Monday, August 29, 2011

The Failure of the Christological Argument?

The Christological Argument contends that if the resurrection of Jesus can be verified, then Jesus must be God (so God exists), the Bible is the word of God, and Christianity is the one true religion. The important question then becomes “is the resurrection of Jesus an historical event?”
There has been a truly massive amount of discussion on the topic of the historicity of the resurrection (there is good reason for the Historical Argument having by far the highest number of posts dedicated to it on this blog). The amount of relevant material on the subject would take many decades to understand. One would need to learn Greek , Hebrew, Aramaic, and a few other languages, obtain a firm grasp upon the cultural surroundings before, during, and after the events (including Jewish, Roman, and pagan cultures), become familiar with all related archaeological information, determine the best historical perspective on the evidence available, and then attempt to draw the best possible conclusion.
The task of understanding the Christological Argument (an offshoot of the Historical Argument), is quite intimidating. I have decided to attack all of the relevant information rather than shrink away from the magnitude of the task. I hope that you will join me on this probably life-long journey towards the truth!
As many of you know, I have been analyzing a debate between Dr. Craig and Dr. Ehrman for the past month or so. The following is a summary of Dr. Ehrman’s main reason for disagreeing with the Historical (and more specifically, the Christological) Argument.
For starters, the online Meriam Webster dictionary, defines a 'miracle' as:
  1. an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs
  2. an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment
According to Dr. Ehrman, historians can only attempt to determine what most probably happened in the past based upon the evidence available. (see for a complete summary on what historians do)
Can a historian ever verify that a miracle happened at some point in history? If not, the resurrection of Jesus cannot be verified historically.
Dr. Ehrman states that he does not think that miracles are impossible. He merely states that miracles are "so highly improbable that they're the least possible occurrence in any given instance. They violate the way nature naturally works." There is a reason that we call them 'miracles'- because they go against what normally happens. They are highly unusual events that do not take place under normal circumstances.
After a brief explanation of what miracles are, Dr. Ehrman provides an example to help illustrate his point: People cannot walk on lukewarm water. Or, at least, the odds are so low that if one of us were to see someone were to walk on lukewarm water, we would have difficulty believing our eyes. If someone told us that they had seen someone walk on lukewarm water, we would ask for extraordinary verification for the event. Basically, the odds that someone could walk on lukewarm water are so low that if someone were to walk on lukewarm water, we would call it… a miracle. All of this is not to say that it is impossible for people to walk on lukewarm water, it just means that when someone claims that a person actually did walk on lukewarm water, we would want really, really ridiculously good documentation and evidence. In addition, if there were some other explanation that did not require a supernatural hand, it would be advisable to go with the natural explanation.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ absolutely falls into the category of 'miracles.' It is entirely possible that Jesus did actually rise from the dead, but can historians ever label a miracle as historical? Ehrman thinks that historians can do no such thing- "Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence." It would be wonderful if historical inquiry were powerful enough to provide us with answers to all of our questions, but "it's simply that the canons of historical research do not allow for the possibility of establishing as probable that [which is] the least [probable] of all occurrences."
To illustrate how unlikely it is that a miracle occurred, Dr. Ehrman gives an alternative scenario of what transpired after the death of Jesus. The alternative scenario is almost definitely not true (Dr. Ehrman explicitly states that he does not think this scenario is what actually happened), but it is not impossible. Further, the alternative scenario, despite the low probability of it occurring, is far more feasible than a miracle happening.
Dr. Ehrman’s alternative scenario: 
“Jesus gets buried by Joseph of Arimathea. Two of Jesus’ family members are upset that an unknown Jewish leader has buried the body. In the dead of night, these two family members raid the tomb, taking the body off to bury it for themselves. But Roman soldiers on the lookout see them carrying the shrouded corpse through the streets, they confront them, and they kill them on the spot. They throw all three bodies into a common burial plot, where within three days these bodies are decomposed beyond recognition. The tomb then is empty. People go to the tomb, they find it empty, they come to think that Jesus was raised from the dead, and they start thinking they’ve seen him because they know he’s been raised because his tomb is empty.
This is a highly unlikely scenario, but you can’t object that it’s impossible to have happened because it’s not. People did raid tombs. Soldiers did kill civilians on the least pretext. People were buried in common graves, left to rot. It’s not likely, but it’s more likely than a miracle, which is so unlikely, that you have to appeal to supernatural intervention to make it work. This alternative explanation I’ve given you—which again is not one that I believe—is at least plausible, and it’s historical, as opposed to Bill’s explanation, which is not a historical explanation. Bill’s explanation is a theological explanation.” 
At this point it would be especially important to note that Dr. Ehrman is not regurgitating the skepticism towards miracles which was proposed by the philosopher David Hume. Dr. Ehrman is not saying that miracles are impossible. Rather, he is saying that miracles cannot be verified historically because they are less likely than natural explanations of the evidence.
Thank you very much for reading! I hope that my summary of Dr. Ehrman’s opening statement has been helpful. If you would like to hear everything he said, look for the Craig vs. Ehrman debate on youtube. As always, I enjoy getting feedback from readers. I especially love it when readers change my mind!


