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Review of On the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (2005)

Edward Tabash


DVD coverReview of On the Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Debate Between Richard Carrier and Michael Licona. University of California, Los Angeles. April 19, 2004.

The Carrier-Licona debate was a debate between an atheist historian and a Christian fundamentalist historian. Though I wish Richard Carrier had invoked his general arguments against the supernatural more pointedly than he did, his use of such arguments were enough to clearly win the debate, in my opinion.

Richard Carrier is familiar to the readers of the Secular Web as he is a frequent contributor to the site and is its former editor-in-chief. He is currently finishing his dissertation for a Ph.D. in ancient history at Columbia University.

Michael Licona has a masters degree in Religious Studies from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament Studies at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

Too much of the debate focuses on whether the apostle Paul meant that resurrection occurred in the body one dies with, or whether he meant that a new body--an immortal trade-in version of the old--would be supplied at the time of resurrection. Carrier argued that Paul meant the latter, whereas Licona maintained that Paul meant the former.

For awhile it seemed that both debaters were almost in agreement that if Paul indeed regarded resurrection as occurring in the same body in which a person dies, then the claim that Jesus' resurrection occurred would greatly benefit from the consistency between Paul's views and those of the Gospel authors. So much time was spent arguing this issue that it appeared as if agreement between Paul and the Gospel authors (on Jesus' ascension in his pre-crucifixion body) might give Carrier a reason to admit a greater likelihood that the Resurrection actually took place.

However, even if Paul and all four Gospel authors were in absolute agreement that Jesus was resurrected in the same body in which he died, and that he ascended to heaven in that now immortalized body, this would not make it more plausible that such a singular supernatural event occurred. Even if we had the concordance of ancient, primitive, religiously credulous believers such as Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, on which body Jesus was occupying when he attained glory, this would not overcome the tremendous improbability of the supernatural.

While insisting that Paul believed Jesus to have been resurrected in the same body he occupied during life, Licona maintains that the death of Jesus by crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the belief in the Resurrection by friend and foe alike lends great credibility to the assertion that Jesus really rose from the dead. Of course, this completely ignores the enormous odds against such a supernatural event.

Let's say that a group of people living today assert that Guru Schmuckananda in India resurrected from the dead three hundred years ago and flew up to heaven, escorted by one hundred pink elephants. Moreover, imagine that the first account of this supposedly miraculous event was not written down until 20 years after it was alleged to have taken place. A further 20 years after that, another believer writes about the same event. And yet another believer writes about this alleged miracle 20 years after the second author. Suppose that every 20 years since the previous author wrote, another believer writes an account corroborating the same story until there are a total of six authors. Even if each of the six agreed on every major detail, unlike Paul and the Gospel writers, we still would not regard that internal consistency as evidence sufficient to overcome the presumption against the occurrence of such a supernatural event.

Imagine that each of these six authors, unlike the Gospel writers, agreed perfectly on the number of guards at the tomb, and agreed on the number of female disciples who appeared at the tomb after Schmuckananda was publicly stomped to death by a large elephant (as punishment for declaring a new spiritual kingdom in that part of India). All six of these authors write that each of the five guards and four women saw the stone roll away from the tomb and saw Schmuckananda emerge bathed in white light. Moreover, the authors all agree that when Schmuckananda appeared to his disciples, doubting Gupta, the curry maker, gasped in amazement when he put his hand into the big hole in Schmuckananda's head (that was caused by the stomp of the elephant during the execution). Let's even say that within two weeks of Schmuckananda's execution and claimed resurrection, the local raja, who ordered the execution in the first place, claimed that the risen Schmuckananda appeared physically right in front of him and said, "Raja, why did you have me stomped to death by the elephant? I was no threat to your earthly kingdom." Let's top this off by saying that the raja then fell on his face, begging Schmuckananda for forgiveness and instantaneously becoming a convert to Schmuckananda's budding religion. In fact, let's say that this raja even wrote down his supposed eyewitness testimony and wrote down his confession of conversion. Finally, three hundred people attested in writing that Schmuckananda's tomb was now empty, after his supposed resurrection but before the pink elephants escorted him into heaven.

This scenario contains much more consistency among accounts, even over small details, than what we find among the different authors of the New Testament. Yet no Christian today would believe that Schmuckananda was resurrected three hundred years ago, even given the corroborating evidence set forth above. Both Christians and skeptics would say that this story was fabricated by superstitious authors predisposed to justify their beliefs about the supernatural, and that agreement on the details does not increase the likelihood that such a preposterous event actually occurred. Communal fabrication among those who want to believe, even across generational lines, is far more consistent with what we know about the world than the notion that Schmuckananda was miraculously resurrected after the raja had him stomped to death by an elephant.

