Evidence for the Resurrection: Why reasonable people might differ, and why believers aren’t crazy

Easter is approaching, but skeptic John Loftus doesn’t believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. What’s more, he thinks you’re delusional if you do. I happen to believe in the Resurrection, but I freely admit that I might be mistaken. I think Loftus is wrong, and his case against the Resurrection is statistically flawed; however, I don’t think he’s delusional. In today’s post, I’d like to summarize the key issues at stake here, before going on to explain why I think reasonable people might disagree on the weight of the evidence for the Resurrection.

The following quotes convey the tenor of Loftus’ views on the evidence for the Resurrection:

What we have at best are second-hand testimonies filtered through the gospel writers. With the possible exception of Paul who claimed to have experienced the resurrected Jesus in what is surely a visionary experience (so we read in Acts 26:19, cf. II Cor. 12:1-6; Rev. 1:10-3:21–although he didn’t actually see Jesus, Acts 9:4-8; 22:7-11; 26:13-14), everything we’re told comes from someone who was not an eyewitness. This is hearsay evidence, at best. [Here.]

The Jews of Jesus’ day believed in Yahweh and that he does miracles, and they knew their Old Testament prophecies, and yet the overwhelming numbers of them did not believe Jesus was raised from the dead by Yahweh. So Christianity didn’t take root in the Jewish homeland but had to reach out to the Greco-Roman world for converts. Why should we believe if they were there and didn’t? [Here.]

…[F]or [Christian apologist Mike] Licona to think he can defend the resurrection of Jesus historically is delusional on a grand scale.[Here.]

My natural explanation is that the early disciples were visionaries, that is, they believed God was speaking to them in dreams, trances, and thoughts that burst into their heads throughout the day. Having their hopes utterly dashed upon the crucifixion of Jesus they began having visions that Jesus arose from the dead. [Here.]

My natural explanation [additionally] requires … one liar for Jesus, and I think this liar is the author of Mark, the first gospel. He invented the empty tomb sequence. That’s it. [Here.]

Loftus is not a dogmatic skeptic; he allows that he can imagine evidence which would convince him that Christianity is true. However, it is his contention that the evidence of the New Testament falls far short of this standard. The problem, to put it briefly, is that evidence for the authenticity of a second-hand report of a miracle does not constitute evidence that the miraculous event described in the report actually occurred. This evidential gap is known as Lessing’s ugly broad ditch, after the 18th century German critic, Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781), who first pointed it out.

In this post, I will not be attempting to demonstrate that the Resurrection actually occurred. Rather, my aim will be to outline the process of reasoning whereby someone might conclude that it probably occurred, while acknowledging that he/she may be wrong. I’ll also endeavor to explain how another person, following the same procedure as the tentative believer, might arrive at a contrary conclusion, which would make it irrational for him/her to espouse a belief in the Resurrection.

The key facts required to establish the Resurrection

Before I begin, I’m going to make a short list of key facts, whose truth needs to be established by anyone mounting a serious case for the Resurrection.

Key facts:
1. The man known as Jesus Christ was a real person, who lived in 1st-century Palestine.
2. Jesus was crucified and died.
3. Jesus’ disciples collectively saw a non-ghostly apparition of Jesus, after his death.
N.B. By a “non-ghostly” apparition, I mean: a multi-sensory [i.e. visual, auditory and possibly tactile] apparition, which led the disciples to believe Jesus was alive again. I don’t mean that Jesus necessarily ate fish, or had a gaping hole in his side: many Biblical scholars now think that these details may have been added to the Gospels of Luke and John for polemical reasons. Are they right? I don’t know.

Readers will note that none of the key facts listed above makes any mention of the empty tomb. My reason for this omission is that St. Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 15, which is the only eyewitness report, makes no explicit mention of Jesus’ empty tomb, although it seems to imply this fact when it says that Jesus was buried and raised. I won’t be relying on the Gospel accounts here, as they are probably not eyewitness accounts: most scholars date them to between 70 and 110 A.D. By the same token, I won’t be relying on the accounts of St. Paul’s encounter with Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles, which some scholars date as late as 110-140 A.D. St. Paul simply says of his experience: “last of all he appeared to me also.” That makes him an eyewitness.

