This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.

Question

Dear Dr. Craig,

I am a Christian and a fan of you and your work on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and I have a question regarding an atheist's argument against it. The argument states:

(P1) If the evidence for the Resurrection is compelling then we should expect to find many examples of non-christian historians becoming convinced by the evidence for the Resurrection, and since many non-christian historians are theists that believe in miracles the supernatural aspect of the Resurrection should not be a problem for them to accept it.

(P2) It is surprising that we are unable to find examples of people who 1. started as non-Christians, 2. became convinced of the Resurrection because of the historical evidence and 3. were convinced after becoming a professional historian.

(P3) But if the historical evidence doesn't warrant a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus, us not being able to find people like this would be a matter of course, [then…]

(C) Therefore there is reason to suspect that the historical evidence doesn't warrant the belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

My question is how do I refute this argument? Please help me in doing so because this argument has severely challenged my faith in Christianity and I am completely at a loss on how to respond to it and other Christians that I have spoken with also do not know how to respond to it. I very much look forward to hearing your response and I will be patient no matter how long it takes. Thank you for your time and work for the Kingdom of Christ and God Bless.

Parker

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Dr. William Lane Craig's Response

Dr. William Lane Craig

It might help you to know, Parker, that this sort of objection has really nothing to do with Jesus’ resurrection in particular. Rather this is a generic, frequently discussed philosophical objection to holding to any position on which significant disagreement by one’s academic peers exists.[1] The basic claim is that if one’s peers, who are just as smart and informed as you are, disagree with your position, then that somehow undercuts your rational warrant for holding to your position. You, too, should withhold belief, even though you, after much scrutiny and thinking, find yourself convinced that your arguments are sound.

This objection has a bizarre consequence: even though I am convinced of my arguments and can even identify where my critics go wrong, I should still fly in the face of the evidence as I see it and be sceptical of my position! Rather than follow the evidence where it leads, I should resist the force of the evidence just because my peers aren’t convinced. That seems almost a prescription for irrationality and following the crowd.

Moreover, my peers find themselves in exactly the same situation as I do, namely, confronted by academic peers (like me!) just as intelligent and informed as they are who disagree with their viewpoint. So they, too, should withhold belief from their own position! Thus, we are led into a paralysis where people are prevented from coming to any rational assessment of the evidence, simply because others disagree with them, which seems perverse.

It gets even worse: the objection turns out to be self-defeating. For a good many, if not most, philosophers find themselves unconvinced by this objection. It follows that if we are not justified in holding to any position on which there is significant disagreement by one’s academic peers, then we should not believe in this objection! To accept the objection is to flout the fact that many of one’s peers, who are just as smart as you are, reject this objection. The objection thus defeats itself.

Now the objection as you give it adds the additional twist of appeal to expert authority: professionals aren’t convinced! While this may be intimidating to the layman, who, indeed, should reconsider his understanding of an issue if he finds himself at loggerheads with experts in the field, this appeal to authority falls away for the person who is himself a professional and expert in the field. So, for example, when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, an N.T. Wright or a Dale Allison or a Michael Licona will not and should not be cowed by the authority of his peers but feels free to disagree with them when after careful study, he thinks that they have failed correctly to assess the evidence. Of course, he will consider carefully the objections of his critics and not dismiss them lightly, but in the end a rational person will follow the evidence where it leads him.   

As for the objection as stated, it is a mare’s nest. Whether this is a fault of the original formulation or the result of sloppy re-phrasing on your part I have, of course, no way of knowing. But whether we construe the argument deductively or inductively, it is malformed. Considered as a deductive argument, it would be something like this:

1.  If the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is compelling, then many non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence.

2.  Not many non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence.

3. If the historical evidence does not warrant belief in Jesus’ resurrection, then not many non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence.

4. Therefore, the historical evidence does not warrant belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

This argument is both formally and informally invalid. From (1) and (2) alone it follows that

5. The historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is not compelling.

So why do we need (3)? It plays no role in the reasoning. Moreover, even if we concede (5), that does not imply the conclusion (4). For the evidence for some event E need not be compelling in order to warrant belief in E. Compelling evidence is the highest degree of evidence, evidence which demands or compels assent. Evidence is rarely compelling, even when sufficient. The evidence that Oswald acted alone in assassinating Kennedy, for example, may not be compelling, but it is sufficient to warrant belief that he was solely responsible. Even in a criminal case, a guilty verdict requires evidence beyond reasonable doubt, not all doubt, so the jury need not consider the evidence to be compelling in order to return a guilty verdict. In many of life’s circumstances the evidence warranting some belief may be much weaker, perhaps only 51% likely.

