The “eyewitness” evidence for the resurrection
Christian apologists such as Josh McDowell are fond of citing the “eyewitness testimony” in favor of the resurrection. This refers primarily to those accounts, given in the four Gospels, attesting to (a) the empty tomb and (b) sightings of an animate, embodied Christ post-crucifixion. First, note that neither of these accounts of are “the resurrection”; rather, they are accounts of events from which a resurrection would have to be inferred.
This in itself is not a problem. However, with the possible exception of Paul (see below), we do not even have “eyewitness testimony” to these events. Rather, we have the testimony of second (or 3rd? 4th? 5th?…) -hand sources as to what somebody else witnessed. Clearly, those apologists are confusing testimony about an eyewitness with eyewitness testimony. While the Gospel writers record that there were eyewitnesses, they are not claiming to be eyewitnesses themselves. Of course, this makes mush of the very idea of “eyewitness testimony”; on McDowell’s definition, the wispiest piece of gossip about something somebody saw could claim the same status.
The best-case scenario is this: Somebody saw something; somebody else reported it; and, following decades of oral transmission, somebody else finally wrote it down. The Gospel accounts should be handled with all the initial skepticism of any other rumor. As any game of “telephone” attests, oral transmission is notoriously error-prone. We have no idea how many times the Gospel stories were told and retold along the way to hard copy. We have no way to “vet” the witnesses to these events, nor all the intermediary reporters, as credible sources; we cannot even identify them, nor say how many they were.
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Of course, some rumors turn out to be true. Certain factors can weigh against our initial skepticism. Some are investigated below.
Variation among the Gospel accounts
If the Gospel accounts were uniform, this would be a mark in favor if authenticity. But they wildly differ from one another. Consider the four versions of the discovery of the empty tomb:
- Matthew: Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James, arrive at the tomb before dawn; an angel descends in their presence, rolls back the stone and sits on it; the women leave “with joy” to tell others, meeting Jesus along the way.
- Mark: “The two Marys” and Salome arrive at sunrise to find the stone already rolled back; they enter the tomb to find “a young man”; they leave in fear, telling no one; they don’t meet Jesus.
- Luke: The two Marys, Joanna, and “other women” arrive just after sunrise to find the stone already rolled back; they enter the tomb to find “two men” inside; the women leave to tell others; they don’t meet Jesus.
- John: Mary Magdalene arrives alone while it is still dark outside; she finds the stone already rolled away; she does not enter the tomb, nor finds “men” or angels; she leaves to tell others, and returns to the site with them; only then does she enter the tomb to find “two angels”; before leaving the site, she meets Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener.
Prima facie doubts about the witnesses
Nor are our witnesses especially credible on the surface. They are not disinterested observers but devotees and close companions of Christ. They believed, and claimed publicly, that Christ would rise again. We would no more simply “take their word” for this outcome in which they were deeply invested than we would of a spouse whose murder-suspect partner was ‘home with me all night.’
This needn’t imply deceit on part of the witnesses. Studies on eyewitness forensics find that perception, memory and reporting can be skewed by one’s values and motivations. There is a cognitive-dissonant tendency to see what one wishes to see, and this only intensified by religious fervor. This could not have been less acute before the advent of philosophical skepticism and modern science.
Can the accounts be independently confirmed?
Under these circumstances, it is important that we match the accounts of Christ’s followers with independent confirmation. This, too, would count against a skeptical view. But this too is lacking.
The only Jewish source that seems to confirm the resurrection is a brief passage in the Antiquities of Flavius Josephus. Almost every Biblical scholar believes this to be a fraudulent insert by a medieval Christian transcriber. The passage breaks with the narrative stylisitically and thematically—almost comically so. Suddenly, a staunchly Jewish writer declares that Christ rose from the dead and so must be more than “a man”—and then goes back to being Jewish for the duration of his career. Early Christian thinkers who cited Josephus never drew from this passage; no Christians claimed him as one of their own; no Jews considered him a renegade or apostate. This has to be because they weren’t aware of the passage; it came later.
Other Jewish sources such as the Talmud, though sometimes cited as evidence for the resurrection, merely report existing Christian belief without endorsing it. Indeed, these reports always present the “resurrection” as a product of fraud or misperception.
Finally, some pagan-Roman sources (e.g., Tacitus) do mention Jesus, but for slightly more complicated reasons, these are also dubious. I could make the case, but at any rate these sources mention nothing abort the resurrection nor anything miraculous, so they could not be considered confirmation of the events in question even if authentic.
The special case of Paul
The Apostle Paul mentions other sightings of a risen Christ. He report Jesus appeared to Cephas, “the twelve,” “more than five hundred brethren,” the disciples, and to James. But this record shares all the problems of the Gospel accounts: We do not know from whom Paul received his information, nor how many “links” he stood removed from the original accounts. We have no way to assess the credibility of anyone in the network.
All that aside, Paul is significant for being the only eyewitness to the resurrected Christ to record the experience him/herself. “Last of all,” he continues his list of witnesses, “to one untimely born, he appeared to me.”
