This is part 9 in a blog post series on the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. In parts 3, 4, 5, and 6, we’ve seen powerful historical evidence that (1) Jesus died by Roman crucifixion, that (2) His tomb was found empty the following Sunday morning, that (3) the twelve disciples believed they saw Jesus alive after His death, that (4) a church persecutor named Paul converted to Christianity on the basis of what he perceived to be an appearance of the risen Jesus, and (5) a skeptic named James converted to Christianity on the basis of what he perceived to be appearance of the risen Jesus.
In part 7, we looked at various ways that skeptics have tried to account for the minimal facts and we saw that they all fail. No naturalistic theory can account for all 5 of the minimal facts. The only theory that can account for them is not a naturalistic theory at all, but a supernaturalistic theory: God raised Jesus from the dead. The hypothesis that God The Father miraculous raised Jesus to life explains all of the data perfectly. It explains why Jesus’ tomb was found empty, why His disciples (and Mary Magdalene) believed they saw Him alive after His death. It explains why a hard-headed, hard-hearted terrorist like Saul of Tarsus would become one of the people he sought to destroy virtually overnight, and it would explain why James, despite being skeptical of his brother’s claims, would become such a firm believer that he would be willing to die a martyr’s death. The resurrection explains every piece of data that is in need of explanation, but even the best of the naturalistic theories could explain one of the five facts at most. The majority didn’t even explain that many. The “He Is Risen” hypothesis has exhaustive explanatory scope and power and ergo outshines any other proposed explanation. In part 8 (the previous blog post), we saw that even though some may have some lingering questions about the resurrection (e.g why didn’t Jesus appear to convince his enemies?), these questions had good answers, but most of them wouldn’t have affected the case for the resurrection even if they went unanswered.
The state of scholarship today regarding the historical Jesus is this; the 5 minimal facts are true, skeptical non-Christian historians can’t come up with a good way to explain them, but they won’t admit a resurrection.
Why is this? It could be (1) they’re on a happiness quest, not a truth quest. They just don’t want it to be true. (2) They have some lingering questions like the ones I addressed in the previous blog post.
I answered some of the more minor lingering questions in the previous blog post, but in this blog post, I’ll address two more. Nine out of ten of the unanswered questions in the previous blog post wouldn’t have affected the case even if left unanswered, but there are a couple of remaining objections that would impact the case if left unrefuted.
Objection 1: The Resurrection Is So Improbable, We Can Never Conclude That It Occurred
Some skeptics will say that we need more evidence for the resurrection than for any other event in history because the probability against a resurrection ever occurring is so extreme. After all, the vast majority of people who have ever lived have remained in their graves. They’ll say “Even though our naturalistic proposals are abysmal failures, they’re still at least more likely than a miraculous resurrection.” As a result, we can either never have enough evidence to affirm the resurrection, or at the very least we need far more evidence for it than other events. Sometimes skeptics will assert that the experience against miracles (i.e. I’ve never witnessed one, you probably haven’t either) militates against the resurrection hypothesis. The evidence for natural events far outweighs supernatural events by leaps and bounds.
If this objection succeeds, then it would seem that the skeptical scholar’s attitude of “We can’t explain it, but it’s probably not a miraculous resurrection” would be justified. What are we to say to this objection?
1: I’m Not Concerned With Probabilities, But With Explanatory Ability
I am not arguing here that a miraculous resurrection is the most probable explanation of the data, only that it is the best explanation. The resurrection is the best explanation of the facts no matter what number a person might ascribe to its probability. The resurrection is the best explanation because it explains all of the data, every single fact, while the naturalistic explanations we looked at in part 7 and fail miserably. The resurrection succeeds in explanatory power. Moreover, it also succeeds in explanatory scope. Even the best of the naturalistic explanations explain, at most, one, but most of them don’t even explain that many. Most of them explain 0 of the facts. Every single possible naturalistic theory one could come up with fails, but the resurrection, the supernaturalistic explanation, succeeds. And therefore, we ought to conclude that this hypothesis is the true explanation. Detective Sherlock Holmes would agree with me. Sherlock Holmes once said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” (emphasis mine).1 The Resurrection is the only explanation that remains, and it’s the only one that adequately accounts for all five facts. Ergo, in Detective Holmes’ reasoning, it must be the truth. If you can think of another explanation, be my guest, but until then, I’m sticking with “He is risen”.
