Is is rational or scientific to believe in things like the Resurrection?

David Hume, I agree with you that BL is far more rational than the other two organizations I mentioned, both of whom deny well-established facts. And yes, Dennis Venema’s genetics contributions to BL are extremely good and are completely honest with the science. I often refer my Christian friends and family to them. In this sense BL is indeed an ally of science. I also recognize their sincerity and openness to dialogue with people they disagree with. This is very rare.

But while they may not deny basic evolutionary facts, BL does still deny the laws of physics, by declaring a non-negotiable belief in things like the Resurrection and an afterlife.

Are they an ally of science? Relative to the other two organizations I mentioned, sure they are. They deny much less of what we now know about the universe. But science is not just a body of knowledge. It is a general method for finding out about the world, with controls to reduce the human tendency to fool ourselves with wishful thinking. This is the heart of science. BL is not an ally in the search for truth when they, like the other two groups I mentioned, make “What we believe” statements that explicitly insulate large parts of their belief system from questioning. All three groups seem to share this attitude, which is the very opposite of what science is about.

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Ted, you said

Religious claims are much more like political claims than scientific claims. We shouldn’t expect them to have a similar degree of fluidity.

Right, but the kinds of claims I was discussing were religion’s empirical claims, not its normative ones.

The claim that the Bible is authoritative and inspired by the creator of the universe is an empirical claim, and no empirical claim should be made untouchable by fiat. I’d love to see BioLogos people sincerely trying to find holes in the idea of an inspired Bible. That’s what people do when they want to get to the truth about something–they do their best to disprove it. Trial by fire. Scientists do this constantly to our theories. But in religion, people seem to do the reverse, bending or ignoring the evidence in order to preserve the sorts of empirical claims that are enshrined in the “What we believe” section.

Polkinghorne, in the posts you wrote and linked to here, is a good example of a person who does exactly that. Instead of the tough examination he would give to a new scientific theory, he searches for excuses to believe in the resurrection. For example, P and Wright could not imagine why the gospel writers might have wanted to have women be the first to come upon the empty tomb. P thought this was the strongest argument that the claims were true.
Yet, as I wrote back then on comments to your post, a few minutes on the internet was all it took to find two very plausible reasons why a writer might want to have women discover the empty tomb before the male disciples: (1) If the male disciples had been the first to report an empty tomb, doubters could have easily assumed that the men had carried off and hidden the body,(2) there could be theological or didactic reasons why the writers wanted the underdogs to be protagonists here as elsewhere in the gospels. I am not arguing that these are necessarily compelling reasons, just that P (following NT Wright) did not even bother to investigate or answer them. They were doing pure apologetics, not even for a moment showing any intellectual skepticism about the subject. I’ll never forget that episode, as it revealed a deep intellectual dishonesty in those two people.


Your view seems to be that any truly “scientific” person would never draw the conclusions that Polkinghorne draws concerning the Resurrection. Empirically, of course, that’s just flat wrong–tens of thousands of American scientists probably believe in the Resurrection (an inference from polls about their religious views). On your view, they can do so only by parking their brains in the parking lot before entering church. My view is that conclusions about the Resurrection go beyond science itself–that science is not capable of adjudicating them, and that very well informed, highly intelligent people will not all draw the same conclusion–nor should we expect them to. It’s devilishly difficult to be genuinely objective about a claim such as this, b/c accepting it (if one previously didn’t) or denying it (if one previously accepted it) can change one’s whole view of the world. I don’t want to underestimate what that does to one’s supposed objectivity. Thomas Kuhn wrote about similar problems entirely within science many years ago, as you probably know.

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No Ted. I said that P did not show the same skepticism towards the Resurrection that he would towards any other extraordinary empirical claim. And I backed that up by showing he did no research at all to check one of the main reasons he believed in the Resurrection. So yes, he did “park his brains in the parking lot” when it came time to evaluate that claim.

...conclusions about the Resurrection go beyond science itself--that science is not capable of adjudicating them

I don’t see that. Textual analysis, archaeology, historical analyses, close examination of the evolution of the story from Paul to the early gospels to the later ones, absence of external records, all of these things can shed some light on the reality of the resurrection, though I agree that they can probably never be definitive.

