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Is Jesus’ Resurrection Too Improbable? A Response To Bart Ehrman and David Hume.

Back in 2018, I wrote a blog post series defending the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. The blog post series was about 12 parts long and consisted of defending The Minimal Facts Argument championed by scholars such as Gary Habermas and Michael Licona.

Here are the links to those articles;

In this series, we established the historicity of the 5 minimal facts; (1) That Jesus died by crucifixion, (2) that his tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers the following Sunday morning, (3) that Jesus’ Twelve disciples both claimed and believed that Jesus appeared to them alive after His crucifixion, (4) that a church persecutor named Saul Of Tarsus became a Christian evangelist on the basis of what he believed to be an appearance of the risen Jesus, and (5) that Jesus’ skeptical brother James became a Christian on the basis of what he perceived to be an appearance of the risen Jesus.

After that, I spent two whole articles ruling out ALL of the various naturalistic theories that attempt to account for the minimal facts. Readers of parts 7, and 9 will see that no naturalistic theory can account for the minimal facts. The Resurrection Hypothesis can account for all of them. 

Using abductive reasoning, we arrived at “He is Risen” at the best and only plausible explanation. In fact, Gary Habermas, perhaps the world’s leading expert on the historical case for the resurrection, says that most scholars are aware that no naturalistic theory can adequately account for the facts. He said in the Holman KJV Study Bible that “most critical scholars today reject the naturalistic theories as adequate accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. They simply do not explain the known historical data. In fact, many liberal scholars even critique the alternatives that are periodically suggested!” [1]Gary Habermas, from an article in “The Holman KJV Study Bible, as cited in the online article “Can Naturalistic Theories Account For The Resurrection?” Tescarta Bible, → … Continue reading If skeptical non-Christian scholars are aware that all naturalistic theories fail, the obvious question arises; why don’t they accept the one theory that can account for all the data? If you have a dozen explanations on the table, and you rule out 11 out of the 12, why would not infer that the only remaining option is true? Abductive reasoning would seem to demand the inference to Jesus’ resurrection! 

Skeptical scholars nowadays tend to fall into one of two categories; (1) Subborn adherance to The Hallucination Theory, or (2) David Humes’ argument against miracles.

This second argument has been put in different ways; Hume argued that miracles were impossible, whereas agnostic New Testament Scholar Bart Ehrman parses the argument like this;

What are miracles? Miracles are not impossible. I won’t say they’re impossible. You might think they are impossible and, if you do think so, then you’re going to agree with my argument even more than I’m going to agree with my argument. I’m just going to say that miracles are so highly improbable that they’re the least possible occurrence in any given instance. They violate the way nature naturally works. They are so highly improbable, their probability is infinitesimally remote, that we call them miracles. No one on the face of this Earth can walk on lukewarm water. What are the chances that one of us could do it? Well, none of us can, so let’s say the chances are one in ten billion. Well, suppose somebody can. Well, given the chances are one in ten billion, but, in fact, none of us can.

 What about the resurrection of Jesus? I’m not saying it didn’t happen; but if it did happen, it would be a miracle. The resurrection claims are claims that not only that Jesus’ body came back alive; it came back alive never to die again. That’s a violation of what naturally happens, every day, time after time, millions of times a year. What are the chances of that happening? Well, it’d be a miracle. In other words, it’d be so highly improbable that we can’t account for it by natural means. A theologian may claim that it’s true, and to argue with the theologian we’d have to argue on theological grounds because there are no historical grounds to argue on. Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did. [2]“Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman” — College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts March 28, 2006. … Continue reading 

In a nutshell, Ehrman’s argument is that (1) The resurrection of Jesus is a miracle, (2) miracles are by definition the least probable thing that could happen, and therefore they can be dismissed a priori. (3) Therefore, we must dismiss the resurrection a priori, and it cannot be a competing theory. 

There are five problems with Ehrman’s argument. 

1: Yes, Miracles Are Improbable A Priori. But They Are Not Improbable A Posteriori.

First, I agree that miracles are a priori more improbable than natural explanations. But are they a posteriori more improbable? In other words, a miracle is indeed a highly unlikely explanation for any given set of facts before the evidence is examined. But what about after the evidence is examined, and all of the possible naturalistic explanations are ruled out? Moreover, what if one examines the arguments for the existence of God and finds that they are sound and that, therefore, we really do live in a theistic universe? What if one looks at the historical evidence and concludes that Jesus had a 3 year ministry of what his followers at least perceived to be miraculous deeds, that Jesus claimed to be God and the messiah, and that Jesus predicted his death and resurrection ahead of time? I submit to you that the miraculous explanation is a posteriori probable.