Defenders of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection have been all over the map in terms of assessing the force of the evidence. Richard Swinburne would be at the high end of the spectrum, arguing that the probability of the resurrection is around 97%. Timothy and Lydia McGrew don’t assign a final probability but would also consider it very high. Stephen Davis, on the other hand, would be at low end of the spectrum, modestly claiming that the evidence makes it rational to believe in Jesus’ resurrection (which leaves it open that it is also rational for someone not to believe in the resurrection).  Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, and I argue that Jesus’ resurrection is both the best explanation of the evidence as well as a good explanation. N. T. Wright makes no claim at all about the strength of the case for Jesus’ resurrection, holding that the evidence warrants belief in the empty tomb and post-mortem appearances of Jesus and simply inviting his reader to “try on” the Christian worldview and see if it doesn’t make the best sense. None of these thinkers would require that the evidence be compelling in order to warrant belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

So how does our objector propose to get to (4)? Here the apparently useless (3) may come back into the picture. Perhaps he intends to infer (4) from (2) and (3). But such an inference would be guilty of the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent. It is invalid to infer from P implies Q and Q that therefore P. So, construed deductively the argument is both informally (by equivocation) and formally (by affirming the consequent) invalid.

Now at this point your atheist friend may protest that I have misconstrued his objection. As the language of expectation and surprise intimates, perhaps this objection is meant to be an inductive argument appealing to various probabilities. So construed, however, the argument remains a mess. It seems to take the following form (where P [A | B] represents the probability of A on B):

1. P [many non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence | the evidence is compelling] > 0.5.  

2. P [not many non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence] < 0.5.   

3. P [not many non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence | the evidence does not warrant belief in Jesus’ resurrection] >> 0.5.  

4. P [evidence does not warrant belief in Jesus’ resurrection] > 0.5.

In this inductive formulation of the argument, it is (2) that is perplexing. The objector seems to be claiming that leaving aside any appraisal of the force of the evidence, the prior probability that many non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence is high. Not only does such a prior probability seem inscrutable, but assigning a high value to such a probability seems to betray the objector’s intent. For he wants to say that in the absence of good evidence for Jesus’ resurrection it is highly probable (“a matter of course”) that non-Christian historians would not become convinced by the evidence. What he wants to say is that given compelling evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, it is improbable that not many non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence. But that is just to repeat what was already asserted in (1), that it is probable that given compelling evidence many non-Christian historians would become convinced of Jesus’ resurrection, which makes (2) redundant.

So that leaves us with just the comparative probabilities of (1) and (3): It’s highly probable that given compelling evidence for Jesus’ resurrection many non-Christian historians would become convinced, and it’s highly probable that given weak evidence most would not. So what? That does nothing to imply (4), that it’s probable that the evidence fails to warrant belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

Lest we proclaim a cheap victory over our opponent, let’s try to help him re-formulate his argument correctly. Let’s eliminate the equivocation between compelling evidence and evidence sufficient for warrant and try to express his inductive argument accurately. Here’s what I think he wants to say:

1*. Few non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.

2*. P [Few non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection | the evidence is sufficient to warrant belief in Jesus’ resurrection] < 0.5.

3*. P [Few non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection | the evidence is not sufficient to warrant belief in Jesus’ resurrection] > 0.5.

4*. Therefore, the fact that few non-Christian historians become convinced by the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection confirms the fact that the evidence is not sufficient to warrant belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

This seems to be an accurate formulation of the argument. What shall we say about the objection so formulated?

Right at the start it’s worth noting how weak the argument is even if it is entirely successful. This is merely a confirmatory argument. The argument concludes merely that the fact that few non-Christian historians become convinced, etc., provides confirmation of the fact that the evidence is not sufficient to warrant belief in Jesus’ resurrection. It doesn’t prove that fact; it just gives some confirmatory evidence in its favor. Confirmatory evidence is easy to come by. I remember vividly many years ago sitting in a restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, with philosopher Keith Yandell, discussing confirmatory arguments. To illustrate their weakness, he said, “Suppose my hypothesis is that Leah, the invisible seven-foot Queen of the Leprechauns, likes to go about putting paper cups on tables.” Pointing to two paper cups on our table, he said, “There! I’ve just given you confirmation of my hypothesis.” Yes, his hypothesis was more probable given the two paper cups on our table than it would have been without them, but obviously that did almost nothing to establish the truth of his hypothesis!

