Seven Bad Reasons to Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus

easter01Well, it looks like I spoke too soon. Contrary to my previous declaration that Tim Keller was done trying to build a logical case for Christianity and had just moved on to sermonizing, it turns out the second-to-the-last chapter in his apologetics work The Reason for God really did contain one last shot at arguing for the legitimacy of the Christian faith.

In Chapter 13, Keller rehashes the story of the resurrection of Jesus, arguing that it must have actually happened, not so much because he has positive proof for it besides a collection of stories in an ancient book, but more because until you can definitively explain how this story came to be in the first place, you are supposed to assume that it must be true.

This is what we call “shifting the burden of proof.” Ordinarily a person engaging in counterapologetics (which is what I suppose I am doing in this series of posts) has to carefully break down the other person’s logic order to expose when and where this sleight of hand occurs in the other person’s argumentation. But Keller just comes right out and states his bias in plain language:

Most people think that, when it comes to Jesus’s resurrection, the burden of proof is on believers to give evidence that it happened. That is not completely the case. The resurrection also puts a burden of proof on its nonbelievers. It is not enough to simply believe Jesus did not rise from the dead. You must then come up with a historically feasible alternate explanation for the birth of the church. (p.210)

Um, why, exactly? That seems a rather facile assertion on Keller’s part. Why am I obligated to explain why a religious community or tradition exists? Must I give an adequate explanation for why Islam exists? Or Hinduism? Or Mormonism? Or Scientology? Each of these religions makes claims upon which the rest of their beliefs are based, and I fail to see why we are automatically obligated to accept them by default until we can first definitively prove that those claims are false. Or does Keller mean that only his religion should be privileged in that way? I wonder why, exactly?

A resurrection is an extraordinary claim, and as notable skeptics Sagan, Hitchens, and before them LaPlace have all said in various forms, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It would mean very little for someone to simply argue that a peasant rabbi amassed a following in ancient rural Palestine only to fall in with zealots and get himself killed by the Roman authorities. We have evidence of that occurring on more than one occasion. But it’s another thing altogether to claim that, after a weekend in a tomb, one of those rabbis came back to life, walked through walls, ate breakfast, and then flew away up into the sky. Those are extraordinary claims, and yet Keller says it’s on you to believe them all unless you can prove they never happened.

Why Are We Still Debating This?

Arguments for the historicity of the Gospels wear me out, I have to confess. Like apologetics discussions in general, I find them tedious and repetitive. It seems to me that after people slog their way through all the details (and that can go on for days, weeks, or months) they come away believing the exact same things they believed going into the discussion. My own personal feeling is that the whole preoccupation misses the most important point of all:

If the resurrection of Jesus really happened, we wouldn’t be still debating its historicity today. The present-day evidence for the other claims of the Christian faith would be overwhelming, and all around us. They would leave little room for doubt.

The very fact that we are still dissecting these ancient stories, looking for clues to determine whether or not they really happened says enough, don’t you think? I believe we have too quickly forgotten that the same book which asserts that Jesus came back from the dead also asserts other things, such as: 1) if you pray for people to be healed they will get better, 2) if you give money to God you’ll get even more back in return, and 3) if you truly trust Jesus with all your heart then his spirit will empower you to become a better person. It says all of those things, and so much more, yet the devout keep pointing us away from present-day evidence toward ancient stories which we will never be able to positively disprove without the use of a time machine.

According to the writer(s) of the fourth Gospel, Jesus himself indicated what he intentioned would be the most visible evidence for his own legitimacy: The unity of the church. If the author(s) of that gospel can be believed at all, Jesus had the audacity to gamble his own legacy on his followers’ ability to remain in harmonious relationship with one another. I have often called this “the most failed prayer in history,” and it seems to me that any student of history should be forgiven for concluding based on what we have seen that in fact Jesus wasn’t who the Bible says he was.

[Read “The Most Fantastically Failed Prayer in History“]

That aside, I see no reason not to work my way through the handful of reasons which Keller believes the burden of proof—or rather disproof—remains on people like me who disbelieve that a guy died and came back 36 hours later nearly 2,000 years ago. I do feel the need to throw in couple of caveats first, however.

