In chapter 8 of The End of Christianity, Matt McCormick argues that, “by the conventional epistemic standards we already endorse in other comparable cases like the Salem Witch Trials” (Loftus 195), we are not justified in believing that Jesus was resurrected. He believes that if we applied the same standard to both the Salem Witch Trials and the resurrection of Jesus we would not believe anything supernatural occurred in either case. He assumes that almost no one will believe that any supernatural or paranormal events occurred at Salem. Since, according to McCormick, the evidence surrounding the Salem Witch Trials is of a better quantity and quality than what we have for Jesus (Loftus 207), we would be guilty of applying a double standard if we believe that Jesus was raised from the dead while denying that real witches roamed Salem.
While the author states that there must be some threshold of evidence that could make it reasonable to believe Jesus was resurrected (Loftus 216) he never states what that threshold is. In fact, he never explains what “conventional epistemic standards” he is employing. Therefore, this review will merely show how it possible to apply a consistent standard to both the resurrection of Jesus and the Salem Witch Trials and conclude that Jesus did rise from the dead but that there were no true witches in Salem.
McCormick’s assumptions about the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus are different from mine. I think the evidence for the resurrection is better than he does. I will note these differences here since a difference of opinion on this point can lead to different conclusions about whether the same standard can lead one to believe in the resurrection while dismissing the existence of true witches in Salem.
First, he notes that Jesus’ disciples were more prone to hallucinations in their grief-stricken state than they otherwise would be. At first a hallucination hypothesis may seem plausible but, as McCormick himself admits, the “same hallucination cannot be had by large groups of people” (Loftus 209). It should also be noted that the apostle Paul was not grieving the death of Christ.
Second, he notes that people sometimes place themselves at great risk for unworthy causes. This is true, but such perseverance in the face of persecution is strong evidence that the people in question are sincere in their beliefs. Therefore, the disciples’ willingness to undergo persecution and even death for the gospel rules out hypotheses invoking fraud on the part of the disciples to explain the resurrection.
Third, I do not believe the traditions in the Gospels were passed down in a haphazard way, as McCormick suggests. I find arguments such as those put forth by Richard Bauckham and Birger Gerhardsson to be more plausible explanations of the formation of the Gospels. I find the traditional authorship of Mark, Luke, and John to be plausible.
The Salem Witch Trials
Now, let’s work through a number of statements from McCormick about the Salem Witch Trials.
The events began with the strange behavior of some little girls, which fed suspicions. The girls ran about and froze in grotesque postures, complained about biting and pinching sensations, and had violent seizures. (Loftus 207)
The first thing to note is the data we are trying to explain. In the case of the Salem Witch Trials we are attempting to explain the fits and seizures of a group of afflicted girls and young women. We are not attempting to explain how alleged witches flew through the air on brooms or how they turned someone into a frog. In the case of the resurrection we are attempting to explain the empty tomb, the appearances of an executed man to his disciples, and the conversion of Paul.
Thorough investigations were conducted. Witnesses were carefully cross-examined. A large body of evidence was meticulously gathered. Many people confessed. The entire proceedings were carefully documented with thousands of sworn affidavits, court documents, interviews, and related papers, a scale of surviving evidence vastly greater and more reliable than anything we have for the resurrection of Jesus. (Loftus 208)
Those convicted of witchcraft were largely convicted on the basis of spectral evidence. The afflicted claimed that the spirit of the witch threatened or tormented them. Only the afflicted claimed to see the witch’s specter. Those not afflicted simply saw the afflicted undergoing fits and seizures. The afflicted often had fits and seizures when the accused entered the meetinghouse where the trials were being held. This correlation convinced many (not all) that the accused were truly tormenting the afflicted in the spirit realm. While we have a large body of evidence about what happened at Salem it should be noted that the kind of evidence presented at the trials was qualitatively poor. In the case of the resurrection, on the other hand, the disciples claimed to see the physical Jesus over a period of forty days.
In the interest of charity, do not take McCormick’s statement about the witnesses being cross-examined to refer to cross-examination as practiced in a modern trial in the U.S. His point is, presumably, that the judges questioned both the accused and the accusers. But I must take issue with the statement that this was done “carefully”. As noted above, the kind of evidence admitted was very poor. Many did confess to being witches but they were coerced and sometimes even tortured. The judges did not take note of contradictions in some of the confessions. Even worse, the confessions were then used as evidence to accuse others.
It is true that we have a fuller picture of what occurred in Salem in 1692 than we do surrounding the life of Jesus. However, we still know certain facts surrounding the resurrection that are in need of explanation. The mere fact that one event has quantitatively more evidence than another does not mean we ignore the event with quantitatively less evidence. Seeing, hearing, and touching the physical Jesus is qualitatively better evidence for the supernatural than the visionary experiences of the afflicted girls in Salem.
These people had a great deal to lose by being correct — men would lose their wives, children would lose their mothers, community members would lose friends they cared about. It seems very unlikely that they could have had ulterior motives. Accusing a friend or wife of being a witch would very likely force the horrible outcome of getting them executed. (Loftus 208)
McCormick leaves out a couple of important facts. First, there were divisions in the community and therefore it is not true that the accusers necessarily cared for the accused. At times, the accuser may have despised the accused. Second, by confessing the accused thought they could spare their lives. Not everyone who was accused of witchcraft confessed, but confessions were plentiful. This stands in stark contrast to the behavior of the apostles. The apostles were willing to put their own lives on the line for the gospel. The Salem Witch Trails show how easy it can be for a person to crack under pressure. That the apostles stood firm is a testament to their sincerity.