It will be apparent to readers who are familiar with debates regarding the resurrection that my list of “key facts” is more modest than Dr. Willam Lane Craig’s list of minimal facts which he frequently invokes when he is debating the subject. Craig assumes that Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, and that the following Sunday, his tomb was found empty by a group of women followers of Jesus. I make neither of these assumptions, although I happen to think he is right on both. For those who are inclined to doubt, Dr. Craig’s article, The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus, is well worth reading.

Two types of skepticism

I propose to distinguish between two kinds of skepticism: Type A and Type B. Type A skepticism casts doubt on people’s claims to have had an extraordinary experience, while Type B skepticism questions whether a miraculous explanation of this extraordinary experience is the best one. In the case of the Resurrection, Type A skepticism seeks to undermine one or more of the key facts listed above, whereas Type B skepticism doesn’t question the key facts, but looks for a non-miraculous explanation of those key facts.

Carl Sagan’s maxim that “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs” is often quoted when the subject of miracles comes up. But we must be careful not to confuse extraordinary claims with extraordinary experiences: the former relate to objectively real occurrences, while the latter relate to subjective experiences. There is nothing improbable about someone’s having an extraordinary experience. People have bizarre experiences quite often: most of us have had one, or know someone who has had one. However, extraordinary occurrences are by definition rare: their prior probability is very, very low.

The distinction I have made above is a vital one. The key facts listed above imply that Jesus’ disciples had an extraordinary experience, but as we’ve seen, there’s nothing improbable about that.

On the other hand, the prior probability of an actual extraordinary occurrence (such as the Resurrection) is extremely low. So even if we can show that Jesus’ disciples had an extraordinary experience which persuaded them that he had risen again, one still needs to show that the posterior probability of all proposed non-miraculous explanations of this experience is less than the posterior probability of a miracle, given this extraordinary experience, before one is permitted to conclude that the miraculous explanation is warranted. And even then, one is still not home free, because it makes no sense to posit a miracle unless one has independent grounds for believing that there is a God, or at the very least, that there is a small but significant likelihood that God exists.

To sum up, in order for belief in Jesus’ Resurrection to be reasonable, what one has to show is that:
(i) the total probability of the various Type A skeptical explanations listed below is less than 50%; and
(ii) given the key facts listed above, and given also that there is a reasonable likelihood that a supernatural Deity exists Who is at least able to resurrect a dead human being, if He chooses to do so, then the total [posterior] probability of the various Type B skeptical explanations listed below is far less than the posterior probability that Jesus was miraculously raised.

What’s wrong with Loftus’ argument, in a nutshell

Basically, there are two errors in John Loftus’ case against the Resurrection: first, he overlooks the fact that the probabilities of the various Type B skeptical explanations are posterior probabilities, rather than prior probabilities; and second, he thinks that because the prior probability of a resurrection is very small, any Type A skeptical explanation whose prior probability is greater than that of the Resurrection of Jesus is a more likely explanation of whatever took place. The following excerpt from a 2012 post by Loftus illustrates these errors (emphases mine – VJT):

In what follows I’ll offer a very brief natural explanation of the claim that Jesus resurrected. Compare it with the claim he physically arose from the dead. You cannot say my natural explanation lacks plausibility because I already admit that it does. As I said, incredible things happen all of the time. What you need to say is that my natural explanation is MORE implausible than the claim that Jesus physically arose from the dead, and you simply cannot do that.

As it happens, I’d estimate the probability of Loftus’ preferred explanation for the Resurrection of Jesus to be about 10%. That’s much higher than the prior probability that God would resurrect a man from the dead, even if you assume that there is a God. However, I also believe that there’s a 2/3 3/5 probability (roughly) that Jesus’ disciples had an experience of what they thought was the risen Jesus. If they had such an experience, and if there is a God Who is capable of raising the dead, then I think it’s easy to show that the posterior probability of the Resurrection, in the light of these facts, is very high.

Type A skeptical hypotheses regarding the Resurrection

The following is a fairly exhaustive list of skeptical hypotheses that might be forward, if one wishes to contest the “key facts” listed above.

