Hoffman December 4, 2009 at 5:55 am

Thomas Reid: The justification cannot come from the methods of scientific testing (methodological naturalism), because that would require you to know and test every claim of a miracle.

Two things: Can you define “justification” as you used it above for me, because I believe your definition is going to be different than how I used the word.

Secondly, it strikes me as bizarre that you would believe that scientific knowledge is only justified if it tests every instance of the thing it explains. Such a standard would, I believe, make it impossible to know anything scientifically.

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Tony Hoffman December 4, 2009 at 6:31 am

Thomas,

I think I understand the criticism of my argument now, but I think it doesn’t address my main point. My main point is not that miracles are impossible per se, but that when explaining past events we are not justified in preferring a supernatural explanation over a natural one. Saying, “Aha, but you can’t say for certain a supernatural event did not occur, thus we may consider it as a possibility!” seems to miss the mark, because we are talking about history, which is always about theorizing a best explanation. At no point are we justified in positing a supernatural explanation for a historical event that can be explained otherwise, for reasons I tried to explain earlier.

In other words, I believe that the historical argument for Jesus is a lost cause, because the only way I can imagine the argument working is to demonstrate that all other natural explanations are more unlikely than a supernatural event occurring. Given all that we know about similar historical events (religions arising) with natural explanations, this door appears well closed.

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ayer December 4, 2009 at 6:58 am

Tony Hoffman: because the only way I can imagine the argument working is to demonstrate that all other natural explanations are more unlikely than a supernatural event occurring.

That is precisely the strategy that Craig adopts in his debates; the resurrection is a better explanation of all the facts than the naturalistic alternatives. Now, you are free to disagree with that conclusion–but there is nothing illegitimate about that approach, and a person could agree with Craig strictly on the basis of reason and evidence.

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drj December 4, 2009 at 8:09 am

Hume on miracles:

“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish”

I think I agree with that. With that criteria in mind, we can ask:

“Is it more miraculous that true testimony was produced as a result of the resurrection of an executed divine avatar, or that cognitive dissonance produced false testimony?”

I think its obviously the former. Therefore, the resurrection explanation clearly loses.

Asking the question this way does have the interesting side effect of forcing one who believes the resurrection to sort of diminish it down to the mundane. If mere cognitive dissonance is a greater miricle than the resurrection, what other possible events could be considered greater miracles, and why did God not reveal himself in any of those ways?

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Tony Hoffman December 4, 2009 at 8:16 am

… and a person could agree with Craig strictly on the basis of reason and evidence.

This is clearly false. We have evidence of cognitive dissonance, of people believing in false things, of religions growing despite a lack of evidence, of aggressive gullibility, etc. We have no evidence of supernatural occurrences that withstands scientific scrutiny (subject to the rigors of reason and evidence).

When you wrote “reason and evidence,” I think the correct term is “faith.” Or, as Mark Twain said, “When you believe something that you know ain’t true.”

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Tony Hoffman December 4, 2009 at 8:49 am

If mere cognitive dissonance is a greater miricle than the resurrection, what other possible events could be considered greater miracles, and why did God not reveal himself in any of those ways?

Another, potentially bigger problem for the apologist is making clear an epistemology that determines the probability of different miracles. What is a “more likely” miracle, resurrecting Jesus, or producing a hallucination that Jesus was resurrected. If the resurrection was a supernatural event, why do we stop at the point of Jesus actually being resurrected when it could be more likely (I don’t know how, but this can’t just be assumed) that a supernatural being created the hallucination that Jesus was resurrected?

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ayer December 4, 2009 at 10:16 am

Tony Hoffman: This is clearly false.

Only if you adopt Hume’s position. Which, as I noted, has been refuted by John Earman (as outlined by Reid above).

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Tony Hoffman December 4, 2009 at 10:40 am

Me: [It is clearly false that a person could find, based on evidence and reason, that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation.]
Ayer: Only if you adopt Hume’s position. Which, as I noted, has been refuted by John Earman (as outlined by Reid above).

No.

Your argument seems to be this:

1) The only way we can consider supernatural explanations as unviable is through Hume’s argument.
2) Hume’s argument has been refuted.
3) Therefore, it is reasonable to find a supernatural explanation is the best explanation.

1) is clearly a false premise. You have failed to address my argument, citing 2) Hume’s argument (which is not identical to mine), and made an argument from authority (that Earman has refuted Hume’s original argument).

As summary, you have offered no evidence for justifying your assertion that a supernatural event, the resurrection, is more likely than the countless natural ones we can come up with. Nothing.

