Letters to an Atheist

4. Challenging the Resurrection

When Edward challenged me to respond to Sam Harris' The Moral Lanscape, I set him the challenge of presenting a naturalistic explainion for the empty tomb of Jesus, a task so easy that he though it hardly worth dignifying it with a response. 'There must be an infinite number of explanations,' he laughed.

Anyway, it took anout four months before he got around to providing a response. His explanation was that the disciples asked the Roman guards at the tomb to take the body of Jesus and deposit it somewhere else. It was a variation on the claim that the Romans removed the body, but not in quite that way. 

I sent the following response to Edward. His remaks are in italics.

Apologies for this overdue response to your email on the Empty Tomb in your last email, Edward.

It might be helpful, first of all, to repeat your argument and then give the ‘really great evidence’ for the resurrection you asked for.

Honestly, I can’t prove that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. It’s an overused point made by atheists to believers a lot, but it’s true that we can’t prove a negative. You could give me the most outlandish scenario possible and I couldn’t prove that it didn’t happen. What I would have to do is ask you to give me really great evidence that it did happen.

While doing this, we would have to think of alternative explanations that could explain it, explanations that didn’t require such grand evidence. And at the end of this process, we could come to a conclusion.

The issue I have with the empty tomb is this. It’s not the fact that the tomb was found empty that is the problem, it is the reason given for it being empty.


'The right kind of evidence'

You are right, of course. You can’t prove a negative but you can seek to set forth a more cogent explanation for the empty tomb. But what would constitute ‘really great evidence’ of the resurrection of Jesus for you since you seem to have decidedalready  that the resurrection of Jesus can be neither proved nor disproved.

If you don’t know what great evidence looks like, no amount of proof would be able to convince you that the resurrection tok place.

It wouldn’t help, for example, if I were to tell you that you that last night Jesus came to dinner with me and my wife and told me to pass on the following message to you:

Dear George,

Just a brief note to say not only am I not dead, I’m not even sick.

Love and best wishes,

J. Christ

I guess that ‘outlandish scenario’ would bring our correspondence to an immediate halt. But there are far better and more reasonable evidences for the resurrection than that.

Remember, I am approaching this from the point of view that there is no God to bring himself back to life in human form in the first place. So to try and use a disappearing body and the apparent reappearance of this body (now living) is far from the right kind of evidence.

So what constitutes the ‘right kind of evidence’?

The New Testament writers claimed that Jesus rose physically from the grave and refused to retract that claim, even when threatened with death. If Jesus didn’t rise from the tomb, the disciples who claimed to have witnessed the event were either lying or they were crazy. Either than, or they were telling the truth. At any rate, if Jesus remained in the grave, Christianity is a sham and we should all just eat, drink and be merry, since life is meaningless.

But Paul the apostle claims that over five hundred people, as well as Jesus’ immediate circle of disciples, saw him alive and that he appeared to Paul himself a couple of years after hw appeared to the other disciples.

The statement, of itself, proves nothing. But if Paul proves himself to be honest and reliable in the rest of his writings, that adds significant weight to his claim that Jesus appeared to over five hundred people after his resurrection.

What should also be borne in mind is the effect the appearance had on his life afterwards. Paul was no armchair theologian or philosopher. On the basis of his own post-resurrection encounter with Jesus, he turned from being a persecutor to being persecuted. The fact that one of the greatest enemies of Christianity was prepared to dedicate his entire life to persuading Jews and Gentiles to follow Jesus can’t simply be dismissed out of hand.

Let’s say the events did happen as they are documented in the bible. I wouldn’t have anywhere near as big a problem believing that, but let's say it’s the interpretation that’s in question.

Again, you’re right. Data must always be interpreted. So, first of all, here’s your interpretation of the biblical data.

To use broad strokes, these are the options as I see them.

1. When Jesus was put into the tomb he wasn’t really dead, but *was* the same person seen three days later.

2. The living Jesus seen three days later wasn’t the same person as the dead body that was put in the tomb three days earlier.

3. The biblical account of the events is correct, as is the interpretation. Given these are the options, we must grant that the thing that differs is the interpretation, not the events themselves.

There was a body put in a tomb. Three days later the tomb was discovered empty. And then a living person was widely witnessed and thought to be one and the same as the person placed in the tomb, three days earlier, dead. Given that all three of the possible explanations above can be applied to the same set of events, we must concede that they all have the same amount of descriptive evidence behind them. It could be no other way since we need not differ the events to accommodate the different explanations. We need only differ the interpretation of the events.

