What about the Resurrection and All the Other Miracles?

What about the Resurrection and All the Other Miracles?

Section 2: The Bible

Digging Deeper Topic 3: What about the Resurrection and All the Other Miracles


The Question of Miracles

In the previous section, we closed by noting, although there are a number of reasons to think the gospels are reliable, many are nonetheless still skeptical. Even if the gospels contain some historically accurate details, at a minimum, they’ve got to be wrong about the miracles. That’s an important issue because Jesus’ miracles play an important role in defining his identity. If you take away the miracles, there’s not much reason to think he was the Son of God. And if Jesus wasn’t the Son of God, there’s not much reason to think Christianity is any different from any other religion.

The question is, why are skeptics so quick to dismiss the gospel reports of Jesus’ miracles? In large part, it’s because in principle they believe miracles are impossible. That means they don’t just rule out Jesus’ miracles, they rule out all miracles. They rule them out because they believe science has shown us that everything has a natural cause. People may have believed in miracles in the distant past, but they didn’t know what we know. In that light, treating the gospel’s miracle accounts as if they were reliable would amount to turning the clock back to the dark ages.

Objection #1: Miracles are impossible

Most events can be easily explained by natural causes

You can understand why they look at it that way. After all, everyone, even those who believe in miracles, operates under the assumption that the vast majority of what happens in the world can be explained by natural causes. Most of the time, we don’t feel the need to appeal to the supernatural. When I put two pieces of bread in the silver box on the counter and toast pops out two minutes later, I don’t sing hallelujah and thank God for graciously altering the culinary laws to give me browner, crispier bread. Toast popping out of a toaster is not a miracle (unless, of course, it has the image of the Virgin Mary on it). Neither is my car starting in the morning, nor my blood pressure medication actually lowering my blood pressure. Even if God is somehow ultimately responsible for these things, he isn’t using supernatural means to bring them about. Natural causes are sufficient to explain them all.

And there’s the rub. Because we’re able to explain so much of the world in terms of natural causes, there doesn’t seem to be a need to appeal to anything else. Given enough time, everything can be explained by natural causes.

Miracles are consistent with our experience of natural causes

That argument, however, doesn’t take the possibility of God’s existence into account. If God exists, there’s no reason to assume miracles are impossible. It’s obviously true the vast majority of things happen according to natural laws. But the existence of natural laws wouldn’t prevent God, if he exists, from occasionally suspending those laws if he wanted to. As God, he wouldn’t be bound by them.

What’s more, temporarily suspending a given law for a period of time wouldn’t invalidate that law. It would continue to operate in every other circumstance. That means miracles are in no way inconsistent with natural laws. Both can coexist perfectly well. The fact that so many of our experiences are explainable in terms of natural causes, therefore, doesn’t actually count against the possibility of miracles. As it turns out, that’s exactly what we’d expect to see if God existed and occasionally suspended the natural laws to accomplish a particular goal. The vast majority of things would still work according to natural laws the vast majority of the time. So miracles can’t be ruled out on that account.[i]

Objection #2: There can never be enough evidence to prove a miracle

The weight of our past experience

Some would say, “Not so fast!” Even if miracles are possible in theory, there’s still the issue of verifying any particular miracle. Many think that’s where believers face an insurmountable problem. As we’ve already noted, virtually every experience we have can be explained by purely natural causes. Based on our experience then, the odds against any given event being a miracle are huge. Blomberg uses the example of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead to summarize the skeptic’s argument: “if X stands for the number of people that have died in the history of the world without being raised (a very large number!) then the odds are X to 1 (very poor odds!) against Lazarus having died and being raised.”[ii]

The same could be said for any miracle. Based on our past experience then, the evidence will always go against labeling something a miracle. So, even if we can’t rule out miracles in principle, we can rule them out in practice because it is always irrational to believe in one.

The problem of unique events

That initially sounds like a reasonable argument. But when we take a closer look, there’s a major flaw. The skeptic’s argument against miracles can’t account for the fact that we regularly experience unique events that are, by definition, foreign to our prior experience.[iii]

Consider Wilt Chamberlain. He scored 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors on March 2, 1962. No NBA player before or after him has been able to match it. When you think about how many games have been played over the years and how many players have failed to even come close, you realize just how improbable scoring 100 points is. Wilt Chamberlain’s achievement was utterly unique in the world of NBA basketball. According to the skeptic’s rationale though, we ought to conclude it never really happened. In our experience, NBA players don’t score 100 points in a game.

Now, obviously, that doesn’t make any sense. Despite the unprecedented nature of the achievement, no one seriously doubts Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points that night in 1962. That suggests there’s something wrong with the skeptic’s argument because it shows we can’t dismiss something simply because it falls outside the range of our normal experience. If we reject miracles on that basis, we have to reject every unique event, even something as obviously true as Wilt’s record.

Conclusion

Miracles can’t be ruled out in principle either on the basis of science or on the basis of their being unique. That doesn’t mean we have to blindly accept every report of a miracle as true. But it does mean we have to look at the evidence before we can validly dismiss it. When it comes to the reliability of the gospel miracles, the question thus becomes whether or not there is sufficient evidence to support them. That’s precisely the question we ask in the next two sections in connection with the most important miracle recorded in the gospels—Jesus’ resurrection.

Is the Resurrection Just Another Fairytale?

Some people are skeptical of any miracle claim. That skepticism typically goes through the roof when it comes to Jesus’ resurrection. Dead men don’t come back to life, and to suggest otherwise seems ludicrous. But as we saw in the previous section, miracles can’t be ruled out in principle. That means you have to examine the evidence before you can validly determine any given miracle claim is false.   The same goes for the resurrection. We’re going to take a closer look at the evidence for the resurrection in the next two sections.

The Resurrection and Legends Contrasted

Why would anyone today take the story of the resurrection seriously? To answer that we have to look at the way belief in the resurrection originated within the early church in the first place. Many people believe the resurrection is just a legend. There’s an episode of How I Met Your Mother where Marshall starts coaching an elementary school basketball team, and they aren’t very good. Not surprisingly, they get trounced in their first game. Over the years, as Marshall retells the story, the margin of defeat gets wider and the players on the other team get taller. By the end, Marshall’s team was crushed 100–0 by four seven-foot-tall NBA-ready eight-year-olds and one Teen Wolf.   Legends develop in much the same way. The details of the story grow over time until they reach ridiculous proportions.  

But, as far as we can tell, the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection didn’t develop like that. Even skeptical scholars admit “within one to two years after his death the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead was so widespread and central to Christian practice that it formed part of basic catechetical instruction. This is no late evolutionary development of Christian faith after the real facts had been forgotten.”[iv]  

The question is how such an unlikely story would have taken hold so quickly. Once you eliminate the possibility of the story growing over time, it’s hard to understand where the story would have come from. It doesn’t seem like the type of thing someone would just come up with out of the blue and actually expect people to believe. People at that time may not have had all the scientific knowledge we have today, but they knew enough to know dead people tend to stay dead.

The Appearance to Paul

So how did belief in the resurrection get started? Shortly after his death, reports spread that a number of people had actually seen Jesus. Consider 1 Cor. 15:3-8.   Paul writes: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me as to one abnormally born.”

In this passage, Paul specifically says Jesus appeared to him. This is the earliest written report of the resurrection we have. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians around AD 55, a little more than twenty years after Jesus’ death.[v]   So 1 Corinthians, itself, is not very late. But the appearance Paul describes happened even earlier than that. According to the book of Acts, it happened shortly after Jesus’ death as Paul was on the road to Damascus with orders to arrest the Christians there (Acts 9).

It’s important to recognize Paul isn’t passing on secondhand information he heard from someone else. He is telling us what happened to him personally. So in 1 Cor. 15 we have a firsthand account of Jesus appearing to Paul. It’s possible Paul was just making it up. But that seems unlikely because this experience, whatever it was, appears to have had a dramatic effect on him. It turned him from a fierce persecutor of the church to an ardent defender of the faith. Such a dramatic life change would be difficult to explain if Paul were making the whole thing up. That’s why the vast majority of scholars, even skeptics, acknowledge Paul must have had some sort of real experience.[vi] By itself, that doesn’t necessarily mean Paul’s account is accurate. But it does mean something must have happened to convince Paul that Jesus had, in fact, appeared to him.

The Appearances to Peter and the Others

So we have at least one person who says he saw the resurrected Jesus. Already that makes this much different than your standard fairytale. After all, no one actually claimed to see Prince Charming slide the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot. But Paul isn’t the only one who claimed to see Jesus. According to Paul, Jesus appeared to a number of others as well. In 1 Cor. 15, in addition to himself, Paul lists separate appearances to Peter, the other apostles, a group of more than five hundred believers, and James.

