I’ve put together a short version of my case against the resurrection of Jesus, intended to be a capsule summary of the smackdown case against it that people have made before.
1. Extraordinary Claims made without extraordinary evidence are probably false.
2. The resurrection is an extraordinary claim.
3. It does not have extraordinary evidence.
Conclusion: Therefore, the resurrection is probably false.
Point number one: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If I told you I had a perpetual motion machine, a machine that can run forever without losing energy, that would be an extraordinary claim. Lots of people throughout history have claimed one; in every case they were proven wrong. How much evidence would you need to believe my claim? A lot. You would want to see it yourself. You would want a scientist to investigate it. You would want several independent teams of scientists to investigate this machine. You might even ask that the device be used successfully and tested again and again before you agreed that it was a genuine perpetual motion machine. Miracles are like perpetual motion machines, and require the same amount of evidence for the same reason. We know most miracle claims are false. Look at Skeptic magazine. Look at the work of James Randi or Joe Nickell. J. C. Tierney of the International Marian Research institute says that “Out of the 386 apparitions [supernatural appearances of the Virgin Mary], the Church has decided that ‘yes’ there is a supernatural character only in eight cases.” Even the eight cases deemed genuine by the church are probably not real, in my opinion.
Point number 2: the resurrection is an extraordinary claim. It’s self-evident that a God bringing someone back from the dead in a supernatural body is a miracle, which is an extraordinary claim, which means that it needs extraordinary evidence.
Point number 3: It does not have extraordinary evidence.
Extraordinary evidence is evidence that is super, super-strong. It is evidence that is wildly unlikely under alternative theories. To show that the resurrection does not have extraordinary evidence, all we have to show is that if the resurrection didn’t occur, it would not be wildly unlikely for us to end up with the New Testament texts we have today. Here’s the evidence for the resurrection, all of it:
(A) A leader in the early church (Paul) says that Peter, James, and two groups called the “Twelve” and the Apostles saw the resurrected Jesus, though he does not specify whether they all saw him at the same time or individually.
(B) Paul says that “500 brethren” saw the resurrected Jesus at one time. (All of this may be read in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11).
(C) Paul says that he saw Jesus in a vision, even though he had once persecuted Christians.
(D) Four unknown people, writing in a completely different language (Greek) from that which Jesus spoke (Aramaic), who had probably never even met Jesus, wrote narratives that include various details (an empty tomb, vivid accounts of meetings with the resurrected Jesus) which, if true, would support the resurrection theory.
Are all of these things wildly unlikely to be the case without a resurrection? Let’s take them in order:
(A) It is not unlikely that a couple of dozen people (The Twelve, The Apostles, Peter, and James) would see Jesus or have some type of experience of him after his death. The early church had over a hundred members after Jesus’ death (Acts 1:15), and studies show that between 15 and 30 out of every hundred people visually hallucinate after they lose a loved one. So, it isn’t unlikely that twenty or thirty early Christians would see or experience Jesus after his death.
(B) Paul wrote over twenty years after Jesus died. Twenty years was all it took for a church historian to embellish the account of Emperor Constantine’s conversion from a mere dream to a public event in which the visionary cross was seen by his entire army. Could legendary growth be responsible for Paul’s report of the vision of the 500? In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is desperately trying to argue for the resurrection, and the story of the 500 serves as a piece of evidence. We know that evangelical believers, Christian or not, are often guilty of getting the facts wrong (through confusion or intent) when trying to win others to their faith. Muslims peddle the idea that science proves the Qu’ran, though many of these ‘proofs’ are not fact (google “Proof of the Qu’ran” to see what I mean). False stories, such as “NASA confirms that the sun stood still as reported in the book of Joshua” have spread rapidly and widely among modern-day evangelicals. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, it is not unlikely that his followers would create untrue stories (whether by honest error or intentional deceit) like the mass appearance in order to support the resurrection belief and convince others.
(C) Given that there were thousands and thousands of people outside the church in the early days, it is not surprising or unlikely that you’d end up with one person, Paul, to also hallucinate the risen Jesus. A single, lone outsider seeing the risen Jesus, rather than thousands or millions of non-Christians back then, is better explained if the resurrection was a delusion. Think about it: if the resurrection was part of the real, objective world, then vast numbers (hundreds of thousands, millions) of people might have seen Jesus in his resurrection body, including those in Australia and the Americas where people had not heard of him before (supernatural powers can do anything). If the resurrection was a delusion, that could not happen. What could happen under the delusion hypothesis is for the resurrection to find its way into the imaginations of one or two outsiders already prone to believe or hallucinate, and lots of reasons this might apply to Paul. Example: Paul was a persecutor of the early church, and often those who persecute something are secretly attracted to it, witness the many homophobes who have homosexual tendencies. Since even ordinary people can hallucinate, and since there were thousands of chances for this to happen, it is not wildly unlikely.
(D) No one would normally grant extremely strong reliability to non-eyewitness reports written decades later. Especially not to four accounts that violently contradict one another at times, and evidently invented several things out of thin air (the nativity of Jesus is widely admitted to be a fabrication in New Testament scholarship). So, the “facts” reported in the gospels that supposedly support the resurrection aren’t facts at all, and we cannot reasonably say that falsehoods would be unlikely to be invented when we know full well that zealous believers create them all the time, and the gospels are already proven to have done so by contemporary scholarship. The most popular “supporting detail” from the gospels is the discovery of the empty tomb. It would not have been invented, apologists say, because it is said to have been discovered by women (who were not considered trustworthy in Ancient Palestine). But women were trusted back then: Acts 16:16 tells of a demon-possessed girl who made a great living telling fortunes (which means that if people paid her for her service they obviously trusted her). Even if women weren’t trusted, three of the four gospels place males at the scene of the empty tomb. The exception comes from the one gospel that goes to lengths to rebut charges that male disciples stole the body of Jesus (Matthew).
As a matter of fact, not only does the empty tomb story lack evidence, there’s good evidence that it is a legend. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues for the resurrection and cites a number of people who have seen the resurrection to prove that it happened. But he doesn’t mention an empty tomb. That’s rather extraordinary. Every Christian apologist that I have ever heard argue for the resurrection always brings up the empty tomb. Every single one. Paul, on the other hand, fails to mention it. His failure to mention it would be extremely improbable if he had known of empty tomb. On the other hand, his failure to mention the empty tomb is very likely if the empty tomb story were a legend that sprang up sometime after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians.
So, the evidence for the resurrection is not extraordinary.
Since the conclusion logically follows from my premises, and all of my premises are true, so is the conclusion: The resurrection is probably false.
This is only the executive summary of my thought: there are many more reasons I could draw on to support my position, as well as some weak objections which I have covered more thoroughly in my book Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence, and the Resurrection of Jesus.