A Critical Review of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave/Part 5

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.

Previous Article

A Critical Review of The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave – Part 5

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

Chapter 13: “Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory” by Keith Parsons

Summary of the Argument:

Parsons says, “I conclude that the thirteen objections that Kreeft and Tacelli offer against the hallucination theory are devoid of cogency. Neither individually nor collectively do they undermine the claim that the postmortem ‘appearances’ of Jesus are best regarded as hallucinatory or visionary” (448-49). He concludes, “In fact, just about everything Kreeft and Tacelli have said about the ‘appearances’ of Jesus could be said about the various ‘close encounters’ with ETs” (448). This includes large numbers of people, physical evidence, personal encounters and conversations (448). Parsons depends heavily on Gerd Ludemann’s contention that the appearances were visionary (434). He points to psychological studies of hallucinations that show they can be collective, happen to people who were in similar conditions to the disciples.

Parsons challenges the premise that the Gospel reports of the appearances are trustworthy. He doubts them because they are “(1) written by persons unknown . . ., (2) composed forty or more years after the events . . ., (3) based on oral traditions, and therefore subject to the frailties of human memory, (4) containing many undeniably fictional elements, (5) each with a clear theological bias and apologetic agenda, (6) contradicting many known facts, (7) inconsistent with each other, (8) with very little corroboration from non-Christian sources, and (9) testifying to occurrences which, in any other context, would be regarded as unlikely in the extreme” (439).

Response to the Arguments:

First, some general comments are in order. (1) Parsons admits his view is “not at all unlikely” (441) which being translated means any where from merely possible to plausible. But he makes no real comparison with the opposing view which based on the reliability of the documents is between highly probable and virtually certain. (2) He acknowledges that many other skeptics differ on important points with him (445). (3) He admits there are other possible naturalistic theories that disagree with his (445, 447). (4) He acknowledges the speculative nature of these naturalistic views, saying, “any number of such scenarios can be generated” (447).

Second, all of his points are arguable and none is undeniable. Put positively, at best he does not destroy Kreeft’s arguments and at worst only calls for a more precise statement of some of them. In short, his efforts fail. Further, with a little refinement, most of the anti-hallucination arguments can be strengthened. And in any case the numerous physical appearances to 500 people over a forty day time period make them unnecessary.

Third, if the New Testament record is historical, all of his arguments fall flat. The New Testament record is historical (see Hemer and Blomberg). Therefore, all his arguments fall flat. Taken one by one – (1) They were not written by unknown persons. Matthew was an apostle,[1] Mark was an associate of the apostle Peter, Luke was a contemporary and companion of the apostle Paul, and John was an apostle.[2] (2) They were not composed after A.D. 70 Luke was written by about A.D. 60 (see Hemer). By Parson and company’s own admission, Matthew and Mark were earlier than Luke (that would be in the 50s). By their own acknowledgment, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in the mid 50s and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans in about the next five years, and all the essentials of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and appearances are found there between A.D. 55 and 60 just as they are in the Gospels. Even noted New Testament critics, like Bishop Robinson, date the Gospels A.D. 40-65+. All these dates are much too early to cast doubt on the essentials of Christ’s death and resurrection. (3) As just shown, they are not based on oral traditions but written accounts by eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the events. Their memories were not frail nor fallible since they were assured by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 16:13). But even on a purely human basis, memories from this period were highly developed and accurate (see Linnemann)[3]. (4) There are no demonstrable fictional elements in the Gospels, certainly not in the resurrection accounts. This fictional view is a fiction based on unjustified late dates, antisupernatural bias, and other assumptions. (5) Having a specific purpose, certain religious beliefs, or interest in the topic does not automatically disqualify a work as unreliable. If it did, then survivors of the holocaust could not be allowed as witness of this atrocity. (6 and 7) Properly understood, there are no real contradicting or factual errors in the Gospels (see Geisler and Howe, Critics) many known facts. (8) No corroboration is needed from other sources. The New Testament has twenty-seven books written by eight or nine authors, all of which come from the time of the eyewitnesses. Further, there is substantial corroboration from non-Christian sources on all the elements necessary to make a best-case scenario in favor of the bodily resurrection (see Habermas, The Historic Jesus). (9) Without denying the possibility of the miracles, there is nothing “unlikely in the extreme” in the Gospels (439). In short, one would have to disprove the existence of a theistic God (by whom miracles are possible) in order to eliminate the possibility of miracles. And if God exists, then miracles are possible. And if miracles are possible, then the miracles recorded in the Gospels are credible (believable).

