The Case Against Christ
In his book, The Case against Christ, Matthew McCormick, suggests various ways in which God could have/should have provided better evidence for the miraculous, especially the resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ (chapter 8). About his criteria he writes, “The problem is that as far as we can determine, not a single alleged religious miracle in all of human history satisfies these modest, reasonable, and obvious suggestions.” (166)
McCormick does make some compelling comments about the evidential value of certain miracles in his book, as well as mentioning the problem that miracles might create when considering evil in our world. When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, however, I will reiterate McCormick’s list of criteria and, with an eye to the irony of it all, show that the resurrection actually meets the evidential bar that Matthew sets for it.
In watching debates of Matthew I am impressed by his kindness, humour and sincerity and I have no desire to attack his character or person. To give the reader fair warning I do, however, sharply critique his book below and I am asking for your permission up front to get a little sassy.
Objective, Impartial Observers
The author writes that in order to rationally believe in a miracle it would have to be assessed by impartial, objective observers. The alleged miracle “should not be evaluated or investigated by committed zealous believers. Humans have a powerful tendency to affirm the conclusions they desire to be true.” (162)
My first problem with this criterion is that it imagines something as mythical as a unicorn. Objective, impartial observers regarding questions of ultimate importance with enormous existential import and worldview implications, where do you find one of those? At the Freethinker’s convention?
I may be gullible enough to believe in God, but I am not gullible enough to believe in that!
McCormick is right that we are all prone to suffer from confirmation bias. This is true of believers and unbelievers. His own book, though brilliant at times, is one great exercise in this very human tendency. This is not an ad hominem attack, it is borne out by the facts. For example, in his entire book critiquing the historical argument for the resurrection McCormick doesn’t directly address or deal with the most important piece of historical data that any decent apologist worth his salt would anchor his case for the resurrection on; that being the early creed found in 1st Corinthians chapter 15. Matt knows this so it is an inexcusable omission for someone who is interested in attacking more than straw men arguments. If Matthew had included this data he may have realized that this criterion (the illusion of objectivity aside) is more than met by the evidence for the resurrection through the conversion of Paul, who was an enemy of the early Christian movement, and James, who was deeply skeptical – they were both biased against belief!
In fact, Paul was more biased against Christianity than Matthew will ever be. How do I know? Simple. Matthew thinks Christian belief can be potentially dangerous, whereas Paul was convinced it was dangerous to the extreme of chasing Christians down and dragging them off to prison!
Paul and James’ faith in Jesus didn’t lead to the resurrection appearances, the resurrection appearances led to their faith – their biases were running in the opposite direction until they encountered the risen Christ.
McCormick goes on, “The more evidence that can be gathered, the better. If a miracle was to occur, all other things being equal, we would have better evidence to support it. A few emotional believers with a great deal of investment in the cause of the miracle claim are not as reliable as a large group of diverse autonomous people.” (163)
This criterion makes sense to me. What doesn’t make sense is why McCormick doesn’t think the evidence for the resurrection meets it? Once again his omission of the creed in 1 Corinthians is telling because there we find that Jesus appeared to five hundred believers at one time! Paul even mentions that some were still alive, indicating that he had personally met and spoken with these individuals. These were likely people with diverse emotional make-ups and life experience; some of them may not have originally been believers for all we know. In fact, for 1st century Jewish people a crucified Messiah was a failed messiah, which means that as soon as the crucifixion snuffed out the life of Jesus, it would be fair to describe all of his followers as non-believers at that point, including the 500. Or do those 500 hundred not count, a little too inconvenient perhaps?
Also, McCormick doesn’t really address the circumstantial evidence that is very, very difficult to account for apart from the resurrection. In the 1st century there were many messianic movements in which the charismatic leader was killed, both before and after the time of Jesus. In each case, when the leader was killed by the Romans the followers either went home, or found a new messiah. As mentioned above, this is because in 1st century Judaism a crucified messiah was, by definition, a failed messiah.
McCormick leaves it inexplicable as to why, in Jesus’ case, instead of going home or finding a new messiah his closest followers all of sudden declared that Jesus had risen from the dead and he truly was the messiah after all! This is a completely unexpected move within the religious context of 1st century Judaism in which a crucified individual was considered to be under God’s curse, and the word ‘resurrection’ meant a transformed physical body at the end of history.
Other circumstantial evidence, which is best explained by the resurrection of Jesus, would include: the first disciples imparting saving significance to Jesus’ death, a theological move that would be nonsensical and absurd apart from the resurrection occurring, the first Jewish disciples changing their day of worship from Saturday to Sunday, overthrowing centuries of religious observance; or the radical mutation that took place in their beliefs about the Jewish law in light of Jesus.
On and on we could go.
