More Evidence: The Resurrection or Alexander the Great?

Continuing the discussion from Alter's Case Against The Resurrection:

This is true. I have no tolerance for it.

Let’s be clear that many atheists do the same. They are “liars for atheism” I suppose. I am not pointing to anyone specifically here.

Is There More Evidence?

This is worth thinking about more.

@nwrickert in what sense do people mean it when they say this? Perhaps in the number of manuscripts? I suspect you are using a different definition of “evidence” and “for” than them. They are not necessarily lying.

In my view there is a massive amount of evidence to weigh regarding the Resurrection, perhaps more than we have pertaining to Alexander the Great. However, there is also rational reason to ignore said evidence, because the claim is so absurd.

The claim that a man rose from the dead is absurd. The absurdity of the claim itself is rational reason enough to reject it, despite mountains of evidence. Nothing is ultimately definitive enough to overcome rational disbelief. The evidence seems to heighten the question. Ultimately it is a matter of a decision. A paradigm switch that reorders all our prior probabilities.

Perhaps there is a evidential/epistemological paradox in the question of the Resurrection.

A Hypothesis Test for a Paradigm?

Scientific thinking (though not precisely science) has helped me with this. If we think about from a hypothesis driven point of view, as a Gedanken experiment, it can be easier to reason though. Of course, there are more than two hypotheses, but let’s consider two.

H1. Atheism or Strong-Agnosticism is true, and we look at the evidence of the Resurrection, and without even having to engage it, we know it is false. End of story, perhaps. Though, if we engaged the evidence, we’d see there are a lot of unanswered historical questions, and no good parallels anywhere else in history. The non-violent rise of an orthodox Jewish sect becomes a fundamental fact of our world that we don’t have a good account of at this time, but we are certain it takes place without a man rising from the dead. Sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

H2. God really did raise Jesus from the dead. If God exists, this is hardly something to doubt. We are not talking about a common occurrence, but a singular event done for a specific and extraordinary purpose. The historical problem of the rise of Christianity goes away, because this is an explanation for the bizarreness of the non-violent rise of the Church. Perhaps other historical problems arise. Perhaps we have other questions. We could however as a “gedanken” try this paradigm on, and see how far it goes. It does require the absurd, that a man rose from the dead, but a thought experiment on this seems perfectly reasonable to me.

From these two hypothesis, we can play out what makes better sense of that reality that we all inhabit together. Perhaps even there might be experiences that shift our prior probability on God’s existence.

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Yes, you are right about that. That’s part of why I prefer not to call myself an atheist.

I’m not an historian. However, I understand that historians do have some sort of evidence standards. My comment was about “historical evidence” rather than just “evidence”.

I agree that both sides have what they consider evidence. And they disagree on what counts as evidence. For that matter, disagreements over YEC creationism, ID and evolution are all related to disagreements over what counts as evidence. And disagreements over a flat earth also boil down to disagreements over what counts as evidence.

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We can just say “evidence”, but how do we count it? Evidence sure includes ancient artifacts like ancient manuscripts that you and I both find in this world we inhabit. For example, important piece of evidence is the carbon dating of the Great Isaiah Scroll, which comes from the Dead Sea Scrolls cache. This surely counts as evidence. There is a massive field called “textual analysis” that catalogues and studies in depth the variation and content of 10s of thousands of manuscripts. I think the current count right now is that there are over 60,000 manuscripts with direct or indirect (another place of fudge) relevance to the Resurrection. As I understand this is far more “evidence” than we have for Alexander the Great.

Of course that is not an analysis of the evidence. I just means there is a lot to work through. We can’t just collapse all that physical evidence down to merely “the bible”. That is just silly, especially because many of these manuscripts are not even part of the Bible. We might as well collapse all the evidence for common descent down to just “genetics” and dismissing it because “atheist scientists collected it so its not valid.”

What people mean by the Resurrection to Alexander the Great comparison, I would charitably read (and I hope that this is what they mean), is that the Resurrection is more attested by more evidence than any other comparison event at that time, whether or not it is ultimately true. Of course, I am not an expert here, and perhaps there are other extremal events. However, given the “fudge factor” of how we assign “direct and indirect” and how we define “evidence” it looks very likely to be true in a historically salient way.

We should not mean “for,” I suppose, as if it establishes it without debate. I’d just say it is relevant evidence that raises the historical question over and over, and has no good answer yet.

The big disagreement is over whether to count the gospel accounts as evidence for the resurrection.

