Of all the arguments for the proof of God I find it the most infuriating. Perhaps you’ve had it used against you. It’s based on this passage, supposedly written by Paul of Tarsus:
…Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
So there it is. Jesus died and was resurrected and over 500 people saw it, dummy. Who are you to refute the eye witness testimony of 500 people?
There are problems with this which seem obvious to me, and probably to anyone else with at least a high school understanding of logic. But since the greater chunk of the latter wouldn’t even attempt this argument, it is sadly necessary to explicitly state those problems for when the argument is employed. So here goes:
1) This doesn’t count as 500 witnesses, it counts as one witness. That one witness is Paul of Tarsus, who, by his own admission, didn’t even see the resurrected Jesus but saw him as one “abnormally born”. To add credibility to his argument he calls on the authority of some 500 contemporaneous, but mostly unnamed, sources. To be a credible witness one must, before all, be available to witness. These people to which Paul mentions are not named and have not provided witness to us. The claim that there are unnamed witnesses (now dead to all of us) is utterly worthless. At best all this argument does is move the burden of proof from proving the resurrection to proving that a resurrected Jesus was observed by 500 people. Either way, the original claim is not proven. Imagine a witness testifying in court that he didn’t actually see the murderer (or saw him as one abnormally born, however you want to interpret that) but that he knows 500 people that did see the murderer and identified him as the defendant. Then imagine the judge giving the jury instructions to deliberate as if they had 500 witnesses identify the defendant as the murderer. It’s a childish argument and everyone that can spell pre-law knows it.
2) Eye witnesses don’t matter when trying to prove extraordinary claims. One can find eyewitnesses for just about anything. There are eyewitnesses to UFOs, alien abductions, ghosts, mind reading, teleportation, after-life communication, and a resurrected Elvis Presley. To implicitly accept eye witness claims is to accept all of these as fact. Add to that that you can find eyewitnesses to contradictory events and you have an untenable situation, since one cannot accept two contradictory claims as fact. You will struggle to find eye witness claims as support in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Science has recognized for some time that humans function poorly as sensory recording equipment and are not a replacement for hard, quantifiable and repeatable experimental results. Eye witness testimony is permissible in court with some qualification, but decisions rendered on the basis of eye witness testimony alone are notoriously unreliable. Not surprisingly, these results are often overturned by DNA evidence, which is a hard, quantifiable, repeatable experimental trial. Clearly one who makes life-changing decisions on the basis of eye witness testimony is behaving foolishly. This is all the more true of one who has not even met the witnesses in question and knows nothing more of them other than that they were said to exist by someone long dead.
So, to summarize, there is no proof that the 500 witnesses ever existed, that they actually saw what Paul claims they saw, and even if they did they were almost certainly wrong. The argument proves nothing, other than that the arguer is desperate to make his point and is hoping you will believe anything. This argument may be used as a half-assed attempt to satiate the faithful during sermons or a Billy Graham-style evangelism attempt to diffuse an objection and get back to the script. Those who use it are, by the simple act of using it, uninterested in the facts of the origins of Christianity, only in perpetuating its dangerous dogma. When you hear it, know that you are arguing with either a simpleton or someone who considers you a simpleton.