A Critical Review of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave/Part 1

By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2005
This book is widely claimed by skeptics to be the best response to the arguments for the physical resurrection of Jesus. If so, then the best they have to offer is a poor case indeed. It presents no real positive evidence that Christ did not rise from the grave bodily.

A Critical Review of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave – Part 1

(Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005) ed. by Robert Price and Jeffrey Lowder

Chapter One: “Is there Sufficient Historical Evidence to Establish the Resurrection of Jesus?” By Robert Greg Cavin

Summary of the Argument:

Cavin argues that even on the assumption of “complete historical reliability,” the New Testament does not “provide sufficient information to enable us to establish the historicity of the resurrection” (p. 19; hereafter just the page number) because: (1) Resurrection is not mere revivification but involves an imperishable supernatural body (23-24). (2) And there is no New Testament evidence that Jesus’ post-revivified body was imperishable and supernatural. (3) Therefore, even if Jesus was revivified, there is no evidence of His resurrection (in this New Testament sense of the term).

Response to the Argument:

First, even revivification is a miracle that supports Jesus’ claim to be God in the flesh (Matt. 12:40; John 2:19-21; 10:18 cf. Mark 2:10). So, the objections really gain nothing by making this distinction. And if He is deity, then He will by nature be able to make his body immortal.

Second, there is evidence in the Gospels that Jesus’ post-revivified body was imperishable and that it was supernatural: (a) It was able to supernaturally appear and disappear (Luke 24; John 20). (b) It ascended into heaven (Acts 1:8-11; Luke 24: 50-51). c) It appeared many years after it was in heaven to Paul. Even granting that both Stephen’s (Acts 7) and John’s (Rev. 1) experiences were visions and not physical appearances of Christ, the one to Paul (Acts 9) was not a non-physical appearance because of several reasons: (1) There was physical light and sound that was seen and hear by others with him by their natural senses. (2) Paul said, “Have I not seen our Lord” (1 Cor. 9:1). This is perfect indicative active (heoraka from horao) which entails an active seeing with his own natural eyes. (3) Paul’s experience of seeing Christ is listed along with the appearance of Christ to other disciples in 1 Corinthians 15:7-8. (4) The Bible also says Jesus is currently positioned in heaven (Heb. 1:3; Rev. 4) and further verification will come when He returns from heaven (Rev. 1:7) in the same resurrected body (Acts 1:10-11; cf. Zech. 12:10). (5) What is more, the Old Testament predicted and Jesus miraculously fulfilled this prophecy that His body would not corrupt in the grave (Psalm 16:10; cf. Acts 16:31). Thus, by miraculously fulfilling this prophecy he proved that His resurrection body was incorruptible. So, contrary to Cavin’s claim, there is evidence for the resurrection of Christ into an imperishable and supernatural physical body in both the Gospels and epistles.

Third, my colleague Dr. Thomas Howe, has noted that Cavin’s “inductive” method is based on an unjustified nominalist epistemology that one cannot know the essence of a matter on the basis of a few instances. This in turn is based on Hume’s atomistic epistemology which affirms that “all events are entirely loose and separate.” But this is not the case, as our experience reveals, particularly internal experience that one’s mind is the cause of his ideas and words.

Fourth, another of Cavin’s arguments must be challenged, namely, that it is possible for the Christian God to permit “a major theological deception . . . misleading even the elect” (35). If this is taken to imply that God could permit a revivification of a corpse by “a powerful evil spirit,” then it is contrary to reason and to fact. Nowhere in the Bible is such an event noted. The work of the Anti-Christ, the greatest of all early deceivers, is said to be a “false” miracle (2 Thess. 2:9). The Devil is a master magician and a super-scientist, but he cannot perform a truly supernatural act like creating life or resurrecting the dead. When God created life from dust by the hand of Moses, the magicians who had counterfeited Moses’ efforts to that point declared: “This is the finger of God!”(Ex. 8:16-19). Only God can create life (Gen. 1:21; John 1:3), and only God can resurrect the dead. And since God is morally perfect, He would not deceive anyone allowing a miracle to occur by an evil spirit that leads people astray from the truth. God cannot lie or deceive (Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2). For a miracle is an act of God to accredit a prophet of God who is telling the truth of God (John 3:2; Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:3-4). And a morally perfect God cannot accredit falsehood and evil which are by nature contrary to His character.

