So last night I went to the ‘Jesus on Trial’ event, at which a genuine judge, lawyers, and expert witnesses all debated the likelihood of the resurrection of Jesus.
What was good about the evening was that it got people talking – which is really the best place for genuine consideration and evaluation and possible-mind-changing to happen. I was talking to a Christian friend and a new sceptical acquaintance for a good while afterwards, until everyone else had left.
In terms of the arguments and strategies of the two sides, I think it was a bit of a mismatch.
Edwin Judge, who is a very well known ancient historian, acted in a way that one might expect an expert witness to act – speaking about his area of expertise as it related to questions from both lawyers. He certainly came across as a convinced believer, but he was reticent to speak outside of his expertise. He spoke slowly. On the other hand, Peter Slezak, who is a philosopher of science, came across as the all-guns-blazing atheist apologist. He spoke about all sorts of things in and out of his area of expertise, and he spoke very quickly.
Judge didn’t really have much opportunity to shine. He certainly said some useful things – for example, pointing out that in the context of the Roman political system, Pilate would have no obligation or interest in looking for a missing body of an executed criminal. But I did wish he had the opportunity to speak about the topic in its own right, rather than simply answering the narrow (and not always helpful) questions from the lawyers.
Slezak did use the opportunity better, to try to address the topic in its own right. He argued that miracles by definition are not possible, and require belief in God from the outset. However, when he strayed outside his area of expertise, he seemed defensively reliant on fringe biblical/historical scholarship. For example, he held that the so-called Gnostic Gospels were dated to the same time as the canonical Gospels. This is not a mainstream scholarly position. He also used a throwaway line from Bart Ehrman as though it was a representative position of all historians.
The lawyer making the case for the resurrection was much better when dealing with his own witness than when dealing with the atheist expert witness. One good point he made was that, according to a particular famous chief justice, the key to judicial analysis is not logic but experience. Thus we needed not simply to talk about logical possibilities, but to examine the reported experiences of the disciples in question. But for much of the time in the second half, this lawyer came across as flustered by Slezak’s aggressively apologetic approach. He didn’t seem to have a clear strategy, apart from giving the imprecise sense that he was not happy with Slezak’s insistence that belief in a miracle presupposes belief in God – and therefore is ruled out of court from the outset.
The lawyer making the case against the resurrection seemed more eloquent to me, but also lacked a clear singular case. At times he was trying to prove that miracles are untenable, and so an historical investigation is irrelevant; and at times, he was trying to prove that there are better historical explanations than those offered in the canonical Gospels and Paul. Some of his questions were good, but others seemed off-target to me, such as when he presumed that Paul’s mention of the ‘500 brothers’ in 1 Corinthians 15 has apologetic intentions. I completely disagree.
What I would have asked
There was a line opened up by Slezak that I would have pursued if I were the cross-questioning lawyer. In fact, I wanted to ask Slezak about this afterwards, but I didn’t manage to catch him. At one point Slezak said that there is a name for ‘miracles’ in the scientific community, and that is anomalies. He said that anomalies happen frequently in science labs. The appropriate response, he implied, is re-testing and sifting of evidence in the light of what is known, and perhaps continuing to hold certain things in tension until new evidence comes to light, by which they can be explained. Sometimes this eventually results in revolutions of understanding, such as the movement from Newtonian to Einsteinian models of physics. All of this makes sense. My question would have been this: When an anomaly occurs in the science lab, would the scientists conclude that the anomaly did not happen? This is in fact what he was asking us to do with the empty tomb and appearances of Jesus, the evidence for which he said he was willing to accept for the sake of argument. He was asking us to conclude that a risen Jesus did not in fact appear, despite the apparent evidence that such an anomaly had in fact been experienced.
I think the case against the resurrection had the stronger case on the night. This doesn’t mean I think they were right; just that they presented the stronger case. I think they were correct that a resurrection is inexplicable from a naturalistic perspective, and that therefore any other explanation, however implausible, is to be preferred if one is operating from that perspective. I think that they were not entirely correct, however, to say that belief in the resurrection of Jesus presupposes belief in God. It may presuppose this, but alternatively it may simply presuppose an openness to historical anomaly, and the possibility of God. This, in fact, has been the experience of many millions of people: reading the biblical accounts with an openness to the possibility of their being true has led them to convinced belief. Thus, they have come to believe in God because of the first century witness of the astonishing historical anomaly of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.