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Is Belief in the Resurrection Reasonable?

Let’s apply three tests to see if belief in a miraculous event such as the Resurrection is worth believing

Trent Horn

Editor’s note: The following is adapted from Trent Horn’s recent debate with atheist Matt Dillahunty about the reasonableness of believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, hosted April 8 on Matt Fradd’s Pints with Aquinas podcast.

I’m going to defend the statement that it is reasonable to believe Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Matt Dillahunty has the burden of defending the negative, that it is not reasonable to believe Jesus rose from the dead. In order for each of us to defend our positions we each have to present a standard for what makes a belief reasonable, especially belief in unusual, unrepeatable events.

However, being reasonable is not the same as being convincing. You could fail to be convinced by a belief but still think the belief is reasonable (this happens every time we “reasonably disagree” with someone). That means Matt’s personal doubts about the Resurrection are irrelevant to whether belief in the Resurrection is reasonable. Instead, Matt has to defend an objective standard for what makes beliefs reasonable or unreasonable.

So let me offer three tests to see if belief in an unusual event is reasonable.

Test No. 1: Does the belief contradict well-established facts about the subject in question? If it does, then the belief is unreasonable.

For example, the claim that everyone buried in Arlington National cemetery physically rose from the dead would be unreasonable because it contradicts facts about those bodies still being in the ground. But claiming Jesus rose from the dead does not contradict any fact about Jesus remaining in his tomb.

Now, you might say the science of biology shows “Dead people stay dead,” and the Resurrection contradicts this fact. But this isn’t a fact about Jesus; it’s a fact about human beings in general. Atheists such as Matt are often skeptical of universal statements like “Everything that begins to exist has a cause,” so why not be skeptical of statements like “Human beings never come back from the dead” when we are presented with a reasonable counterexample?

Moreover, the claim that Jesus miraculously rose from the dead requires that “dead people stay dead.” That’s because a miracle is a supernatural intervention in the natural order that serves as a sign of God’s revelation. Just as an orange life vest is a sign of a survivor in the ocean because it is so unlike the surrounding blue water, the Resurrection could only be a sign from God, or a miracle, if it was so unlike our usual experience of people dying and remaining dead.

But does this mean we have to accept every miracle claim that doesn’t contradict a fact about the subject in question? No.

Test No. 2: Is there a lack of evidence we would expect if the event did occur? If there is, then it is unreasonable to believe the event occurred.

For example, it is unreasonable to believe Jesus appeared to every person in ancient Rome after his crucifixion, because ancient historians such as Tacitus or Suetonius would have written about it if he had.

But suppose Jesus of Nazareth really did rise from the dead and appeared to Peter, the twelve disciples, James, Paul, and 500 others as recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8? What kind of evidence would we expect to emerge after these events?

The people to whom Jesus appeared would tell other people about what happened. Some people would believe these disciples, and some wouldn’t. This process of oral communication would result in the establishment of communities of believers, or churches. The tiny minority of believers who were literate might write about the Resurrection, and non-Christian historians who were aware of this group might reference their beliefs but not accept them. And that is exactly what happened with early Christianity.

Now, I’m not saying this proves the Resurrection happened. I’m only saying that if Jesus rose from the dead as the New Testament describes, then there is no absence of expected evidence that makes this particular resurrection belief unreasonable. But an unusual belief could still be unreasonable even if it passes these two tests.

Test No. 3: Is the evidence for the unusual event just as easily accounted for by a non-unusual explanation? If it is, then it is unreasonable to believe in the unusual event.

The claim that the Muslim prophet Muhammad received poetic recitations from an angel doesn’t necessarily contradict anything about Muhammad himself, and if an angel only dictated a story in medieval Arabic conventions, we’d expect the Quran to sound as it does.

But test number three says there are usual explanations that easily account for these historical facts. This includes fraud or even mistakenly attributing one’s subconscious thoughts to the voice of God or an angel. Therefore, it is not reasonable to believe in the central miracle of Islam, but the central miracle of Christianity is literally a different story.

