Some Skeptical Thoughts on the Resurrection

I met a fellow skeptic at a Starbucks a month or two ago. We recently bumped into each other, had a brief chat, and I found out that he was also interested in questions about the historical Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, and the historicity of Jesus. He was especially interested in my thoughts about the resurrection, so I did a quick brain dump of some of my skeptical thoughts about the resurrection.

Here is what I jotted down as a quick summary of some of my thinking on this issue:

1. Geisler vs. Craig

Norman Geisler makes an excellent point in his book When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences (co-authored with Ron Brooks):

Before that we can show that Jesus rose from the dead, we need to show that He really did die.(WSA, p.120)

If you accept this fairly simple and obvious point by Geisler, then you can immediately toss William Craig’s case for the resurrection into the garbage. Craig never makes any attempt to prove that Jesus really did die on the cross. Craig may make some good points in support of the resurrection of Jesus, but there is a huge gaping hole in his case, that makes it a clear failure as it stands.

2. My Version of Hume’s Objection

The implications of the ECREE principle (Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence) have not be fully understood by Christian Apologists, and perhaps not even by most skeptics. One must prove both of the following claims with solid evidence and arguments to have any hope of showing that the resurrection of Jesus really happened:

(D) Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.
(A) Jesus was alive and walking around (without any assistance) about 48 hours after being crucified.

But it is extremely difficult to prove BOTH of these claims based on a single body of evidence, because if (D) is proven to be true, then (D) provides very powerful evidence for the view that (A) is false, and similarly if (A) is proven to be true, then (A) provides very powerful evidence for the view that (D) is false.

The evidence for (A) is weak and dubious, which means that the ECREE principle cannot be satisfied.

But if a skeptic very generously sets aside this huge problem, and grants for the sake of argument that (A) is true, then the skeptic is entitled to use (A) as a key piece of evidence for the falsehood of (D). While the evidence for (D) is better than the evidence for (A), it is nowhere near being strong enough to overcome the contrary evidence of (A). If Jesus was truly alive and walking around without assistance about 48 hours after being crucified, then this is powerful evidence that Jesus did NOT die on the cross, but survived crucifixion. Furthermore, a close examination of the evidence for Jesus’ death on the cross reveals that it is just as dubious and as questionable as are most other historical claims about Jesus.

3. We Only Know about God’s Motivation

A basic problem with all miracles claims is that because of the divine attributes that define the concept of God, about the only relevant evidence that we have is God’s motivation or purposes, which makes it very difficult if not impossible to identify God as the cause of a particular event.

When a detective investigates a murder, the detective looks at possible motives of various suspects, but this is not the only evidence required to connect a suspect to a murder. More evidence is required than just establishing that Smith had a motivation to kill Jones. Other kinds of evidence may be available:

(1) eyewitness testimony or a video recording about the event of the murder (possibly a description of, or even an identification of, the person who did the killing),
(2) DNA or hair from the suspect found at the scene of the murder or on the body of the victim,
(3) evidence of possession or ownership of the weapon used to perform the killing,
(4) fingerprints of a person on the weapon used to perform the murder,
(5) footprints of people at or near the scene of the murder,
(6) eyewitness or video camera evidence concerning the location of the suspect at or around the time of the murder,
(7) evidence about the character and personality of the various suspects,
(8) conversations of the suspects with others concerning motivation, means, opportunity, or even an admission of having committed the murder.

Suppose God is a suspect in the killing of Jones. There can be no eyewitness description of God performing the murder, because God is an invisible spirit, so God cannot be seen. God has no hair, no fingers, no blood, no saliva, so God cannot leave hairs, fingerprints, drops of blood or saliva.

God does not need to purchase a gun or a knife, because he can make one instantly ex nihilo (and God can also instantly make a gun or knife vanish into nothingness). Furthermore, God does not need to use a gun or a knife or any tool at all in order to kill a person. God can simply will it to be the case that a person dies in a certain way, and that is exactly what will happen.

God’s location at the time of the killing is irrelevant, since God is omnipresent. God is present at all locations in space, because God knows everything that is happening at every point in space (God is omniscient), and God can affect any events he chooses to at any point in space (God is omnipotent).

Since God is an invisible bodiless person (a ‘spirit’), we cannot observe God’s behavior and learn about his character by means of observation. We also cannot listen to God’s conversations. Even if God chooses to make the sound of a voice which announces his thoughts, the claim that this voice represents the words and thoughts of God will itself be a miracle claim, a claim that suffers from all of the problems of lack of evidence that have just been outlined.

