David Hume, On Loop image

David Hume, On Loop

To my mind, there are only two ways of approaching the question of what happened on Easter Sunday (probably 9 April AD 30) that hold any water at all, and virtually every intelligent person I’ve come across takes one of the two. One is to say that Jesus of Nazareth rose bodily from the dead. The other is to say that, no matter what the evidence might suggest, you can’t talk about supernatural events in a historical enquiry like this, so there has to be another explanation. That’s pretty much it.

In Massachusetts, in March 2006, there was a debate between Bart Ehrman and William Lane Craig that sums up these two positions very well. I read the transcript online, and it makes fascinating reading, because the debate isn’t really about the historical data (the empty tomb and the appearances), but about whether or not historical evidence for the resurrection could ever be possible. As a Christian, William Lane Craig argued that the resurrection of Jesus was the best historical explanation for the evidence. Bart Ehrman’s response, rather than giving an alternative explanation, was to argue that historical evidence of a ‘miracle’ was by definition impossible, so no matter how unlikely the alternatives seemed – and he didn’t really propose any – they must be more likely than a supernatural event. In other words, he wasn’t so much saying that there wasn’t any historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, as much as he was saying that there could never have been. Supernatural events, Bart Ehrman said, can be theological conclusions, but not historical ones.
I thought that was a fairly clever strategy. What Bart Ehrman did that day was to define ‘history’ in such a way as automatically to exclude all God-things, including the resurrection, from being considered ‘historical’ – they were now merely ‘theological’ (which, if I’m not being unfair, basically means ‘you can believe them if you like, but if you do, it’ll be because of blind faith, not evidence’). At one point, someone asked him if he thought there could ever be historical evidence of a miracle, and to his credit, he admitted he didn’t. In other words, Bart Ehrman was saying, it doesn’t matter how much evidence you have for the resurrection, I still won’t believe it, because history can’t involve God doing anything. Or, more bluntly, I believe there’s no such thing as a God who is involved with history, so any accounts of God doing something in history must be wrong, no matter what the evidence.
The problem with all that, from my perspective, is what I was talking about in the first half of the book, especially chapter 5. You really can’t be sure that there isn’t a God – actually, there might well be one, for various reasons – and since God could presumably do anything he wanted, you can’t be sure that miracles don’t happen either. If I were to look at the Dublin display case with an unshakeable conviction that there is no God, then of course I’d have to find another explanation. (If I looked at Elizabethan literature with an unshakeable conviction that there is no Shakespeare, I’d end up in a similar position.) But if I went to the Dublin display case with an open mind about whether God existed or not, I might find that Bart Ehrman’s argument wasn’t that strong after all.
Once or twice, I’ve met people who think like Bart Ehrman. Conversations, if you strip out all the niceties, basically go something like this:

  ‘So tell me: why don’t you believe in a God who acts in the world?’
  ‘Because there’s no evidence for his existence.’
  ‘What about the resurrection of Jesus?’
  ‘It never happened.’
  ‘There’s lots of evidence for it, though, isn’t there?’
  ‘Maybe, but there must be another explanation.’
  ‘Because supernatural events don’t happen.’
  ‘How can you be so sure?’
  ‘Because a God who acts in the world doesn’t exist.’

And round it goes again. It’s like talking to David Hume, on loop.
This is an extract from Andrew’s new book, If God Then What? Wondering Aloud about Truth, Origins and Redemption. It is out now, published by IVP who are offering a generous discount for readers of this blog.

← Prev article
Next article →