Cavin and Colombetti on the Resurrection of Jesus Part 3: The Projection and Unknown Removal Theories

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

CC3. There is an alternative theory to the Resurrection that is a far superior explanation.

1. Explanatory Power Revisited

Although repetitive, for the convenience of the reader, I’m going to repeat what I wrote at the beginning of Part 2 since it bears directly upon Part 3. In order to properly assess CC3,

… 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.

In Part 2, we saw that H (combined with B) does not predict E more than not-H (~H), and so H does not explain E. In this post, I will discuss C&C’s argument that one version of ~H, the combination of the “Projection” and “Unknown Removal” Theories, when combined with B, does predict E more than H, and so ~H does explain E.

2. Why Even Outlandish Naturalistic Hypotheses Are Better Explanations than the Resurrection

Here is C&C on slides 250-251:

What this means is that, their protestations to the contrary not withstanding, resurrectionists do not take the (alleged) historical facts seriously—they have no explanation for the empty tomb or the postmortem appearances of Jesus. Even the most outlandish “naturalistic” hypothesis—e.g., Deceptive Space Aliens—is a better explanation of the (alleged) historical facts than the indeterminate unknown postulated by the “X-Man” theory!

Let R be the Resurrection hypothesis and let X be any naturalistic hypothesis which predicts (i.e., makes probable) the evidence to be explained. In its logical form, then, C&C’s argument seems to be this.

(1) Given two or more rival explanations for the evidence to be explained, the best explanation is the explanation which has the overall greatest balance of prior probability and explanatory power.

(2) The evidence to be explained–Jesus’s empty tomb and his postmortem appearances–is known to be true. [assumption]

(3) R has an extremely low prior probability, i.e., Pr(R|B) is virtually zero. [From the Anti-resurrection Prior Probability Argument]

(4) R, by itself, has no explanatory power, i.e., Pr(E|R&B) = 0.

(5) X explains the evidence to be explained and has explanatory power B, i.e., Pr(E|X&B) > 1/2. [by definition]

(6) X has a non-zero prior probability, i.e., Pr(X|B) > 0.

(7) X has a greater overall balance of prior probability and explanatory power than R, i.e., Pr(X|B) x Pr(E|X&B) > Pr(R|B) x Pr(E|R&B).

If correct, this argument shows that even outlandish naturalistic theories–i.e., those with very low but not negligible prior probabilities–are better than the Resurrection theory as an explanation. But, C&C argue, there is a non-outlandish naturalistic theory which explains the data even better.

3. The Projection and Unknown Removal Theories

As I read them, C&C defend what I call a “Combination Theory” to explain the postmortem appearances of Jesus and the empty tomb. They defend what I call the “Projection Theory” as an explanation for the postmortem appearances of Jesus and what I call the “Unknown Removal Theory” to explain the empty tomb. In their words:

This theory of the unknown removal of the corpse of Jesus from the tomb and group hallucinations based on strong expectations has a higher overall balance of prior probability and explanatory power than the Resurrection! [slide 263]

Regarding this Combination Theory, they write:

Such hallucinations might be nocturnal and hypnopomic—coming out of dreams “replaying” the suggestions of the premortem Jesus—and thus seem utterly real! Being in the form of visions, the idiosyncratic nature of the group hallucinations would be of no concern. The tomb in Jerusalem would be too far away to aversely affect the disciples’ expectations. Moreover, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the body of Jesus would have been moved from the tomb without his family and followers knowing.  [slides (259-262)]

I reconstruct C&C’s argument for this Combination Theory as follows.

B: The Relevant Background Evidence

1. Jesus saw himself as some kind of messianic figure.  [defended on slides 254-257]

2. Jesus believed he must die in that capacity.  [defended on slides 254-257]

3. Jesus told his disciples to go to Galilee, after his death, where they would see him in heavenly glory.  [defended on slides 254-257]

4. The disciples were eagerly expecting Jesus to rise from the dead and appear to them from “heaven” in Galilee. [defended on slides 254-257]

5. “On Friday, April 7, 30 C.E.: Jesus was brutally scourged and crucified by Roman soldiers as a political criminal; he died on the cross at about 3:00 P.M.”[1]

6. “By sunset Friday, April 7. 30 C.E.: Jesus was removed from the cross, placed in graveclothes, and laid in a tomb; and a very heavy stone was set in front of the entrance.”[2]

7. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the body of Jesus would have been moved from the tomb without his family and followers knowing. [slide 262]

E: The Evidence to be Explained

1.  “Mary Magdalene and other women found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance of the tomb and that the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb, at about sunrise on Sunday, April 9, 30 C.E. The graveclothes in which Jesus had been buried were found lying neatly on the bench of the tomb somewhat later that morning.”[3]

2. “Certain individuals and groups, at various times and places, had what they took to be encounters (visual and auditory) with Jesus risen from the dead. These witnesses were:
a. Mary Magdalene and another woman near the tomb on the morning of Sunday, April 9,30 C.E.
b. Simon Peter in Jerusalem in the late morning or early afternoon of Sunday, April 9, 30 C.E.
c. The eleven disciples in Jerusalem on the evening of Sunday, April 9, 30 C.E.
d. The disciples in Galilee sometime in late April or early May 30 C.B.
e. A group of over five hundred individuals in Galilee (7) sometime in late April or early May 30 C.B.
f. James (the presumed brother of Jesus) sometime in later.
g. All of the apostles (including James) sometime later.”[4]

H: Rival Explanatory Hypotheses

R’: A supernatural event of an indeterminate nature and cause, involving Jesus as a bodily raised corpse, took place. [see slides 188-189]
P: The disciplines projected their expectations in the form of group hallucinations and false memories. [see slide 258]
U: Unknown to the disciples, someone removed the corpse of Jesus from the tomb.

The Argument Formulated

(1) E is known to be true.
(2) Pr(E | P & U & B) > Pr(E | R’ & B).
(3) Pr(P & U | B) !> Pr(R’ | B).
(4) Therefore, Pr(P & U | E & B) > Pr(R’ | E & B). [From (2) and (3)]

4. Conclusion

C&C conclude that the combination of P&U is a vastly superior explanation of the empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus to the Resurrection hypothesis.


[1] Robert Greg Cavin, “Miracles, Probability, and the Resurrection of Jesus: A Philosophical, Mathematical, and Historical Study,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at Irvine, 1993, p. 313.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, pp. 313-314.

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