Reading about the Resurrection

When I solicited book recommendations, Eldnar made a push for Gary Habermas’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, and I thought his reasoning deserved a response. Eldnar wrote:

The reason I believe “The Case for the Resurrection” should be fairly early in your reading list is simple. The fact is, the whole of Christianity stands or falls based on the resurrection. Christianity makes a bold, historical claim; before Karl Popper, the apostle Paul already knew about “falsifiability” and provided criteria. Here’s what he said, “…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Wow. How many religions contain a built in debunking test? 

…I think it makes sense not to dance around peripheral issues and go straight to the heart of the matter, the evidence for the resurrection. No need to read “Orthodoxy” if the resurrection didn’t happen, no need to read “Confessions” (great book, I just finished it this week BTW), or “Book of Mormon” if the resurrection didn’t happen.

I’ve taken a crack at one book on the resurrection, and others are probably better, but I’m not that interested in reading them right now. I’ve taken some history courses (and no archeology courses) and sooner or later, the evidence on both sides starts to go over my head. I’ve seen arguments on both sides about the date the gospels were written, but I don’t have access to the primary source documents or the expertise that would be required to interpret them myself. For me, reading historical arguments usually comes down to an appeal to authority.

My crude heuristic is to assume that the factual assertional of an apologetic or skeptic work are true and then examine the reasoning that leads to the conclusion and the level of confidence the author applies to the result.  Plenty of works (including Strobel) don’t pass this test.  I can tell that they’ve strawmanned the alternatives, or claimed that more likely is the same as being certain, or attribute too much importance to a single piece/kind of evidence not having turned up etc., etc.

When a work passes this test, I don’t really know what to do.  I can invalidate authors, but I can’t validate arguments.  In other spheres of my life, I assent to plenty of historical facts I can’t prove, but (a) there’s greater consensus/evidence and (b) these facts make less of an impact on my life.  To add to the problem, I don’t think that, if Christianity were true, it would logically require that there exist sufficient evidence of the Resurrection.  A lack of evidence doesn’t definitively debunk the Christian position.

As a result, I don’t spend a lot of time investigating the historical evidence for Jesus.  I assume that, if Christianity is true, it has discernible effects on the world that I live in.  Evidence of miraculous healings, philosophical proof that morality was contingent on God, or even some variant on G.K. Chesterton’s labeling of the Church as “a truth-telling thing” would all be more likely to persuade me than an academic debate on authorship of the Gospels.  For the time being, I’m inclined to stick with the arguments I can understand and participate in.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    Leah, I hear this for sure. When I first began doubting, I saturated myself with resurrection debates. I liked the debate format because (as you mentioned) reading authors by themselves can leave you wondering what the response would be. I loved having both present to really hash out the issues face to face.That said, I agree that the end leaves one simply wondering which authority to trust. I've listened to various interactions between Craig, Ehrman, Carrier, Boyd, Habermas, and Licona. Who's right? Is it evident that the gospels show signs of mythical growth as one progresses from Mark -> John or is this not the case and the remain reliable? Is it possible that Paul never even meant a bodily resurrection or is that exactly what he meant? Is there a better explanation for the "four facts" (or three) about Jesus' resurrection circumstances than "God raised Jesus from the dead" or not?I became quite frustrated. Debates enter into the world of Greek and knowledge of 1st century culture and archaeology… and I'm just lost. Even trying to go through routes like Rene Salm's discussion about whether Nazareth even existed or figuring out if 'The Nazorean' is a complete mistranslation are quite difficult endeavors.At the end of the day, I actually wonder quite a bit what makes up "belief." I find that almost all believers were believers before they knew about supporting arguments a-z. If that's agreed upon, then a-z can't be said to actually "sustain" belief — it came from elsewhere.I find it very frustrating, therefore, to be instructed to research all of a-z for myself before I'm able to walk away… a-z never had anything to do with most people's beliefs in the first place. In the end, my delving in has shown a-z to be, mostly, non-falsifiable to begin with and therefore I find most apologists to simply serve as a "board" of smart people for believers to point to when you're trying to exit a faith.To join, just show up, perhaps make a profession and perhaps start tithing. To leave, you need to have conclusively overturned every Christian scholar who's ever existed.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02425971347341617089 Eldnar

