Why I Reject the Resurrection – Part 6: Non-Standard Resurrection

THE NON-STANDARD RESURRECTION OBJECTION

In this post I will state one objection to the logic of my thinking about the probability of the resurrection. I will also discuss and respond to this objection.  In the next post I will state a second objection to the logic of my thinking about the probability of the resurrection.  The second objection is based on the logic of Richard Swinburne’s thinking about the probability of the resurrection.

Some of the beliefs or claims that I have focused on represent a summary of the traditional Christian view of the death and resurrection of Jesus, specifically the following three claims:

(JWC) Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem around 30 CE.

(DOC) Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.

(JAW) Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem less than 48 hours after he was crucified.

A careful reader might point out that some of the details of these claims are not absolutely necessary in order for it to be the case that God raised Jesus from the dead.   

Suppose, for example, that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem but this happened in the year 40 CE, not around 30 CE.  In that case (JWC) would be false, but it could still be the case that Jesus died on the cross, and was alive and walking around in Jerusalem less than forty-eight hours after he was crucified.  Furthermore, in this scenario Jesus died and rose again from the dead, and God, if God exists, could have caused the resurrection of Jesus in 40 CE just as well as he could have done so in 30 CE.  So, in this “non-standard” scenario, (JWC) would be false, but (GRJ) could, nevertheless, be true.

In my probability tree diagram for the resurrection, there is only one branch coming off of ~(JWC) and that branch goes to ~(GRJ).  So, the diagram implies that if it is NOT the case that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem around 30 CE, then it is NOT the case that God raised Jesus from the dead.  But, someone might object, we can imagine a scenario where (JWC) is false, but where (GRJ) is true.  So, the diagram is mistaken, and thus any calculation of the probability of (GRJ) based on the diagram would also be mistaken.

 

 

RESPONSE TO THE NON-STANDARD RESURRECTION OBJECTION

My general reply to the non-standard resurrection objection is that such non-standard scenarios usually undermine the reliability of the Gospel accounts and thus lower the probability of the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead in that respect, thus nullifying whatever modest increase in probability they provide by pointing to non-standard scenarios that support this claim.

Although this objection does not obviously apply to the claim that Jesus existed, it does have some relevance to that general issue:

JE.  Jesus existed.

On the one hand, if we understand the word “Jesus” too broadly, then it will fail to pick out just ONE specific person, which would mean that (JE) was neither true nor false.  On the other hand, if we understand the word “Jesus” too narrowly, then it will unreasonably exclude too many potential candidates, which would mean that the falsehood of this claim would be compatible with the existence of a person who most reasonable people would consider to be the Jesus talked about in the Gospels.

If we understand the word “Jesus” in this context to simply mean “the Jewish man named ‘Jesus’ who lived in Palestine in the first century”, then (JE) will be neither true nor false, because there were in fact MANY Jewish men named ‘Jesus’ who lived in Palestine in the first century.  The expression “the Jewish man named ‘Jesus’ who lived in Palestine in the first century” is about as meaningful as the expression “the white man named ‘David’ who lived in California in the 20th century”.  There are thousands of such men, so this expression fails to pick out just ONE man.  So, we must understand the meaning of the word “Jesus” in a way that is likely to narrow down to just ONE man.

If, on the other hand, we understand the word “Jesus” in this context to mean “the person who matches up perfectly to every claim and every detail in all four canonical Gospels about the character named ‘Jesus’,” then probably no one could possibly fit this description, because the Gospels appear to make conflicting and contradictory claims about Jesus and what Jesus said and did.

Furthermore, even if we set aside any conflicting events or details about Jesus in the Gospels, there seems to be no good reason to insist on such a narrow understanding of the word “Jesus”.  If there was one particular man who was Jewish and who lived in Palestine in the first century and whose life was a match for most of the events and details of the Gospels, then that man is clearly a good candidate for being the “Jesus” who was discussed in the Gospels, even if there are some events or details in the Gospels that did not occur in the life of that man.

In short, the claim (JE) could be subject to the non-standard resurrection objection, if the word “Jesus” was interpreted too narrowly, requiring that a good candidate for being “Jesus” matches every little detail in all four Gospels concerning the “Jesus” character.  In that case, even if (JE) were false, there could still be a Jewish man who lived in Palestine in the first century who was a close enough match with the “Jesus” character in the Gospels for a reasonable person to conclude that this man was indeed the man whom the Gospels describe with fair, but not complete, accuracy.

The first claim that is obviously subject to the non-standard resurrection objection is about the crucifixion:

JWC.  Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem around 30 CE.

There are other possibilities that could still support the ultimate conclusion that God raised Jesus from the dead.

One possibility, mentioned above, is that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, but this occurred in 40 CE, not “around 30CE”.  Jesus did not have to die in 30 CE in order for God, if God exists, to raise him from the dead.  However, if Jesus was crucified in 40 CE, then Pilate would not have presided over the trial of Jesus, nor would Pilate have ordered Jesus to be crucified, nor would Pilate have granted permission for anyone to remove the body of Jesus from the cross and bury his body in a tomb.   Pilate ceased to be the Roman governor of Judea in 36 CE, so he would not have presided over a trial of Jesus, if that trial occurred in 40 CE.  But if Pilate had no role in Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and burial, then large portions of the passion narratives in the Gospels are works of fiction, or are at best highly unreliable third and fourth hand accounts of those events.