Finally, Cavin claims that the real problem with those opposed to miracles is not a metaphysical bias against the supernatural, but it is with the logic of the argument for the resurrection. However, this does not seem to be the case for several reasons. First, all the so-called “logical” arguments they pose fail.[1] Second, they admit that even if one could prove the revivification of the body of Jesus three days later, they would still not count it as a miracle. Even their skeptical mentor, David Hume, admitted that such an event would be a miracle.[2] When considering the incorrigibility of such antisupernaturalism, one is reminded of Jesus’ statement that “neither would they believe though one were raised from the dead” (Luke 16:31)!

Chapter Two: The Resurrection as Initially Improbable. By Michael Martin

Summary of the Argument:

Martin argues that “Bayes theorem indicates that if the initial probability of the resurrection is very low, the historical evidence must be extremely strong to make rational belief in the resurrection possible” (53). Further, he insists that even on the assumption of supernaturalism it is low because “there is good reason to expect God would not perform miracles” (53). And “even if some miracles could be expected, there is good reason to suppose they would be rare and thus a priori unlikely in any given case” (53). What is more, even suppose God has a good purpose for redeeming humanity, “given the many alternative ways that this could have been achieved, it is a priori unlikely that he would have chosen to do this in the manner, time, and place depicted in scripture” (53). His argument is summarized thus: “1. A miracle is initially improbable relative to our background knowledge. 2. If a claim is initially improbable relative to our background knowledge and the evidence for it is not strong, then it should be disbelieved. 3. The Resurrection of Jesus is a miracle claim. 4. The evidence for the Resurrection is not strong. 5. Therefore, the Resurrection of Jesus should be disbelieved” (46).

Martin rejects the free will objection that whatever the probabilities are, a person is free to chose otherwise. He insists that the improbabilities for the resurrection of Christ remain low since we do not know God’s mind.

He also rejects the argument that if God exists, there is a high probability that God wants to redeem mankind. He insists that, even granting this, it is still low because we do not know when or where God will chose to resurrect Christ, nor even whether He will since he could redeem mankind some other way.

Response to the Argument:

Martin’s argument is particularly weak for several reasons. First, it admits that given God’s existence, a miracle is possible. If so, then he cannot eliminate the possibility of miracles without disproving God’s existence which no one has succeeded in doing.[3]

Second, his argument does not eliminate the probability of miracles since if God exists and if He wants to intervene supernaturally, then it is it more than probable that a miracle will happen – it is certain. This in spite of all alleged a priori probabilities to the contrary.

Third, whether a miracle has occurred is not determined by a priori probabilities but by a posteriori facts. Even from a purely experiential perspective, even though the a priori probability is 216 to 1 against getting three sixes on the first toss of three die, it does happen sometimes. And when it does happen, then all probabilities as to whether it would happen are irrelevant. All that is relevant is the evidence as to whether indeed this event did happen.

Fourth, when the free will of God is concerned, the only antecedent factor that is relevant for a miracle is whether He wills for a miracle to happen. And from the empirical side, the only relevant factor as to whether someone came back from the dead is the evidence that he was dead and that he later was alive again. Thus, Martin misses the point on his answer to both proposed objections. For if God wills a resurrection to occur, then there is a 100% chance it will occur. Hence, contrary to the anti-supernaturalist’s claim, given God’s existence, the entire issue boils down to a factual one, namely, what is the evidence that Jesus of Nazareth died and then came back to life some time later.[4]

Chapter 3: “Why Resurrect Jesus?” by Theodore Drange

Summary of the Argument:

Drange argues that the resurrection of Jesus is not important, saying, “It would have seemed more like a real death if Jesus, or at least his body, had stayed dead. . . . That would have been a greater sacrifice on God’s part. So, the way Christian theology portrays the matter, there is an apparent inconsistency between the atonement and the resurrection” (55).

Further, he finds Charles Hodge’s reasons for the resurrections inadequate.

First, as for Hodge’s claim that “all of Christ’s claims and the success of His work rest on the fact that He rose from the dead” (56), Drange insists that at best, the resurrection would only be a necessary condition, not a sufficient condition. But even this is rejected since “all that the gospel maintains is that Christ’s atonement was successful, and, consequently, salvation has been made possible for humanity. It was the death of Christ, not his resurrection, that was supposed to have atoned for humanity’s sins” (57).

Second, Hodge argued that “on His resurrection depended the mission of the Spirit, without which Christ’s work would have been in vain” (60). This mission included the source of our spiritual life, the revealing of divine truth, the inspiration of the Bible, the influence of people toward faith, the regeneration of their souls, making the sacraments effective, and calling men to ministries in the church. But Drange sees “nothing in this list which could not be accomplished even if Christ’s body had been permanently destroyed” (60).

Third, Hodge argued that Christ’s resurrection secured life for his people. “As He lives, they shall live also. If He had remained under the power of death, there would be no source of spiritual life to men . . .” (61). But Drange believes an afterlife could be possible without a resurrection, and people could have a resurrection without Christ having one shortly after His death.