Chapter 14: Swinburne on the Resurrection. By Michael Martin

Summary of the Argument:

Martin argues that Swinburne’s conclusion that “it is overwhelmingly probable that Jesus was God Incarnate and was resurrected from the dead” is wrong (453). Rather, “all of his probability estimates are either unrealistically too high or too low. Once these are corrected, the probability of the Resurrection is well below 50 percent” (466).

Martin reaches his conclusion by challenging the assumption that the existence of God is as probable as not (454). If this assumption fails, then it is improbable that Jesus rose from the dead since its probability is based in large part upon this assumption.

Martin’s challenge to the probability of God’s existence is based on the following objections: “his concept of God is incoherent, the theistic explanations he puts forward conflict with our background knowledge, his reliance on the criterion of simplicity is problematic, his solution to the problem of evil is dubious, and his account of miracles is seriously flawed” (454). Add to this the implausibility of Swinburne’s view that God does not have infallible foreknowledge of future free acts which is necessary for God’s moral perfection (455), and Swinburne’s solution to the problem of evil and free will are insufficient (457), and Martin concludes that the existence of God is not more probable than not. If so, then miracles are not probable, including the miracle of the resurrection and the related conclusion that Jesus is God Incarnate.

Response to the Argument:

Even if one accepts all of Martin’s criticisms (and some seem compelling), it does not follow that the resurrection is improbable. All that would follow is that the necessary conditions for probability of the resurrection laid down by Swinburne do not yield the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus is probable. One could hold an alternate view of God and evidence, evil, and free will that does not have the alleged inadequacies of Swinburne’s view and still construct a probable argument for the existence of the resurrection. Indeed, the classical view of God does not have the particular problems (see Geisler, Battle for God) that Swinburne’s Openness View of God has. Hence, it is not subject to the criticisms that Swinburne’s view is. In short, Martin has not shown that no probable view of the resurrection is possible. At best, he has only demonstrated that Swinburne’s Openness View of God on his view of probability fails to make the resurrection probable.

In point of fact, a stronger argument can be constructed both against Swinburne’s view and for the classical theistic view as follows: (1) If God does not exist, then miracles are impossible (not just improbable). For a miracle by definition is an act of a theistic God. And if there is no God who can so act, then there cannot be any such acts of God as miracles. In short, the resurrection is impossible (not just improbable) if a theistic God does not exist since God is a logical prerequisite for miracles.

However, if a theistic God exists, then miracles are automatically possible. For in a theistic universe, the biggest miracle (creating something from nothing) has already occurred. Hence, nothing forbids God doing lesser miracles. And if in addition, the New Testament documents are historically reliable (even in the essential matters of the resurrection), then the resurrection miracle is as highly probable as the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament record. All a priori improbability for a resurrection to the contrary, since all that counts, if God exists, is the probability of the reliability of the New Testament documents which record this miracle. Of course, if it is probable that God exists and probable that the New Testament documents are reliable, then on a combined probability it is highly probable that the resurrection occurred. We have made this very case elsewhere.[4]

A few comments on other important points are in order. First, I am inclined in general to agree with Martin against the use of the simplicity test – at least in its common sense notion that the simplest explanation is the best. It is much stronger in its original sense proposed by Ockham that “We should not multiply causes without necessity.”

Second, the presence of evil does not make God less probable. For (a) If God is all powerful, He can defeat evil. (b) If He is all good, then He will defeat evil. (c) Hence, if evil is not yet defeated, then it will be. We know that because the very nature of an all-powerful and all good being guarantees it. The anti-theist, not being omniscient (as a theist God is) cannot know the truth of the only premise that can defeat this argument, namely “Evil never will be defeated.”

Third, the classical theist can easily answer Martin’s argument about God not knowing certain things we know (like knowing evil by experience) by noting that God knows what we know (and infinitely more) but not the way we know it. We know finitely and sometimes sinfully, but God is neither. Hence, God does not know this way since He is infinite and morally perfect. But it is no limitation on God not to know the way we know. The limitation is on the finite and sinful creature, not the infinite and sinless Creator.

Fourth, Martin sneaks in an invalid Humean anti-miracle argument under the ambiguous phrase “theism is less probable than not, given the commonsense scientific theories that explain the empirical world” (456). Non-theists usually mean this the way Hume did, namely, given the regular and repeated laws of nature (e.g., which reveal that dead people do not rise), it is highly improbable that a resurrection will occur. And if one does, then it would take near miraculous empirical evidence to overcome it. But on this same logic non-supernaturalists should not believe in the Big Bang, the spontaneous generation of first life, or even macro-evolution (most of which are accepted by them). For these are rare and unrepeated singularities against which the odds are great. Nonetheless, non-supernaturalists believe the evidence is great for these events. In short, they do not allow prior odds (whether a priori or empirical) to rule out the good evidence that an event has actually occurred. The theist uses the same kind of argument for the resurrection.

