On Matthew Hartke’s Five Reasons to Doubt the Resurrection

Matthew L. Hartke is a former Christian who hosts the blog “Resurrection Review,” on which he analyzes and discusses the origins of Christianity. A correspondent recently brought to my attention an article posted on Hartke’s site, provocatively titled “Five Reasons to Doubt the Resurrection” and asked me if I could respond to it. In this article, I will offer my comments on Matthew Hartke’s objections to the resurrection.

I. The Nature of Paul’s Conversion Experience

Martke opens his article with a discussion of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). Hartke notes that,

Even though Paul wasn’t there at the beginning, he is our most important witness to the resurrection, because he provides the only incontestable firsthand eyewitness testimony to an appearance of the risen Jesus we have.

 

Hartke expresses concern that, though Paul seems to imply his encounter with the risen Lord was qualitatively similar to that experienced by the other apostles (1 Cor 9:1, 15:8), in the book of Acts Paul describes his encounter as having been a “heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19) — and according to Acts 9:7, the appearance to Paul was invisible to his travelling companions. Hartke notes that Paul’s language, even in his letters, is “more appropriate to a vision than to a physical appearance” (Gal. 1:12, 16; cf. Gal. 2:2; 1 Cor 14:6, 26; 2 Cor. 12:1, 7). Hartke further observes that,

In Galatians 1 he describes his experience as “a revelation of Jesus Christ,” using the same language he uses throughout his letters to describe non-bodily visions. The Greek word for “revelation” there is apocalypsis. It’s the same word he uses in 2 Corinthians 12 to describe his experience of being caught up to the “third heaven,” and in that case he says he doesn’t know whether it was “in the body or out of the body”. And in Galatians 1:16 he says that this revelation took place “in him”—not “to him”, but “in him”.

 

However, the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις is used elsewhere by Paul in reference to a physical revealing, as shown in the list below:

  • Romans 8:19: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing (ἀποκάλυψιν) of the sons of God.” 
  • 1 Corinthians 1:7: “…so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing (ἀποκάλυψιν) of our Lord Jesus Christ…” 
  • 2 Thessalonians 1:7, Paul writes, “…and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed (ἀποκαλύψει) from heaven with his mighty angels…”

Furthermore, in 2 Corinthians 12:1, Paul states, “I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord (ὀπτασίας καὶ ἀποκαλύψεις κυρίου).” But Paul then goes on to say that he was taken to heaven and he does not know whether the experience was in or out of his body. Paul thus appears to be saying that the revelation he received was not something only in his mind.

What about Galatians 1:16, where Paul says that God “was pleased to reveal his Son in me“? The Greek phrase here is ἐν ἐμοί, though one may defensibly translate this (as some scholars do) as “to me.” For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:11 he uses this same expression but in a manner that contextually is clearly best translated “to me” (in this context, meaning “from my point of view”). Paul wrote concerning speaking in tongues, “…but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me (ἐν ἐμοὶ).” How exactly Paul is using this expression in Galatians 1:16 is somewhat open to interpretation. Furthermore, some scholars have interpreted Paul to be referring to the inward illumination that resulted from his external encounter. [1]

In any event, given the ambiguity of Paul’s language in Galatians 1:16, it behooves us to interpret his less clear statement in light of his clearer ones elsewhere. The verb used in 1 Corinthians is ὁράω, meaning, “to see” (implying an external vision), rather than ἀποκαλύπτω, meaning, “to reveal.” To quote Hans Dieter Betz, “We should not suppose that Paul feels he contradicts himself in Gal 1:16 and 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8. Apparently for him the two forms of visions (external and internal) are not as distinct as they may be for some commentators.” [2] Michael Licona further comments [3], 

Having observed other passages in Paul related to the resurrection of Jesus, it is clear to me that he thought of the resurrection of Jesus in terms of an event that revivified his corpse and transformed it into a new and immortal body. Therefore, if Paul is referring in Galatians 1 to his conversion experience, it is my opinion that he is not conveying even indirectly that he understood that experience as being only an internal phenomenon and that the resurrected Jesus is an ethereal being. For that would be in stark contrast to everything Paul has taught about the resurrection elsewhere. To make such a proposal given the amount of ambiguity present in this passage betrays the canons of sound exegesis. Ambiguous passages must be interpreted in light of clear passages by the same author. We should never do violence to multiple clear texts in order to make them agree with a desired interpretation of a text that possesses significant ambiguity.

