Chapter 3 of “Making the Case for Christianity” is not written by a theologian. It is written by an attorney; an attorney who is a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). His name is Craig Parton. His bio at the back of the book gives us the following information about him:
M.A., Simon Greenleaf School of Law; J.D., Hastings College of Law. Mr. Parton is a trial lawyer and a partner in a law firm in Southern California. He is also the American Director of the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism, and Human Rights. He is the author of Religion on Trial (2008) and The Defense Never Rests: A Lawyer’s Quest for the Gospel (2003).
Mr. Parton opens his chapter with this question (paraphrased): “Why should the public be interested in what lawyers have to say about the evidence for the resurrection?” He answers this question with this statement (exact quote): “Lawyers , then, can be expected to ask what facts and evidence exist for the resurrection and won’t be inclined to allow puffery to substitute for proof. Finally, trial lawyers go for verdicts. Unlike the eternal discussions of philosophers and theologians, lawsuits have finality to them. And in the realm of the resurrection, a verdict is required; it either happened or it did not. Trial lawyers argue for a verdict that is founded on fact, not on mere sentiment regarding how one wishes the world were constructed.” –page 70
On page 71, Mr. Parton makes this important point: “The primary interests of a trial, facts and evidence, are necessarily probabilistic in nature. Unlike the abstract realms of logic or mathematics, absolute certainty is not possible in the realm of empirical fact, as has been carefully shown by the analytic school of philosophy. So the case for the resurrection, like any matter of fact, must meet criteria of admissibility such as those found in the standards of either civil or criminal law. Make no mistake: these standards are rigorous; yet absolute certainty is never required for a verdict, even when the very life of a defendant is on the line.”
Gary: Ok, so Mr. Parton, a trial lawyer, is going to present evidence for the resurrection that would pass muster for admission in a (United States) court of law. He seems to believe that such evidence exists. He emphasizes that no court of law would demand evidence that gives us 100% certainty.
I don’t think most skeptics would demand that level of evidence for the resurrection. I believe that most skeptics want the same level of evidence that a court of law would demand to bring about a verdict of “truth” or “not the truth”. In other words, is the evidence strong enough that it would convince an unbiased jury in favor of the veracity of the claim before the court?
Mr. Parton continues, “…it is critical to know what we mean when we say we can “prove” the case for Christianity—and, in particular, the case for the resurrection of Jesus. We do not mean, and necessarily cannot mean, that other “possible” explanations do not exist, and that the case is therefore one hundred percent certain. Other explanations do exist, as we shall see; none, though, is the best explanation in light of the full scope of admissible evidence. Trial lawyers are not interested in possible explanations of events that meet some posited criteria of rational consistency. They are instead interested in the most probable explanation of events that takes into consideration the maximum amount of admissible data.”
Gary: So far, so good. We skeptics should not expect evidence that proves with 100% certainty that the resurrection occurred. We skeptics should accept evidence that indicates that this event probably occurred; evidence that points to the resurrection as the most probable explanation for the evidence out of all possible explanations. I am in full agreement with Mr. Parton.
Mr. Parton continues on page 73, “…the burden of proof for establishing the claims of Christianity in general and the resurrection in particular are on the Christian, since he is the one asserting an affirmative case, namely, that the resurrection occurred as described in the primary source documents.”
Gary: Amen! I love it. I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time a Christian has told me that the burden of proof is on skeptics to disprove the resurrection and other supernatural claims of the Bible. No, the burden of proof is on Christians. YOU are making the claim, you back it up. Thank you Mr. Parton for putting this issue to rest.
So, since Mr. Parton is arguing in favor of the argument, we are going to label him as the “prosecutor” in our hypothetical jury trial. And since I am arguing against the argument, I am going to be the opposing attorney; in a criminal case, I would be the defense attorney. Now, I am not an attorney. I don’t know all the rules of the court, but, I do not that as the defense attorney, I have the right to object to the admission of alleged evidence, and, I have a right to cross examine all witnesses and evidence.
Here is the argument as stated by Mr. Parton on page 74: “We will establish that the case for the central claim of Christianity (the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth) is established ‘beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty.’ “
Gary: Ok, so far. I and the prosecutor, Mr. Parton, are in full agreement on the argument in question and the level of certainty required to reach a verdict on that argument. Let’s see how long this agreement will last…
On page 78, Mr. Parton, makes this statement, “The assertion of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is, of course, presented in the New Testament materials. Elsewhere in this volume the case for the total reliability of those primary source documents has been made and the case for the reliability of the canonical Gospels as primary source documents, and the solidity of those materials (i.e., what we have is what the writers wrote and that they had every means, motive, and opportunity to get the facts right) is simply beyond serious dispute…”
Gary: Objection, Your Honor!
Wow! That was a slick move by our prosecuting attorney, Mr. Parton. He just tried to admit into evidence, as accepted statements of fact, the very documents which are on trial! If everything the Gospels say is established, accepted, reliable, statements of fact, we might as well close up the court and all go home! If the Gospels are reliable statements of fact, there is no point to this trial!
