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Seven Bad Arguments for the Resurrection of Jesus

Seven Bad Arguments for the Resurrection of Jesus July 12, 2021

flying jesusMaybe I spoke too soon. I previously said that Tim Keller was done trying to build a logical case for Christianity and had moved on to sermonizing, but the second-to-the-last chapter in his apologetics work The Reason for God presents his final shot at arguing for the legitimacy of the Christian faith.

In Chapter 13, Keller rehashes the story of the resurrection of Jesus, arguing that it must have really happened, not so much because he has positive proof besides a collection of stories in an ancient book, but because until you can definitively explain how this story came to exist in the first place, you are supposed to assume it’s true.

This is what we call shifting the burden of proof. Ordinarily a person engaging in counterapologetics (what I’m doing in this series of posts) has to carefully break down the other person’s logic order to expose when and where this sleight of hand occurs in the other person’s argumentation. But Keller just comes right out and states his bias in plain language:

Most people think that, when it comes to Jesus’s resurrection, the burden of proof is on believers to give evidence that it happened. That is not completely the case. The resurrection also puts a burden of proof on its nonbelievers. It is not enough to simply believe Jesus did not rise from the dead. You must then come up with a historically feasible alternate explanation for the birth of the church. (p.210, emphasis mine)

That’s quite a facile assertion on Keller’s part. Why am I obligated to explain why a religious community or tradition exists? Must I give an adequate explanation for why Islam exists? Or Hinduism? Or Mormonism? Or Scientology? Each of these religions makes claims upon which the rest of their beliefs are based, and by Keller’s logic we are automatically obligated to accept them by default until we can first definitively prove that those claims are false. Or does he mean that only his religion should be privileged in that way? If so, why?

A resurrection is an extraordinary claim, and as notable skeptics Sagan, Hitchens, and before them LaPlace have all said in various forms, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It would mean very little for someone simply to argue that a peasant rabbi amassed a following in ancient rural Palestine only to fall in with zealots, getting himself killed by the Roman authorities. That may have happened a lot, actually. But it’s another thing altogether to claim that after a weekend in a tomb one of those rabbis came back to life, walked through walls, ate breakfast, and then flew away up into the sky. Those are extraordinary claims, and yet Keller says it’s on you to accept them until you can prove they never happened.

Why Are We Still Debating This?

Arguments for the historicity of the Gospels wear me out, quite honestly. Like apologetics discussions in general, I find them tedious and repetitive. After people have slogged their way through all the details (and that can go on for days, weeks, or months) they come away believing the same things they believed going into the discussion. But to me it says enough that we are still dissecting these ancient stories, looking for clues to determine whether or not they really happened. If the resurrection of Jesus really happened, we wouldn’t still be debating its historicity today. The present-day evidence for the rest of the claims of the Christian faith would be all around us, leaving little room for doubt. 

The same book that asserts Jesus came back from the dead also asserts other things, like: 1) If you pray for people to be healed they will get better, 2) If you give money to God you’ll get even more back in return, and 3) If you truly trust Jesus with all your heart then his spirit will empower you to become a better person. It says all of those things, and so much more, yet the devout keep pointing us away from present-day evidence and toward ancient stories we will never be able to disprove without the use of a time machine. How convenient.

Read: “Making Your Faith Impossible to Disprove

According to the writer(s) of the fourth Gospel, Jesus himself indicated what should be the most visible evidence for his legitimacy: The unity of the church. He gambled his own legacy on his followers’ ability to remain in harmonious relationship with one another, which has to be the most failed prayer in history. Based on what we’ve seen, the student of history should be forgiven for concluding that Jesus was not in fact who the Bible says he was.

It’s disappointing to me that in a chapter aimed at convincing skeptics of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, Keller relies upon an Anglican bishop for 9 out of 10 citations. Don’t get me wrong, N.T. Wright is a brilliant writer and a devoted student of primitive Christianity who graduated with honors from Oxford University. He’s no slouch. But he’s still an Anglican minister, a theologian at heart.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Jesus was in fact a real, historical person. This is far from certain, and I dare you to bring the subject up within any gathering of English speaking atheists today. But for the purposes of interacting with this chapter, we will start with that assumption. Accepting that a guy named Jesus lived and died the way the Bible says he did doesn’t establish that he also performed miracles or came back from the dead.

Seven Arguments Against the Resurrection NOT Happening

Yes, I know double negatives are confusing, but then so is the logic Keller is using.

1. While the gospels weren’t written until a full generation after the time of Jesus, the letters of Paul attest to the resurrection as well, and they were written earlier. 

