A question for William Lane Craig on the resurrection of Jesus

This past Friday I had the privilege of seeing in person one of the greatest living apologists defend the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. About four hundred believers and skeptics gathered at an unlikely venue, a Dallas tavern called the Door, to hear William Lane Craig articulate why the majority of biblical scholars–from fundamentalists to atheists–accept the following four facts concerning Easter weekend:

  • FACT #1: After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
  • FACT #2: On the Sunday following the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.
  • FACT #3: On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
  • FACT #4: The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

If you’ve read anything I’ve recently written about the anti-vaccination or anti-evolution or Jesus-mythicist movements, you know I tend to respect the consensus of experts in a given field, so Craig’s appeal to majority scholarly opinion on these four points does give me food for thought. It’s not that experts are infallible; it’s that I as a layperson am even more fallible, on average, than the experts. If I take a contrary position, odds are I’m going to be wrong and the experts are going to be right. It’s laughable to me how many Internet hobbyists or ideologues with an ax to grind defy the consensus of expert historians, scholars, and scientists in asserting that the Holocaust didn’t happen, than 9/11 was an inside job, that the Earth is younger than 10,000 years old, that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, that vaccinations cause more harm than good, that homeopathy is effective, that human-caused global warming isn’t a significant issue, or that GMO foods cause cancer.

After Craig’s presentation, attendees were given a chance to ask questions, alternating between Christians who had formed a line on the left and non-Christians who had lined up on the right. One of the Christians asked a question I was curious about: What is the exact percentage of scholars who hold to each of the four facts? Craig replied that, according to a study by apologist Gary Habermas, 75% of scholars accept Fact #2 (the empty tomb), while almost all scholars accept Facts #3 and #4. (I didn’t catch the percentage for Fact #1).

As I ruminated over these things relatively late during the Q&A period, I decided to queue up with the nonbelievers to pose a question that came to mind. I stood behind half a dozen other skeptics waiting their turn to challenge Craig (and in many cases to be roasted by him, sharp intellectual that he is), but time ran out before I had my turn.

So since I wasn’t able to ask him my question in person, I figure the next best thing is to pose it on my blog in the hope that someone who knows Craig better than I do might be able to answer on his behalf. In all honestly, it’s somewhat of a rhetorical question, but I still would be genuinely interested in knowing how he would respond to it. Without further ado, here’s the question:

Do you agree with the clear majority of the experts (scholars, historians, and scientists) on the following points?

  • The Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was not written by Moses, but was compiled in the sixth century BCE from various sources spanning hundreds of years.
  • We are descended from earlier ape-like primates through naturalistic processes
  • The Earth’s temperature is rising as a result of human activities
  • There was no mass exodus of Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land
  • The book of Daniel was written after the events it purports to predict
  • Jesus was not born in Bethlehem
  • The Gospels were all written no earlier than 70 CE
  • The epistle of 2 Peter was not written by Peter as it claims itself to be
  • The epistles of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were not written by Paul as they claim themselves to be

I am willing to entertain the likelihood that at least some of Craig’s four facts are true, especially those for which there really is a scholarly consensus. Fact #2 (the empty tomb), though it’s held by 75% of scholars, isn’t as compelling to me as the facts that enjoy unanimity. I’d be interested in reading more about the reasons the 25% give for parting from the 75%*.

In any case, if Craig considers a 75% scholarly majority a boon to the empty tomb, then I wonder whether he considers the >99% consensus of practicing biologists a boon to naturalistic evolution, for example. It’s my understanding that at least 75% (in many cases, it’s above 90%**) of critical scholars or experts in their field hold to the points above; is Craig swayed by any of them? If not, it seems his appeal to the experts is selective. As is mine, if I come to conclude that the tomb was not empty. But the 25% minority of scholars that dispute the empty tomb is far greater than the <1% minority of biologists who deny evolution, if we want to count noses.

Note: In this blog post, I’m not in any way seeking to establish that Jesus’ resurrection didn’t happen or to rebut all apologetic arguments in its favor. My intent here is much more narrow: to point out the selectivity of just one line of apologetic argumentation, that of William Lane Craig’s appeal to scholarly consensus.


* I understand Dr. Bart Ehrman formerly accepted Fact #2 but has relatively recently abandoned it. He accepts that a number of disciples did experience visions of Jesus, and later followers (writing the Gospels anonymously decades later) retroactively filled in the details that they imagined must have accounted for these visions: the appearance of Jesus’ real physical body after the women discovered the empty tomb. (Why women?  It was their traditional responsibility to bring the spices to the body, all the more so because the men had fled the area.)

** “…by the end of the twentieth century, New Testament scholarship was virtually unanimous in affirming that the Pastoral Epistles were written some time after Paul’s death” (from 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus: A Commentary“, page 4, by Raymond Collins).



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26 responses to “A question for William Lane Craig on the resurrection of Jesus

  1. Margaret

    I would ask Craig about Jesus being a failed prophet because he did not return. The other issue is Matthew 27:52-53 should probably be interpreted as apocalyptic imagery rather than literal history as stated by Michael Licano.

  2. Great take. As far as the 75% figure regarding the empty tomb, Richard Carrier points out here how that number is severely flawed:


  3. Justin

    Ken, I was there as well and wish you could have asked your question. He did go for over a solid hour but I do wish all the skeptics at least could have had their questions answers. We will try to make that happen next time 🙂

    I appreciate your post and I can tell you are a thoughtful person and I like the way you approach this. While I don’t know for sure what WLC would say, I would bet he would at least make one point to you that challenges your “consensus” arguments.

    The difference between the list you posed above and Craig’s 4 facts is that the list you have do not have a majority acceptance from more conservative scholars (which represent quite a large number of the scholarly books, commentaries, journal articles, etc. on those various subjects). So there really isn’t a “consensus” of scholars working in these areas that for example the Exodus didn’t happen or Jesus wasn’t born in Bethlehem. I might even give you a slight majority argue this way, but this is not a consensus like the 4 facts. The 4 facts are agreed upon not only by conservative scholars, but also atheist, agnostic, Jewish, etc. scholars teaching in the fields of history and Biblical studies. That is the difference.

    What you would have to do to truly have a parallel, is find something that is agreed upon by the vast majority of atheist, Jew, AND conservative scholars that goes against a central Christian belief.

    I do think one of your examples works and that is evolution. I would agree with you that the vast majority of biologists, scientists, etc. (whether Jew, atheist, or Christian) believe in Darwinian evolution. Francis Collins would be a famous Christian example. So that would have been an interesting question for Craig and I have heard him answer that before and basically he says he is open to the evidence. He admits agnosticism.

    And by the way, I myself don’t use the empty tomb argument (at least from the Gospels) as a virtually agreed upon fact anymore because Bart Ehrman (and others) reject it. I don’t think we have as much of a consensus on that anymore. I like to stick with the irrefutable facts. They are sufficient to demonstrate the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Thanks

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful responses, Margaret, jcdenton40, and Justin. It’s been a long day of work followed by my daughter’s late-evening soccer game, so I’ll plan to respond more tomorrow as I’m able.

  5. Margaret, yes, Jesus’ failure to return in his generation as promised was one of the most significant considerations for me in my departure from the faith. While it’s not directly related to Jesus’ resurrection, it is another point of consensus among critical scholars: Jesus predicted his return in his generation, and his prediction didn’t come to pass.

    And yes, there’s no critical scholar that believes that “many” came out of their graves and appeared to “many” (hopefully not to their surviving, remarried spouses); indeed, even many otherwise conservative scholars seem hesitant to back its historicity with any real gusto.

    Jcdenton40, thanks for that link. Though I depart from Carrier on the question of Jesus’ existence, this article does a good job of making sense of the claim that 75% of scholars hold to the empty tomb.

