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Was Jesus Raised from the Dead? A Response to William Lane Craig’s Resurrection Argument

[Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from chapter 5 of Atheism and Naturalism by Nicholas Covington. Available at: lulu.com]

Christian apologist William Lane Craig offers four facts which he believes show that Jesus was raised from the dead.[1] I will list them and explain why he believes that these facts can be trusted, even if the rest of the gospel narratives cannot be:

1. Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

Craig argues that because Joseph was a member of the Jewish court that condemned Jesus, it is highly improbable that Joseph was a Christian invention. I do not dispute the claim that Jesus was buried.

2. Jesus’ tomb was found empty by his followers.

In my judgment, the most persuasive argument for this is the fact that women discovered the tomb rather than men. Craig notes that, in light of the way women were viewed in ancient times, it would have been far more becoming to have the male disciples discover the empty tomb. Therefore, it is unlikely that this story was an invention.

And yet many New Testament scholars are persuaded that this story is not at all embarrassing.[2] After all, Jesus taught that the “first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Perhaps allowing second class citizens (women) the honor of discovering the empty tomb was simply an example of the “last being first.”

However, for the sake of argument I will assume that the women did discover an empty tomb, although they may have gone to the wrong one, or perhaps a follower of Jesus stole his body (I’ll defend this position once I explain Craig’s facts).

3. Different individuals and groups experienced appearances of Jesus after his death.

This is another fact that I completely agree with. Craig believes that these experiences were real, since it is unlikely that so many would have the same hallucination. He also criticizes the hallucination theory because it only accounts for the experiences of the risen Jesus and not the empty tomb. I will have more to say about this later.

4. The original disciples maintained belief that Jesus had risen from the dead despite having every predisposition to disbelieve.

Craig argues that the Jews had no belief in a dying-and-rising messiah, and that “Jesus’ execution as a criminal showed him out to be a heretic, a man literally under the curse of God (Deut. 21.23).” I disagree. After Jesus’ death, his disciples must have been in complete shock. I think that in order to figure out how to deal with this situation, they turned to scripture. They may have found passages like Psalm 16:10, which says that God will not let his Holy One see corruption,[3] and Daniel 9:26, which predicted that the anointed one (“messiah”) would be cut off, and retrospectively thought this a prophecy of Jesus. In short, the first Christians did not have “every predisposition” to disbelieve just because Jesus had been executed. Even if they did, cult psychology has proven that cult members will make up great rationalizations in order to avoid facing reality, as we will see further on.

Contributing to Craig’s case for point number four, he argues that James, the brother of Jesus, had been skeptical of Jesus’ claims to divinity until after the resurrection. He thinks that something powerful must have happened to change James’ mind, and that the resurrection explains it. Yet Craig does not consider the fact that we cannot be sure how Jesus’ agonizing death altered James’ view of him, and, in any case, perhaps reports of an empty tomb and reports of visions of Jesus from his followers would have been enough to convince James, especially in grief.

Craig concludes by noting that the resurrection hypothesis has great explanatory power and that it is therefore to be preferred over naturalistic explanations, which usually involve two or more hypotheses to explain all the data. Craig believes that the resurrection is the simplest explanation to account for all the data.

In response to this argument, I believe that the disciples’ experiences of the risen Jesus can be accounted for by visions and that the empty tomb can be explained by either:

     1) the women going to the wrong tomb, or,

     2) a crazed follower of Jesus stealing his corpse.

Craig contends that the “wrong tomb” hypothesis is implausible because the Jewish authorities would have produced the body of Jesus to scotch such rumors.[4] However, the disciples did not begin preaching publicly until fifty days after Jesus’ death.[5] How can we be sure Jesus’ corpse was even recognizable at this point? Secondly, the disciples may not have abandoned their faith at the sight of Jesus’ corpse. We know from studies in cult psychology that people will continue in their faith in spite of all evidence to the contrary! As one psychologist put it:

[Cognitive Dissonance Theory] has shown how individuals cannot easily dismiss a belief or attitude they hold, even when the attitude is directly contradicted by evidence or events. People will sooner adopt farfetched ideas to explain events than relinquish their preconceptions.[6]

A good example of Cognitive Dissonance can be found amongst the “Jehovah’s Witnesses” who predicted that the world would end in 1975.[7] This year came and passed, but did not convince many within the group to abandon their religion.

