This is the second instalment of my series where I look at Richard Carrier’s case against the resurrection of Jesus. The first instalment was quite some time ago, in May 2011. There I examined Carrier’s comparison of the historical evidence for the empty tomb versus the historical evidence for Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. I attempted to explain why Carrier’s rejection of that analogy was inadequate. Part three will be the most important in the series, as it addresses the argument that Carrier continually uses to bear the main load of his case. That argument is the argument that Christianity did not need an empty tomb to avoid falsification when it first began, because the first Christians, Carrier alleges, didn’t really believe that Jesus’ body had been resurrected, believing instead that Jesus had left his old body lying dead and been raised to spiritual life in a new, non-physical body. But that argument can wait, for now. In this part I will look at Carrier’s second category of argument: General Case for Insufficiency. Let’s dive right in – As it’s Easter the timing seems most appropriate!
General Case for Insufficiency: The Event is Not Proportionate to the Theory
According to Carrier, there are two claims that tell against the sufficiency of the resurrection of Jesus to establish the truth of the Christian faith.
(1) A miracle whose purpose is to prove something to all humanity must logically be an event that can be observed by all humanity.
(2) An event that is to demonstrate the power and existence of a “god of the universe” must logically demonstrate divine powers of such a magnitude, and not of a vastly lesser magnitude.
Carrier’s central claim here can be summed up as follows: Even if Jesus rose from the dead, that’s not enough to establish that Christianity is true and the Christian God is the one all-powerful God and that we need to believe in Jesus to be saved. For the resurrection of one man in a relatively obscure social setting is surely inadequate to prove to the entire world that the Christian God is real. After all, muses Carrier:
[A] “god of all humankind” could have carved “Jesus Lives” on the face of the moon, where all humankind could witness the miracle, and observe it for all time without relying on hearsay – at the very least, he could have extended the darkness and earthquake and mass rising of dead people, reported to have occurred at his crucifixion by Matthew (27:45-54), over the whole earth, where it would be recorded by every historian of every civilization, so that all humanity could share in the prodigy – he could have attended the moment with a voice or vision seen and heard by every human being, affirming his divinity and sending the message of Life to all. Why, a “god of the universe” could have even rearranged the stars to spell “Jesus Lives” – the sort of feat that can never be replicated by technology and which would demonstrate a truly universal power over all of nature. Without miracles of such magnitude, a god fails to show the extent of his power, fails to advertise to all his subjects, and fails to prove himself thereby. He fails to exhibit his means and message in a manner proportionate to what we are supposed to believe about him.
In light of this, says Carrier, “a resurrection of one man observed by a handful of others in one tiny spot on one tiny planet in one tiny corner of the cosmos is more consistent with a very minor deity (or a very stingy and secretive one), or even more likely a natural event: for there is an easy naturalistic explanation in religious zealotry or scientific ignorance.” Now, Carrier doesn’t share – in this argument at least – what those naturalistic explanations would be. But he did do that in his first argument that I looked at in part one. He argued there that the empty tomb of Jesus wasn’t necessary to explain early Christian belief, because the early Christian movement didn’t actually believe in a physical resurrection – only a non-physical resurrection in an ethereal spiritual body as mediated by dreams or imagined visions. This is Carrier’s naturalistic explanation. Here again we see how vital that belief is to Carrier’s case, and I’ll be looking at that crucial claim in part 3. The reappearance of this argument here illustrates how much Carrier needs the argument to work. If that one argument is weak, Carrier’s whole case becomes weak because it depends so heavily on that argument. Setting that argument aside for now, we should note here that Carrier is not here giving an argument against the resurrection of Jesus. He is only arguing that if Jesus physically rose from the dead and Christianity is true, God is “stingy” and doesn’t share his revelation with as many people as need it.
Carrier thinks that a written sign in the sky (e.g. on the moon) would count as enough to show all humanity that the Christian God exists. But of course, as soon as we introduce the medium of language, we have to say that the sign is not really universal after all. Aside from the fact that not everyone of Jesus’ time was literate, even if they had been, the question arises: Which language should that message have been presented in? And how could people read it if it was on the moon (which in many night skies would not be large enough to read). Carrier believes that this response misses the point:
And it misses the point to object that IHSOUS ZWN in giant letters across the moon could not be understood by any but Greek speakers, since those who later heard the Gospel and wanted to confirm it was true would simply have to learn Greek, just as anyone today who wants to confirm what the Bible really says must, and can easily, learn Greek. And it would not matter that this mysterious change in the moon would not be immediately understood around the world. People everywhere, India, China, Rome, would record the event before knowing its significance, and thus we could today check these unbiased and independent records of the day the moon changed to bear the new carvings, and upon hearing the Gospel, we would have a strong, independent proof that it’s [sic] central message, “Jesus Lives,” was confirmed by a fantastic and universally confirmable miracle.
But rather than the objection from language missing the point, it may be Carrier who misses the point of the objection itself.
