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Searching for the Atheist that Believes the Resurrection Happened

A recurring theme of late is that even if you believed the resurrection happened, that would still not justify the inference that there is a God or that the resurrection was a supernatural event.  There are some 500 posts or more (I kid you not) arguing about the ‘divine inference’ and a recent commenter has issued the same challenge.  It is worth reading the comments on this post of mine about my academy’s course on the historicity of the resurrection.

Now, to me the most telling thing about such lines of argumentation is that they seem geared to perfectly insulate atheism from any kind of refutation.   If the resurrection happened, that still wouldn’t warrant believing that God was at work, they say, but very quickly they add, but there is no evidence of it happening, either!  It should be self-evident that the one who objects that an actual resurrection ought to be construed in naturalistic terms ought to drop all objections to the occurrence of miracle.  Consider this article by Jeffrey Jay Lowder, for example, which says:

Thus, virtually every naturalistic scenario, no matter how far-fetched, must seem a priori more plausible to the atheist, than something as miraculous as the resurrection.

This is a refreshingly honest analysis.   This is indeed the perspective of most atheistic objections to the resurrection.    But can such an approach be reconciled with the assertion that even in the face of an actual miracle, that is, granting that the miracle really happened, it still does not justify the inference to the supernatural?  It would seem that musings about ‘background probabilities’ are irrelevant if the events were insignificant even if granted.  But that is the beauty of modern atheism:  they wish to have their cake and eat it too.  Not only are the events insufficient demonstrations of the supernatural but also there is no evidence that they happened, either!  “What luck!”

It seems to me that if the events are of little consequence then there is little reason to object to them on the grounds of evidence.    If they actually happened, at most they would simply call for a revision of what is believed to be the laws of nature.  Since then there is no threat to the naturalistic world view by an actual miracle or resurrection, then surely we should be able to find some atheists who believe the resurrection and the miracles really happened on simple historical grounds.

After all, the resurrection is much better substantiated than many if not most other historical claims.  Even if we took the latest possible dates for the writing of the New Testament books, they would still be much earlier and more numerous than most secular accounts and histories.   Why not then simply concede that on historical grounds it would appear that the events really happened but deny the import?

Since the events would be naturalistic events then they would not longer be ‘extraordinary claims’ and so would not require ‘extraordinary evidence.’

When I find an atheist who does in fact accept the resurrection and perhaps the miracles as actual events in mankind’s history and yet remains an atheist, I will take so called challenges to the ‘divine inference’ seriously.  I would settle at this point for the production of even one atheist who firmly believes that the resurrection happened.

Until then it looks like an exercise in C.Y.A. to me.  The intellectual battle is not faring as well as they like so they are reduced to denying even the import of the event, even if we assumed it actually happened.  I don’t think I am far off in welcoming such an approach.  Seekers will be surprised, I think, to learn where atheism is headed these days.

As a brief response both to the commenter on the thread I already mentioned and to Jeffrey Jay Lowder’s essay… such considerations still miss the critical point:  did the events actually happen?  Our best way of knowing about whether events actually happened before the days of video and photos (that was just a shade past a hundred years ago, in case you didn’t know) is to study the historical record.  But if Lowder’s atheistic comrades are right, it wouldn’t matter if it did, and if the divine inference is to be rejected, its only worth talking about if confronted with an instance we mutually agreed actually occurred.  So did the resurrection happen or not?

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  1. How about people who think Jesus was a space alien? Don’t they count as not following the “divine inference”?

    • Anthony on May 7, 2008 at 1:30 pm
      Author

    A minute might be required to define what we mean by ‘resurrection’ or otherwise clarify the scenario in question. It would not be a resuscitation, for example, and he scenario would be a resurrection in the context in which the claim is raised, which pretty much means the NT documents. These documents would clarify the nature of the historical claim. That said…

    I say “might be” because we still need to establish two points and I’d prefer not to dig through your links to find out if these fit. First of all, are these people who believe Jesus was a space alien also atheists? Secondly, do they believe that Jesus really rose from the dead?