First, I will assume for the sake of argument that Jesus was in fact a real, historical person. I will admit this is far from certain, and I dare you to bring that subject up within any gathering of English speaking atheists today. But for the purposes of interacting with this chapter, we might as well start with that assumption. Remember that just because a guy named Jesus lived and died in the way the Bible says he did does NOT necessarily establish that he also performed miracles and came back from the dead. I hope most readers can separate Supernatural Jesus from Regular Joe Jesus long enough to get through the topic at hand.

Second, I cannot help but note that in a chapter aimed at convincing skeptics of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, Keller relies upon the same individual for 9 out of 10 citations, and that individual happens to be an Anglican bishop. Granted, N.T. Wright is a brilliant writer and a devoted student of primitive Christianity who gratuated with honors from Oxford University. He’s no slouch. But he’s still an Anglican minister, and at heart he is a student of Christian theology. I found it somewhat disappointing to see him relying so heavily upon a fellow man of the cloth to establish a question of objective history.

Nevertheless, by my count Wright (via Keller) posits at least seven reasons why he feels those of us who disbelieve in the resurrection have some ‘splainin’ to do.

Here are seven bad reasons for believing Jesus rose from the dead, and thoughts on why they are terrible.

Seven Arguments Against the Resurrection NOT Happening

Yeah, I know that heading sports a cumbersome double negative, but then so does the logic it represents. Let’s proceed:

1. While the gospels weren’t written until a full generation after the time of Jesus, the letters of Paul attest to the resurrection as well, and they were written earlier. 

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Princess Diana. You’ll see why in a minute. (via Wikimedia)

Well, yes, that is most likely true. Although we’re still talking about second- or third-hand information at best, and it’s still at least 20 years after the time at which these events were to have taken place. If I were to write a piece today about the untimely death of Princess Diana, I doubt it would carry much historical weight, given that I was neither there to witness the automobile accident that claimed her life nor was I even in the same country at the time. I wouldn’t be much of an authority on the details of her death, nor would anyone treat me as such unless they were desperate for reliable sources of information on the matter.

2. ZOMG there were 500 witnesses to the risen Jesus!

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A rare photo of the 500 witnesses (YouTube screenshot)

Okay, so Keller never used the word “zomg,” but I feel entitled to poke fun after having heard this thrown out as many times as I have over the years. The passage in 1 Corinthians 15 to which Keller refers doesn’t establish what he thinks it establishes at all, because Paul is merely repeating what he was told by someone else, and we don’t even know if that someone else was supposed to be one of those 500 people in the first place. Keller seems a bit overly impressed by all of this:

Paul’s letter was to a church, and therefore it was a public document, written to be read aloud. Paul was inviting anyone who doubted that Jesus had appeared to people after his death to go and talk to the eyewitnesses if they wished. (p.212)

Just how often does Keller think people on the other side of the Mediterranean made trips to Jerusalem? And if they did travel the nearly 1,800 miles by land (or 800 by sea), how exactly would they track down any of those 500 witnesses now that more than 20 years had come and gone since that time? In short, this doesn’t count as 500 points, it only counts as one point, if even that. It’s not even an eyewitness’s account. It’s a second-, third-, or even fourth-hand retelling of a story that claims there were eyewitnesses. Can people really not understand this difference? I’m kind of baffled.

3. We don’t give ancient people enough credit for their skepticism, nor for their ability to distinguish between fact and folklore.

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Generic ancient people (via Wikimedia)

Both Wright and Keller borrow heavily from C.S. Lewis, who frequently accused his contemporaries of “chronological snobbery” whereby modern people look down on their ancient counterparts as simpletons who would believe any tall tale they heard.  My main problem with this contention isn’t that people back then weren’t as smart as we are today, it’s that people today are still much more gullible than we care to admit. In other words, it’s not that ancients were so easily duped, it’s that we all are, even today.

The advent of the Information Age hasn’t necessarily spawned a generation of critical thinkers. I often say that misinformation travels just as fast as information, perhaps even faster. So this isn’t just a problem of ancient history. I’ve worked in a supplement store and I know good and well that as long the person giving nutritional advice is wearing a lab coat and/or has a stethoscope around their neck, people will buy whatever they are selling. And you don’t have to travel far from an major city before you run into a culture of superstition that makes you want to put your car in reverse and head back home as quickly as possible.

