Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?
Yesterday was Easter, traditionally the day on which media outlets try to disabue Christians of the silly notion that there's anything to sing about besides chocolate bunnies and daffodils. Nowadays atheist blogs add their chirps to the chorus, in some cases with straightforward skepticm, in others with adolescent sneers.
This being a Christian blog, you might expect me to answer the question, "Did Jesus rise from the dead?" with a "big 10-4." I will try not to disappoint.
It occurs to me that, despite my interest in history, and all my books defending the Christian faith, I've seldom written much about why I believe the teacher we follow rose from the dead some 2000 years ago. Sometimes I refer people to N. T. Wright's erudite volume, the Resurrection of the Son of God, but John Loftus tells me that's too long for most readers. (And indeed, I have to admit, there are alleys in that maze down which I have yet to poke my nose.) I have also recommended William Lane Craig's debates on the subject, with John Crossan and Bart Ehrman, and will suggest another article, available on-line, at the end.
The evidence for any historical report naturally divides into two parts: (I) background evidence rendering the report plausible or implausible on its face, and (II) historical evidence that it actually did or did not occur.
The likelihood that Jesus rose is the product of these two figures. For instance, if the background likelihood that Jesus might resurrect is one in 100 billion, as an Irish skeptic of my acquaintance suggested (I think he was counting the number of people who have died in the past 2000 years, and assuming that none of the others came back to life!) then the historical evidence for the resurrection might have to be close to 100 billion to one in favor of the claim that it actually happened, to overcome such long odds. That might, admittedly, be tough odds for any historical claim to beat -- though not (I think) impossible.
If we were talking about a natural even, which did not ruffle any feathers about the sort of world we live in, the bare historical evidence for the resurrection would I think persuade every historian on earth that it took place. The reason people deny Jesus rose from the dead, is not that historical evidence is lacking -- it is I think amazingly good -- but that, heh, this is not what usually happens after someone dies!
This is David Hume's old argument about miracles. He claimed that "firm and unalterable experience" has established that the laws of nature are never altered. Therefore, even the most far-fetched natural explanation for a miracle is more plausible than a supernatural explanation for one. This is, of course, begging the question, as C. S. Lewis pointed out. How does he know miracles have never happened, in other words that all reports of them are false? But this does not stop Bart Ehrman and other skeptics from echoing his argument: extraordinary claims, we are told, require extraordinary evidence.
In a sense, that's exactly what I'm saying: one must consider both the background evidence of plausibility AND the historical evidence, to decide whether something has happened or not. The claim that the resurrection of Jesus is "extraordinary" is, in one sense, obviously true: it is unusual, beyond the ordinary course of nature, sensational. But let's not beg the question, as Hume and Erhman do, about whether it is "extraordinary" in the more relevant sense of "initially improbable on known background information."
To try to reduce the supposely unmanagable odds for the "extraordinary" claim of Easter, I will give the most attention to (I); also because it is relatively neglected. I will then offer some points on (II), that I find interesting.
(I) Is it plausible that Jesus could have risen from the dead?
"Of course not!" Many reply today. "Unlike those gullible 1st Century believers, we know science today! That kind of thing just doesn't happen!"
(1) The first fact we must understand is that ancient peoples were, in that respect, not that different from ourselves.
Paul's great sermon in Athens (Acts 17) is a masterpiece of cross-cultural proclamation. Paul begins by complimenting his audience on their religious interests. He cites Greek poets and philosophy brilliantly, then makes an argument for the existence of God that echoes popular Stoic arguments, especially Cicero's On The Nature of the Gods (which I have a strong notion he had read).
Having won the crowd over by reminding them of and affirming their own search for God, Paul made what may appear to be a fatal mistake: he brought up the resurrection:
"(God) has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead."
The reaction of MOST of Paul's audience shows that for them, as for us, background assumptions told strongly against such a claim:
"Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to snear, but others said, 'We shall hear you again concerning this. So Paul went out of their midst. But some men joined him . . . "
Obviously, PZ Myers was not the first to find the central historical claim of the Gospels far-fetched on first-principals! In fact, the Mars Hill forum itself, where Paul was preaching, was founded (Bruce Winter notes) on the saying, "‘When a man dies, the earth drinks up his blood. There is no resurrection (anastasis).” Furthermore, everyone in the dinner party conversation Cicero describes in On the Nature of the Gods, scoffs at resurrection tales (“fabulous old women’s stories”). Doubting such nonsense seems to serve as a social boundary marker as well as an expression of personal incredulity. Scoff at these "old wives' tales," the message seemd to be, or risk your membership in the social elite.
You may have heard that line yourself.
So let's be clear. Only fools, which were probably no more common in the 1st Century than today, ever accepted the resurrection because they didn't know it contradicted the normal course of Nature. Jesus' own disciples were, at first, also incredulous. They were perfectly aware of the "facts of nature," so evident in a society without refrigerators. Much attention is given in the Iliad to the need to burn your slain before wild dogs, flies and maggots devour them. Public death was a common event in ancient Palestine, and decay more evident in any premodern village, than in a squeaky-clean modern megapolis.
