Wednesday, September 21, 2022

What should we make of Jesus' resurrection appearances to biased believers?

About five minutes into one of his recent programs, Greg Koukl responded to the objection that it's suspicious that the risen Jesus only appeared to people who already believed in him. Koukl made a lot of good points in response to the objection, but I want to expand on some of the issues involved.

The unbelief of Jesus' disciples around the time of his resurrection is agreed upon by the earliest and best sources we have, and they agree about some unusual details that are unlikely to have been fabricated (e.g., Peter's denying that he knew Jesus, the discovery of the empty tomb by a group of Jesus' female followers). The unlikelihood of the early Christians' making up the unbelief of the disciples is underscored by how often and how emphatically the apostasy of Judas and Peter's denying Christ were cited against Christianity by its early enemies (e.g., John Cook, The Interpretation Of The New Testament In Greco-Roman Paganism [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002], 48, 158-159, 210-212, 247, 315-316).

Regarding the disciples' (and others') willingness to suffer, and sometimes die, for belief in Jesus' resurrection, see my series of posts here. That series goes into a lot of detail, including issues I've seldom or never seen discussed elsewhere. There's material on whether the disciples are likely to have had an opportunity to recant their claims about Jesus' resurrection in order to avoid suffering or death, what early non-Christian sources said about the death of the apostles, etc.

Concerning Jesus' appearances to people who were unbelievers in the stronger sense (people who had never believed prior to that time), see here. I suspect Jesus appeared to at least a double-digit number of non-Christians. There has to be a reason why more than five hundred people were gathered in one of the appearance contexts (1 Corinthians 15:6), and there has to be a reason why Jesus' preannounced appearance in Matthew 28:16 was arranged to be at a mountainside setting. 1 Corinthians 15:6 and Matthew 28:16 shed light on each other. The most efficient explanation for the details of both passages is that they're referring to the same appearance. Given the nature of ancient Jewish culture and particular types of relationships (e.g., family members often traveling with each other), it's more likely than not that some non-Christians were present during the appearance to more than five hundred, regardless of whether it occurred in the context of Matthew 28:16 or elsewhere.

On the bias issue, see here. One of the points to keep in mind is the one Koukl made about the biases of non-Christians. Everybody is biased. So what? Bias is just one factor among many others that should be taken into account. Acting as if it's the only factor or the primary one is ridiculous. Think of all of the biases non-Christians are regularly involved in: atheists with a bias favoring atheism, Muslims with a bias favoring Islam, biased Roman sources giving us information about the Roman empire, biased scientists reporting the results of their experiments, biased relatives giving you information about their lives, etc. I've been making these points for years against Christians and other political conservatives who are too dismissive of media reports because of the bias of the media. I can't count how many times I've had discussions with other Christians about how dangerous it is for them to be so dismissive of the media, such as by acting as if citing media bias is sufficient reason to reject something that's reported. It's a widespread problem in both Christian and non-Christian circles. Non-Christians who are upset with Christians (and others) for being too dismissive of the media because of bias allegations should be critical of their own dismissiveness of Christian sources on the basis of their biases. We all need to be careful to not exaggerate the significance of bias. It's a factor to take into account, but it's frequently overestimated (because of fear that what the biased source is reporting is true, because of being too lazy to think more deeply and do more research, or because of whatever other reason).

And it's not as though the resurrection appearances are the only evidence we have for the resurrection. See here for some examples of other lines of evidence, like the empty tomb, which was acknowledged by both the early Jewish and the early pagan opponents of Christianity.

The other miracles of Jesus didn't just occur in front of believers. The gospels repeatedly place his pre-resurrection miracles in highly public settings, and the same is true of what sources like Acts and Paul's letters tell us about the miracles of the apostles. Paul cited his public miracles as a vindication of his apostleship when responding to critics. The typical response to Jesus' miracles by the earliest opponents of Christianity was to claim that Jesus was empowered by Satan, a sorcerer, or a magician. Christian miracles in our day haven't just occurred in private either, and they often have accompanying medical documentation and other supporting evidence.

Critics frequently reject miracles even when they're caught on video. Much of Christian prophecy fulfillment consists of modern events supported by a lot of evidence and ancient events widely acknowledged by critics. You can always ask for more evidence, but asking for more doesn't explain what you already have. And see the last paragraph here regarding other problems with objecting that there isn't more evidence.

1 comment:

  1. Another point about bias is that in this case bias does not lead us to expect mere *mistake* on the part of the alleged witnesses, given the nature of what they claimed happened. It's not as though bias in itself is going to make you think that a group of you had breakfast with a close friend when, in fact, the friend wasn't there at all. When one tries to picture what that would even mean, one gets a picture of the disciples sitting around having a conversation in a group with a non-existent Jesus and passing him fish! Mere bias isn't going to give rise to that. In contrast, a media report that is not first-hand could be false in virtue of the fact that the reporter reported a mere rumor as fact.

    On the hypothesis of lying, of course, biased media reporters seldom suffer any negative consequences for false stories, even if they are blatantly invented. In fact, for some publications, their continuing to have a job might depend on their reporting a story that advances the bias of the publication. (This may be true on both sides of the political spectrum, by the way, though people will have their own ideas of whether it is more of a factor on one side or another. I do myself. But for the moment I'm just making the general point about penalties for lying when one writes a news story and how that relates to political bias.)