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One does not even need to count the Bible as evidence to see an immense amount evidence.

From a historian point of view, rejecting them as historical artifacts is unteneble. You don’t have to take them as inspired, but if you don’t engage with New Testament and old testament manuscripts you are doing pseudo history. That’s unjustifiable.

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Would it be liars for atheism if we limit our atheism to just all the gods that you don’t believe in, says we are Zeus atheist, Ra atheist, Hindu gods atheist, Giant Spaghetti Monster god atheist, a Satan atheist, and other demons atheist? And then be agnostic with respect to Allah, YHWH, God, Jesus and that Holy Spirit God.

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Just to put it out there: Allah, YHWH, God, same God, we only disagree whether Jesus was a messiah (Christians), prophet (Muslims) or just a nice Jewish boy (Jews), and some other dogma.

A little clarity would help here. What are you counting as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? Other than the bible, I can’t think of any that’s even been suggested.

Alexander, on the other hand, left a large and immediate mark, founding a number of cities, destroying the Persian Empire, leaving various successor states run by the diadochi and others, and lots of contemporary documents regarding him, his father, his teacher, and his generals. I don’t see how anyone can count the evidence for the Resurrection as more voluminous by any meaning of the term, even if you included the bible.

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They are historical artifacts. But they are not the eye witness accounts that they pretend to be.

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What about the Holy Spirit God?

I’m not sure historians present them as eye witness accounts, or if they present themselves as eye witness accounts. Luke and Acts are very important, and are both written by a non-witness who was compile reports from earlier manuscripts and oral histories, in some ways as current day historians do (though certainly not entirely so).

That is unfortunate. I give some pointers here: Peace Be With You.

We also have to distinguish between the “Bible” as is quoted around and purchasable on amazon today, and manuscripts from the past. If all we had was a current print, we could infer things were added in later. However, with the original manuscripts, this becomes evidence against such claims.

NT Wright catalogues about 8 Messiah movements from 100 years before to after as historical “controls.” Gary Habermas can make his case entirely from non-Biblical documents (e.g. Tacitus and Josephus), and explains this in detail in this lecture. He is not an apologist by the way, but a well respected historian.

You are a brilliant scientist, who has already helped me clarify my thinking on several points of phylogenetics. You however you know very little about historical artifacts of this time period. I think you are mistaking ignorance of the evidence for absence.

If you care to get informed, perhaps read this book, which has been well respected among historians, even non-Christian historians:

Or read a very high level summary of one of the arguments in the long 800 page book here:

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Are you sure you’re not confusing the resurrection (our subject here) with the existence of Jesus (all that Tacitus or Josephus mention, at best)?

Throw me at least one bone here. Tell me something that’s evidence for the resurrection. Just one thing. That would be a start.

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OK, I’ve looked. Nothing there would convince (or be acceptable as evidence) to anyone who wasn’t already a believer.

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Yes, I am sure. You most likely did not listen to the Habermas video. I’m not trying to send you on a wild goose case. But I can’t help you if you don’t actually look at the things I’m sending your way.

Just Convincing to Non-Believers?

This is just demonstrably false.

Many non-believers do find it compelling and it is often the beginning of their process of becoming believers. This includes, for example, Francis Collins and Ian Hutchinson, who are both scientists raised as atheists. I’ve already explained that one can rationally reject the Resurrection. So I am not calling you irrational. However, it is just false to claim that this is only convincing to those who already believe.

Have you read Ian’s article on this yet? Can a scientist believe in the resurrection? Three hypotheses. - The Veritas Forum - The Veritas Forum

What Evidence Exactly?

I pointed you to:

  1. an article I wrote (here if you missed it: Is There Evidence for Easter? A Scientist's List. - The Veritas Forum - The Veritas Forum)
  2. an article that NT Wright
  3. a video by Gary Habermas
  4. a book by NT Wright

I can also point you to this brief summary of Gary Habermas’ argument by William Lane Craig: A collection of popular articles and talks from Dr. William Craig. Click to read the writing on The Resurrection of Jesus. | Reasonable Faith. This case depends on just 4 facts, that are accepted by all qualified scholars (including atheists), and Gary explains in that video (and his book) how he can establish all of them without appealing at any point to the Bible.

The Historian’s Problem

NT Wright’s case is stronger, and he explains it as “the river the historian has to cross.” You might not have read this yet, but it is worth sitting down with and reading it to understand how historians think about this. Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem The historical problem is the bizarre features of the rise of Christianity. Messianic movements were very common at the time, and serve as an uncommonly rigorous cultural control.