I agree completely that when one’s worldview is at stake, people often dig in their heels and feel threatened by contrary evidence. That is happening every day in these arguments, on both sides. But this need not stop us from moving forward, if we can recognize this in ourselves. A first step forward is accepting, at least provisionally, the possibility that our beliefs can be wrong. Credos and static “What we believe” statements don’t help that process.

In science we try not to have credos . We’re human, and it is as hard for us as for religious people, and sometimes we don’t recognize that we even have some “credos”, but we do manage to identify and overcome them over time, as proven by the scientific revolutions that Kuhn described.

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We agree that scientists–at least some scientists–love to upset applecarts. Indeed they can make reputations on that basis, if they can persuade colleagues of their views.

The Polkinghorne chapter about the Resurrection (John Polkinghorne on the Resurrection - Article - BioLogos) outlines his approach to both scientific and religious questions: namely, he always wants to ask, why should I believe this rather than that? It briefly explains how he applies that attitude toward the biblical narratives about the Resurrection, but he could hardly review all of his thinking about that in one short chapter (he writes more in various other places, but still he’s never written a full book about it), and he doesn’t relate the story of his own thinking about this topic–something I don’t remember him doing in any published work.

I think the missing piece here is this: no one as serious as Polkinghorne could go through Anglican ordination and the preparatory studies without having to examine very hard his or her own belief in the Resurrection–and many other doctrines that Christians hold. It can’t be done. Indeed, many of the people P is aiming his comments at (nearly invisible on the surface in most of his writings, but I know for sure who many of the targets are) actually hold views similar to yours, not his, even though they are theologians or biblical scholars. He’s read them, he’s studied them, and he’s taken them seriously and to heart–that is, he’s examined his own beliefs with great care, whether or not you can tell from any given piece of his writing. It’s not that he’s unwilling to examine even his most deeply held beliefs; he simply reaches different conclusions. He doesn’t usually show any evidence of his struggles, but to those who know him and his work (John is my friend), there are occasional comments that are tips of the proverbial icebergs. For example, in a chapter of “Belief in God in an Age of Science” (a book written against the grain of the mainstream Protestant “dialogue” of science and faith), he says that “The insight of the Crucified God lies at the very heart of my own Christian belief, indeed of the possibility of such belief in the face of the way the world is.” (p. 44) The second half of that sentence points to deep struggles to come to terms with suffering and evil in the world, but many readers might just miss the depth of those struggles.

If you want to say, Lou, that you find P’s position shallow or unexamined, then you must say what you think. They are anything but, in reality. Indeed, he has many critics on his theological right who think he’s far too critical of traditional Christian views. Just as he has many critics on his theological left who think he’s not critical enough, simply b/c they have reached different conclusions. He knows what they know, he’s read what they’ve read; he understands science better than almost all of his critics, whether to his left or to his right, and he understands it well enough to know that the conclusions of (say) Bart Ehrman or John Crossan are not the only ones one can defend after deep self-examination. That’s where we differ, Lou, and will probably continue to differ.

Ted, you said

...he's examined his own beliefs with great care, whether or not you can tell from any given piece of his writing.

Maybe so. I can only go by what he has written. And what he has written is this:

Even more strongly one can say that there would have seemed to be no reason at all to associate the story of this astonishing discovery with women, considered unreliable witnesses in the ancient world, unless in fact they were the ones who were actually involved in making it.

No nuance, an absolute statement. In this he follows Wright, who wrote a nearly 1000 page book on the resurrection without (IIRC) once mentioning (even to refute it) the possible reasons why an author might have women discover the empty tomb. This is not what an objective, careful examination looks like in the sciences or the humanities.

I fully disagree with your comment here, Lou. IMO, he has not overstated the case. Working in a culture in which women basically had no legal voice, there would need to be very, very compelling reasons why the (presumably) male authors of the gospels would concoct stories in which the first witnesses of the risen Jesus were women–unless it were in fact the truth of the matter. An objective, careful examination can indeed reach this conclusion. We could perhaps invent some hypotheses that go well beyond the available information, but if (as good scientists) we limit ourselves to what’s available then the conclusion is solid.