1. Jesus didn’t exist: he was a fictional person.

2. Jesus existed, but he didn’t die on the cross: either (i) he fell into a swoon on the cross, or (ii) it was actually a look-alike who was crucified in his place.

3(a) The fraud hypothesis: Jesus’ disciples didn’t really see an apparition of Jesus; their story that they had seen him was a total lie. For thirty years, they got away with their lie and attracted quite a following, prior to their execution during the reign of the Emperor Nero. (James the Apostle died somewhat earlier, in 44 A.D.)

3(b) Jesus’ disciples saw what they thought was Jesus’ ghost, but much later on, Christians claimed that the disciples had actually seen (and touched) Jesus’ risen body – either (i) because of deliberate fraud on the part of some individual (possibly St. Mark, in John Loftus’ opinion) who first spread the story of an empty tomb, or (ii) because Jesus’ body had already been stolen by persons unknown, which led Christians to believe Jesus’ body had been raised, or (iii) because the body had disappeared as a result of some natural event (e.g. a local earthquake that swallowed it up), or (iv) because a later generation of Christians (living after the fall of Jerusalem) was no longer able to locate Jesus’ body (or his tomb), which led them to speculate that Jesus had in fact been resurrected from the dead.

3(c) Jesus’ disciples initially thought they had seen Jesus’ ghost, but shortly afterwards, they came to believe that what they had seen was a non-ghostly apparition of Jesus’ resurrected body – either (i) because of the unexpected discovery that Jesus’ tomb was empty or (ii) because of the mis-identification of Jesus’ tomb with another empty tomb nearby.

3(d) Jesus’ disciples experienced individual (rather than collective) non-ghostly apparitions of Jesus, on separate occasions, which convinced each of them that he had risen, and which made them willing to be martyred for their faith in that fact.

[UPDATE: New hypothesis added.]

3(e) Jesus’ disciples experienced a collective non-ghostly apparition of Jesus, which they all saw, but only one of the disciples (probably Peter) actually heard the voice of Jesus. It may have been because Peter was able to talk to Jesus that they were convinced that he was not a ghost; alternatively, it may have been because Jesus was not only visible and audible (to Peter) but also radiant in appearance that the apostles concluded he had risen from the dead.

Type B skeptical hypotheses

Supposing that one grants the key facts listed above, I can think of only two skeptical hypotheses by which one might seek to explain away the disciples’ non-ghostly post-mortem apparition of Jesus, without having recourse to a miracle. Either it was a purely subjective experience (i.e. a collective hallucination), or it was an illusion, created by mind control techniques.

4. Jesus’ disciples had an apparition of Jesus after his death which was so vivid that they came to believe that what they had seen was no ghost, but a resurrected human being. In reality, however, their experience was a collective hallucination, caused by either (i) the grief they were experiencing in the wake of Jesus’ death or (ii) Jesus hypnotizing them before he died and implanting the idea that he would rise on the third day.

5. Jesus’ disciples had a collective non-ghostly apparition of Jesus after his death, but in reality, either (i) aliens or (ii) supernatural beings (demons) were controlling their minds and making them see things that weren’t objectively real.

The Resurrection: Varieties of skepticism

Broadly speaking, there are resurrection-skeptics who believe in a God Who is capable of working miracles, and then there are resurrection-skeptics who have no particular religious beliefs.

Resurrection-skeptics who believe in a God Who can work miracles disagree with the claim that the total probability of the various Type A skeptical explanations listed above is less than 50%. For their part, Jews have traditionally favored explanation 3(a) [fraud], while Muslims favor explanation 2(ii) [a look-alike died in Jesus’ place]. Personally, I find the Muslim explanation wildly implausible: try as I might, I simply cannot imagine anyone volunteering to die in Jesus’ place, and managing to fool the Romans, the Jews, and (presumably) Jesus’ family and friends into believing that he was Jesus. The mind boggles. The fraud hypothesis was put forward by the Jews back in the first century. In the second century, St. Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (c. 160 A.D.) records a Jewish skeptic asserting that Jesus’ disciples “stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven” (chapter 108). I have to say that I regard this explanation as a much more sensible one. If I had nothing but the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection available to me, I might be persuaded by it, but for my part, I find it impossible to read the letters of St. Paul to the Corinthians without becoming convinced of their author’s obvious sincerity. The man wasn’t lying when he said that Jesus appeared to him.