 

It is often argued by skeptics of the resurrection that Paul suggests that his encounter with the risen Jesus was qualitatively similar to that of the other apostles. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul uses the Greek word ὤφθη to describe both. Since Paul’s vision, according to the relevant texts in Acts (9:1-9, 22:3-11, 26:12-18), was really quite different from those described in the gospels in relation to the disciples (where the risen Jesus appears to groups, engages in conversation, invites physical contact, eats breakfast, etc.), the nature of those claimed appearances in the gospels is called into serious question by Paul’s own testimony. This point is made, for instance, by the German scholar Gerd Lüdemann [4] and is also hinted at in Hartke’s essay. Hartke comments, 

Paul places his experience on par with the experiences of the other apostles, but the only depictions we have of his experience are completely different, and—let’s face it—much less compelling than the ones we find about the other apostles in the Gospels.

 

Can one make a robust case, from the Pauline corpus alone, that Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus was qualitatively different from those of the other apostles? I do not believe one can make a conclusive argument, though I would maintain that the Pauline evidence ought to at the very least incline us in that direction — particularly Paul’s statement “and last of all as to one untimely born he was seen also by me” (ἔσχατον δὲ πάντων ὡσπερεὶ τῷ ἐκτρώματι ὤφθη κἀμοί). This, it may be argued, draws a separation between his experience from that of those who were apostles before him. Kirk MacGregor notes [5], 

This observation rules out the possibility that Paul is here attempting to convey that he experienced Christ in a manner qualitatively identical to those listed in the creed. But Paul moves one step further. By placing ὤφθη κἀμοί (‘he was seen also by me’) after ὡσπερεὶ τῷ ἐκτρώματι, Paul explicitly shows ὡσπερεὶ τῷ ἐκτρώματι to be a qualifying phrase which modifies ὤφθη κἀμοί rather than a temporal indicator. Hence Paul uses ὡσπερεὶ τῷ ἐκτρώματι to explain how the character of his appearance was qualitatively distinct from those recounted in the primitive tradition. While the previous disciples ‘saw’ Jesus in the normal fashion, Paul admits to have ‘as to one untimely born seen’ Jesus—namely, to have seen him in an abnormal fashion. 

 

This evidence is surely suggestive but it does not seem to me to be conclusive. Paul may simply be indicating that he had an encounter with the risen Lord despite the fact that Paul had not known Jesus during his earthly ministry.

How, then, can this case be made robustly? It is undeniable that Luke represents the post-resurrection encounters as involving multiple sensory modes. Jesus appears to multiple individuals at once, and those encounters are not merely visual but are also auditory. Jesus engages the disciples in group conversation. The encounters are close-up and involve physical contact. Moreover, Acts indicates that the appearances were spread out over a forty-day time period – thus, the resurrection encounters were not one brief and confusing episode. If, then, it can be shown that Luke was indeed a travelling companion of Paul, it would be quite surprising if his understanding of the apostolic claim concerning the resurrection differed essentially from that of Paul. Thus, the case from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 should be complemented with a robust case for the author of Luke-Acts being a travelling companion of Paul. I have articulated this argument in detail elsewhere.

II. Discord Between the Accounts

Hartke notes what he perceives to be a “staggering lack of agreement” between the resurrection accounts. He observes that “There are no appearances in Mark, just the mysterious expectation of a meeting in Galilee (Mk 14:28; 16:7).” Scholars debate over whether Mark intended to finish at 16:8 or whether the original ending of Mark has been lost to history. There is unanimity — and for good reason — that the current ending of Mark is not original. Not only is 16:9-20 absent from the earliest manuscripts but the vocabulary is decidedly non-Markan. Personally, I tend to believe that Mark’s gospel did originally conclude at 16:8. For one thing, only in a codex would one expect the last leaf to get lost before copying. However, the gospels were originally written on scrolls rather than codices. Moreover, the variety of dissimilar endings found in the manuscript tradition suggests that the early copyists possessed a copy of Mark’s gospel that concluded with verse 8, and they completed the text with what seemed appropriate to them (likely drawing upon the other gospels). Thus, I would agree with Hartke that there are no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus as such in Mark. However, it is certainly anticipated that there would be ensuing encounters with the risen Jesus (Mk 16:7).