Not so fast, Mr. Parton. We, the opposing side do NOT accept your documents as reliable. We ask the court to require Mr. Parton to prove the reliability of his documents, here in court, under cross examination. Just because a couple of his theologian (Christian) buddies have told him these documents are reliable, is NOT proof that they are. Our side asserts that the majority expert opinion on the reliability of these documents is that they are NOT reliable eyewitness accounts. Our side agrees to abide by majority expert opinion on the reliability of these and any other documents presented as evidence.
This is one of the biggest problems with Christian apologetics, folks: They assume so many things! Mr. Parton assumes that Mr. Pierson thoroughly investigated the reliability of the Gospels. But Mr. Pierson states in his chapter of this book that eyewitnesses or their close associates wrote the Gospels; that the Book of Acts was written prior to 65 AD; that eyewitnesses were alive to verify the contents of the Book of Acts. However, as I have presented in the previous post on this blog, the majority of New Testament scholars do not agree with these bold statements of fact!
So it seems that Mr. Parton plans to build his entire legal case for the historicity of the resurrection on an assumption; an assumption based primarily on the faulty/sloppy scholarship of his theologian friend, Mr. Pierson, author of the second chapter of “Making the Case for Christianity”!
Mr. Parton, Page 79: “Did the resurrection occur in a way that can even be verified, or is it simply to be accepted on “faith”? Initially, we must deal with the objection that a resurrection is a supernatural miracle that has been shown to be both philosophically impossible (as argued by the Scottish philosopher David Hume) and scientifically dismissible (as argued with reference to Einsteinian physics).”
Gary: Excuse me, Your Honor. In an attempt to speed up these proceedings, our side will accept the possibility of miracles, virgin births, water-walking, resurrections, space levitations (ascensions), and all other manner of supernatural phenomena. We will not argue that these events are philosophically or scientifically impossible, only that they are improbable, the least probable of all possible explanations for any event occurring on planet earth during the entire existence of humankind—since they, by definition, are “miraculous”. They are not common, everyday occurring, events.
Mr. Parton, page 81: “…the eyewitness accounts had the benefit of circulating amongst hostile witnesses who had every resource, motive, and opportunity to refute the claim; that is, the testimony circulated in an atmosphere effectively constituting what the law deems “cross examination”.
Gary: Objection, Your Honor!
Mr. Parton has not proven his claim that these documents (the Gospels and the Book of Acts) are eyewitness accounts. The actual evidence is this: Most New Testament scholars do not believe that these documents were written by eyewitnesses. We challenge Mr. Parton to provide a credible source that states that it is the consensus opinion of NT scholars that these documents were written by eyewitnesses. Unless Mr. Parton can provide such a credible source for such a consensus opinion, his claim that these documents are eyewitness testimony is hearsay or simply that position of a minority of NT scholars.
In addition, Mr. Parton has provided zero evidence that these documents were written and in circulation during the lifetime of any person who was an eyewitness to these alleged events, either a friendly witness or a hostile witness. This statement is hearsay until Mr. Parton provides evidence, such as a name, of even one person who was alive when the first Gospel was written, and, who was given the opportunity to review the document for accuracy. For all we know, the first Gospel was written in the mid 70’s and by that time, all witnesses to the crucifixion of Jesus were dead.
Mr. Parton, page 81, “The contemporaneous written record in refutation of the resurrection is profoundly and hauntingly silent.”
Gary: Objection, Your Honor!
Just because there is no contemporaneous written record refuting the early Christian’s resurrection claim, is not proof that the resurrection happened. One possible reason for this silence is that no one took this small religious sect seriously. Maybe Jesus wasn’t considered significant; maybe he was considered by the Romans as just one in a long line of Jewish trouble makers. Maybe no one cared what his small band of Galilean peasant followers said about him. He was dead. That is what mattered to the Romans and Jewish authorities. The Gospels make Jesus out to be a big sensation, shaking the entire region of Palestine to its core, yet no contemporary, such a Philo, says a word about Jesus. He says a lot about Pilate, but nothing about Jesus. Odd. Does the absence of any mention of Jesus in the contemporaneous written record prove that Jesus did not exist? No. Of course not. But it does suggest that he wasn’t as big a deal as the gospel authors would like us to believe. And if Jesus wasn’t a big deal; the claim by a few wild-eyed, uneducated Galilean peasants that he had come back to life would not have been taken seriously.
Mr. Parton, footnotes, page 81, “Clearly, the nascent Church could have easily have been eliminated by the simple production of the body of Jesus. If he did not in fact rise from the dead, the Roman and Jewish leaders were clearly motivated and powerful enough to find and produce the body.”
