On putting Matt McCormick’s argument to rest

Posted on 09/07/11 38 Comments

Let me summarize my arguments against Matt McCormick’s argument to this point. I will then quote his most recent full response and offer a final comment that engages his Salem argument.

So first off, where we’ve come so far. As I noted, the central issue was the issue of rational belief. In particular, is it possible for a Christian to believe rationally that God raised Jesus from the dead? McCormick aims to argue that it isn’t rational to believe this. To that end he dismisses appeals to proper basicality while charging that historical evidence fails to establish this thesis in a non-basic evidentialist way.

In my original post I responded in three ways. To begin with I pointed out that McCormick fails to represent the arguments of his Christian interlocutors accurately. This is significant because it means that he fails to appreciate the strength of the historical evidence for the resurrection. (For example, Matt completely ignores 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, an inexcusable omission.) And in failing to do that he has failed to provide an accurate comparison between the evidence for the resurrection and the Salem evidence for witches.

Next, I argued that McCormick’s depiction of the way that historians form hypotheses about the past lacks critical nuance. This creates big problems for Matt, for a person cannot offer a general comparison of the evidence for the resurrection and the evidence for the presence of witches in Salem without noting that people always assess this kind of evidence against a background set of beliefs. If a person believes, for example, that God exists but witches do not, then one will assess the evidence differently from a person who believes that neither God nor witches exist, or from a person who believes both God and witches exist. Unfortunately for McCormick, once we recognize that crucial fact, we must concede there can be no simplistic comparison between the rationality of belief in both cases. But this is fatal to the argument that Matt is proposing.

Finally, I pointed out that McCormick’s evidentialist argument leaves unaddressed the way most Christians believe in the resurrection, namely through a basic doxastic process like testimony. His argument only deals with an evidentialist way of knowing and thus is irrelevant to most Christians.

McCormick has offered a response to none of these arguments. Instead, he complained that I didn’t engage with the Salem argument. Apparently he didn’t notice that I blew out its foundation twice over by undercutting the notion that you can simply compare the rationality of belief in these two different hypotheses and by pointing out that his argument leaves properly basic belief untouched. So while McCormick has suggested that my various responses to his argument are somehow irrelevant, they’ve actually been right on the mark.

Now we have yet another response. McCormick writes:

Hmmm, well, this really doesn’t get to the core issues of my argument.  One exercise that I run with my students is to have them spend time at the outset of an essay giving a clear, charitable, and accurate reconstruction of the author’s arguments they wish to criticize.  I’m still not seeing anything like that in these posts.  There is a lot of discussion of what I take to be irrelevant side issues.  And I just don’t have the time, or frankly the interest, to pursue those.  I could restate some of the argument, but it’s there in the chapter.  It’s hard to tell, but it appears that in response to the Salem argument, you are taking the response that it is reasonable to reject magic at Salem, but it is reasonable to believe that the resurrection happened in Jerusalem.  I have outlined several problems with that approach in the chapter, and I don’t think any of those have been addressed here, but maybe I missed them.  I don’t think the chapter is so poorly written that they can’t be found, so I guess I’d just ask that you focus your attention on those and try to give a charitable and accurate reconstruction before offering the critical responses.

Let’s take our time going through that comment. McCormick begins with the charge that I have failed to present his argument clearly, charitably and accurately. This is a puzzling objection for many reasons. To begin with, it is puzzling because I began my review by summarizing McCormick’s argument in four propositions. By doing that I think I actually summarized his argument more succinctly than he did in his original paper. Nor did he take issue with that summary, so I take it he agrees with it. So why is he complaining? I did him a favor.

Matt’s objection is surprising, indeed it is ironic, for two other reasons. To begin with, as I already established McCormick fails to present the views of N.T. Wright in a way that is charitable and accurate. In fact, he explicitly imputes to Wright a view he never holds, thereby creating a strawman.

Actually, Matt also reduced my views of proper basicality and history to a strawman as well. So while he reduces the views of his opponents like Wright and myself to strawmen, he complains that I failed to engage the Salem argument even after I fairly and accurately summarized his views. Ironic, no?

The Resurrection and the Salem Witch Trials

Never, mind, if Matt wants me to engage his Salem argument then I’ll do so. Let me begin by reposting my original summary of Matt’s argument:

(1) The evidence for the claim that there were witches at Salem is better than the evidence for the claim that Jesus was resurrected.