Hartke notes a few other details that are specific to one gospel and not reported by others. He observes, “Only Matthew tells of an appearance to the eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Mt 28:16-17). Only Luke tells of an appearance to a pair of disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-31), and he is the only one who narrates the ascension (Lk 24:51; Acts 1:9). Only John tells of the appearances to Thomas and the seven disciples by the Lake of Galilee (Jn 20:24-29; 21:1-22).” However, omission is not the same thing as denial. There is nothing epistemically troubling about the gospel accounts reporting different aspects of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, especially given that the appearances are said to have taken place over a forty day period (Acts 1:3). In fact, the divergence between the narratives in the details they choose to report points to the independence of the accounts.

Hartke observes that “In none of the Gospels do we see an appearance to James.” This is true. Neither do the gospels contain an account of Jesus’ private meeting with Peter (mentioned in 1 Cor 15:5-7). Luke is certainly aware at least of the appearance individually to Peter because he alludes briefly to it in passing. (Lk 24:33-34). Why, then, does he not include an account of this appearance? This can be explained if Peter and James had both made it known that they had had an encounter with the risen Lord following the resurrection, but, for whatever reason, neither had made an account of this private meeting available for publication. Indeed, as Lydia McGrew notes concerning this point, “if the Gospel writers were trying truthfully to record only what they either knew directly or had reliable sources to tell them about, they would have very little to say about such meetings, exactly as we find. But if they felt free to invent dialogue and scenes in order to fill in where information was otherwise missing, why would they not have done so here? Their restraint points to the conclusion that they are truthful, reliable recorders.” [1]

Hartke also complains that the gospels fail to report the appearance to “‘more than five hundred brothers’ mentioned by Paul (1 Cor 15:6-7).” The group appearance in Galilee reported by Matthew 28:16-20 may well have been the appearance to the 500, though this is largely conjecture (Jesus, after all, was on earth for forty days following His resurrection, so this could also have been a different group appearance). The appearance to the five hundred most plausibly would have taken place in Galilee, since it would have been easier to get a group assembled without arousing the suspicions of the authorities in an outdoor setting in the hills of Galilee.

In addition to “the lack of corroboration” between the accounts, Hartke argues that there are “numerous irreconcilable conflicts” between the resurrection narratives. Hartke notes that “At the end of Mark the women flee from the tomb and ‘said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,’ yet in Matthew they depart from the tomb ‘with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.’ (Mk 16:8; Mt 28:8).” As noted above, there is scholarly disagreement about whether Mark’s gospel in fact ended at 16:8 or whether the original ending has simply been lost. If the latter explanation for Mark’s rather abrupt ending is correct, then we can only conjecture as to how Mark’s gospel ended. However, even if we suppose that Mark did indeed end at Mark 16:8, the most plausible reading of the phrase “said nothing to anyone,” I would argue, is that the women did not run screaming into Jerusalem and tell all to the first person they encountered. Rather, the women ran straight to the disciples, without stopping to speak to anyone else on the way. In fact, Mark uses similar constructions elsewhere, which may give us some insight into his probable meaning. In Mark 1:44, after Jesus has cleansed a leper, Jesus told the man, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” The connotation here is that the leper was not to speak to anyone on the way to presenting himself to the high priest. A similar instance is found in Mark 5:37 (“And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John”); Mark 9:8 (“And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only”); and Mark 10:18 (“And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone”). Given Mark’s usage of this sort of construction in these other passages, I would argue that the most plausible way to understand the usage in Mark 16:8 is that the women said nothing to anyone on route to the disciples.

Hartke further observes that “Mark’s Jesus tells the disciples that he will meet them in Galilee, and he does so in Matthew, but Luke’s Jesus appears only in or around Jerusalem, and he actually tells the disciples not to leave the city (Mk 14:28; 16:7; Mt 28:16-17; Lk 24:6-7, 49).” However, it is plausible that Jesus’ instruction to remain in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4) was said to the disciples after they had returned to the Jerusalem area from Galilee during the forty days on which Jesus remained on the earth, perhaps shortly or even immediately prior to the ascension. By all accounts, the ascension occurred from the region of the Mount of Olives near Bethany, so evidently they went to Galilee and then came back.

