Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? Richard Carrier vs William Lane Craig

Richard Carrier recently debated with William Lane Craig. That’s them in the picture, you see (I’ll leave it to you to decide which one’s which). The topic was the Resurrection of Jesus. You can listen here, though the audio is a bit crappy, or watch the debate on Youtube.

Carrier doesn’t think he did very well. He correctly says that he was a lot less organised than Craig and couldn’t keep up with all the things he’d need to rebut. As I’ve previously noted, Craig has a lot of arguments and a very polished delivery.

<lj-cut text=”Summary of the arguments”>Craig’s main points are that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea; Jesus’s tomb was empty; the tomb was discovered empty by women; Mark’s story is simple and lacks theological embellishment (unlike Matthew’s, presumably?); and finally that the earliest Jewish response, that the disciples stole the body, recorded in Matthew, pre-supposes the empty tomb. He backs these points up with references to NT scholars and historians.

Carrier’s response takes issue with Craig’s evidence. He attacks both the NT gospels and Paul’s letters. He notes that Paul says Jesus was raised and appeared to people (1 Cor 15), not specifically that Jesus’s tomb was empty. Appearances can be hallucinations. Looking at Acts and Paul’s letters, it seems the early Christians did have visions. Paul himself says his gospel came from God, not men. Carrier is not saying the early Christians were mentally ill, but rather, that hallucinations in the sane are common in some people, who may even find them comforting (Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World also makes the point that hallucinations are more common than we think and don’t mean that the person experiencing them is crazy). We know these hallucinations have a role in other religions, so why not Christianity? So far, fair enough.

Carrier then argued that that gospel accounts were full of myths, that is, stories told to express a point rather than being historical narrative. He outlined a theory that the release of Barabbas was an allegory for the scapegoat ceremony on Yom Kippur. This has been noted by scholars and also by Christian believers. Though the Christians would argue that just because something is an allegory doesn’t mean it didn’t also happen, Carrier claims that the gospels are chock full of these sorts of things, and so we cannot tell what they record as history.

Craig says in his comments prior to the debate that for the purpose of debating the Resurrection, it doesn’t matter whether the gospels are completely reliable (Craig thinks they are, but wisely doesn’t attempt to defend inerrancy in debate), because we accept that historical sources may contain errors and truths. But Carrier’s argument is that the gospels are chock-full of symbolic tales, so it’s unlikely that any given account is historical: the gospels are not just a mixture of history and myth, but mostly myth.

Carrier talks about a hypothetical world where Jesus appeared to lots of people in lots of places after his resurrection, with records of appearances in many countries. Carrier thinks that in that world he would have much greater chance of accepting that Jesus was raised, so the fact that we’re not in that world is better explained by atheism than Christianity. Craig initially refuses to address this, saying that the question of what God would do is a theological one, not a historical one. When pressed in the Q&A, Craig says that there are Christianities where it makes sense that Jesus didn’t appear all over the world: for example, one might be a universalist, that is, a Christian who believes nobody goes to hell. Of course, Craig’s not a universalist. He’s a Molinist, so he believes God knows what would have happened in every possible circumstance. If Jesus didn’t appear all over the world, Craig says it must be because doing so wouldn’t make more Christians. Craig seems fond of saying that having more evidence for God’s existence wouldn’t make more people become Christians: see, for example, this thread where robhu linked to an article of Craig’s. Yet Carrier seems to be saying he would believe in the resurrection in the hypothetical world, and a lot of ex-Christian atheists say they left the church when they realised there wasn’t enough evidence for their beliefs.

So much for Craig, what about Carrier? In Are You a Solar Deity?, Yvain cautions against theories which can be applied to anything (the specific example Yvain uses is related to religious myths, in fact). Some of Carrier’s examples of myth seem a bit of a stretch. He needs to do more work to show that the gospels are generally unreliable, more than he has time for in a debate, it seems. He’s written a book outlining his theories, but I don’t think he’s carried out a Spot the Fakes test. I’m not convinced the gospels are mostly myth.

