In his book The Resurrection of God Incarnate, Richard Swinburne argues that the case for the resurrection of Jesus must include three major components:
I. General Background Evidence – evidence for and against the existence of God, and evidence about whether and why God would be likely to perform a miracle, especially raising someone from the dead.
II. Prior Historical Evidence – evidence for or against claims that Jesus had certain characteristics, characteristics which based on the purposes and motivations of God would make it likely that God would raise Jesus from the dead.
III. Posterior Historical Evidence – evidence for or against historical claims directly about the resurrection of Jesus: (DOC) Jesus died on the cross the same day he was crucified. (JAW) Jesus was alive and walking around about 48 hours after he was crucified.
I think Swinburne is correct to emphasize (I) and (II) as important and essential components of any reasonable case for the resurrection, but I also believe that Christian apologists will fail to produce solid evidence concerning components (I) and (II), in addition to their past failure to produce solid evidence in terms of component (III).
One big problem for Christian apologists concerning Prior Historical Evidence, is that there are good reasons to believe the following claim about Jesus:
(JFP) Jesus was a false prophet.
If (JFP) can be shown to be true (or to be probably true), then it can be used in a powerful argument against the resurrection of Jesus:
(1) Jesus was a false prophet.
(2) If Jesus was a false prophet, then it is very unlikely that God raised Jesus from the dead.
(3) It is very unlikely that God raised Jesus from the dead.
From my point of view it seems quite clear that Jesus was a false prophet, based on the evidence of the Gospels. The Gospels do claim that Jesus died on the cross on the same day he was crucified (DOC), and they do claim that Jesus was alive and walking around about 48 hours after Jesus was crucified (JAW). However, the Gospels also provide plenty of evidence that Jesus was a false prophet.
So, if we accept the Gospels as providing evidence in terms of the Posterior Historical Evidence component of the case for the resurrection, then we must also accept the Gospels as providing evidence in terms of the Prior Historical Evidence component of that case. It would be logically inconsistent and involve the fallacy of special pleading to accept the Gospel accounts as evidence for (DOC) and for (JAW), but reject the Gospel evidence that supports (JFP).
One could, of course, avoid the conclusion (JFP) by rejecting the Gospel accounts as fictional or as historically unreliable accounts, but then one would have to also reject the Gospel evidence put forward in support of (DOC) and (JAW). One must either reject the historical reliability of the Gospels and reject most of the Posterior Historical Evidence for the resurrection, or else accept the historical reliability of the Gospels and accept a great deal of Prior Historical Evidence for the view that Jesus was a false prophet. Either way, the case for the resurrection of Jesus fails (i.e. the case for the claim that “God raised Jesus from the dead” fails).
Before I get into an examination of the evidence for (1), which is the obvious point of contention between myself and Christian believers, let’s briefly consider the uncontroversial premise (2). Why would it be very unlikely that God would raise Jesus from the dead if Jesus was a false prophet? First, we must answer the question: What is a “false prophet”?
Most simply, a “false prophet” is someone who claims to be a prophet, who is NOT actually a prophet. A prophet is someone who receives messages from God and who passes those messages on to others, especially to a group audience, or to the public in general.
I am not a prophet, but that does not make me a “false prophet”, because I don’t claim to be any sort of prophet. I don’t claim to have received any messages from God, nor do I proclaim to others any messages that are supposedly messages from God. Since I don’t claim to be a prophet and don’t claim to provide others with messages from God, I’m not a “false prophet”.
One sort of false prophet is basically a con artist, a deceiver. Such a person does not believe he or she has received messages from God, but lies to others claiming to have received messages from God, and then provides made-up messages to others, especially groups of other people, either to obtain fame or admiration or money or favors from other people.
Another sort of false prophet is a delusional person who honestly believes that he or she has received messages from God, but in fact is either just mentally imbalanced (hearing voices in his or her head) or is receiving messages from some person other than God (from a hypnotist, from a telepathic psychic, from the spirit of a dead person, from a demon, from a demi-god, etc.). Such a person is not lying to others when claiming to have received messages from God, but those messages are NOT in fact from God, and thus such a person is NOT actually a prophet.
First, according to the Gospels, Jesus claimed to be a prophet:
Matthew 13:56-58 (NRSV)
56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?”
57 And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.”
58 And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.
Mark 6:3-5 (NRSV)
3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.
Luke 4:23-25 (NRSV)
23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.
25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;
Luke 13:32-34 (NRSV)
32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.