    Justin, thanks for your irenic response. I understand your point about the number of evangelical and fundamentalist scholars who hold traditional views on the points I listed in my OP. I should have qualified my question to limit it to mainstream critical scholars.

    I appreciate that WLC doesn’t appeal directly to the Bible as an inerrant source of authority when pitching Jesus’ resurrection to outsiders. Instead, he appeals to consensus of disinterested, mainstream scholars and historians, many of whom don’t believe in a physical resurrection. To the extent that WLC’s spiel gives me any food for thought, it’s this. It doesn’t sway me that 100% of evangelical scholars accept these four points, any more than it sways me that 100% of conservative Qur’anic scholars believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven on horse, for example. If I wanted to learn some reliable history about Muhammad’s life, I wouldn’t look to conservative Islamic scholars who faithfully rubber stamp the traditions found in the Qur’an and in the Hadiths. Instead, I would look to disinterested historians who are under no compulsion to come to predetermined traditional conclusions.

    I don’t know how to say this without sounding uncharitable, but I don’t see how anyone who signs a statement swearing allegiance to biblical inerrancy can be considered a true scholar whose opinion matters on a question like the authenticity of 2 Peter, for example. Even if they were to harbor private doubts about its authenticity, their livelihood is dependent on concealing their misgivings. I understand a counter-charge could be advanced that mainstream scholars are compelled by their naturalistic presuppositions (and the expectations of their institutions) to deny the possibility that Daniel was written early, for example. Yet even on that question, many evangelicals (e.g., John Goldingay, who wrote the Daniel volume of the evangelical Word Bible Commentary) join the critical scholarly consensus. One has to ask what would compel evangelical scholars to take this position if it’s really only rooted in an anti-supernatural bias.

    In my OP, I quoted Raymond Collins on the authorship of the Pastoral Epistles: “…by the end of the twentieth century, New Testament scholarship was virtually unanimous in affirming that the Pastoral Epistles were written some time after Paul’s death.” Is Collins completely unaware of the opposing position of inerrantist scholars? Surely not! Yet he doesn’t bother to include them. Why? Because they are under obligation not to part from their traditional inerrantist position, so their opinion really doesn’t count for Collins. Nor does it count for me, nor should it for anyone whose concern is more for the truth than for the party line.

    Most scholars (I use the term here as a shorthand for mainstream scholars who haven’t signed a binding oath to inerrancy) deny that Paul wrote the Pastorals, while at the same time accepting the Pauline authorship of Romans and Galatians, for example. This is interesting to me; why do they accept Pauline authorship for some but not for others? There’s no controlling metaphysical reasons for liberal scholars to deny Pauline authorship for one set and not another. This is an instance where an appeal to the majority of true scholars should have some weight for conservative believers, in my opinion, just as an appeal to the majority of mainstream scholars’ accepting Jesus’ appearance (however defined) to the disciples should have some weight for nonbelievers like myself. After all, this is why WLC went out of his way to emphasize that the consensus on his facts holds for mainstream critical scholars as well as for conservative ones. He correctly realizes that his appeal only works for outsiders when it involves scholars not bound to a traditional inerrantist position.

    So the question remains: Does WLC accept the near consensus among mainstream scholars that Paul didn’t write the Pastorals? Or is he only interested in mainstream scholarly consensus when it supports his position?

    By the way, I’m encouraged you seem to be open to mainstream views on evolution. Do correct me if I’m mistaken in that regard. It’s difficult for me to take anyone seriously who actively denies evolution.

    Seems hard to imagine someone of WLC’s erudition being “agnostic” on evolution. Surely he must harbor at least a private opinion on whether it’s true?

    • Justin

      Thanks for the response Ken. Yes, you are correct that I accept evolution. I don’t think the problem is Christianity vs evolution, the problem is Christianity vs naturalism.

      And yes, I would agree again that in the cases of 2 Peter and the Pastorals (even though we don’t have a consensus like the 4 facts) we do have the majority of critical scholars and even some conservative scholars arguing either completely pseudonymous or as I think Howard Marshall argues, that the letters are sourced in Paul but his disciples wrote it after his death. Interestingly, 2 Peter is among the “disputed” books according to Eusebius in the 4th century, but the Pastorals were never questioned by the early church. In these cases, I don’t think we have persuasive evidence, at least to skeptics, that they were written by Paul or Peter. But there is nothing absolutely definitive that denies their authorship, so I give the benefit of the doubt to these documents and I do trust the early church got this right (we do know many clearly pseudonymous works they rejected). But like Tom Cruise said in A Few Good Man, “It doesn’t matter what I believe, it only matters what I can prove!”

      And to demonstrate the historicity of Jesus’ claims to deity, His death, His burial, His resurrection, etc., whether 2 Peter or the Pastorals are pseudonymous are irrelevant. If you want a true consensus then look at what ALL scholars teaching in these fields say about the earliest traditions Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 15:1-9 and Philippians 2:5-11 for example. Everything we need of the Essentials of Christianity are right there and this is agreed upon even the most disinterested scholars as you say.

      Inerrancy is something Christians take by faith (we don’t even have ONE inerrant manuscript), but it is truly irrelevant to the central historical claims to Christianity. In fact there are many more leaning conservative scholars (and some moderate liberals) that reject inerrancy but accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus for example.

      And I would like to respond to the first question here if I may. I actually just gave a lecture on Jesus’ “this generation” prophecy a few weeks ago. Have you read NT Wright’s discussion on this in Jesus and the Victory of God? We need to remember that Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish prophet (He was more but definitely not less than a prophet) and He came to bring a climactic end to the old age and usher in the new age of the Kingdom. The Temple was a part of the old age. And if you study the questions in Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21 you will see that the disciples questions are about the destruction of the temple. And within a generation (40 years) in AD70 the temple was in fact destroyed. Jesus was vindicated as a True Prophet in this prophecy. Why many people misunderstand this passage is because they don’t realize that the Son of Man coming on the clouds language would have been the way a Jewish Prophet spoke about the historical destruction of a city by a pagan army. The Old Testament are full of examples of this. A clear parallel to check out is Isaiah 19:1-2.

      Ken, I am glad you are still seriously looking into these things. I don’t think that is by accident. And I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear that you are not putting your eggs in the Carrier basket (because that basket has already and will very soon crash and burn). I encourage you to keep seeking and searching for the historical Jesus. One of the greatest historical Jesus scholars of the 20th century named Joachim Jeremias said that no matter what angle he studies the historical Jesus, he always ends up meeting God.

      God bless,

  6. Justin, I’m prepared to accept most if not all of the conclusions of a consensus of critical scholars, including Jesus’ existence, death, and perceived appearance to his disciples. But I don’t think this in any way requires adopting the essentials of Christianity such as Jesus’ divine mission or his bodily resurrection, nor does it require subscribing to something as far-fetched as Cavin’s twin theory to avoid adopting them.

    On the other hand, I don’t think WLC is willing to adopt the findings of a consensus of critical scholars on any number of other matters. My point in my OP was that WLC wants us nonbelievers to respect the conclusions of critical scholars when they agree with him but not when they don’t. Just doesn’t seem consistent.

    While I haven’t read N.T. Wright directly, I’m aware of his position and have read what I consider an incisive critique of it by Thom Stark in his book, Human Faces of God. With the exception of a couple of pages, you can read the relevant section here, then clicking on “Look Inside,” then searching for the term Eisegesis. (I recommend the book as a whole if you haven’t read it.)

