Resurrection Belief Discussed by Scott at Serene Musings

“The Epistemology of Resurrection Belief” is the title of an essay I wrote for the book The Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue. Scott, over at Serene Musings, has read my essay carefully and made a couple of critical comments that I thought I might respond to here.

I want to say, first, that I appreciate the respectful tone of Scott’s comments. He doesn’t hesitate to say where he agrees with me, and he disagrees in a spirit of good will.

I argue in my essay that N. T. Wright, a Christian theist, aims for methodological neutrality in his historical analysis of the evidence for and against a literal bodily resurrection of Jesus in the first century; in contrast, Dom Crossan’s methodology is inherently naturalistic. Whereas Wright explicitly endorses classical Christian theism, Crossan explicitly denies classical Christian theism. Their metaphysical commitments are quite different. Crossan’s metaphysical commitments play a greater role in his analysis of the historical evidence than do Wright’s metaphysical commitments in his analysis of the same evidence. I believe that Wright’s method is more properly historical than Crossan’s, though I’m less confident than Wright that the historical evidence alone warrants belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Scott argues that Wright and Crossan are equally biased by their respective metaphysical commitments in their appraisal of the historical evidence.

Wright believes that the historical evidence strongly indicates that Jesus died, was buried in a tomb, and rose again. Crossan believes that Jesus died by crucifixion, was not entombed, and did not rise from the dead. Wright and Crossan agree that first century believers affirmed the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus and that a significant number of them also claimed to have seen Jesus alive again following his death and burial. Wright and Crossan also agree that these would-be eyewitnesses were sincere in their testimony and were not hallucinating.

So what explains the difference in their respective conclusions about the resurrection of Jesus? The answer lies in Crossan’s explanation of the facts agreed upon. Crossan maintains that those who claimed to see Jesus alive again were actually having apparitional experiences, typical of those who grieve at the loss of a loved one. In other words, Crossan extrapolates from recent cases of this type of experience to the nature of the experiences by those who believed they had seen Jesus alive again after his crucifixion.

There are a number of problems with Crossan’s proposal that I don’t get into in my essay. A special psychological phenomenon plays a key role in his explanation of the testimonial evidence. But Crossan’s description of this phenomenon is sketchy. More important, Crossan fails to acknowledge the relevance of the fact that this phenomenon does not occur in all instances of grief over the loss of a loved one. It is far more likely that it will not be experienced than that it will. Those who attest to having “apparitional” experiences of a deceased person do not generally conclude that the person had literally risen from the dead. Apparitional experiences of the kind Crossan attributes to alleged eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus would differ in detail from one person to the next, if they were to happen to several individuals at the same time and in the same place (which is unlikely in itself). Also, since it is reported that many were witnesses to the resurrected Jesus, it is likely that some, at least, were less intimately acquainted with Jesus prior to his crucifixion, and so were unlikely candidates for apparitional experiences of him following his death. Finally, there is no special evidence that what the alleged eyewitnesses actually experienced was apparitional in character. People of that time period were no strangers to death, and many of those who claimed to see Jesus alive would have been intimately acquainted with others who had died. This makes it very unlikely that they mistook an apparitional experience for a literal resurrection, and continued to believe in a literal resurrection for the rest of their days.

So why does Crossan find his explanation so attractive? The main point I make against Crossan is that his explanation of the agreed upon facts is motivated by a kind of naturalism. He can think of no other possible explanation because he denies theism.

In contrast, Wright, who is a theist, is open to a fuller range of possibilities. This need not be because he is a theist. Any historian who sought to investigate the evidence for and against the resurrection might conclude that it is likely that Jesus rose from the dead. Even a naturalist might come to such a conclusion. Of course, the question arises, What is the best explanation for the resurrection, if Jesus did in fact rise from the dead? Some Christian theists, as I note in my essay, argue that the best explanation is that God raised Jesus from the dead. I myself believe this would be the best explanation, unless there was strong independent evidence for the non-existence of God.

But I argue further in my essay that, because the event of the resurrection of Jesus would be a historical singularity, it would be difficult to settle the matter in favor of a literal resurrection on the basis of historical evidence alone. So on the basis of such evidence, a historian might acknowledge that there is considerable evidence that a resurrection occurred, but remain agnostic unless and until evidence of some other kind could warrant belief in the occurrence of such a singularity. Thus, if there was strong evidence for the existence of God, and especially of a kind that suggested that God might favor Jesus in some special way, then the historical evidence, in combination with this evidence for theism, might justify belief in the resurrection for people living in the modern era.

Oddly, I think, Wright does not consider theism to be such a superior explanation for the resurrection of Jesus that one who believes Jesus rose from the dead should also believe in God. Conceding the first, one should, I think, infer the other. But a confident judgment regarding the actual occurrence of the resurrection, however strong the historical evidence may be, may depend on the availability of independent evidence for the existence of God. It is on this point that Wright and I disagree.


In response to Scott’s blog, a comment was posted by someone identified as “G.P.” That person seems to have explained my position remarkably well, without having read my essay. Thank you, G.P., whoever you are!

And thank you, Scott, for getting the discussion going!

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

6 Responses to Resurrection Belief Discussed by Scott at Serene Musings

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Scott,

    First, which facts about the life of Jesus are you thinking of? Second, are these acknowledged to be facts across the range of critical scholars?

    Third: My point in the passage you quote (and it’s surrounding context) concerns the nature of historical evidence in relation to inferring a supernatural explanation, and one that is, to be more precise, theistic. Adding to the historical evidence would not, in the nature of the case, change the equation. The central question I raise is whether historical evidence (not inherently naturalistic, I allow) can bear the weight of an inference on that scale. Can the truth of a worldview, no substantive part of which is already approved on independent grounds, be demonstrated by this means?



  2. Rob says:

    “But I argue further in my essay that, because the event of the resurrection of Jesus would be a historical singularity, it would be difficult to settle the matter in favor of a literal resurrection on the basis of historical evidence alone.”


    In making this comment are you also considering the historical evidence of Jesus’s life? If friends of some average first century Palestinian were for some reason certain that their friend had risen from the dead in the way the early Christians were, then I would agree with your statement. But, aren’t the almost undisputed facts about Jesus’s life enough to make you think the natural apparitions/hallucinations would be too coincidental to be plausible? One of the precious few men (arguably the only man) who led a life we might think worthy of the Incarnate God just so happens to be the one who these unexplainable extremely convincing apparitions concern? Really? That’s hard for me to swallow even without other arguments for God.



  3. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi David,

    Of course, there would be no philosophy without philosophers.


  4. David says:

    I heard your reading of the paper on the Greer-Heard CD set. NT Wright made the statement that he loves philosophy but hates philosophers! I do love his humor. 🙂


  5. Doug Geivett says:

    Thank you, Matthew. I hope to see you at my blog again!


  6. Mathew James says:

    Great post, it was very informative. I think its a must read.


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