Here’s a pitfall I’ve seen quite a few Christian apologists fall into when arguing for the resurrection of Jesus. The argument goes something like this: Paul probably believed that Jesus’ resurrection was physical. This is evident from his letters. In 1 Corinthians 15:4, Paul says Jesus was buried and then raised. What goes down in burial must come up in resurrection. In Romans 8:11 and Philippians 3:21, Paul also refers to resurrection as something physical. Paul thought what happened to Jesus’ body will someday happen to ours.
According to Paul, Peter, James, and John approved of his Gospel in his letter to the Galatians. He was preaching what they were preaching. Therefore, the other apostles probably believed that Jesus had physically risen from the dead. Cool beans, right?
Well, yeah. This shows the early belief in Jesus’ physical resurrection. Paul’s letters were so early and that Paul was also relaying early oral tradition. Christ’s physical resurrection isn’t the result of a late-developed legend, so sure, there’s some good value there.
What the disciples believed – The evidence
In addition, the apologist might also argue that the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus’ resurrection as physical. Luke probably traveled with Paul and likely hung out with other apostles. Based on this, the apostles likely believed in a physical resurrection. Apologists might concede for the sake of argument that Luke’s narratives about Jesus eating fish or inviting people to touch him might possibly be embellished, but this somehow is no biggie because even if they are invented, they are invented to portray what the apostles believed.
Furthermore, all the other Gospels point to Jesus’ physical resurrection. Mark doesn’t get into Jesus’ appearances, but the fact that the women discover the empty tomb definitely suggests it.
The apologist’s final nail will be to lean on the work of NT Wright. Wright has argued extensively that when 1st-century Jews thought of resurrection from the dead, they thought of the final bodily resurrection at the end of time. However, the disciples declared that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. The idea that Jesus really rose from the dead would be a huge innovation, so there would have to be some extraordinary evidence to convince Jesus’ disciples that it is true.
Some apologists go even further than this. They’ll pile on the sermon summaries found in Acts as an early oral tradition that the resurrection was bodily. Or they’ll say Clement of Rome or Polycarp were students of the apostles, and they endorsed Paul’s letters, and so that means Paul was preaching the same thing as the Jerusalem apostles as additional evidence. So what’s wrong with all this?
The bottleneck problem
Well, more and more evidence that someone believes something doesn’t necessarily mean that they are rational in doing so. This is what philosopher Lydia McGrew calls the bottleneck problem. There needs to be more information to show that the disciples’ belief is justified.
As an example, suppose a politician is accused of some sort of scandal. You voted for them and even helped campaign for them in the past. You and others are skeptical about whether this politician was actually involved in such a dirty deed since they have a long history of transparency and honesty in the community. It will take more than an accusation to convince you that this person is guilty.
All you hear in the news is an accusation leveled against this person by a staff member who thought they saw something shady happen but there aren’t a lot of details. From all indications, it is pretty clear that the accuser believes the politician is involved in some bad dealings. That’s some evidence that the politician might be guilty, but over time that’s all that comes out — a sincere accusation.
A lot of time passes by, and that person runs for re-election. So you vote for them again. Nothing more was revealed about this person’s guilt. However, you have a friend who finds out that you voted for this person, and they rake you over the coals because of it. After all, don’t you know a staff member sincerely believed that the person was involved in a scandal?
As you ask for evidence, they repeat that a staff member honestly thought they did something wrong. It was carried by all the news outlets, and they haven’t recanted after all this time. While that might give you some pause, you shouldn’t feel bad for voting for this person because a sincerely held belief could be misguided. We need more evidence to corroborate the accusation in order to change our minds.
There’s an upper limit… and it isn’t enough
Going back to the resurrection, piling evidence on evidence of what the disciples’ sincerely believed is helpful and interesting. But the upper limit of what you can prove is…well…that they believed it.
But even if we knew with 100% certainty that the disciples were teaching the physical resurrection, again we need to know just how rational they were in believing that. As we stack on more and more evidence, that only takes us to a bottleneck, it doesn’t make the argument stronger for the conclusion that Jesus was physically raised.
Now, the good news is that we can argue that their belief was rationally held by explaining right up front that the gospels’ resurrection accounts represent what the disciples claimed happened to them. And that this can be supported by arguments that the Gospels are highly reliable and rooted in eyewitness testimony.
We can also argue that the early chapters of Acts accurately represent what the disciples were testifying, just how soon, and under dangerous conditions. These together would establish that the disciples were rational. But we can’t do that if we’re going to go with a minimal facts approach. Oddly enough, the minimal facts approach actually avoids saying that the only actual accounts we have actually tell us what the original witnesses said!
A skeptic or indifferent scholar would reject the premise, “If the disciples believed that Jesus was physically raised, they were rational in doing so.” Such a person will point to numerous apparitions and visionary experiences we know about as analogies to the resurrection experiences. Both Dale Allison and Bart Ehrman precisely do this. They can easily turn the argument on its head and say the apostles believed in a physical resurrection because of their Jewish background.
This is another reason why I’m not a fan of the minimal facts or similar approaches when arguing for the resurrection. It’s time for us to make a more robust case that relies heavily on the Gospels. Arguing what the disciples sincerely believed by itself ain’t gonna cut it.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.