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Tyler Wunder Davis 6

Concluding Remarks: Return to DT and the Possibility of Rational Resurrection-Belief and Resurrection-Doubt


On its barest interpretation, DT claims that both belief in and scepticism of the resurrection can be rational given an awareness of the most persuasive argumentative cases for both sides in the resurrection-debate; consequently, the truth or falsity of DT will depend on the exact nature of these cases. According to Davis’ presentation, rational belief in the resurrection of Jesus — a necessary component of DT — follows from five metaphysical premises simply granted as rational (S1-S5) and three evidential considerations (B1-B3); for the naturalist, rational doubt in the resurrection — also a necessary component of DT — follows merely from four metaphysical premises simply granted as rational (N1-N4). Given that the most persuasive cases of neither naturalist nor supernaturalist are able to compel a rational change of opinion for those in the contrary camp, Davis thinks DT is true.

However, the current study is not primarily concerned with Davis’ presentation of the most persuasive cases. My interest is not in determining whether DT follows from the evidential-scenario that Davis prefers (i.e. B1-B3 and D1-D3); rather, I want to see if incorporating the conflict between Mythicism and Core Facts casts some doubt on the truth of DT. While Davis’ scenario sets up a conflict that appears very congenial to DT — notably, D1-D3 are epistemically redundant and serve only to describe precisely how it is that the naturalist might most persuasively rebut the Christian’s apologetic for the resurrection — the conflict between Habermas, Martin and Wells does not appear so agreeable to Davis’ thesis.

VI.1. Evaluating the Conflict

DT would be refuted if either naturalism or supernaturalism could not defend their respective rational resurrection-opinions in light of the conflict between both most persuasive cases. Recall that even on Davis’ view of the resurrection-debate, naturalism had an epistemic edge over supernaturalism: naturalism could justify its position on the resurrection without reference to non-metaphysical arguments like D1-D3; on the other hand, supernaturalism had to fight an uphill battle against the burden of proof, defending its conclusions against a universal rational bias against miraculous events. Therefore, on Davis’ religious epistemology naturalism could only fail to uphold its half of DT if the supernaturalist’s most persuasive case could somehow overwhelm not only the naturalist’s most persuasive case but also his metaphysical presumptions.

While Habermas, as a hard apologist, might have thought that this could be done, Davis did not; the repeated failure of Habermas to either effectively criticise Mythicism or defend crucial premises of Core Facts suggests his hopes of defeating N1-N4 through his resurrection-apologetic are premature. Against the background of the conflict described in Chapter V as well as Davis’ accepting the relative ease with which naturalists can defend their doubt, the possibility of rational resurrection-doubt seems a foregone conclusion.

VI.1.a. Rational Belief in the Resurrection

Supernaturalism’s half of DT required a successful soft apologetic for the resurrection, an argument that could withstand the analogue of a hard apologetic from the naturalist’s camp. Mythicism provides just such a naturalistic analogue, and so the question to ask is whether the soft apologetic provided by Core Facts can survive as soft apologetic in the face of its conflict with the Mythicist.

The results of this conflict can be divided into two major areas: 1) Habermas’ defence of resurrection-belief; and 2) the Mythicist’s defence against Habermas. Concerning the latter, Habermas consistently failed to undermine Mythicism as an explanatory alternative to the orthodox Christian view of Jesus’ resurrection; his criticisms tended to be superficial and were unable to serve as serious objections to Mythicism taken seriously.

Regarding the defence of the resurrection, I examined two claims Habermas used to undergird his abridged apologetic: H1) the historical crucifixion could be demonstrated on the non-Christian evidence alone; and H2) the most important fact of his abridged apologetic — the appearances of a postmortem Jesus to his earthly disciples — is strongly supported by 1 Cor.15:3ff. H1) was not established: independent testimony defending the crucifixion should properly originate from close to the time of the event being attested to; Habermas failed to show that any non-Christian sources predated AD 70. It appears most likely that his earliest such reference to the crucifixion is no earlier than AD 90, even later if Testimonium Flavianum is entirely interpolated material. As for H2), Habermas failed to show that the evidential value of this testimony, even granting its priority to Paul, was sufficient to establish that a resurrected Jesus confronted companions and associates of the historical, earthly Jesus. While the creed of 1 Cor.15:3ff might be taken to show that contemporaries of Paul claimed to have had appearances of a risen Jesus, it does not sufficiently establish that the recipients of these appearances had had any contact with the earthly incarnation of Christ.

In accord with the dictum to not seek greater certainty in an inquiry than is appropriate to the subject at hand, I cannot see that anything follows necessarily from these findings. Nonetheless, with regard to Habermas’ stance as a hard apologist, it seems incredible to suggest that a thinker who incorporated these two ineffective cases into his overall apologetic — one of them being among his very best items of evidence — could somehow compel non-believers to assent to the resurrection on pain of irrationality. While it is broadly logically possible — i.e. not necessarily false — that the remainder of Core Facts could succeed as hard apologetic, my examination justifies strong doubt in such a possibility. It is true that this suspicion is underdetermined by the evidence, but critical scrutiny of Habermas’ apologetics does not inspire one with confidence in his ability to provide a case — abridged or not — that can overwhelm the rationality of dissenting views in the face of all objections, particularly those raised by the Mythicist.

