Occasionally apologists will ask me what I would consider to be sufficient evidence to believe that Jesus resurrected from the dead. Fair enough. Seeing as I deny that there is sufficient evidence to reasonably believe in the resurrection, what amount or type of evidence would I consider adequate to meet the onus probandi for establishing such an extraordinary claim? For a while I’ve been trying to think of a good analogy to describe the various problems surrounding the claim of comment written by fellow blogger DagoodS, which had a good example that I will now adapt and expand upon., until recently when I read a
Imagine if I walked into a restaurant, sat down, and started to read the menu. Most of the items seem pretty ordinary for what one would find at a given restaurant in Southern California, until I see an entry for the following: “Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Soup.”
Upon reading such an entry I would immediately be skeptical that such a dish actually exists. Why would I be suspicious?
From previous experience I would know that that the initial likelihood of such a dish existing, given the fantastical nature of the ingredients, would be extraordinarily slim. I would also not consider a mere menu entry, by itself, to be very strong or sufficient evidence for establishing the existence of such an exotic dish. In addition, I would know that there are alternative explanations for what might have produced the evidence in the menu (e.g. practical joke, metaphorical meaning, bizarre lie, etc.).
That is just my initial skepticism. Could someone possibly convince me that such a dish exists? Yes, but it would take a lot of unprecedented evidence. Meeting the onus probandi for establishing the existence of the soup in many ways captures a lot of the same problems for meeting the onus probandi of establishing Jesus’ supernatural and immortal resurrection.
What is so improbable about the existence of griffin beak, mermaid fin, and dragon blood soup? To begin with, such a thing would entail both general and particular propositions that are extremely unlikely.
Such a soup existing would entail the following general propositions:
- Griffins exist.
- Mermaids exist.
- Dragons exist.
The soup would also entail the following particular proposition:
- Someone has gathered the various parts from the beings above to make a soup and serve it at a restaurant.
Notice how the dish is an extraordinary claim not just because such a dish would be extremely rare. That would only entail an unlikely particular proposition. The dish is also an extraordinary claim because it rests upon extraordinarily unlikely general propositions, namely that such mythical creatures even exist.
Apologists sometimes try to refute the claim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” by retorting that one does not need extraordinary evidence to prove a lottery winner, just the ticket. However, a lottery winner only entails an unlikely particular proposition. It is not an unlikely general proposition that people win lotteries. Lottery wins happen all the time.
In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, not only is the particular proposition unlikely, but it also entails multiple general propositions that are unlikely. Just to name a few: I have pointed out to apologists that the resurrection of Jesus is not sufficient by itself to explain all of the “facts” that apologists claim surround the resurrection (e.g. the empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, the conversion of Paul, etc.). One cannot explain why Paul converted three years later by simply saying that Jesus rose from the dead and left behind an empty tomb. That would only explain the empty tomb.
To use an example from Bayesian expert Robert Cavin (see slides 118-189 from one of his presentations here), imagine if I gave you the following “facts”:
- Bob’s room was found empty one morning by a group of women.
- Three years later a man saw Bob skydiving.
Now, suppose I told you that the “best explanation” of these “facts” is: Bob woke up the morning that his room was found empty by the women. That would be an absurd answer. What really needs to be supplied are additional explanations for what Bob did after he woke up.
Consider some of the minimal “facts” that apologists use for the resurrection of Jesus:
- Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea .
- Women found his tomb empty on the third day after his burial.
- Three years later, Paul converted to Christianity (when, according to Acts, Jesus shined down a light from the sky and spoke to him).
These aren’t even all of the minimal “facts” that apologists use and they already cannot all be answered by simply saying that Jesus resurrected from the dead.
We can’t explain Paul’s vision of Jesus simply by saying that Jesus resurrected on the morning three days after his burial. Instead, one would have to add the additional details that Jesus had also flown into the sky, presumably remained there for three years, and then shined down a light to speak to a specific man on the road. However, in order to even explain these few facts with such an unlikely particular proposition, we have already tangled ourselves in multiple unlikely general propositions.
