The Curious Role of the Book of Mormon Witnesses in Evangelical Debates about the Resurrection

While we Latter-day Saints have our apologists and reason-based arguments for faith and defenses against attacks on the faith, those are, by our own admission, to help create a place for faith or respond to criticisms that attack that faith, we are careful to formally base our religious epistemology in the numinous, personal spiritual experience. 

In contrast, there is a line of thinking in some Christian circles that the resurrection’s eyewitness accounts are compelling enough to force any reasonable person to accept the reality of the resurrection based on sound historical evidence alone. I’ve heard these arguments a number of times from a number of sources, and while I (rather conventionally and boringly) ultimately don’t find them compelling from a historiographical point of view, they are interesting. 

Where Mormonism comes into these debates is that a common skeptical rejoinder has become “well, if we are forced into believing in the resurrection because of these eyewitness accounts, what about the Book of Mormon witnesses?” And then the response often tends to devolve into distorting what the witnesses were or did, because ultimately the point is a good one. (One of the Protestants making this argument is renowned apologist William Lane Craig, and Stephen Smoot has already done a more thorough analysis of Craig’s views on the Church.) Protestants aren’t the only ones whose truth claims have eyewitnesses, and once you step outside of their theological world there are other examples of what they claim is unique to Christianity, and in my opinion the Book of Mormon witness testimonies are more robust historiographically than the New Testament resurrection witnesses. IMO, the Book of Mormon witnesses win on the criteria of recency, embarrassment, and multiple attestations.

So much time has passed between the resurrection and now that the gospel accounts of the resurrection aren’t worth  enough in terms of historical evidence to force one into some kind of epistemological corner. And this is the point made by the rejoinders. A particularly interesting debate has New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman sounding like a Mopologist (at about thirteen minutes) for a good five minutes while talking about the witnesses while discussing the resurrection. Now, to be clear, Bart Ehrman is not a believer, and is very open about his atheism. Still, he more or less (with a few hiccups) knows his stuff when it comes to Latter-day Saint history (and, apropos of nothing, I’ve heard through the grapevine that he actually has a lot of Latter-day Saint contacts). 

I am a fellow believer in the resurrection. However, even if they were recorded a few years ago, the witness of more than one person is enough to make me consider whether something is true, but even that isn’t a high enough bar to force my belief in something, as people can sometimes be delusional (Einstein famously said that he wouldn’t believe in ghosts even if he saw one). 

And the same goes, ultimately, for the Book of Mormon witnesses. On one hand, some people try to Jedi mind-trick, hand wave the Book of Mormon witnesses away as if they aren’t a big deal. They are, and it is hard to just explain them away. However, as Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a claim about the universe, our purpose in it, and ultimately what I should be doing with my life is a pretty extraordinary claim, so if we’re going to base it off of empirical verification I don’t think the witness testimony is high enough to clear that bar by itself, but it does help carve out a space for faith, for that Alma 32 seed of faith, for those quiet moments in a testimony’s journey when we open up our mind to the possibility that it might actually be true. 

7 comments for “The Curious Role of the Book of Mormon Witnesses in Evangelical Debates about the Resurrection

  1. I think you’ve got it about right. The gospel isn’t objectively verifiable. And so what the Lord does is–he draws the individual in through the testimonies of others. And then he blesses them with their own subjective witness of the gospel as they seek verification from him of those testimonies. It’s kind of a two step process that requires faith to bridge the steps.

    What I love about the statements of both the three witnesses and the eight witnesses taken together is they seem to cover all the bases. While the Lord doesn’t force people to believe–he doesn’t let us off the hook easily either. And so what happens is–the three have a supernatural experience and the eight have a mundane experience. And if folks doubt the former, claiming that it was all in their heads–then we have the latter where they do nothing more than examine the plates. But if they doubt the latter, claiming that the plates were fake–then we have the former where an angel shows them the plates.

    As I say, they aren’t objectively verifiable–but the witnesses are powerful enough to lead those who are prepared to hear into deeper consideration of their claims.

  2. There’s a great book all about this: “Witnessing Miracles: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection and Book of Mormon” by Joshua Gehly.

