Why didn't God confirm the resurrection in a better way?
I got this question and dashed off a hasty-and-probably-porous (as in 'filled with holes') reply...smile... but some of the ideas are probably worth mentioning--even though I cannot defend them in detail here.
First of all, thanks for taking your time writing all the stuff on your website. Currently I am a young agnostic and thus analyzing arguments from both sides. Your works are my number 1 source when it comes to Bible itself :) Anyhow, I'd like to ask 2 questions:
I've been reading some books of Richard Carrier recently (who is very anti-resurrection) and he raised an objection that we cannot possibly take God seriously, since there existed much better ways to confirm the resurrection, other than what we have currently, like painting "Jesus lives" on the moon's surface or writing the Gospel in the stars at night. Indeed there seems to be some logic to it. William Lane Craig once responded to this argument by saying that God values or relationship with him more than just acknowledgement of his existence, but this doesn't seem to refute Carrier's argument that well. After all, if God created a fool-proof method that would confirm his existence to everyone then everyone could focus their entire energy on knowing him better. Of course I am no expert, but what do you think?
I wrote a brief response, basically on the sub-topic of confirmation of the resurrection, and not on confirmation of the existence of God, so it is not a direct answer to the question. But here it is:
Thanks for your email, friend—and for your honest and good questions—keep asking/thinking/evaluating!
And, if you will accept a ‘short answer’ version for the above, I will dash one off—you probably already KNOW that it normally takes years to get the detailed responses I like (and that most people need) done… so, you may find issues with these short answers, but perhaps they will give you something EARLIER (smile) to start with…
You reference Richard Carrier's writings, and although I respect, enjoy, and learn from his writings, I have not delved into whichever one(s) you are referring to. So this little article should not be understood as some kind of response or answer to Richard's work on the subject, but merely some comments occasioned by the two images mentioned (i.e. writing on the moon or in the sky).
So, with that caveat—see my brief comments below…
A couple of things come to mind here:
First, I had some remarks on this issue at https://Christianthinktank.com/sh6end.html (which might be more helpful than these in the email). I make some comments about why God would prefer to use ‘spectacular/supernatural’ means of evidence on only a small group (i.e. the disciples), and then use normal interpersonal means to ‘spread that’. (This is not the same as Craig’s argument, but still involves the notion of what God might WANT TO accomplish through the knowledge of the resurrections). I also go into the 'why does God not give us more proof?' at https://Christianthinktank.com/adam01.html .
Secondly, I just read a parable/story from the gospels (for another Tank article I am working on) in which Jesus made an interesting statement:
““There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Jesus makes the statement that ‘extra-ordinary evidence’ (proof of the resurrection) would be ineffective if the response to ‘ordinary evidence’ (Moses and the Prophets) had been one of positive rejection. This, I might add, is NOT a case of agnosticism per se, but rather of positive rejection (“not listen to”). The story is a vivid one with both Greek and Hebrew colorful images, but the point at the end is still clear—and I have seen it in action a number of times myself. Jesus’ statement would mostly be limited to those who had access to scriptural revelation, rather than to simple ‘general’ revelation in nature and in conscience. But I certainly believe that supernatural confirmation of the resurrection would not be accepted by everyone. Even Richard himself would possibly (and maybe even 'justifiably') say that we would have no reason to believe that GOD ‘wrote’ that—and that just because we could not come up with a better explanation of how ‘Jesus lives’ had been written on the Moon, that we would not be justified thereby in believing that God did it (since that might be even more improbable—a problem of infinite regress). If I were him, I could simply plead ‘insufficient data’ or ‘alien tampering’ or something OTHER than the theistic explanation. (Of course, I would do the same. If the message “I did NOT raise Jesus from the dead, people” was written on the Moon every night, I would be ‘strongly inclined’ to attribute it to malicious spiritual beings or aliens trying to mess with my mind. So, the door swings both ways—sigh/smile).
