Search This Blog

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Impossiblity of Proving or Disproving the Resurrection

I have been reading the book, The Resurrection of Jesus, edited by Robert Stewart, which contains the dialogue between N. T. Wright and Dominic Crossan on the resurrection. The book also contains a number of responses from other scholars. One of these scholars is Alan Segal, Professor of Religion and Jewish Studies at Columbia University in New York. I only recently became aware of Segal. His book, Life after death: a history of the afterlife in the religions of the West , published in 2004, is a treasure-trove (880 pages) of information about how the Egyptians, the Canaanites, the First Temple Jews, the Greeks, the Persians, the Second Temple Jews, the Christians, and finally the Muslims understood life after death. I have learned a great deal from the book, so I was delighted when I saw he was one of the respondents to the Wright-Crossan dialogue.

In his response, he writes: The resurrection is neither probable nor improbable; it is impossible to confirm historically. This is particularly important theoretically: a problem is neither improbable nor probable if it is neither confirmable nor disconfirmable. . . (The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 135).

He goes on to argue that those Christians who insist that the resurrection can be shown to be a historical fact are misguided. He says: It is one thing to conclude that the early Christians took it as fact; it is another thing to propound that it can be demonstrated historically. Such an endeavor is always bound to fail (p. 137).

He maintains that apologists, presumably such as N. T. Wright (and others), who think they can demonstrate the historicity of the resurrection fail to recognize that they are restricted in their interpretation of the evidence by their prior faith commitment. He says: To be part of a rational and historical community of historians, one has to be willing to admit to disconfirmation as well as confirmation.. . . How could they admit to disconfirmation without disconfirming their faith? This suggests to me that there is a actually a small group of scholars made up entirely of the faithful trying to impose their faith in the form of an academic argument on the general academic community. (p. 136).

I think he is spot-on. People such as N. T. Wright, William Craig, and others have a vested interest in interpeting the evidence to agree with their belief in a literal resurrection. After all, their livelihoods, their reputations, etc. are at stake. I am not saying these men are intentionally dishonest. I am saying that because of their prior faith commitment and because of their careers being tied to their stand on a literal resurrection, they cannot interpret the evidence in a way that would disconfirm their faith.

On the other hand, I think that I can approach the evidence in a more neutral way. I am not pretending that I am objective and unbiased. I don't believe anyone truly is. We all interpret evidence in light of our worldview and presuppositions. However, I do not have a vested interest in deciding one way or the other on the resurrection. I am not employed by a Christian or a secularist organization. I am not bound to any group or association. I have the freedom to do as Socrates is reported to have done: follow the evidence wherever it leads.

At this point in my intellectual journey, I just simply don't see sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead and,therefore, I don't believe that evangelical Christianity is true.


  1. I actually find that the insistence the resurrection can be proved is counterproductive. I grew up in a fairly literalist Christian environment, but the one place they held the line was that the Gospels were absolutely true. I went to a state university for my undergrad intending to go on to Seminary for an M.Div afterward. But in the meantime I decided to get my Bachelors in my favorite subject: history.

    In the process I became a pretty good historian. This got me in trouble when I switched from education to a minor in Religious Studies. I learned about the documentary hypothesis and the scholarly explanations for how the Gospels were put together. I applied my training as a historian and realized that what I was learning was probably accurate.

    I had also had it drilled in to my head that history as we think about it is a relatively new phenomenon and that in the past "history" was synonymous with "propaganda" and "our national epic." I'd spent the last couple years attempting to figure out how to read between the lines to get past that and figure out what really happened. My research paper on the Maccabean Revolt, when I realized that the whole thing was about factional struggles and a peasant revolt was extremely helpful in beginning to pull apart the inherent propaganda in the Bible.

    Once I put everything together I realized that the Gospels barely count as a historical document and it's fairly easy to poke holes in the historical reliability of the Bible (seriously. The book of Daniel tells us that Darius conquered Babylon for the Persians and was followed by Cyrus. It actually went Cyrus, Cambyses II, Smerdis, then Darius. If you have a so-called history written by someone who claimed to be an eyewitness who can't get a simple progression of kings right then your history is probably inaccurate in many other ways). That threw the whole "Biblical infallibility" thing out the window. It threw the literal interpretations out the window. And since I'd been taught that it either had to be entirely true or it didn't count it was pretty easy for me to make the leap and say, "Eh, this ain't worth it." The hardest part was coming to terms with the cost in terms of the life-long relationships...