(2) The evidence for the claim that there were witches at Salem is not sufficient to believe reasonably that there were witches at Salem.

(3) If your evidence for claim (a) is evidentially better supported than your evidence for claim (b) and you do not have sufficient evidence to believe (a) reasonably then neither do you have sufficient evidence to believe (b) reasonably.

(4) Therefore, the evidence is not sufficient to believe that Jesus was resurrected.

The burden of proof here lies on Matt to show that (1) is true and thus that evidentialist defenses of the resurrection are somehow required to accept the Salem witches as well. As it stands, he has failed to establish the truth of (1) and so his argument is stillborn.

But how can I just assert that Matt failed? We can see why Matt fails by first considering a quote from him and then pointing out the tendentious leap he makes in that quote:

“the evidence we have that there were real witches in Salem is vastly better than the evidence we have for the magical return from the dead by Jesus.” (210)

Perhaps this statement seems plausible, but in fact Matt hasn’t established it at all. This is what he actually established:

the data available to the historian concerning the Salem witch trials is vastly greater and of a better quality than the data that is available to the historian concerning the purported resurrection of Jesus.

I readily concede this. But this doesn’t entail that the witch hypothesis is a better interpretation of the available Salem data than the resurrection hypothesis is of the available resurrection data. In fact, I don’t think it is. To establish the contrary, Matt would have to lay out the major natural theories for the available Salem data alongside the supernatural witch theory and then lay out all the major natural theories for the available purported resurrection data alongside the supernatural resurrection theory. Then he’d have to argue (convincingly) that the supernatural Salem theory is stronger relative to the natural alternatives than the supernatural resurrection theory is relative to its natural alternatives. Needless to say, he didn’t even take the first step toward accomplishing this Herculean task.

I could leave it there but I’ll say a bit more.

Throughout his essay Matt repeatedly refers to “magic”. This is yet another of many ironic moments where Matt caricatures the views of others (I don’t know any Christian who appeals to “magic” to explain miracles) while decrying any failure to treat his own views with the utmost care and charity. So what is this thing Matt calls magic? He doesn’t provide a clear definition but one thing is clear: whatever it is Matt thinks it is absurd.

At the same time, Matt doesn’t want to exclude “magic” categorically as a potential historical explanation because that would open him to the charge of dogmatism. So he comes as close to being dogmatic as possible without crossing the line:

“This is not to rule out the magical explanation a priori–it remains a possibility, I suppose. But clearly the threshold of proof for reasonable people is and should be very high before magic becomes the best of all imaginable hypotheses.” (216)

Note how vague this all is. This just means that no matter how ad hoc and contrived Matt’s natural explanation of the available resurrection evidence may be, he can always say it is better than the divine action hypothesis because that hypothesis is “magic” and thus does not meet the “high” standard that Matt has set for such “magic” hypotheses.

This may be a convincing way to argue for people who already share Matt’s atheistic presuppositions, but there is nothing here that should concern a Christian. Consequently Matt’s argument fails to show that a Christian cannot know “God raised Jesus from the dead” either through a properly basic doxastic process like testimony or as the best explanation of the available historical evidence.

  • pete

    a round of applause Randal…… well said

  • AJ Smith

    Another great post that is well argued. Thank you

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I don’t know any Christian who appeals to “magic” to explain miracles

    Can you elaborate on this? What’s the principled difference between ‘magic’ and ‘a supernatural entity did it’?

    • randal

      “Can you elaborate on this?”

      Yes, rhetorically the term “magic” is one step up from “hokus pokus”. In other words, it is a cheap rhetorical attempt to marginalize a position. Of course anybody can marginalize whatever they like by calling it “magic”. The reductive physicalist can marginalize property dualist theories of the mind as “magic”. The property dualist can marginalize substance dualist theories of the mind as “magic”. And the substance dualist can marginalize reductive physicalist theories of the mind as “magic”. The atheist claims saying God is the agent cause of the big bang is magic. I say a universe that comes into existence uncaused out of nothing is magic. And around we go. Yawn.

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        Okay, you don’t like the term ‘magic’. Of course, as you note,it’s used to point out where (the person saying it feels) something important or even critical is being left undefined.

        A simple way to counter that is to define one’s terms… which is what I asked you to do, after all.

