Torley Presents Alter's Case Against the Resurrection

Hi @dga471,

Thank you for your reply. I’d like to address the key points you raised.

I certainly don’t think any sort of apologetical argument is sufficient to conclusively prove the case for Christianity, such that non-Christians would be irrational to reject it.

Proof is certainly too strong a word, but apologists like William Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne have claimed that they can demonstrate the truth of the Resurrection with a high degree of probability. Swinburne even puts it at 97%. If the figure really is that high, then it would be irrational of a non-Christian to disbelieve in the Resurrection. Craig appears to agree.

And there’s former atheist-turned-apologist J. Warner Wallace, who (according to the blurb on the back of his book, Cold-Case Christianity, came to realize that “the case for Christianity was as convincing as any case he’s ever worked on as a detective.” That’s a pretty strong claim.

And finally, here’s a quote from the apologist George Campbell, author of A Dissertation on Miracles (1762):

God has neither in natural nor reveal’d religion, left himself without a witness; but has in both given moral and external evidence, sufficient to convince the impartial, to silence the gainsayer, and to render the atheist and the unbeliever without excuse. This evidence it is our duty to attend to, and candidly to examine. We must prove all things, as we are expressly enjoin’d in holy writ, if we would ever hope to hold fast that which is good.

“Without excuse.” That sounds pretty clear to me.

The discussion about the correct interpretation of the Eucharist is an in-house debate among Christians who already have a high view of Scripture, accepted based on faith.

Quite so; but I’m not talking about the interpretation of the Eucharist. I’m a Catholic, and I believe in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. But the question of whether Jesus said, “This is my body … This is my blood” at the Last Supper is not an in-house question but a historical one, to which I answer: probably not, for reasons explained in my OP. I also quoted Catholic priest Professor Robert J. Daly , S.J., who argues that Jesus did indeed institute the Eucharist, but that it was not the Eucharist as we know it, and that it took many generations of guidance from the Holy Spirit for the Eucharist to reach its current form.

I cannot see why this should scandalize Christians in general, or even Catholics. After all, the central dogmas of Christianity are surely the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Atonement. But it is widely acknowledged (and has been known since the days of the Jesuit scholar, Petavius) that the early Church Fathers were not orthodox on the subject of the Trinity: nothing like an orthodox position emerged until the fourth century. Why is it so difficult to accept that the Christian doctrine of the Eucharist underwent a similar evolution, over the first and second centuries?

For all of the 17 incidents that I’ve given some thought, P(S1) is at worst 50-50 to me.

Let’s look at that list of 17 incidents again.

a. Was the Last Supper a Passover meal? And did Jesus tell his disciples to drink blood?
b. Did Jesus die on the Jewish Passover?
c. Do the Gospels accurately represent Jesus trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin?
d. Was Pontius Pilate reluctant to convict Jesus?
e. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and subsequent death
f. The chief priests’ mockery of Jesus on the Cross
g. The story of the good thief: fact or fiction?
h. Jesus’ last words on the Cross: fact or fiction?
i. Did Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple stand at the foot of the Cross?
j. The three hours of darkness: fact or fiction?
k. The earthquake at Jesus’ death: fact or fiction?
l. Was the Veil of the Temple torn in two?
m. Were Jewish saints raised at Jesus’ death?
n. Blood and water from Jesus’ side?
o. Was Jesus buried in a new rock tomb?
p. Was there a Guard at Jesus’ tomb?
q. The women visiting Jesus’ tomb on Sunday: does the story add up?

Seriously? The probability of a highly illegal night trial at Caiaphas’ residence is 50%? The probability that Pilate would be reluctant to condemn a man accused of advocating insurrection and non-payment of taxes to death is 50%? The probability that the Romans would have allowed a male disciple or a member of the family of an accused political criminal to stand at the foot of the cross is 50%? The probability of Jewish saints being raised to life at someone’s death is 50%? The probability of a guard being placed at the tomb of a crucified man, to make sure he doesn’t rise again, is 50%? Seriously???

In 3000 AD, a historian reads my diary entry for 9/29/2018, and using your method of historical reasoning, concludes that the probability of them being true is 0.1%. Thus, my diary is dated to 2150 AD, a fabricated legend made by an overzealous sect of my future disciples with faulty memory :sweat_smile: To me, that is a clear reductio ad absurdum. It shows that there is something seriously wrong with this method of historical reasoning.