We talked about this before, Lou, as you know (others seeing this might not know), and I don’t have anything new to add. You fail to persuade me, and I fail to persuade you. This does not mean that each of us has not very carefully thought this through; it does mean that we aren’t evaluating the evidence in the same way.

Ted, you and I can agree to disagree on whether these alternative hypotheses have merit. But we should agree that neither Wright (in his immense book) or P bothered to write even a cursory examination of alternative hypotheses; neither of them even wrote as much as you just did, on this subject which both of them think is one of the strongest textual arguments for the reality of the resurrection.

Ted, the basis for your, P’s, and Wright’s claim is that the authors would not have invented women finding the tomb because their testimony was not valued. You say this is a reasonably objective conclusion.

However, surely you noticed that the gospel authors don’t let the women’s testimony stand alone (except in Mark, whose ending is missing according to Wright). In fact, in Luke and John, Peter immediately goes to the tomb and sees for himself. The accounts therefore incur absolutely no loss of credibility by having women find the tomb first. The basis of P and Wright’s argument would seem to be invalid.


I value your contributions to this site, and I would in an ideal world keep this particular conversation going. I’ll have to let you have the last word, however, since I have my own columns to prepare and a day job to tend to. Just wanted to make sure that readers don’t think I’m slighting you, or that I just want to ignore you. Neither is true.



Ted, I appreciate your time, and I don’t think I’ve been slighted in the least. On the contrary.

I would beg you, though, to bring closure to this one issue, the “argument from embarassment” made by P and Wright. When we talked about this in your earlier posts on P, I only complained that they never examined alternatives. But now I noticed something new. And I think this is an objective fact that we can both agree on. Since the gospel accounts have the women’s observations verified by men, the story incurs no loss of credibility by having women make the discovery. Therefore P and Wright’s premise is false and their argument does not get off the ground.

So can I ask you for one additional word, be it “yes” or “no”? Do you agree that the stories don’t incur any loss of credibility by having women find the empty tomb, since this is immediately verified by men?

Lou, you are right that BL includes a statement of belief, which is a completely Christian statement, and is not at all scientific. But you aren’t right in stating that BL denies laws of physics when claiming that the resurrection and an afterlife are true. I am not aware of any such laws that rule out either one. Perhaps you could elaborate. In fact the biologists and physicists associated with BL, do not hold any beliefs that contradict any laws or findings of science, and this is why, as you say BL is an ally of science. Of course in reality, scientists like Jennifer Weismann, Francis Collins and others are far more than allies, but actual highly respected practioners of science. (I decided not to start on a list, its too long). The major argument we have always had is simply whether science is the only method to find truth in the universe, or is it just one such method.

@loujost - Lou, if I might step in for a little bit, I’ll explain why I don’t think you’ve presented compelling objections to the women-at-the-tomb argument. As I recall, we had this conversation before, several months back on the old Biologos blog, so I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself.

There are multiple reasons the women-at-the-tomb account is damaging to the resurrection story’s credibility in cultural context. Not only are the ‘unreliable’ women the discoverers of the empty tomb, they are the courageous ones - out and about while the men are fearful and in hiding. They are also the loyal ones, tending to Jesus even in death, while the men are fallen away. This runs so counter to the stereotypes of the time that if we weren’t talking about the resurrection here, but rather some other account featuring the same characteristics, historical analysis would quickly grant authenticity to the account. Just because the men come along later to verify the finding (and in some of the gospels, go further by actually entering the empty tomb) does not sufficiently deflect against the initial inconvenience of the story. In fact, I sometimes wonder if it is the men coming along later, to ‘heroically’ enter the tomb and further verify and investigate the women’s discovery, which constitutes the face-saving fiction here, not the initial account itself.

Turning to your previous 2 objections:

(1) Having the women discover the empty tomb does not deflect charges that the body was stolen, nor would having men discover the empty tomb lend greater credence to such charges. Could the body only have been stolen by those who colluded to ‘discover’ the empty tomb? Of course not. Skeptics could well (and did, and do) charge that the body could have been stolen (or lost) by others - from among the disciples or otherwise - who simply allowed whoever next visited the tomb to make the discovery, without colluding with them. In fact doing so would ensure that those who discovered the empty tomb would make an honestly-astonished report, adding (so they might think) verisimilitude to the story. Such charges are completely unaffected by whether it is men or women who discover the tomb, so I don’t find your contention, that using women in the story somehow defends against such charges, to be compelling.

