Argument Against the Resurrection of Jesus – Part 6

David Marshall has objected to my analysis of the term ‘miracle’ and appears to have misunderstood my claim that the alleged resurrection of Jesus would constitute a ‘physically impossible’ event. Before I attempt to deal with any other objections or criticisms from Marshall, I want to clear up the disagreement and/or confusion that exists about these concepts, which I believe are basic and important for further discussion of the main question: Did God raise Jesus from the dead?
Marshall and I appear to have found common ground in the thinking and writing of Gary Habermas about miracles, and about how the alleged resurrection of Jesus would count as a miracle. So, I’m going to review some key points made by Habermas, in part to confirm that Marshall and I really are on the same page.

Others who are interested in this discussion about miracles and the resurrection should feel free to jump in with their own thoughts about these concepts and about Habermas’s points (taken from Chapter 8, of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, 2004).

1. Science and the Resurrection

…while science perhaps cannot measure God’s activity, there is no reason why we cannot consider non-supernatural portions of claims concerning the Resurrection. For example, did Jesus die? Was he seen alive at some later time? The scientist or historian could evaluate the conclusion: ‘Jesus was seen alive after his death’. However, in his capacity as a scientist or historian, he perhaps, could not draw the conclusion: ‘God raised Jesus from the dead,’ since he is unable to detect God’s actions with the tools of his trade. (CROJ, p.135)

I agree with this passage. Notice that Habermas and Licona (hereafter: H&L;) take seriously the question ‘Did Jesus die?’ and they indicate that both history and science have (or at least potentially have) a role to play in answering that question.

I’m also sympathetic with the idea that science is not up to the task of dealing with theological questions, that is to say, with questions about whether God exists, and what God (if he exists) has done or would be likely to do. As H&L; comment just after this passage, philosophy can be used to address the theological aspects of the resurrection claim.

2. Laws of Nature and the Possibility of Resurrection

Through observation and testing, scientific laws are formulated in order to state what normally happens under certain circumstances. These laws have been observed throughout the past. We get similar results most of the time. The historian must employ his or her knowledge of scientific laws as they currently exist in order to determine whether something happened in the past. It may make sense that these laws, which produce consistent results today, produced the same results in the past. By understanding the laws of nature and how living cells work, we know that, when humans die, they stay dead. Their cells do not just regenerate, allowing them to return to life.

Therefore, assuming that the laws of nature are consistent, many skeptics claim that is it irrational to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, since science has proven that resurrections are impossible. But does scientific investigation really show that resurrections are impossible–period? Not at all. First, what science has shown is that a person is not going to rise from the dead by natural causes. (CROJ, p.136)

The line about “similar results most of the time” seems too weak to me. Laws of physics don’t just work ‘most of the time’. The standard is a bit stronger than that. However, I agree with the basic point of this passage, which is that laws of nature do not determine what is logically possible (or logically impossible). The laws of nature tell us what nature can do, what can happen naturally, apart from intervention by God or some other supernatural beings or by human beings who possess supernatural powers (e.g. witches and wizards).

3. God and the Suspension of Natural Laws

If God created the universe, including the natural laws that govern it, what would prohibit such a Being from suspending or temporarily overriding those same laws to perform a miracle? God cannot perform logically impossible acts such as making a married bachelor or a square circle. However, there is nothing logically impossible about God suspending the physical laws he set up, especially if he wished to send a message. (CROJ, p.138)

…the laws of nature would be no match for an omnipotent God who chooses to act by superseding those laws. …Scientific reliance upon natural processes to explain everything does not answer the question of whether all things that happen are controlled only by natural processes. God may have momentously stepped in to do something that nature cannot explain. (CROJ, p.141)

I also agree with these passages. The word ‘God’ is ordinarily taken to imply an omnipotent person, among other things. Omnipotence is constrained only by what is logically possible, not by what is physically or naturally possible, so if some person is omnipotent, then that person can bring about events that require the suspension of a law of nature. Thus, if there is a God, then God is able to bring dead people back to life, because God, being omnipotent, is able to bring about an event that involves a temporary suspension of a law of nature, if God chose to do so. God, if he exists, can do what is physically or naturally impossible. If an omnipotent being is logically possible, then it is logically possible for there to be a temporary suspension of a law of nature.

There are some logical issues with the concept of ‘omnipotence’ but one can specify a definition of omnipotence in such a way as to rule out logical incoherence. That is basically what Swinburne does in his explication of the concept of ‘God’ in his book The Coherence of Theism. So, I’m happy to grant that, on something like Swinburne’s definition of ‘omnipotence’, it is logically possible for some person to be omnipotent. So, I’m happy to grant the assumption that it is logically possible for a person to temporarily suspend a law of nature.

If there is a God, then such a being would have the power to temporarily suspend a law of nature. It follows that if there is a God, then such a being would have the power to suspend one or more laws of nature and bring a dead man back to life, and thus bring about a miracle. So, if Jesus’s alleged resurrection was such that it would have required the suspension of a law of nature, then Jesus’s resurrection was physically impossible, but not logically impossible. God, if God exists, could have brought Jesus back from the dead.

Consider the following claim:
1. The resurrection of Jesus was a miracle.

I take it that this statement implies at least the following two statements:
2. The resurrection of Jesus was brought about by God.
3. The resurrection of Jesus involved the temporary suspension of at least one natural law.

