The resurrection of Christ is arguably the central doctrine of Christianity. The premise at the heart of most strains of Christianity is that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save humanity from its sins, and he rose again three days later, victorious over death and having established a new means for salvation. In the bible, the apostle Paul says to his fellow believers that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Pagan lore also has a long history of dying and rising gods, such as Osiris, Dionysus, Adonis, and Attis, and this presence of resurrection as a popular part of mythology has been stressed by critics of Christianity for many decades. Understandably, some believers would like to know that their faith is more than just myth, that Jesus truly did rise from the dead, and this is where apologists like Josh McDowell come in, offering their perceived lines of evidence for Christ’s resurrection.
Josh McDowell is one of the best known names in Christian apologetics, and he is most famous for his books Evidence That Demands a Verdict, More Than a Carpenter, A Ready Defense, and New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. McDowell received his Masters of Divinity from Talbot Theological Seminary, worked with Campus Crusade for Christ over many years, and has participated in many seminars and debates since gaining widespread popularity in the 1970s with his book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Evidence for the Resurrection, published in 2009, is a book composed by McDowell and his son, attempting to validate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Does McDowell really build a strong case for the resurrection as an historical event? Let’s take a look at his ‘evidence’.
I. Let the Lies Begin
The introduction predictably argues that life without Christianity is utterly meaningless and hopeless. In fact, the title of it is “Christ’s Resurrection – The World’s Only Hope”. McDowell, like so many other Christians, realizes that unless a person feels that they need Jesus, they will not be likely to convert. The common way that countless apologists stress how people need Jesus is by painting an extremely bleak portrait of a world without god and without Christ. Interestingly, to make this point, he quotes from an “unbelieving girl on an Internet atheist website”:
This seems like quite a suspiciously religious comment to hear from an atheist girl on an atheist website. Flipping to the endnotes provided by McDowell, he claims that this was written by a user named SuperNinjette on the forum atheistnetwork.com, posted on July 16, 2007 (p.242). The great thing about the forum used by the site is that it allows you to search postings, even narrow it down to all the postings contributed by one user. SuperNinjette only posted four messages on July 16th 2007, and all of them were on the subject of music downloading. A search of the entire forum, as well as a Google search for the quote turn up zero results. Browsing through some of the user’s other posts reveals that she is quite a firm atheist:
Does this sound like the kind of person who would be pining for eternal life and bewailing the inadequacy of science? The language used in the ‘quote’ seems an awful lot like other statements made by McDowell throughout the rest of the book and even in earlier books. Thus two pages into the introduction, we find the lying already begins.
McDowell uses the fabricated quote to make a point about the hopelessness of life apart from Christianity: “[t]here you have the whole problem in a nutshell. If life as one sees it now on this misery-riddled planet is all there is, then existence is indeed meaningless” (p.9). Why should eternal life after death be necessary to make this temporal life meaningful? McDowell doesn’t explain, instead he presumes that we all desire to live forever. I will emphatically state that I do not wish to live forever though. The beautiful and wonderful thing about this life is that it is the only one we get. We have to do things right the first time around, we have to treat each other well, do what we can to be successful, and take responsibility for our actions. Eternal life cheapens our existence on this planet, because then what we do here does not matter so long as we do what it takes to get into heaven.
Meaning and purpose are in the eye of the beholder. Those of us who believe in no gods are easily capable of finding reasons to enjoy this life and make the most of it. Whether there is life after death or not has absolutely nothing to do with the relationships we have in this present life. I find ample meaning in striving to be a caring person to those around me, in doing my best to learn what I can while I have this brain to do it with, and in playing my part – if even a small and insignificant one – in making this world a better place to be in. McDowell is not entirely wrong, because life does continue after death, but it will not be my own. I am very grateful for the sacrifices and innovations of men and women in the past which have allowed me to live in the luxury I currently have and often take for granted. Is it meaningless to return the favor on to future generations? McDowell sees the world as dark, depressing and royally messed up, but his solution is not to change it, it’s to wait for the bliss of life after death. How productive and selfless indeed!
