Robert M. Price Shows William Lane Craig's Apologetics Is a "Sham"

The following is the text of a portion of their 1999 Ohio State University debate on the question “Did Jesus of Nazareth Rise from the Dead?” the audio of which was published on October 17, 2013, This text was published as an Appendix in my book, Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End.

Dr. Craig often appeals to the consensus of New Testament scholars on behalf of conservative views. By contrast, I am glad to confess that the opinion of the majority of scholars makes no difference whatever to me. In fact, in the Gospels, after all, it’s the consensus of scholars in the Sanhedrin that condemns Jesus to death. As Francis Schaeffer used to say, “You can’t settle the question of truth by majority vote.” I think Martin Luther and Galileo and others knew that, too.

If I am interested in a question, I must examine the issues for myself. I reject, for example, Velikovsky’s astronomy, not because the academy sneers at it, which I guess they do, but because his methodology seems flawed to me, as I understand it. And forgive me, but so does Dr. Craig’s.

First, let me call attention to two fundamental axioms of Dr. Craig’s work. The first is what strikes me as a kind of double-truth model. The second is the old red-herring attempt to evade the principle of historical analogy, by means of the claim that critics reject miracle stories only because they espouse philosophical naturalism. The second follows from the first, and both commit the fallacy of ad hominem argumentation, even while projecting it onto the opponent.

I think he tips his hand at the end of the first chapter of his book Reasonable Faith. He draws a distinction there between knowing Christianity is true and showing that it is true. He says,

What, then, should be our approach in apologetics? It should be something like this: “My friend, I know Christianity is true because God’s Spirit lives in me and assures me that it is true, and you can know it too because God is knocking at the door of your heart, telling you the same thing. If you are sincerely seeking God, then God will give you assurance that the Gospel is true. Now, to show you it’s true, I’ll share with you some arguments and evidence that I really find convincing. But should my argument seem weak and unconvincing to you, that’s my fault, not God’s. It only shows that I’m a poor apologist, not that the Gospel is untrue. Whatever you think of my arguments, God still loves you and holds you accountable. I’ll do my best to present good arguments to you, but ultimately you have to deal not with arguments, but with God himself.” (page 48)

A little further on, he saith,

Unbelief is at the root a spiritual, not an intellectual, problem. Sometimes an unbeliever will throw up an intellectual smokescreen so that he can avoid personal, existential involvement with the Gospel. (pages 49–50)

Dr. Craig then freely admits his conviction arises from purely subjective factors. To me, it sounds no different in principle from the teenage Mormon doorknocker. He tells you he knows the Book of Mormon was written by ancient Americans because he has a warm, swelling feeling inside when he asks God if it’s true.

Certain intellectual questions have to receive certain answers, then, to be consistent with this revivalistic, heartwarming experience, so Dr. Craig knows in advance, for example, that Strauss and Bultmann must have been wrong, and by hook or by crook he’ll find a way to get from here to there. His enterprise is circular, since he grounds Christian belief upon a subjective state described already in Christian theological terminology: God’s Spirit dwelling in his heart, etc.

Dr. Craig seems to admit that he holds his faith on purely subjective grounds, but maintains that he’s lucky to discover that the facts, objectively considered, happen to bear out his faith. Whereas, theoretically, his faith might not prove true to the facts, in actually—whew!—it does. In any case, it’s obvious from the same quotes that the arguments are ultimately beside the point. If an unbeliever doesn’t see the cogency of Dr. Craig’s brand of New Testament criticism, the same thing exactly as his apologetics, it can only be because the doubter has some guilty secret to hide and doesn’t want to repent and let Jesus run his life. If one sincerely seeks God, Dr. Craig’s arguments will mysteriously start looking pretty good to him.

Dr. Craig’s frank expression to his fellow evangelists and apologists is quite revealing. He tells you to say to the unbeliever that you find these arguments really convincing, but how can Dr. Craig simply take this for granted unless, as I’m sure he does, he knows he is writing to people for whom the cogency of the arguments is a foregone conclusion. They’re arguments in behalf of a position his readers are already committed to as an a priori party line.

His is a position that exalts voluntaristic decision above rational deliberation. Rational deliberation, though good, is by itself not good enough for the evangelist because it can never justify a quick decision, such as Campus Crusades’ booklet “The Four Spiritual Laws” solicits. Every one of Dr. Craig’s scholarly articles on the resurrection implicitly ends with that little decision card for the reader to sign to invite Jesus into his heart as his personal savior. He’s not trying to do disinterested historical or exegetical research; he’s trying to get folks saved. I know the feeling. I used to be the president of an Inter-Varsity chapter.

