William Lane Craig and the Resurrection of Jesus: A Recent Post That Brought Up Memories

As one popular quote reminds us: Life is a story. What does yours say? In my case, it’s a story of discoveries, intellectual pursuits, and challenges. Since my freshman year, I was fascinated with the big questions of life: Does God exist? What is the meaning of life? Is there anything after death? What stands beyond that undiscovered country from which no traveler returns, as Shakespeare wrote? During my college years, I’ve read countless books both by atheists and theists trying to figure out what is the ultimate meaning of our lives. One major intellectual figure in my life back then was the American philosopher of religion and apologist William Lane Craig. He is probably the most comprehensive defender of the Christian religion known for his debates with numerous atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Back then, I was quite impressed by many of his arguments – especially ones related to the resurrection of Jesus. Eventually, I grow out of him.

A couple of days ago, I saw a post on a Croatian blog called “Conservative: a Blog for Philosophy, theology, and social criticism”. The post was about the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. As soon as I open it, I knew what it was all about. It is a rough translation of one of Craig’s famous “articles” in which he laid down historical arguments that prove that the resurrection of Jesus is the most probable explanation historian should take while looking at the available sources. The article brought a smile to my face. A sense of nostalgia for those good old days and countless nights spent in front of a pile of philosophical and historical books (from Nietzsche to Craig). Years have gone by and it still seems as if it was yesterday! I no longer find Craig’s arguments for the resurrection of Jesus persuasive and I surely don’t think a historian can establish the resurrection of Jesus as the most probable explanation of the available information in the primary sources. There are numerous points one could take from Craig’s article and develop a strong ground of contra-arguments, but I don’t have space or time for that. Instead, I will emphasize two major flaws in his argumentation.

Myth vs. History: How Much Time Does it Take?

One of his major points is that the Gospel stories lack any legendary embellishments. In his view, generations have to pass for the legends and myths to creep into the narratives. Since the Gospels were written within 35 to 65 years after Jesus’ death and were based mostly on eyewitness testimonies, we shouldn’t expect layers of myths around the biographical narratives. As he states:

There simply was insufficient time for significant accrual of legend by the time of the gospels’ composition. Thus, I find current criticism’s skepticism with regard to the appearance traditions in the gospels to be unwarranted

Putting aside the idea that all (or most) stories in the Gospels were based on eyewitness testimonies (a theory that has absolutely no ground in the sources), I would like to emphasize that Craig is flat-out wrong in assuming that it takes several decades for legends and myths to develop. He relies on A. N. Sherwin-White. In his book Roman Society and the Roman Law in the New Testament (1963.) he argued that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the tradition. However, this is a case of the red herring fallacy. Shervin-White is only arguing that several generations need to pass before the mythical tendency prevails, not that it can’t manifest itself at all within years or even months after the fact. And precisely that is visible all over the map. Just to point out a few examples:

  1. Fables about Alexander the Great were floating around the Mediterranean soon after his death!
  2. People believed in the divine attributes of Caesar Augustus soon after he won the battle of Actium in 31 BCE!
    • There are numerous archeological inscriptions illustrating the widespread belief that Augustus was the Son of God. For example, an inscription from Akanthos (Macedonia) dated in the time of Augustus’ rule states: “The city, the association of Roman merchants, and the inhabitants dedicated this to emperor Caesar Augustus, god, son of god.
  3. It was believed by some that the emperor Vespasian miraculously healed a blind man and a lame man. Tacitus conveys this belief only 20 years after Vespasians’ death. Certainly, he relies on an older tradition that probably goes back to Vespasian’s lifetime.
  4. Lucian of Samosata (2nd century AD) gave an example of seeing an older man telling of his experience seeing Peregrinus commit suicide and how the man added mythical items Lucian knew to be false because he, too, had witnessed the suicide. Yet this older man was relaying the story very soon after the event had occurred.
  5. The Hagiography of Simeon Stylites was written 10 to 15 years after his death by monks who lived in the same area as he did. Despite that, it contains numerous supernatural elements.
  6. The first American president G. Washington died in 1799. A few months later Mason Weems published his first biography! Already there, you can find several mythological/legendary elements connected to Washington’s life!

I could go on and on. The reality is that the legends and myths don’t wait politely to arrive until their protagonists are long dead and gone. As E. Renan noted: The greatest of errors is to suppose that legendary lore requires much time to mature; sometimes a legend is the product of a single day.

Hallucinations: Pathological State?

Like most apologists, Craig relies a lot on the so-called appearances of the risen Jesus to Paul and other early Christian individuals such as Peter or Mary. In his opinion, these appearances were actually real. Jesus did appear to Paul and others. In the anticipation of a possible contra-argument, Craig brings up the theory of hallucination popularized by German New Testament scholar G. Ludemann. Craig writes: However, there are good grounds for rejecting this hypothesis: (i) it is psychologically implausible to posit such a chain of hallucinations. Hallucinations are usually associated with mental illness or drugs, but in the disciples’ case, the prior psycho-biological preparation appears to be wanting.

I don’t know how well-versed Craig is in contemporary psychological literature. There are countless books and articles by different scholars in the field demonstrating that hallucinations are quite possible without any pathological state. In their classic scholarly textbook Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, Ralph W. Hood, Peter C. Hill, and Bernard Spilka note that there is “a massive literature” indicating that “hallucinations are not simply characteristic of organic deficiencies”. Interestingly enough, scholars who analyzed the visionaries of Međugorje found no trace of physical or psychological pathology. To put it more bluntly, although apparitions are sometimes associated with certain pathological conditions, as well as with stress and trauma, they are far from being exclusively associated with such conditions. Moreover, there is a particular theological problem with Craig’s line of thinking. There are other apparitions outside of the Christian tradition. Joseph Smith, for example, claimed that the angel Moroni appeared to him. A vision confirmed by several of his colleagues who wrote an affidavit! In that case, we have several first-hand eyewitness testimony. Much stronger than in the case of New Testament visions where we have only one first-hand testimony (Paul)! I assume Craig would want to claim that visions of angel Moroni were only hallucinations defined as “false perception”. However, on what basis does he (or any other apologist) “medicalize” non-Christian visions while accepting the truthfulness of the Christian ones? Certainly, he is not basing his own methodology on history or psychology!


In the end, I don’t know what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. I think he had some sort of extraordinary experience. What that experience was? Why did he have it? How long did it last? Was it really a risen Jesus? I don’t know. And anyone who claims to know that on the basis of historical investigation is lying to you.

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