Cavin and Colombetti on the Resurrection of Jesus Part 2: The Failure of the Resurrection ‘Explanation’

What I want to do in this post is to summarize (and offer my own interpretation of) Cavin’s second main contention in his debate with Michael Licona on the Resurrection of Jesus:

CC2. The Resurrection Theory is a dismal failure as an explanation of the empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus—being ad hoc and almost completely devoid of explanatory power and scope.

1. Explanatory Power

In order to properly assess CC2, it’s crucial that we first clarify what “explanation” means. In order to do that, let us begin by reviewing some basic concepts from Part 1 of this series. Let us divide the evidence relevant to the Resurrection into two categories. First, certain items of evidence function as “odd” facts that need to be explained.  Let us call these items the “evidence to be explained.” Second, other items of evidence are “background evidence,” which determine the prior probability of rival theories and partially determine how well those theories explain the evidence to be explained.

These two types of evidence have two probabilistic counterparts: (1) the prior probability of a hypothesis H and (2) the explanatory power of H. (1) is a measure of how likely H is to occur based on background information B alone, whether or not E is true. As for (2), this measures the ability of a hypothesis (combined with background evidence B) to predict (i.e., make probable) an item of evidence.

The key takeaway is that if H (combined with B) does not predict E more than not-H (~H), then H does not explain E.

2. Four Problems with the Resurrection Hypothesis

2.1. Licona’s Resurrection Hypothesis is a Circular Explanation

“H explains E” is a necessary condition for H to be an explanation of E. But what does it mean for H to explain E? As Jan Narveson writes, part of what it means to say that H explains E is that H helps us understand how or why H leads to E (or, at least, how or why H gives us more reason to expect E than ~H does).

Well, for one thing, an explanation has to explain. That is: the proposal, the hypothesis, put forward as doing the explaining has to be such that, once you understand the thing and you understand the phenomenon to be explained, you can see how, yes, one of those things would lead to one of these things being the way it is–and not some other way.

Let us define a circular explanation as follows.

H is a circular explanation of E if (1) H is explicitly defined as the hypothesis that E is true; and (2) if the explicit reference to E is removed from H, the remaining content in H does not help us understand how or why H leads to E (or, at least, how or why H gives us more reason to expect E than ~H does).

So the problem with circular explanations is that they are no explanations at all. They successfully predict that E is true (or more likely to be true) without helping us to understand how or why E is true (or more likely to be true).

Cavin & Colombetti (C&C) observe that, on Licona’s definition of the Resurrection hypothesis, the Resurrection hypothesis is a circular explanation for the resurrection and empty tomb. Consider Licona’s definition.

Following a supernatural event of an indeterminate nature and cause, Jesus appeared to a number of people, in individual and group settings and to friends and foes, in no less than an objective vision and perhaps within ordinary vision in his bodily raised corpse.[1]

The italicized words are the explicit references to the postmortem appearances. Licona’s hypothesis predicts the postmortem appearances only because he builds the appearances into his hypothesis. His hypothesis does not, however, explain how or why Jesus appeared to people after his death.

2.2. Non-Circular Versions of the Resurrection Hypothesis Lack Explanatory Scope and Explanatory Power

C&C’s second objection follows from their first. If we modify Licona’s hypotheses by removing the explicit references to the appearances, the remaining content isn’t very informative. The Resurrection hypothesis becomes the claim that there was

a supernatural event of an indeterminate nature and cause, [involving] Jesus [as a] bodily raised corpse.

The problem, of course, is that this modified Resurrection hypothesis no longer predicts the empty tomb and the appearances (or, at least, it no longer makes the appearances more probable than the hypothesis that Jesus was not resurrected does.)

2.3. The Resurrection Hypothesis is Ad Hoc

Let us begin by defining “revivification” as a generic term to encompass any transformation of a corpse into a living body of some kind. One kind of revivification is resuscitation, viz., the mere restoration of a corpse to its original premortem state. For example, the New Testament claims that Lazarus was resuscitated. Another kind of revivification is resurrection, viz., the transformation of the corpse into a living, powerful, incorruptible, and glorious body which can never again suffer illness, injury or death. The New Testament claims that Jesus was resurrected, not merely resuscitated (as was Lazarus).

