Why the Resurrection is Historically Improbable

Generally, the resurrection is taken as an article of faith, perhaps the central most tenet of Christianity. According to some scholars, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 contains an early Christian creed professing belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the apostle Paul, “the message of the cross is foolishness” that he nevertheless delighted to believe in (1 Corinth. 1:18,21). More recently, however, Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and Gary Habermas have attempted to take the resurrection outside the realm of faith and into the field of history. Craig and company contend that the resurrection is historically probable because it is the best explanation for a set of “facts.”1In this article, I wish to examine what makes a miracle, how probability relates to the historical record, and why the resurrection is historically improbable by its very nature. Through the course of this essay, I will be referring to the four facts delineated by Craig in his 2006 debate with Bart Ehrman. Those facts are: (i) Jesus’ burial, (ii) the discovery of the empty tomb, (iii) the postmortem appearances, and (iv) the disciples’ belief in the resurrection. I will not only challenge each of these facts, but argue that they are ultimately irrelevant in assessing the probability of the resurrection. My purpose here will not be to refute the resurrection story, but to show that claims of its historicity can be founded on nothing except faith.

I. The Inescapable Improbability in Miracles

Why are miracles any different from ordinary events? What distinguishes a supernatural healing from a medical healing or a natural healing? Certainly the purported involvement of the supernatural is one difference, but there is more to it than this. Some would say a ghost encounter is a supernatural event, though it is not a miracle. What we call miracles tend to differ from ordinary events because they are extraordinary events, not just in the supernatural aspect, but also in the rarity of their occurrence. Ghost encounters are not rare, and, in fact, most of those who believe in ghosts do seem to think there are many restless spirits wandering about the world, for whatever reason. A ghost encounter is not a miracle because, according to the belief, it is a common unseen feature of our world, not a rare interruption in the regularity of life.

Thus, a miracle, aside from involving the supernatural, is an improbable event. This is part of what makes it special and valuable to many believers. In a sense, miracles have to stand out from the ordinary and the regular, so even if we define them simply as interventions of the divine, we recognize that that itself is something unique and rare. For there to be such a thing as an intervention, there has to be a regularity wherein there is no intervention. And this is what we find in the Bible, with the miracle of the virgin birth happening only once, the parting of a great sea happening only once, and although several figures are raised from the dead in the gospels and parts of the Old Testament, resurrection back to a life on earth has definitely not been the norm in human history, according to scripture.

In his popular apologetic work, Miracles, C.S Lewis defined a miracle in much the same way, as “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.”2 Gary Habermas defines it as “an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history.”3 When we talk of interferences and temporary exceptions to the ordinary course of nature, we are talking about improbable events. This is not because of some naturalistic bias, but because of the fact that an interruption in the usual is, by definition, unusual, and an interruption in the probable course of events is, by definition, improbable. Ignoring for a moment the dubiousness of many miracle claims, we can say that a person miraculously healing the blind is improbable just by the fact that there are far more blind people who never have their sight restored than there are blind people who are allegedly healed. The rarity of sight being miraculously restored to the blind makes the healing of blindness an improbable claim. No matter how you slice it, there is an inescapable improbability in miracles.

II. What Historical Method Establishes

The layperson might think that historians establish facts about the past that are as certain as those we find in science. However, historical method differs from the scientific method in some important ways. For starters, the past is not testable – historical events have come and gone, and those unique events will not happen again in the same manner. This means it is not possible to set up a controlled experiment of a historical nature. What historians do instead is to establish the probability of historical explanations by the collection and interpretation of data. While scientists often use deductive reasoning, historians are confined to inductive reasoning by the nature of history.

“The difficulties of applying the so-called scientific method to historical research,” write historians Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, “means that historians must often satisfy themselves with rules of logic that appear less watertight, making statements that seem probable, not ‘proved’ in any ‘scientific’ sense.”4 Historian Gilbert J. Garraghan elaborates in A Guide to Historical Method:

Cumulative or converging evidence is virtually circumstantial. It is “a heaping up” (L. cumulus) of bits of evidence, individually never more than probable, and often only slightly so, until they form a mass of evidence, the net result of which is certainty. But, as already noted, the resulting certainty does not issue directly from the mass or cumulus of probabilities, since no number of mere probabilities added together can logically produce certainty. To produce such effect, one must invoke the “principle of sufficient reason,” by arguing that the only possible explanation why so many bits of evidence point to the same alleged fact, is that the fact is objectively true.5

Louis Gottschalk develops this further in the following excerpt from Understanding History:

In the process of analysis the historian should constantly keep in mind the relevant particulars within the document rather than the document as a whole. Regarding each particular he asks: Is it credible? It might be well to point out again that what is meant by calling a particular credible is not that it is actually what happened, but that it is as close to what actually happened as we can learn from a critical examination of the best available sources. This means verisimilar at a high level. It connotes something more than merely not being preposterous in itself or even than plausible and yet is short of meaning accurately descriptive of past actuality. In other words, the historian establishes verisimilitude rather than objective truth.6

Historical statements are only as certain as they are probable, and this probability is calculated by considering how well an explanation fits with various lines of evidence and argument. The aim of the historian is to get as close to objective truth as possible. This is achieved by the accumulation of data and the use of inductive reasoning in an attempt to draw connections and persuasively postulate a theory of what probably happened. This understanding of historical method is nothing unusual or biased. Historians must defer to practical explanations that make the fewest assumptions, or else the field of history would become mired in all sorts of wild and implausible ideas, none able to be credibly distinguished as more or less probable than the others. Craig and his fellow apologists even accept this by offering their own probability calculus of the resurrection theory, to which we will now turn.