        • randal

          “A simple way to counter that is to define one’s terms… which is what I asked you to do, after all.”

          Actually, you didn’t ask this initially. What is it you want me to define? God? Assuming that is what you’re asking, God is a non-physical and necessarily existent agent who created and sustains all things.

          Next question?

          • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

            You didn’t ask this initially.

            Sure I did. That’s why I highlighted and contrasted the terms.

            Next question?

            Well, I was asking in the context of ‘miracles’. So…

            What’s the difference between ‘magic did this miracle’ and ‘God did this miracle’?

            To give some direction, I’ll note that if a miracle happens, a natural question (at least, I’d sure ask it) is “How was this miracle effected? What principles were applied in what manner to cause it to happen? What, precisely, were the effects of these causes?”

            I mean, if something were levitated, I’d try to understand how. For example, was there an invisible ‘force field’ under it, that it rested on? Or was gravity negated for the object? If so, was the area of zero-gravity exactly coextensive with the object, or was it e.g. a perfect sphere centered on the object? Or was it a strong, focused magnetic field counteracting gravity?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Hmmm. Randal, can you give an example of historical evidence that would convince you that there was witchcraft afoot in Salem back then?

    • randal

      I’ll do that if (1) you’ll define what you mean by a witch and (2) you’ll explain what relevance that has to my rebuttal to Matt’s argument.

      • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

        define what you mean by a witch

        Sure. A person capable of producing effects which are not accounted for by present science. (I mean 2011 science, not contemporary science. People in the late 1600s may not have been able to understand why, say, applying moldy bread might help with an infection, but today we know about penicillin.)

        I’m leaving open the exact nature of that ability. Psychic powers, congress with demons, time travellers, whatever. I’m not picky. I’m just letting it be ‘someone capable of doing something really screwy and out of the ordinary’.

        explain what relevance that has to my rebuttal to Matt’s argument

        You state, “But this doesn’t entail that the witch hypothesis is a better interpretation of the available Salem data than the resurrection hypothesis is of the available resurrection data. In fact, I don’t think it is.”

        I’m asking what data would shift your evaluation toward the ‘witch hypothesis'; it’s a way of gathering more than one sample (the ‘resurrection hypothesis’ being sample point 1) for when you resort to ‘non-naturalistic’ or extraordinary explanations.

        You say Matt’s example is weak, so I’m asking for what would be a strong example – to help elucidate your standards by contrast.

        • randal

          That is a curious definition of “witch”. But fair enough, you get to define your terms. To take a contemporary example, I’m persuaded by the evidence for the Enfield Poltergeist that there was something going on there which is “witchlike” activity according to your definition.

          You wrote “You say Matt’s example is weak….” I’m troubled by that because you remain non-committal. Do you disgree with the critique I present and if so why?

          • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

            I’m troubled by that because you remain non-committal. Do you disgree with the critique I present and if so why?

            I think both are weak, but in different ways. I think, based on the historical record, the events in Salem can be accounted for without recourse to the supernatural or any ‘funky stuff’ a la the definition of ‘witch’ I proposed above. I think things like confessions after the fact, the nature of the events themselves, the known bias and the ‘torture them until they confess’ mentality pretty much eliminates any positive case for ‘funky stuff’.

            On the other hand, I think the historical record for Jesus is too weak to establish that anything supernatural happened. That lots of people wound up believing something ‘funky’ happened, sure. But I don’t see the case as being materially stronger than the case for the miracles associated with, say, Mohamed.

            Now, you disagree in the case of Jesus. There’s been lots of discussion about that one. I figured it might be more fruitful to tackle things from another direction – that of “What does it take to establish that ‘something funky’ happened?” So, as a thought experiment – “…an example of historical evidence that would convince you that there was witchcraft afoot in Salem back then”.

            Hope that clears things up.

            • randal

              “I think both are weak, but in different ways.”

              I’m confused. After writing that you think my critique is weak you went on to talk about evidence for the resurrection. But that’s not the issue. My critique was directed at Matt’s Salem argument and what he would have to demonstrate for it to be sustainable. What about that critique is weak?

              • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

                I thought I was clear that I was agreeing Matt’s example was weak.

  • toryninja

    I’m glad McCormick responded because it led you from merely critiquing his argument to pretty much demolishing it (with the caveat that I’m probably heavily influenced by confirmation bias) :)

    • randal

      I can’t comment on your reasoning in general but in this specific case your reasoning seems right to me!