Gary: Objection, Your Honor! This statement is predicated upon the historical accuracy of the stories in the Gospels, a claim not proven to this court. Based on the evidence available, it is possible that the earliest Christians based their belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, not on an empty tomb, but on alleged post-death appearances. There is no mention of an empty tomb anywhere in Paul’s writings, only the claim that Jesus had died, was buried, and on the third day, rose again. If Jesus’ body had been dumped into a common grave, days or weeks later, as was the typical Roman custom, the location known only to a few Roman soldiers…who forgot about it…who would know where to find a body once someone came up with the Empty Tomb story? And for all we know, no one had ever heard of the Empty Tomb story until it appeared in the Gospel of Mark, circa 70 AD!
Mr. Parton is once again making assumptions about alleged facts for which he has not provided convincing evidence.
Mr. Parton, page 82: “The fact is that the evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is as complete and as sound as any fact of the ancient world.”
Gary: Absolute and utter baloney, Your Honor! (Obviously, I would not get away with saying this in a court of law, but it would be what I was thinking.) Seriously, Mr. Parton, the evidence for the resurrection of the dead body of Jesus is as complete and sound as Alexander the Great’s siege of the city of Tyre? As complete and sound as Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon? Your Honor, I challenge Mr. Parton to present any public university world history text book that states that it is a fact of history that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead in circa 30 AD. I can find plenty of world history text books that state that the deeds of Alexander and Julius Caesar are historical facts, but do not even mention the alleged resurrection of Jesus.
Dear Reader, this is one of the most bogus claims that Christians make. Ask the world’s Muslims, Jews, and Hindus if they believe that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is as good as the evidence for other historical events in Antiquity. They will LAUGH in your face. It is an absurd assertion and an educated attorney such as Mr. Parton should know better than to make it.
Mr. Parton then goes on to state that there were only three groups who would be interested in stealing/moving the body of Jesus. Notice that this statement assumes that the Empty Tomb is an historical fact. For the sake of argument, let’s accept the Empty Tomb as historical fact. But here is the rub: There are MANY possible explanations for an empty grave/tomb! How can Christians delude themselves into believing that a never heard of before or since supernatural act by an invisible god (a resurrection) is more probable than someone moved or stole the body??? It just defies common sense! Yes, allowing for all possibilities, it is possible that an invisible ancient Hebrew god whisked the body out of the sealed grave in an act of “heavenly” magic. But come on! It is NOT the most probable explanation. Why do Christians jump to the least probable explanation before ruling out all other, much more probable, much more common, explanations for an empty grave?
Mr. Parton: “Similarly, any notion that the same witnesses who attest to the crucifixion and death of Jesus, and then to his appearance to them alive three days alter, were seeing ghosts, or were subject to delusional visions is utterly untenable. Christ’s bodily and fleshly resurrection admits no “ghost” imagery. He ate fish, walked along a road with his disciples, and aoffered his pierced side to Thomas for personal and tactile verification.”
Gary: Oh my goodness, Your Honor. Must I keep repeating myself? Mr. Parton has not proven that these documents are describing accurate historical events. For all we know these are legendary details that developed a few years or decades after Jesus’ death. Mr. Parton can claim that such legendary development is improbable, but I would counter that as improbable as a legend developing in a matter of years or decades might be, it is still much, much more probable than the reanimation of a dead body!
Mr. Parton: “…psychiatric research makes clear that mass delusion occurs only over highly unstable and short periods of time.”
Gary: Who says that there were mass sightings of the dead-but-resurrected Jesus? Answer: the very documents under suspicion! Let’s assume that the very earliest Christians believed that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to groups of people; we will assume this based on the Early Creed in First Corinthians 15. Does the Early Creed tell us that Jesus ate a meal with the disciples; that Jesus let them touch him, etc.? No. All the Early Creed says is that Jesus “appeared” to “the Twelve”, the “five hundred”, and “the apostles. No details. For all we know, Christians in the first century were “seeing” Jesus just as Catholic Christians have “seen” Mary over the last two thousand years. With no details, it is possible that all these groups simply saw a bright light on a hilltop for a few moments and believed it was Jesus.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, which is more probable: groups of mostly uneducated, very superstitious, first century peasants who are members of a new religious sect, see a bright light which they mistakenly perceive to be a heavenly being…or…they really did see a reanimated/resurrected dead body.
Mr. Parton goes on to give a rambling mini-sermon as his closing argument.
Gary: Here is my closing argument: The prosecution (Christian apologists such as Mr. Parton) have failed to provide convincing evidence that any of the claims of seeing a resurrected dead body during the forty days after Jesus’ death come from an eyewitness. The majority of NT scholars do not believe that ANY of the four Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. For all we know the detailed post-resurrection appearance stories in Matthew, Luke, and John are legendary tales. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, just as Mr. Parton said, neither side can give you evidence that provides 100% certainty on this question. You must decide this case based on probabilities. Mr. Parton is asking you to believe that a never heard of before or since event, which defies the laws of nature and the laws of medical science, occurred once, in circa 30 AD, two thousand years ago, all based on four anonymous books.
The prosecution is obligated to provide enough evidence to convince you that the claim in this case is more probable to be true than false. They have failed to provide such convincing evidence. They have provided mostly hearsay and poorly-supported assumptions.
The argument for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth must be rejected based on a lack of sufficient evidence.