Craig’s case for the resurrection of Jesus

The Craig’s last major argument for the existence of God is his claim that the resurrection of Jesus can be shown to have happened using standard historical methods.

Now, I’ve previously written that  the vast majority of non-Christians (as well as many liberal Christians) don’t think the gospels, the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ life, are historically reliable. That’s because we see little reason to think their authors were in a position to know whether what they were writing about Jesus was true.

And Craig mostly doesn’t argue with that. Instead, he claims the historical reliability of the Bible isn’t important for debating Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, when historian Richard Carrier brought the issue up in their debate on the resurrection, Craig said he was “really sorry that [Carrier has] chosen to pursue that tack,” as if it were somehow inappropriate to even discuss.

What dishonest garbage. Craig’s reasoning is that the only way to establish a document’s reliability is to show it is correct about many specific events. This is false, because another way to argue for a document’s reliability is to show that the author was in a position to know what he was talking about, was likely honest, and so on. Also, if a document has been shown to contain blatant myths (like Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth), that’s reason to be a little more suspicious of other things it says.

The Bible, I need to emphasize, is basically the only evidence Jesus rose from the dead (if you can even call it evidence). We don’t know who wrote the gospels. And as Carrier explains:

Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980’s? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof? Well–no.

This is a pretty hopeless situation for Craig. The natural thing for him to do here would be to try to show the gospels are eyewitness accounts after all. Why doesn’t he do that? I think he must realize he can’t win that argument.

Instead, Craig uses lies and misdirection to make his case. I don’t use the word “lies” lightly. I think it’s clear that Craig, unlike many apologists, knows what he’s talking about. He just chooses to use that knowledge not to inform his audience, but to mislead them and run from arguments he’d lose while always giving himself away to say, “oh, what I really meant was…”

The big lie that Craig repeats constantly in his writings and debates is that the major points of the Bible story of Jesus’ resurrection are “facts.” Specifically, Craig claims:

 Fact #1: After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb

Fact #2: On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.

Fact #3: On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.

Fact #4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

Normally, the word “fact” means something that can be proven. I’m confident that there’s no proof of any of Craig’s four facts. I’m also confident that in at least three out of the four cases, Craig knows this. (His only “out,” here, as far as I can see, is to claim he meant something different by “facts” than what everyone else does.)

The only evidence for the first two “facts” is the gospels. It’s one thing to argue, based on the gospels, that probably Jesus really was buried in a tomb which was later found empty (in spite of Christian claims to the contrary, it doesn’t take a miracle to get a corpse out of a cave). But, for reasons that should be clear from the quote from Richard Carrier above, the gospels aren’t proof.

As for the fourth fact, it’s one thing to say that the disciples came to believe that Jesus had risen, but there’s no way to prove that this happened “suddenly” and “despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.” Craig makes a big deal out of claiming Jesus’ followers couldn’t come up with the idea of a resurrection on their own, but that’s nonsense, because people come up with strange new ideas all the time.

Craig’s justification for claiming the facts are facts is that supposedly most Biblical scholars agree with him. I have never seen him present the slightest evidence for what the majority of scholars believe regarding Craig’s fourth claim. In the case of the first two facts, Craig does have a study by his fellow apologist Gary Habermas saying 75% of Biblical scholars accept the empty tomb. But there are a number of problems

First, Habermas didn’t poll a random sample of Biblical scholars. He did a survey of the literature, which could be skewed if, for example, believing Jesus’ tomb was found empty makes a scholar more likely to write about the issue.

Second, Biblical scholars are overwhelmingly Christians and Jews (though many are liberals who would have a great many disagreements with Craig). Habermas also found that 75% of his sample accepted a literal resurrection. This is a bit like finding out 75% of Quran scholars have views favorable to Islam.

But most importantly for Craig’s claims about “facts,” if I found out a full quarter of historians doubted something I had thought was a fact, I’d be surprised and want to know what the controversy was about. After all, 75% is only a couple points higher than the percentage of philosophers who are atheists, but it would be absurd to claim atheism as a “philosophical fact.”

Craig often avoids even acknowledging the existence of scholars who reject the empty tomb story, and has even lied about what another scholar believes to support his claims. Craig claims Bart Ehrman as an example of a skeptical scholar who accepts his “four facts,” but Craig bases this on something Ehrman said in 2003. Ehrman later changed his mind about the empty tomb, and Craig knows this because Ehrman told him so in their 2006 debate. 

I’ve saved discussion of the third “fact” for last, because there’s a little evidence for it insofar as Paul’s letters claim that after Jesus’ death, Jesus appeared to a number of people, Paul included. The problem is that, while I personally think it’s likely Paul and some of the other people were sincere but deluded, there’s no way to prove they weren’t lying.

The common Christian response here is that the fact that Jesus’ disciples were martyred proves they weren’t lying. This is a bad argument because first, the evidence for their martyrdom is even sketchier than the evidence regarding Jesus’ life, and second, liars sometimes do end up as martyrs (see Joseph Smith, for example.)

There’s much more I could say about the issue of Jesus’ resurrection, and much I’ve said elsewhere. But when it comes to Craig, I think all that really needs to be said is that fthe “evidence” for Jesus’ resurrection is not anything that would convince many Christians if it were evidence for some other religion’s miracle, and Craig’s response to that problem is based on lies and misdirection.

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