One problem is that there is nothing in the description to distinguish his experience from an hallucination. There is no indication that anyone else on the road to Damascus shared the experience. Moreover, assuming Paul experienced something, what makes his interpretation of that something correct? How did he know it was Christ he encountered? (The Gospel witnesses at least had the advantage of knowing the man in life.) Maybe the entity claimed to be Christ, but an entity that can make claims can also make false claims.
It is not even clear that Paul experienced an embodied being. (This goes for the others in his list as well.) Paul doesn’t say, but in the book of Acts, Luke reports that Paul experienced a light and voice only. But “resurrection” suggests some kind of bodily existence; thus, even if Paul’s experience was 100% authentic, it is still not clear that it was of a resurrected anything.
In general, nothing in Paul’s account confirms the resurrection story as it is reported in the Gospels. It does not provide independent confirmation of those accounts, so much as it provides an entirely new account requiring its own independent confirmation (with the added wrinkle that its lack of information makes it unclear what would count as confirmation).
Finally, Paul’s credibility is open to question. His own account of his life in Rome differs sharply from Luke’s rendering in Acts. Granted, we don’t know which account (if either) is accurate; but the multiplicity itself makes it hard to accept either author at face value.
Speaking of Paul: Did a historical Christ even exist?
Paul’s failure to mention anything about the empty tomb or the sightings brings up a related but broader issue—one potentially far more damaging to the resurrection claim.
Here we draw upon an argument made famous by “Christ myth” theorist G. A. Wells: Oddly, Paul seems unaware of any details of the life of Christ. He is silent about his birthplace and the entire “Christmas story,” his parents, miracles, trial before Pilate and other elements of the Passion drama, and even his ethical teachings. He mentions the last supper, crucifixion and the resurrection, but in very abstract terms, sanitized of all historical and geographic setting. Paul gives no sense of being a contemporary of Christ’s, or that Christ had died only a few years before. (Paul would have begun preaching about 12 years after Christ’s death.)
Surely this is not a coincidence or stylistic choice. Paul wrote to settle various theological disputes afflicting the early church. You might say he was desperate to lay these to rest. On many topics (e.g., celibacy; whether Gentiles should keep the Jewish law) it would have been to his advantage to quote Christ’s own authoritative words on these matters—yet he never does. (It might be argued, if Christ’s teaching was a matter of record, it is odd that these disputes emerged in the first place.) This suggests he was not aware of Christ’s views on these subjects. Worse, on topics like baptism, ministering to the Gentiles, and paying taxes, Paul’s teaching appears to contradict Christ’s. Despite the Gospels’ claim that Christ performed miracles, Paul suggests that Christ lived an obscure life and was unaware of failed to exercise his own supernatural powers and mission until after he died.
Paul is not the only one with this blind spot. It is shared by the first several post-Pauline epistle writers. The disinterest in Christ’s historicity maintains all the way up to Timothy 1, whose author suddenly introduces biographical elements such as we know from the Gospels. This new style persists through the remaining epistle writers and of course the Gospels themselves (which, contrary to the Biblical ordering, came after Paul). Keep in mind the epistle authors wrote mainly independently of each other; yet the pattern, and shift, is evident.
Since, then, the later epistles do give biographical references to Jesus, it cannot be argued that epistle writers generally were disinterested in his biography, and it becomes necessary to explain why only the earlier ones (and not only Paul) give the historical Jesus such short shrift. The change in the manner of referring to him after A.D. 90 becomes intelligible if we accept his early life in the let-century Palestine was invented in the late 1st century. But it remains very puzzling if we take his existence for historical fact.
If Christ did not exist, then, he could not have been resurrected. Short of this “extreme” conclusion: If the Gospel stories entered the Christian tradition as late as A.D. 90, it lends them less credibility than if they had begun soon after the events they describe took place.
The problem of miracles in general
The resurrection’s status as a miracle carries its own problems. For Christians, Christ returned to life by God’s direct intervention. This is usually understood to be a “supernatural” event. First, I’m not sure if any sense can be given to the term “supernatural; if nature is simply all there is, what could be “super-” that? Nor am I sure any sense can be given to “God” as most Christians intend that term. The divine attributes, traditionally understood, logically contradict one another; they could no more inhere in the same being than a “square circle” could exist.
But let us for the sake of argument accept that a miracle is a fortuitous, God-directed violation of natural law.
This definition raises the question of how to tell whether a violation is real or merely apparent. First, as biologists have ably argued against the creationists, the fact that a phenomenon remains unexplained by “natural” causes hardly means that it is unexplainable. The whole history of the modern age is one of filling in those “gaps” in our understanding as new research unfolds; to simply assume that this puzzling event will never benefit from the same grand trend, so it must be supernatural, is presumptuous. A person could “naturally” come back to life, if very rarely, under laws we haven’t discovered, or whose precise working remains unknown. As hard as this may be to accept, it is unclear how a “supernatural” act comes easier to swallow.
