There are certain problems associated with trying to debate whether or not an alleged historical event actually happened. In debating history, we are in an area of knowledge where different interpretations and opinions regarding the claim are easy to put forward. History is not something you can bottle and put in a lab to study. You may be able to try to recreate similar conditions and look at currently available evidence to figure out what happened, but the event itself is gone. It is impossible to recover. Time passes and that’s it.
As such, it is very common to have differing opinions about what actually happened (or if anything actually happened) almost immediately after an event. For example, consider 9/11 truthers and holocaust deniers. Truthers deny that the World Trade Center was brought down by Muslim Terrorists on September 11, 2001. They think somebody else pulled it off, probably the Jews and the U.S. government (Two common conspiracy theory stand-bys.) Holocaust deniers basically lay the blame in the same place, only for them the big lie is not that Muslims brought down the twin towers, but that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews in World War II.
However, just because it is easy to advance many interpretations of what happened does not mean we must be completely skeptical about knowing history. We can still examine what evidence we have and try to arrive at the story which most adequately explains the facts. This is what happens in courtrooms every day. Jurors are asked to decide what is most reasonable to believe about what happened in the past. They are presented with evidence and competing theories to account for that evidence. The theory (story) that best accounts for the evidence is considered most likely to be true.
Now, I happen to think that the position of holocaust deniers and 9/11 truthers does not do as good a job of accounting for the evidence as the more commonly accepted views. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that their explanation if what happened is false.
The goal of a debate about the resurrection, I submit, is to determine which side of the resurrection debate is the best explanation of the evidence. In other words, we want to know which view is more like the truthers and holocaust deniers (that is to say, wrong, albeit with perhaps some fine sounding debate points), and which side is more in line with the more credible and widely accepted views on these subjects.
The first thing to do in discussing the resurrection is to clarify the topic in a way that allows one to submit as broad a range of evidence and data as possible. One of the problems with historical debates is that they often get so fixated on one particular piece of data that the bigger picture gets lost, or at least is not taken into account.
For example, the truthers explanation of the data is that 9/11 was an inside job intended to start a war and steal oil. What data supports that theory? Well, the way the WTC towers fell looked very similar to a controlled implosion. Also, there is a striking similarity between this supposed event and a fiction novel by Joel Rosenberg that had been written before the event. Add to that an energy shortage in the U.S, put it all together, and voila!, the conspiracy is as plain as day. Some nefarious people clearly stole the plan from Rosenberg’s book and set up the whole thing to frame the Muslims and take their oil.
Well, if you restricted the debate to a discussion of the temperature at which steel melts, how buildings look when brought down by a professional demolition team, and the plot twists of contemporary novels, one might be tempted to see something in the truther’s explanation. However, if you stand back a bit and allow more data in, the evidence supporting other theories turns out to be much stronger. Even if you grant that the truthers have legitimate data that must be explained (for example, you grant that the WTC did fall in a manner consistent with controlled demolition), this data ultimately does not actually say anything conclusive about the event, as it can easily be accepted and explained by other theories as well. For example, a plane flying into a building would also cause steel to melt and the building to fall, and the fact that an author made up a story about a terrorist attack using jets does nothing to preclude an actual event of that type from happening.
When I say that we should allow in all the data, I include in that data pool the worldviews that are held by the proponents of each theory. We must be open to examining what each debater believes about the nature of reality as part of the debate because these worldview presuppositions play a major role in determining how we evaluate the rest of the data. We need to know whether or not it is reasonable to approach the topic from each person’s perspective, because these perspectives influence how they view the rest of the data.
So in a debate we need to start by backing up and examining the worldviews of each participant. What beliefs do we enter the discussion with about what is true in the big picture? What are our presuppositions about the nature of reality? And are these beliefs true. We must be able to support these worldview notions with evidence and reason.
Every truth claim that we hear is interpreted within the context of our particular worldview. What a person believes to be true about the world dictates how we evaluate and understand propositions that are presented to us. This is very important to understand because our pre-existing worldview guides the level of skepticism we have regarding, for example, historical claims. We will accept some claims more readily than others based on what we already think is true about reality.
For example, if I come into a discussion convinced that the American government is bad, Jews are bad, and Muslims are good, then I will be much more likely to find the claims of the 9/11 truthers credible. On the other hand, if I hold opposite convictions going in, I will be much more skeptical about the truthers’ claims. The pieces of data the truthers present as evidence of conspiracy are generally only convincing to those who hold to the particular worldview to begin with. Truthers and Holocaust deniers are eager to believe these conspiracy theories because they hate the government and hate Jews. They will latch onto any evidence that comes along that even remotely supports their story.
All this to say that, if you only debate steel girders with a 9/11 truther, you won’t get far. You need to be able to account for that data, certainly, but you also need to be able to discuss worldviews. By that I mean you need to be able to bring to the table all of the data that supports your theory about 9/11, including those pieces that speak to whether or not the government or the Jews are likely to be involved.
Applied to a debate about the Resurrection, we must start by establishing and debating the worldviews held by each side in the conversation so we can accurately assess what level of skepticism each person has going in. For example, a person who believes that matter is all there is and supernatural events don’t happen is not going to accept that the resurrection happened no matter what data is presented. On the other hand, someone who has supernatural experiences often and is convinced that Jesus is alive today will be far less skeptical regarding the data that points toward the historicity of the resurrection.
Now, it is true that the answer to the question of whether or not the resurrection actually happened should influence our worldview, as it is one piece of data that must be accounted for. However, if there is already plenty of other data to support the notion that we live in a supernatural universe, we can use that as well. The relationship between data and worldview beliefs is reciprocal; the data should help us decide our worldview, but we also need a worldview in place in order to start evaluating the data.
Just as a good investigator into 9/11 should have correct geo-political and religious beliefs about the world (He should know whether or not Al Qaeda exists and whether or not they want to destroy America, for example.), we should go into the study of the resurrection with correct beliefs about the world. We should have coherent and evidence based beliefs about whether or not supernatural events happen, whether or not there is a God, whether or not God ever acted in history apart from the supposed resurrection, etc. Only after establishing this framework will we be able to say how likely it is that the Christian story about what happened at Calvary is true.