Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006)
Table of Chapters
- Main Argument - Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story
- The Rubicon Analogy
General Case for Insufficiency:
The Event is Not Proportionate to the Theory
According to the Christian theory, God is god of All Humankind, and more than that, He is god of All the Universe. This is inconsistent with the proof offered for such a deity, that of the Resurrection of Jesus. This event is said to defy nature and thus prove God’s supremacy over death and to assure us that, by believing in this deed, God will perform the same deed for us. An inconsistency exists here in two respects:
(1) A miracle whose purpose is to prove something to all humanity must logically be an event that can be observed by all humanity.
(2) An event that is to demonstrate the power and existence of a “god of the universe” must logically demonstrate divine powers of such a magnitude, and not of a vastly lesser magnitude.
These are different problems. The first concerns whether the resurrection is adequate to prove to all humanity that Jesus is the path to salvation. The second concerns whether the resurrection is adequate to prove the Christian God exists, as opposed to some other God (or gods).
For example, a “god of all humankind” could have carved “Jesus Lives” on the face of the moon, where all humankind could witness the miracle, and observe it for all time without relying on hearsay–at the very least, he could have extended the darkness and earthquake and mass rising of dead people, reported to have occurred at his crucifixion by Matthew (27:45-54)[Note 1], over the whole earth, where it would be recorded by every historian of every civilization, so that all humanity could share in the prodigy–he could have attended the moment with a voice or vision seen and heard by every human being, affirming his divinity and sending the message of Life to all. Why, a “god of the universe” could have even rearranged the stars to spell “Jesus Lives”–the sort of feat that can never be replicated by technology and which would demonstrate a truly universal power over all of nature. Without miracles of such magnitude, a god fails to show the extent of his power, fails to advertise to all his subjects, and fails to prove himself thereby. He fails to exhibit his means and message in a manner proportionate to what we are supposed to believe about him.
And it misses the point to object that IHSOUS ZWN in giant letters across the moon could not be understood by any but Greek speakers, since those who later heard the Gospel and wanted to confirm it was true would simply have to learn Greek, just as anyone today who wants to confirm what the Bible really says must, and can easily, learn Greek. And it would not matter that this mysterious change in the moon would not be immediately understood around the world. People everywhere, India, China, Rome, would record the event before knowing its significance, and thus we could today check these unbiased and independent records of the day the moon changed to bear the new carvings, and upon hearing the Gospel, we would have a strong, independent proof that it’s central message, “Jesus Lives,” was confirmed by a fantastic and universally confirmable miracle. And if God needed more room to write more, just to be sure, then the stars are available for an entire book to be written in the sky, only legible when seen from Earth, confirming our cosmic importance in a way that no natural explanation could dismiss. Or the big words on the moon could be surrounded by a whole book carved into the face of it, which could then be read when telescopes were invented, a technology which Jesus could even have given to mankind, with the call to use them to read God’s message on the moon.
That’s just an example. The point is that we only need a universally confirmable divine proof that the events related by the Gospels were in fact under divine sanction and did in fact happen when they say: “Jesus is not dead” sums up the one key event that needs independent proof. The rest is just the detail. But again, the stars are available, telescopes are available. Or, if it is vital to have the whole New Testament confirmed as God’s word, God can simply make every true and correct copy of the New Testament indestructible. If anyone wanted to test which Bible was correct, he need only slice a knife through a page and watch it heal miraculously, or see it resist the blade miraculously. Gods can do a hell of a lot. That’s why the resurrection is not impressive relative to what a God can actually do to prove a point. And thus the resurrection does not prove its point. I could literally list a hundred things that would be better evidence than what we have, which is a religious book of questionable accuracy and authority.[Note 2]
So, first of all, a resurrection of one man observed by a handful of others in one tiny spot on one tiny planet in one tiny corner of the cosmos is more consistent with a very minor deity (or a very stingy and secretive one), or even more likely a natural event: for there is an easy naturalistic explanation in religious zealotry or scientific ignorance. Of course, even if we grant it was supernatural, there is no good reason to believe in, or even care about, a petty Palestinian deity–some spirit, mage, or alien capable of pulling off such a small-time swami trick. So even assuming the whole story is genuine, this proof still does not fit the claim.