In order for a sign to be “universal” in the way that Carrier complains about, a sign able to reach everyone, since everyone – according to Carrier’s objection – needs to overtly believe in Jesus in order to be saved by the Christian God, it would not be good enough for the sign to be accessible to Chinese people who lived centuries later, once they had been exposed to Greek language and once they had access to telescopes. Yes, those later generations would be able to see the words and find out what they mean, but this too would fail the test of universality in Carrier’s sense, since it would consign all those non-Greek speaking people of the ancient world to damnation. This too, by Carrier’s standard, would be an insufficient sign, given that the Christian God is the God of all people from all times and in all places.
Similar problems present themselves for Carrier’s bizarre example of miraculously indestructible Bibles:
Or, if it is vital to have the whole New Testament confirmed as God’s word, God can simply make every true and correct copy of the New Testament indestructible. If anyone wanted to test which Bible was correct, he need only slice a knife through a page and watch it heal miraculously, or see it resist the blade miraculously. Gods can do a hell of a lot.
It is difficult to believe, on reading this, that this is the supposedly sophisticated intellectual case of a PhD historian against Christianity. But oddness aside, indestructible Bibles would also fail Carrier’s universality test, for they would not get the message to people who lived prior to the writing of the New Testament, nor would they get the message to illiterate people.
It is hard to stress just how juvenile examples like these appear to somebody familiar with the range of Christian viewpoints on salvation. No Christian theologian that I am aware of maintains that it is necessary to have access to the New Testament or to have evidence that it is God’s word in order to be saved through Christ. The New Testament is simply not available to many believing Christians today in parts of the world where the Bible is difficult to access because of the persecution Christians face there. And as for the reference to pages that cannot be cut (or which are miraculously repaired), this sort of thing conjures up images of teenagers getting high in their parents’ basement, wondering, “Dude, imagine if God, like, made giant rabbits….”
On a more serious note, if Carrier had reflected on the examples he proposed and seen that they too failed to meet his personal standard of universality, then perhaps he would have been open to the realisation that virtually any outlandish fictional scenario he could concoct where God puts on some amazing show for a huge audience would still be subject to someone raising their hand and saying “but what about those people? They would still miss out!” Carrier’s examples of what God could have done if Christianity were true, then, do not seem to solve the problem he portrays.
But is there a problem here at all? And if there is, can a Christian address it? Now of course, the Christian could, in theory, simply bite the bullet. “Sure,” he might say, “God is stingy! God has chosen to reveal himself only to a few by using a local proof like Jesus’ resurrection, and the rest will be lost forever. But Jesus still rose from the dead!” Carrier doesn’t offer – in this argument at least – a response to somebody like this. At most, the conclusion that Carrier could justify is that God doesn’t meet his standards of generosity. But a Christian like this would be justified in detecting an air of arrogance to this. For Carrier, he might say, is assuming to know not only what he would do if he had Carrier’s existing knowledge plus God’s power. He is presuming to know what he would do if he had God’s knowledge and God’s power, which is to effectively say that he currently possesses God’s knowledge.
But the Christian need not bite this bullet at all. There are much more weighty responses to offer to Carrier, responses that cut to the heart of how shallow the objection is, and illustrate the paucity of understanding of Christian theology that Carrier seems to have. After making the above comments, Carrier says that he will unpack the argument by way of three sub-arguments that “elaborate on this central point,” and these three arguments provide the ideal opportunity for the response I refer to here. I will turn, then, to these three arguments, and in doing so (offering the “more weighty” responses I refer to) I will explain why this line of argument against the resurrection of Jesus fails.
Even Granting the Supernatural Makes No Difference
Carrier’s first sub argument is short and easily dismissed. It is as follows:
[T]he fact is that I no more believe that Sarapis used Vespasian to heal the blind and lame than I believe that Simon Magus used magic to fly through the air. But if we allow any evidence to point to the supernatural, to any unobserved possibilities like gods, then we allow all the evidence to do so. We must be consistent. If we think the resurrection story as we have it proves anything supernatural, then if Tacitus insists that eye-witnesses saw Vespasian, at the command of Sarapis, heal the blind and lame, if Aelius Aristides insists that Asclepius came to him in a dream and cured his disease, we must accept that as proof that Sarapis and Asclepius exist, too. There is abundant evidence of magic and demons and ghosts in antiquity. What are we to make of it?
In context it appears that what Carrier is trying to convince people of here is that the unbeliever’s rejection of the very possibility of supernatural events should not count as bias, and should not lead us to think that such a sceptic is being dogmatic or ruling out conclusions from the outset. After all, Carriers says, even if he changed his mind and did allow for the possibility of supernatural events, this would mean that he has to accept all such claims, not just the claims about Jesus. And Christians don’t accept all those claims.
The impression that Carrier gives here is that Christian apologists treat all claims made of the miracles and resurrection of Jesus as evidence for the fact, but they never treat any miracle claims in a non-Christian context as evidence of the fact. He muddles things somewhat by using the word “proof,” but let’s set that aside. The point is that he insinuates that Christians engage in special pleading about when testimony counts as evidence and when it does not.