Hartke also notes that “In Luke, moreover, all the appearances take place on Easter day, while in Acts they take place over a forty day period!” However, given that Luke and Acts are clearly written by the same author (as is virtually unanimously acknowledged), I would suggest that more charity be extended to the text before one concludes that a single author has contradicted himself. At the end of Luke, there is clear haste and a lack of specificity concerning time. In fact, Luke 24:29 states that the men on the road to Emmaus pressed Jesus to stay with them for dinner because it was already evening and the day was “far spent.” We do not know exactly what this phrase means, but it hardly meant three in the afternoon. Jesus then goes in with them; dinner is prepared (however long that took) and they sit down to eat. They recognize Jesus as He breaks bread, and then he disappears. The Emmaus disciples then immediately returned to Jerusalem — a distance of sixty stadia (Lk 24:13), or around 10-12km (6-7 miles) — a journey that would have taken them well over an hour, perhaps even two. They then spoke with the disciples and tell them their story (Lk 24:35). Then Jesus appeared and showed Himself. They gave Him some food (Lk 24:42). Only following this did Jesus begin speaking with them about the Scriptures. He then led them out to Bethany, a mile or two walk (c.f. Jn 11:18). If one attempts to place all of these events on the same evening, it would certainly have already been dark by this time, making it rather difficult for the disciples to witness the ascension into heaven (Lk 24:51). Thus, even simply taking Luke 24 on its own terms, it does not at all appear that all of these events took place in a single day. Apparently Luke was either running out of scroll at this point or was in a hurry. He does not appear to have full knowledge yet of precisely how long Jesus was on earth. Thus, he simply left it non-specific and subsequently clarified in his second volume, in Acts 1.

These reconcilable variations — narratives that at first blush appear to be in tension but which upon further inspection turn out to fit together without strain after all — I would argue, provide confirmatory evidence supporting the independence (and therefore the veracity) of the resurrection accounts.

III. Signs of Legendary Development

Hartke states,

Christian apologists often claim that the Gospels cannot contain significant legendary accretions because they were written within a generation of the events they ostensibly record, while legends generally take centuries to develop. Given the nature of the evidence we have, however, there is good reason for wondering whether this claim itself is an apologetically motivated myth.

 

This is not an argument that I myself would make or defend. In a footnote, Hartke cites two popular-level lay-apologists, Lee Strobel and Justin Brierley, despite the fact that all of his other footnotes cite established scholars. Hartke’s critique of this argument is that the apocryphal gospel of Peter, which is generally dated to the early to mid second century, clearly contains legendary embellishment. Since the gospel of Peter was written only a few decades after the gospel of John, argues Hartke, this shows that legendary accretion can indeed occur within a relatively short span of time — it does not take centuries.

I personally do not believe the argument that Hartke is critiquing to be a particularly strong apologetic argument, and I do not use it myself. Still, Hartke appears to misunderstand what Strobel and Brierley are saying. Brierley, following Gary Habermas, takes the view that the creedal tradition preserved in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 was formulated within a very short time of Jesus’ death (within a few years at most, though I have also heard Habermas assert that it may have been formulated within months of Jesus’ death). [6] This would indeed be quite early for legends to develop, though it would not be completely impossible. However, I do not believe Habermas’ conclusions to be well supported. I tend to agree with the consensus of scholars (including Habermas) that 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 most likely is derived from an oral creedal tradition (though I do not believe the evidence for this to be nearly as conclusive as many scholars do). However, I think any attempt to determine when Paul received this oral creed or precisely when it was formulated, is educated conjecture at best. See my previous article for a detailed discussion of this.

As for Lee Strobel, Strobel in context is relaying the contents of his interview with Craig Blomberg. Blomberg says (though I presume this is Strobel’s paraphrase rather than a direct quotation) [7]:

The standard scholarly dating, even in very liberal circles, is Mark in the 70s, Matthew and Luke in the 80s, John in the 90s. But listen: that’s still within the lifetimes of various eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus, including hostile eyewitnesses who would have served as a corrective if false teachings about Jesus were going around.

