An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 3: Researching the Resurrection
Chapter 13: The Evidence of the Appearances — Was Jesus Seen Alive After His Death on the Cross?
The Addie Mae Collins Story
- Strobel begins by talking about Addie Mae Collins, one of the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Thirty-five years later Addie Mae’s grave was opened so that her sisters could have her reburied in a nicer cemetery, and they discovered that her body was missing. This was a shock to the family, and there was an immediate investigation into what had happened. Many theories were suggested, including that the tombstone had been placed on the wrong plot.
- “Yet in the midst of determining what happened, one explanation was never proposed: Nobody suggested that young Addie Mae had been resurrected to walk the earth again. Why? Because by itself an empty grave does not a resurrection make.” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 225)
- Would it be unduly naturalistic of me to insist that an empty grave combined with ancient hearsay reporting that its occupant was magically appearing to people does not a resurrection make, either?
The Twelfth Interview: Gary Habermas, Ph.D, D.D.
- Gary Habermas, Ph.D, D.D., doctorate from Michigan State University, doctor of divinity degree from Emmanuel College in Oxford, England, author of THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS: A RATIONAL INQUIRY and other books, contributor to the book JESUS UNDER FIRE, and author of articles published in FAITH AND PHILOSOPHY and other journals.
- “Habermas — bearded, straight-talking, rough-hewn — is also a fighter, an academic pit bull who looks more like a nightclub bouncer than an ivory tower intellectual.” (p. 226)
- Again with the anti-intellectualism! “It’s okay to believe this guy, because he’s not one of those godless elitists like the ones that are probably teaching your children!” Give it a fucking rest, man.
- Strobel hypes Habermas as a debater, mentioning a 1987 debate with Antony Flew where four of five judges decided that Habermas had won the debate by presenting compelling evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
- Well, sounds like we’re in for some very impressive and compelling evidence then, eh? Hope everyone’s wearing their baptismal gowns, because you’re gonna want to go out and get sprinkled as soon as this is over, sounds like.
- Habermas teaches at Liberty University, by the way.
“Dead People Don’t Do That”
- Habermas admits that there were no witnesses to the resurrection — on other words, no one actually saw Jesus sit up in the tomb. But this doesn’t harm his case, he says, because:
- “[Habermas:]‘We don’t see dinosaurs; we study fossils. We may not know how a disease originates, but we study its symptoms. Maybe nobody witnesses a crime, but police piece together the evidence after the fact.’” (p. 228)
- Habermas says witnesses to the resurrection aren’t needed to establish the resurrection, because if you can establish that Jesus was dead, and then was seen alive after his death, you’ve established the resurrection.
- Two things. First, people reporting that they saw Jesus alive after his death does not establish that Jesus was alive. It established that people saw, or thought they saw, or claimed they saw, Jesus after he died. So it’s much more difficult to establish that Jesus actually appeared alive after his death than Habermas is making it out to be.
- Second, fossils, disease symptoms and crime scenes are examples of physical evidence. There is no physical evidence for Jesus at all, so this is what is known in philosophical circles as a “shit analogy.” We know about dinosaurs because we have physical evidence we can examine, not because it’s written by an anonymous author in a book that other essentially anonymous people saw some dinosaurs a long, long time ago.
- At this point they go into a lengthy discussion about the creed Paul shares in I Corinthians 15:3-8. A lot of this is very close to what Strobel and William Lane Craig talked about in the previous chapter, and basically it all boil down to this: Paul says he encountered Jesus after his death, and Paul also says Jesus appeared to Peter and the rest of the Twelve, then to five hundred witnesses, then to James and then to the rest of the apostles.
- “[T]his is incredibly influential testimony that Jesus did appear alive after his death. Here were names of specific individuals and groups of people who saw him, written at a time when people could still check them out if they wanted confirmation.” (p. 229)
- Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, David Whitmer. Those three men signed a statement declaring that in the summer of 1830 they saw the golden plates from which was taken the Book of Mormon. They testified they were shown these plates by an angel. They maintained this testimony for the rest of their lives, even after they broke with Joseph Smith and were excommunicated from his church.
- Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, Samuel Harrison Smith. Those eight men signed a similar statement around the same time testifying that they had been shown the golden plates by Joseph Smith himself, and had handled the plates for themselves. Like the three witnesses, these eight men eventually had a falling out with Joseph Smith and were kicked out of the church, but also like the three witnesses, they maintained their testimony about seeing and holding the golden plates for the rest of their lives.
- These eleven people — we have their names, we have their signed statements, they lived not two thousand years ago but less than two hundred years ago — make the Book of Mormon and its divine origin far, far, far better attested than the Bible. Eleven people signed their names saying they saw the golden plates! Why would they do that if it wasn’t the truth? What other explanation could there be? Why aren’t we all Mormons?
“Convince Me It’s a Creed”
- Strobel asks why Habermas and others are certain I Corinthians 15:3-8 is a creed Paul is passing along rather than something he’s just making up. Habermas says: first, Paul says it’s a creed that he’s passing on. Second, its style (particularly its use of parallelism) indicates that it was a creed. Third, it refers to Peter as “Cephas,” which was his Aramaic name, indicating an early origin. Fourth, it doesn’t match the style or vocabulary of the rest of Paul’s writing. Fifth, it does match the style and vocabulary of Aramaic and Hebrew styles of narration.
- Then, inevitably I supposed, they start talking about how old the creed it. Habermas argues that it must go back at least to the year 51, since Paul says he shared the creed with the church at Corinth, and might even date to within two years of the resurrection.
- “[Habermas:]‘So this is incredibly early material — primitive, unadorned testimony to the fact that Jesus appeared alive to skeptics like Paul and James, as well as to Peter and the rest of the disciples.’” (p. 230)
- Wrong — it’s testimony to the claim that Jesus appeared alive, not the fact.
- And, here again, for what feels like the eight millionth time in the book, we have the “early equals true” argument. The creed goes back to a few years after the resurrection, therefore it must be true, it can’t possibly be the result of legend or fabrication, even though it attests to something that we all know and understand to be impossible, namely the return of a person to life from death. Without this argument, and the related argument that anything untrue would have been weeded out of the story by people hearing it at the time, Christian apologetics is nowhere. The entire enterprise is standing on clay feet.
- They go on discussing this creed some more, with Habermas’s argument boiling down to “it’s a creed and its claims are true because Paul says so.” He brings up Paul’s claim to have personally encountered Jesus, which Habermas says makes it eyewitness testimony, and he also says that Paul says his message is the same as James and Peter, who were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus — again, Paul says. Paul says. Paul says. The fact that Paul says it does not make it true. Paul claims the bright light and the voice he heard on the road to Damascus was Jesus speaking to him — why is Paul such a reliable source?
The Mystery of the Five Hundred
- Strobel mentions that Paul, in I Corinthians 15, is the only source — inside or outside of the Bible — for the claim that Jesus appeared to five hundred witnesses at once following his death. He asks Habermas if this doesn’t cast some doubt on Paul as a source.
- “[Habermas:]‘Well, it’s just plain silliness to say this casts doubt on Paul. . . . I mean, give me a break! First, even though it’s only reported in one source, it just so happens to be the earliest and best-authenticated passage of all! That counts for something.” (p. 231)
- Many of the earliest witnesses to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, got the facts of those events totally wrong. Earliest source does not always mean best source.
- Then he makes the self-correcting argument, saying that if Paul hadn’t really known Jesus appeared to five hundred people, he would never have said so, since others could easily have checked that out.
- But Paul never mentions who these people are, or even specifics on when or where this appearance to the five hundred took place, so . . . how would people at the time have been able to check this out, exactly?
- Strobel asks where this encounter with the five hundred would even have taken place.