Non-religious skeptics who deny the Resurrection fall into different categories: there are both Type A skeptics and Type B skeptics. Among the Type A skeptics, there are a few Jesus-mythers (G.A. Wells, Earl Doherty, Robert Price, Richard Carrier) favor hypothesis 1, while swoon-theorists such as Barbara Thiering and the authors of the best-seller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, favor hypothesis 2(i). However, most skeptics tend to either favor the Type A hypothesis 3(b) [the disciples saw a ghostly apparition; later Christians made up the resurrection – this is Loftus’ proposal] or the Type B hypothesis 4 [Jesus’ disciples had a collective hallucination, which was so vivid that it caused them to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead]. Hypothesis 3(c) has few proponents, and I don’t know anyone who advocates hypotheses 3(d) or 5.

My personal evaluation of skeptical explanations for the Resurrection

Reasonable people may disagree in their estimates of the probabilities for the various skeptical hypotheses listed above. However, my own estimates of the probabilities of these hypotheses are as follows:

Type A skeptical hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1 – Jesus never existed. Probability: 1%.
Pro: There’s no contemporaneous pagan or Jewish attestation for the amazing miracles Jesus supposedly worked (healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the 5,000), which is puzzling. Also, certain aspects of Jesus’ life (e.g. the virgin birth, dying & rising again) are said to have mythological parallels.
Con: No reputable New Testament historian doubts the existence of Jesus. Professor Graeme Clarke of the Australian National University has publicly declared: “Frankly, I know of no ancient historian or biblical historian who would have a twinge of doubt about the existence of a Jesus Christ – the documentary evidence is simply overwhelming.” Indeed, there is pretty good attestation for Jesus’ existence from Josephus (Antiquities, book XX) and Tacitus. Miracle-workers were a dime a dozen in the Roman Empire; one living in far-away Palestine wouldn’t have attracted any comment. The mythological parallels with Jesus’ life are grossly exaggerated. In any case, the question of whether Jesus existed and whether most of the stories about him are true are distinct questions. Perhaps there was a small kernel of truth behind the stories: Jesus healed some sick people.

Hypothesis 2 – Jesus didn’t actually die from crucifixion. Either (i) he fell into a swoon on the cross, or (ii) a look-alike was crucified in his place. Probability: 1%.
Pro: (i) Some individuals were known to survive as long as three days on the cross. Jesus’ death after just a few hours sounds suspicious. (ii) Some of Jesus’ disciples appear not to have recognized him, when they saw him after he was supposedly crucified.
Con: (i) Jesus was flogged, and pierced in the side, if we can believe St. John’s account. That would have hastened his death. But even if Jesus had survived crucifixion, he would have been severely weakened by the experience, and his subsequent apparition to his disciples would have alarmed rather than energized them. (ii) What sane person would volunteer to take Jesus’ place on the cross? Also, wouldn’t someone standing by the foot of the cross have noticed that it wasn’t Jesus hanging on the cross? Finally, the appearance of a risen Jesus who didn’t bear any of the marks of crucifixion would surely have made the disciples wonder if he really was the same person as the man who died on the cross.

Hypothesis 3(a) – fraud. Probability: 10%.
Pro: The perils of being a Christian apostle in the first century have been greatly exaggerated. The apostles Peter and Paul, and James brother of the Lord, lived for 30 years before being martyred, and even the apostle James lived for 11 years. During that time, the apostles would have been highly respected figures. Maybe they were motivated by a desire for fame and/or money. And maybe the apostles were killed for political rather than religious reasons, or for religious reasons that were not specifically related to their having seen the risen Jesus. We don’t know for sure that they were martyred for their belief in Jesus’ Resurrection.
Con: The fact remains that some apostles were put to death, and as far as we can tell it was for their testimony to the Resurrection. St. Clement of Rome, in his (first and only) Epistle to the Corinthians (Chapter 5), written c. 80–98, reminds his readers of Saints Peter and Paul’s martyrdom: “Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most just pillars of the Church were persecuted, and came even unto death. Let us place before our eyes the good Apostles. Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labours, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him. Through envy Paul, too, showed by example the prize that is given to patience: seven times was he cast into chains; he was banished; he was stoned; having become a herald, both in the East and in the West, he obtained the noble renown due to his faith; and having preached righteousness to the whole world, and having come to the extremity of the West, and having borne witness before rulers, he departed at length out of the world, and went to the holy place, having become the greatest example of patience.” Additionally, there is no doubting St. Paul’s obvious sincerity when he writes in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

There is little doubt among scholars that Paul is the author of this letter.

