On the Skepticism of the Resurrection (part 2)

On the Skepticism of the Resurrection (part 2) January 2, 2015

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.


"Is Jesus at all troubled by that having happened, or is he in perfect bliss ..."

The Problem of Evil, Skeptical Theism ..."
"LB: It is not clear to me that multiple warring, capricious gods permit what David ..."

The Problem of Evil, Skeptical Theism ..."
"Your link leads to a comment regarding proof of god's non-existence.I have not made such ..."

The Problem of Evil, Skeptical Theism ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • pboyfloyd

    You could have skipped the part with the dog and the skunk in the bath tub.

  • Peter

    One of my favourite (I reckon) analogous supernatural claims comes from Josephus. From the Jewish War:

    “A few days after the Feast, on the 21st of Artemisios, a supernatural apparition was seen, too amazing to be believed. What I have to relate would, I suppose, have been dismissed as an invention, had it not been vouched for by eyewitnesses and followed by disasters that bore out the signs. Before sunset there were seen in the sky, over the whole country, chariots and regiments in arms speeding through the clouds and encircling the towns.”

    This apparent miracle has several things going for it that are either also used to justify NT miracles such as the resurrection or which in my view make it superior to the evidence presented in the NT

    1) It’s written by a known historian who introduces himself in the text “I myself, Jospehus…fought against the Romans, and of the later events was an unwilling witness”(cf. the Gospels). He is known to have got many highly specific facts about history correct (and it often used as a source to confirm details in Luke-Acts), makes critical use of sources, and tells us he is writing to set the record on the war straight.

    2) The historian relating this to us tell us he was initially sceptical.

    3) The event is apparently attested by multiple eyewitnesses and many more would have been able to gainsay it.

    4) The event is actually dated.

    Yet I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in doubting this (and I think many Christians would also be sceptical). Why? Because I can’t dream up an non-ad hoc reason why such incredible apparitions don’t continue to appear in the world today…

    • Especialy relevant since Christians use him to attest Jesus.

      • Peter

        Yes…I’m a little sceptical of uses of the TF that we’ve
        been seeing here and there recently. In F.F Bruce’s “The New Testament
        Documents: are they reliable?” he takes the passage and eliminates the more suspicious parts (that a Jew such as Josephus would not have written), and declares what remains to be the original. However, the reconstructed version is conjectural and one wouldn’t have thought it wise to quote it as specifically attesting this or that. Moreover, this approach ignores the reasons to think the whole thing is an addition, with no reference to Jesus there at all.

        1) As Carrier points out in his Journal of Early Christian Studies article. The text interrupts the narrative in a suspicious way “First, the paragraph that follows the TF begins with, “About the same time also another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder . . .” (AJ 18.65), thereby indicating that Josephus had just ended with the sedition resulting in a public massacre described in AJ 18.60–62, and leaving no logical place for the unrelated digression on Jesus and the Christians (AJ 18.63–64). Second, the fact that the next story about a controversy involving Judaism and Isis cult is told at great length (AJ 18.65–80—a narrative eight times longer than the TF, but on a much more trivial affair) suggests that Josephus would have written a great deal more about the Jesus affair had he written anything about it at all, whereas a forger would have been limited by the remaining space available on a standard scroll (hence explaining the TF’s bizarre brevity, in comparison with
        the preceding and following narratives, and in light of its astonishing
        content, which normally would require several explanations and digressions,
        which are curiously absent).”

        2) Also, there is Origen’s inexplicable silence on the subject when responding to Christianity’s critics “At Against Celsus 1.47, Origen is tasked with proving that contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Jesus attested to his affairs (the very task he sets forth in Against Celsus 1.42, in response to the several challenges made by Celsus at Against Celsus 1.37–41), yet his only pieces of evidence are Josephan passages attesting John the Baptist and James. We would expect Origen to have used the TF at many other points in Against
        Celsus to attest to Jesus’ ministry and wisdom in order to dismiss Celsus’s
        argument that Jesus was a charlatan, to corroborate Jesus’ resurrection on the third day in order to challenge Celsus’s insistence that this is merely a
        Christian claim, and to confirm that Jesus had fulfilled prophecy, a major
        concern of Origen’s and one for which the TF would have provided priceless

        • Yes, thanks Peter, all of these points do strongly favour a complete fabrication and interpolation rather than merely a redacted one which has some original nugget.

  • Ed

    Hi Johnathan, another great piece. I will try out responding here this time rather than the Skepticule FB group.

