An Atheist Reads Reasonable Faith
Chapter 8: The Resurrection of Jesus, and Conclusion: The Ultimate Apologetic
- Craig begins by reminding us of the two conditions which (he says) are necessary for a meaningful existence: God and immortality. Having spent most of the book arguing for the existence of God — and not just any God, but the God of Christianity (Craig retreats to generic theism when he’s trying to sound philosophical, but clearly it’s not just a god whose existence is necessary to Craig, but the God of the Old and New Testament) — Craig now turns to arguments for the existence of immortality, which Craig aims to demonstrate is real and attainable thanks to the resurrection of Jesus.
- “If Jesus rose from the dead, then his claims are vindicated and our Christian hope is sure; if Jesus did not rise, our faith is futile and we fall back into despair.” (William Lane Craig, REASONABLE FAITH, p. 255)
- And we wouldn’t want that to happen! So let’s take a look at Craig’s arguments for the resurrection.
- Craig summarizes the three-pronged traditional argument for the resurrection:
- The gospels are authentic, meaning they were actually written by their traditional authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, authors who knew the truth about the life of Jesus and recorded it.
- The gospels are pure, meaning that the texts we read today are the same as when they were first written two thousand years ago.
- The gospels are reliable, meaning that the events they depict actually happened as depicted.
- Paraphrasing Humphrey Ditton (a minister and mathematician who published an apologetic for the resurrection in the early 18th century), Craig says, “If Jesus did not rise from the dead, declares Ditton, then either we must believe that a small, unlearned band of deceivers overcame the powers of the world and preached an incredible doctrine over the face of the whole earth, which in turn received this fiction as the sacred truth of God; or else, if they were not deceivers, but enthusiasts, we must believe that these extremists, carried along by the impetus of extravagant fancy, managed to spread a falsity that not only common folk, but statesman and philosophers as well, embraced as the sober truth. Because such a scenario is simply unbelievable, the message of the apostles, which gave birth to Christianity, must be true.” (p. 265)
- I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a weaker or less compelling argument for Christianity. Not only is Craig — the professional philosopher — embracing a blatant argument from incredulity, he’s ignoring a massive piece of evidence that “unbelievable scenarios” of the sort he describes in that quote can and do happen. How massive a piece of evidence? Try a quarter of the world. Nearly 25% of the human population identifies as Muslim. From Craig’s perspective as a Christian, Islam is a false religion. If this argument of Craig’s (and Ditton’s) is valid, if it is really so preposterous that a movement based on false beliefs could catch on not only among the common people but among the educated and the powerful, then doesn’t the argument demonstrate the truth of the Qur’an just as powerfully as it does the New Testament? I don’t think Craig considers the Qur’an to be authentic, pure and reliable. But he does consider the gospels to be. I wonder why that is . . . ?
- Craig takes several pages to discuss the decline of historical apologetics for the resurrection throughout the 18th and 19th century, as Biblical criticism became more critical and sophisticated, and even many who still accepted the essential spiritual importance of the resurrection began to argue that acceptance of it as a literal historical event was unwarranted and unnecessary to being a Christian.
- Craig begins his own case for the resurrection by proclaiming that it stands on three facts: the empty tomb, the post-resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith.
The Empty Tomb
- Craig presents eight lines of evidence which he claims support the fact that the tomb of Jesus was found empty:
- The historical reliability of the story of the burial of Jesus. If the story of the burial of Jesus is true, Craig reckons, then the story of the empty tomb must be true, too, since everyone would have known where the tomb was and it would have been easy enough to check whether or not the tomb was empty. “And, unfortunately for those who deny the empty tomb, nearly all NT scholars agree that Jesus’ burial is one of the best-established facts about Jesus.” (p. 273)
- Yes, the burial of Jesus is one of the best-established facts about a man who lived 2,000 years ago for whom there is almost no direct evidence. As one who denies the empty tomb, I am quaking in my boots, let me tell you.
