Monday, September 30, 2013

Challenging Eyewitnesses of the Resurrection

Earlier this year I wrote a post regarding the irony of rejecting the eyewitness accounts to Jesus' resurrection. I received the following challenge that attempts to undermine the reliability of eyewitnesses and the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since the Christian faith is grounded on this unique event in history (1 Corinthians 15), the challenge must be addressed. Here it is:
"Regarding eyewitness being good evidence. True, the further we go back in history, the more we have to rely on eyewitness testimony. However, the likelihood of an event occurring significantly affects the credibility of the eyewitness. If there was an eyewitness to a car crash, the car crash event itself does not diminish credibility, because those happen all the time. But if there was an eyewitness to extraterrestrials, or ghosts, or godzilla, or someone rising from the dead, it significantly diminishes the credibility of the eyewitness testimony because the possibility that the eyewitness was mistaken or lying increases. Do you see the difference?"
My goal with this post is to present four responses to this challenge, that combined will render it untenable to maintain.

Improbable Events
The first part of the challenge I wish to address regards improbable events. The challenger seems to believe that the probability of a particular event taking place has baring on the reliability of any alleged eyewitnesses. He states that someone who claimed to witness a car crash can be trusted because those are quite common and contrasts it to the unique event of the resurrection.

The challenge makes a very important mistake in his reasoning here. He claims that car crashes are common and implies that eyewitness to those are reliable. However, he fails to recognize that the inclusion of details of the event (a car crash) makes the event less probable. Let us say that a person claimed to witnessed a car crash between a red 1994 Ford F-150 and a silver 2009 Nissan Altima. The inclusion of the details makes the event quite rare, not common. Once the person includes the location, date and time (never mind the drivers, passengers, weather conditions, or any other details), the event becomes as improbable as any other unique event, including the resurrection.

If a person wishes to tie the reliability of an eyewitness of an event to the probability of that event taking place, then the reliability of an eyewitness of any event is eroded completely. Not only has the person eliminated the reliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses, but he has eliminated the reliability of eyewitnesses of crimes, eyewitnesses of non-criminal events, and eyewitnesses of events in his own life- himself included.

If the probability of an event determines the reliability of an eyewitness, then no person can trust even their own experiences- we cannot trust what our sense organs and brains are telling us is happening in our world. If we cannot trust our senses, then anything we believe that relies upon information obtained via our sense organs cannot be trusted.

Assumption of Impossibility
The second part that I wish to draw your focus is the list of events that the challenger believes should immediately deem the eyewitness unreliable. This list includes extraterrestrials, ghosts, Godzilla, and the resurrection (for good measure). I'm not going to address extraterrestrials or ghosts in this post, but I do want to examine Godzilla. From this inclusion of this item alone, I believe that it is safe to assume that the challenger believes that the other three are impossible. The challenger wishes to draw a conclusion from the reality that Godzilla does not exist and the fact that impossible events cannot be witnessed.

Two problems exist. The first is that the challenger is starting with the assumption that the resurrection is impossible to conclude that the eyewitnesses of the New Testament are not reliable. The conclusion has been assumed in one of the supporting premises- a fallacy in logic called "begging the question." It does not mean that the conclusion is false, just that this is not a valid way to get to the conclusion.

The second problem is that the challenger is challenging a strawman (a misrepresentation) of the Christian claim of the resurrection. Christians and skeptics agree that the resurrection is impossible by naturalistic processes alone, and that is what the challenger is banking on. However, Christianity does not claim that Jesus resurrected naturally, God (the Father) is responsible for the resurrection. This was a super-natural event, not a natural one. If God exists (which Christianity claims that God does), then the impossibility of a natural resurrection does not mean that resurrection is impossible, only that it is impossible by natural means- super-natural means are still possible. So, the challenger cannot argue from the impossibility of the resurrection to undermine the reliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses.

Credibility Determines Reality?
My third beef with this challenge regards the challenge's subtle implication that credibility of an eyewitness somehow determines reality. The challenger is attempting to justify rejection of the claim of the resurrection, and he seems to believe that by undermining the eyewitnesses' credibility he can show that it did not take place.

The problem here is that undermining credibility has no bearing on the actuality of the event itself. If someone who witnessed an event is a known pathological liar, can we immediately conclude that the event did not take place? No. Even if this challenge stood against critique, the challenger could not soundly conclude that the resurrection did not take place from the unreliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses.

Past Credibility and Present Credibility
After offering those three critiques of the challenge, I do feel that I need to let up a bit and provide the challenger a little bit of "wiggle" room. Let us go back to the pathological liar. How do we know he is a pathological liar? We examine his history of claims with regards to the reality of the events. Obviously we determined that he has a history of lying, so it is highly probable that he is lying about the event presently under investigation.

