In thinking about the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus, one needs to either determine an answer to this very basic question:
Q1: Does God exist?
Or else one needs to determine some sort of approach to how this question is to be dealt with in relation to the two key questions about the resurrection:
Q2: Did Jesus rise from the dead?
Q3: Did God raise Jesus from the dead?
If one determines that there is no God, then the answer to (Q3) is obviously: NO. Also, if one determines that the answer to (Q3) is NO, then the answer to (Q2) becomes much less interesting or significant. If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then who cares whether or how Jesus rose from the dead? (Q2) would become just a quaint question of interest to perhaps a small handful of ancient historians.
Obviously skeptics cannot simply assume that there is no God when arguing with Christian believers. That would beg the question against the Christian point of view. But one skeptical strategy would be to dig in, and argue for atheism, in an effort to answer both (Q1) and (Q3), thus showing (Q2) to be an insignificant and unimportant question.
One could also take the opposite approach, and concede the existence of God from the start, for the sake of argument, and then proceed to argue that these two key Christian claims are probably false:
JRD: Jesus rose from the dead.
GRJ: God raised Jesus from the dead.
Swinburne suggests a third alternative which is a sort of compromise between the previous two approaches. He begins his case for the resurrection of Jesus on the assumption that “given that general background evidence makes it as likely as not that there is a God…” (The Resurrection of God Incarnate; hereafter: ROGI, p.5).
GE: God exists.
B: [general background evidence]
Swinburne’s assumption for his case for the resurrection of Jesus is thus:
P(GE | B) = .5
A skeptic could take a similar approach but make a somewhat less generous assumption (which could be argued for separately, as Swinburne did):
P(GE | B) = .2
P(GE | B) = .1
Ideally, I think skeptics should combine two (or more) of these approaches. If a case can be made against the resurrection while simply conceding, for the sake of argument, that God exists, then that should be done. If such a case can be made (and I believe it can), then a skeptic could also begin with Swinburne’s assumption, to show that the resurrection of Jesus is unlikely even if we assume that there is a 50/50 chance that God exists. Starting out with these generous assumptions and yet showing that the resurrection of Jesus is still improbable is a powerful way to argue against the resurrection and against the truth of the Christian religion.
Although (Q3) cannot be tackled without making some sort of assumption about the existence of God, (Q2) can be considered apart from making such an assumption. The claim (JRD) can be considered in terms of two relatively straightforward historical and non-theological claims:
(DOC) Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified.
(JAW) Jesus was alive and walking around (unassisted) on Sunday, only about 48 hours after he was crucified.
If these historical claims about Jesus can be established on the basis of objective historical evidence, investigation, and analysis, then (JRD) can be established on the basis of objective historical evidence, investigation, and analysis. Furthermore, if one or both of these historical claims can be shown to be false or questionable on the basis of objective historical evidence, investigation, and analysis, then (JRD) can be shown to be false or questionable on the basis of objective historical evidence, investigation, and analysis.
But even if it could be shown that (JRD) was very probable, it would not follow that (GRJ) was probable. One reason why this would not follow is that (GRJ), unlike (JRD), presupposes that God exists. Thus, one must now make some kind of assumption about the probability of the existence of God before one can evaluate (GRJ), even if one is convinced that (JRD) is probably true. If one determines that there is no God, no significant chance that there is a God, then (JRD) would just become an odd and quirky bit of historical trivia.
Let’s take the hard road here, and simply grant the assumption, for the sake of argument, that God exists. I believe there are still very serious problems with the case for (GRJ), and good reasons to believe (GRJ) is false, even if we assume (GE) and (JRD) to be true.
There is one simple and straightforward way of attempting to prove (GRJ) on the basis of (JRD):
1. Only God has the power to raise the dead.
2. Anyone who rises from the dead, must have been raised from the dead by God.
3. Jesus rose from the dead. (JRD)
4. God raised Jesus from the dead. (GRJ)
Premise (1) is very questionable. Clearly, God has the power to raise the dead, assuming that there is no logical contradiction in the idea of the resurrection of a dead person, because God is omnipotent by definition. To say that ‘God exists’ is to imply that an ‘omnipotent person exists’. But how could we possibly know that God was the ONLY person (or force) that could cause someone to rise from the dead? What about angels? Or demons? What about lesser gods or deities? What about wizards? What about magic elixirs?
How would we come to know that, for example, an angel cannot bring a human back to life from the dead? We cannot talk with angels or observe the actions of angels. We cannot ask angels to perform a resurrection, or entice an angel with money or gifts to attempt to perform a resurrection. Isn’t the trumpeting of Michael the Archangel supposed to herald the second coming of Jesus (1 Thess. 4:16)? If so, perhaps it is Michael who will bring the dead back to life. In any case, I see no way to objectively determine that God was the ONLY person or being who has the power to raise the dead. Assuming there is a God, there might well be other supernatural kinds of persons and beings.
One might try to prove that God is the ONLY supernatural being, and that there are no other supernatural persons, that there are no such beings as angels or demons. But in that case, the theological teachings of Jesus would be filled with falsehoods, because Jesus frequently talked about angels and demons as real beings who are actively involved in the events of this world. If there are no angels and no demons, then Jesus was a false prophet whose teachings were NOT from God, and it would be unlikely that God would raise a false prophet from the dead.
Finally, since God is omnipotent, God can give virtually any power to any person to whom God wishes to give it. If God wants to give Moses the power to raise the dead, then God can do so. If God wants to give Jesus the power to raise the dead, then God can do so. We don’t know whether God has in fact given such power to other persons or creatures, but he can do so easily and instantly if he so chooses. Therefore, there is no solid and objective reason or evidence that shows premise (1) to be true, and the above argument thus fails to establish (GRJ) on the basis of (JRD).