I see the prior probability of Jesus' being raised as a function of three issues: (a) Does God exist? (b) How likely is he to keep the basic laws of Nature in effect -- including entropy in general and human death in particular -- while raising some one person dramatically from the dead? (c) How likely is that person to be Jesus? Points 2-9 will deal with these issues.
(2) Of course we cannot settle the question of whether God exists in this short (I still hope) post. Let me simply point out that there are many reports of miracles in modern times given by honest and reliable people, that in some cases seem convincing. Nor is this limited, as Hume supposed, to the "ignorance and barbarous." Augustine converted because he saw the hand of God at work. The history of Christianity, including the conversion of people I have met, often seems to involve miracles. I have seen God answer prayers in remarkable ways myself. This is why Christianity spread in the ancient world: not that no one was skeptical, but that skeptics found immediate reason, in the miracles witnessed in the Gospels and Acts, that overcame their skepticism.
But my argument does not depend on certainly that God exists. One need only find reason to keep an open mind: and there is certainly plenty of that. Even if you concede that there is only a one in five chance that God exists, even (and most people find it a lot better than that), this helps lower the "prior odds" against the resurrection to managable levels.
(3) We cannot, of course, read the mind of God. It does not seem so unlikely, though, that if God created Nature, He would have some reason for affirming her laws in general. Second, much of the offense skeptics take at miracles seems to be aesthetic; it seems inartistic, crude, etc, for the laws to be set aside too easily. (Which is why Myers and others focus on the "zombies" mentioned in passing at the end of Matthew.) Third, it's not hard to see some sense in God offering some sort of dramatic promise to humanity that Entropy will not have the last word, that there is hope for the human race. Raising a good person from the dead might well be His plan, if redemption of the human race in history (in some sense) is His goal.
There are a lot of "could bes, might bes" in this paragraph, obviously. But all that is needed to lower a very high initial probability against the resurrection is a plausible explanation for why it might occur -- not an airtight argument that it must occur.
To offer a parallel, suppose a trustworthy friend tells you, "I saw an elephant swimming in Green Lake in North Seattle yesterday." This may sound absurd: elephants are not native to North America, certainly not to the Pacific Northwest, nor are they common pets. If you subsequently hear on the radio that an elephant has escaped from Woodland Park Zoo half a mile from the lake, that does not add to your store of historical evidence for his visit to the lake -- which still consists of just one instance of human testimony -- but may decrease how much more evidence you demand before you believe it.
(4) To evaluate how likely a given person is to be the One whom God resurrects, let's begin with Martin Luther King. Suppose God wanted to dramatically show that Entropy would not have the last word, that there was hope for the human race, by raising a prominent person from the dead. Suppose He also pick someone whose triumphal return to life would serve as a reprimand to oppressors and murderers everywhere, and would underline the importance of that person's message?
Martin Luther King might be a good person to pick. His resurrection would not only give people hope for life after death, but also demonstrate God was on the side of non-violence and human rights. On the other hand, his resurrection might also send mixed messages about how to treat women, or force God to "pick sides" in American politics. ("Vote Democratic, and be on God's side!") And there are others who might do just as well -- Gandhi, say, or Socrates. So if there is a God, and he wanted to make some dramatic points by raising one great person from the dead, one might suppose (for instance) that there is a one in a thousand chance that the person he would raise would be Martin Luther King, Jr.
In that case, would there be anyone more likely to be raised than Jesus? Consider the following facts, none of which depend on the historical accounts of Jesus' final days in the NT:
(5) Isaiah spoke of a Suffering Servant dying, yet then "seeing the Light of Life." Christians have interpretted this and other passages in the OT as a signal pointing to God's intention to raise Jesus. Early Christians who wrote the NT certain felt Jesus fit much of what is said in the OT about the Messiah or Suffering Servant, and fulfilled many types and prophecies in Hebrew tradition. One might suppose they made all this up, to make Jesus look like the Messiah -- though this seems far-fetched to the max. (See part II.)
Anyway, some of the prophesies were not fulfilled in the Gospels, but have been fulfilled since. In particular, over and over again, the OT predicts the Messiah will be a blessing to people around the world. This had not happened by the time the Gospels were written, but it certainly has today.
If there is a God, such prophecies, which come to a focus on one insignificant nation in the 1st Century, and which one man seems so remarkably to fulfill, make the resurrection of that man from the dead immensely more probable than that, say, Martin Luther King, or even Mohandas Gandhi.
(6) The ancient Hindus wrote of God (Prajapati) sacrificing himself for the world. There are parallels in other cultures, and mythological "dying and rising gods." The Chinese Book of Rites, one of the 5 Classics of ancient China, for instance, talks about the hope that a man will rise from the dead within three days. Might these also give some indirect signal of God's intentions? To put it another way, is it not plausible that God understands what it is about human nature that causes us to dream of such things, and fulfill the psychological truth found in all cultures through his model human being, his "second Adam?"
