Introduction: Disagreement and the Resurrection of Jesus
In his 1984 article “Is it Possible to Know that Jesus Rose From the Dead?” Professor Stephen T. Davis referred to a paradox facing any philosopher writing about the possibility of knowing the resurrection occurred:
On the one hand, some believers in the resurrection hold that the evidence in its favor is overwhelming…On the other hand, many non-believers in the resurrection hold that the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead is perfectly absurd (1984, pp.147-148; see also 1993, p.2).
Davis accounts for this phenomenon by stating that belief or scepticism about the resurrection is not due to a neutral assessment of evidence; rather, people become convicted believers or sceptics via the presuppositions of their metaphysical world view, viz. one of metaphysical naturalism or metaphysical supernaturalism.(1) From the view of the naturalist, the resurrection does seem like a perfectly absurd “prescientific myth”; from the supernaturalist’s perspective, it is by far the best explanation of the evidence (1993, p.20).
If this phenomenon is indeed a paradox, the obvious abundance of human disagreement per se suggests it is a very mundane one. Davis, however, goes on to suggest a more interesting, related phenomenon: namely, that people not only disagree over the resurrection, but can do so with epistemic approval; it is possible for both belief and disbelief in the resurrection to be held rationally, and a mistake to argue that it is either never rational to believe that the resurrection occurred or always rational to think that it did.
In more detail, Davis claims that if someone rationally accepts either supernaturalism or naturalism — and he is sure that each can be so held — then that person may present a most persuasive case appropriate to his world view which not only defends his resurrection-opinion as rational, but can do so against the opposing side’s most persuasive case. The following study will examine Davis’ basic claim — i.e. that both the supernaturalist’s belief and the naturalist’s doubt in the resurrection can be rational given an awareness of the best cases for both sides — which shall hereafter be referred to as DT (i.e. Davis’ thesis).(2)
While this study will use Davis’ defence of mutually rational contrary resurrection-opinions as a starting point, it will go quite a bit further than this to address the possibility of both rational belief and rational doubt concerning the resurrection of Jesus. While Davis presents brief outlines of the most persuasive arguments available to both believers and sceptics (see 1993, pp.15-17), this study will not be restricted to these cases.(3) Foremost, while the most persuasive naturalistic case Davis describes might be typical of naturalistic objections against the resurrection, it is a rather toothless opponent of resurrection-belief; to remedy this shortcoming, I will substitute the controversial position of Christological Mythicism — as presented by Professors Michael Martin and G.A. Wells, hereafter referred to simply as Mythicism — as the naturalist’s best case. Although Mythicism currently may not be taken very seriously, nevertheless it presents a superior argument to that most persuasive naturalistic case presented by Davis; ultimately, I shall argue that it deserves recognition as a serious objection to Christian apologetics.
Unfortunately, Davis has not (to this date) confronted Mythicism directly. On the other hand, Professor Gary Habermas has criticized Mythicism, having specifically argued against both Martin and Wells; he has also developed an extensive apologetic for the resurrection which bears strong resemblance to Davis’ most persuasive case for the resurrection. Therefore, rather than using Davis to defend the resurrection against the Mythicist, I shall primarily focus upon particular segments of Habermas’ “core facts” argument (hereafter referred to as Core Facts).
In sum, this study will set up and evaluate the conflict between Core Facts and Mythicism; subsequently, the metaphysical frameworks of naturalism and supernaturalism will be considered as background to the results of this conflict. These are the terms on which DT will be tested.
I. Davis’ Thesis in More Detail
DT should not be taken to imply that Davis thinks rational resurrection-opinion must necessarily involve awareness of the most persuasive cases for both sides in this debate; but Davis’ thesis is a corollary of his view that rational argument cannot currently show either believers or unbelievers to be outside of their intellectual rights in having the resurrection-opinions that they do (1993, p.1). Even so, while Davis thinks naturalism and supernaturalism produce epistemically unqualified resurrection-opinion in relatively the same way, he argues that they each yield rational resurrection-opinion differently. Although this study is not primarily concerned with Davis’ presentation of the best cases concerning the resurrection, a better understanding of what he takes for the evidential landscape is important for seeing why he supports DT; his analyses of supernaturalism and naturalism will also need to be described. Accordingly, I will quickly outline Davis’ analyses of both metaphysical world views and their respective most persuasive evidential cases, explaining how he thinks each can produce rational resurrection-opinion even in the face of the best points the opposing view can raise.