    • Justin

      Ken, yes, I’ve read Thom Stark’s chapter on this and in fact I went back and forth with him on Facebook for a few days on this. He gets a lot of things right in his critique of modern Christian positions on this passage, but he fails miserably in his understanding of apocalyptic prophecy/imagery. The Isaiah 19:1-2 is a case in point. He argues that the destruction of the temple in the imagery was before the Son of Man coming on the clouds and because a human was never seen floating on clouds after the destruction of the temple in AD70 it was a false prophecy. No. The Son of Man coming on the clouds IS the apocalyptic imagery that = destruction of the temple by a pagan army. Read Isaiah 19:1-2 again.
      Do you really think that any Jews were looking for YHWH floating on a cloud after Egypt was destroyed by Babylon in this prophecy? No this is ridiculous and Stark even conceded this point in our dialogue.
      If this is the reason you left the Christian faith, Ken, I highly recommend studying this further. You should never come to a conclusion on something as important as this when you have only read the best arguments on the skeptic side. George Caird’s work and NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God would be great places to start.

      And again I am pleased you accept these fundamental facts about Jesus (His death, appearances, etc.) as pretty much all NT scholars and historians who specialize in this do.
      So here is my question to you. Jesus was crucified no doubt in the Roman (and Jewish) eyes as a false messianic pretender. And then soon afterward His very own disciples started to proclaim in the very city He was crucified that not only was He risen from the dead but that this crucified carpenter was Lord of the whole world.
      So what happened in between these two indisputable facts: His Death and the explosive rise of the Christian movement that has the same (or more) explanatory power as the resurrection to account for the rise of Christianity?

      There is a resurrection size shaped hole here Ken. I look forward to your response.

  7. Justin,

    I’m impressed you’ve read and engaged with Thom Stark on Wright’s views. I imagine there’s not much I’ve read that you haven’t read. As I’ve been known to say, I readily acknowledge there are many who are more intelligent and learned than I who continue to embrace Christianity (and Islam, and atheism, and what have you). In the end, for whatever reason, we all see things differently, and we go with what appears to us to be true.

    To understand why I don’t find Wright or any other Christian apologist convincing in their defense of Jesus’ predictions, you would have to try to step into my shoes and look at the situation from the outside.

    What I mean is that there have been a great many movements prophesying the end of the present order. As far as I can tell, most, if not all of them, have these characteristics in common:

    1) A charismatic leader
    2) A prediction of the end of the present order and an ushering in of a new order (and vindication of his followers) in the leader’s generation. (It’s always in the leader’s generation, never in a future generation; after all, what interest does anyone have in predicting things he or his followers won’t be around to see?)
    3) A failure of the prediction to come about within the leader’s generation (or by a set date)
    4) Post-hoc rationalizations of the failure on the part of his followers

    I’ll give you that Wright’s arguments are very sophisticated indeed. Nevertheless, it’s impossible for me, given the above template, to see his arguments as anything but another example of #4. Yes, Wright is more intelligent and savvy than most JW’s who rationalized away their failed 1914 prophecy by spiritualizing it after the fact. But from an outsider’s perspective, it’s all part of a similar enterprise.

    Even if Wright’s analysis of the Olivet Discourse were sound and were accepted by a majority of critical scholars (which is very far from the case), it doesn’t account for the pervasive sense of expectation throughout the NT that the end of all things was at hand and that Jesus’s tangible kingdom was about to be established on earth. “We who are alive and remain will be caught up with him in the clouds.” The time was short, so marriage was discouraged, not to those living in Jerusalem and would have been affected by its destruction, but to those who lived far away in Corinth. Excuses had to be made many decades later, far after 70 CE, as to why nothing had happened: With God a day is as a thousand years.

    Could it be that all the NT references to the end the age and the ushering in of a tangible new one are illusions that have to be dispelled in favor of a Wrightian reinterpretation? I suppose anything’s possible. But given the oft repeated pattern outlined above, isn’t it far more likely that this is just one more example of a failed prophecy, as painful as it might be for the faithful to accept it–indeed, as painful as it was for me to accept it?

    This conversation started in response to WLC’s appeal to the consensus of critical scholars on certain facts following Jesus’ death. I respect the consensus of critical scholars, which is why I accept WLC’s points on which there is a true critical consensus. By the same token, I accept the critical consensus that the NT writers believed Jesus would return to judge the earth and establish his kingdom in that generation. As I’ve stated publicly: I’m a layperson without the skill set or the chutzpah to come down on the opposite side of expert consensus. It’s largely for this reason that, unless Carrier and Price can convince at least a significant minority of bona fide critical scholars that Jesus didn’t exist, I have no reason to question his existence. And it’s for this same reason that I’m really not interested in Wright’s analysis, at least until he can bring around significant minority of critical scholars to his views. Nor do I have an appetite to discuss the issue any further, having sparred with others in the past without any movement; see, for example, this post and comments. It’s just going to generate more heat than light to discuss it, so I respectfully decline to engage any further on this topic.

    • Justin

      Thanks Ken for the discussion. I would just like to respond to a few things you said though if I may.
      First, I still recommend you actually reading NT Wright’s discussion on this in Jesus and the Victory of God before you dismiss it.
      Second, the significant difference between this so called “rationalization” after the fact is that we do have a REAL, climactic historical event that did occur within a generation of Jesus, the temple and Jerusalem was in fact destroyed by the Romans. You can’t get around that Jesus was crucified and 40 years later the temple was destroyed. Do these events really have nothing to do with one another?
      Lastly, I don’t think its fair to demand consensus among critical scholars on something supernatural. Obviously the only people that will accept Jesus actually making a prophecy 40 years before an event are people who believe prophecy can occur in our world. Consensus are helpful when we are dealing with historical facts, but miracles, prophecies, etc. they are not helpful because anti-supernatural (or pro-supernatural) biases clearly affect the results.

      May God bless your continued search for Truth.

  8. So what’s difficult about these conversations is that it’s hard not to leave opposing arguments unanswered, and I’m as big a sucker at they come 🙂

    I’m responding in part to clarify that I, along with just about everyone, from fundamentalists to Wright to liberal critical scholars, recognize that the Olivet Discourse had in view the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. As I understand it, though–and this is what I was trying to say in my last post–Wright is in a very small minority not only among critical scholars but also among fundamentalists (see your alma mater DTS) in holding that this Discourse had *only* this event in view. This is why I’m not inclined to give serious consideration to his view, at least until he can convince a good many more scholars outside the marginal preterist camp, that the Son of Man came in the clouds in 70 CE.

    Against my better judgment, I’ll take your bait and respond briefly to your claim that the destruction of the Temple was a supernatural fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy. It’s not news to you that the critical view, the one I hold, maintains that the Discourse was authored by gMark after the fact. But then no doubt you’ll want to remind me that Acts and (and therefore gLuke and gMark) was written before the death of Paul, since it doesn’t reference Paul’s death. Would such a line of reasoning be sufficient evidence for you to deny the possibility of a natural explanation if it were offered by any other faith tradition but yours? Am I unreasonable if I don’t give every supernatural claim the benefit of the doubt?

    I respect that you, along with Francis Collins, apparently recognize the power of random variation and natural selection to explain the diversity of life and the origin of some very complex organs. I’m sure you’ve had some lively conversations with creationists who see gaps (for example, in the development of the immune system or blood clotting) and insist those gaps require supernatural intervention, yet you presumably side with mainstream science on these questions.

    So it’s puzzling to me that you default to–indeed, even demand–a supernatural explanation the moment you see a mystery that doesn’t immediately offer a satisfying naturalistic solution in the New Testament. I’m thinking of the need to explain the disciples’ zeal following the death of their master or the need to explain why Acts doesn’t mention Paul’s death if it was written after the destruction of the Temple. Surely these are nothing compared to the natural development of the bombardier beetle’s boiling brew!

