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
- Probability of Survival vs. Miracle - Assessing the Odds
- General Case for Spiritual Resurrection - Evidence Against Resurrection of the Flesh
- Rebutting Lesser Arguments
What is the purpose of this collection of essays? Many things could be said which cast doubt on the story of the Resurrection of Jesus by God, but there are three above all that are most decisive in leading me to reject the story as unworthy of belief (see Summary). This collection of essays details these three primary reasons. The importance of this collection is to explain a major reason why I am not a Christian: since I cannot rationally bring myself to believe this story, I cannot rationally bring myself to be a Christian. Those eager to convert me respond that few Christians hold the resurrection to be the sole revelation of God, but I do not claim this. The resurrection is only the central revelation justifying the Christian faith, i.e. not just belief in god, but in a particular God with a particular plan that we have to follow or be damned. As Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is groundless” (1 Corinthians 15.17). Indeed, the only reason I wrote these essays was because hundreds of Christians have e-mailed me or knocked on my door making exactly this argument: the resurrection of Christ proves that the Christian God is all-powerful and will save us in the same way. It is this argument that this essay responds to.
My would-be benefactors are not alone: a joint work of 14 leading Christian apologists, including William Lane Craig, J.P. Moreland, Gary Habermas, and Douglas Geivett, concludes with the argument “If God has acted in human history, particularly in the Incarnation, earthly life and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then human beings clearly are a focus of God’s interest and concern” (p. 276, In Defense of Miracles, InterVarsity Press, 1997) and “the resurrection of Jesus represents victory over the grave, not only for Jesus but for all who believe in him” (p. 279, Ibid.). Josh McDowell is even more adamant: “The resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christianity stand or fall together” (1st ed., § 10.pr., p. 179; 2nd ed., p. 203, § 9.1A; cf. also 9.2A and 9.3A). On subsequent pages he cites, as affirming the same sentiment, Theodosus Harnack, W.J. Sparrow-Simpson, H.P. Liddon, Wilbur Smith, D.F. Strauss, B.B. Warfield, Frederick Godet, Michael Green, John Locke, Philip Schaff, and even St. Peter himself (as well as Jesus, cf. § 10.2B). In my ten years of experience in this field, I have seen this to be the standard argument for converting to Christianity, regularly used to persuade others to join, and hailed as the reason many believers themselves came to believe.
There may be other good arguments for believing some kind of god or other exists. The present essay does not address that question. But if the resurrection is not a proof of the Christian creed, what is? If anyone wants to think that the Christian system allows even doubters of the resurrection to be saved, then perhaps the resurrection need not be a proof of anything. But insofar as “whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16.16), and so long as the resurrection stories were written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20.31), the resurrection must be a proof equal to the task of saving lives, and my essay remains pertinent in pointing out that the resurrection fails to meet that standard.
There are other reasons why I consider Christianity to be an ill-chosen creed, such as the morals actually taught in the Bible, many of which are abhorrent to a compassionate and just man, or other details of its theology which run counter to observable facts. These have been discussed at length by others here in our Modern Library, and in part in some of my other essays, such as From Taoist to Infidel (2001) and Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay (1999). Even though other aspects of the creed are agreeable, the falsehood of its most important claims, and the imperfection of its teachings, are sufficient grounds to abandon it–just as these are sufficient reasons for Christians to abandon every other religious faith in the world, no matter how well-meaning or wise in their teachings. This does not mean I throw out the baby with the bathwater–for if there is anything good in Christianity which can be defended as good without appeal to the supernatural, I am probably a firm believer in it. I just don’t see the need to call such things “Christian” as opposed to merely “human.” Christians do not hold a monopoly on wisdom. At any rate, here I will only discuss the falsehood of the central Christian “supernatural” claim, that of the Resurrection. In other words, here I only answer the question “Why don’t I buy the resurrection story?”