I.1. Rational Supernaturalistic Resurrection-Opinion
Davis assumes supernaturalists can rationally hold the following beliefs: S1) apart from nature, there exists something else, viz. God; S2) the existence of nature is dependent upon God; S3) God can and does occasionally interrupt nature’s regularity with miracles; S4) these miracles are quite unpredictable and inexplicable from a human point of view (1993, p.18). Davis’ resurrection apologetic assumes these premises can be held rationally; for the duration I will not dispute this assumption.
Of course, if supernaturalism merely suggests a world view involving supernatural entities, then obviously Davis’ version of it is more particularly theistic than that. Davis claims that people typically believe Jesus rose from the dead because this belief “dovetails” with these supernaturalistic assumptions, but given only S1-S4 this is not clearly true: precise philosophical analysis aside, the abundance of theistic supernaturalists who do not share the Christian’s belief in the resurrection — namely, the vast majority of Jews and Muslims — strongly suggests it is unlikely that resurrection-belief is entailed by these premises; these non-Christian supernaturalists also seem to count against much significance being derived from the mere coherence of resurrection-belief with theism.
However, in a note Davis mentions that Christians will accept a further axiom crucial to yielding resurrection-belief: S5) the Christian Bible is in some sense reliable and revelatory (p.18, n.20). Although Davis repeatedly relegates S5 to his notes (see also 1984, p.154), it is clearly as important for producing belief in the resurrection as any of S1-S4; for only this final item gives supernaturalism a distinctively Christian character. As mentioned, theists who accept S1-S4 but are not Christians (i.e. do not accept S5) rarely believe in the resurrection.(4) Therefore, S5 deserves promotion from being a mere aside to the rank of an equal partner with the other tenets of supernaturalism; from this point on, unless otherwise indicated the term “supernaturalist” should be taken to refer to those who rationally accept S1 through S5.
With the addition of S5 to supernaturalism it is much more plausible that the Christian’s resurrection-belief is “dovetailed” by his metaphysics. Still, Davis does not think even S1-S5 are sufficient to produce rational belief in the resurrection. In fact, he charges that nearly two thousand Easters have dulled many Christians’ senses as to just how incredible, extraordinary and shockingly absurd a phenomenon like the resurrection really is. Davis readily admits that all rational persons have overwhelming reason to think that dead people remain dead (p.168), emphasizing that our best information suggests that a resurrection is causally impossible — not simply unique and improbable but “an intellectual scandal” (p.10).
Although Davis and Christians in general nonetheless accept this intellectual scandal, he denies that supernaturalists are unduly credulous persons; they are not, for example, willing to believe any extraordinary claim at the drop of a hat. Pace Hume, Davis suggests that rational people — supernaturalists as well as naturalists — will abide by the following principles of rational thought: 1) expectations of what will happen should be based upon the best available knowledge of what has happened; 2) the less likely of two mutually exclusive alternatives should be rejected; and 3) strong evidence should be had before believing that a miracle has occurred (pp.4-5). Rather than emphatically insisting that naturalists are unduly prejudiced toward miracles such as Jesus’ resurrection — a common charge from resurrection-apologists — Davis admits the supernaturalist will share these rational principles with the naturalist, principles which reflect a strong bias against accepting extraordinary claims of miraculous proportions.
Still, Davis thinks there must be a point at which this bias can be overwhelmed by evidential reasoning and argument. He claims that the specific amount of evidence required to bring about a rational change of mind over an event — E — will depend “…upon the strength of our bias against events like E, the weight of evidence in favor of E, and the possibility and plausible of alternative explanations” (pp.5-6). Specifically concerning the requirements for defending supernaturalistic belief in the resurrection, he writes:
Clearly, anyone who wants to argue in favor of belief in the resurrection of Jesus — as I am doing — must make a powerful case. It must be strong enough to overcome the bias that all rational people share against highly unusual and miraculous events, their commitment to give naturalistic explanations of phenomena whenever possible…I am interested in trying to make a powerful enough case for the resurrection of Jesus as to prove — to any sensible person — that belief in it is rational from a supernaturalist perspective (pp.168-169).(5)
Accordingly, Davis thinks evidence is equally as necessary for rational resurrection-belief as the Christian’s metaphysical presuppositions (i.e. S1-S5). Concerning the nature of the evidence required, Davis is clear about specifically historical evidence; he agrees with Van Harvey that
…it will not do to argue for certain historical events “on faith.” The only rational way to show that a given event occurred is by historical evidence; only historical research — not faith — can establish historical events as certain or even probable ( p.31).
