Rationality vs. The Resurrection

What is it that can make debates about our origins so bitter, not to mention ineffective at convincing one side that the other is "right" on an issue? It is not the different sets of beliefs. We disagree with numerous individuals on a regular basis without the slightest tinge of malice. That's not the problem. What is the problem is the ardent displays of disgust that come from defenders of both sides of an issue. This disgust expresses our contempt for the other's idea of what it means to "prove" something true or false. Each side is rendered speechless when their opponents do not automatically acknowledge errors and change their minds. Each side doesn't like the responses the other side makes to their arguments--what's new, right?

Minds grow apart in a debate the longer the proposition is disputed. Then attitudes show up and begin to hammer in the progess-halting and oh-so-common, "Sheesh, I can't believe you believe that crap!" mentality. We come to the table with unrealistic expectations. We want the man representing our side of the issue to "win" against his opponent. This is a bad outlook to have. It is no wonder such little progress is made in debates, which should be seen as opportunities, teaching tools to stimulate thought, rather than platforms for irresistible conversions: "You will be assimilated! Resistance is futile!"

It seems that we humans forget how diverse the human experience is. Both nature and nurture tailor-make how we see the world. We would be fools to think a few hours presenting logical syllogisms and advancing our take on ancient religious writings will undo a lifetime of contrary conditioning. This is painful for us to admit since we instinctively like to feel as though we are not only right, but able to convince someone else who has the necessary mental "hardware" to see reason. No one would want to believe this more than me, but I have come to learn that it's not quite that simple! People may have every bit the hardware required to comprehend a more logical belief system, but not the "software."

The mental software for accepting an opponent's position can only be acquired when our minds can see and apply a principle, which in turn, makes the position in question rational, permitting it's acceptance. For instance, if I am explaining to a Christian why Jesus did not rise from the dead, I will accomplish nothing by saying, "We have no evidence that a dead Jew ever rose from the dead." We could go back and forth on what we consider "evidence" for a risen Jew, but we haven't laid the foundation yet. The "software" to accept my naturalistic premise has not yet been installed. What is it? What undercuts debating the merits of a dead Jew being resurrected is basic philosophical naturalism; when this principle is understood and accepted, it explains for us why it is not rational to believe that a Jew living 2,000 years ago died and was resurrected; nature tells me such things don't happen, despite the fact that we'd like to believe more than anything that they do. If a believer cannot adopt an understanding of the naturalistic premise, then the likelihood of a fruitful discussion continuing is doomed from the start.

The naturalistic hypothesis cannot be swept under the rug as some rancid product of a prune-faced atheist with a frown, whose mind has been hardened without remedy by a life of misfortune and bad parenting. Naturalism belongs to no one camp of thought. It exists in every normal human being. The very reason the Christian is atheistic to every other god but their own shows this to be valid. Even before Christianity is considered, every sane man is ready to admit that if resurrections do happen, they certainly don't happen all the time! In fact, because we learn from living that everyone dies and does not come back to life, the religiously minded man or woman is more than prepared to accept that perhaps just one man ever came back to life and ascended to the right hand of God. This can only be attributed to rationality at work, however limited. The dead do not rise, we do not observe extra terrestrial beings among us, gravity is real, the sun has a certain number of effects on our global climate. Some would dispute one or two of these assertions, but even among those who would, they would be very selective about it. Why? Because to some extent, we must take these truths for granted to make any real sense of things. Since it is obvious everyone doesn't rise from the dead, the question arises as to who rises and who does not? Who has risen from the dead and who has not? What have we established? We've established that a resurrection, if possible, is a very rare event!

Now we can ask the question, "Did Jesus rise from the dead?" In order to do this, we would have to have an idea of what could possibly constitute proof of this sort of thing that long ago. Historical testimonies? Well, history and miracles just don't mix (how will you be able to tell what actually happened in history and what didn't if a naturalistic assumption is not in place?), but if we proceed anyway, we now have the towering task of ascertaining what type of historical testimonies and other "evidence" we have at our disposal to sift through. What do we find upon considering the evidence? Jesus wasn't the only one raised from the dead! And this is interesting because we have already established that if indeed resurrections occur, they do not occur very often at all. Julius Caesar was believed to have ascended bodily to heaven. The god Zalmoxis was said to rise from the dead. Herod thought John the Baptist had risen from the grave (Matthew 14:2). The Jews believed Elijah and other prophets were manifested in Jesus (Matthew 16:14). This list can become extensive. Suddenly, we run into an all too familiar problem; how do we determine which claims are legend and which are fact? Christians and skeptics can now begin to go round on the details as to which accounts seem to have the most credibility, but now the believer has an up-hill battle. It must be conceded that the first century atmosphere was ripe with believers of every slant and shade. Supporters of the supernatural were dangerously abundant (and I mean that literally)! This cannot be overstated. So in trying to determine if at least one first century man was raised to life, it is now very difficult to determine why it is more rational to believe so when it is far easier to accept that like all other superstitious people, we have just one more glorified myth--one that happened to make it to the top of the pile of beliefs in our day and time.