The afterlife, McDowell claims, “is a belief built on rock-solid evidence” (p.12). This statement sets the tone of the whole book. Around every corner, there are assurances of the irrefutable nature of the resurrection. For some unknown reason though, McDowell takes at least 107 pages to get to discussing this ‘evidence’, and this certainly should tell us something.
II. Section One: The Human Need for the Resurrection
With the first chapter in section one, Josh endeavors to explain just how the world got into the unpleasant state of hopelessness that he illustrates for us in the introduction. Can you guess how it happened? It definitely didn’t have anything to do with god, McDowell assures us. God’s creation was initially perfect. There was no lust, jealousy, greed or pride, no natural disasters, no foiled plans, no death, pain or sickness (p.18). Humans were original creations, unique to other animals in bipedalism, tool use, reason, self-awareness and free will (p.19). Although god did get angry when Adam and Eve ate from the tree… and humans did not have free will to eat from the tree… and our bipedalism has caused our species to develop back pains almost universally in old age, and contracted the size of women’s hips to make birthing more painful and dangerous… but yes, all of those details aside, god’s creation was initially perfect and flawless.
According to McDowell, Adam and Eve “did not consider the devastating consequences of their choice” to eat from the tree in the garden (p.21). But how could they? Josh neglects to mention the name of the tree anywhere in the whole chapter, which may be because he knew it would put a damper on that statement. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil would give Adam and Eve the knowledge of good and evil, just as it says. The serpent even told Eve that eating from the tree would make her like god, knowing the difference between good and evil. Part of the perfection in the garden was the innocence of Adam and Eve, who were untainted by evil and thereby unknowledgeable of it as well. How could Adam and Eve have considered the consequences if god had not fully explained moral responsibility and decision-making to them? Chapter two points out another hole in the garden myth, claiming that Adam and Eve’s rejection of god was the first sin. What of the serpent’s deceit of Eve though? If there was no immorality or evil in god’s perfect creation, what was the crafty serpent doing there?
The author attempts to justify god’s strict punishment of sin by asking what kind of world we would live in if “every judge chose to ‘act lovingly and kindly’ and forgive crimes instead of administering justice” (p.23). What about Psalm 73:1-5 and Matthew 5:45? Justice would mean giving each individual offender what they deserve, but instead we read that god’s treatment of the righteous and the evil is random and indiscriminate. The humorous thing is that McDowell is essentially asking what kind of world we would live in with an infinitely merciful judge, which is precisely what countless Christians claim god is. I would agree that it’s not a pretty thought, because under such a forgiving and merciful judge, guilty criminals would be able to walk free after a simple act of repentance. You might question the judge’s common sense more than you would praise him.
Next Josh tries to provide evidence of our fallen nature. While one can imagine he might cite the obvious about murder, rape, theft, slavery, and other human ills, McDowell throws us a curve ball with some of the most subjective nonsense yet. The “persistent tendency of our kids to be pulled away from godly values is one of the strongest evidences we have for our fallen condition”, he writes on page 27. These godly values are never named, but McDowell seems to be asserting that Christianity gives young people hope, judging from his citation of suicide rates among the teens of the world. No answer is given for the fact that many of these teens are likely Christian themselves. McDowell lays the blame on our “secular culture”, exploiting the struggle of teens through video games, music, websites, movies, and so forth, saying that “it is inarguable that they capitalize on such feelings” (p.28). I guess he doesn’t realize how music, movies, websites, and games are all artistic media for expressing ourselves, not necessarily for “capitalizing” off specific feelings.
McDowell continues his evidence for our fallen nature, stating “we should be deeply concerned about young people who identify the pursuit of pleasure as their mission in life” (p.29), and noting that “the generation of young people today under age 35 has never known a world that puts duty before self” (p.30). Like so many broken-record apologists of a late age, our author feels that kids these days don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. To whom or what do we have such a duty? Doubtlessly, McDowell would say we have a duty to god, family, and country (so long as the latter two agree on the first one), but why should this be praiseworthy? The only real duty we as humans should recognize is to principles, not persons, institutions, or invisible beings. Principles are transcendent, eternal, and more than worth fighting for, when they are guided by truth and reason.