    If one of your links provided that information feel free to re-present it and I’ll look at it. I didn’t look at the four links.

  2. Well, it depends on how you define ‘atheist’, but I think you’re setting the bar kinda high there. The second to last link states that the Raelians “believe that the Hebrew Elohim are actually extraterrestrial aliens who created life on this planet. They believe life on earth is not a result of random evolution nor the work of the supernatural God but of scientists from another planet using DNA and genetic engineering. Allegedly, the “elohim” maintained contact with humans through the “prophets” like Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad. They believe in the resurrection of Christ but with a blasphemous twist saying, Jesus was resurrected through an advanced cloning technique performed by these extraterrestrial aliens.”

    The point is that they accept that Jesus rose from the dead – at least, in a manner consistent with the NT – but interpret it in a ‘naturalistic’ fashion, rejecting the “divine inference”.

    Besides which, even in ‘naturalistic’ terms, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The Tunguska Event was certainly unusual, but was most likely caused by a stony meteoroid. Lots of more fanciful causes have been proposed (antimatter, black holes, alien spacecraft) but absent compelling evidence, there seems no reason to worry about any of them.

    • Anthony on May 7, 2008 at 2:44 pm
      Author

    I’m setting the bar in a particular context. I occasionally get space alien conspiracy theorists here but usually I get hard core philosophical naturalists and atheists, which is why I chose Lowder as an illustration. So it isn’t setting the bar high, it is speaking in context of the normal audience of this blog, excepting the Christians that read it.

    It would seem that you need the bar lowered in order for you to make your point. 🙂 I don’t see why I should go along. 🙂

    From what you have said of the Raelians, it is not yet clear that they are atheists nor that Jesus rose from the dead. A ‘cloning technique’ would suggest that it wasn’t Jesus at all, but rather a clone. I’ve never studied the Raelians and apart from their claims to have cloned humans don’t know much about them. But unless by ‘advanced cloning’ is meant something akin to quantum teleportation where one is hard pressed to distinguish between the entities, this sounds like two distinct entities.

    If a person dies but his DNA is extracted and a clone is made, I don’t think that qualifies as a resurrection as the records describe, nor is it consistent with the historical data which is a critical component of my point.

    According to the logic espoused by the post commentator and others, we could allow that everything in the Bible happened just as described, but we must reject the witness’s inference that these were done by God.

    As for Sagan’s balance, don’t get me wrong- I don’t accept the merit of the principle. I only mentioned it because it is often raised against supernatural interpretations, and it is implicitly at work in Lowder’s article and even in the bit I quoted of him. I don’t even think it is a worthy principle even for so called ‘naturalistic’ phenomena.

    • Anthony on May 7, 2008 at 3:09 pm
      Author

    It might be worth noting that a couple of other clarifications ought to be in order. For example, it isn’t enough to produce someone who does not make the inference, we want them to believe that no such inference is ever warranted, ever, period. I doubt the Raelians fit into that category.

    Nor do I believe that the Raelians have any particular interest in the resurrection of Jesus. They believe it but I doubt they cite it as evidence for their theory. At least, I have never noticed any Raelian apologists frequenting Infidels to prove from the resurrection that their viewpoint.

    The person I have in mind for this challenge clearly will have to be one who specifically makes the argument that no divine inference is ever justified.

    • Anthony on May 7, 2008 at 3:27 pm
      Author

    Perhaps the commenter on this blog post of mine meets both our criteria. http://sntjohnny.com/front/bill-maher-a-bigot-ufos-more-likely-than-the-christian-story-is-the-catholic-league-right-to-be-offended/205.html

    You’ll have to ask him, though.

    I wonder how this will play out. If we find a bunch of UFO conspiracy theorists who accept the resurrection but explicitly denounce divine inferences, is that the ally Richard Dawkins (or Robert or Spencer) wants?

