Doubts about design and the resurrection
Dear Creation Ministries International,
I used to have no problem believing Genesis but have started to disbelieve after looking into evolution, first there was a video I watched of Dawkins.1
Also there was a blog post.2
The dilemma I have is that I can’t reconcile Genesis saying we didn’t evolve when you see photos of our ancestors like Homo erectus3 and of Neanderthals as to me they seem to be so subhuman (maybe not so much with Neanderthals but homo erectus just looks like an ape).
Ultimately I know this is a serious issue as if the bible is wrong on something as basic as this,it’s wrong on everything else which means that instead of Jesus being in a tomb and rising from the dead, he was most likely buried under the earth in a common burial plot after his body was ravaged by animals as Bart Ehrman and other scholars say.
I want to continue in faith but I’m honestly having doubts about not just genesis but whether Christ was even entombed and resurrected and at the moment am leaning towards him being buried instead in which case he was not divine and has been dead for 2000 years, with his crucifixion and death not happening as the gospels say, after all none of them were written by eyewitnesses.
My apologies for all the emails I send and I know they can sound a little melodramatic so might sound like they are not to be taken seriously, it’s just that this year I have had nothing but doubts and am seriously contemplating (reluctantly I might add) leaving my faith behind as it has being getting progressively weaker and the evidence seems stacked against it anyway with little in its favour (it has always been a concern of mine that eventually archeologists will find Jesus’ remains buried under the earth somewhere).
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thanks for writing in.
You’re placing quite a lot of faith in these skeptics. You doubt the Christian claims easily enough. Why do the skeptics deserve the benefit of the doubt? Just because they can voice a doubt doesn’t mean their doubt deserves any credence. But I will go through these issues point by point.
Doubting common ancestry
I have to ask: why is a two-minute clip where Dawkins severely overstates the case for common ancestry (i.e. there is no such thing as a ‘perfect family tree’; there’s plenty of data that doesn’t fit a common ancestry explanation) and ridicules creationists enough to make you seriously doubt the faith? If your faith is that fragile, I would suggest you are in no way ready to handle listening to skeptics. You should rather ‘learn the ropes’ by reading good Christian apologetics material. You’ll be exposed to the arguments without all the deceptive rhetoric.
Indeed, I think it’s Dawkins’ rhetoric that has got you panicked. He makes creationists sound so silly, doesn’t he? Well, that’s easy to do when you overstate your case and use a quote many creationists disagree with to frame us all as blinkered dogmatists. Don’t fall for the rhetoric; you need to learn to separate the rhetoric from the valid arguments.
So, what of Dawkins’ argument? His argument for evolution runs like this:
I think perhaps the single most convincing fact—observation—you could point to would be the pattern of resemblances that you see when you compare the genes using modern DNA techniques—actually looking at the letter-to-letter correspondences between genes. Compare the genes of any pair of animals you like—pair of animals, pair of plants—and plot out the resemblances, and they fall in a perfect hierarchy, a perfect family tree. And the only alternative to it being a family tree is that the intelligent designer deliberately set out to deceive us in the most underhanded and devious manner. Moreover, the same thing works with every gene you do separately. And even pseudogenes, that don’t do anything but are vestigial relics of genes that once did something. I find it extremely hard to imagine how any creationist who actually bothered to listen to that could possibly doubt the fact of evolution.
Let’s break it down:
I think perhaps the single most convincing fact—observation—you could point to would be the pattern of resemblances that you see when you compare the genes using modern DNA techniques—actually looking at the letter-to-letter correspondences between genes.
I agree, here. This is probably the most convincing argument one can put forward for evolution (Is there any evidence for evolution?), but that does not mean that microbes-to-man evolution is true.
