I think there are three distinctive characteristics about the contemporary debate between Christians and secularists over the resurrections. First, both sides tacitly assume that the material understanding of the resurrection is the proper understanding of the issues involved. Second, both sides fail to discuss the background probability of the resurrection from their critic’s point of view. And third, both sides seem to think that a strong apologetic can be made for their particular position.
As we have seen, there are at least two major understandings of the nature of Jesus’ resurrection. What is significant is that both Christian apologists and their secular critics agree that the material understanding of the resurrection is the correct one. For example, Stephen T. Davis, an evangelical philosopher at Claremont College, wrote (1993, p. ix):
… But I am convinced that the resurrection means little unless it really happened. If the resurrection of Jesus turns out to have been a fraud or a pious myth or even somehow an honest mistake, then there is little reason to think about it or see meaning in it. Perhaps it would provide some lessons about courageously facing death, but that would be about all.
In his view, the meaning of the resurrection is dependent upon the historicity of the event.
In similar fashion, in his opening remarks in his debate on the historicity of the resurrection with Gary Habermas, atheist philosopher Antony Flew made the following revealing comment (p. 3):
We [Habermas and I] both construe resurrection, or rising from the dead, in a thoroughly literal and physical way…. We are again agreed that the question whether, in that literal understanding, Jesus did rise from the dead is of supreme theoretical and practical importance. For the knowable fact that he did, if indeed it is a knowable fact, is the best, if not the only, reason for accepting that Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel….We are agreed both that that identification is the defining and distinguishing characteristic of the true Christian, and that it is scarcely possible to make it without also accepting that the Resurrection did literally happen. (emphasis added)
According to Flew, not only does the resurrection fail to have any significance apart from its empirical truth, but the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is the only way to know Christianity is true.
But how do atheists and Christian apologists determine the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection? Since they believe Jesus’ resurrection body was a material body and that the resurrection was an event in space and time, they believe the resurrection was a "violation" of the laws of the nature. Atheists are quick to ridicule the resurrection because of its miraculous nature; Christian apologists are quick to point out that an a priori rejection of the miraculous is unwarranted. As we have seen, from the atheist point of view, just about any explanation would be more plausible than the resurrection, since the background probability would be so low. Conversely, for theists, the background probability of miracles is significant, if not high, and thus the resurrection is a plausible explanation.
Both sides are correct within their worldview. But they have failed to argue outside of their worldview. Atheists should not be so quick to ridicule the miraculous and use a Humean attack on miracles to refute the resurrection. Unless atheists can demonstrate that theism is irrational or that the historical evidence for a material resurrection is lacking, they are unlikely to convince many theists to reject the resurrection. Similarly, Christian apologists need to recognize that, until atheists are shown that theism is plausible, atheists will continue to regard the resurrection as a highly implausible event.
This leads to my final observation: both sides seem to think that it is irrational to reject their position. In other words, they think a strong apologetic can be made for their side. However, I don’t think is possible. That is to say, I think it is rational to both accept and reject the resurrection. I think there are strong historical arguments for the resurrection (a lá Craig), but I also think there are good reasons to reject such arguments. I realize this may sound like a cop-out to some, but I think it is quite reasonable, especially when the issue of prior probability is taken into consideration.