Recently I came across an article by a really smart skeptic who goes by the handle of ‘Non-Alchemist’. I’ve crossed philosophical swords with him in the past over Twitter, and he’s a good guy who always makes me think. I greatly appreciate him for that.
The blog post is titled ‘Why The Historical Case For The Resurrection Is Less Important Than You Think’. As Christians, we tend to think that a robust argument for the resurrection is all we need to prove Christianity. That argument fails for reason that the Torah says specifically that miracles don’t necessarily prove a divine revelation. Non-Alchemist writes:
“Deuteronomy 13 informs us that Yahweh is willing to test his people’s faithfulness through signs and wonders from false prophets. This means that “signs and wonders by themselves don’t prove anything…If one cannot show that Christianity is the true culmination of Judaism, arguments from miracles are irrelevant”. Put another way — a passage in the Christian Bible explicitly states that the methods by which one can tell the difference between a true prophet and a false prophet have nothing to do with signs and wonders. Zip. Zilch. Nada.”
So he’s co-opting a Jewish argument against Christianity for skepticism here, and I think he’s right in pointing out that there’s not a lot of Christian response to it. But immediately I notice that there’s a massive problem with this line of reasoning. If we’re going to use Jewish scriptures to make this argument, then we also have to look at what they say about the resurrection from the dead.
Resurrection: God’s Thing.
Deuteronomy 32:39 says:
“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”
And 1 Samuel 2:6 says:
“The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.”
Plus, in the prophets, resurrection to the immortality of life is God’s prerogative only. (Isaiah 26:19, Ezekiel 37:1–14, Daniel 12:2–3) There is no other spiritual being that has the power to do perform such a powerful act. So the only alternative we have is to say that God raised Jesus from the dead as a test of faith for the Jews.
Would God Lie to Test Israel’s Faith?
But there’s a pretty fundamental problem here. Scripture elsewhere tells us it’s impossible for God to lie. (Num 23:19, 1 Sam 15:29) It seems out of character for God to do something like raising Jesus from the dead to prove Israel’s faith. I just don’t find these ideas very convincing. Neither does Christian philosopher William Lane Craig. In a recent Q+A, here’s how he responded to this objection:
…it seems to me that the question is pretty straightforward: which hypothesis is more plausible? I think it is far more plausible to think that God has the sovereign freedom to do something new and unexpected in Jesus than to think that He has the character of a Deceiver such as you describe. How confident are you that you’ve got it all sewed up so nice and neat that you know that God would not bring along a Messiah-like Jesus? Maybe you’re mistaken about that. How can you be so sure? Part of the difficulty here is that I don’t think we have any good reason to think that the God of the Hebrew Bible exists apart from Jesus and his resurrection. It’s because I believe in Jesus that I believe in the Jewish God. For that reason, it’s not correct to equate Jesus with a false prophet who says “Let us follow and worship another god” (Deuteronomy 13.1), for the God worshipped and proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth was the God of the Hebrew Bible! It’s because of Jesus that I believe in the Jewish God. But take away Jesus and his resurrection, and what’s left? Then we must ask, why believe that the God of the Old Testament exists?
Did Jesus ask Israel to worship someone other than Yahweh?
“Well, is the prophet telling you to worship someone other than Yahweh? Do their commands and statements conflict with Yahweh’s clear commands and statements? Does the path they are asking you to walk seem radically different than the one Yahweh has asked you to walk? I think you can see where this is going…Jesus’ behavior as portrayed in the gospels raises some serious red flags. Jewish Scholar Jacob Neusner articulates this view as he notes that Jesus appears to claim that “he is improving on what the Torah says”, and makes many remarks that are in tension with and/or contradict its teaching.”
OK. So what’s the tension? Are we going to call Jesus a heretic for saying adultery starts with a lustful look, or that murder starts with hateful thoughts? (Matthew 5:21–28). Are we going to say that he’s a heretic when he says that Moses made concessions to hard-hearted Jews to divorce their wives when God’s original plan was higher? (Matthew 19:3–9) Or should we agree with the Pharisees that Jesus a blasphemer because he healed on the Sabbath? (Mark 3:1–6, Luke 13:10–17)
These aren’t improvements to the Law, they’re just a hermeneutic that centers on what the Torah already teaches about loving God and man. (Deut. 6:4–6, Lev. 19:18) This is, after all, what Jesus said the two greatest commandments were. (Matthew 22:37–40)
These are hardly the words of a blasphemer leading Israel astray to serve other gods. Jesus was showing them that it was they that had a pretty shallow understanding of God’s Law, and he warned them that it would lead to their destruction. (Matthew 22:1–13, Mark 12:1–12)
I think 19th-century apologists George Park Fisher’s words are apt here regarding the moral teachings of Jesus:
“ Miracles are aids to faith. They come in with decisive effect to convince those who are impressed by the moral evidence that they are not deceived and that God is, in reality, speaking through men. According to the New Testament histories it was in this light that miracles were regarded by Jesus. Where there was no spiritual preparation, no dawning faith, he refused to perform miracles. He set the highest value upon the moral proofs.
Yet he considered the miracles to be of use in proving himself to be the messenger of God and to have power committed to him to forgive sin. Thus it appears that while the doctrine proves the miracles the miracles prove the doctrine. They are two mutually supporting species of proof. They are both parts of one manifestation of God, neither of which is to be relied upon to the exclusion of the other as if the other were of no value. “
A Manual of Christian Evidences, pp. 19–20
Is Christianity Really Against the Torah?
