The Very Idea of a Resurrection Part 2

Caravaggio Doubting Thomas

Image via Wikipedia

Not long  ago, I shared some of the evidences that point to the historicity of the resurrection. I recommend you to read my original post before you continue on if you haven’t already.  In a nutshell, the case for the resurrection is built on a few historical facts that nearly all of modern scholarship accepts, even some of the more skeptical critics.

As a friendly reminder: This is not an argument for the general reliability of the New Testament, but rather these facts come from historians who treat the Bible like any other ancient historical document.  (I’ll point out that I do personally believe in the inspiration of scripture, but that’s not what I’m arguing for now). With that in mind, here are a few of the facts they accept about what happened shortly after the crucifixion for review:

  1. Jesus’ tomb was found empty by several of his followers.
  2. His followers believed they experienced appearances of the risen Jesus. Paul persecuted the church, and James was a skeptic. Both were converted because of postmortem appearances of Jesus.
  3. The origin of the Christian movement.

The resurrection hypothesis fits all these facts nicely, but that’s not to say that there haven’t been any objections made to the conclusion that God raised Jesus from the dead. Obviously, if Jesus really did rise from the dead by a divine miracle, the implications are…well…pretty huge, and for many that’s an unwelcome thought.

Critics driven by an earlier commitment to naturalism – that is the view that nothing but natural laws work in the world –  have suggested different naturalistic hypotheses to fit the evidence over the years. However, due to a lack of overall cogency of these alternative explanations, most of these opposing theories have been set aside.

For the sake of time, I’ll list out the major ones here and address why they don’t really work in a rather terse way. If you’d like me to discuss any of these more in greater detail, just ask in the comments and I’d be happy to oblige.

Jesus wasn’t really dead, AKA “the Swoon Theory”

  • The Journal of American Medical Association helped put this to bed. The Roman executioners knew their job and performed it well.
  • A half-dead Jesus isn’t going to convince his own followers he’s the triumphant Lord over death. And he certainly wouldn’t convince skeptics like Paul or James. They wouldn’t have seen him as the risen Lord, but as someone in desperate need of medical aid.

The Resurrection is just a parabolic legend not meant to be taken literally

  • Most scholars agree that the gospels are written in a historical genre.
  • The Jesus leaders took the disciple’s belief in the resurrection seriously enough that they claimed the disciples stole Jesus’ body in response to the movement. That presupposes an empty tomb, which this theory doesn’t explain.
  • Parabolic legends wouldn’t have convinced the church persecutor Paul or the skeptic James.
  • It seems strange to die for something that you essentially know is a lie or a fanciful parable. The disciples were willing to suffer and die for what they saw.
  • The resurrection was preached from the outset. (e.g. the creed in 1 Corinthians 15, the sermon summaries in the Book of Acts). The story is too early to allow for legend.

The appearances were hallucinations

  • Appearances were to individuals, skeptics and most notably groups. Group hallucinations aren’t possible.
  • Hallucinations can’t account for the empty tomb.

The disciples stole the body

  • Liars make terrible martyrs. What did they gain out of it? Persecution, affliction, torture.
  • Paul and James’ faith was based on appearances.

The disciples went to the wrong tomb

  • The burial story is well established. Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb would have been a well-known site.
  • The disciples faith – including the converted skeptics – were based on appearances, not the empty tomb.

Could any of these stories be joined to account for the evidence? I suppose they could, but when you have to combine extraneous hypotheses to your theory to save it from being falsified, you’re usually not doing yourself any favors. Also, when you assign a certain percentage of chance to a theory and then have to combine it to another, the probability of the various theories all being true goes down, not up.  For example:

  • The women and disciples went to the wrong tomb – 60% likelihood.
  • The disciples later hallucinated appearances – 60%
  • Paul suffered some sort of conversion disorder – 60%

(.6 x .6 x .6) =21.6% likelihood. So combining different theories to fit the evidence doesn’t help.