In my opinion, The Minimal Facts + the fact that no naturalistic theory ever proposed can explain the Minimal Facts while the resurrection can + The Existence of God = we have enough evidence to overcome the a prior probability of Jesus rising from the dead. Indeed, merely adding the existence of God into the mix drastically changes the probability structure. As Anthony Flew said when he was an atheist: “Certainly given some beliefs about God, the occurrence of a resurrection does become enormously more likely.” [3]Habermas and Flew, Did Jesus Rise? Page 142

This objection of Ehrman’s will only come out of the mouths of atheists and agnostics. You will never hear it come out of the mouths of Jews, Muslims, or Hindus. That’s because Jews, Muslims, and Hindus adhere to a worldview in which miracles are vastly more likely to occur. If there is no God, then miracles are extremely improbable, after all, what are the chances that a shredded body full of dead cells is going to just spontaneously regenerate by natural causes? However, if there is a God who is capable of performing miracles, that alone makes a resurrection much more likely. In several articles on this website, and in my book The Case For The One True God: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Case For The God Of Christianity, I have defended the existence of God from The Kalam Cosmological Argument, The Cosmic Fine-Tuning Argument, The Local Fine-Tuning Argument, The Moral Argument, and The Ontological Argument. The Kalam and Ontological Arguments are especially pertinent to this discussion as both of those arguments show not only that God exists, but that God possesses the property of omnipotence. The Kalam Cosmological Argument implies that since God created all of physical reality out of nothing at The Big Bang, raising a man from the dead would be mere child’s play! And The Modal Ontological Argument shows that if it’s possible that a Maximally Great Being exists, then a Maximally Great Being exists in all possible worlds, including the actual world, and since a Maximally Great Being exists in the actual world, then a Maximally Great Being exists. A Maximally Great Being – as I explain in my video introduction to The Ontological Argument – is by definition, omnipotent. Why? Well, as I explain in my video introduction to The Ontological Argument, a Maximally Great Being is a being that has all great making properties to the greatest possible extent. Therefore, a Maximally Great Being would be omnipotent among other things. 

That no naturalistic explanation can explain the empty tomb, the appearances to the disciples, the appearance to Paul, and the appearance to James, while “He is risen” can, makes for an inference that the resurrection occurred (since there’s no other explanation that works). Plus you can just argue in the other direction as I sometimes do and point out that for most dead people, you don’t have them leaving empty graves behind and appearances to multiple groups of people. There’s an a prior probability against the minimal facts even BEING facts if Jesus didn’t actually rise. And when you combine this a historical case for the reliability of The New Testament documents and the case for theism, Ehrman’s Miracle Improbability argument just gets weaker and weaker. That a prior improbability just becomes irrelevant.

Now, I realize that I haven’t defended the existence of God, the evidence of Jesus being a miracle worker during his three year ministry, or the historical reliability of The New Testament so far in this article which I why I defer readers to other places on this site where I have.

2: The Minimal Facts Are Unlikely If Jesus Is Not Risen.

 Secondly, I would argue that the existence of the minimal facts is unlikely if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead. What is the probability of Jesus’ tomb being empty, his followers claiming and believing he appeared to them on multiple occasions, and two skeptics converting because they believed Jesus appeared to them, if Jesus hadn’t actually risen from the dead? I would argue that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then it’s extremely improbable that the minimal facts should be facts. I would argue that in light of the hypothesis “Jesus did not rise from the dead”, then His tomb should be occupied, His disciples should never have claimed and come to believe that they had seen him, and Paul and James should have remained skeptical for the rest of their lives.

Here’s an analogy; let’s say that a woman is brought before a jury on charges of murder. She’s accused of having killed her young son. Now, at the start, you might think that it’s extremely unlikely that she is guilty. After all, the vast majority of mothers who’ve ever lived do not harm their children. They love and care for them. In light of this background information, the claim that she is guilty is enormously improbable, and you’d be justified in thinking that the defendant was innocent if that background knowledge was all you had to go on. However, investigators found a bloody knife in the back seat of her car next to a mud-covered shovel. In her house, they found a pair of pants that also had been chemically spot cleaned. They also have several eyewitnesses who said that they heard a child screaming just before seeing the defendant carrying a black garbage bag and a shovel out her house in the middle of the night, the same night as the murder. When investigators found the dead child, he was in a black garbage bag. The defendant also had a history of mental illness and domestic violence. In light of these “minimal facts”, the claim “She is not guilty” becomes improbable. The defendant’s attorney threw out every alternative explanation he could think of, but the jury all saw the various holes in them and rejected them. They knew that the claim “This woman murdered her child” could explain all of the evidence. Even the best of the defense attorney’s explanations could account for one piece of evidence at the crime scene at most, but the majority of his alternative explanations didn’t even go that far. The only explanation that worked is “This woman murdered her child”.

