This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig,
I am an earnest seeker. I have become convinced by philosophers like Thomas Nagel, Edward Feser, John Searle, and Raymond Tallis, that the mainstream materialistic-cum-mechanistic understanding of the world is false (oddly enough, most of these philosophers are atheists). I currently am a theist and came to this conclusion after long philosophical contemplations on the contingency and intelligibility of being. I mostly subscribe to a classical theistic understanding of reality. The next step is to assess whether or not God/the primary cause, has somehow intervened in history.
I am familiar with the historical arguments for the resurrection given by you (especially your thorough 1989 publication), Wright, Licona, and Habermas. Currently I've come to the conclusion that I am rather agnostic with regards to the resurrection. My reason being that, even with Paul's attestation and his deliverance of certain witnesses, I still think we're not justified in a supernatural explanation when history is ultimately obscured to us. If I found ancient writing where someone mentioned a blue levitating panda appearing to them and others in the Roman forum and that there were 500 witnesses that are still alive, I would immediately doubt the veracity of such claims because they invoke a supernatural event. Even if a prophet foretold this I would still doubt it. In fact I would think that such a prophet had predisposed his followers to such hysteria. I would probably assume some misidentification, mass hysteria, etc. This makes me think that a viable explanation for the early Christian witness of a risen Christ is some sort of mass hysteria.
Some Jews believed in a final resurrection of the dead so they would have been predisposed to categories such as hysteria of Christ as someone who had risen from the dead. In fact if, as some Christian scholars argue, Christ had predicted his resurrection, this would only further the case that the disciples were predisposed to this hysteria. No doubt this is also why many Christians believed the end times were near, because they had visions of Christ which they assumed signaled the initiation of the final resurrection. Perhaps Paul was also exaggerating supporting evidence in order to justify his own hysteria. As long as viable natural explanations can be offered, do we really need to assume a supernatural one?
Thanks for reading,
William Lane Craig's Response
I’m so glad that you are seeking the truth about Jesus and his resurrection, Bruce. It sounds as if you’ve come a long way.
The question of whether a supernatural explanation of the facts concerning Jesus’ fate is justified is simply a particular instance of the old problem of the identification of a miracle. This is, indeed, a very difficult question, fraught with uncertainty. Fortunately, I think that in Jesus’ case an inference to a supernatural explanation is quite reasonable and, I should say, warranted. I have a lengthy discussion of this question in my book Reasonable Faith, to which I refer you.
Stephen Bilynskyj provides the following criteria for identifying some event E as a miracle:
(1) The evidence for the occurrence of E is at least as good as it is for other acceptable but unusual events similarly distant in time and space from the point of the inquiry;
(2) An account of the natures and/or powers of the causally relevant natural agents, such that they could account for E, would be clumsy and ad hoc;
(3) There is no evidence, except the inexplicability of E, for one or more natural agents which could produce E;
(4) There is some justification for a supernatural explanation of E, independent of the inexplicability of E.
These criteria seem quite correct, and so it remains only to apply them to the case of Jesus’ resurrection.
With respect to (1), I immediately note that you have not included all the relevant evidence for E. You focus only on “Paul's attestation and his deliverance of certain witnesses” to Jesus’ post-mortem appearances. I suspect that in this respect you are influenced by Habermas and Licona, who similarly focus on Paul’s testimony in I Corinthians 15, thereby greatly understating the evidential basis for Jesus’ resurrection. Similarly, N.T. Wright, whom you also mention, focuses on just one aspect of the evidence undergirding the inference to Jesus’ resurrection, namely, the origin of the disciples’ belief that God raised Jesus from the dead, thereby also understating the evidentiary basis for Jesus’ resurrection. None of these authors presents the full scope of the evidence on behalf of E.
A full presentation of the evidence undergirding the inference to Jesus’ resurrection must include the following three facts and all the subsidiary facts entailed by them:
- On the Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion and his interment by Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ tomb was discovered to be empty by a group of his female disciples, including Mary Magdalene.
- Thereafter, various individuals and groups of people, including Peter, James, and the Twelve, experienced appearances of Jesus alive.
- The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead, despite having every predisposition to the contrary.
As in a court of law, it is the cumulative force of all the evidence, not any single piece of evidence, that is the basis for our verdict.