Of course, Habermas’ Core Facts was being used to stand in for a soft apologetic, and so its merit as soft apologetic needs to be considered. In DT‘s favour, the mere fact that soft apologetics are far less ambitious than hard apologetics makes their success initially more plausible. Still, in the face of Mythicism a soft apologetic based crucially upon either of H1) or H2) would also appear insufficient to defend rational resurrection-belief. Taking Mythicism as an analogue of a hard apologetic, the version of DT that interests me needs a soft apologetic that can specifically withstand this alternative to the standard resurrection-hypothesis; while Habermas failed to successfully undercut Mythicism, Davis has yet to try. Given that Davis both approved of and strongly resembled Habermas’ apologetics, Mythicism’s rather one-sided victory over Core Facts should properly have consequences upon Davis’ view of the apologetic landscape.

VI.2. Revising Davis’ Apologetic Landscape

Foremost, on Davis’ evidential-scenario for the resurrection both the naturalist and supernaturalist grant that the naturalist cannot plausibly explain particular facts surrounding the resurrection (e.g. the crucifixion). Given Mythicism’s performance in this study, without a serious rebuttal of Mythicism neither naturalist nor supernaturalist should endorse this point.

That aside, each most persuasive case still requires individual modification. Consider the naturalist’s best evidential case à la Davis: D1) the biblical testimony is unreliable, written years after the events by unsophisticated, myth-prone people who were more interested in promulgating faith than recording history; D2) the New Testament accounts of the resurrection and following events are frequently contradictory; D3) the probability of a dead man coming back to life is so small that doubt is justified in the face of the (currently available) evidence.

Notably, Mythicism does not deny any of these premises and can subsume them into its more intricate position. For example, Wells does not merely object that the New Testament presents contradictory testimony written years after the events being attested to; rather, the Mythicist emphasises a developing picture of Jesus that evolves in historical detail and complexity as the New Testament documents are examined chronologically. The earliest stage is almost entirely lacking in historical context and the ultimate implication is that the earlier Christian texts were not inspired by the sort of historical Jesus only evidenced in the later writings. As for D3, Mythicism needn’t rely on any such broadly formulated probabilistic objection to criticise Core Facts; while Wells’ thesis could be combined with probabilistic considerations of a naturalistic or even simply non-Christian sort, it is quite able to undercut Core Facts without such reasoning.

Turning to the supernaturalist’s most persuasive case, after removing the contention that nonbelievers have no alternate hypothesis with which to explain the evidence supporting the resurrection, two points remain: B1) the biblical writers unanimously agree that Jesus rose from the dead, despite some minor discrepancies in their written accounts; B2) certain undeniable facts suggest the resurrection as their best explanation. Significantly, Mythicism seriously undercuts both of these: concerning the first, while the salvific death and resurrection of Christ is central to the New Testament, the unity of this theme does not extend to unity of the historical details surrounding the alleged events. It must be noted that this is more than a simple accusation of contradiction; for the observation that the historical details surrounding Jesus’ life develop chronologically suggests legendary embellishment over fallibly recorded human memories of real historical events. In light of the nature of the biblical accounts of the resurrection — not merely slightly diverging but noticeably evolving — B1 does not appear to greatly support belief in the resurrection.

As for B2, similarly to Habermas Davis believes that the facts surrounding the resurrection are “…not denied by any competent biblical, theological, or historical scholar” (1993, p.15). In the face of Mythicism, however, this confidence deserves serious scrutiny; while Jesus’ crucifixion, for example, may frequently be undenied, it is not undeniable. Ultimately, Habermas fails to overcome the Mythicist’s objections: he failed to rebut the claim that the historical details of the crucifixion cannot be evidenced in writings closer to the alleged time of Jesus’ execution than AD 70 or later; he was unable to wring a historical Jesus out of his best defence for CF2, one of these undoubted facts. Therefore, some serious substantiation is required to get very much argumentative milage out of B2; if Habermas’ case is at all indicative of defences of a historical Jesus, things do not look promising for the success of such apologetics.

Accordingly, the conflict between B1 and B2 on the one hand and Mythicism on the other does not look favourable to DT. While naturalism’s half of the thesis appears highly defensible, supernaturalism’s side is much more questionable; specifically, it is not at all clear that the supernaturalist who rationally believes S1-S5 but is aware of Mythicism as well as B1 and B2 can, without further mitigating evidence, maintain that his belief in the resurrection of Jesus is rational.(57) While my findings on the conflict between Mythicism and Core Facts are not immune to rebuttal, some sort of rebuttal must be involved for the Christian who wants his resurrection-belief to be rational on the terms of DT. If the apologetic landscape does not improve from the state at which I have assessed it, DT fails.

