Sunday, February 15, 2009

And on the Third Day...

One of the foundational ideas—to some even a proof—of Christianity is that God sent His son to live on Earth for a time so that He could suffer and die, and through His suffering and death relieve humanity of the original sin committed in the Garden of Eden. After His death, goes the story, Jesus rose from death and rejoined God. This works both as a miracle: an apparently mortal man is killed but rises from the dead, as only God can, and as symbolism: people can find a rebirth by killing the sin within them.

If this story is true, it provides powerful evidence that Christians are correct about the nature of God, and belief in its veracity helps many Christian sects focus on an individual relationship with Christ as a route to salvation. Unfortunately, there is no very compelling reason to believe that the resurrection really happened, and at least two reasons to think it did not.

First, no contemporary accounts of the resurrection exist. No Jewish or Pagan accounts of such an historic event survived. Further, no one witnessed the resurrection itself, and we have only second hand accounts of what those who saw Jesus after His death experienced. In Paul’s account, he saw only a light, not a man. Even Mark, the earliest Gospel, did not include the story of Jesus’ appearance to others after His death until it was added later. Only Paul mentions the appearance of Christ to over five hundred people at the same time, and such a historical and widely experienced event should have generated contemporary accounts from other sources—at least within the Bible. That is, it is difficult to believe that an event like the resurrection generated no surviving discussion, nor even a coherent Biblical account.

Establishing the veracity of the resurrection story told in the Bible faces other difficulties. For example, it does not appear to fit the customs of the time. Burial of a crucifixion victim in a tomb would have been an exception to the typical disposition of the bodies of those punished by crucifixion. Jewish law of the time mandated common graves for criminals, and since the Sanhedrin had found Jesus guilty of blasphemy there is no reason to believe that He would have received an honorable burial except for the account told in the Gospels. It is possible that Joseph, a Sanhedrin himself, violated custom and law to give Christ an honorable burial, though this would go against the man’s professed beliefs.

None of this, of course, proves that the corpse of Jesus Christ did not reanimate after three days, and that the resurrected Christ did not appear before His followers. But the historical evidence is thin and contradictory, and all of it was written by those who had a reason to create such a story. No evidence exists to suggest that any non-followers of Jesus noticed the hubbub, nor that the people who crucified Christ worried themselves over the miracle and what it would mean for their own spiritual beliefs—no one tried to disprove the account.

The historical record, then, does not fully support the story of the physical resurrection of Christ. More importantly, I would argue that because such a miracle would prove the nature of God, it would make faith unnecessary, and change the relationship between God and Man. No miracle that can be directly and objectively attributed to God has ever been thoroughly documented outside the Bible—no second resurrection, no re-growth of a severed limb, no violation of the laws of biology or physics as we know them. To be sure, a great many people believe that God has answered prayers with cured disease or renewed prosperity, but no miracle has been fully documented that could only have come from the Hand of God, and admits no other explanation.

The reason for this, I believe, is that the God of Christianity does not want to prove His existence to Man. He wants us to figure it out for ourselves, and He wants the relationship between God and Man to depend on love and faith, not the rational cost-benefit calculation that proof of His existence—and therefore of the existence of Heaven and Hell—would generate. This is why He has caused no miracle under conditions that do not allow for alternative explanation, and the physical resurrection of Jesus and His appearance to others three days after His death would violate this condition.

Forgive me if my knowledge of the relevant historical data is lacking, and I certainly welcome presentation of existing accounts that I missed which deconstruct this argument. But I believe that the Biblical accounts do not adequately support the idea that the resurrection actually took place, and that this is true for good reason: God does not want to prove His existence. If He had ever wished to do so, He could at any time. He does not, and did not, because He does not wish to change His relationship with Man. As I have said before, I do not think this disproves the existence of God Himself—He could exist, even if the resurrection never happened. But it does discount the veracity of one of the central tenets of Christianity that Richard asked about: the resurrection never happened.


  1. Wow, this is a lot of content in one post. I'll comment more later but a couple of "off the cuff" remarks:

    (1)I won't dispute the eary lack of external documentation.

    (2)There is a great deal of internal documentation as has already been posted in another strand in great detail. I say this only to get at your view of the historical reliability of the Biblical record. I think it's generally conceded that it is reliable but there is great debate over "how" reliable. Is your view in this range?

