Why Craig’s case for the resurrection is dishonest

This is the other post I wanted to do in response to Jeff Lowder. In the first one, I documented a pattern of William Lane Craig misrepresenting his opponents’ views. Here, I’m going to bring together previous points I’ve made about Craig’s case for the resurrection (here and here, among other places), to make it as clear as possible why Craig’s behavior here is dishonest. Warning: ~2,000 word post!

I’ve written an entire book about supposed historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, but since finishing the book I’ve come to the conclusion that a point-by-point rebuttal of Craig’s arguments in particular misses the point. That’s not what makes Craig rhetorically effective.

Some background: as I’ve said before, many Biblical scholars, including many liberal Christians, do not think the accounts of Jesus’ life are historically reliable. A number of those scholars have  had things to say about the issue of the resurrection specifically, including Bart Ehrman (who I mentioned in my previous post), John Dominic Crossan, Gerd Lüdemann, and Michael Goulder.

The scholars I’ve just mentioned all have broadly similar views of the resurrection. They see little reason to think the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are very accurate at all. They tend to reject the story of Joseph of Arimathea (supposedly member of a Jewish council) getting Jesus’ body from Pilate and placing it in a tomb, and the story of some women finding the tomb empty the next Saturday. And they see the experiences of Paul and other early Christians who claim to have seen the risen Jesus as hallucinations.

(Or something like hallucinations. Crossan, a liberal Christian, seems to avoid the word.)

I lean towards thinking these scholars are right, though their view hardly the only possibility. Contrary to what apologists like Craig like to pretend, it doesn’t take a miracle to get a corpse out of a cave; Jesus’ body could easily have been removed from the tomb through natural means.

Also, Paul could have simply been lying about the appearances. The standard Christian response here is that the fact Paul and the other apostles were (reportedly) martyred proves they weren’t lying, but this is a bad argument for two reasons. The evidence for their martyrdom is even sketchier than the evidence regarding Jesus’ life, and liars sometimes do end up as martyrs (see Joseph Smith, for example.)

Finally, while there’s much to applaud in modern Biblical scholarship, I think Biblical scholars have been too quick to dismiss the possibility that outright lies played a role in the origins of Christianity. Bart Ehrman does a good job of arguing this with respect to the authorship of the epistles in his recent book Forged. The problem probably exists because while many scholars are heretical by conservative standards, most still identify as Christians and don’t want to say anything too embarrassing about Christianity.

Now here is Craig’s standard argument for the resurrection of Jesus. I’ll quote from his debate with Stephen Law on the existence of God, though Craig has said basically the same thing in debate after debate:

There are actually three facts recognized by the majority of New Testament historians today which I believe are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus:

Fact #1: On the Sunday after his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.

Fact #2: On separate occasions different individuals and groups saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death.

And #3: The original disciples suddenly came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus despite having every predisposition to the contrary.

N.T. Wright, an eminent New Testament scholar concludes, “That is why as a historian I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again leaving an empty tomb behind him.”

Attempts to explain away these three great facts—like “The disciples stole the body” or “Jesus wasn’t really dead”—have been universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. The simple fact is that there just is no plausible, naturalistic explanation of these three facts.

In Craig’s debate with Bart Ehrman, he said all that and more, claiming the “facts” were “relatively uncontroversial” and that it was the explanation of the “facts” that was controversial. Craig also cited Lüdemann to support his claim about the appearances of Jesus, and claimed Ehrman does not “support any of these naturalistic explanations of the facts.”

Now, forget everything I’ve told you about Biblical scholarship. Imagine you’re a devout evangelical hearing these claims, or that you’re listening to one of Craig’s debates at the request of an evangelical friend. You never think to wonder if Craig can be trusted. What will you think?

Well, you’ll probably think that when Craig says “facts,” he means “not merely a matter of opinion,” and that there must therefore be some strong proof that has convinced all but a few Biblical scholars that his “facts” are facts. After all, Craig says the thing that’s controversial is whether “Jesus rose from the dead” is the right explanation for the “facts.”

But Craig also says all other explanations have been “universally rejected by contemporary scholarship.” That suggests that Biblical scholars all either accept the resurrection or else are baffled skeptics, that they can’t explain the evidence but reject the miracle out of philosophical prejudice.

Craig does much to encourage the impression of baffled skeptics. In his debate with Ehrman, for example, he painted Ehrman’s position as based entirely on outdated philosophical arguments. “Scepticism about Jesus’ resurrection,” Craig claims, “rests mainly, not on historical, but on philosophical considerations which fall outside the area of expertise of New Testament scholars.”