33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’
34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
If a false prophet were to be executed or killed, why would it be very unlikely that God would raise such a person from the dead? Some false prophets are con artists or deceivers, and it would obviously be a bad thing for God to raise a lying con artist from the dead. That would involve God in a great deception. But God is, by definition, a perfectly morally good person, and such a person would clearly NOT become involved in a great deception.
But what about false prophets who are sincerely mistaken? They believe that they are receiving messages from God, and that they are passing those messages from God to others in accordance with God’s will, but they are mentally imbalanced or deceived or at least mistaken, and in fact are not receiving messages from God. Should God raise such a false prophet from the dead?
Again, although the intentions of this sort of false prophet are good intentions, the effect on others is much the same. Purely human messages are being represented to other people as if those messages were from God. If God were to raise such a prophet from the dead, then God would be validating the teachings and messages of the false prophet as being messages from God, when those messages were NOT from God. This would be a great deception, even though the intentions of such a false prophet are good intentions. So, God would clearly not become involved in such a deception of others by raising such a false prophet from the dead.
But Jesus was NOT a prophet. Jesus did not receive messages from God and pass those messages on to others. Since Jesus claimed to be a prophet, but was NOT a prophet, it follows that Jesus was a false prophet.
The Gospels are full of evidence for the view that Jesus was NOT a prophet. According to the Gospels, each of the following claims is true:
1. Jesus promoted worship of Jehovah.
2. Jesus promoted obedience to Jehovah.
3. Jesus promoted prayer to Jehovah.
4. Jesus promoted the belief that the Old Testament was inspired by God.
5. Jesus promoted the belief that Moses was a prophet.
6. Jesus promoted the belief that Isaiah was a prophet.
7. Jesus promoted the belief that Elijah was a prophet.
8. Jesus promoted the belief that Jeremiah was a prophet.
9. Jesus promoted the belief that Jonah was a prophet.
10. Jesus promoted the belief that Daniel was a prophet.
11. Jesus promoted the belief that his god planned to condemn many people to eternal suffering and misery for disobedience to his god’s commands.
12. Jesus promoted the belief that his god planned to give an eternal life of happiness to some people and an eternity of suffering and misery to others based on whether people believed that Jesus was the divine Son of God.
But any of the above claims is sufficient to show that Jesus was a false prophet. So, even if only one or two of these claims is correct, then Jesus was a false prophet. If we assume (for the sake of argument) that the Gospel accounts are historically reliable, then each one of the above claims is probably true. Each of the above claims would have a probability of about .8, assuming that the Gospels provide historically reliable information about the ministry and teachings of Jesus.
In general, the truth of one of the above claims would increase the probability of the other claims also being true. For example, if it is true that Jesus promoted worship of Jehovah, then that makes it more likely that Jesus also promoted prayer to Jehovah and obedience to Jehovah. If we knew that Jesus promoted the belief that Isaiah was a prophet, then it is more likely that Jesus also promoted the belief that Moses was a prophet, and that Jeremiah was a prophet. Similarly, if one of these claims was known to be false, that would decrease the probability of the truth of the other claims. If Jesus did NOT promote worship of Jehovah, then that decreases the probability that Jesus promoted prayer to Jehovah and obedience to Jehovah. So, there is no simple probability calculation possible here, because the probability of the truth of each claim depends on the truth of the other claims.
But given that each of the above claims has a probability of about .8 (on the assumption of the reliability of the Gospel accounts), the probability that at least one of these claims is true is very high, significantly higher than .8. Let’s be very conservative and estimate the probability that at least one of the above claims is true as being .9. That means that the probability that Jesus was a false prophet is aproximately .9, assuming that each of the above claims would be sufficient to show that Jesus was a false prophet.
Of course, none of the above claims logically entails that Jesus was a false prophet (JFP). I must provide a line of argument showing for each of the above claims how it provides powerful evidence for (JFP). If I can do this, that still will only yield some sort of probability that (JFP) is the case, given the truth of one of the above claims. If I can show that (JFP) is highly probable (P = .9) given either the truth of claim (1) or the truth of (2) or the truth of (3) or…, then the overall probability will be .9 x .9 = .81 or about .8 that (JFP) is the case (assuming the reliability of the Gospel accounts).
Thus, either the Gospel accounts are NOT reliable, and thus the case for (DOC) and (JAW) will fail, or else the Gospel accounts ARE reliable and the case for (JFP) will succeed. Either way, the case for the resurrection of Jesus fails. Either way, Christian apologists will fail to show that “God raised Jesus from the dead” (GRJ).
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