- “‘Well, the Galilean countryside,’ Habermas speculated. ‘If Jesus could feed five thousand, he could preach to five hundred.’” (p. 232)
- A few lines later, Habermas says that the five hundred was a local story that probably would have been forgotten within a few years, and also says that the five hundred isn’t even very important evidence, anyway.
- Once again, evidence that can be undermined doesn’t really matter that much anyway. You cast doubt on the appearance to the five hundred and Habermas responds with “Well, who cares about the five hundred?”
- Let me talk for a second about these numbers — five hundred brethren, four thousand, five thousand people who Jesus supposedly fed with loaves and fishes. Even if we make the extraordinary and unwarranted concession that the gospels and the letters of Paul come to us through reliable sources, these numbers are absolutely meaningless. How do we know — how did the gospel writers know, how did Paul know — that there were four thousand, or five thousand, or five hundred people there? I was at the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C., a few weeks before I’m shooting this. There were between 20,000 and 30,000 people there, according to reports. Now, I was there. I was in the crowd, I was there from early in the morning watching people arrive. If you told me there were one thousand people there, I’d have my doubts. I know there were more than one thousand people there. But if you told me there were 10,000 rather than 20- or 30,000? I’d probably buy that. Similarly, if you told me there were 50,000, I’d buy that, too — because I can’t tell the difference when the numbers get that big! I look around and all I see is a sea of people. And unless you are very practiced in making these kind of crowd estimates, and willing to accept a significant margin for error, that’s all you see, too. Why does anyone treat these claims of crowd sizes in the Bible — four thousand, five thousand, five hundred — as anything other than conjecture?
The Testimony of the Gospels
- Okay, enough with that fucking creed.
- Habermas talks about the descriptions of the appearances in the gospels. Jesus appeared separately to Mary Magdalene, to Cleopas, to the disciples, to ten apostles, to Thomas and other apostles, to seven apostles, to the disciples again, and to the apostles on the Mount of Olives at the ascension.
- Strobel describes this as “a wealth of sightings of Jesus.” He says these aren’t fleeting glimpses of Jesus, but multiple, lengthy appearances where people saw and interacted with Jesus. Strobel asks Habermas if there is any corroboration for these appearances outside the gospels.
- “‘Just look at Acts,’ replied Habermas.” (p. 235)
- The Bible. This is literally all the evidence there is. The evidence of the appearances? It’s all right there, nowhere else.
Mark’s Missing Conclusion
- Strobel asks Habermas if he’s bothered by the conclusion of many scholars that the Gospel of Mark actually ends with the discovery of the empty tomb, and all descriptions of things that happened subsequently were added later by another author.
- “[Habermas:]‘Even if Mark does end there . . . you still have him reporting that the tomb is empty, and a young man proclaiming “He is risen!” and telling the women that there will be appearances. So you have, first, a proclamation that the Resurrection has occurred, and second, a prediction that appearances will follow.’” (p. 236)
- Understand what Habermas is saying: He’s saying even if the stories of the appearances in Mark — the oldest gospel — were added later, it doesn’t matter, because Mark, before the added portion, proclaims the Resurrection and predicts appearances.
- Now, try to follow me here, see if you can understand my problem with this: Mark, the first gospel, the source for the other two synoptic gospels, ends with “He is risen!” and the prediction of appearances. The gospels of Matthew and Luke, which came later and were based on Mark, contain references to specific appearances, as predicted in Mark. Does that not seem a bit suspicious? They actually address this question in the next section:
Are There Any Alternatives?
- “Without question, the amount of testimony and corroboration of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances is staggering. To put it into perspective, if you were to call each one of the witnesses to a court of law to be cross-examined for just fifteen minutes each, and you went around the clock without a break, it would take you from breakfast on Monday until dinner on Friday to hear them all. After listening to 129 straight hours of testimony, who could possibly walk away unconvinced?” (p. 237)
- Nice slide there, Lee, but we don’t have 129 straight hours of eyewitness testimony establishing the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus. We have the New Testament. And that’s it.