Note how he characterizes people who do not accept his version of the historical Jesus as “unbelievers” who merely cast up “smokescreens” of insincere carping. But this functions as a mirror image of his own enterprise. His apparently self-effacing pose—“If my arguments fail to convince, then I must have done a poor job of explaining them”—just reveals the whole exercise to be a sham. The arguments are offered cynically, whatever it takes. If they don’t work, take your pick between brimstone—“God holds you accountable”—and treacle—“God still loves you.”

I’m not saying Dr. Craig is wittingly distorting the truth to win his point; obviously he’s not. But he is so committed to a dogmatic party line that he cannot see truth as meaning anything but that party line, just as Kelly a moment ago said that “Truth ought to mean a person, not an abstract concept.” In Dr. Craig’s lexicon, you look up truth, and it says, “See ‘Gospel.’” To borrow Francis Schaeffer’s terminology again, for the apologist, truth becomes merely a connotation word. Just as liberal theologian Albrecht Ritschl said, “Jesus has the value of God for us,” the apologist might say, “Christianity has the value of truth for us.” Just as William James said that righteous endeavor was the moral equivalent of war, for apologists, Christianity is the moral equivalent of truth.

Only it doesn’t work. For Ritschlianism, Jesus was in fact not God. For William James, moral endeavor was not in fact war. Even so, anything that substitutes for the truth may be preferred to the truth, but then it’s a fiction.

If the charge that unbelievers are hiding behind a smokescreen is a mirror image of the apologist’s own strategy, then the “naturalistic presuppositions” business is a specific instance of such childish “I know you are, but what am I?” tactics. Does it take a blanket presupposition for an historian to discount some miracle stories, like Elisha’s axe head on the one extreme or the resurrection of Jesus on the other, as legendary? No, because as Bultmann recognized, there is no problem accepting reports even of extraordinary things that we can verify as still occurring today, like faith healings and exorcisms. However you may wish to account for them, you can go to certain meetings and see scenes resembling those in the Gospels, so it is by no means a matter of rejecting all miracle stories on principle.

Biblical critics are not like Carl Sagan or James Randi, going into every investigation already convinced that the paranormal must be a fraud. No, they take miracle stories on a case-by-case basis. But such a selective, piecemeal, and probabilistic acceptance of miracle stories is not what apologists want. They take umbrage that biblical critics do not wind up accepting any and all biblical miracles. So, if it would not require a blanket principle to reject the historicity of particular miracle stories, we must ask if it would take a blanket principle to require acceptance of all biblical miracles. Clearly, it would, and that principle cannot be mere supernaturalism, that is, openness to the possibility that miracles can occur. One can believe God capable of anything without believing that he actually did everything anybody may say he did. One can believe in the possibility of miracles without believing that every reported miracle must have occurred. No, the requisite principle for accepting all biblical miracles is the principle of biblical inerrancy, the belief that all biblical narratives are historically accurate simply because they appear in the Bible. After all, it will not greatly upset Dr. Craig any more than it upset Warfield to deny the historical accuracy of medieval reports of miracles wrought by the Virgin Mary or the sacramental wafer, much less stories of miracles wrought by Gautama Buddha or Apollonius of Tyana.

Supernaturalism is not at all the issue here. The issue is whether the historian is to abdicate his role as a sifter of evidence by accepting the dogma of inerrancy, even if clandestinely. I know Dr. Craig says he is sticking only to the elements of the Gospel story accepted as historical by most scholars, but this is only tactical. He’s shortening the apologetical line of defense. Once he has you in the fold, he’ll press on to full inerrantism.

Nor is naturalism the issue when the historian employs the principle of analogy. As F. H. Bradley showed in The Presuppositions of Critical History, no historical inference is possible unless the historian assumes a basic analogy of past experience with present experience. If we do not grant this, nothing will seem amiss in believing stories that A turned into a werewolf or B changed lead into gold. “Hey, just because we don’t see it happening today doesn’t prove it never did!” One could just as easily accept the historicity of Jack and the Beanstalk on the same basis as long as one’s sole criterion for historical plausibility is “Anything goes.” If there are ancient parallel legends about other saviors and sages rising from death or ascending into heaven, but there is no present-day instance, is the historian to be maligned as a narrow dogmatist or a moral coward refusing to repent if he judges the story of Jesus’ resurrection as probably a legend, too?

