Hundreds of people packed into the standing room only Washburn Room at the Memorial Union on the campus of Topeka’s Washburn University Thursday evening to hear the debate between two renowned scholars regarding the resurrection of Jesus.
Prominent free thought movement defender Richard Carrier went head-to-head with Mike Licona, new testament historian, author, and Christian apologist. The debate was moderated by Alan Bearman, associate professor and interim library dean.
Licona kicked off the discussions with a 20-minute speech on the historical evidence of the resurrection. Claiming the criteria generally accepted by historians in determining the validity of historical events were followed in reaching the conclusion that Jesus actually did rise from the tomb, Licona said with no uncertainty that the resurrection “was an event that occurred in history.”
Carrier, following Licona with his own 20-minute appeal, claimed the resurrection has not been concretely proven and the post-crucifixion sightings of Jesus could have been nothing more than individual and mass hallucinations. Believing that Jesus rose from the tomb is “an extraordinary claim.”
In addressing Licona’s claims that testimony from sources who are deemed reliable — such as Paul who was an early harsh critic of Christianity — are true without question, Carrier maintained credible sources are also subject to misperceptions of reality.
“Paul had an experience that was of the arisen Jesus who appeared to him,” Licona said. “The experience radically transformed his life from being persecutor of the church to being one its more able defenders.” Paul then spent many of the following years of his life researching and writing his historical accounts of the resurrection.
In addition to the appearance of Jesus to individuals such as Paul, there were also accounts of three group appearances. “Whatever they were, they were not natural psychological phenomena,” Licona said. “Group hallucinations are extremely rare.”
“So what happens then, if the dead are going to be raised when Jesus returns? What happens to Christians now when they die?” asked Licona. “According to Paul and the Apostles … a Christian dies and her spirit leaves the body … then when Christ returns her spirit is reunited with her body which is then raised up and transformed into an immortal, incorruptible body.”
Sound a little far fetched? Carrier thinks so.
“Even if we believe the story that the tomb of Jesus was found empty, bodies go missing all the time,” said Carrier. “But when bodies go missing we don’t assume they rose from the dead. To the contrary. We know that when bodies go missing it’s usually because they were stolen or misplaced. You would have to disprove those theories before you could prove anything less likely.”
“The same goes for appearances of the dead. The dead appear to people all over the world. People who see them even have conversations with them and swear it was real. But we don’t conclude those dead people are resurrected. We have no confirmed scientific evidence that miraculous resurrections occur. But we do have abundant scientific evidence that hallucinations occur.”
He said hallucinations even happen with groups and cults which have all claimed to have had mass hallucinations of different kinds.
“There are many other resurrected gods in ancient cults of the time … who each died and rose again, and who each offered salvation to believers,” Carrier added. “This kind of story was clearly popular at the time. Everyone was making up versions of it.”
So who won the debate? It’s hard to say. Non-believers will say they never heard anything from Licona that would unequivocally prove to them that Jesus was resurrected. Believers may in fact tell you the same thing … but they continue to believe in it anyway. Most likely, no one was converted after hearing the debate, and no one was de-converted either.
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