  2. That's fine, as long as the "bias" charge isn't used to blow off certain points of view and to avoid giving them their due consideration. I've seen all sides do this. "Oh, that source isn't reliable because it's written by an evangelical, and everyone knows that THEY twist things to support their faith." "Those minimalists aren't reliable because they have an ax to grind against Christianity, and that shapes their presuppositions." Hopefully, there's a neutral ground somewhere so that both sides can evaluate each other's arguments. I realize that one issue that divides the two camps is naturalism vs. supernaturalism---whether we can be open to divine intervention into history. But that can be surmounted by positing alternative ways to interpret the evidence, as you have done in these resurrection posts.

  3. Although Christianity didn't "work" for me, I ask myself these questions:

    Is it probably true? Is it probably false?
    Do I want it to be true? Do I want it to be false?

    If I found out it was really true, how would I feel? Would I be neutral, scared, depressed, angry?

    What emotions are connected with all this for me?

  4. Ken, everyone has a prior faith commitment to their own worldview. I don't think it is valid to say that one cannot see beyond their own faith commitment.

    I think people change their mind all the time on issues so people clearly have the ability to see beyond their faith commitment.

    An atheist for instance does not believe in design even though design is clearly demonstrated in Creation. I have talked with more than one atheist who believes there is no design or design is an illusion; however, their conclusion was based on their prior faith commitment to atheism.

  5. james: I've seen all sides do this. "Oh, that source isn't reliable because it's written by an evangelical, and everyone knows that THEY twist things to support their faith." "Those minimalists aren't reliable because they have an ax to grind against Christianity, and that shapes their presuppositions."

    Indeed. This is one of those areas where you have to be careful, however. One of the issues is the question of how we can test the reliability of a document.

    For instance, many people (generally of the Biblical literalist persuasion, but sometimes it's just people who have always heard that claim and never bothered to check it) claim that the Bible is an entirely historically accurate document. So they will pick and choose things to prove the point. Like in my aforementioned Persian succession example, yes, there was a Darius and yes there was a Cyrus. The literalist will tend to say, "Ha! See! It's a valid history!" Or (one of my favorites) they'll point to some recent archaeological dig that indicates there's a city where people think Sodom was and that there was some sort of natural disaster that occurred there a few thousand years ago and say, "That's all the proof I need."

    On the other hand, as a historian I can't just say, "The Bible got the Persian succession totally wrong, we can't trust a word of it." What I can say is that this indicates that a supposed eyewitness to history wasn't actually there writing stuff down. From there if the Bible says something I know that I have to try to check its claims against contemporary claims from other sources.

    Where this gets really difficult is when there aren't any contemporary sources. That's why we have to take a lot of Biblical claims with somewhere between a grain of salt and an entire saltwater taffy production plant. So if we see claims like, "The Jebusites were baby eating, goat raping heathens who indiscriminately slaughtered anyone who dared disagree with them," but we know nothing about the Jebusites from anyone else we can't say, "Wow, those dudes were evil." For we know that the Jewish Bible is a national epic and the entire purpose of the national epic is to say, "Look how awesome we are and how terrible our enemies were and how they deserved to die horrible deaths. Oh, and also, there were about a trillion of them and only ten of us. How sweet is it that we won? I mean, come on, that's freaking sweet." So in that everything the ancient Israelites did was justified and everything their enemies did was horrible and evil.

    In understanding the mindset we can then filter through the propaganda and say that, for instance, the Jebusites probably existed and probably went to war with the Israelites over something. And we know that wars are generally fought over land or trade or because one side dreams of empire and the other is in its way. Further, we can look at the unflinching descriptions of slaughter and know that no matter whose side was right or wrong, assuming there is such a thing, that people's lives were brutal and no one really thought too much about indiscriminate killing. We can also learn a lot about how ancient peoples chose to justify the brutality that they inflicted on others and explain the brutalities inflicted on them.

    In short, the Bible is a useful historical document. It's just not an infallible one and not the sort of thing I'd say I need to base my life around and I'd much prefer to not live in a society based upon it.

  6. Dear Geds,

    “For we know that the Jewish Bible is a national epic and the entire purpose of the national epic is to say, "Look how awesome we are and how terrible our enemies were and how they deserved to die horrible deaths. Oh, and also, there were about a trillion of them and only ten of us. How sweet is it that we won? I mean, come on, that's freaking sweet." So in that everything the ancient Israelites did was justified and everything their enemies did was horrible and evil.”

