Wednesday 28 December 2011

Absence of corpse isn't evidence of resurrection

I'm unsure why the "empty tomb" is supposed to be a big deal. If an inanimate object is placed at a particular location, and is subsequently not found where it was placed, one does not normally jump to the conclusion that the object moved of its own accord. Being inanimate, incapable of independent locomotion, the object — or rather its lack — is most likely to be explained by having been moved by a person or persons unknown. If the location in question is a tomb, and the object a corpse, the most plausible explanation for the corpse's absence is that it's been stolen.

Be that as it may, Gary R. Habermas expends some additional words in "The Empty Tomb of Jesus", Chapter 34 of Dembski & Licona's Evidence for God, on the "criterion of embarrassment" — that reports of the empty tomb came from women, whose testimony was at the time held to be generally less reliable than that of men. The problem with the criterion of embarrassment is that it cuts both ways, and is therefore worth very little: we can just as easily say, "it must be true because it's so incredible" as we can say, "it must be true because it's so credible." (Would the gospel accounts of the empty tomb be any more believable if they contained the reports of known liars, or children, or perhaps even talking donkeys? I think not.)

Unfortunately Habermas goes one worse, and like Michael Licona in the previous chapter engages in circular reasoning:
Fourth, most recent scholars seem to agree that, while Paul does not explicitly mention the empty tomb, the early tradition that this apostle reported to others in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 implies an empty tomb. The listing of the Gospel content moves from Jesus' death, to his burial, to his resurrection from the dead, to his appearances. This sequence strongly suggests that, however it may have been transformed, Jesus' body that died and was buried is the same one that was raised afterwards. Thus, what was placed in the ground is precisely what emerged. In short, what went down is what came up. Such a process would have resulted in the burial tomb being emptied.

That Paul does not specifically mention the empty tomb keeps this from being as strong a point as it could have been. Still, to say so clearly that Jesus' dead body was buried, raised, and appeared would be a rather strange process unless the tomb had been vacated in the process.
Habermas is implicitly using the empty tomb as evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (that's presumably why this chapter is included), but the paragraphs quoted above appear to use accounts of Jesus's post-mortem appearances as evidence for the tomb being empty. Do I need to point out again that this is a circular argument?

Then Habermas uses the well-worn trope of "would they die for a lie?" without examining the possibility that disciples might very well die for a delusion if they were sufficiently indoctrinated. The fact that the disciples were prepared to die for their beliefs has no bearing on whether those beliefs were true.

It does seem likely that the tomb was empty, but this only shows that the tomb did not contain a body. I find this unremarkable, and I'm at a loss to understand why Habermas is even concerned to establish it. Too bad I didn't get that chance to ask him myself.