It’s not ad hoc or contrived. It’s plausible in light of the religio-historical context of Jesus’ life and claims (i.e His claim to be God, see here). It outstrips its rival theories in the aforementioned. It passes all 6 of C.B Mcullah’s tests for a viable historical theory. And therefore, I believe we are epistemologically warranted in affirming that it occurred. It’s the only hypothesis that works! I don’t care about probability. To quote General Han Solo “Don’t tell me the odds”, instead, give me a viable naturalistic theory. If you can’t, and if the best and brightest minds in scholarship haven’t been able to after all this time, then maybe, just maybe, Jesus rose from the dead.
2: If Jesus Did Not Rise From The Dead, Either The Minimal Facts Shouldn’t Exist Or A Naturalistic Theory Should Be Able To Explain Them
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 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 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 throughout 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 (2) Jesus’ Empty Tomb, (3) Postmortem Appearances To The Disciples, (4) Postmortem Appearance To The Skeptic James, and (5) the postmortem appearance to Paul, 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.
At the very least, if the woman didn’t kill her child, there should 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.
3: The Existence Of God Bolsters The Probability Of A Resurrection
The objection I’m addressing in this subsection would never be made by Muslims or adherents to Judaism. Why? Because they believe miracles can, do, and have occurred. Why? Because they believe that a God powerful enough to perform miracles exist. They would object to the resurrection on theological grounds, but not on the grounds that an event like this is improbable.
If an omnipotent God exists, then the likelihood of this God raising Jesus from the dead increases. Of course, I think the resurrection can be an argument for the existence of God in and of itself,2 but nevertheless, if God’s existence can be demonstrated, any improbability of a miraculous resurrection shrinks drastically. I have argued in several articles on CerebralFaith.blogspot.com and in my book Inference To The One True God: Why I Believe In Jesus Instead Of Other Gods that there are several good arguments for the existence of God. And in my book, I argue that only the Christian God matches the attributes that the God that these syllogistic arguments prove exists.
Imagine a scale in your mind’s eye and picture bricks on each side of the scale. On one side of the scale, the bricks are labeled, “The Existence Of God”, “The Five Minimal Facts”, “No Theory Other Than The Resurrection Hypothesis can explain the 5 minimal facts”, “Jesus made claims to divinity prior to being executed”3, and “Jesus Predicted His Resurrection”4. On the other side, there are bricks labeled, “The majority of dead men stay dead”, “I’ve never personally seen a miracle”, “I have a cosmic authority problem”. Okay, I’m joking about that last one.
Which side of the scale is leaning more? The side in favor of Jesus’ miraculous resurrection. In light of the full scope of the evidence, in light of all the scale’s “bricks”, Jesus’ resurrection becomes more probable than not. Now, it’s true that I haven’t demonstrated that all of the aforementioned bricks are there in this series, but they are there, and I talk about one of them in footnote No. 5 and the other in Appendix A (of the e-book adaption of this series). When you take all of the data into consideration, Jesus’ resurrection comes out to be probable.
By the way, William Lane Craig responds to this objection in Part 23 of “The Doctrine Of Christ” section of his Defenders 2 class. But it’s rather technical. I gave a more accessible response, but for those interested in a more technical response, click here.
What about Horus? During his battle with Set, he lost an eye, but he never died. Since he never died, he couldn’t be resurrected. Death is a prerequisite to resurrection.
Osiris was killed by his brother, chopped up into 14 pieces and the pieces were scattered all over Egypt. The goddess Isis retrieved all of these pieces (except for one) and put him back together again. Moreover, Osiris wasn’t resurrected but merely given the status as god of the gloomy underworld.6 Now, does this sound like Jesus’ death and resurrection? Sure, you have a guy who is killed, and he’s brought back to life in a sense, but Jesus wasn’t chopped up into 14 pieces by one of his brothers and had his body parts scattered all over Israel, He was crucified by the Roman government. Moreover, when Jesus rose from the dead, He had all of his parts (unlike Osiris). The only thing Jesus and Osiris have in common is that they both died and came back to life, but the skeptics aren’t taking the various differences between these two into account.
Jews were adamantly committed to their religious beliefs and traditions and refused to blend their religious ideas and traditions with that of others (a view known as syncretism). Mystery religions were inclusive. They would adopt any doctrine or theological concept that they wanted to. They were very loose and didn’t have a measure of orthodoxy, but Judaism and Christianity were exclusive. In general, Jewish people adamantly resisted outside religious ideas, most likely due to the fact that they had, by the time of the first century, learned from The Old Testament that God did not tolerate mingling with other nations.