Hypothesis 3(b) – the disciples saw what they thought was Jesus’ ghost. Probability: 10%.
Pro: St. Paul writes that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” and it seems that his own experience of Jesus was just a vision. He never claims to have touched Jesus.
Con: St. Paul speaks of Jesus as the first person to be raised from the dead: he is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” If being raised simply means “being seen in a vision after one’s death,” this would make no sense. Post-mortem visions were common in the ancient world. Jesus wasn’t the first to be seen in this way. Nor would it account for St. Paul’s assertion that the resurrection of other human beings would not take place until the end of the world – “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” If a post-mortem appearance by a ghost counts as a resurrection, then many people are raised shortly after their death, and will not have to wait until the Last Day.

Hypothesis 3(c) – the discovery of the empty tomb tricked the disciples into thinking their visions of Jesus’ ghost were really visions of a resurrected Jesus. Probability: 10-15%.
Pro: It’s easy to imagine that people who’d had a post-mortem vision of Jesus might think it was something more than that, if they subsequently found his tomb empty. They might think he really had risen from the dead, after all.
Con: Despite its ingenuity, this hypothesis is at odds with all of the accounts of the Resurrection. In the Gospel narratives, the discovery of the empty tomb occurs before the appearances of Jesus, while in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, there’s no explicit mention of the tomb being found empty, and no suggestion that its discovery led to a belief in the Resurrection.

Hypothesis 3(d) – the disciples saw the risen Jesus individually, but never collectively. Probability: 3%.
Pro: It’s easy to imagine that over the course of time, the apostles’ individual post-mortem apparitions of Jesus were conflated into one big apparition, especially when many of them were being martyred for their faith in the Resurrection.
Con: The hypothesis assumes that the apostles (including St. Paul) were passionately sincere about their belief that Jesus had appeared to each of them, but that during their lifetimes, they did nothing to stop a lie being propagated: that they had seen him together. St. Paul himself propagates this statement in 1 Corinthians 15 when he says that Jesus appeared “to the Twelve”: are we to presume he was lying?

[UPDATE]

Hypothesis 3(e) – the disciples saw the risen Jesus collectively, but only Peter [and maybe James] were able to talk to Jesus and hear him speak. That may have been what convinced the others that Jesus was not a ghost; alternatively, it may have been because Jesus looked radiant. Probability: 10%.
Pro: There have been apparitions in which all of the seers experienced a vision, but only one seer was able to talk to the person seen – e.g. Fatima, where only Lucia was able to talk to Our Lady. (Jacinta heard her, while Francisco saw her but did not hear her, and did not see her lips move.) The hypothesis would also explain the pre-eminence of Peter [and James] in the early Church, since those who could actually hear the risen Jesus’ message would have been accorded special status.
Con: Seeing and hearing alone would not make a vision non-ghostly. Think of the Biblical story of Saul and the witch of Endor. The ghostly apparition frightened the witch, and even though Saul was able to communicate with the spirit of Samuel, that did not stop him from thinking it was a ghost. Appearing radiant doesn’t seem to have been enough either; in the Biblical story of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17, Mark 9) it is interesting to note that even though Moses and Elijah were visible, radiant and heard conversing with Jesus, the apostles did not conclude that Moses and Elijah were risen from the dead. On the contrary, the early Christians expressly affirmed that Jesus was the first individual to have risen from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20). [Please note that it does not matter for our purposes if the Transfiguration actually occurred; what matters is what the episode shows about Jewish belief in the resurrection in the 1st century A.D. Evidently, being radiant, visible and audible did not equate to being resurrected.] Finally, it is worth pointing out that St. Paul also claimed to have spoken to the risen Jesus – see Galatians 1:12, 2:2.