As already noted, Carrier defended the unlikelihood of the supernatural well enough to win the debate. Licona never explained why events as nonmiraculous as finding an empty tomb, or Paul's conversion from persecutor to believer (both of which have obvious naturalistic explanations), are more likely to signify a supernatural occurrence even though (as Carrier pointed out) we have no scientific evidence that supernatural events have ever taken place.

In his opening statement, Carrier went into great detail arguing that Paul referred to a spiritual rather than physical resurrection, and argued that Paul saw the final aim of resurrection as conferring a new body on an individual, not just an immortalization of the old body.Carrier also pointed out that we have scientific evidence of hallucinations and fabrications but not of resurrected dead people. Throughout the debate, Licona never refuted Carrier's point that humanity has never come across a single scientifically confirmed case of the supernatural. I wish Carrier would have definitively said that even if Paul had agreed with the Gospel writers that the saved would undergo the same type of physical resurrection claimed for Jesus, this would only prove that they all believed in the same form of mythology. Such agreement would not overcome the presumption against miracles that follows from the absence of any verifiable supernatural occurrence in human history.

Licona refused to grapple with the improbability of supernatural events again when, in his first rebuttal, he addressed (1) Jesus' death by crucifixion, (2) the empty tomb, and (3) belief by both followers and opponents that Jesus had risen from the dead. In fact, Licona said that these events were more likely to have supernatural connotations because everything occurred in an atmosphere charged with religion. But it is precisely because everything occurred in such an atmosphere that there is a strong presumption that a will to believe and a gullibility toward the supernatural motivated people to both claim and believe false magical assertions.

In his first rebuttal, Carrier made a strong probabilistic argument that the supernatural claims surrounding the death of Jesus derived from (1) religious fervor, (2) fatigue and stress, and (3) the power of suggestion. While we have ample evidence of all three of these factors throughout human history, we have no reliable evidence for the actual occurrence of any supernatural event, ever. Moreover, Carrier argued, if the resurrection is so pivotal to the salvation of each individual, then Jesus should have appeared to everyone in all places in every era, not just to a select few. This argument from divine hiddenness counts against the existence of any all-powerful and all-good divine being. If Jesus were indeed the divine savior, and belief in him were the only way for each person to avoid eternal torture, it would not make sense for Jesus to have hidden himself from the overwhelming majority of people, making those of us alive today rely on nothing more than the hearsay of ancient individuals to learn about him. Licona never successfully rebutted Carrier's assertion that if Jesus' supernatural resurrection is so central to human destiny, Jesus or God should reappear today and repeat the same biblical miracles for all of us to see.

Carrier further bolstered his probabilistic case against the supernatural by arguing that if he claimed to have a car, this would not raise eyebrows because it is common for people to have cars. If he claimed to have a nuclear missile, this would be less credible because even though nuclear missiles exist, there is a very low probability that a graduate student living in the United States would have one. If he claimed to have an interstellar spacecraft, this would be even harder to believe because we have no scientific evidence that such spacecraft exist.

During the question and answer period, Licona stated that there is scientific evidence for the existence of God. Carrier responded that God's existence is irrelevant to the debate on Jesus' resurrection. I would have handled this differently. If an all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing supernatural being exists, resurrections from the dead are more likely than if such a being does not exist. So the question of God's existence is not entirely irrelevant to the Resurrection. A better response would have been that the same arguments which make the occurrence of supernatural events highly improbable also make the existence of God very unlikely.

At the close of the question and answer portion of the debate, Carrier gave a summation which was, by itself, sufficient to win this particular debate. Pointing out the problem of "divine hiddenness" and the improbability of the supernatural, Carrier noted that belief in the Resurrection requires one to believe that Jesus appeared in a resurrected body in only one place and one time in all of human history; that he appeared only to a small number of people, the majority of whom were already predisposed to believe his claims anyway; and that he appeared to superstitious people who lacked any scientific understanding.

Carrier's victory would have been even more devastating if he had just said definitively that his arguments against the supernatural make the Resurrection extremely unlikely. This would be true even if it could be shown that Paul regarded the resurrection body as the same physical one a person previously lived in rather than a spiritual trade-in. While Carrier's entire presentation was certainly pregnant with criticisms of supernaturalism, he could have really driven home the point if he had simply said that his arguments against the supernatural make the Resurrection improbable regardless of what Paul thought.

Carrier made powerful arguments that Paul and the Gospel writers viewed the Resurrection differently, and he made powerful arguments against the supernatural. But he did not flatly say--as I think he should have--that his arguments against the supernatural overcome resurrection claims no matter what Paul believed about the nature of the resurrection body. Furthermore, it cannot be stressed enough that it is morally reprehensible for a divine being to condemn people to eternal hell for disbelief when this very being has made disbelief so eminently reasonable by denying us evidence of the supernatural. How could an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God punish us for disbelief in the Resurrection when this God refuses to duplicate Jesus' death and resurrection for all of us to see today?

Copyright ©2005 Edward Tabash and Internet Infidels, Inc.