  1. Dr. Ehrman is, I think, borrowing from the prolific atheist writer Richard Dawkins when he defines a miracle as, essentially, the least possible explanation. Dawkin's argument against the existence of God is similar: simply put, "No matter how unlikely it is for the universe to be the result of random chance, the existence of God is even more unlikely."

    I think the fundamental problem with Dr. Ehrman's criticism is his definition of what a miracle is. He is basing his definition on the atheistic assumption that there is no God, and assuming that the resurrection of Jesus must have had a purely physical explanation. He doesn't really believe in miracles at all; he is simply redefining the term to allow himself to say that he believes he does (and to pose a very clever argument.)

    In fact, however, as long as something has a physical cause, it is not a miracle. The supposed process of evolution resulting in highly intelligent beings is one of the least probable results of chaos, but I doubt Dr. Ehrman would be willing to concede that it was "miraculous" because that term always carries with it a belief in some sort of deity.

    If Dr. Ehrman's definition of evolution is incorrect, his entire argument falls apart. A miracle may, in fact, be the most likely explanation for the resurrection of Jesus.

  2. Brandon,
    Glad to here from you again!

    I would agree that a loose analogy can be drawn between Ehrman and the argument you mentioned from Dawkins.

    However, I do not see what evolution has to do with this subject! Ehrman doesn't mention evolution at all- he is a historian making a historical argument.

    It seems to me that when one is trying to find an argument for the existence of God, one should not start out with the assumption that God exists. For more on that see Fundamental Assumptions 1 & 2. ( and

    But Ehrman does not even go as far as I would- he says that miracles are possible. As for the assumption of God or no-God, Ehrman says that historians "cannot comment on the existence of God." He just points out that explanations that do not require supernatural intervention are much more common. Are you saying that Ehrman is deceiving himself/us concerning what he thinks?

    Let me know what your thoughts are!!!

  3. Hey Josh,

    Sorry, my post was rather muddled—I’ll try to clarify it a little.

    I think I skipped some steps when I brought up evolution. My point was this: natural evolution is extremely unlikely. The odds of even a single cell forming in a primordial soup is truly astronomical (on the order of 1:10^300 or so) and it is then even more unlikely that this process would result in intelligent life. My point was to say that, by his definition, evolution would be considered to be a miracle by virtue of its improbability. In other words, I’m trying to use a “reduction ad absurdum” argument to demonstrate that his definition is not a very good one.

    I completely agree with you on not assuming that God exists when doing apologetics! What I meant to say was that I think you must believe in God (or some deity) in order to believe in miracles, because a true miracle is something that was influenced supernaturally. In other words, I’m criticizing Ehrman’s supposed belief in “miracles” without believing in God.

    His argument is clever, but it all rests on his definition of a miracle. I argue that miracles are not the least possible option IF a supernatural being is present. This nullifies his argument about the improvability of historical miracles.

  4. Brandon, thanks for your comment!

    Unfortunately I do not see the point of your first paragraph. I don't know of any scientists who think that an actual 'cell' formed in the primordial soup. It is possible that a protobiont, a short self-replicating RNA sequence, or a number of other things formed as a precursor of a cell. We will certainly have to discuss evolution more some time, but I don't see how it relaits!

    On the historical side, you are tyring to say that his definition of a miracle is bad, correct? Could you elaborate further on why you think he has a bad definition of miracles?

    I also have a question for you: Do you think Dr. Ehrman's alternative explanation for what happened is possible? Obviously it is an unlikely scenario, but is it possible?

  5. Brandon,
    Sorry to post another comment without giving you time to respond to the first one, but here you go!

    It seems to me that if one already has a high index of suspicion for the existence of God in general, then miracles become more understandable as explanations. For example, if one considers the Cosmological and Ontological arguments to be sound already, then it makes sense to 'look for fingerprints of God' in history.

    On the flip side, if one takes a purely historical approach, miracles become ridiculously difficult (if not impossible) to affirm as viable explanations. There are always natural explanations that are 'possible,' and these 'possible' scenarios are always more likely that 'miraculous' scenarios from a historical perspective.

    This is somewhat troubling to me because it complicates the Search. We have to answer the question "what is our index of suspicion for the existence of god (whatever 'god' means) before we can establish our methodoligy for interpreting historical evidence.

    Some would say that our index of suspicion for the existence of god when doing purely historical inquiry should start out at zero.

    Just some thoughts!

  6. Now for the second part: why I think Dr. Ehrman’s alternative explanation is not possible. I’ll itemize the reasons for clarity:

    1. It’s not likely that Jesus’ family would be upset that his body was buried by an unknown Jewish leader. He was Jewish, after all.

    2. Even if they were, they were terrified and in hiding. That’s just not the time to be moving bodies around, especially ones protected by Romans who were guarding against exactly that sort of action!

    3. The stone covering the tomb was extremely heavy—far too much for just a couple people to move. Even if they could have, the guards would have killed them before they had moved the stone a centimeter!

    4. There is no record of the deaths of members of Jesus’ family. Furthermore, if Dr. Ehrman’s scenario were true, why didn’t any of the disciples come along? If they had, they would have been killed, but we know that that didn’t happen from historical records.

