The Resurrection and Christopher Hitchens

Today is Easter, the celebration of the day on which Jesus was supposed to have been resurrected, an event upon which the entirety of biblical Christian faith rests. As St Paul once wrote,

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1Corinthians 15:17-19)

While many Christians have disagreed with Paul and have tried to find ways of distancing Jesus from such ‘embarrassing’ claims, the resurrection of Jesus is still the place in which I find my doubts most often stilled, and where proselytising atheists would do well to aim their attacks. In tandem with the incarnation (God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus), this is the central miracle of all the biblical miracles.

Christopher Hitchens was a much-loved atheist who sadly died of cancer recently, and he was one such opponent of the resurrection and the miraculous in general. Here is a clip that encapsulates many of his arguments that I’ve heard:

hitch

In the clip, he argues that the definition of ‘miracle’ is the ‘suspension of the natural order’. There may be some minor quibbles with the wording (Hitchens’ opponent in the video, for example, tries to insist on the word ‘intervention’), but it is basically good. Hitch then goes on to present David Hume’s old argument: Which is more likely? That a suspension of the natural order occurred in your favour, or that you’ve made a mistake?

Hume’s case against miracles

David Hume wrote a couple of essays opposing miracles, and his first ends with these words, which lie behind Hitchens’ argument:

‘When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority which I discover I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.’ (from http://www.bartleby.com/37/3/14.html)

Hitch claims that Hume’s argument here is ‘quite irrefutable’. I have written before on this subject, and so I’ll not rehash the debate in its entirety, but I think rather that CS Lewis made a strong case that Hume’s reasoning is in fact circular. Lewis argued that the question over whether or not miracles are possible is the same question as whether or not the laws of nature are entirely consistent. Hume, he claims, is merely asserting a ‘yes’ answer to the second question (that the laws of nature are consistent), and then using this conclusion to answer the first question (that miracles aren’t possible).

All that Hume is really able to prove is two things. Firstly, that miracles are very unlikely events for which other explanations are more probable—a contention that is virtually part of the definition of the word ‘miracle’, and so hardly earth-shattering. The second thing that he has proved is that a person who makes decisions on the basis of probabilities is justified in disbelieving reports of miracles; this is also a statement that I would have no difficulty in conceding. Miracles are—virtually per definition—improbable; if probability is your thing, you’re likely to place your bets elsewhere.

Yet what Hume has not really done is get anywhere near the main issue of whether or not miracles are possible. Because if one assumes for a minute that a miracle did actually happen—that a person rose from the dead, for example—and someone were to tell David Hume of it, he would still be as justified in rejecting the testimony on the basis of probability. Even seeing the resurrected person wouldn’t do, as it is still more likely that he wasn’t actually dead in the first place or that some other mistake has taken place. So Hume is saying nothing about miracles per se and everything about finding himself unwilling to believe them, no matter what.

Funnily enough, the Bible beat him to this conclusion. In Luke 16, Jesus tells a tale about a rich man who dies and finds himself in an unpleasant condition. He begs that someone be allowed to return from the grave to warn his brothers, but the response is:

‘He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”‘ (16:31)

Even in the Bible, miracles are not events that principally exist to dispel doubt and win converts.

Believing witnesses

So the probability of a spontaneous and miraculous resurrection is low by definition; neither Hume nor Hitchens have got very far telling us that. Hume says, ‘A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.’ This is true, but never entirely practicable. There are all sorts of occasions on which most of us throw our lot in with the improbable, because while the risks may be higher, the potential rewards are invariably greater. Civilisation is built upon such activities as asking someone better than oneself out on a date or starting one’s own business, but such things entail risk and probably disappointment. Living one’s life on the basis of probability may be safest, but it is not very life-affirming.

That being said, taking risk is not good in itself; even I would not advocate faith in a resurrection unless the supporting evidence were able to reduce the improbability considerably. In the video clip, Hitch also warns against uncritical belief in the miraculous,

‘especially if you didn’t see it yourself and you’re hearing it from someone who says that they did.’

I would also urge people not to believe that a miracle took place just because someone—even someone wholesome and religious— told you so. The spate of recent Christian books purporting to be from authors who visited heaven and lived to tell the tale irritate me by default. Nevertheless, we should also not be unduly cynical about the value of other people’s testimony. Yes, it is more difficult to believe someone else than to believe our own eyes, but only slightly. We happily distrust our own eyes all the time (say at an illusionist’s show), and if something unbelievable happens in our presence, we can rationalise it away if we need to.

Conversely, most of our knowledge is taken on trust, not on experience. We cannot progress without believing what others claim to have seen and done. Even Hume’s essay on miracles admits this necessity, but claims that we must accept witness only when it is more weighty than the probability that it is false (such as when it is so commonly experienced by credible people that it becomes impossible to doubt).

