The Importance of this Question
Jesus of Nazareth is reported to have done many miracles in the bible, including casting out demons, healing the sick, raising a man from the dead, stilling a storm with a word, and of course, raising himself from the dead three days after his death by crucifixion.
However, the resurrection of Jesus is different from the other miracles because it is the central pillar and doctrine of Christianity. If it is not true, all of Christianity collapses, and all the promises are unsure. The apostle Paul wrote:
If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless. We are found to be false witnesses about God, because we testified against God that he raised Christ, when he didn’t raise him if it’s the case that the dead aren’t raised. If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either.
If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
The good news (pun) is that this miracle is probably one of the most logically and evidentially supported in scripture. But is there enough evidence?
The common skeptic’s retort to the claim of Jesus’ resurrection, or any miraculous claim is “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This saying is true, but not as they are typically using it. Their underlying assumption to this truism is that miracles are so extraordinary that NO amount of evidence could actually prove them. So in the minds of many a skeptic, the a priori conclusion is that such a miracle could never be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
This “reasonable doubt” is what we call probability, not proof. To clarify, we must understand the difference between empirical data and historical data, that is between assessing “proof” and probability.
Empirical v. Historical Evidence : Proof v. Probability
With empirical science, you can design and perform an experiment to prove your hypothesis, and others can attempt to duplicate and test your data and conclusions on their own. Strictly speaking, you are still employing probability here, there is no absolute proof even in empirical science. But this feels more robust because you can propose multiple ways to test and prove your proposes solutions to an enigma. In some cases, you can recreate an outcome entirely in the laboratory, which is pretty close to absolute proof.
But with historical data, there is no experiment that can be done to repeat or view the history. All we have are historical artifacts and writings that must be examined – that is, it is a forensic science, like trying to solve a crime. When the accused are on trial, we must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, which is never a 100% proof. Perhaps we are 80% sure from the evidence, and as compared to other possible solutions to the mystery of the crime, this is very likely. Even beyond any reasonable doubt.
When trying to prove the existence of historical people or events, we must not only work with probabilities and not “proof”, we must compare other possible solutions to the questions we have about events. These may be even LESS likely.
There are, of course, illogical ways to use evidence within historical endeavors. Fishcer’s Historians’ Fallacies is a great primer on avoiding these mistakes.
If we already assume there is no possible sufficient amount or type off historical evidence to prove a supernatural event, then this discussion on the probability of Jesus’ resurrection is over. I argue that there is sufficient evidence to consider it possible or the best possible answer at this time, and perhaps for all time (no new evidence or naturalistic explanation is expected to appear).
The 5 Historical Events Approach
Habermas and Licona’s book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus uses a historical facts approach, arguing to the best fitting solution, which in this case, is an actual resurrection, not a mass hallucination, a conspiracy, or a legend. He addresses each of the other possible solutions as well. Here’s my summary.
There are 5 historical events that the majority of historians, including secular ones, agree are factual as confirmed by both friendly and non-friendly historians and records from that period. They are:
- Jesus existed and was crucified under Pontius Pilate
- His tomb was found empty, and this was not contested even by his enemies (they accused the disciples of stealing the body, but not of indicating the wrong tomb or claiming Jesus was never placed there, or producing a body)
- His disciples all believed they had seen him alive after his death, and preached that to the point of martyrdom.
- A well known opponent, Saul of Tarsus, believed he saw the risen Jesus, converted and preached that until his death by Roman execution.
- A well known skeptic, James, Jesus’ own brother, did not believe him during Jesus lifetime, but converted after reportedly seeing him alive. James became a leader in the movement and a martyr for the faith, holding to his conviction to the end.
No Plausible Naturalistic Explanations
According to Habermas and Licona, there is no assemblage of naturalistic explanations for these five historical facts; the explanations are either very weak, and or they are mutually exclusive, and so no combination comes close to explaining these facts. for example:
1. Why did the frightened post-crucifixion disciples suddenly become bold proclaimers of Jesus’ resurrection?
a. They all had a mass hallucination (this never happens in reality)
b .They purposely lied to build an influential religion out of duty to Christ or some other motive (it is unlikely that they would all die for a lie without someone confessing it)
2. Let’s assume the disciples lied in a conspiracy. How then is Saul’s independent conversion explained? Also a lie?
a. the report of Sauls’ conversion is that those with him also saw a light and heard a voice. Does that mean they too were part of a conspiracy? And that Paul lied about his conversion and did so merely out of a change of mind?
b. So did Saul and the disciples both lie, or did one of them lie and the others experienced a mass hallucination?
As you see, as we try to employ naturalistic explanations to explain these five accepted historical events, the likelihood of the explanations all being true plummets. This is only trying to cover two of the five facts. This approach eventuall leads us to the conclusion that the one supernatural solution that fits all the facts may be more likely than the multiplicity of naturalistic explanations required to cover those same facts.
Occam’s Razor, also known as the law of parsimony, was named after Franciscan philosopher William of Ockham. Plainly stated, it is:
Entities should not be multiplied without necessity. 1
What this means is that when searching for an explanation for a phenomenon, the more different interacting parts you require to incorporate the data, the less probble your solution is to be true.
The resurrection of Jesus addresses all of the five historical facts above, which makes it very likely to be true, supernaturalism aside. But we do have the supernatural nature of our solution, which generally makes the solution less likely, since we don’t see such miracles very often, if at all.
But how much more likely are the naturalistic explanations?
Assuming 3 independent naturalistic explanations such as mass hallucinations, conspiracy, and legend are required to answer the five historical facts, what does that combined solution do the probability? If they are 50% likely, generous) that’s actually .5^3, which is a possibility of 12.5%. Add to that these solutions must be employed in more than one incident, and may be mutually exclusive, which means we don’t have sufficient naturalistic answers to cover all the data, the possibility of a combination of naturalistic answers goes way down – in fact, it would be a miracle if they all happened!
Although natural causes should be considered first, a supernatural cause may be considered when all natural theories fail, AND there is credible evidence in favor of divine intervention. True, we should be careful that this does not become a “God-of-the-gaps” solution, where God becomes he default answer whenever we can not think of something else. Nevertheless, when the facts seem to point strongly to the divine, and all natural explanations appear highly improbable, a supernatural explanation should be strongly considered (Habermas 2004 , p. 140).
At some point, you have to admit that there are no credible naturalistic explanations to the excepted facts around the supposed resurrection of Jesus, and that it is more credible that this singular answer of the resurrection makes the most sense psychologically and logically even though it is supernatural. That’s the argument. The resurrection is not just a miracle claim, it is the claim, that if false, negates all of the Christian faith. If it is true, however, then we must reckon with the one who said “follow me.”