In Defense of Visions: Objection One

Evangelical Christians will object to any naturalistic theory of Christian origins, especially those theories involving visions. Among the most well-known Christian critics of visionary hypotheses are William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, and James. P. Holding. One of the biggest objections that they bring against a theory of visionary origins of Christianity such as mine is that theories of visions do not explain the empty tomb. The purpose of this essay is to answer this objection. I leave it to readers to decide whether I have succeeded in this goal.

I must make some preliminary comments before proceeding to the answer. First of all, I believe that it's wise to differentiate between core historical facts and secondary details underlying any narrative from antiquity purporting to describe an event. I have no problem accepting an empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus as core historical facts underlying the resurrection narratives in the gospels. I do not, however, accept the historical inerrancy of the resurrection narratives. I believe that the secondary details are discrepant and impossibly inconsistent at several points. I do not wish to discuss these discrepancies here; rather, I wish to elaborate on core historical facts and the explanatory power of visionary theories in comparison with the explanatory power of the resurrection theory of Christianity.

Although I have no philosophical objections to accepting an empty tomb as a core historical fact, I do have serious reservations about accepting it as solidly factual. I do not find the arguments of William Lane Craig or Gary Habermas to be persuasive. However, rather than critique their attemtps to defend the empty tomb here, I wish to focus on a chief reason for my hesitation in accepting the empty tomb as historically factual. It's possible that the empty tomb originated as a symbolic creation. Historian and fellow atheist Richard Carrier has proposed the possibility that the empty tomb is a symbolic creation; pious historical fiction created to teach a metaphorical truth. In his essay "The Spiritual Body of Christ and the Legend of the Empty Tomb", Carrier proposes this possibility and argues that it's plausible that Mark used the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible, Orphic mythology, as well as a "reversal-of-expectation" motif in constructing his story of the empty tomb. Carrier argues that Mark falls into the genre of didadic hagiography and that the empty tomb is an example of a didadic creation of Mark to teach a spiritual truth. He argues that it was later taken as a core historical fact and was subsequently embellished as a legend in later gospels.

I have to say that while I agree that it's definitely possible and to a certain degree, it sounds fairly plausible, I lack the scholarly expertise to evaluate it on historical grounds. I find it possible, quite plausible, but I don't know what historical probability value I would assign to it. Even if Carrier is wrong about some of the details of his plausibility argument such as Mark using the Psalms to construct his empty tomb story, I see no reason to throw out the core of his theory, that is, the empty tomb story is a symbolic fiction. Even if Mark didn't use the Psalms, Orphic mythology, or any motifs involving expectations and their reversals, I see no reason that the core of this theory cannot be salvaged, say, with different plausibility arguments. I will leave it to those more informed and more expert than I am to evaluate Carrier's plausiblity arguments surrounding the core of his theory. I simply cannot rule out the possibility that Mark may have invented it as spiritual, didadic fiction, regardless of what sources Mark may or may not have used. I simply see no reason to toss out a perfectly viable baby with any bad bathwater. It's precisely because I cannot rule out the possibility that Carrier is right about the empty tomb being didadic fiction, I cannot agree with Christian apologists that the empty tomb is an incontrovertible historical fact.

If Carrier is right about the empty tomb being didadic fiction of sorts, then the objection that any theory of visions doens't explain the empty tomb is completely moot. If the empty tomb is not a core historical fact and Jesus was buried by other means, there is no reason to modify or adjust the explanatory power of any visionary hypothesis to accomodate something that never happened, historically speaking. However, I want to grant for the sake of discussion here that the empty tomb is indeed historical and is a core fact underlying the canonical gospels. So let's grant this as a core historical fact: Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimithea and the tomb was found empty. Are Christian apologists right then, that any hypothesis of visions does not explain the empty tomb? I don't think so. Traditionally, visionary theories or those involving hallucination (both individualist and group hallucinations that is) usually have limited explanatory power. I believe that the reason for this is because some liberal theologians and skeptical scholars think it's enough to simply describe what they believe the postmortem appearances were and don't bother to adjust the explanatory scope of any vision or hallucination theories to account for any empty tomb. Many of them simply regard the empty tomb as being some sort of legend or a mythical motif incorporated from Mystery Religions or some pagan cult theology.