So the argument is weak even if its premises are true. But are the premises of the argument true? I think we’d all agree that (3*) is true. If the evidence really were insufficient to warrant belief in Jesus’ resurrection, then it’s likely that few historians would become convinced of Jesus’ resurrection on the basis of the evidence. They might come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection on other grounds, say, through a personal experience of the Living Lord or by the testimony of the Holy Spirit to the truth of Scripture, but it’s not likely that they would become convinced by the evidence.[2] So (3*) seems plausible.

Rather the obvious Achilles’ Heel of the argument is (2*). Is it really true that if the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection were sufficient to warrant belief in his resurrection, then it’s probable that many non-Christian historians would come to believe in his resurrection on the basis of the evidence? It’s easy to think of all sorts of reasons why that may not be true. Here are four:

(i) In the first place, by ridding ourselves of the chimera of “compelling evidence,” we’re allowing that the evidence will not compel non-Christians; indeed, if we take Davis’ approach, the evidence serves to make it rational to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, but unbelief may be rational as well. Even on a stronger assessment of the evidence, such as I support, the evidence is not irresistible.

(ii) Secondly, the mere fact that the evidence is sufficient to warrant belief doesn’t imply that many historians will be convinced by it, for they may not be aware of that evidence. The evidence can be as strong as you want, but people who are unfamiliar with it will not be convinced by it. Like scientists, historians are incredibly specialized in their work. A historian specializing in the French Revolution or military tactics in the American Civil War won’t know anything about the history of first century Israel. I hazard to say that very few professional historians have more than a layman’s knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth. If we try to tighten up the argument to include only historians who have professionally published on Jesus—call them “informed” historians—, then I seriously question the claim in (1*) that few informed historians come to be convinced of Jesus’ resurrection on the basis of the evidence—but more of that in a moment.

(iii) Thirdly, there are major worldview assumptions that can, despite the evidence, inhibit a non-Christian historian from becoming convinced of Jesus’ resurrection. Gary Habermas has pointed to “two huge factors” shaping people’s attitude toward Jesus’ resurrection: the role of human emotions in determining religious beliefs and the explosive nature of the resurrection itself. He notes that by far the major factor affecting religious doubt is human emotions rather than reason. And the resurrection, if admitted, will have enormous reverberations throughout a person’s worldview, such as the deity of Christ and a Christian notion of salvation. Habermas reports,

So when the latter is combined with all kinds of emotional desires not to have to change their entire WVs or especially their lifestyles (I talk to many of these folks on a regular basis), it is clear that they don’t like the evidence or the changes it would necessitate, so they will believe almost any other view, or just plain walk away from it. . . .  I cannot overstate how huge this is in the cases I see.[3] 

Now our objector tries to soften the impact of worldview changes by pointing out that “many non-christian historians are theists that believe in miracles [so] the supernatural aspect of the Resurrection should not be a problem for them to accept it.” This answer is, I think, naïve. Deists would be as opposed to miraculous explanations as non-theists. As for Jews and Muslims, who constitute the predominant groups of non-Christian theists, not only would the admission of Jesus’ resurrection necessitate major worldview changes such as Habermas points to, but for such persons to believe in Jesus’ resurrection is, in their eyes, to betray their families, their heritage, their very ethnic identity. A Muslim is forbidden from belief in Jesus’ resurrection because the Qur’an explicitly rejects Jesus’ death on the cross (4:157-58). Intriguingly, Jews can be more open, and several Jewish historical scholars, despite the social pressures, have come to affirm the facts of Jesus’ empty tomb, etc., and even the resurrection itself, as we shall see. I think it’s clear that our atheist objector, in thinking that many non-Christian theistic historians would come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection if the evidence is sufficient to warrant such belief, has a very naïve understanding of human decision-making.

(iv) Fourth, the foregoing consideration highlights a critical distinction in a historical case for the resurrection that has been obscured so far by vague talk about “evidence for the resurrection.” As I have explained elsewhere, a historical case for Jesus’ resurrection involves two steps: (I) establishing the facts to be explained and (II) determining the best explanation of the facts. Step (I) is the historian’s task and deals with what is best meant by “evidence for the resurrection”: the evidence for such facts as Jesus’ empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Today the wide majority of informed historical scholars do, in fact, accept the “evidence for the resurrection” in this sense.

