A Brief Defense of the Resurrection

C. Michael Patton‘s got a brief, but dense, defense of the resurrection, leading him to this conclusion:

Considering the internal and external arguments for the resurrection of Christ, I don’t ask anyone to look to one of these lines of evidence alone, but to consider the cumulative case. It is very impressive. If the resurrection indeed occurred, it would be hard to expect more evidence. In fact, what we would expect is exactly what we have.

Of course, alternatives too each one of these could be and have been offered. Alternatives to many well established historical events have been offered as well, including the Holocaust, the landing on the moon, and the death of Elvis. However, in most cases the alternatives go against the obvious. The simplest explanation is always the best. The simplest explanation to the data here is that Christ did rise from the grave. Those who deny the resurrection do so not on the basis of the evidence, but because they have other presuppositions that won’t allow them to believe. The evidence is simply too strong.

I believe that any objective historian must look to the evidence for the resurrection of Christ and concluded that he is indeed risen.

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  • Tim

    Did this author just compare failing to be convinced that Jesus rose from the dead with denial of the holocaust , the moon landing, and Elvis being dead?

  • MatthewS

    Tim, that would be a real stretch.

    The author’s point is that alternative explanations commonly exist, even for accounts which are overwhelmingly accepted as fact. It is to be expected that lines of evidence of the resurrection would have alternative explanations. This is not a facile attack on the intelligence of those who do not believe in the resurrection.

    He claims that typically (his word is “always”) the simplest explanation is best. The point of engagement here, as I see it, would be if one were to consider that an alternative account makes for a simpler or more credible account, or if one happens to disagree with the presupposition about the superiority of claims with greater simplicity.

  • Does belief in a physical resurrection also imply a belief in a physical ascension? Are the two necessarily linked, such that if one believes in a physical resurrection, one has to believe in a physical ascension?

  • Mark Edward


    I think that, if Jesus’ resurrection indeed took place, it would necessarily follow that some type of exaltation (‘to heaven’) took place since the Biblical data has the two so tightly connected, even if Jesus did not literally rise into the air like a rocket.

  • Tim

    I’ve taken a look at the article, and what I am seeing is the typical comparison of support for the particular miracle / supernatural claims surrounding Jesus and the resurrection vs. the negation of these claims.

    What is missing is a comparison of competing miracle / supernatural claims that many ascribing to the beliefs and religious worldview of the author do not accept. Among Protestants, most, for instance, reject the Marian Apparition in Zeitoun, Cairo. Now, this was publicly attested to by thousands. If witnessed two thousand years ago and documented by an apostle, I have little doubt the author would offer nearly identical arguments in favor for its veracity as what he is offering for the public miracle attestations and claims in his article.

    So we could ask the question, are the public miracle attestations described in the New Testament objectively more reliable than the public miracle attestations pertaining to the Marian Apparition in Zeitoun? If so, why?

    And we could continue on. For instance, we could look at those who receive palpably vivid visions in other religions, and compare the sincerity and transforming experiences they’ve had with what we view Christian recipients having had in Apostolic times. Does this provide an indication of greater trustworthiness for those Christians’ testimonies than those from other religions? Such as Buddhism and what many monks report to be incredibly vivid visions of meditational deities?

    It is these comparisons I think need to be made before claims of how reliable an impartial and reasonable observer ought consider the Biblical testimony of the claims pertaining to and surrounding the Resurrection to be.

  • phil_style

    “Those who deny the resurrection do so not on the basis of the evidence, but because they have other presuppositions that won’t allow them to believe.”

    I’m not convinced it that simple.
    Those who do not believe might be considering OTHER data, for example the data that suggests resurrections (or in fact “miracles”) not not have any verifiable occurrence. In this case the “simple ” answer is that supernatural events do not occur, and that natural explanations for phenomena suffice in all cases. The methodological commitment to naturalism might then inform ones reading of the Biblical data, yes. But it’s not fair to say that those who reject the occurrence of a resurrection have ignored the simplest (and most elegant) explanation.