Let’s go back to your original example:

Today I attended an Indonesian festival in Boston (something very rare, only happens once a year). A temperature sensor on my experimental apparatus broke (having never broken in the last 2 years). I spent two hours thinking about information theory(never did this ever - I am a physicist, not information theorist). That’s already three improbable occurrences in the life of one person on a relatively mundane day. By these standards, my diary entry would be regarded as a mythological fabrication. This is just not the way to do history.

The three events you describe have no common connection. Nor is there any obvious reason why anyone would make them up: they don’t make you look any better or worse as a human being (except perhaps for the last one), and they serve no propagandist objective. If I were an historian from the year 3000 A.D. I’d be inclined to accept them. I would, however, revise my opinion if you had recorded 30 improbable occurrences on a single day. Then I’d suspect you were a teller of tall stories.

By contrast, many of the events described in the Gospels appear to be written for an evangelistic purpose - e.g. the earthquake, the sky turning dark, the story of blood and water, and so on. They were written to show that Jesus is the Son of God. So if I were a historian and I found a large number of antecedently improbable stories all relating to a single day, as well as a plausible motive for why these stories might have been invented, I would be inclined to suspect that these stories were not historical.

Again, Vincent, can you show to me that your criteria doesn’t completely destroy much of our knowledge of the ancient world?

See my remarks above about the absence of a propagandist objective, and the absence of a reason for the story to have been made up.

There needs to be a more nuanced way of dealing with evidence, one that apparently neither of us have a full grasp on.

I appreciate your intellectual humility. Personally, I think historians can make legitimate use of Bayes’ theorem (and also inference to the best explanation) when assessing the credibility of a piece of evidence.

Did you actually read all of the sources he [Alter] cites on both sides? … As you yourself admit that you don’t have a degree in NT studies, nor have you made any original contributions to the field, I can’t just trust you nor Alter about the state of NT studies.

As I’ve mentioned on my OP, I live an hour from Tokyo and I work seven days a week. There’s no opportunity for me to look at books in English anymore. Thus I have to rely on Internet searches.

In my case, I was able to check the reference to C. K. Barrett, and the Rabbinic sources cited by Alter. I have to assume that the rest of the material quoted by Michael Alter was genuine.

Are you claiming that NT Wright is not an impartial historian? Craig? Keener? Licona? McGrew? Blomberg? Why are Casey, Barrett, and Ehrman impartial historians, but not these people?

Neither of the McGrews is a historian.Nor is Dr. William Lane Craig. The others I’d be prepared to count.

A broad historical consensus means something. On the 17 specific matters I raised in my OP, there is a historical consensus that some of them didn’t occur. We should pay attention to this consensus.

Hi @dga471,

You write:

By the way @vjtorley are you aware of Plantinga’s 2006 argument for dwindling probabilities against historical evidentialist apologetics? I just came across it and it sounds like a more sophisticated form of the “multiplication by priors” that you are implicitly using in this review. I’m really interested to learn more about it. The McGrews have already responded to and dialogued with Plantinga over this.

The overall thrust of the argument that Dr. Tim McGrew formulated (and that Dr. Lydia McGrew has also publicly defended) is that as the evidence for religious belief stacks up, and new evidence emerges, the probability of God’s existence will also be boosted. But that’s irrelevant to Michael Alter’s argument, since he explicitly lists the existence of the God of the Hebrew Bible as one of his background assumptions. You can’t get any fairer than that.

3 posts were split to a new topic: Michael Alter: Discusses His Argument Against the Resurrection

What, other than your own conviction and the New Testament texts, supports that claim?


For the purposes of convincing sceptics on the validity of Christian dogma (admittedly using myself as an example), I don’t see the need for concern. Whether the historicity is capable of being supported by evidence or not has no bearing on Jesus’ divinity or the existence of the Christian god. This is a matter of cultural heritage and emotional need - not evidence.


I live in Taiwan, and much the same is true. There seems to be a cultural disposition towards accepting the reality of purported supernatural events. Or perhaps it’s that we have the opposite disposition :slight_smile: Seeing Christian congregations here, it does give you a bit of a perspective on the idea of a new religion gaining ground in a pagan society.

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Hi Joshua,

For the benefit of readers, I’d just like to clarify what a Gish gallop is. RationalWiki defines it as follows:

The Gish Gallop (also known as proof by verbosity [1]) is the fallacious debate tactic of drowning your opponent in a flood of individually-weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort. The Gish Gallop is a belt-fed version of the on the spot fallacy, as it’s unreasonable for anyone to have a well-composed answer immediately available to every argument present in the Gallop. The Gish Gallop is named after creationist Duane Gish, who often abused it.

