• On the Skepticism of the Resurrection (part 2)

    As mentioned in my previous post, someone in Malawi is about to have a debate on national TV with a Christian about the Resurrection accounts and I have been asked to help provide some ideas for the debate, so here goes.

    There are three aspects to the debunking of the Resurrection:

    1) The Gospels are not reliable sources of information; they are poor quality evidence

    2) The claims of the Resurrection are incredible claims which require very good quality evidence

    3) If the Christian claims of the Resurrection are not true, then what, if anything, actually took place, and what hypothesis can better explain the data?

    Let us look at the second aspect in this post, point 2).

    What are the claims of the Resurrection accounts? Well, we have these following events leading up to the Resurrection:

    1. Jesus went to Jerusalem and he had a Last Supper with his disciples before going out to the Garden of Gethsemane and praying to himself
    2. He was arrested for the blasphemy of claiming to be divine
    3. Jesus went on trial and was sentenced to death
    4. He was crucified and died
    5. There is an earthquake, tombs are opened with dead saints parading around Jerusalem and the veil in the Temple is torn
    6. This formed a moral framework based upon the idea that this suffering Jesus contributed to a greater good and atoned, somehow, for all of humanity’s good; that God needed, for some reason, to have the books balanced (or some other similar theory that Christians themselves can’t quite agree on)
    7. Jesus is taken and buried by a Sanhedrin member, Joseph of Arimathea
    8. Guards are place on the tomb (Matthew only)

    Three days later (depending on which Gospel you read), Jesus rose again with perhaps this chronology, though it is difficult because there are contradictions:

    1. Some people, arguable as to who, exactly, and when, go to the tomb
    2. 0, 1 or 2 angels are there and the stone is rolled away
    3. Jesus is resurrected and goes around appearing to lots of people in the local area, and in Galilee, and over a 40 day period, including to 500 people
    4. Jesus then ascends into heaven by rising up into the clouds
    5. Angels tell the disciples to stop staring
    6. The Holy Spirit comes to the disciples and publicly gives them amazing abilities

    Wow, there is so much to talk about here. We must remember that Jesus IS God as according to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. This means that just making sense of the theology and philosophy means making extraordinary leaps of logic. We have God incarnating himself on Earth and then sacrificing himself to himself to pay for the sins which he knew in advance of creation would take place, and contextually came about from the systems which he designed! He also prays to himself and then raises to heaven to sit on his own right hand…

    That aside, we have some other less abstract extraordinary claims. Jesus dies and is resurrected. An earthquake takes place, and the veil in the Temple is torn. Jesus then appears as a resurrected person to heaps of people. Let’s look at one particularly outrageous claim, from Matthew 27:

    And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.

    There is no other corroboration of this massive claim inside or outside of the Bible. Wow. So we have a book written by an unknown person at an unknown time and place, not being an eyewitness, claiming, amongst other things, that the tombs of Jewish saints were opened and the dead bodies paraded around the capital appearing to many people.

    This alone would qualify, ceteris paribus, as the most amazing claim in history if true. From the Greek myths to the Epic of Gilgamesh, from South American divine mythology to the Qu’ran, we do not believe the truth claims of such worldviews. But we are expected, and many do, to believe this one unverified claim about something utterly unparalleled in world history? And no Jewish person in Jerusalem deems it appropriate to record this event, or to pass it down to their descendants? It only appears as evidence this once, and this is expected to be believed?

    I have written about Matthew 27 elsewhere:

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    Your problem here is that it is not a mantra designed to be talking about primary evidence. Primary evidence is the best evidence (usually, assuming sound of mind and not hallucinating etc). Your analogy fails because you are saying “If you could see both things with your bear eyes, then you would see they are both true.” However, this is a false analogy since we are talking about the standards of secondary and tertiary evidence.

    Hence, we are evaluating the extraordinary claim that resurrected hordes of saints paraded through a municipal city. This went unrecorded or unreferenced by everyone until some half a century or so later, by an evangeliser with an agenda.

    Thus, since this is unverified and not independently attested, even on historical grounds, this is poor evidence. It is also wildly supernatural claim that, as far as we know, has never happened and cannot happen, except in the claims of the bible. However, you would, I imagine, deny all other supernatural claims from religions outside of the bible. On what grounds? I would posit that it would actually be on special pleaded naturalistic grounds, thus employing double standards, though I could be wrong.