  • Hadyn

    “The simplest explanation is always the best.”
    This is a gross generalization which I completely disagree with. Even if this was the case, I think that there are many simpler explanations than the traditional interpretation of the resurrection. So for the author to claim that any “objective historian” would come to the conclusion that Jesus is risen, is quite an un-objective thing to say, as is the accusation that anyone with an alternative view has a pre-existing agenda. But we all have agendas anyway, don’t we?

  • phil_style

    As an aside, it’s this kind of apologetics from the likes of Patton that makes Christianity very hard for people like me to accept. Is this kind of thing really at the advanced end of Christian reason?
    For many of us, the faith really is an intellectual struggle. Poor argumentation (like that offered by Patton in this case) was enough to almost turn me away in my mid-early twenties.

  • Luke Allison

    phil_style # 8

    I agree with your statement….wondering what sort of things make Christianity easier for you to accept?

  • Mark Pike

    Christianity is not supposed to be easy to accept, the cross is a stumbling block or a cornerstone. Whether one believes Jesus rose from the dead or not, there is ultimately an offense to the message of the cross and a strong sense of mystery as to why some believe and others do not. That cannot be eliminated or made easier. As to the arguments made along the line of what is credible historical explanation, E. P. Sanders made similar arguments for the historicity of the resurrection in The Historical Figure of Jesus. Sanders’ book is a rigorous historical analysis that, in my view, debunks the criticism that the Bible is bad history.

  • Dan Arnold

    Wow, I hate to say it, but “The simplest explanation is always the best” is just not true. It misstates the popular understanding of Occam’s Razor, which is commonly understood as adding, “All things being equal, the simplest explanation is the best.” And this in itself is an aphorism, not a philosophical basis for epistemology. That said, I do think that Wright makes an excellent case in his voluminous The Resurrection of the Son of God, but anyone who has read that book can not make the case that it is a simple explanation. It is 500 pages of detailed historical analysis based on 200 pages of epistemological groundwork laid in the first book in his Christian Origins series, The New Testament and the People of God.

  • EricW

    Thanks, Dan. I’ve started reading Wright’s first book (I have all 3 in Logos) and was wondering what value all that epistemological groundwork was going to be. Now I know!

  • Scot, thanks for the plug.

    I am concerned with Phil’s strong disagreement with the arguments. Phil, I can see that you aren’t much of an evidentualist, and that is okay I suppose. However, I do wonder what arguments you make to yourself to keep your faith anchored in the resurrection of Christ.

    I appreciate the correction of my use of the Razor. Maybe I should have put “all things being equal.” but I would not agree that Wright’s works make this less clear. I think it makes it more clear that the resurrection of Christ is the simplest explanation. Mike Licona’s methodology is the best I have seen. His new tomb on the resurrection is a must read.

    But you all have to understand that Christians have been using these same basic and simple arguments for the resurrection for 2000 years. They certainly should not make you want to leave the faith.

  • As to the apparitions of Mary, the issue is one of significance. To every thing in life, we have to ask “so what?”. Let’s say those apparitions are real. So what? What are we called on to do? The resurrection is much different as it has a game changing message inherently tied to it.

    So, in short, maybe the apparitions are true, maybe they are not. But so what?

  • Tim

    Michael Patton,

    The point is, if you personally don’t consider the public attestations for the apparitions of Mary compelling as a matter of historical evidence, why should anyone else consider the public attestations to having seen the risen Jesus, etc. as compelling as a matter of historical evidence?

    The point is to take your methodology and see if it is useful in determining what is or is not a compelling evidential claim when it is applied to other areas that you may not a priori be committed to accepting as valid.

    Let me give you another example. You spoke in your article about not having motives to fabricate details as arguing for the validity of those details as a matter of historical fact.