Before I explain why, I must note that in previous debates Matt has said there is a difference between “claims” and “evidence.” He said there is no evidence for the Resurrection, only claims about things that happened to Jesus and his apostles. But most historical evidence is just claims that something happened, including unusual things.

If I told Matt I rode an elephant across the Swiss Alps, he might want extraordinary evidence for such an extraordinary claim. But the only evidence for the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossing the Alps with war elephants in the third century B.C. is a claim made by a Roman historian decades after it happened.

Yet no major historian doubts this event happened, even though historians don’t even agree on basic facts such as what route Hannibal took.

Making the Resurrection reasonable

So, given this proper understanding of historical evidence, what is the evidence for the Resurrection? The most important evidence would be claims that Jesus appeared in a bodily form to groups of his disciples after death. How could we explain these claims?

One way would be to say the claims never happened and that Christians invented them later as a legendary development. The problem with this explanation is that we have Paul’s writings, and he had contact with the disciples—and even makes this claim about himself.

We also have accounts from Luke, who shows himself to be a very reliable historian. He documents both these appearances and Peter’s testimony about the Resurrection in Acts 2. Finally, if the disciples never claimed Jesus rose from the dead, then we have no explanation for how Church communities founded on this belief arose so quickly when other messianic movements fell apart immediately after the death of their leaders.

Another way would be to say the disciples made resurrection claims but they were lying. However, this doesn’t explain the involvement of outsiders such as Paul and James, who had no reason to lie, or the evidence of the disciple’s sincerity in their willingness to be persecuted.

Or perhaps the disciples sincerely believed they saw the risen Jesus but were mistaken. They instead had some kind of grief-induced hallucination. This is probably the most common alternative explanation today, but it is also one of the most problematic for the following reasons.

1. We should be skeptical of the claim that the disciples mere merely grief-stricken. It’s equally likely they were angry that they had wasted years of their life following just another false messiah. Moreover, Paul and James were not grief-stricken over Jesus’ death, because they weren’t believers when he was crucified.

2. Since ancient Jews believed the Resurrection wouldn’t take place until the end of world, it follows that even if they had grief-induced hallucinations, the disciples would have thought they saw Jesus’ soul in heaven, not his glorified body on Earth. Moreover, given the disciples’ fierce monotheism, we would expect them to hallucinate Jesus as a man exalted in heaven and not as the Creator himself unless Jesus told them he used divine power to raise himself from the dead.

3. Paul tells us Jesus appeared to groups of people, and the closest thing we have to group hallucinations, or mass hysteria, usually involve people psychosomatically experiencing a similar illness, not individuals claiming to all see the same thing that doesn’t exist—especially something that didn’t conform to their previous expectations.

4. The New Testament authors repeatedly make it clear when someone has a dream (Acts 16:9), a vision (Acts 10:10), or think he’s seen a ghost (Matt. 14:26). The resurrection appearances in the New Testament all point toward groups of people seeing an embodied, recently deceased individual who would not be the subject of a hallucination.

5. Since the Resurrection was preached in Jerusalem within a few weeks of the crucifixion, the disciples, or enemies of the Faith, could have checked Jesus’ tomb to see if they were hallucinating. The evidence suggests they visited the tomb and found it empty, since the first recorded visitors were women whose testimony was not trusted in the ancient world, a fact whose inclusion makes sense as simply being a recollection of what actually happened.

This shows that appeals to hallucinations do not easily account for this case because it involves outsiders, appearances to groups, evident sincerity, and a general lack of an expectation of the hallucination in question. Therefore, given that belief in the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t contradict a known fact about Jesus, it doesn’t lack evidence it should have if it did happen, and no other usual explanation just as easily accounts for the evidence, it follows that it is reasonable to believe Jesus rose from the dead.

Now, you could stop there and just say Jesus rose, but you don’t know how he did it, and the debate resolution would still hold. However, we should be skeptical of natural explanations for Jesus’ resurrection for the same reason we should be skeptical of natural explanations for the claims that Jesus rose from the dead.

If natural causes are behind them, then we should expect those causes to produce many similar resurrection claims. But the Resurrection is unique. In fact, world-renowned atheist Antony Flew once said, “The evidence for the Resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.” (Gary R. Habermas and Antony Flew, “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism,” 2004).

