The argument for the resurrection of Jesus goes like this: Jesus’ disciples sincerely believed he rose from the dead and appeared to them. External evidence and events support their belief: Paul was a church persecutor, and he converted. James was a skeptic and he also became a believer. Plus there are good arguments for the empty tomb. There are no plausible natural explanations. The disciples didn’t hallucinate, and they weren’t deluding themselves. The facts are best explained by a miracle.
Usually, the skeptic will either say there’s a better explanation or insist that miracles aren’t possible and simply refuse to look at the evidence. But here’s an odd objection. Skeptics will pick and third way and say “OK. Granted. That still doesn’t mean Jesus really rose or that even God did it. What’s to say that God didn’t cause mass hallucinations to happen, so the disciples’ believed it? Or who is to say that some other supernatural being other than God raised Jesus from the dead, like Satan or Baal?”
The God explanation for the resurrection is no better than other supernatural explanations?
In their mind, we could come up with dozens of potential supernatural explanations for the resurrection stories. We have no reason to favor one over another, so we should just remain skeptical. You might think this is a weird objection, but I’ve really seen this. Multiple times. After a recent debate between atheist activist Matt Dillahunty and Christian pastor and apologist Mike Winger in the resurrection, I saw another example:
This is actually one of the lines of attack that Arif Ahmed used in his debate with resurrection expert Gary Habermas. Many skeptics chalked up this debate as a win for their camp. Even the most ardent fans of Habermas’ resurrection apologetic had to admit that Ahmed was a tough opponent.
That said, I don’t think we have to be taken off-guard by this unusual objection. Here are a few things we might say in response:
The “maybe the devil did it” objection:
For starters, there are certain miracles that appear to be unreasonable to attribute to a created being – say the creation of the cosmos or resurrecting someone from the dead. But let’s leave that aside. We could furnish additional proof that shows that a miracle could not be the work of an evil being.
According to the gospel narratives, Jesus was accused of healing and performing exorcisms by the power of the devil. Jesus retorted by asking how Satan could cast out Satan. Why would an evil being who wants people sick, bound and ultimately dead work against himself? (Matthew 12:23-24) We regard death as evil – that’s why we practice medicine and educate people about proper safety. Jesus’ healings were seen as acts of compassion. (Acts 10:38)
The gospel is summarized by Jesus before he reportedly raised Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:24-25) Speaking not just of Lazarus but of his own future, Jesus says he’s the cure for eternal death and then he proves it in the resurrection.
A miracle confirms the message, but a message also confirms the miracle
Going back to the passage in Matthew. Jesus reportedly goes on to say that a tree is known by its fruit. (Mt. 12:33) Jesus taught us that we are to:
- Love God with all of our being
- Love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40)
- Be merciful as God is merciful (Luke 6:36-37)
- Be generous (Luke 6:38)
- Be meek and humble (Matthew 5:5)
- To be pure in heart (Matthew 5:8)
- To endure persecution and love our enemies (Matthew 5:38-48)
- To be honest (Matthew 5:37)
- To care for the poor (Matthew 25:31-46)
- To believe in him in order to be reconciled to God (Mark 10:45, John 14:6)
And he lived out what he preached. Now, what’s the point of a miracle? According to the Bible, a miracle can be an aid to faith. They’re signs to confirm the message that what a messenger is saying is true, that God really is speaking through them. (Acts 4:29-31) Jesus showed that he had the power to forgive sins by healing a paralyzed man. (Mark 2:10)
There are two pillars of proof for a message given by God, and neither can be used to the exclusion of another. These pillars are the miracles and the message. Both parts are the same manifestation of God. Jesus said: “The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” (John 14:10-11)
In other words, the doctrine proves the miracles and the miracles prove the doctrine. Why would an evil being or some other “God-competitor” confirm the message of Jesus, who taught self-sacrificial love for God and humankind?
And we have good reasons to think that an all-good being exists from natural theology. That’s what the moral argument seeks to demonstrate, and it’s a lot different than arguments for Horcruxes and the healing properties of Phoenix tears.
Finally, the one who was raised reportedly claimed God raised him. There are no competing supernatural claims. (Acts 1:3, John 10:18) But I think there’s even more that we can say against this skeptical objection, and it’s this:
When it comes to evidence, we must distinguish between possible explanations and reasonable explanations.
When it comes to criminal cases, prosecutors bear the burden of proof. They are required to demonstrate their account of events to the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
This means that the proposition being presented by the prosecution must be proven to the extent that there could be no “reasonable doubt” in the mind of a reasonable person that the defendant is guilty. There can still be a doubt, but only to the extent that it would not affect a reasonable person’s belief regarding whether or not the defendant is guilty.
But we can possibly doubt virtually anything. We might be in the Matrix, or we could be part of an experiment being performed by aliens. Elon Musk and some philosophers think we’re living in a computer simulation. These things are possible, but are they really reasonable?
We can grant that it’s possible that God could cause his disciples to hallucinate a resurrection for some mysterious-yet-morally sufficient reason. It’s possible he could have made Jesus’ body evaporate from the tomb. It’s also possible that we’re asleep in heaven and God is causing us to hallucinate all of reality. But is it reasonable to think that? (I think it’s impossible for God to lie, but I’m just making a concession for the sake of argument.)
Opening the floodgates?
If you’re going to be that skeptical about the resurrection even while accepting the evidence, you might as well be skeptical about everything else. But just because Christians admit the supernatural, it doesn’t mean all bets are off. The theist is just as committed to a stable order of nature as the naturalist. As I explain elsewhere, without a normal, established order of nature, the rare sign could never stand out to get our attention. Being open to miracles doesn’t require kooky credulity.
Hyper-skeptical arguments like this might pack some rhetorical punch, but notice what they admit: The evidence for the resurrection is good. Instead of dealing with that evidence, this becomes their refuge? I find that telling.
FOR MORE ON POSSIBLE VS. REASONABLE:
J Warner Wallace is a cold case detective and knows a thing or two about evidence.
Erik is a former atheist turned Christian after an experience with the Holy Spirit. He’s a freelance baseball writer and digital marketing specialist who is passionate about the intersection of evangelism and apologetics.