And you have offered no epistemology about how we can judge the likelihood of a supernatural event being what it is thought to be – why an event thought to be a supernatural resurrection is more likely than an event could have been a supernatural hallucination.

So, contrary to your assessment, the argument for the historical Jesus remains DOA, unless you can address the obviously sensible problems I have outlined (again) above.

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Thomas Reid December 4, 2009 at 6:46 pm

Tony Hoffman:
Thomas,I think I understand the criticism of my argument now, but I think it doesn’t address my main point. My main point is not that miracles are impossible per se, but that when explaining past events we are not justified in preferring a supernatural explanation over a natural one.

You have agreed that miracles are not impossible. I think you have agreed with the critique I provided of your position, which demonstrated that any justification for ruling out a priori a miraculous explanation for a phenomenon cannot be sourced from the knowledge that miracles are rare (although it is still reasonable to doubt the specific claim in question). So if that is true, then what you or anyone else should prefer is simply the explanation that fits the facts best, be it supernatural or natural. I think you would be willing to hold this position now, because it corresponds to what you say next:

Saying, “Aha, but you can’t say for certain a supernatural event did not occur, thus we may consider it as a possibility!” seems to miss the mark, because we are talking about history, which is always about theorizing a best explanation. At no point are we justified in positing a supernatural explanation for a historical event that can be explained otherwise, for reasons I tried to explain earlier.

You see that this is different than what you said in the beginning of your comment, right? There you said that we are not justified in preferring a supernatural over a natural explanation. Here you say that we are not justified in claiming a supernatural explanation when it can be explained otherwise. I agree with you on this. But actually this is equivalent to saying we are justified in claiming a supernatural explanation when it cannot be explained otherwise. This is because the explanation is either natural or supernatural – the two are mutually exclusive.

In other words, I believe that the historical argument for Jesus is a lost cause, because the only way I can imagine the argument working is to demonstrate that all other natural explanations are more unlikely than a supernatural event occurring. Given all that we know about similar historical events (religions arising) with natural explanations, this door appears well closed.  

Fair enough. At least it seems we are now in agreement that you need to weigh the evidence relevant to the specific claim to come to this conclusion. Knowing that miracles are rare is not enough to justify a belief that the claim is false, only that you doubt it is true. Kris thinks the belief arose from cognitive dissonance, and maybe you agree with him. I think it arose from a resurrection, and have provided argumentation why I think CD is a poor explanation.

I’ve enjoyed the conversation on this, thanks.

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Tony Hoffman December 4, 2009 at 8:33 pm

Here you say that we are not justified in claiming a supernatural explanation when it can be explained otherwise. I agree with you on this. But actually this is equivalent to saying we are justified in claiming a supernatural explanation when it cannot be explained otherwise.

Well, I don’t agree with you here. We have no explanation for gravity, but this does not mean it’s justified to say “God must control gravity.” I actually think that for us to be justified in claiming a supernatural explanation that explanation should have some ability to predict and explain (not just be ad hoc), and not be the preferred placeholder for ignorance. I imagine you would agree with this as well.

Knowing that miracles are rare is not enough to justify a belief that the claim is false, only that you doubt it is true.

To be clear, I do not know that miracles are only rare — I actually do not know that miracles exist, and I am highly skeptical of their existence. I also hold you to the same epistemic standard as me, and I will state that I believe you do not know that miracles exist either.

I think it arose from a resurrection, and have provided argumentation why I think CD is a poor explanation.

Well, I never addressed your questions there, so let me explain where I think you still have problems dismissing CD (and other, similar natural explanations).

Now, suppose Jesus was killed and buried in a gravesite, and other people were buried there as well. Days later these early believers start claiming that he was resurrected bodily. If you went to the gravesite and found a lot of bodily remains there, wouldn’t you naturally doubt the claim? Wouldn’t they bear some burden to demonstrate that those other bodies weren’t Jesus’?

First, you’re assuming that the cognitive dissonance happened immediately (“days later”). But what if the cognitive dissonance set in weeks, months, and years later.

Secondly, if Jesus was someone I never met or cared about, and somebody claimed to me he’d just risen, how would producing any body impact my belief in their claim? When a scientologist or crazy person tells you about their beliefs, how motivated are you to investigate those claims? Christians seem to have this myopic view that the beliefs of their religion are so urgent that simply uttering them would have been so outlandish and such a threat to society that a region-wide dragnet would have ensued to seek out the truth. The facts, near as we can tell, are that Christianity was a minor, fringe religion for decades and decades.

If someone objects that the grave was unknown or random such that no one knew where he was buried, I don’t think this holds up against the facts of how he died (at the hands of professional executioners) or who was motivated to maintain that he was dead and buried (the Sanhedrin).