Resurrection support
So what evidence makes the resurrection of Jesus more believable? Well, for one thing, it did have the advantage of common experience; there were many people on many separate occasions who met Jesus after his execution and even ate with him. Whether these witnesses were credible or not is a matter of opinion, but it doesn’t hurt the case that the first witnesses were women, and that the disciples didn’t believe them. They didn’t anticipate a resurrection, and they found the suggestion—coming as it did from ‘unreliable’ witnesses—unconvincing. The gospels give many other accounts of followers of Jesus who met him again, even though it was contrary to their expectation.

There are many other reasons why this resurrection is possible enough to have happened, and I’ve mentioned some of the support in that previous post , so I will not rehearse more of it here. However, I’ll draw attention the the video clip once more. Hitch scores an audience chuckle when he argues that resurrections were ordinary in Jesus’ day. He says that the resurrection functions as proof of nothing,

‘Especially given the commonplace nature of resurrection of that time and place,’

referring to the raising of Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, the graves in Jerusalem that opened when Jesus was raised.

Hitchens is making a joke and so some slack can be cut, but in so doing, he is sneaking in a prejudice that we hold about people of long ago in order to cause us to doubt ancient testimony more than is warranted. We have been taught to believe that all ancient peoples were too primitive to know truth from fiction. Yet it is not at all true that people of that day easily believed in resurrections. Consider:

  • There was a common belief propagated by the Pharisees that there would be a cataclysmic end to all things, and the dead would be raised to a whole new reality, but not that people customarily came back from the dead. Another Jewish sect, the Sadducees, did not even believe in ‘last day’ resurrection part of it.
  • At the raising of Lazarus, Jesus said to Martha, ‘Your brother will rise again,’ and she interpreted it in this ‘new reality’ sense: ‘Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”‘ (John 11:24)
  • The raising of Lazarus led directly to an official sentence of death being passed upon Jesus, because it caused such a fuss that the politicians thought that Jesus would make a bid for kingship and invite Roman reprisal. Evidence of a resurrection was not received as a ‘banality’, either by commoner or ruler.
  • In 1 Corinthians 15, which pre-dates the writing of the Gospels, Paul is already meeting with the contention in the church that the dead are not raised (and therefore Jesus wasn’t).
  • Though Jesus is recorded as saying that he would die and rise, none of his disciples seem to have understood this to mean an actual resurrection; they didn’t expect it and they didn’t even take each others’ word for it (e.g. John 20:25).

It is not even as if the Palestinian countryside was thought to be overrun by re-animated corpses, as Hitch jokingly suggests. All the examples that he cites are those that are directly connected to Jesus and to his own life-giving resurrection.

Nevertheless, the main point of his argument is that the presence of the miraculous in the case of those other resurrections—even if true—would not demonstrate that anything much of consequence was true about Jesus. ‘You’re still left holding an empty sack,’ he says.

I don’t think that Jesus-as-supernatural-life-giver is as hollow as Hitch claims, but certainly in the case of Jesus’ own resurrection, I don’t think that the sack is empty at all.

Jesus’ death and resurrection are described as being planned. Not only did Jesus intend for his own execution, and view it as the means by which he would attain his kingship, but the New Testament repeatedly describes the death and resurrection of the king as a plan discernible in the scriptures written long before his birth. If this resurrection really happened and really was hundreds of years in the making, it is far more than an inexplicable spluttering to life of a flame thought extinguished. It is a vindication of a plan conceived in the mind of God.

It is for this reason that Christians place so much stock in it. It is the primary source of hope for a future that promises not just resuscitation—the restoration of old life—but recreated life patterned on the New and Perfected. Lazarus and the rest lived on for a short while and then died a second time. Jesus’ resurrection is to the strange and unknown form of the eternal life that he spoke about while he walked here.

The evidence in favour of his resurrection does not amount to proof, and according to the Gospels even some of those who saw it with their own eyes managed to persist in not believing. It is an event that still must be called improbable, and Hume’s wisdom may still have you doing your sums and concluding that doubt is the reasonable position. Nevertheless, God has only ever revealed Himself as One who trades in the improbable; if there’s even a chance, then it’s worth siding with Him.

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2 thoughts on “The Resurrection and Christopher Hitchens

  1. Mike Trautman says:

    Nice article, however I cannot agree with Jesus planning his own death. That smacks of a fatalism that cuts into the heart of the christian faith. Jesus’ death was a consequence of his faithfulness and not his plan. “His kingship” was one of trust and faithfulness not one of death. I understand the substitution atonement understanding of Jesus’ death but it is only one of the many ways that the early christians understood Jesus death. I understand I am on the minority’s side on this issue but the whole of Jesus’ life flows much better with his death and resurrection if one does not posit that Jesus only came to die. Just my thinking and I want to thank you for your reflection on this subject.

  2. Les says:

    Hi Mike,

    Is the God at ‘the heart of [your understanding of] the christian faith’ one who is so clueless about what will happen to him and thus figures things out (about what people/the devil will do) as he goes along?

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