Fourth, Hodge also contended, “If Christ did not rise, the whole scheme of redemption is a failure . . .” (63). But Drange believes that his response to the first argument of Hodge suffices here also. Some may argue that even if the resurrection was not a necessary way to accomplish redemption, it may have been God’s chosen way. But Drange insists that all Christ’s resurrection would show is that His body was revived, not that this is logically necessary so that ours can as well (65). And as for the claim that the resurrections showed something to humankind in general, he argues that an omnipotent being could have done a better job at marketing or advertising the fact. And even then “the resurrection could have been accomplished through some sort of magic or superscience” (66).

So, “Hodge’s reasons for regarding the Resurrection to be an important event are all failures. . . . So far as Christian theology is concerned, all of them could go on quite well without it . . .” (66). In short, Drange claims that the question “‘Why Resurrect Jesus?’ does not have any reasonable answer within Christian theology. Instead of being essential to the overall system, the Resurrection may very well have been a kind of afterthought on the part of the biblical authors” (67).

Response to the Arguments:

First of all, Drange’s argument is clearly contrary to the biblical record which makes the resurrection necessary for salvation (Rom. 4:25; 10:9). Indeed, Paul said, “If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Cor. 15:17).

Second, Jesus did make an important connection between His life and our spiritual life when He said we shall rise because He did (John 11:25). And Paul did also when he pointed out that Christ was the “firstfruits” of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20; cf. Matt. 27:52-53). In short, if Jesus the Son of God cannot defeat death, then how can we mortals do it. Further, since death was brought about by the Devil, then resurrection is necessary to defeat God’s Adversary the Devil (Heb. 2:14-15).

Third, Christ’s resurrection can be an objective demonstration of God’s work of salvation in Him without all men knowing about it. Wars are often officially over for a long time before all combatants are aware of it. Even laws are officially promulgated without all persons knowing about them.

Fourth, according to the Bible all men will be resurrected but not all will be saved because Christ was resurrected (1 Cor. 15:22; cf. John 5:29). Thus, there is an actual effect on all humankind, even if many are not now aware of it. Indeed, many believers (at least before the time of Christ) were saved on the basis of Christ’s resurrection without knowing about the fact of His resurrection.

Fifth, the incorrigible nature of Drange’s antisupernaturalism is revealed in the fact that he was willing to acknowledge that Christ could have come back from the dead by an act of “some sort of magic or superscience.” Even David Hume admitted that this would be a miracle. If not a resurrection, then what would count as a miracle?

Sixth, it is irrelevant that an afterlife is possible without a resurrection. What is relevant to the discussion is whether the resurrection happened and whether this would constitute a miracle. And the evidence is very strong for both. No amount of a priori improbability or speculation about the alleged logical necessity of it can be determined from the fact of the resurrection and its miraculous nature. And if it is connected with a truth claim of Christ’s deity, then that alone makes it very important. Furthermore, as others have noted, while the resurrection is not necessary to show an afterlife, it certainly evidences heavily the Christian notion of the after life, as well as the truth of Jesus’ teachings.[5]

Chapter 4: “Apocryphal Apparitions: 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 as a Post-Pauline Interpolation” by Robert Price

Summary and Response to the Arguments:

Price argues “This periscope presents us . . . with a piece of later, post-Pauline Christianity” (69). In other words, it was not written by Paul but is a later interpolation or redaction. In his own words, “A scribe felt he could strengthen the argument of the chapter as a whole by prefacing it with a list of ‘evidences for the resurrection’” (91). Price offers the following reasons for his view. Response will be given to each argument as presented.

First, Price attempts to shift the burden of proof from those who accept the Greek text of 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 to those who reject it.

Response: But clearly this would unreasonably undermine virtually all ancient texts by the same argument. Further, his argument from the adage that “history is written by the winners” (71) is implausible and contrary to fact. For this is not always true. Indeed, on the accepted dates of 1 Corinthians (A.D. 55-56) by even most critical scholars, Christianity was not a political winner. In fact, it was not a winner until centuries later. What is more, it is Price who bears the burden of proof on his otherwise implausible speculation.

Second, Price’s rejects the argument that a text is “innocent till proven guilty.” Indeed, he argues just the opposite.

Response: But if this were so, hardly anything could be believed from the past or present. For life would be a chaos if we assumed that road signs, speed limits, food labels, and restroom signs were wrong until proven right!

Third, he chides B. B. Warfield for claiming that only the originals are without error. He claims this is misguided and is an unfalsifiable view.

