A Bayesian Argument for the Resurrection: Part I
Introduction to a series on the resurrection
For Christians, the resurrection is one of the best-attested events in history. Yet many of our atheist and non-religious friends wonder how we could believe something so irrational. Are we condemned to talk past each other? Mutual head shaking?
Slogans abound on both sides. “The Bible’s the claim, not the evidence!” “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” “You don’t believe because you want to sin!”
We can’t remove all bias, for there are no neutral positions. This series on Jesus’ resurrection is my attempt to look at the evidence in a transparent and fair way.
Different starting positions
In the late 1990s I began to investigate Christianity. I grew up in London, from a very secular background in a secular city. Like most of the people I grew up, we viewed resurrections like any other superstition (ghosts, ghouls, witchraft). Other people could believe that if they wanted to — or if made them feel better. But we knew better.
When I was wrestling with the resurrection people recommended the classic Who Moved the Stone? (1) — written in 1930 by Albert Henry Ross, under the pseudonym of Frank Morison. Wanting to debunk the resurrection, Ross documented how he became a Christian after investigating the evidence.
Lee Strobel, in the late 1990s wrote a similar book — the Case for Christ (2). A Chicago Tribune journalist, seeking to refute Christianity after his wife’s conversion, became a Christian. More than 20 years later, Strobel’s book remains at the top of the list for many wanting to defend the resurrection.
Both books main premise bothered me. Careful study of the resurrection reveals that all naturalistic explanations for Jesus’ resurrection fail. For me, not growing up in a Christian home, these books seemed to assume too much. Why did I need to debunk the resurrection? Did I bother to seek out naturalistic explanations for new age crystals and leprechauns? The resurrection for me was in a similar category.
Limits of the minimal facts approach
Strobel’s Case for Christ (2) leans heavily on the minimal facts argument — which has dominated Christian apologetic approaches to the resurrection for several decades. Popularized by Gary Habermas — the aim is to focus on a few facts:
- Jesus death
- empty tomb
- disciples belief that they saw Jesus after his death).
William Lane Craig, another key contributor to Strobel’s argument, takes a similar approach. Habermas and Craig’s approaches, developed in the 1970s, have been a wonderfully effective method for communicating the resurrection. Appeals to scholarly consensus show a genuine concern to be unbiased and to find common ground.
Yet a debate between Arif Ahmed and Gary Habermas illustrates the limits of this approach. Habermas, a veteran of countless debates, was armed with rebuttals for every imaginable naturalistic explanation for the resurrection. Yet Ahmed’s opening statement undercut his whole approach with a simple illustration. It goes something like this:
- Imagine you have a bucket of water and three thermometers
- Each of your thermometers read a temperature of 6C
- The water feels a little cold to the touch so you have no reason to doubt the water is 6C
But what if all three thermometers read 400C? The water still feels cool, when it should be boiling vigorously and burning your hands. Should you still believe the water is 400C?
Christians often imagine themselves dazzling their friends with evidence for the resurrection. But often their friends respond much like Ahmed. Partly puzzled, partly amused, that we think Jesus’ resurrection is a serious matter for discussion
Taking a few steps back
As Ecclesiastes informs us, “there is nothing new under the sun”. Ahmed’s argument was not new. A simple and effective adaptation of David Hume’s On Miracles from the 19-century. I’ve discussed this in more detail here. A classic example of what Charles Taylor terms a ‘subtraction story’ (3). For a summary of Taylor’s thesis see here and also (4).
Hume’s argument is more subtle than many Christians realise. He skated close to claiming miracles were impossible. But rejected that view:
…there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony. (quoted in (5) )
Carl Sagan summarised Hume’s argument with a catchy slogan: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. But what counts as extraordinary evidence?
Some atheists, particularly on social media, use the slogan as a get-out for rejecting arguments for the resurrection. When asked to define extraordinary evidence, many opt for subjectivity “God should know what evidence I would accept.” Hume does not. He offers us criteria we can work with:
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 endeavours to establish. (6)
Are all miracle claims doomed to fail?
