Does the Resurrection provide an objective criteria for Christianity?

Let’s step right in with some heavy Science and Religion.

If you were following this blog before I left, you may recall a post (with a promised follow up that never happened until now) on the Resurrection. Specifically, I contest the claim offered by so many of the so-called “New Atheists” (and others like them) that Christianity has no clear objective criteria. The fact of the matter is that it does. What is more, the criteria is falsifiable: namely, the Resurrection of Jesus. The argument is simply this. If the Resurrection did not occur, I will–well not gladly– admit that Christianity is a lie, or a fool’s hope, or some combination of the two. If, however, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ did in fact occur as historical event, then the truth of Christianity, at least at its core message that Jesus was God who came to save us, cannot honestly be disputed. The question then becomes, is the Resurrection a satisfactory objective criteria?

Let’s look, briefly, at the history of science (which entails some philosophy of science) to possible help us out. In the early history of modern science (beginning, with Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton), scientists set about trying to prove that something was or wasn’t true with their own method. They would amass data and from that data put forth a theory that made sense of the data. If enough data was collected which conformed to the theory, then the theory was considered proven, and in some cases referred to as a physical law.

Karl Popper

This method was adopted until the beginning of the twentieth century. The first major problem was the failure of the positivist project, which I talked about here. The second major problem was a category mistake. If you’ve taken logic, you may recognize the scientific method as being primarily a form of inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning can never lead (validly) to universal claims, one needs deductive reasoning for that. Thus Karl Popper introduced (or re-introduced, depending on whom you ask) the concept of falsifiability. Deductively the observation of a number of white swans cannot move to the proposition that “All swans are white,” only that the number of white swans observed are, in fact, white. However, the statement “All swans are white” may be likely, and have a certain falsifiability to it. Indeed, when black swans were discovered in Australia (where else?), that hypothesis/theory proved wrong.

Later, the new criteria of reproducibility and the practice of verification were introduced to aid in other issues with different methodologies. However, it is a mistake to believe these other methodologies are universally applicable. There are certain historical events, which nevertheless are scientific or objective in the claims made about them, that are by their very nature non-reproducible and not subject to verification in laboratory experiment. One of the most discussed of these is the nature of the beginning of the universe. Evidence of it may be analyzed and even, with Super-Colliders (such as CERN) be reproduced. But the majority of what occurred is not subject to reproducibility. There are still other events, such as massive geological shifts, the history within evolutionary biology, and other such things that are not reproducible. Yet, they are not called “unscientific.” Instead, it is understood that they are objectively observable events that, due to their massive and historical nature, can only be analyzed today from the effects of them, whenever they occurred (or are presumed to have occurred).

Since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is a cosmic event upon which all of history turns (or rather, if it occurred it is of this sort), and it is necessarily historical in nature, it does not need to be reproducible to be objective (indeed such a claim is ridiculous). Instead it must meet two criteria to be objective. It must have effects and historical markers which can be analyzed, and it must be falsifiable. The historical markers are numerous, and there are many witnesses and writings which record the event, as well as the impact it has clearly made upon the world via the Church, an organization which the Resurrection established. It is also clearly falsifiable. Namely this: produce the body, or evidence that there was a body of Jesus that was not brought back to life and all of Christianity falls (well except that which follows in the line of Tillich or Bultmann, but that might scarcely be called Christianity). It was an historical event in the sense that anyone could have witnessed it, and it involved material things.

Note, though, that this is a different claim than one that says I can prove the Resurrection is true. Granted, I do believe the Resurrection is true, and even believe it can be shown to have likely occurred, but, as is the case with most historical events, I do not believe it can be absolutely proven until history ends (and Christ returns). That does not, however, change the fact that the Resurrection is itself either objectively true or false, and with it all of Christianity.

