Let’s Discuss: Substitutionary atonement

Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53: 4 – 6, 11, 12

How we defend the Resurrection: No, it’s not by telling you to have faith

Jesus Resurrection 1778
Jesus Resurrection 1778 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post is a response to Rautakyy’s comment here.

Firstly, I feel the need to apologize. I think this post comes out as harsher than I would have liked. I finalized it after a very long day.

Rautakyy and I agree about a lot of things, but sometimes, he does not seem to know this. He seems to have certain ideas about why I believe things. Observe:

“My claim, to be exact, is that we do not know wether Jesus was actually resurrected, or not. You may have all the faith you want in it, but truth of any claim is usually decided by what is the most likeliest event.”

There’s no need to be condescending, Rautakyy. I haven’t been lying in bed eating peanuts. I have done some research and I do think Jesus’ resurrection is the most likely event. Hang on while I explain that.

First, let’s get on the same page. I did not mention your point about the gospels being unreliable accounts because I did not think it necessary to do so. The defense of the resurrection hypothesis I am most familiar with does not depend on that. Shocking, I know, but it’s true. I considered pointing out your strange (to me) actions in arguing against the reliability of the gospels, but decided against it.

Establishing Historical Facts:

This method which I speak of first asserts that there are certain things we can know about Jesus without assuming that the gospel accounts are completely reliable. We can do this by using certain criteria which historians use to establish facts about history.

  1. Multiple attestation: If the same thing is said by at least two different sources which don’t depend on each other, it is probably true. For instance, not just the gospels, but Josephus and Tacitus say that Jesus died by Roman crucifixion. That’s more than two independent sources so it’s probably true that Jesus died (or at least, appeared to die) by Roman crucifixion.
  2. Enemy Attestation: If your enemy supports your claim, then it is probably true because your enemy has no reason to lie for you. For instance, both Jewish and Christian sources agree that Jesus’ tomb was empty on Sunday. In fact, the Jewish sources try to explain this by saying that the disciples had stolen the body. They wouldn’t have said that if the body was still in the tomb. They wanted Jesus dead after all so they wouldn’t have supported the rumors of his resurrection by lying about the tomb. I’m talking about sources like the Talmund, not Matthews’s account of the incident. So, since the Jews, who had no reason to lie about this, we can conclude that Jesus’ tomb was actually empty on Sunday
  3. Criterion of Embarrassment: If I say something about myself that is potentially embarrassing to me, it is probably true since most people aren’t all that willing embarrasses themselves. So, for instance, the gospels say that Peter denied Jesus. Peter was one of the leaders of the early church. The early church wouldn’t have inserted something so embarrassing to them, so Peter probably did deny Jesus.

There are a few other criteria like this that are used generally by scholars in examining historical documents. You can challenge them, of course (I once saw someone challenge an entire system of logic because they didn’t like the conclusion of the ontological argument) but I do not think it is wise.

So, what do we know about the resurrection?

Using those criteria, there are certain things we can glean from the gospels without assuming that they are entirely reliable.

  1. Jesus died on the cross
  2. He was buried in a tomb
  3. His disciples were consequently discouraged and despondent, having lost hope
  4. His tomb was empty soon after his death
  5. His disciples believed that they had seen him alive
  6. The disciples’ lives were transformed as a result. They were even willing to die for their beliefs
  7. The proclamation of the resurrection took place very early, from the beginning of church history
  8. The disciples’ preaching of the resurrection took place in Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified
  9. Some of his enemies (James and Paul) believed that they had seen Jesus alive and became Christians as a result.

Gary Habermas, in his book The Risen Jesus and Future Hope, reports that virtually all scholars, from ultra-liberals to Bible thumping conservatives agree with those facts (except for the empty tomb which enjoys only about 75% support).

Inference to the best explanation

What some defenders of the Resurrection Hypothesis (RH) do is to point out these facts and then ask, “Which theory can we come up with that best explains all these facts? Which theory

  1. Explains more of the evidence than the others
  2. Has greater explanatory power (makes the evidence more probable) than the others?
  3. Is more plausible than the others?
  4. Is less contrived than the others?
  5. Doesn’t conflict with as many beliefs as the others?