Fifth, it is a twisted logic to claim that “Swinburne’s admission of the existence of heaven seems to undermine his explanation of moral and natural evil.” In fact, the opposite is the truth, for without a heaven evil would never be defeated and the atheist’s argument against a theistic God from evil would stand. Unless this evil world is a necessary condition for the better world to come, it is hard to see how allowing it would have been justifiable. In short, admittedly, this is not the best possible world, but it could be the best possible way to get to the best possible world. Hence, the problem of evil does not make God’s existence more improbable; it makes it more necessary. For without an all-powerful, all-perfect God there is no guarantee evil either exists or will ever be defeated. And the physical resurrection is evidence that God can defeat evil, bringing in an immortal state.

Chapter 15: “Reformed Epistemology and Biblical Hermeneutics” by Evan Fales===

Summary of the Argument:

Fales begins by noting that “contemporary apologists sometimes write as if modern Bible critics just assumed some sort of ontological or methodological naturalism because it suited them, and not because they had read, e.g., Spinoza or Hume or Kant, and found in them arguments carrying conviction” (470 emphasis in original). He says of Plantinga and other Reformed epistemologists, “All of them reject the methodological constraints that characterize modern historiography . . .” (470). He writes that Plantinga also rejects the “internalist foundationalism characteristic of the Enlightenment in favor of externalism” (470). He says, “Christians . . . know what he calls the Great Things of the Gospel – the essential salvific message of the New Testament . . . in a properly basic way” (471). They are “directly led to know them by ‘internal instigation’ of the Holy Spirit” (471). That is, “reading or hearing the Bible might serve as an occasion for one’s coming to believe these things . . . not to be understood as a matter of performing overt or covert inferences from evidence. It is rather that reading or hearing these words may open one’s heart to the promptings of the HS [Holy Spirit]” (471 emphasis in original). So, “a properly basic belief that is generated by a sufficiently reliable cognitive process in favorable circumstances, and that is accompanied by the right kind of doxastic experience – strong confidence – has sufficient warrant to constitute knowledge. But it is only prima facie warrant; it can be defeated, e.g., by evidence that counts against the belief or against the reliability of its means of acquisition, if that evidence sufficiently undermines confidence” (472).

Plantinga outlines several views. “TBC [Traditional Christian Biblical Commentary] holds that Scripture is divinely inspired. . . . Moreover, the unity of the Bible licenses using one part to interpret another part” (472). “The way in which a believer comes to know the Canon is divinely inspired is not by way of historical investigation, but by being so informed by the HS (which either implants just this belief or one entailing it [in believer’s hearts] . . .” (472-73).

HBC [Historical Biblical Criticism] “undertakes an assessment of the meaning and historical reliability of Scripture from the perspective of reasons (and sense) alone. It refuses the assistance of faith: it eschews the authority of creed, tradition, and magisterium” (473). There are three methodologies in this view: Troeltschian, Duhemiean, and Spinozistic. Plantinga rejects all of these as excluding miracles (474). He takes it that “the disarray within HBC scholarship is an independent reason for Christians not to be overly concerned about the implications of HBC for the faith” (475). Fales disagrees and suggests it is because they are dealing with a difficult topic and that one can be a good practitioner without being a good explainer of the theory (475). He then defends “reasonably firm historical conclusions” from their method including: (1) “The first three chapters of Genesis owes a large debt in style, imagery, and content to the creation myths of the Sumerians and the other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) pagan religions” (476). (2) “There appears to be not a single biblical prophecy that meets minimal conditions for being genuinely prophetic, and whose fulfillment can be independently confirmed” (476). (3) “The Gospels were composed later than the collapse of the Jewish revolt in 70 CE.” (477). He refers to the opposing view that Acts (hence Luke and Mark) were prior to A.D. 64 as “lame” for two reasons: “The first is that the rest of Acts has simply been lost. The second . . . it would hardly be surprising if the Roman execution of Paul was such a severe embarrassment to the Church that the author of Acts felt it best to omit it – and hence to terminate his history by portraying Paul’s stay in Rome in decidedly positive terms” (477). (4) “It is generally acknowledged that an understanding of the Gospel passion narratives cannot proceed in isolation from an examination of the large body of ANE literature and cultic practices that deploys the notion of death and resurrection, and links it to other themes that pervade the lore of the Hebrew Bible and a wide range of ANE religious traditions . . .” (478).