 

I do not think this is a good argument at all. Even today, if one is a living witness to an event that one believes to have been misreported by a newspaper or other media outlet, how easy would it be to correct the misinformation such that one successfully stops its spread and informs everyone of the correct information? Not very. How much more difficult would that be in the ancient world, without the use of modern technology such as the internet? It is not even likely that all of the living witnesses to the events in Jesus’ life would know everything that was being said about Jesus in every community where the stories were being communicated orally.

Thus, this argument, in my assessment, is indeed quite mistaken. But not for the reason Hartke alleges in his essay. Brierley’s argument has to do not with the gospels, but with the purported earliness of the oral creed preserved in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, which he considers to be much closer up to the facts than the gospel accounts. Strobel’s / Blomberg’s argument has to do with the witnesses to Jesus’ ministry still being alive at the time of the gospels being written (which they wouldn’t be by the time the gospel of Peter was written). Therefore, I agree with Hartke’s conclusions regarding this argument, though for different reasons than the ones he gives in his article.

In contradistinction to the approach articulated above, I would argue that the gospels are in fact very close up to the facts and were either written by eyewitnesses or people who personally knew (and received their information from) eyewitnesses. Having carefully surveyed the evidence, I am persuaded that the traditional authorship of the gospels (that is, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) is probably correct. The gospel accounts are not the product of decades of oral tradition, but rather of eyewitness memory. The case for this can be made robustly by pointing to the numerous points of detail in the four gospels that can be cross-checked and corroborated historically (for a detailed defense of this, see my previous articles on the subject).

Hartke alludes to Michael Licona’s literary device theory that he uses to explain differences between the gospels. [8] Hartke asserts,

Even Mike Licona, a conservative Baptist scholar, tacitly admits [that the gospels contain numerous examples of legendary development], citing the angel(s) at the tomb and the resurrection of the saints in Matt. 27:52-53 as possible examples of what he (euphemistically?) calls “a literary device” on the part of the Gospel writers, which they employ to drive home “their belief that a divine activity had occurred.”

 

I do not agree with Michael Licona about the supposed fictionalizing literary devices that the evangelists took liberty to use when composing their accounts. I think the evidence that he uses to infer their presence in Plutarch’s biographies is flimsy. For a detailed analysis of this subject, I refer you to Lydia McGrew’s excellent book The Mirror or the Mask — Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices. [9] I also did a webinar with Lydia on the subject, which you can view here (see also my discussion with Lydia and Justin Brierley on Unbelievable? concerning this subject). I would also argue, in addition to the evidence not supporting the use of such fictionalizing literary devices, that they are epistemically problematic for the case for the resurrection, since there is no robust methodology by which we might reliably determine when a literary device is and is not being used. Indeed, Hartke himself puts his finger on this very same objection. He writes,

But then the floodgate is opened and it can’t be shut. If we can attribute the bodies of the saints coming out of their tombs and appearing to many in Jerusalem to Matthew’s creative license, then why can’t we do that with any of Jesus’ appearances? John’s story of Jesus’ appearance by the Lake of Galilee (Jn. 21:1-17) bears so much similarity to Luke’s story of Peter’s first encounter with Jesus (Lk. 5:1-11) that it becomes quite sensible to ask whether one of the authors moved the story to a different setting for their own literary purposes, or even if this might be the result of memory-conjunction error, the combining of two separate memories to create one hybrid memory. And what about the anachronistic content of Jesus’ final words in Matthew? Or the 40 days of Acts? Or the ascension narrative? And on and on the questions come.

 

I completely agree, and that is why it would be quite damning to the case for the resurrection if Licona turned out to be correct. Thankfully, he is not. As for the resemblances between the appearance by the Lake of Galilee (Jn 21:1-17) and Peter’s earlier encounter with Jesus (Lk 5:1-11), there are also striking differences that should not be overlooked. Lydia McGrew offers the following list of differences [10]:

In Luke, the boat is at the shore when Jesus starts to give orders. In John, the disciples are out on the water when Jesus shows up. In Luke, Peter expresses reluctance. In John, there is no record of any argument when Jesus says to cast the net on the other side. In Luke, the fish are dragged into the boats (Luke 5.7). In John, the fish are towed to land and pulled up onto the shore (John 21.8, 11). In Luke, there is no meal of fish after the catch; in John, there is. And so forth. One can often produce an appearance of astonishing similarity merely by selecting details to give that impression.