Then we list the competing theories and see which best fits

  1. Conspiracy 1: The disciples stole Jesus’ body and lied about his resurrection
  2. Conspiracy 2: Someone else (Romans or Jewish leaders) conspired to steal Jesus’ body
  3. The disciples hallucinated the appearances
  4. Swoon theory or Apparent Death theory: Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, but only appeared to have died
  5. Joseph of Arimathea moved Jesus’ body and the disciples were unaware of this
  6. Rautakyy’s hypothesis: Romans conspired to let Jesus live
  7. Resurrection Hypothesis: Jesus rose from the dead

I love this method because it doesn’t require me to first convince Rautakyy of the reliability of the gospel accounts before we can discuss the resurrection. It also requires the person challenging the resurrection to come up with a theory that better explains the evidence than the RH. This means that Rautakyy can’t simply point at flaws in my hypothesis all day long. If he can’t come up with a theory that explains the evidence as well, the RH wins the day.

Another Method

Another method of defending the resurrection is to make two claims

  1. Jesus died on the cross
  2. Jesus was later alive

If you can show both claims to be true, then Jesus really did resurrect. The first one is very easily defended. The second can be defended by arguing that Jesus’s disciples believed they saw him. Hallucinations are easily ruled out because group hallucinations do not happen. The only other option is that they really did see him in which case he was really alive.


This was not intended to be a defense of the RH, but an account of how the defense is sometimes carried out. I believe that in order to have a good discussion, it is essential that both parties make attempts to understand each other.

Response to Rautakyy:

I cannot end this post without saying something in response to Rautakyy’s points. According to him, his point is simply that “we do not know wether Jesus was actually resurrected, or not”. So, in his rebuttal, he does try to defend any alternative theory to the resurrection. Rather, he makes a lot of suggestions, but he does not seem to me to be committing to any one theory. All he tries to do is poke holes in the idea that we do know that Jesus resurrected by pointing out a lot of possibilities. He spends a lot of time attacking the credibility of the gospels accounts. He suggests that the Romans or Jews might have conspired to save Jesus (offering no evidence), suggests that the soldiers might have simply been incompetent (offering no evidence) and then (wonder of wonders!), he says that the evidence that the soldiers were incompetent and Jesus never really died is that the disciples claimed to have seen Jesus after the crucifixion. It does not seem to occur to him that this is evidence for the resurrection. Here’s a hypothetical conversation between us. The insert in square brackets is mine.

Me: Rautakyy, how do you know that Jesus never rose from the dead?

Rautakyy: because he never actually died on the cross

Me: And you know that how?

Rautakyy: His disciples claimed they saw him after he was supposed to have died. [Since he definitely couldn’t have resurrected,] this means that he never died in the first place.

The question begging is only subtle enough that he can miss it. Then, he suggests that Christianity is a mixture of pagan myths and Jewish monotheism because some pagan gods had sons who resurrected. Yep. The resurrection of gods like Osiris (who never actually resurrected ) proves without a doubt that Christianity is a mere mixture of Jewish and Pagan culture.

He never tells of which of these it is – a Jewish conspiracy, a Roman conspiracy, Roman incompetency or myth. I think that he does not know which of them it is. His aim was simply to cast doubt on the resurrection by saying that there are alternative explanations

Rautakyy, that won’t work unless you can give those explanations legitimacy. I won’t write numerous posts on every single unevidenced suggestion you produce for one important reason. While the RH has the empty tomb, the post-resurrection appearances, the change in the disciples etc. in its support, the assertions you attempt to explain it away with have little or nothing. That makes the RH far superior and such a venture a waste of time and effort.

Pick a claim – just one – and get some support for it rather than tossing half a million of them around. Alternatively, just ask me to defend the resurrection while you ask questions and make no claims.