I believe it's important to distinguish between the nature of a historical event and the cause of that event. It does no good to simply describe or explain what the event in question was in terms of its nature. If I accept the postmortem appearances of Jesus as as core historical fact, it simply does no good to describe the nature of such an event as a visionary experience involving altered-states-of-consciousness. I must specify what I believe the cause of these visionary experiences were if my hypothesis is to past muster and be taken seriously. Suppose, however, I was to propose that the empty tomb and ASC-visions were causually related. That is, whatever I believe to have caused the tomb to be emptied, I also believe to have caused the subsequent visions. Then, I will have grounds to adjust the explanatory scope of my visionary hypothesis of Christian origins to explain the empty tomb. Suppose I believed that Jesus was temporarily interred in the tomb by Joseph of Arimithea and was subsequently reburied elsewhere and that the reburial not only left the tomb empty but triggered visions among Jesus' followers. If I constructed such a theory, this theory would have sufficient enough explanatory scope to explain how the tomb got empty as well as what caused the followers of Jesus to have visionary experiences. In fact, I believe that a theory of reburial would probably be the best explanation if I accepted the empty tomb as a core historical fact.

This may not be sufficient in itself to fully answer the objection, but I do believe that it is a step in the right direction. Suppose reburial is historical implausible. I could simply opt for agnosticism regarding the the cause of the empty tomb. The point behind the hypothetical example of reburial triggering visions is that if the empty tomb is casually related to the postmortem appearances as both the resurrection theory of the Christian faith and my visionary hypothesis maintain, then any naturalistic theory of causation regarding the empty tomb must also, by causal necessity, explain the origin of postmortem appearances. To illustrate this, suppose that it was granted that the postmortem appearances were not naturalistically caused. Suppose Bill Craig or Gary Habermas was to establish with historical certainty that the empty tomb and postmortem appearances were supernaturally caused, regardless of what that supernatural cause was. Would that entail that the resurrection hypothesis of Christianity is true? No, it wouldn't. If the postmortem appearances and the empty tomb were both supernaturally caused, Christianity would not have naturalism to contend with but rival supernaturalist theologies to counter.

Suppose that Bill Craig or Gary Habermas was to demonstrate beyond all reasonble doubt to believers of rival religions or faiths such as Zoroastrians or Muslims that the empty tomb and postmortem appearances are not only historical facts but that they were supernaturally caused. That wouldn't compel Zoroastrians or Muslims to accept that Jesus rose from the dead. A Zoroastrian could argue that Ahura-Mazda had sent a angel or ghost, disguised as Jesus, to trick his followers into thinking that he rose from the dead. A Muslim could argue that Allah allowed an evil spirit, a demon if you will, to appear as Jesus in order to decieve Jesus' followers, because Allah wanted a rival religion to flourish so by the time that Islam originated, Allah could test the faith of Muslims with a heresy like the Christian gospel. In each of these rival supernaturalist hypotheses, it may be noted, that divine or demonic trickery has sufficient explanatory scope. The explanatory scope of these rival supernatural theories is able to explain both the empty tomb and the postmortem appearances of Jesus. These rival theories accept that the empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus are causally related and erect a theory of causation that explains both how the tomb got empty and why Jesus' followers believed that saw him alive after his death and burial.

Likewise, naturalistic theories of causation must have sufficient explanatory scope to explain both the cause of the empty tomb and the postmortem appearances. Thus, I can construct a theory of reburial, theft, or what-have-you which can both explain the cause of the emtpy tomb and the postmortem appearances. I can even opt for agnosticism and leave it an open question as to how the tomb got empty, but as long as I believe that whatever caused the tomb to be emptied also triggered subsequent visions in the followers of Jesus, I believe that the objection fails.