Two things: First, in order for the challenger to reliably cast doubt on the reliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses, he would need to have access to their history of claims and the reality of the events. But we run into a snag. Many of the claims AND the events are already assumed to be incorrect and non-existent, respectively, by the challenger. So, we are back to begging the question. The best that the challenger can do here to avoid establishing credibility (the complete opposite of his goal) is to claim agnosticism about the events and skepticism about the history of the claims of the New Testament eyewitnesses. The challenger is left hanging.

Cold Case Christianity
At this point, the challenger, as any juror stuck with only a pathological liar as an eyewitness (or no eyewitness at all) to a crime is responsible to do, must examine ALL the evidence- circumstantial evidence.

Cold cases are criminal investigations in which no living eyewitnesses are around to testify or have their testimony tested. This is the exact place that the challenger to the reliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses finds himself.  Cold-case homicide detective J. Warner Wallace takes the skeptic through all the circumstantial evidence for Jesus' resurrection, that convinced him to convert from atheist to Christian, in his book Cold Case Christianity.

The problem for this particular skeptic is that in order to reject the eyewitnesses in the New Testament based on his challenge, he undermines:
  1. All eyewitnesses to crimes
  2. The trustworthiness of his own senses
  3. The trustworthiness of everyone else's senses
Many more posts could be written explaining the further implications of these three, but suffice it to use your experiences and imagination to discover all that we depend upon the reliability of our senses in order to know and act.

I would argue that these sacrifices are too much just to maintain the challenge. The skeptic has traded the trustworthiness of the New Testament eyewitnesses for the trustworthiness of...well, nothing. The leap from "skeptic of Christianity" to "hyper-skeptic of reality" necessarily follows and cannot be escaped. Because of that, the challenge must be withdrawn.


  1. The veracity of the Christian religion rises or falls on the veracity of the Resurrection and the veracity of the Resurrection rises or falls on the historicity of the alleged post-death appearances of Jesus to his followers. Christians believe that the appearance stories in the Gospels and in the Early Creed are historical facts based primarily on the following:

    1. There were so many alleged eyewitnesses to these appearances, sometimes in large groups.
    2. These alleged appearances had a dramatic effect on the character of those who witnessed them.
    3. These alleged appearances were the impetus for many early Christians to be willing to be tortured and painfully executed for their belief in the veracity of these appearances.
    4. These Resurrection appearances were the primary reason for the rapid growth of Christianity.

    Question: Are these facts sufficient evidence to believe that a three-day-brain-dead first century corpse really did come back to life possessing supernatural powers; supernatural powers which allowed him to teleport between cities, walk through locked doors, and levitate into space?

    Before you answer that question I ask you to watch this Youtube video:

    In this video, HUNDREDS of very devout, sincere people of faith believe that a woman who has been dead for 20 centuries is appearing to them. I have no doubt that at least some of these “eyewitnesses” would be willing to suffer great persecution and even death defending their belief that this event really happened.

    Based on the very large number of eyewitnesses to this event and upon their very intense, sincere belief that this very extra-ordinary event really occurred…should we believe them?

    Answer: Absolutely not!

    Why? These people are very obviously experiencing an illusion. There is no dead woman to be seen anywhere in the video. Collective human experience would suggest that this is very likely what happened in the first century with the early Christians. The appearance stories in the Early Creed of First Corinthians 15, the earliest description we have of these alleged events, make no mention of a talking, walking, broiled-fish-eating Jesus. If the detailed appearance stories in the Gospels are literary embellishments, perfectly acceptable in a Greco-Roman biography as evangelical Christian New Testament scholar Michael Licona has demonstrated in his recent book, Why are There Differences in the Gospels?, it is quite possible that the actual early Christian appearance claims were based on illusions, similar to the one seen in the Youtube video above.

    1. Gary,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. However, I do believe that you have misunderstood the claim concluded from those pieces of evidence you cite and you have misunderstood the overall case for the Resurrection. Note that you only deal with a single piece of evidence in the overall case. The evidence put forth merely establishes that what was experience was a real event (even illusions are real events that take place in the brain). So, properly understood, you have not undermined the actual claim that is argued from that evidence. Further, most investigators would agree with you that the Apostles (and the 500) having real experiences is not sufficient to establish the Resurrection as an historical event (that is why a cumulative case is presented). So, you have only established what scholars (who conclude that the Resurrection was an historical event) already agree with, nothing new.

