Vincent Torley's Response to Loke's Argument for the Resurrection

Hi @dga471,

Thanks for the heads-up. I might write a response over at The Skeptical Zone, but I have a few different projects going on at the moment. I’ll just make a few very brief comments here, based on my very quick overview of the book. I apologize in advance if I fail to do Loke’s argument justice.

To his credit, @Andrew_Loke delineates the alternative possibilities very ably, when it comes to explaining the resurrection appearances and accounts of the empty tomb. Loke’s novel move is to argue that we don’t need to calculate a prior probability for a supernatural event like the resurrection of Jesus; all we need to show is that the alternative hypotheses have a total probability which is much lower than 1. Mathematically, I think that’s a sound approach.

Another thing I liked about Loke’s book is that he has read very widely (his bibliography lists approximately 500 references, many of them recent), and he is fair to his opponents.

A third point in Loke’s favor is that he is a trained philosopher - a useful asset in an apologist, and one which undoubtedly helps sharpen the book’s reasoning.

And now to the book’s weaknesses. These are as follows:

  1. Loke is not widely read when it comes to Jewish critics of the resurrection of Jesus. As these are, in my experience, among the very best. Jewish critics are well-informed on the historical background of the Gospels, which depict events occurring in first-century Palestine. Unfortunately, the Gospels also contain some statements which betray their authors’ ignorance of Jewish Passover and burial customs. Many of these have been highlighted by Michael Alter in his 2015 work, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, which I have reviewed previously. (Two more volumes are in the pipeline.)

  2. Loke relies heavily on hypothetical reasoning, regarding what the disciples (and for that matter, the Jewish leaders) would or would not have done. For example, he writes on p. 165 (emphasis mine):

“Indeed, as argued in Chapter 4, the Twelve would have required pretty ‘solid’ evidence—such as repeated, multi-sensorial experiences of ‘Jesus’— to persuade themselves and their audience that what they saw was a bodily resurrected Jesus and not a hallucination, a ghost, or a vision (cf. Wright 2007, pp. 210–211) and to come to agreement among themselves that this was the case.”

I strongly object to this kind of “coulda-woulda-shoulda” reasoning. We don’t know that at all. What we do know is that first-century Jews did not normally regard ghosts or visions as resurrected beings. But if the tomb of Jesus were already known to be empty, and if some of the disciples had had an apparition of Jesus, and if Jesus Himself had previously predicted his post-mortem vindication by God (see Mark 8:31-33, Mark 9:9-10), who’s to say what inference the disciples might have drawn?

  1. Loke’s case for the empty tomb being opened supernaturally is critically dependent on the claim that the tomb of Jesus was guarded. Thus on pp. 141-142 he writes (emphases mine):

The presence of guards would also make it unreasonable to think that friends, enemies, or a neutral third party would risk getting caught stealing the body for any reason and did so successfully (contrary to removal by friends/enemies/neutral party hypotheses). Contrary to the removal by nonagent hypothesis, it would be unreasonable to think that animals or earthquakes removed Jesus’ body without the guards preventing or suspecting it. Contrary to the swoon hypothesis, a severely wounded Jesus would hardly have been able to overcome the guards and escape from the tomb, while the escape hypothesis has been refuted in the previous chapter. I conclude that no naturalistic hypothesis reasonably accounts for what happened to the body of Jesus on the first Easter morning.”

All I will say here is that the vast majority of Biblical scholars don’t buy the story (found only in Matthew) of the guard at the tomb. As Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman put it in a comment attached to a 2015 blog article of his, “what I can say is that the guard story is almost everywhere taken by critical scholars to be an invention of either Matthew or his community to try to “verify” that Jesus’ really was raised from the dead.” I have already explained why I don’t buy the guard story in my article, Why there probably wasn’t a guard at Jesus’ tomb over at The Skeptical Zone (March 3, 2019), in response to Professor Tim McGrew.

I should add that even resurrection apologists Mike Licona are willing to allow that the story of the guard may be fictional. Building a case for the resurrection of Jesus based on evidence provided by a single source (usually dated at over fifty years after Jesus’ death) is a dangerous move.

  1. Loke is also mistaken regarding hallucinations. On page 110, he writes:

“Second, without a corresponding external stimulation of the relevant sensory organ, the mental states internal to each person within a group of people would not agree on various details concerning their experience of the external world. Indeed, collective hallucinations are not found in peer reviewed medical literature (Bergeron and Habermas 2015).”