We know how messianic movements go in this culture. We do not have to suppose. We have several controls to watch. We know what they claimed and what they did and what happened when their leaders were executed or died. Jesus’s ministry, in many ways, is roughly similar to these movements (judged from a far). Then he is executed, and everything changes. We see cloistered and orthodox Jews now:

  1. instituting a symbolic blood drinking ceremony
  2. welcoming Gentiles into their homes and eating with them as family
  3. in the case of Paul, going from violent persecution of followers of Jesus, to an accepted central leader alongside the other apostles (and this is attested to outside the Bible)
  4. no one tries to make James, on of Jesus’s brothers, the replacement Messiah, as most other movements did.
  5. in fact James, his brother, becomes of follower of Jesus after Jesus dies.

I could go on, but that is not the point. These are all well attested facts, and most do not require the Bible to establish. We know, for example, that communion was an early ritual in the Church. We know that Paul was persecuting Christians, and (1) was suddenly change, and (2) more surprisingly, was accepted alongside the other apostles as one of them.

The question is how did all this happen? What took place that changed the direction of this small band out powerless outcasts, and even some of their persecutors, and then ended up touching (for better or for worse) the entire globe? That is the historical “river” that must be crossed. NT Wright argues, convincingly to his peers, is tht the only thing that comes even close to parsimoniously (remember Ockam’s razor?) explaining this is the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. I think he is right.

The Harvard Philosopher

Check out this 10 minute clip with NT Wright and Sean Kelly, the chair of the Harvard Philosophy department, and an atheist. Sean Kelly gets the challenge that Wright is proposing. He doesn’t have an answer for it. He isn’t willing to go so far as the Resurrection, because that is absurd. Still, he is puzzled. That is what the evidence around Resurrection does, it brings us to this question.

We Saw Him Too

One other piece of evidence can come too, but it is private evidence. There is this point where we can perceive a real presence in the world that is neither conjured by us, or controlled by us. I’ve seen that real presence. You might also appreciate @sygarte story of how he came to know this was true as an atheist science professor. He writes of how Jesus came to him dreams. He was not raised as a Christian. This was not indoctrination. He was 40 years old. He just encountered something, and it changed him. It is a short read, and I hope you take a look.

I also have seen things. It is the all these things together that convince me that God reveals Himself by raising this man Jesus from the dead. Through this act in history, I’m convinced that He exists, is good, and wants to be known.

Clarity on Evolution

I’ll add, also, coming to trust Jesus was a key step in my path to understanding and affirming evolution. It was by encountering Jesus that I was able to leave ID, and understand it as a false place in which to put my trust. It is really though understanding the Resurrection that I came to confident faith, and was able to see without fear the truth of evolutionary science.

I understand that there are many Christians clinging to pseudoscience, so it is hard to trust what they say. My issue them is with the science, just like you. However, it is more than just science that they get wrong. It seems to me they are misunderstanding something import about Jesus too. Not everyone who calls themselves a Christian is trusting Jesus. That is what I found out, and when I got this straight, evolution became very easy to understand.

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For me, personally, the resurrection is the single most compelling aspect of my faith. I may struggle with other challenging texts or events, but the resurrection is air tight for me. There is honestly no explanation for the behavior of the apostles before vs. after Christ’s death except that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The human response to his being arrested was exactly what we would expect. Nothing in the narrative thereafter can be explained rationally apart from the resurrection. That those grown men ran and hid at his arrest, but then were emboldened to such a degree that they preached the gospel to the point of being hung, stoned, dragged to death, cut in two, crucified, etc., cannot be explained in any other way. One can, of course, discount the account in the New Testament, but they are then left with the explosive growth of the church itself within a generation of Jesus resurrection as evidence.

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I resist attempts to make me watch videos more than attempt to get me to read text. Old-fashioned, perhaps. Can you just summarize how Tacitus and Josephus argue for resurrection?

Then I will rephrase. Only someone who already believes or who really wants to find an excuse to believe will find it convincing. As far as I know, Collins was not convinced by historical evidence; he came to belief from personal experience. Don’t know about Hutchinson. But you seem to have a pattern here of referring to irrelevancies to make your point.

Yes. It has nothing to do with the subject, which is evidence for resurrection.

All based on assuming the truth of the gospels.