Compare the genes of any pair of animals you like—pair of animals, pair of plants—and plot out the resemblances, and they fall in a perfect hierarchy, a perfect family tree.science do
Any gene? Any pair of creatures? A perfect family tree? No, no, and no. Dawkins overstates his case, here. There are plenty of genetic similarity patterns that don’t fit the standard tree of life. See Incomplete lineage sorting and other ‘rogue’ data fell the tree of life.4 Beware, though, this article is technical. The major points are that ‘incomplete lineage sorting’ is an evolutionary explanation for why so many patterns of genetic similarity don’t fit the standard ‘tree of life’ pattern. Plus, there are many genes restricted to small groups of species that seem to just arise from “non-coding DNA” fully formed. Organisms have multiple genes that are unique, that are not similar to genes in their supposed ancestors, meaning that they could not have derived from genes in the supposed ancestors. Just one such gene is an impossible ask for evolutionary processes (see The waiting time problem (creation.com). They don’t fit the ‘tree of life’ pattern, either. And Dawkins can hardly be unaware of the storm of controversy over revelations from experts in microbial genetics that there is no tree of life: Is the evolutionary tree turning into a creationist orchard? (there was an item in Creation magazine Focus section titled: “Storm over New Scientist cover” in 2009. Do you subscribe to Creation magazine? It would really help you, as it has helped many others.
And the only alternative to it being a family tree is that the intelligent designer deliberately set out to deceive us in the most underhanded and devious manner.
This is bad theological argumentation. If natural mechanisms suffice to produce all life’s diversity, the deception thesis is moot—naturalistic evolution would be plausible irrespective of such armchair theologizing. However, if natural mechanisms do not suffice to produce all life’s diversity, then regardless of how much the patterns of similarity look like a family tree the ‘deception’ thesis fails because it does not look like a naturally produced family tree. Perhaps God intelligently altered embryos throughout the history of life to produce new types of creatures (an analogue to this is human efforts at genetic engineering). Perhaps He created life according to patterns of nested similarity because it works as an efficient means of structuring a large suite of designed objects, and He maximized design economy in doing so to optimize the integrated function of the biosphere as a whole. There may be other viable options. Whatever the case, the patterns of similarity could easily resemble common ancestry (whether truly or just apparently) without implying naturalistic evolution.
But as I pointed out above, there is scientific reason to doubt common ancestry. In addition to the genetics, regarding the fossils, see Is the fossil record ‘overwhelming evidence for evolution’? There is also conflict between fossil, genetic, and embryological patterns of similarity (see e.g. Problems with the evolutionary interpretation of limb design and Homology made simple). Plus, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in evolutionary terms to generate the degree of variation between different types of creatures (Haldane’s dilemma has not been solved)—and even this assumes that there exists a valid method for ‘nature’ to generate new genetic instructions via mutations and natural selection. Indeed, genetic entropy indicates extinction is the fate of all animal life, not evolution. Either animal life has needed regular ‘tune ups’ for the last 600 million or more, contrary to evolution, or it hasn’t been around that long (see point 3 in Age of the earth).
Still, life, or at least animal life, falls into an approximate nested hierarchical pattern that seems to need explaining. Here, creationists and ID proponents haven’t come to a consensus. So far, the most interesting and promising proposal I’ve seen is the ‘dependency graph’ hypothesis.5 But, there’s more work to be done.
Moreover, the same thing works with every gene you do separately. And even pseudogenes, that don’t do anything but are vestigial relics of genes that once did something.
On pseudogenes, see Shared mutations in the human and chimpanzee β-globin pseudogenes is not evidence for a common ancestor and Are pseudogenes ‘shared mistakes’ between primate genomes?. The evidence mounts that pseudogenes are functional, in which case Dawkins’ argument collapses.
I find it extremely hard to imagine how any creationist who actually bothered to listen to that could possibly doubt the fact of evolution.
We have listened. But we don’t find anything in this argument compelling enough to overturn our commitment to God, Jesus, the Bible, or even intelligent design. Indeed, what here undermines the main scientific reason most of us think supports ID—i.e. the amazingly intricate complexity of how a cell sustains, maintains, and replicates itself? Nothing. But Dawkins can’t fathom someone rationally holding such a position, so he pulls out one of the most fideistic quotes from young-earth creationists he can find to accuse us all of ignoring what’s obvious to hold to our ‘religious dogma’.