One of these principles upheld by millions of young people today is the importance and value of the individual. Teenagers have friends too, many do respect their families, and if McDowell remembers back to his teenage years carefully, I’m sure he may realize that his struggles were no different from modern ones. The teenage years are difficult, regardless of what era they’re lived in, and Josh seems to feel no sympathy whatsoever for this. “Be yourself, believe in yourself, express yourself. Self, self, self! It’s all about the self” (p.30). In an age of low self-esteem, why is it such a rotten thing to think about oneself? The reason these ideas are stressed is because the teenage years are the formative years for us all. We experiment with social circles and trends in order to find who we are, and how to be comfortable in our own skins. McDowell believes we already know who we are though, and we are not our own. We are to conform to the standards and expectations of a 2,000 year old book, coupled with McDowell’s conservative 1950s-style nostalgia.
What we need is hope, Josh believes, but by seeking our own satisfaction, we continually alienate ourselves from god. Is hope not a form of seeking self-satisfaction though? The hope for eternal life is motivated by self-interest. “A biblical worldview,” he continues, “seeing life truthfully from God’s perspective” is all that can give us hope, according to McDowell. Christian apologists often identify the slogan of ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ as a prime example of selfish desires that lead hearts astray from that biblical worldview. The great irony is that this is part of the biblical worldview:
So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.
The human need for the resurrection is fueled by our fallen nature, which McDowell links to this very philosophy of self indulgence, found in none other than the bible itself. This illustrates a critical point about this kind of argument employed by the author and many other apologists. Any argument for our sinful and fallen ways necessitating salvation is inherently circular. We were not created in a fallen state, but every essential ingredient for that recipe was provided by god since the beginning, making it virtually no different from being created as fallen creatures. God chose to have the tree and serpent in the garden, knowing they would lead to humanity’s downfall. God failed to provide Adam and Eve with any means for assessing right and wrong decisions, so even his command not to eat from the tree was pointless if he had not given them a way to understand that obedience was preferable to disobedience. Additionally, the idea that humans thwarted god’s plan in the garden is tantamount to heresy under McDowell’s reasoning, so god’s plan would have had to include causing (or assisting) imperfection in his creation from the start. The concept of original sin serves only to indict god.
III. Section Two: The Personal Meaning of the Resurrection
At the end of chapter four, McDowell makes a statement that will have much relevance to our discussion of section two.
The first statement I do indeed agree with. The Christian faith is a mere placebo, but it is not altogether a worthless exercise in futility. Remember that a placebo does work, since it alleviates the problem. However, it is a placebo and not medicine because while it may make you feel better, it does not work in the way it is intended – the success is all due to your psychology. In the same way, worship, fellowship, Bible study, and the other aspects of Christianity named by McDowell do serve a purpose even if Jesus never rose from the dead. They give us the social interaction we need, and things like prayer may help comfort us or calm our nerves in times of distress. As we will see, the personal meaning of the resurrection to Josh McDowell has a great analogy in the placebo effect.
How does the resurrection give meaning to our lives? It frees us from the fear of death, our authors claim. McDowell and son lay out six explanations for why we fear death, including the mystery of it, the separation from our loved ones, the inevitability of it, and more. Death is certainly something that many of us struggle with, but different people cope with it in different ways, and the fear of death is not demonstrably stronger in any one group or belief system than another. Back when I was a Christian, I often worried about death. What if I die and come to find I’ve been worshiping the wrong god? What if I die and there is no god, and I’ve wasted an entire lifetime? Will all my sins be broadcast before heaven as I’m judged to be saved (or not)? There is definitely reason for a Christian to fear death, and on the other side, there is reason for an atheist not to fear it.
The great author Mark Twain reportedly said, “I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit.” Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell also commented on death:
Personally, I find myself more comfortable with the thought of death, having realized that there is probably no afterlife, no judgment, and truly no reason to fear. I will hate to leave my loved ones, but this is what reminds me to make the most of the time that I get to spend with them now. When I’m dead, I will obviously not be sitting around wishing I could see them again. If I’ve lived a good life and treated my friends and family well, then the concerns mentioned by McDowell will be practically negligible. What is the point in preferring comfort to reality anyway? A belief in the afterlife may make the thought easier to swallow for some people, but there is no relation to the truth or falsity of the afterlife from that basis.