Not compelling either. The rise of Islam was quicker, the rise of Buddhism more widespread (until modern times, at least). That Christianity was an outlier among messianic movements in the area, at the time, is not evidence of resurrection. Most of those are well attested facts, but none of them point to resurrection.

What peers, exactly? Was Wright a non-Christian forced by the facts to this hypothesis?

Can we agree that there are other explanations for this private evidence other than the resurrection of Jesus? Could we not find examples of such personal conversion stories for any religion? And if so, how do you account for them? The angel Gabriel dictated the Quran to Mohammed; how can you fail to accept that as evidence that Islam is the one true religion?

I accept that your personal experience convinces you. But I hope you can agree that it does not and, more importantly, should not convince me.

That’s alien to my experience, and I don’t even understand how that would make sense. But sure, whatever works.

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Then you also accept that the success of Mormonism can be explained only by the clear truth of Joseph Smith’s visitation by the angel Moroni and finding of the golden tablets. Right? This same argument is made for most other religions.

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No, I do not. I am aware of the philosophical weakness of the evidence that I shared with you. Others have believed other things and died. The example of the behavioral change of the early Mormons is in no way similar to the change in behavior of the apostles. I think that you can see that.

What I shared with you is my personal tipping point. I came from disbelief to belief and this was one of the reasons. There were many others, too, but most had to do with the behavior of those who had met Him. He changes people in ways that one would never expect. That said, everyone has a personal tolerance for belief. My wife requires no evidence whatsoever. She’s not even interested when evidence is presented, because she knows Jesus Christ.

You know an incredible amount about science and evolution in particular. I watched from the outside during the “did man come from monkeys” thread. A dozen people looking at the same information, trying to determine the response to a yes/no question. It wasn’t easy. Some had decided yes, others no. You carried the conversation to its conclusion and made a really compelling argument at the end. There was a formula to your logic. A path that you followed, you stepped through the obstacles, clearing them out of the way, one by one, and, in the end, I think that most or all agreed with you.

So, be patient with me here… Let me ask you a question. Assume you are willing to accept that God may exist. Do you think that there is a scientific analysis, experiment or set of equations that can prove as much in the scientific realm? My guess is that you would say “no.” I would agree. He’s a being, and he’s an extraordinary one-off. He’s not going to be found in an equation.

The same thing is so with the resurrection. It seems as though you are trying to fit it into an experiment to see if it can be proved. It is an extraordinary event, that has been tested and failed billions of times, every time someone dies. Everyone who accepts that Jesus Christ beat death understands that this does not normally happen, but it did once.

I would suggest that you soften your heart and open your mind. We’re not talking about science here. We’re talking about a relationship. When you sense a hesitation to watching video clips that may be compelling, push through. There’s a whole, undiscovered world out there that is waiting for you, and you will be amazed.

No, I can’t.

Your guess is correct, as far as it goes. First, “prove” isn’t what science does. Second, “god” is not a well-formed hypothesis, and as such is not subject to test. There are a variety of well-formed hypotheses of gods, some of which can be tested. Those that can be tested, at least those I know of, can be rejected with high confidence. I don’t know whether your particular god can be tested, but I do find a lot of those ideas internally inconsistent.

Your reasons for “no” are quite different from mine. There’s no reason a unique being couldn’t have detectable consequences, so that has no force for me.

Again, “proved” is not something science (or history, considered as science-like) does. The question is whether there’s objective evidence for the resurrection. I don’t find your evidence to be valid. You do, but I think that has more to do with your desire to believe than anything compelling in the evidence itself.

My hesitation isn’t because they may be compelling. I just don’t like the medium, compared to text. I’m also not interested in being proselytized. But thanks anyway.

Different people have different ways of arriving at truth. My way is through evidence and reason, or so I imagine. If God wants to convince me of something, he’ll need to follow that route. And so would you, if you’re his instrument. So far, I don’t see much of that.

I wasn’t suggesting that your hesitation was because they may be compelling. I was suggesting that they may be compelling, and if you are honestly curious, you might get some insight that helps to answer your question.

That’s really the point that I was trying to make. There are many aspects of this pursuit. Review the “man from monkeys” conversation. I would have expected that with an aspect as important as the descent of man, you’d all have the same canned response. In the end, there was nearly utter disagreement as to whether or not man descended from monkeys.

This is a similarly central point for Christianity. Many people grapple with it in many ways. They come to a conclusion that meets their needs and expectations. You certainly can choose to watch or not, but the answers to the questions you pose may be found there, and you simply may miss them if you don’t.