Here’s the thing, though: none of the scientific arguments either way provide a knockdown argument for either creation or evolution. Indeed, there are no such arguments (The ‘knockout punch’ syndrome). How convincing a person finds the different arguments is highly person-relative. That doesn’t mean there isn’t truth and falsehood; it just means that we’re not logic-chopping robots. We all have biases that affect the way we look at the evidence. Evolutionists are biased towards finding a natural explanation for the origin and history of life and its diversity. Indeed, evolution basically is naturalistic biology. We are biased towards a design-adaptation-degeneration paradigm because that’s what Scripture gives us (Basics of biblical biology). We all have the same data, but we all interpret the data in the context of our worldviews. For us, the Bible is foundational—it’s the lens through which we view the world, including the history of nature.
This is especially evident concerning the fossil data concerning ‘human evolution’. First, the photo your saw is of a reconstruction of Homo erectus. It is not surprising that evolutionary artists reconstruct it with evolutionary ideas in mind (see The whites of their eyes: How Hollywood makes apes look human; and it’s not just Hollywood but artists for museums, etc.).
Second, if the blog post you referred to is right that creationist disagreements over the identity of ‘apeman’ fossils between the 1970s and the 2000s is evidence against creation, then all the taxonomic disagreements among evolutionists over ‘apemen’ over the same period is evidence against evolution (Contested Bones). There have been many fights and missteps in the history of interpretation among both creationists and evolutionists. There are several reasons for this, but a big one is that nobody has ever had access to all the primary fossil data. Nonetheless, broad agreement in both groups has arisen that Homo and Australopithecus are distinguishable, despite there also being ‘anomalies’ that are not always easy to fit into either category. But anomalies like this are normal, especially when dealing with data as fragmentary and sparse as fossil data. And fossil data is just not capable of establishing lineages by itself (Cladistics, evolution, and the fossils). So, the fossil data alone can’t establish whether all these different fossils are family, or whether all the differences between them are explainable solely by natural biological mechanisms of change. Evolutionists and creationists will go on interpreting this data in the context of their own views, and neither will be able to decisively refute the other framework solely from the fossils. (Please see our 4-minute video: Where is the evidence for the ape-to-man transition?. But note that the solid scientific evidence of the Waiting time problem means that we can confidently predict that there never were any ‘ape-men’, so fossils of creatures transitional between apes and humans will never be found.)
So, what do these scientific considerations do, if not prove creation? They give only what the question asked for: good scientific reasons to doubt common ancestry. But what can we do with scientific doubt about common ancestry? Since the science doesn’t force us to believe in common ancestry, we can see how other options might explain the data better.
But do we need scientific doubt about common ancestry to be reasonable in exploring other ways of understanding the patterns and processes of life? It’s certainly nice to have, but we don’t need it. In other words, we do not need to refute the scientific arguments for common ancestry to be reasonable in exploring how other options might explain the biological data. Indeed, I think biblical creation is well-positioned for just such a task. Jesus’ deity, death, and resurrection give us good historical reason to believe in Jesus. And Jesus’ interpretation of Genesis 1–11 conflicts with the sort of universal common ancestry espoused by the scientific establishment today. If Jesus is divine, He’s the creator, and thus His views on creation and Genesis 1–11 are authoritative and trustworthy. So, in trusting in Jesus we have good non-scientific warrant for exploring biology without accepting common ancestry.
Doubts about the empty tomb
I did mention that the resurrection is part of that warrant. Well, it looks like you’ve gone from Dawkins to Ehrman, chasing your doubts down the rabbit hole to see how far they can go. Giving your doubts that much credence when you clearly haven’t digested the matters from a Christian standpoint very well demonstrates very poor spiritual self-care. You doubt because these things matter to you, and any argument from someone with seemingly relevant credentials who sounds convincing creates a great deal of emotional turmoil for you. After all, if people ‘this smart’ can disagree so vehemently with my faith, to the point that they think people who hold my faith are silly, maybe they have a point, right? Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right?