I say from the heart that I am overjoyed to know that reality operates by laws. It's nice to come home and find that my spaghetti doesn't jump out of the pan and onto the ceiling at random. It's wonderful to find that mosquito bites do not transform us into green blobs of protoplasm for a year until we can inexplicably morph back into ourselves. It's exciting to find that star's and the sun's rising is not based on what we humans do or do not do! The universe follows sets of laws that make it possible to be rationally understood. In a world without much comfort, it is at least nice to see that we can take baby steps towards understanding it.

My favorite prophets are astronomers. They can predict the moment of a sunrise, details of the weather, solar activity, eclipses, and to an ever-increasing extent, disasters and ways to avoid the perils they bring. Yes, I like a universe that can be rationally understood. Now I am perfectly prepared to accept that a great many things will come along that I will not be able to understand. This is not the problem. The trouble is when my fellow humans become so enraptured in a desire to believe a dead Jew rose from the grave for their own sake that they are no longer comfortable accepting that the likelihood of this happening is out-of-the-ballpark unthinkable. Reason tells us it did not happen. Nothing would enliven my heart more than to be able to accept that because a Jew died 2,000 years ago, I can and will see my loved ones, my dogs, and my dearly departed friends in an afterlife of paradise. The question now is, "Am I going to call for an exception to natural law just to preserve my own happiness?" As much as I'd love to, that would be selfish and self-deceiving of me.

Why should I deny reality in view of an afterlife? Why does it need to exist? Why should I even be concerned with the subject? Why should I assume for even a moment that my grim destiny is any different from that of the other animals? Fact is, I want to believe in a resurrection, I don't need to. Wanting to believe in something is not enough to get it consideration as a possible truth, especially when that something would turn everything we know about the natural world on it's head! That being the case, I am supplied with no compelling reason to fight common sense in support of the wishful belief that I am somehow reserved for a special destiny, one "beyond the sunset."

I suppose then that seeking justification to believe in a resurrection just boils down to whether or not we will override our selfishness to preserve a solid understanding of what we perceive to be the truth of the natural order.



  1. Dear Mr. Holman,

    I very much appreciate your candor in this essay. I like your tone, I like what you have to say about debates, about "winning", about interlocutors seeking to learn from each other.

    Now, may I address some of your main points?

    I wonder if you notice how much your argument about accepting the naturalist's assumptions is structurally identical with most Christian arguments in favor of Christ's divinity (for example). You say that, 'People may have every bit the hardware required to comprehend a more logical belief system, but not the "software."' I am assuming that you mean that some folks are unable to discern -- due to some deficiency caused in the engines of nature and nurture -- the reasonable perspective someone like you might hold. Do I have this right? Are you saying that some people have the CPU but don't have the Code, the Program, to maximize their CPU's potential? Would you not agree that you are suggesting that some people LACK something, and that if they would but open themselves, if they would just ask for help, if they would submit to a rigorous form of study, they might begin to understand things as they really are?

    You see, this is the Christian argument for conversion, isn't it? One needs to open one's heart and mind: the hardware is fine, but what one needs to see properly is the software of the Holy Spirit. Nature, nurture, it does not matter. What matters is submitting oneself to those who are superior; to those with knowledge; it is to petition the great minds for illumination. Those who misunderstand lack something, which is that they must first be filled with the Spirit.

    Do I have this wrong? If not, does this not place some naturalists in the curiously elevated spot of being privileged, of being endowed with a sort of anti-spiritual gift, a sort of prophetic place among the blind, deaf and dumb? Are not the clear-thinking, free-thinking naturalists the priests and pastors of a new revelation (new, at least, to those who have not received it)? One must become a supplicant before the great pantheon of naturalistic truths in order to be in good standing.

    It seems one can make a strong case that this is so.

    Also, there is nothing irrational about Jesus's resurrection. In fact, it can't be irrational at all. It is a simple either/or: Either he rose from the dead or he didn't. Irrational Christians sound like this: Either Jesus rose from the dead or this post smells like blue rain. But that is not how Christians think: they think perfectly logically in this matter. So, it is not irrational to believe in the resurrection in this simple way. It might simply be wrong to assert that Jesus did, in fact, rise from the dead. But even wrong answers can be reached rationally. Reason does not dictate truth, at least not always. Reason dictates validity.

    Now, I am a bit stumped by your naturalism. If the dead do not rise from the dead, as you say, then it is clear that there is no reason to discuss this. But if Pontius Pilate accepted your fundamentalistic belief in nature's laws, then there would be nothing gained if Pontius Pilate, along with Carl Sagan, CNN, and Richard Dawkins, spent several nights in a tomb with the crucified Jesus. There is nothing there naturalism could even investigate or study since, as you've said, naturalism KNOWS that no one rises from the dead. Hence, no amount of evidence, no amount of anomalies to the naturalist paradigm, no discussion of criteria and no amount of video from CNN, could help those gathered in the tomb. The dead DON'T rise, so there is no science necessary to support this. End of discussion.