Response: First, it was not Warfield who first claimed this. St. Augustine pointed out 1500 years earlier that only the original manuscripts are without error.[6] Further, inerrancy is not unfalsifiable. All one need to do is find an original with an error in it. So, inerrancy is falsifiable in principle and could be in practice, if one found an original with an error in it. The fact that no one has yet found an error leaves open the possibility that there are none. Further, not positing inerrancy halts research for if one assumes an error in the text, then why research the matter any further. Scientists do not stop researching when they come upon an anomaly in nature, and why should we when we find a discrepancy in Scripture.

Fourth, Price lists several internal arguments against the authenticity of the resurrection. However, none are even close to being decisive. Perhaps the strongest argument is: “If the author of this passage were himself an eyewitness of the resurrection, why would he seek to buttress his claims by appeal to a thirdhand list of appearances . . . ?” (88).

Response: First of all, Price is seemingly unaware that he implies the answer in the word “buttress.” Paul did give his own first-hand experience, and then he sought to buttress it with further support from other living eyewitnesses to the event so that his readers could give confirmation. Further, even Price admits there are other possible explanations for each of his objections then. In fact, he makes a very revealing admission that his hypothesis “can in the nature of the case never be more than an unverified speculation” (93).

Fifth, Price makes the strange claim that “the resurrection of Jesus is not even at issue in 1 Corinthians 15” (96)! Thus, he thinks it is not crucial to Paul’s argument.

Response: It is difficult to see how one can read verses 12-19 and make such a claim. Here Paul lists seven disastrous consequences of denying the resurrection of Christ. Later, he calls the resurrection of Christ the “firstfruits” of those who have died (v. 20). And still later he makes Christ in His resurrection power the “last Adam” who brought life to the race in contrast to the “first Adam” who brought death (vs. 46-49). Thus, it is central to Paul’s whole argument here. Finally, couple the foregoing point with Price’s acknowledgment of his view that “I freely admit the lack of direct textual evidence” (92). Indeed, one wonders why he even bothered to write the article since it gives all the appearances of grasping for straws. To summarize: (1) He has no manuscript evidence for his view. (2) He admits it is “unverified speculation.” (3) He himself lists possible alternatives to his speculation. (4) It is contrary to some of the earliest testimony of the Church Fathers (1 Clement, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and many others). And (5) other verses in this same section which he rejects speak of the miraculous resurrection of Christ and believers (cf. 1 Cor. 15:12, 20, 22, 26, 42-46, 53-56). So, it is simply untrue that the resurrection of Jesus is not in view here.

Sixth, Price discusses William Craig’s contention that Paul would not have made known the resurrection to them without providing this evidence by claiming it is implicit in verse 12 which Price claims reads well as a continuation of verse 2. And as for Craig’s argument that verse 12 refers back to verse 11, Price contends it refers to verse 1. In response to Craig’s argument that the logic of the chapter demands the authenticity of these verses, Price contends that he has missed the logic of the chapter with the unlikely hypothesis that “the resurrection of Jesus is not even at issue in 1 Corinthians 15” (96). In fact, “‘evidence for the resurrection’ is way out of place there, as Bultmann and others . . . [have] observed” (96). Price also rejects Craig’s attempt to explain why the Gospels do not mention an appearance to the 500, claiming that if it had happened, then surely the Gospels would have mentioned it (81).

Response: At best, Price offers here a faulty argument from silence. He has no positive evidence for his view. What is more, as Habermas notes, even Bultmann admitted that Paul is trying to produce evidence in 1 Cor. 15. Further, some believe this appearance may be mentioned in the Gospels (as the appearance in Galilee – Matt. 28:16). Even if it is not, there is no reason why it cannot be true. After all, almost all scholars agree, even the critics, believe that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians and that it is very early – by the mid fifties. By virtue of its being written by an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8) at such an early date and which offers multiple confirmations by other eyewitnesses, it has a rightful claim to authenticity. Further, as Habermas observes, Price also uses Galatians 1 to note Paul’s comment that he received this materials from the Lord and so he didn’t go to Jerusalem to see the other apostles. This shows that Paul was convinced by his own experience that Christ had been raised from the dead (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1).

Notes:

  1. See Norman Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).
  2. See David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, book 10, On Miracles, ed. Chas. W. Hendel (New York: Liberal Arts, 1955).
  3. See Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetic (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999)
  4. See Steven B. Cown, ed., Five Views on Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 331-4, 337-8.
  5. See Gary Habermas, The Resurrection of Jesus: An Apologetic (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980).
  6. See St. Augustine, “Reply to Faustus the Manichaen,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (Christian Literature Publication Co., 1887; reprint Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 4:155-345.

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