4. Women were among the first to report the resurrection, and nobody in that day would have made that up.

See? A woman. Bible story illustration, public domain (pre-1923)

Far too much has been made of the fact that the gospels report women as the first to testify to the resurrection. Apologists for many years have counted this as a mark in favor of the “criteria of embarrassment,” meaning that if the early church had truly fabricated the resurrection account, they would have made sure to put the first testimonies in the mouths of men for reasons of social convention.

Women’s low social status meant that their testimony was not admissible evidence in court…The only possible explanation for why women were depicted as meeting Jesus first is if they really had. (p.213)

Well, that’s not exactly the only possible explanation, and this isn’t exactly a court of law, either. But in that particular culture and time, women’s lower social status actually made them more likely to be the ones given the responsibility of handling burial rituals, wrapping bodies and unwrapping them again to reapply burial spices and so forth. It’s quite normal and expected that if there had been a burial and a subsequent removal of the body of Jesus, women should have been the first to discover that he was missing.

And I should probably add here that I think this is exactly what happened. I don’t personally subscribe to the mythicist position which suggests that Jesus never even existed. To my mind, it is more likely that there was a guy named Jesus who did in fact get executed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that his body was removed at some point, leading to a whole host of theories and legends which eventually grew into post-crucifixion sightings of a resurrected Jesus.

The earliest version of the earliest gospel (Mark 16:1-8) ends with two women carrying burial spices to an empty tomb only to flee the scene “trembling and bewildered, saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” The oldest manuscripts we have of this gospel end with two confused women and no resurrection appearances. Which means at bare minimum we can surmise that the stories of later appearances by Jesus must have grown up later on, and in time were even added to the end of the text of Mark’s gospel in order to corroborate the legends that grew up between the different versions of the story.

5. People in that time would have never believed in an individual bodily resurrection because it wouldn’t have fit their worldview.

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CH Bloch, “The Resurrection” (1881), public domain

Keller here again leans heavily on the work of N.T. Wright who argues in several of his works that any concept of resurrection familiar to the people of this time period would have disallowed for a personal resurrection of just one individual, and certainly not one that is physical in nature. Keller seems far too confident in ruling out any such thinking when he says things like:

Once your soul is free of its body, a return to re-embodied life was outlandish, unthinkable, and impossible… The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been as impossible to imagine to a Jew as to a Greek. (p.215-216)

And yet we have right there in the letter to the Hebrews (arguably the most Jewish book in the New Testament) this illuminating admission:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said,“Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead…

It seems to me that whoever wrote the letter to the Hebrews believed that, even as far back as Abraham, there must have been some kind of concept of individual resurrection. If not for a belief in individual resurrection, how else would Abraham have been willing to march up that mountain ready to sacrifice the very offspring through whom the man was supposed to become “the father of many nations?”

6. First-century Jews would never have agreed to worship a human as divine, unless he really were God incarnate.

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Yemenite Jew, National Geographic (1914), public domain.

Keller makes it sound like the deification of Jesus happened immediately. He takes the timeframe in which Jesus goes from rabbi to prophet to messiah to God and collapses it into an instantaneous event.

Jews…believed in a single, transcendent, personal God. It was absolute blasphemy to propose that any human being should be worshipped. Yet hundreds of Jews began worshipping Jesus literally overnight. (p.218)

Did they really, though? Because it seems to me the bulk of our knowledge about primitive Christianity comes from the later Pauline communities, not the earlier Judean ones. Do we really know how quickly they adapted to the idea that Jesus was somehow both human and divine? Even the early Christian hymn which Keller cites from Philippians 2, while situating the development of a high Christology in the mid-first-century, doesn’t really tell us that it wasn’t the more Greek-leaning diaspora communities who provided that particular innovation.

And as I mentioned in my last post, a cursory glance through the early church councils of the Fourth and Fifth centuries reveals that the divinity of Jesus was still being hotly debated in the church even 400 years after its inception. That’s not to say that the worship of Jesus didn’t start as early as the first century, but it does mean that the church’s understanding of the divinity of Jesus wasn’t exactly a fully developed thing right off the bat.

7. The early disciples would have never sacrificed their lives if the resurrection didn’t really happen.

Joseph_Martin_Kronheim_-_Foxe's_Book_of_Martyrs_Plate_I_-_Martyrdom_of_St._Paul

JM Kronheim, Martyrdom of St. Paul (1887), public domain.