And if one thinks the above mutations that occurred in the distinctly Jewish worldview of Jesus’ first followers are insignificant or humdrum that just shows (forgive me for saying it) profound ignorance about the religious life of Jewish people in first century Palestine and their fierce commitment to their religious tradition; traditions that held together their unique cultural identity in the midst of hostile nations for century after century. To make these significant changes in their theology and their understanding of the nature of God, apart from the resurrection actually occurring, is very difficult to understand.
Here is another one of Matthew’s criteria. God should have done a bigger miracle like writing out in the stars, ‘I Exist!’ or having Jesus appear and reappear for decades or centuries. “If the goal is to bring Jesus back to demonstrate his divinity to all of humanity for the rest of history, then why just show him to handful of his devoted followers for a few fleeting moments?” (163)
What does one say to an objection like that? Well, raising someone from the dead who, from all the evidence we have, seems to have consciously spoke and acted in the place of God is pretty BIG, and it seems that God’s manner of proceeding has worked pretty well, if it is just a question of pragmatics. After all, over two billion people believe in Jesus as the resurrected Lord and much of the world has heard about this event! Jesus has worked his way into basically every world religion he is so significant. Even atheists like McCormick find it necessary to spend countless hours researching and writing books on this event!
It is interesting to talk about what God should of, would of, could have done, but what he actually did has worked well enough! He has given enough evidence to convince those whose heart is open, but not enough to forcibly compel those whose hearts are closed. This is seen by the very fact that the resurrection actually meets most of the criteria that McCormick lays out above.
Take Human Fallibility Into Account
McCormick continues, “The power of suggestion, social pressure, and peer expectation can be very influential in getting people to believe that something special or extraordinary has happened…Any miracle claim is going to be up against this psychological background that will create challenges to its authenticity.” (163)
This is an objection from psychology that seems reasonable to me. The idea is that, if God wanted people to believe in him on the basis of a miracle, he would do something about human gullibility.
Like many of these criteria there are so many ways in which one could respond, but my main objection is that Matthew doesn’t take seriously the psychological absurdities that result from assuming the resurrection didn’t actually happen. Consider James and Paul again.
James didn’t believe in his brother during Jesus’ earthly ministry, an embarrassing detail it is unlikely the Gospel writers would have made up. In fact, John 7:5 just states, “For even His own brothers didn’t believe in Him.” In Mark 3:21, another Gospel writer records that when His family heard about this (His teaching and miracles), they went to take charge of Him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” James doesn’t believe in Jesus and, even worse, he thinks that Jesus is out of His mind. The crucifixion would have just confirmed His family’s sentiment. Yet we also know, as a matter of history, that James becomes a leader in the early church (Galatians 1, Acts 15), worshiping his brother as Messiah and Lord to the point of eventually dying for that belief. This is not controversial at all, historically speaking.
Now, we know that people die for things they believe to be true, but no sane person dies for something they know to be false. And James was there so he would have known if the stories about Jesus were made up! This is one of the major reasons why the conspiracy theory has never worked as an explanation for the first Easter.
Think for a moment and ask yourself, what would it take for you to worship your brother as God and then die for that belief? Seriously, think about it.
Yet James is one of the overseers of a movement in which his brother, whom he likely lived with under the same roof for a time while growing up, is called God over all, forever praised, and the one through whom all things came to be! And all the reliable information we have about James shows him to be a sane, wise, politically savvy leader who was respected by many in Jerusalem, meaning this is not the delusion of a crazy man! James came to worship his half-brother as Messiah and Lord, and eventually died for that belief. An extraordinary occurrence like this requires an extraordinary explanation and Christianity gives us the only one that truly fits the evidence – the resurrected Christ appeared to James.
Then there was Paul. Paul wrote a significant portion of the New Testament and planted many Christian churches in the 1st century. But before that Paul hated Christians, and was hell-bent on destroying the church (Acts 8). What transformed him from a persecutor of Christians to a pastor who was willing to endure extraordinary hardship to proclaim the Gospel?
If we asked Paul, “What dramatically changed your life?”
He would have only one answer for us; Jesus Christ rose from the dead and appeared to me. That would be his unapologetic response. How do you explain the transformation of James and Paul’s psyche apart from the resurrection? The attempted hypotheses’ of grief-induced visions, wish fulfillment, religious zeal, or general gullibility that McCormick employs, fail to do so on multiply fronts.
Make it better than Tricks that are easily faked
A well-trained illusionist could perform most alleged miracles so if God wanted to convince us of his existence through a miracle, he would perform a feat that no magician could duplicate! Well, this challenged has been accepted.