Fales questions miracles on several grounds. Can they be scientifically investigated? (478). Are they intelligible? How does God perform them? What is the mechanism? How can we trust testimony to confirm them? He responds to the objection to Hume— that his claim to “uniform experience” is question-begging—by arguing that Hume is referring only to “uniform experience” where “there is no prima facie reason to doubt” (481).

As for the testimony of the Spirit, Fales remarks: “Reformed epistemology would, in effect, return us to the biblical hermeneutics of the sixteenth century. . . . Did these voices achieve greater unanimity over Christian doctrine and the proper interpretation of Scripture than HBC scholars have? They did not” (482). As to perspicuity of Scripture, Fales believes “it is entirely plausible that Scripture would have been comprehensible by an intended audience – ancient Jews and Gentiles. . . . It is another matter altogether to claim that Scripture is perspicuous for us now” (484-85 emphasis in original).

He says, “I want, in conclusion, to suggest that adoption of the hermeneutical approaches recommended by Plantinga, Evans, and van Inwagen would represent not only a cognitively disastrous step backward in Bible studies, but a dangerous one. Nineteenth-century Bible scholars and their heirs were moved not by a tendentious naturalism but by a respect for common sense and an acute awareness of the intellectual and social disasters of sixteenth-century religiosity. For Fales, Plantinga’s argument boils down to this: “1. Christians know the Great Things of the Gospels. 2. If Christians know the Great Things, then in all probability something like the A/C model is correct. 3. Therefore, in all probability, something like the A/C model is correct” (485). Fales rejects premise two and therefore the conclusion.

Response to the Arguments:

First, his critique about evangelical complaints against Bible critics like himself is misdirected. We too have read “Spinoza or Hume or Kant” (470) but found their arguments wanting (see Geisler, Miracles). Spinoza’s argument fails because it begs the question by defining natural laws as unbreakable. Even Fales admits this is an open universe and miracles can’t be ruled out a priori (478). Hume’s argument fails because the evidence for the rare is not always less than the evidence for the regular, as is demonstrated by the antisupernaturalist’s acceptance of the Big Bang, spontaneous generation of first life, and macroevolution. We know the arguments, have analyzed them, and have found them seriously flawed.[5]

Second, as for Plantinga’s rejection of foundationalism, it is not crucial to the evangelical acceptance of miracles or the historicity of the New Testament. I agree that Plantinga is wrong and have defended classical foundationalism. For one thing, Plantinga’s arguments against foundationalism are directed against a Cartesian type of deductive foundationalism (which many evangelicals also reject). He has not penetrated the traditional foundationalism of Aristotle, Aquinas, and followers which demonstrates that first principles of thought are self-evident and undeniable.[6] In any event, the failure of Plantinga on this point has nothing to do with the success or failure of miracles and the historicity of the Gospels.

Third, Fales wrongly assumes that Historical Criticism has a franchise on “reasons and sense” in defending the reliability of the Gospels and resurrection. This is to show ignorance of both the Thomistic tradition and the Old Princetonian tradition of Warfield, Hodge, and Machen – indeed, of Calvin himself.[7] This tradition is continued by many evangelical philosophers as well (David Beck, Win Corduan, John Gerstner, Richard Howe, Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howe, Jason Reed, R.C. Sproul, and myself – to name a few).

Fourth, his contention that the New Testament authors did not intend to engage in “historical reportage” (482) flies in the face of facts inside and outside of Scripture. Luke clearly claims to the contrary (Luke 1:1-4), and he reports the same basic things about Christ (including his bodily resurrection) as do the other Gospels. Further, Luke’s writings have been confirmed by nearly one hundred historically accurate statements by a noted Roman historian (see Hemer). Further, the essence of the New Testament affirmation about Christ and his resurrection are supported by non-biblical authors of the period.[8]

Fifth, Fales downplays the contradictions and failures of Historical Criticism which evangelicals have highlighted (see Archer, Harrison, Carson, Kline, Linneman, and others).

Sixth, he does not avoid the criticism that Historical Criticism is based on ontological and/or methodological naturalism. Spinoza’s metaphysics (monism) was naturalistic. Both Hume and Kant had a non-theistic worldview. The former was a Skeptic and the latter a Deist, both of which views disallow miracles. Following Troelsch, Fales adopts a methodological naturalism by way of the principle of historical analogy. As understood and applied by Troelsch and the biblical critics, it implies a uniformitarianism which is based on only natural causes (see 472, 474).