    Well, one of my coworkers, raised in India, tells me of a story of how when he was a boy he was treated for Jaundice. An old lady known to be a healer visited him, laid up in his bed. She asked his parents for a set of sewing needles and a bowl full of water. She took a sewing needle and put it to his forehead while chanting a mantra, then placed the needle in the bowl of water. She did this for each needle. As each needle hit the water, my coworker saw the water turn yellow before his eyes, meaning to represent yellow jaundice being transferred out of his body and into the bowl. Sure enough he was well again up in a few days time and he credited the healer with having cured him. Now, he turned to me and asked me to explain to him how this is not evidence of miraculous healing. I came up with some suggestions. I suggested that Jaundice often clears up spontaneously on its own. He could have recovered even if never visited by this lady at all. Fair enough he said, but how do I explain the water turning yellow in bowl? I suggested that if you left the sewing needles in the bowl overnight, they could rust, turning the water yellow. He said, fair enough, but the water turned yellow not overnight, but immediately. How do I account for that? I suggested yellow dye under the fingernails of the woman treating him. He said, sure, that could work. But why would she do that? And I suggested to earn a living. To which he replied that she did this work as charity, never asked for a penny, was never rewarded with anything for her services, and was just a very kindly, compassionate old woman. To this I had nothing to say. But I still did not accept this as a valid miracle.

    Now, what would be the motive here? And if I cannot identify one, do I need to then accept this claim as truly miraculous?

    Just as you suggested the Apostles had nothing to gain from any fabrication, what did this old lady have to gain?

    This I think provides a type of reality test to your methodology for validating extraordinary historical claims. And if it fails in a similar application to provide a compelling historical case, then you would lack any justifiable basis for claims that the evidence to which you refer via the exact same methodology ought compel acceptance for any reasonable observer.

  • Hi Tim thanks for the kind engagement

    I have many stories too. I have a video of a doctor in south America who placed spells on people and performed open heart surgery while the sat there talking to them. No pain. No anathesia. Crazy stuff.

    I also am an avid student of NDEs (near death experiences). Many of these are from non-Christians who go to heaven. I just went to a boys house who says the sees and angel and a demon in his room. He says the angel took him to heaven. The problem here is that his description of heaven is more based on folklore (Christian) than biblical revelation. In all of these I don’t see any motive for fabrication in these.

    But, of course lack of motive for fabrication does not get one to a parallel with the resurrection. It is simply one criteria that is met.

    I never said I did not believe in the Marian apparitions. I have not looked into them enough. Just like these other things I described, manny of them may very well be true. We live in a much mysterious world than we like to think. I like to take my white coat off every once in a while and see how crazy this universe is.

    But again, the question is the same: so what? What do these things communicate or change. The resurrection communicates much. There are implications. Massive implications. For these other things, not so much. They certainly can fit into my worldview if true.

  • Tim


    I think the issue is one of consistency. If your methodology yields consistent results when applied to other subjects, then that this would establish that it has the minimal level of merit we need to proceed further. To fail to yield consistent results would indicate a flaw in the methodology. It would indicate that something is not quite right.

    Now, what I continue to hear you say is that you are not coming out for or against supernatural claims such as the Marian apparition I mentioned. Fine. But by your own admission you do not feel COMPELLED to accept it. You aren’t convinced. Your perhaps just undecided.

    But you are not suggesting to your audience that they remain undecided as to the Resurrection as a matter of historical fact. You are in fact overtly stating that they ought to, if considering the matter reasonably and objectively, find the historical evidence compelling.

    Why? How is it appropriate that when applied to similar areas your methodology does not lead to results deemed compelling, but when applied to the historical claims surrounding the Resurrection it does? Where is the consistency in that? It seems from my vantage point as rather selective.

    So in answer to your question, “so what?” I guess I would have to reply, “so please be consistent.”

  • phil_style

    @ Luke, comment 9;
    “….wondering what sort of things make Christianity easier for you to accept?”

