Over on BioLogos, in the context of discussing the Ham-Nye debate, several people have resumed a much earlier BioLogos discussion about the Resurrection, in which it was argued (apparently under the inspiration of N. T. Wright) that the Gospel reports concerning the women at the tomb of Jesus provide proof, or at least very strong evidence, for a physical resurrection. I don’t wish to take up the specific argument, but I do wish to point out the general form of the argument, and show why all arguments of this form will be of no avail until a greater problem – naturalism – is dealt with.
The argument – that the episode of the women being the first to find the empty tomb wouldn’t be in there unless there really had been a physical resurrection (as opposed to, say, a stolen body) – is just one out of scores of argument of the general form: “The Gospel writers would never have written up the story in the specific way that they did if the event didn’t really happen.” I don’t find such arguments convincing, and don’t think they are the best way of defending the truth of the Bible. But even if such arguments can be strong, they don’t get to the theoretical heart of the debate. The heart of the debate is captured by Scott Jorgenson’s comment (February 7th, Comment #84457):
“… the only reason we are quibbling over that [i.e., over the evidentiary significance of the story about the women at the tomb] is because of the nature of the event in question. Bodily resurrections simply don’t happen and thus couldn’t have happened in this case either, and so any alternative explanation with even a modicum of plausibility is to be preferred – so goes the argument….”
I would agree with this, but would extend the principle to all individual arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection of the general type I’ve indicated. There is a general reluctance, among most modern people, to accept any historical argument for the Resurrection – and for exactly the reason that Jorgenson highlights. And I think it’s more profitable to focus on that, than to add to the lengthy wrangling about women and witnesses and stolen bodies and so on.
Since the Enlightenment, there has been a general disinclination among educated people – not just secular humanists, but mainline-church Christians, and increasingly even evangelical Christians – to accept miracles, in the sense of disruptions of the ordinary patterns of nature. There is a bias in favor of purely natural causation, not merely to explain everyday natural events, but to explain the origins of things – galaxies, solar systems, habitable planets, life, species, man.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not saying that it is wrong to consider purely natural possibilities for the origins of things. Nor am I denying that God might have chosen to create everything purely through “secondary causes” rather than through direct divine action; God is sovereign and can create indirectly rather than directly if it pleases him. What I am saying is that there is an active bias in favor of purely natural explanations for origins, a bias that operates even in cases where purely natural explanations are at the moment nonexistent, weak, vague, or implausible.
We don’t see this bias in the early phases of modern natural science. People like Boyle and Galileo were quite happy to believe that nature operated by regular laws, without need for special divine action (to make the sun rise on November 23, for example, or to make the flower turn toward the sun after it rose); yet they took it for granted that special divine action was involved in setting up the solar system and the order of nature generally, and in the origin of life and of at least the basic living forms. But from about the 18th century onward, there was an increasing desire among “natural philosophers” to explain origins without reference to special divine action (as opposed to the general divine action by which all natural activity was sustained). So, just as Boyle had ceased to believe that any angelic power or pagan deity pushed Mercury around in its orbit, Kant ceased to believe that the solar system’s formation required any special divine action, Darwin ceased to believe that the origin of species or man required any special divine action, and Oparin ceased to believe that the origin of life itself required any special divine action.
It is important to note that the desire to find only natural causes for origins has usually predated any really good evidence for such natural causes.
Take Darwin, for example. Darwin had no knowledge of the inside of a cell. He did not understand metabolism, genes, DNA, etc. He had only the vaguest of explanations for how evolution could work. For him, variation occurred somehow, and then natural selection took over to slowly sculpt variants into genuinely new species, and eventually into new classes, phyla, etc. And when asked to specify how natural selection could build complex organs from scratch, he stammered and improvised, offering only weak and sketchy arguments, e.g., the lung might somehow have arisen from a primitive swimming bladder. And as a private letter shows, his argument for the origin of the camera eye did not fully convince even himself. Yet he maintained that such things must have happened. Why? Because if they didn’t, then God must have performed at least some special divine actions in order to keep evolution on track to produce the complex organ or system in question. And Darwin would accept no such explanation. God could be vaguely in the background, as somehow behind the general order of nature, but he was to keep his hands off the actual generation of new species. Nature alone was to handle that. But how nature could handle that, Darwin had no clue, nor did anyone who supported Darwin at the time; that had to wait until Mendel, Crick, Watson, etc. came along. (And even then, the explanation is far from satisfactory, but that’s a subject for another column.)
Now if this tendency to run ahead of evidence were found only among atheists, it would not be surprising. After all, the committed atheist has to find a naturalistic explanation for origins, and will thus regard even a sketchy causal account, lacking in much empirical support, as intrinsically more plausible than any account which infers intelligent agency. But since the Enlightenment an increasing number of Christians have started to think about origins in terms of purely natural causes, and in the past 30 years, an increasing number of evangelical Christians have come on board. That is what is truly remarkable.
The great majority of TE leaders argue strongly in favor of purely natural explanations of origins. Of course, TEs rarely deny that God could have been directly involved in creation; they say it’s the scientific evidence that induces them to believe that God works only through secondary causes. But that doesn’t ring true, when one reads many of their writings. Statements by Falk, Venema, Ken Miller and others reveal a clear metaphysical or theological bias in favor of naturalistic accounts; empirical evidence on the other side (i.e., evidence that suggests the active input of biological information by intelligence, rather than the generation of massive amounts of such information by chance) is attacked by the TEs with great zeal.
We saw this in the case of Stephen Meyer’s first book, Signature in the Cell. The President of BioLogos, Darrel Falk, led a major attack upon the book’s arguments and conclusions, aided and abetted by Dennis Venema and Francisco Ayala. All of these biologists knew that Meyer was right in his claim (documented extensively in the book) that origin-of-life science thus far was almost a complete failure, but because they did not want to accept his conclusion (i.e., that origin-of-life science is barking up the wrong tree because life did not happen accidentally), they dug in their heels and fought tooth and nail against it. Now Ayala was at the time no longer Christian or even theistic, and one can understand his motivation; but how can one understand the motivation of Venema or Falk?
The motivation of Venema and Falk is what one might call “theological naturalism” – a strong belief that God would choose to work only through secondary causes. And this belief is so strong in most of the leading TEs that they will discount even strong arguments to the contrary – exactly as (according to Scott Jorgenson, Ted Davis, N.T. Wright, etc.) atheists discount strong arguments from the Biblical text that the resurrection actually occurred.
Jorgenson rightly points out that prejudice governs how atheists react to arguments for the Resurrection. What he does not see is that prejudice also governs how many TEs react to presentations of scientific evidence for design in nature. TEs want to believe that there can be no scientific (as opposed to fideistic, eye-of-faith) grounds for concluding that there is design in nature. And what they want to believe makes them often unfair to ID arguments.
When naturalism – whether of the atheistic kind (Dawkins, Coyne, etc.) or of the theistic kind (Falk, Venema, etc.) – becomes an unquestionable axiom, it brings prejudice with it. I would invite modern Christians to question their often-unthinking preference for naturalism, especially when it comes to questions of origins. I don’t say they should automatically reject naturalistic explanations; I say they should have a healthy skepticism about them. They should be as least as suspicious of “naturalism of the gaps” as of “God of the gaps.” There is no reason why a Christian (as opposed to an atheist) should have a preference for naturalistic accounts of origins.