    No doubt there exist some more probable explanations for Acts’ omission of Paul’s death other than that it was written before the destruction of the Temple prophesied in its prequel, gLuke! Some could be innocent (e.g., that Luke died before completing it, or that the ending was lost), and others more crafty (Luke wanted his readers to think he wrote before Paul’s death so that his prophecy of Paul’s death and of the destruction of Jerusalem would look more genuine), or others that no one has thought of.

    We know that pious early Christians were capable of making things up; we need look no further than the infancy narratives and gPeter, which WLC so ably laughed to scorn during his recent visit to Dallas. Were Gospel authors not also capable of a little pious deceit in the service of a noble cause? Indeed, it appears to me that Luke, who for some reason wanted Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples to take place in Jerusalem instead of in Galilee (as in Mark and Matthew), creatively altered Mark:

    Mark 16: The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. *He is not here; he has risen*, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is *going ahead of you into Galilee*. There you will see him.’

    Luke 24: In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? *He is not here*; he has risen! Remember how he told you, *while he was still with you in Galilee*: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.'”

    Note how the synoptic accounts are tightly bound in virtually every detail until Luke changes Mark’s from “He is going ahead of you into Galilee” to “Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee …” What is Luke’s purpose for mentioning Galilee? Standing alone, it is a very incidental detail. It hardly seems to matter whether Jesus told them these things in Galilee or Judea. But if Luke was using Mark as a source, and if he preferred Jesus’ first appearance to be in Jerusalem rather than in Galilee, then he could have arranged this while preserving the original mention of Galilee by transforming Jesus’ instructions to go to Galilee into a historical speech that happened to be located in Galilee.

    Luke elsewhere goes to great lengths to insist on an initial Jerusalem appearance to the exclusion of any other appearance, so it should not be surprising that he would purposefully manipulate his source text in this case to put aside the idea of a Galilean appearance. Note again the correspondence in detail in this passage among the synoptic Gospels, suggesting that they are drawing from a common source (Mark), except in this case, where a specific geographical location is mentioned. It would be difficult to pass this off as a coincidence. It’s my view that Luke was deliberately bending the narrative and that fidelity to history was not his highest priority. So why should it be a surprise if he cleverly omitted Paul’s death in Acts partly to make the prophecies of Paul’s death in Rome appear all the more prophetic to those who already knew of Paul’s demise? I can hear WLC mocking such a suggestion, saying I’m making out Luke to be “too clever by half,” but pious fabrications and forgeries and the like were rampant in that era (and persist into the present). We know human fabrication to be far more well attested than miracle, so less go with the more common occurrence if we must choose between the two, shall we?

    It’s just not possible in my view to dismiss the whole thrust of the NT (not only in the Gospels but in many of the Epistles) regarding the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return and establishing of his kingdom by appealing to a metaphorical verse in Isaiah 19 (and to OT Jewish theology) and conveniently using it to excuse a major failed prophecy. No, the critical view looks much more plausible: Mark, writing in or after 70 CE, put the prophecy of the Temple’s destruction in Jesus’ mouth as a “firstfruits” to convince his readers that Jesus’ prophecies could be relied on, and that its ultimate eschatological fulfilment was imminent. It reminds me of how the author of Daniel wanted his readers to be encouraged in their rebellion against Antiochus Epiphanes, seeing the astounding fulfillment of the detailed prophecies leading up to 167 BCE.

    • Justin

      Ken, sorry had a busy week so just now able to respond. And glad you wanted to continue the dialogue by the way 🙂 
      First, I’ll say just because a majority of scholars are holding a certain view doesn’t mean it is the right one. In fact, a great example of NT Wright being a part of leading a colossal change in NT scholarship (both conservative and liberal) is what is known as the Third Quest for the historical Jesus. For most of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century, most NT scholars (at least on the more critical side) believed the Greco-Roman backgrounds were the best place to look for how to understand the historical Jesus. But ever since the Third Quest began (1980s or so), scholars are not virtually unanimous that the Jewish backgrounds to the NT is the best place to look if we want to discover who the historical Jesus is.
      Will Wright (and others see RT France commentary on Mark 13 which follows Wright for example) convince the majority again in this case? Well, again something that makes this one different than the other is we are dealing with supernatural prophecy. So those who reject this a priori will always reject any interpretation that leads to Jesus predicting 40 years beforehand the destruction of the temple.
      My main point in this is not even that Wright is correct (as you mentioned many other great NT scholars on the conservative side come to different conclusions but still see this as a fulfilled prophecy i.e. Darrell Bock from my alma mater). What I am saying is, this is not in any way a smoking gun that should persuade a person to leave the Christian faith. There is enough ambiguity here and certainty (the temple was destroyed in AD70!) that I think the rational position would be agnosticism on this and then look at the other evidence concerning Jesus and the NT.

      And let me also put you in a bind if I may (the same bind I put Stark in): When do you date Matthew and Luke?
      If you date them to the 80s (which I assume you do because most critical scholars date them here) then you have to believe that Matthew and Luke writing over a decade after AD70, knowing full well that Jesus DID NOT return floating on a cloud after the destruction, STILL included this in their Gospels! Are they really both that stupid? Either you have to believe they put a knowingly false prophecy in their Gospel on the lips of Jesus OR you have to say, like I am arguing, that they too saw the Son of Man returning on the clouds = destruction of the temple and that is why they included it still over a decade after the event. One could say Mark writing in the late 60s or simultaneously with the event wrote it believing that the Son of Man would return very soon but you can’t say this with Matthew or Luke. Matthew even writes “immediately after those days…the Son of Man will appear!”

      And I don’t think you do, but if you dated Matthew and Luke to the early 60s then even if you say Jesus didn’t actually say it, at least the Gospel writers have successfully predicted the destruction of the temple.
      Either way you have a prophecy most likely going back to Jesus about the prophecy of the temple (Luke makes it crystal clear with his imagery that the temple is envisioned). And if you date these Gospels over a decade after the event, then you have to believe they both, independently mind you, included a clearly false prophecy by Jesus.

      So which is it: Do you want to date Matthew and Luke earlier in the 60s or do you want to say like Wright that Matthew/Luke in the 80s were seeing the Son of Man on the Clouds =Destruction of the temple in AD70? Or can you think of a third option to deal with this conundrum?

      And I will get back to you on some of your Gospel comparisons another time cause maybe it is best if we focus on one key issue at a time.

      I would just say on that point, if for the sake of argument Luke had changed Mark (leading to errors) in places for his own purposes this would affect inerrancy, but not the fundamental Truths of the Christian faith (Jesus is Lord, Jesus died on the cross for our sins, Jesus was buried, Jesus rose again on the third day, those who receive Him have Eternal Life, etc.)

      Look forward to your response. Thanks

  9. Justin,

    Thanks again for taking the time to respond, especially with so many irons in the fire.

    I’ll make a deal with you: Convince Darrel Bock that Matthew 24:29ff refers exclusively to the judgment that took place in 70 CE, and I’ll give Wright’s hypothesis a good look 🙂 In all seriousness, it’s not just a naturalistic straightjacket that prevents scholars from seeing things Wright’s way, or else Dispensationalists would have no problem allegorizing these passages as Wright has done. Do you think you have a better chance of getting through to unregenerate me than to Darrel Bock, who presumably has the advantage of receiving illumination from the Holy Spirit? 😉

    Why have Wright’s views not been in the historical mainstream among believers? Could it be that it’s just too much of a stretch to spiritualize all the detailed global, eschatological cataclysms mentioned in the Olivet Discourse and elsewhere, e.g., Revelation? Ask yourself whether believers throughout church history, including most conservative scholars today, can’t be excused for thinking that language like the following represents something more than what happened in 70 CE:

    29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

    Since you’re suggesting that mainstream scholars are prevented from seeing things Wright’s way due to their ideological bias, let me in turn suggest an ideological motive for Wright’s eisegesis: He cannot bring himself to admit, as C.S. Lewis did, that Jesus was mistaken. Here’s Lewis’ take on the matter in The World’s Last Night:

    But there is worse to come. “Say what you like,” we shall be told, “the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proven to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime…[Jesus] shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.” It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible…The facts, then, are these: that Jesus professed himself (in some sense) ignorant, and within a moment showed that he really was so.