He further insists that any important event that did actually occur and could appear in histories of the time should appear in histories of the time (p.26); appropriately, one of the aims of Davis’ 1993 text is to defend resurrection-belief as rational on historical grounds (p.x).(6)
Therefore, one should expect to find some good historical reasons in Davis’ most persuasive case for resurrection-belief, the steps of which are as follows: B1) the New Testament writers are thematically unified around the reality of the resurrection, despite some relatively minor discrepancies in their written accounts; B2) various facts have been “virtually demonstrated” concerning the resurrection, undoubted by any competent biblical, theological or historical scholar (namely, Jesus’ crucifixion; followers of Jesus becoming convinced Jesus had been raised from the dead and subsequently making this conviction central to their proclaimed message; this conviction arising from a state of fear, confusion and dismay); and lastly, B3) the inability of unbelievers to offer an acceptable alternate explanation of these virtually demonstrated facts (pp. 15-16, see also 1984, pp.152-153).
Davis often insists in particular that B3 is crucial for tipping the supernaturalist’s scales of probability in favour of resurrection-belief. Consider the following three passages taken from Davis 1993, noting in particular the emphasised text:
…if a certain event is scientifically inexplicable, seems to some people to have moral and religious significance, and coheres with the views of God and God’s aims that are held by those people, it may very well be rational for them to believe that the event was brought about by God. Indeed, it may be the best explanation, given their background beliefs (p.8 (italics mine)).
…an event should probably be considered a miracle only if no purported explanation of it that crucially omits God is a good explanation (p.10 (italics mine)).
…the evidence in favor of the claim that Jesus was genuinely dead and later genuinely alive is sufficient to render the resurrection belief of Christians rational. This is especially true since those who deny that there was a genuine resurrection seem quite unable to explain what did happen. Further, they seem equally unable to explain why an obscure itinerant rabbi who died a criminal’s death became so quickly (in the eyes of many) the Christ, the savior of the world, the Son of God (p.185 (italics mine)).
According to Davis’ schema, the permissive rationality Christians enjoy regarding the resurrection is heavily dependent upon the assumption that non-believers cannot provide an acceptable alternate explanation of the relevant events. Combined with B1 and B2, Davis argues that this entire case, when viewed against S1-S5, can permit the Christian supernaturalist to rationally believe the resurrection occurred even in the face of the naturalist’s best reasons for doubt.
I.1.a. Faith Versus Reason
Before describing the naturalist’s position à la Davis, an objection to his contention that arguments and reasoning are appropriate for defending or attacking religious faith needs to be considered briefly. Contrary to Davis, it has often been maintained by religious thinkers — academic and otherwise — that issues of evidence and reasoning are inappropriate for genuine religious faith; the true believer, it has been claimed, must maintain his belief to the strongest degree and the sort of evidential hypothesising so characteristic of scientific research is incompatible with sincere religious thought.