    That would seem to be in the category of: “I don’t think I am far off in welcoming such an approach.”

  3. The Raelian’s picture of the resurrection probably doesn’t square with the typical Christian’s picture, true… but it does seem that they argue that their reading is consistent with the NT documents. (They do seem to think that, by their definitions at least, it really was Jesus that came back: This ties into their belief that mind transfer, and thus eternal life, is possible and that it will be possible to create an identical human clone in terms of mind and personality—as long as the clone and the original are not alive at the same time.

    It also seems that they really do think the ‘divine inference’ is unwarranted: “Christ’s role was to spread the truth of the Biblical scriptures throughout the world so that they could serve as proof for all of humanity when the age of science would finally explain everything.”

    Now, does that qualify as atheist in your eyes?

  4. As to “Sagan’s balance”, do you think that extraordinary claims require ordinary evidence, or what? (I’m not asking this in an accusatory tone, I’m just seeking clarification.)

    • Anthony on May 8, 2008 at 8:23 am
      Author

    Matt Slick goes on to describe them thusly:

    The death of Jesus served only to make known the truth of the origin of life via the creative work of the aliens. There is no efficacious atonement. But, Jesus was resuscitated with the help of the creators who used their technology to bring Him back from the dead.

    The bolded is mine. As I said earlier, a resuscitation is not a resurrection. Lazarus was resuscitated, even if beyond all of our abilities today. Clearly, whatever is meant by ‘resurrection’ must go beyond what is achieved by simple CPR. The use of a defibrillator is common enough and many people have been revived, but no one has thought that the event was worthy of founding a religion upon.

    The Wiki quote also does not go far enough. “as long as the clone and the original are not alive at the same time.” Let us consider a simpler example and see if you agree that that constitutes a resurrection…

    You can make exact copies of hard drives from computers. This is called ‘ghosting’ them. You can then take your exact copy and place it on another hard drive as a full image. The two hard drives are now effectively indistinguishable so far as the data goes on them. The hard drives themselves would not know which was the original and which was the ghosted.

    Now let’s say you’ve got the original in your computer and you are fortunate enough to have a ghost copy available. Your original fails completely. It is absolutely broken with no hope for recovery. Ah, but you’ve got your ghost. So, you take your new hard drive with your exact copy on it and put it in the computer. Now, the old hard drive sits in front of you on your desk. It’s right in front of you. You see it with your own eyes. Is it your view that the hard drive sitting lifeless in front of you has been ‘resurrected’ simply because you’ve got another hard drive that looks just like it?

    This is the shades away from the quantum teleportation example I mentioned.

    That is my factual objection to your example but I have a methodological one, too. Believing a divine inference is unwarranted is different than believing they are never justified.

    The Wiki article says attributes to them, “Throughout the ages, Elohim sent different prophets: Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and many others to guide humanity and to prepare us for the future.”

    Is it really the case here that we have a group working off of the available historical data? It seems to me that they are simply opportunistic, appropriating to themselves any notable person for their own purposes.

    I am tempted to simply cede the point. If it requires running to the Raelians or the Scientologists to find an example that to me doesn’t (in my mind) help establish the credibility of the hard core atheists and philosophical naturalists and Infidels who insist that a divine inference is never justified. It is from among them where the rejection of the divine inference is being made explicit. Why are they not Raelian?

    • Anthony on May 8, 2008 at 8:30 am
      Author

    “As to “Sagan’s balance”, do you think that extraordinary claims require ordinary evidence, or what? (I’m not asking this in an accusatory tone, I’m just seeking clarification.)”

    I believe that an ‘extraordinary claim’ certainly could be corroborated by perfectly ordinary evidence. If I claim that George Bush snuck in and shot Oprah, that would be an extraordinary claim, I think. Do we need an over abundance of evidence? Or would a simple video showing the event do the trick?