    I contend that Wright, whether wittingly or not, feels acutely the need to dispel this embarrassment, so it’s not surprising he can proof text his way out of the dilemma by linking to an odd verse here or there (like Isaiah 19:1) that backs up his claim to a figurative reading of the Olivet Discourse. In the NT, believers understood the Son of Man to be a physical being (unlike the YHWH of Isaiah’s day, perhaps) who could both rise (cf the Ascension) and descend on the clouds, and that’s the way most believers throughout history have interpreted it. Or do you have evidence that the early church largely read it as Wright does? And if they didn’t read it like that, do you think God expects me to see what they didn’t or what Bock doesn’t?

    Regarding Matthew’s retention of the apocalyptic language following the destruction of the temple, I had mentioned my view (and that of what I understand to be the mainstream scholarly view) that Matthew and Luke were writing in between the temple destruction and what they believed to be the imminent end of the age. That was the point of the parable of the bridesmaids, and it’s the point of the following passage in Matthew 24:

    2 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

    So “when you see all these things” refers to what has already happened in Matthew’s day (the destruction of the temple), and this means that he (i.e., Jesus’ return) is near, within the generation then living. If Matthew 24:29’s “immediately” was literal, then why this separation, why this “learning from the fig tree” following the initial event and leading to the subsequent events?

    Consider Matthew’s audience. He was writing in Greek, so it’s unlikely he was primarily addressing those living in or around Jerusalem. So what was the point of admonishing his non-Judean readers to be on guard for the Romans’ destruction of Jerusalem? (For that matter, why should the Corinthians have been concerned about the time being short and not marrying if Paul was referring to localized events in Jerusalem? And what did Paul mean, in addressing the Thessalonians, that “we who are alive” would be caught up in the clouds?) Matthew (shorthand for the author of the Gospel) was a real person, with a real agenda, a real audience. It’s no more likely he was simply reporting what Jesus said to the disciples than that Luke was faithfully reporting what Jesus said about his future resurrection appearances “while in Galilee.” The way I see it, Matthew was using Jesus as a spokesperson to address his own non-Judean audience, just as John was using Jesus as a spokesperson to address his skeptical audience when he had Jesus say to Thomas, “Blessed are you who have not seen and believe”–an aside to the reader if there ever was one.

    As I mentioned in my last response, putting the prophecy of the temple destruction in Jesus’ mouth would have impressed Matthew’s audience regarding what had already been fulfilled, thus making it more likely his audience would pay attention to the second part, namely, the need to prepare for Jesus’ second coming and judgment. Matthew no doubt used the term “immediately” to impress on his readers the acute imminence of Jesus’ return, So yes, I go with the mainstream scholarly view that Matthew wrote some time after 70 AD, between the destruction of the temple and the expected Parousia.

    Ask yourself: Could your enthusiasm for Wright’s allegorical views that run counter to historical and current-day interpretations not be rooted in a will to exonerate what C.S. Lewis called “the most embarrassing passage in the Bible?”

    Regarding your exhortation to not place too much weight on mainstream scholarship: Wasn’t that the very thing WLC was trying to appeal to in his promotion of the four facts supporting the resurrection? That’s what led me to write this blog post in the first place. It seems you’re willing to go with the scholarly majority when it supports your position, but to abandon it when it doesn’t.

    No, you have no managed to put me (or Stark) in a bind. Out of curiosity, what was Stark’s take on this?

    • Justin

      Looking forward to getting together Ken. I did want to clarify here that CS Lewis quote though because it makes its way around the internet and it is a misrepresentation of what Lewis actually said in his essay: The World’s Last Night (see below).

      Notice Lewis is quoting a skeptic in the first section (not his own words) and then he goes on to give somewhat of a response to this issue. The “he was wrong” quote comes from Lewis’ quotation of the skeptic, it is not Lewis’ own words. He also puts “(apparently)” twice before saying Jesus was mistaken clearly showing that Lewis himself did not believe he was (or at least was not sure).

      Moreover, Lewis was a professor English Literature and not biblical studies or an expert on apocalyptic literature of the Old Testament and 2nd Temple Judaism. So we should of course read his interpretations with that in mind. But I think the quote in full demonstrates that Lewis is not saying what the popular internet meme misquotes him as saying.

      Here is the quote in full:

      “Say what you like,” we shall be told, “the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.”
      It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible. Yet how teasing, also, that within fourteen words of it should come the statement “But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.” The one exhibition of error and the one confession of ignorance grow side by side. That they stood thus in the mouth of Jesus himself, and were not merely placed thus by the reporter, we surely need not doubt. Unless the reporter were perfectly honest he would never have recorded the confession of ignorance at all; he could have had no motive for doing so except a desire to tell the whole truth. And unless later copyists were equally honest they would never have preserved the (apparently) mistaken prediction about “this generation” after the passage of time had shown the (apparent) mistake. This passage (Mark 13:30-32) and the cry “Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) together make up the strongest proof that the New Testament is historically reliable. The evangelists have the first great characteristic of honest witnesses: they mention facts which are, at first sight, damaging to their main contention.”
      -C.S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night”

      • Justin, it was good to meet with you yesterday.

        I’d like to mention to my readers an exciting opportunity I learned about when meeting with Justin yesterday, namely, that he’ll be debating Bart Ehrman on Jesus’ resurrection sometime in the near future (I don’t have the date; Justin, would you be able to include it here?). I very much look forward to that exchange.

        I did initially come across the Lewis quote on an Internet site that began midstream at “…the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false”, making it appear that those were the words of Lewis himself. I went to the trouble of looking up the original source and providing a link to it for anyone who wanted to see it in context. I also went to the trouble of prefixing the crtics’ quotation with quotation marks to separate what Lewis said from what the critics were saying. I then closed off his quotation and included Lewis’ own words: “It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible…The facts, then, are these: that Jesus professed himself (in some sense) ignorant, and within a moment showed that he really was so.” I guess that wasn’t enough to insulate myself from the presumption that I sloppily misrepresented Lewis, but it was sufficient to establish his view that differs from yours. I know he was not a biblical scholar, but I also know you respect him, so I used his quote to show that a natural reading of the Olivet Discourse, whether by Lewis or by the majority of critical and non-critical scholars, is not the reading you or Wright prefer. That was my only aim in quoting him.

        So the fact remains that reading the prophecy at face value (absent the lens of minority preterist biblical scholarship) points to the end of the age and Jesus’ return within the generation then living. Many other apocalyptic prophets, both within and without the Christian tradition, have similarly prophesied the end of the age within their own generation (the only generation the prophets are really interested in) and have been “exonerated” by their followers who wish to reinterpret the original prophecy to be less literal than its face reading would suggest. I think I can be pardoned in the court of disinterested public opinion (and in the court of my own conscience) for seeing retroactive attempts to make the prophecies less than literal as a transparent attempt to get around the obvious problem that Lewis recognized.

        Do I need special biblical training, or do I need to read a several-hundred page work of apologetics to explain to me what the face value reading is illegitimate? No, I’m justified in reading it for what it says; there are no obvious hints within the Discourse itself to indicate it’s anything other than literal. And if God is the ultimate author of the Discourse, then he would have foreknown that most interpreters throughout history, including myself and Lewis, would take it that way. Furthermore, he, being omnipotent and omniscient, could have made it abundantly clear that a figurative meaning was not in view, thus easily saving me from the mistaken impression that this failed prophecy represents a fatal blow to the entire Christian enterprise.