- The fact of the empty tomb is implied in the writing of Paul. In I Corinthians 15 Paul writes of Jesus, “He was buried” and “He was raised.” He almost certainly would have meant “raised” in the physical sense, meaning that the tomb in which Jesus had laid would be empty. Why does it matter what Paul, a man who by his own testimony never knew Jesus and wasn’t in the loop until after the crucifixion, said? Well, because Paul was quoting an early church creed, which goes along with the next three lines of evidence:
- The story of the empty tomb pre-dates the Gospel of Mark and is therefore very old.
- Mark uses “first day of the week” to describe when the tomb was discovered, not “the third day.”
- The story lacks apparent legendary development.
- Craig could have summarized these last four arguments underneath the single, broader claim that the empty tomb story dates to very early in the development of the church. But “eight lines of evidence” sounds more impressive than “four lines of evidence,” so Craig pads it out. The man knows how to fill, I’ll give him that. Paul implies the empty tomb in quoting an early creed, Mark’s account seems to come from an earlier passion narrative, his use of “on the first day of the week” implies that he was writing prior to the phrase “on the third day” becoming the most accepted method of describing when the tomb was discovered, and the story (in Craig’s mind, anyway) is not embellished with extravagant details, suggesting it has not been circulating long enough to have been corrupted — four ways of making the same point — the story is old, not a later tradition. Fine. Why should I believe it, again? Especially since we’ve already discussed how the “too old to be legendary” argument is totally bogus?
- Also, one quick note on the simplicity and lack of legendary development in the resurrection story: Craig specifically refers to the account in Mark as being straightforward and showing no signs of embellishment. But Mark is not the only gospel, and Craig isn’t arguing that Mark is authentic and pure and reliable — he’s arguing that the gospels, all of them, are authentic, pure and reliable. And while Mark might seem relatively down-to-earth in relating the discovery of the empty tomb, Matthew has an angel descending from Heaven, heralded by an earthquake, and rolling the stone away in front of the two women. Luke and sober, reliable Mark also have unidentified men present to announce that Jesus is risen, though they stop short of declaring them to be angels.
- So, what does this mean? Two things: first, Craig’s description of the resurrection narratives as free from legendary development is a loser right out of the gate — a portentous earthquake, an angel coming down from Heaven and rolling away the stone? Doesn’t sound too historical to me. Second, does Craig’s focus on the less-embellished Markan account mean that he recognizes that the other gospels, particularly Matthew, are corrupted to some extent by legend? That’s certainly the impression I get. If the gospels are historical and there’s no reason to doubt their authenticity, if there’s no reason to doubt that the earthquake and the angel were a part of the event as it happened, why specify that it’s Mark’s version which is straightforward and free of legendary embellishment? Why not just refer to the gospels and the resurrection narrative generally? Why single out Mark at all? By singling out Mark, Craig invites comparisons to the other gospels. Matthew uses Mark as a source. The earthquakes and angels in Matthew’s resurrection narrative seem to be examples of exactly the sort of legendary embellishment Craig claims the gospels are free of.
- The tomb was found empty by women. Since women were not legally eligible to be called as witnesses and occupied a lowly position in 1st century Jewish society, depicting women as the discoverers of the empty tomb suggests to Craig that the story is true. If the gospel writers wanted to change the story, why not change it to have men discover the tomb? Craig says the only plausible explanation is that women actually did discover the tomb and therefore the story is accurate. But as usual Craig misses important points. First, as we’ve just seen, the tellers of the gospel — those who spread the oral traditions, those who wrote those traditions down, those who copied what others wrote — were not above embellishing or otherwise altering their stories when it suited them. Second, there is a plausible explanation for why someone would have altered the story to cast women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb: the tradition, already in place by the time the gospels were being written, that the apostles accepted the resurrection on the basis of the post-resurrection appearances, not on the empty tomb. Having women discover the tomb lets the gospels have it both ways — there are witnesses to the empty tomb (sort of — the testimony of the women isn’t recorded anywhere, and in fact Mark 16:8 says they didn’t even tell anyone about the empty tomb), and the tradition of the apostles believing in the risen Christ on the basis of the appearances is preserved.