They were, although we’re still talking about second- or third-hand information at best, and it was still at least 20 years after the time when these events were to have taken place. If I were to write a piece today about the untimely death of Princess Diana, I doubt it would carry much historical weight given that I wasn’t there to witness the wreck that claimed her life. I wasn’t even in the same country at the time, so I wouldn’t be an authority on the details of her death, nor would anyone treat me as such unless they were completely devoid of reliable sources of information on the matter.

2. There were 500 witnesses to the risen Jesus!

Says who, exactly? In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul repeats what he was told by someone else, and Keller seems overly impressed by it:

Paul’s letter was to a church, and therefore it was a public document, written to be read aloud. Paul was inviting anyone who doubted that Jesus had appeared to people after his death to go and talk to the eyewitnesses if they wished. (p.212)

How often does Keller think people on the other side of the Mediterranean made trips to Jerusalem? If they did travel 1,800 miles by land (or 800 by sea), how would they track down any of those witnesses after 20 years had come and gone since that time? Paul himself wasn’t even one of the witnesses, nor does he give any of their names. This is a second-, third-, or even fourth-hand account of a story that claims there were eyewitnesses. People can’t understand this difference, and that baffles me.

3. We don’t give ancient people enough credit for their skepticism, nor for their ability to distinguish between fact and folklore.

After the rise of QAnon, I don’t even trust modern people’s grasp of reality.

Both Wright and Keller borrow heavily from C.S. Lewis, who frequently accused his contemporaries of “chronological snobbery” whereby modern people look down on their ancient counterparts as simpletons who would believe any tall tale they heard. My main problem with this contention isn’t that people back then weren’t as smart as we are today, it’s that people today are still much more gullible than we care to admit. In other words, it’s not that ancients were so easily duped, it’s that we all are, even today.

The advent of the Information Age hasn’t exactly spawned a generation of critical thinkers. Misinformation travels faster than information, so this isn’t just a problem of ancient history. I’ve worked in a vitamin supplement store and I know as long the person giving nutritional advice is wearing a lab coat and/or has a stethoscope around their neck, people will buy whatever they are selling.

4. Women were among the first to report the resurrection, and nobody in that day would have made that part up.

Far too much has been made of this, most likely in hopes that it will make the early church seem less patriarchal. Apologists for many years have counted this as a mark in favor of the “criteria of embarrassment,” meaning that if the early church had truly fabricated the resurrection account, they would have made sure to put the first testimonies in the mouths of men for reasons of social convention.

Women’s low social status meant that their testimony was not admissible evidence in court…The only possible explanation for why women were depicted as meeting Jesus first is if they really had. (p.213)

Well, that’s not exactly the only possible explanation, and this isn’t exactly a court of law, either. But in that particular culture and time, women’s lower social status made them more likely to be the ones given the responsibility of handling burial rituals, wrapping bodies and unwrapping them again to reapply burial spices and so forth. It’s quite normal and expected that if there had been a burial and a subsequent removal of the body of Jesus, women should have been the first to discover that he was missing.

The earliest version of the earliest gospel (Mark 16:1-8) ends with two women carrying burial spices to an empty tomb only to flee the scene “trembling and bewildered, saying nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” It ends with two confused women and no resurrection appearances by Jesus. Resurrection stories appear to have grown up later on, and in time were added to the end of the text of Mark’s gospel in order to corroborate the legends that grew up between the different versions of the story.

5. People in that time would have never believed in an individual bodily resurrection because it wouldn’t have fit their worldview.

Keller here again leans heavily on the work of Wright, who argues in several of his works that any concept of resurrection familiar to the people of this time period would have disallowed for a personal resurrection of just one individual, and certainly not one that is physical in nature. Keller seems far too confident when he says things like:

Once your soul is free of its body, a return to re-embodied life was outlandish, unthinkable, and impossible… The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been as impossible to imagine to a Jew as to a Greek. (p.215-216)

This one is easy to disprove. In the letter to the Hebrews, arguably the most Jewish book in the New Testament, we find this illuminating admission:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said,“Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead

Whoever wrote the letter to the Hebrews believed that, even as far back as Abraham, there must have been some kind of concept of individual resurrection. If not for a belief in individual resurrection, how else would Abraham have been willing to march up that mountain ready to sacrifice the very offspring through whom the man was supposed to become “the father of many nations?” This isn’t my logic, it’s theirs, and both Wright and Keller seem to have forgotten about it.

6. First-century Jews would never have agreed to worship a human as divine, unless he really were God incarnate.

Keller makes it sound like the deification of Jesus happened immediately. He takes the timeframe in which Jesus goes from rabbi to prophet to messiah to God and collapses it into an instantaneous event.