    If I told you tomorrow these two things:

    1) I ate 2 apples yesterday
    2) I swam the English channel with my hands and feet tied yesterday in 2 hours

    You would believe 1) on my simple testimony. You would not believe 2) on my simple testimony alone.

    Therefore, extraordinary claims do indeed need extraordinary evidence.

    Let’s expand this for clarity:

    Claim 1: I have a dog.
    Nothing more than verbal testimony needed.

    Claim 2: I have a dog which is in the bath
    As above, with one eyebrow raised

    Claim 3: I have a dog in the bath wearing a dress
    I would probably need a photo of this to believe you

    Claim 4: I have a dress-wearing dog in the bath with a skunk wearing a SCUBA outfit
    I would need some video evidence at the least

    Claim 5: I have the above in the bath, but the bath water is boiling and the animals are happy
    I would need video and independent attestation that the video was not doctored and this is what appeared to be happening.

    Claim 6: All of the above, but the dog has a fire-breathing dragon on it’s shoulder and the skunk is dancing with a live unicorn
    Well screw me, I’ll need video, plus video of the video, plus independent attestation from multiple recognisably reliable sources, and assessment and evaluation by technological experts and biological experts, plus a psychological evaluation of the claimant etc.

    You can claim all you like about extraordinary evidence, and apologists often do, but they get it wrong. You simply cannot deny either of the examples above. That is sceptical human nature. Fact. Thus the Matthew 27 account is less well attested than a particular Hindu miracle: “An incident concerning Raghavendra Swami and Sir Thomas Munro has been recorded in the Madras Districts Gazetteer. In 1801, while serving as the Collector of Bellary, Sir Thomas Munro, who later served as the Governor of Madras is believed to have come across an apparition of Raghavendra Swami who had died almost two centuries back.” yet none of us believe this.

    Matthew 27, at the very least, needs some kind of recognition that what must be thousands of people would have seen this. Yet only one foreign writer, writing in a different country at least 50 years later, seems to be the only person to have recorded this.

    The standard of evidence must meet the level of improbability in the claim. This can be mathematically assessed using Bayes’s Theorem. Essentially, this involves the idea that one should believe the hypothesis, if one has to make such a decision at all, which is the most probable. This probability is made up from two different probabilities: the prior probability and the consequent probability. What is the prior probability of a god figure being resurrected after dying, and of dead saints rising and parading around a city? Well, since no Christian, let alone skeptic, believes those previous similar examples in those categories, then the probability of such a new claim being true, before evidence is evaluated, is exceptionally small indeed.

    To overcome this tiny prior probability, one must have very high consequents. The evidence must be awesome. Think of the examples given above in claims 5 and 6. A dying and rising god and resurrection of many being supposedly witnessed by many is mind-boggling as a claim. And the evidence needs to be exceptionally good to overcome this. Christians are happy to dismiss other similar religious claims from rival religions. And yet, it seems, the evidence threshold is lowered greatly to allow a supposedly rational acceptance and belief in these Resurrection claims.

    Not only do we not have video evidence, but we have no independent attestation. One would expect this given that supposedly 500 people witnessed a risen god. Yet there is silence. Where one would expect to have evidence and voice, and we do not have it, then this absence of evidence IS evidence of absence. Sometimes Christians claim that this does not follow, but as you will see here, this is not the case. As mathematician John D. Cook states:

    Here’s a little saying that irritates me:

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    It’s the kind of thing a Sherlock Holmes-like character might say in a detective novel. The idea is that we can’t be sure something doesn’t exist just because we haven’t seen it yet.

    What bothers me is that the statement misuses the word “evidence.” The statement would be correct if we substituted “proof” for “evidence.” We can’t conclude with absolute certainty that something doesn’t exist just because we haven’t yet proved that it does. But evidence is not the same as proof.

    Why do we believe that dodo birds are extinct? Because no one has seen one in three centuries. That is, there is an absence of evidence that they exist. That is tantamount to evidence that they do not exist. It’s logically possible that a dodo bird is alive and well somewhere, but there is overwhelming evidence to suggest this is not the case.

    Which all leads the skeptic to conclude that the prior probability AND the consequent probability are very low indeed. This is a very improbable and implausible scenario which on is barely epistemologically justified in believing. Either, then, the original claims or data are wrong, or there is a better explanation for the data, or a mixture of both.

    In the next post, I will set out to expand on that last point.


    Category: AtheismBiblical ExegesisEpistemologyFeaturedJesus


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce