An Elephant in the Resurrection Skeptic’s Room

Today, Reflections offers a guest article by Milt Chamberlain.

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Skeptic Richard Carrier writes, “Many things could be said which cast doubt on the story of the Resurrection of Jesus by God…since I cannot rationally bring myself to believe this story, I cannot rationally bring myself to be a Christian.” His collection of essays, entitled “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection,” elaborates on the reasons for his rejection of Christianity’s central tenant.1 As a volunteer apologist for RTB, I recently responded to an email requesting a rebuttal of Carrier’s arguments. His arguments aren’t new, but as I read his essays and drafted a response I felt uneasy. Was I overlooking something important?

This feeling persisted until halfway through my first draft when it hit me. Resurrection skeptics like Carrier eagerly characterize New Testament (NT) authors as “unknown,” under-educated, and biased—what I’ll call “ugly-duckling” historians or witnesses—but these skeptics overlook an elephant in the room, namely the scriptural declaration that God intentionally chose ugly-duckling witnesses. Carrier, in his essay “The Rubicon Analogy,” presents seven points in the ugly-duckling strain against the NT writers.2

  1. Jesus never wrote anything: True, Jesus lived what He preached. His followers preached what He lived and then wrote it down. Jesus was not a publishing academic, but Truth alive, humanity’s ultimate object lesson, and so much more.
  2. New Testament writers were not reputable historians: True, all were common men and—excepting Paul, Luke, and possibly Matthew—under educated. But does education or high position guarantee honesty or accuracy? Surely, only elitists would propose this idea.
  3. New Testament writers wrote to persuade to belief in the risen Christ: True, they wrote as eyewitnesses for whom objectivity was unnatural and impossible. The Gospels and Acts are recalled accounts of passionate eyewitnesses (or reports from such), not dispassionate writings of uninvolved scholars. We should feel neither surprise nor disquiet about their persuasive bias. Instead, shouldn’t we expect it?
  4. Jesus’ first-century enemies published nothing to deny the resurrection: True, why would they? Their harshest critic was gone. Yes, His body was missing and there were disturbing resurrection rumors, but why would His enemies publish written accounts denying an event they claimed never happened? Surely, they followed an age-old strategy: do not “give legs” to a rumor by permitting, much less fostering, public discussion.
  5. There is no physical evidence for the resurrection: True, but what physical evidence should we expect? Religious and Roman authorities never produced Jesus’ body to quell growing resurrection rumors even though they had every motivation (and the manpower) to find Jesus’ body and put an end to these “messianic pretensions.” But they didn’t.
  6. Belief explains Christianity’s growth, but belief doesn’t have to be true: Not exactly; this idea fails to explain the eyewitness’ behavior. Yes, people willingly die for unsubstantiated beliefs they think true. But the ugly-duckling eyewitnesses had lived with Jesus and saw Him die and then live again. They suffered martyrdom or exile because they had seen and knew the living Truth. They alone had irrefutable, objective evidence of the resurrection. We don’t, but we have reasonable evidence provided in what they wrote.
  7. If the resurrection occurred everyone would have known it: By God’s design relatively few people (more than 500) saw the risen Savior. The resurrected Christ chose to reveal Himself through a handful of ugly-duckling witnesses.

In this last point we find the elephant unseen by skeptics. First Corinthians 1:20 (ESV) asks, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” In painting Jesus’ ugly-duckling eyewitnesses as unqualified historians, skeptics merely confirm God’s declared strategy for the Gospel. They describe the elephant but cannot see it. First Corinthians 1:28–29 (ESV) goes on:

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

The elephant is in Scripture’s call to love God through faith in Jesus Christ; this faith first believes in the proposition that Jesus is the resurrected Son of God and then trusts Him as Lord of one’s life. Skeptics can’t trust Jesus because they demand irrefutable historical evidence to prove the resurrection; without it they refuse to believe.

The apostle Thomas also refused to believe, demanding irrefutable proof of the resurrection—but when he stood face-to-face with that proof, he professed belief and trust. Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We might interpret this as blessed are those who believe on the basis of reasonable evidence (not blind faith), even though we lack irrefutable proof. That’s you and me (and the majority of post-resurrection history), for God provided irrefutable evidence only to Thomas and the other ugly-duckling eyewitnesses.

By ignoring the elephant, skeptics align themselves with the scribes and Pharisees who demanded an immediate sign in their time—an irrefutable proof—that Jesus was Messiah, but only one sign would be given—His death, burial, and resurrection (Matthew 12:38–42). Similarly, today’s skeptics demand irrefutable historical proof of the resurrection. By design, it doesn’t exist because, also by design, Christ’s entire ministry turned what was upside down “downside up.” Therefore, none should be surprised that God made worldly wisdom foolish by choosing ugly-duckling witnesses (instead of the “wise men” of His day) to communicate the Gospel of the Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 1:20).

Let’s not allow resurrection skeptics to restrict our apologetics to standards of “worldly wisdom” that make unreasonable demands for non-existent, irrefutable evidence. We must stand firm on the reasonable evidence for the resurrection that God has provided. Remember God’s expressed purpose to “shame the wisethrough the Gospel by communicating the Gospel through ugly-duckling witnesses.

Endnotes

  1. Richard Carrier, “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection,” 6th ed. (2006), Secular Web, http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/introduction.html.
  2. Carrier, “The Rubicon Analogy,” in “Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection,” http://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/resurrection/rubicon.html.

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By Milt Chamberlain

Mr. Milton Chamberlain received his MBA from Samford University in 1974, and currently serves part-time as IT and accounting manager at Birmingham Rheumatology in Birmingham, Alabama.

  One thought on “An Elephant in the Resurrection Skeptic’s Room

  1. Kelvin Smith
    January 21, 2015 at 8:12 am

    To point #2: Exactly who at that time would have been considered a “reputable historian”? Caesar writing “Gallic Wars”? An expectation of disinterested, “just the facts” history is anachronistic to say the least. Even today we recognize that many fine recently written histories still have a strong point of view. Luke tells us he did careful research for his books, and little details (like _always_ getting the title right for the various rulers–king, governor, tetrarch, etc.–he mentions) show us that’s not mere puffery.

    I’ve long held that one of the best evidences of trustworthy history is a willingness to record facts that reflect poorly on the author. The Gospels meet this criterion in spades: the apostles come across as a bunch of dolts, constantly confused, foolish, faithless, cowardly. And they’re the leaders of the early Church! Why would they reveal their manifold flaws–unless telling the truth was more important than burnishing their images?

    #4: This is actually unproven. Nothing survives to the present day in written form, but lots of (probably most) written material of that time no longer exists. Matthew records the skeptics’ claim that the body was stolen.

    #5: The physical evidence is the undeniable growth of the Church in a very short time after the death of Christ (and belief in the Resurrection has been part of the Church’s teaching from the very beginning). If Jesus were still in his tomb, the body would have been brought out and Christianity smothered in the cradle.

    Fundamentally, Carrier’s problem is that he is unwilling to entertain the possibility that the Creator of the universe might intervene in the normal life of the universe. To him, that seems irrational. To a believer, failing to allow for the possibility, making God a prisoner of his creation, is what’s irrational.

    BTW, the Resurrection isn’t Christianity’s central tenant; it’s our central tenet.

  2. John
    January 23, 2015 at 1:03 pm

    Great post. There is one thing, the scribes and pharisees willingly suppressed evidence. Look at John 9, the man born blind. When he expounded what had happened they rejected the evidence they had gathered. Today skeptics will not look directly at the evidence.

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