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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Loss of Faith and Naturalistic Explanations for the Belief in the Resurrection

I came across a blog post the other day in which an evangelical Pastor (graduate of Dallas Seminary) was responding to a letter about two women who were on the verge of losing their faith. I found the post interesting but quite shallow. You can read it here.

I wrote a letter to the author of the post. Here is the text below:

Hi Mike,

I was interested to read the letter posted on your blog that you sent to the individuals who are struggling with their faith. You list three reasons why you continue to maintain your faith. I was a little surprised that you did not mention the "inner witness of the Spirit," as this seems to be the main reason for William Craig and others that I have read (I commend you, however, for not doing that because I think it proves nothing. The Mormons have their "burning in the bosom" to validate their faith and we both agree they are wrong).

You might know that I de-converted from evangelical Christianity after spending nearly 20 years in it. I earned a Ph.D. in Theology from Bob Jones Univ. and taught at a Bible college in Arizona for 9 years after graduation. I too struggled with my faith and eventually it disappeared. I did not want it too but it did.

May I give my opinion on your "three reasons" for remaining a Christian?

1. The lack of sufficient explanation for all things outside of God.

For me, to not believe in God would take a greater leap of faith. Even though he seems to be absent at times, this does not provide sufficient rational for me to believe that everything came from nothing. Intelligence from non-intelligence. Beauty from non-beauty. An understanding of good and evil from an amoral void. Personhood from non-personhood.

First, your argument does not demand the Christian God. The God of the Deists or the God of Paul Tillich or many other possiblities would work.

Second, I am not a scientist but I am told that there are some possible explanations for cosmology. I don't have to have a full answer at this point. I am not willing to just fill God into the blank and say: Goddidit.

2. The prophetic nature of the Scripture.

In Isaiah 53 we read a detailed account of Christ’s atonement and resurrection which was written 700 years before the events took place. This passage is an outstanding testimony to the reality of our faith.

First, I am sure you must know that the Jews did not interpret Isa. 53 to refer to their Messiah. Now that doesn't prove anything one way or another but it lends support to the idea that Christians may be misinterpreting it.

Second, I think it more likely that early Christians went back to the Hebrew Bible to try to make sense out of what happened to Jesus. The disciples did not expect him to die and of course Second Temple Judaism would have considered the fact of his death proof-positive that he was not the Messiah. Therefore, the early Christians needed to find some "proof" for their belief in the Hebrew scriptures.

Third, so I don't consider Isa. 53 a prophecy but rather a statement about the suffering Servant which was later taken by Christians as a prophecy.

3. Finally, and most importantly, I consider the resurrection of Christ.

What an extraordinary claim. Our faith rests on the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead. It is the focal point of all else. If Christ rose from the grave, then our faith is true. If he did not, God must still exist, but we need to look for him elsewhere (1 Cor. 15: 16-17). Yet I believe that there is overwhelming evidence that he did raise from the grave. We have dozens of first century documents which purport such an event. We have eye witness testimony and we have the mass growth and expansion of the church that evidences that something had to have happened in the first century significant enough to produce a belief that overtook the world. How do I explain the existence of the church without the resurrection? How do I explain supposed eye-witnesses dying for this claim if it were not true? How do I explain someone making up a faith built on the humiliation, rejection, and murder of a first century carpenter Messiah? How do I explain the empty tomb. While people attempt to provide alternative explanations, and while these explanations are possibilities, they are not, in any sense, probabilities. (more on this here: and here). The most probable explanation for these things is that Christ really did raise [sic] from the grave. And the implications are tremendous. I would read my article on the death of the 12 Apostles here.

First, I don't think we have eyewitness testimony. We have reports of eyewitness testimony from second or third hand sources but not first hand sources.

Second, the nature of Paul's experience recorded in Acts is not the same as the nature of the disciples experience recorded in the Gospels, yet Paul uses the same grammatical construction in 1 Cor. 15 to refer to both. Could it be that Paul believed in a spiritual resurrection not necessarily a bodily one? I think its possible. If so, his experience could be explained as a vision or hallucination. We know that people have claimed all kinds of mystical experiences both in history and today.