      If you wish to undermine the case, you need to first, address the actual claim of this particular piece of evidence (that the Apostles and 500 had a real experience), and second address the rest of the evidence. If you are not familiar with the full, cumulative case, I highly recommend reading "Cold Case Christianity" by J. Warner Wallace and "The Risen Jesus and a Future Hope" by Gary Habermas (reviews of both can be found on this blog).

    2. As I demonstrated yesterday, the position of the unidentified skeptic quoted above can be reduced to this simple statement: The more incredible the claim, the less credible the eyewitness. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we are labeling the eyewitness a liar. There are many other explanations for making a sincere, but false claim.

      If you claim you saw a red Camaro yesterday, most people will take your word for it. If you claim you had tea with President Lincoln yesterday, most people will assume that you were delusional from a high fever, sleep deprived, dreaming, or that you need to see a psychiatrist. It’s that simple.

      Now let me address the claim that skeptics assume the non-possibility of the supernatural in their discussions on the Resurrection: This is a Strawman. It is not the stated position of the skeptic he is quoting nor is it the position of the majority of skeptics who debate online. Here is our position: By definition, the supernatural is something which defies the laws of science and the standards of evidence. It CANNOT be disproven. It can only be shown to be very improbable in the natural world.

      THAT is the position of the overwhelming majority of skeptics who debate Christians regarding the Resurrection. If Christians insist that we skeptics accept the supernatural as reality before debating them, then the debate is over before it has begun. Christians win. If we all assume the supernatural exists, then all discussions of probability are pointless. If we all agree that the supernatural exists, then, of course, resurrections are possible and equally as probable as any natural event.

      Therefore, skeptics do not dismiss the supernatural, we simply argue from the position that if supernatural events occur, they are extremely rare . That is why they are called “miracles”. Case in point: the Resurrection. Even Christians admit that (to date) there has only been ONE resurrection, that of Jesus. So resurrections are very, very, very rare events (in the natural world), even by the definition of Christians. So IF Christians and skeptics can agree to discuss the Resurrection based on prior probability of resurrections, then we have a basis of discussion. We skeptics can point out that there are many, much more probable explanations for an empty tomb and alleged sightings of a dead person than a once in history resurrection.

      However, if Christians refuse to debate based on this fundamental principle, and insist that prior probability is null and void because a supernatural being is not bound by prior probability, then we have no basis of discussion. And that is usually what happens in a discussion between a skeptic and a conservative Christian on the subject of the Resurrection: one side insists on using prior probability and the other sided insists on rejecting prior probability, insisting that their supernatural being in not bound by probability.


    3. In conclusion, I agree that the poor credibility of an alleged eyewitness does not disprove his claim. However, his reputation as an unreliable witness does greatly weaken the credibility of his claim.

      A more salient point regarding the Resurrection claim is this: the more incredible the claim, the less credible the alleged eyewitness, regardless of that person’s stellar reputation for honesty, reliability, and rationality. If Pope Francis claimed to have been abducted by three foot tall, green space aliens yesterday, most educated people are going to doubt his claim even though these same people consider the pope to be a very honorable, truthful man. So doubting the testimony of a very credible witness does not necessarily infer that we believe the alleged eyewitness is a liar. There are quite a number of explanations for why someone can make a very sincere, but very mistaken, claim.

      “The skeptic has traded the trustworthiness of the New Testament eyewitnesses…”

      And there we have the core fallacy of modern conservative Christian apologetics: Assuming that the four Gospel accounts of the Resurrection are “trustworthy” sources of historical information due to the fact that they are the reports of eyewitnesses. The problem for conservative Christians is this: the majority of New Testament scholars do not believe that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses or the associates of eyewitnesses. And if that is the case, how can anyone justifiably claim that the stories in the Gospels are historically accurate eyewitness accounts?

      Luke, you have built your entire argument upon the minority scholarly position (consisting almost entirely of scholars from one branch of Christianity: Evangelicalism), that the Gospels are trustworthy, primary source documents, written by eyewitnesses or the associates of eyewitnesses, therefore containing eyewitness testimony of multiple persons seeing the body of the resurrected Jesus.

      Conservative Christians may feel strongly that the minority of scholars is right and that the majority of scholars is wrong on the authorship of the Gospels, but since their supernatural claim of a once in history resurrection is so dependent on eyewitnesses testimony, their belief system depends entirely upon the minority of scholars being correct on this issue.

      That is pretty thin ice upon which to build your belief system, my Christian friends.

      I suggest that it is conservative Christians who are taking the big “leap”. A leap of…wishful thinking, otherwise known as faith.

    4. Gary, I am glad to hear that you (as a skeptic) do not necessarily rule out the possibility of the supernatural. As I have discussed with skeptics, most of them do, though. So, my addressing that particular position is not a strawman, it just doesn't represent YOUR particular position.