What you then do is desert the case at hand and begin to reason by analogy. “If I found ancient writing where someone mentioned a blue levitating panda appearing to them, etc.” This is just bad historical methodology, Bruce. You can’t dismiss the evidence on the table based on an imagined analogy to some hypothetical situation that bears so little similarity to the evidence at hand. Your case clearly fails Bylinskyj’s criterion (4). So one would not be justified in adverting to some supernatural explanation. Ah, but notice, Bruce—and this is important!—the reason you should doubt the veracity of such claims is not “because they invoke a supernatural event.” If that’s the reason, then you’re just begging the question against miracles, and we need to drop the discussion about the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and go back to the question of theism and the possibility (not the identification) of miracles. Given theism, which you say you embrace, you cannot rule out an explanation just because it invokes a supernatural cause. Rather what makes a supernatural explanation unjustified in your imagined case is the failure to meet (4).
By contrast, Jesus’ resurrection as an explanation of the three facts mentioned above meets criterion (4). For the supernatural explanation is given immediately in the religio-historical context in which the event occurred. Jesus’ resurrection was not merely an anomalous event, occurring without context; it came as the climax to Jesus’ own unparalleled life and teachings. As Wolfhart Pannenberg explains,
The resurrection of Jesus acquires such decisive meaning, not merely because someone or anyone has been raised from the dead, but because it is Jesus of Nazareth, whose execution was instigated by the Jews because he had blasphemed against God. Jesus’ claim to authority, through which he put himself in God’s place, was blasphemous for Jewish ears. Because of this Jesus was then also slandered before the Roman governor as a rebel. If Jesus really has been raised, this claim has been visibly and unambiguously confirmed by the God of Israel, who was allegedly blasphemed by Jesus.
Thus, the religio-historical context furnishes us with the key to justifying a supernatural explanation of the facts.
But now consider Bilynskyj’s criterion (2). Again, your blue panda case fails this criterion. Explaining the blue panda reports by “misidentification, mass hysteria, etc.” would be neither clumsy nor ad hoc (though I think I can come up with better ones). By contrast, need I rehearse all the objections against the hallucination hypothesis with respect to Jesus’ resurrection? I trust not. Trying to explain the empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection by hallucinations is, as Licona, Habermas, and Wright have all shown, very implausible, if not next to hopeless.
Similarly, criterion (3) is not met in the case of the blue panda. We do have reasons for thinking that such a tale is fictitious, and therefore there is a natural explanation for it, namely, we know that you made it up! By contrast, in the case of Jesus we have no evidence at all for any natural explanation of the empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and origin of the disciples’ belief—except for its supernatural character!
When I first read your letter, Bruce, it was clear to me that your analogy wouldn’t pass Bilynskyj’s criteria, but I didn’t realize that it would fail all four! So when you conclude, “This makes me think that a viable explanation for the early Christian witness of a risen Christ is some sort of mass hysteria,” that’s just horrible historical reasoning.
Now in your last paragraph you do try to show that there are some reasons to think that a natural explanation (mass hysteria) is a viable explanation of the facts, as (3) requires. But the reasons you mention are very weak: (1) Jewish belief in the eschatological resurrection would at most have led to visions of Jesus in heaven, in which case the disciples would have come to the belief that Jesus had been assumed into heaven, in line with Jewish beliefs, not to belief in his resurrection, which contradicted Jewish beliefs. (2) Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection would have allegedly predisposed the disciples to hysteria. The problem for you here, Bruce, is that you can’t play pick-and-choose with what parts of the Gospel record you want to believe. The physical post-mortem appearances of Jesus are better attested than Jesus’ predictions, which most scholars think were written after the fact. So if you accept the predictions, you have to accept the physical appearances, in which case the hallucination hypothesis becomes untenable. (3) You say that visions of Christ would lead Christians to think the end of the world was near. This objection doesn’t make sense. You need to argue that because they thought the end was near, therefore they had visions. But that is a non sequitur. (4) Paul supposedly exaggerated to support his own hysteria. Such a psychoanalysis of historical figures like Paul is impossible, which is why historians reject the attempt to write psycho-biography. Again, Bruce, I encourage you to read what the authors you’ve mentioned have written about the hypothesis of mass hysteria and hallucination.
So, right, “as long as viable natural explanations can be offered,” we don’t really need to assume a supernatural one. That’s Bilynskyj’s criterion (3). But the hallucination hypothesis is arguably not a viable one. So on the basis of Bilynskyj’s criteria an inference to Jesus’ resurrection as the best explanation of the three facts summarized above is both reasonable and warranted. Please think hard about this.
 Stephen S. Bilynskyj, “God, Nature, and the Concept of Miracle” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Notre Dame, 1982), p. 222.
 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus—God and Man, trans. L.L. Wilkins and D.A. Priebe (London: SCM, 1968), p. 67.
 These are explained at length in my The Resurrection: Fact or Figment?, with Gerd Lüdemann, ed. Paul Copan, with responses by Stephen T. Davis, Michael Goulder, Robert H. Gundry, and Roy Hoover (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000).
This Q&A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig's website.