While Davis has no intention of trying to justify Christianity so he may then believe it, he insists rational defence of Christian beliefs is necessary given the prevailing sensibility of doubting miraculous claims. Rather than evidential reasoning being inimical to genuine religious faith, Davis thinks it is unfounded beliefs, unjustified commitments, unsound arguments and irrational “leaps of faith” that are so opposed (p.187). For Davis, Christian apologetics properly aim to prevent faith from degenerating into a product dependent upon any of these things.(7)
In fact, the conduct of the apostle commonly dubbed “Doubting Thomas” in Jn.20:19-29 is Davis’ paradigm case of the proper attitude of the supernaturalist toward a miracle claim.(8) While Thomas’ behaviour and attitude is often condemned as inappropriate scepticism and lack of faith — after all, Jesus is made to say in v.29 “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” — Davis disagrees:
Perhaps [Thomas] was more like a hero of faith. He believed when (and not before) there was sufficient evidence to convince him. And that is what I think everyone should do, though of course different people in different situations will require different degrees and amounts of evidence. Requirements less stringent than that make faith into gullibility or credulity (p.175).(9)
Citing “the church”‘s acceptance of the Lukan position that resurrection-appearances ceased with Jesus’ ascension, Davis claims the sort of evidence presented to Thomas is no longer available; instead, apologists for the resurrection must appeal to historical arguments such as those suggested by B1 and B2 if they wish their belief to have rational approval.(10) While he undoubtedly feels there is merit in Christian faith in the resurrection, Davis does not think this can serve as a substitute for evidentially-supported rational resurrection-belief.
I.2. Rational Naturalistic Resurrection-Opinion
Davis claims naturalists typically believe the following four metaphysical propositions: N1) nature alone exists, with no room for a theistic deity such as the Christian god; N2) nature is eternal and uncreated; N3) nature is uniform, possessing no nonnatural events that disrupt nature’s regular continuity; N4) every event is, at least in principle, explicable in terms of nature or natural processes (i.e. by explanatory methods akin to those of the natural sciences) (1993, pp.17-18). Following Davis, I will grant without argument that the naturalist can hold N1-N4 rationally.
Like the supernaturalist, the naturalist will form his resurrection-opinion on the basis of his metaphysical assumptions. However, while S1-S5 “dovetails” resurrection-belief, N1-N4 actually entails that Jesus did not rise from the dead; for the theistic, miraculous context of Jesus’ rising from the dead is formally contradictory with the non-miraculous, atheistic universe implied by N1-N4. As Davis accepts that the naturalist’s metaphysics can be held rationally, he allows that resurrection-doubt — unlike the Christian’s resurrection-belief — can be rational solely by the assumptions of naturalism.(11)
Davis recognizes that if unqualified naturalism is sufficient to permit rational resurrection-doubt, then naturalism itself would have to be philosophically defeated in order for the naturalist’s resurrection-doubt to be overpowered; to effect such a philosophical victory, he suggests the apologist would require a logically valid argument based upon premises which the naturalist could not rationally reject (see p.169). Davis denies that anyone has presented such an airtight case for the resurrection, despite the fact that he believes the naturalist wrong and the Christian correct on this (and other) matter(s); while B1-B3 are sufficient to convince the supernaturalist, this evidence is far too inadequate a proof to meet Davis’ apodictic standards for overwhelming the rational naturalist’s resurrection-doubt.(12)
While he goes on to present the most persuasive naturalistic case against the resurrection, an argument distinct from N1-N4, such is clearly not necessary for the rational naturalist defending his resurrection-doubt. The Christian’s most persuasive case functions as a necessary defence of his resurrection-opinion, but the naturalist’s most persuasive case is redundant on such terms. Rather, the naturalist’s most persuasive case — according to Davis — appears merely to show how the naturalist might specifically respond to the Christian’s most persuasive case.
To see this, consider the steps of the naturalist’s most persuasive case in tandem with the steps of the supernaturalist’s best case. Recall that B1 emphasised the unity of the New Testament writers concerning the resurrection; B2 involved several “undisputed facts” surrounding the resurrection. The first step of the naturalist’s most persuasive case — D1 — responds that the biblical testimony supporting the resurrection is unreliable, written years after the time of the alleged event by unsophisticated, myth-prone people who were concerned with proclaiming statements of faith and furthering Christian ends rather than recording accurate history. According to D2, the evidence for the resurrection is frequently contradictory on the details of the resurrection and the events that followed.