As for the aliens, if I don’t respond you might just keep bringing them up. I do not know what alien abduction stories you speak of so I cannot say anything about them. If it pleases you, provide me with the testimony. I’ll see if they have as much supporting evidence as the resurrection. If they don’t then they are irrelevant to this discussion. If they do, then I guess aliens do exist after all. Truth is established not by what we prefer, but (in this case) by what the evidence points to.

A conversation with a Skeptic: Miracles, Santa and the Tooth Fairy

The beginning of this conversation is here.

Me: So, you were saying?

Skeptic: Let’s take another angle. Let’s talk about those warrants. Why do you think that the Romans conspiring to let Jesus live seems more plausible to me than the Resurrection Hypothesis?

Me: Well, perhaps the idea of a resurrection just strikes you as silly, the stuff of myth and uneducated people.

Skeptic: And kids; don’t forget kids.

Me: Yes. Kids believe in stuff like Santa and the tooth fairy which don’t really exist and the resurrection of Jesus just sounds like that. Another possible reason is that you believe miracles don’t happen. So, which of them is it?

Skeptic: Both.

Me: So, miracles don’t happen. They’re silly, like Santa Claus.

Skeptic: Why do I feel like you’re setting me up for something?

Me: Because I am. I’m not going to tell you about the differences between belief in miracles and belief in Santa Claus. They’re not very hard to miss. But I will say this: The fact that a belief feels silly to you says nothing about its truth. So, that the idea of a resurrection strikes you as mythical is not reason enough to reject it in favor of a conspiracy theory if the RH has more evidence. That’s irrational. If you wish to argue that miracles don’t happen, do some research on the topic, but don’t just dismiss them out of hand. There’s this book by Craig Keener (Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts) that I would like to read on the issue. It seems comprehensive enough. It cites hundreds of instances of miracles today. You should read it along with the skeptical books you’re going to read.

Skeptic: I don’t know. Just between you and me, reading books by those who disagree is usually quite painful.

Me: In my case, that’s usually if I disagree with their facts, if they cite no sources or engage in other forms of sloppy writing. Otherwise it’s doable. Think about it. This has been a wonderful conversation and I hope to chat again sometime.

Ahhh, the Swoon Theory. So, Jesus didn’t really die on the cross…

Crucifixion Statue 4
Crucifixion Statue 4 (Photo credit: DrGBB)

The swoon theory is, simply put, an attempt to explain the evidence used to support Jesus’ resurrection (empty tomb, appearances, etc.) by saying that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, but only appeared to have died. He later revived and his disciples either believed him to be resurrected or lied about his resurrection. There was no actual resurrection because no one can resurrect if they were never dead.

Rautakyy (I keep fighting the urge to spell his name with two k’s) suggested this in our recent conversation. He used the following as support

1.  Jesus stayed on the cross for a relatively short amount of time and crucifixion was supposed to be a slow death

 Rebuttal: People say he was beaten before the crucifixion but

                    i.    There’s no eyewitnesses evidence for this

ii.    It might suggest that he did die does not rule out the possibility that he did not die

2. We have historical records of people who were taken down and survived.

3. When Jesus stabbed in the side, he bled and dead men don’t bleed. Ergo, he wasn’t dead

The above summary of his argument is mine and I believe it to be charitable and accurate.

Here’s some reasons why this argument is unconvincing to me.

1.  Jesus didn’t accidentally survive the crucifixion: The Roman soldiers knew how to kill people; it was their job. If a roman soldier allowed a convicted prisoner to live, he got killed. This was a good motive to make sure your prisoners were actually dead when removed from the cross. If your prisoner was still alive when you wanted him dead, you broke his knees (as was done to the other two prisoners). If you weren’t sure he was dead, you could pierce his hearts through with a spear (as was done to Jesus). If he was still alive at this point, that would do it. When Jesus was stabbed in his side, blood and water came out, not just blood and Rautakyy seems to suggest. It was not mere bleeding. So, the idea that dead men don’t bleed does not work here. Alexander Metherell (look him up) suggested that the spear went into his lung, where some fluid had collected as a result of heart failure and this was the blood and water reported by John1. Either way, Jesus was dead.