I believe you may need to research more heavily the practice of execution by the Romans, and the burial practices of those the Jews convicted of sacrilege. The most likely fate of Jesus body was that it was picked at beyond recognition by birds (“food for the crows” was a taunt of the times, meaning that your fate would be crucifixion, and your body picked at by the birds for days and days before being finally taken down and thron in a hole in the ground) or, in some cases, left outside the walls of the city for the dogs to tear at.

Further, many other claims could have been made that would not put the believer’s life in peril.

Why do you think that uttering the words that Jesus rose again from the dead would have put the believer’s life in peril? Despite Christian martyrdom mythology, Roman culture was remarkably tolerant of all kinds of religious beliefs – Christian churches would eventually pop up throughout the Roman Empire long before it became the official state religion. As for “CD not being strong enough,” I don’t know what you mean by this.

So CD is not strong enough to explain the origin of belief in early believers.

What? Thousands of people today believe that Elvis is still alive. Not only is cognitive dissonance (and genuine looniey-ness) enough to explain the origin of this belief, but it’s a virtual staple of human existence.

I’ll say again that I think late believer CD is not a reasonable hypothesis as the source for such a fantastic claim.

I am not a student of cognitive dissonance, but on what do you base your skepticism? Do you know that there is a point in time that people cannot develop cognitive dissonance about an event?

But I don’t want to get too mired down in CD as if it’s the only viable option. There are countless other options.

My own personal theory is that Jesus was crucified, to the temporary surprise of many of his followers, most of whom probably expected that Jesus was the real messiah, and that the end of the world was imminent. So, like all failed prophecy religions, some drifted away, others remained and clung to the relationships and beliefs they’d cultivated, and the following carried on as it absorbed the new facts. A new theology was contrived to explain Jesus’s bodily death in order for the religion to continue, so it was explained that Jesus was resurrected spiritually. This had some ability to mollify the following, and those who inherited the leadership void left by Jesus strived to carry on with his message. Some began to preach a variation, that Jesus’s death was more than spiritual, it was real. These preachers gained more adherents to their new religion. These same preachers, or new ones, embellished this further, saying that some actually saw Jesus after he died. These preachers gained even more adherents. The story is embellished and developed over time, and the story that gained the most adherents (bodily resurrection, made more tangible with the explanatory device of a tomb) is the version, more or less, that we have today.

Now that’s a perfectly reasonable explanation that sidesteps any problem you may have, real or misunderstood, with cognitive dissonance. I do not believe that your, or Ayer, or any other Christian here has made a case for why a supernatural explanation makes more sense than this, or, frankly, almost anything else that can be thought up.

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Paul Wright December 5, 2009 at 7:11 am

ayer:
I disagree that natural theology plus the argument from the resurrection is insufficient.Natural theology shows the existence of the monotheistic God; the resurrection, in its religio-historical context, shows that that monotheistic God is the one described by Jesus and the disciples, whose redemptive purpose is laid out in the Bible.  

It sounds like Craig would agree that even given the NT evidence, someone would be justified in not believing in the resurrection if they did not first believe in God: Craig says the resurrection is “fantastically improbable” unless it was not natural, that is, unless God did it. The NT evidence is not good enough to believe something fantastically improbable occurred. So he starts with natural theology, to establish that there’s a God. Given that there’s a God, the NT evidence is then good enough, right?

But there’s an unjustified assumption here, namely that God is the sort of God who would resurrect Jesus. If God isn’t that sort of God then he didn’t do it and we’re left with the resurrection being fantastically improbable, and the NT evidence being unpersuasive, just as if God wasn’t there.

What are your grounds for assuming God is the sort of God who would resurrect Jesus? It cannot be “the NT evidence for the resurrection”, because that’s circular: you need the assumption that God would resurrect Jesus plus the NT evidence to show that Jesus was resurrected, but you then use that to show that God is the sort of God who would resurrect Jesus: the premises contain the conclusion.

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Tony Hoffman December 5, 2009 at 8:06 am

Paul Wright: you need the assumption that God would resurrect Jesus plus the NT evidence to show that Jesus was resurrected, but you then use that to show that God is the sort of God who would resurrect Jesus: the premises contain the conclusion.

I pointed this exact same thing out to ayer earlier — I think the premise of God alone is enough to make it circular, but your refinement works the same and may be a less contentious way of pointing the circularity out.

The only Christian reply seems to be that a circular argument is somehow a logically valid one.

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lukeprog December 14, 2009 at 10:31 pm
Daniel Almeida April 20, 2011 at 12:46 am

Christian Cadre critiques Kris.

Did you ever get around to reviewing this review?

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