We’ve made it through Gary Habermas’s minimal facts argument from The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (dismantled here). As we catch our breath, let’s sift through the debris to identify the poor arguments and lessons learned. Some will be familiar, but I hope that a few will help crystalize errors about which you hadn’t been fully aware. These are both problems to avoid in our own arguments and errors to find in others’.
1. It’s a story
I can’t count the number of times that “It’s just a story!” went through my mind as I read this book. For example, Habermas says:
Surely the disciples did have some kind of experience (p. 128).
Yeah, in the story. That doesn’t make it history.
All we can start with is that it’s a story. We have lots of stories—about Alexander the Great and about John Henry. About George Washington and about Merlin the magician. Which are history and which are not?
It’s not like we have security-camera evidence documenting the gospel story. The default position for this and indeed for all supernatural stories is that it is not history. Only with overwhelming evidence can we conclude otherwise.
2. The natural trumps the supernatural
A plausible natural explanation always beats a supernatural explanation.
Habermas seems to have no idea how profoundly crazy his claim of a supernatural creator of the universe is. My response to his claim: like who? To whom can we compare this creator so we can ground Habermas’s claim in something we already accept?
There is no universally accepted supernatural creator of the universe. There isn’t even a single supernatural claim that’s universally accepted. (By “universally accepted,” I’m thinking of something like “germs cause some disease.”)
[The resurrection] is the only plausible explanation that accounts for [the historical data] (p. 141)
Habermas’s claim doesn’t look like anything that either science or society has accepted. What it does look like is all the other religions that Habermas himself rejects. He nonchalantly tosses out his supernatural explanation with unjustified confidence without even acknowledging that it’s a startling claim. To him, I suppose it isn’t. The objective outside observer doesn’t share that view, and if that’s part of his audience, he needs to recast his argument.3. Avoid straw man arguments
The minimal facts argument is only effective when presented to someone who is eager to accept the resurrection or who has thought little about how historical claims are weighed. See the earlier post to see that evaluation, but we can probably agree that you must respond to your opponents’ best arguments, not caricatures of them.
4. “Given the story up to this point …”
A common argument for the historicity of a Bible story begins by demanding that we take the story up to a certain point as a given. For example, “Given the Jesus story up through the crucifixion, how do you explain the empty tomb?” (The challenge is often abbreviated as “How do you explain the empty tomb?” with the story assumption taken for granted.)
No, it’s a story! You can’t prove that one part of a story is correct by appealing to another part of the same story. This is the yellow brick road problem (“Of course there’s an Emerald City. Where else would the yellow brick road go to?”). Only when you have historical evidence do you have an argument.
The apologist might argue that “Jesus was crucified” is hardly a remarkable claim and assume that as a starting point. But that’s like demanding, “Oh, c’mon—surely you can give me ‘Dorothy went into her house during a tornado.’ Lots of people have done that.” No, the whole thing stands as a unit. Picking apart a legend and demanding that the commonplace bits must be history (without actually providing the evidence) doesn’t work.
Given the empty tomb, the immensely large rock, Jesus being dead, and the guards ensuring that he was put in dead and no one took the body as historical facts, then we can consider the resurrection. But those are big givens, which I won’t grant. Just because the gospels sort of say that doesn’t make it history.
To be concluded with four more lessons learned in part 2.
At Lourdes, you see plenty of crutches
but no wooden legs.
— John Dominic Crossan
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 2/26/14.)
Photo credit: Keene Public Library