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Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology 11: The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth


The authors are making a Bayesian argument for the resurrection of Jesus. The main evidence they consider are the women who witnessed Jesus’ body gone, the experiences of the disciples, and Paul’s conversion. These factors together increase the odds of the resurrection having occurred by a huge amount.

Now here’s where it seems a bit tricky. The authors are assuming the truth of the Biblical accounts of the above three facts, as well as the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and events leading up to it. They do provide some reasons for thinking that these assumptions are fair to make, so they are doing their part I think.

Still, I am not so sure I can accept their portrayal of the events as being likely to be true. I think Bart Ehrman’s book, Jesus, Interrupted provides the most readable reasons for doubting the truth of the Gospels, and I find what he writes to be more convincing and straight forward than the apologist claims. I do admit many, many gaps in my knowledge in these areas, but at least I have some texts to refer to.

Another point to consider is how small a target the resurrection is. It is a single event, on which all of Christianity depends. The negation, though, is a much, much wider target. That means that despite the low likelihood of any specific alternative explanation, each and every single alternative explanation’s odds are added together.

Yet another thought occurred to me. If we leave aside the disputed case of Jesus’ resurrection, there are no examples of anyone coming back from the dead. Some might say that Jesus claiming to be the son of God and to be able to come back from the dead should make it more likely that he did. But wait, there have also been no instances where claims of divinity or claims of future resurrection have panned out. If my Bayes is correct (probably not) this means that the probability of resurrection given claims of divinity are equal to the probability of resurrection given no claims of divinity. In other words, claims of divinity do not have probabilistic bearing on the actual resurrection.

Kindle Notes:

It is, however, not our purpose to argue that the probability of T is high. Nor do we propose to argue that the probability of Christianity (C) is high. Nor, despite the plural “miracles,” do we propose to discuss more than one putative miracle. We intend to focus on a single claim for a miraculous event – the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth ca. AD 33 (R). We shall argue that there is significant positive evidence for R, evidence that cannot be ignored and that must be taken into account in any evaluation of the total evidence for Christianity and for theism (15532).

On any plausible background assumptions, if Jesus of Nazareth died and then rose again bodily three days later, the probability of T is approximately equal to 1 (15539).

Note: Why not aliens or magic?

Our aim is to show that this evidence, taken cumulatively, provides a strong argument of the sort Richard Swinburne calls “C-inductive” – that is, whether or not P(R) is greater than some specified value such as 0.5 or 0.9 given all evidence, this evidence itself heavily favors R over ~R (15565).

Our argument will proceed on the assumption that we have a substantially accurate text of the four Gospels, Acts, and several of the undisputed Pauline epistles (most significantly Galatians and 1 Corinthians); that the Gospels were written, if not by the authors whose names they now bear, at least by disciples of Jesus or people who knew those disciples – people who knew at first hand the details of his life and teaching or people who spoke with those eyewitnesses – and that the narratives, at least where not explicitly asserting the occurrence of a miracle, deserve as much credence as similarly attested documents would be accorded if they reported strictly secular matters.318 Where the texts do assert something miraculous – for example, Jesus’ postresurrection appearances – we take it, given the basic assumption of authenticity, that the narrative represents what someone relatively close to the situation claimed (15603).

Before we proceed to the consideration of the salient facts, we need to mention briefly two pieces of information that we shall take for the purpose of this argument as unproblematic background facts. The first is that Jesus did indeed die, more or less as the existing narratives explain; the second is that he was buried in a tomb (15804).

First, the prima facie tensions in the narratives of the discovery of the tomb and the first appearances of Christ tell strongly against collusion, copying, and embellishment (15881).

Note: They count this as evidence in support?

The skeptic will of course insist that ~R has a much higher prior probability than R, and we shall be discussing the question of prior probabilities later on. But by the same token, the negation of all of the facts in evidence has a much higher prior probability than those facts themselves. It is true that many people die and do not rise. And furthermore, many people die, and no one believes that they have risen or has any reason whatsoever to believe it (16200).

The manner in which a strong belief is held, in particular the role of evidence in its formation and maintenance, often makes a difference to its value as an explanation for subsequent action. The theory that the apostles believed strongly that Christ rose from the dead but lacked good reasons for that belief has poor likelihood with respect to the evidence at hand (16322).

Note: Weird point. Many people believe strongly in things they have poor evidence for. Maybe most.

It is clear that neither kamikazes, Nazis, nor suicide bombers died to affirm the reality of something that they had seen with their eyes and their hands had handled. Thus, their deaths and the falsehood of some of their beliefs tell us nothing about the probability that a man will die to make an affirmation like that of the apostles when it is in fact false (16345).

Note: Is this true? Are there no examples of people who died for untrue empirical facts?

What is the probability that Jesus will not rise from the dead and that, nonetheless, women will testify that his tomb is empty and that they have seen him, thirteen men will all be willing to die for the claim that they have seen him, spoken with him, and received enormous amounts of direct empirical evidence for his physical resurrection over a period of 40 days, and a persecutor of his followers will suddenly, upon what he claims to have been a vision of the resurrected Jesus, become an ardent preacher of the Christian message? And what is the probability that all of this will happen in a first-century Jewish context, with all that that means in terms of lack of resources for a convincing fraud, probable death for such claims, low opinion of the testimony of women, and all the rest of the details? In other words, the skeptic must examine, in detail, the relative explanatory power of R and ~R for the specific evidence in its actual context (16821).

55). Earman’s own reference to the atmosphere – the surrounding circumstances – of a faith healing service is itself the key to the apologist’s answer to his brand of cynicism. For, as we have pointed out repeatedly, the witnesses who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus were not in a state of palpable excitement or enthusiastic hysteria at the time; they were not attending a meeting where they expected to see wonders (16836)

Note: Does it need to be enthusiasm, or does emotional trauma count?

Hence he multiplies the probabilities he has estimated using the Theorem on Total Probability and obtains a value just a bit over 0.21. He therefore concludes that the most we are entitled to say is that P(E|K) ≥ 0.21. And since he considers his probability assignments for individual propositions to have erred on the side of generosity, he thinks that this is if anything an overestimate of the value of the historical argument for the truth of Christianity (16881).

“Our background knowledge, historical and otherwise,” Plantinga concludes, “isn’t anywhere nearly sufficient to support serious belief in G” (Plantinga 2000, p. 280) (16884).

Thus, I agree with the following comment by the atheist William Rowe: “The first question we need to ask is whether the possession of free will is something that is in itself of such great value as to merit God’s permission of the horrendous moral evils in the world. I think the answer must be no (19307).

Note: Good to quote as a theist against other theists.

Rawcliffe (1959, p. 111) points out that the comparatively dissimilar hallucinatory experiences of different people “often attain a spurious similarity by a process of harmonisation” as they recollect and discuss them. But detailed experiences full of verbal and tactile interactions both with the one seen and with other witnesses cannot be brushed aside like this (19696).

Note: Really? Its not like we got the story from a consensus of people. Just one guy wrote it. Could have used the story from multiple people.

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