The fact is, this is a misrepresentation. Of course claims of miracles in other contexts counts as evidence for those miracles, and evangelicals have no reason to say otherwise. How could it not count? Evidence is any consideration at all that makes an event more probable than it would otherwise have been. Therefore, testimony is evidence. It should be clear to anyone that testimony of miracles worked by Vespasian clearly count in favour of such miracles happening – they make them more likely than they would be if there were no testimony of the miracles. But saying that if we allow the possibility of miracles then we have to believe all such testimony is clearly unwarranted. It is akin to saying that if we believe in crime then we have to believe every allegation of crime. It’s a strange line of argument for a historian to make. The salient question is whether or not testimony of miracles in any particular case constitutes good evidence, and this will always be weighed on a case-by-case basis. So let’s look at an example – Carrier’s example of the miracle performed by Vespasian. Here is the account in Tacitus’ words:
Vespasian passed some months at Alexandria, having resolved to defer his voyage to Italy till the return of summer, when the winds, blowing in a regular direction, afford a safe and pleasant navigation. During his residence in that city, a number of incidents, out of the ordinary course of nature, seemed to mark him as the peculiar favorite of the gods. A man of mean condition, born at Alexandria, had lost his sight by a defluxion on his eyes. He presented himself before Vespasian, and, falling prostrate on the ground, implored the emperor to administer a cure for his blindness. He came, he said, by the admonition of Serapis, the god whom the superstition of the Egyptians holds in the highest veneration. The request was, that the emperor, with his spittle, would condescend to moisten the poor man’s face and the balls of his eyes. Another, who had lost the use of his hand, inspired by the same god, begged that he would tread on the part affected. Vespasian smiled at a request so absurd and wild. The wretched objects persisted to implore his aid. He dreaded the ridicule of a vain attempt; but the importunity of the men, and the crowd of flatterers, prevailed upon the prince not entirely to disregard their petition.
He ordered the physicians to consider among themselves, whether the blindness of the one, and the paralytic affection of the other, were within the reach of human assistance. The result of the consultation was, “that the organs of sight were not so injured, but that, by the removing of the film or cataract, the patient might recover. As to the disabled limb, by proper application and invigorating medicines, it was not impossible to restore it to its former tone. The gods, perhaps, intended a special remedy, and chose Vespasian to be the instrument of their dispensations. If a cure took place, the glory of it would add new lustre to the name of Caesar; if otherwise, the poor men would bear the jests and raillery of the people. Vespasian, in the tide of his affairs, began to think that there was nothing so great and wonderful, nothing so improbable or even incredible, which his good fortune would not accomplish.
In the presence of a prodigious multitude, all erect with expectation, he advanced with an air of serenity, and hazarded the experiment. The paralytic hand recovered its functions, and the blind man saw the light of the sun. By living witnesses, who were actually on the spot, both events are confirmed at this hour, when deceit and flattery can hope for no reward
Tacitus, The Histories 4:81, from Arthur Murray’s translation of The Works of Cornelius Tacitus (Jones, 1831)
Written just decades after the fact, Tacitus’ work, by ancient standards, was practically contemporaneous with the events they depict. It certainly cannot be dismissed, then, on the grounds that it is too late to be useful. This proximity of this account to the events it describes can be compared to the proximity of the New Testament letters and Gospels to the life of Christ that they refer to.
But does our mere openness to the possibility of miracles commit us to accepting that this really took place? Well, how many accounts do we have? We have two – that of Tacitus and the shorter account of Seutonius, who gives almost no details. The details that Suetonius does supply place the miracles at different times in Vespasian’s life and describe them differently from Tacitus. In Tacitus’ account as quoted above, one man cannot see because of a discharge from his eyes (this is what a “defluxion” is), while another man has a crippled hand. In Suetonius’s account, the men are described simply as a blind man and a man with a lame leg.
Secondly, does the person who recorded the account seem to believe it? Here I think the answer is probably “no.” Suetonius’ scant account in his Lives of the Caesar says that Vespasian was “prevailed upon by his friends,” he attempted the healings, and succeeded. Tacitus’ detailed account, however, is dripping with sarcasm. Note especially the section I have highlighted above. This passage is quoted on numerous websites by sceptics as evidence that the miracle stories of Jesus are just like other miracle stories – neither more nor less believable. And yet, everywhere that this story is quoted, the highlighted section has been deleted, replaced with “…” as though nothing of consequence has been removed. To call this sort of tactic less than forthcoming would be generous. These sites all seem to be quoting, not from the primary source (a common defect in “debunking” attempts) but from the book by Thomas Doane, Bible Myths and their Parallels in Other Religions He presents the account of Vespasian’s miracles but, regrettably, takes the editorial licence of removing the highlighted section, thus hiding the very parts of the text that most significantly marks its difference from New Testament miracle accounts. Now of course, it is easy to create “parallels” by editing out differences, but it hardly counts as responsible scholarship.