- The disciples preached the resurrection in Jerusalem, which would have been impossible if it were common knowledge that Jesus was still dead in his tomb. This is a version of the self-correcting argument, the idea that there’s just no way you can convince people that a false claim is true if there are people in the community who know better. We know this is bogus. It is quite possible for a false belief to spread and gain traction even when lots of people know it to be false and the means of discovering whether or not it’s false are widely available. Plus, Craig is inflating the importance of those first Christians in Jerusalem, I think. In its early decades, and especially in those first days following the death of Jesus, Christians were a tiny, tiny portion of the population. Most people living in the city would probably have neither known nor had any reason to care what the members of the Jesus cult believed.
- Early anti-Christian Jewish propaganda presupposes the empty tomb. This one’s my favorite. Craig quotes from Matthew the passage about the guards at the tomb telling the Jewish leaders that Jesus was gone, and the leaders paying soldiers to spread the rumor that the disciples had stolen Jesus’s body. “And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day,” it says in Matthew.
- “Think about that. ‘The disciples stole away his body.’ The Jewish propaganda did not deny the empty tomb, but instead entangled itself in a hopeless series of absurdities trying to explain it away. In other words, the Jewish propaganda that the disciples stole the body presupposes that the body was missing. Thus, the Jewish propaganda itself shows that the tomb was empty. This is historical evidence of the highest quality, since it comes not from the Christians but from the very enemies of the early Christian faith.” (p. 277)
- Does it? Because it looks to me like it comes from the Gospel of Matthew. Does Craig quote from this supposed Jewish propaganda? Does any of this Jewish propaganda about the disciples stealing the body of Jesus still exist? Does Craig offer any evidence that this propaganda ever existed other than a quotation from Matthew? Try to fathom, if you can, how nakedly dishonest this is. He is claiming that a particular piece of Jewish propaganda presupposes the empty tomb and therefore demonstrates that the empty tomb was accepted even by enemies of the church, who then had to twist themselves in knots and pull a story out of their asses about a stolen body in order to account for it. But his source for the content and for the very existence of this Jewish propaganda, is a piece of Christian propaganda. That passage in Matthew about the Jewish elders making up the stolen body story is not historical evidence. It’s an assertion. It’s a claim. It’s not evidence of anything. That Craig would even attempt this sleight of hand is so contemptible that it comes back around the other way and becomes kind of funny. David Brent could write a better apologetic than this. Pathetic.
Explaining the Empty Tomb
- Craig deals with three alternative explanations for the empty tomb:
- The stolen body conspiracy theory, which Craig dismisses for three reasons:
- Moral implausibility. The disciples wouldn’t have done anything as dishonest as stealing the body of Jesus and claiming he’d been resurrected. They were devout people, not hoaxers. (Evidence for this?)
- Psychological implausibility. The disciples would have been too devastated following the crucifixion to have plotted and carried out such a scheme. (Argument from incredulity.)
- The disciples were evidently sincere, they changed their lives and even died for their beliefs following the death of Jesus, none of which makes sense if they were lying about the whole thing. (Again — sources justifying this perception of the disciples?)
- The apparent death theory, which has Jesus surviving the crucifixion and convincing the disciples that he had been miraculously resurrected. Craig dismisses this for three reasons:
- Physical implausibility. Jesus could not have survived his scourging, crucifixion, and burial. (Craig finds such a physical resuscitation implausible, but not a magical resurrection.)
- Religious implausibility. Christianity is built on the belief that Jesus rose supernaturally from the grave in power and glory, not beaten and bloodied and nearly dead. (And there’s certainly no way that powerful and glorious depiction of the post-resurrection Jesus could have been the product of legendary invention, right?)
- Biographical implausibility. Jesus just wasn’t the type of guy to trick his followers into believing he’d been dead and then miraculously resurrected. “But this is a tawdry caricature of all that we know of the real Jesus, whose life and teachings belie such an interpretation of his character.” (p. 279) (And the source for all that we know about the life, teachings and character of Jesus is . . . ?)