Total probability of Type A skeptical hypotheses: 35-40%. 45-50%.

Type B skeptical hypotheses:

Let me begin by saying that if one has prior reasons for believing that the existence of God is astronomically unlikely, then the evidence for the Resurrection won’t be powerful enough to overcome that degree of skepticism. (John Loftus is one such skeptic.) If, on the other hand, one believes that the existence of God is likely (as I do), or even rather unlikely but not astronomically unlikely (let’s say that there’s a one-in-a-million chance that God exists), then the arguments below will possess some evidential force. I have explained elsewhere why I believe that scientific knowledge presupposes the existence of God, so I won’t say anything more about the subject here. I would also like to commend, in passing, Professor Paul Herrick’s 2009 essay, Job Opening: Creator of the Universe—A Reply to Keith Parsons.

Hypothesis 4 – collective hallucination. Posterior Probability: Astronomically low (less than 10^-33).
Pro: Collective visions have been known to occur in which the seers claim to have seen and heard much the same thing (e.g. the Catholic visions at Fatima and Medjugorje). And if we look at the history of Mormonism, we find that three witnesses testified that they had seen an angel hand Joseph Smith some golden plates.
Con: There has been no authenticated psychological study of a collective vision where the seers all saw and heard pretty much the same thing. It stands to reason that after having had the experience of seeing Jesus alive again after his death, the apostles would have cross-checked their reports, to see if they were in agreement about what they saw, before accepting the veracity of such an extraordinary miracle as a resurrection from the dead. If we very generously calculate the odds of one of Jesus’ apostles having a non-ghostly apparition of Jesus on some occasion as 10^-3, the odds of all eleven of them (Judas was dead) seeing and hearing substantially the same thing at the same time are: (10^-3)^11, or 10^-33. [See here for a more detailed explanation by Drs. Tim and Lydia McGrew.] And for a longer message delivered by the risen Jesus, (10^-3)^11 would be far too generous.
Re Catholic visions: it turns out that the Medjugorje seers didn’t all hear the same thing: they got different messages. Additionally, there is good reason to suppose that they were lying, on at least some occasions (see also here). The Fatima seers, on the other hand, were undoubtedly sincere, but only two of them heard Our Lady and saw her lips move; the other visionary, Francisco, didn’t hear her and didn’t see her lips move. Of the two seers who heard Our Lady, Jacinta never spoke to her and was never directly addressed by Our Lady; only Lucia spoke to Our Lady. The parallel with the Resurrection is therefore a poor one. [See also my post, Fatima: miracle, meteorological effect, UFO, optical illusion or mass hallucination?]
Re Mormon visions: each of the three witnesses who saw the angel hand Smith the golden plates had experienced visions on previous occasions. Also, the angel who handed Smith the plates did not speak, whereas Jesus’ disciples spoke with him on multiple occasions. Not a very good parallel.

Hypothesis 5 – alien or demonic mind control. Posterior Probability: Far less likely than the Resurrection.
Pro: An advanced race of aliens could easily trick us into believing in a resurrection-style miracle, if they wanted to. And if demons are real, then they could, too.
Con: The key word here is “if.” While this hypothesis is possible, we have absolutely no reason to believe that aliens or demons would bother to trick people in this way. The straightforward interpretation of the events – namely, that they actually happened – is far more likely.

That leaves us with the hypothesis of a miracle.

Resurrection hypothesis – Jesus was miraculously raised from the dead. Posterior Probability: Well in excess of 10^-11. Arguably close to 1.
Rationale: The number of human individuals who have ever lived is around 10^11, and well over 90% of these have lived during the past 2,000 years. Given the existence of a supernatural Creator Who can raise the dead, then in the absence of any other information, the prior probability of any individual being raised from the dead is 1 in 10^11, by Laplace’s Sunrise argument. Given the evidence listed in the key facts above (a death, and a post-mortem apparition with many witnesses substantially agreeing about what they saw and heard), the posterior probability of a resurrection is much higher. But even if it were only 10^-11, that’s still much higher than 10^-33, as in hypothesis 4.