The impression Craig gives is a false one. As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, many scholars are skeptical of the resurrection, think the evidence is perfectly explicable without a miracle, and don’t think Craig’s “facts” are facts. Craig rarely acknowledges that many scholars reject his “facts,” even when (as he often does with Lüdemann) he’s quoting them to support his views. In this context, Craig’s misrepresentation of Ehrman’s views is all the more damning.

In fact, I’ve never seen Craig give any evidence for his claim that a majority of scholars think the disciples had “every predisposition” not to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. His claim that a majority of scholars side with him on the empty tomb has also been disputed by some scholars. He has some evidence for that second claim, though: a study by Craig’s fellow apologist Gary Habermas.

Habermas reports that in his survey of the literature, 75% of scholars who write about the empty tomb accept its historicity while 25% reject it. However, there’s a problem with using this to claim that 75% of Biblical scholars accept the empty tomb: if scholars who reject the empty tomb are less inclined to write about it, they’ll be under-counted in a literature review like Habermas’.

Furthermore, it’s interesting to note that Habermas reported a similar ratio of scholars who accept a literal resurrection to scholars who reject that. This suggests that scholars who are skeptical of the resurrection are mostly like Ehrman and Lüdemann: they don’t think all of Craig’s facts are facts.

To recap: naive audience members, listening to Craig’s arguments, are going to conclude that virtually all Biblical scholars accept Craig’s “facts.” They’ll conclude that most scholars who are skeptical of the resurrection have no other explanation for the evidence. I’m not just speculating about what impressions naive audience members will get from Craig. I’ve met Christians who came away from listening to Craig with exactly the impressions I’ve described.

These impressions are false ones. Now, Craig doesn’t quite say all those things, giving him some room to claim that everything he says is technically true. It’s still highly misleading. And I think that must be deliberate.

Craig clearly knows his Biblical scholarship. Apologists who don’t know their Biblical scholarship go around saying things like, “it’s just obvious the gospels are historically reliable,” which are easily refuted. Craig’s statements, in contrast, are about as misleading as could be without being easily disprovable. That’s unlikely to be an accident.

The gospels’s historical reliability, in fact, is a topic Craig generally avoids. He doesn’t make it part of his main arguments for the resurrection, and has refused to do debates on the issue. His rationale is that it’s actually impossible to debate the general reliablity of the gospels without debating specific issues like the resurrection first, because there’s  no way to “demonstrate a document’s general reliability except by demonstrating its reliability on a good number of specific events.”

This is an absurd argument. 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. As I’ve said before many Biblical scholars don’t think the gospels pass this test (and I don’t either). 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.

Now when historian Richard Carrier brought up the issue of the gospels’ (un)reliability in their debate on the resurrection, Craig said he was “really sorry that [Carrier has] chosen to pursue that tack, despite our agreement that that wouldn’t be our topic tonight,” implying that because Carrier agreed to debate the resurrection, it was inappropriate to bring up the issue of the gospels’ reliability.

This is, again, completely absurd. An agreement to debate topic A is not an agreement not to debate topic B, if topic B is relevant to topic A. And the reliability of the gospels is clearly relevant to the debate about the resurrection. In fact, the problems with the historical reliability of the New Testament make a mockery of the notion that the resurrection can be shown to have happened with historical evidence.

It’s possible that Craig really believes these absurd arguments, but it’s unlikely. Given his many other highly misleading statements about Biblical scholarship, I think the most likely explanation is that these arguments are a tactic to avoid a debate–over the historical reliability of the gospels–which Craig knows he can’t win.

I’ll be frank: Craig’s case for the resurrection isn’t just misleading. It’s based on lies. There’s no way he seriously believes most of his “facts” are facts. Not in the sense his audience will assume he means, the sense of something that is not mere opinion and can be proven. He knows his main source of evidence for the “facts” is the gospels, and he knows he’d lose a debate on their historical reliability. And he also knows many Biblical scholars reject his “facts,” though he won’t tell his audience that if he can avoid it.

Note that even if Habermas were right that 75% of scholars accepted the empty tomb, it would still be wrong to call it a fact. 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 Craig would never let an opponent get away with claiming atheism as a “fact” on that basis.

Craig has other arguments he uses to support his claims about the resurrection, but take away the misleading rhetoric and I don’t think they’re remotely convincing. For example, without the appeal to authority, his arguments for the empty tomb mostly boil down to claiming that if the story were a legend, it would have been told differently. No Christian would take such arguments seriously if presented for another religion’s miracle.

And I don’t think those arguments are what make Craig rhetorically effective. Most of the rhetorical impact of his case for the resurrection comes from misleading his audience about the basics of Biblical scholarship. Given that, I see little reason to say anything more about Craig’s case for the resurrection.

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