William Lane Craig has a standard opening statement used when he debates the resurrection of Jesus that he varies slightly from opponent to opponent. Just for fun I thought I’d write out how I’d reply. I used his debates with Robert Price and Bart Ehrman as a basis for this post.
Dr. Craig argues that there are 4 facts agreed upon by the majority of NT scholars that must be explained by any adequate historical hypothesis. He further argues that the best explanation of these facts is his claim of resurrection.
Dr. Craig appeals to evidence and the consensus of scholarship to establish these facts. Evidential appeals are valid, but the appeal to consensus is not. Christian apologist Gary Habermas has examined every piece of scholarly information he could find on this subject written in English, French, and German from 1975 onwards. He reports that 75% of these scholars do believe that the tomb was found empty. But he further reports that over half of these scholars likewise believe that the resurrection did in fact occur. It is not surprising that believing Christians are more likely to become NT scholars. Churches encourage and financially support promising believers that are interested in going to a seminary. I know because I did the same as a Christian. I supported one such person that today is a professor at a Christian university. If you are an atheist and you want to study the Bible you shouldn’t expect similar support. The fact that scholars, most of whom are believing Christians, assent to such statements as the ones Dr. Craig has made, simply doesn’t make any difference to me. Nor would it matter to me if the majority of atheist scholars rejected these statements. The evidence is what matters.
I don’t think the evidence presented is enough to establish any of the 4 facts that Dr. Craig mentioned. I will take them in turn.
The first fact is that after the crucifixion Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimeathea. We know this because Mt, Mk, Lk, Jn, and Paul all say it. It’s part of Mark’s source material, which is dated within 7 years of the crucifixion. Paul quotes a creed that likewise is rooted to material that dates within a few years of the crucifixion. It’s contained in the sources for Mt, Lk, and Jn as well as extra-biblical gospels like the Gospel of Peter. Additionally, Joseph of Arimathea, as a member of the Jewish court that convicted Jesus, is an unlikely invention given early Christian hostility to Jews.
But the issue is not the number of sources. The issue is the quality of those sources. The sources Dr. Craig cites also assert that Jesus cast out of demons to cure illness, that he turned water into wine, that many corpses resurrected simultaneously, that Jesus could teleport, disappear, and float up to the sky. Some sources (Mt, Lk) borrow from others (Mk) and when they do so they often improve on the previous story, which suggests we’re not dealing with unbiased reporting, but attempts to one up one another. We don’t really know for sure that Mark had source material, or that the other gospel authors did. Some scholars speculate that there was, but there may not have been. Perhaps Matthew and Luke didn’t have sources beyond Q and Mark, so they just made things up. We don’t really know, so we can’t just assume they did and call them independent sources, much less quality independent sources.
Dr. Craig says that some of this material is dated very close to the crucifixion event itself. But if the crucifixion happened we don’t really know when. Was it in 100 BC as per Epiphanius, before 5 BC as per Jospehus record of when James died combined with Epiphanius claim of James’ age (96), was it at 21 CE as per the Acts of Pilate, 26-27 CE as per Tertullian, under Claudius at the age of 50 as per Ireanaeus, who reports that he got this information directly from those that knew the disciples? Even Mt and Lk can’t agree on when Jesus was born, so do we really know when he died? These claims are made by those that simply grant all kinds of claims contained in the NT about when Jesus was killed. These are claims I cannot grant, especially in light of the fact that these texts are not the best quality as I mentioned above.
Is Joseph of Arimathea an unlikely invention due to Christian hostility toward Jews? I don’t see why. If I wrote a novel that was historical fiction about the Nazis and I included a character that was a Nazi but turned out to be sympathetic to my position, I don’t know why that would need to be considered unusual or would suggest that my fictive tale was in fact historical since I don’t like Nazis.
Dr. Craig’s second supposed fact is the discovery of the empty tomb. He says that many sources mention it. But I already pointed out that he hasn’t argued that these sources are reliable. He needs to explain why we shouldn’t conclude what we normally conclude about supposed historical books that claim supernatural events or that appear to modify a story to improve on it. He further says that since women are reported as the first to discover the tomb, this makes the claim likely true because that would be otherwise embarrassing. Since women’s testimony was regarded as less reliable than that of a man, then if you were inventing the story you’d sooner report men as the first to discover the tomb. He points out that the earliest Jewish polemics against the tomb presuppose that it is empty (you stole the body). Further it is simple and lacks legendary embellishment.
The argument that women discovered the tomb presupposes that Mark intends to write a persuasive narrative. If in fact he is writing what he knows to be fiction and if he doesn’t mind if his readers take his gospel to be fictive, then there is no problem. C.S. Lewis in writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, reports that two children were the first to discover that Aslan was raised. Children are not the most reliable witnesses. But Lewis is not concerned because he is writing fiction. There are a number of good reasons for thinking that Mark is likewise writing fiction.
Regarding the earliest Jewish response, this is nothing but tit for tat polemics. Suppose a young Jew runs home and tells his father a few decades after the events “Hey, I just heard this story about a guy named Jesus that rose from the dead and his tomb was empty.” The father might quickly rebuff the claim with “Oh, they probably just stole the body.” Did the father run out and check on the tomb decades after the events? Did he even know where the tomb was? Unlikely. He’s just offering a plausible alternative explanation to an outlandish assertion that he has heard.
The fact that a story lacks legendary embellishment is not a proof that it is historical. There’s nothing implausible about Huck Finn running away from home by floating down the river with a slave, but this doesn’t make it true.
The third supposed fact is that people had post mortem appearances of Jesus. The evidence is Paul’s claims in I Cor 15 and the claims of the Gospels. Again, the gospels need to be shown to be reliable before we can trust the reporting and I’ve shown that they are not. As to Paul’s claims, appearances to groups of people are not all that unusual. My Pentecostal family is familiar with these type of events as are the reports of visions of Mary at
The fourth supposed fact is that the disciples came to believe that Jesus was raised. But Dr. Craig did not claim that these disciples believed that Jesus rose in the exact same sense that he does. Did they believe Jesus was physically raised, and that he rose with the same body he died with as Dr. Craig believes? We don’t know that. We know that the earliest Christians held a variety of views about what the resurrected body was like. Some were docetists, claiming that Christ was never physically present but only had the appearance of flesh. Some Gnostics likewise thought Christ had never come in the flesh. A skeptic has no difficulty explaining that some people, such as the apostles, really believed that Christ rose in some sense.
Dr Craig says Jewish beliefs preclude anyone from believing that a particular resurrection could occur prior to the general resurrection. But the NT records that Herod believed Jesus was the resurrected John the Baptist, and likewise many of those that followed Jesus believed the same thing.
Finally Dr Craig asserts that the best explanation of these facts is a miraculous resurrection. He’s wrong about the four facts and he’s wrong to say that a miracle is the best explanation. Even if the 4 facts were true, and even if it were recorded by eyewitnesses (which it wasn’t) and even if it were written within a couple of years of the events rather than several decades and even if it were written in a scientific era rather than a superstitious one, it still should not be accepted. This is because we all know from experience that miraculous claims are extraordinarily unlikely. So to establish them we likewise need an extraordinary amount of evidence.
But Dr. Craig will say that he agrees. He’ll say that of course it’s unlikely that Christ was raised NATURALLY. But there’s nothing unlikely about God raising Christ supernaturally. But that’s not true. If I told you that I arrived here tonight via intergalactic spaceship, you’d dismiss my claim. Does my claim become more probable if I add that God was involved? With or without God we have no experience of such a thing, so we regard it as extremely unlikely.