III. An Explanation Built on Wishful Thinking

As I mentioned above, William Lane Craig, in his debate with Bart Ehrman, laid out four “facts” he believes are best explained by the resurrection. They are (i) Jesus’ burial, (ii) the discovery of the empty tomb, (iii) the postmortem appearances, and (iv) the disciples’ belief in the resurrection. First of all, we should notice that all four of these alleged facts are dependent upon the New Testament. Even if historians generally do accept these facts, as apologists like to claim, it is nonetheless true that they reside exclusively in the New Testament – no evidence for them has been found outside the biblical narratives. In nearly 2,000 years since his supposed death, we have still not discovered Jesus’ tomb or any extrabiblical accounts of postmortem appearances.

How exactly does the resurrection theory explain the fact of Jesus’ burial? Rather, it seems that the resurrection theory depends on the burial, but even this isn’t quite true, as one could be resurrected from death without having been buried (this is what happens when a dead Moabite is thrown onto the bones of Elisha in 2 Kings 13:20-21). The burial of Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea is not explainable by resurrection. At the most, it might explain Joseph’s decision to give the tomb to Jesus, if he thought Jesus was going to rise from the dead. Yet Luke 23:50-51 claims that Joseph’s motivation was his disagreement over the sentence given to Jesus, not any belief in the resurrection. Burial is certainly not only, or best, explained by resurrection, so this fact seems rather misplaced.

Regarding (ii), apologists often like to argue that the empty tomb story is implied in the earliest sources. However, Paul doesn’t mention any empty tomb in the 1 Corinthians 15 ‘creed’, referring only to a burial. Some might say that raising the dead from burial would have to involve an empty tomb, but such a response relies on the assumption of a physical resurrection. Historian Richard Carrier has built a persuasive case for thinking that the earliest Christian sources spoke of a spiritual, rather than physical, resurrection.7 In 1 Corinth. 15:45-46, Paul says that Jesus became “a life-giving spirit,” and informs his readers that the spiritual comes after the natural. In verse 50, he declares that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable,” and in 2 Corinth. 5:6, it is claimed that “as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.”

Craig also cites Acts 2:29 and 13:36 as implying an empty tomb. Both passages refer to the death and burial of David, and although some imaginative minds could see these as references to an empty tomb of Jesus, it is odd that Acts 2:29 notes that David’s “tomb is here to this day.” If the purpose was to imply an empty tomb, why would the author of Acts say David’s tomb was still there, rather than that David’s body was still there? It seems more like the author is saying that the tomb of Jesus was not around in his time, just some 60-70 years after Jesus’ purported death. Either way, the book of Acts is a late source, according to modern scholarship, it has a connection to the gospel of Luke, which borrowed much from Mark, and both Luke and Acts show familiarity with Paul’s writings. Thus, Craig is simply wrong to claim that the gospels, the Pauline epistles, and the book of Acts are independent sources for the empty tomb.

There are many possible explanations for an empty tomb. The body could have been stolen, relocated, placed in the wrong tomb, the followers could have accidentally gone to the wrong tomb, and so on. All of these are more probable than resurrection because they are simple explanations that have happened several times throughout history. The resurrection hypothesis assumes, at the least, that a god exists, that this god is the Abrahamic god, that god has the power to raise the dead back to life,8 and that god would have wanted to raise Jesus from the dead. Apologists typically object to such criticisms from scripture, noting biblical prophecies, the mention of guards at the tomb or the weight of the stone blocking the entrance, but these objections once again assume the reliability of the Bible. In another article, I have given several examples disputing the general reliability of the Bible on historical matters.

On (iii), Craig again points to the so-called creed in 1 Corinthians 15. Interestingly, though, none of the 500 witnesses mentioned in the passage are actually named, making confirmation of their postmortem appearances impossible. It’s also mentioned that Jesus appeared to the twelve, to “all the apostles”, and to Peter, James, and Paul. Unfortunately, we don’t have testimonies from the overwhelming majority of the twelve disciples or the apostles, and what we do have from Peter and James scholars widely believe to be pseudepigraphal, or something written in their name by someone else.9 We are then left with Paul, who has a peculiar way of describing his experience in Galatians 1, where he says that god called him by grace and was pleased “to reveal his Son in me.” According to Acts 9:3-9, Paul actually never saw Jesus, but merely heard a voice, having been struck temporarily blind by a bright light.