There’s a fairly visible reason why somebody would want to remove or hide the highlighted section. That section is what gives away the fact that neither Vespasian nor Tacitus believed that Vespasian was a miracle worker. In fact, in that section Vespasian’s experts tell him that the man’s eyes are not really that badly damaged after all (as we read, his vision was obscured by a substance in his eyes), and it also reveals that Vespasian wanted to see if there was a way of making it look like he had worked a miracle when in fact he had not. In this section – again, deleted by Doane and those who quote him – Tacitus also appears to be pouring scorn on Vespasian, depicting him as absolutely full of himself, thinking that he was so blessed and lucky that nothing could possibly turn out badly for him. Even in the section that sceptics do quote, the miracle of the man with obscured vision is cynically described by Tacitus as Vespasian washing the man’s eyes, followed by the man’s ability to see sunlight (hardly a phenomenal outcome). One cannot read this account (in its entirety, including the parts conveniently left out by some) and not see that Tacitus is portraying a scene where an arrogant Vespasian is trying to get away with looking like a miracle worker, knowing that he is not, in order to bolster his fame.
This simply does not compare well at all with the resurrection account of Jesus of Nazareth. As detailed in the podcast on “The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection,” the facts that can be plausibly established surrounding the resurrection (the crucifixion, the burial, the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus to his disciples) are all well attested and (so I argue) are very well explained – in fact best explained – by the resurrection of Jesus. In fact in considering those facts, the resurrection itself is not one of the facts. The fact are all fairly mundane observations, and the resurrection is the explanation offered for those facts.
As for Carrier’s other example – the story of Simon Magnus using magic to fly – there is not even a credible source for this claim. It is referred to in works that are regarded by New Testament historians as apocryphal like the Acts of Peter (written in the late second century) or the even later writings in the Pseudo Clementine literature. No historical details contained in these works gain much by way of credence by being contained therein.
The basic lesson is this: It is simply false that openness to the supernatural leaves one vulnerable to believing any and all miracle claims. Any claim must still be assessed the same way other historical claims are assessed. All that openness to the supernatural means is that we are engaging in genuine enquiry where the conclusion is not decided from the outset.
No Miracles Today Implies None Then?
According to Richard Carrier, our own experience of what happens to people around us when they die is enough, by itself, to justify calling Jesus’ resurrection impossible:
An event only observed by a few men can only be a proof, as Thomas Paine wrote, for those men. It can never be a proof for all mankind, who did not observe it. No amount of argument can convince me to trust a 2000 year-old second-hand report, over what I see, myself, directly, here and now, with my own eyes. If I observe facts that entail that I will cease to exist when I die, then the Jesus story can never override that observation, being infinitely weaker as a proof. And yet all the evidence before my senses confirms my mortality. My identity is inexorably connected with my ability to see, hear, think, feel, and remember–it is built necessarily upon my memories, derived from all these things. Yet we know for a fact that by removing certain portions of one’s brain, or removing the materials needed for the brain to function, such as oxygen, we cause each of these elements of human identity to be lost or altered. The memory of words has its place in the brain, the ability to imagine images has its place, and we know them. When our brain loses blood, as I know from direct experience, it stops working, and when it stops working, all thinking ceases to exist.
Yet if you can remove my memories by removing sections of my brain, if you can remove my will or my reason or my emotional control by damaging other sections of my brain, if you can cause my whole consciousness to grind to a halt so that it fails to notice a whole minute of time, all by merely draining me of blood, then it follows necessarily that if you remove all the parts of the brain, if you remove all of its blood and put none back in, then there will not be anything left to call “me.” A 2000 year-old second-hand tale from the backwaters of an illiterate and ignorant land can never overpower these facts. I see no one returning to life after their brain has completely died from lack of oxygen. I have had no conversations with spirits of the dead. What I see is quite the opposite of everything this tall tale claims. How can it command more respect than my own two eyes? It cannot.
This is an exceedingly strong claim. Carrier almost tries to wiggle out of making it just lines later by saying that really he only doubts biblical miracles because he doesn’t see miracles in general happening now, but read through the clearly stated argument above. We see people die when their brains die, and they do not return to life. We see this all around us. Compared to what we see in everyday life, this story of Jesus, written by ignorant people from an ignorant “backwaters” of a place where people were just gullible commands very little respect when it says that there was someone who did come back to life. Unless we can observe it ourselves, we cannot believe it on the grounds of such testimony.
This is really just a blunt, short re-statement of Hume’s argument against miracles: No claim whatsoever – especially one written by gullible unlearned people – can ever overturn the whole testimony of our own experience. But the naiveté of Carrier’s suggestion that we have to experience events of a certain type ourselves in order to ever be justified in believing that they have occurred is not a tenable stance to take. It is to effectively declare as a matter of principle that any claim that a truly unique event has occurred in history must be dismissed not only as false, but literally impossible. In fact, it is really only since the recent popularity of Hume’s argument that discussions around miracles were so focused on their alleged impossibility. Historically, arguments from miracles for Christianity were the norm – and this norm was in part what motivated Hume’s argument. The tide, he though, had to be turned. Hume was upfront about his desire to rule out any and all future argument from miracles so that they need never even be considered, giving what he hoped would be an “everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusions.”