Andre Kole is a famous illusionist who, as a non-believer, took up the challenge of exposing Jesus as a trickster by replicating some of his most famous tricks. After all, turning water into wine is a simple illusion for the well-practiced magician. Kole also became the first person to publicly demonstrate walking on water in the midst of a deep, flowing lake, all to the astonishment of onlookers. But here is the problem that Kole quickly realized: to pull off this type of illusion required massive amounts of equipment, planning, teamwork and money. He eventually wrote that:
If Jesus had been a magician, then you would have to visualize, 2000 years ago, Jesus and the disciples, walking through the desert streets of Galilee, in long robes and sandals, with three diesel trucks following along behind to carry all of the equipment necessary for him to be a magician.
The end of this story is that one of the greatest illusionists in the world, an innovator in his field, the genius behind the success of men like Copperfield, became a Christian, believing in the miracles of Jesus. And, the first Sherlock Holmes movie aside, it should be obvious that a resurrection from the dead after three days is certainly more impressive than a trick that is easily faked by a modern day magician!
Make it something an almighty being would do
A miracle should be something that an almighty being would actually do, according to McCormick. This comment/criterion might apply to God turning the fillings of people’s teeth to gold. After all, why would God do something like that? But the resurrection is certainly different. It seem immensely reasonable to me that raising Jesus from the dead is something that God may be inclined to do given Jesus’ life, teachings and self-identification with the almighty.
Feelings aren’t enough
“Powerful feelings of awe, religious significance, excitement and enthusiasm themselves are not indicators that something special has happened in the world.” (165)
True. That is why God gave us historical facts for the resurrection that are well attested, meeting the above criteria.
Pick a better audience
Basically, this criticism amounts to saying that the people back then were dumb and gullible. Why were they dumb and gullible? They didn’t know about oxygen or what makes water boil. The ancients were pretty stupid, don’t you know.
This is curious approach since Matt has spent a large amount of time trying to convince the reader that people today are dumb and gullible. After all, we still believe in God, miracles and demons! So who is this better audience? Is it the modern scientists who claim to be Christians, yet won 74 percent of the Nobel prizes in chemistry, 65.3 percent in physics, and 64.3 percent in medicine in the last hundred years or so? Or is he referring to the Atheists and free thinkers who won around 10 percent?
It is not altogether clear.
The first Christians didn’t know all that we know about the world. Maybe they had lower IQ’s than some people living today, though that certainly wouldn’t have been true of the Apostle Paul! He could beat most people in an argument, whether in Greek, Latin, or Hebrew.
Chronological snobbery aside, It is not our advancements in knowledge that have made genuine miracles hard to believe. In order for this assumption to be correct, one would have to assume that the first Christians, or the people of the ancient world, did not realize that water was not to be walked on, or that virgins don’t actually get pregnant without the involvement of a man, or that water does not, on its own accord, instantaneously transfigure into good wine. We didn’t need modern science to teach the above, just common human experience. The first Christians knew how things normally worked as well as you or I do (minus the details), and that is why they were amazed by the miracles of Jesus! Walking on the water is not a recognizable miracle unless people normally sink. In other words, a miracle is an exception. You can’t recognize the exception unless you are aware of the general rule that is being broken.
N.T. Wright said it well when he wrote, “A modern myth circulating at the moment says that it’s only we who have contemporary post-enlightenment science who have discovered that dead people don’t rise. Those people back then, poor things, were unenlightened, so they believed in all these crazy miracles. But that is simply false…People in the ancient world were incredulous when faced with the Christian claim, because they knew perfectly well that when people die they stayed dead.”
It is clear that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the data, an explanation so good that it meets even criteria laid out by a skeptical atheist, though in a remarkable irony, he seems blissfully unaware of the fact!
In the end, I think the real question involves the background information one brings to the investigation surrounding the events of the first Easter. Does our background information include the existence of God or not?
Therefore, in my next article I will look at the evidence for God’s existence that meet most of the criteria that atheist, Vic Stenger lays out in his book, God: the Failed Hypothesis.
