This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dr. Craig, thank you for your work concerning the resurrection of Christ.
When I first encountered the evidence for it from you and other Christian apologists, I thought that it was irrefutable and definitive. However, after thinking about it for a while, I realized that there are two possible objections that one could make concerning the origin of the belief from the disciples. Christ predicted His resurrection many times in His life, as in Matthew 16:21, Matthew 17:9, and Mark 8:31. These predictions, coupled with the miracles that Christ performed, could have caused the disciples to expect Him to rise, after doubting initially.
Moreover, you often say that the Jews believed that there would be one resurrection at the end of time, and that they did not believe in isolated resurrections. However, we find in 2 Kings 13:21 that a man rose from the dead when he was thrown onto the bones of Elisha, and, in 1 Kings 17, God rose a child from the dead at the supplication of Elijah. Although the Jews may not have believed in isolated resurrections in general, there were still accounts of them in their Scriptures. How can these two objections be answered, and it be shown that they would not have caused the disciples to expect a resurrection (thus making hallucinations possible, though not considering the plausibility of the appearances of Christ being hallucinations)?
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
I always get very uncomfortable when I hear people describing some apologetic argument with words like “irrefutable and definitive.” Such people are just setting themselves up for a fall. That’s not the nature of apologetic arguments, especially arguments of historical apologetics, which will inherently share the uncertainties of the study of history itself. Rather we are in this case concerned to weigh competing historical hypotheses with the aim of finding the best explanation of the evidence when assessed by criteria like explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, etc. The claim is that on balance the hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead” is a better explanation than all of its competitors.
Now one of the facts that any historical hypothesis about the fate of Jesus of Nazareth must account for is the origin of Christianity itself and, in particular, the foundational belief of the first disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead. I’ve argued that the best explanation of that fact is the one the disciples gave, namely, that God really did raise Jesus from the dead.
Now you propose a different explanation: that Jesus’ resurrection predictions, together with his miracles, would lead the disciples to expect him to rise from the dead and so arrive at that belief. The reason that no contemporary scholar defends such a theory, Mark, is that the resurrection predictions are widely regarded as written back into the life of Jesus by later Christians who had already come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. So a defense of your hypothesis would require a convincing case for the authenticity of the passages you mention. Most scholars think that such a case cannot be made. The evidence for the resurrection predictions is not as good as the evidence for the empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith. So one cannot accept the former while being sceptical about the latter!
If you think, even if you cannot prove, that Jesus made resurrection predictions (as I do), then there is a very good explanation of why they would not have led to belief in Jesus’ resurrection: the disciples did not understand them, As I’ve explained, there was in Judaism no conception of a resurrection within history of an isolated individual apart from the general resurrection at history’s end. The disciples naturally understood Jesus to be talking about the resurrection at the end of the world. The Gospels explicitly state this.
That leads to your second point. Revivifications of the dead were certainly known in Judaism, as you point out, and Jesus himself is said to have brought certain people back to life from the dead. But these concerned a return to the mortal life. These people would die again. In no case do we find a resurrection, properly so called, to glory and immortality apart from the general resurrection at history’s end. The belief in Jesus’ resurrection is thus without parallel.
So on balance the better explanation of the disciples’ coming suddenly and sincerely to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead is not wish fulfillment fueled by Jesus’ resurrection predictions, but rather the historical resurrection itself.