What makes responding to Carrier’s scant reference to this kind of argument frustrating (and whether he named Hume or not, it is clearly the influence of Hume’s argument that we see in Carrier’s comments) is that Carrier barely even articulates the argument, let alone addresses any of the criticisms that have been made of it over the years. This frustration is only heightened when we see Carrier so frequently voicing frustration that he has “already answered” objections that commenters have raised over his arguments – and if only they would go back and read all of his scattered articles, debates and books, they would find the answers somewhere therein. It’s not that I agree that Carrier has really answered his critics before they offer their criticisms, it’s that Carrier himself simply wheels out arguments (such as this one against miracles) that have been criticised – “already answered,” if you like – many times over in the literature since Hume’s argument was first published, and yet he does not seem interested in going back and reading the literature on the argument against miracles to address those criticisms. I could simply say at this point: “There is no need to respond to Carrier, as he uses an argument that has already been answered. He needs to just go back and read those answers.” That would be enough, because the work has already been done by others, time and time again. The trouble, however, is that Carrier’s fanbase (as suggested by the site where so many of his comments are made, infidels.org) are likely to have read Carrier on the issue, but not Hume’s critics. In the interests of serving as a friendly reminder then (or perhaps an introduction for those who aren’t familiar with the territory), let the record show that it is no longer adequate to simply parrot Hume and leave the matter there, as though that argument still stands untouched centuries later. It does not. But the upshot of Carrier’s swift dismissal is that anyone who wants to show why it is inadequate will have to do much more work than Carrier did, because they will actually have to explain the original argument and then explain its rebuttals, something Carrier never did. I will offer a brief overview, but there is no substitute for reading the primary sources for yourselves.
Here is the heart of Hume’s argument:
A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden; because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior.
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention) that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish…
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Stephen Buckle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) Chapter 10, part 1, paragraphs 12-13
Hume’s argument became the target of almost incredulous replies as soon as it was published. William Adams summed up some of those replies in 1752, noting that others had done so before him. Hume had said:
But when the fact attested is such a one as has seldom fallen under our observation, here is a contest of two opposite experiences; of which the one destroys the other, as far as its force goes, and the superior can only operate on the mind by the force, which remains.
Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10.1.8
And so he painted the scene as involving two opposite experiences that counter each other. But this, as Adams noted, was misleading.
Here the author seems to suppose, that a want of experience, in any case, is the same with experiencing the contrary. “When a fact attested hath seldom fallen under our observation,” here is, says he, “a contest of two opposite experiences:” but, in reality, here, is no experience at all; only a fact not observed on one side, and positive evidence, or the fact attested, on the other – a very unequal contest!
William Adams, An Essay on Mr Hume’s Essay on Miracles (London: E. Say, 1752), 11.
As for Hume’s appeal to the fact that nature uniformly behaves in a certain way – a way to which miracles do not conform (the point that Carrier re-uses), Adams makes a reply that surprisingly does not seem to have occurred to Hume:
An experienced uniformity in the course of nature hath been always thought necessary to the belief and use of miracles. These are indeed relative ideas. There must be an ordinary regular course of nature, before there can be any thing extraordinary.
Of course! If dead people rose all the time as part of the ordinary, observed course of nature, then the fact that Jesus rose from the dead would not be miraculous or significant. “It is strange, therefore,” remarked Adams, “that this uniformity, which is implied in the nature of a miracle, should at the same time be inconsistent with it” (Adams, 18). The uniformity of nature then can hardly be said to weigh against the possibility of miracles. What would be needed is an argument that miracles are impossible, and thus:
Against: the possibility of [miracles], tho’ the author is pleased to pronounce it impossible, he hath offered no argument (and, indeed, none can possibly be offered): against the credibility of it, the experience which he pleads is no argument at all. (Adams, 20)
Adams work is 135 pages long and I will not note every one of his replies here, but it is fairly clear that Carrier is unaware of any of them and has likely not read the work.
The strident criteria of us having actually experienced the event in question – or an event just like it – before we can admit the possibility that it took place, is patently unreasonable on more general considerations as well. Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy, but in spite of prolonged observation of the Rubicon in modern times, no Caesars have ever been observed doing such things. The predictable objection is that we actually have evidence that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Indeed we do. Centuries after the fact, historical accounts of the event were written, and history is well explained by the fact that he did so (although his doing so is not required in order to account for the broader facts of history). But this is effectively to grant that whether or not unique events occurred is a matter to be settled by evidence, which is precisely what apologists for the resurrection of Jesus say when it comes to the historicity of that event.
Lastly, the absurdly prejudiced characterisation of the writers of the Gospels as – for want of better terms – ancient dummies so stupid that they just didn’t know that dead people stay dead – is characteristic of the worst type of historical ignorance coupled with arrogance. Whatever scientific knowledge the authors of the New Testament might have lacked, they certainly knew that dead people do not just get up and walk away! So the quality of the witnesses as ignorant or living in a “backwater” country is really not a factor here.