Since Paul wasn’t there for any of these appearances, this isn’t eyewitness testimony like the report of his own experience. Yet his report can’t be easily dismissed. In v. 3, when Paul says he is passing on what he received, he is using an expression that refers to passing on tradition.[vii] So Paul isn’t making up the story of the appearances himself. He is passing on the basic teaching that was being given to believers at the time. According to Paul, it’s the very same teaching he himself received after his conversion. That’s why, “almost no one doubts that Paul wrote this letter or that he is telling the truth when he says he ‘delivered’ to the Corinthians the list of witnesses of the resurrection in verses 3-7 as one he ‘received’ from Christians who preceded him.”[viii]

Some would say, “So what if Paul is passing on a list of witnesses he had been given? That doesn’t mean Jesus really appeared to them. It doesn’t even mean Peter or the others claimed that Jesus appeared to them. Whoever gave Paul the list could have been lying or simply mistaken.” True. But again, it’s important to remember Paul is writing only twenty years or so after Jesus’ death. He and other believers would have been able to check out the truth of what they were being told. Peter and the others would have still been around. That means Paul, or anyone else for that matter, could have gone up and asked them what really happened.

Paul almost certainly would have verified the stories. He was personally acquainted with Peter and the other apostles, as well as James (Acts 15, Galatians 2). It’s hard to believe the topic of the resurrection wouldn’t have come up at some point. That means, by the time he wrote 1 Corinthians, Paul had talked to Peter and the other apostles about what they had seen.[ix] He may well have also talked to some or all of the group of more than five hundred who claimed to have seen Jesus.[x]

Conclusion

The bottom line is the resurrection didn’t develop the way legends typically do. The belief that Jesus rose from the dead took hold in a very short time because there were people who claimed to see Jesus after he had died and been buried. Peter, Paul, James, the other apostles, and likely more than five hundred other believers all reported seeing Jesus after his death. Even skeptics grant a number of different groups and individuals claimed to have seen Jesus.[xi] The question thus becomes, what could have happened to make them think Jesus had appeared to them? We try to answer that question in the final section.

Was the Resurrection Just a Hallucination?

Many assume the resurrection is just a legend. But, as we saw in the previous section, the resurrection accounts didn’t develop the way legends typically do. Belief in the resurrection came about as a result of reports that Jesus had appeared to a number of different individuals and groups shortly after his death. Based on Paul’s account in 1 Cor. 15, Peter, Paul, James, the other apostles, and likely more than five hundred other believers all reported seeing Jesus after his death. Even skeptics grant that it is unlikely Paul made the list up. As a result, the majority of scholars acknowledge a number of different groups and individuals had experiences they interpreted to be appearances of Jesus following his death.[xii] The question we want to focus on in this final section is what could have happened to make them believe that.

Hallucinations as an Explanation

In the two thousand years or so since Jesus’ death, many different theories have been offered in an attempt to explain the resurrection in natural terms. Theories ranged from suggestions that Jesus never really died to arguments that the disciples went to the wrong tomb. Eventually, those theories were jettisoned because scholars recognized they didn’t work. Despite that, many continue to remain skeptical of the resurrection. Today, the most common theory is that the disciples were having a subjective experience, such as a hallucination, when they thought they saw Jesus.[xiii]

Michael Goulder, for example, argues Peter and Paul separately had visions of Jesus that were triggered by psychological factors that predisposed them to see Jesus as risen from the dead. In Peter’s case, Goulder believes he would have been troubled by his weakness in denying Jesus and distraught over the prospect of returning home looking like a fool for having followed a fraud. In the midst of such emotional turmoil, Peter had a hallucination in which Jesus appeared to him. That hallucination would have been cathartic for Peter because it meant he didn’t have to see the whole mission as a failure after all and he could envision an opportunity to make up for his betrayal.[xiv]

Goulder isn’t sure we know enough about the events of Paul’s life leading up to his conversion to say for sure what would have prepared him for a vision of Jesus. But according to Goulder, it’s reasonable to assume something was going on inside of Paul that caused him to have a visionary experience similar to Peter’s.[xv]

In Goulder’s view, once we realize Peter and Paul both had hallucinatory visions, it’s easy to explain the other appearances. According to Goulder, the other appearances can be explained by a phenomenon called collective delusion. “Once one member of a community reports an experience of great significance, other members of the community are likely to have the same experience, especially if they are uneducated, isolated, with suitable beliefs and so on.”[xvi] Collective delusions, for example, explain why so many people claim they’ve seen UFOs or Bigfoot. In a similar way, once Peter and Paul claimed they saw Jesus, that opened the floodgates for others to see him as well.