Conclusion

Since my estimate of the total probability of the various Type A skeptical explanations is less than 50%, and since the posterior probability of the Resurrection is much greater than that of the various Type B explanations, belief in the Resurrection is rational, from my perspective.

Based on the evidence, I estimate that there’s about a 60-65% 55-60% chance that Jesus rose from the dead. That means I accept that there’s a 35-40% 45-50% chance that my Christian faith is wrong.

However, I can understand why someone might rate the probabilities of hypotheses 3(a), 3(b) and 3(c) at 20% each, instead of 10%. For such a person, belief in the Resurrection would be irrational, since the total probability of the Type A skeptical hypotheses would exceed 50%.

Summing up: a strong case can be made for the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection. However, a responsible historian would not be justified in asserting that Jesus’ Resurrection is historically certain. As we’ve seen, such a conclusion depends, at the very least, on the claim that there is a significant likelihood that there exists a supernatural Being Who is capable of working miracles, which is something the historian cannot prove. In addition, estimates of the probabilities of rival hypotheses will vary from person to person, and there seems to be no way of deciding whose estimate is the most rational one.

What do readers think? How would you estimate the likelihood of the Resurrection?

Recommended Reading

“Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?” Online debate: Jonathan McLatchie (a Christian apologist) vs Michael Alter (an Orthodox Jew. Originally aired on the show, Unbelievable, hosted by Justin Brierley, on March 26th 2016.
The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry by Michael Alter. Xlibris, 2015. Meticulously researched, by all accounts. (I haven’t read it yet.) Probably the best skeptical book on the Resurrection available.
The Resurrection of Jesus by Dr. William Lane Craig.
The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus by Dr. William Lane Craig.
The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth by Drs. Tim and Lydia McGrew.
The odds form of Bayes’s Theorem [Updated] by Dr. Lydia McGrew. Extra Thoughts, January 6, 2011.
My Rebuttal to the McGrews – Rewritten by Jeffrey Amos Heavener. May 13, 2011.
Alternate Critical Theories to the Resurrection by Dr. John Weldon. The John Ankerberg Show, 2004.
Origen, Contra Celsum, Book II. Chapters 57-70 provide an excellent historical summary of pagan arguments against the Resurrection of Jesus in the late second century, and Origen’s rebuttal of those arguments in the mid-third century.
Good and bad skepticism: Carl Sagan on extraordinary claims by Vincent Torley. Uncommon Descent post, March 15, 2015.
Cavin and Colombetti, miracle-debunkers, or: Can a Transcendent Designer manipulate the cosmos? by Vincent Torley. Uncommon Descent post, December 1, 2013.
Hyper-skepticism and “My way or the highway”: Feser’s extraordinary post by Vincent Torley. Uncommon Descent post, July 29, 2014.
Is the Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Better Than Mohammed’s Miracles? by John Loftus. Debunking Christianity, March 6, 2012.
Oprah Winfrey’s Half-Sister and The Odds of The Resurrection of Jesus by John Loftus. Debunking Christianity, January 21, 2012.
A New Explanation of the Resurrection of Jesus: The Result of Mourning by Gerd Lüdemann, Emeritus Professor of the History and Literature of Early Christianity, Georg-August-University of Göttingen. April 2012.
Michael Licona’s Book is Delusional on a Grand Scale by John Loftus. Debunking Christianity, July 22, 2011.
Dr. John Dickson To Me: “You are the ‘Donald Trump’ of pop-atheism” by John Loftus. Debunking Christianity, April 2, 2017.

1,009 thoughts on “Evidence for the Resurrection: Why reasonable people might differ, and why believers aren’t crazy

  1. keiths:

    As if ‘Jacob begat Joseph’ meant something other than ‘Jacob was the father of Joseph’.

    fifth:

    begat does not mean “was the father of” it means begat.

    keiths:

    Merriam-Webster begs to differ:

    Definition of beget

    transitive verb

    1
    : to procreate as the father : SIRE He died without begetting an heir.

    Truth wins. Fifth loses.

    Alan:

    Really? A stalemate, perhaps, if one judges by minds changed. There seems no evidence of any change of view by any participant.

    Patrick:

    FMM’s refusal to accept the truth doesn’t make it any less true.