(7) Lin Yutang, the great Chinese philosopher and man of letters, who compiled an anthology of Chinese and Indian literature, said that "no man has taught as Jesus taught." Many others on a similar intellectual plane concur. Is it not more likely that God would choose a great moral teacher to make His point?
(8) Jesus was, as I show in Truth Behind the New Atheism and other books, at the center of many of the greatest reforms in human history -- inspiring them, setting an example, more so than anyone. Is it not likely God would choose to raise such a person, to set an example for the human raise, and underline his example?
(9) Jesus was (most scholars agree) murdered by tyrants, backed by the Roman Empire, in a particularly savage way. If God is (as Lao Zi said of the Tao) on the side of the weak against powerful oppressors, would not raising him from the dead be a particularly good way of showing that?
I pointed out many such deep and important elements in non-Christian cultures that also seem to increase the significance of Jesus, in Jesus and the Religions of Man. Notice that I haven't introduced any specificially Christian theology into these last several points. Even so, these seem to me to be enough to show that, if there is a God, and if He might do as I suggest, then the resurrection of Jesus in particular is more probable than of anyone else who has ever lived.
In fact, one might even say that if God did not raise Jesus, it would be a shock and a surprise.
And so, even before looking at the historical evidence for or against the resurrection, it seems reasonable to assign a high prior probability to the idea that he rose from the dead -- perhaps even a positive probability, even BEFORE examining the evidence, and finding it (as I agree with the other Christians here that it is) strong.
II. So How is the Evidence for the Resurrection?
I think amazingly good.
I've argued at book length for the general truthfulness of the Gospels. The evidence for the Resurrection is even stronger than that argument implies, because it does not depend on the Gospels being so accurate as historical reports. If all we had for an ordinary historical event (prior probability having already been found strong) were the report in I Corinthians 15 about all the witnesses for the resurrection, that alone would be sufficient to establish any ordinary historical claim. If, say, knowing what we know about Paul, he had mentioned all these eyewitnesses to the fact that Peter had blond hair, no one would doubt it.
This may sound flippant. Of course the Gospels are claiming something much more important. And of course I think the evidence for what they claim is far stronger: no one died for their faith in Peter's blond hair, nor has it changed the world.
Furthermore, we have several early sources that tell of the resurrection of Jesus and its aftermath: Mark (a very early source), Luke (found to generally be a consummate early historian in the Greek style, and who probably knew some eyewitnesses well), John (probably based on an eyewitness testimony). One might admit that some of these sources are stronger than others: Matthew's "zombies" are a hard pill to swallow. Still, the NT alone contains several remarkable accounts of Jesus after he died.
In Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could, I describe 50 characteristics that uniquely identify the Gospels, and in most cases Jesus, like DNA or fingerprints on the windowpane of ancient history. Many or most of those characteristics also support the general historical truthfulness of the Gospels, sometimes in remarkable ways. Just as DNA or fingerprints can provide powerful evidence for someone's presence at the scene of a crime, so the Gospels are for this reason provide not just serioius historical evidence, but evidence of a forensic strength.
I'll give one brief example. If, as the Jesus Seminar admits, many of the SAYINGS of Jesus reported in the Gospels are unique, putting Jesus in a league of his own, and almost certainly from the mouth of the historical Jesus, how could it be that all the earliest writers, who got mere words right, have muddled this little detail that the disciples all met Jesus again, alive, and it absolutely transformed their lives?
Every great religious tradition knows what happened to its founder, especially when the founder died dramatically, like Joseph Smith, in a shootout, or Mohandas Gandhi, victim of assassination. This is not normally something you just forget.
Equally powerful is the evidence that is the Christian church itself.
We know that an earthquake occurred in Japan recently, not only because people and instruments that were there report it, but even more because of the enormous effect it had on the countryside. The resurrection of Jesus was the tsunami that changed human history.
There's much more to be said on each of these points, but I'll stop here for now. This is a big enough bite to swallow, and to prompt discussion, for now. I may post on this second part of the question later.
In the meanwhile, for a good summary of some of the argument for II (mostly), see Tim and Lydia McGrew's The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. (It's a pdf file, so I can't link, but you can find it easily with a search.) Tim is a philosophy professor at Western Michigan University: he knows what he's about with probability. He points out that the Gospels and Acts have been found to be highly reliable. Citing Habermas, he points out that most scholars admit the tomb was empty and the disciples believed Jesus was raised from the dead. He also points to the "realism and vividness of personality" the resurrected Jesus displayed, which matched his pre-resurrection personality. (I might add, this is a sharp contrast to the "Jesus appearances" recorded in Gnostic stories -- see my The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels.' That is what real "fake Jesus appearances sound like!)
That'll be quicker than reading Wright. But anyway, I think most the force of the Argument Against Easter lies with I, and that turns out to be not so strong.