Second, the exercise of deceit, fraud and (again) sincere misconception can account “naturally” for the appearance of a violation where none has occurred.
The question is not whether a miracle could ever happen, or be known to happen. It is whether it is more reasonable to attribute stories of an empty tomb and “risen man” to a suspension of the laws of nature rather than to the sorts of causes by which we explain the great many other strange and unusual events we experience. At any rate, the evidence in favor of a miraculous cause would have to be exceedingly strong to overcome the statistical presumption of natural causality; and, as we have seen, this evidence is, rather, particularly weak and tenuous. The question is, then, whether it is more reasonable to leap to supernaturalism on the basis of very old, conflicting rumors of completely unknown origins.
Two more Christian arguments
There are two counter-arguments which jointly attack the idea that the resurrection could be a product of fraud or delusion:
(a) Why would the disciples agree to “die for a lie”?
As a young Christian, I heard stories of early believers hunted, crucified, and fed to lions, refusing to renounce their faith to save themselves. At times, this was used as evidence for the resurrection: If Christ had failed to rise again, it would have led his followers to abandon their belief in him. Even if they faked his resurrection or otherwise lied about it (to avoid embarrassment, perhaps) they would not be willing to sacrifice their very lives for the ruse.
First, I really don’t know the degree to which these Christians would have been able to get out of trouble by simply renouncing their beliefs. Maybe some of these martyrs didn’t have a choice in it. Perhaps their “thought crimes” were so bad that renouncing them failed to saved them. But let us assume (some of) the Christians in question had the power to avoid that end, and didn’t exercise it.
Still, the argument fails in assuming that any “lie” would have to have been perpetuated by the same group that “died for it.” This doesn’t follow. The disciples could have been the victims of the lie rather than its source. Granted, as we have noted, they had a strong motive to show that Christ had risen. But others may have had motives of their own to perpetrate a hoax—to discredit their rivals as rubes and dupes, just for kicks, or for any other reason you like. The point is that people do this sort of thing all the time.
Worse, there is no evidence that the originators of the stories in question—those ”eyewitnesses,” if you like—actually died, willing or not, for their faith. We know that some early Christians were martyred—but these are not the early Christians we have been discussing! If any martyrs who were not eyewitnesses “died for a lie,” it was one which they didn’t know was a lie. That is, they were willing to die for a sincere religious belief. Surely that is not impossible to swallow; the phenomenon is well documented. Plenty of Christians who never claimed to witness anything miraculous also chose to die for their faith.
(b) There is no such thing as a “collective hallucination”
The empty tomb and risen Christ are supposed to have been witnessed by groups rather than individuals. Some argue that a delusion such as a hallucination is not a “collective” or “contagious” phenomenon. It is not like a movie which many can watch at once; the reel is “in the head,” accessible only to its owner. Sharing the same delusion would be like sharing the same dream. Therefore, whatever experience these groups shared was not an hallucination but an objective, external, “real” event.
The psychology behind this objection is not quite correct. Like other psychological phenomena, hallucinations can emerge when a triggering event occurs under the right set of initial conditions. And there is simply no reason why one person’s hallucination (or his behavior while having one) could not itself trigger a second hallucination in a second person (and so on).
Indeed, the “mass hysteria” is well documented in the psychiatric literature and often takes a religious coloration. One sufferer manifests words or other behaviors which indicate to witnesses what the delusion is ‘of.’ This acts as a trigger for others who are present under the same initial conditions. This almost certainly happened during the Salem, Mass., witch scares: In a strong climate of stress and fear over demons and their earthly servants, one witness might imagine she smelled sulphur in a house, a sign of the devil’s presence; and her declaring, “There is the smell of sulfur so strong here! It is Beelzebub!,” while screaming and writhing on the floor, etc., triggered others around her to have a similar experience.
Christian detractors may be falling prey to an ambiguity in the phrase “the same.” These sufferers are not quite enduring “the same” delusion, so much as two different ones of the same type and relating to one another in a kind of causal cascade. In this way, when my wife tells me of some injustice she has just suffered at work, her story drives me to share her anger—that is, it triggers “the same” anger in me. Nobody would doubt this experience just because anger has a “subjective” and individualized quality.
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Note these counter-arguments are not exhaustive. They treat fraud and delusion but not other hypotheses—for example, that the resurrection stories could be the product of “noise” picked up from decades of oral transmission, or a sincere misconception short of psychosis. Each of these is equally or more probable than a supernatural explanation. Thus, even if the counter-arguments were correct, they would not prove a resurrection occurred.
[I am going to post a follow-up hopefully soon. This is what I have for now.]
 The four versions of the sightings of the “risen Christ” are no more coherent. If anyone wants, I’ll break those down too.
 For instance, God is said to have perfect foreknowledge of the future, as well as freedom of action. But these traits conflict: If God knows he is going to do x in the future, he is not free to do y; if he were still free to do y, his belief that he will do x would be false.