Resurrection Debate with Nick Peters

Alright, the audio recording of the debate is now available online. You can download it at the following link (I’ll try to upload the media file here later, but you can download it for now):

Overall, I feel that the debate went well and don’t have any post-debate remarks at this time.

A few links for further reading:

On the issue of prior probability, you can read the analysis I quoted from Bayesian expert Robert Cavin here. You can also see the infamous cucumber analogy on slides 76-89 and his inductive argument for the low prior probability of the resurrection on slide 108.

Also, for more information about how to explain group hallucinations and shared religious experience in the case of the resurrection, see Keith Parson’s analysis of the issue here.

There were also a couple brief mistakes when I was speaking:

At 16:40 I stuttered and left out a crucial point:

“In the Gospel of John, written even later, Thomas is able to physically touch Jesus’ wounds, and … Jesus stays with his disciples for forty days.”

This should read:

“In the Gospel of John, written even later, Thomas is able to physically touch Jesus’ wounds, and *in Acts* Jesus stays with his disciples for forty days.”

Since Jesus’ stay on earth for forty days is mentioned in Acts 1:3, but when I skipped this over, the rest of the sentence implied that this detail was in the Gospel of John.

I also seem to have jumbled what I was saying at 16:07, when I was reading off my first speech. I had written:

“The author of Matthew then adds the detail that Jesus appeared to his disciples in Galilee, where he claims the authority of Heaven.”

In the recording though, I state:

“The … the author of Matthew then adds the first post-mortem encounter with Jesus, where he meets his disciples in Galilee, and then ascends to Heaven.”

In the last part I had intended to discuss the Great Commission in Matthew (28:16-20), where Jesus states “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” but (possibly because the word “Heaven” stuck out to me) I appear to have confused this with the ascension of Jesus, which is not explicitly mentioned in Matthew (though Jesus last appears in the gospel on a mountain giving parting words to his followers).

Thanks to everyone who called in on the conference debate! And another thanks to people who are listening to the debate for the first time on this post.

-Matthew Ferguson

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18 Responses to Resurrection Debate with Nick Peters

  1. Toasty McGrath says:

    Heh, it’s very amusing that Peters claimed that apologist Mike Licona (conveniently his father in-law) “flunked” Matt. I distinctly remember Matt schooling Licona rather thoroughly about a completely incompetent error in his own apologetics book:

    Frankly, I’m not impressed by that guy trying to “flunk” anybody.

    All in all, I don’t think that Peters really came off well. He just didn’t seem to have much idea of what he was talking about, and even less about what YOU were talking about. I mean, he got tunnel vision about rather odd things, such as demanding evidence for Paul having a hallucination, when the whole point was that a hallucination was simply more probable. This tells me that he prepared by memorizing slogans and quips to parrot from apologists instead of actually studying the issue of history.

    So well done, Mr. Ferguson. I think you have another debate you can proudly display on the blog. You played chess, he played checkers.

  2. [Toasty] “All in all, I don’t think that Peters really came off well. He just didn’t seem to have much idea of what he was talking about, and even less about what YOU were talking about.”

    spoken with british understatement.

  3. Paul D. says:

    I like how your blog was referred to as “Celsius”.

  4. DagoodS says:

    I posted a few thoughts after listening to the debate.

  5. Robert says:

    For me, there are two big problems facing apologists for which I have never seen viable answers. These are as follows: (there are actually 15 problems, but most were covered well in your debate)

    1) No one knows where the genuine tomb is located. Given the fervor with which early Christians regarded holy relics, the lack of knowledge concerning the location of the tomb – the most sacred relic of all – indicates it is highly likely there was no such tomb. And the earliest Christian writers, Paul and Clement, both fail to mention the empty tomb, which suggests the tomb was probably added later to the tale as a literary device.

    2) No one knows when the resurrection occurred – not even the correct year. We know the exact death dates for many famous people from Jesus’ time and before (Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Caesar, Alexander the Great) but no Christian bothered to remember or commemorate the most important event in the history of the world. We do not even know the year when Jesus died, despite the event supposedly being heralded by an earthquake, three hours of darkness at mid-day and disinterred saints strolling through Jerusalem. This makes no sense if the death and resurrection of Christ was a genuine historical event, but perfect sense if it is not.




    In your debate with Nick Peters, you made the following argument.

    P1: The vast majority of billions of people are not raised from the dead by God.
    P2: Jesus died.
    C: Therefore, it is more probable that God would not raise Jesus from the dead.

    Don’t you think that this argument may be guilty of “is-to-ought” fallacy? P1 and P2 are the way things are, while C is the way things ought—or, in this case, ought not—to be. The conclusion is claiming too much; the premises do not deliver that which is claimed in the conclusion.

    1. How do you manage to go from the way things *are* to the way things *ought*—or ought not—to be, specifically in terms of what God would/would not do?

    2. Further, since you’re arguing that God would not do it, how do you manage to pry into God’s thinking and say that he would not raise Jesus?


    Now, Matt, to be sure, of course you’re not trying to say that you know absolutely what God would/would not do. Rather, you are merely going by probability. I get that. Yet, still my two questions above stand, and I’m asking them based on probability. Thanks!

    • Hey Aaron,

      1.) The argument for the low prior probability of the resurrection is not deductive, but is an inductive statistical syllogism. Inductive arguments do not have to prove their conclusion to render it probable. The argument goes as follows:

      99%+ of Xs are Ys
      A is an X
      Therefore, A is probably a Y

      I’m not sure what you mean by the is/ought dilemma in this case (that distinction is normally used in ethical philosophy). The meaning of the word “ought” in this case is predictive, i.e. “this ‘ought’ to happen under such and such circumstances.”