In reply, I’d like to quote from an article by Christian apologist Jake O’Connell, titled, Jesus’ Resurrection and Collective Hallucinations (Tyndale Bulletin 60.1, 2009), which is actually listed in Loke’s bibliography! After an exhaustive review of the literature, O’Connell concludes (emphasis mine):

The popular argument that the resurrection appearances could not have been hallucinations because collective hallucinations are impossible should be abandoned; for an examination of the group religious visions considered above reveals that collective hallucinations, while certainly unusual events, have occurred.”

The main reason why O’Connell is skeptical of the hallucination hypothesis is that if Jesus’ disciples had hallucinated their risen Lord, they would have seen him in a glorious state, as a luminous being, but the Gospel accounts show that they didn’t. Jesus looked normal. O’Connell concludes: “Because the Gospels present us with purely non-glorious appearances, the appearances could have been hallucinations only if, between the time of Paul’s authorship of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and the writing of the Gospels, glorious appearances were lost in the process of transmitting traditions.” That’s an interesting argument, but it’s quite different from Loke’s.

  1. In eliminating rival supernatural hypotheses (e.g. maybe Satan raised Jesus from the dead, making the resurrection a case of demonic deception), Loke argues firstly that only God, the Creator of the universe, could raise a dead body back to life (which is a valid point, but a demon could certainly produce a false vision, as Loke himself admits, which means that if there’s a natural explanation for the empty tomb, his first argument is unsuccessful); and second, Loke approvingly cites Swinburne’s argument that “the God who created the universe would not have permitted such a massive deception in the case of Jesus” (p. 191). I have to say that although I find it very hard to take the “demonic” hypothesis seriously, nevertheless, I’m wary of the kind of argument Swinburne puts forward, when it’s expressed in probabilistic logic. Had you asked a Christian living in the sixth century whether it was likely that a rival religion would overrun nearly all of the Christian world, he/she might well have answered, “God would not permit that.” But He did, as the rise of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries shows. We Christians should keep in mind that Jews view our faith as a perversion of Judaism, just as many Christians view Islam as a perversion of Jewish and Christian teachings.

To sum up: it seems to me that Loke has not proved his case. Nevertheless, I will say that his treatment of the resurrection is the most rigorous I have seen so far from a Christian apologist, and it deserves full marks for effort, as well as for the author’s courteous tone.

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I agree that Loke doesn’t consider O’Connell’s full argument and probably should have, but on the other hand, O’Connell’s paper was published in a theology journal, not a medical or psychological journal. I don’t know if the possible cases of collective hallucinations he found from historical accounts would be considered enough evidence to be published there.

OK, but don’t you also endorse the argument along the lines that Christianity is likely to be true because it has spread all over the world, transformed history, and has the most number of adherents? That seems similar in spirit to Swinburne’s argument. I agree that Swinburne’s particular argument is not going to be persuasive to anyone who is not already a Christian.

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For the record, I don’t think that the scholarship in this book merits response from Loke.

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Can you say something about why?

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Hi @dga471,

OK, but don’t you also endorse the argument along the lines that Christianity is likely to be true because it has spread all over the world, transformed history, and has the most number of adherents? That seems similar in spirit to Swinburne’s argument. I agree that Swinburne’s particular argument is not going to be persuasive to anyone who is not already a Christian.

I agree that the success of Christianity enhances its credibility - especially the way in which it has reshaped our ethical standards over the past 2,000 years. However, I’d avoid placing too much weight on numbers, as Muslims are predicted to overtake Christians later this century, around the year 2050, and may have outnumbered Christians at some time between 1000 and 1600 A.D. (see footnote 2). Let’s just say that Christianity’s size warrants it being taken seriously by anyone who believes (as Jews, Christians and Muslims do) that at least the broad outlines of human history are influenced by the hand of God.

Hi @swamidass

For the record, I don’t think that the scholarship in this book merits response from Loke.