    Interesting question. For the moment, reading Rene Girard – and uncovering an anti-sacrificial, non-violent Christianity that for me is compatible with scientific anthropology and has provided me with the ability to continue to read scripture as authoritative. I’ve started coupling Girard with other scholarship such as that by Nancy Murphy (physicalist anthropology) and Wright/Sanders (re-reading Paul) and pastorship by the likes of Greg Boyd (non-violent, non-nationalist), and Richard Beck (experimental theology blog). For me, the intersections between all these thinkers are captivating, and I think, converging on similar themes.
    If I had not discovered Girard (about 4 years ago) I doubt I would still be able to hold on to the faith.

  • CGC

    Hi Phil,
    I am glad Girard helped you in your faith and I really like all the sources you listed. It kind of appears (and please correct me if this is not the case), for some reason, scientific anthropology gave you certainty whereas your interpretation of the Christian faith did not? I certainly agree of letting go of misunderstandings of either science or religion but it almost seems like science is what drives you by your remarks here rather than your faith? Maybe it’s the reverse and your Christian faith was driving you but it simply needed to be reconciled with science?

  • Tim,

    Thanks again for the interaction. Great discussion and opportunity.

    You say: “But by your own admission you do not feel COMPELLED to accept it. You aren’t convinced. Your perhaps just undecided.”

    I don’t feel compelled to accept it because it lacks significance. Better, I don’t really feel compelled to look into it at all. Someone say that Jesus appeared on their pancake. So what? If it is true, it says nothing. If it is false, it says nothing. It does not disturb my worldview. It is the same with most of these other things that we are discussing.

    The Christ event was no small event without implications. The implications of Mary crying are minimal (if existent at all). The implications of Christ raising from the grave are tremendous. I think you are trying to parallel and find correspondence with events that do not fit.

    However, let me ask you a question: If Christ did raise from the grave, so what? If you knew for certain that happened, how would it affect your life? Would it at all?

  • Luke Allison

    phil_style # 18:

    Every one of those people you listed (also tack on our gracious host to that list) has been influential in moving me toward a different-hued, but equally compelling and life-transforming iteration of Christianity.
    I see it as a “misery loves company” argument. My brother (phd in aeronautical engineering from Stanford) and I were recently talking to each other about what keeps us in this thing. I listed three catalysts:
    1. NT Wright’s compelling book The Resurrection of the Son of God and Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy’s work on oral traditions in The Jesus Legend
    2. The complexity of existence/experience (which can neither be adequately encompassed byreligious determinism or its naturalistic twin)
    3. The fact that so damn many smart people are Christians (the misery loves company argument). To believe that somehow Sam Harris and company have a window to reality that Ben Carson, Peter Berger, Robert George, Scot McKnight, NT Wright, Bill Newsom, Donald Knuth, Alister McGrath, Martin Nowak, Alvin Plantinga, Christian Smith, etc. somehow completely miss is uncompelling to say the least. They’re all slogging through this thing (some probably more joyfully slogging than others), so I can too.

  • Tim


    I think there is a bit of begging the question in your response. You tend to start with the premise, “if I’m right…” and then go on from there. However, the whole point of your article is that you are arguing that an objective, unbiased observer would be compelled by the historical case for the Resurrection.

    The thing is, only once you start to really consider something as being true does it have significance. I think this is where you started your argument and where you should continue it in this context.

  • It’s interesting to note the two differing epistemological approaches in here – one of a more modernistic and one of a more post-modernistic.

    I used to be a strong proponent for a more verifiable, empirically proven apologetics for our faith (McDowell, Ravi Zacharias), as well as in areas of theology (Grudem, et al). I now sense a drawing towards a more practical realist approach. I have benefited from writers like NT Wright, Kenton Sparks and recently Jamie Smith’s work, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

  • phil_style

    @CGC, #19: This comment is pretty much off the top of my head. Little research, and probably full of holes…
    it almost seems like science is what drives you by your remarks here rather than your faith? Maybe it’s the reverse and your Christian faith was driving you but it simply needed to be reconciled with science?

