The problem with much apologetics, both for and against Christianity, is that it breeds false confidence. Very often such books are selective in their presentation of the facts and question-begging as to the premises of their argument. Nowhere is this more apparent than in debates over whether Jesus rose from the dead, as Christians claim, based as they are on the rather sparse historical record of the New Testament, placed in its appropriate context by social-scientific and historical study. There is no end to books and articles being written defending one side or the other. Given that both sides seem to have able and intelligent proponents, what are we to make of this huge mass of literature, going back to the 2nd Century A.D.? Does the overall balance of argument tip toward traditional Christian belief, or is the skeptical explanation in terms of delusion and wishful thinking more plausible?
Amid such controversy and confusion Dale Allison's "Resurrecting Jesus" is a breath of fresh air (NB: I am only reviewing pp.198-352, which deal with the question of the resurrection), a massive, erudite and responsible assessment of the various explanations put forward over the centuries for the remarkable emergence of Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection by God in the early 1st Century. It is quite remarkable, as Allison argues, however, that despite the great volume of literature devoted to the subject, there are only a few basic types of explanation: 1) Orthodox belief, 2) Misinterpretation, 3) Hallucinations, 4) Deliberate deception, 5) Genuine visions, 6) Belief in God's vindication and 7) Rapid disintegration of the body plus visions (pp.201-213). This is followed by a remarkably candid, passionate yet measured exposition of Allison's own reasons for wanting to believe in a literal resurrection (pp.213-219) as well as reasons for doubting the cogency and coherence of such a belief, due to the difficulties and even absurdities which can arise when even trying to think clearly about what such an event might involve (pp.219-228).
The rest of the long chapter consists of an analysis of the primary literature of the New Testament on the Resurrection accounts and the confessions of faith which either predated them or they gave rise to, followed by a lengthy consideration of the most popular skeptical debunking explanations and assessment of the arguments for and against the empty tomb. All of this makes for dizzying reading, with footnotes that often take up most of any given page. We are treated to exhaustive, meticulous exegesis of every single word, every historical clue which can be gleaned from the New Testament. Allison ultimately concludes that we can be fairly sure that several people did ostensibly see Jesus after his death (p.269), and that (even though he concedes that it is a very tentative judgement) Jesus tomb was probably found empty (p. 332).
As Allison demonstrates, however, in what is surely a tour de force of analytic scholarship, it is harder than most apologists would admit to dismiss skeptical explanations in terms of hallucinations and/or wishful thinking. His own exhaustive overview of the relevant literature on paranormal claims, apparitions, hallucinations due to bereavement, etc. shows that "the truth of the matter, welcome or not, is that the literature on visions of the dead is full of parallels to the stories we find in the Gospels" (p.270; cf pp.269-299). But this does not mean that skeptics have victory handed to them on a silver platter. For all the parallels there are also important differences. As Allison rightly observes, "Typical encounters with the recently deceased do not issue in claims about an empty tomb, nor do they lead to the founding of a new religion" (p.283, but see p.284 for a caution against trying to make too much of these facts). Furthermore, even parallels with other 'visions' should not be taken to imply that we should dismiss all such experiences as non-veridical. Complex epistemological questions arise when trying to distinguish between an experience of something 'real' and something that is merely a construct thrown up by the brain (see, for example, Andrew Newberg, "Why We Believe What We Believe").
After this whirlwind tour of assertions and counter-assertions Allison attempts a general survey and assessment. His balanced conclusion is that "for better or for worse, history does not give some of us what we want or think we need" (p.337) and that "It is our worldview that interprets the textual data, not the textual data that determines our worldview. One who disbelieves in all so-called miracles can, with good conscience, remain disbelieving in the literal resurrection of Jesus after an examination of the evidence, just as a traditional Christian can, without intellectual guilt, retain belief after surveying the relevant particulars" (p.342). This is not, as Chris Halquist claims, an argument from ignorance, that 'since skeptics cannot decisively disprove the resurrection, that we are justified in believing it'. Allison's position is more sublte and in fact more supportive of Christian faith than an initial reading might suggest. He advocates, as I think is right, other ways to know that Jesus was resurrected, in terms of the "spiritual senses" and discernment. Skeptics will reject such a move, but it must be based upon their own faith position, not arguments which show that such discernment is imposssible.
When all the dust has settled, Allison's chapter (which could easily be a book by itself) is probably the best and most comprehensive assessment of arguments for and against the Resurrection that currently exists. No prominent (or even less prominent) defender or detractor of the foundational event of Christianity escapes Allison's critical eye. He engages with N.T. Wright and William Lane Craig as well as Richard Carrier and Jeffrey Lowder, as well as most of the scholars in between. However, it should not be forgotten that, as Allison would be the first to admit, he is only human and these pages, immense critical care and self-honesty notwithstanding, represent the fallible judgment and opinion of one particular person. Skeptics might argue that his reasons for tipping the balance to one side rather than the other stems from his own personal desire to believe in the Resurrection, against the hopelessness of the alternative. Believers might argue that he gives more credence to skeptical arguments than is warranted by the evidence. Whatever the case, whether one agrees with Allison's ultimate assessment or not, "Resurrecting Jesus" is a model of careful scholarship, humility and open-mindedness, a clarion-call for scholars on both sides to avoid facile academic victories and commit to the pursuit of truth, however uncomfortable it may be, which is something which both believers and skeptics should have in common.