To explain the empty tomb and Paul’s conversion three years later in the way that apologists do, we have already assumed the following general propositions :
- At least one person can resurrect (and historically has resurrected) from brain death into an immortal and imperishable body.
- At least one person can defy gravity and fly into the sky without using any special technology (and has historically done so at least once).
- At least one person, once in the sky, can shine down lights in order to single out and talk to a specific individual on the ground (and has historically done so at least once).
All of these general propositions are necessary to establish the following particular proposition:
- Jesus resurrected from the dead, left behind his empty tomb, flew into the sky, and three years later shined down a light and spoke to Paul.
Just as with the griffin beak, mermaid fin, and dragon blood soup, both the general and particular propositions behind the resurrection claim are extremely unlikely. Is it even possible then to convince me that Jesus resurrected from the dead? Yes, but it would take unprecedented evidence, just like with the soup.
Bad Evidence for Establishing the Mythical Soup or the Resurrection
Now, suppose that when I express my skepticism towards the waiter, he retorts that I trust all of the other entries on the menu to be accurate (let’s say a hamburger and garden salad), based solely on the evidence of the menu. Let’s suppose he also says that it is unfair of me to demand additional evidence for the griffin beak, mermaid fin, and dragon blood soup, since I do not demand such evidence in the case of the other items on the menu. We would recognize that this argument is absurd, because the other items on the menu do not entail unlikely general propositions (i.e. hamburgers exist, salads exist, and these items are served at restaurants). So meeting the onus probandi for a mere hamburger entry on the menu is not analogous to the mythical soup, since the latter involves a number of controversial general propositions while the former does not.
In like manner, it is not a good apologetic argument to claim that skeptics trust all sorts of other reports from history, so they should trust in the resurrection. For example, some apologists claim that there is as good of evidence for Caesar crossing the Rubicon as there is for Jesus resurrecting from the dead. This is absurd, as there is much more written evidence for Caesar (which historian Richard Carrier explains here), but I will show how the argument still fails even if one assumes the premise. This is because Caesar crossing the Rubicon does not entail extraordinarily unlikely general propositions (i.e. rivers exist, wars occur, and generals cross rivers during wars). So the analogy is not the same. It is just like appealing to the other more mundane items on the menu, such as a hamburger, to establish the existence of the griffin beak, mermaid fin, and dragon blood soup. It is simply not enough that the soup or the resurrection have the same amount of evidence as more mundane claims, since they instead are extraordinary claims that entail many unlikely general, not just particular, propositions.
Now, suppose next, in order to assuage my skepticism, the waiter brings out the alleged soup. Let’s also say that the soup is both very unusual and has items in it that could be the ingredients (let’s say a fin-like meat and a bloody stock). Would this evidence be convincing? No. I could point out to the waiter that it would be easy to produce a soup that looked liked like the mythical soup, but was actually made from other ingredients, rather than being from an actual griffin, mermaid, or dragon.
In like manner, simply presenting the Gospels and Paul’s epistles for Jesus’ resurrection is not enough. This is because such writings could be produced from other causes. It does not require an actual resurrection to produce written accounts that look like a resurrection, just as it does not require an actual griffin, mermaid, and dragon to produce a fake soup that looks like the mythical soup.
Next, suppose the waiter testifies that the soup is authentic and even states that he would be willing to die for the claim that it is authentic. Not only that, but suppose that the waiter also claims that 500 people have all eaten the soup before in one sitting and will all testify that the soup is genuine. This argument, again, would not be persuasive, as I would point out to the waiter that his conviction and the conviction of others only requires the belief that the soup is genuine. Likewise, 500 people may have believed that they had the mythical soup in one sitting, but actually had a soup that was made from other ingredients.
In like manner, apologists appealing to the experiences of Peter or the “500 witnesses” in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 having post-mortem appearances of Jesus is not a persuasive argument. This is because the reports of such appearances only requires the belief that they had experienced Jesus. Such a belief, however, could have other causes (e.g. hallucinations, a group spiritual experience, cognitive dissonance, etc.). Likewise, I do not actually have the testimony of 500 people, but only the report of 500 people. It would be the same as, in the case of the waiter, me merely trusting his testimony that 500 people had allegedly eaten the mythical soup in one setting. The waiter’s report itself could have other explanations (e.g. rumors, lies, exaggerations, etc.). So mere personal testimony is not convincing for either the soup or the resurrection, since such mere testimony does not require the actual existence of the soup ingredients or the resurrection to circulate.