Seventh, Fales’ dismissal of the argument for Luke writing before Paul’s death is laughable. Hemer provides 15 arguments for Acts being written by A.D. 62 – which have never been refuted by critics. Indeed, many of them are based on a rock solid argument from silence as defined by Carrier in this very book (178), namely, that when an author knew about an event that would have been important to mention and did not, then the event had not yet occurred. Surely the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70), the death of Paul (c. 65), the Jewish Wars (A.D. 64 f), and the death of James the apostle (which Josephus placed at A.D. 62) were important events to the history of that time and yet Luke (in Acts) mentions none of them. It is akin to writing a life of John Kennedy and not mentioning his assassination. One thing is certain, namely, it must have been written before it happened in 1963. Likewise, Acts must have been written before 62 and surely before A.D. 70. But critical scholars reject that date because it destroys their anti-miraculous, anti-historical view that Jesus rose from the dead.

Concluding Comments

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. Instead, it offers supposition upon presupposition, speculation upon theorizing, and unfounded rationalization upon ungrounded theories. Indeed, many of the hypotheses offered are mutually contradictory. The aim of the book seems to be a frustrated attempt to blow smoke on the solid historical facts for the physical resurrection of Christ in the desperate hope that one of the many conflicting and highly speculative possibilities might cause enough doubt to lead to disbelief in this cornerstone of Christianity.

In place of solid facts they offer implausible hypotheses. The case for the resurrected Christ stands firm. In spite of over 500 pages of wasted ink, the bottom line is that there are some unsubstantiated theoretical possibilities that Jesus did not rise from the grave. On the other side of the ledger, there is overwhelming historical evidence that Jesus did rise bodily from the tomb. Lest we forget, these pure skeptical speculations fail miserably when contrasted with the following powerful evidence. There are more documents, better copied documents, and earlier documents for the New Testament than for any book from the ancient world (see Kenyon and Metzger).[9]

Further, there are more authors, earlier authors, more well authenticated authors of these New Testament documents than for any authors from the ancient world. This authenticity comes from the fact that historical evidence supports that: (1) Many (if not all) of these nine New Testament authors were eyewitnesses and/or contemporaries of the events. (2) They wrote twenty-seven different books. (3) Some of the books are known to have come from within about twenty years of the events (and were based on creeds that go back within years of the events). 4) They were known to be honest men. (5) They were willing to die (and many did) for what they taught. (6) Their testimony has been verified by noted legal experts (see Greenleaf).[10] (7) One Gospel writer (who confirmed the same basic truths as others) is known to have been a first rate historian and contemporary of the period (see Hemer). (8) Early church Fathers, some of whom overlapped with the apostles, have confirmed their testimony to the resurrection. (9) Non-Christian sources outside the New Testament have confirmed the same basic truths about Jesus as the New Testament writers (see Bruce). (10) The internal evidence shows every sign of authenticity (see Blomberg). (11) The majority of New Testament scholars, including critics, admits to the basic facts which are best explained by the resurrection (see Habermas). (12) When compared to other documents of the period, noted Roman Historians have praised the New Testament documents (Sherwin-White).[11] (13) Experts on myths (like C.S. Lewis) have vouched for the non- mythological nature of the New Testament documents. (14) By contrast with later apocryphal writings, the New Testament has an unimbellished simplicity and authenticity. (15) Unless one presupposes an unjustified antisupernatural posture (see Geisler, Miracles), there is no good reason to reject the general authenticity of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection. (16) By comparison with other great figures of the ancient world (like Alexander the Great) whose historicity is almost universally accepted, the evidence for Christ’s death and resurrection are overwhelming (see Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith).


  1. Donald Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
  2. See also Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction: the Gospels and Acts (London: Tyndale House, 1965).
  3. Eta Linnemann, Biblical Criticism on Trial (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001)
  4. See Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004).
  5. See also C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1947), and Douglas R. Geivett and Gary Habermas, eds. In Defense of Miracles (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997).
  6. See Louis Marie Régis, Epistemology, trans. Imelda Choquette Byrne (New York: Macmillan, 1959).
  7. See Kenneth Kantzer, John Calvin’s Theory of the Knowledge of God and the Word of God (Harvard University Thesis, 1950).
  8. See Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus, and also F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).
  9. See Sir Fredric Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, 4th ed., rev. A. W. Adams (New York: Harper, 1958); and Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).
  10. Simon Greenfield, The Testimony of the Evangelists (1874; reprint Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984).
  11. See A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963).


Leave a Comment