    I am worried that you will have done all 3 posts without actually presenting the evidence that an apologist for the resurrection will use. Firstly, I have never heard one in debate try to claim that all the gospel details are true. They seek to step back and be a historian, except that a miraculous miracle is still possible, so the grave-opening wandering corpse details are ignored. The evidence is more than ‘the gospels report a resurrection’.

    Next, they ask ‘how did the resurrection belief arise?’ and then try to show that ‘it happened’ is more probable than what you’ll be saying in post 3. They will treat the gospels and 1Cor15 as historical source material. They will try on the idea that we ‘know’ how several disiples died as martyrs for their resurrection belief. They will point to a change in the disciples etc.

    The other key data that they will go with is how early the resurrection was believed, Pauls list of appearances in 1Cor15 (almost the same point) and how the empty tomb makes the obvious visions etc explanation difficult.

    So, as regards the gospels it is all about the empty tomb and not wandering corpse details, number of angels etc. The debator needs to be ready with evidence against the empty tomb, such as post-crucifixion practices, the lack of rolling-stone-tombs until after AD70, your material on a fictional Joseph of Arimathea etc

    Maybe you are onto all this already, but it didn’t seem to have a place in any of the 3 post titles in the series, and this post seems to assume the ‘extraordinary evidence’ to match the ‘Extraordinary claims’ was just gospel say-so.


    Ed Atkinson

    • Thanks for those comments, Ed. I think they do claim it is true, since WLC and all his copiers claim that NT scholars all believe in the Empty Tomb narrative. In fact, they use this as one of the 3/4/5 arguments approach. I will show this to be problematic in the next post. I will also look to include all of your points, or may well have to do a separate post on 1Cor15.

      • Ed

        Thanks, I appreciate that. I think I can help on the claim that NT scholars all believe in the Empty Tomb narrative. It all comes from Gary R. Habermas, but has been egged-up in the telling if you heard ‘all’. I’ll use:
        Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?
        by Gary R. Habermas
        ]An edited version of this article was published in the
        Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3.2 (2005), pp. 135-153]
        The link is:

        I will copy an extract below, but it gives the 75% of scholars I am used to hearing. The actual analysis first shows that 75% (3:1) of scholars are ‘moderate conservative’ anyway. The empty tomb is 75% of scholars and 23/(23+14)= 62% of ‘arguments’ in favour. So all this is just a reflection of who these scholars are, and I’d guess many would lose their job if they denied the resurrection and empty tomb.

        Cheers Ed

        Extract from page:

        “A rough estimate of the publications in my study of Jesus’ resurrection among British, French, and German authors (as well as a number of authors from several other countries[34]), published during the last 25 or so years, indicates that there is approximately a 3:1 ratio of works that fall into the category that we have dubbed the moderate conservative position, as compared to more skeptical treatments. Of course, this proves nothing concerning whether or not the resurrection actually occurred. But it does provide perhaps a hint–a barometer, albeit quite an unofficial one, on where many of these publications stand.

        By far, the majority of publications on the subject of Jesus’ death and resurrection have been written by North American authors. Interestingly, my study of these works also indicates an approximate ratio of 3:1 of moderate conservative to skeptical publications, as with the European publications. Here again, this signals the direction of current research.[35]

        A second research area concerns those scholars who address the subject of the empty tomb. It has been said that the majority of contemporary researchers accepts the historicity of this event.[39] But is there any way to be more specific? From the study mentioned above, I have compiled 23 arguments for the empty tomb and 14 considerations against it, as cited by recent critical scholars. Generally, the listings are what might be expected, dividing along theological “party lines.” To be sure, such a large number of arguments, both pro and con, includes very specific differentiation, including some overlap.

        Of these scholars, approximately 75% favor one or more of these arguments for the empty tomb, while approximately 25% think that one or more arguments oppose it. Thus, while far from being unanimously held by critical scholars, it may surprise some that those who embrace the empty tomb as a historical fact still comprise a fairly strong majority. “

        • Funny you should mention that as that is one of my pet hates that was going to be written about.

          Actually, there is no clarity on where that came from, whether Habermas or a German scholar, when WLC uses it. Both have immense problems.

          I wrote about it at length once on our old TPs forum, which disappeared when the hosts folded. Gah!

        • Part of an old email I once sent:

          “he did bring it up, but because craig did not cite his source for the majority, because he often uses habermas, carrier deconstructed habermas’ methodology and survey (75%) and then craig said near the end that it wasn’t habermas, but kremer he was using. this was crafty, since he uses both and if you attack one, he claims he was using the other. kremer’s quote is literally un-evidenced in any kind of statistical manner. this wasted a huge amoutn of carrier’s time, since he had a riposte of habermas’ work prepared based on craig normally using it, only to find he was apparently using kremer.

          in point of fact, though, i believe that most scholars do believe it, because most are christian. carrier believes that, even with habermas, there is strong selection bias, and many fringe and critical scholars are simply not entertained. he critiques craig on that approach in the mp3 i linked, which i will lend you. he talks about the debate in speifics too.”