- The wrong tomb theory, which has the women simply approaching the wrong tomb, finding it empty and assuming Jesus had magically come back to life rather than coming to a more rational conclusion. Craig dismisses this one, too. (Does it make him uncomfortable to see the women in this theory acting so much like Christian apologists, jumping straight over the plausible natural explanation to get to the holy miracles?) Then he says, “You may ask yourselves at this point, ‘Well, then, what explanations of the empty tomb do modern critics offer who deny the resurrection?’ The fact is that they are self-confessedly without any explanation to offer. There simply is no plausible natural explanation available today to account for how Jesus’ tomb became empty.” (p. 280)
- The fact is, William Lane Craig is either a liar or a fool. No matter how implausible they are, any of the explanations Craig has just covered — the stolen body, the survival of the crucifixion, the wrong tomb — are enormously more plausible than Craig’s explanation, that Jesus was miraculously resurrected. But the most plausible explanation to me is the one Craig doesn’t touch on — that there was no empty tomb to begin with. When Christians ask me, “What about the empty tomb?” I ask them, “What empty tomb?” What makes you think there was an empty tomb? Where did you get that information? The New Testament? Well, before I’ll be willing to accept the New Testament as a reliable source, you’ll have to convince me that that’s what it is — which no one has yet been able to do. So start there. Not with the empty tomb.
The Resurrection Appearances
The Origin of the Christian Faith
- Craig spends the rest of the chapter on the other two facts upon which his case for the resurrection is built — the post-resurrection appearances and the origin of the Christian faith. Craig argues for the historicity of the post-resurrection appearances using three lines of evidence — the testimony of Paul, the gospel accounts, and the physical nature of the appearances — all of which amount to using the Bible as evidence for itself.
- Craig then turns to alternative explanations for the resurrection appearances: “If one denies that Jesus actually rose from the dead, then he must try to explain away the resurrection appearances psychologically.” (p. 287)
- Gonna stop you right there, Bill. Can I — nevermind. One need not try to explain the resurrection appearances psychologically. One can explain the resurrection appearances never-fucking-happened-ally.
- As for the origin of the Christian faith, we’ve been over the basic premise of this argument already — a belief being widespread, popular, accepted does not mean that belief is true. Since Craig is a Christian and holds all other faiths to be false, he must believe that every other religion to have ever gained influence, across the world and throughout human history, accomplished precisely what he claims Christianity couldn’t have unless its claims were true. This argument is evidence for the quality of Craig’s character and intellect, not for the resurrection.
Conclusion: The Ultimate Apologetic
- Craig, long-winded motherfucker that he is, takes three whole pages — the entire conclusion save the two-sentence last paragraph — to finally state what the ultimate apologetic is. And the ultimate apologetic is: your life. Yes, he builds up to it for three pages, he talks about the importance of one’s relationship with God and with one’s fellow men, of growing into Christ, and what’s the pay-off at the end? One of the hoariest, most hackneyed evangelistic clichés there is: the ultimate witness is you.
- That’s one of Craig’s biggest problems, and the main reason non-Christians find him so immediately repellent — and he really is the carrion flower of Christianity — he’s not nearly as impressive as he obviously fancies himself to be. Watching him in debates, listening to his podcast — try that, if you fucking hate yourself — reading this book, it’s obvious from the first moment how utterly pleased with himself he is, and how impenetrable his façade of smugness is. He fancies himself a man of consequence, a man doing important work, a teacher, an evangelist, a thinker, a professional philosopher. But to me, one of the lost, the searching, the unconverted, he’s an overinflated buffoon. He’s dishonest, he’s ignorant, and he’s wrong — and he’ll never know it, because there is no getting through that wall he stands behind, that wall he believes was built there brick-by-brick by God almighty himself. Christopher Hitchens couldn’t get through it, Sam Harris couldn’t get through it, Lawrence Krauss couldn’t get through it — and I know I couldn’t get through it, either. But hopefully my attempts to scale the wall, my charges with the battering ram, my lobbing of grenades in this series have been of some use to you.
- Thank you all so much for watching — not just this series, but all three of these “An Atheist Reads” series I’ve done so far. I will be doing more after I take a break from this for a while. Please leave a comment if you are so inclined, be you atheist, Christian, or of another stripe altogether. Let’s have a conversation. I look forward to it. Thanks for watching and I’ll see you soon.