The existential value

Some say that faith is a blind leap in the dark, but  in light of the historical evidence, it seems pretty rational to accept the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead. I remember being a skeptic and reading 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul describes the resurrection appearances years ago and thinking how different these sorts of claims were when compared to other religions. I mean, citing that nearly 500 living witnesses who could be questioned upon request wasn’t the typical “just have faith” type of response I may have heard.

Part of me didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t really want to rearrange my lifestyle or view of the world. But part of me this was wildly appealing. If Jesus was resurrected, then there was hope in this life and in the one hereafter. Quoting Paul

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

If Christianity was true, then there was meaning to life and life beyond death. This was in stark contrast to some of the nihilistic rap music from the likes of 2pac I was baptizing my mind with as a teenager.

I see death around the corner, any day
Trying to keep it together, no one lives forever anyway
Strugglin and strivin, my destiny’s to die
Keep my finger on the trigger, no mercy in my eyes
In a ball of confusion, I think about my daddy
Madder than a ****, they never shoulda had me

Rather than facing the absurdity of life without God and embracing its “unyielding despair” as the famed atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, the man from Galilee called himself the Resurrection and the Life and then backed it up. If Christianity has any chance of being true – and there is plenty of justification in believing that to be the case – then I believe it is worth accepting, or at the very least, taking a hard look at.  Hopefully what I’ve shared helps remove a few intellectual barriers that one might have.

In a future posts, I hope to discuss objections to miracles and the exclusivity of Christianity.

Our Universe: Design, Chance or Necessity?

Stunning View of Starburst Galaxy (NASA, Chand...

Image by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via Flickr

In my last post, I admitted my doubts about neo-Darwinian evolution. Evolution is a broad term, specifically my doubts concern the theories of common descent and random mutation plus natural selection as the vehicle for evolutionary development. My reticence stems from the lack of transitional forms found in fossil records, the complexity of the fossil forms found in the Cambrian explosion, the utter lack of scientific evidence for the theory of abiogenesis, and the amount of organisms found at the cellular level that are ‘irreducibly complex’.

But forget the evolution debate for a minute. Over history,while there has been intense debate, even the most conservative theologians usually ‘agree to disagree’ regarding their interpretations of the first few chapters of Genesis. Some believe in a literal six-day creation, others, an old earth and a form of progressive creation, and others believe in evolutionary creationism. I honestly feel free to go wherever the evidence leads. I just think the evidence for Darwinian evolution isn’t as good as we’re led to believe.  But let’s just say I grant the naturalist evolution; for evolution to even take place the universe has to have a staggering amount of ‘fine-tuning’, which points to the existence of God. What do I mean?

First, the term fine-tuning is a neutral term and isn’t necessarily meant to insinuate that there is a fine-tuner. Rather it just means there are certain constants of nature, such as gravity, or the subatomic weak force which are unchanging quantities that have to be extremely precise to have life. The tiniest fraction of variation from their real values results in an early universe that cannot permit life to evolve. To say that life as we know it is balanced on a razor’s edge is a massive understatement. Some examples that philosopher Robin Collins uses to drive this point home are:

  1. If gravity had been stronger or weaker by 1 part in 10 to the 40th power, then life-sustaining stars like the sun could not exist.
  2. If the neutron were not about 1.001 times the mass of the proton, all protons would have decayed into neutrons or all neutrons would have decayed into protons, and thus life would not be possible.
  3. Calculations show that if the strong nuclear force, the force that binds protons and neutrons together in an atom, had been stronger or weaker by as little as 5%, life would be impossible.
  4. If the initial explosion of the big bang had differed in strength by as little as 1 part in 10 to the 60th power, the universe would have either quickly collapsed back on itself, or expanded too rapidly for stars to form.

There’s also arbitrary quantities put into the first conditions of the big bang, such as the amount of entropy in the universe. Sir Roger Penrose, the famous mathematical physicist who has co-authored two books with Stephen Hawking, calculated the odds of the low-entropy state of 1/10^10^123. That’s just inconceivably low odds, and now we’re just piling on. You can see him explain below.

