I’ve recently been watching debates, reading what historians have to say, and considering historical arguments for Jesus’ resurrection. Christian apologists claim that historians have agreed on a list of various facts surrounding Jesus’ death, ministry, and influence that the best explanation for all of these facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead. The people presenting this sort of argument are using a form of inductive argumentation known as abduction – argument leading to the best explanation. I find this line of thinking about Jesus to be critically flawed in many areas. I need not deal with these minimal facts if I can show that the methodology is seriously flawed, but I will anyway and offer naturalistic explanations to account for these minimal facts.
Here is a sample of the “minimal facts” from Gary Habermas:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
2. He was buried.
3. His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
4. The tomb was empty (the most contested).
5. The disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus (the most important proof).
6. The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
7. The resurrection was the central message.
8. They preached the message of Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem.
9. The Church was born and grew.
10. Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
11. James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic).
12. Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic).
Can a miracle from a specific source ever be the best explanation?
A miracle, by definition, is a very improbable occurrence and an event that happens despite natural laws. We know, for example, that humans cannot traverse oceans with water-walking abilities. We can get a large group of people and ask them to walk on water and all will almost certainly fail. We can look at what we know about human anatomy, the density of water, and other justified background assumptions to come to the conclusion that the probability of a human walking on water is very, very, very low. If we presented some information surrounding a specific person who went to the ocean, was not found, and had followers claim he/she walked on water (this is essentially what the minimal facts advocates are doing, but I’ll go more in detail later), a miracle would not be the best explanation because water-walking is tremendously unlikely. We might offer some other naturalistic explanations/alternative hypotheses to better explain the information we have. A naturalistic explanation is always more probable that a supernaturalistic one. Even if the naturalistic explanation is very unlikely, it’s still more likely than the occurrence of a miracle.
The appeal to “the best explanation is a miracle” may commit an informal logical fallacy known as an argument from ignorance. The inability to come up with a plausible naturalistic explanation does not warrant a supernatural conclusion. Why shouldn’t we just say “I don’t know” instead of jumping to supernatural conclusions?
Can a miracle be assigned to a specific source? How we we possibly arrive at the conclusion of “God raised Jesus from the dead” rather than “Advanced alien technology raised Jesus from the dead?” Can we say that God is more likely to raise Jesus from the dead than advanced alien technology (or some other source)? Even if the miracle happened, how can we say what caused the miracle?
People are trying to use a historical method to come to theological conclusions. They can’t possibly do this and they can’t have it both ways.
Historians can’t tell you what certainly happened in the past because we are unable to replicate events concerning people that have happened. Historians can determine what probably happened in the past. In order to do this, historians want to collect a great deal of evidence from many sources who are disinterested and contemporaries at the time of these events. Historians want to take data from reliable sources and must sift the myths and exaggerations. We can take information from the Iliad, for example, to learn about geography and some other facts, but must discount the supernatural claims and the myths associated with the story.
Those who use the minimal facts approach are using the conclusions of historians to reach a theological claim, but this is unwarranted for several reasons. Theology simply is not history. The claim “God rose Jesus from the dead” is not a historical claim, but rather a theological claim that historians can’t make. Historians deal with the natural world and the probable, not some sort of supernatural realm and the improbable (miracles). Historians can’t reach the conclusion, while doing history, that God raised Jesus from the dead.
Dealing with the minimal facts:
Minimal Facts One and Two: Jesus died by crucifixion and He was buried.
These facts have nothing to do with whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead. There are many other facts about Jesus such as “Jesus was a male, Jesus was put on trial by Pilate, etc.,” but none of these have anything to do with whether or not Jesus came back from the dead. No matter how Jesus died (he could have been hanged, drowned, suffocated, etc.), he still could have been raised from the dead. The method of death and the subsequent burial has nothing to do with this. The burial might as well be put with the empty tomb (which is admittedly the most contested of the facts).
Minimal Fact Three: His death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope.
This makes sense and is very plausible. Jesus’ disciples were part of his travelling ministry and were very close to Jesus. The disciples were, as most people would be, stricken with grief when someone whom they really loved died. If the disciples believed that Jesus would be raised from the dead/he was God, they be quite distraught when they learned that their messiah was to be killed. This fact, though, has nothing to do with whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead.