        • And:

          “just to add to your point: Apparently William Lane Craig needs to reevaluate some of his sales pitch. I suppose they could say that Kremer’s opinion at the time was still an accurate assessment of the scholarly circles and they could merely cite him as a reluctant or “hostile witness” these days. hehe
          Update: Craig claims that Mulder has misinterpreted Kremer. I don’t know German, so I can’t say much. The evidence Craig presents is this translation of another part of the interview:

          From the differing and in part unharmonizable, even contradictory, data about the discovery of the empty tomb it can at most be inferred that the tomb on Easter morning was probably empty, but nothing more. [emphasis mine]

          “At most” and “be inferred” seems hardly worth granting the historical fact status Craig seems to need for his case and is compatible with the interpretation already given in this post. Craig’s quote doesn’t seem to magically negate all the other quotes, so I’m not really sure what he hopes to accomplish. He doesn’t provide an alternate translation of what I quoted and it seems implausible that the reverse conclusion could be derived. I see that Craig relies more on his intuition and poisoning the well in some general sense without getting specific and then taking the conversation in an irrelevant direction. And his counter-quote doesn’t show what he says “couldn’t be more clear.” Sounds like confirmation bias to me.

          of course it says nothing about the real criticism against craig’s use of kremer: that being that kremer’s ‘most new testament scholars support the empty tomb’ being a complete ad hoc statement with absolutely no research to back it up. it is the sort of thing someone would say down the pub to someone else, and craig uses it disingenuously in his debates. this is precisely WHY habermas looked at trying to get evidence to support this view in his survey. the problem is that habermas did not do a proper statistical study. carrier discusses this at length here: http://www.infidelguy.com/modules.php?name=Digital_Shop&act=showItem&item=889 but it costs a dollar. i will collate all my carrier podcasts (5 or so) and copy them for you.”

          • Ed

            That’s brilliant Johno! You certainly know your stuff. Do you ever do talks for Skeptics in the Pub? I’d love Paul T to get you on the bill in H Wycombe, on the Resurrection. Thanks Ed

          • I talked at High W on the Nativity some time back (end 2013) but would love to come back for my Case Against God or Free Will talks…

          • Ed

            Yes, i’d be keen on either of those – I’ll ask Paul T

      • Marcus Ashes

        Just to let you know mate I bought and finished reading a copy of Little Book of Unholy Questions last week. Thanks man. :)

        • Thanks so much! If you liked it, please review on amazon. If not, er…

          • Marcus Ashes

            Yes I did alot actually plus it made me laugh. Will review as soon as possible. Good work.

    • Peter

      Are you the debater?

      In any case, I think a good “offence” is also required…My own favourite argument against the resurrection is a little left-field P1) Yahweh would not raise a false prophet from the dead P2) Jesus was a false prophet C) Therefore Yahweh did not raise Jesus from the dead (defended extremely well here http://exapologist.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/on-one-of-main-reasons-why-i-think.html). Of course as you say, you then would need to point out that the evidence mustered for the pro-resurrection case is weak/unreliable for various reasons (and as Jonathan points out ECREE means they have a heavy burden of proof to start with).

  • GearHedEd

    The whole “500 witnesses” bit is pure hyperbole. It is nothing more than a double-dog-dare for you to claim disbelief in the face of such sheer numbers. Not that not a single member of the “500 witnesses” has a name, or ever wrote an independent account. Even the Mormons weren’t THAT stupid; they got their “witnesses” to sign statements.

  • Pingback: On the Skepticism of the Resurrection (part 3) | A Tippling Philosopher()

  • GearHedEd

    2. He was arrested for the blasphemy of claiming to be divine.


    But he was tried and convicted (by Pilate) for the crime of sedition. If he had been convicted by the Sanhedrin of the Jewish crime of blasphemy, he’d have been subject to the Jewish punishment for blasphemy (See Leviticus 24:16). But he was convicted of sedition, a crime against Rome. And he was put to death under Roman law by Roman methods of execution.

  • Pingback: On the Skepticism of the Resurrection (part 4) – naturalistic explanations | A Tippling Philosopher()

  • Pingback: The First Parable Of Jesus | When is Jesus Coming Back?()