Therefore, I would say that assuming one doesn’t already accept the involvement of supernaturals, the least likely explanation is the supernatural one. Especially if we are trying to use the supernatural one to prove the existence of supernaturals.

As you will probably have noticed already, this would be a circular argument.

So, although I can’t prove that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, I can show there is no more evidence of this than there is for the other explanations.


'Theorizing without data'

While I largely agree with your points, to rule out the supernatural involves circular reasoning. The philosopher David Hume rejected the possibility of miracles on the grounds that miracles don’t occur. His line of reasoning was that miracles cannot occur because no one has ever witnessed one. Therefore, someone who claims to have seen a miracle must immediately be kicked into touch because we know they can’t happen.

What we do know is that if a miracle such as the resurrection of Jesus took place, especially under the circumstances described in the New Testament, there can be no explanation apart from the supernatural. But before I attempt to set forth ‘really great evidence’ for the resurrection, let’s examine the major naturalistic explanations. Then, when we’ve examined all the naturalistic explanations for the empty tomb, if we find them to be implausble, we can then proceed to examine the supernatural explanation.

Incidentally, I use the word ‘naturalistic’ rather than ‘rational’ because faith is not opposed to reason. In the Bible, God calls us to ‘reason together’ and calls unbelievers to ‘set forth’ their case. Paul’s missionary strategy involved ‘reasoning’ both in the synagogue with Jews and at with Greek philosophers in Athens.

We can’t prove the resurrection of Christ by scientific method since the resurrection is beyond the remit of science proper. But we can, prove an event to have occurred ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ by employing the kind of evidence admissible in a court of law: legal evidence. In a court of law, a jury is asked to decide whether an accused person is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. A verdict is reached, first of all, on the concept of ‘probability reasoning’ and, second, on the principle of ‘burden of proof.’

The case for the resurrection must ultimately be based on establishing the factuality of certain events. But simple facts never rise to the level of formal, mathematical proof. As you say, the facts must be interpreted. I subscribe to Sherlock Homes’ dictum: ‘It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’

Let’s try to make out respective theories fit the facts.

We can never be certain of the resurrection in the way we can know absolutely that the square of the hypotenuse on a right-angled triangle will equal the sum of the squares on the other two sides because that kind of certainty only comes through deductive logic and pure mathematics.

Nevertheless, we can be certain beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus rose from the dead by weighing the probabilities and by looking at the facts in the same way a lawyer would when presenting evidence to a court or jury. Therefore, the ‘burden of proof’ is on me to first of all establish a reasonable case for the resurrection.


Beyong reasonable doubt

About twenty years ago, I served on a jury to decide the guilt or innocence of a young guy who was accused of stealing some cheese and a pack of chicken kievs from an Iceland store. When the jury adjourned, all the men were ready to pass sentence immediately men but most of the women felt sorry for the unkempt, skinny wretch. I felt sorry for him too but I wasn’t prepared to let my feelings cloud my thinking. After a couple of hours, to the annoyance of the rest of us, one man – a teacher – wanted to acquit him. He admitted that all the evidence pointed to a guilty verdict but he didn’t want to condemn a man who just might be innocent. Everyone tried in vain to persuade him to agree with them but the teacher wasn’t for turning.

Finally, when everyone else frustrated and annoyed, I reminded the teacher that our brief as a jury was to decide whether the accused was guilty or innocent beyond reasonable doubt. The teacher had a doubt but I suggested that it was not a reasonable doubt. To prove it, I set up the only possible alternative scenario, which was that the security guard who caught the accused had managed to plant the cheese and kievs on him in the store, after which he followed him outside and asked him to open his coat, whereupon – to the astonishment of the accused – gravity kicked in and the purloined foodstuffs fell to the ground. Did that sound reasonable?

‘OK,’ said the teacher, ‘He’s guilty!’

In the last five decades I’ve encountered many arguments against the resurrection but have invariably found that the alternatives to the resurrection to be more implausible than the straightforward biblical account. The biblical claim is certainly very hard to swallow but the alternatives are impossible. When you’re faced with a choice between the very difficult and the downright impossible, always opt for the very difficult.

What, then, are the naturalistic explanations for the empty tomb?


Who moved the stone?

The earliest proposed explanation was that the disciples removed the body of Jesus from the tomb. There are the flaws beyond number with this hypothesis. First of all, the disciples had no motive for removing the body of Jesus from the grave. Lots of Jewish prophets were martyred but none of their disciples felt it necessary to remove their bodies in order to claim that their prophet had been resurrected.

