Biblical Inerrancy and the Resurrection

“[A]nd if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.”  (I Cor. 15:14)

Despite the title, I’m not actually going to delve too deeply into the whole inerrancy issue in this post. In fact, I’m not even going to get into detail about the evidences & arguments for the Resurrection Hypothesis that will be referenced. What I am going to do is introduce a challenge made to Dr. William Lane Craig, one of the premier Christian philosophers and apologists of our time, and his interesting — and probably unanticipated by most — initial response to said challenge.

William Lane Craig smiling at podium

Dr. William Lane Craig

On his primary website (reasonablefaith.org), Dr. Craig accepts questions on various theological & philosophical topics from fans and skeptics alike. Sometimes (I’m not sure how often), he chooses one of the missives and posts a fairly thorough, layman-friendly, and amiable response. A few months ago, one friendly skeptic — going by “D.” — wrote a somewhat lengthy note, which began as follows:

“I just finished reading your very thoughtful book The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus with the sincere goal that it would resolve my doubts about the resurrection of Jesus, which you rightly insist is the central doctrine of Christianity, without which Christianity unravels. Though raised a Christian, I long ago left the church because of doubts about the historical reliability of the Bible. I am not a member of any religion. Still, I try to keep an open mind and occasionally revisit the Christian doctrine in hopes of finding some way to reconcile my doubts.

Unfortunately, I found that your book failed to address my key doubts regarding the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection found in the four gospels.”

An honest inquiry by someone ostensibly in search of the Truth. D then listed nine “qualms” he was having with the case as presented by Craig in his book. When I read them, my own first instinct was to start digging into various apologetics resources to see how others have responded to such challenges. As Dr. Craig pointed out, they were a mix of those dealing with the facts of the matter (e.g., resurrected saints, witnesses at the tomb) and others that questioned the best explanation of the facts (e.g., bodily resurrection vs. hallucinations and legends). They were thoughtful but nothing new, really. However, instead of addressing these issues right away, Dr. Craig first honed in on something in D’s initial remarks — namely, his leaving the church “because of doubts about the historical reliability of the Bible.”

Here is Dr. Craig’s reaction:

“When I read this, I thought, “What an odd thing to do!” Why not simply adjust your theology so that the Bible is taken to be a fallible human witness to God’s self-revelation in history, or less radically, so that divine inspiration of Scripture doesn’t entail biblical inerrancy? Why this “all or nothing” attitude? Why would such relatively minor qualms as yours about the reliability of the Gospel accounts call into question Jesus’ deity and resurrection or the existence of God?

I can’t help but suspect that the reason is that you had a defective system of theological beliefs. We can think of our theology like a web, with certain beliefs near the center of the web and others further out nearer the perimeter. Too many conservative Christians have the doctrine of biblical inerrancy at or near the center of their web of beliefs, so that if that belief is compromised the whole structure of the web collapses and they lose their Christian faith.

This is quite wrong-headed. At the center of our web of beliefs should be certain essential doctrines like the existence of God and the deity of Christ and then a little further out the doctrine of, say, the atonement, and further out still doctrines like the sacraments and biblical inspiration and its possible corollary biblical inerrancy. If one of the central doctrines is abandoned, then the whole web, indeed, collapses. But if a belief near the circumference is discarded, while that will cause readjustments elsewhere in the web, it won’t compromise the structure of the whole. If your qualms were to remain unallayed, then you would be justified at most in giving up a doctrine of biblical inerrancy, but you should not abandon Christ.”

To be honest, a couple of the statements above seemed a tad harsh to me, at first. But, I’ve heard Dr. Craig often enough to know that he is very good-natured, so I know that wasn’t his intent. (As we’ll see in a minute, he is actually trying to encourage D.) More to the point, I think Dr. Craig makes a very good observation regarding the tendency of many Christians to give certain doctrines the wrong priority. For example, specific interpretations & details about Creation and End Times seem to get undue attention in some quarters, even becoming de facto tests of orthodoxy. This can be dangerous for precisely the reason he gives. Sometimes, a wrong understanding of doctrinal priorities can impede a skeptic’s journey to faith, as well.

I think a web, or concentric circles, is a helpful way to think about it.

“Indeed, D., on the basis of your qualms you needn’t abandon even a strong apologetic case for the historicity of the resurrection! My Doktorvater in Munich Wolfhart Pannenberg has opined that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are so legendary that they have scarcely a historical kernel in them; yet he stunned German theology by arguing for the historicity of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances and empty tomb and, hence, for his resurrection sheerly on historical grounds.

In fact, my own case for Jesus’ resurrection would not be touched by most of the qualms you express. I present a two step argument for Jesus’ resurrection: first, that there are three facts which any responsible historian who wants to give an account of Jesus must explain, and second, that the Resurrection Hypothesis is the best explanation of those facts. The three facts are very modestly stated:

Empty tomb with linens1. On the Sunday morning after his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his female followers.

2. Various individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death.

3. The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead despite having nearly every predisposition to the contrary.

The strength of my case -— which only dawned me afterwards -— is that these three facts represent the mainstream judgement of New Testament scholarship today. These are not the exclusive property of evangelical scholars but represent the view held by the wide majority of New Testament critics who have written on the subject.

Now this should be tremendously encouraging to you! Doubts about the historicity of Matt. 27:51-53 or the number of angels at the tomb or the names of the women at the tomb become, if not irrelevant, then at least unimportant with respect to the case for Jesus’ resurrection. You can and should be a vibrant Christian despite your qualms.

So the point is, I’m not engaged in the same project that concerns you: I’m not trying to demonstrate the reliability of the Gospel accounts. Rather I’m weighing the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I claim, not to be able to establish the general reliability of the Gospel accounts, but to establish those three specific facts listed above and to show that the best explanation of those facts is the hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead.” Achievement of that limited goal would neither justify belief in the Gospels’ general reliability nor does it require it.”

Dr. Craig did, of course, go on to address D’s 9 qualms, some of which I may address in a subsequent post. But, I found Dr. Craig’s observation & point above to be intriguing and thought I’d present it to you for consideration. Can you (or someone you know) identify with D’s struggle with the historicity or inerrancy issue? Any reactions to Dr. Craig’s admonishment & encouragement, one way or the other?

One final thing: Happy Resurrection Day!!

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