It also seems abundantly clear that the accusers, or at least a significant number of them, were utterly convinced that the women were witches. Why else would so many people agree and act so decisively and with such conviction? It strains credibility to suggest that there was a conspiracy or a mass hallucination shared by all of the hundreds of people involved. The same hallucination cannot be had by large groups of people. (Loftus 208-209)
Once again, let us note that if the mass hallucination hypothesis can be ruled out to explain the Salem Witch Trials it can be ruled out to explain the resurrection.
We have the actual sworn testimony of people claiming to have seen the magic in Salem performed. The girls were repeatedly examined and interviewed. A large number of people devoted a great deal of time and energy to carefully analyzing their states and concluded that whatever was wrong with them must be of a supernatural origin. (Loftus 210)
This statement is misleading since there were no eyewitnesses to physical manifestations of witchcraft. What we have is the testimony of people, many of whom we would consider mentally ill, stating that they could see witches working in an invisible world not seen by the public at large. It is true that many people interpreted the fits and seizures as being caused by the supernatural. However, there were also people who doubted this interpretation.
Most people now see them as a frightening example of how enthusiasm, hysteria, social pressure, anxiety, and religious fervor can be powerful enough to lead ordinary people to do such extraordinary and mistaken things. (Loftus 212)
I can agree with McCormick that what happened at Salem fits our knowledge of psychology. Naturalistic hypotheses explain the evidence well. But this is also what differentiates the Salem Witch Trials from the resurrection. Naturalistic hypotheses do not explain the data surrounding the resurrection well (sometimes not at all). A Christian who looks for the best explanation of the evidence is not applying a double standard when he concludes that Jesus really rose from the dead but there were no real witches in Salem in 1692.
McCormick foresaw that a response such as mine was likely. I contend that there are key differences between the Salem Witch Trials and the resurrection that allow one to apply the same standard to both events while accepting the supernatural explanation only in the case of the resurrection. Let’s address his objections.
This approach appears to be doomed to fail, too, and amounts to ad hoc rationalizing. (Loftus 213)
Michael Licona has already shown how naturalistic hypotheses of the resurrection are actually more ad hoc than the supernatural hypothesis. If we agree that, all else being equal, we should prefer the least ad hoc explanation then this is a point against McCormick.
One problem is that any such approach will have to be reconciled with the fact that we have so much more information about Salem. (Loftus 213)
The quantitative amount of evidence is not the sole deciding factor in accepting a supernatural explanation of an event. We are also interested in how naturalistic hypotheses compare to supernatural hypotheses.
If someone wishes to argue that we are justified in concluding that there were natural causes in Salem on the basis of the evidence, they face a challenge when it comes to defending Jesus. They will also need to argue that we have substantial reasons to believe that nothing like that explanation is likely to be true with Jesus, and that we can be sure that a similar naturalized account cannot be correct on the basis of a much smaller, more fragmented, older, and less corroborated body of information. That we have only a few stories (that conflict on many important details) recorded on the basis of unknown hearsay testimony decades after the fact, and lacking any recorded attempt at a soundly principled inquiry by anyone, will be the undoing of many attempts to argue that we can definitively rule out some alternate natural explanation of what happened. We just don’t have enough good information about Jesus to rule anything out definitively. (Loftus 213-214)
Note how McCormick now resorts to definitively ruling out hypotheses. Absolute certainty is not possible in most matters, including history. While I accept a natural explanation for the Salem Witch Trials, I do not claim that I can definitively rule out a supernatural explanation. My differences with McCormick concerning the Gospels have already been summarized above. I noted key differences between the two events under discussion and how this resulted in qualitatively better evidence for a supernatural explanation in the case of the resurrection.
Advocates of the historical resurrection have sometimes argued that unless some natural explanation can be successfully defended, then we must accept the supernatural conclusion. If the naturalistic explanations that we can come up with all fail, then the resurrection must be real. There’s a mistake concealed in this innocuous-sounding approach. What the Salem example illustrates is that one need not believe or defend any particular alternative natural explanation, such as the rotten rye grain/hallucination theory, in order to conclude reasonably that they weren’t witches. We believe that it is reasonable to think there were no real witches at Salem even without knowing exactly what happened. (Loftus 215)
In this paragraph McCormick seems to tacitly admit that naturalistic hypotheses about the resurrection are not as good as the supernatural explanation. If the supernatural explanation is the best explanation it does not mean that the resurrection must be real in some logical sense of the term “must”. But it does mean, well, that it’s the best explanation. The Salem example does not prove what he thinks it proves. It is true that we do not have an explanation as to what exactly happened to the last detail. However, the naturalistic explanations do explain the data very well. It is not the case that the natural explanations are admittedly terrible but we accept them anyway because we don’t want to accept the supernatural.
Even if it turns out that a number of proposed naturalistic hypotheses do not readily fit with what we believe are the facts about the case, it would not follow from those failures alone that we should default to the supernatural explanation as the best or default hypothesis. (Loftus 215)
This sentence is a train wreck. I’m not sure what the “default hypothesis” would be in an historical investigation. And if the resurrection hypothesis is better than the naturalistic hypotheses then it is, by definition, the best hypothesis. Maybe McCormick just can’t accept the resurrection because it is a supernatural explanation. It would be nice if he just admitted that instead of trying to tell us the best explanation is not the best explanation.
Hopefully it is clear that, if you are determined to find the best explanation of the evidence we have, then it is possible to accept that Jesus rose from the dead while rejecting the existence of real witches in Salem. Admittedly, many points were covered briefly so I have included a short bibliography for further reading.
Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. First Printing. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006.
Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript with Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity. Revised. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Hill, Frances. A Delusion Of Satan: The Full Story Of The Salem Witch Trials. Kindle Edition. Da Capo Press, 1995.
Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. IVP Academic, 2010.
Loftus, John W., ed. The End of Christianity. Prometheus Books, 2011.
Roach, Marilynne K. The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004.