VI.3. Some Final Epistemic Considerations

By way of finale, I would like to briefly discuss some epistemic considerations that will clarify the meaning of “rationality” that concerns DT. Foremost there is the distinction found within discussions of epistemic normativity between internalism and externalism. Louis Pojman, in his introductory text on the theory of knowledge, defines the essential difference between these two schools as being that the former involves the marshalling of reasons or evidential justification for defending beliefs — or being able to provide such reasons — while the latter does not (pp.332-333). For a more detailed description of this epistemic distinction consider C.A.J. Coady’s characterisation:


The internalist tradition insists on the knower having an insight into the justification of his or her belief which is such as to show him or her the connection between that belief and reality. The externalist is dismissive of such hopes and views the crucial element making for knowledge as the obtaining of a special relation between the subject’s true belief and the state of affairs making it true. This relation, variously understood as reliability, causal connection from the state of affairs to the belief, or counterfactual tracking, makes for knowledge whether the subject has some insight into its nature and existence or not (p.17).

While it is common to adopt an exclusively internalist or externalist posture, these extremes can lead to counterintuitive conclusions. For example, insisting on strict, unwavering internalism seems to invite examples that internalism appears unable to account for plausibly, such as my belief of what I had for breakfast this morning or whether I am currently listening to music. Consider that everyday life is rife with beliefs that we consider completely justified yet which are obviously not held for evidential or argumentative reasons, e.g. beliefs based on memory, testimony or direct sensual perception. I believe that I had a muffin for breakfast and that I am currently listening to some music not because I can or have reasoned to such conclusions but because such beliefs appear to be epistemic givens, subject to undercutting but prima facie justified merely by the circumstances by which they are formed.

On the other hand, insisting exclusively on externalist considerations seems to make reasoning and evidential considerations irrelevant or, at best, of secondary importance to knowledge. While this may be appropriate for some defences of belief, more theoretical investigations seem best served by an internalistic rather than externalistic model. Granted, we all are likely to require externalistic justifications for many of our beliefs on many matters: but it seems plausible to suggest that highly theoretical beliefs justified (externally) by testimony receive their merit from the epistemic worth of the source that informs their beliefs; in the case of theoretical beliefs this chain of testimony-transfer ultimately will need to be founded on internalistic grounds. Unlike the “rank and file”, the upper authoritative echelons of testimony-justification-transfer will be unable to rely exclusively on externalistic considerations; rather, they will have to earn their position in the higher epistemological ranks through an internalistic model of justification.

Rather than deny the possibility of an externalistic defence of resurrection-belief, however, I will point out that the way in which Davis defended DT was decidedly internalistic. Not only did he disavow accepting historical beliefs completely on faith, he made it quite clear that the Christian’s defence of resurrection-belief against opposing views involved providing reasons and evidence. Davis’ most persuasive cases are decidedly evidentialist-internalist in their structure; while I would not argue that Davis disapproves of externalist defences of resurrection-belief, such do not seem to be a concern to the soft apologetics he uses to defend DT. An entirely different discussion would be required to adequately treat DT on externalist terms and given Davis’ approach to this subject such a discussion seems superfluous.(58)

There is, however, a further epistemic distinction drawn by Davis that might suggest another route for satisfying rational resurrection-belief. In his 1978 text on religious epistemology, Davis differentiates between public and private evidence:


Reasons for belief that are public are reasons that are objective (to use an admittedly ambiguous word). That is, they are open to the awareness and inspection of anyone who is interested enough to consider them, and they are transpersonal in their appeal…Private reasons for belief, then, are subjective. They are (at times, e.g. in ineffable experiences) open only to the awareness and scrutiny of the given individual to whom they are private, and are not necessarily convincing to anyone else (and should not convince anyone else) (pp.26-28).(59)

Parallel with the internalist/externalist distinction, Davis’ defence of the resurrection is decidedly public rather than private in its evidential considerations. Moreover, Davis’ criterion for the proper use of private evidence for answering an evidence-question (e.g. whether the historical evidence suggests that Jesus rose from the dead) was that the public evidence surrounding the matter under investigation was ambiguous and inconclusive. Now, perhaps in terms of Davis’ original cases it appeared that the public evidence on the resurrection was indecisive; however, adding Mythicism to the evidential landscape clearly calls for defending resurrection-belief via evidence of the public kind.

In sum, although “rationality” has subtleties such as those suggested by the distinctions between internalism and externalism, private and public evidence, Davis’ apologetic is clearly concerned with clearly internalistic justification involving public over private evidence. It should therefore be kept in mind that that is the reading of rationality being used by DT. In light of the conflict between Core Facts and Mythicism, this is also the reading of “rationality” that DT fails upon.

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