Why William Lane Craig Has Not Seriously Argued for Jesus’ Death

It is difficult, of course, to get into someone else’s mind and to figure out why that person thinks the way they think. But I can make some educated guesses as to why William Lane Craig rarely argues in support of the death of Jesus on the cross, and why when he does so (e.g. in The Son Rises, hereafter: TSR), he does not make a serious intellectual effort (i.e. he rattles off dozens of historical claims without providing actual historical evidence to support those claims).

I think there are at least a couple of reasons for this: (1) Craig believes that the Apparent Death Theory (hereafter ADT) was soundly refuted long ago, and (2) Craig believes that the refutation of the Apparent Death Theory is sufficient to establish the Christian view that Jesus actually died on the cross on Good Friday. However, Craig is wrong on both points.

One reason why Craig thinks that ADT was refuted long ago, is that he thinks that David Strauss refuted ADT in the 1800′s, especially in Strauss’s book The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, which was published in the 1830s:

The full original title of this work is Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet (Tübingen: 1835-1836), and it was translated from the fourth German edition into English by George Eliot (Marian Evans) (1819–1880) and published under the title The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (3 vols., London, 1846). (“David Strauss” Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Strauss)

Here is Craig’s general view of ADT:

Strauss’s critique really put the nails in the coffin for the apparent death theory. Again, I want to emphasize that no contemporary scholar would support such a theory; it has been dead over a hundred years. Only in propaganda from behind the Iron Curtain or in sensationalist books in the popular press does such a theory still find expression. (TSR, p.40)

But Craig fails to fully grasp the logic of Strauss’s position on ADT. In Strauss’s day, there were two main camps on Jesus: traditionalists who believed that Jesus performed miracles as described in the Gospels, and skeptics who believed that Jesus did more-or-less what the Gospels claimed but that Jesus did NOT perform any miracles. Strauss rejected the views of both the traditionalists and of the anti-supernaturalist skeptics. He did so by rejecting an assumption that was held by both traditionalists and skeptics: the Gospels provide historically accurate and reliable reports about the life and ministry and death of Jesus.

Strauss argued that the Gospels contained a healthy dose of fiction and myth, and that we should not take them at face value as accurate and reliable historical accounts. Against the skeptics of his day, Strauss argued that IF one assumes the Gospels to provide historically reliable accounts of the life of Jesus, then one cannot reasonably deny that Jesus performed miracles. But such arguments were NOT intended to persuade the skeptics to believe that Jesus performed miracles; the arguments were intended to persuade skeptics to abandon the assumption that the Gospels provided reliable historical accounts of the life of Jesus.

In view of this background information, one can view Strauss’s criticism of ADT in a similar fashion: IF you ASSUME that the Gospels provide historically reliable accounts of the trials, crucifixion, burial of Jesus, and of the discovery of his empty tomb, and of the appearances of Jesus to his disciples on Easter Sunday, then you cannot avoid the conclusion that a miracle occurred, that Jesus rose from the dead. Specifically, IF you ASSUME that the Gospels provide historically reliable accounts of the life of Jesus, then you cannot reasonably accept ADT.

This seems like a reasonable position to me. But the point was NOT to disprove ADT nor to prove the resurrection, but rather to prove that it is logically inconsistent to hold BOTH of the following beliefs:

(1) The Gospels provide historically reliable accounts of the life of Jesus.
(2) ADT is true.

Strauss’s view is that belief (1) ought to be rejected. But if a skeptic agrees with Strauss, and rejects (1), then there is no longer any strong reason to reject (2), because the logical inconsistency has been resolved by rejecting (1).

Now Strauss may have also rejected (2) as well as (1), but if a person embraces Strauss’s skepticism about the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts, that undermines almost all of the reasons given for rejecting (2). So, Strauss in NO WAY refuted ADT, but rather showed the way to refute most of the objections that have been raised against ADT, including the objections raised against ADT by Strauss himself.