The historical axiom of analogy does not dogmatize. Critical historians are not engaging in metaphysics and epistemology as if they could hop into a time machine and pontificate, “A didn’t happen, B did!” Again, Dr. Craig and his brethren are just projecting. It is they and not critical historians who want to be able to point to sure results. Imagine a creed: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in thy heart that God hath probably raised him from the dead, thou shalt most likely be saved.” Now, who’s the joke on there? Historians don’t have creeds. They frame hypotheses. Sure, you can find some hidebound prof, some small-minded, insecure windbag who will not budge from a pet theory because he has too much personally invested in it, but you have no trouble recognizing such a person as a hack, a fake, a bad historian who ought to know better: Holocaust deniers, for example. The last thing you do is to emulate such behavior and make it into an operating principle. But apologists do; again, it’s projection.

It reduces to this: At the end of the “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet, there’s a cartoon diagram showing a toy locomotive engine labeled “Fact” pulling a coal car labeled “Faith,” followed in turn by a superfluous caboose tagged “Feeling.” The new convert is admonished to let faith rest on fact, not to allow faith to waver with feelings. But one must suspect that it is the caboose that is pulling the train, and pulling it backward. Faith is based “firmly” on feeling, and certain notions are postulated as fact and defended as such because of the security they afford the sick soul who seeks a port in the existential storm.

Dr. Craig has had occasion to cross swords with John Dominic Crossan. One need not agree with Crossan—I seldom do—to appreciate that he is however an innovative and creative New Testament scholar, that he marshals his vast learning in an attempt to find out new things from the Gospels. Crossan is concerned to advance the state of knowledge; contrast him with Dr. Craig who uses his own formidable erudition in one vast damage control operation. Every effort of Dr. Craig’s is to squelch new theories that threaten to cast doubt on the traditional picture of the storybook Jesus. One feels that Dr. Craig would sooner put his efforts elsewhere than putting out fires lit by Bultmann, Strauss, and Crossan. If he had his way, he’d be occupied with something more edifying; at least that’s the feeling I get.

Evangelicals think they’ve got the truth in their back pocket, so they can’t be trying to find what they think they’ve already got. Novelty is the devil. They expend great time and efforts mastering the skills of Greek and Hebrew exegesis. Witness the unparalleled excellence of Dallas Theological Seminary in these areas. But for what? All their efforts at exegesis are the laborings of a mountain to bring forth a mouse. If one of them really comes up with something new theologically, it will result in immediate charges of heresy. The effort is solely to hold the fort against the advance of intellectual history.

Dr. Craig everywhere presupposes a precritical picture of the Gospels as straightforward records of reporting, without tendential bias. He tries to make the Markan empty tomb tale a piece of sober contemporary history. We’re told that the story is unvarnished history, since it betrays no signs of theological tendency. No theological coloring? In a story told to attest the resurrection of the Son of God from the dead? What else is it? Isn’t it all varnish, Formica instead of wood?

Charles Talbert (by the way, no God-hating atheist, but a Southern Baptist), in his book What Is a Gospel? has no trouble adducing abundant parallels from Hellenistic hero biographies, in which the ascensions into heaven of Romulus, Aeneas, Hercules, Aristaeus, Empedocles, Apollonius, etc., are inferred from the utter failure of their searching disciples to find any vestige of their bones, bodies, or clothing where they might be expected to be found. Sometimes, they make a postmortem appearance to their grieving and worshipful followers. These stories, like all ancient miracle tales, include the element of initial skepticism by the disciples, who are then convinced despite themselves. It’s just a narrative device. None of them are factual reports.

Talbert concludes that the empty tomb and resurrection stories in the Gospels would have been familiar genres to ancient readers, as of course they were. Pagan critics hastened to point out the similarities, and Christian apologists lamely countered that Satan had counterfeited the Gospel episodes in advance to throw unbelievers off the track.

Contra Dr. Craig, the empty tomb story is theological through and through. If we’re truly interested in history, how can we dismiss other ancient “vanished body and postmortem appearance” stories, making an exception in the single case of Jesus who just happens to be the founder of our religion? And once we recognize the Gospel resurrection narratives to be cut from the same cloth, all questions of whether the women went to the wrong tomb, or if the disciples stole the body (or borrowed it or whatever!), or whether the Sanhedrin could have produced it with dental records to prove who it was, or whether the disciples saw hallucinations, or a case of mistaken identity, it’s all seen to be moot.


John W. Loftus is a philosopher and counter-apologist credited with 12 critically acclaimed books, including The Case against Miracles, God and Horrendous Suffering, and Varieties of Jesus Mythicism. Please support DC by sharing our posts, or by subscribing, donating, or buying our books at Amazon. Thank you so much!