The following three sections elaborate on this central point: I. Even Granting the Supernatural Makes No Difference; II. “No Miracles Today Implies None Then“; and III. A Message for All Would be Sent to All, and Not By the Fallible and Limited.
I. Even Granting the Supernatural Makes No Difference
Now, as William Lane Craig writes, “It would be very odd, indeed, were an atheist to grant the resurrection of Jesus as a historical and miraculous event and yet assert that perhaps only an angel raised him from the dead.”[Note 3] But to say “an angel did it” is to presume there was a greater being around who sent him. Thus, naturally, anyone who makes such an argument is behaving very oddly, indeed. But I know of no one who has ever made that argument, except perhaps early Christian heretics and pagan critics, who were content to believe in many gods, even those who would pull off tricks just to lead the credulous astray (as even the Christians believed the Devil had already done many times).
I only grant the possibility of other supernatural powers here for the sake of making a philosophical point: the resurrection, even if genuine, is an inadequate reason to become a Christian, for carving the moon or rearranging the stars is more consistent with the Christian’s description of God, as well as more consistent with that god’s purported objectives. Yet, despite the importance of those objectives, despite the reputed magnitude of God’s powers, we see nothing even remotely like this. Thus the event is, at best, poorly planned, considering its intended effect and declared purpose, and, at worst, no more a proof that the Christian god is One and All and Good than the feats of Indian gurus, if also genuine, would be proof of the Hindu cosmology.
But the fact is that I no more believe that Sarapis used Vespasian to heal the blind and lame than I believe that Simon Magus used magic to fly through the air. But if we allow any evidence to point to the supernatural, to any unobserved possibilities like gods, then we allow all the evidence to do so. We must be consistent. If we think the resurrection story as we have it proves anything supernatural, then if Tacitus insists that eye-witnesses saw Vespasian, at the command of Sarapis, heal the blind and lame, if Aelius Aristides insists that Asclepius came to him in a dream and cured his disease, we must accept that as proof that Sarapis and Asclepius exist, too. There is abundant evidence of magic and demons and ghosts in antiquity. What are we to make of it?
My point is thus not that, e.g., it is actually possible that Jesus used magic to restore himself to life, but that if he did so, God would then have failed “to exhibit his means and message in a manner proportionate to what we are supposed to believe about him.” That is, even were I to grant it was supernatural, I am left with no reason to grant that there is a god of all the universe, and one and only one god, and that not believing in this event would secure my eternal damnation. For if I were to allow the possibility of the supernatural on such feeble evidence, I must allow much more than this. I must allow the possibility that there are many gods, that there is such a thing as magic, that I may be reincarnated, that I may be able to escape this unreasonable Palestinian demonlord by hurtling my soul into Nirvana. In other words, the event itself is not sufficient to accomplish the task of saving my life–it is like throwing a life preserver to the victims of the Titanic, knowing full well they will freeze to death anyway. It is too little, too long ago. A god ought to know better.
II. No Miracles Today Implies None Then
The Resurrection demonstrates no more than amazing natural events or, at best, supernatural events of a minor scale. That is one reason why the “Christian God of the Universe is Proven by the Resurrection” argument fails to be rationally convincing. Such a god would not use a mere Resurrection as proof of his particular existence and divine plan for our salvation, and even if he did, we cannot accept it as such, for we cannot rule out the equally probable actions of a lesser deity, nor even natural causes–natural causes of the event itself, or of the account of it.
