Sunday, March 24, 2013

God's Wisdom In Choosing The Resurrection Witnesses

A common objection to the resurrection is that the risen Jesus didn't appear to more and better witnesses. Why didn't he appear to Pilate, Tiberius, or the Roman senate, for example?

I've addressed that objection in previous posts. I won't repeat all that I said. What I want to do here is focus on several of the issues involved.

Why do people raise alternatives like Pilate and Tiberius? Apparently because of factors like fame and political power. Wouldn't a converted Pilate or Tiberius have had more influence on the world than somebody like Mary Magdalene, Peter, or Paul? Let's focus on Paul, who was a non-Christian at the time he saw the risen Jesus, as Pilate and Tiberius would have been. Why would God appear to Paul, but not to individuals like Pilate and Tiberius?

One problem with that sort of objection is that it's too focused on considerations like fame and political influence. Somebody like Tiberius could have achieved more politically than Paul did. But Tiberius lacked some character traits, experiences, and other advantages Paul had.

For one thing, what sort of conversion carries more evidential value? The conversion of a political leader who was only mildly opposed to Christianity? Or the conversion of somebody who had more hatred toward the movement and was at the forefront of persecuting it?

And we can't limit ourselves to what men like Pilate, Tiberius, and Paul were at the time of Jesus' resurrection. We also have to take into account what they would become and how they'd influence later history. We know that Paul's influence has been enormous. Don't just think of his travels, his church planting, his laying the groundwork of Christian theology, the example he set for others to follow, and other work he did during his lifetime. Also think of his influence on later generations. He had a major transformative effect on some of the most influential figures in history, men like Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Wesley. Why should we think the influence of somebody like Pilate or Tiberius would have been better? Take the example of a political leader who did claim to experience a Christian miracle and did convert to Christianity, Constantine. Did Constantine have more influence than Paul? In some ways, but not in others.

And God wouldn't have to limit himself to one or the other. He could work through somebody like Paul, then work through somebody like Constantine later. Why not work through both at the same time, though (e.g., Paul and Tiberius)? The two would be mutually exclusive in some contexts. It might be better, for a variety of reasons, for Christianity to be born into adversity, then attain more social standing as it matured. A persecuted church might produce better character formation, better evidence for the sincerity of the earliest Christians, etc. Whatever good Constantine did, I suspect that far more people have been helped by reading the writings of Paul than by reading the writings of Constantine. If we don't limit ourselves to the status of men like Tiberius and Paul at the time when Jesus rose from the dead, but instead also take into account the larger scope of history, Jesus' decision to appear to Paul seems eminently wise and tremendously fruitful. The results of Paul's conversion reflect well on the decision to appear to him. And the absence of appearances to some other individuals may have produced a better atmosphere for Christianity to grow in.

It was common for opponents of Christianity in the ancient world to attribute Christian miracles to trickery, magic, or demonic power. Maybe men like Pilate and Tiberius would have reacted that way if Jesus had appeared to them. Maybe they would have become nominal or immature Christians. They may have been placed where they were, including being placed in a position in which they wouldn't see the resurrected Jesus, because they wouldn't have reacted well (Acts 17:26-27). They and other leaders of the world of that day had a lot of other evidence for Christianity, such as the empty tomb and the testimony of those who did see the risen Jesus, and we know they didn't react well to that evidence.

"God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that he may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God….Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy….God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men." (1 Corinthians 1:27-29, 4:1-2, 4:9)


  1. When people make objections like "why didn't Jesus appear to Pilate", or whoever, they're really arguing "it can't be true because I wouldn't have done it that way". Bart Ehrman does this all the time. It's his stock argument against the inspiration of scripture. God however, as you've pointed out, is not obligated to "do it my way".

  2. There is no witness problem as according to the gospels armies of the undead roamed the streets of Jerusalem. The real problem is the absolute silence of contemporary historians about such an extreme event. This is not easily explained away.

    1. PhaseVelocity,

      You're changing the subject, misrepresenting what Matthew 27 actually says, and ignoring what we've already written on the subject. If you think ancient historians recorded everything "extreme" that occurred, then you have an absurd view of ancient historiography. In the modern world, where our records are much less fragmentary, atheists and other critics of the paranormal frequently ignore contemporary reports of the paranormal, even when there's a large amount of accompanying evidence. Whether an event is "extreme" isn't the only factor that determines whether that event is mentioned in a particular source.