Why Historians Reject the Resurrection of Jesus: It’s a Miracle

David Hume, a pillar of skepticism
David Hume, a pillar of skepticism

For a little background, check out this debate between Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig and the skeptical historian Bart Ehrman. Craig argues that Jesus rose from the dead, claiming that God raising Jesus from the dead is the best explanation for these facts:

1. Jesus’ burial
2. the discovery of the empty tomb
3. his postmortem appearances (at least in the minds of the disciples)
4. the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection

What is interesting is that in the debates against Craig, the core of the response of Craig’s opponents isn’t about disputing these facts (Richard Carrier was an exception — he believes that no useful historical information can be taken from the New Testament). Their main argument is that God’s raising Jesus from the dead (call this the Resurrection Hypothesis, or RH) is not historical because it is a miracle claim.

One might think that this is just anti-religious prejudice. But they do offer a philosophical argument for the prejudice. It’s the 18th century philosopher David Hume’s argument against belief in miracles (Ehrman in the above debate denies this, but his argument is pretty much a simplified version of Hume’s argument).

What is Hume’s argument? Here’s a quote:

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (Hume 1748/2000: 87–88)

There is much dispute between Hume scholars about what this argument amounts to (see this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). But let’s consider this question using probability theory.

I have two versions of what follows, hard, and easy. Here’s hard (skip if you don’t want to go through the math):

Consider one formulation of Bayes’ Theorem:

P(RH|E) = P(RH) × P(E|RH)/P(E)

I’ll describe what this means. RH = God raised Jesus from the dead. E is the evidence now under consideration (background information understood to be always there and is not included in the formula). P(RH) is the probability of RH just in itself, without considering the evidence at hand (This is called the “prior probability”). P(RH|E) is the probability of RH given E (the probability of RH given the evidence). P(E|RH) is the probability of the evidence occurring if RH is true. This term is about the explanatory power of RH — RH accounts for E if RH gives one reason to expect E. That is, if RH gives us reason to expect E, then E’s occurring is evidence for RH. Finally, P(E) is the probability of E just given the background information. It is to normalize the equation. There is also the intuition that P(E|RH), even if high, wouldn’t mean much if we would expect E to happen anyway. Thus we divide P(E|RH) by P(E).

My own view is that Hume’s argument amounts to this: P(RH) is extremely low. That is, the probability of a miracle occurring, given our background information (including all of science), is low, for miracles are, by definition, a violation of the regularities of experience. Thus all of experience stands against them. If that’s true, then P(E|RH)/P(E) would have to be extraordinarily high to compensate if the Resurrection is to have any real probability of happening. In the real world no one could supply such evidence.

Here’s easy:

Two main things go into how probable some statement is given the evidence. The first is how inherently likely the statement is, without considering evidence. Let’s call this the prior probability. The second is how much does the evidence support the statement. With miracles, skeptics, like Hume, argue that their prior probability is sooooo low that no amount of evidence can make them reasonable to accept. The Resurrection of Jesus is no exception. We could grant that the evidence does give some support for the claim, but still reject the claim because it’s so inherently unlikely. It’s like trying to prove that someone saw an alien. The evidence that would be enough for an ordinary event wouldn’t be enough for something extraordinary like the appearance of an alien. As atheists and skeptics often say, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”

Back to the main topic:

Though skeptics might admit that natural alternative explanations of the data surrounding Jesus’ resurrection have so far been disappointing, they would insist that even the worst of these is better than the Resurrection (Ehrman was explicit about this), presumably because of the Resurrection’s low prior probability.

Craig admits that, just by itself, the Resurrection is very improbable. Craig asserts, however, that he isn’t arguing merely that Jesus rose from the dead, but that God raised Jesus from the dead.1 This latter statement, at first, seems to have a higher prior probability: God would have the power to do something that has no precedent in experience. A skeptic, however, could reply that adding God into the hypothesis makes it more complex, lowering the prior probability. The more ad hoc additions we make to a theory, the worse it is in terms of prior probability.

Notwithstanding, Craig spends most of his time arguing for a high value for P(E|RH)/P(E) (arguing that the evidence is well explained by the hypothesis) — he argues that the evidence given above is far more probable on the Resurrection than on any natural hypothesis. But all this falls on deaf ears because of the low value of P(RH) (low prior probability).

