Christian apologist Jim Wallace thinks that explaining the Resurrection is easy—God was behind it all. Drop the God explanation, and atheists come up short explaining the facts: Jesus was a historical person, the gospels report that the tomb was empty and that Jesus rose from the dead, the disciples were willing to die to defend the Jesus claims, and there was little chance for legend to creep in to the story. I dismantle these “facts” in part 1.
Let’s move on to the atheist response. Wallace imagines theories such as that the disciples stole the body, the women went to the wrong tomb, Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross, or that the risen Jesus was simply hallucinated.
Considering this, Wallace wonders “why there are 6 or 7 non-Christian theories and then the one Christian theory.”
Let’s start with a joke
I personally have little interest in these particular theories. But before I get to the one that I prefer, did you hear the one about the man walking along a street at night? He came across another guy bent over, slowly walking around at the edge of a parking lot, obviously looking for something.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for my keys. I lost them over there.” He points to a distant part of the parking lot.
“Then why are you looking for them here??”
“The light’s better here.”
Similarly, why do apologists spend so much time lovingly attacking arguments like “wrong tomb” or “swoon theory”? Because the light’s better here. These they think they can knock over.
And let’s sidestep their insistence that we pick up the story at a certain point and explain things naturally. I have no obligation to explain the resurrection given the empty tomb just like I have no obligation to explain the yellow brick road given Oz. The ball’s in the apologist’s court to show that it’s history.
As for Wallace’s puzzlement about why there are a bunch of non-Christian theories, there aren’t. There is no miscellany of arguments that must all harmonize somehow. You bring out your “God did it,” and I’d prefer any one of these naturalistic theories instead.
How the heck do you explain the Resurrection? The Jesus story was legend.
My preferred explanation (which gets insufficient consideration from the apologists) is that the gospel story is legend. There was something in the beginning—during a period of turmoil within Judaism, a charismatic teacher created a small movement—and legendary accretion over the decades did the rest. Ideas like gods impregnating humans and gods resurrecting worthy people were familiar elements of other religions, and these got attached to the Jesus story with the retelling.
“Wait—you say this Jesus guy was executed by the authorities, and that’s it? Not very impressive. I worship Dionysus, and he was raised from the dead by Zeus.” How many times would this happen before the Jesus story added the Resurrection? (I give this as simply a possible legendary addition. The Resurrection could’ve become part of the gospel story in other ways.)
A related theory, championed at this blog in particular by Greg G. (one of our most eloquent commenters), discards even that small historical core. The stories and ideas in Mark, the first gospel, can all be traced back to precedents in earlier literature—Jewish scripture and Hellenistic books of history or fiction available at the time. In other words, the first gospel was deliberate fiction from the start. This parsimonious theory, then, doesn’t assume any historical origin.
(This is my paraphrasing, so I invite those who’ve thought about it more to correct me as necessary. This is the Christ Myth theory, but I didn’t introduce it as such because it emphasizes the “Jesus didn’t exist” part, when the “Mark was fiction” part is more interesting and relevant for this post. Perhaps this alternative angle into the same theory could be called the Pious Fraud theory.)
As for Wallace’s “one Christian theory,” let’s not overemphasize Christian unity. Christians disagree on many important issues, such as Arminian vs. Calvinist thinking, Trinitarian vs. Arian (and Unitarian, Binitarian, and other beliefs) thinking, plus lots of other conflicts over the centuries where the losing philosophy was declared heretical. Christian big-tent thinking is roughly, “Ignoring the areas where Christians don’t speak with one voice . . . Christians speak with one voice.” And now Christians look like just another manmade religion, with factions bickering over who’s right.
The ineffectiveness of “God did it”
Finally, consider the conclusion Christians are so eager for us to reach, “God did it.” It’s a powerful explanation, though a little too powerful. It can explain anything and, in so doing, it explains nothing. It can’t be falsified, and if I say, “God did X,” you can’t prove me wrong because God could do anything. If you say that X isn’t something God would do, I could either say that God moves in mysterious ways (too grand for your mortal thinking) or dismiss your poor understanding of how God thinks.
More practically, “God did it” is just a repackaging of the unknowns and so explains nothing. We’ve answered, “How did Jesus get resurrected?” by replacing it with, “Who is God, and why is there suffering, and why is God hidden?” (and so on). Introduce the Bible into the conversation, and that just introduces more problems—“Why are there so many unanswered questions, and why did Jesus leave so much dogma undecided, and why is it contradictory?” (and so on).
Declare victory and go home
You can always just say that the atheist is cheating. If those atheists were honest in their evaluation of your argument, they’d be on their knees, sobbing out the Sinner’s Prayer. Here, Wallace thinks he’s found the problem.
The better [explanation of the atheist position], and the only reason why you don’t like the Christian theory, is because you don’t think a miracle is reasonable. You have a presuppositional bias against the miraculous.
And you don’t?? I suspect we’re equally skeptical about supernatural claims . . . except when it comes to Christian claims. You give them a pass, while I do my best to insist on evidence in proportion to the extraordinary character of the claim, regardless of whether they support my worldview or not.
Looks like that makes me the one who treats things without unfair bias. More here.
No, Mssr. Atheist, you can’t use science
Wallace concludes with a Molotov cocktail from a new quarter.
So you think that everything in your world can be explained by natural causes and natural forces; you think that everything in your environment, [the entire history of] the universe can be explained by nothing more than space, time, matter, physics, and chemistry? How do you explain the beginning of the universe (which you cannot explain using space, time, matter, physics, or chemistry, because none of those things are available to you)? We know from the science that everything comes into existence, not from some other form of space, but from nothing.
There’s lots I could say here, but I’ll cut it short and simply note (1) I have no obligation to answer any scientific question to make an atheist argument, and (2) this challenge is about cosmology, while our topic is Christianity’s unbelievable explanation for the Resurrection. If you think you’ve got a showstopper of an argument (or simply want the best answer from a scientific field that you’re a novice in), go talk to a relevant scientist.
I’m sure that no scientific question you could pose would surprise scientists or shake their confidence in the science. More to the point, none would convert to Christianity as a result. What does that tell you about the power of this question about the origin of the universe?
As usual, the supernatural is unnecessary in explaining the objective facts surrounding the Resurrection. As the French mathematician Laplace is reported to have said two centuries ago about the need for God in his book on celestial mechanics, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”
Why not? Because it’s evidential.
Religious beliefs are not evidential and, therefore,
can only be defended emotionally—
hence the escalation to argument.
— John Richards, Secular World blog
Image from Francisco Delgado, CC license