        Let’s take your view that Jesus (or whoever was putting words in his mouth) didn’t mean anything beyond a local judgment on Jerusalem and its temple when he spoke of the moon and stars and gathering the elect from all over. Do you think he could have phrased it any differently to prevent the confusion that you believe I (and the majority of interpreters throughout history) am now suffering?

        It’s curious to me how God needs apologists to help us poor naive souls to read the Bible for what it really means, so we can be rescued from God’s judgment resulting from reading it at face value. It would seem mighty risky for God to put out a message that could naturally and easily be read in a way that calls into question its divine authorship and that depends on apologists to rescue it from such a reading. What? The difference between heaven and hell depends on my willingness to prefer professional apologists’ deep, esoteric insights over what the text embarrassingly says outright? Even if that kind of god were to exist, I would not consider him worthy of my worship.

        • Justin

          Yes, Ken it was a great time. Really enjoyed talking with you and hope we can do it again.

          The debate with Bart Ehrman on “DId the Historical Jesus claim to be Divine?” will be Friday night Sept 18th. Location is almost set but I can’t announced it publicly yet. I will do so here when I can.

          And just to respond to few more things on Jesus’ prophecy. My main point was to say that there is enough disagreement between conservative and liberal (and between conservative and conservative scholars) on this prophecy that to deny the Christian faith over it would be mightily presumptuous (unless one had read the best arguments on both sides and studied this in depth). As we discussed at lunch, one needs to come to grips with Jesus’ Claims and the arguments for the Resurrection primarily before they reject Christ as a false prophet.

          Of course the vast majority of humans do not need apologists to be saved. A 3 year old can trust in Jesus as his or her Lord, believe He died on the cross for their sins and rose from the dead and so be saved (Romans 10:9-13). Apologetics is clearing away the bushes so that people can see the Cross. And usually those bushes are in front of the more educated among us.

          I think Pascal was correct that it is ultimately Pride that keeps people from bowing their knee to Christ (and God). He has two great words on this:
          “Jesus Christ is a God whom we approach without pride and before whom we humble ourselves without despair.” (Pensees 212)
          “God prefers rather to incline the will than the intellect. Perfect clearness would be of use to the intellect and would harm the will. To humble pride.” (Pensees 234)

          This is why the Scriptures (and Jesus) says Seek Me and you will find Me. To seek we must humble ourselves; as Pascal says in another place: “But,’ say you, “if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.’—He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it.” (Pensées 158)

          God bless

          • Am writing during a short lunch so will keep this brief. Yes, I as a four-year-old trusted Jesus as my savior, not being aware of the eschatalogical (and many other) problems in the Bible until my young adulthood. And I would argue that most Christians remain oblivious throughout their lives to many of the issues that religious skeptics or liberals have encountered. Others like you who are aware of many of the problems are able to maintain your belief in part through an appeal to the work of apologists like N.T. Wright and WLC. So I do think apologetics serve an important role for maintaining belief on the part of those who are grown up, educated, and keenly aware of the difficulties.

            I follow where Pascal is going with his contention that pride is what keeps us from belief. That’s one way of looking at at. On the other hand, let’s say for the sake of argument that the claims of Christianity are untrue. Wouldn’t Pascal’s assertion be a convenient way of explaining why otherwise intelligent, upstanding people reject Christianity? Indeed, wouldn’t it be *necessary* to appeal to the pride (or some other moral failing) of unbelievers to explain why they can’t accept the truth of the gospel, exposing themselves to eternal divine condemnation?

            I can’t speak for Thomas Nagel, but I wish the gospel were true. I wanted desperately to believe and to put the brakes on my departure from the faith, but despite my many pleas for God to “help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), and despite my ongoing church attendance, I still can’t see past the many difficulties of the Christian faith. I know many intelligent people like yourself aren’t affected by them as I am, but the same is true of intelligent people in all religions. I’m convinced our personal trajectories are influenced far more by our circumstances, inherent disposition, culture, and social networks than by libertarian free will or pride or other moral vices or virtues.

            In sum, it’s not that I want for the gospel to be untrue; I simply don’t think it’s true, and I see all the apologetic attempts to make it appear so as falling far short. Call it pride if it makes you feel better about my eternal destiny in your worldview, but it doesn’t help change the way I see things. Let’s say I were to think, You know what, maybe I am super proud as charged? How do I humble myself? Okay, I’m nothing; I don’t know squat, and I’m a worse person than I think I am. Does that lead me to believe? No, it just makes me a more humble person, perhaps. To believe, I have to think there’s good reason to believe. What Pascal is asking, then, is not for me to become more humble, but to dismiss my objections to the gospel under the guise of humility. It’s not just “be humble”; it’s “be humble and believe!” I’m all for circumspection, and I have much to learn in that regard. I’m just not for suppressing the truth in the name of humility.

            Yes, it was an enjoyable exchange and we’ll have to do it again, though I know you’re busy. To educate myself a little more, I’ve ordered a book by Dale Allison and will probably end up doing the same for N.T. Wright.

            • Justin

              Thanks for the quick response Ken. Just to clarify. I wasn’t directly accusing you of Pride. I was saying I believe (really according to Romans 1:18-32) that the “ultimate” reason anyone rejects God is sourced in Pride. There are a whole host of reasons you and many others may be rejecting God right now. Say you do come back to Christ later in life, you would not then fall under Pascal’s (or really Scripture’s) ruling. These years would be a lapse of faith, but not an utter rejection of God. Kind of what Peter experienced for that few days after denying Christ, but instead of a few days, lasting a few decades (or more).

              And yes, I think no matter how educated we become, on whatever subject, we will always find brilliant Christians and brilliant unbelievers on both sides of the issue. So again we have to look at the arguments and the answers from both sides and find which worldview best explains all of reality.
              And Pascal is not saying be humble by dismissing your objections, but instead in humility trust in the wisdom of Christ over your own wisdom. Ultimately, you admitted you don’t know what happened to the creation of the universe, life, consciousness, what happened on the third day after Jesus’ Crucifixion, why this movement has overtaken a third of the world, why some of the most intelligent people today (and who have ever lived) have said that they have experienced the Risen Christ and died trusting in Him.

              So in your agnosticism, your uncertainty, you trust in yourself and in your doubts or in Christ. You say you can’t honest to yourself believe right now, and I completely understand that. Pascal would say keep seeking, keep dialoguing with Christians, attending Christian gatherings, being open to God bursting into your naturalistic world. And the prayer: “Help me with my unbelief” is a pretty good prayer to pray as well. God bless

              • It’s good to know you think well enough of me that you don’t consider me to be irredeemable, even if the author of Hebrews would say otherwise (6:4-6):

                4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

                Based on your latest response, it seems I may have unwittingly given you a mistaken impression that my present views are more tentative than in fact they are. I’m not at all tentative in thinking that the Bible is not divinely inspired or that Jesus did not rise from the dead.

                I really do look forward to your debate with Ehrman, in part because I find his take on the resurrection fully within the realm of possibility. I’m sure you’ve read his two chapters on the subject in his latest book, How Jesus Became God. I’m equally sure you consider his explanation to be highly implausible and would be happy to explain why.

                Perhaps I can do my small part to help prepare you for your debate with Ehrman by offering an everyday skeptic’s perspective on why we (or at least I) find all the resurrection apologetics utterly unconvincing. Then, during the debate, you could avoid spending your time making arguments you know in advance won’t work on people like me.