McDowell is well aware that some Christians struggle with death and some atheists do not, so he can hardly argue that Christianity provides more comfort from the fear of death. Still, he at least attempts to claim that it provides a means for Christians to ignore death, if nothing else. “Paul instructs believers to focus their thoughts on eternal truths instead of their momentary troubles,” he writes (p.60). Josh goes on to cite the work of another apologist, Gary Habermas, on the subject of confronting and coping with death. After losing his wife to cancer, Habermas came up with several steps to lessen the pain of a loved one dying: 1) internalize the truth of eternal life, 2) shift thought to a heavenly perspective, 3) replace fearful thoughts about death with true ones.
Losing a loved one is a painful and heart-breaking ordeal, but with all respect to Mr. Habermas, his steps for dealing with death only seem to deny it. To internalize the idea of eternal life and shift to heavenly thinking means nothing other than refusing to believe the person is really gone. So many well-meaning people often say, ‘he/she is in a better place now’ to comfort grieving friends. These sentiments only deny the finality of death and try to offer some peace with the thought that your loved one is actually enjoying their time in another dimension (if they’re happy, you’re happy). Habermas’ last step is a clear cut indication that these just refuse to acknowledge death, as he elaborates on talking yourself into believing that “death is not the end” and that “Jesus defeated death on the cross” (p.63). Putting death out of your mind may work for some, but it is certainly not accepting and confronting death. A belief in the resurrection resolves the fear of death about as well as a belief in immunity to bullets will resolve the fear of being shot; that is to say, it denies it altogether, only providing superficial comfort.
Our authors spend the remaining chapters in section two by detailing the promise of heaven, the restoration of all things, and the relief of guilt that comes from faith. On heaven and the restoration, these are mainly extensions of the denial of death, and the comfort they may bring is, as said before, no indication of their truth or falsity. McDowell does not deal with that issue until section three. As for the relief of guilt, I find it a little amusing that Christian apologists so frequently assume non-Christians reject Christianity because they don’t wish to be held accountable. Perhaps it’s more likely that we don’t recognize our guilt because we see no reason to accept such irrational beliefs. As I already mentioned, god was actually the supposedly omniscient being who put a tree and serpent in the garden, which he knew would lead to humanity’s fall. Do we all get to bear the guilt, when part of the problem was a massive design flaw?
Not surprisingly, McDowell argues that if “there is no God, then there is no right or wrong, and moral choice is meaningless because morality is meaningless” (p.93). It never ceases to amaze me how some Christians will make this claim, while worshiping a man who put forth one form of the golden rule. The golden rule is one of the most famous moral ideas that makes no appeal to a god whatsoever. Just treat others as you want to be treated, along with some basic compassion and forgiveness – why is god necessary? It may be argued that the insertion of god even corrupts morality, since morality is all about human behavior and interaction. We humans are all the same beings, with many of the same interests of self-preservation, and to interject a being like god into the mix will bind us to arbitrary third party laws.
Josh and Sean wrap up section two explaining how, in their minds, the resurrection frees people from feeling guilty over their actions. After pointing out the guilt of non-believers as evidence for a sinful nature, the McDowells tell us that if we accept Christ as savior, that guilt doesn’t have to be there. The thing is that the guilt is not there in the first place, which is why it has to be planted and fostered by a believer, which the authors do themselves in the introduction and section one, attempting to convince their non-Christian readers that mankind is hopelessly lost and hopelessly bad without Christ. I never like to assume things of an author when there is much of a margin for error, but there may be a specific reason for why the McDowells chose to save the ‘evidence’ for the resurrection until dead last in the book. If they make their case for needing Christ’s resurrection first, a persuasive tone is already set before the ‘proof’ comes in, which may mean that less convincing details may appear more convincing. Nonetheless, let’s finally see what they introduce.