    Interesting thoughts.When I saw your review for Lee Strobel's two "Case for" books, I thought "Uh-oh, the well is going to be poisoned by Strobel". He's a likable guy, but he's certainly not a scholar, nor would I recommend his books to anyone doing serious reading, mainly because I pretty much agreed nearly word for word with your review. You actually almost brought me to tears of laughter with your "Yes Socrates" comments. You said, "I’ve taken a crack at one book on the resurrection, and others are probably better, but I’m not that interested in reading them right now." Well, it's unlikely I can persuade you into interest, besides you've selected a fantastic reading list thus far! I just wanted to elaborate that there is a significant difference between reading books on the validity, and historicity of the Gospels and Jesus, and reading a Habermas book on the resurrection. You'd be surprised at Habermas's logic, and more often that not he makes the shocking statement of, "Forget the Gospels, their historicity and reliability, let's toss them. I can argue the resurrection using data from top skeptical literature." WHAT?I will say this though, Strobel's book is not taking a crack at the resurrection.While the resurrection does touch on historical claims. That's not the central issue, and largely why I didn't recommend any of the historical Jesus books, the topic is a bit dry, and to quote Bart Erhman, "No serious scholar doubts the historicity of Jesus." What does matter is that there are several powerful philosophical dilemmas at the center of the resurrection. Being a top notch philosopher, Habermas brings them to the forefront. I was tempted to recommend the book recounting his final debate with Antony Flew as reading material, but thought it would be more concise to read the book that contains the reasoning behind the logic employed in the debate:http://www.amazon.com/Did-Resurrection-Happen-Conversation-Habermas/dp/0830837183/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie;=UTF8&qid;=1295894563&sr;=1-2"The debate was held in Dallas and was judged by a panel of judges organized into two panels of experts in their respective areas of specialty to render a verdict on the subject matter of the debate. One panel consisted of five philosophers who were asked to judge the content of the debate and render a winner. The second panel consisted of five professional debate judges who were asked to judge the argumentation technique of the debaters. All ten participants represented a range of worldviews and serve on the faculties of American universities and colleges, such as the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Virginia, Western Kentucky University, James Madison University, and George Mason University.The decision of the judges were as follows. The panel of philosophers judging content cast four votes for Habermas who argued for the fact of the resurrection, none for Flew, and one draw. The panel of professional debate judges voted three to two, also in favor of Habermas, this time regarding the method of argumentation technique."That's nothing to sneeze at. I'm sure Habermas would pass, with flying colors, phase one of your heuristic. As far as phase two, if the author can't be invalidated, nor can his arguments be invalidated (even by atheist philosophers) at what point does, "This guy may be on to something…" enter the picture? I'm not talking agreement, I'm talking more plausible than any alternative.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02425971347341617089 Eldnar

    I also really appreciated your points about the historicity of Jesus and your point about a lack of evidence doesn't definitely debunk the Christian position. I agree with you 100% as does the book, "It's tempting to say that, if the historical case fails, then Christianity is false, but this isn't exactly right. Plenty of historical events have taken place without our ability to establish that they did. An effective historical case for the resurrection makes rational belief in the resurrection possible, without ensuring that the event happened. The absence of such a case doesn't however, mean the event didn't transpire, but it would mean that rational belief in the resurrection would have to derive from other sources" Thanks for the response Leah, and thanks for listening. I hope I've done of fair job of separating the topic of the resurrection from topics of a purely historical discussion, but if not, fair enough, you still have several strong books to read in 2011. Have a great day!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02425971347341617089 Eldnar

    Sorry. I wrote:"That's not the central issue"when I intended to convey: "That's not the sole issue":)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    Thanks for that explanation, Eldnar. The Habermas book sounds a lot better than I assumed (and the excerpts you posted make it sound more up my alley). I'm adding it to my list after all, but it's going to have to be patient further down the list, because I want to treat myself to the Graham Greene soon. :)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Although I think Bart Ehrman is generally a very good resource, I don't agree that no serious scholar doubts the historicity of Jesus. I've read quite a few books on the topic, both skeptical and apologetic, and to my mind no one makes a more convincing case than Earl Doherty's book The Jesus Puzzle:http://jesuspuzzle.humanists.net/home.htm(Sorry, Leah, I don't mean to add to your voluminous reading list!)Doherty's thesis is that Jesus was originally conceived of as a purely divine figure, an anthropomorphic spirit being who was crucified and resurrected, but in a spiritual plane midway between Earth and Heaven. Later generations of Christian authors gradually transformed him into a historical human being, a process that culminated with the creation of the gospels.Doherty draws on a huge range of early Christian, Jewish and pagan material to support this thesis and explain how it fits with the prevailing mythos of the era. In my view, as well as in the view of reviewers like Richard Carrier, it neatly explains a lot of very strange verses in the New Testament, as well as in the writings of early Christian theologians, that traditional explanations struggle with.

  • http://bluesilkensky.livejournal.com/ bluesilkensky

    You know what, you've been recommended so much theology and philosophy, may I make a literary recommendation? Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find." Probably in any ENGL-whatever short story omnibus you may own. Will take you less than an hour to read.It's O'Connor doing "Christ-haunted landscape" at her best. Not a guide to the Resurrection, not a work of a theology, not something that'll lay anyone down principles to live by…but about the Resurrection all the same. It's stuck with me, despite the fact that I encountered it in the very unpropitious atmosphere of 10th grade English class.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    Thanks for the tip, bluesilkensky. I'll take a look in the library next time I head in.


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