(2) Using women as an ‘underdog’ type - the last being made first and the first being made last - is a more interesting contention. But ultimately I think it comes at just a little too much cost in the cultural context. Having women make the discovery while the men are dispersed and cowering is just too compromising. While the gospel writers clearly do have the ‘least of these’ trope in mind as they write, they are also clearly writing in a patriarchal context and Jesus himself operates in a patriarchal way. All the disciples are men; all the deep teaching moments Jesus has are with men; most of Jesus’ interactions with women are portrayed as cases where the women are distraught or emotional or sinful and broken. The gospels do not give any indication that their writers would be willing to suddenly go all “women’s lib” at the key turning point in the story.

So I think Polkinghorne and Wright are correct in assessing the women-at-the-tomb account as one of the most significant pieces of evidence in favor of the authenticity of the story. And honestly, I think an atheist or skeptic could agree with that. After all, “authentic” merely means the story is a genuine historical account of what, more or less, these women said they experienced - rather than, say, a much later whole-cloth fabrication. Many other strange phenomenon in which neither you nor I believe also have authentic accounts attached to them, remember. For example, that eleven witnesses really did say they saw Joseph Smith’s golden plates, is an authentic account from Mormonism of the early-middle nineteenth century, not a fiction invented in the 1900’s. Yet I am not a Mormon and you are not either, because while the authenticity of the witnesses’ testimony is one of the strongest things in Mormonism’s favor, there are other arguments against which overwhelm that concession. So relax - you do not necessarily concede too much, I think, by conceding this, unless you think the rest of the case against the resurrection is too weak to overcome it.

Sy, the laws of thermodynamics would be violated if a hot, decaying body were to come back to life after three days. If the resurrection was claimed to be a resurrection of a physical body, then the laws of physics would also be violated by Jesus passing through closed doors as he does in some gospels. They would also be violated when Jesus flies up into heaven. Unless, of course, these were just hallucinations or legends.

Scott, thanks for your reply. I think you’ve shifted P’s and W’s argument rather than answering my request to Ted. P’s and W’s argument was that the story lost evidential credibility by having women visit the tomb. Back when we discussed this last time, I accepted that claim and offered some reasons why the authors might have wanted to have women find the tomb anyway. You disagree with those reasons. I’ll address your argument about that in a moment, but I see that you did not address my new argument. That is, yesterday I realized that P and W’s premise (that the story would be less credible coming from women, and so such a detail would not have been added if the story weren’t true) is just false. The story takes no credibility hit by having women discover the tomb, because men immediately verify it. So the argument that P and W set up does not even get off the ground. And I think you and Ted might be able to agree with me on this small point.

You argue something else: that the story puts the men in an unfavorable light, and given the culture at the time, this is not something the storytellers would have done unless it were true. Note the difference: we are not now talking about reliability of women as witnesses, but another kind of Argument from Embarrassment. That’s fine, but it is a different argument.

Let’s look at your version of the argument. I am not an expert in this but some authors suggest that in Judean 1st century culture, it was the job of women to spice the dead body. If that’s true, the women visiting the tomb were not the valiant ones going in place of cowardly men. They were just carrying out their traditional roles. So there would be no embarrassment here. If this body-preparation really was traditional job of women, having women find the empty tomb would be the most natural choice no matter how the story arose. So we have yet a third reason (and maybe a better reason than the ones I gave before) why the gospel authors, writing long after the event, might have had women find the empty tomb.


I have a lot on my plate now, including preparation for a
debate about Christianity and atheism at Oregon State University later this
month (BL will link to the details once they are posted by the campus forum
that is hosting it). I can’t justify taking most of the week to respond fully
to your argument about the inclusion of women as the first witnesses of the
empty tomb in the gospel narratives (loudly absent in Paul’s account, which
would take many more hours to delve into).