    My chief objection, though, is that the notion of ‘extraordinary’ is completely subjective on both sides of the scale. What seems ‘extraordinary’ to one might not to another. The principle is perfectly designed so as to immunize any person from any claim that they want on any grounds that they like. Believing something is ‘extraordinary’ means having preconceived notions about what to actually expect from reality or a situation. But how are these notions derived? How reasonable are they?

    No, Sagan’s Balance is worthless in real life. It’s use is only as a club in the atheism/theism debate. If a drug maker says he can cure cancer with a particular pill, we might suppose that that is an extraordinary claim, but it will be demonstrated along ordinary lines… surveys and studies and experiments, etc. It might be extraordinary to believe that such and such person killed another, but a simple and ordinary hair is enough to convict him. In real life, we have other principles we operate on. Sagan’s Balance is not one of them.

  5. I think the main reason that ‘naturalists’ aren’t Raelian is because they don’t think that Jesus actually did rise from the dead. For example, I think that there almost certainly was a Pheidippides who ran a long distance sometime around the battle of Marathon, but I kinda doubt he ran into the god Pan as the histories dutifully record.

    Mohammed supposedly broke the moon apart and put it back together again, though only a few people who were with him seem to have noticed. Likewise, the earthquakes, eclipses, and mass ghosts or resurrections that were supposed to have accompanied the Crucifixion don’t seem to actually be mentioned by other contemporary historians – certainly nothing like all these things at the same time.

    Of course, if someone thought the Resurrection happened, and didn’t go for supernatural explanations, then they might well become Raelian.

    One could look at it more like “only Christians and UFO believers think the Resurrection happened,” if one were so inclined.

  6. If you’re interested in why someone would have a ‘naturalistic’ bias, you could look here; it’s not appropriate for a comment.

    • Anthony on May 8, 2008 at 11:55 am
      Author

    I am not at a loss as to why people might have ‘naturalistic’ biases, thank you. 😉

    I don’t think your comments yet reflect the spirit and intent of my post. The Raelians aren’t Raelian because they believe Jesus rose from the dead, either. That people might have a naturalistic bias is not the point, either. The issue is that some people are saying that EVEN IF THEY BELIEVED THE RESURRECTION HAPPENED, that would STILL NOT JUSTIFY the inference to the supernatural. In other words, if it happened, it would merely a naturalistic event.

    And as a naturalistic event, then the a priori objection that Lowder discussed simply disappears. It should then be possible to accept the resurrection and the other miracles on the grounds of the historical record alone and yet remain a firmly committed materialist.

    Are there such people? No. Not that I am aware of. Instead we see a move like you’ve basically done where you sought to justify both your naturalistic bias and insisted that it is not likely that the resurrection happened. But if the ‘Divine Inference’ is never justified, then it is meaningless to take a position on whether or not the resurrection happened. Whether it did or not, one’s latent naturalism is preserved. The historical evidence certainly is in favor of the proposition that it did- unless you are predisposed to dismiss such accounts as false on their face since they imply the supernatural… in which case you are tacitly disowning the view that a Divine Inference is never justified.

    If I understand you correctly, you are not the sort of person who believes that the resurrection, if it was an actual event, would be meaningless. I’m looking for people who do.

  7. Um… not to be obstreperous here, but are most murder trials resolved by presenting video of the killing? I just have this hunch that having video of a murder is a pretty extraordinary event.

    I’ve actually been on a jury in a murder trial, and more than one hair is usually needed to get past ‘reasonable doubt’. Means, motive, and opportunity are still pretty important in convicting murderers. Physical evidence is important, too, but convictions in the absence of either side aren’t all that common.

    And even when cancers are cured by pills, a mechanism for action is pretty important. A pill of just plain Vitamin C doesn’t have a plausible mechanism for curing cancer, and really would be an extraordinary claim. I think people would be right to ask for some unusually rigorous studies to be undertaken to prove its efficacy.