The ‘God did it’ fallacy?

But if supernatural explanations are allowed, then couldn’t we propose them for almost anything, which would destroy their explanatory power? Couldn’t we just say “God did it” in response to anything we don’t understand?

First, if that were true, atheists who say the universe came into existence without a cause would commit the same fallacy, because “having no cause” could explain anything we don’t understand.

Second, we can rule out many unusual explanations, such as God or aliens, as unreasonable because they are ad hoc, or there’s no reason to appeal to the explanation aside from its explanatory power. For example, in 1872, the ship Mary Celeste was found adrift at sea in relatively decent condition with ample supplies on board. The ten passengers and crew vanished, and historians still don’t know why they all got in a lifeboat and left a seaworthy vessel.

You could propose that God told the passengers to leave the boat as a test of faith and then took them all up to heaven, or that aliens abducted them. But none of the evidence remotely points in those directions, which makes the explanations ad hoc. Now, if the ship’s log had said something about heavenly voices or a ship in the sky, then you might have a reason to adopt an unusual extraterrestrial or supernatural explanation—but it didn’t, so you don’t.

The Resurrection is different because we have reasons to believe God was involved, given the nature of the disciples’ testimony. That means if you are a non-Christian who believes God exists (which includes half of religiously unaffiliated Americans), then you could validly consider the Resurrection as an explanation within your own worldview.

But what if you don’t believe God exists, and so it seems like there isn’t anything capable of causing Jesus to rise from the dead? I would say the Resurrection should move you to reconsider your atheistic worldview, but let me also offer an argument for the existence of God called the argument from change.

God as pure actuality

Change occurs when a potential X becomes an actual Y. This can be interior change, such as growth, or exterior change such as movement. But no potential X can become an actual Y on its own any more than water can freeze itself or a train car could propel itself. Instead, something like a freezer or a locomotive must actualize the potential for change in these objects. But of course, those actualizers change only because something else actualized their potential for change.

Could an infinite series explain this kind of change?

No. Just as an infinitely long train of boxcars would sit motionless without a locomotive, an infinite number of things that must be actualized by something else would be changeless unless there was a cause of the series that is just pure actuality. Just as a locomotive pulls without being pulled, this uncaused cause would actualize everything without being actualized by anything.

And since the universe contains a mixture of potential and actual, it is not the purely actual, uncaused cause we’re looking for. But if there is a cause of the universe that is pure actuality, then what is it like?

Well, because it has no potential, it couldn’t be subject to change. Because it is changeless, it would be immaterial and timeless, since material, temporal objects always undergo change. The cause would also not be limited in power, knowledge, or existence, since limits imply potentials the cause does not have. This means the cause would be omnipotent, omniscient, and have necessary existence. It would also be all good, since evil is just a lack of goodness and the cause lacks nothing.

Also, the cause would be personal and not a mere force, because the only immaterial things that exist are minds and abstract entities such as numbers. But since abstract entities can’t cause anything to exist, this means the ultimate cause of the universe must be similar to a mind and exist in an unlimited way. For most people, that is what they mean by the word God.

And if God exists, then you should then seriously consider the truth and meaning behind God becoming the man Jesus Christ and rising from the dead in order to ensure we too can share in the gift of eternal life.

Sidebar: ‘They must have seen something’

Even non-religious scholars agree that the Resurrection was neither a legend nor a lie the disciples foisted on the world. Although they reject the claim Jesus rose from the dead, these scholars admit that something happened to the disciples to cause them to preach the Resurrection.

The agnostic New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen says: “I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterward attests to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know as a historian that they must have seen something” (The Search for Jesus, 2000).

Atheistic historian Richard Carrier says, “I think it more probable that Peter and James, and certainly Paul, maybe several others, saw something that inspired their faith. I think it most likely that others had these visions earlier than Paul, and that Paul’s letters give more or less a correct version of his own experiences, such as his persecution of the early believers” (review of “In Defense of Miracles,” online at infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/indef/4e.html).

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