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Atheist Perspectives, Volume 4

By Ben Love ~

You want to believe in God. You really do. Sometimes you think about how great it would be if there was someone you could bring your cares to, someone who understood you, someone who was willing to take your anxieties and carry them for you, someone whose comfort was… supernatural.
Good Shepherd fresco from the Catacombs of San...
Good Shepherd fresco from the Catacombs of San Callisto under the care of the Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archeology (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
To that end, you recall a billboard you saw on the side of the road recently. It showed a picture of Jesus with his hands wide open. Underneath him was a quote: “Come to me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest.”

You’ve heard of Jesus before. You’re even familiar with much of his teachings, just as you are familiar with the teachings of the Buddha, Muhammad, Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Dalai Lama, any many other spiritual and/or religious teachers. You wonder why Jesus should be any different from the rest of these characters, but of course, you know the answer. None of these teachers allegedly rose from the dead after having been killed. Yet Jesus did, or so your Christian friends tell you. You yourself aren’t so sure about that. Still, it occurs to you that perhaps you ought to look into this so-called resurrection for yourself.
But how is that to be done? Your Christian friends say that the resurrection was a real event that took place at a finite time in history. On the surface, you have no problem with that because all such events from the past are taken to be real events that took place at a finite time in history. Why should the resurrection be any different? For instance, you actually do not have perfect proof that Julius Caesar crossed the Rhine in 55 BCE. What you do have is various pieces of evidence that, when taken altogether, strongly suggest that he crossed the Rhine. You therefore, in a sense, take for granted that this is what happened. You could never be 100% certain, however. Why not? History is not like science. You can replicate a scientific experiment over and over again. You can drop a pill in water and it will dissolve every time. Thus, science isrepeatable. But you cannot do that with history. You cannot repeat an historical event for observation. It has already happened, now it’s over, and that’s it. Such is the essence of the passage of time.

Still, history is built on such theories—theories that best account for the evidence we have at our disposal. Thus, you take for granted that the Greeks built the Parthenon because this is what the evidence suggests. You take for granted that the Black Death killed a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century because this is what the evidence suggests. You take for granted that Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the battle of Bosworth Field because this is what the evidence suggests. But these are not facts, not in the same sense that you know it’s a fact that your coffee table is made out of pinewood. And so, right from the beginning, you have a problem with what your Christian friends are telling you because they assert that the evidence for the resurrection is such that they know for a fact that Jesus rose from the dead. This bothers you for two reasons. First of all, as you have already observed, no one can know anything for a fact that occurred in history, and second of all, you wonder why they bother with faith at all if they feel they are dealing with a fact. Faith and facts are mutually exclusive, or so your logic teaches you, and this would have to make sense. Indeed, if you’re certain about something, then you’re dealing with a fact; faith is not required. If you’re uncertain, however, you are not necessarily dealing with a fact, and faith is required.
Therefore, before you even begin to look at the resurrection story, you make a needed and justified distinction in your mind: you will treat this story in the same way you would treat any story from history. You know you cannot be certain, but if the evidence strongly suggests that the resurrection is true, you will take for granted that it is, just as you take for granted that the Incas built Machu Picchu because similar evidence strongly suggests that as well. However, you are determined to keep this historical. Religious faith and theology are not welcome in the investigation, at least not yet. Why not? They had no place when you used the evidence to surmise who built Machu Picchu. Faith had no place in your inferring that the Black Death really did decimate Europe. Religion and theology had no bearing whatsoever on whether you took for granted that Henry Tudor defeated Richard III. And since your friends tell you that the resurrection was a legitimate historical event, you resolve to treat it the same way you would treat any alleged historical event. You will not, nor should you, give the resurrection story any kind of special treatment that you did not give (and had no need of giving) to other investigations of history. If the resurrection story and its so-called evidence do not pass the test from an historical point of view without special treatment that virtually no other historical story required, it cannot be treated as a true historical event. You’re not being a stickler here; you are merely adhering to the disciplines of history in a responsible and worthy way. You didn’t make the rules, but you are honor-bound to follow them. Otherwise, you are no scholar.

And so you decide to do some reading and research. One of your friends slips a book into your hands by a Christian scholar named William Lane Craig. “This,” your friend says, “is the best place to begin.” Intrigued, you take a look. You instantly recognize Craig’s work as worthy scholarship, but you refrain from conceding his conclusions until you give it some thought. You note that he makes a compelling case in his work, and that his case basically rests on four items he calls indisputable evidence for the resurrection. The four items are as follows:

  1. Jesus’ burial
  2. the discovery of his empty tomb
  3. his post-mortem appearances
  4. the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection
These, Craig says, along with the testimony of the entire New Testament, form the basis for accepting the “risen Christ” as a true historical event. A true resurrection, he says, must be accepted as a fact because it is the likeliest explanation for the evidence at hand.