Hartke further asserts concerning the guards at the tomb that,

Given the lack of independent corroboration for that detail, and the clear apologetic value it holds for Matthew’s narrative, there is good reason for thinking that it too is probably legendary.

 

This is an argument from silence, which is an exceedingly weak form of argument in historiography. There are plenty of other events that are recorded in only single sources that we nonetheless have good reason to believe happened. To take just one example, Josephus and Philo both omit to mention the expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius, an event that is documented by the second-century historian Seutonius (Life of Claudius 25.4) and by one first century source, as it happens Acts 18:2 from the New Testament. A myriad of additional examples could be offered. For more on the weakness of the argument from silence, I refer readers to this academic paper from 2014 by Timothy McGrew. [11]

Hartke concludes this section of his essay by noting,

And aside from the suspiciousness of any one tradition, there is the more general observation that the scope of post-resurrection material grows with each Gospel: Mark is the earliest, and he contains no actual record of any appearances, but only the expectation of one in Galilee (Mk 16:7); then comes Matthew, who spends 190 words on two appearances (Mt 28:9-20) and then Luke, who spends 641 words on three appearances (Lk 24:13-53); and finally John, who spends 930 words on four appearances (Jn 20:14-21:25). And just as the scope of post-resurrection material grows with each Gospel, so also do the themes of physical proof (an obviously important apologetic motif) and the displacement of Galilee with Jerusalem (which had greater prophetic significance; e.g. Isa 59:20) as the primary theater of the risen Jesus’ activity. Is it just a cruel coincidence of history that so much material is distributed in such a manner as to suggest legendary development?


This argument, while seemingly persuasive on first blush, is much less impressive upon close inspection. For one thing, we have no idea how elaborate Mark’s resurrection account would be. He alludes to the resurrection and shows his awareness of it, but deliberately chooses not to narrate it (assuming of course he does in fact stop at verse 8 and that there was no original longer ending of Mark that has been lost — a position I take to be the most likely). Thus, we are already down to three accounts, and it is not particularly improbable at all for three accounts to be randomly ordered in the right way. Furthermore, Matthew and Luke were probably composed around the same time, and the majority of scholars are persuaded that one did not use the other as a source for his own gospel (though both were dependent on Mark). This does not provide much by way of fodder for an argument for legendary development. The only interesting data point, then, is that John, which contains the more elaborate account, is later than Matthew and Luke. But that does not provide much by way of evidential value, since there is a 50/50 toss-up of it happening that way by coincidence.

IV. Unrealistic Features of the Traditions

Hartke argues that the resurrection accounts exhibit strange and unrealistic features. He writes,

One of the more puzzling features of the resurrection narratives is how the appearances of the risen Jesus are all short-lived and sporadic: Jesus appears in the middle of a room, gives a brief word of comfort or exhortation, and then disappears just as quickly as he appeared (Lk 24:31, 36-37; Jn 20:19, 26). Equally puzzling is why the appearances should be constrained to the days immediately following the crucifixion with few to none at all occurring soon afterward.

I am not sure where Hartke gets the idea from that the resurrection appearances are “constrained to the days immediately following the crucifixion with few to none at all occurring soon afterward.” Indeed, according to Acts 1:3, Jesus “presented himself alive to [the apostles] after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Forty days is more than a month of appearances of the risen Christ to the apostles, not merely “the days immediately following the crucifixion.”

As for the resurrection appearances being short-lived and sporadic, this is certainly not true of all of the appearances. According to John 21:12ff, Jesus even had breakfast with seven disciples. Likewise, in Luke 24:13-35, Jesus appears to have had a lengthy conversation with the disciples on the road to Emmaus — Cleopas and another unnamed individual — which apparently included Jesus opening the Scriptures “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets” and “interpret[ing] to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (v. 27). That surely cannot have been a brief encounter. After their opening of the Scriptures, Jesus shares a meal with them at their home (vv. 28-30). This latter reference is one of the examples Hartke himself cites, though Hartke fails to inform his readers that much time had been spent with Jesus by the point Jesus disappeared. This was no brief encounter. And it strains credulity to attribute Jesus breaking bread and giving it to them, as Hartke does, to bereavement hallucinations.