On the other hand, the gospels do contain mythologised history based on Old Testament passages. Christians without a prior commitment to Biblical inerrancy recognise this, as do other readers. For example, scribb1e noticed when she read through the Old Testament. (If you’re an inerrantist, you can accommodate this evidence into your web of belief in other ways, for example by saying that the OT passages were foreshadowing). Craig concedes this for the sake of argument, but says we still extract history from unreliable sources. True, but historians don’t extract belief in miracles from other sources either, do they? The apologist is right to argue that the gospels should not be treated more strictly than other historical documents, but historians don’t believe that Vespasian cured the blind, either. Without the presumption that the source is totally reliable, they’re going to treat miracles as the unreliable part.

That steers things back into the territory of the Ehrman vs Craig debate I’ve mentioned previously. When you’ve watched enough of these debates, you realise there are standard openings, like in chess. If you’re an evangelist and someone says to you that historians don’t accept your religion’s miracle, you counter by accusing the historians of metaphysical naturalism and hence of begging the question. Your sensible sceptic will say that this has nothing to do with grand philosophical statements about how everything supervenes on the physical, and more about the way everyone, even Christians, agrees that miracles are pretty uncommon. You need a lot of evidence to back up a miraculous claim, and in the case of the Resurrection, if you really start with a low prior probability, there just isn’t enough evidence.

Notice that Craig never puts numbers into his equation when he’s beating Ehrman with it (not that this would have helped Ehrman, because he’s an arts graduate, poor soul). Craig doesn’t seem very sure what his prior would be. Barefoot Bum and I argued about this, because I’d not noticed Craig talks about it in two places in the Ehrman debate: at one point he says it’s “terribly low” but then, as the Bum notes, he later says “That Jesus rose naturally from the dead is fantastically improbable. But I see no reason whatsoever to think that it is improbable that God raised Jesus from the dead.” Craig’s argument seems to be that there’s sufficient evidence to believe in the Resurrection if you already believe that God is the sort of God who’d do something like raise Jesus from the dead. That seems fair enough, but as an evangelist, shouldn’t Craig be concerned with how people come to believe in that sort of God? Not by examining the evidence for the Resurrection, it seems.

Still, Craig duffed Carrier up. Let’s not lose heart: over at Evangelical Agnosticism they talk about the rare atheists who don’t get duffed up by Craig. Paul Draper did well, and is well worth a listen. Also, Craig’s debating with Christopher Hitchens on 4th April, which will be entertaining, if nothing else.

9 thoughts on “Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? Richard Carrier vs William Lane Craig”

  1. ‘Craig’s argument seems to be that there’s sufficient evidence to believe in the Resurrection if you already believe that God is the sort of God who’d do something like raise Jesus from the dead’

    Strange. Because Craig’s standard speech for the existence of God uses the resurrection of Jesus as a proof that the Christian God exists (rather than the Islamic God)

    So we should believe the resurrection happened because a god would do that sort of thing?

    And how do we know there is such a god who would raise Jesus?

    Well, the resurrection proves it.

    Of course, Craig does not argue in a circular fashion like this.

    But his arguments are so slippery that even a clever person like Paul can’t grasp them without them slipping through his hands.

    Craig only *seems* to say that we should not give a low prior probability to a resurrection (If he did, he would go into that circular argument above)

    But I’m sure Craig does not lose too much sleep if some people think that they should assign a high probability to a resurrection, because there is a God who would do such things.

  2. ‘the tomb was discovered empty by women’

    Yes, women were not considered credible witnesses (regardless of what John 4:39 claims, so this must be true.

    In fact, we now know that Jesus prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane falls into the category of historical fact.

    The disciples were asleep.

    In the first-century world, sleeping witnesses lacked all credibility and their testimony would not be accepted in court.

    And yet the author of Luke has witnesses who are asleep.

    This proves that the story is true, because how else do you explain that the witnesses were sleeping, which would be really embarrassing in the first-century world, where the testimony of sleeping witnesses was not accepted in court?

    1. Yes. Particularly since other parts of the analogy carry over neatly, such as the way that anyone contemplating joining in such a discussion who hasn’t studied the generally accepted opening theory (which is of course entirely distinct from studying the topic of discussion itself) is discouraged from even trying to debate it because of a nagging feeling that all the people currently playing have thought the whole game out twenty moves further ahead than they have…

      1. We can see theists doing the equivalent of saying that Sultan Khan must be a bad chess player, because he has never studied a single opening book in his life.

        That is after he has just thrashed them…..

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