Now, it would be an invalid move on the part of the defense attorney to argue that the majority of mothers care for their children rather than killing them, and he’s never witnessed a woman murder her child, and so the probability against any mother ever killing her child is so great that they should return with a “not guilty” verdict. Sure, the hypothesis “this woman killed her child” is improbable in light of the background information that mothers usually don’t kill their sons and that we’ve personally never witnessed a mother kill her son, but the guilty verdict is still justified.

 In fact, the existence of the evidence is improbable if she is not guilty. If she’s not guilty, the detectives should not have found what they found. If she didn’t do it, what are the odds that “the minimal facts” at the trial (the blood-covered knife in the back of the car, the muddy shovel in the trunk, the dead child being found in a black garbage bag, the eyewitness statements of her leaving the house with a black garbage bag and shovel, and the history of mental illness and domestic violence) should all exist? In the same way, the existence of the minimal facts (1) Jesus died by crucifixion, (2) Jesus’ Empty Tomb, (3) Postmortem Appearances To The Disciples, (4) Postmortem Appearance To Paul, and (5) the postmortem appearance to James, should not exist if Jesus did not rise from the dead. It’s enormously improbable that these five facts would be true if Jesus did not rise from the dead. Of all the dead people we know of, none of them left an empty grave behind and started showing up to us and everyone we knew. When my grandfather passed away in 2001, my parents and I didn’t go down to the tomb the next day, find it empty, then come back home to find him standing in our living room saying “peace be with you”. That didn’t happen when my grandmother died in 2003 either. Her casket stayed occupied, and we didn’t see her again after that. My cat Sunshine died in 2011. We buried him in a cardboard box in our front yard. To this day, his body remains in that box, and no one saw him meowing at the front door just a few days later. Now, certainly there have been people who claimed to see the spirit of their loved one appear before them shortly after they die. You only need to watch one or two episodes of Unsolved Mysteries to know that. However, while Grandpa might show up to Grandma in their bedroom for a few moments before departing to the afterlife, Grandpa’s not going to show up to Mom, Dad, his grandchildren, his siblings, an entire stadium of people, and his co-worker who hates his guts, and Grandma isn’t likely to find to Grandpa’s body missing from the cemetery. That kind of thing just doesn’t happen with people who aren’t resurrected. However, that happened following Jesus’ death.

Here’s the point, the skeptic can argue “Dead people usually stay dead”, but I can retort “Dead people usually don’t disappear from their graves and immediately proceed to appear in front of everyone they knew”. It would be astonishing that the 6 minimal facts are facts if Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead.

To return to the analogy at the beginning of this subsection, if the woman didn’t kill her child, there should at least be a viable alternative theory than “she is guilty”. Likewise, there should at least be a viable explanation for the minimal facts than “He is risen”. Alas, there is no other explanation. Hallucinations, Apparent Death, Stolen Body theories, all fail to account for the minimal facts.

3: Ehrman’s Probability Argument Undermines His Own Theory.

Thirdly, the more I thought of Ehrman’s objection, something occurred to me. While Ehrman’s biggest obstacle to belief in the resurrection is this probability argument, he does sometimes try to explain how the Christian movement started. This is what he said in his debate with William Lane Craig; “Let me conclude by telling you what I really do think about Jesus’ resurrection. The one thing we know about the Christians after the death of Jesus is that they turned to their scriptures to try and make sense of it. They had believed Jesus was the Messiah, but then he got crucified, and so he couldn’t be the Messiah. No Jew, prior to Christianity, thought that the Messiah was to be crucified. The Messiah was to be a great warrior or a great king or a great judge. He was to be a figure of grandeur and power, not somebody who’s squashed by the enemy like a mosquito. How could Jesus, the Messiah, have been killed as a common criminal? Christians turned to their scriptures to try and understand it, and they found passages that refer to the Righteous One of God’s suffering death. But in these passages, such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 and Psalm 61, the one who is punished or who is killed is also vindicated by God. Christians came to believe their scriptures that Jesus was the Righteous One and that God must have vindicated him.“ [4]“Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman” — College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts March 28, 2006. … Continue reading

 Ehrman’s proposal for how Christianity started in the above quote would, if taking his probability argument, undermine his proposal. As I pointed out in part 6 of my VIDEO series on the resurrection of Jesus , there were a lot of would-be messiahs in the first century, but they ended up getting killed and their followers fell away into obscurity. If we’re to reject something on the basis of unlikely a prior probability (regardless of the evidence), if we can’t believe Jesus rose from the dead because most other people stay dead, then we must also reject Ehrman’s proposal seeing as Simon Bar Giora and other so-called messiahs didn’t have followers search the Old Testament to try to make sense of their deaths. There’s no resurrection proclamation for all other messiahs that got themselves crucified in the first, second, and third centuries. Jesus is the only crucified man who claimed to be the Messiah who had a resurrection movement following his death. Thus, Ehrman is utterly inconsistent. Ehrman must either ditch his naturalistic theory or ditch his Antecedent Probability argument. He cannot cling to both and be logically consistent. 