    (3)I don't personally accept Mark 16:9ff though it's tempting for the obvious reasons.

    (4)Your argument that God wouldn't reveal Himself because it would change his relationship to man and disallow man's own search is new to me and intriguing.

    (5)I don't believe your historical info on burial practice is accurate but I'll check it out if someone else doesn't beat me to it. I'm not sure this is a major issue anyway.

    (6)Some of what you say is the same as my impetus for the post about why something amazing isn't happening if all this is real.

    Gotta run ...

  2. I think that most of the Bible is unreliable as an historical record. I say this because I don't believe we can ever be sure that it was written as an objective account, with no underlying agenda.

    This does not mean that much of the Bible is not literally true. Some may be--but what parts? Where different authors tell the same story, they often contradict.

    Which also begs the question: if the Bible is the word of God, why did He tell multiple versions of many stories?

  3. You might as well ask: "Why are there 4 gospels not one?" Christians would argue that we are getting more than one perspective (Luke is the historian, Mark is more anecdotal and topical, etc.). They would also argue that God used man, intact with his own tendencies to write the Bible.

    I don't see a lot of contradiction, if you stipulate this. You and I might relate different accounts of something that happened when we were kids, especially to different audience, and yet both be 100% correct.

    If we had the advantage of telling the story together so that the tale informed itself in the telling, I think we might adjust off one another. I would argue that the audience is better off to hear the accounts with our own passions added in and could be trusted to set context for themselves.

    Most evangelicals would also hold that the Bible is only inerrant in its original form and concede that some passages may be tainted. That's why churches send their promising to seminaries, to devote the extra time necessary to weed through some of these issues though they do need attention to maintain the integrity of the belief system.

    Unfortunately, the historical reliability of the text is an ongoing process because the science itself is evolving and discovering new data. The archaeologists' creedo is "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." We may yet discover more outside corroboration of Jesus' life, etc. but there isn't a wealth of it now.

    I am very frustrated with the availability of Israel as a whole to archaeologists. Almost every square inch might shed light on these issues. And the mosque on top of the former temple site is maddening.

    I wax on (wax off) ...

    You will get a push back, however, if you start asserting that the Bible is less than 99% reliable as compared to the original text.

    The Hebrews were meticulous and believed that accuracy mattered.

  4. We're not really talking, in many cases, about descriptions of events varying by perspective and audience. In some cases, the contradictory versions simply cannot both be so. The competing creation stories in Genesis, I believe, are the best example of this.

    But OK, given that view of the Bible, don't we at least have to assume that--if the Christian tenets you asked about are correct--the Bible is in the form, and as reliable, as God intended for it to be? There is, after all, only one way to define "inerrant word of God."

  5. No, there's more than one way, as I mentioned. The prevailing conservative opinion is that God spoke to the writers as they were writing. This mirrors the view of the copyists, so they copied word for word and did not feel "inspired" to add editorial comments. The loyalty is to the original text. That's why I took Hebrew and Greek in seminary and walked around with a Greek New Testament.

    I only people I've met that hold to inerrancy of a current translation, hold it regarding the King James Version for no reason I can or want to defend. It's the groups that attract the uneducated and superstitious.

    If I like opera and, like most opera fans, idolize the Italian opera, I do it some disservice if I don't bother to learn Italian so I get the story. It's certainly not the fault of the composer or the singer that I don't know Italian, in fact, I would argue that Italian is the perfect choice for opera. It's up to me if I want to do the work to gain the added benefit.

    I just don't care, it seems trivial to me. I don't ask when reading Tom Sawyer if it's inerrant, although I suspect that it is.

    This does not rule out the Genesis question though it explains why I would quickly dismiss the Mark text. I'm more interested in the integrity of the text than in arrows for my quiver.

  6. Sorry, I lost a post on technical difficulty, so I'm going to cheat and quote someone else on the Genesis creation issue:

    There are many explanations but this one fits the Luke/Mark approach I took earlier. It seems to me that which is adopted is decided by the presumed world view, not by the text itself.

    That would take us back to the world view discussion or one of the our other strands.

  7. As for outside evidence of Christendom, there's content at

    This is a couple of chapters from an F.F. Bruce book that includes notes from Josephus, the best known author of early Christian references from non-Christians, including opposing rabbis and Gentiles.

  8. I stumbled across a Josephus volume at my mom's while visiting this week.