Here I reproduce (with kind permission) the reflections of a thoughtful and intelligent Christian, as he honestly considers issues such as the historicity of the resurrection, and the reliability of the gospels more generally. Out of respect for my friend’s willingness to let me share his doubts, I think it is appropriate to also include some of his reasons for continuing to believe; these are given at the end. Nothing has been edited, except a couple of personal details.
The purpose of this post is not to judge my friend’s reasons for believing in the face of doubt. It is to help skeptics realise that some believers are indeed troubled by the kind of doubts that we might consider fatal to belief. It’s easy to think that everyone who disagrees with you must be ignorant of the reasons that have led to your views. People do this from both sides, and progress is usually only possible if we come some way towards mutual understanding.
While it should be obvious that I don’t agree with everything written here, I will simply present my friend’s views, without passing comment.
We only trust the trustworthy. The gospels contain what looks like legend (along with more credible parts) – many years later, adding to the earlier Mark, the author of “Matthew” (that even Bauckham thinks can’t be Matthew) inserts tombs breaking open at Jesus’ death, two earthquakes! (Cf apocalyptic earthquakes throughout book of Revelation), Peter walking on water, the idea that “on this rock I will build my church”, Jesus riding on two donkeys, two demoniacs, the main resurrection appearance as Galilee despite Luke appearing to say they never left Jerusalem, etc etc.
There doesn’t seem to be even one clearly first hand description of an encounter by an identified eyewitness who is one of the 12, let alone the lack of many coherently overlapping first hand testimonies by those 12 specifically trained to do that very job! First hand testimony is crucial for evidence – hearsay is not good. (John is anonymous & even Bauckham says its not by one of the 12 (but a lesser witness). John’s gospel, despite a historical descriptions of the ch5 Pool etc, looks like it takes poetic licence since it has very long speeches that look like creative writing, that are not memorisable & recited oral tradition). No “I am” statements in the synoptics.
Paul, the primary NT author, has a vision on the Damascus road that is categorised as an “appearance” along side the appearances to the 12. Acts is empathic (x3) that Paul just saw a light and heard a voice, describing it as “a vision” using the same Greek words for Peter’s food vision. There is no description of seeing Jesus, nor his scars and it was well after Jesus’ ascension which necessitates that Paul had a very different kind of encounter. We know nothing of Peter’s encounter (Luke 24, 1 Cor 15) which, based on the evidence we have, could well have been a vision like Paul or like we know Peter had in Acts 11. Stephen had a vision of Jesus in Acts 6. Paul had other visions. We doubt the books today with testimony about visits to heaven and hell. Paul says he visited the heavens (in or out of body) in 2 Cor 12.
The reported sightings seem to lack coherence on major basic details and seem to lack credibility. Therefore it requires a desire from elsewhere to reconcile and justify it all (Calvin). The details do not speak for themselves.
- “Stay in Jerusalem” for 40 days (Luke 24 & Acts 1) but the disciples appear in Galilee in Matthew.
- Thomas goes from doubt to full blown recognition of divinity in one moment but no sermon in Acts mentions divinity, only “a man approved by God”. John’s gospel is late in writing.
- Did the women see him or not?!? Mark and Luke have no mention. Read Luke 24:24 and it looks as though the women did not see him. No women witnesses in 1 Cor 15 nor the entirety of Acts. Luke is a champion of the poor and women, yet never mentions an appearance of Jesus to women.
- On the road to Emmaus, the two don’t recognise him for the whole walk-n-talk and even get inside and start a meal. Then he disappears. Does that sound like a plainly credible bodily resurrection?
How did the gospel writers fail to mention, let alone describe, the appearance to over 500? Was it simultaneous visions in a pentecostal-type worship moment where everyone wanted a vision like the others had? We have no description. The neat pithy, early creed (1 Cor 15:3-5) is almost certainly finished by the middle of the cumbersome list of witnesses. No mention in Acts like “and he was one of the 500”. In fact, there is only 150 people there in Acts 1. It looks less like a sovereign plan to commission 12 eyewitnesses. People are prone to exaggerate and amazing stories get quite a hearing and spread. It is hard for this to bear the weight of modern eyes. It is a very big ask. Our confidence comes from elsewhere.
The story contradicts OT expectations. The OT didn’t foresee two comings of a Christ with a secret fulfilment to only some key witnesses. A global event was predicted and it did not happen. So central was the promise of world peace, Zion ruling by a descendent of David and 12 tribes of physical descendants of Jacob being taken to Palestine. No quick exit expected. None of the big things happened. Even Isaiah 53 says the servant will have offspring and be prolonged in days which sounds more like a man who lives long with kids. Psalm 22 is not a prediction yet strangely fits the casting of lots etc. Acts 1’s justification for a Judas replacement looks like wild use of OT.
There’s no outside verification. Non-biblical references don’t mention resurrection and even these rely on what Christians were saying – for example not what Tacitus himself of saw of Jesus, not even verified from Roman sources (ie. he got Pilot’s title wrong).
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, especially since the demand is for our very life itself, especially since history is littered with legends and false claims that get large followings in short periods of time.
They’re exceedingly weak arguments, so popular yesterday, that run “It must be true since it is so unexpected that …” Well it is very unexpected that a 14 year old boy’s vision could found a world religion but there’s a Mormon temple opposite our Anglican church.
It is also weak to say “It could have all been disproved so easily, if false”. So could Mormonism. Psychology tells us that alternative points of view frequently galvanise people and give them more determination.
An avalanche? People don’t stand on tables with one weak leg. When all the supporting legs are weak, having many of them still doesn’t help. We must say our confidence comes from elsewhere, as Calvin did.
So, those are my friend’s doubts. And here are his reasons for continuing to believe:
The resurrection is the simplest explanation of the evidence. That is so, even when taking into account all the doubtable, laughable, clashing and just weird things about the different parts of the evidence… [A] vitriolic approach that says its all so clear seems to me to boggle the mind. It is not all clear. Many parts are doubtable. It is hard for an outsider to take the evidence seriously. HOWEVER, there is a stubborn element to so many facets of the data that are hard to rub off even it if seem so to be easy to make them lose their shine. Even if its not all true as presented, it can’t all be dismissed out of hand either.
For example the report of 500 in 1 Cor 15 – Nobody seriously denies that Paul is sincere or that he wrote 1 Corinthians. Yet this bloke knows that something happened to many people at the same time, even if the number 500 hundred is an exaggeration. He’d met many of them on his travels all around the Mediterranean and many of those people were still alive. It is extraordinary to deny something happened. What ever it was. These kinds of something happenings kept on happening. Prison escapes, surviving ship wrecks and snake bites (the author of Acts was there himself – “we went”), at least a number of sick people surely got better, even if some stories were exaggerated or false.
Paul and the author of Luke-Acts spent much time travelling together. We have 7 or so letters by Paul that are undisputedly written by him. Paul met many people from Jerusalem (Mark, Silas, Barnabas & Timothy) and with the Jerusalem apostles, visiting them at different times. etc etc.
Alternative explanations that explain all the stubborn elements from all the different facets of the evidence become long, imaginative and complicated. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t be true though. For an outsider, a resurrection will very often seem less likely than an imaginatively reconstructed, long, complicated and unlikely explanation. Many other factors come into accepting the Christian package.
Summary: I think the resurrection is the SIMPLEST explanation of the evidence, though not the most readily believable one.