4: Ehrman’s Logic Would Rule Out More Events Than Just Miracles As Being Historical. Therefore, It’s Reduced To Absurdity.

Saying that almost all historical people were not risen from the dead, therefore it’s so improbable as to be dismissed, is like saying that almost all historical cities were not flattened by nuclear weapons, therefore all evidence that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuked should be dismissed because cities being nuked is too improbable. 

At the time of writing this, humankind has only landed on the moon once and that was on July 21st 1963. Prior to the mission of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, not a single person has set foot on the moon before or since. Would Ehrman have us hop on board with the conspiracy theorists who claim that humans never did land on the moon and that the whole thing was filmed in a Hollywood basement, and that NASA has been keeping this massive conspiracy underwraps for the past half century? His logic would seem to require us to. After all, what is more probable, that humans built a craft to get us thousands of miles beyond our planet, or that it was filmed by Hollywood Filmmakers? “Well,” you may reply “We have plenty of historical and scientific evidence against the Hollywood Basement theorists” you might respond. “We have powerful evidence that Hiroshima was bombed on August 6th 1945.” You may say. EXACTLY! And we have good evidence that Jesus of Nazareth returned from the grave. 

Now, of course, these two examples are from much more recent history. And we have different kinds of evidence for the bombing of Hiroshima and the moon landing than we do for Jesus’ resurrection. We don’t have video footage of Jesus’ corpse being miraculously brought back to life, for example. Not to mention that written documentation is much more plenteous for recent events than ancient ones. So one may object that there is a disanalogy here. But the point I’m trying to make is that just because an event only happened once; that does not create such a powerful insurmountable barrier of antecedent improbability, that sufficient evidence wouldn’t be enough for us to be justified in believing it happened. The evidence for the bombing of Hiroshima and the evidence for the moon landing is more than sufficient for us to be justified in believing that these are historical events, even though they only happened once.

And by the way, we can use a much more ancient example. As Michael Jones of Inspiring Philosophy explains in his video series on Jesus’ resurrection: 

“Take the event of Hannibal crossing the alps with elephants. Such an event did not happen prior and it hasn’t happened since. We don’t know how Hannibal was able to do this, or even which path he took. It is actually quite miraculous that he was even able to do it without modern technology. But does the fact that no one ever completed it prior, mean it did not happen with Hannibal? Of course not! And we have sufficient historical evidence that it did occur which is even less evidence than the resurrection has, since with Hannibal, all we have are much later Roman sources.” [5]Michael Jones, Inspiring Philosophy, “The Resurrection Of Jesus” part 5 → https://inspiringphilosophy.org/the-resurrection-of-jesus/ 

The fact that an event only happened once doesn’t create a serious background knowledge problem for the actual evidence given for a single unique event if the evidence is sufficient to account for it. 

5: Ehrman’s Argument Against Miracles Is Circular. 

As already stated, Ehrman’s argument is just a more modest form of David Hume’s. David Hume maintains that it is always more likely that any particular claim to a miracle is false than that the miracle really took place. In other words, it is always easier in light of the “firm and unalterable” laws of nature to believe that those who testify to a miracle are in error than that they are telling the truth. [6]See David Hume’s 1748 essay “On Miracles” → https://www.bartleby.com/37/3/14.html Therefore, because of this, the same logic will apply and the same problem results. 

What is that problem? That the argument begs the question against miracles. As C.S Lewis explains: 

Now, of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, in other words, they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately, we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we know all the reports are false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact, we are arguing in a circle.” [7]C.S Lewis, “Miracles”,

The alternative to this circular reasoning is to be open to the possibility that miracles have occurred. 

Conclusion 

We have seen that Bart Ehrman’s Antecedent Probability argument against the resurrection of Jesus is a failure. With this objection out of the way, there is nothing that should keep us from affirming the resurrection.

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References

References
1 Gary Habermas, from an article in “The Holman KJV Study Bible, as cited in the online article “Can Naturalistic Theories Account For The Resurrection?” Tescarta Bible, → https://tecartabible.com/share/1501/14662
2, 4 “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman” — College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts March 28, 2006. → http://www.apologetics315.com/media/resurrection-debate-transcript.pdf
3 Habermas and Flew, Did Jesus Rise? Page 142
5 Michael Jones, Inspiring Philosophy, “The Resurrection Of Jesus” part 5 → https://inspiringphilosophy.org/the-resurrection-of-jesus/
6 See David Hume’s 1748 essay “On Miracles” → https://www.bartleby.com/37/3/14.html
7 C.S Lewis, “Miracles”,

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