    • Chris

      Same. I’m glad McCormick has pushed Rauser to making a more detailed and, IMO, stronger, critique.

  • 1981cudd

    Do you think it unremarkable that all textual evidence before the third century has mysteriously vanished
    we have no manuscripts dating from earlier than the third century therefor
    the manuscript evidence can tell us nothing about the state of the Pauline literature prior to the third century. In short, it appears likely that the emerging Catholic leadership in the churches ‘standardized’ the text of the Pauline corpus in the light of orthodox view and practices, suppressing and even destroying all deviant texts and manuscripts.
    Can 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 be truly relied upon to be good eye witness testimony nearly every major episode in both the old and new testaments – the creation of women, the flood, the wife sister subterfuge, the ten commandments, the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, the names of the twelve disciples, the sermon on the mount, the words inscribed on the cross, and the last words of Jesus before giving up the ghost, among scores of examples – attest to the folkloricity of the bible. in Galatians Paul tells his readers that what he preached to them when he founded their church was NOT taught him by human predecessors. In 1 Cor 15 he is depicted as telling his readers that what he preached to them when he founded their church was taught him by human predecessors. The Bible is true because the bible says so. No the bible is truly folklore and it is time that it is recognized as such.

    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

      Do you have any idea just how few Middle East manuscripts of any kind we actually have from the first century? Hint: it’s not many.

      Conspiracy theories are nice and all, but they don’t have a very good track record for accuracy. When Constantine surveyed pastors from across the known world in 325, fewer than 1% dissented from what is now known as the Nicene Creed. Doesn’t sound much like a conspiracy to me.

    • randal

      “Do you think it unremarkable that all textual evidence before the third century has mysteriously vanished we have no manuscripts dating from earlier than the third century”

      Where’d you hear that, The DaVinci Code? The earliest manuscript of any NT writing is P52 which dates to c. 125 CE. (I assume you are using the term “manuscript” in its technical sense.)

  • 1981cudd

    I apologize i meant to say all textual evidence relating to paul once again apologies. But i still beg the question Can 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 be truly relied upon to be good eyewitness testimony. After all most evangelicals do not believe that an angel authenticated the Book of Mormon, in spite of the purported eyewitness statement that comes with every copy of the book. Paul’s testimony in 1 Corinthians is certainly no stronger than that testimony.
    As i say we have no manuscripts dating from earlier than the third century.So can the early Christian scribes be relied upon to be telling the truth. Would the partisans of Christ have set out deliberately to lie By their own admission, YES they were. Was Saint Paul an unabashed liar? it would appear so Romans 3.7 Ive taken the passage captive there, to make a point. Eusebius is notoriously the author of a great many falsehoods he wrote “We shall introduce into this history in general only those events which may be useful first to ourselves and afterwards to posterity.” ask yourself this question which is more likely, that the laws of physics be suspended or that men should tell lies?

    • randal


      My first question would be whether you would consistently apply this same level of skepticism to all documents from the ancient world. Assuming you answered yes, I’d ask why you would hold that level of skepticism.

      Whether or not you classify 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 as “eye-witness” testimony is beside the point. The real point is that it is first-rate historical evidence.

      • 1981cudd

        YES I would apply this same level of skepticism to all documents from the ancient world and so should you! but if and ONLY if the that skepticism is warranted. For example I accept that We know in graphic detail the course of the first Jewish War because – remarkably – the history recorded by Josephus somehow survived. Whereas whole libraries of antiquity were torched by the Christians, But the bible and 1 Corinthians first-rate historical evidence.I’m sorry you need to be intellectually honest enough to admit that errors run all through the Bible,There is nothing in the claim that even comes close to being “objective evidence” that Jesus really did rise from the dead. And in Matthew 27:51-53 that states many saints came out of their tombs and entered Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection. This has a fictional apocalyptic ring that I just don’t buy’ So my question would be the New Testament is historically inaccurate in places, so how do you know that the New Testament references are true? In other words, how can determine truth from error in an errant Bible?

  • pete


    “Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increased his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” (Rom 3:7)

    The context of Romans 3:7 is Paul critiquing people who deliberately sin, and then claim that through their sin, they are causing a greater good through showing God to be more truthful in comparison.