- Possibility 1: The Appearances Are Legendary
- Strobel actually brings up the fact that the number of appearances reported grows with each subsequent gospel, from none in Mark (assuming the added ending), to more in Matthew and Luke, and the most of all reported in John. Habermas argues that this doesn’t suggest the appearances are legendary, because the mere fact the reports of the appearances grow over time establishes that the legends are based on something factual, and that something must have happened to compel the apostles to begin preaching about the Resurrection. Habermas also cites I Corinthians 15 again, and Acts, as earlier sources for the appearances than the gospels.
- So even if Elvis wasn’t actually at the Burger King in Kalamazoo, the fact that Louise Welling saw him at the supermarket in Vicksburg means that he was alive?
- By the way, that argument basically renders the entire chapter up to this point totally irrelevant, since the specific appearances are less important than the fact that people believed, generally speaking, that there were appearances.
- Habermas also asks, “what about the empty tomb?” And I respond with, “What the fuck about the empty tomb?” Give me a good argument for the existence of the empty tomb, then we’ll talk about what it means.
- Possibility 2: The Appearances Were Hallucinations
- Habermas goes over why the appearances couldn’t have been hallucinations: Jesus appeared to multiple people, the disciples were fearful following the crucifixion and not expecting to see Jesus again and therefore in no right mind to be hallucinating about him, hallucinations are rare, hallucinations don’t account for the interactions with Jesus reported — none of which is relevant, because the New Testament is the only source for the appearances! You say they weren’t hallucinations? Fine! I don’t need them to be. I don’t even need to go that far, because the New Testament is all you’ve got.
- Habermas similarly rejects the argument that the appearances were the result of groupthink, that they believed Jesus had returned to life because they wanted to believe it. Habermas claims this doesn’t account for why so many of the disciples were willing to die rather than recant their beliefs, or for how skeptics like James and Paul were persuaded. Again, how do we know skeptics were persuaded? How do we know the disciples were martyred? Church tradition, and the New Testament. Before we talk about why these things would have happened if not for the Resurrection, we need to talk about why I should believe these things even happened.
“No Rational Doubt”
- Strobel reiterates his claim that Jesus died, rose again, and appeared to the disciples, based on the arguments made in this and the previous two chapters of the book. He quotes Michael Green, who said that there can be no rational doubt that the appearances occurred, and called the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus “as well authenticated as anything in antiquity.” Sometimes people say silly things.
- Then Strobel asks Habermas about the importance of the Resurrection. And appeal to emotion in three, two, one . . .
The Resurrection of Debbie
- Habermas relates the story of the death of his wife Debbie from stomach cancer in 1995. He talks about what an awful time it was, and how his students would call him to cheer him up by saying “At a time like this, aren’t you glad about the Resurrection?” Remember, he works at Liberty University; students there are mostly evangelical Christians who consider “aren’t you glad about the Resurrection?” to be a totally appropriate thing to say to a man whose wife is wasting away from a terminal disease. Illustrating a major difference between him and myself, Habermas says these calls from his students actually worked, and made him feel better. That was his reaction. My reaction would have been something more along the lines of “Hey, kid, go fuck yourself,” but again, that’s me.
- Habermas says that if God raised Jesus from the dead, that means that he raised Debbie from the dead, too.
- “[Habermas:]‘It was a horribly emotional time for me, but I couldn’t get around the fact that the Resurrection is the answer for her suffering. . . . Losing my wife was the most painful experience I’ve ever had to face, but if the Resurrection could get me through that, it can get me through anything. . . . That’s not some sermon. I believe that with all my heart. If there’s a resurrection, there’s a heaven. If Jesus was raised, Debbie was raised. And I will be someday, too. Then I’ll see them both.’” (p. 242)
- Nice to see such an objective perspective on the subject, isn’t it?
Next: Chapter 14: The Circumstantial Evidence — Are There Any Supporting Facts That Point to the Resurrection?