Carrier finishes this sub argument off by making what he apparently takes to be his most significant observation:
Above all, even the author of the Gospel of John depicts Thomas the Doubter as rational and wise for refusing to believe without direct observation, and this shows that we have no more grounds to believe than Thomas did, and until granted the same evidence as he, we are as right as he was to call it bunk.
But does the Gospel of John depict Thomas as rational and wise for refusing to believe until he had made direct observation? Not at all. Recall that when Jesus has shown himself alive again to Thomas, he chides him in John 20:29- “Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!” It is strange then, to see Carrier preface this comment with “above all.”
A Message for All Would be Sent to All, and Not by the Fallible and Limited
Carrier’s final sub-argument for the “general case for insufficiency” is the same one that he began with prior to looking at the sub-arguments. The resurrection of Jesus, he avers, even if Christianity were true, is just not the kind of thing an all-powerful good God would do to make the point that Christianity is true.
While he makes some other comments too, suggesting that people may well just revive after people thought they were dead and thus appear to have risen from the dead, I’ll look at this in the next part in the series when addressing Carrier’s claims about the probability of survival vs the probability of resurrection.
Intriguingly, Carrier actually says that one of the reasons that the resurrection of Jesus would have been inadequate as a proof for all humanity is that raising a man from the dead after three days is really no tough feat!
A resurrection, after all, is not all that impressive a feat. If so, why haven’t there been more of them? … I could even add the obvious: how many “resurrections” have been secured by CPR and electric defibrillators? We don’t think about it now because it is so common that we take it for granted, but thousands of people every year die and come back to life. It’s routine.
We already expect that we, mere humans, will be capable of accomplishing true resurrection (i.e. reanimation of a long-dead corpse) in fifty to a hundred years.
This line of argument is fairly trivial and can be essentially brushed aside. A person actually raised back to life after having been dead for three days is, to put it mildly, no mean feat. There hasn’t been a single case of anything like this in all known medical science. What’s more there is clear empirical evidence of its impossibility. It takes much less than one day for the blood in a person’s brain to become cold and for massive brain deterioration to set in. Even with our advanced medical technology, a brain deprived of oxygen for a mere six minutes is likely to suffer significant damage, and after ten minutes this becomes a certainty electric defibrillators or not. And yet even with the techniques and technology that Carrier refers to, nobody would ever compare the prevention of death with these means to bringing back to life a person who died more than two days ago. Technology that can undo catastrophic brain breakdown? It simply doesn’t exist.
But even if we lived in a completely different world where technology could do the magical and actually reverse days of neurological and bodily degradation, actually bringing a person back from the dead, what of it? The fact that the phenomenal technology of today can achieve something says nothing at all about how impressive that same feat would be with no technology. We have the means to send people to the moon – but that doesn’t for a moment imply that a man in the ancient world who simply bent his knees and jumped upwards towards the sky, flew around the moon and returned to earth unaided, would have done something that is “not all that impressive a feat.” So the above argument from Carrier simply reveals shallow thinking rather than an interesting objection to Christianity.
Lastly, we are back to the objection that Carrier just wouldn’t do things that way if he were God:
Thus, the Resurrection is not consistent with what a cosmic god would do, but it is consistent with what ignorant men would dream up and believe with all credulity. So the falsehood of the Resurrection is thus more reasonable, more likely, than its truth, even within the theory of Christianity itself.
This is a point lost on Josh McDowell, who for some reason thinks an isolated historical event, far out of the reach of all decisive investigation, with what little that can be checked being open only to experts in ancient history, cultures, and languages, is actually better than a “mere” philosophical system that is based on universally observable truths open to every human being’s examination. This is the premise of his entire section 10.1A (Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 1st ed.; § 9.3A in his 2nd ed.), yet obviously the latter is far superior in effect and utility than the former, and so no intelligent God would set up the inferior system when he has ready recourse to the superior. Since no God would do this, it is reasonable to believe that no God did.
With Carrier next adding that using the resurrection of Jesus rather than more general philosophical considerations to reach people, this is the sort of thing a “cruel” God would do, there are three claims here: 1) Jesus’ resurrection is the sort of thing his first followers would have invented. 2) No intelligent God would use the resurrection over philosophical reflection to achieve his purposes, and 3) for any God to do so would be cruel.
First, let’s turn to the first claim; that Jesus’ resurrection is the sort of thing his disciples might have invented. Why, exactly, might they have invented the claim that Jesus the Messiah had risen from the dead? Trapped as we are within our own space in history and culture, we might be tempted to read the Gospels as though overtly Christian ideas would have naturally occurred to Jesus’ first followers, who might have conspired to make it look as though those Christian ideas were true. This is a historical fumble. It is to read first century Jewish history through the rear view mirror of Christian history and theology, reading the idea of the Messiah dying and being resurrected – a Christian doctrine that we are now quite familiar with – into a cultural setting that did not contain the idea. It’s true that Jews believed in bodily resurrection per se, but they believed that this was a future event that would include all of humanity. The Jewish community, its diversity notwithstanding, did not teach that the Messiah would die for our sins and then be resurrected. The Jewish hope was that the Messiah would claim David’s throne and wield political power, making Israel great. For Jesus to have been killed would have signalled to the disciples that they had badly miscalculated, that Jesus was not the Messiah after all, and that they would need to wait for a new candidate. They could not have redeemed their situation by spinning yarns about Jesus rising from the dead, because that was simply not a Jewish Messianic hope. The view that the disciples literally invented the resurrection of Jesus out of nothing and then went around proclaiming him as risen – knowing full well that this was a lie – and ultimately being willing to suffer and die for this deception, has virtually nothing to commend itself. This is why there is something of a consensus among New Testament scholars today – even sceptics who themselves do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead – that the first disciples did in fact believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that they did so because they believed that they had seen him after his crucifixion and burial.