Yet despite Hume leaving open the possibility for miracles he still asserted: “No testimony for any kind of miracle has ever amounted to a probability, much less a proof.”
If we assume the laws of nature are the ultimate determinants of reality, the remainder after we have subtracted God, then resurrection (like any other miracle) is as close to impossible as it gets. But, of course, this assumption is only valid if we know the only options are no God. As Swinburne notes, if there is a God, he could choose to depart from the usual regularities of the universe (7).
So, Hume’s prior belief about the likelihood of resurrection was not neutral. He made a strong and hidden assumption. We cannot bypass the probability of God’s existence when arguing for or against the resurrection.
Hume’s words score high on rhetoric — but there is ambiguity in how he used his terms. Christian and atheist philosophers have found Bayesian approaches well suited to the task of defining Hume’s view on miracles more precisely.
Thomas Bayes, a mathematician and clergyman, like Hume was born in the 1800s. Some think he developed his influential theory of probability as a response to Hume. Others think Bayes’ theory finds its origin in his love for gambling. Traditions conflict!
Bayes understood that our prior beliefs matter. He argued that our judgments (posterior belief) are based on prior beliefs, built up through experience, and then updated with further data. Psychological research has suggested that our brains naturally use Bayesian inferences when making judgments.
In the past few decades, Bayesian approaches have revolutionized many disciplines, including medical sciences, physics, ecology. Richard Swinburne is one of the leading proponents of Bayesian arguments in the philosophy of religion.
Over twenty years ago, Swinburne wrote the Resurrection of God Incarnate (7). He saw the core of the debate on miracles was about understanding the role of prior beliefs. This series of articles on the resurrection will be influenced by Swinburne’s Bayesian approach.
Not just the New Testament
Jesus spent approximately 33 years on this earth. Are there any aspects of his life that would impact on our prior belief of his resurrection? According to Swinburne, if a God exists, it is as likely as not that he would come to earth to atone for our sin, to identify with our suffering, and to provide an example (7).
Michael Martin, an atheist philosopher, makes a fair point (8). These aren’t neutral assumptions. It’s pretty clear these criteria come from Christian theology built upon over centuries after Jesus’ death. This is a limitation in Swinburne’s argument — particularly when justifying a prior belief. However, it is fixable.
Swinburne’s argument overlaps with the expectation of the Messiah — from texts that precede the time of Jesus. I have just finished a four-part series on what the Hebrew Bible taught about the Messiah and data from these articles will feed into the Bayesian model. If God exists, and Jesus best meets the criteria for a Messiah from the Hebrew Bible, then these are important factors to consider when evaluating the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.
If God does not exist and/or Jesus is unlikely to be the Messiah — then any evidence for the resurrection is moot. In contrast, if God exists and Jesus best meets the criteria for the Messiah, then this raises the probability that he may perform a ‘super miracle’ like the resurrection to confirm his authority.
“The Bible’s the claim, not the evidence”?
A Bayesian approach to probability provides a rigorous mathematical framework for evaluating the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. It also enables us to transparently set out our prior assumptions.
The next step is to move to the evidence for the resurrection. This series will examine key passages in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 15; Matthew 27–28; Mark 15–16; John 19–21). I’ve sketched out the model here but will update it after more detailed consideration of this evidence.