IV. Section Three: Rock-Solid Evidence for the Resurrection
Kicking off section three is a chapter on the nature of truth. McDowell and son return once more to analyzing the beliefs of young people, bashing relativism, and arguing for an objective and rigid view of truth. This seems a tad hypocritical, finding the earlier fabrication of a quote from an atheist, but Josh and Sean are deadset on leading our children and world into the ‘right perspective’ on truth. I will say that I happen to agree with the authors on the subject of relative truth, especially with regard to the resurrection of Jesus. To say ‘Jesus may be right for you, but not for me’ is to ignore the historical nature of the claim that is made about the resurrection. As Josh says, the “tomb was either empty on the third day, or it was occupied – there is no middle ground” (p.111). We all are entitled to our own opinions, but no one is entitled to their own facts.
Another point I happen to agree with the McDowells on is the usefulness of reason in determining truth. Commendably, they even say that we “should never accept religious beliefs on ‘blind faith,’ but on credible evidence” (p.112). The McDowells state numerous times that belief in the afterlife is “built on rock-solid evidence” (p.12), that “there is powerful, verified evidence that [the resurrection] really happened” (p.53), “Christianity is worthless unless the resurrection is objectively true” (p.115), and so forth. But this is where things begin their steady, downward slide.
First, it is proposed that “Christianity stands immeasurably above all religions… it is the only true religion in existence” (p.115). This is far from a conclusion based on reason or evidence, instead it is mere opinion rooted in extremely subjective interests. God came down to earth to die on a cross for us, because he loved us so much, McDowell says. But how is that any evidence for its truth or uniqueness? It sounds like the author simply likes the idea. Christianity offers solutions to death and our longing for eternal love, he claims, but as we saw before, these are not solutions as much as they are a denial of reality, and Islam, Judaism, and countless other faiths also offer these. McDowell gives us no real objective reasons for assuming the superiority of Christianity or the exclusive truth of it.
Next, McDowell argues that the intent of New Testament authors like Luke (or whoever wrote Luke) was specifically to record historical events (p.120). The site Rejection of Pascal’s Wager has a thorough and well-done article outlining the errors in Luke’s history, suffice it to say that the accuracy of the author’s reporting is certainly disputable. McDowell then quotes the apologist William Lane Craig, giving his ideas on how to verify the resurrection:
There are two substantial problems with Craig’s statement here. Historical events are not falsifiable, for starters, because we cannot go back in time to observe and test the event and we cannot replicate it either (McDowell states this himself on page 133, but does not draw the connection to falsifiability). If the resurrection is an historical event, as Craig and McDowell claim, then it is by definition not falsifiable. The criteria Craig gives for verifying the resurrection are problematic too, because not only are there more plausible naturalistic explanations for each one, but even if altogether true, they cannot establish the historical reality of the resurrection. An empty tomb can have numerous natural explanations, like a stolen body, relocated body, and so forth, and the appearances and origin of the Christian Way can have numerous natural explanations too. But the important thing isn’t even that we offer these explanations to debunk the resurrection, because no positive evidence for the resurrection has yet been introduced.
Taking these elements as proof of the resurrection amounts to an argument from ignorance – it is the apologist stating, ‘I know of no better explanation for these occurrences, therefore the resurrection is historically valid’. Another problem worth noting is that we have still yet to find the empty tomb! Apologists remark on the story of an empty tomb, but at this time, it remains a story and nothing more. Historians have specific criteria that help them assess the validity of an historical hypothesis.4 Primary sources are more valuable than secondary ones (we have no original manuscripts of the gospels, and modern scholarship does not believe any of them were authored by eyewitnesses5). The more independent sources exist for something, the better established it is historically (biblical scholars believe the gospels have been influenced by each other). The tendency, or motivation for bias, of a source should be minimal (this is clearly not true with the gospels, rooted in theological rhetoric).
Next McDowell makes one of the most intelligent and ironic concessions in the entire book, quoting historian Richard Evans. “No historians really believe in the absolute truth of what they are writing,” he explains, “simply in its probable truth” (p.121). One might be perfectly justified in wondering, then, why this section of McDowell’s book is titled, “Rock-Solid Evidence for the Resurrection”. The authors argue against the opinion of historical knowledge being impossible, while conceding that the furthest it may go is into probability. Thus, it seems that McDowell and son should well know that their statements on the resurrection being verifiable and falsifiable are both dead wrong. Historical knowledge is certainly possible, but it is not comparable to scientific knowledge, which may be tested, falsified, and repeated. At best, if their arguments are strong, the most Josh and Sean can say is that the resurrection is probably historical. But as we’ll see, even this has no weight.