Also, this is not a claim, from the objective scientific/historical point of view, of whether God did or did not do it. That is a philosophical and theological claim (which does not mean it is not a description of reality, only that it is of a different sort). I am merely claiming that the objective claim of Christianity is that the historical person Jesus really existed, genuinely died on a Friday, and was genuinely brought back to life on a Sunday.

However, of all the possible interpretations of the resurrection event, if it occurred, the most likely is that God is the one who raised Jesus, and if so then the claims of Jesus could only be true. Rather than say that this aspect is unscientific, though, I would like to merely point out that the objective claims of science are often followed (usually immediately) by decidedly philosophical interpretations of those objective claims. If they did not, then nothing meaningful about the world could ever be made. For example, it doesn’t matter that 1 + 1 = 2 for the purpose of the world if it doesn’t have some correspondence to reality (i.e. that if you have one item and another item, putting them together yields two items). However, applying the mathematical concept of ‘1 + 1 =2’ to reality universally (and not just in this or that instance, but in all future instances yet to be encountered) is a philosophical, not objective, claim. However, because it is based on objective events, we consider it valid. My argument here is that the Resurrection functions in the same way as other scientific claims for the foundation of Christianity as a valid paradigm.

  10 comments for “Does the Resurrection provide an objective criteria for Christianity?

  1. Diplodocus G
    December 28, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Welcome back, Trey!

    I hope your application process went smoothly and that you got everything you needed to continue your studies/ministry. I’m glad to see you didn’t forget about your blog posts or the line of argument we were involved in before your busy season came forth. I get email alerts when you post something… which I’m telling you so you’ll understand why this response came so quickly :-).

    Shall we dive right in, sticking to our little numbers game (though it may not work so well this time)?

    1) Can I start with something negative and move to the more positive? Isn’t that how feedback usually works? Or is it “positive, negative, positive?” I can never remember. Maybe it is, so I’ll have to rethink this and start with something positive. Ok, hmmm, I can’t say your article isn’t well reasoned because it is. So there, something positive. Although by the end of this it may not look that way. We’ll see.

    2) On to the negative. I can’t say I’m pleased by the fact that none of my arguments appear to have sunk in (of course, I may not be pleased by it, but it was hardly unexpected seeing as you can just as easily make the same claim about me). While you were away I wrote an article on my site discussing how young Earth creationists will actually employ effective reasoning in their arguments, drawing the proper conclusions from their givens and starting points. The problem, however, is that they start from bad premises and (usually) a skewed understanding of what they’re criticizing in science. You appear to have done something similar here (although not identical. I’d hate to associate you with YECs, that’s not my intention). I understand the tendency to lay out what, on first observation, appears to be the proper conclusions drawn from a given you came up with (especially when it favors what you already want to be true), but that doesn’t mean your conclusions are objectively correct. We’ve gone over this before, I think (though it’s been a while so I could be mistaken here). Even if Jesus historically existed, historically died, and historically resurrected three days later, that says nothing about God or Jesus’ divinity. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. You say in the first paragraph:

    “If, however, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ did in fact occur as historical event, then the truth of Christianity, at least at its core message that Jesus was God who came to save us, cannot honestly be disputed.”

    This is a false conclusion. It can, in fact, be disputed because his death/resurrection does not prove his divinity. That the writers of the New Testament attached this event to something they thought was divine does not prove it was divine (it doesn’t prove it wasn’t, I grant you, but you have about as much clout to argue what you’re arguing as I do to argue what I’m arguing which, in the end, makes this point useless to make. It’s just another unsolvable, unreproducable event. Why do you keep insisting it’s something else?).