Hallucinations are Rare

On the surface, that seems like a plausible way to account for the resurrection appearances. A closer look, though, reveals inherent problems. For one, hallucinations in general are fairly rare, and true group hallucinations are almost unknown.[xvii] In order to account for all the appearances then, the hallucination theory requires a series of unlikely events. By itself, that doesn’t mean the hallucination theory is false. After all, Jesus actually rising from the dead initially seems pretty implausible as well. But the rarity of hallucinations needs to be kept in mind as we consider whether the hallucination theory can adequately explain the resurrection appearances.

No Evidence Peter and Paul were Predisposed to Having a Hallucination

Another difficulty is the fact that there is little reason to think Peter and Paul were prepared, emotionally or otherwise, to have a hallucination of Jesus as risen from the dead. Take Peter, for example. Even if he was experiencing guilt at having betrayed Jesus, there were other ways he could have dealt with that guilt. Remember Jesus had just been crucified. From Peter’s perspective, that would have meant Jesus wasn’t the Messiah Peter thought he was. In that event, it would have been much easier for him to deal with his guilt by shifting the blame from himself to Jesus. Jesus was the failure, not Peter.[xviii] We’ve all attempted to justify our actions by shifting blame. Very few of us deal with our guilt by mentally bringing someone back from the dead. So it’s not at all clear Peter’s guilt would have caused him to hallucinate.

If the evidence for Peter’s hallucination is lacking, it’s completely nonexistent in Paul’s case. In fact, everything we know about Paul points in the opposite direction. Prior to seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul zealously persecuted Christians because he thought their teachings were not only false but blasphemous. In fact, he was going to Damascus to round up Christians and arrest them. So there’s no reason to believe he would have wanted to see Jesus alive, and thus, no reason to believe he would have been predisposed to hallucinate a risen Jesus.

Hallucinations Don’t Adequately Explain Group Appearances

What about the appearances to the Twelve and the five hundred? Goulder and others point to collective delusions, such as Bigfoot sightings, as a way to explain them. But Bigfoot sightings aren’t really comparable to the group resurrection appearances. For one, while many different people have claimed to see Bigfoot, they aren’t typically in one large group when they think they see him.

Additionally, as Licona explains, the people who claim to see Bigfoot aren’t hallucinating. They actually see something. They just mistake that something for Bigfoot.[xix] That’s a problem for the collective delusion theory. It’s not hard to imagine multiple people mistaking an object for something else. It much more difficult to see how multiple people can mistake nothing for something.

If someone points at a tree in the distance and asks, “Doesn’t that look like Bigfoot?” someone might possibly say, “You know, you’re right. I think it does.” But it’s a completely different story if someone is having a full blown hallucination and, pointing to thin air, asks if you see Jesus standing there. In that case, there is nothing for you to see. It seems highly unlikely that even small groups of people, let alone hundreds of people, would be persuaded they saw Jesus under those circumstances.

Hallucinations Can’t Explain the Empty Tomb

So as it turns out, hallucinations don’t actually explain the appearances very well. There’s an even bigger problem for the hallucination theory, though. The gospels report Jesus’ tomb was found empty. An empty tomb would be a fact the hallucination theory couldn’t explain. If the disciples were just hallucinating, Jesus would have still been dead and laying in the tomb. An empty tomb would, therefore, be a major inconsistency for the hallucination theory.