Jews…believed in a single, transcendent, personal God. It was absolute blasphemy to propose that any human being should be worshipped. Yet hundreds of Jews began worshipping Jesus literally overnight. (p.218)

Did they really, though? The bulk of our knowledge about primitive Christianity comes from the later Pauline communities, not the earlier Judean ones. Do we really know how quickly they grew into the idea that Jesus was both human and divine? Even the early hymn Keller cites from Philippians 2 indicating a high Christology by the mid-first-century doesn’t establish that it wasn’t the later, more Greek-leaning diaspora communities who provided that particular innovation.

And as I mentioned in my last post, a quick look through the early church councils of the 4th and 5th centuries reveals that the divinity of Jesus was still being hotly debated in the church even 400 years after its inception. That’s not to say that the worship of Jesus didn’t start as early as the 1st century, but it does mean that the church’s understanding of the divinity of Jesus wasn’t a fully developed thing right off the bat.

And of course, all of this is beside the point. We want evidence of a resurrection, not more evidence that people will believe whatever they hear. But they most likely did not suddenly decide Jesus was God overnight. That’s not historically accurate.

7. The early disciples would have never sacrificed their lives if the resurrection didn’t really happen.

Sure they would. Honestly, I don’t see how any American living in post 9/11 society has a hard time believing that a dozen zealous young men would be willing to sacrifice their lives for a religious belief. Zealotry is no proof that the things you believe are actually true. It only means that you sincerely believe them to be.

Did the original 12 apostles really give up their lives for their faith? We don’t know. Keller accepts by default all the stories that church tradition has provided us about the deaths of the earliest disciples. One such story describes the apostle Peter being crucified upside down at his own request because he didn’t consider himself worthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus. And of course, Roman emperors always took requests from their captives, right?

Making Easter Relevant

I have to comment on one last assertion Keller makes in this chapter because I hear it from time to time and it has always struck me as a non sequitur. Following Wright’s lead, Keller suggests that the story of the resurrection of Jesus isn’t just about getting sins forgiven, but that it also portends to a future restoration of the whole world, and that the expectation of this future deliverance should motivate the church to become a meditating force to implement that deliverance in some anticipatory way.

Each year at Easter I get to preach on the Resurrection. In my sermon I always say to my skeptical, secular friends that, even if they can’t believe in the resurrection, they should want it to be true. Most of them care deeply about justice for the poor, alleviating hunger and disease, and caring for the environment. (p.220)

Does Keller know how unconcerned about those things his tradition is? When was the last time you saw evangelicals publicly fretting over income inequality, systemic racism, or climate change? They don’t even believe those things are real, and a brief glance at the news reveals they vehemently oppose anyone who does. The church in America is much more concerned with people’s bedroom behavior than they are with the size of their carbon footprint or whether or not they’ve had enough to eat.

Keller goes on to give a lengthy quote from one of Wright’s sermons to argue that the Easter story should move the church to become a force for good in the world in precisely those ways:

Easter means that in a world where injustice, violence and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things—and that we will work and plan, with all the energy of God, to implement the victory of Jesus over them all. (p.221)

Those are wonderful goals, and I would love to see the church in America come to focus on such real-world activities as alleviating injustice, war, poverty and disease. But stories of miraculous feedings and healings don’t appear to inspire that.

Jesus didn’t teach his disciples about antibiotics or how to irrigate arid tracts of land. The early church didn’t travel to impoverished districts to dig wells or lobby to change the laws or foreign policies of the Roman Empire. The only direct action I can recall Jesus taking toward the environment was when he killed a fig tree for not bearing figs out of season. He’s not exactly the environmental hero we were looking for.

According to the Bible, Jesus did instantaneous miracles. Now we are being told that his example is supposed to lead the church to do the same things he did, but in non-miraculous ways because of course everybody knows better than to expect real miracles to happen.

I’ve never understood the appeal of this line of reasoning. Maybe it placates a progressive audience to say those things, and I guess I can’t blame either of these two churchmen for seeking to make their ancient religious tradition seem more relevant to the times in which we live. But this has always felt like a stretch, and I suspect the majority of the church instinctively knows it as well, which would explain why those things haven’t every caught on.

And now we have only one chapter left to go. Tune in next time and we will wrap up The Reason for God and then move on to finish Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. On a personal note, I hope to resume the podcasts soon, but first I have to finish moving four daughters into four (!) separate places before school resumes. Evidently when you keep feeding them, they grow and eventually they all move out. Who knew?

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.
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