My respect for you as an honest inquirer is considerable,
however, so I will make one final reply on this topic. I realize you might
reply again, perhaps offering yet another hypothesis about the women, as is
your right, but I really won’t take it further.

You are entirely right that Tom Wright and John Polkinghorne
say very little in support of the argument about the women, which both of them—joined
by many, many others—employ in defense of the historicity of the Resurrection. They
deal cursorily (if at all) with objections to that argument, though at least
partly that’s because many objections are pretty weak, since virtually everyone
agrees that the status of women as witnesses was very low and that most male
readers at that time would not be favorably impressed by the fact that they are
said to be the first witnesses of the Resurrection, without whom (in all
accounts) the men would never have gone to the tomb themselves. (A highly
unflattering picture of Jesus’ male disciples, even more unflattering than the
picture we have of Peter denying Jesus. Yet, as Wright eloquently points out, “It
is far, far easier to assume that the women were there at the beginning, just
as, three days earlier, they had been there at the end.” And they were, after
all, the very people who knew exactly where Jesus’ body had been lain, weren’t
they? All the more reason why that embarrassing tradition has to be included,
even if it might not help convert male readers. Some facts aren’t very
convenient, but b/c they are facts they find their way into the story.

In P’s case, it’s almost certainly a consequence of his
general approach in most of his books: they are really extended essays, opinion
pieces written after extensive research and deep thought (often for many
years), intended for the very broad (in a disciplinary sense) but (paradoxically)
fairly small audience that has the background and interest to read about
Christianity and science at a high level. He doesn’t usually provide the kinds
of extensive detail and documentation that he would (and could) provide, if his
purposes were different. He tries to view the landscape of ideas from a place
where the many rivers, peaks, and valleys are visible, and then to draw a map
of what it looks like from the place where he stands. His footnotes are fairly
sparse, when compared with typical scholarly literature—he’s fully scholarly in
his habits and understanding, but he’s not trying to do the nitty gritty work
that scholarly literature usually does. My columns for BL are similar in this
respect: I write as a serious scholar of science and religion, but I’m not
trying to jot every i and cross every t for my readers, or else they would
quickly drop off to sleep. I could certainly do that, and perhaps in a few
columns it shows through, but I don’t normally aim to do it; whereas when I
write for scholarly audiences in my own fields (history of science and science
& religion) it seems that I do almost nothing other than jotting i’s and
crossing t’s.

If you look at his footnotes in the various places where he
writes about the Resurrection, it’s clear that P has in fact read extensively
about it. Sometimes he probably even says a bit too much about certain details,
for most of his readers, but we agree that he leaves too much out for you. As
for Wright, however, his purpose is fully scholarly: so what’s his excuse? Why
does he leave you with a very low impression, when I don’t form the same impression?

If you look again at where he places his brief account of
the women, Lou, then perhaps you’ll notice a few things I notice as a trained scholar
in the humanities. I realize you are a scientist, not a humanist, so please don’t
feel like I’m talking down to you: that’s not my intent, and if we were sharing
coffee together you’d be sure of that. His audience in that book (The Resurrection
of the Son of God) is people like me, not people like you. His first sentence: “One
of the most obvious things … is that they begin with women. This leads to
possibly the most obvious of the four strange things about these stories [a
reference to the chapter as a whole, not the stories of the women], which can
therefore be stated briefly.” A bit later, he says, “The point has been
repeated over and over in scholarship, …” In other words, Lou: everyone knows
this already; I don’t feel the need to review all of the facts, arguments, and
counter-arguments. His notes in this brief section cite several other scholars
who do indeed delve into the details you’re looking for, and in one note he
says, “See now esp[ecially]. Bauckham 2002, ch. 8. Bauckham 258f. provides a
long list of scholars who support the point I am here summarizing, noting the
weakness of opposing arguments.” The specific source is now in front of me,
following a visit to the library: Richard Bauckham (Richard Bauckham - Wikipedia
), formerly (now retired) of St Andrews University, and the book is “Gospel Women.”
Again—this is hardly the only source he cites, but it’s the one he likes best
in this section of the book.