In Antiquity of the Jews, the Jewish historian Josephus talks about an event in which the Romans try to force something on the Jews and how the Jews responded to it.:
“But now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Cesarea to Jerusalem, to take their winter quarters there, in order to abolish the Jewish laws. So he introduced Caesar’s effigies, which were upon the ensigns, and brought them into the city; whereas our law forbids us the very making of images; on which account the former procurators were wont to make their entry into the city with such ensigns as had not those ornaments. Pilate was the first who brought those images to Jerusalem, and set them up there; which was done without the knowledge of the people, because it was done in the nighttime; but as soon as they knew it, they came in multitudes to Cesarea, and interceded with Pilate many days, that he would remove the images; and when he would not grant their requests, because it would tend to the injury of Caesar, while yet they persevered in their request, on the sixth day he ordered his soldiers to have their weapons privately, while he came and sat upon his judgment seat, which seat was so prepared in the open place of the city, that it concealed the army that lay ready to oppress them; and when the Jews petitioned him again, he gave a signal to the soldiers to encompass them round, and threatened that their punishment should be no less than immediate death, unless they would leave off disturbing him, and go their ways home. But they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly, rather than the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed; upon which Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable, and presently commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Cesarea.” (Josephus, Works Of Flavius Josephus, 18:55–59)
It is undeniable that Christianity sprung up out of a thoroughly Jewish culture. The idea that a group of devout Jews would see ideas in other religions and then adopt them into their own religious views is incredibly implausible in light of what we know about ancient Jews.
6: Even If This Went Unanswered, It Wouldn’t Hurt The Case For The Resurrection
1: Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four, ch. 6 (1890) Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of the Four (Doubleday p. 111)
2: My argument goes like this
1 – If Jesus rose from the dead, then a miracle has occurred.
2 – If a miracle has occurred, then there exists a miracle working God.
3 – Jesus rose from the dead.
4 – Therefore, a miracle has occurred.
5 – Therefore, God exists
In order for the conclusion to be true, the three premises have to be true. I think everyone would agree with premises 1 and 2. The only debatable one is premise three. Premise three can be arrived at through The Minimal Facts Approach.
3: See the article “A Quick Case For Jesus’ Divine Self Understanding” if you’re reading this on Cerebral Faith. If you’re reading the e-book adaption of this blog series, see Appendix A. The blog post will be found copy-pasted there, though it will be edited slightly to avoid repetitiousness (e.g I’ll remove the explanation of historical methodology).
4: Did Jesus Predict His Resurrection? There are at least four reasons for affirming that He did. First of all, Jesus’ predictions concerning his resurrection are usually denied because the resurrection itself is denied as a historical event. If the resurrection is historical, and we’ve seen in parts 2-7 that it most likely is, then this is not a good reason for rejecting the prediction accounts. Secondly, when Jesus predicted his resurrection from the dead, the gospels depict the disciples as being confused, as not knowing what the heck Jesus is talking about (see Mark 8:31–33;9:31–32; 14:27– 31; Luke 24:13–24). On the basis of the principle of embarrassment, we can conclude that these instances are historical. The gospel authors wouldn’t depict the disciples as dim-witted. If Mark really wrote Mark and got his gospel from Peter (as church tradition says), then it would be especially unreasonable to believe Mark 8:31-33, Mark 9:31-32, and Mark 14:27-31 to be made up. Can you imagine Peter telling Mark “Hey, write this down! Even though Jesus explained his death and resurrection to us over and over, we just didn’t get it.” if it weren’t true? However, even if one wants to attribute these to some early church fathers or something, the principle of embarrassment can still be applied, as the early church had a high respect for the disciples. Thirdly, Jesus’ use of the title “Son of Man” in reference to his resurrection predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34) weighs in favor of authenticity. As I point out in Appendix A (of the e-book adaption of this blog post series), this saying of Jesus is multiply attested. And moreover, the principle of dissimilarity applies since Jesus was never called “Son Of Man” anywhere else in The New Testament, and the early church fathers never referred to Jesus by this title. If this saying were made up by the early church and retroactively inserted into the mouth of Jesus, we would expect the early church fathers and NT epistles to use this title of Jesus more frequently. Finally, the principle of multiple attestations applies to Jesus predicting that He would get out of his grave (see Matthew 12:38–40; 16:1–4,21; 17:23; 20:19; Mark 8:31–32; 9:31; 10:33; Luke 9:22; John 2:18–21. Cf. Mark 14:58; Luke 11:29–30).