The degree of  this type of precision for some of these examples would be like a blindfolded man choosing a single marked penny in a pile large enough to pay off the United States’ national debt. There are just unfathomable odds against a life permitting universe happening.

So was this universe we observe just a happy accident? Some naturalists say we shouldn’t be shocked that we won some sort of cosmic lottery, because after all, we’re here! Philosopher John Leslie uses an illustration which I think hits the mark. (Pun intended…read on). Say you’re scheduled to be executed by firing squad, and 100 trained marksman are going to perform your execution. You hear the guns go off, but then to your absolute utter surprise you notice that you survived unscathed. You wouldn’t say to yourself, “Of course all the shots missed, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to notice that I’m still alive!” No, you think the thing was some sort of set up; that it was some sort of conspiracy.

Or to go back to the marked penny illustration. Let’s say that the blindfolded person had to find the penny, not just once, but several times in a row, or they’d be shot at gunpoint. If the blindfolded person picked up the ‘life-permitting’ penny at random several times in a row, she’d have to think something was fishy.

Was a life-permitting universe necessary? It’s implausible to think so given the constants are not determined by the laws of nature. Some might say they’ll eventually show themselves to be necessary, that one day there will be a Theory of Everything.  The best candidate so far has been M-theory, but it fails to predict a life-permitting universe.

The Hail Mary pass to get rid of the fine-tuning to date has been the Multiverse hypothesis, something that is just a bloated metaphysical idea hiding under the guise of science. There’s no evidence whatsoever for a so-called multiverse and it seems to me that it’s easily shaved off by Occam’s razor. Robin Collins gives 5 reasons for rejecting it, for the purpose of this post I’ll share just one. As a general rule, all else being equal, we should prefer theories for which we have independent proofs, and we have independent reasons for believing God exists. Here’s his illustration:

Most of us take the existence of dinosaur bones to count as very strong evidence that dinosaurs existed in the past. But suppose a dinosaur skeptic claimed that she could explain the bones by postulating a “dinosaur-bone-producing-field” that simply materialized the bones out of thin air. Moreover, suppose further that, to avoid objections such as that there are no known physical laws that would allow for such a mechanism, the dinosaur skeptic simply postulated that we have not yet discovered these laws or detected these fields. Surely, none of us would let this skeptical hypothesis deter us from inferring to the existence of dinosaurs. Why? Because although no one has directly observed dinosaurs, we do have experience of other animals leaving behind fossilized remains, and thus the dinosaur explanation is a natural extrapolation from our common experience. In contrast, to explain the dinosaur bones, the dinosaur skeptic has invented a set of physical laws, and a set of mechanisms that are not a natural extrapolation from anything we know or experience.

In the case of the fine-tuning, we already know that minds often produce fine-tuned devices, such as Swiss watches. Postulating God–a supermind–as the explanation of the fine-tuning, therefore, is a natural extrapolation from of what we already observe minds to do. In contrast, it is difficult to see how the atheistic many-universes hypothesis could be considered a natural extrapolation from what we observe.

So it would seem that chance and necessity are rather implausible in comparison to a super-intelligent Designer. Like with Leibniz’s cosmological argument, this doesn’t prove with 100% certainty that God exists, but I think it’s a rather strong argument. When coupled with other arguments, a very strong case for God’s existence can be made. Such design arguments are what led the famed atheistic philosopher Antony Flew to conclude there was a designer. Says Flew –

“I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source. Why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century? The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.”

Isaiah 45:18

For this is what the LORD says—he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it;he did not create it to be empty,but formed it to be inhabited—he says:“I am the LORD, and there is no other.

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Gottfried Leibniz

Image via Wikipedia

It’s a deep thought, I know. The mere existence of the universe is something we tend to take for granted. Perhaps the older we get, the more the world loses its enchantment. I tend to think this is a negative thing. As adults get so focused on “reality” that we forget about the big questions of life.