The disciples of Jesus were observant Jews and remained so to the end of their lives. To remove the body of Jesus would involve not only the desecration of the Sabbath but also ceremonial defilement through contact with a dead body. Faking the resurrection would also have meant bearing false witnesses against the Almighty. As observant Jews, the disciples of Jesus would have mourned their rabbi for seven days. This makes the suggestion of God-fearing Jews removing the body extremely unlikely.

But for the sake of the argument, let’s imagine that immediately after the death of Jesus, knowing they had a little over 24 hours to pull it off, the distraught disciples hatched a scheme to remove the body of their Master on the Sabbath (bearing in mind that the punishment for Sabbath-breaking was death), how would they have gotten past the Roman guards camped outside the tomb, remove the stone and rebury Jesus?

Somebody once suggested to me that the disciples dug a tunnel into the tomb. Imagine that! In less than 24 hours the disciples silently and with uncanny accurately dug a tunnel through solid limestone and with unerring aim emerged in the tomb from where they stole the body and left without a trace of evidence!

And where were they going to find a spare tomb for him on the Sabbath? To have hastily dug a hole in the ground into which they dumped the body of their rabbi would be unthinkable

You suggested that the disciples might have approached the Roman guards, the very people who crucified their Master and paid them to bury Jesus somewhere else. Apart from anything else, where would poor men who lived off the charity of others find enough cash to persuade Roman guards to break the imperial seal on the tomb (an offence for which the punishment was crucifixion)?

What would you have done if you were one of the soldiers and the grief-stricken followers of the trouble-maker you had just disposed of offered you money to bury his body somewhere else? You’d take the money and just leave Jesus in the tomb, right? Or, more probably, you’d march them off to Pontius Pilate for attempting to circumvent Roman justice. That would have resulted in even more Jewish crucifixions!

Another suggestion is that the Romans or the chief priests had the body of Jesus removed and buried elsewhere. Why would they do that? What would be the point?

But supposes the Romans did remove the tomb. When the disciples began to publicly preach that Jesus had risen from the dead, why didn’t they just produce Jesus’ body and send the apostles off with their tails between their legs? If the opponents of Jesus, for whatever obscure reason, removed his body, Christianity would have never got off the ground.

In 1994, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Lubavitch Chabad movement died in Crown Heights, New York. Schneerson was, without a doubt, the most famous and influential rabbi in the world. Many of his followers believed he was the Messiah and would soon rise from the grave. They have been awaiting his resurrection for almost twenty-five years but, in all that time, not one of Schneerson’s devotees has ever claimed to have seen him. And, I suspect, if any member of the Lubavitch movement came forward to claim that their Rebbe was alive, they would be sectioned.

At any rate, all it would be easy to prove the truth or falsity of the claim; all Schneerson’s followers would need to do is open his coffin. Three days after the death of Jesus, more than a dozen people were claiming to have seen him alive. Less than two months later, in front of the very people who crucified Jesus and those who had witnessed the event, Jesus’ disciple Peter preached the resurrection with such conviction that 3,000 Jews believed. After thirty years, tens of thousands of Jews and Gentiles were being thrown to lions in the Roman coliseum for their faith in the risen Jesus. It seems the only way you can get a story about resurrection to fly is if it really happens.


The crux of the matter

A third hypothesis is that Jesus didn’t really die. This is a truly ridiculous notion. Before Jesus was crucified, he had eaten and drunk hardly anything, he had been beaten and flogged by macho Roman soldiers who knew how to handle messianic trouble-makers. The crucifixion itself would most likely have put several of Jesus’ bones out of joint and John, who was present at the crucifixion, claims that when a centurion thrust a spear into the heart of Jesus to make sure he was dead, ‘blood and water’ came out. If the Romans knew anything at all, it was how to kill.

The crucifixion was an excruciatingly painful means of putting somebody to death. Jesus would have been nailed to the cross in such a way that his legs would be bent at the knees so that all the weight was on his arms. That position would cause muscle cramps throughout his body. To prevent suffocation, he would have had to push up with his legs to change position to take quick, shallow breaths of air. Under normal circumstances, victims of crucifixion died of asphyxiation but Jesus was a 33 year-old carpenter and probably strong. Some strong men endure crucifixion for days before they expired. Jesus, died after only six hours, which surprised the Romans.

In 1965, the Arizona Medical Association published an article by C. Truman Davis entitled A Physician Analyzes the Crucifixion. Davis demonstrates the reliability of the crucifixion accounts in the Gospels from a medical perspective. He deals first with Luke’s account of Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane: ‘Though very rare, the phenomenon of Hematidrosis, or bloody sweat, is well documented. Under great emotional stress of the kind our Lord suffered, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat.’

