Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Timothy McGrew's Argument for the Resurrection

This should provide a helpful structure to resurrection debate.

Tim passed this argument on to me in the context of a bunch of other material. In the context, he prefaces it with the line "If the Gospels were written by people who were in a position to know what really happened" and expressly says that it is an argument that can come into play "once it is established that the Gospels contain authentic apostolic testimony regarding the resurrection." He is fully aware that, in the context of current debates, these are disputed propositions that require independent argument.

Again, this post is an attempt to provide a structure to the discussion, something that the formal structure of the Kalam Cosmological argument also helps to do. By looking at such a formal structure, you can divide criticisms of the argument into two classes: ones that challenge the causal premise, and ones that challenge the claim that the universe began to exist.

1. If the resurrection of Jesus did not occur, as the apostles said it did, then either they knew that Jesus had not risen, and therefore they were deceivers, or they did not know that Jesus had not risen, and therefore they were deceived.

2. If they were deceivers, they were willing to die for something they knew to be a lie, without any expectation of earthly gain for it.

3. People are not willing to die for something they know to be a lie without any expectation of earthly gain for it.

4. If they were deceived, then they were subjected to massive hallucinations involving multiple people, extended across forty days.

5. Massive hallucinations of this sort do not happen.


6. The apostles were neither deceivers nor deceived.


7. The resurrection of Jesus occurred, as the apostles said it did.


Walter said...

Massive hallucinations across forty days?

This argument implies that the Gospels are inerrant historically. What if the post-easter accounts are more mythical than historical? What if those forty days never happened at all?

If we assume complete historical accuracy for the Gospels, it becomes impossible to explain what happened without resorting to a supernatural explanation. But if the Gospels are a mix of fact and mythology because they were written by a later generation of followers based on embellished oral traditions, then I believe Resurrection faith can be explained by visionary experiences and cognitive dissonance reduction by those who just lost their charismatic leader to crucifixion. And the story got grander with each retelling before it was finally written down.

Anonymous said...

These kinds of arguments for the Resurrection remind me of Lewis' Trilemma; except applied to the Apostles. They were either liars, lunatics, or telling the truth. But if they were liars or lunatics, we wouldn't expect them to give testimony to an incredible event with their lives.

Of course, some work to be done in going through and establishing the low probability of a hallucination-legend story, but this gives you a rather impressive claim, and one that requires a serious rational consideration.

Tim said...

It is only fair to point out that this argument will work only in the context of an extensive argument for the authenticity of the accounts of what the apostles said. Until that background is established (which is not, I think, very difficult to do, though the argument for it is long and cumulative), it will simply provoke the accusation that it is begging the question and that the Gospels are not substantially historical.

That is not, however, the same thing as an argument for the truth of what they said. For that, a second, explanatory step is required. But at that point, a deductive structure does help to bring the salient issues into sharp relief.

Doctor Logic said...

Walter beat me to it.

I was about to tear my hair out again.

"4. If they were deceived, then they were subjected to massive hallucinations involving multiple people, extended across forty days."

You just took it as a given that this happened as the followers said it did. And, as Tim says, that's circular.

And even if the 40-day period was real, what if the disciples simply spent 40 days living in the equivalent of a haunted house, reinforcing each others' delusions? What if one among them suggested that he was blessed by visions of Jesus returned?

Would you really wanna be the only disciple in the house who didn't see Jesus like everyone else? Wouldn't you interpret your mundane experiences as evidence of the supernatural, thereby avoiding the cognitive dissonance? "Yeah, that stranger I walked into town with today.... he was Jesus, yeah, that's who it was. I just didn't recognize him at first."

A just-so story? Sure. But if you want to poke holes in it, please do so without quoting testimony from the "authors". OF COURSE the authors will portray themselves as ordinary skeptics before their visions.

Victor Reppert said...

What did I say at the beginning about a useful structure?

Anonymous said...

"3. People are not willing to die for something they know to be a lie without any expectation of earthly gain for it."

an atheist I was evangalizing to once objected to this premise of the argument. He said that the christian message is an inspiring message of hope, and that it's plausible that the disciples of Jesus chose to risk their lives spreading Jesus' message to make the world a better place. I didnt know how to respond.

Tim said...


It seems to me that there are various reasonable responses. Two come to mind offhand:

1. How could they have thought that it was a message of hope if they believed it was untrue? Wouldn't that just be offering people false hope?