Furthermore, the fact that John’s gospel has Jesus apparently entering through locked doors (Jn 20:19, 26) actually bodes somewhat in favor of the credibility of John’s account. The gospel and epistles of John are partly concerned with addressing docetic Gnosticism, which maintained that Jesus did not have a physical body. Indeed, this is why John writes that “many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist,” (2 Jn 1:7) and “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). It is also why John emphasizes the physicality of Christ’s resurrection (e.g. Jesus inviting Thomas to touch him and Jesus eating broiled fish on the sea shore. It is curious, then, that this same John also includes episodes where Jesus, after the resurrection, is able to enter through locked doors, appearing at will. This is not the sort of thing that one would expect John to include, unless he really believed that it had happened.

Hartke, following Dale Allison, argues that the appearances reported by the gospels “perfectly fit the phenomenon of bereavement hallucinations or visions of the recently deceased.” However, the accounts of Jesus eating with his disciples and engaging in lengthy discourses (such as those attributed to the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus or in John 21) are not at all well explained by this hypothesis, as Allison himself is forced to concede. Indeed, Allison claims these are apologetic additions to the accounts. [12] But such reasoning is circular. Allison has cherry-picked data that is consistent with his hypothesis and has interpreted any data that is resistant to his preferred hypothesis in light of it.

Hartke quotes Allison on modern experiences of apparitions [13]:

Modern experiences of apparitions often involve, on the phenomenological level, what might be termed ‘transphysicality’. As indicated on the previous pages, apparitions can be perceived as solid and can even sometimes be touched. And yet they also appear and disappear just like the Jesus of the Gospels and, if I may so put it, live outside of this world. So those who regard the encounters with the risen Jesus as related to visionary experiences will be astounded neither at the ‘transphysicality’ of the resurrected Jesus nor by Paul’s use of ‘spiritual body’.


However, Allison fails to consider the possibility that such individuals who report the experiences he writes about may be lying. None of the individuals cited by Allison, so far as I know (to quote William Paley regarding the apostles) “passed their lives in labours, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undergone in attestation of the accounts which they delivered.” [14]

Allison also does not consider the possibility that these individuals were in a dream state, even though one of his favorite claims involves a little girl who was (by her own account) lying in bed when she allegedly saw her dead grandfather and was able to touch his beard). [15] But this sounds very much like a particularly vivid dream. Furthermore, when Allison discusses cases that are relevantly similar to the resurrection appearances (i.e. with phrases such as “I touched his beard”), they sound very much like experiences the individual had when alone. These are not episodes where other people were also invited to touch the dead person. The resurrection encounters, in contradistinction, involve not just appearances to individuals but appearances to groups on multiple occasions and in various circumstances, and even involve group conversation and group meals. The resurrection accounts, therefore, are qualitatively different from the sorts of experiences discussed by Allison.

A further problem with the hallucination hypothesis is that it fails to account for why the disciples came to believe that Jesus was alive rather than dead. According to the prevailing Jewish thought in second temple Judaism, the resurrection was thought of as an event that would be general (that is, not of an isolated individual) and would take place at the end of time (that is, not in the middle of history). It is more plausible, in my assessment, that if the disciples had experienced merely hallucinations of Jesus following His death, they would have concluded that they were seeing Jesus in Abraham’s bosom and that Jesus had been assumed into heaven — not that He had been physically raised from the dead.

Finally, the hallucination hypothesis fails to account for the empty tomb, the historicity of which, I would argue, is well supported. One must therefore invoke an independent hypothesis to account for the discovery of the empty tomb, in addition to the hallucination hypothesis to explain the appearances. Thus, the resurrection hypothesis, I would argue, has greater explanatory scope since it accounts for both the post-resurrection appearances and the empty tomb.