    It’s true that not everyone judges the likelihood of events the same way. Neither do people value consumer goods the same way, but markets still can sort things out in a wide range of circumstances.

    • Anthony on May 8, 2008 at 12:16 pm
      Author

    I knew you were hard at work on that.

    Having the video might be ‘extraordinary’ but murder isn’t, necessarily. You see how subjective this is?

    I didn’t say anything about getting beyond reasonable doubt. It is reasonable to get ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ when what is at stake is a human life which you might inflict with the death penalty, especially. Civil cases, however, do not have the same standard. See the OJ Simpson case as an example where the criminal case could not obtain but the civil case was ruled against him.

    Here you see an inconsistency in your application of Sagan’s Balance already at work. The death penalty is in my mind a pretty ‘extraordinary’ punishment. If you were consistent then nothing short of having video would be enough to justify the ‘extraordinary’ punishment. Or is it your view now that you can assemble enough ordinary evidences in sufficient arrangement and still justify the punishment?

    If so, you prove my case.

    Incidentally, was the murder trial you were a jury on the jeweler one?

    I will restate my problem with ‘Sagan’s Balance.’ It is hopelessly subjective, that’s my problem. I have never seen it applied consistently outside of the theism debate nor have I ever seen it spelled out exactly what makes something an ‘extraordinary’ claim, or something an ‘extraordinary’ piece of evidence. What is unordinary to one is extraordinary to another.

  8. Sure, “you can assemble enough ordinary evidences in sufficient arrangement and still justify the punishment” – but that collection itself becomes extraordinary. Your example was the murder of Oprah Winfrey by George Bush. Given the lack of motive – indeed, the presence of many strong counter-motives – just how many people do you honestly think you could convince of the murder based on a single hair? Or would you need more?

    For example, is there a reason for Bush’s hair to be at the crime scene – was it a hotel room that Bush had stayed at very recently? You might also need to show that Bush was in the area during the shooting, or at least that his known movements – which are carefully accounted for – had a large-enough gap that the trip could have been made. Weapons of and around the President are also necessarily carefully accounted for – can you show the gun involved was available to the President?

    Even with a video, you’d probably need at least the above for a conviction. After all, special effects have gotten pretty good now – and there are enemies of the United States who would have some interest in disrupting our government. A fairly detailed forensic analysis of the video for artifacts indicating F/X would be called for, probably by at least two different labs for the prosecution and defense.

    Seriously, your quip was a bit too glib. Let me put it this way – Hollywood movies are pretty dang farfetched these days. (My wife and I just watched a movie called “You Kill Me” about a hitman in AA who openly declares his job at a meeting and talks about how his drinking was interfering with his work. Nobody turns him in.) Could you actually sell a script based on the idea of George Bush killing Oprah Winfrey?

    There’s a lot of variation in what people consider ‘extraordinary’ – I already said that. But what’s the shape of the distribution about the mean? How tall a bell curve is it? I think it’s narrow enough for a common-sense notion of ‘extraordinary’ to obtain.

  9. Um, the Raelians are explicitly materialist, but they accept the resurrection.

    I contend that you are, in fact, setting the bar unreasonably high. You’ve gone from asking for someone who thinks the resurrection happened but retains a “naturalistic world view”, to asking for someone who thinks that the resurrection, if it happened would be meaningless.

    Those are two different concepts. A “revision of what is believed to be the laws of nature” is not a small deal – they don’t happen that often and they are justly called scientific revolutions. The last couple were Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and we’re still working out the ramifications of those upsets. The existence of a being or beings that could do the ‘miracles’ in the NT account – whether an alien, a time traveller, a psychic, an operator of the computer-simulation that is our universe, or whatever – would be a major discovery that’d require re-evaluation of a lot of well-established principles.

    Even in the first link in your article above, I don’t see anyone arguing that the resurrection would be meaningless. At most, I see people saying that it wouldn’t imply what you claim it would imply. That’s not the same thing.

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