Now, it’s true that after the resurrection of Jesus, Paul declared that Jesus had risen from the dead “according to the Scriptures.” Some might be tempted to say that this shows that the idea that the Messiah would die and be raised again was taught in the Jewish Scriptures after all and so the disciples would indeed have been tempted to invent the story as something that would appeal to a Jewish audience. But this gets things quite wrong. The question you have to ask is: What Scriptures did Paul have in mind. The reality is that there is precious little in the Old Testament to suggest any such thing. It is true that the early Christians did – once already believing that Jesus was the Messiah and had in fact been raised from the dead – go back into the Old Testament with this conviction and find allusions and parallels to the resurrection of Jesus there. Carrier himself, attempting to rebut the claim that the death and resurrection of the Messiah was not a Jewish belief, claims that such a reference (albeit without any mention of resurrection) can be found in Daniel 9:26. But this is beside the point. The question is not whether or not people with knowledge of Jesus’ death and resurrection could, in principle, find references in the Hebrew Scripture that they could attach to the resurrection of Jesus. The question is whether or not this is how such references were understood at the time the disciples proclaimed that Jesus had in fact been resurrected. There is not a single Jewish source in the first century world to suggest any such reading of the Scripture. As far as the disciples’ Jewish background is concerned, belief that the Messiah would die and be resurrected was novel and not at all the sort of thing that they would have concocted in order to make Jesus sound like the Saviour Israel had been hoping for in spite of his death.
In the nineteenth century it was briefly popular to suggest that Christianity borrowed the idea of a dying and rising saviour from various pagan myths, but this is a theory that was subject to stern critique and faded from scholarly discussion shortly after it arose. But as with many such ideas, they are resurrected online and enjoy an afterlife of their own. I have discussed a couple of these examples, Osiris and Mithras, and explained that the alleged parallels simply don’t exist. But that certainly hasn’t stopped those who have encountered the claims and reproduced them with zeal. In his book Not the Impossible Faith Carrier appeals to Osiris – who the legends simply do not describe as resurrected from the dead at all – and then alludes to a whole range of figures from Greco-Roman myth as examples of heroes who died and rose again. But the kinds of stories he appeals to – like Theseus – are not examples of resurrection (a dead body coming back to life), but rather people travelling between the world above and Hades below without actually dying (in a worldview where the realm of the dead was literally below the ground). True, the legend depicts Theseus as travelling to hades and returning, but given that he did not die in the process, this hardly counts as anything like resurrection. This is the sort of claim repeated in the popular online movie Zeitgeist (which I comment on here), but which do not warrant serious attention. Even a very sceptical New Testament scholar that Carrier ordinarily enthusiastically endorses, Robert Price, made it clear that claims of figures like Attis or Adonis prefiguring the resurrection of Jesus (both of which are examples Carrier uses) are “untenable.” [Robert Price, “Is There a Place For Historical Criticism?”]
Not only do we know that first century Jews were strongly opposed to religious syncretism, then, we also know that even if they had been so inclined, there just aren’t good candidates in the pool of myth and legend that would readily have been morphed into a Jewish Messiah who was crucified, died, was buried and resurrected three days later.
Let’s look at Carrier’s second claim on this list – that no intelligent God would have used the resurrection of Jesus to get the message out, as opposed to the kind of philosophical reflection that far more people have access to. The first thing that should strike us is that Carrier appears to assume that as far as Christians are concerned, philosophical reflection available to a wide audience does not serve any of God’s ends in getting people to believe in him. But of course this is false. There is a very rich tradition of Christian philosophy claiming that God’s existence and nature can – in part at least – be known by the use of reason and evidence available to humanity as a whole. What is more – and I will admit that I could be misreading Carrier here – but Carrier appears to be assuming that the basic reason, in the Christian mind, that God raised Jesus from the dead was to convince people to follow Jesus. Since he doesn’t think that the resurrection of one person in the ancient world is the most effective way of doing this, he doesn’t think God would have done it. But it is often the case, the most confident and outspoken critics of the Christian faith in recent years have never immersed themselves in Christian thought enough to really understand the ideas they want to criticise. This is just another example, because in Christian theology the main purpose of the resurrection of Jesus was not to convince the world to follow him. For this reason alone it is a mistake to call the resurrection a failure if it does not achieve this goal.