Third, I don't think the early Christians "made-up" their faith. Apologists, I think commonly make the mistake of the "either-or" fallacy. Either Christ arose and Christianity is true or the early Christians made it up. Its really much more complicated than that. That is why I don't find it remarkable that some early Christians died for their beliefs. They held them sincerely. We have plenty of examples throughout history and today where people are willing to die for their religious beliefs. This does not prove that their religious beliefs are objectively true, only that they sincerely believe them.

In the end, I don’t think either of you should be ashamed of your doubt. Doubt is often the a bridge to strengthen your belief. Don’t neglect your mind. Don’t push these questions into a closet somewhere in the back of your mind. God is not afraid of your questions or doubts. You will not be reprimanded for them. Bring them before him and seek the answers to your questions.

I commend you for telling these individuals to think through these matters. That is what I attempted to do and I came out on the other side with no faith. That is the danger of using your mind; but I don't think that if there is a God, he wants us to "check our brain at the door" of the church.


Ken Pulliam

Here is the response I received back:

Thanks Ken.

Completely agree with #1. But this just gives us common ground with regard to God. No need to go any further than that. For me, at least, it is my first step. I, personally, don’t think it is possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist in any way.

While I agree that you have put forth possible alternatives for a belief in the resurrection, I don’t think that you have presented what is most probable. See here:

God bless.

Note that he agrees that #1 does not prove anything. At best it could give you some type of deity but not necessarily the God of the Bible. But as I mentioned, I am more content to just say we don't fully know yet rather than to insert Goddidit as if that is any real answer.

Also note that he does not try to defend #2, the idea of Isaiah 53 as a prophecy, at all.

Then he admits that my explanation for the belief in the resurrection is possible but not probable and he cites a prior post on his blog to give his rationale.

It turns out that post is in reply to a prior blog post of mine entitled: Even More on the Burial of Jesus and the Empty Tomb.

After admitting that all of my scenarios were possible, he concludes his post by saying that unless one has anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions, the belief that Jesus really did rise from the grave bodily is the simplest expanation and the best explanation.

Here is exactly what he says:

In the end, the simplest explanation is that Christ did rise from the grave. If you do not start with anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions (i.e. dead bodies can’t rise, therefore, Christ did not rise from the grave), then you can truly follow the evidence and not search for far-fetched, yet possible, explanations. It is because of acrobats like these that I think it takes more (blind) faith not to believe in the resurrection of Christ than to believe.

I would argue that a supernatural explanation is always the easiest explanation. In fact, it is the lazy man's answer in my opinion. For example, in science, when trying to discover why earthquakes happen, it would be easier and involve much less study or work to just say, Goddidit. And in fact that is what primitive folks believed for millennia. Today, we realize that so many things that appeared to be supernatural to primitive peoples can really be explained naturally. Therefore, I conclude that the best answer to why the disciples believed Jesus had risen from the dead will be a naturalistic one not a supernaturalistic one. Any of the scenarios, I laid out, I think, are more likely to be true than the explanation that Goddidit.


  1. Why do some Christians only accept supernatual explanations when it comes to claims of Christianity yet reject Islamic supernatural claims? According to the Koran, Jesus didn't actually die on the cross, but was taken directly up to heaven and god left an image of him on the cross (Koran 4:155 - 159). The Muslims didn't get this from thin air; some of the earliest Christians thought this as well (i.e. Basilideans and Docetists).

    It seems to be special pleading meant to arrive at a precoceived conclusion.

  2. Ken, once they use the term "supposition", in any form or context - walk away. Anything after that will be about as fruitful as banging your head against a wall. And nearly as painful.

    Apologists, I think commonly make the mistake of the "either-or" fallacy. Either Christ arose and Christianity is true or the early Christians made it up. Its really much more complicated than that.

    They don't begin to understand this. They are the least introspective people in the world. They have no clue as to how the mind works - and they don't want to.

    In the end, the simplest explanation is that Christ did rise from the grave.

    If you respond to this young man, tell him I said he's too young to be playing with Occam's Razor. (He does actually look too young to shave!)

  3. It could also be that the person who got your email gets hundreds of such emails a day and does not, even though he wishes he did, have time to respond to them all.

    God bless