Wikipedia defines it more succinctly:

The Gish gallop is a technique used during debating that focuses on overwhelming an opponent with as many arguments as possible, without regard for accuracy or strength of the arguments. The term was coined by Eugenie C. Scott and named after the creationist Duane T. Gish, who used the technique frequently against proponents of evolution.

Wikipedia continues:

During a Gish gallop, a debater confronts an opponent with a rapid series of many specious arguments, half-truths, and misrepresentations in a short space of time, which makes it impossible for the opponent to refute all of them within the format of a formal debate.[3][4] In practice, each point raised by the “Gish galloper” takes considerably more time to refute or fact-check than it did to state in the first place.[5] The technique wastes an opponent’s time and may cast doubt on the opponent’s debating ability for an audience unfamiliar with the technique, especially if no independent fact-checking is involved[6] or if the audience has limited knowledge of the topics.

Here’s an example of what a “Gish gallop” looks like.

Readers will note that the Gish gallop is a debating tactic, which is deliberately designed to score as many points as possible over a short space of time. To speak of a book as employing a “Gish gallop” makes little sense - especially when the book in question is a lengthy tome, of some 912 pages, which takes months to adequately digest. (I know, because it took me months to condense the arguments I liked best into an online format that readers could peruse at their leisure.) And even my condensed version took up some 50,000 words. That’s hardly a gallop - especially when I explicitly stated at the beginning of my review:

WARNING: This will be a very lengthy review, which few people will have time to read in its entirety. For readers whose time is very limited, here’s a brief, 5,000-word executive summary, which will be followed by a main menu that allows readers to navigate their way around the review, as they please, although I would ask serious readers to at least peruse Section A. There is no need to rush: I don’t mind waiting a few days for people’s comments.

In his book, Michael Alter identifies some 120 contradictions and engages in 217 speculations (which he freely acknowledges are “nothing more than speculations” [2015, p. xlvi] over the space of 746 pages, excluding the extensive Bibliography). He quotes mostly from mainstream Biblical scholars, and his discussion is thorough. Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to call it a “Gish gallop.”


There are many types of Gish Gallop. It does not always take place in formal debate: This is the part that I think applies. It need not take place in a short space of time.

In written debate

“”Cite a giant wall of text, or a three hour long [Y]ou[T]ube video, and then claim it as irrefutable proof.

And… repeat.

In written form, a Gish Gallop is most commonly observed as a long list of supposed facts or reasons, as a pamphlet or green ink web page, with a title that proudly boasts the number of reasons involved — see the examples below. The individual points must also be fairly terse, so that each point individually can be easy to refute. Writing a single paragraph or two to refute, say “How come there are still monkeys?” is easy enough. But combined, a Gish Gallop might run to the same length as an essay of several thousand words, as each point requires in-depth deconstruction, refutation and evidence, whereas the initial assertion needs to be just that, an assertion.

To supporters, the illusion works, but those who disagree with the Galloper’s points often find the repetitive assertions and non-explanations tedious.

What Exactly Is Your Point?

You write (and @dga471 quotes):

If this was your goal all along. Well, I think @dga471 and I agreed with it long before you made your case. The Resurrection does not box anyone into belief. What ever the evident basis for it, we can’t get around the biggest loophole of all. It is absurd to think that a man rose from the dead. It is always rational to look for a better a explanation.

It seems you are putting an unreasonable evidential standard on the Resurrection. As I’ve said before, the precisely same thing can be said about arguments for evolution, and is. There are always loopholes, especially when there is no rigor or standards applied to the reasoning process. I do not expect to box anyone on in with an argument for Evolution or for the Ressurection.

I concur with @dga471 here.

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This is false.


@colewd and I agree.


What? That the vast majority of religious believers follow the religion of their cultural group? That religious experience is, at heart, an emotional one? Is it a coincidence that people generally go with the religion they are raised in? Is it a coincidence some of the most powerful art, music and so on is such an essential element in religious ritual?


I can’t speak for @colewd, but I can say it is those things and more. It also includes evidence and reaches to those not raised with our faith. With out evidence, I would not be a Christian. I would not follow Jesus.

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What you claim is true in certain cases but the faith of 30% of the worlds population is also based on evidence of a created universe and historical evidence that God incarnate visited us 2000 years ago.