    I think I used King Arthur in our earlier talks so I’ll keep doing that until this point is made clear. If King Arthur was an historical figure, historically lived and was witnessed to have lived by other historical people, and then historically pulled a sword from a stone and was witnessed by many and which symbolized his heritage along the Pendragon line… that does not mean he was in fact a Pendragon. Do you understand what I’m saying here? Please acknowledge with either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because I want to be sure. I sometimes feel like I’m repetitive (and maybe I am), but I want this point to sink in. What I’m after here is that I want you to look at Jesus the same way you look at King Arthur (a tall order, I understand, given your profession of choice—which also may be telling, in a way). But try it. Does the fact that eye-witnesses wrote about seeing King Arthur pull Excalibur from a stone prove, definitively, historically, that he was indeed a Pendragon? Or did they “make” him a Pendragon via this action because it gave his reign legitimacy (we’re assuming he actually existed in history for this, so don’t hide behind an argument that says “well, he didn’t really exist, Jesus did.” I could easily switch this to David being recognized as the “rightful” king of Israel by slaying Goliath, an equally nonsensical action that isn’t justified by history, only the writings of witnesses)? Those who wrote the NT were enamored of Jesus. They loved him. Followed him. Gave up everything for him (not unlike those who gave up everything to follow David Koresh—or King Arthur, or King David, one could argue… but I digress). Who’s to say they wouldn’t “make” his death/resurrection a divine action to justify doing what they did? Thinking what they thought? Preaching what they preached? You’re blinded by something on this point and I’m trying to figure out what it is. What stops you from comparing these two legends (both figures that could have actually lived in history) along equal lines? Is it the “impact” of Jesus on history? The irrelevance of the King Arthur story to human morality? Both stories have common symbolism that can be compared equally (even if their historical impact is vastly different). So what is it that stops you from doing this? I’m genuinely curious here.

    3) Something positive now. I learned something new. I didn’t know that the black swans were discovered in Australia, or that it’s always Australia where such discoveries take place (humor intended, though I wonder if stating this makes it more, or less, humorous…).

    I am genuinely happy that you’re back in the fray. So, thank you. I began wondering if you had abandoned this site due to the demands of your studies/life/ministry. I read the entire article you wrote here and I had a lot of disagreement with the conclusions you were making, though I sort of understand the motives for making the claims you make. I just wonder if you see them as motives or objective truth. I could go through this, paragraph by paragraph, dissecting each point, but I’d rather just stick to the premise and conclusion you’re making until the point I’m making sinks in.

    In sum: What is written by witnesses is an observation of an event; not the definitive explanation of that event. For instance, we can discover that there are black swans, completely contradicting what we knew about swans before. However, that does not mean the ones making the discovery understood, or could explain at the time, why there are black swans. Any attempt at explaining it is just speculation, not truth. This is what we have with the resurrection. We have people, I’ll even grant you they were eye-witnesses (though I don’t necessarily believe this is true), who were uneducated, ignorant of what we now know about science, ignorant of many things if we’re being completely honest, but who witnessed something they couldn’t explain and then went around talking about it with an explanation for why it happened. Do you see the problem with that? It’s the same as the swans. They witnessed something that contradicted what they knew before and then went and taught the world about it, but that does not mean they understood what actually happened. Could they be right? Sure. But it’s just as likely (if not more, given the education at the time) that they’re wrong. You cannot argue one way or the other definitively. Attempting to do this makes the same mistake they made: you’re trying to explain something you can’t explain. You were right, though, when you said you can never be justified in holding your views until the end of history when (I would say “if”) Jesus returns. That much, at least, is a proper conclusion drawn from this essay.

    Again, welcome back!
    — G

  2. December 28, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    I’ll try to be brief, and I doubt I’ll have any follow up posts because I really don’t want these posts to be concerned with Apologetics (which, while possibly useful, is limited in its usefulness, and I believe has reached its limit here). I don’t believe I can conclusively prove the resurrection. But, the fact remains that (causation and interpretation aside) the historical facticity about it is either true or false. Thus, it *is* falsifiable in the same way that a claim about how Julius Ceasar died is falsifiable. It may not be conclusively proven, but it may be conclusively disproven, at least in theory.