I don’t think it would be profitable to rehash the many debates on the merits of Alter’s book, The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, that have been hosted on this Website. Alter himself makes no claim to be a scholar, but it should be noted that Dr. David Mishkin, (PhD, University of Pretoria), a Messianic Jew who serves on the faculty of Israel College of the Bible in Netanya, Israel and who is the author of Jewish Scholarship on the Resurrection of Jesus (Pickwick Publications, 2017), mentions Alter in his volume and devotes three pages to his book. Let me add that Alter’s recent work, A Thematic Access-Oriented Bibliography of Jesus’s Resurrection, was highly praised by Gary R. Habermas and Gerald O’Collins S.J.

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How are we supposed to know that only god could raise a dead body back to life, but not demons?

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That’s an entirely unjustifiable presumption. Christianity just happens to have been the religion held by the majority of people of the colonial and imperial powers that have dominated world history over that time. In the areas where those empires had little sway, neither did Christianity.

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Alter’s book shouldn’t be taken seriously because it is an 800 page exercise in throwing as much stuff as possible at the wall and seeing what sticks. Contra Torley, the sources Alter relies on are outdated, and being Jewish gives you no special insight into 1st century practices in Palestine. As far as I remember most or all of the modern sources Alter uses in support of these particular claims are non-Jewish scholars, plus his treatment of ancient Jewish sources is fairly literal and totally uncritical.

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Hi @evograd,

How are we supposed to know that only god could raise a dead body back to life, but not demons?

Raising a dead body back to life would entail a massive violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. While it’s reasonable to assume that the Creator of the laws of the universe can also break them on those occasions when He sees necessary, the same assumption doesn’t hold for other beings, such as demons.

Hi @Faizal_Ali,

Christianity just happens to have been the religion held by the majority of people of the colonial and imperial powers that have dominated world history over that time.

Religions don’t continue to hold sway over a large section of the globe for 2,000 years unless their answers to life’s big questions resonate with large numbers of people. Remember: ancient Rome had its own state-funded Imperial religion, but it died out. Of course, the longevity and broad appeal of Christianity doesn’t make it true, but it does make it worth considering. Other religions I’d say are worth considering include Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Islam.

Hi @Freakazoid,

I don’t propose to get into an argument regarding the merits of Alter’s book. Been there, done that. Suffice to say that a graduate of Talbot Theological Seminary who is also a conservative Evangelical Christian had a different opinion of the book from yours. Here’s another favorable review by “a scientist, attorney, and Southern Baptist by confirmation.” Two more books of Alter’s are coming out soon, and we’ll see what kind of reception they get. Cheers.

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That’s the only point I wished to make. Thanks.

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What about Maxwell’s demon?

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Why is that reasonable to assume? If you believe demons exist In some form but can’t break the physical laws of the universe like thermodynamics, how else are they supposed to exist/interact with the physical world? How is anyone supposed to know any of this anyway? This is all a bit like arguing whether Optimus Prime could beat Voldemort in a fight, don’t you think?

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Vincent, couldn’t the Creator delegate such power to some of his creations? (I make this purely as a side-point, in response to just this one of your statements; no disagreement with anything else you argue here is implied.)

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Fair question, Eddie, but see my remarks above in response to evograd. Which option do you prefer? Or would you say: “None of the above?”

That’s a very good question, and to my mind, it’s the weightiest philosophical argument against the existence of angels and demons. I’ve been pondering the same question myself, recently. Of course, one could maintain that angels and demons exist, but are powerless to affect us in any way. That’s one possibility. But in that case, Occam’s razor would render their existence superfluous. Another possibility is that they can only affect us indirectly, by asking God to act on their behalf - but that would mean that God sometimes acts at the behest of demons. A third possibility is that material objects just happen to have the basic, built-in property of being responsive to the wishes of an angel or demon (whatever those wishes may be), because God designed them that way - but if you believe that, then it’s equally rational to believe in magic wands that respond to the wishes of their owners (think Harry Potter). It also means that material objects possess psychic properties - in which case, they’re not really material. Surely, the essence of materiality is being law-governed, rather than whim-governed. So, to sum up: I’m genuinely at a loss to say how angels and demons fit into the scheme of things, assuming they are real.

They inhabit two different (fictional) worlds, so neither can beat the other. And if angels exist, it seems that they inhabit a different world from ours - unless I have erred in my reasoning somewhere.