My mom was on business trips a lot when I first moved to the St. Louis area as a kid. Sometimes while she was away and I’d feel a little lonely, so I’d step outside just to think. I remember looking at the stars on a clear night and thinking to myself “where did this all come from?” I think we’ve all asked ourselves this question at one time or another.

Was Carl Sagan right – is the cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be? Or is there a cause to it all? The German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz believed there was a cause of it all. “Monadology” aside (don’t ask), Leibniz developed one of the more popular arguments for God’s existence, one that has been discussed for several centuries now. It’s been streamlined throughout the years.

Basically, in its simpler form, it shakes out like so:

  1. Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or for contingent things, an external cause.
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe exists.
  4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence.
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the existence of the universe is God.

So what premises would the atheist attack? Only a nut would deny 3. 1 seems pretty uncontroversial and self-evident. Let’s you were in an airplane, flying from Chicago to Los Angeles, and you look out your window and you see a large, round, red stone floating in mid-air. You begin to notice other passengers in the plane gasping and pointing out the window, wondering how the rock got there. Then the captain comes on the radio and informs everyone to stay in their seats, and goes on to say “don’t worry about that, folks. That floating rock just exists inexplicably”.

You’d think that the captain was nuts, or start to suspect his involvement in some sort of conspiracy. Now, say that if this rock was larger; maybe the size of a baseball stadium, or a small town, or the size of the state of Iowa, or the size of a universe; it would still require an explanation. Merely increasing the size of the rock doesn’t give you less of a reason to need an answer for it being there.

Someone might say “it’s impossible for the universe to have an explanation” But that’s just arguing in a circle, because such an objection assumes atheism is true.

But what if one were to say that the universe has no explanation, that the universe just exists by the necessity of its own nature? First of all, that’s just the logical equal to premise 2, that if the universe has an explanation, that explanation is God. If atheism is true, then logically there is no explanation. Secondly, this conclusion is a radical leap and few atheists are willing to take such a stance. Take for instance atheist Thomas Nagel, a professor of law and philosophy at NYU. He says:

The existence of our universe might be explained by scientific cosmology, but such an explanation would still have to refer to features of some larger reality that contained or gave rise to it. A scientific explanation of the Big Bang would not be an explanation of why there was something rather than nothing, because it would have to refer to something from which that event arose. This something, or anything else cited in a further scientific explanation of it, would then have to be included in the universe whose existence we are looking for an explanation of when we ask why there is anything at all. This is a question that remains after all possible scientific questions have been answered.

Now we’re really going to get nerdy to demolish this objection. The universe does not exist because different elementary particles could have existed. A different collection could have existed, but that would’ve given rise to a completely different universe from the one we know now. So we can’t say the universe exists necessarily. Furthermore, everything which exists necessarily exists forever. Infinite is infinite. And whatever is infinite can’t be advanced by adding to it, nor can it be decreased from taking away from it, so we could never reach the present. So the universe itself can’t be infinite. And anyone with any elementary knowledge of cosmology knows the the universe is not infinitely old.

Let’s think about what the universe is: all of space, time and matter. It follows that the cause of the universe would have to be a non-physical, immaterial being beyond space and time, not to mention a being that is immensely powerful. Hmmm…I wonder what type of being fits that description? The Judeo-Christian God, maybe?

Finally, someone might ask “what is the explanation of God?” For the answer, go back to premise 1. God is not a contingent being, He exists out of the necessity of his own nature. The very idea of God basically implies it. Some mathematicians think of numbers, sets, etc. in the same way; that they just exist out of their own nature.

I’m not saying this argument proves God’s existence beyond all doubt, but then again I don’t think any of the arguments for God’s existence prove with 100% certainty that God does exist. But there are very few things we are 100% certain of, and we seem to get along OK for the most part.  What I do think is that it seems eminently more plausible that God is the reason anything at all exists, compared to the alternatives.

related: The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument by J.W. Wartick

Leibnizian Cosmological Arguments by Alexander Pruss (long!)

On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision Dr. William Lane Craig