Suppose that Craig or Habermas accept that a naturalistic theory such as reburial or theft can explain the cause of the empty tomb as well as the origin of the postmortem appearances of Jesus. They might argue that, yes, the naturalistic theory has explanatory scope to accomodate these core historical facts, but these naturalistic theories seem rather ad hoc and are more complex than the resurrection and one is justified in accepting the resurrection because it is a simpler explanation. But is it always rational to accept a simpler theory? It is true that simpler theories always have greater explanatory scope. But there is a point where a theory can have too much explanatory power in which it explains everything, and actually doesn't really explain anything because there is no observation or fact which it cannot explain. Such a theory, having too much explanatory power ceases to be a simple theory and becomes simplistic. At this point I have two questions: is the resurrection theory really a simpler theory or is it a simplistic theory? If it is a simpler theory, are we rationally justified in accepting it?

This may seem like a silly question. Aren't we always justified in accepting a simpler theory; that is, a theory with greater explanatory scope? Usually, yes, but not always. There are some hypotheses which have greater explanatory scope than others but no human adult would be rationally justified in accepting it. Take for instance, the American holiday Christmas. Many kids will be taken to a local shopping mall where they believe that they will see Santa Claus and they will get to sit on his lap and tell him what they want for Christmas. Many of these same kids will wake up on Christmas morning and see Christmas gifts under the tree, all seemingly from jolly old St. Nick, just begging to be opened. I was one of these kids! I recall being taken to Southland Mall in Hayward, California one year when I was a little boy with my younger bother Daniel, and we both had our picture taken, sitting on the lap of the man we took to be Santa. That year, we found many wrapped gifts under the tree, all for us kids! If asked, I would have replied that Santa Claus was both at the mall and that he had visited my house that night before Christmas. Later I learned the ugly truth that the incident at the mall was staged and it wasn't Santa. I later discovered that my parents were in on it too, being that they were the ones who put the gifts under the tree and had forged the tags to make it seem like they really were from Santa Claus.

As to why some kids believe that they both 1.) see a man looking like Santa Claus at a local mall and 2.) they will open gifts placed under the tree with, we can put forth two hypotheses. The first is the "Santa Claus" hypothesis. This hypothesis states that there really is a jolly old man from the North Pole who does visit shopping malls before Christmas and really does visit houses, placing wrapped gifts under the tree for kids to discover and open the next morning. The second hypothesis is called the "Cultural Trickery" hypothesis. This hypothesis states that it is parents and other grown adults working in collusion with each other to fool kids into thinking that Santa Claus is real. According to this hypothesis, the man whom children see at the local shopping mall isn't Santa but is a man paid to dress up as Santa and hold the kids on his lap so the mall staff can take a picture. This hypothesis states that parents decieve their kids and put gifts under the tree, lying to them about a visit from Santa Claus, who bears gifts for kids as a reward for their behavior. Notice that the "Santa Claus" hypothesis is a much simpler explanation for the two observations 1 and 2 and that the "Cultural Trickery" hypothesis is a more complex theory of causation regarding observations 1 and 2. Should we not, then, accept the "Santa Claus" hypothesis as the more rational hypothesis because of its simplicity and greater explanatory scope? Not at all. I believe that it's more rational to accept the "Cultural Trickery" hypothesis despite the fact that it has a more limited explanatory scope.

We see, then, that greater explanatory scope doesn't always entail that the hypothesis or theory possessing it, is true or even rational to accept. The "Santa Claus" hypothesis is a simpler theory with greater explanatory scope than the "Cultural Trickery" hypothesis, yet the latter is clearly more rational to accept. The discredited ether theory is a simpler theory with greater explanatory scope according to maverick astronomers like Tom Van Flandern, yet most mainstream physicists believe that it's more rational to accept Einstein's theories of relativity. Hypotheses of alien encounters sharing superhuman technologies to explain the origin of the great pyramids of Egypt are much simpler and seem to possess greater explanatory scope than theories of purely human origin, yet it is these latter theories that are widely regarded by experts in ancient history and archeology to be far more rational than their rivals. The reason for this is that a given hypothesis or theory must have more to it than greater explanatory scope to be considered a best-explanatory inference.