Before we get to the historical evidence, though, our authors talk more about biases and the need for an open mind when considering what they present. Biases against supernatural events are criticized as McDowell explains that “[c]ritics who doggedly hold to a purely naturalistic worldview that excludes all possibility of miracles will sometimes construct elaborate theories or manipulate dates in order to make historical evidence square with their bias” (p.125). And a theory about a man rising from the dead is not an elaborate attempt to square history with a bias? Nonetheless, our dear apologist simply does not understand why (good) historians will not bend to miracle claims. A miracle is, by definition, an improbable event. This is what makes them so special to believers, that they are rare occurrences of supernatural origin. Since the historian deals with probability, as McDowell himself states, and miracles are improbable events, the historian’s craft dictates that they do not recognize miracles as likely hypotheses. Put in a practical way, if we imagine every claim of divine intervention to be historical, or even give them a 50-50 chance, historians will become busy sifting through every insignificant and ludicrous supernatural hypothesis for something that may already have a clear cut naturalistic explanation. Historical events are not falsifiable, and neither are supernatural ones, so the burden that this would place on constructing an accurate history would be enormous.
McDowell expresses a pitiful understanding of why scientists and historians disregard supernatural explanations. “No matter what the event or how strong the evidence for it, [methodological naturalism] dictates that the miraculous must always be rejected, even in spite of the evidence” (p.128). Naturalists do not have a bias against miracles that denies all proposals of evidence, contrary to what our author states. The naturalist simply prefers naturalistic explanations, because they are what is known. No sufficient evidence or theory of a supernatural realm has been introduced, but even theists agree that the natural world is real. Scientists and historians start with what they know, and until there is any decent reason for thinking a supernatural world exists, which can be studied, there is no point in humoring these biased theologians and apologists. Before they can justifiably cry discrimination, they must meet their burden of proof.
Examining the ‘Evidence’
Finally, we come to the so-called evidence for the resurrection offered by Josh and Sean McDowell, over halfway into the book. “The New Testament provides the primary historical source for information on the resurrection,” as the authors state (p.139), and two criteria are introduced for evaluating these documents. First of the criteria is closeness to the events reported. “[T]he closer to the event the more authentic the document is likely to be. There is less time for memory to become unreliable and more chance of corroboration from others who witnessed the same events”. While this may serve as a decent rule of thumb for the consistency of a document, it should not be taken as validation of an historical event. Consider the miracle claims surrounding Joseph Smith meeting the angel Moroni and finding the golden plates, which Christians like McDowell reject as a true supernatural occurrence, even though the reports of them come less than a year after the event.
The second criterion is the reliability of the documents. Although the author admits that there are no original surviving manuscripts of any New Testament book, he claims that “the more copies we have of an ancient manuscript, the more it is possible to compare them and determine the exact form of the original document” (p.140). However, as with the last criterion, this will only serve to assess the consistency of a document, how static a text was, and does not provide any real evidence for the historical truth of the content of a text. Getting from the copies to the original is not as simple and easy as McDowell makes it seem either, especially given that the earliest manuscript discovered is a very small fragment of John’s gospel, dating to about 125 CE.6 McDowell loves to mention that he has documented “nearly 25,000 manuscripts” for the New Testament alone (p.144), but he neglects to tell us that the overwhelming majority of these come from the middle ages and later.
McDowell moves on to consider the identities of the New Testament authors. Among the testimonies of eyewitnesses, he includes 2 Peter (most scholars do not think this was written by Peter7), 1 John (again, most scholars do not think this was written by John8), the gospel of John (yet again, most scholars do not think this was written by John9), and the book of Acts and the gospel of Luke (without even resorting to the word of scholars, Luke never supposedly met or witnessed Jesus’ resurrection in any biblical story). Following this, McDowell alleges that the disciples would not have endured persecution for something they did not fully believe in. However, this still tells us nothing about the truth or falsity of the resurrection, given that the disciples could have simply misunderstood whatever they witnessed, and given that their persecution is not as well documented as apologists like to claim (the majority of martyrdom stories come from church tradition, not scripture).
