Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Is the resurrection impossible? Response to Brad Bowen

This morning a philospher named Bradley Bowen took on the resurrection of Jesus at the Secular Outpost.  I would like to respond to some of his comments. 

"My position on the resurrection claim is that it should be analyzed into two main claims:

"1. Jesus died on the cross on Friday of Passover week (and remained dead for at least six hours).

"2. Jesus was alive and walking around on the Sunday following Friday of Passover week (or within a few days after that Sunday)."

The exact dates do not seem so important, but let's follow this line of thought and see where it goes.

"However, even if one grants, for the sake of argument, that (2) is true, the evidence for the resurrection still falls short of what is required, because the combination of (1) and (2) is a physical impossibility (more or less). So, in supposing (2) to be true, the requirement of evidence to establish (1) becomes rather difficult to achieve."

This looks like begging the question. Yes, it can be assumed that miracles don't happen -- if they don't. But if it is even POSSIBLE that God is real, then it is not "physically impossible" that Jesus rose from the dead. (And in fact, in his efforts to undermine the resurrection, the atheist philosopher Michael Martin points out that it may NOT be "physically impossible" -- see pages 74-75 of The Case Against Christianity.  I'm always amazed at how often the possibilities in a binary field of possibilities seem, in atheist eyes, to BOTH exclude Christian truth.)

Owen appears to be assuming, before looking at the evidence, that it is impossible that God exists.  That would not seem to be the correct first step in discovering whether or not He does in fact exist.  Or maybe he means something else by saying the resurrection is "physically impossible?" 
"Although there is obviously some evidence that Jesus died on Friday of Passover week and remained dead for at least several hours, the evidence is hardly compelling. For one thing, if Jesus was buried in a stone tomb before sunset on Friday evening, as the Gospels report, then he might well have been observed for only an hour after his alleged death. Once his body was inside the tomb, no one could observe whether or not he was breathing or had a heartbeat."

"One of the main problems with the claim that Jesus died on the cross is that we don't know the extent of Jesus' injuries prior to and during the crucifixion, and we don't know how crucifixion causes death. Another problem is that modern medical science would not make an appearance for well over a thousand years, so there was no scientific medical expert available to verify that Jesus was truly and completely dead."

Do you see the problem?  Ancient Romans may have crucified thousands of people.  But being unscientific, they had no way of knowing if their victims were actually dead or not, before they buried the bodies. Despite all the people they had killed, the Romans had little idea of what death looked like.  So after having scourged a criminal, beaten him, made him carry a cross up a hill, crucified him and pushed swords into his side so blood and water came out, then sealing him behind a massive stone underground, after hours of torture and what looked to ignorant pre-scientific Romans like death, victims of Roman crucifiction were constantly ripping apart the mummy-like wrappings they were entombed in, tossing boulders aside like bamboo shutters, scaring off guards, and appearing in a blaze of glory to their followers as the Lord of Life, conquerer of death, the picture of a better mode of existence that promised to make all things new. 

This explains all the competing claims of resurrection of historical figures in the ancient world, of which NT Wright, the Oxford and Cambridge historian, in his 816 page Resurrection of the Son of God, could find . . . Well, OK, he couldn't find any real parallels, and neither has anyone else, really.  But those Romans were so incompetent when it comes to killing people, who knows how many of the people they killed may ultimately turn up, still breathing? 

This is not a persuasive hypothesis.   

"So, the evidence for the resurrection fails on two accounts. First, the evidence for (2) is rather weak, and second, if we suppose (2) to be true, then the evidence for (1) is too weak to be sufficient to establish a claim of a physically impossible event."

Owen hasn't actually address (2) yet; he has merely asserted its weakness.

And his claim about (1) is, likewise, merely a restatement of skeptical dogma, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the real evidence for the resurrection. 