    Second, and this is a valid point you make here under (2). However, the resurrection is of a different quality than these other events. This isn’t pulling a sword from a stone or being charismatic, or even performing other “miracles” that might be attributed (as some have with Jesus) to magic or something similar. The resurrection (after more than a full day) is of such a kind as it needs a remarkable explanation for its cause. Yet, its remarkableness in itself does not make it more or less true or false, (the genesis of the universe is itself remarkable, yet here it is). Again, I do not need to actually prove or disprove its truth to say that it is falsifiable (which is such a common misinterpretation of Karl Popper that many scientists believe they merely need to construct a null hypothesis and then disprove it to make advances). It need only be the case that it is possible for it to be falsified, which it is, at least as far as any other objective historical claim is. Again, let me reiterate, I don’t think it can be conclusively proven. While I think it may be more likely, that is such a ocmplex argument that I doubt I will take the time (read: weeks) to pursue it at this point, and even if I did, it is doubtful it would be all that convincing. My main focus is to say that the resurrection is an objective criterion by which to judge Christianity and thus it is reasonable to believe in the claims of Christianity, even if it is not conclusively proven (or even convincingly so to this or that individual).

    I do believe we have come to something of an impasse at this point, though. I don’t think we are likely to go much further. So, I will likely leave it at that. Nothing personal, I just don’t know how useful these arguments can be. All the best, just the same.

    • Diplodocus G
      December 28, 2012 at 8:34 pm

      I’m tempted to let this go. You make it tempting. But I have a personal philosophy: we only learn by having conversations and any idea left unrefined is one which requires more conversation, not more turning away and hiding behind excuses (no matter how valid). I write for a living so having a long, drawn-out conversation online doesn’t really bother me. These replies only take me about 20 minutes each so it’s not so much a drain on my time. But I understand if it takes you longer and you don’t want to waste your time on it. I get that, truly. I’m not trying to be sarcastic or snarky here.

      I think there is a lot we agree on. I actually do agree that the resurrection is a valid criterion to judge Christianity by. That’s something of a concession (though not really since it’s a position I’ve held from the beginning, only secretively… naughty me, I know). The difference is that by using that as criteria validates my point that Christianity isn’t worth believing (at least, not by using that as the essential criteria).

      We differ here and I think we’ve said as much many times over. I’m not willing to put belief into something which isn’t supported by reason and evidence. You make compelling arguments; they’re just not compelling enough because they lack supporting evidence. It just seems a waste of time to base a worldview on something so flimsy. I need more. Surely you can understand that.

      I’ll make one really short point and then bid you goodnight. Saying the resurrection is a remarkable event, more so than anything else, is bias. This is also called special pleading. Why is this event so remarkable when so many others resurrected in the Bible? So many other deities resurrected throughout myths and legends of old. Why aren’t they worthy of the same respect and veneration as Jesus? By your reasoning, we should consider worshiping Mithras. He also died and resurrected three days later (centuries before Jesus). This story isn’t remarkable. It’s in line with the myths, legends and “spiritual” stories of that era. It seems obvious the early Christians would use it since it proved so effective for so many others (deities and men alike).

      We don’t have to move into Apologetics (a term I never understood. Isn’t saying that you’re “apologizing” for something a way of saying you’re “excusing” it for its fallacies and inconsistencies? It sounds to me like Apologetics should be a derogatory term among Christians, and yet it’s used by them as a self-descriptor. I never got that. Where am I mistaken here?). I do think, however, that there are criteria you use to evaluate Christianity besides the resurrection. This is partly what I’ve been trying to get to. The resurrection can only validate Christianity if you’ve already assumed a god exists. So it’s kind of a circular argument. You’ve assumed God exists in order to say that the resurrection proves Jesus is divine… in order to prove that God exists and this belief system of His is the most correct. Hopefully you see the problem there. Get to God first, then you can move onto Jesus. All of which, without Apologetics, is a little challenging. Your call. I’m following your blog. Post something good and we’ll move to that. Until then, take care of yourself, brother.