Non-Alchemist quotes a scholar regarding the issue of justification by faith, and how that contradicts the Torah. But Paul is aware of this tension and points to the fact that the Torah teaches that Abraham was justified by faith. (Rom 3:28–4:25)
When Paul repeatedly says the just shall live by faith, he is only quoting the prophet Habakkuk. (Hab 2:4) Paul goes through great pains to show that justification by faith alone is a Jewish idea, as one can glean from a simple reading of Galatians. It’s not as if his ideas were uncontroversial, but they were rooted in Paul’s understanding of the Torah. It’s clear that the Jews themselves could not keep the Law in order to be right with God, and they certainly can’t now. There’s no Temple in Jerusalem and hasn’t been for centuries to fulfill priestly duties.
I can see how one might say that Jesus taught the worship of other gods through the teaching on the Trinity, but there are some really good arguments for plurality in the Godhead found in the Old Testament scriptures. (See Jonathan McLatchie’s arguments here, here and here, or watch Inspiring Philosophy’s video here.)
Jesus: Not Prophesied in the Old Testament?
Non-Alchemist continues, foreseeing a Christian objection:
“But surely one can show that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism by arguing that Jesus clearly fulfills prophecy from the OT right? I mean, you could try — but anyone with their eyes open when reading the New Testament should be able to see that its use of the OT is…a stretch (to put it mildly).”
I don’t think it’s really much of a stretch at all. Is there a good reason to believe that Judaism is true apart from Jesus? God promises to bless all nations through Abraham. The prophets say that Israel will be a light to all nations. (Gen 12:2–3, Isaiah 42:6–7, see also Isaiah 2:1–3, Isaiah 25:6–8, Isaiah 66:18–21, Jeremiah 3:15–18, Micah 4:1–2, Zechariah 8:20–23 and Amos 9:11–12.) But how exactly has this happened, apart from Jesus?
I’m guessing Non-Alchemist would object to Christian interpretations of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, but exactly on what grounds? He doesn’t say, he just hints that more liberal scholars like Pete Enns don’t think that the argument from prophecy a slam-dunk case. Well…so what? As I’ve written elsewhere, the Jewish and skeptical polemic against the Christian interpretation of these prophecies is weak. There’s only one Jew whose deliverance from death has led to the praise of the God of Israel from all the nations that I can think of. As Craig said in the quotes above, Jesus provides the best proof for the existence of the Jewish God.
Jesus: A False Prophet?
Non-Alchemist finishes his case with the argument that Jesus falsely predicted his return within a generation of his death:
“There is also the issue of Deuteronomy 18, which informs us of another way to tell the difference between a true and false prophet — do their predictions come true? This is where there is a potential opening to argue that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet, since it seems pretty clear that he predicted his return within the generation of his hearers. After all, if Jesus really was predicting his coming within that time frame, what kinds of things would we expect him to say? Probably stuff like this. And if the New Testament authors interpreted him in the way I’m suggesting, what kinds of things might we expect them to say? Probably stuff like this.”
Non-Alchemist is a former Calvinist, so I’d have to think he’s heard of partial-Preterism before. I mean, given that Reformed heroes like RC Sproul and Greg Bahnsen were such strong proponents of this eschatological view he likely is aware of it. (And some have argued that Calvin, Edwards, and Spurgeon were also orthodox preterists.)
But this view isn’t limited to Calvinists. It has other proponents from across the spectrum of evangelicalism, like FF Bruce, NT Wright, Greg Boyd, RT France, and Paul Copan to name a few.
What is Partial Preterism?
So why do I bring this up? I normally shy away from theological debates but I think this has apologetic importance. Partial preterism is a view that argues that Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matthew 24, Luke 21) were fulfilled in 70 AD when Rome destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem. But the final judgment, the Second Advent and the resurrection of the dead are still to come.
So when Jesus says that “this generation will not pass away until they see all these things take place”, (Matthew 24:34) he really meant the generation of the people he was speaking to. All the warnings about false prophets, persecution, wars, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes are things we can read about happening in Josephus and other places after Jesus died.
And the biggest and most cataclysmic event is the destruction of Jerusalem. Hence, Jesus wouldn’t have failed to call his shot. He did return in judgment against Israel as he said he would. (Mk 14:62–63)
It would take a series of blog posts to unpack this understanding in proper detail, but for now, I’ll refer you to a sermon by Glenn Peoples that summarizes the view quite nicely. Admittedly it’s not without controversy, but then again, justification by faith has been controversial in the church even though many believe it’s the obvious teaching of Scripture.
I also have to say, I find it ironic that when Jesus predicts that the Temple and Jerusalem will be destroyed, skeptics say that it’s the Gospel writers putting words into his mouth to make him look more like a prophet. But when Jesus says he will come in the clouds during some of the apostle’s lifetimes, those are obviously the genuine words of Jesus. And they must be understood with wooden literalness and not in the context of how Old Testament prophets spoke. This seems like skeptical cherry-picking, but I don’t want to make wrong assumptions here about NA’s views.
No, the Resurrection Argument Isn’t Built on a Weak Foundation
With all this said, I don’t think Non-Alchemist’s arguments make the traditional Christian’s understanding of the Bible into the house of cards that he thinks it does. One doesn’t have to fall into liberalism or skepticism over it. You might need to adjust your eschatology, but I’d argue you probably should.
We’ve seen that only God can raise the dead to immortality, and it seems pretty odd to think he’d do so to Jesus to test Jewish devotion. This is especially the case since Jesus taught us that we ought to love the God of Israel with all our being.
And again, only Jesus’ resurrection has led to the praise of the God of Israel throughout the Gentile world. And this is arguably the best proof for Judaism that there is. Notice that in these objections, there’s a bit of a tacit admission that the argument for the resurrection is strong. Most skeptics would rather try and poke holes in the evidence, or just argue that miracles don’t happen, rather than taking this route of diminishing its importance. For they know that if Jesus rose from the dead, naturalism is toast and Christianity would probably be true.
Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on April 15, 2020.