The Failure of William Craig’s Case for the Resurrection

According to the Christian apologist Norman Geisler:

Before we can show that Jesus rose from the dead, we need to show that He really did die.
(When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences, p.120)

After making this common-sense point, Geisler then proceeds to lay out eight points in support of the claim that “Jesus actually died on the cross”(the title of this sub-section of the Chapter “Questions about Jesus”).

Geisler’s case for this claim is made on pages 120, 121, 122, and the top of page 123. There is a large illustration on page 121, so there is less than half a page of text on that page. There is another illustration on page 122, so there is only about a half page of text on that page. In total, the eight points represent a little less than two full pages of text. This is a childish and pathetic case for the death of Jesus, but at least Geisler made an effort to prove that Jesus actually died on the cross, and at least Geisler admits that he bears the burden of proof on this question.

One further point to mitigate the absurdity of trying to prove that Jesus actually died on the cross in a little under two pages is the fact that the book When Skeptics Ask covers a wide variety of topics in Christian apologetics: the purpose of apologetics, the existence of God, alternatives to theism, the problem of evil, miracles, Jesus, the inspiration of the Bible, science and evolution, life after death, the nature of truth, and morality. This is NOT a book devoted exclusively to the issue of the resurrection of Jesus. It is about 300 pages and covers many different topics and issues. However, as far as I am aware, the case for the death of Jesus in this book is the best and most in-depth case for this claim that Geisler has ever made.

William Craig, on the other hand, has specialized in making the case for the resurrection of Jesus. Craig has debated others on this issue on a number of occasions, and he has written books and articles specifically to present a case for the resurrection. So, if Craig understands and accepts Geisler’s common-sense point that in order to “show that Jesus rose from the dead” Christian apologists “need to show that He really did die”, then we should expect that Craig would do a much better and more thorough job of dealing with this historical question.

But Craig does NOT do better than Geisler in showing that Jesus really did die on the cross. In fact, more often than not, Craig simply ignores this issue. Therefore, I conclude that Craig does NOT understand and agree with this common-sense point made so clearly by Geisler. Craig does not understand that when he asserts that “Jesus rose from the dead”, he takes on the burden of proof to show that Jesus really did die on the cross.

The clearest evidence for my view of Craig’s failure to understand and accept Geisler’s common-sense point is in Craig’s book Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. If Craig understood and agreed with Geisler’s point, then at least one-fourth of this book should be devoted to the question “Did Jesus actually die on the cross?”.

To answer this question, Craig would need to carefully examine the passion narratives of the four Gospels, and to discuss the historical reliability of the details in those narratives. Craig would need to discuss the Roman practices regarding crucifixion, and he would need to talk about the medical aspects of crucifixion, and Craig would need to discuss the various alleged wounds of Jesus (beating, scourging, nailing to the cross, spear wound), and the medical implications of these alleged wounds.

Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus is 420 pages long, and (obviously) it is dedicated to nothing but the issue of the resurrection of Jesus. So, clearly Craig, if he accepted Geisler’s point, would devote much more than the pathetic two pages that we get from Geisler on this key question.

It is reasonable to expect that at least 100 pages, and perhaps as much as 200 pages, of this 420-page tome would focus on the whether Jesus really did die on the cross. But, alas, Craig does not write 200 pages arguing for the death of Jesus, nor does he write 100 pages on the death of Jesus. Does he write 50 pages on this question? No. 25 pages? No. Out of 420 pages, Craig writes exactly ZERO pages on the question “Did Jesus actually die on the cross?”

Amazingly, in a 420-page tome that is dedicated to nothing but the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, Craig somehow manages to do a worse job than the childish and pathetic efforts of Norman Geisler, even though Geisler was making his case in a 300-page book that covers more than a dozen different topics in Christian apologetics.

In the first 347 pages ofAssessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus Craig discusses in detail the N.T. evidence that he thinks is relevant to the question ‘Did Jesus rise from the dead?’. In the final 70 pages (p.351-420), Craig assesses the evidence. The assessment is divided into three chapters:

Chapter 9: The Evidence for the Empty Tomb
Chapter 10: The Evidence for the Resurrection Appearances
Chapter 11: The Origin of the Christian Way (i.e. belief in the resurrection of Jesus)

There is no chapter devoted to the evidence for Jesus’ death on the cross.
There is no subsection devoted to the evidence for Jesus’ death on the cross.
There is not even one page devoted to the evidence for Jesus’ death on the cross.

Also, EACH of the three items above provides evidence AGAINST the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross.

If we assume that Jesus was in fact buried in a tomb on Good Friday, and that the tomb was in fact found empty on Easter Sunday morning, then this is evidence that Jesus was alive on Easter Sunday. But if Jesus was alive and walking around on Easter Sunday, then that is powerful evidence that Jesus either was NOT crucified on Friday, or that he survived crucifixion. The resurrection appearances are also evidence that Jesus was alive and walking around on Easter Sunday, but if Jesus was alive and walking around on Easter Sunday, then that is powerful evidence that Jesus did NOT die on Good Friday.

Finally, if we assume that Jesus’ disciples came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, presumably this is evidence that they believed they had seen Jesus alive after he had allegedly died. But again, if we take this as evidence that Jesus was alive and walking around on Easter Sunday, then it is evidence that Jesus did NOT die on Good Friday.