                One of the consistent patterns in the resurrection debates I’ve followed is that the skeptic will offer an alternative possibility to the Christian’s traditional narrative, whereupon the Christian will invariably respond that the alternative is “highly unlikely” or “highly implausible” or “just ridiculous.” For example, in arguing that one or more of the disciples experienced postmortem visions of Jesus, Ehrman cites the finding that 13% of adults have experienced realistic and utterly convincing hallucinations, most commonly following the death of a loved one. He also appeals to the many baffling appearances of Mary in modern times, witnessed by hundreds or even thousands of convinced followers. To which the apologist can be counted on to retort, “But it’s highly implausible that this happened in the case of the disciples, because x, y, and/or z.”

                My omission of the contents of x, y, and z above was deliberate. Why? This is the primary point I’d like to make about us skeptics, a point which I hope you will consider as you go into your debate with Ehrman: Once you’ve said the words “highly implausible,” it doesn’t really matter any more what x, y, or z might be. Why not? Because if it can’t be proved to be impossible, then it’s still possible, even if implausible. So no matter how much you rehearse your delivery of x, y, or z, if x, y, or z cannot prove the impossibility of the skeptic’s alternative narrative,then any appeal to the necessity of a miracle will fall on deaf ears.

                To those who already believe, this admission of our lack of openness to miracle must sound like confirmation to what you knew all along: We’re just inveterately proud, hard-hearted, and illegitimately biased against the supernatural.


                By definition, a miracle is supremely rare and unlikely, or it would not be deemed a miracle. So when we compare the odds of a given individual having a very convincing hallucination of Jesus following his death, we can put it at least at 13% (the odds are likely better than that, because there was a pool of at least 11 disciples to experience it; moreover, 13% of the overall modern population has experienced convincing visions, whether or not they’ve lost a close loved one as the disciples did). The odds of two independent hallucinations might be the square of this probability, 0.13 x 0.13 = 0.0169, or just under 2%, very conservatively.

                We don’t want the likelihood to be too high, or such a thing would have repeatedly occurred following the deaths of other alleged messiahs, and Jesus’ case would have been just one among many. Indeed, could it not have been the very implausibility of these elements coming together uniquely as they did following Jesus’ death (as opposed to those of the many other messianic candidates) that led to the belief that something supernatural had occurred, thus propelling the growth of the Jesus movement?

                Not all the disciples’ visions would have necessarily been independent; some could have spread just as the Mary visions have spread in more recent times. These visions, coupled with an expectation of the general resurrection held by the disciples who had heard Jesus teach on the imminent kingdom of God, could have generated a belief that Jesus had risen bodily as a precursor to the general resurrection. “But it’s unlikely they would have separated an individual from the general resurrection!” Says who? Says those who don’t want the skeptics to have a way out of their unbelief. And even if it were unlikely, and we continued multiplying unlikely probabilities by successively unlikely probabilities based on the preferred reconstruction of the apologist, we still haven’t arrived at zero.

                And what is the probability of a miraculous resurrection? We can’t even put a number on it, it’s so low. That is, unless you can grant ahead of time a divine being who willed to raise this individual bodily from the dead to live forever.

                Consider the case of the Death Valley sailing rocks, one of which was 700 pounds. They left trails of hundreds of feet over time, puzzling scientists for decades (source).

                Explanations for the stones’ movement have tended towards the absurd (magnetism, aliens and mysterious energy fields, for example). Some present-day visitors apparently agree—Van Valkenburg notes that stone theft is a growing problem, perhaps because of perceived special properties. “I don’t know whether people think they’re ‘magic rocks,’” he says. “But of course, as soon as you remove them from the playa, all ‘magic’ is lost.”

                The linked Smithsonian piece is an interesting read, describing an apparently unique set of conditions, unprecedented and unparalleled elsewhere in the world. How likely is it for all the pieces to have come together to produce this outcome? “Highly implausible,” “highly unlikely,” no doubt. But it happened, and it happened through natural causes, without our having to appeal to supernatural or alien intervention. It wasn’t until scientists could attach sophisticated instruments to the rocks that they could establish the definitive cause.

                Say we were living a millennium ago and didn’t have the tools to study and determine the cause of this phenomenon. I wager most of us would have been inclined to invoke some sort of supernatural causation. We might have even laughed off any minority skeptic’s attempt to explain the phenomenon naturalistically. “You’re just biased against the supernatural!”

                When Watson was trying to figure out how the intruder got in, Sherlock wisely advised him that, once you eliminate the impossible, then whatever remains must be the truth, however unlikely. Did the intruder come through the door? No, it was welded shut. Through the windows? No, they have bars. Through the chimney? No, there’s no chimney (this is my revised version of the story). Then what? Did he supernaturally walk through the walls? No, that’s impossible. Any other possibility is more likely than that. Perhaps he dug a tunnel under the building and come up through the floor, then patched it over, leaving no trace. Unlikely, even ridiculous? Yes, but exceedingly more likely than that he walked through the walls. Was Sherlock biased against the supernatural to take this stance? Perhaps, but was he wrong to do so? No. And neither is it wrong for us skeptics to see Erhman’s or others’ explanations as more likely than that a decomposing body rose from the dead. It’s the same thing, unless you already presuppose the reality of a supernatural entity with the ability and will to perform a miracle.

                You just can’t prove that reality through the back door of the alleged resurrection. It doesn’t work, any more than eliminating plausible paths of entry for Sherlock’s intruder proves that a man walked through the walls of the building, or that the sailing rocks of Death Valley require a supernatural cause.

                You’re right that there’s a lot of things I don’t know, and I freely admit them. But as Thomas Jefferson said, “He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.” This was in the context of fossils found in the mountains, a phenomenon that had no scientific explanation in Jefferson’s day (not counting a global deluge, which apparently Jefferson discounted). Never in Jefferson’s wildest dreams could he have imagined the actual solution to the problem: that massive continental plates are floating on molten rock and traveling an inch or so a year, colliding and buckling up the sea floor into high mountains over eons. What a fantastical, highly unlikely, highly implausible, ridiculous suggestion!

                Yet I’m not the only one who doesn’t have all the answers. To your credit, you admitted you don’t know why God would have devised a world in which sentient creatures suffered through disease, hunger, parasitism, predation, etc., for millions of years before man’s debut and fall.

                So it seems we both have questions we can’t answer. Nevertheless, as I look throughout the sweep of human and animal history and witness the utter indifference and silence and randomness in all of it, and as I consider the many phenomena that were once thought to require a supernatural explanation (e.g., epilepsy, schizophrenia, disease, comets, eclipses, lightning, dust devils, northern lights, the diversity of life on earth), I see a pattern of dominoes falling, and I’m not going to wait until the last one falls or until I can explain everything naturalistically before I acknowledge this real pattern and cease my instinctive appeals to the god of the gaps. The handwriting is on the wall. The arguments you put forward may satisfy you, but can you begin to appreciate why they ring hollow to those of us who’ve reflected on this and concluded there’s most likely no wizard behind the curtain?

                • Justin

                  As long as you have breath in your lungs, Ken, there is hope.
                  “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” but that is only true post death.
                  But to be clear, I hope and believe that you will to use Jesus’ language “come to your senses” (Luke 15: ) and come back to Him one day soon, not because I think you think your apostasy is tentative, but because I know many and have read many unbelievers who speak as strongly as you but later did bow their knee at the Cross.
                  Consider a fun example:
                  A certain young man was asked about his religious views in a letter and this is how he answered: “You ask me about my religious views: I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention—Christ as much as Loki. Primitive man found himself surrounded by all sorts of terrible things he didn’t understand—thunder, pestilence, snakes: what more natural than to suppose that these were animated by evil spirits trying to torture him. Gradually from being mere nature-spirits these supposed beings were elevated into more elaborate ideas, such as the old gods: and when man became more refined he pretended that these spirits were good as well as powerful…After the death of a Hebrew philosopher Yeshua (whose name we have corrupted to Jesus) he became regarded as a god, a cult sprang up, which was afterwards connected with the ancient Hebrew YHWH-worship, and so Christianity came into being—one mythology among many, but the one we happen to have been brought up in…Several years before I read Lucretius I felt the force of his argument (and it surely the strongest of all) for atheism…Had God designed the world, it would not be a world so frail and faulty as we see…” (a young CS Lewis writing to Arthur Greeves Oct 12 1916)
                  I would also apply St. Augustine’s great quote to your current situation, “Though I fought hard for man’s freedom of the will, God’s Grace overcame.”