Consider the following thought experiment. Imagine that we know nothing about the New Testament, but, somehow and at the same time, we know that (a) Jesus was dead; (b) Jesus was buried in a tomb; and (c) Jesus was resurrected from the dead. We would not predict an empty tomb or postmortem appearances because the resurrection hypothesis, by itself, tells us nothing about the postmortem activities of Jesus. For example, it’s possible that Jesus was resurrected from the dead and stayed in the tomb, admiring his transformed body. Or, after the Resurrection, perhaps Jesus teleported to central America and appeared to people there so that he could be crucified again.

In order to rule out these and countless other scenarios, Resurrectionists must make “dubious assumptions about the postmortem activities of Jesus” (184). As C&C explain, these assumptions include “the Ascension, the ability to pass through solid matter and to appear and disappear at will, telepathy, clairvoyance, and the power to create ‘heavenly’ visions of glory” (185). The problem with these assumptions, however, is that they are not implied by either the modified Resurrection hypothesis or our existing (background) knowledge (184). This is what I take C&C to mean when they charge that the Resurrection hypothesis is ad hoc.

Cavin & Colombetti (C&C) provide a brilliant parable to illustrate this point.

Suppose Jones is found empty by Peter, John, and the two Marys. Later that morning, Jones is seen by the two Marys. Later that day, Jones is see at the club by his two employees. And three years later, people see Jones skydiving.

The hypothesis, “Jones woke up,” would not and does not predict the empty house; Jones’ appearance to the two Marys and his employees; or his skydiving. Jones’ waking up is, at best, a necessary but not a sufficient condition for his post-waking activities. What would predict the empty house is not the “wakening” hypothesis, but the “leaving” hypothesis: Jones left the house.  Along the same lines, the “wakening” hypothesis doesn’t predict any of Jones’ appearances; we need one or more other hypotheses to explain them.

2.4. “Atoms or Schmatoms” Explanatory Dilemma

Again, consider the modified, non-circular version of Licona’s resurrection hypothesis. There was

a supernatural event of an indeterminate nature and cause, [involving] Jesus [as a] bodily raised corpse.

The “indeterminate nature” of the risen Jesus creates another explanatory problem for the Resurrection hypothesis: it turns the risen Jesus into an “X-Man.” But how can an indeterminate, an unknown “X,” explain any historical facts (194)? C&C argue that it can’t. In support, they present the “‘Atoms or Schmatoms’ Explanatory Dilemma.”

(1) If Jesus was revivified from the dead, his post-revivification body was either composed of atoms or schmatoms.

(2) If Jesus’s post-revivification body was composed of atoms, then Jesus was not resurrected.

I want to make two comments regarding this premise.

First, the resurrection body, by definition (I Cor. 15), is supposed to be imperishable (immortal, unable to age, get sick, be injured, etc.). A body composed of atoms would not have these properties, and, thus, for that reason, not be a resurrection body. (In contemporary physical chemistry, I think, each molecule is defined as composed of a certain number of atoms of a certain subset of the elements in a certain configuration, and element is, turn, defined as composed of X number of protons, neutrons, electrons, etc., and that each of these particles is defined as having a certain mass, charge, spin, half-life, etc.)

Second, a body made of atoms (even assuming we can "stretch" the meaning of the term "resurrection" to encompass it) would be at best negligibly likely to lead to the empty tomb and postmortem appearance stories of Jesus as we find them in the gospels. A Jesus made of atoms would require energy (food) to survive, move, etc.; would thus realize that he’s not immortal, etc.; would be unable to disappear from the tomb and reappear outside and to disappear in Emmaus and reappear in the Upper Room; would quickly realize that he could be injured; and, thus, injured and killed by old his enemies if he re-entered the city to go meet his disciples there, etc.

(3) If Jesus’ post-revivification body was composed of something else (“schmatoms”), then there is no way to make testable predictions about what the post-revivification Jesus would be or do.

(4) If there is no way to make testable predictions about what a Jesus composed of schmatoms would be or do, then a Jesus composed of schmatoms does not predict an empty tomb or postmortem appearances.

(5) If a Jesus composed of scmatoms does not predict an empty tomb or postmortem appearances, it cannot explain an empty tomb or postmortem appearances.

(6) Therefore, either the postmortem Jesus was not resurrected or the resurrection of the postmortem Jesus cannot explain the empty tomb or the postmortem appearances.

3. Conclusion

C&C conclude that the Resurrection Theory is a dismal failure as an explanation of the empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus—being ad hoc and almost completely devoid of explanatory power and scope.

Notes

[1] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 582-83. Italics are mine.

The Logic of the Resurrection - Part 5
What is Faith? - Part 8
The Logic of the Resurrection - Index
Another Terrible Atheist Debate Performance
About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.


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