Third. I don’t think I can easily agree with a statement that there ‘ clearly existed much better ways to confirm the resurrection’, nor with the assumption that God would somehow be obligated to use such methods anyway. Writing the gospel in the stars or ‘Jesus lives’ on the moon (in over 2000 human languages—talk about graffiti!) would not reach the illiterate (the vast, vast majority of people in the ancient and modern world!)—and if the illiterate depended on someone who COULD read to tell them what it said, then we are right back to trusting the testimony of others (like the NT model!). See what I mean? It is not obvious to me that the way God chose to do this—have a diverse group of common, non-religious people hang out with Jesus for 3 years (and therefore be able to recognize Him and relate to Him from a previous relationship) and then experience Him in multiple settings and in multiple events (all common, tangible, non-visionary)—is not the best way (or an 'adequately good way') to ‘anchor’ this evidence, before spreading this knowledge to others with shared culture. It is not at all clear to me what a ‘better way’ would look like, nor how to ‘measure’ that it was truly ‘better’—given what God was/is trying to accomplish in the knowledge of that resurrection.
And the assumption that God would be ‘obligated’ to use an allegedly ‘better’ method is philosophically flawed in itself. This type of argument (“A true God would be required to do X”) has failed in the Logical Problem of Evil (“An all-good and all-powerful God would not allow evil to exist”)—e.g., see my summary under Observation One, under Methodological Criterion One in https://Christianthinktank.com/gr5part1.html .
Additionally, it faces the philosophical problem of ‘supererogation’ – from Swinburne's Is There a God?:
“To fail to fulfil your obligations is always an overall bad act, but obligations are limited. God can easily, and in virtue of his perfect goodness will easily, fulfil all his obligations. But there is no limit to the possible acts of supererogatory goodness which a person can do except any limit arising from his or her powers. We humans have limited powers; and can do only a few limited supererogatory good acts. I can give my savings to one charity, but then I will be unable to give anything to another charity. If I devote my life to caring for one group of children in England, I shall be unable to care for another group of children in a distant land. God's powers, however, are unlimited. But even God, we have seen, cannot do the logically impossible. And it is logically impossible to do every possible supererogatory good act. It is good that God should create persons, including human persons. But, however many he creates, it would be even better if he created more (perhaps well spaced out in an infinitely large universe). Given that human life is in general a good thing, the more of it the better. God cannot create the best of all possible worlds, for there can be no such world—any world can be improved by adding more persons to it, and no doubt in plenty of other ways as well. So what does God's perfect goodness amount to? Not that he does all possible good acts—that is not logically possible. Presumably that he fulfils his obligations, does no bad acts, and performs very many good acts. “
So, philosophically speaking, the ‘obligation’ assumed in certain versions/understandings of this position (like the one ascribed to Richard in the email) needs more work, before it can be taken as binding... [Of course, someone may have already done this, but I am only responding to the surface-statement in your email.]
Fourth, there is something to be said about the ‘event-nature’ of the revelation, over against an always-on message. We humans tend to block out ‘background’ data, if we are exposed to it constantly. It is commonplace to not be able to remember the billboards you see every day on the drive to work, after the first few weeks of the commute. Writing something on the Moon would quickly fade from our attention—except for the few. (This comment, of course, would only apply to constant messages—like the two you mentioned of Carrier’s—and not to other types of episodic or event-timed messages, I suppose). But you get the idea—if the message does not come ‘wrapped’ in something ‘deep’ and ‘incisive’ and ‘thought provoking’, it will cease to be even noticed…
And, lastly (for now—this short brief note), there is an element of ‘incongruity’ between something so ‘weird’ or ‘impersonal’ and the noble-yet-humble heart of God. Let me try to evoke my 'feeling' or 'sense' here by an extreme example: if God created those cheap blinking neon lights on every building at night all over the world—saying ‘Jesus lives’—I am not sure what kind of ‘idea of God’ that might create in my head. There (for me at least) would be such a clash between the gentle and quiet heart of God and the garish, artificial, flashy medium that I would get the wrong idea of what God was like. Or if God miraculously sent a text message "Jesus was Raised from the Dead" to every smartphone on the planet each morning, I am not sure how that would condition my initial 'image' of such a deity--nor if it would even entice me to seek Him out.
If, on the other hand, I heard of the resurrection through a person whose life had been transformed through an encounter with the Risen Jesus (even if mediated through many intermediate encounters—like we have to experience today) into a life of gentleness, quietness, and love—then THAT would be congruent and THAT might help me form a better ‘starter image’ of God.