    5. People aren’t stupid, and they are amazingly critical. An empty tomb is not enough to convince someone that a resurrection has taken place. If this was all it was, it may have resulted in a small cult following that died away quickly, but this is not what happened. It generated a massive shockwave of conversions which spread over the known world in a matter of decades. The impact was immediate and unprecedented, and it is very difficult to chalk this up to be the result of an empty tomb!

    For me, this is more than sufficient evidence to discount Dr. Ehrman’s scenario (and many others like it) completely, but I’d be interested to hear any counterarguments in its defense.

    (Sorry for the two very long posts in succession!)

  7. (Oops! This was meant to be posted before the previous one...sorry!)

    Hey Josh,

    The reason I brought up evolution is it is a good example of a very highly improbable event. You’re going to have me beat on the details of evolution (I’m certainly not a biologist!) but my point was that it is highly unlikely for spontaneous generation of life to occur, which is what must have happened if there is no God to create it. I would argue that because the odds against all natural production of advanced life forms are so great, it is by Dr. Ehrman’s definition “miraculous.” Does that clear up my rather messy point? (By the way, I would certainly like to discuss evolution in greater detail as well!)

    In short: I believe a miracle requires the intervention of a supernatural power by definition. If, then, a supernatural power may intervene, it is no longer the “least probable explanation” in a naturalistic sense. The reason I care so much about the definition is because Dr. Ehrman depends on it to deconstruct the Christological argument. He is saying that, by his definition of miracle, ANY possible explanation (no matter how ridiculous) is more likely than a miraculous occurrence. I instead argue that it must be considered that IF there is a divine power and IF the power intervened in a supernatural way, the explanation may not be the least probable one.

    (I’ll hit the rest of your points here, and put my problems with Dr. Ehrman’s alternative scenario in a second post.)

    (I like your term of “index of suspicion” for the existence of god—I’ll adopt it here, if you don’t mind!)

    As a scientist/engineer I like analogies, so I think one is in order here. Let’s suppose that I am alone in a completely empty building that I know contains nothing other than the walls, floor and ceiling. I have extremely good reason to believe that I am the only person to have ever set foot in the building. Let’s say I come across a house of cards sitting on the floor. I have zero “index of suspicion” for a person having built the house before I see it. I consider the possibilities for how it has been constructed:
    1. The cards were blown into the building when I entered it and the random wind patterns caused the cards to fly in the air and gently come to rest in a house configuration.
    2. Someone has indeed been here before me, and built that house of cards.
    Technically, (2) is less likely as long as I maintain zero index of suspicion or previous occupants of the building. However, the instant I allow myself to consider the possibility that I am wrong and someone did, in fact, build the house of cards, (1) instantly becomes the less likely—and therefore “miraculous” by Dr. Ehrman’s definition—choice.

    The point in this analogy is to demonstrate this idea: intervention of an outside being (in this case, the person before me in the room) often resolves an otherwise unsolvable mystery is. Just as the house of cards is extremely strong evidence for the presence of a person in the room before me, the resurrection of Jesus provides strong evidence for the existence of God. That’s why I like the Christological argument.

  8. Brandon,
    I REALLY enjoyed reading your response to my first post. You very clearly wrote out and explained some ideas that have been floating around in my head, but that I have been unable to pin down.

    Your analogy is an extremely good one- it is the scenario we find ourselves in. We look around and say "Hey! Here are some complex life forms!" or "Yikes! Look at these interesting historical events!" or "Gadzooks, check out these finely tuned physical constants!" and then we try to decide what the most likely explanation for these phenomena is. Was it the 'wind' (natural causes) or 'someone else' (maybe god).

    It can be extremely difficult to decide in which scenarios a divine hand is the best explanation.

  9. Brandon,
    In response to your first comment,

    It seems to me that you are making a case for Ehrman's scenario being very very very unlikely- but NOT a case for it being impossible. His scenario is possible.

    Here is a commentary on your 5 points:
    1. We don't know whether or not Jesus' family would be upset by someone else burying the body, but it IS possible that they were.

    2. They could have gone out despite the danger. People do crazy things sometimes- especially when they are upset about something (such as the death of a family member).

    3. Perhaps an error was made placing the stone, perhaps there was a way around it, maybe they got the body before the stone was put in place. All of this is unlikely indeed! But impossible? Certainly not.

    4. There are no records of lots of things. In fact, I would say the vast majority of things are not recorded. Who knows why a disciple didn't come along. Maybe they were somewhere else, maybe they were busy, maybe the family wanted to be alone.

    5. People are stupid.

    Anyway, I would totally agree that the scenario is VERY unlikely- but it IS possible. One cannot say on the basis of multiple extremely well preserved ancient documents that such a scenario taking place 2000 years ago absolutely could not have happened.

  10. Hey Josh,
    On the first part, I agree! Dr. Ehrman’s scenario is not impossible: as you said, I was merely trying to show that it was highly, highly improbable.
    I’m glad we agree on the second part also—sorry for my rather obtuse explanation!