On the water and the blood, which John says he witnessed pouring from the side of Jesus after a soldier pierced his heart, Davis says, ‘…there was an escape of water fluid from the sac surrounding the heart, giving post-mortem evidence that Our Lord died not the usual crucifixion death by suffocation, but of heart failure (a broken heart) due to shock and constriction of the heart by fluid in the pericardium.’

If the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion are accurate, the likelihood of the resurrection accounts also being truthful is increased. It’s worth noting that Matthew was one of Jesus’ immediate circle of friends and that ancient tradition says John was Jesus’s best friend. From earliest times, Mark was said to have been the young man in Gethsemane who fled from the scene of Jesus’ arrest and is believed to have been Peter’s amanuensis. Luke was a doctor and a companion of Paul, and he says he composed his Gospel after interviewing eye-witnesses. If the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are untrue, those four men were either liars or fools. Yet when you read their accounts of the life, the teachings, the miracles, the trial, death and resurrection, there is a distinct ring of truth about them.


Unexpected resurrection

None of the disciples expected Jesus to rise from the dead and most of them – famously Thomas – at first couldn’t believe he was alive. Furthermore, all four Gospels report women finding the tomb empty. If the Gospels had been composed at the end of the first century, as some New Testament critics claim, the anonymous writers would hardly have had women finding the empty tomb because the testimony of women was pretty much worthless. Writers of a later generation, if they had wished to convince unbelievers of the resurrection, would have had Pontius Pilate and the Jewish chief priests discovering the empty tomb, in a similar manner, perhaps, to the way the Old Testament book of Daniel reports Darius the king of Persia finding Daniel alive after having thrown him to lions. Incidentally, I don’t believe Daniel made up that story.

Like all Jews, Jesus’s disciples expected a resurrection of the dead at the end of time but, as far as they were concerned, the end of the world was a long way off. To non-Jews, the idea of physical resurrection was ludicrous. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and other ancient cultures all believed in an afterlife in a shadowy netherworld. As far as they were concerned, when you were dead you were dead.

If the disciples of Jesus wanted to gain followers – whether among Jews or Gentiles – humanly speaking, they stacked the odds against themselves. The teachings of Jesus they recorded – such as loving one’s enemies – were unique in the ancient world. If the first Christians were fabricating a story they hoped would change the world when they claimed that Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s way of salvation, that he rose physically after three days and that the first witnesses of the resurrection were women, they were playing all the wrong notes and in the wrong order! But they taught because they genuinely believed it and, against all human odds, the Good News spread like wildfire in the ancient Mediterranean world and eventually brought down imperial Rome!

Virtually every scholar studying the resurrection of Jesus acknowledges that the Gospel writers were convinced not only that Jesus rose from the dead but also that he appeared alive to many of them on several occasions. Furthermore, scholars are pretty much unanimous in recognising that James the brother of Jesus and Saul of Tarsus (Paul), who were initially sceptical, became believers after becoming convinced that they had seen the risen Jesus.

The conversion of James, Thomas and Paul from scepticism and the willingness of the earliest disciples to suffer persecution, torture and martyrdom, rather than deny they had seen the risen Lord is a powerful evidence that they were not lying. The fact that Paul turned his back on a potential prestigious seat on the Jewish ruling council and as a result received the ‘forty stripes save one’ at the hand of the Jewish authorities, three beatings with rods by the Romans, in addition to stonings, shipwrecks and, finally, beheading in Rome, suggests he was (to put it mildly) genuinely convinced that Jesus had appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Paul was no fool. He was one of the smartest men of his time, equally at home debating knowledgeable rabbis and chief priests in Jerusalem and Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens.

In a court of law there is a prosecuting council and a defence council. It is up to the defence to prove the innocence of the accused and for the prosecution to prove the guilt. I have presented my defence (albeit very briefly) for the resurrection. Although you acknowledge you can’t disprove the resurrection, there is a ‘burden of proof’ on you to demonstrate where my case is flawed. In other words, you now have to demonstrate that the New Testament data (the earliest data we have to go on) is unreliable and that I have not proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that Jesus rose supernaturally from the grave.

You admit that you can’t prove that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, Charles. But be careful not to use that truism as a cop out. Though you can’t prove non-resurrection, you can and should attempt to prove that my case is flawed.

As a final point, I’m sure you’re familiar with the principle of ‘Occam’s Razor’: the simplest explanation to any problem is usually the right one. Detectives use it to deduce the likeliest suspect in a murder case and doctors employ it (or at least they ought to employ it) to determine the illness behind a particular set of symptoms.

I rest my case.


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