That raises the question: Was Jesus’ tomb really empty? Most scholars believe it was. They don’t necessarily believe Jesus rose from the dead, but they acknowledge in all probability the tomb was empty just as the gospels claim.[xx]

In large part, that’s because it would be difficult to explain how belief in the resurrection was able to get off the ground at all if the tomb weren’t empty. The disciples were proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem shortly after his crucifixion. The Jewish leaders would have wanted to crush that claim and it should have been a simple thing to do. As many have pointed out, all they had to do was haul Jesus’ body out of the tomb and put it on display. But there’s no evidence anyone did that. Had Jesus’ body been produced, the claim that Jesus had been raised would never have been believed, and Christianity never would have gotten started. The fact that it did, therefore, suggests the tomb was empty.[xxi]

That conclusion is strengthened by the fact that not only did the Jewish leaders not produce the body, they appear to have combatted the resurrection claim by suggesting Jesus’ disciples stole the body. That’s significant because it means the Jewish leadership conceded the body was gone.

How do we know the Jewish leaders accused the disciples of stealing the body? Matthew’s gospel specifically reports the chief priests told the guards to spread the story that the disciples stole the body while they were asleep (Matt. 28:11-15). Why should we believe Matthew? Well, why would he include this story if it weren’t true? Why would he even risk raising the suspicion the disciples might have stolen the body? The most likely reason is he felt he needed to respond to an accusation that was already out there.[xxii]

Matthew’s account also squares with the fact that the accusation that the disciples stole the body continued to be repeated by later opponents long after his gospel was written. In fact, as Habermas and Licona note, the disciples stealing the body is “the only early opposing theory we know of offered by Jesus’ enemies[xxiii]“. The only way to account for that would be if the tomb were in fact empty. Otherwise, you’d expect someone would have come up with an argument that didn’t imply an empty tomb.

That raises another question: Did the disciples steal the body? All the evidence suggests the disciples genuinely believed Jesus rose from the dead. The fact that so many of Jesus’ early disciples were persecuted and even martyred for their faith points to the sincerity of their belief.[xxiv] It’s difficult to see how they could sincerely believe in the resurrection if they stole the body. As a result, few scholars believe the disciples stole Jesus’ body. But that, of course, leaves us without a natural explanation for the empty tomb. That in turn means there’s a major piece of evidence the hallucination theory can’t explain.

Conclusion

When it comes to explaining the resurrection appearances, it’s fair to begin by trying to find a natural cause. But it’s important to remember, if God exists and miracles are possible, a supernatural explanation can’t be ruled out. Earlier attempts to explain the resurrection in terms of natural causes were abandoned because they didn’t explain the facts very well. As we’ve seen, the most common explanation today, the hallucination theory, doesn’t fare any better. That’s significant because ultimately an explanation has to work. If natural explanations can’t explain the resurrection appearances, at some point you have to ask whether a supernatural explanation does a better job. Even if one isn’t prepared to accept a supernatural explanation for the resurrection on that basis, the bottom line is the argument for a supernatural explanation is much stronger than is generally understood, and arguments for a natural explanation are much weaker than is often acknowledged.


[i] Craig L. Blomberg, 2007. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2d ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 105-107.

[ii]   Ibid., 109.

[iii] Ibid, 110.

[iv] Ibid., 148.

[v] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove: IVP Academic.2010), 223.

[vi]   Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004), 60, 115.

[vii]   Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 147.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] See Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 336-337.

[x] Cf. Ibid., 320.

[xi]   William Lane Craig, “Opening Statements” in Jesus’ Resurrection Fact or Figment: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Gerd Ludemann. ed.   Paul Coplan and Ronald K. Tacelli, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. 2000), 33-34.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 479.

[xiv] Michael Goulder,”Explanatory Power of Conversion-Visions” in Jesus’ Resurrection Fact or Figment: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Gerd Ludemann. Eds. Paul Coplan and Ronald K. Tacelli. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 93-94

[xv] Ibid., 95.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus , 483-484.

[xviii]   William Lane Craig, “Closing Responses” in Jesus’ Resurrection Fact or Figment: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Gerd Ludemann. ed.   Paul Coplan and Ronald K. Tacelli, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.    2000), 194).

[xix] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 489.

[xx] Craig, “Opening Statement”, 33.

[xxi] William Lane Craig, “The Historicity of the Empty Tomb” in New Testament Studies 31 (1985): 39-67. http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/tomb2.html (accessed March 7, 2012). )

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus ,71.

[xxiv] Ibid., 59, 94-95.

2 Comments

  1. Steve Sewell

    Hi Phil, you’ve done a great job putting all this together. I appreciate all the work you’ve put into this. Unbelievable amount of thought would have to go into these theological devotions as you make your many points. This is certainly helpful for all believers, but especially those who are young in their faith.

    Steve Sewell

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