John Loftus on the Resurrection of Jesus in ‘Why I Became An Atheist’

A continuation of a series looking at the book Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (Revised and Expanded) by John Loftus.

In chapter 21 – Did Jesus Bodily Rise from the Dead? – the author attempts to show that we cannot trust the New Testament witness to the resurrection of Jesus, thus there is no reason to believe that Jesus was resurrected. For the first few pages, Loftus laments the lack of evidence we have for the resurrection of Christ. For instance, he says that,

We do not have anything written by the apostle Paul before he converted … nor do we have anything written by the Jewish leaders of the that time about Jesus or Paul, nor do we have anything written by the Romans that mentions Jesus, the content of his preaching, why he was killed, or what they thought about claims that he had been resurrected … We also lack testimonies from Ananias, Caiaphas, Herod, or Pilate about the events we find in the Gospels. (410-11)

I’m not exactly sure of why this lack of testimonies has an impact regarding the question of whether Jesus was resurrected from the dead. I mean, even if we had all of these textual witnesses from non-believers contemporaneous with Jesus, is Loftus seriously suggesting that it gives an ounce more credibility to the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection?

As with the last chapter of this book I blogged about (read here), there was a lot of minor quibbles I had with what the author said at times. But the main disagreement I have is the whole approach that Loftus takes in this chapter. He seeks to see if there is enough evidence to warrant a belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, whereas I think that whole approach is foolish because I do not think that one can prove (or should attempt to do so), with any degree of historical probability, a supernatural event in antiquity. But I also do not see anything wrong with believing in the resurrection of Christ without the kind of evidence that Loftus and others require.

There are some Christian scholars, though, who maintain that the historical method can indeed be used to determine whether Jesus was resurrected from the dead (e.g. N.T. Wright, Mike Licona). There are others who suggest that we can determine the likelihood of Jesus’ resurrection probabilistically via Bayes’ theorem (e.g. Richard Swinburne). I have even seen one guy, Frank Tipler, attempt to utilize quantum physics in order to assert that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

Another perspective on this issue, which is what I myself agree with, is that the resurrection of Jesus is a historiographically inaccessible event, due to the fact that the very nature of the resurrection is inherently contradictory towards physical reality, thus making the historical- and scientific-methods inadequate and ineffective in determining whether it really occurred. This type of perspective is held by various contemporary theologians, one of whom said the following:

Christ’s death on the cross is a historical fact – Christ’s resurrection is an apocalyptic happening. Christ’s death was brought about by human beings – his raising from the dead is an act on God’s part. (Jürgen Moltmann)

In other words, the death of Christ on the cross is a historical fact which was brought about by man and the historical method can be applied to this event. But his resurrection is an act accomplished by the finger of God and is an apocalyptic event which transcends what the historical method can access, meaning that it cannot be confirmed as history and thus has to be seen in other terms. This view is not due to an imperialist epistemological view of history, but is the result of viewing Christ’s resurrection for what it really is – an apocalyptic happening that breaks through into the linearity of history and is itself a history-making event.

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