    Are we reading the same Jewish bible? If the Jewish people didn’t claim it as their book I would say an anti-Semite wrote it. The Jewish bible I’m reading constantly exposes their every mistake, failure, rebellion and idol worship. Every single prophet tells the Jewish people to turn back to The Almighty and yet the Children of Israel are unable to turn away from false idols. Let’s not forget the horrific episode in Judges 19 with the molestation of a woman all night long, until she dies and then the rest is not fit to print. The Jewish nations split into the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. They fought against themselves and eventually had their temple destroyed. 10 tribes were carried off into exile never to be heard from again. I’m sure this does not qualify the Israelites as awesome.

    Judges 7:2-3 The LORD said to Gideon, "You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands. In order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her, announce now to the people, 'Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’ The story goes on to tell how 22,000 men left and 10,000 remained. The Almighty said that was still too many men, so they were reduced to 300 men. The lesson was to show the Israelites that it wasn’t their own might or greatness that allowed them to succeed but The Almighty was saving them.

    The Almighty states the purpose of the Jewish people. They are to keep the Torah by fulfilling the mitzvah’s in the Land of Israel. When they don’t do this The Almighty says He will scatter them among all the nations of the world. There they will see what it is like to live without The Almighty’s protection. After many years, crusades, pogroms, expulsions and an unspeakable event meant to exterminate the Jewish people they will cry out and turn back to The Almighty. Then the Almighty will return them to their land. This was written over three thousand years ago. The second temple was destroyed around 70 CE. It has been approximately 1875 years and there is now a Jewish State. And the Jewish people still keep the Torah exactly as they were told over 3000 years ago. I don’t know if that kind of history would impress you but it does me.

  7. Dr. Pulliam,

    I left the Catholic church and religion as soon as I was out of my parent's house. But in middle life I decided to start over and see just what was in the bible before I just threw it away. As a Catholic I heard parts of the gospels every day at mass but I never actually read or compared them. I actually took the 4 gospels and made a chart comparing the last supper, death, resurrection and ascension. I was shocked to find at least 30 discrepancies, but the most shocking was that Matthew, Mark and Luke had the last supper as a Passover Seder with Jesus dying on Passover. But John has Jesus eating a regular meal the evening before Passover and dying on the afternoon before Passover.

    My Christian friends never heard this before and took me to their pastor for his explanation. He acknowledged the discrepancies and said it was like interviewing people after they saw a car accident and each person sees it from his own point of view. He also acknowledged the different dates for Matthew, Mark and Luke compared to John's story. He said John was using it as a literary device to point out that Jesus is the Passover lamb. A literary device???? How can anyone believe the words of the gospels when the gospels don't even agree? Resurrection and ascension - maybe that part of the story was a literary device too. The pastor said the discrepancies didn't bother him at all because the 4 gospels agreed on the major themes, Jesus had a last supper, died, resurrected and ascended. Of course that answer didn't satisfy me, but I was even more shocked when a friend took me to a different pastor and he said almost the exact same words. Is this something that is taught at divinity school? Do most pastors know this and accept it?

  8. Ken,

    I can see what you're saying regarding our baises and presuppositions. However, just because you do not belong to a particular philosophical guild or atheistic institution (or some other non-religious equivalent to the church) doesn't mean that you can be more neutral than, say, N.T. Wright or some other confessing Christian. Wright, having been a Christian all his life, is of course open to the philosophical possibility that God could raise someone from the dead. Similarly, since you are presumably a philosophical naturalist, you have discounted the raising of an individual from the dead as a possibility. Your naturalism colours your view, and would, I think, pre-dispose you towards a certain skepticism when it comes to the gospels' claims. Just because the worldview to which N.T. Wright adheres has become embodied in the traditions and institutions of the church does not make him any less qualified to pronounce judgment on the historicity of the resurrection.

  9. "I am not saying these men are intentionally dishonest."
    but why wouldn't you say they are intellectually dishonest? WLC openly confesses that even if ALL evidence and arguments were to point against his faith, he'd still be a believer. He also says "if somehow through my studies, reason is to turn against my faith, then so much the worst for reason!"
    Putting aside the fact that to read such quotes is to witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide, doesn't the fact that Craig has made a career out of arguing for God's existence, while at the same time maintaining that "even though arguments can support the Christian fath, they cannot overrule it", or that "the witness of the Holy Spirit trumps all arguments", etc., make him intellectull dishonest?