Notably, Davis does not appear to disagree with D1: he confesses that while the New Testament writers were deeply interested in convincing people that Jesus really had risen from the dead (i.e. B1), their main interest lay in proclaiming the resurrection faith; their writings ought not primarily to be classified as examples of scientific history or philosophical theology (p.ix). Nor does he seem to question D2; for consider that when presenting it he asks rhetorically,
How many women visited the tomb? Had the sun risen, or was it still dark? Was there one angel (or young man) or two? Were they inside the tomb or outside? Did the women keep silent or run to tell the disciples? Were the disciples told to stay in Jerusalem or to go to Galilee? Was the resurrected Jesus in physical or spiritual form? Did the ascension occur immediately after the resurrection, or forty days later? (pp.16-17)
Rather than responding to these items, Davis ignores them, instead maintaining that even in the face of D2 a core of undisputed facts can be distilled from the New Testament and other writings (i.e. B2).
Finally, D3 actually incorporates B3, qualifying the naturalist’s inability to explain the resurrection-events with probabilistic considerations. D3 asserts that even without a plausible alternate explanation of the known facts (i.e. B2), no matter how probable the resurrection becomes on the basis of these facts — Davis uses 99% as a hypothetical probability to make his point — the probability that men dead for three days stay that way (ie. that there was no resurrection) will be a higher probability, therefore scepticism of the resurrection will be reasonable (pp.16-17; see also 1984, pp.153-154). Shortly after, when stating that everyone interprets experience through philosophical assumptions, Davis charges that naturalists presumably reject the resurrection not because the evidence is weak when seen neutrally, but because naturalism dictates that the evidence must be weak (pp.18-19).
While this seems somewhat unreasonable of the naturalist, elsewhere, Davis depicts D3 more softly, suggesting the naturalist’s scepticism is due more to the quality of the currently available evidence than to any possible evidence whatsoever: in a note he interprets the rational naturalist not as saying “No matter how strong the evidence for the resurrection might be, it will always be outweighed by the principle that ‘the dead stay dead'” but rather “Given the actual strength of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus — even if one looks at it as sympathetically as possible — that evidence is outweighed by the principle that ‘the dead stay dead'” (p.21, n.23). Rather than necessarily rejecting all evidence a priori — e.g. the naturalist who will not be moved by any amount of evidence, as suggested in pp.16-17, 18-19 — Davis says it is entirely possible for the naturalist to examine the actual evidence carefully and objectively and still decide no miracle occurred (p.171).
Seen this way, D1-D3 have some purpose, even if irrelevant to defending rational resurrection-doubt.(13) Primarily, these argumentative points can be used to actively rebut the claim that B1-B3 compel rational resurrection-belief by pointing out weaknesses in the Christian’s overall argument. Given that D1-D3 both: 1) show how a naturalist confronted with the supernaturalist’s best case might respond to each of B1-B3; but 2) are redundant so far as epistemic normativity is concerned; I conclude that D1-D3 serve a primarily descriptive purpose.
I.3. Some Concluding Remarks
DT maintains that contrary rational opinions on the resurrection can be had even given a familiarity with the most persuasive cases both believers and non-believers have to offer. Concerning the naturalist, Davis thinks his rational-doubt can follow simply from his metaphysics; for the supernaturalist, a combination of metaphysical assumptions and evidence is required to overcome both his own biases against the miraculous and the naturalist’s most persuasive objections. Given the extreme intellectual absurdity of belief in miracles, Davis admits that the burden of proof is in some sense on the Christian defending the resurrection (p.185).(14)
Still, the same evidence confronts both naturalist and supernaturalist — notably Davis accepts B1-B3 as well as D1-D3 — and must ultimately be filtered through philosophical perspective. Davis admits that he ultimately advocates basing a decision about this historical issue — to a large extent — on metaphysical grounds (p.186). He thinks naturalistic philosophers have failed to prove that miracles cannot occur and supernaturalistic philosophers have yet to demonstrate the resurrection on naturalistic grounds; accordingly, he judges both world views to be legitimate starting points for historical inquiry and insists that against the appropriate set of background presuppositions, the combined effect of B1-B3 and D1-D3 allows for either rational belief or rational doubt in the resurrection.
While these observations suggest how and why Davis thinks DT can be true, Davis’ best cases are not the focus of this study. Rather than using Davis’ contrary cases which appear almost “tailor-made” to support DT, I hope to invoke something more along the lines of the latest in theological warfare. Accordingly, the following two chapters will introduce cases independent of Davis’ apologetic: namely, Habermas’ Core Facts apologetic and the Mythicist’s argument against the very historicity of Jesus.