As you will understand, Lou, I can’t adequately summarize
even one chapter in Bauckham’s book in a short amount of time, but I do
recommend it to you for a much fuller account of the kinds of details you want
to see weighed in the balance. Many, many objections have been raised, and I
think you’ll enjoy reading Bauckham’s treatment of the topic, whether or not
you find any of it persuasive. Your own objection isn’t considered in his
chapter, as far as I can tell from skimming it quickly (I could easily have
missed it), but it doesn’t strike me as a very strong objection. Yes, there’s
also testimony from the men, but so what? Does that remove the significance of
the presence of the tradition about women being first—without whom the men
would never have gone to the tomb? It’s not simply the fact that women saw it
first; it’s the fact that without their courage in going there (while the men
were hiding), and their pluck in telling the very skeptical men what they knew
they’d seen, there’d be no empty tomb narratives at all—whether involving men
or women. That’s huge. And, hugely embarrassing to the men. Inconvenient things
like this don’t seem very likely to get prominent places in stories written to
support the mission those men undertook, unless they happen to be true.

That’s all I have to say, Lou, except to wish you

Ted, thanks very much for taking the time to answer. I don’t have access to your reference but I just ordered a used copy…it will take a month or two to get here, so we can both take a break from this.

I will note here that your most recent answer, like Scott’s, has shifted away from your and P’s and W’s original argument. The original argument was that women’s testimony would not have the same weight as men’s, and so why would the authors weaken the evidential value of their story by having the women discover the tomb, unless it were true? As I just pointed out, the premise of this argument is plainly false. The evidential value of the story is NOT weakened by having women visit the tomb first, since men verified the details. I guess your “So what?” means that you don’t deny this observation of mine.

Like Scott, you then respond by making a new argument (which was not P’s argument, as far as I can recall) that having the women find the tomb makes the men look cowardly or bad, or is otherwise breaking with cultural norms and stereotypes, and that now this is why the inclusion of the women is so unlikely unless it were true.

Yet what if women in that society always were the ones who went to tombs to put spices on the body? Then their actions would not make the men look bad or be breaking stereotypes; it was their job, not the men’s. In that case, anyone telling a story about tombs in this culture would be expected to include women as early visitors to the tomb. Like I said, I don’t know if this really was customary then. Some not-necessarily-reliable internet sites say it was. Maybe somebody here at BioLogos really knows? Or maybe that book I just ordered will tell me…

I’m off to do fieldwork for ten days so won’t be able to answer after tomorrow…

But for now, the important point is that I think we all agree (reluctantly, perhpas) that P’s and W’s original argument, centered around the low evidential value of women’s testimony in court, is invalid, since the story has men verifying their account.

I don’t agree with your final paragraph at all, Lou, and neither to the sources I’ve discussed–for so many reasons that can’t be spelled out in 30 seconds. Well have to leave it here, I’m afraid.

Thanks for the clarification. That’s too bad. I hope after your debate and your other work, and after my return from the Amazon, you will have time to explain. I still think it is pretty clear that P’s original premise is false, since the women’s story was immediately verified by men. The story did not rely on the testimony of the women. It also seems clear that in your long comment you did shift to a completely different issue, not the credibility of women as witnesses but the fact that their actions might imply the men were cowards or less brave. You are right to do that, since P’s version is false. It is similar to what Scott did in his response; he too replaced P’s original argument about credibility of witnesses with a different (and probably better) argument about breaking other aspects of cultural stereotypes.

@loujost Lou, as far as I know, in 1st century Judea there was no social or religious expectation for anyone to have contact with a body after burial, let alone days afterward (burial per Torah is to happen on the first day). Rather, to have contact with a corpse is ceremonially unclean (also per Torah). Thus the rituals of washing and anointing, to which I think you are referring, were, as far as I know, to all have normally taken place on the first day, prior to burial. Indeed the gospels say that is exactly what did take place, when Joseph of Arimathea offered the use of his tomb.

So the women visiting the tomb on the third day in order to further anoint the body, and perfume it as well, is not routine fulfillment of custom or duty, but a sign of extreme personal devotion, love and loyalty (of the sort that, as far as I know, both sexes were free to engage in - so the fact the male disciples are notably absent from this or any other engagement with the body is all the more inconvenient and unlikely for a storyteller of the time to have made up).