Furthermore, it isn’t out of the question to suppose that one or a few of Jesus’ followers stole the body. The standard Christian response to this is that it could not have happened because of the guards present at Jesus’ tomb.[**] As evidence that guards were present, they cite Matthew 28:15, which reports that the Jews believed that the guards at Jesus’ tomb had fallen asleep. The argument is that Matthew would not have felt the need to respond to this if the Jews were not actually making this accusation, and that the fact that Jews responded to the Christians by saying that “The guards fell asleep” shows that the Jews acknowledged both an empty tomb and the presence of guards.

I find this argument misunderstands several things: First of all, the Gospel of Matthew may not have been written within the lifetimes of those who knew Jesus. So the Jews who alleged that the guards fell asleep may have never known anything about the situation firsthand. Secondly, the fact that the Jews who launched this allegation recognized the empty tomb and the presence of guards means nothing. They may have just accepted some parts of the story, for the sake of argument, and then tried to show how the Christians’ “evidence” did not necessarily imply a resurrection.

The second defense offered against the “theft theory” is that the disciples of Jesus would not have faced persecution for a lie. This objection fails because it may not have been a disciple of Jesus who took the body, but rather some other admirer of Jesus. For all we know, the disciples would have never known what happened, and this individual may not have actively preached for Jesus. Alternately, even if someone came forward and confessed to stealing the body of Jesus, Christians may have ignored or dismissed the story.

This brings me to the appearances of Jesus. I think the passion of the first disciples can be taken as good evidence that they believed they had experienced something supernatural; Though whether they actually did is another matter. I think that what the earliest Christians experienced was not the risen Jesus, but simply visions of him.

Besides the resurrection accounts, there are many reports of visions from within the early church.[8] This is no coincidence: Studies have shown that individuals who join cults often have schizotypal tendencies,[9] and that schizotypal personalities (which make up more than one-half percent of the population)[10] are more prone to hallucinations and “anomalous perceptual experiences.”[11] In fact, one study has shown that, in an altered state of consciousness, the individual hallucinating (or dreaming) will see a holy man but not recognize him at first.[12] Compare this to the reports found in Luke 24:36-53 and John 20:11-13, in which a follower of Jesus sees him but does not recognize him at first. In short, not only can we expect that earliest Christians were just the sort to have visions, but we can also see that some of the reports we have of their visions are consistent with the hallucination hypothesis (though I do not know how accurate the reports in Luke and John are).

An objection to the “vision theory” can be made by citing 1 Corinthians 15:6, in which Paul tells us that the risen Jesus was seen by “over five hundred of the brethren.” Could such a large group of people have been deluded? I daresay they could not have been. However, this account only comes through one man, Paul. How could we possibly know that this was not a gross exaggeration or a complete falsehood? The Corinthians had no way of verifying this claim for themselves, as travel was difficult and dangerous, so there is just no way to be sure what to make of this passage. One New Testament scholar has even argued that this passage is a later addition to the book of 1 Corinthians,[13] although this is not widely accepted in contemporary scholarship.

The only other way around this objection is to argue, as William Lane Craig and N.T. Wright do, that visions of Jesus would not have been interpreted as a bodily resurrection because the Jewish culture had no belief in individual people being raised from the dead before everyone else at the end of the world (which is how Jesus’ resurrection was viewed amongst early Christians; See 1 Corinthians 15:20, which states that Christ was the “first fruits” of those to be raised). However, many of Jesus’ teachings were heretical. Orthodox Jews at the time certainly had no belief that a man could be the son of God,[14] and yet all of these things were believed by Jesus’ disciples.

