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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