  3. Hey, Evangelical here! I’ve been reading Josh Gehly’s book (mentioned by Dean) and I’m interested in learning more about this line of reasoning. While there are superficial similarities, I don’t think the BOM case has nearly as much strength as the resurrection. But I’d be interested in a good discussion on this.

    Here are my thoughts so far –

    1. With the resurrection, it isn’t just the disciples as witnesses. It’s that there is also an empty tomb and that there is the conversion of a very hostile witness (Paul) and one who was skeptical during Jesus’ ministry (His brother James).
    2. The eight witnesses testify to the plates physically existing, but they are not in any kind of position to determine if they are authentic.
    3. The three witnesses are the best for some sort of supernatural connection, and while I’m not a total expert on the three witnesses, it does seem that there are negative evidences against their credibility that doesn’t exist with the apostles. Also, JS threw them under the bus. I’m more inclined to think those accusations were false, but that would impact JS credibility as well. Meanwhile, the witnesses persecution was short (apparently not after 1838) and apparently only David Whitmer has evidence of his life being threatened directly for his BOM testimony, and that only once. We have pretty good evidence at least five of the apostles of Christ were martyred, and they lived with that threat over decades.

    Counter-thoughts? :)

  4. Brent,

    It’s easier to explain all of the evidence surrounding the resurrection with mundane explanations than with miracles. First of all, we don’t have (certain) first-hand accounts of the apostles. Only the Gospel of John is even purported to have been written by a witness to the resurrection, and there are many reasons to doubt that authorship. So to believe the witnesses to the resurrection, you first have to believe that you have an accurate account of their words. That includes the empty tomb. But even if we had objective, disinterested accounts of the empty tomb (we don’t), it is more logical to attribute it to followers or detractors stealing the body.

    I’m not sure what the examples of Paul and James are supposed to prove. People change their beliefs all the time on all kinds of subjects. Just about every religion can point to numerous examples of formerly antagonistic converts who claim to have had a miraculous conversion experience.

    I’m not sure what you include as “negative evidences against [the Book of Mormon witnesses’] credibility”, but any comparison to the apostles is futile because we simply don’t have much documentary evidence of the apostles’ lives at all. Lack of evidence against the credibility of the apostles isn’t evidence of lack, especially when the historical record is so thin and most of the people who wrote the world’s history at the time simply didn’t care until decades after the fact.

    I believe in the resurrection, but that belief is not based on empirical evidence because the empirical evidence simply doesn’t point in that direction. Faith is valuable precisely because faith is hard. I don’t see the point in cheapening faith by asserting otherwise.

  5. “Just about every religion can point to numerous examples of formerly antagonistic converts who claim to have had a miraculous conversion experience.”

    Examples that went on to become martyrs? Honest question.

  6. I’m a lurker, not very often a contributor. It would be nice if someone engaged our new evangelical friend, Brent, on his last question. I tried to think of an anti/convert/martyr and couldn’t come up with anyone, then I tried Google without success. Any other takers? I know there’s a lot of people here with a lot more education than me.

  7. So, keeping in mind that we’re all on Paul’s side and we all agree he was a witness of Jesus’ divinity, Paul doesn’t supply any *historically* useful evidence of the Resurrection. He wasn’t an eyewitness and his encounter on the road to Damascus was visionary and supernatural, which moves it outside the realm of historical inquiry – like Joseph Smith’s encounter with Moroni. Complicating matters further, the earliest records we have of Paul are nth-generation copies from a century or more after the events they describe.

    The conversion of skeptics is a powerful experience, and their stories are occasionally mentioned in conference talks, either from named early members of the church or anonymous priests or pastors in other faiths who converted in the 20th century or later. The argument from martyrdom is also of limited use when comparing Paul to witnesses of the Book of Mormon; again, see Joseph Smith.

    Could we find examples of people who initially opposed, say, Islam before converting, then became staunch defenders and martyrs? I’d certainly think so. Or going in the other direction, St. Abo of Tiflis seems to meet the requirements of a convert martyr. In the context of a Christian convert to Judaism, Avraham ben Avraham would seem to fit. This 2019 article looks promising:

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