Minimal Fact Four: The tomb was empty.
Minimal facts advocates claim that since Jesus’ tomb was empty, he must have been raised from the dead, but this is jumping to a conclusion with supernatural content. This fact is the most contested by historians and if false, the entire enterprise seems to unravel. Here is a naturalistic explanation that while improbable is still more probable than “a miracle happened.”
– Followers of Jesus raided the tomb and took the body so that people believed he was raised from the dead. While doing this in the dead of night while guards were not around (do guards patrol tombs, anyway?), the followers were eventually found and killed. All of the bodies were then put into a common grave and the body of Jesus was never found/identified.
Might this have happened? Probably not…but this is still more probable than “a miracle happened.”
Minimal Fact Five: The disciples had experiences in which they believed were literal experiences of a risen Jesus.
It is important to note that this is what the disciples believed had happened. It’s very plausible to come to a conclusion that this is what the disciples thought had happened. People who love others dearly can believe that they are speaking with those who are deceased and actually do (although they don’t get any responses). The site I linked above notes that “there is no such thing as a grief hallucination in the DSM-4,” but this doesn’t matter because a grief hallucination (or any hallucination, really) need not be indicative of a mental disorder. People have hallucinations when they use drugs, are waking from sleep, etc. Hallucination need not be a negative term.
Imagine, for a moment that a wife and husband had been married for sixty years and the wife recently lost her husband and was not able to tell him a secret she had held throughout their entire relationship. The wife might really believe that she sees her husband and may “have a conservation” with him talking about the secret. This account is very plausible and can be linked to the disciples’ visions. Imagine that the disciples were in a crowd of people and starting talking “to the air” and others thought that they were actually speaking to Jesus. News spreads, stories evolve, and eventually you get “the disciples literally spoke to a risen Jesus.” Changing of stories within religious traditions is quite common. Buddhism, for example, has evolved over centuries and has many elements that were not included in the “original version.” The Buddha stayed silent regarding various metaphysical questions such as the afterlife, but later traditions believe that by following the Buddha’s advice, there actually are answers (while some believe that there are no answers). Regardless, stories change and traditions evolve.
One tradition in Syriac Christianity alleges that Jesus had a twin brother. Imagine that after the crucifixion Jesus’ twin brother (if he indeed had one) appeared to many and he was mistaken for Jesus. In some of the Gospel narratives, people didn’t really even know who Jesus was and mistaken him for John the Baptist. Perhaps someone else looked like Jesus and Jesus didn’t have a twin brother, but people thought that they saw Jesus after he was crucified. This is a plausible explanation of how people “saw Jesus.”
Some minimal facts advocates may object and say that groups of people saw Jesus, so they can’t all be wrong, but this is a fallacious appeal to the masses. Just because many people believe something doesn’t mean it is true. The Book of Mormon, for example, starts with a signed witness testimony of people who believe that the events in the book are true. Millions of followers of recently deceased Sathya Sai Baba believe in his miracles. Can they all be wrong? Of course they can. The idea of evolving stories and embellishments can easily account for a plausible explanation of the disciples’ visions.
Minimal Fact Six: The disciples were transformed from doubters to bold proclaimers.
Doubters frequently become bold proclaimers. So what?
Minimal Facts Seven + Eight: The resurrection was the central message + They preached the resurrection message in Jerusalem.
This is an interesting claim, but it also leads us to a “so what” conclusion. Followers of Jesus, after they realized their messiah died, could have tried to make sense of what happened by looking to old scriptures and even what Jesus said. Even if Jesus said that he was going to come back from the dead, this doesn’t mean that because people believed he came back from the dead we’re warranted in believing that he actually did. The resurrection might “make sense” of this fact coupled with others, but it’s certainly not the simplest explanation because it requires a supernatural explanation and another supernatural entity. “Jesus was raised from the dead by God” raises more questions that the conclusion answers. Preaching a message also doesn’t entail that it is true.
Minimal Fact Nine: The Church was born and grew.
The fact that the Church was born and grew can be explained without its central ideas being true. Look at groups today like Scientology, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mormons…
Minimal Fact Ten: Orthodox Jews who believed in Christ made Sunday their primary day of worship.
So what? This doesn’t entail that the resurrection happened.