The most often quoted objection to ADT from Strauss is what I call the Sickly Jesus Objection (hereafter: SJO). If Jesus was beaten and scourged before being crucified, and then he was nailed to the cross, then even if Jesus survived crucifixion and managed to escape from the stone tomb and find his way to the disiples, he would have been weak, and bloody, and cut, and bruised, and limping, and would have looked like warmed-over death on Easter Sunday, and such an appearance could not have inspired his disciples to develop a strong faith that Jesus had risen from the dead.

But this scenario depends heavily on the assumption that the Gospels provide historically reliable accounts of the details of Jesus’ trials, crucifixion, burial, and appearances to his disciples. What if Jesus was NOT beaten up or scourged prior to being crucified? What if Jesus had been tied rather than nailed to the cross? What if the first post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus took place two or three weeks after the crucifixion, rather than 48 hours after it? The force of Strauss’s most famous objection to ADT rests on the very assumption that Strauss was challenging: the assumption that the Gospels provide us with accurate and reliable historical accounts of the life of Jesus. If your reject this assumption, then the force of Strauss’s best-known objection to ADT is seriously diminished.

Craig might also believe that refuting ADT is sufficient to show that Jesus actually died on the cross on Good Friday. But this involves a confusion about the logical relationship between ADT and the claim that “Jesus actually died on the cross on Good Friday” (hereafter: DOC). DOC and ADT are mutually exclusive ideas:

If DOC is true, then ADT is false.
If ADT is true, then DOC is false.

However, these two ideas do not jointly exhaust all of the logical possibilities:

If DOC is false, then ADT might be true or might be false.
If ADT is false, then DOC might be true or might be false.

What Craig may not fully realize is that ADT is a fairly complex idea. ADT makes more than a dozen assumptions and assertions:

1. There was an historical Jesus.
2. Jesus was crucified on Good Friday.
3. Jesus appeared to die on the cross on Good Friday, but he was actually still alive.
4. Jesus was judged on Good Friday to have died on the cross by the Roman soldiers who crucified him.
5. (4) happened because of (3).
6. Jesus was removed from the cross on Good Friday.
7. Jesus was burried in a stone tomb on Good Friday at about sunset.
8. The tomb where Jesus was burried on Good Friday was empty on Easter Sunday.
9. Jesus’ disciples experienced appearances of a living Jesus on Easter Sunday.
10. Jesus’ disciples developed a firm conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead on or shortly after Easter Sunday.
11. Jesus was alive and walking around on Easter Sunday.
12. (11) happened because of (3) and (4).
13. (8) happened because of (11).
14. (9) happened because of (11).
15. (10) happened because of (8), (9), and (11).

DOC and ADT are logically incompatible because of claim (3) above. So, one possible objection to ADT is to show that DOC is true. But there are many other claims and assumptions that are part of ADT. For example, if I challenge the assumption (1) that Jesus was an historical person, that would be a challenge to both ADT and DOC. If I challenge claim (2) that Jesus was crucified, that is a challenge to both ADT and DOC.

If I challenge claim (9) that Jesus’s disciples experienced appearances of a living Jesus on Easter Sunday, that would be a challenge to ADT. If I could prove that (9) was false, that would be showing that one of the claims of ADT was false. But showing that (9) is false would NOT prove that Jesus actually died on the cross. In fact, if (9) was proven false, that would cast significant doubt on the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts, and thus would undermine the primary evidence used to support the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross. So, objections to ADT, do not necessarily provide support for DOC, and may actually provide evidence against both ADT and DOC.

If I challenge the claim (7) that Jesus was buried in a stone tomb, that would challenge ADT but not DOC. However, if it could be proved that (7) is false, that would refute ADT, but would NOT establish that Jesus actually died on the cross. Jesus could have been crucified, and survived crucifixion, but was rescued from the cross at night by a friend or a disciple, and thus was NOT burried in a stone tomb on Good Friday. In that case both ADT and DOC would be false.

Because ADT is a complex idea, a theory, it encompasses a number of claims and assumptions, and only ONE of those assumptions is that Jesus did NOT die on the cross. So, there are lots of logical possibilities besides ADT vs. DOC. In short, refutation of ADT as a way of supporting DOC commits the fallacy of false dilemma. There are more alternatives than just these two possibilities. An objection to ADT might not provide any support for DOC, and in some cases objections to ADT also work as objections to DOC.


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