The big religious news this week is, of course, the so-called tomb of Jesus. It is actually not news at all (since it's not "new"), but has garnered attention because of the well-planned media hype for James Cameron's upcoming documentary. In this post, I do not want to talk about the supposed tomb of Jesus, because persons more adequately trained in history and archaeology are addressing it sufficiently. It seems quite clear that this tomb neither proves nor disproves anything about Jesus. But the incident does raise an interesting question: What would it take to disprove Christianity? Or, more narrowly, what would it take to disprove that Jesus rose from the dead?
It seems to me that Christian claims about Jesus require that they can be disproved, at least in principle. I do not think this requirement is thrust upon Christianity by the world, so that Christians must be accountable to some sort of "universally recognized foundations" (whatever they may be). Rather, this requirement is entailed by the kinds of claims Christians make. Some (though perhaps not all) Christian beliefs are claims about states of affairs in the known universe. This is particularly the case with regard to our (putatively central) claims about Jesus, and eminently so regarding his resurrection from the dead. Although this event cannot be explained by the normal operations of the known universe, it took place within the known universe. Therefore, claims concerning this event are vulnerable to counter-claims that could perhaps undermine it. What might constitute a sufficient objection to the belief that Jesus was raised from the dead?
A certain theologian took up this very question and provides a scenario in which belief in resurrection could be undermined: "A letter is discovered in an ancient Mediterranean, now Turkish, village, addressed to one Paul, formerly Saul, of Tarsus. [It reads:] I can hardly believe we got away with it. The place where we hid the body was so obvious, and it took so long before we could finally get rid of it, that I'm amazed no one discovered it. And that story we cooked up about seeing him alive after they crucified him - not just once, but for forty days! Admittedly a few Athenians though this was pretty funny, but it's astonishing how many people have believed it. So let's press on to Rome and see how far we can carry this thing. Be careful, and write when you are able...As ever, Peter." (Bruce Marshall, Trinity and Truth [CUP, 2000] p. 167)
What I appreciate about this example is its literary character: Christian claims about Jesus rest primarily on literary evidence (apostolic letters, etc.), and thus counter-claims would be especially fitting if they also rested on literary evidence. Of course, such evidence would need to be thoroughly tested for authenticity. But if it passed such historical tests, a letter like this could perhaps undermine belief in Jesus' resurrection. If Christians kept on claiming that Jesus was raised while at the same time accepting the veracity of this letter, people would have good reason to question our integrity.
I, for one, do not think it is possible or desirable to try to prove Jesus' resurrection. However, I do think Christians have a vested interest in Jesus' resurrection not being disproved. I have observed that many Christians who (rightly, in my mind) eschew proving Christianity sometimes make the mistake of thinking Christianity cannot be disproved at all. In this case, an appropriate confidence (that our beliefs will not be undermined) slips into an inappropriate stubbornness (that our beliefs cannot be undermined). But if no evidence whatsoever could undermine our belief in Jesus' bodily resurrection, then it seems likely that we do not understand this belief to entail claims about real states of affairs in the real world. In other words, we don't really believe in the resurrection as an actual event in space and time. I do believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. Thus I have to acknowledge that, in principle, this event could be disproved, although it has not yet been disproved, and it is practically-speaking quite difficult to disprove, and there are good reasons for thinking it never will be disproved.
Do you agree that Christian beliefs can at least in principle be disproved? Why or why not?
What other examples could be provided as a plausible basis for counter-claims against basic Christian beliefs?
Why does it matter that Christian claims be disprovable?