Minimal Fact Eleven: James was converted to the faith when he saw the resurrected Jesus (James was a family skeptic).
This is essentially the same as fact 6 and can be dealt with using the same explanation that I offered.
Minimal Fact Twelve: Paul was converted to the faith (Paul was an outsider skeptic).
Paul did not see Jesus, but rather had a vision on the road to Damascus. The New Testament also talks of other “appearances” like these regarding Elijah and Moses. Are we really going to believe that the literal bodies of Moses and Elijah also appeared to people and equivocate appeared?
The minimal facts approach is inadequate to arrive at a conclusion of “God raised Jesus from the dead.” Minimal facts proponents want to use historical information to reach a theological claim, but this is not operating within a historical framework/approach. Historians can’t say that God raised Jesus from the dead because this is not a historical claim, but rather a theological claim. A miracle, as I previously noted can’t be the best explanation for events because it is, by definition, the least probable occurrence.
Even if Jesus did raise from the dead, how can we even possibly establish that the Christian god raised Jesus from the dead? Is this conclusion more likely than “advanced technology made a clone of Jesus or fooled people” or “advanced technology left a body double of Jesus on the cross and teleported him back after wiping his memory of the teleportation?” My explanations of alternative supernatural claims may seem really funny, but I want to demonstrate a point. Even if a miracle happened, we can’t establish its source. Adding God to the picture, just like adding advanced technology, is making the explanation even more unlikely because, as I previously mentioned, more questions are raised than are answered.
Even if all of my naturalistic explanations are very unlikely, they are still more likely than “God raised Jesus from the dead.” If we see some facts relating to a series of events and can’t come to a conclusion, we should say “I don’t know” instead of positing supernatural entities and explanations that raise more questions than they answer.
There are also various problems with the historicity of the Gospels, problems with eyewitness testimony, contradictions in the New Testament, etc., but I won’t go into this in this post.
The “God raised Jesus from the dead [GRJD]” hypothesis is not simple. It requires an extra entity, God, along with various supernatural elements such as a supernatural realm (Jesus went to Heaven).
The GRJD hypothesis is not conservative. It goes against what we already know about death. People who are dead for three days simply don’t come back. Bodies that have begun decomposition don’t animate and come to life.
The GRJD hypothesis isn’t fruitful. It doesn’t make predictions that can be verified.
The GRJD hypothesis doesn’t have good explanatory power because it raises more questions than it answers. Why was Jesus the only person raised from the dead? How do we know God exists (Saying that we know that God exists because Jesus was raised from the dead by God would be begging the question)? How did a dead body come back to life? How does the supernatural/non-physical affect the physical? Why wouldn’t this event happen at some other time so that we would have good reason to believe it/why did this happen in such a remote place before advanced technology existed? How do we know God, rather than someone or something else, raised Jesus from the dead? Although the GRJD hypothesis would explain the minimal facts, we have many more questions to consider (and we need good reason to accept this claim rather than “It would explain all of the facts.” Aliens made a body double of Jesus and teleported him to the people after one of the bodies died would also explain the facts, but would also raise more questions than it answers.
Naturalistic explanations that I have offered are more likely explanations that are more simple, conservative, fruitful, and has more explanatory power. Even if I don’t have a good explanation for the minimal facts, we’re still not epistemically justified in saying a miracle happened and bridging the gap from “I don’t know” to “God did it.” Miracle proponents can’t possibly distinguish between possible sources of miracles and thus can’t assign a specific entity, such as God, to a miracle; even if a resurrection happened, how can we know that God did it? As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Encountering some real objections that directly address my post:
All of nature’s operations does not count against a miracle because a miracle does not undermine natural laws. Hume was wrong on two counts here because God’s action in history, which would be extraordinary and not assumed to be impossible given that nothing is being undermined, acts upon established laws, and probability theory shows that an extraordinary event does not require extraordinary evidence. For instance, You can have five decks of cards and I can predict exactly which three you will pull next. All that is required here for evidence is to show the cards, which is not so extraordinary. Therefore argument to the best explanation can indeed include a supernatural explanation without being classified as ignorant.
A further problem here is just how much evidence would one need to not call a miracle an ignorant explanation. If it is never acceptable as an explanation then it would seem that one can never use a supernatural explanation even if there’s a robust supernatural context one can posit and approach it with. According to you, such a context could NEVER be established.