From here on, however, Owen offers a somewhat more interesting argument -- or one that, at any rate, I recognize AS an argument:

"Not only is the evidence for the resurrection insufficient, but there are good reasons for believing that it is false that God raised Jesus from the dead. Here is an argument that Jesus was not raised (JNR):

"JNR1. Jesus advocated the following religious beliefs: (a) Moses was a prophet of God, (b) the Old Testament was inspired by God, and (c) Jehovah is God.

"JNR2. If Jesus advocated any religious belief that is false, then Jesus is not God incarnate.

"JNR3. At least one of the following beliefs is false: (a) Moses was a prophet of God, (b) the Old Testament was inspired by God, or (c) Jehovah is God. Therefore:

"JNR4. Jesus is not God incarnate.

"JNR5. If God raised Jesus from the dead, then Jesus is God incarnate. Therefore:

"JNR6. It is not the case that God raised Jesus from the dead.  I am confident that (JNR3) is true."
The main problem with this argument is that it seems too a priori and theological.  It is true that evaluating the truth of an historical claims needs to involve two elements: (1) The actual historical evidence for that claim, and (2) The plausibility of the claim judged by what we know or believe about the world in general.  For instance, claims that a "cow jumped over the moon" may purport to involve real testimony, but we reject them more quickly than the claim that Apollo 12 landed on the moon, because of our diverse prior expectations about how cows and space craft respectively behave.  (Or misbehave.)  

While the prior plausibility of an event can be judged on philosophical grounds, philosophy and theology is in many cases too subjective and complex to arrive at so much certainty that it allows us to dismiss or accept historical claims a priori, in opposition to the evidence.   Such would appear to be the case with this line of argumentation.

All of these claims are highly disputable.  Even the meaning of some is hard to pin down very exactly.  What does it mean to say God "inspired" the OT?  What does it mean to say Jehovah "is" God?  As I argue in my dissertation, identifying two names for the supreme God in two different languages is not a simple, but it is certainly a doable, semantic action, but it is very difficult to say Jehovah "cannot be" God. 

So it seems to me that Jeff's argument here cannot carry much weight.  If any one pillar collapses, the whole thing falls down.  And most of them look pretty wobbly, to me. 

"Premise (JNR2) appears to be true to me, and it would certainly be difficult for a Christian believer to deny (JNR2), for that would undermine the authority of the teachings of Jesus. The belief that Jesus is God incarnate is a primary reason given by Christians in support of the authority of Jesus' teachings. So, if one admitted that Jesus could give false religious teachings and yet still be God incarnate, then his allegedly being God incarnate would not be a good reason for following his teachings."

Brad appears to be saying, in effect, that "God would not cause Jesus to rise from the dead, if He also allowed the gospel writers to report Jesus as saying anything that, interpretting literally, I find it hard to believe."  But maybe God is more forgiving than that.  Maybe even if, say, Matthew puts something in the mouth of Jesus that Brad finds unbelievable, God STILL raised Jesus from the dead.  I, at any rate, see no difficulty in believing that.  Anyway, it looks to me like a mainly historical problem, not one that can be solved by these sorts of arguments. 

I think, in addition, that aside from the historical evidence, the prior probability for the resurrection of Jesus is very high.  That is, even aside from the actual historical evidence that He did, there are many good reasons to think that God WOULD LIKELY raise Jesus from the dead.  No argument for the resurrection that seems strong to me, depends on the premise, "The Bible is the infallible Word of God."  It seems to me Bowen might still be stuck in that old quarrel.


JSA said...

My grandfather was pronounced dead after a car accident and placed in the morgue for well over 6 hours before coming back to life. It's not *that* uncommon; there is even a name for it: "Lazarus Syndrome".

Bradley Bowen said...


Thank you for your comments on my argument against the resurrection of Jesus. Please note that Jeff Lowder did not present this argument and he has expressed some of his own objections and reservations about the argument.

-Bradley Bowen

David B Marshall said...

JSA: Does that experience make the "botched crucifixion" hypothesis seem more likely to you? Because I'm still finding it pretty hard to swallow.