    But much of this all seems to be inductive and not deductive reasoning: This man over here is dead in his own tomb, as is that man over there; and this woman, and this dog. Plus, this fish, this blade of grass and this rosebud are all dead, and remain so. Hence, all things die, and all things stay dead. The problem, of course, is that we presume to know too many things, namely, that we know "all things". We don't. Besides, this sort of argument is based on a fallacy having to do with our limited sense of time. If there is no consciousness in death, then being dead for one second or a billion years means nothing: we who are living are biased in favor of resurrections that occur on our time scale. I mean, we think 2,000 years is a long time, while the cosmos considers it naught but a blink of the eye. Perhaps -- and no one can disprove this -- everything will be resurrected in the far off future, a future that is far off to us but hardly far off to the actual cosmos. We are arguing against resurrection perhaps because we are impatient. Really, all we can is this: no resurrection has occurred YET as FAR AS WE KNOW.

    You say that you are happy that reality operates by laws. What reality is that? Your relationship with your wife, girlfriend, daughter, son, colleague? How about chaos and quantum theory; where is the order in the subatomic world? You are glad that your spaghetti does not fly around the room; I am glad of that too. But there is nothing in the cosmos that will enable any scientists to make this pronouncement: Your spaghetti WILL NOT fly around the room tomorrow. Nor is there any law that says it can't. You are content that scientists can predict sunsets. I am content with that as well. But the fact is that there is not a single scientist who can predict whether the sun will rise tomorrow; or if the sun will even exist tomorrow. What you are referring to as laws are again only inductively reached ideas: you have not found an exception to them. But you cannot say that there are NO exceptions, only that you have not yet found one. I believe that there are no laws ultimately, only patterns that the human mind sees, embraces, and becomes comfortable with. We impose an order that may not be there. We know one tiny bit of the cosmos, and our paradigm fits only so much. We have yet to really know whether our paradigm actually fits more than this little bit. Exceptions might assail us with the tumult of 10,000 September 11ths come tomorrow morning. No scientist can predict this sort of very real possibility. In fact, science grows when exceptions are found. And they are not only found, they sometimes just happen. We stumble on them, and we do not always stumble on them following some sort of law.

    Anyhow, I ramble. I must be off!



  2. "Reason does not dictate truth, at least not always. Reason dictates validity."

    So, by all reason the resurrection is not valid, so how can it be accepted as truth? Simple, it can't until it is validated, and at this point there is nothing in the natural world which will validate it.

  3. Dear Noogatiger,

    I think you are confusing validity with proof or truth or certainty. One does not use logic to prove truth, only the validity of reasoning.

    Here is a syllogism that is valid:

    I. All men are white paper.
    II. Paul is a man.
    C: Therefore, Paul is white paper.

    There is nothing true in this, but it is valid nonetheless.

    Here is an invalid argument that is true:

    I. If I am at home, then you will have responded to my post.
    II. You have responded to my post.
    C: Therefore, I am at home.

    See the difference? One can be invalid/irrational and still be right (I am at home). One can be rational/valid and be wrong. (Perhaps, in my haste, I have given bad examples, but I think they should suffice as they stand.)

    Your argument, I hope you see, is inductive: it essentially repeats what I've said already: AT THIS POINT (your words) there is nothing in the world which proves the resurrection. But AT THIS POINT merely means there are as yet no exceptions to the rule that all things that die stay dead. But there is no way for us to know that there CAN NEVER be any exceptions. All we know is that there probably aren't any. This does not tell us a thing about how things are in and of themselves. It merely tells us about our limitations.

    If the resurrection happened, there would be nothing irrational about it, though there might be something in it that contradicts certain overly-hasty conclusions. If the resurrection did not happen, there would not be anything irrational about that fact either.

    There is nothing irrational in concluding, inductively, that the resurrection is a viable explanation for what allegedly happened. The resurrection explains a particular set of evidentiary statements; though it does not mean it NECESSARILY explains those statements. There is not a person in Christendom alive today that has ever argued that the resurrection is a certainty. What we all need to remember, is that most truth claims do not attain certainty either. Faith is far more prevalent than most rationalists will acknowledge; faith prevails even among rationalists.

    I hope this explains my point a little more completely. Perhaps not. Forgive me if I've muddied the waters.

    Peace, always,


  4. Don't know why you're trying to overthink this, contratimes, but the point is, before we even begin to consider wild possibilities, the most logical lines of thinking preclude a resurrection.


  5. JH, I too am a former minister turned atheist. I was a minister for 23 years, have been an "unbeliever" for the past 2. As a minister I found that I was trapped in my beliefs due to my career depending on maintaining those beliefs. I came to hate what I was doing, but felt a responsibility to support my family, and so I endured. As it happened, I was let go due to a financial downturn in the church. Though I did not initiate the separation, nonetheless I am thankful for the freedom of thought I now enjoy.

    Thanks for your very informative articles!



  6. Joe,

    Just curious -- why do you think that this unargued capitulation to metaphysical naturalism is "the most logical line of argument"? The most doctrinaire naturalists I know do not think that they have anything better than a hopeful induction for their position. Certainly the contrary position is not a science-stopper.


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