I never claimed that miracles violated the laws of nature, but rather claimed that the probability of someone walking on water, for example, is very unlikely given our background assumptions. In the case of being raised from the dead after being dead for three days, we have never verified this phenomenon/seen this happening. Even if Jesus was raised from the dead by God, the percentage of people who have been raised from the dead is close to zero. Whether or not a miracle violates the laws of nature is a red herring.
This commenter uses a false analogy when he mentions predicting the next three cards from a deck of five decks of cards. The chances of predicting the cards, assuming that you are not cheating, is quite low, but not as low as someone being raised from the dead. Unlike the GRJD hypothesis, predictions of cards are not supernatural events and do not go against what we know about the world. The commenter says “all we would need to do is show the cards” to confirm the prediction, but this is much different than what the minimal facts advocates are doing. Showing the cards would confirm that the prediction is correct. No abduction is used here. We aren’t even using minimal facts! In the card prediction example, the entire process is naturalistic and no supernaturalistic explanation is given, much unlike the GRJD hypothesis.
If the precautions were not taken, the best explanation would be “This person was more likely to be cheating rather than really guessing.
More, but not necessary….
The commenter says that the confirmation of this prediction/event would not require extraordinary evidence because one would just need to show the cards, but he’s missing more information here that would need to be shown to establish that this happened (and this certainly can happen by chance if people tried long enough and the reshuffling of the cards was instant or very fast – it would be inevitable). I’m not quite clear if the commenter is proposing a one-shot guess or a guess over many tries, but if someone were to establish that it were a one shot guess done by one person at one time without cheating, there would need to be extraordinary evidence and precautions that would give us good reason to believe that this actually happened. Here’s an example: various expert dealers would inspect the cards to make sure that they aren’t marked, shuffle all of the cards outside of the guesser’s vision, deal the three cards outside of the guesser’s vision, and record the results by sealing them in an envelope and giving them to an uninterested party. The guesser would then type his prediction on a computer system that was brought in by a disinterested party that was verified by computer experts (so that there is no cheating involved) that was saved before the cards were revealed. All of this could be shown on live TV, viewed by a panel of skeptics and experts so that they ensure that there was no cheating, etc. Regardless of all these precautions, if enough people made predictions, a correct prediction would be inevitable.
The commenter says that, according to me, a miracle could never be a justified explanation. The commenter asks just how much evidence we would need to not call a miracle a result of an argument from ignorance. The evidence presented for the GRJD hypothesis is supplemented by very little evidence that is not good evidence (as I mentioned above) to warrant a conclusion that a miracle happened. “How much evidence would we need to establish that a miracle happened” is an interesting question. Even if miracles happened, as I mentioned, we still would not be able to establish exactly what caused this miracle. Was it God? Was it Satan? Was it advanced alien technology? The minimal facts advocates not only claim that Jesus raised from the dead, but rather that GOD raised Jesus from the dead. Can we honestly say that “God raised Jesus from the dead” is more or less likely than “Satan raised Jesus from the dead?” I mentioned this after objection one, but will now go back and add this to objections.
Historians do the work of saying which historical facts are most likely. The more diverse the historians and the more of them that agree make the proposition in question more likely. The conclusion to explain historical data however is not the work of historians, but the work of philosophers. I’ve seen Bart Ehrman make the same claim as you do, but he is an historian trying to do philosophy, which ends up being quite flawed given his ignorance of modern probability theory. He is to be respected as far as his contribution to the data, but his inference must draw on the best philosophy, which is a leap beyond historical instruments.
It’s possible to raise an objection like this to anything by saying something like, “Computer scientists aren’t doing computer science when they are fixing a computer because they are using abduction when they decide what is probably causing a problem with the computer. The conclusion to explain computer data is not the work of the computer scientist, but the work of philosophers.” It’s quite easy to see why, when “computer scientist” is added, this objection fails. Historians and computer scientists do derive explanations of data when they consider data and while this may be inductive reasoning, they’re working within their own field when they do so. The philosopher need not step in to make this conclusion.
From the Wikipedia page on historian:
The process of historical analysis involves investigation and analysis of competing ideas, facts and purported facts to create coherent narratives that explain “what happened” and “why or how it happened”.