Jesus’ Resurrection: best explanation of the evidence

I didn’t lose my glasses. The laws of physics were suspended momentarily so that the matter that composes my glasses was simply destroyed.

It is irrational to belief that Jesus rose from the dead. I made that argument a while ago, using mostly the Bible and Dr Bart Ehrman as sources. My argument was that we have laughably unreliable, inconsistent, outdated oral tales supposedly based on second-hand eye-witness accounts that Jesus’ tomb was found empty three days after he died. Even if the tomb was found empty, it is more likely that someone moved the body than a body that had been dead for three days came back to life. This argument (many more exist around the issue of Jesus’ resurrection, but this is the one I’m focussing on) comes down to how to define how probable a miracle is.

Prayson Daniel’s latest post “Rationality of The Resurrection of Jesus” promises to try to answer this in his next post. To an extent I am offering a pre-emptive rebuttal. I want to start with the fact I have good reason to doubt anything in the gospels. Non-Christian Bible scholars don’t umm and err around the issue of whether Jesus fed 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish; some of the gospel is readily and easily dismissed. Maybe ‘feeding the multitude’ is an obviously poetic or allegorical passage, where the resurrection clearly is not. If this is the case, we’re going to argue of the definitions of the words “obviously” and “clearly”, because it looks like a random assignment based on where you can and cannot afford to give ground. As I argued before, the Gospels are an oral tale that was at least 3 generations (60 years) old before someone wrote them down, each one inconsistent with another. The probability of Jesus’ resurrection being the best explanation of the empty tomb needs to be compounded by the chance that the tale is true first.

But if we accept the claims that Jesus lived, died and we know where the Romans buried him and someone—the Gospels can’t agree on who—found  his tomb (that they’re still certain was was his tomb) empty, why is a resurrection the best explanation? Do we assume very missing body is, in matter of fact, a resurrection? I imagine that would change the nature of police work. But given how many resurrections there were—Elijah resurrected the son of Zarephath’s widow (1 Kings 17: 17-24); Elisha resurrected the miracle-son of a Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4: 35); Elisha is magic enough for just his bones to bring a man back to life (Kings 13: 21); Jesus resurrects a widow’s son (this seems to be a recurrent narrative, Luke 7: 13-15); Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus (Matthew 9: 25 and John 11: 43-44); and most spectacularly of all (but also conspicuous by their lack of Roman-written account) all the saints came back to life when Jesus died (Matthew 27: 52-53)—the chances of Jesus’ resurrection are actually quite high. Life, it would seem, was impossible to extinguish back then. We should be more surprised that people were surprised at Jesus’ resurrection than we should that it actually happened. (I didn’t even list all the resurrections in the Bible.)

There are other explanations as to why the tomb was empty (assuming Jesus was born, died, was buried exactly where people thought and the tomb actually was found empty) that religious people seem less happy to accept. Their reluctance to accept them, according to Daniel Prayson, is tautological; if they didn’t doubt the other explanations then they’d doubt the truth of Christianity and not be Christian.

“The truthfulness of Christianity solely hangs on the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried and on the third day he rose again leaving an empty tomb. If this is not true, Christianity is false, period.”

(Prayson, 2013 here)

One of my favourite of these is that if a follower or a worshipper moved the body (a seemingly simple alternative to magic and zombies) then those followers would have been executed for their belief in Jesus. Well, who is to say they weren’t? Apparently the Roman’s don’t keep a record of who they execute and the Christians never caught the grave-robbers, preferring instead to believe in a resurrection. And why, exactly, would a Roman guard definitely have caught grave robbers, but no Roman have seen Jesus himself walk out of the tomb? Grave robbers will definitely be stopped; dead people rolling a stone out-of-the-way of their tomb and walking out is a completely inconspicuous act and won’t be discovered for three days. What? Given that a missing body is always thought to be the result of a crime (and not a miracle) it seems odd that one might conclude differently when it suits them.

Another fun little alternative is the possibility that Jesus only appeared dead. It is important to note the medical experts of the time would have been incompetent and so it wouldn’t have taken much to concoct a hoax. Perhaps there was something in the bitter wine Jesus was given (Matthew 27: 33-34). But even if we don’t want to get into showmanship and misdirection and having an orchestrated ‘miracle’ as a publicity stunt, crucifixion has a survival rate. Even if the miracle of resurrection is not impossible, are its odds greater than the survival rate of crucifixion?

In all, I think we’re hard pushed to find a reason to believe that a miracle is the best explanation of an event we have shaky reason to believe even happened. There are good reasons to doubt the data, and if we don’t doubt the data there are good reasons to believe in natural explanations.


10 thoughts on “Jesus’ Resurrection: best explanation of the evidence”

  1. In all we are hard pushed to believe that Yeshua lived at all.
    Prayson’s argument is so tired and worn out one wonders why, of all topics, he would choose to drag this shitty little tale into the light and attempt to inject any fresh life into it.
    Craig is a superb apologist and Hitchin and others have trashed his Best explanation argument for the Resurrection.

    Prayson and his ilk make my teeth hurt. Hell, he makes my hair hurt!

    I have just had a damn Catholic quote the entire TF to me as evidence that Jesus existed and was likely divine. Sheesh!
    The official Catholic POV considers most of the TF spurious and an interpolation.

    Why oh why are so many believers so damned ignorant?

    1. I found his post tenuous at best, and it’s not even in support of the resurrection. All Prayson was trying to do in that post was convince us to get as far as ‘Jesus died, his tomb was empty’. For now, we can ignore that the Bible doesn’t tell us if anyone saw his body in the tomb and we can ignore that Christians interpret this to mean a resurrection. Stick just with his sources:
      Ehrman doubts the crucifixion on the grounds that the gospels can’t agree if Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry the cross or not; whether Jesus was crucified before or after the passover; if both the thieves mocked him or whether one defended him; when the shroud tore.
      Ehrman doubts the tomb was found empty because the gospels can’t agree who went to the tomb or what they saw; were they greeted by one man, two men or an angel?
      And then the resurrected Jesus himself gave contradictory advice to incompatible effect: where exactly were the disciples told to go? No where and stay in Jerusalem, or flee to Galilee? Did they never, or immediately leave?

      Plus, this:

      1. Craig’s debate against Hitch was the most atrocious piece of subterfuge and bullshit I have heard – and he is a good apologist.

        One can only hope that the occasional reasonably sane believer , of whatever religion, will begin to ask the pertinent questions and rethink their beliefs.

      1. Chin up, I’m sure another one is coming, but those nine span his entire life as “recorded” in all the gospels (most of which the church doesn’t recognise, but i do!). He murdered two people when he was 5 years old but then brought them back to life.

        1. You didn’t know? Oh it gets even better. He slaughtered an entire gaggle of hideous fire-breathing dragons aged TWO! That’s one hell of a toddler!

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