      • January 1, 2013 at 8:39 am

        Just to answer your later question (as my other replies take around the same time as yours, but with 2 kids and a PhD to finish, that can be a sever drain on time, guess it’s relative). The term “apologetics” comes from the ancient Greek use of the term (transliterated: apologia) that means defense. Think of Plato’s record of Socrates “Apology.” It’s a defense, not being sorry for what he did.

  3. vinnyjh57
    December 29, 2012 at 9:49 am

    If I come across a body lying on the street with a knife sticking out of its back and the handle of the knife has little swirly patterns on it that match the swirly patterns on the fingers of a particular human being, I consider those swirly patterns to be evidence that the person whose fingers they match stabbed the person found lying in the street. The reason I consider them such evidence is that I understand the natural processes of cause and effect that cause those swirly patterns to come to appear on objects other than fingers. Not only do I understand those processes, but I believe that they act uniformly and consistently. If I thought that those swirly patterns appeared on objects randomly or by divine fiat, the fingerprints on the knife handle wouldn’t be evidence of anything. They are only evidence if I can claim to understand the process by which they got there.

    This to me is the problem with the claim that any miracle is supported by objective evidence. Miracles by their very nature do not follow the natural processes of cause and effect that we regularly observe in the world. That is what makes them miracles. But it is the consistency of those processes that enable us to draw inferences from evidence. If we see a pile of smoldering ashes, we can infer that a fire rather than a rainstorm was the cause. The Shroud of Turin may be an amazing and inexplicable piece of cloth, but we have no way of knowing that it is the kind of effect that a resurrection is likely to produce because we know nothing about the cause and effect process for resurrections.

    Outside of the Shroud of Turin, the evidence for the resurrection consists overwhelmingly of ancient supernatural tales recorded decades after the fact by mostly unknown authors based on largely indeterminate sources. Based upon all our knowledge and experience, we know that the most usual cause for such stories is some combination of human foibles such as superstition, ignorance, exaggeration, gullibility, wishful thinking, and prevarication. We can imagine that an actual supernatural event might produce such stories as well, but nothing we know enables is to single out any particular story as being actually produced by a miracle.

    • January 1, 2013 at 8:48 am

      While many things that are called miracles would be hard to verify as such, and I don’t necessarily equate fingerprints with a miracle, there is something rather remarkable about the resurrection because it could have been verified by you were you in the area around the time in the same way any other historical event could have been. Historical distance does not remove objectivity. The objectivity comes from the “public” nature of the event (i.e. it could have been seen by anyone in the right place and time). Also, we cannot presume to “know” that every such story was written out of “some combination of human foibles such as superstition, ignorance, exaggeration, gullibility, wishful thinking, and prevarication.” To assume such is to assume the answer to the debate before it has begun (so-called “begging the question”). When you get to causes (i.e. God did it, or it was some natural explanation) then we step out of objectivity, or at least empirical objectivity, but the actual event (either Jesus was a real person who really died and who really came back to life after more than 24 hours, or one of those aspects is false) is objective in nature like all historical events. A historical distance doesn’t change that, nor can we preclude any historical evidence in support simply because it doesn’t support our already predetermined solution. As I’ve mentioned, I’m not interested in this point at proving the resurrection did, in fact, happen, but I do want to say that it is objective and thus more reasonable than is often assumed (even if you aren’t necessarily convinced by the available evidence).

      • vinnyjh57
        January 1, 2013 at 11:23 am

        I don’t see how the resurrection is remarkable in the sense you claim at all. There are many many miracles stories that I might have been able to verify or falsify (at least to my own satisfaction) had I been in the right place at the right time. I could have observed Joseph Smith’s Golden Plates, the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, or Moses parting the Red Sea had I been in the right place at the right time. However, I think that “objectivity” requires evidence that is equally available to any observer, not merely hypothetical evidence that may once have been equally available to any observer.