Hostile eyewitnesses are another line of ‘evidence’ suggested. Why wouldn’t the enemies of Christianity have dug up the body when rumors of resurrection began to circulate? The bible reports that Jesus was crucified around the time of Passover (John 13:1), and the disciples did not begin preaching until they were filled with the spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). So there was about a seven week gap in between the death and burial of Jesus and the ministering of the disciples. Even if there had been a body to dig up, it would have certainly decayed in this length of time and prevented identification. Beyond this, it also simply isn’t certain that the Romans, the Jewish leaders, or anyone else of sufficient authority would have seen the fledgling Christian sect as enough of a threat to motivate them to exhume the body of Jesus.
Stunningly, Josh lists some of the historical details in the New Testament that have been verified by archaeology, as if this could extend to cover Jesus and the resurrection too. Everything he mentions is theologically and supernaturally insignificant, such as the location of Pilate’s court, the pool of Bethseda, etc. Historical accuracy cannot be extrapolated to other claims though, so while these details may be justifiably called historical, McDowell is unjustified in using them to assume the historicity of Christ or the resurrection. As Lee Strobel and others have even pointed out, the mention of Troy does not make The Iliad an historical work.
In chapter thirteen, McDowell attempts to explain away a couple of the contradictions in the bible, focusing primarily on the variations in the empty tomb story. I have written an entire article on the resurrection discrepancies [He is Risen? Resurrection Discrepancies in the Easter Story], so I won’t go too much into them here. Josh claims that these errors can be resolved by harmonizing the different accounts, but as Bart Ehrman and others have argued, doing this is like creating a fifth gospel that is unique in itself. It ignores the individual purposes of each author and smashes all texts together in a desperate effort to make them agree, producing something quite unlike any of them. There are also many contradictions that cannot be resolved by harmonization, like the different dates for Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke.
For chapter fourteen, the McDowells discuss the reasons why the Jews and Romans were so intent on killing Jesus. What kind of evidence is this supposed to be for the resurrection? So far we have seen absolutely nothing that would pass as evidence in any court of law. Josh and Sean have been speculating and adding disclaimer after disclaimer, occasionally providing some evidences, though they have no relevance whatever to the resurrection. Thing 1 and Thing 2 go on to describe the process of crucifixion and cite yet more bible verses to inform us of what the Christian tale of Jesus’ death is like, but still no independent sources, no eyewitness accounts, no archaeological relics… nothing.
McDowell claims that Paul’s relation of the death and burial of Jesus can be traced back to “within three to eight years to the time of Christ’s death” (p.173). Though he doesn’t name it, Josh is talking about the concept of an early Christian creed preserved in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11. Some biblical scholars believe the passage does date back to within ten years or so of Christ’s death, but others have actually even argued that it is a later 2nd century interpolation.10 It is worth noting that there is no early Christian literature referring to the verses as part of any creed.
Following this, we return to speculations on the burial process as told in the bible, until we get to chapter sixteen, intriguingly titled “Resurrection Facts to be Reckoned With”. Will this be the evidence we’ve been waiting for? The kind of apologetics that requires some effort to debunk? “Fact number 1: The Roman Seal Is Broken”. Unfortunately this is just more commentary on the gospel narratives, presuming their accuracy without reason. McDowell states that “Easter morning the seal that stood for the power and authority of the Roman Empire was broken. No one denies this fact” (p.188). No one denies this fact?? Josh, we don’t even know what tomb Jesus was buried in, if the seal could have been broken due to foul play (involving nothing supernatural), or even if there was a tomb or seal at all. Fact number 2 is that the “tomb was empty,” which suffers from the exact same assumptions and problems.
The author cites Josephus and a 5th century Jewish text as confirmations of the empty tomb, but Josephus never once states that there was an empty tomb, not even in the Testimonium Flavianum, which scholars almost universally believe to be tampered with, and a 5th century document is hardly useful confirmation of early 1st century events. McDowell also brings up the 500 witnesses depicted in 1 Corinthians 15, claiming that they are “strong evidence as anyone could hope to find for something that happened 2,000 years ago” (p.196). The problem is that Paul mentions there are 500 people that witnessed the resurrection, who he says are still alive and available for questioning… but he doesn’t name even a single one. Did his audience know each and every person in these 500? How were they supposed to question them and check Paul’s story?