But a great many historians would deny that step (II) lies within their purview. Many, probably most, historians would say that methodological naturalism prevents their resorting to a supernatural explanation like “God raised Jesus from the dead” for natural phenomena like the empty tomb, etc. Even if they are theists and accept the “evidence for the resurrection,” they are methodologically prohibited from miraculous explanations. My sense is that there are lots of historical Jesus scholars in this camp. Take Bart Ehrman as a case in point. In his Teaching Company lectures on the historical Jesus, Ehrman, though not a Christian, accepted on the basis of the evidence the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. But he denied on the grounds of Humean philosophical arguments[4] that the historian could ever justifiably infer that Jesus’ resurrection was the best explanation of that evidence. So he withheld judgement. Clearly, the problem here is not any deficiency in the evidence but a philosophical constraint that precluded inferring to the resurrection as the best explanation. As I say, I think such a view is widespread among historical Jesus scholars. In that case it is improbable, in view of methodological constraints, that many historians would come to believe in Jesus’ resurrection on the basis of the evidence even if the evidence is sufficient to warrant belief in the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, etc., as most informed historians agree it is.

That brings us finally to premiss (1*), which your atheist friend has just assumed to be true. But we have already seen that for premiss (2*) to be even remotely plausible the class of non-Christian historians has to be restricted to “informed” historians, those who specialize in and publish on historical Jesus studies. So just how many scholars count as “few” and how many count as “many”? I know from reading the literature that, not just many, but most informed historical scholars are convinced on the basis of the evidence of such facts as the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, etc. Historians like C. Behan McCullagh and Jeffrey Burton Russell would be in this camp. Non-evangelical scholars like Michael Grant, Paula Frederickson, D. H. van Daalen, and John Shelby Spong also come to mind. Even prominent Jewish scholars such as Geza Vermes and Pinchas Lapide, among others, have said they are convinced.[5] How many of those who are convinced by the evidence were at one time non-Christians or are still non-Christians? To be honest, I have no idea, and I suspect that neither does your atheist friend. After all, these folks don’t typically publish spiritual autobiographies.[6] In the absence of a sociological survey published in a peer-reviewed journal, your friend has no way of knowing how many people he’s talking about. Don’t let him shift the burden of proof to your shoulders. This is his objection, and he has the burden of supporting its premisses.

In closing, on a personal note, what most disturbs me about your letter, Parker, is your report that so frail an argument “has severely challenged my faith in Christianity.” This suggests to me that you have not really mastered the case for Jesus’ resurrection. Otherwise, your reaction to this argument would be, “I don’t know how to answer this argument, but I know that there is convincing evidence for Jesus’ empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ faith and that, not merely I, but the majority of scholars who have written on this subject find the evidence convincing. So there’s got to be something wrong with this argument!” The person who has a good grasp of the historical case for Jesus’ resurrection will realize that this objection does not overturn the evidence. 

Notes

[1] See the helpful discussion by J. P. Moreland in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2d ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2017), pp. 90-93.

[2] See the example of the historical Jesus scholar Craig Keener: “When I was an atheist, had this evidence been presented to me, I certainly would have had to grapple seriously with the figure of Jesus in the Gospels and his demands on me.” Instead the Lord “converted me from atheism by a direct and utterly unmerited encounter with his Spirit in the Gospel” (“Fascinating Interview: Craig Keener on his new book ‘Christobiography’” <https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/fascinating-interview-craig-keener-on-his-new-book-christobiography>).

[3] Personal correspondence, August 16, 2019.

[4] These are arguments, given by David Hume, against the rationality of belief in miracles no matter how strong the evidence is. Today virtually all philosophers recognize that Hume’s argument, which was based on an inadequate grasp of the probability calculus, is, in the words of philosopher of science John Earman, an “abject failure” (John Earman, Hume’s Abject Failure [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000]). Sadly, appeal to Hume’s argument remains common among non-philosophers.

[5] See further David Mishkin, Jewish Scholarship on the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2017). I seem to recall that in the television special several years ago From Jesus to Christ some Jewish historical scholars who were interviewed agreed to the historicity of Jesus’ empty tomb but confessed themselves baffled at how to explain it.

[6] Historian C. Behan McCullagh pinpoints the problem: “I do not know many professional Christian historians well enough to tell what is the basis of their belief” (personal correspondence, August 19, 2019).


This Q&A and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website.