2. Why is insistence that a dead Rabbi was physically raised to life -- the absolute core of all Christian teaching from the beginning -- essential to a message of hope? Judaism already taught the ultimate vindication of the righteous by God.

Anonymous said...


Yes, false hope -- but hope nonetheless! I think that's what the atheist had in mind. we live in a cruel world, etc etc, and life feels more worthwhile and valuable so long as we (perhaps falsely) believe that we're part of this inspiring story of Christianity. It's a great good for people to feel as if life is worthwhile and valuable, and the disciples (being very altruistic people) decided to give up their lives to bring about this great good. So the skeptical scenario goes, anyway.

regarding why Jesus' resurrection was so important to preach about: Jesus predicted his resurrection, so if the disciples were to maintain that Jesus was who he said he was (God), the disciples had to maintain that Jesus' predictions weren't falsified.

Tim said...


The "give them false hope" scenario doesn't have much explanatory power. Is there any parallel case where a group of people voluntarily undertook a lifetime of labors, dangers, and sufferings in order to promote a factual claim about a recent event, which factual claim they knew was a lie, solely in order to make people feel more hope, and without any reasonable expectation of personal benefits here or hereafter?

As far as Jesus' predictions are concerned, if the disciples were the very people who were shaping and promoting this message, nothing would have been easier for them to leave out his predictions of his own resurrection. The message of hope was already there in Judaism; they could have contented themselves with promoting some ascetic version of Judaism like that practiced by the Essenes. Think of John the Baptist as a model.

Victor Reppert said...

I put some clarifications in the original post.

Edwardtbabinski said...

How exactly did "the apostles" say that the resurrection occurred?

We have stories of stories, whether from apostles or other sources (see intro to Luke-Acts) and those stories of stories require ad hoc harmonizations in order to become "the resurrection story."

Tim said...


Are we entitled, in your opinion, to say that we have the story of the assassination of Julius Caesar?

If not, why not?

If so, why can't we say, in the same sense, that we have the story of the resurrection?

Doctor Logic said...


The assassination story is more reliable for numerous reasons.

First, it was reported on by multiple sources who reported on a lot of other unrelated stuff. That is, they were reporters by trade. Their main interest in reporting the event was completeness.

Second, while they probably had some bias with respect to the story, they weren't mortally committed to defending the story. They were relatively disinterested.

Third, the event itself fits with related historical evidence. Caesar was a celebrity before and after his assassination. We don't have any doubt that he existed or that he led Rome. There were facts written about him, and evidence of his exploits before his death. And his assassination explains a civil war and the lack of his presence after his assassination.

Finally, assassination isn't physically improbable. Assassination in high places is (or was) quite commonplace. Resurrection, in contrast, is virtually impossible. And it's extraordinary even if you eschew naturalism.

Maybe I can spin the question back around at you, Tim. Suppose the biographers and historians claimed that Caesar did something extraordinary, and did this extraordinary thing in their presence alone. Bearing in mind that these historians were relatively more independent and professional than the authors of the NT, is there anything they could have claimed Caesar did that you would not believe?

For example, suppose the Roman historians claimed that Caesar was dead and buried Friday, then resurrected on a Sunday, then vanished into thin air a month later after being visible only to the historians. Would you be willing to believe that?

Or, another way to see the same argument. Isn't it possible for an extraordinary event to occur, and for this event to be reported by witnesses, and yet have the event be unbelievable to rational readers in the distant future?

If we meet at the park, and while we're alone, I sprout magic wings and fly about. Before you can report it, I get hit by a bus. Should rational people believe you? Even if you're right, they should not. Not enough evidence. Even if your life is changed by the experience, the odds of your life change are much higher than the odds that I sprouted wings.

Tim said...


You're missing the point. The issue in question is not whether the resurrection story is more likely to be true than the assassination story, but whether the evidence is on a par that they are both authentic, that is, whether the accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, like the accounts in Plutarch, Appian, Seneca, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius, represent with tolerable accuracy what was reported by those who were in a position to know at the time.

Ed expresses incredulity at the idea that we have the story more or less as told by the apostles. His stated reasons are that (1) the stories we have all come to us at several removes, and (2) the accounts, as they now stand, require harmonization. I'm granting his premises arguendo and asking whether he would, by the same line of reasoning, deny that we have the story of Caesar's assassination.