But if the passion narratives in the Gospels are works of fiction or highly unreliable accounts of those events, then that undermines the credibility of the Gospels concerning the other historical claims:

DOC.  Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.

JAW.  Jesus was alive and walking around in Jerusalem less than 48 hours after he was crucified.

If the trial of Jesus before Pilate is fictional, then it is quite likely that other events and details in the Passion Narratives are also fictional.  We would have little reason to believe DOC or JAW with any significant degree of certainty, if the trial of Jesus before Pilate is fictional.  So, although it is indeed a possibility that Jesus existed and that Jesus was crucified in 40 CE rather than around 30 CE, such a non-standard scenario would fail to make it more probable that God raised Jesus from the dead, because this scenario implies that the Gospel accounts of the alleged death and resurrection of Jesus are historically unreliable and may be largely or completely fictional.

If we move the date of the crucifixion even further, it would totally destroy the credibility of the Gospels.  Suppose that Jesus was crucified in the year 120 CE.  Pilate would be dead by then, so we again would have a large chunk of fiction in the Passion Narratives.  But an even bigger problem than that is that the Gospels were written in the second half of the first century, so all four Gospels had already been written PRIOR to the crucifixion of Jesus, based on this non-standard scenario.  That would clearly destroy any credibility the Gospel accounts have.  A reasonable person will place no confidence in an historical account that was written decades PRIOR to the events that it supposedly describes.

What if the crucifixion took place in 30 CE, but not in Jerusalem?  In that case, (JWC) would be false, but it could still be the case that God raised Jesus from the dead, because God, if God exists, is omnipotent and omnipresent, so God could perform a resurrection anywhere that he wants to.   Suppose that Jesus was crucified in 30 CE in Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.  In that case (JWC) would be false, but it would still have been possible for Jesus to die on the cross and for God to raise Jesus from the dead.

Once again, this does show that it is possible for (JWC) to be false and yet for (GRJ) to be true.  However, if Jesus had been crucified in Tiberias in 30 CE, then Pilate would not have presided over Jesus’ trial, because Pilate was not the Roman governor of that area of Palestine.  So, this non-standard crucifixion scenario implies that a good chunk of the Passion Narratives are fictional, and thus implies that the Gospels, and the Passion Narratives in particular are historically unreliable.

Furthermore, it is not just the trial of Jesus that is clearly set in Jerusalem.  Jesus and his disciples have come to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem along with hundreds of thousands of other devout Jews.  The Last Supper was in Jerusalem.  The temple guard played a role in Jesus’ arrest.  The Jewish temple was in Jerusalem.  The high priest and the priesthood of the Jewish temple are involved in bringing about the crucifixion of Jesus, according to the Gospels.  So, if the crucifixion of Jesus took place in Tiberias rather than Jerusalem, then that implies that the Passion Narratives are either mostly or completely fictional, and thus that no reasonable person could place any confidence in the historical accuracy of the events and details presented in the Passion Narratives.

What if Jesus was executed in Jerusalem in 30 CE, but he was beheaded with a sword or an ax, and was not crucified?  Once again, God, if God exists, could still raise Jesus from the dead, no matter how Jesus had been killed.  However, if Jesus was beheaded rather than crucified, then the Gospel accounts of Jesus trial, crucifixion, and burial, are either mostly or completely fictional, because the cross and the crucifixion are ubiquitous throughout the Passion Narratives.

At Jesus trial, people cry out “Crucify him!” according to the Gospels.  Jesus carries his cross to the execution site, according to the Gospels.  Jesus was crucified according to the Gospels.  People speak to Jesus on the cross, and watch Jesus on the cross, and Jesus speaks to people from the cross.  After Jesus allegedly dies, Joseph of Arimathea removes Jesus from the cross.  If there was no crucifixion, then all of this is fiction.   So, if we assume this non-standard scenario, where Jesus is beheaded rather than crucified, then the credibility of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, death and burial is completely destroyed.

I think walking through these examples of non-standard death and resurrection scenarios concerning (JWC) is sufficient to show the strength of my reply to the non-standard resurrection objection.  The further one departs from the traditional Christian story about the alleged death, burial,  and resurrection of Jesus, the more one undermines the credibility of the Gospel accounts, which is the primary evidence we have for the historical claims required to show that Jesus rose from the dead and that God raised Jesus from the dead.  

Therefore, although such non-standard resurrection scenarios do show that it is possible for one or more of the main historical claims to be false and yet for the ultimate conclusion (GRJ) to be true, this objection is weak because such non-standard scenarios usually also undermine the credibility of the Gospel evidence, and thus these scenarios fail to significantly increase the probability that God raised Jesus from the dead, relative to the results of probability calculations that make use of my probability tree diagram of the resurrection.

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