Even if we don’t know whether there was one angel or two angels at Jesus’ tomb, we can still know things about whether God exists and whether Jesus rose from the dead.
First, we can know that the universe was created and designed because of reliable, experimental evidence that the universe came into being and is finely-tuned for life. And second, we can know that Jesus was buried, that his tomb was found empty, that a variety of people had experiences of him appearing to them after his death, and that the Christian movement had an early belief that he was resurrected from the dead. We know those core things like we know anything – because we have good evidence. Other things that are more peripheral may not be as supported by evidence. We can remain agnostic about those peripheral things, but that agnosticism about peripheral things doesn’t undermine the things that we know.
William Lane Craig answered a question related to this problem for a person who accepted the minimal facts case for the resurrection but then though that someone this case couldn’t work unless he accepted inerrancy as well.
Here’s the question:
After re-evaluating my Christian faith and pruning it for two years, I can’t shake what seem like two disparate conclusions. One is that the evidence for Jesus resurrection is impecable. But the other is that there seem to be some very awkward realities about the composition of scripture (like errors or authors claiming to write by another name). Yet, the authors of the New Testament, including Jesus, seem to use Scripture in a way that assumes it is word for word from God.
While inductive logic is used to arrive at a strong historical case for the resurrection of Jesus, inductive logic can also be used to arrive at a strong case for many of the peculiaraties about Scripture previously mentioned.
It seems that the approach which many apologists take at this point is that, having established the authority of Jesus by the resurrection, if the argument being raised against scripture contradicts an opinion expressed by Jesus in the Gospels, then the argument for a contradiction must have no possible harmonizations for it to really stick. But I don’t see how this is fair to say, since (1) it seems unfair to use inductive logic to evidence Jesus’ resurrection but then not use it for criticisms against the Bible and (2) an inductive argument can be strong despite what Jesus as recorded in the Gospels says, especially since we cannot assume the precision with which many of the saying were recorded. And (3), anybody can cook up a harmonization of some verse that is possible but not plausible, which I am sure you have seen first hand many times.
Yet, holding these two positions in tension tends to be corrosive to my faith and ultimately leads to a certain bitterness against God for allowing the biblical writers to play fast-and-loose with his words and for not providing a clarity that brings more certainty about what is from him and what isn’t. Any help you can give to relieve this tension would be greatly appreciated.
Now Dr. Craig has a long response on his Reasonable Faith web site, but I just want to quote you this:
But secondly, suppose you’ve done all that and are still convinced that Scripture is not inerrant. Does that mean that the deity and resurrection of Christ go down the drain? No, not all. […]As you recognize, we have a very strong case for the resurrection of Jesus. That case in no way depends on the Bible’s being inerrant. This became very clear to me during my doctoral studies in Munich with Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg had rocked German theology by maintaining that a sound historical case can be made for the resurrection of Jesus. Yet he also believed that the Gospel resurrection appearances stories are so legendary that they have scarcely a historical kernel in them! He did not even trust the Markan account of the discovery of the empty tomb. Rather his argument was founded on the early pre-Pauline tradition about the appearances in I Corinthians 15.3-5 and on the consideration that a movement based on the resurrection of dead man would have been impossible in Jerusalem in the face of a tomb containing his corpse.
Evangelicals sometimes give lip service to the claim that the Gospels are historically reliable, even when examined by the canons of ordinary historical research; but I wonder if they really believe this. It really is true that a solid, persuasive case for Jesus’ resurrection can be made without any assumption of the Gospels’ inerrancy.
By contrast, the case for Jesus’ belief that the Old Testament Scriptures are inerrant is much weaker. I think there’s no doubt that (5) is the premiss that would have to go if biblical inerrancy were to be abandoned. We should have to re-think our doctrine of inspiration in that case, but we needn’t give up belief in God or in Jesus, as Bart Ehrman did. Ehrman had, it seems to me, a flawed theological system of beliefs as a Christian. It seems that at the center of his web of theological beliefs was biblical inerrancy, and everything else, like the beliefs in the deity of Christ and in his resurrection, depended on that. Once the center was gone, the whole web soon collapsed. But when you think about it, such a structure is deeply flawed. At the center of our web of beliefs ought to be some core belief like the belief that God exists, with the deity and resurrection of Christ somewhere near the center. The doctrine of inspiration of Scripture will be somewhere further out and inerrancy even farther toward the periphery as a corollary of inspiration. If inerrancy goes, the web will feel the reverberations of that loss, as we adjust our doctrine of inspiration accordingly, but the web will not collapse because belief in God and Christ and his resurrection and so on don’t depend upon the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
We have mainstream scientific evidence for God’s existence, and a mainstream historical evidence for a minimal facts case for the resurrection. None of that evidence depends on inerrancy being true.
So can we please just accept what can be known from experimental science and standard historical methods, and work our lives around that, and not nitpick about peripheral issues so much? I am inerrantist, and so is Dr. Craig. But you don’t have to be in order to accept that the mainstream evidence that shows that universe was created and fine-tuned, and that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. Don’t let “one angel vs two angels “stop you from accepting things we can know. You can just stay agnostic about the things you think we don’t know.