The evidence is quite compelling if you look at all of it and don’t play the cherry pick game with certain pieces of it.


I don’t consider it my job to persuade anyone out of the religious faith they hold. I also think peace is better than war, that multi-faith secularism can work with goodwill on all sides. I accept that many find religious faith comforting and consoling.

That said, I do find the claim that evidence supports religious belief an odd one. Both for the fact that once you eliminate hearsay and (in the case of Christianity) Biblical texts, there is none. And if Jesus’ ideas make sense, then the trappings, the embellishments, don’t matter a jot. I may be an odd fish but it’s not that I’m not intellectually curious (to an extent) about the influence religious belief has had and still has on the history and politics of humans, I just have no emotional need myself and find it hard to understand it in others. Such discussions - on the emotional aspect of religious belief - are doomed to failure due to the mutual lack of comprehension. The solution is to guarantee everyone’s personal space. But if you voice a public opinion, you can’t complain when you are challenged, especially when the word “evidence” crops up…


Perhaps a little sweeping! “A solution…”


Evidence of a created Universe? Well, there’s evidence that the Universe was once much hotter, denser and smaller. A reasonable supposition is that it was once either a singularity or nearly so. There’s no evidence any supernatural powers were involved but none that they weren’t. But linking these events to the Christian God is just story-telling.

As I keep saying, there’s no evidence regarding the veracity of any of the many versions of Christianity other than hearsay and text. There’s nothing to link Jesus, as a single or composite historical figure - maybe with a nub of historical fact, to the events of the early Universe. But I’m not asking for any - as I don’t see the relevance. As I keep saying, if Jesus makes sense, the miraculous claims are unnecessary - if he doesn’t, no amount of supernatural embellishment is going to improve the story.


In that case, our viewpoints may turn out to be very similar, after all.

Let me make it more concrete, by focusing on the burial of Jesus. There are five possibilities:

  1. Jesus didn’t get a proper burial at all. Pilate never handed over the body; it was just dumped in a pit, along with those of other crucified criminals. (This is Professor Bart Ehrman’s thesis, and he backs it up by arguing that we have no historical record of a person executed as a political criminal [as Jesus was] being disposed of in any other way.)
  2. Jesus’ body was handed over to the Jewish chief priests and leaders (including Joseph of Arimathea), who gave him a dishonorable burial in a dirt grave. No family members were present, and there were no mourners.
  3. Jesus’ body was handed over to the Jewish chief priests and leaders (including Joseph of Arimathea), who wanted to give him a dishonorable burial in a dirt grave, but ran out of time before the Jewish Sabbath, so they placed his body in someone’s family tomb, as a temporary measure, planning to bury it later on. Once again, no family members were present, and there were no mourners.
  4. Pilate handed Jesus’ body over to a private individual, Joseph of Arimathea, who, in opposition to the wishes of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus in his own rock tomb. Because it was a family tomb, there would have been other bodies inside the tomb as well.
  5. Pilate handed Jesus’ body over to a private individual, Joseph of Arimathea, who, in opposition to the wishes of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus in his own rock tomb. Because it was a new tomb, there were no other bodies inside the tomb as well.

As I argued in my OP, on purely historical grounds, 1 is the most likely scenario, 2 is nevertheless quite possible, as is 3, 4 is altogether unlikely, while 5 is extremely unlikely. But here’s the thing: Christian Resurrection apologetics is all about trying to demonstrate scenario 5, which is the least likely scenario. Without scenario 5, the argument for the empty tomb falls flat. For if scenarios 1 or 2 are true then there was no tomb, and if 3 or 4 are true, then there was a tomb, but it wasn’t empty: there were other bodies inside as well. Alter’s book points out this fact, as well as many others.

Now ask yourself: do you really think the evidence for scenario 5 is as strong as the evidence for evolution?

Personally, I’m inclined to favor scenario 3, as it would explain the Gospel traditions about Joseph of Arimathea and the tomb. But I certainly wouldn’t consider scenario 3 historically probable; at most, I’d say it’s possible. And I certainly wouldn’t say the evidence for it compares with the evidence for evolution.

I’d appreciate hearing your take on this issue, Joshua.

I am inclined to favor scenario 1 as it is the most likely one considering the man was just executed as some Jewish radical. It was just another day’s work in hellhole Judea for the Roman soldiers.

19 posts were merged into an existing topic: Alter on The Resurrection: Take Two

29 posts were merged into an existing topic: Torley on The Resurrection: Take Two