Well, no. Do you realize that there are qualified people who disagree with them? They have analyzed all the same arguments for evolution and against the resurrection and found them wanting. People committed to God, Christ, and Scripture. Why not give them the benefit of the doubt? For starters, those who follow Christ have a moral imperative to tell the truth, whereas this cannot be said of those who reject their Creator.
So, let’s look at the empty tomb. What evidence have those like Ehrman presented for their views? Don’t just accept their word that there was no empty tomb—ask what evidence they have.
So, what evidence do they have? First, they appeal to the fact that Romans normally left crucifixion victims on the cross after they died. While this was indeed common, there were exceptions. In fact, the 1st century non-Christian Jewish historian Josephus implies the norm in Judea during peace (and Jesus’ crucifixion was during peace time) was to bury even crucifixion victims:
“Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun [emphasis added].”6
The reason is simple: Deuteronomy 21:23 was applied to crucifixion, and thus it was a matter of piety to take bodies down before sunset. If this is the general case in Judea, does it really make sense to think Pilate, who crucified Jesus in peacetime, at the behest of the Jewish leadership, would’ve demanded Jesus’ body be treated contrary to Jewish law, in a bustling Jerusalem, right at Passover? Of course not! Pilate was already trying to avoid a riot by allowing Jesus to be crucified. Letting Jesus hang on the cross after sunset would have only provoked the crowds.
Second, skeptics try to undercut the evidence for the empty tomb. For instance, when an apologist says e.g. that the first witnesses being women gives credence to the empty tomb, skeptics dispute the strength of the evidence. The idea behind this piece of evidence is that women were regarded as practically worthless witnesses in 1st century Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, so if the early church was going to make up an empty tomb story, they wouldn’t have made women the first witnesses to it. Skeptics usually try to say that women were viewed more positively than the apologist suggests, usually by pointing out cases where women’s testimony was accepted or by saying that women were regarded quite highly in the early church.7 However, the first complaint fails because specific instances of accepting women’s testimony don’t obviate the general disdain for women’s testimony back then. The second complaint fails because the Christian view of women is irrelevant for how convincing the story would be to outsiders.8 Basically, the argument for the empty tomb from the embarrassing fact of women being the first eyewitnesses to it stands up under scrutiny.
But there are many good arguments for the empty tomb. First, accounts of it (implicit or explicit) are early—e.g. Mark’s source was well within living memory of Jesus’ death, and 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 goes back to within 5 years of Jesus’ death. Second, the empty tomb is multiply attested by up to half a dozen independent sources (Mark 16:1–8 is likely the oldest account of the empty tomb; 1 Cor. 15:3 is a creedal tradition that refers to Jesus being “buried”, implying an empty tomb; Matthew’s account of the official counter-tale (Matthew 28:11–15) presupposes the empty tomb; Luke mentions a woman none of the others mention (Joanna; Luke 8:3, 24:10); John gives many independent details of Mary Magdalene at the tomb (John 20:1–18); and Acts 13:29–30 implies Paul was aware of the empty tomb). Third, it was first proclaimed in Jerusalem, where it would have been the most difficult for an empty tomb hoax to take hold. Fourth, the accounts contain embarrassing elements the church was not likely to make up (including the women witnesses, but also things like disciples’ confusion and skepticism). And finally, the earliest skeptics presupposed the empty tomb in their objections to Jesus’ resurrection (e.g. Matthew 28:11–15). These are the ones I find best, but some of these can be broken down into separate arguments, and there are others I have not even mentioned.
Can any of these factors be disputed? Of course. Whether they can be disputed cogently is another matter. In truth, some are easier to dispute than others. For instance, it’s probably easier to dispute one embarrassing element or the independence of one or two of our sources for the empty tomb than it is to dispute e.g. the early witness of 1 Cor. 15:3–4. But this is rather moot because the arguments for the empty tomb are legion and each rest on multiple pieces of well-supported data. In other words, even if some factors I listed above fall, we’d still have a strong case for the empty tomb. Indeed, if all we had were two independent witnesses within living memory of the event and a single embarrassing element (such as the women witnesses), that would be more than enough to establish the empty tomb historically.