Honestly, I don’t see how any American living in post 9/11 society can overlook the very real possibility that a dozen or more zealous young men would be willing to sacrifice their lives for a religious belief. Zealotry is no proof that the things you believe are actually true. It only means that you sincerely believe them to be true.

Did the original 12 apostles in fact give up their lives for their faith? I don’t really know. This is another one of those many points at which people like Keller immediately believe any and every story that church tradition has preserved about the deaths of the earliest disciples. One such story I recall describes the apostle Peter being crucified upside down at his own request because, as the story goes, he didn’t consider himself worthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus. Because of course, Roman emperors were always taking requests from their captives, right?

I guess I can’t fault Keller for his seemingly automatic credulity, given that he has devoted his life to the proclamation of the beliefs of the church. But the rest of us won’t be starting at the same default setting from which he reads church tradition. And even if we did, it still wouldn’t mean the same thing to us that these people were willing to die for a belief since we’ve seen so many others willing to do the same for completely opposite ideas.

In the end, Keller tries to cover all bases. Even if we don’t believe in the Easter story, we should want it to be true. His reasoning is unconvincing.

Making Easter Relevant

I must comment on one last assertion that Keller makes in this chapter because I hear it from time to time and it has always struck me as a non sequitur. Following Wright’s lead, Keller suggests that the story of the resurrection of Jesus isn’t just about getting sins forgiven, but that it also portends to a future restoration of the whole world, and that the expectation of this future deliverance should motivate the church to become a meditating force to implement that deliverance in some anticipatory way.

Each year at Easter I get to preach on the Resurrection. In my sermon I always say to my skeptical, secular friends that, even if they can’t believe in the resurrection, they should want it to be true. Most of them care deeply about justice for the poor, alleviating hunger and disease, and caring for the environment. (p.220)

My first thought when I read that last sentence was about how unconcerned about those things evangelical Christians in America seem to be. If the story of the resurrection is supposed to motivate the church to seek to effect change in those areas, they sure haven’t made any of those things central components of the culture wars they’ve been fighting over the last few decades. The church in America is much more concerned with exerting control over what people do in their bedrooms than whether or not they’ve had enough to eat or what their carbon footprint happens to be.

Keller goes on to give a lengthy quote from one of Wright’s sermons to argue that the Easter story should move the church to become a force for good in the world in precisely those ways:

Easter means that in a world where injustice, violence and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things—and that we will work and plan, with all the energy of God, to implement the victory of Jesus over them all. (p.221)

Those are wonderful goals, and I would love to see the church in America come to focus on such real-world activities as alleviating injustice, war, poverty and disease. But I fail to see how stories of miraculous feedings and healings necessarily inspires that. I mean it’s not like Jesus taught his disciples about antibiotics or how to better irrigate arid tracts of land. The early church didn’t travel to impoverished districts to dig wells or lobby to change the laws or foreign policies of the Roman Empire. In fact, the only direct action I can recall Jesus taking toward the environment was when he killed a fig tree for not bearing figs out of season. Not exactly the environmental hero we were looking for.

Furthermore, the things we are told that Jesus did were all instantaneous miracles. Now we are being told that his example is supposed to lead the church to do the same things he did, but in non-miraculous ways because of course everybody knows better than to expect that? I’ve never understood the appeal of this line of reasoning. It tickles the fancy of the modern progressive listener, and I guess I can’t blame either of these two churchmen for seeking to make their own ancient religious tradition relevant to the times in which we live.

But this has always felt like a bit of a stretch. And I suspect the majority of the church instinctively knows that, which would explain why those things haven’t really caught on in the church today.

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As with the rest of this review, I am including links to the videos of Steve Shives, who covered all of these chapters in pairs in his “An Atheist Reads” series. Be sure to check them out. Here he covers Chapters 12 and 13:

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If you’d like to read the rest of my responses to Keller’s chapters up until this point, you can find them listed here:

(Other Posts in this Series)

Featured Image: Adobe Stock; Diana, ancient Persians, via Wikimedia; Life of Brian via YouTube screenshot; Mary at tomb, angels at tomb, Yemenite Jew all public domain (prior to 1923) 

About Neil Carter

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.