According to 1 John 3:8, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” The writer of Hebrews likewise says (in 1:14) that Jesus became human “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth that Jesus’ resurrection, rather than being an attempt to prove his identity to the world, actually constituted his victory over death that will be shared with those who are “in Christ,” thus granting them immortality:
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:20ff)
Because of what was achieved through Jesus’ resurrection, Paul can assure these believers that “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14).
Carrier is mistaken, then, to depict the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament as a botched attempt to put on a show that as many people could witness as possible for the sake of convincing as many people as possible. That was not the point of the resurrection. The purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection was to save people, to destroy the power of sin and death in his own body, and to be restored to glorious and eternal life as the “forerunner,” so to speak, of the restoration that God will do in all who will one day share in his resurrection in the age to come (in Fact the author of Hebrews in chapter 6 says that we can have assurance because Jesus has gone on ahead of us as a forerunner). Whether an “intelligent” God would use this event to put on a display for the biggest possible audience to serve as an irrefutable proof to all then is a fairly irrelevant question, since Christians do not maintain that this is why God raised Jesus from the dead.
Thirdly and lastly, Carrier claims that it would not merely be inefficient for God to get the message out by raising Jesus from the dead, it would also be cruel. After all, Carrier assumes, unless people know about the resurrection of the dead, Christians maintain that they are doomed to hell. There are numerous ways to respond to this argument, and argument that reflects, again, a naïve view of Christian theology. As noted earlier, the option is there for Christians to simply bite the bullet. It may be that they have a strongly Calvinist view of salvation – that God predestines people to salvation and chooses to do only what is required to bring those people to salvation, and they might also maintain that explicit knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection is prerequisite for salvation. They might say that God only needs the Gospel message to come to those few people who he has chosen to save, and anyone who is not saved gets precisely what they deserve. After all, such a Christian will maintain, eternal life is not a right, and God does nobody any wrong by not giving it to them. People like Carrier who say otherwise, they may well maintain, are hopelessly out of their depth in assuming that they know full well what an all-knowing, perfectly good and all-powerful God would do, since Carrier is not all-knowing or perfectly good.
But as I also noted previously, Christians need not take this stance, and many do not – whether they are Calvinists or otherwise. There are four broad outlooks on the scope of salvation known to Christianity: Exclusivism maintains that one must be a Christian, someone who actually affirms the Christian faith, to be saved, and everyone else is lost. Inclusivism is the view that people who are not overtly Christian may still be saved in the end. Those people are still in fact saved and given eternal life because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, however, and qualifications like “these are people in whose life God was at work even though they did not realise it was the God who raised Jesus from the dead who was at work in their life – and had they known, they would indeed have overtly professed faith in Christ” (that’s not a quote, it’s my summary of the sorts of thing you’re likely to hear). Pluralism, moving towards the much more theologically liberal end of the spectrum, is the view that people of other faiths can be saved, period. Not through the Christian faith unawares, but simply by virtue of being a good Muslim or Baha’i, or Jew or Hare Krishna or what have you. Lastly, Universalism is the view that absolutely everyone will in fact have the same fate – everlasting life with God. The latter two of these options is understandably not terribly popular in orthodox Christian circles, but I think it is fair to say that some degree of inclusivism is fairly common. This fact, however, seems to be beyond the bounds of Carrier’s knowledge of the Christian faith, and as such he is really in no position to be making arguments against the resurrection on the grounds of his uninformed argument grounded in a theology of the scope of salvation. For a good overview of a range of evangelical perspectives on the issue, a book like Through No Fault of Their Own?: The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard edited by William Crockett and James Sigountos is a good place to start. This is to say nothing of the assumption that Christians must believe that without being saved, people will go to something like the traditionally depicted abode of the damned to be eternal tormented, something for which there is a stark lack of biblical support as I have argued at length elsewhere.
This draws to a close my comments on Carrier’s second cluster of arguments: The general case for insufficiency. In it, he simplistically misunderstands and fails to solve the very problems that he believes are created by the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection, namely the problem that this proof of Christianity did not reach a universal audience. In expanding on this argument he shows that it is simply not well-informed at all, overlooking or simply not being aware of the nuances of theological reflection on the scope of salvation that Christians have offered. Carrier’s own proposed solutions of moon carvings or indestructible Bibles show that he simply doesn’t see the implications of even his own bizarre proposed solutions, and these (along with his disregard for what Christians have actually said) perhaps betray a bit of haste (as does his laughable comparison between resuscitation using modern technology and resurrection from the dead) as he rushed carelessly through some precursory and annoying issues to get to what he thinks is his golden argument that will win the whole case for him: The argument that the early Christians didn’t really believe in a physical resurrection of Jesus after all, but only in a “spiritual” one. It is to that crucial argument that I will turn when I next look at Carrier’s case against the resurrection of Jesus.
- Hume on Induction and Miracles: Having a bob each way?
- Work in progress
- Does Richard Carrier Exist?
- “Can These Bones Live”? is up at Afterlife
- The times they are a changin’