“and if Christ hath not risen, vain is your faith, ye are yet in your sins;”
1 Corinthians 15:17
I want to grant the strongest possible case allowable for the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, I expect to afford much leeway- indeed, more than is rationally justified- to the claims of the historicity and reliability of the Christian texts. That is to say I will grant, though I do not think it is true, that the eyewitness reports in the gospels and the epistles are from individuals who were neither inappropriately credulous, uneducated, nor emotionally and psychologically unfit to provide generally reliable testimonies. I will further grant, though I do not think it is true, that the gospels and the epistles are independent, generally reliable and unbiased historical documents which track the events under consideration accurately- as accurately as any historical text could, that is. I will also grant, though I do not think it is true, that the testimony of the Church Fathers was generally reliable and has transmitted accurately the succeeding 1,800 years to the current day.
I shall further suppose, though I am not sure how they might accomplish this, that historians can exclude all possible naturalistic explanations, with the exception of so-called swoon hypotheses, to include even future explanations which further scientific investigation might disclose and more elaborate explanations such as extraterrestrial interventions not now seriously entertained. Even then, I shall contend, Christians are not justified in believing that Jesus’ reported postmortem sightings were the result of a Christian miracle. I will argue that even on these favorable grounds the Christian is not justified in believing the Christian god rose Jesus from the dead.
As St. Paul famously says, if Jesus was not bodily resurrected, then the Christian faith is in vain. If the Christian faith is in vain, Christians are rationally obliged to revise their beliefs accordingly. The Christian faith does not rest on the historical authenticity of the resurrection account alone, however; it also rests upon the event of Jesus’ death, since if Jesus did not die, though he may have been interred, it follows that he could not have risen from the dead. Some have in fact proposed that Jesus did not die on the cross but rather that he somehow survived and was interred alive (swoon hypotheses).
- Jesus did not die (SH)
- Jesus was resurrected (RH)
Modern scholarly consensus rejects SH on the very good grounds that, on the evidence2, the likelihood that (a) someone other than Jesus was crucified and tortured and (b) that Jesus could have survived his crucifixion and torture are both exceedingly low. Therefore, Christian scholars and apologists accept RH as the more plausible explanation.
However, rejecting SH on the basis of its improbability whilst accepting RH is epistemically unjustified because SH is much more probable on the evidence than RH. Executioners are fallible and it is plausible that, for some reason, they were incompetent on the day and failed to get the job done. Certainly nothing about surviving crucifixion, especially a shortened crucifixion such as Jesus’, contravenes any known physical laws. On the other hand, a body reanimating after three days in a very warm environment does contravene known physical laws, e.g., the second law of thermodynamics.
This does not, however, eliminate RH a priori. To the contrary, since, as I use the term, I define ‘physical law’ probabilistically, that is as an empirical generalization of observable physical relationships and behaviors for which we have thus far no confirmed, repeatable contradictory observations, RH is eliminated a posteriori. We consider the probability that the billions of micro physical particles in the necessary cells, nerve connections, neural pathways, etcetera, arranged themselves in such a way and within such a time frame so as to permit bodily reanimation. Without performing the calculations, I am confident that the probability of such an event is absurdly low, to say the least. SH, then, explains the witness reports better since the likelihood of observing the witness reports given SH is much greater than the likelihood of observing the witness reports given RH. In other words, given the testimonies, we ought to infer that Jesus did not die. Therefore, we ought to reject RH and accept SH.
The standard Christian response is to charge that RH, though improbable under naturalism, is rendered probable under supernaturalism, i.e., given the existence of the god of traditional Christian theism. The idea here is that the likelihood of RH and the eye witness reports given the Christian god approaches 1, and thus the probability of the resurrection is not prohibitively low, or at least not as low as SH. Indeed, the probability of RH given the Christian god, it is argued, would be sufficiently high so as to oblige rational acceptance.
One could reply that postulating the Christian god to explain the historical evidence is circular since the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus is often employed as an important confirming line of evidence for the existence of the Christian god (ex. observe the frequency with which Christian apologists advance the historical case for the resurrection as evidence for the existence of god). In short, Christians must decide in which direction the evidential connection runs: does the resurrection lend credence to the existence of the Christian god, or does the Christian god lend credence to the resurrection.
However, whilst there is something to this criticism, it is not quite right (though, insofar as they do not frame the matter as I shall, Christian apologists do fall victim to this criticism, and I suspect most circumspect Christians would agree with me on this point). The evidential relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and the Christian god must be taken holistically. First, the Christian god hypothesis is not ad hoc. That is, there are good independent reasons bedsides the resurrection to postulate the existence of the Christian god, e.g., the traditional arguments for theism. Second, viewed as a whole, the life, actions, death, and subsequent resurrection of Jesus and the actions of the disciples makes sense if one postulates the Christian god, which is to say that the body of evidence is rendered likely given the Christian god. So, whilst the Christian god must be postulated in order to make the resurrection plausible, the entire body of relevant evidence, of which the resurrection is a part, permits the postulate insofar as the postulate serves as a necessary explanatory feature.