                  And thanks for your offer. I may take you up on that. Before the last debate I was in, I gave my talk one on one with an atheist friend of mine and he helped me in many places see things from the atheist’s perspective and what is and is not persuasive to them. I may run things by you in the future.

                  And as far as the resurrection or any miracle, I understand your plausibility points. This doesn’t apply to my debate with Ehrman though.
                  We are debating a strictly historical fact, namely, whether Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be God or He did not. Ehrman could concede this debate and remain an agnostic. This is why I chose this topic with him and not the resurrection. I wanted to do history with him without bias for or against supernatural events playing a role.
                  As I said to you before, I do think if one follows the evidence where it leads they will be led to an empty tomb, Jesus’ earliest disciples believing He had appeared to them and proclaiming all sorts of never heard of before that beliefs about resurrection. But that is a discussion for another time.

                  I will keep you updated as things advance towards this debate.

                  God bless,

  10. Jason, what would you say to discussing this and other matters over a drink one of these days? While Jesus’ failure to return in his generation was certainly one of the reasons I left the faith, it’s by far not the only one. I’m curious how one like you who accepts theistic evolution can remain so zealous for the faith. I’d like to know more about your thought processes.

    Disclaimer: I’m not a scholar, and I don’t do this for a living, so I’m at a disadvantage, but I’m always interested in following the evidence wherever it leads.

    • Justin

      Sounds great Ken. Where do you live? We are friends on Facebook we can plan a lunch or coffee, etc. there? Let me know your schedule. God bless

    • Joshua

      Yes, the “theistic evolution” idea seems pretty strange to me. After all, if the creation story, Adam and Eve and the talking serpent, etc. are all fictional, as science and common sense clearly indicate they are, then there was no “fall of man” or original sin. And if there is no original sin, no original transgressions of Adam and Eve that perpetually spread “sin” to all of mankind, then what exactly did Jesus die for? If there is no original sin, then the “work” of Christ (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Corinthians 15:22) makes no sense, and the foundation of Christianity collapses under the weight of its own creation myth. That’s what believers like Dr. Francis Collins and Pat Robertson (who also rejects Young Earth Creationism in favor of evolution and the Big Bang theory) seem to have overlooked. The idea that these Christians can somehow just chuck out the book of Genesis and then carry-on in their faith as though it’s no big deal seems very strange to me.

      Don’t get me wrong, I think the abandonment of Genesis is definitely a good place to start. After all, this is the same book that tells us, among many other absurdities, that once upon a time, God’s angels regularly had sex with human women who then gave birth to a race of giant warrior super-heroes (Genesis 6:1-4). Check out the very thorough footnote for this passage in the NABRE Bible at http://www.biblegateway.com – it is flatly conceding that this is nothing more than ancient mythology, as if anyone actually needed a footnote to make that determination. It is patently obvious. So, if the creation stories and others found in Genesis are nothing more than myths, as many mainstream scholars actually acknowledge, then why on earth should anybody believe the rest of the Bible is actually reliable? And it seems rather dishonest, to me anyway, to just recreate a new version of Christianity every time science shows the Bible to be unreliable. Because every time a Christian does that, they demonstrate that their religion is completely powerless to reveal real truth. The Bible is either true, consistent, and free from error… or it’s not.

      I can’t just ignore the fact that the biblical creation stories fly directly in the face of everything we actually know today about our world, nor can I ignore the textual contradictions found in these two very different stories. Which creation story am I supposed to believe, Genesis 1 or Genesis 2? The order of events are discrepant between the two chapters, so they can’t both be true, can they? So which one should I believe? And it doesn’t help that both stories are completely at odds with mountains of scientific evidence that explain our true origins through evolution, so why should I believe either story in Genesis? Many Christians, in fact, don’t believe the creation stories in Genesis, including Pat Robertson and Dr. Francis Collins. And if these very influential Christians don’t believe it, why should I? The fact that so many Christians disagree about this particular issue is a serious problem. How is anyone supposed to take Christianity seriously when its most prominent figures can’t even get their story straight on this issue, which happens to be one of the primary tenets of the faith? Exactly which of these groups of Christians is actually in possession of genuine divine revelation?

      • Joshua,

        Spot on! There’s no doubt that a good many evangelicals are absolutely convinced evolution could not have happened and that theistic evolution is an oxymoron. If you will, there’s a certain parallel between this perspective and the perspective of nonbelievers who maintain that Jesus never existed. In both cases, these beliefs run counter to expert consensus.

        That said, I consider evolution denial among Christians to be more of a strike against Christianity than is Jesus mythicism against atheism. Why? Christians claim to have the advantage of a divinely inspired book and the guidance of the Holy Spirit who is said to “lead them into all truth,” while unbelievers claim no such advantages. If Ken Ham and William Demksi, along with a majority of evangelical leaders, can be so utterly mistaken about natural history when the evidence against their position is so compelling, what else are they mistaken about? Do they believe they are being led by the Holy Spirit and God’s written revelation? Yes! But if they’re mistaken, they can’t be led by God to hold these positions, if we’re to believe God is not a deceiver. And if they’re mistaken about evolution, what else that they’re so utterly convinced about–the resurrection of Jesus, the Second Coming, the wonder of the messianic prophecies, etc.–are they mistaken about? I would wager that the psychological sense of certainty that comes from reflecting on the evidence for creation (and against evolution) on the part of creation apologists is no less real than the psychological sense of certainty that comes from reflecting on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, for example. The belief is real; I know, because I experienced it.

        How does God, if he exists, let so many of his most fervent followers be so spectacularly mistaken about something so foundational as creation? What’s more, why does he let them have the sense that he’s the one actively undergirding and validating their mistaken certainty through the presence of his Holy Spirit? Given their certainty about the validating presence of the Holy Spirit combined with their mistaken stance on evolution, we can conclude that a firm belief in God’s presence or in an orthodox adherence to his word are not sufficient guarantors of truth.

        I recommend “Evolving out of Eden: Christian Responses to Evolution,” a comprehensive, compelling treatise against theistic evolution by Robert Price and Ed Suominen. Before reading it, I felt you could make Christianity and and evolution to live together, if a bit uncomfortably, but after reading it, I just don’t see how the two can be reconciled. Perhaps most importantly, it magnifies rather than diminishes the theodicy problem. If a scientist was able to create sentient life in the lab and sit idly by, watching his creations suffer through predation, parasitism, starvation, disease, and natural disasters, would we not consider him a demented, evil lunatic? Then why not so for God, who could have created life in any way he saw fit, yet chose to draw it out over hundreds of millions of years of suffering, before even any morally responsible agent ate a forbidden apple? I’m sorry, but there’s no responsible answer to this problem, especially not the cowardly, “We can’t know God’s reasons for everything he does.” Come again? And then we’re to believe he holds us responsible seeing things for how they appear to us? We’re going to be damned for calling it like we naturally see it?

  11. Justin

    Thought you might enjoy this. A friend recorded my recent lecture on this very topic. God bless

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