What can be said? I think that P(RH) (the Resurrection’s prior probability) is low given naturalism. Adding God to the hypothesis seems ad hoc. But what if we had independent evidence for God’s existence? If God exists, then, given His goodness and the evil in the world, we might expect some sort of action on his part to address this evil. In particular, we could expect some sort of revelation. And for us to know the revelation was from God, we might expect some sort of miracle to validate the revelation. So we would be expecting something like RH (the Resurrection Hypotheis).2 This wouldn’t show that Jesus rose from the dead, but it would mitigate the low prior probability for RH: God wouldn’t just be some add on, but something independently supported. Then evidence for the Resurrection could be taken more seriously.

Thus I think that the case for Jesus’ resurrection by God needs to be made as part of a comprehensive case for Christianity. This would include a case for God’s existence as the best way to account for all the data of our experience (including our apprehension of a realm of value, our experience of ourselves as immaterial beings, the existence and fine-tuning of the universe, etc). This is, of course, what Craig does in God debates. However, I don’t think it appropriate to use Jesus’ resurrection as evidence for God (as Craig does) simply because Jesus’ resurrection would only be the best explanation for the facts he presents as evidence if we already knew that God exits. It would be a circular (or pretty close to circular) argument. I would instead try to argue for God’s existence, then, if successful, use evidence for the Resurrection to support the truth of Christianity.

  1. Craig also denies that Bayes’ theorem is applicable to historical analysis, as these probabilities cannot be determined. See his debate with Greg Cavin here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rmxi9o_xqkc.
  2. Similar ideas are worked out in Richard Swinburne’s Revelation.

13 thoughts on “Why Historians Reject the Resurrection of Jesus: It’s a Miracle

  1. I loved the post, and hope you don’t mind if I jump in with my two cents:

    I think the final point here is an excellent one (as is the summary in general).

    For me, the most visceral reason to doubt Hume’s argument is that, if one focuses so exclusively on the background probability, even natural events are overwhelmingly improbable, if they are specific enough.

    What are the odds that the exact thing will happen to the exact person reported in the news? Almost certainly less than the probability that the news station made a mistake.

    By Hume’s logic, I think, we really shouldn’t believe much of anything. Certainly, we shouldn’t believe anything historians tell us about the past.

    I think, in daily practice, we don’t have access to these numbers. Rather, we look for the best explanation of the data (i.e. that the news is probably correct). That being the case, non-Christians need to offer a better explanation of the facts–rather than simply demand that “it would be a miracle” counts as evidence against a miracle.

    That kind of argument, as you point out, works only if one presumes naturalism by excluding God from the background information.

  2. That’s an interesting point about the improbability of specific natural events. But, on Hume’s behalf, they don’t violate the laws of nature; Hume’s complaint is that because of this they go against the whole of scientific evidence for these laws.

  3. I suppose it would depend on the exact argument a naturalist was giving.
    I agree that this wouldn’t necessarily apply to the version of the argument Hume himself gave.

    On that note, I should add that I rather like Hume, and agree with much of what he said.

    So, assuming I understood correctly, I agree.

  4. Unfortunately, posts like this are so steeped in philosophical conjecture and formula they look more like a maths lesson. and I tend to tune out. My problem, but they have a habit of circumventing common sense in an attempt to find a way…any way to justify the gospel story.
    I am still not sure whether you agree or not with the the resurrection.
    The simple answer is often the best.
    Is there evidence: No

    The oldest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel do not describe a Resurrection and the longer ending to Mark is generally regarded to be a christian add on.

    Taking everything else into consideration and only a Christian will consider the possibility of the Resurrection to be true.
    Gather 100 Muslim scholars; all well versed in the bible and comfortable with the supernatural and I guarantee not one will even acknowledge Yashu’a was crucified, let alone resurrected.
    Is their expert scholarly opinion to be disregarded?

    Bottom line…it didn’t happen.

  5. Before you make that judgment, why don’t you try to understand the post first :). Your ‘simple answer’ is too simple, ;).