      I would also point out that the Christian apologists that you believe require the acceptance of the supernatural before discussion take the presuppositional approach, which does. However, I do not take that approach (along with the apologists that I reference). I recognize the "deck stacking" and stalemates such an approach produces. Rather I take an evidential approach that builds the case cumulatively.

      As for rare events, homicide detectives investigate rare events all the time (murders, particularly with unique weapons). They build their cases evidentially and cumulatively. The fact that it was a rare event says nothing about the credibility of eye-witnesses or the evidence, rather the evidence addresses the guilt of the defendant. Detective J. Warner Wallace addresses how this is done every day in courts across America in his books "God's Crime Scene" and "Cold Case Christianity." Again, I encourage you to read these books to familiarize yourself with the evidential and cumulative cases for God's existence and for the Resurrection.

      Also as an atheist, Wallace applied his discipline of forensic statement analysis to the Gospels and found them to be reliable eye-witness accounts (also addressed in Cold Case Christianity).

      Keep in mind that "feeling strongly" about anything is a fallacious appeal to emotion, and an appeal to the majority is also a fallacy. Arguments must be accepted based upon the truth of the premises and the validity of the logic. If the majority holds to a conclusion that is arrived at unsoundly, then they are all wrong, majority or not. Evidential and classical Christian apologists build their cases based upon a collection of deductive arguments that are sound. Since they are sound, these apologists DO have emotional connection to them, but it is not because of an a priori commitment rather it is due to having investigated, found the case to be solid, and experiencing the life changing implications of following the evidence where it leads.

      Now, if you would like to investigate evidence from science for the supernatural before addressing the possibility of the Resurrection, I would recommend reading Dr. Norman Geisler's book "Origin Science." This book demonstrates deductively how big bang cosmology (if true) necessitates the supernatural.

  2. "If a person wishes to tie the reliability of an eyewitness of an event to the probability of that event taking place, then the reliability of an eyewitness of any event is eroded completely. Not only has the person eliminated the reliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses, but he has eliminated the reliability of eyewitnesses of crimes, eyewitnesses of non-criminal events, and eyewitnesses of events in his own life- himself included."

    I suggest that you are (unintentionally, I believe) misrepresenting what the original skeptic was saying.

    Let me give my own example which I hope will clarify this point: I would bet that most people in the United States, regardless of party affiliation or political persuasion would agree that the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, is an honorable, trustworthy, very intelligent, honest man.

    So if today, Chief Justice Roberts claims on national television that he saw a beautiful red Chevy Camaro pass in front of his house yesterday, I would bet that 99.99% of the American public would accept the historical factuality of this claim based solely on the word of Justice Roberts.

    Now, let's change the claim: Let's say that Chief Justice Roberts says on national television today that, yesterday, he saw Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton parked in front of his house, making out with one another.

    That is a pretty startling accusation, wouldn't you say? My personal opinion (and I would bet the majority of the American public) would be that Justice Roberts may have sincerely BELIEVED that he saw Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton making out in a car in front of his house yesterday, but he is most probably wrong. The people in the car simply LOOKED like Trump and Clinton, but it wasn't really them. However, since Justice Roberts has such a stellar reputation for honesty and integrity, I will bet that as outrageous as this claim is, a significant minority of the American people would believe his claim.

    Now, let's make the claim even more bizarre (extra-ordinary): Today, on national television, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts, claimed that yesterday, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant suddenly appeared in his bedroom, chatted with him for three hours, allowed him to touch them, and was then taken up into heaven by them where he chatted with his deceased grandparents...and then was brought down back to his bedroom and the three former presidents disappeared after a warm hand-shake.

    What percentage of the American public would believe this claim? I would bet a very, very small percentage. I would bet that the overwhelming majority of the American public would suggest that Justice Roberts be examined by a team of doctors for some physical or mental disorder which has led him to conceive such a wild, wild tale.

    Do you see how the improbability of a claim very definitely affects the credibility of even the most respectable, trustworthy of eyewitnesses?

  3. Regarding: Credibility Determines Reality

    I believe that you are misinterpreting what the skeptic is saying. OF COURSE, the fact that an eyewitness is a well-known, pathological LIAR does NOT prove that the event he claims to have occurred did not occur. But it does greatly decrease the credibility of the claim due to the non-reliability of the person’s testimony. If Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts states that a red Chevy Camaro was parked in front of his house yesterday, most people will accept Justice Roberts’ word for the historicity of this event. If a pathological liar makes the same claim, many people will doubt, or at least by uncertain, about this claim…as well as any other claim that this person makes.

    And by the way, the overwhelming majority of skeptics do not believe that the disciples lied. We believe that they were most probably…sincerely mistaken.


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