Suppose next that the waiter asks me why I am so skeptical about the existence of the mythical soup. I would then respond that I don’t believe that the soup exists, because I see no good evidence that griffins, mermaids, or dragons exist. Suppose next that the waiter accuses me of having a presupposition that such mythical creatures are not real. This, again, would be an absurd argument, as I would point out to the waiter that my skepticism is not based on an a priori assumption, but is reached a posteriori upon repeated and thorough investigation of a world that has no griffins, mermaids, or dragons.
Just as in the case of the soup, it is an absurd argument for apologists to claim that skeptics only doubt the resurrection because of “naturalist presuppositions.” This is because the view of metaphysical naturalism is reached a posteriori upon investigating a world and universe that only has natural forces, entities, and causes.
Once the waiter realizes that my skepticism is reached a posteriori, however, he points out that I should then be open to change in light of new evidence. I agree. Accordingly, he points out that hundreds of millions of exotic Chinese dishes are made every year with tons of ingredients that are foreign to me. I would point out, however, that my skepticism is not based on the premise that no bizarre dishes exist, but rather on the fact that there is no good evidence that the exact species needed for this dish – griffins, mermaids, and dragons – exist. Suppose next that the waiter argues that there are undiscovered species in the world and that new species of insects are discovered everyday. Once more, this would be an unpersuasive argument. I would point out that, while we haven’t detected every small species on the planet, large-scale species like griffins and dragons would not escape our notice very easily. Furthermore, just because we find other types of new species does not entail that we will find these new species.
Apologists, when attempting to give evidence of miracles, often provide instances of remarkable events occurring (e.g. a young girl losing her pet parakeet but then having it fly into her yard the next day). However, the skeptic is not denying that remarkable events can sometimes occur, but is pointing out that these types of remarkable events – immortal resurrection, human flight, and speaking through lights from the sky – never occur. Apologists will then often provide Craig Keener’s book Miracles (review here) as evidence for modern miracles. However, Keener does not record anything like people flying into the sky or gaining immortality. Rather, all the book provides are instances where people resuscitate from near death experiences (only to eventually die again), not an instance where someone was brain dead for three days and then resurrected into an immortal and imperishable body. Keener’s book is akin to the waiter claiming that the discovery of some new insect species should cause us to have less skepticism towards the existence of griffins, mermaids, and dragons. It would be like giving the height measurements of an NBA player as evidence to show that it is plausible for 100-foot giants to exist. It is simply a non-sequitur.
Suppose, finally, that the waiter realizes that the reason I am asking for such evidence is because I am assigning an extraordinarily low prior probability for the existence of the soup. Suppose then that the waiter points out that, yes, based on frequency, most restaurants will not have such a soup. However, the waiter then points out that, if I were at a restaurant that specializes in the meat of mythical creatures, it would not be so unlikely for this soup to be genuinely served when it is on the menu. Again, however, this is an unpersuasive argument. I would point out to the waiter that it is not established that I am at such a restaurant or that such restaurants serving the meat of mythical creatures even exist. The waiter is merely begging the question.
In like manner, apologists will claim that the prior probability of the resurrection only seems small if one ignores the religious context. However, they claim that, if Jesus is the Son of God and God wants to raise Jesus from the dead, then the prior probability of the resurrection is not low at all. Just like the waiter, however, the apologist is merely begging the question.
It is not established as part of the bona fide evidence that Jesus is the Son of God, or that God even exists, or that, even if he did, he would want to specifically raise Jesus from the dead. Starting from a secular historical perspective, one does not grant such religious tenets, but only goes off of the ancient historical documents. In the same way, the skeptic at the restaurant is not assuming that such mythical dishes are served, so long as one goes to the right restaurant, but is only going off of the evidence of the menu alone. Would one trust the menu alone as strong enough evidence to establish the general propositions needed for such a soup – namely, the existence of griffins, mermaids, and dragons? I wouldn’t. For the same reason, I do not believe that any ancient texts, Pagan or Christian, are strong enough to establish the general propositions needed for the resurrection – namely, the ability to achieve immortality after being brain dead for three days, supernaturally defying gravity and flying into the air, and the ability to shine down lights from the sky in order to talk to specific individuals on a road.
