Sometimes critics of religious belief are willing to grant that there is some plausibility to the idea of a cosmic Creator and Designer, but they will argue that such a being is a long way from the Christian God. Even if belief in a Creator were acceptable, how would anyone know which God to believe in? From a Christian perspective, much hinges on the resurrection of Jesus. If there are convincing reasons for rejecting the resurrection, Christianity itself can be rejected, but if not, Christianity should be taken seriously. In this way, Christianity is much more amenable to evidential scrutiny than many other belief systems. In light of this, it is surprising that the case for the resurrection is not taken more seriously in the writings of the New Atheists. And it is even more surprising when we take into account the fact that serious, scholarly cases for the resurrection have been proposed in recent decades
But perhaps there is no need to engage with such scholarly works. Perhaps there are straightforward considerations which enable us to reject the resurrection. Here we’ll consider four that often crop up at a popular level.
1. The resurrection is in conflict with science and so is impossible.
The problem with this objection is that all it establishes is that the resurrection is naturally impossible, but who ever thought otherwise? Christians claim that the resurrection is a supernatural event. Science tells us how things normally work in the natural world, but science itself cannot tell us that nature is all there is and so cannot preclude the possibility of a supernatural event such as the resurrection. To use science to reject the resurrection is a misuse of science and simply begs the question against the supernatural. A more scientific attitude would be to consider the actual evidence.
2. The early Christians did not believe in the resurrection – it is a legend that only developed long after the death of Jesus.
The evidence is decidedly against this objection. There is no evidence of any early form of Christianity that did not have the resurrection of Jesus as a central belief. It is central to the message at the very start of the Church as described in the book of Acts and in the very early creed found in 1 Corinthians 15 which can be dated to within a few years of the crucifixion.
3. The Gospel accounts are in conflict with each other and cannot be taken seriously.
This objection misses the point. While it is true that it is not easy to completely harmonize the accounts, the case for the resurrection does not depend on such a harmonization. Rather the case depends on various well-supported facts such as the belief among Jesus’ followers that they had seen him alive again after his death, that they believed he had been resurrected, and that the tomb was empty a few days after his death. Not one of these facts is supernatural in character and each can be established by normal historical methodology. The case for the resurrection is that it provides a much better explanation of these (and other) facts than any purely natural explanation. And it really is much, much better, not least because there are no plausible natural explanations on offer.
4. Belief in the resurrection is something that could only be based on faith, not evidence and reason.
There is so much wrong with this popular objection that it’s difficult to know where to start. This is not the place to launch into a discussion about the relationship between faith and reason, but suffice it to say that this objection presupposes a very dubious notion of faith; to have faith is to place one’s trust in an idea or person. Obviously, we can search for good evidence before we trust someone. It’s interesting to note that in the book of Acts, Peter makes much of the fact that he and the other apostles are eyewitnesses. It seems that it was not a matter of blind faith for the first Christians and need not be for us today either.
There are no quick and easy ways to reject the resurrection of Jesus. The sceptic needs to step up from his armchair to investigate the evidence and not simply presuppose that atheism is true. The resurrection is central to the Christian faith and so anyone who wishes to take religious belief seriously should evaluate the evidence carefully. Furthermore, the case for the resurrection is much stronger than that for any other miracles that might validate the claims of other religions. It is also highly significant because if it is true it addresses some of the most fundamental questions about the meaning of our lives, about life after death, and about peace between us and our Creator.
NT Wright The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK: 2003)
Richard Swinburne The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Clarendon Press: 2003)
Michael Licona The Resurrection of Jesus (IVP:Apollos: 2010)