Faith vs. Proof: Some argue that conversion is entirely about faith, not evidence. This is a moot point here, since this collection of essays is only addressed to those who believe the evidence is sufficient to convince–it is not addressed to those who think belief can be warranted without sufficient evidence. I find the latter to be a thoroughly unacceptable way to approach questions of truth anyway. For example, Ryan Renn (whose critique of my earlier edition no longer exists online) once asserted that he does “not desire to be ‘just as right’ as Thomas was in the Gospel of John,” meaning he does not want even to ask for sufficient evidence, as Thomas did. This is an issue of the ethics of belief, of what Renn thinks a person ought to believe, given certain reasons, and this is based upon his own subjective values. I simply disagree with him. In my opinion, Thomas behaved far more ethically than any other character in the stores we have. Other critics, too, have told me that reason and facts don’t belong in questions of faith, and that they are only a barrier to a personal relationship with Jesus. This is also a claim about the ethics of belief, and it is a sentiment that I find to be quite immoral. But I will not argue this here. I have addressed the ethics of belief in other essays (e.g. Do Religious Life and Critical Thought Need Each Other?, What Atheists Ought to Stand For, and A Fish Did Not Write This Essay). And many of my other online essays address related issues (click the link on my name in the title above for a complete list), including my credentials, epistemology, and attitude toward history.
Background and history of this collection: This lengthy collection of essays was heavily revised in 1999 from the original 1998 version, was revised twice more in 2000, and then most recently again in 2004. The second edition united the original with the thirty-three addenda that accumulated over that year, and reconsidered many probabilities and added a few new details. I am very grateful to all those who criticized the original or offered suggestions. The thirty-three addenda were inspired by all of my readers, and the incorporation of these now into the new text is a further recognition of their valuable contribution. The text then grew so large that I was obliged to break it up into a directory of its own, putting each entry as a separate page. Subsequent editions met new needs by revising and adding to the whole.
The third edition aimed to complete the utility of these essays as an addition to the Jury Project, addressing arguments in chapter 10 of the 1st Revised Edition of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict (now chapter 9 of the 2nd edition, the The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict). Since my essays were not originally designed for this purpose, their format does not follow McDowell’s. Instead, sections or points have simply been added where appropriate when something peculiar to McDowell begs for a response. No matter the format, this paper has always effectively stood as a rebuttal to McDowell’s certainty that “Christ is risen indeed” (McDowell, 1st ed., p. 260, § 10.6A; 2nd ed., p. 284, § 9.8A), and now it will do so even more directly than before, even though very little had to be added. Both his first (1972, slightly revised in 1979) and his second (1999) editions will be addressed, though they do not differ greatly on this subject. Even so, if you, the reader, find any important points McDowell makes (in either edition) that are not addressed here, please contact me through Secular Web Feedback. This also goes for any facts or details that I have failed to address or take into account anywhere in this essay.
The fourth edition involved two changes: First, I had lectured on this topic at Yale, using a shorter summary text of the same title that actually brings in points I made in other essays, as well as entirely new material, and still more ideas came to me after the nearly two hour Q & A session that followed. I then gave this lecture on several other occasions, and wanted to reproduce it online with footnotes on sources and critical issues I never have time to address in person. Second, after receiving a lot of mail from people who clearly failed to understand what I said at several points in the original essays, I decided to rewrite certain sentences throughout all my materials to make them clearer. No substantial changes were made apart from how I said the same things this essay already said in the third edition. The fifth edition of 2004, however, completely reorganized the collection in a more streamlined and integrated way, drawing what had become scores of pages into a smaller collection of a few longer essays. I also updated several arguments in light of my more recent research, changed the way I said some things, and made everything more accessible with hyperlinked tables of contents. Finally, I changed many of my estimates of probability to make them as low as I could believe possible, to eliminate any charge of bias.
Special Note from 2009:This collection of essays is growing increasingly out of date, and I have no plans to update this collection any further. Though I’m not aware of anything egregiously wrong here, I may have changed some of my views or understanding of the methods and facts in the intervening ten years since this collection first began. My most recent published work (in print and online) should be considered as superseding anything it may contradict here, and the following materials should be used with that caution in mind.
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