        I do not assume that every miracle story is the product of human foibles, but I think I have sufficient data to conclude they are the overwhelming most frequent cause of such stories. I can concede the possibility that an actual miracle might also produce a miracle story, but I don’t know of any criteria by which one could ever establish a supernatural cause for an event. At best, I could only say that the cause of the event is unknown.

        At some point it becomes reasonable to conclude that certain things don’t exist or certain types of events don’t occur as a result of the inability to verify them. I have in fact never investigated a single alleged leprechaun sighting, but I nevertheless have no qualms in affirming their non-existence. Based on everything that knowledge and experience tell me about the way the world works, the leprechaun hypothesis has no explanatory value whatsoever and I deem the possibility of it ever having any remote beyond being worthy of consideration. It is conclusion rather than an assumption. By the same token, I have concluded rather than assumed that human foibles are the most likely explanation for miracle stories.

        • January 1, 2013 at 2:54 pm

          By your criteria I have no objective basis for believing a man named Napoleon nearly conquered all of Europe with a French army (since my current experience seems to show otherwise and all I have are stories about him, many of which are demonstrably false). The thing is, and this is important, historical events are not subject to contemporary observation. The difference with some of these events, such as the Joseph Smith and Mormonism, or Mohamed and Islam is that they are not public in their reception. They are the result of private visions (or dreams), thus anyone who had been there would not have seen the vision, and thus they are entirely subjective. The Resurrection has always been described (save some small groups in the twentieth century) as an historical event that anyone could have observed, in the same way Napoleon nearly conquered Europe, or Hannibal crossed the alps with Elephants, or that the Royal Navy under Queen Elizabeth defeated the unbeatable Spanish Armada. They are historical in nature, and thus not subject to duplication. Such a criterion is invalid for historical events, particularly if we assume the cause is something more powerful than any human (and thus we should expect that people cannot reproduce said events)

          • January 2, 2013 at 8:45 am

            It may well be true that some of the stories that were recorded about Napoleon are demonstrably false, but there is much about his existence and activities that can be corroborated as thoroughly and completely as any historical facts can be. Not only do we have the independent reports of people who personally witnessed the events from almost every imaginable angle, but we also have copious evidence of the after-effects of the events such as the Congress of Vienna where all the European leaders gathered to settle issues arising from the Napoleonic wars. I don’t know what it is in your experience that would cause you to doubt the historical evidence, but I cannot think of anything in mine that does.

            I agree that we cannot directly observe anything that happened in the past. The upshot of this is that we must draw inferences about historical events from the effects they had which are still available for observation today. Most of those observable effects consist of written records, but there are also physical artifacts which can be used to confirm and corroborate the written records. All I am saying is that the objective basis for any historical event is the evidence that we have which is equally available to any observer today. We cannot draw inferences based on what somebody might have seen had they been in the right place at the right time.

            It is true that many of the supernatural events that have been claimed to have occurred throughout history consist of private revelations. Christianity of course has no shortage of these, e.g., Galatians 1:11-12. On the other hand, there have also been lots of claims of miracles that could have been observed by anyone present. I’m not all that familiar with Islam, but Joseph Smith’s Golden Plates were sworn to have been observed by a number of his followers. Their affidavits constitute evidence which is equally available to any observer today, although I don’t personally think that they are sufficient to support the inference that the Golden Plates actually existed.

            As I understand it, no one claims to have seen the resurrection itself occur unless you count some of the apocryphal works like the Gospel of Peter. Some people claimed to have encountered the risen Christ after the resurrection, but the only first person account we have, (i.e., where someone personally writes “Jesus Christ appeared to me”) comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:8. According to Acts, however, Paul’s companions wouldn’t have been able to corroborate the content of his experience.

  4. January 24, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    Thank you for the “Like” on my blog. This is a great post! -Lori

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