And so I believe that a naturalistic theory can be constructed with sufficient enough explanatory scope to accomodate both the cause of the empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus. But suppose that particular naturalistic hypotheses such as reburial or theft were shown to be implausible. I would then vouch for agnosticism as far as the cause of the empty tomb and the postmortem appearances. Would the resurrection win as the inference-to-the-best-explanation then? I don't believe so. Let me recall an example I mentioned above, the theory that alien visitors with superhuman technology, are responsible for the origin of the pyramids of Egypt. Suppose that actual archeological or written evidence of the actual origins of the pyramids was nonexistent, forever lost to history. Would that make the alternative alien theories somehow more credible, more likely? Not really. In the lack of historical evidence for the actual origins of the Egyptian pyramids, I would simply choose to be agnostic. If the evidence for nonalien origins is nonexistent, lost perhaps forever to history, although it once defintely existed, I believe that agnosticism would be more rational.

Agnosticism would be prima facie more likely, more rational than any alternative theory of alien origins of the Egyptian pyramids, for a reason as simple as that alien theories are extraordinary theories requiring extraordinary evidence. Reasoning by means of analogy, then, even if I had no clue whatsoever as to what caused the empty tomb, I believe that because extraordinary or even supernatural evidence for the resurrection is lacking and the New Testament is historically errant, I would simply declare agnosticism as to the cause of the empty tomb. How the tomb got empty may be a mystery for all eternity, the evidence for how it got empty forever lost to all of history, yet I could still believe, quite rationally so, that the empty tomb did, indeed, trigger the visionary experiences of the followers of Jesus. Agnosticism, I would conclude, would be prima facie more likely than the resurrection theory or even what I regard as rival supernaturalist theories of the empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus. Thus, I believe that the objection of Evangelicals like Bill Craig, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, J.P. Holding (and not to mention the folks at Triablouge, such as my critic Jason) fail to fatally wound the visionary hypothesis that I am advocating.



BruceA said...

That's a fascinating analysis!

I'm a Christian but not an Evangelical, and for a long time I have been embarrassed by Evangelical apologetic arguments designed to "prove" the resurrection historically. You make a good point that, if all other explanations are improbable, it does not make the "resurrection hypothesis" a more rational conclusion.

One thing that struck me as I read your reburial scenario: Evangelicals will object that the authorities could have simply pointed to the new burial place and quelled the rumors. However, even as late as Paul's letters, some 20-30 years later, the empty tomb is never mentioned in conjunction with the resurrection.
So if, for the sake of argument, we take the empty tomb to be a historical fact, it was not considered an important fact until much later.

When Paul defended the resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians, he appealed to personal experience, even though he never met Jesus in the flesh. That's certainly consistent with the visionary hypothesis.

Anonymous said...

Matthew. All I can say is....WOW! I especially liked your analysis of whether or not we should accept the simpler theory when it has too much explanatory power. WOW! Excellent!

nsfl said...


How could they identify the body of an unembalmed person after even a mere 50 days of rotting? This objection is fairly weak. Pointing to a tomb would only prove some body was there.

Also, the "spiritual resurrection", including only visions, and not seeing a physical body, would not have impinged on whetehr or not the body was still buried.

Anonymous said...

As I wrote in another thread on this site, the Gospels were not in general circulation until the early 2nd century, and between the alleged crucifiction and resurrection of Jesus and the circulation of the Gospels, there was a war between the Romans and the Jews. Many inhabitants of Jerusalem perished during the Roman siege and capture of the city. So when apologists ask where are the contemporaries of the time trying to rebut the resurrection story, the answer is that they were likely dead or scattered as a results of the war from the late 60's to early 70's A.D. As a consequence of the war, an important perspective on the story of Jesus was lost.

Unknown said...

For those of you keeping tack, I am still working on my other posts and answering objections to visions. However, seeing that Jason Engwer has composed a rebuttal to my posts so far, I am actually planning on writing a rebuttal to Jason Engwer in depth and I hope to post it soon after I finish posting my other mini-essays.

I get the impression that Mr. Engwer is actually somewhat of a rising star in Protestant Christian apologetics, so I am actually flattered that he has deigned to answer my posts as he did. Normally, I don't care to respond to folks who contribute to Triablouge, but I feel that Mr. Engwer tends to warrant exception.

If Mr. Engwer would like to me to respond to what he has written, that's great, I have every intention of doing so! But he will have to be a bit on the patient side.