    Thanks for this CGC. Certainly science has had to be taken account of for me. But it’s more than that. I need to have an overall narrative that makes sense – not claiming that I do yet… Sometimes a piece of the puzzle comes unstuck (whether because of science, or a piece of the biblical story I never took account of before, or because of some other theological consideration), and as a result the whole story needs reworking.

    This is where the “it is the simplest explanation” argument offered by Mr Patton is less palatable for me. I might be accused of not being an evidentialist for not buying it, but I would contend the contrary is more accurate. The argument seems to operate in isolation, ignoring data (evidence) that sits outside of the narrative under investigation. Resurrection is, therefore, not the simplest explanation.

    HOWEVER, I think Michael’s comment at number 20 begins to get to the heart of the matter – perhaps inadvertently; this being that the resurrection makes sense in light of the christian narrative! Once I start putting the pieces of my faith puzzle together, the resurrection starts becoming more and more necessary.
    1. Physcialist anthropology demands a physical resurrection – because the human needs a body
    2. The exposure of the sacrificial mechanism needs a resurrection because it vindicates the victim, it makes concrete the divine association usually given to the victim as a post-event cover-up.
    3. A high Christology demands a resurrection (or at least an ascension) – finally identifying who Christ is.
    4. Resolving the the death/sin bondage demands it – proving that we need not sin out of the fear of death.
    5. Resurrection provides God’s part in the story of Jesus. God does not demand or require the crucifixion – Man’s evil is in the crucifixion – God is in the resurrection.

    There are more reasons to accept resurrection – but they are all reasons WITHIN the context of the narrative. They are not, for me, based on external evidence gathering -whilst they can be supported by such evidence.

  • MatthewS

    #21, Donald Knuth! Hear, hear!

  • John Inglis

    I like CMP’s use of “so what” as a sword to cut through arguments that do not have significance for our beliefs and ultimate life.

    I also see CMP’s article as a summary and not a philosophical analysis of belief forming. He’s not trying to remake the wheel for Plantinga. Beneath CMP’s summary is a current of deep thinking on these issues, on what it is that historiography can do, on what it means for our faith to not just be grounded in space time but part and parcel of its very fabric, on what we can do with probabilities.

    I suggest that we read CMP charitably, and not assume that he is content with a shallow rationalist underpinning to his use of historical evidence.

  • Thanks John. I would imagine that anyone who has read my stuff on doubt or my “three days as an atheist” would see that my convictions are “strong enough” to direct my life.

    Tim, I think that there are some assumptions being thrown on me about my approach. At the very least, you should see that I am not a classical foundationalist by my “Why I Am Not Completely Certain Christianity is True”: http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2010/11/why-i-am-not-completely-certain-that-christianity-is-true/

    Now, I don’t really expect you to read this as responding to comments is not the only thing you and I have to do! But maybe you can just briefly see and adjust your thinking about me. I do think that I am often unfairly categorized.

  • Tim


    Did I claim you were a classic foundationalist or tried to categorize you in any way? I think I was speaking only of what I saw as begging the question. Whether or not something is true has to first be determined before you can expect someone to care about it. I assume, for instance, that the fact that the Koran says you’re going to Hell doesn’t keep you up at night. Or the idea that you might suffer an unfavorable reincarnation per Hinduism or Buddhism. I doubt very much you spend much mental effort pondering these issues, even though they would be very significant if true.

    Again, your claim was historical and meant to address what an as of yet undecided objective, unbiased observer would conclude concerning the Resurection as a matter of historical fact. You felt the evidence ought compel acceptance of this as a reliable and well attested fact. It is this, and only this, that I have been addressing.

  • Okay. It has been a great discussion! Thanks.

  • CGC

    Hi Phil #24,
    Wow, great response . . .