This is just science fiction speculation from me, but one could imagine that demons and angels are beings that interact with the world in a way that may appear to violate the 2nd law, but not really. For example, perhaps the nature of their interaction with the physical world is such that there is a mechanism that dumps the excess entropy somewhere else, such as into the surrounding environment, or into some parallel universe. My point is that the 2nd law is very general and without stipulating additional restrictions, you can think of ways that the other regular laws of nature are “suspended” while still technically following the second law.

In fact, some such as @PdotdQ would go further and hold that all “miracles”, including those performed by God, have a natural explanation. The manipulation occurs at the level of initial conditions, not the laws themselves.

I would clarify by saying that while I do think that all miracles have natural explanations. Manipulation at the level of initial conditions is just one way that this can happen. I am not saying that this is the only way.

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Sorry, Vincent, I can’t see above where you pose a list of options for evograd. Can you quote me the passage where you give the list, so I can answer your question?

Hi @dga471 and @PdotdQ,

Just a few quick responses.

Re how God does miracles: fixing the initial conditions of the cosmos might be one way of doing it, but only in a deterministic universe. As we possess libertarian free will, that’s not an option, unless the miracle relates to a remote system that humans have no power to causally influence (e.g. the Star of Bethlehem, assuming that there was one). It wouldn’t work for the miracle at Cana, for instance, because the very existence of the wine jars (let alone the wine), or even the occurrence of the wedding, are all undetermined events: there was nothing at the moment of Creation to guarantee that they would happen. (I should add that as regards Divine foreknowledge, I’m a Boethian, not a Molinist. If you’d like to know why, you might like to have a look at this article that I wrote, over a decade ago. Cheers.)

Incidentally, I should add that if God works miracles by tweaking the initial conditions of the universe, then angels and demons are both redundant.

Another way in which God could work miracles is suggested by the philosopher Alfred Freddoso, in a short article titled, Comment on van Inwagen’s “The Place of Chance in a World Sustained by God”, which is well worth reading.

Freddoso contrasts four positions:

(i) Strong deism (in which God’s causal role in nature is limited to creation alone);

(ii) Weak deism [a.k.a. mere conservationism] (in which God conserves entities in existence, but He is at most a remote or mediate [as opposed to immediate or direct] cause of the changes that the basic entities immediately cause in one another);

(iii) Concurrentism (in which God is an immediate cause of every effect brought about in the created universe, along with the basic entity bringing it about - so when the Sun heats you, it’s God co-operating with the Sun that heats you);

(iv) Occasionalism ( God is the only genuine efficient cause of effects, so that when a candle burns your skin, it’s really God, not the candle, that’s burning you).

Historically, most Christian philosophers have been concurrentists, with only one (Durandus) adopting the weak deist (or mere conservationist) position during the Middle Ages. Freddoso is a staunch concurrentist. So is Ed Feser, by the way. A few Christian philosophers (e.g. Malebranche and Berkeley) have been occasionalists, but this is a pretty rare position among Christians: it was far more popular with Muslim philosophers, in the Middle Ages. Aquinas thought occasionalists were stir-crazy; needless to say, he was an occasionalist.

So here’s how Freddoso explains the miracle of the fiery furnace in Daniel 3:

Think of Shadrach sitting in the fiery furnace. Here we have real human flesh exposed unprotected to real fire, and yet Shadrach survives unscathed–even though the fire is so hot that it consumes the soldiers who usher him into the furnace. How, on the weak deist view, can God save Shadrach? Only, it seems, by either (i) taking from the fire its power to consume Shadrach, which is inconsistent with the soldiers’ being incinerated but in any case amounts (or so the anti-deists all claim) to destroying the fire and in that sense overpowering it; or (ii) endowing Shadrach’s clothing and flesh with a special power of resistance, in which case God is opposing His creature, the fire; or (iii) placing some impediment (say, an invisible heat-resistant shield) between Shadrach and the flames, in which case God is yet again resisting the power of the fire. By contrast, on the occasionalist and concurrentist models, God accomplishes this miracle simply by withholding His own action . The (real) fire is, as it were, beholden to God’s word; He does not have to struggle with it or overcome it or oppose it. The fire’s natural effect cannot occur without God’s action, and in this case God chooses not to act in the way required. An elegant account, and one that does not in any way give any creature a power that God must oppose.