JSA said...

Well, my grandfather was clinically dead after a traumatic injury, and medically documented cases of Lazarus Syndrome require the person to be clinically dead. So I don't think it raises or lowers the probability that the execution of Christ was "botched".

I think it raises the probability that Christ was clinically dead and came back to life. It speaks against the claim that it's "physically impossible" to die and come back to life. It's emphatically not physically impossible, according to modern medicine. Some religious people believe that the cases of Lazarus Syndrome are all miracles, while most doctors will claim that they aren't miracles at all -- just natural occurrences we don't yet fully understand. Both sides seem to be confused into thinking that "miracle" is synonymous with "violation of the laws of nature" (it's not, and never was).

Now, the timeframes involved might militate against the "Lazarus Syndrome" explanation, since Christ was supposedly dead for 3 days, and we've never seen anyone go much longer than a day before. But if we're willing to bend theology and go with just the reported historical details, we only have to account for 6 hours, and that's not at all unthinkable.

David B Marshall said...

Brad: Sorry for the confusion. Let me plead jet lag. I've corrected the error.

David B Marshall said...

JSA: Looking at the Wikipedia article on the condition, it does not look like it could potentially apply to Jesus' case, even assuming many errors in the NT reports:

"Lazarus syndrome or autoresuscitation after failed cardiopulmonary resuscitation, is the spontaneous return of circulation after failed attempts at resuscitation. Its occurrence has been noted in medical literature at least 25 times since 1982. Also called Lazarus phenomenon, it takes its name from Lazarus who, in the New Testament account, was raised from the dead by Jesus.

"Occurrences of the syndrome are extremely rare and the causes are not well understood. One theory for the phenomenon is that a chief factor (though not the only one) is the buildup of pressure in the chest as a result of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The relaxation of pressure after resuscitation efforts have ended is thought to allow the heart to expand, triggering the heart's electrical impulses and restarting the heartbeat. Other possible factors are hyperkalemia or high doses of epinephrine."

Very little in this description seems to match anything in Jesus' case history.

The cases detailed in the article also seem quite different from the crucifixion, both in cause of "death," and in condition after "revival." These cases do not seem to explain how Jesus could be walking (on land, let alone water), fishing, cooking meals, etc. There is, of course, no explanation for removed body casts, misplaced boulders, absent guards, let alone Jesus' more miraculous activities after the resurrection.

I agree with you, though, that a miracle should not be defined as a "violation of nature." The Greek word is σημειον, often translated as "sign," which I take to mean, "an event in the natural world that points to divine activity in a probatively significant manner."

Anonymous said...

Brad has responded at the Secular Outpost, and promises more, later. I cut some here to fit space limits. My words are in "'double quotes'" -- DM.

"Does the reasoning in the passage quoted from my post on the resurrection involve the fallacy of begging the question?

"'Yes, it can be assumed that miracles don't happen--if they don't.'"

"Marshall clearly implies that my reasoning in the quoted passage makes the assumption that 'miracles don't happen'. However, nowhere in the passage do I assert that 'miracles don't happen'. In fact, the word 'miracles' does not occur anywhere in the passage that Marshall quoted. Nor does any synonym for 'miracles' occur, nor any phrase that could substitute for the word 'miracles'. Since there is no explicit claim made about 'miracles' in this passage, it far from obvious that my reasoning makes the assumption that 'miracles don't happen'.

" . . . In looking over the claims I make in the quoted passage, I don't see any claims (or set of claims) that makes the assumption that 'miracles don't happen'. . .

"'But if it is even POSSIBLE that God is real, then it is not 'physically impossible' that Jesus rose from the dead. "

"Oddly enough, this statement by Marshall is not only false, but it commits the very same fallacy that Marshall is attempting to show my reasoning to have committed.

"Now, I don't mean that Marshall has begged the question in favor of miracles, but rather that he has himself begged the question against miracles. This was unintentional, no doubt, but nevertheless, his statement, looked at objectively, implies that miracles never happen.