There are alternatives to resurrection when it comes to the postmortem appearances, too. Family members aren’t the only ones who may have a vision of a dead loved one after they have passed on. Anyone who misses someone that has died may think they see them, especially if the death is sudden or tragic. ‘Witnesses’ may even have seen a real person who looked very similar to Jesus. Acts describes Peter and Paul falling into some sort of trance where Jesus appears to them (10:9-16, 22:17-21), prompting the question of self-induced hallucination. With all the simple naturalistic possibilities, it frankly seems ridiculous to claim that the best explanation is that these people all had experiences because a man truly rose from the dead and magically appeared to each of them. Outside of Christianity, most believers would agree: visions of dead people just generally aren’t best explained by a physical resurrection.

Fact (iv) is largely related to (iii). Did the disciples, as Craig suggests, “suddenly and sincerely” come to believe that Jesus was risen, “despite having every predisposition to the contrary?” The suddenly part is highly questionable, given that the disciples did not start proclaiming the resurrection until Pentecost, seven weeks after Jesus’ alleged resurrection. Who knows what might have happened over such a length of time and could have mobilized the disciples? For the part about sincerity, Craig pulls the old ‘disciples-wouldn’t-die-for-a-lie’ argument, which I have critiqued in another article. No elaboration is given on why the disciples supposedly had “every predisposition to the contrary,” but it seems untrue anyway by virtue of the fact that Jesus’ followers were expecting him to be the messiah who would overthrow the Romans and bring in the kingdom of god, which naturally would have meant surviving long enough to fulfill that role. This expectation is attested to not just by the gospels, but by the historian Josephus too, who mentions a number of messianic claimants and movements around the time of the first century. As most devout religious sects do when their expectations fail, the disciples sought an explanation, and they found one in the idea of resurrection. If anything, it looks more like they would’ve had every predisposition not to face reality, if their messiah died.

IV. Faith Masquerading as History

Resurrection is an improbable event by definition, because it is a miracle claim. No amount of ‘facts’ will help to establish the historical probability of Jesus being raised from the dead. This is not part of any naturalistic or atheistic bias against miracles, though. On the contrary, working with an understanding of miracle that is as much at home in the Bible as it is in the apologetics of C.S. Lewis and Gary Habermas, the resurrection remains a historical improbability. The further complicating question of how one would even begin to factor in the background assumptions of god’s existence, god’s identity, and god’s desire to raise Jesus from the dead, serve to bury the resurrection hypothesis before it’s able to get off the ground.

There is also something to be said for the general lack of corroboration on supposedly supernatural events. As I mentioned in the previous section, there are many alternatives to Craig’s four facts that do not invoke the magic of an otherworldly realm. These alternatives have been observed numerous times and provide a much more intuitive explanation than resurrection. We have seen bodies stolen out of graves, seen how bodies are sometimes relocated to other graves, how mistakes are made, how our eyes can deceive us, and so on.

We ought to be after explanations that resolve the most questions while making the fewest assumptions possible. Craig’s ‘facts’ are historical statements each subject to probability, and yet he pretends to resolve it all with a stack of unstated assumptions that are as unamenable to historical evaluation as the resurrection claim itself. At best, we have a set of rather mundane claims, taken from a small handful of ancient sources, which modern believers tie together under the banner of faith. This ‘uncharitable’ picture of things is not well received by many conservative Christians, understandably so. If faith is a good enough grounds for making the improbable a reality, then why stop at resurrection? Why reject the Hindu milk miracles, the appearance of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith, or Herodotus’ claim that the temple of Delphi magically defended itself against attack? If faith makes all the difference, why accept any particular faith tradition over another?

Perhaps we can come to a new appreciation for Paul’s declaration that the gospel message of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is “foolishness” to those outside the faith. In light of all we’ve discussed, it does seem to beggar belief on quite a monumental scale to suppose that a deity raised a first century Jewish carpenter back from the dead, and all that remains to testify of this to us is a handful of hotly debated documents, written decades after the event they purport to describe. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish.”10 The resurrection simply pales against such a rigorous standard.

 


For more of a critical look at the resurrection, I highly recommend The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave and The Christian Delusion.

 

Sources:
1. William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman, “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?” (2006)
2. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (London: Harper Collins, 1947), p. 5.
3. Gary Habermas, In Defense of Miracles (Madison: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p. 72.
4. Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methodology (Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 78.
5. Gilbert J. Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method (New York: Fordham University Press, 1947), p. 305.
6. Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History: A Primer of Historical Method (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950), p. 139.
7. Richard Carrier, General Case for Spiritual Resurrection, Why I Don’t Buy the Resurrection Story (The Secular Web, 2006).
8. It may seem obvious that god would be able to bring dead creatures back to life, but this presupposes a deity that has power over life and death, and perhaps is omnipotent. Yet even if an omnipotent being can do all that is logically possible, it seems that there still might be some metaphysical reason why it could not raise a dead corpse back to life.
9. See the Early Christian Writings webpages on The Epistle of James, 1 Peter, and 2 Peter.
10. David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748).