What do you think of this approach to miracles? It will be noted that God does not change the laws of physics, on the concurrentist picture: He simply withholds his normal co-operation with causal agents, but they retain the tendency to act in their accustomed way. Personally, I can see how this account would explain the case of Shadrach in the fiery furnace, but I’m not sure it would explain entropy reversals, such as a resurrection from the dead. I was, however, intrigued to read Daniel’s proposal that maybe “there is a mechanism that dumps the excess entropy somewhere else, such as into the surrounding environment, or into some parallel universe.”

Why wouldn’t this work for angels? Well, it’s entirely rational to suppose that all creatures have God-relative “back-end” properties - for instance, the property of having God as their Creator and Conserver. However, they don’t need to possess the additional property of being responsive to God’s will; since He is their Author, they cannot fail to be. (J.K. Rowling doesn’t need to create Harry with the additional property of being obedient to her wishes. To be sure, humans can defy their Divine Author’s wishes, which is something Harry can’t do, but that’s only when God lets us. If God decides that I’ll raise my right hand, then I will.)

But if you’re willing to suppose that angels can interact with bodies at will (as Daniel seems to be), then you have to suppose that bodies also have angel-relative properties: specifically, the psychic property of being responsive to an angel’s will. You also need to suppose that angels possess the physical property of being responsive to changes occurring in the cosmos - e.g. people’s comings and goings; natural disasters; and so on. Personally, I find the idea of bodies having psychic properties and angels having physical properties downright bizarre, as it blurs the distinction between physical and spiritual beings, and seems to entail that there’s nothing metaphysically impossible about wands that do their owner’s bidding (as in Harry Potter).

Hi @Eddie,

These are the three arguments I was referring to.

  1. Angels and demons exist, but are powerless to affect us in any way. Occam’s razor can always be invoked against this idle supposition: using the same logic, one might as well say that elves or pixies exist.

  2. Angels and demons exist, but they can only affect us indirectly , by asking God to act on their behalf. The obvious drawback of this hypothesis is that it would mean that God sometimes acts at the behest of demons, assuming they are still able to influence events occurring in the cosmos. (If they’re not, then we don’t need to worry about them.)

  3. Angels and demons are able to causally influence material objects, because these objects just happen to have the basic, built-in property of being responsive to the wishes of an angel or demon (whatever those wishes may be), as God originally designed them that way. As I’ve remarked above, if you believe that, then it’s equally rational to believe in magic wands that respond to the wishes of their owners. It also means that material objects possess psychic properties - in which case, they’re not really material. Moreover, angels and demons would need to have the physical property of being responsive to changes occurring in the cosmos.

I should point out that the Catholic Church has never dogmatically defined that angels and demons are absolutely immaterial; all it has said is that they’re spiritual creatures (Lateran Council IV, canon 1). Perhaps they are in some way embodied, after all. But that would blur the distinction between angels and aliens. Or perhaps that’s not a clear-cut distinction, after all? What do you think?

Thanks for this reference, Vincent. I will check it out. I do wish more Christians would read Boethius’s original text before they start making statements about foreknowledge. This was one of the frustrations I always had on BioLogos. People like Applegate, Louis, Falk etc. were constantly talking about divine providence, but apparently had not read a single one of the classic Christian discussions of providence, were constantly talking about the difference between Wesleyan and Calvinist perspectives on the “freedom of nature” without having read either Wesley or Calvin (on anything, let alone the freedom of nature which is a theme in neither of their writings), constantly talking about how the Church Fathers read Genesis non-literally without having read more than a handful of examples quoted out of context, etc. I know that you read texts carefully so I will have a look at what you say about Boethius.

I didn’t see this or the other options listed in your discussion with evograd above, but now that I have the list I can answer. I think I had in mind something like number 3. Surely God could have created a class of beings (whether beings of pure spirit or compounded of spirit and matter is not, I think, important to my point) who had the power to perform miracles. Indeed, at one point the Bible acknowledges the existence of human wonder-workers, who may perform miracles but are not to be listened to if they teach anything other than what Israel has already been taught. (I trust you know the passage; I guess I will have to look it up if you don’t, because I can’t quote chapter and verse, but I know it’s there.) And if human beings have the power and freedom to perform miracles, then surely God could give angels (and devils, who are fallen angels) the power to do miracles. That is what I meant by delegated power. I’m asking if you are asserting as a fact of Christian theology that only God can perform miracles. Is that what you are asserting?