In other contexts, the word ‘miracle’ might be used in a looser way that does not imply or require the suspension of a natural law. But in the case of many alleged NT ‘miracles’, they are especially impressive precisely because they involve the suspension of a law of nature:

  • walking on water
  • turning water into wine
  • rising from the dead

These sorts of events provide the clearest evidence of supernatural power, because such events go beyond the power of nature, and the natural powers of human beings. When such events are called ‘miracles’ the intention is typically to draw attention to this aspect of those events: “Nature and ordinary human beings cannot do X, but Jesus did X, so….”

Finally, I take it that if both (2) and (3) are true, then so is (1).

About Bradley Bowen
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    My two cents:

    Science attempts to understand how the world works, and does not seem to make a difference between natural and "non-natural" events.

    In fact, if some weird entities were roaming around or popping up here and there, governments would want to study them and assess whether they're a threat to national security, an asset, etc.; scientists (biologists, for instance) would want to know more about them, how they behave, what capabilities they have, etc.

    It doesn't matter whether those entities are called "supernatural" (like ghosts, vampires or werewolves killing and/or possessing people or doing whatever they'd do), or not (like aliens from parallel dimensions or from other planets making crop circles and/or abducting people and/or putting probes in their anuses, or whatever they'd do); they would be studied as far as it's possible to observe them, interact with them, etc.

    And if there were some religion such that prayers within that religion actually do have results, that too could and would be studied by science.

    That aside, we don't need to know about cells and the like to know that humans do not resurrect. That might help, but simply observing the world around us will allow us to conclude that when humans die, their bodies no longer move and rot.

    Moreover, the same applies to preachers and religious leaders.

    Calling the resurrection a suspension of a natural law – whatever that means – does not change the fact that making such a claim is making a claim that a pattern we've repeatedly observed – like the fact that religious leaders are human, and humans who die do not rise again – has an exception in a particular case.

    But the rational conclusion in such a case is that it did not happen, unless sufficient evidence can be provided – which would require involving even more clear patterns or generally facts.

    From a different perspective, for that matter, someone could claim that any religious leader – say, Say Baba – did things that we know humans do not do.

    The rational reply to that is to believe the claim is false, unless sufficient evidence to the contrary can be given.

    Now, in the case of Jesus' alleged resurrection, I don't know that any evidence would do. But there is no need to take a stance on that; it seems to me that it's enough to point out that no sufficient evidence has been provided – not even to suspect that there was such thing as a resurrection.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04029133398946303654 David B Marshall

    Hi again, Brad. Thanks for clarifying your views.

    We agreed on Gary's phraseology; whether we agree on more than that, I'll see. I have spent a lot of time talking with Gary, and have heard him speak a few times, but have not read that much of his writings yet.

    1. I could probably agree that an historian might conclude, "Jesus was raised from the dead," but as historian per se, might be out of his depth in assigning agency, if we want to compartmentalize human functions.

    2. Laws of Nature and the Possibility of Resurrection

    "Through observation and testing, scientific laws are formulated in order to state what normally happens under certain circumstances. These laws have been observed throughout the past."

    To be true in the strict sense, you would have to assume theism here, I think, since prior to the rise of consciousness, there was no one to observe but God. :- )

    I'd be cautious about claiming what has and has not been observed in the past.

    "But does scientific investigation really show that resurrections are impossible–period? Not at all. First, what science has shown is that a person is not going to rise from the dead by natural causes." (CROJ, p.136)

    Michael Martin argues that it hasn't, but I'm not too happy with his arguments.

    "I agree with the basic point of this passage, which is that laws of nature do not determine what is logically possible (or logically impossible). The laws of nature tell us what nature can do, what can happen naturally, apart from intervention by God or some other supernatural beings or by human beings who possess supernatural powers (e.g. witches and wizards)."

    OK. I agree, only request proper caution about laws of nature.

    3. God and the Suspension of Natural Laws

    "I also agree with these passages . . . God, if he exists, can do what is physically or naturally impossible . . . "

    OK, also discussion of omnipotence.

    "1. The resurrection of Jesus was a miracle. I take it that this statement implies at least the following two statements:

    "2. The resurrection of Jesus was brought about by God."

    As Christians define miracles, yes. Polytheists might differ, but this is one of the 5 defining qualities of Christian miracles that I also give in Jesus and the Religions of Man.

    "3. The resurrection of Jesus involved the temporary suspension of at least one natural law."

    Here I disagree. I take it that IN FACT, the resurrection probably involved suspension of some natural law. But I don't think that is part of the Christian definition of "miracle." Again, the Greek term is "sign." I take this to mean a miracle is an event in the natural world that points probatively to God's agency and interest.

    You name three NT miracles that DO seem to involve suspension of some natural law, but there are many others that don't. We should define a word in a way that covers all cases — as, I think, the NT does.

    But of course, you can use the word "miracle" in the sense you give it, having now helpfully explained how you're using it.

    I don't see the need for much more discussion of these issues; maybe you can go on to the heart of your argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    David Marshall said…

    I don't see the need for much more discussion of these issues; maybe you can go on to the heart of your argument.
    ============

    Response:

    Great.

    I was planning to continue addressing your other objections, but if you wish I would be happy to develop my argument a bit more first.

    Which would you prefer?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04029133398946303654 David B Marshall

    Brad: Do as you like. There'll probably be more general interest if you focus on the meatier issues, though obviously you're a person who likes to do things systematically and thoroughly, which is respectable. I see some danger of getting bogged down in details, to the loss of the main points, that's all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Response to David Marshall…

    OK.

    I will develop my argument a bit more before addressing your remaining objections. Perhaps doing so will resolve some of those objections and also indicate other objections to be more significant.

    You can also re-iterate some of your previous objections as you see them apply to specific parts of my argument as it develops in future posts.


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