But the point goes even deeper still. An event only observed by a few men can only be a proof, as Thomas Paine wrote, for those men. It can never be a proof for all mankind, who did not observe it. No amount of argument can convince me to trust a 2000 year-old second-hand report, over what I see, myself, directly, here and now, with my own eyes. If I observe facts that entail that I will cease to exist when I die, then the Jesus story can never override that observation, being infinitely weaker as a proof. And yet all the evidence before my senses confirms my mortality. My identity is inexorably connected with my ability to see, hear, think, feel, and remember–it is built necessarily upon my memories, derived from all these things. Yet we know for a fact that by removing certain portions of one’s brain, or removing the materials needed for the brain to function, such as oxygen, we cause each of these elements of human identity to be lost or altered. The memory of words has its place in the brain, the ability to imagine images has its place, and we know them. When our brain loses blood, as I know from direct experience, it stops working, and when it stops working, all thinking ceases to exist.
Yet if you can remove my memories by removing sections of my brain, if you can remove my will or my reason or my emotional control by damaging other sections of my brain, if you can cause my whole consciousness to grind to a halt so that it fails to notice a whole minute of time, all by merely draining me of blood, then it follows necessarily that if you remove all the parts of the brain, if you remove all of its blood and put none back in, then there will not be anything left to call “me.” A 2000 year-old second-hand tale from the backwaters of an illiterate and ignorant land can never overpower these facts. I see no one returning to life after their brain has completely died from lack of oxygen. I have had no conversations with spirits of the dead. What I see is quite the opposite of everything this tall tale claims. How can it command more respect than my own two eyes? It cannot.
This argument that such a radical restoration of life is “impossible,” based on present observations, does not presuppose naturalism or materialism. It only presupposes that what we observe now is how things worked then. Indeed, I do not really claim that a radical restoration of life is impossible–I think it is very definitely possible–I simply don’t know of anyone (or thing) who can pull it off, and thus I don’t believe that anyone (or thing) has. If God were regularly performing unquestionable miracles today, perhaps turning all guns in the world into flowers, rendering the innocent impervious to harm, protecting churches with mysterious energy fields, and all the queer things we would expect if there really was a god, then the very same argument that I use here would actually vindicate the resurrection as most probably miraculous. After all, even the followers of Jesus reputedly got to watch him raise Lazarus from the dead, drive demons into pigs, walk on water, glow, and talk face-to-face with Moses, and converts got to watch disciples resist snake poison, stand beneath flaming tongues appearing in mid-air, and speak in a dozen languages without having learned them–if this were really going on now, I just might be a Christian. Thus, I do not presuppose materialism at all. My argument is perfectly consistent with godism. The evidence of today simply does not produce any godist conclusions, leaving us to wonder which is more likely: that God stopped parting seas and raising the dead, or that these stories are, for various historical reasons, fictions.[Note 4]
Nor am I even arguing that “no resurrections now means none then” on the false analogy that ordinary people today are like Jesus. Since Jesus was a special case, you might say, obviously his resurrection hasn’t been repeated. But my argument has nothing to do with this analogy. It has to do with the fact that “no miracles now means none then”–in other words, it would not be necessary to repeat the exact same miracles of Jesus to change my conclusion. All that is needed is the demonstration that God, like the laws of nature, is a regular, functioning part of what exists today, and that he actually has powers sufficient to work a resurrection. There is, in my experience, no such demonstration of present miracle-working, of any kind, sufficient to suggest that a particular miracle, like the resurrection of Jesus, is likely to be a miracle from a god. This is actually the way everyone thinks, all the time: we do not believe stories that come to us second-hand which contradict our direct experience, because each fact presents us with two possible realities, the only evidence of one is a story, the only evidence of the other is direct observation. The latter always wins: for no amount of persuasion will convince me that a poisonous snake won’t kill me, no matter how many men named Jesus are reported to have said otherwise. Above all, even the author of the Gospel of John depicts Thomas the Doubter as rational and wise for refusing to believe without direct observation, and this shows that we have no more grounds to believe than Thomas did, and until granted the same evidence as he, we are as right as he was to call it bunk.