There is also biblical evidence which undermines this argument. As Dr. Robert M. Price put it:

Wright comes near to resting the whole weight of his case on the mistaken contention that the notion of a single individual rising from the dead in advance of the general resurrection at the end of the age was unheard of, and that therefore it must have arisen as the result of the stubborn fact of it having occurred one day, Easter Day …

[Wright fails] to take seriously the astonishing comment of Herod in Mark 6:14-16 to the effect that Jesus was thought to be John the Baptist already raised from the dead! Can Wright really be oblivious of how this one text torpedoes the hull of his argument? His evasions are so pathetic as to suggest he is being disingenuous, hoping the reader will not notice. The disciples of Jesus, who was slain by a tyrant, may simply have borrowed the resurrection faith of the Baptist’s disciples who posited such a vindication for their own master who had met the same fate. Wright should really be arguing for the resurrection of John the Baptist, if it being unprecedented means anything![15]

Furthermore, one biblical scholar has argued that the general theme of facing death followed by deliverance is prevalent throughout the Old Testament.[16] For example, Noah escapes death when the world is flooded and is delivered from it by God. Isaac faces death by sacrifice but is saved at the last minute by an angel. Daniel is thrown to the lions but is protected by God, and so on. Jesus’ death and resurrection may be interpreted as a variation on this theme: Jesus was allowed to suffer death, but was victoriously raised three days later. In short, the disciples could have easily gotten the concept of a resurrection from the themes prevalent throughout the Old Testament.

As for Craig’s fourth fact, “The original disciples maintained belief … despite having every predisposition to disbelieve,” I think that the discovery of an empty tomb, as well as the hallucinations some of the disciples may have had, would have been more than enough to convince them of Jesus’ divinity and to motivate them to dedicate their lives to spreading his message.

The only way that Craig can criticize the account I have given is by arguing that his theory, that Jesus was raised from the dead, is to be preferred because it is simpler than proposing a theory to account for the empty tomb and proposing an independent theory to account for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. The “simplicity” of Craig’s theory is only skin deep. My account of Craig’s “four facts” involves well-known and well-documented cultural phenomena, whereas his account proposes a God which intervenes in human affairs, for which I have yet to see any convincing evidence.


[1] These four facts are recounted numerous times in Craig’s debates, as well as on his website.

[2] Pages 225-226, Bart Ehrman, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, Oxford University Press, 2006.

[3] The Apostle Peter is reported to have used this verse in reference to Jesus in Acts 2:25-27.

[4] Page 221, Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, Zondervan, 1998.

[5] See Acts 1-2.

[6] Page 152, Marc Galanter, Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion, Oxford University Press, 1989.

[7] www.4jehovah.org/help-1975-prophecy.php, Accessed 3/27/09

** Editor’s note: Of the four Gospels, only Matthew (MT 27:62-66) reports that a guard was placed at the tomb, and then only the day following Jesus’ burial.

[8] See Pages 114-115 and 214, Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak Vol. 2, ACU Press, 2002.

[9] S. Day and E. Peters (1999), “The incidence of schizotypy in new religion movements.” Personality and Individual Differences, 27, 55-67.

[10] S. Torgerson, E. Kringlen, and V. Cramer, “The Prevalence of Personality Disorders in a Community Sample” Arch Gen Psychiatry, Vol 58, 590-596

[11] C. McCreery and G. Claridge (1996), “A Study of Hallucination in Normal Subjects-I. Self-Report Data” Personality and Individual Differences, 21, 739-747.

[12] J.J. Pilch, “Appearances of the Risen Jesus in Cultural Context: Experiences of Alternate Reality.” Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Theology1998; 28; 52.

[13] Robert M. Price, “Apocryphal Apparitions: 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 as a Post-Pauline Interpolation,” Journal of Higher Criticism, Fall 1995.

[14]The belief that God could have a literal, flesh and blood son may have come from Greco-Roman myths, such as Romulus and Hercules. See Titus Livius, The Early History of Rome, 1.16 and Diodorus Sicilius, Library of History, Book IV, 9.1-10.1.

[15] www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/rev_ntwrong.htm, Accessed 4/3/09

[16] B. Wheaton, “As it is Written: Old Testament Foundations for Jesus’ Expectation of Resurrection,” Westminster Theological Journal, 70 (2008) 245-53.

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