Craig has not only failed to make a case FOR the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross on Good Friday, but ALL of the evidence that he does put forward appears to make a strong case AGAINST the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross on Good Friday.

Craig has participated in a number of debates on the resurrection. In his debate with Gerd Ludemann, did Craig present evidence for the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross? No. In Craig’s debate with John Crossan, did Craig present evidence for the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross? No. In Craig’s debate with Bart Ehrman, did Craig present evidence for the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross? No.

Here is how Craig summarizes his case in the debate with Ludemann:

In summary, there are four facts agreed on by the majority of scholars who have written on these subjects that any adequate historical hypothesis must account for: Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, his postmortem appearances and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. (Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?, p.34)

Of these four “facts” the last three are actually evidence that Jesus did NOT die on the cross, because evidence that Jesus was alive and walking around on Easter Sunday is evidence that Jesus did NOT die on the cross on Good Friday.

The only “fact” here that might be used to support the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross is the burial of Jesus. But Jesus could have been buried in a tomb either as the result of a conspiracy (in which one or more persons knew that Jesus was alive when he was buried) or the result of an honest mistake (Jesus could been alive but appeared to be dead). Furthermore, the burial of Jesus shows, at best, that some people believed Jesus had died, but it does not show they believed Jesus had died on a cross. So, the burial of Jesus is hardly solid proof that he died on the cross. Furthermore, Craig makes no inference from the burial to the death of Jesus. He never argues (in the debate) that the burial is evidence for the death of Jesus.

The same is true of Craig’s debate with John Crossan. Here is Craig summarizing his case for the resurrection:

Now Dr. Crossan realizes that once you agree to these four facts–namely, Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea, the discovery of his empty tomb, his resurrection appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in the resurrection–then it’s very difficult to deny that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation.(Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?, p.29)

Craig makes the same points in his debate with Bart Ehrman:

In conclusion, then, I think that there is good historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Specifically, I’ve staked out two basic contentions for discussion tonight:

I. There are four historical facts which must be explained by any adequate historical hypothesis: Jesus’ burial, the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the very origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection, and

II. The best explanation of these facts is that Jesus rose from the dead.
Transcript of Debate with Ehrman
viewed 5/23/14

Craig makes the same case for the resurrection in Jesus Under Fire:

What, then, is the relevant body of evidence pertinent to the alleged resurrection of Jesus? It can be conveniently grouped under three main headings: (1) Jesus’ empty tomb, (2) the postmortem appearances of Jesus, and (3) the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. (“Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in Jesus Under Fire, p.146)

Again, each of these items provides evidence AGAINST the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross.

In a journal article titled “Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ” Craig offers the same three points:

These three great facts–the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of the Christian faith–all point unavoidably to one conclusion: The resurrection of Jesus. Today the rational man can hardly be blamed if he believes that on that first Easter morning a divine miracle occurred.(Truth 1 (1985): 89-95)
Online Copy of Article
viewed 5/23/14

In his general book on apologetics, Craig emphasizes the same evidence:

The case for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus seems to me to rest upon the evidence for three great, independently established facts: the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith. (Reasonable Faith, p.272)

Geisler came up with eight points in support of the claim that “Jesus actually died on the cross” in his 300-page handbook on Christian apologetics (When Skeptics Ask), but Craig does not even attempt to prove the death of Jesus on the cross. The closest he comes to this in Reasonable Faith, is on page 279, where Craig lists three objections to the Apparent Death Theory. Only the first objection concerns evidence for Jesus’ death:

1.It is physically implausible. First, what the theory suggests is virtually physically impossible. The extent of Jesus’ tortures was such that he could never have survived the crucifixion and entombment.

There you have it. That is Craig’s case for the death of Jesus, as given in his handbook on apologetics. Geisler gives us eight points in four pages, and Craig gives us just two scrawny sentences: one sentence stating his conclusion, and one sentence stating his reason. Unbelievably, Craig makes a case for the actual death of Jesus on the cross which is weaker and even more pathetic than the childish and pathetic case presented by Geisler.

In fairness to Craig, there is one book in which he does present a couple of pages of evidence and reasons in support of the actual death of Jesus. I will examine those two pages in a future post. At best, Craig comes up to Geisler’s lowly level of argumentation in that book, and does so in only that one instance, as far as I know. In most other books, articles, and debates, Craig has virtually nothing to say in defense of the claim that “Jesus actually died on the cross.”

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Copan, Paul, ed. Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? : A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1998. Print.

Copan, Paul, and Ronald Tacelli, eds. Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? : A Debate between William Lane Craig and Gerd Ludemann. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000. Print.

Craig, William. Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989. Print.

Craig, William. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1994. Print.

Craig, William. “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” Jesus Under Fire. Ed. Michael Wilkins and J.P. Moreland. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995. Print.

Reasonable Faith website. “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?: William Lane Craig vs. Bart D. Ehrman.” Reasonable Faith.org. (College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, United States – March 28, 2006). Web. Accessed 5/24/14.

Geisler, Norman, and Ron Brooks. When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook of Christian Evidences. Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1990. Print.


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