It is difficult to see how a detective could ever build a strong case for the claim that “God killed Jones”, because most of the kinds of evidence that we rely on to make such cases is unavailable in relation to God.

The same reasoning appears to apply to the resurrection. How could a detective ever build a strong case for the claim that “God raised Jesus from the dead”? We can think about God’s being a perfectly morally good person and whether that divine attribute makes it likely that God would want to raise Jesus from the dead, but aside from motivation, we have none of the other ordinary kinds of evidence available to connect God to this particular event.

4. Skepticism about God’s Motivations

Because empirical information does not provide us with knowledge about God’s character and motivations, all we have to work from is the concept of God, which implies that God is a perfectly morally good person. But in order to build a case for the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead, we need to have more specific information about God’s purposes and motivations.

Swinburne’s case for the resurrection quite correctly focuses in on identification of more specific purposes and motivations of God, but it is difficult to see how Swinburne derives various fairly specific divine motivations and purposes from the very general and abstract idea that God is a perfectly morally good person.

In Swinburne’s case for the resurrection there appears to be a fairly serious problem concerning God’s motivations….

5. Sociocentrism and Circular Reasoning

What is surprising (and even a bit jarring) in Swinburne’s case for the resurrection is how quickly and easily he arrives at the conclusion that God is very concerned about sin and atonement. But these are clearly Christian-based ideas which reflect Christian values and a Christian worldview. It is as if Swinburne was saying: the life of Jesus fits very nicely with Christian beliefs and values, and God who is a perfectly morally good person must have Christian beliefs and values, so Jesus’ life clearly reflects God’s beliefs and values.

But such thinking is circular reasoning. Christian beliefs and values are supposed to be grounded in the authority of Jesus, which is grounded in the belief that Jesus is God Incarnate, which is in turn (it would appear) grounded in Christian beliefs and values.

Sociocentrism is the tendency to view your in-group as being good, right, and normal. Outsiders are bad, wrong, and abnormal. Another aspect of sociocentrism is the failure to notice that one even HAS a point of view: “We don’t have a point of view; we simply see the world as it really is.” Because one’s point of view has generally been adopted in childhood, it seems ‘natural’ to see the world from that point of view, and to assume that one is simply seeing the world as it really is. But worldviews are NOT natural; they are artificial; worldviews are systems of beliefs and values that have been constructed by human beings.

Swinburne’s hasty leap in attributing concerns about sin and atonement to God appears to be a clear case of sociocentric bias in which he fails to notice the operation of his own Christian worldview in shaping his reasoning and assumptions.

If one tries to set aside the Christian worldview for a few minutes, and to think like, for example, a Buddhist thinks, then one would arrive at very different conclusions about the motivations of God. God’s primary concern would NOT be with sin and atonement, but rather with suffering and unhappiness and anxiety that humans experience as a result of ego attachment to things and people and circumstances.

All is change, everything changes, and thus (in a sense) everything dies. In order to get beyond the typical human condition of suffering, unhappiness, and anxiety, one must become enlightened and fully grasp the reality that everything changes, and reconcile oneself to this unalterable reality.

In short, a Buddhist would attribute a different set of motivations to God than what a Christian would attribute to God. And, very likely, if anyone is to be recognized as an incarnation of God it would be Buddha, if one assumes that God has the sorts of concerns and motivations that a Buddhist would likely attribute to God. But clearly, that would beg the question; it would be circular reasoning to start from a Buddhist worldview and attribute Buddhist beliefs and values to God, and then conclude that Buddha is the most likely candidate for being God Incarnate.

The same objection applies to Swinburne.

6. Jesus was a False Prophet

This objection is somewhat in conflict with the previously argued skepticism about our knowledge of God’s specific motivations. However, I am drawing upon common Christian beliefs about God’s motivations, so this could be viewed as an argument concerning an internal inconsistency within Christianity.

1. Jesus was a false prophet.
2. If Jesus was a false prophet, then God would not either perpetrate nor permit Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
3. God would not either perpetrate nor permit Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

4. Jesus claimed to be a prophet.
5. Jesus encouraged others to worship and obey a false god.
6. Anyone who claims to be a prophet but encourages others to worship and obey a false god is a false prophet.
1. Jesus was a false prophet.

7. Jesus encouraged others to worship and obey Jehovah.
8. Something is God only if it is a perfectly morally good person.
9. Jehovah is NOT a perfectly morally good person.
10. If Jehovah is NOT God, then Jehovah is a false god.
5. Jesus encouraged others to worship and obey a false god.

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