I added this additional comment a day or two after writing the above:
Just a few more comments…
I wanted to recognize that my BRIEF comments I made earlier are not without vulnerabilities. They were just some early thoughts on the matter. I can easily argue Richard’s position against mine—especially on the basis of coverage (e.g. something written on the moon or the sky would be seen by many more people than something spread by word of mouth or written page), but it still would not be easy to defend it as ‘clearly better’--that would require much more definition and defense.
The problem with anything written like that, of course, is with the content and context of the words. How in the world would someone who looked at the moon know what/who “Jesus” referred to, or what the significance of “Lives” would be (e.g. they would have to know many, many facts about the Jesus story before that would have any impact: that Jesus was dead once, that he came back to life, that this had some importance for the viewer, what to do next, etc). We would need a much larger moon, which would have an adverse effect on the tides (LOL)...So, even though the way God apparently CHOSE to do it can be attacked on many grounds, I remain skeptical that such an alternative scenario would fare any better.
But the most obvious alternative (to ME) is one that is suggested to just about EVERYBODY (Christian or not) from reading the biblical accounts: Why did Jesus not at least show Himself to His enemies before ascending to heaven (rather than just to His friends/disciples)??? [Other than the case of Saul/Paul, of course]
In fact, the apostle Peter makes this exact point in one of his sermons:
“As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Ac 10:36–43).
But this exclusivity was about qualification of the witnesses, and doesn’t really bear on the question of ‘evidence’ though:
“V. 39 points out that Peter (and by implication the other apostles) was witness to what he accomplished in Judea and Jerusalem, and so could personally vouch for the truth of these remarks about Jesus. V. 39b echoes Deut. 21:23—“cursed be everyone who hangs upon a tree.” Even Jesus’ death is seen as a fulfillment of Scripture, and thus as a part of God’s divine plan for human salvation. This seemingly horrible conclusion to Jesus’ life was reversed by God, for “this very one God raised on the third day” and permitted to be seen, not by everyone, but, as v. 41 puts it, by those who were his chosen witnesses. Peter here is emphasizing his and the Twelve’s qualifications for proclaiming such a message (cf. Acts 1:21–22). To be one of the Twelve one must have witnessed Jesus’ ministry from the baptism through the resurrection appearances; in other words, one must have comprehensively followed and seen Jesus’ ministry. The proof that Jesus was really alive beyond death was that he even ate and drank with his followers after the resurrection.” [Witherington III, B. (1998). The Acts of the Apostles : A socio-rhetorical commentary (358). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.]
When I think about this, I realize that this COULD have been an ‘evidence’ problem IF JESUS HAD NOT DONE ANY PUBLIC MIRACLES BEFORE His resurrection. If I went around proclaiming that some deceased friend of mine (say a local farmer or computer consultant) had risen from the dead and only appeared to ME, I would not be that credible.
But if this farmer/consultant had done scores of miracles and healed 100s (if not 1000s) of local people, then my claim might be taken seriously by my fellow residents. And, if there were a group of us who saw him (and had dinner with him), it might be even more admissible.
So, what this might mean (from the way Peter stated this) is that by only revealing the GREATEST Miracle to the apostolic band (while the general populace—including enemies—had seen His divine power in constant action for 3 years), Jesus explicitly REJECTED the Jewish religious leadership of the day, and ‘reversed the status’ of those two groups. Those who were SUPPOSED to witness to the power and goodness of Israel’s God (the Sanhedrin) rejected that responsibility, and so the religiously-marginalized (the common-folk apostles) were exalted by God to take their place as witnesses to God’s redemptive act. The resurrection had been predicted, of course—even to the enemies some—and His statement at His trial that He was coming again as Judge of the world would imply such a thing anyway.
So, I think that the mix of many-public-miracles (in front of friends, enemies, and the undecided) and a small-group-only resurrection miracle is defensible. [It is interesting that the enemies never seemed to deny the miracles of Jesus or His followers, according to the only records we have (both biblical and extra-biblical):
So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” (Jn 11:47–50).
When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus. (Jn 12:9–11).
13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14 But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, 16 saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” (Ac 4:13–17).
Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. 15 But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” 16 while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. 18 And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. 19 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Lk 11:14–20).
So, miraculous data does not always have the evidential force it probably SHOULD have (although miracles CAN be ambiguous in origin, I admit).
Anyway, I did want to add those remarks
to the previous reply ... Thanks—later--glenn