"Marshall's statement above implies the following Physical Impossibility Claim:

"(PIC) If it is possible that God exists, then Jesus rising from the dead was NOT physically impossible.

"This particular claim about the alleged resurrection of Jesus is presumably based upon a more general Physical Impossibility Principle:

"(PIP) If it is possible that God exists, then there are no events that are physically impossible.

"But if (PIP) was true, then from the assumption that it is possible that God exists, one could infer that there are no events that are physically impossible. But if no events were physically impossible, then no events would be miracles. In other words, from the possibility that God exists it would follow that 'miracles don't happen'. Marshall's statement implies the very assumption that he accuses my reasoning of making.

"In order for an event to be a miracle, it must satisfy at least the following two conditions:

"1. The event must involve the violation of a law of nature.

"2. The event must be brought about by God.

"But an event is physically impossible if and only if it involves a violation of a law of nature. Therefore, if there are no physically impossible events, then there are no events involving a violation of a law of nature. And if there are no events involving a violation of a law of nature, then there are no miracles.

"Since Marshall clearly believes that the existence of God is possible, his acceptance of (PIP) commits him to the logical implication that 'miracles don't happen'. As soon as Marshall realizes this implication of (PIP), I am confident that he will quickly reject (PIP) as being false, and then we will both agree that the assumption upon which his fallacy charge was based, was a false assumption."

David B Marshall said...

Brad: Well, I can't accuse you of offering a glib answer. You may have even focused the microscope on a higher level of magnification than necessary, and missed some of the big picture. But maybe you'll pick that up later.

Yes, I do think you were arguing in a circle a bit, but this was not the heart of my critique. You described the resurrection as "physically impossible," as cited. I took this to assume materialism, that miracles can't happen. Maybe I misread you on this. But I was responding briefly to what I took to be a throw-away line, so I didn't see the need to analyze it too closely.

It seems to me you make three mistakes, here:

(1) Semantic. I think you define "miracle" wrongly, as an event that must "violate a law of nature." That is not the Christian definition, that derives from the Greek term σημειν, or sign, the root for semiotics. A miracle does not need to violate a law of nature, it rather should give probatively significant reasons for faith. See my Jesus and the Religions of Man, chapter 10, for an in-depth description of what that may involve.

(2) I agree that a miracle is an event caused by God. However, I do not agree that "physically impossible" means merely that an event "violates the laws of nature." A miracle is NOT physically impossible, because it happens. Even if it occurs in contradiction to the NORMS of nature, I wouldn't call that a "violation," for reasons discussed in Lewis, Miracles, as well as Jesus and the Religions of Man. And anything that physically happens, by definition cannot be physically impossible. (Unless by "physically" you mean, "with recourse only to the laws of physics," or something like that -- which I don't think is what we usually mean by the word.)

Finally, I'd be careful about conflating "PIP" with "PIC." The latter does not imply the former.

I may post this on my web site as well; I appreciate the meaty response.

David B Marshall said...

Sorry, I meant σημειον. Apparently I'm an even worse speller in Greek than I am in English.

Robert Lowrance said...

JNR1: True, if by these he is giving the natural Christian interpretation. If he means something different, then this may not be true.

JNR2: I can tentatively hold to this. But is he really talking about what Jesus said, what one of the Apostles or Disciples said that Jesus said, or what some later Christian scribe could have put into the text? In other words, how would he know what Jesus said if he doesn't believe the Bible is true?

JNR3: Unfortunately for the argument, each of the three is true, as would be commonly understood by Christians.

JNR4: Not true, as JNR3 is false.

JNR5: Not true all on its own. The Jews of Jesus' day looked forward to a Resurrection (at least of the righteous) in the Day of the Lord. He would have to indicate why God's raising Jesus would make Him God incarnate and not these others.

JNR6: Since JNR4 and JNR5 are not true, JNR6 is also not true.