I hope many fellow infidels are looking forward to this, as I am!


Edwardtbabinski said...

Excellent job dealing with the attempts at philosophical sleight of hand, or, one-up-man-ship, by Christian apologists!

I agree that agnosticism concerning accounts of ancient miracles that are spread originally only by partisan "believers" seems more than warranted.

Take Josephus's mention of "Jesus" (which was also such a common name back then that he mentions twelve or more people with that name in his writings). Even if parts of Josephus's sentences about Jesus of Nazareth are authentic and not later Christian insertions, he still probably got his info from stories spread by partisan believers "about" Jesus who started the Jesus cult and spreading their stories a generation before Josephus began collecting stories around Jerusalem. Josephus also mentions miracles that had nothing to do with Christianity, miracle stories spread by Jews or pagans. In all cases he's simply collecting tales. And nobody assumes any of his other miraculous tales are beyond question. So the stories of the Christian miracle of the resurrection originated with partisan believers (and even their stories of the "words" allegedly spoken by the resurrected Jesus kept growing numerically over time). The earliest tale of the empty tomb [Mark] ends with a mere promise of seeing Jesus. The next earliest tale of the empty tomb [Mat.] adds a handful of so-called post-resurrection words, a mere brief early creedal statement easily put into Jesus's mouth, and even adds, "but some doubted."

By the time the later written Luke/Acts and John came about, they had the resurrected Jesus speaking HUNDREDS of words, and in both cases they added stories that made sure the raised Jesus would not be confused with a "spirit" at all, having Jesus in both their late Gospels take pains to convince them he was "not a spirit." (There must have been some doubt somewhere for them to protest to much in the last written Gospels!)

So the story grew in stages. (Luke doesn't even bother to have the apostles run off to Galilee where Mark and Matthew claimed the raised Jesus first went and where the apostles had to go to first see him. Instead, Luke changes the message at the tomb. I invite all to go read how Luke changes the so-called sacrosanct "word of God" as found in Mark and Matthew.) There are other changes as well from Gospel to Gospel. In Mark it's a mere young man at the tomb, the same phrase being used of the young man whom Mark says followed after Jesus the night he was arrested and who had to flee into the night naked, but who is clothed come Sunday morning at the tomb. The later Gospel writers of course delete the entire early Markan story about the young man following Jesus at his arrest and change that young man at the tomb into one angel and then two!

Also keep in mind that the earliest followers of Jesus had various problems they HAD to find ways to deal with. They had perhaps left their families to follow someone whom they thought was a messiah [literally, an "anointed one," as were kings and prophets in ancient Israel], even THE messiah, who at baptism [in the earliest Gospel, Mark] said he saw the Spirit of God choosing him to be God's "son," as the earliest Gospel author cites a line from a psalm sung at the coronation of Hebrew kings in ancient Israel ("You are my son, this day have I begotten you.") But both messiah and the phrase, "son of God, this day I have anointed you," are ancient Hebrew metaphors applied to human beings. And that is how the earliest Gospel [Mark] depicted Jesus. So after leaving their families to follow Jesus the anointed son of God who preached messages about the kingdom of God, and after entering Jersualem, perhaps to the cheers of some crowds, they saw their fearless leader summarily executed, which meant they had to deal with some cognitive dissonance, i.e., the problem of having wasted their lives and time following not the messiah and son of God and preacher of God's present and coming kingdom, but a dead end, instead. Does the mind simply give up in such cases? Psychological studies of people in other religions that wound up at dead ends prove that in such cases some give up, but others take their beliefs to a new level of insistance and persistance, raising the stakes in invisible holy realms, and in spite of all earthly disappointments. That appears to be what the apostles did to solve their problem of cognitive dissonance.

The solution was denial of the earthly and concentration on the heavenly assertion even more strongly of the truth of Jesus' mission and his closeness to God, even his resurrection, and seat next to God in heaven. The fact that the first century had people willing to "see" things that way, rather than bow to Roman Imperialism is what gave the religion its birth. And I think some of Jesus' teachings as in his parables about the kingdom of God also attracted people and helped make him a larger than life figure, providing the seed of the new religion.