Many of our atheist readers will be asking the question, “why use the New Testament?” Bart Ehrman (9) points out that Paul’s letters provide the earliest accounts of Jesus. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:3–5 is probably citing a creed. Developed no later than five years after Jesus’ death. In addition, the Gospels provide the earliest detailed accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection:
As it turns out, these are our best sources. They are best, not because they happen to be in the New Testament, but because they happen to be the earliest narratives of Jesus’ life to survive. (p89–90)
Gospels and eyewitness testimony
Ehrman (9) thinks the Gospels are the best available evidence, yet that’s not the whole story on his view:
they really are not as good as we might hope. This is for several reasons. To begin with, they are not written by eyewitnesses. (p90)
He is correct that Mark and Luke’s gospels aren’t written by eyewitnesses. There is more debate among scholars about Matthew and John’s gospels. For example, many scholars (e.g. Don Carson (10), David Wenham (11)) argue John’s gospel was written by John son of Zebedee (the apostle), others (e.g. Richard Bauckham (12)) posit John the Elder — a minor disciple. I’ve discussed the authorship of John’s gospel in more detail here.
Yet Ehrman is being a little selective here. Just because some of the Gospel writers weren’t eyewitnesses doesn’t mean we have to jump straight to explanations based on the telephone game. Bauckham (12) shows that first-century biographies were expected to be written by eyewitnesses or based on testimony of those who witnessed events first hand.
Bauckham summarises the internal and external evidence that Mark’s gospel is primarily based on testimony from the apostle Peter (12). I discuss this is in more detail here. Similarly, he argues there is internal evidence that Luke’s main sources were Jesus’ female disciples (12). I’ve summarised this data here.
Were the Gospels really written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?
Ehrman’s (9) other key concern is the ‘anonymity of the gospels’:
But in fact the books were written anonymously...and they circulated for decades before anyone claimed they were written by these people…There are good reasons for thinking that none of these attributions is right. (Ehrman, p90)
How might we test his hypothesis? Since the burden is on Ehrman, and those who take his view, to show the titles have changed, what evidence would support this hypothesis?
- If the earliest manuscripts did not contain titles or references to any named author.
- If there were variations in titles and named authors over time followed by a later emerging consensus.
Simon Gathercole, Professor of New Testament at University of Cambridge, has shown the manuscript evidence is remarkably consistent.
Aspects of practical necessity make the presence of author’s names very likely. Second-century Christian literature is replete with references to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as authors of Gospels, and there is never any sense that the Gospels were anonymous or written by others. The most likely conclusion to be drawn is that the attributions of authorship are original (13).
The earliest manuscripts of the gospels contain very similar titles to those used today (14). There is no evidence that Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John’s gospels were ever ascribed to any other author.
There may be variability among scholars on the perceived validity of the Gospels. But most agree these documents are the best available evidence to inform the likelihood of the resurrection.
Plan for the series
I plan to cover the following topics in the series:
- 1 Corinthians 15:3–8 on the resurrection
- A summary of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection
- Are the gospel accounts on the resurrection contradictory?
- Paul’s conversion
- Naturalistic arguments for the empty tomb
- Naturalistic arguments for the disciples’ belief that they saw Jesus
- What is the evidence that the disciples died for their testimony about Jesus?
- Bayesian network model on evidence for the existence of God — to inform the prior probability of the resurrection
- Bayesian network model on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection
- Morison F. Who Moved the Stone? Authentic Media.
- Strobel L. Case for Christ. Zondervan.
- Taylor C. A Secular Age. Harvard University Press.
- Smith JKA. How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Sobel JH. Hume’s Theorem on Testimony Sufficient to Establish a Miracle. Philosophical Quarterly 1991; 41:229–237.
- Hume D. An Enquiry concerning human understanding 10:13, SBN 115–116.
- Swinburne R. Resurrection of God Incarnate. Oxford University Press.
- Martin M. Reviewed Work: The Resurrection of God Incarnate by Richard Swinburne. Religious Studies 2004; 367–371.
- Bart Ehrman. How Jesus Became God. Bravo Ltd.
- Carson DA. The Gospel According to John: The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Intervarsity Press.
- Wenham D. Reviewed Work: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Themelios 2008; 33:1.
- Bauckham R. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.
- Gathercole S. The Alleged Anonymity of the Canonical Gospels. Journal of Theological Studies 2018; 69:447–476.
- Gathercole S. The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts. Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 2013; 104:33–76