After I have made all these objections, suppose at last that the waiter asks me bluntly: what evidence would convince you that there really is griffin beak, mermaid fin, and dragon blood soup?
Good Evidence for Establishing the Mythical Soup or the Resurrection
The arguments that the waiter gave above all failed because they could not even establish the general propositions behind the soup before attempting to establish an even more unlikely particular proposition. I would respond to the waiter that there are three ways that he could change this and convince me that the soup is genuine:
First, if he took me to the slaughter house and showed me the griffins, mermaids, and dragons that were being used for the soup in person (or, if he provided thorough documentation, such as multiple video recordings from different individuals), and then he showed me the kitchen and how the same ingredients were being used to make my particular dish, then, I would agree, this would be very good evidence for the soup’s authenticity.
In like manner, if we could directly observe or record Jesus dying, being brain dead for three days, and then rising from the morgue, then this would also be very good evidence for his resurrection. Apologists will retort that this is demanding too much. They will claim that we should not expect to always be present in person or to have such recording devices in place whenever such a resurrection occurs. Fine. This is not the only type of evidence that I will accept.
Suppose instead that the waiter says that no such direct tour is possible, but he can provide strong evidence that griffins, mermaids, and dragons do in fact exist. The waiter then provides me with documented materials, the expert testimony of zoologists, and other forms of reliable evidence showing that griffins, mermaids, and dragons are real and live in certain places. This would at least establish the general propositions behind the soup. I may still not be convinced of the particular proposition that a soup combining such creatures has been made. However, the evidence establishing the general propositions would go a long way in increasing my confidence in the soup.
In the same way, if apologists could provide documented instances of immortal resurrections and human flight, along with the expert testimony of multiple scientists and doctors professionally recording them, then this would also be very good evidence to boost my confidence in Jesus’ resurrection. It would at least demonstrate the general propositions behind the resurrection, even if the particular proposition may still be questionable. The problem is: no such evidence exists. The best apologists can muster is the meager documentation that Keener provides, but that is only, at best, evidence for human resuscitations, not evidence for immortal resurrections. The apologists simply cannot provide for the general propositions. However, the apologists will next argue that the general propositions behind the resurrection cannot be repeated or reduplicated.
Suppose that the waiter also told me that this soup was made from the last griffin, mermaid, and dragon in existence. Accordingly, the waiter says that he cannot show other instances of such creatures. The soup simply cannot be repeated or reduplicated. Could he still then possibly persuade me that the soup might be genuine? Yes, but it would be very difficult. I would ask the waiter if I could test the ingredients in the soup against all other known possible ingredients that could be used to fake the soup. Suppose then that, after testing all of the possible alternative explanations, I could not find any other meat and blood on earth that matches the ingredients in the soup. I would then at least grant that, whatever is in the soup, it must be something otherworldly, which perhaps opens the door to the griffin beak, mermaid fin, and dragon blood possibility.
In like manner, since apologists admit that Jesus’ resurrection was a once-in-history event, the variables behind which can never ever again be repeated and reliably documented, then it is very difficult to convince me of the resurrection. But it is not impossible. If I could thoroughly investigate the alleged circumstances behind the resurrection and rule out all other possibilities (e.g. the body was stolen, the early Christians hallucinated, most of the stories behind the resurrection are legendary, etc.), then, just as with the soup, I would be more open to an otherworldly explanation. However, that is the very problem with the resurrection: we cannot rule out alternative explanations.