Given the fact that (1) the Roman official could have made sure that Jesus was dead, (2) should have made sure that Jesus was dead (for his own sake), (3) was competent enough to tell a dead man from a living one and (4) according to the record, actually made sure that Jesus was dead, I am quite certain that Jesus was dead. And if he wasn’t, it was not because of incompetence, but because the soldier did not intend for him to die. If you want to argue for such a conspiracy, be my guest. Whose word should I take, anyway, a roman soldier whose life depended on making sure his prisoners were dead and was trained at it, or Rautakyy?

2.  If Jesus survived the cross, what then?

Jesus was subsequently embalmed with 75 pounds of spices, laid in the tomb and the stone was put over it. Then, after lying there without food or water for three days, suffocating, after the torture he had gone through and all the blood loss, he doesn’t die. He revives, frees himself of the burial clothes, rolls away the two-ton stone from the tomb and walks into the city on his injured feet. He then tells his disciples that he had been victorious over death (while looking like death itself!). Rather than get medical attention for him, the disciples begin to worship him as the risen savior.

No. Even if Jesus had survived the cross, he would have died in the tomb from the injuries he had sustained. If he survived those, he could never have convinced his disciples that he was risen. In his half-dead state, they would not have mistaken Jesus for a victorious conqueror of death as opposed to a lucky guy who managed to escape death by crucifixion. Rather, they would have felt sorry for him and tried to nurse him back to health. That leads us to my final point.

3.  Josephus told of how he had three of his companions who had been crucified removed from their crosses and given the best medical care but two of the three died anyway. Yes, Rautakyy, it was possible that people removed from the cross could survive, when they had not already been stabbed through the heart, declared dead and embalmed, then left without food, water or air in a tomb – one in three under the best medical care. (edit: 12|1|2012 : It turns out the third guy died later). This does not give me much optimism about Jesus’ chances at survival.

A Conversation with a Skeptic

Me: So, do you see why I have difficulty buying the swoon theory now?

Skeptic: Not really. I still think it is a good theory and your objections don’t work. For one, it is still possible that Jesus did not die on the cross. It is possible that the Romans conspired to let him live like Rautakyy suggested. It might have served their purposes. That way, the guard would have no fear of being punished for letting Jesus live.

Me: Now, I noticed that you did not actually provide any evidence to show that the Romans had such a conspiracy. You simply assert that it is possible. I do not deny its possibility, but in the absence of evidence for it, I have to reject it. I’m sure Rautakyy would agree.

Skeptic: There is evidence for it. But even if there wasn’t, it’s still more plausible than the resurrection.

Me: More plausible to whom? You or me? I can believe that you find it more plausible. You probably have some background belief (my English professor called them ‘warrants’) that makes it more plausible to you than the resurrection. For example, some skeptics reject miracles a priori so that almost anything seems more plausible to them if the alternative involves miracles. I myself probably have background beliefs that make the resurrection more plausible than any conspiracy theory (e.g. I believe conspiracies are by nature wildly speculative and I accept the possibility of miracles). Unless we wish to stop here and explore our warrants (which I think is bound to be more productive), I believe that we should just follow the evidence for the time being. The Resurrection has the empty tomb and the appearances as its evidence. Your theory tries to explain all that away but has nary a scrap of evidence in its favor. Surely, you must see why I have to reject it unless I shared your warrant?

Skeptic: No, I don’t want to go into warrants right now. Like I said, it has evidence. The romans were not too keen on killing Jesus. They used a strategy of divide and conquer. They set political and religious rivals in their territories against each other. They could have been doing that here, fueling the myth of Jesus’ resurrection in order to bring up a new faction that would help destroy the Jews.

Me: That’s not evidence. You’re simply saying that the Romans could have conspired to do this. I have never contested that. I simply argue that you have provided no evidence to show that they actually did it. That they could have does not mean that they did. Where’s the evidence that they actually did it?

This is a very bad skeptic. It must be because I’m hungry. I’m going to have dinner and then come up with a better skeptic in my next post.


For more on this topic:

On Guard: Defending your faith with reason and precision by William Lane Craig

I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek

The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel

Just search the internet