 McCormick also has a chapter in which he compares evidence for witchcraft in Salem with evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. He argues that we reject witchcraft in Salem, which is actually better attested than the evidence for the resurrection. Therefore, Christians should apply similar standards of evidence for both events and reject both for the sake of consistency and intellectual honesty. See this post for a brief refutation of this argument: http://randalrauser.com/2011/09/on-putting-matt-mccormicks-argument-to-rest/ and here: https://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/review-of-chapter-8-of-the-end-of-christianity/
 Throughout his entire book, McCormick wants to cast doubt on the validity of Christian belief based on the wish fulfillment that is certainly at play in the cognitive matrix of every sincere believer, at least according to him. “When you are attached to a certain outcome you can’t think straight.” (233) “Our inquiries into some matter can be orientated toward defending a prior belief, or they can be evidence driven and receptive to whatever conclusion is best justified by what we discover. The difference is that we often approach the world with a preformed conclusion already in mind. Then, as we consider new information that is relevant to that cherished doctrine, we are receptive to the arguments, evidence, and reasoning that corroborate it and are hostile to the arguments that run counter to it.” (234)
Sure. I won’t argue with Matt here. I’ll only ask the question, ‘why doesn’t this apply to his atheism, calling into question his entire argument against the resurrection?’ ‘Wait, did Matt think that the resurrection was possible before he began writing this book?’ ‘Did he believe that miracles could actually occur before he began his investigation?’ ‘Was he not already an individual who ‘lacked a belief in God’ prior to penning this argument?’ ‘And didn’t this prior commitment to God’s non-existence make the probability of a miracle occurring exactly 0?’ ‘How can one even approach something akin to objectivity, or a fair assessment of the evidence, if ones prior metaphysical commitments determine the only conclusion that can be reached before the investigation begins?’
When you are attached to a certain outcome you can’t think straight, but don’t forget to read the fine print, atheists are exempt. Give me a break.
But wait, the chorus of freethinkers cry, atheism is not a belief it is just a lack of belief, it is not faith, it is a lack of faith, therefore wish-fulfillment doesn’t apply. Well, OK. If that is all atheism is than we might as well just yawn. How boring. Under this definition every infant is born an atheist. On this definition atheism tells us something about the state of the atheist’s mind, but nothing about the real world, which kind of sounds like what atheists say about theists. And, oh yah, wish-fulfillment can still apply.
 There is a summary in Matt’s book regarding the arguments that are sometimes invoked when speaking in favour of the resurrection hypothesis. In general his summery (though incomplete) is fair. It is still inexcusable to refuse to seriously engage with 1 Corinthians 15 in his book. If one were to write a more serious refutation of the resurrection they would have to take seriously (and represent fairly) the impressive work of N.T. Wright in, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Michael R. Licona in, The Resurrection of Jesus, William Lane Craig in, The Son Rises, or his article in Jesus Under Fire on the resurrection, which may be the best shorter summary Craig has in print. And I don’t just mean watching debates between Craig and Erhman, or Licona and whoever else either. In debates you don’t get the full argument from either side. The published version of Craig’s debate with Gerd Ludemann called, Jesus’ Resurrection: fact or fiction? is also worth reading. If McCormick fairly represented these arguments and critiqued them he would have a far more persuasive book.
 Chris Price, Radical Hope, 115.
 Brave or foolish people may die for things they believe to be true, or for other various noble reasons, but no sane individual dies for something they know to be false. It has been pointed out to me that, in the Second World War, members of the French underground would lie to the Nazis and die defending that lie in order to conceal information from their enemy. They fabricated a story and willingly died for the deception. This historical example seems like an exception to my above claim, but it actually reinforces the point I am making. The collusion of the members involved in the French Underground likely saved countless lives, helping many people escape Nazi death squads, and we have acknowledged already that brave individuals will die for noble causes. The disciples’ situation was entirely different. For the disciples no lives were spared by telling lies about Jesus’ resurrection, rather, lives would only be wasted by this tall-tale, including their own lives, spent frivolously propagating falsehoods until they were silenced by death.
Jim Warner Wallace is a cold case detective who appears on Dateline and he is so gifted as a cold-case investigator that around the show they call him the ‘evidence whisperer.’ Jim makes the above point most powerfully when he writes:
Many people are willing to die for what they don’t know is a lie. Martyrdom doesn’t confirm the truth, especially when the martyrs don’t have first-hand access to the claim for which they’re dying. But this wasn’t the case for the disciples of Jesus. They were in a unique position: they knew if the claims about Jesus were true. They were present for the life, ministry, death and alleged resurrection of Jesus. If the claims about Jesus were a lie, the disciples would have known it (in fact they would have been the source of the lie). That’s why their commitment to their testimony was (and is) so compelling. Unlike the rest of us, their willingness to die for their claims has tremendous evidential value. In fact, the commitment of the apostles confirms the truth of the resurrection. http://coldcasechristianity.com/2015/the-commitment-of-the-apostles-confirms-the-truth-of-the-resurrection/ (Accessed January, 16, 2015).
 Perhaps this is why McCormick, himself, never directly attempts this explanation.
 Romans 9:5
 The Jewish historian Josephus records his martyrdom.
 For a refutation of the Hallucination hypothesis see. https://www.apologeticscanada.com/2016/04/29/must-seeing-things-grief-induced-hallucination-resurrection-jesus/
 Shalev A. Baruch, 100 years of Nobel Prizes
 This is C.S. Lewis’ phrase
 Antony Flew, There is a God (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher, 2007), 189.