    This is the next verse:

    “Why not say – as some slanderously claim that we say – “Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is just!” (Rom. 3:8)

    Clearly, the Paul’s teaching here is directed against proponents of antinomianism (the notion that moral law does not apply to humans because of Christ’s salvific work at the cross).

    So are you claiming that Christians say “let us do evil that good may result”?

    I don’t want to judge, but you are taking Romans 3:7 way out of context, and using a clear Pauline teaching on the requirement of Christian adherence to morality to support your dubious claim that Paul was a liar.

    • 1981cudd

      pete yes it is out of context i did say “Ive taken the passage captive there, to make a point”.
      in context Paul is actually censuring other Christians who say “Let us do evil, that good may come.” it’s OK you don’t need to apologize.

      • pete

        1981 Cudd:

        Actually, you raised a really interesting point about mentioning the dead saints of Matthew 27:51-53.

        I admit that I hadn’t thought too much about that passage despite my pre-millennial eschatalogical starting point.

        It’s given me some food for thought…. not that I doubt the claim…. just have to think now what the claim actually is.


        • 1981cudd

          re: Matthew 27:51-53.your very welcome, I have another question, if i may Matthew 27:51-53. you say that you “don’t doubt the claim”. Do you limit your belief’s in miracles to the bible or would you believe other miracles report’s, whether contemporary for example that an angel authenticated the Book of Mormon or from the ancient world. e.g.
          Josephus wrote Wars of the Jews in AD 75, which was only five years after the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem. In book 6, chapter 5, section 3, Josephus claimed that several miracles had happened during the Roman siege of the city. He said that a light so bright shined around the temple altar at the ninth hour that it gave the appearance of daylight for about a half hour; he said that a heffer being led to the altar gave birth to a lamb; he said that an army of chariots and soldiers were seen in the clouds surrounding the city. By yours and Randal’s standard of reliable evidence, you should believe that these miracles actually happened too. please tell!

  • Brad Haggard

    I was thinking about this line of argument earlier and I thought that McCormick is equivocating on his use of “magic”. “Magic” is typically used to refer to a human manipulating forces in nature (the gods are typically thought of as being in a continuous relationship with the rest of creation), while the resurrection is considered to be a sovereign act of God. I just thought that’d be another wedge to put in there.

  • magnus08

    Randal: A theist, such as a Jew or even a liberal Christian, could believe that God exists, but she could nevertheless conclude (and rightly so, I might add) that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is abysmal.

    Also, you mention a “properly basic doxastic process like testimony.” According to Matt, we have original, contemporaneous affidavits from people who claimed to have seen the Salem witches performing witchcraft. If that doesn’t count as testimony, what does?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Of course that counts as testimony. As I explained in the article, Matt focuses his argument on the quality and quantity of evidence rather than the range of viable interpretations for that evidence. It is on the latter point that his argument founders.

      • magnus08

        But Randal, you know that the so-called “evidence” for Jesus’ resurrection amounts to hearsay and copies of copies of one religious leader’s claims of visions and divine teachings. None of that would count as objective evidence these days.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Consider the following facts: Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, Jesus was reported to be seen resurrected by his followers in the vicinity of Jerusalem, Jesus’ tomb was reported empty.

          Those minimal facts are beyond historical dispute. If you want to challenge them on historical grounds, the only way to do so consistently is by adopting such an inexcusably rigorous criterion for historicity that you must become a skeptic about virtually all ancient events.

          If, on the other hand, you recognize that these facts at least are reasonably established, then we can get on to the question of which hypothesis best explains the data.

          • magnus08

            Which historians report 1) the crucifixion of a Jesus, a wandering Jewish prophet and the son of Joseph & Mary, of the line of David, born in Nazareth, being crucified by order of Pontius Pilate around 30 C.E., 2) verification by the Romans that Jesus was, in fact, dead following his crucifixion, 3) any post-crucifixion sightings of Jesus around Jerusalem, and 4) that Jesus was buried in a tomb? Furthermore, what/who are the historians’ sources for the report?

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              A few years ago Gary Habermas presented at a conference I attended. The topic was an extensive literature review of all peer-reviewed articles on the resurrection in academic journals dating back to 1975 and published in English, German and French. I suspect Habermas has published his findings since and will leave it to you to track that down if you’re interested.

              • magnus08

                Seriously, you can’t simply provide me and all your readers with the names of the historians who reported these events? I would think they would be common knowledge if they existed.

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