Do we have full certainty that Jesus was buried in a specific tomb? No. We don’t even know where this tomb would have been located (there are multiple and conflicting traditional sites in Jerusalem, such as the Garden Tomb and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher). Can we definitively prove that the tomb was found empty? No. We only have unreliable religious texts from decades later. Can we prove that Jesus was not instead buried in an obscure location unknown to the disciples? No. Can we prove that the body was not stolen? No. Can we prove that the disciples and Paul were not hallucinating? No. Can we prove that there were no legends and fabrications that emerged surrounding Jesus’ alleged resurrection? No. The event happened 2,000 years ago, we only have sparse written sources from decades later, there are tons of chronological gaps, and the religious texts themselves are highly suspicious.
Simply put, we cannot eliminate all of the alternative explanations. It would be the same as if, in the case of the soup, we could not test the ingredients to eliminate all alternative ingredients. So long as it is plausible that the ingredients were actually from something more mundane, such as an ostrich beak, shark fin, and snake blood, no matter how unlikely this combination may be, it would still be more probable than the existence of the griffin beak, mermaid fin, and dragon blood soup. This is because the former example only entails a really unlikely particular proposition, whereas the latter example entails both unlikely general propositions and an even more unlikely particular proposition.
In like manner, so long as it is plausible that some combination of natural events occurred surrounding the story of the resurrection, such as the body actually being buried in an obscure criminal grave and the disciples only having hallucinations of a resurrected Jesus, then this is explanation would still be more probable than an actual resurrection. This is because the natural explanations do not rest upon any extremely improbable general propositions. Criminals in the ancient world were buried in obscure and unmarked locations. People do have hallucinations of the dead. Stories can be fabricated or emerge as part of legendary development. It may be an unlikely particular proposition that these all of things happened together in the case of Jesus’ resurrection, but an actual resurrection is still more improbable. This is because an actual resurrection would further entail even more unlikely general propositions, such as the ability to resurrect after three days of brain death and the ability to fly, in addition to an even more unlikely particular proposition that all of these things happened together in the case of Jesus.
Furthermore, there are multiple alternative explanations for how Christianity could emerge without the resurrection. When one adds the combined weight of multiple alternative explanations, then, even if one particular alternative explanation has a low probability (e.g. the body being stolen) on its own, the combined probability of multiple alternative explanations is much greater. So even if we cannot specifically know that there is actually an ostrich beak in the soup, we can have still have greater confidence that there is the beak of some other bird besides a griffin in the soup.
A final note: where do we normally hear stories about things similar to griffin beak, mermaid fin, and dragon blood soup? Fantasy. It should be a strong clue from the beginning that the types of concepts that are even being discussed, within our background knowledge, normally belong to the category of the unreal. The same goes for the resurrection. Such stories elsewhere only appear in myth and fantasy, and this should provide us with good clues about the nature of the resurrection story itself.
So could apologists possibly convince me of Jesus’ resurrection? Certainly, but the evidence needed does not exist. Could someone possibly convince me of the existence of griffin blood, mermaid fin, and dragon blood soup? Certainly, but, again, that evidence does not exist. Apologists can strive as hard as they can to prove the resurrection. They will still fail. The problem is not with their effort, but with the insufficient nature of the evidence itself.
 I do not consider Jesus’ burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea to be a historical “fact,” as I explain in my article refuting the minimal facts apologetic. However, I only list it here to grant the premise and show how it actually can create more problems for the resurrection hypothesis.
 In these general propositions I leave open the question of causality. This is so that the propositions can be even more general, be open to more possibilities, and thus have greater plausibility. Of course, Christians argue that Jesus’ resurrection is more than “a person resurrecting,” since they argue that the case with Jesus involves the Christian God intervening to resurrect Jesus. Nevertheless, the general proposition is still not established that any god intervenes to resurrect anyone. Likewise, I allow for other possible causes, such as a person using the power of the Force to resurrect or a person using sorcery to resurrect. Therefore, the general proposition that “a person can resurrect” allows for multiple causal explanations, none of which can be established. This means that, even when the proposition is made more general (i.e. “a person can resurrect” vs. “a person can resurrect through the aid of a specific god”), it still cannot be established. By making the propositions more general, therefore, I have actually allowed for greater plausibility to the claim than even Christian apologists normally grant, and yet it still cannot be reasonably established.