    Alan:

    This will be brief. (Maybe there’s an OP here if someone wants to develop the question.)

    What is truth and what is true? Adding adjectives:
    Absolute truth,
    Approximate, attainable, definite, empirical, epistemic, scientific, philosophical, ontological, linguistic, partial, religious, historical, feminist, human…

    All children of the parent truth? Is unadorned truth definable? Must dash.

    This isn’t that difficult, Alan.

    Fifth made a false statement. I showed that it was false by citing Merriam-Webster.

    Truth wins. Fifth loses.

  2. Erik: In science, as the scope of the theories becomes broader, the subtler become the distinctions and the finer the definitions, moving away from how lay people understand the concepts. It’s like when Newtonian physics gets superseded by Einsteinian physics. Newton’s equations are still usable, but there is a limit to them, just as there is a limit to Einsteinian physics, but the scope is broader than in Newtonian physics.

    This is not wrong, but there’s an important qualification to make.

    We can translate the equations of classical mechanics into the framework of general relativity, but general relativity rests on constitutive metaphysical assumptions that contradict those of classical mechanics. Einstein really does contract Newton, just as Galileo (though not Copernicus) really does contradict Ptolemy.

    Whereas differing interpretations of a text may be reconciled (e.g. by showing that each interpretation is partial, biased, one-sided, distorting, limiting, etc.), science is different. In scientific progress, a highly confirmed and successful empirical theory really is a contradiction of its predecessors or rivals.

  3. walto:

    Fifth really begat you there, keiths.

    fifth, in Darth Vader voice:

    I am your father, keiths.

    keiths:

    Noooooooooooo!

  4. OMagain:

    CharlieM: . Luke begins with the births of John and Jesus and it lays out the generations from Jesus right back through Adam to God.

    Except, we can both presumably agree, Luke does no such thing? As there never was an Adam as described in the bible nor did god create Adam as the first human. And even if it were true, you’d need to fill the entire book with the generations required.

    The story of Adam and Eve is the story of the beginning of the individual human self-conscious ego. Adam is the name given to a whole line of generations of humans before individual egos developed. When it is said that Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness this is a description of individualisation of human self-consciousness, individuals became self-aware. So we see in this way going back through the generations Luke does not need to give a complete list of individuals all the way back because Adam was the name given to a whole group of people.

    Out of interest, how do you reconcile the facts (i.e. the fact of observed evolution) with this just so story? On what arbitrary level is the Garden of Eden story true?

    The myth of the Garden of Eden does not describe a physical place but a spiritual state. Expulsion from the Garden means losing consciousness of this spiritual existence. This narrowing of consciousness is the price we pay in order to attain freedom.

    Do you think the earth is 6000 years old CharlieM? As that’s the only realistic way we could have a complete genealogy from the first human onwards…

    No, I don’t think the earth is 6000 years old, see me comments above.

  5. OMagain:

    CharlieM: In other words the time has come to leave behind the dominance of family, tribal and national ties and to realise our individual ego-hood within a universal humanity and within the unity of life.

    Has it? When did that time come, precisely? 2000 years ago? Yesterday?

    It is not a single event, it is a process.

  6. CharlieM,

    Have you read any of Erich Neumann? He has a whole story about the development of human consciousness from pre-egoistic to the splitting off and formation of ego and the problems that generates. It’s very Jungian. I think you’d like it. I don’t know how you feel about Jung; I take it that Steiner was somewhat critical?

  7. Kantian Naturalist:
    CharlieM,

    Have you read any of Erich Neumann? He has a whole story about the development of human consciousness from pre-egoistic to the splitting off and formation of ego and the problems that generates. It’s very Jungian. I think you’d like it. I don’t know how you feel about Jung; I take it that Steiner was somewhat critical?

    I don’t remember ever having read Neumann. As far as I know Steiner doesn’t mention Jung in any of his writings although he does mention Freud.

  8. colewd:

    No strawman, I’m responding to exactly what he’s written.

    Can you cite where he said ” harmonize means, assume true despite any possible evidence”

    Re-read his comments about harmonization. He certainly wouldn’t phrase it the way I did, but that is what he is saying.

    I’ve asked him for an explicit definition. I’m curious to read what he comes up with.

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