    Craig doesn’t even mention Mark. He’s using facts that are supported by a wide consensus in Biblical scholarship; a consensus consisting of both liberal non-believers and conservatives. I can’t speak for Muslim scholars, but since it is part of their core doctrine that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, they have a vested interest in denying it. That’s why I mention that liberal, non-believing scholars agree with the list of facts. They are plain old natural observations. The controversy isn’t with them, it’s with the explanation of them that Craig offers. Plus he argues for the facts (watch the video to see). People like Ehrman don’t dispute them, they just don’t like the idea of a miraculous explanation of data.

  6. The most liberal non believer would be Bart Ehrman – a scholar who probably has more street cred than most in this particular field and one who is regularly trotted out by Christians when they need an expert to confirm the historicity of Yashu’a but who they will drop like a hot potato when it comes to Yashu’a’s divinity.

    ”…..facts that are supported by a wide consensus…”

    The only source all scholars have are the gospels.These documents contain no facts pertaining to Yashu’a. So, what facts are you referring to, please?

    ” I can’t speak for Muslim scholars, but since it is part of their core doctrine that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, they have a vested interest in denying it”

    There are no non-christian scholars that accept the resurrection either.

    Only Christians, liberal or otherwise, believe in such nonsense and they have a vested interest in preserving this fiction as much as Muslims have of denying it.

    Without Mark’s gospel there would not have been Matthew Luke or even John, probably.
    Unless you know something about Q? Or even a long lost Hebrew or Aramaic gospel?

    Whether an evangelical twit like Craig uses Mark’s gospel or not is irrelevant. His source material is still the bible.

  7. I should of added….I am very interested on how you would demonstrate that your god existed, btw.
    If you managed to do a convincing job I could envisage a Nobel Prize on the horizon.
    Using all the ‘evidence’, feel free to give it your best shot…I am all ears, as they say…
    Oh, and isn’t Yashu’a supposed to be your god?

  8. I think you are confusing the four points listed above with acceptance that the resurrection is the best explanation for them. These are two different discussions. I never, ever, said there is anything like a consensus regarding the resurrection!! But the four claims themselves are not really disputed by many. The points them selves are rarely specifically contested by Craig’s opponents. Craig also offers arguments for them. It’s the four points are what you are disputing here, for what reason, I don’t know.

    BTW, even if you think the Gospels are unreliable, that doesn’t mean that *everything* they say is false! That’s why even liberal historians still use them as sources, even if they don’t believe everything in them. From this historians can get the rather mundane facts Craig uses.

    This confusion is so common that it almost deserves a post. Even academics like Ehrman do it.

  9. I have started a series defending Christianity, which will include arguments for God’s existence. But it will be rather technical at points, as I think the issues can get really deep (especially those surrounding substance dualism). They are under the category Case for Christianity.

  10. Just a casual gloss over the post clearly illustrates what I have been saying all along.
    Using philosophy is only way you can shoe horn the biblical tale to fit your worldview.
    Therefore, I reiterate.
    Before you can even venture into such realms you first have to
    a) conclusively demonstrate that Jesus existed and
    b) conclusively demonstrate that he was god.
    And you only have the biblical texts to work with.

    It is worth noting that Moses, the Exodus, and the conquest of Canaan have been show to be fiction.
    In the gospels, Jesus cites Moses and the Law on numerous occasions, which already puts your theory of him being divine in serious jeopardy.

  11. That’s what I’m trying to do, but I need to clear a lot confusions out of the way first; that’s what the philosophy is for. You will have to be patient, for this is complicated stuff and will take time to set up properly.

    You won’t even try to understand the Bayesian argument I considered. This makes me think you are not so open minded. I think the point I was making was an important one. Why isn’t it?

    The stuff about Q and the rest, I don’t dispute it. I do not assume in this series anything about the Bible being true in everything it says. But regarding the 4 points mentioned above, you can believe the Bible to be largely myth and still affirm them.

    You are displaying a common atheist confusion at present. Just because some of the things the gospels say are questionable, that doesn’t mean everything they say is false, or that we can get nothing from them. Another is that to defend Christianity we must start with the hardest-to-accept or weakest arguments first. My own view is that it is indeed hard to believe the Bible on the face of it. But I also believe that all things considered it is much more plausible than it appears at first glance. Unravel confusions about materialism, the inherent improbability of immaterial minds, methodological confusions and the rest and, by golly, God does become more plausible!

    Who doubt’s Jesus’ existence, anyway, other than a few extremists?

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