III. A Message for All Would be Sent to All, and Not By the Fallible and Limited
The miracle of the resurrection is inadequate to the task of convincing all humankind, and so a failure as far as divine plans go. The colloquialism of a tiny event happening only in Palestine makes no sense if a god wanted all humankind, including the Chinese, to witness the event and be saved. It makes more sense if it was a local idiosyncracy and not a divine event at all. That is to say, The Resurrection, as told, is more consistent with a mere natural occurrence that inspired a few locals, than with an act of a cosmic god aimed at saving all humanity. It is too small, too obscure, too long ago. Again, a god ought to know better. But men, we know, are prone to think of their little tiny place as the whole of creation, and of their little tiny slice of history as the whole of time. Men, we know, are more than capable of making this story up, or of believing it without really checking the details. The story is all too sensible as a yarn, whether sincere or devious. But as the centerpiece of a divine, cosmic plan, it makes no sense at all.
A resurrection, after all, is not all that impressive a feat. If so, why haven’t there been more of them? To be honest, there have been. I give examples later in Section V of the next chapter (Probability of Survival vs. Miracle). I could even add the obvious: how many “resurrections” have been secured by CPR and electric defibrillators? We don’t think about it now because it is so common that we take it for granted, but thousands of people every year die and come back to life. It’s routine. Moreover, one reason the office of the coroner was established was to prevent people mistaken for dead being buried or cremated alive. It is precisely because cases of people surviving or being revived from seemingly fatal circumstances are replete throughout history that the case of Jesus’ survival is not unique at all. As I will note, even if we take all records as entirely true, we have no account at all of anyone confirming that Jesus was actually dead: heart stopped, brain degenerating. And since we cannot have a true resurrection without an actual death, we have no record at all, not even an invented one, that Jesus was actually resurrected from the dead.
But all that aside, a resurrection is localized, not cosmic in scale, and it is not that technically difficult. Carving the moon or rearranging the stars is more consistent with the Christian’s description of God, as well as more consistent with that god’s objectives. We already expect that we, mere humans, will be capable of accomplishing true resurrection (i.e. reanimation of a long-dead corpse) in fifty to a hundred years. Even a miraculous resurrection can only prove a wonderworker of meager, within-the-realm-of-humanly-possible powers. It cannot prove a god of cosmic, supernatural might. And a god of cosmic might would want to prove he was the latter, not the former. Thus, the Resurrection is not consistent with what a cosmic god would do, but it is consistent with what ignorant men would dream up and believe with all credulity. So the falsehood of the Resurrection is thus more reasonable, more likely, than its truth, even within the theory of Christianity itself.
This is a point lost on Josh McDowell, who for some reason thinks an isolated historical event, far out of the reach of all decisive investigation, with what little that can be checked being open only to experts in ancient history, cultures, and languages, is actually better than a “mere” philosophical system that is based on universally observable truths open to every human being’s examination. This is the premise of his entire section 10.1A (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 1st ed.; § 9.3A in his 2nd ed.), yet obviously the latter is far superior in effect and utility than the former, and so no intelligent God would set up the inferior system when he has ready recourse to the superior. Since no God would do this, it is reasonable to believe that no God did. And as I explain in my Lecture on the resurrection, it would actually be cruel of a god to expect us to come to any other conclusion, much less punish us for it–or through inaction let us suffer for it.
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Note 1: Matthew uses the word polla, which translates in English as “many” but in Greek usually means quite a lot, from dozens to hundreds or even thousands. It is the exact same word as hoi polloi, which means “The Masses.” Hence, “a mass” is an accurate translation here. In contrast, the word tis “some, several” was more usually used for smaller numbers, like around a dozen or less, but is not used by Matthew here. He clearly envisioned a mass event.
Note 2: See Geivett’s Exercise in Hyperbole, and also Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire: A Look into the World of the Gospels; The Date of the Nativity in Luke; and The Formation of the New Testament Canon; and also questions raised by my Review of The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark; Luke and Josephus; and Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay, among many others (click my name in the title above for a complete list).
Note 3: W. L. Craig, Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus, Edwin Mellen, 1985, p. 497).
Note 4: I have written on the related matter of the gullibility of witnesses in the time of Jesus in another essay “Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire,” and on the question of miracles in general in my Review of In Defense of Miracles.
Copyright ©2006 Richard Carrier and Internet Infidels, Inc. All rights reserved.