This response is essentially the right one to make against the charge of evidential circularity, but it is a bit too swift, though, and does not, in the end, work. Come back to the claim that there are good reasons for postulating the Christian god. That there are any good reasons for the posit is not at all clear. First, the traditional arguments for the existence of a supernatural agency are individually rather weak and do not work. Second, collectively, contra Richard Swinburne, though they are stronger, they are still much too weak and do not work. Third, even if, as a whole, they are sufficient to oblige belief in a supernatural agency, it does not follow that the agency is a personal agency; it may be the agency expounded by deists, e.g.. Fourth, though arguments for a personal supernatural agency do not work (cf. Craig’s failed Kalam Cosmological Argument), even if they did, it does not follow that the agency could be identified as the Christian god. Indeed, it would not even follow- indeed, it would not even tend to show- that there is only one supernatural agency: the arguments, even Craig’s KCA, are compatible with a cabal of gods, each possessing the requisite qualities.
Thus, it is simply not the case that there are good reasons to posit the Christian god.
However, I shall grant pro tem that the traditional arguments for a supernatural agency warrant the belief in an appropriate personal god (though, not necessarily the Christian god). Even then, belief in RH is not warranted. For if we are permitted to postulate as an explanation one miraculous hypothesis, we cannot, in a non-question begging way, exclude the plethora of other competing, equally miraculous and equally explanatory hypotheses. (For instance, a malevolent supernatural agent miraculously resurrected Jesus so as to engender within Jesus’ disciples a false hope in eternal communion34.)
But the miraculous explanations need not be limited to explaining just the resurrection. To be sure, we are at liberty to posit miracles in order to explain how Jesus survived the crucifixion5. Furthermore, with whatever miracle we posit, we can make the rest of the Biblical account fit without difficulty6.
In nuce, of course Jesus’ disciples believed he was raised from the dead: they saw him crucified and thought they saw him walking around (which accounts for the witness reports). But this is easily explained by the miraculous cross survival hypothesis: [Enter explanatory agent(s) here] saved Jesus from death so that he could [insert purpose here].
The point is elementary: Once we entertain one supernatural hypothesis, we must entertain every supernatural hypothesis, and, in a non-question begging way, must somehow discriminate the favored choice (in this case, the Christian god) as the most likely. But as there is a considerable underdetermination of evidence problem here for miraculous hypotheses, eliminating alternatives to the favored theory is not an easy task. Indeed, I must say it seems rather hopeless (to extract oneself from this problem, one must place one dubious metaphysical supposition upon another until all that remains is supposition upon supposition, each more tenuous than the next). Thus, if the available evidence cannot eliminate the competing supernatural explanations, one must either remain agnostic about the matter or positively disbelieve the supernatural explanations. In brief, one cannot maintain a rational belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus since such a doxastic attitude would require evidence as to the likelihood of the event, which is not on offer.
To summarize, like it or not, under naturalism, the probability that Jesus survived the crucifixion and torture, recuperated to the point that he could interact with his followers, and then left town surreptitiously, died, or whatever you like, is much higher than the probability that his cells and chemical and neural pathways were regenerated so as to allow him to walk through walls, etc. Thus, under naturalism, even within the favorable evidential context I have established here, the Christian is not warranted in believing Jesus rose from the dead (the witness reports actually confirm the hypothesis that he survived the crucifixion).
The Christian absolutely must postulate a miraculous event if she is to save the resurrection hypothesis. But there are problems with this course which are neither soluble nor necessary. First, it is probable that there are no good grounds for positing the Christian god (given the failure of arguments for the existence of a supernatural agency of the type necessary for the miracle to be a viable option) and thus the criticism of circularity above remains. Second, even if there are good grounds for the appropriate supernatural agency, insofar as the Christian postulates a miracle to explain the resurrection, he must countenance innumerable other, equally explanatory, though incompatible, alternative supernatural hypotheses that can be posited ad infinitum to account for either Jesus surviving the crucifixion and/or being resurrected. The retreat to the supernatural, then, does not appear to be a very promising course of action.
To end, given naturalism, belief in the resurrection is not justified and, given supernaturalism, belief in the resurrection is not justified. Christians are therefore not justified in their belief in the resurrection of Jesus.
(4) I should say there is good, independent reasons for believing in a malevolent deity, e.g., the existence of so much pain and suffering through human history and amongst all sentient life on earth, to say nothing of the pain and suffering of other sentient beings on other planets.
(6) We can insert a miraculous event at almost any point, e.g. the miracle massive group hallucinations, including of the so-called 500, which will have the similar effect of resulting in the unwarranted belief in the Christian miracle of the resurrection.