There are four basic facts that Christians have long argued are best explained by Jesus rising from the dead: Jesus’ death, the appearances to the disciples, the origin of the church and its proclamation, and the empty tomb (Argument from miracles: Jesus’ resurrection). Skeptics today rarely doubt the first three. If they doubt any, why is it almost always the empty tomb? It’s not like the evidence for the empty tomb is a lot worse than the evidence for any of these other factors. It’s at least as good as the evidence for the disciple’s sincerely believing they saw the risen Jesus. And the empty tomb itself is not a supernatural claim. Even Mary Magdalene could see an empty tomb and assume the body was moved (John 20:2, 15). So, why doubt the empty tomb?
The answer is quite simple, I think. The appearances are (supposedly) easily explained away as visions or hallucinations if the body didn’t go missing. But if the body is also missing, skeptics have to take the disciples’ accounts of bodily appearances a lot more seriously. But an empty tomb and bodily appearances together make a rather plausible resurrection claim! And that’s the problem for these skeptics. They are not driven by the evidence to doubt the empty tomb; they’re driven by their ideological rejection of miracles. The empty tomb is just the most convenient fact to doubt to avoid accepting an otherwise plausible miracle claim.
But for you, there is a different operative point—it’s much easier to voice an objection to the empty tomb than it is to show the objection is cogent. Skeptics do not deserve the benefit of the doubt just because they can voice an objection.
Your doubts don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. Skeptics don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. And you really need to be careful about what you read or listen to (Philippians 4:6–9). Take some time away from the skeptical material. Find a Christian you can talk to about these things (Dealing with doubt). And don’t give up. You are hurting because this stuff matters, and you’re listening to the rhetoric of smart people who make a living making Christians look silly; they are practised at it. That is not to say they have no arguments that need to be addressed. They do. But you’re being caught up more by their rhetoric than by the substance of their arguments. You’re letting them spin you around, making easy claims about Christians being silly when the evidential picture is either more complex than they paint it (in Dawkins’ case), or they’re letting their biases get in the way of a reasonably straightforward argument (in Ehrman’s case on the empty tomb). Remember: skeptics have biases, too. Don’t be fooled into thinking they don’t.
Creation Ministries International
References and notes
- Richard Dawkins: One Fact to Refute Creationism, youtube.com, 31 October 2009. Return to text.
- Kohlhepp, R., Answers in Genesis Doesn’t Understand “Ape-Men”, sheseeksnonfiction.blog, 13 September 2020. Return to text.
- Rincon, P., See cover photo in Homo erectus: Ancient humans survived longer than we thought, bbc.com, 18 December 2019. Return to text.
- Another useful presentation is: Trees of Life: do they exist? Prof. Richard Buggs inaugural lecture, youtube.com/watch?v=coJY7emvclY, 29 November 2022. See also this exchange involving Dawkins and Dr Craig Venter, where Venter rebuts universal common ancestry: Dr. Craig Venter Denies Common Descent in front of Richard Dawkins! youtube.com/watch?v=MXrYhINutuI, 25 May 2013. Return to text.
- Ewert, W. The dependency graph of life, BIO-Complexity 3:1–27, 2018 | doi:10.5048/BIO-C.2018.3. Return to text.
- Josephus, Jewish War 4.5.2; gutenberg.org/files/2850/2850-h/2850-h.htm#link42HCH0005. Return to text.
- Crossley, J., The Resurrection probably did not happen; in: Moreland, J.P., Meister, C., and Sweis, K.A. (Eds.), Debating Christian Theism, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 488–489, 2013. Return to text.
- Habermas, G.R., Jesus did rise from the dead; in: Moreland, J.P., Meister, C., and Sweis, K.A. (Eds.), Debating Christian Theism, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 479, 2013. Return to text.