      People reach “ought” predictions from a set of “is” observations all the time. That is how inductive reasoning works. E.g. The sun has risen every single day of human history, ergo the sun “ought” to rise tomorrow. There is certainly nothing fallacious here in terms of inductive reasoning, as that’s how induction works.

      2. Likewise, the claim that we can’t probe god’s mind and therefore cannot assess the prior probabilities of god’s actions does not correspond with how we predict the behavior of willful agents in other situations.

      For example, while it is possible that Obama will dress up in a clown costume to give a speech tomorrow, it is hardly probable that he will do so. Now, one can raise the same objection: how can we peer into Obama’s mind and to what he would do? Isn’t the prior probability of him dressing up in a clown costume inscrutable? Not at all.

      We could tell from the behavior of Obama previously (and past presidents) that such behavior would not at all be probable or expected from a president. In fact, we predict people’s behavior accurately all the time by making calculations based on previous sets of observed behavior.

      Even if god exists, he virtually never intervenes to supernaturally raise people from the dead. If that is the case, there is a low prior probability that he will do so, based on what we know of his behavior otherwise. Once more, it’s an inductive argument that does not fully entail a conclusion, but renders it probable.

      Bayesian expert Robert Cavin explains these issues in his presentation slides on the prior probability of the resurrection, if you care to learn more about it.


    C: Therefore, it is more probable that God would not raise Jesus from the dead.

    Clarify something for me, Matt. Are you saying that it is more probable that God _would not want to_ raise Jesus from the dead? This is how I took C to be. And this appears to be the conclusion Cavin arrives at.

    • Not exactly. What is being assessed is the prior probability of an external supernatural agent intervening to resurrect a dead person in a given situation. How typically do external supernatural agents intervene to resurrect people from the dead to eternal life? Not often, in fact, never when there is adequate documentation in place to record or investigate such an event.

      The prior probability is not probing the initial likelihood of what an external supernatural agent would “want” to do. Strictly speaking, the approach can be agnostic on the question of whether such external supernatural agents, like god, even exist. If they don’t, then they never intervene, but even if they do, they very, very infrequently cause the type of explanation sought in the case of Jesus’ resurrection. So the prior probability that an external supernatural agent will intervene to resurrect a given person, in this case Jesus, is very low. Billions more people die and we neither observe nor expect them to supernaturally resurrect from the dead three days later. So when a given person dies, the prior probability of this type of event is very low.

      That is just the prior probability. There are other factors taken into consideration, but when assessing what is most probable, other explanations besides the resurrection are initially more probable.


    Thank you for clarifying.

    It should be mathematically obvious that, independent of looking at other factors (*within* the prior probability of God’s raising Jesus from the dead), the prior probability of God’s raising Jesus merely in terms of *frequency* is very, very low—given the sheer number of human deaths in the known human history.

    You gave the example of the prior probability of Obama’s dressing up in a clown costume for speech tomorrow. He’s never done that in all his speeches. Therefore the prior—merely on the basis of *frequency*—is very low, indeed. However, if we happen to have one good piece of information—let’s say his spokesman makes an official announcement that Obama is going to speak tomorrow with a clown costume on—then the prior goes up dramatically.

    Similarly, the prior probability of God’s raising Jesus may consist not only of *frequency* but also of other factors, if available. Do you agree?


    And *if* those factors obtain, then the prior goes up dramatically. Yes?

    • In the case of the resurrection, the available evidence does not allow for many additional factors without begging the question. Cavin discusses this on slides 325-351.

      For example, arguing that Jesus being the “Son of God” or a fulfillment of biblical prophecies is not bona fide available evidence for increasing the prior. For a secular, strictly historical approach to the resurrection, one does not assume a divine plan, a messianic mission, moral perfection, or any other religious tenet as a factor that would influence the prior probability of the resurrection. This would be merely to beg the question, because the objective is to see whether any such forces can be gleaned from the available evidence.

      In terms of the Obama analogy, we wouldn’t have the bona fide evidence of the press agent announcing such a speech, for no such equivalent available evidence exists in the case of Jesus’ resurrection.

      From the starting point of minimal historicity, one approaches Jesus from the standpoint of any other historical person and the sources for Jesus’ life from the standpoint of any other ancient texts. From that starting point, the initial likelihood that Jesus would resurrect is very low, as most historical persons do not, and the initial likelihood that the texts about his life would reveal some divine purpose is low, as most ancient texts do not.

      That is merely the prior odds of a divinely influenced resurrection. The posterior probability may be different, but I additionally argue that based on the poor nature of the evidence available, plagued with chronological gaps, unknown sources, and legendary development, that the posterior odds are likewise low.

      But the point is that there is not much bona fide historical evidence that would change the factors behind the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection.


        Good! You do agree with the principle. But, of course, you don’t necessarily agree that other factors—that may raise the prior probability of the resurrection of Jesus (R)—do actually raise the prior of R.

  11. IndySteve says:

    Two points.

    1. Peters doesn’t seem to understand Bayes’ Theorem.

    2. This led to his dirtiest trick. When Bayes’ came up, he quoted what Tim McGrew said about your understanding about Bayes’ Theorem – basically that you didn’t know what you were talking about. But how do you respond to that criticism? He doesn’t say what McGrew’s specific issues were. Seems like a hitting below the belt tactic. Since he doesn’t know enough about BT to rebut your arguments, he tries to discredit your BT arguments by citing someone else’s opinion without giving any details you can respond to. The more I’ve thought about this, the more it has bothered me as a debate tactic…

    I also tend to agree with DagoodS, that the back and forth questioning was the best part.

    This also brought to mind a recent Nontheology podcast I had listened to, where the two hosts debate whether these kind of debates are useful. Gabe’s opening remark in the “debate” is pure comedy genius (he channels WLC)…

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