And it is here that you note your first red flag. Despite your respect for Craig’s style and his obvious dedication to research, you can’t help but notice a problem here. A supernatural, miraculous resurrection is, by far, the most unlikely explanation forany particular body of evidence, at least from an historical standpoint. This is not to say you can prove theologically that it’s not true—but you’re not interested in that right now. What you are interested in is treating this story as you would treat any other historical story. In that light, you cannot concede, nor should you, that a miraculous resurrection is the most likely explanation for anything. The true, most unbiased stance you could adopt is to maintain that, if anything, a miraculous resurrection is so unlikely historically that it might be in the realm of impossible, and probably is.
“You’re being biased,” your Christian friend says. You ask what he means, and he says, “If you’re only allowing for the possibility of the natural while precluding the possibility of the supernatural, you’re being biased.”

You sigh and ask your friend one simple question: “Show me one instance, just one, where scholars have documented the existence of the supernatural as the best explanation for any other story from history, other than your belief in the resurrection. Can you do that? I just need one.”

He thinks about it for a long time, scratches his chin, and then says, “No.”
To press the point, you reiterate that, according to his own answer, every other single, solitary event listed exhaustively in the historical record is attributed to natural means, or, if scholars are uncertain about a particular historical issue, they leave the question open and admit that they don’t yet have an explanation. Your friend concurs. Why, you then ask, should this one instance be granted an unlikely supernatural answer when there could be and probably is an adequate natural answer, one that, while perhaps being unlikely, is still much likelier than a miraculous resurrection?

He has no answer for this. He only maintains that he believes the supernatural is possible in this one particular instance.
In your defense, you ask how you can be considered biased when he is the one presupposing the exclusive existence of the supernatural in this one instance (because it suits him to do so) when has had no need to grant such a benefit to any other historical story. “For instance,” you say, “if you took four pieces of evidence for the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza and said, ‘There is no way ancient humans could have accomplished this feat; therefore the likeliest explanation is that the gods built it,’ who would possibly take you seriously? There are other, likelier explanations that could be arrived at long before making the giant leap toward the grossly unlikely explanation that it was some assortment of supernatural beings known collectively as ‘the gods.’ Therefore, if the entire rest of history is taken for granted to have a natural explanation, why should this one particular event, the alleged resurrection of Jesus, be so casually elevated to the supernatural?” You then point out to your friend that it is for this reason alone that only one biased person stands in this room, and it is not you.

“I don’t see that at all,” he says.
That he is giving special treatment, special benefits, special accordance to this one event (because it fits his faith agenda to do so, you note) is clearly completely lost on him. He accepts a natural explanation for virtually every other event from history, but when it comes to this one, the one upon which his entire faith (and thus, his life’s investment) rests, he expands his notion of the possible to include the supernatural, a distinction he did not make, and no need of making, at any other point in history. And when you refuse to participate in that willful expansion of the possible because it would not be fair to do so, he says it is you who is biased!

(You think about putting a noose around your neck at this point, if only to be free from the madness.)
Disentangling yourself from your friend’s (questionable) logic, you return to the book by William Lane Craig. Before long, you note your second red flag. That a miraculous resurrection is the most likely explanation for his four pieces of evidence presupposes one of two things: that the investigator either already believes in God, or that the investigator is willing to embrace a belief in God in order to account for the accomplishment of a supernatural miracle.

This is a problem for you, because you’ve been investigating the possible existence of God for some time now. In fact, you’ve been quite diligent and determined in your aim to turn over every stone you can find. As it stands right now, you don’t believe in God. It’s not that you don’t want to; you do. You really do. But as of yet you’ve not discovered ample reason to initiate such a belief. Furthermore, to accept the miraculous explanation for the resurrection story not only presupposes that you believe in or will believe in God, it also presupposes that you will believe specifically in the Christian God. That is a major problem, because when Jesus spoke about his “Father” (who ostensibly was the one who accomplished the miracle), he was referring to the God of the Old Testament: Yahweh. You have already looked deeply into the character of this Yahweh and found him to be utterly false, disqualified by his own alleged behavior as chronicled in the Bible. You therefore decide that you are unwilling to embrace a belief in God in order to account for the miraculous resurrection if that means the “God” you must embrace is Yahweh. You know very well, and have known for some time, that you want no part of Yahweh whatsoever.
Moreover, it strikes you as interesting that even a scholar like William Lane Craig could commit such an obvious blunder. What is this blunder? He asks an historical question, and then fails to find an historical answer. He thus invites theology into the discipline ofhistory, and replies to his own historical question with a theological answer. In other words, he begins in the realm of history by asking, “What is the likeliest explanation for these four pieces of historical evidence?” and then he finishes by leaving history behind and moving on to theology: “God must have raised Jesus from the dead.” This, you conclude, is not an admirable execution of the historical discipline. As you noted previously, you had no need to use theology to confirm any other facet of history. Why should it be okay to do so here?

You could research further, but at this point you’ve sort of lost interest. If it stands to reason that this alleged resurrection requires a miracle, and if that miracle requires a God, and if that God must be Yahweh, you already know everything you need to know. You have no need to examine further. Yahweh, you know, is false. Not real. Totally bogus. Thus, any supposed resurrection wrought by his bogus hands isn’t worth your time.
Thus, your journey continues, and therein lays the adventure