V. Dissonance Reduction Strategies

In the final section of his essay, Hartke argues that the earliest Christians employed dissonance reduction strategies to rationalize the apparent failure of prophetic predictions. He asserts that the evangelists “habitually reinterpret OT prophecies along these same lines, finding the most malleable parts fulfilled in the birth of the Christian movement while projecting the most substantial parts into the future.” The New Testament’s use of the Old Testament is a vast subject that space does not permit me to address in detail here. Unfortunately, Hartke does not offer specific examples of those reinterpreted Old Testament passages, so I will not address this point here.

Hartke suggests that an example of dissonance reduction strategies in the gospel accounts is the manner in which Matthew and Luke add the phrase “from now on” to Jesus’ statement that the high priest Caiaphas would “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:64; Lk 22:69). This example falls prey to an unfortunate scholarly habit that is all too common — failure to recognize when a variation is just a variation (see this webinar I did with Lydia McGrew on six bad habits of New Testament scholars). In any case, Caiaphas died in 36 A.D., and everyone agrees that Mark was written after this time. So, if Matthew and Luke (or a source they had in common) had felt compelled to modify Jesus’ statement recorded in Mark since Caiaphas had already died, then wouldn’t Mark have had the same motivation?

Hartke suggests that another example of this sort of dissonance reduction strategy is found “in the ascension narratives of Luke-Acts, which provide a suspiciously easy answer for why the appearances of the risen Jesus eventually ceased.” Such a hypothesis would suggest an element of deliberate deception on the part of the apostles. But I do not believe it to be plausible that the disciples were deliberately lying about their encounters with the risen Jesus (for a detailed defense of this, see my articles here and here, as well as Lydia McGrew’s article here). Since Jesus’ mission had been accomplished, there was no longer any reason for Him to remain on the earth. Given the truth of Christianity, therefore, the fact of the ascension on the hypothesis of Christianity is not implausible. Furthermore, it would presumably have been a more effective dissonance reduction strategy to present the resurrection appearances of Jesus as non-physical visions (which would be more consistent with Jewish beliefs, which had no concept of a single individual in the middle of history being raised from the dead to glory and immortality prior to the general resurrection at the end of time). In that scenario, the disciples would not have to be concerned about why Jesus was not still walking around.

It is also noteworthy that the appearances of Jesus reportedly abruptly ceased after forty days rather than gradually. It might even be argued that the abruptness of the discontinuation of the appearances of the risen Jesus fits better on the hypothesis of a physical resurrection and subsequent ascension than on the hypothesis of hallucinations or visions (which one might have expected to continue at least for some time).

Conclusion

To conclude, while Hartke’s objections to the case for the resurrection may appear to be persuasive to the uninitiated, a closer inspection reveals them to be quite weak. I trust that readers will find my critiques of Hartke’s essay helpful, given how popular those arguments are against the resurrection. For more on the case for the resurrection, please check out my other articles on the subject, which are available here.

Footnotes

[1] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2010), 377.

[2] Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 71.

[3] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL; Nottingham, England: IVP Academic; Apollos, 2010), 378–379.

[4] Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (New York: Prometheus, 2004), 43-44.

[5] Kirk R. MacGregor, “1 Corinthians 15:3B-6A, 7 and the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 2 (June 2006):225-234.

[6] Justin Brierley, Unbelievable? Why After Ten Years of Talking with Atheists, I’m Still a Christian (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2017), 136-137.

[7] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).

[8] Michael Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[9] Lydia McGrew, The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices (Tampa, FL: Deward Publishing Company, Ltd, 2019).

[10] Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts (Tampa, FL: Deward Publishing Company, Ltd, 2017), 110.

[11] Timothy McGrew, “The Argument from Silence”, Acta Analytica 29, 215-228 (October 2013).

[12] Dale C. Allison, The Resurrection of Jesus — Apologetics, Polemics, History (London: T&T Clark, 2021), 226-227.

[13] Dale C. Allison, Resurrecting Jesus (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 193.

[14] William Paley, A View of the Evidences of Christianity: Volume 1, Reissue Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 15.

[15] Dale C. Allison, The Resurrection of Jesus — Apologetics, Polemics, History (London: T&T Clark, 2021), 455.

1 thought on “On Matthew Hartke’s Five Reasons to Doubt the Resurrection”

  1. Pingback: mid-week apologetics booster (5-6-2021) – 1 Peter 4:12-16

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