In the remaining chapters, McDowell knocks down strawmen arguments for ‘explaining away the empty tomb,’ such as the stolen body theory, and brings up the martyrdom of the disciples once more. It is perhaps worth saying again that these theories on why the tomb was empty are completely unnecessary for the skeptic to put forth. No empty tomb has been found still, and all that has led to the Christian insistence on it is the story told in the gospels. It does not matter if this story was told 200 years after Jesus’ alleged death or 20 years after it, because it remains a story until corroborated by other evidence. The gospels are clearly theologically biased texts too, meaning that they could well have had reason to invent a resurrection myth, and as stated before, the martyrdom legends of most of the disciples do not appear except in later church traditions.
V. Conclusion: What’s Next?
After a long and grueling journey through propaganda, speculation, misunderstandings, and distorted facts, McDowell closes Evidence for the Resurrection by inviting his readers to accept Jesus as savior. “Believers in Jesus Christ today can have the complete confidence, as did those first Christians, that their faith is based, not on myth or legend, but on the solid historical fact of the empty tomb and the risen Christ” (p.234). The only real claim at evidence in this entire book is the propagation of the empty tomb story from the gospels, and even if all concerns with bias are ignored, this still would not be sufficient reason to establish the resurrection. Why? Because there is no guarantee the story reported by the authors is anything but the mistaken opinion of the early Christians. Disconfirming events have quite a history of provoking fantastic excuses from believers, and often times there is this cognitive dissonance that occurs, meaning that one is not even aware of their excuse-making. Sociologist Lorne L. Dawson has written a wonderful essay with insight into this phenomenon.11
There is a more plausible naturalistic explanation for every point raised by McDowell, and you get the suspicion that he knows this, because of how vehemently he goes after those of us who are ‘biased’ towards reality. The important thing that these authors do not get, though, is just how extraordinary their claims really are. Throughout the book, Josh and Sean behave as if freak moments of chaotic disturbance in the natural order of things are perfectly rational, thoroughly documented, and have a burden of proof more with skeptics than believers. However, it is they who are asserting that god came down to Earth, took the form of a man, allowed himself to be crucified, buried, and then rose again after 3 days. This deals not just with a corpse coming back to life, but with other supernatural, unverified details, like god, salvation, and so on. It is not one simple possibility that the McDowells ask us to buy, it is a whole whopping package deal – and the case they try to build for it is flimsy indeed.
McDowell’s ‘evidence’ is likely to appeal only to Christians, and those non-believers who are bold enough to read it will probably not desire to continue past the first 120 pages or so of sheer evangelical propaganda. If you’re looking for historical arguments for the resurrection, this is not the place to find them. Only about 20% of this book even contains such arguments. Do yourself a favor and read some Lee Strobel or something if you want bad apologetics, because you’ll at least get a laugh out of it.
1. McDowell, J. & S. McDowell. (2009) Evidence for the Resurrection, p.8. Gospel Light: California.
2. SuperNinjette. Bizarre accounts of religious acts. Posted July 30, 2007. Atheistnetwork.com. Retrieved June 12, 2010.
3. Russell, B. (1957) Why I Am Not a Christian. (p. 54) New York: Simon & Schuster.
4. Thurén & Torsten. (1997) Källkritik. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
5. Ehrman, B. (2009) “Chapter Four: Who Wrote the Bible?”, Jesus, Interrupted.
6. Rylands Library Papyrus P52. Wikipedia. Retrieved June 12, 2010.
7. Brown, R.E. (1997) “Introduction to the New Testament”, Anchor Bible.
8. Harris, S.L. (1985) Understanding the Bible, p.355. Palo Alto: Mayfield.
9. Ehrman, B. (2009) Jesus, Interrupted, p.112.
10. Price, R.M. (1996) Apocryphal Apparitions: 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 as a Post-Pauline Interpolation. Journal of Higher Criticism. Retrieved June 12, 2010.
11. Dawson, L.L. When Prophecy Fails and Faith Persists. Retrieved June 12, 2010.