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An Outside-the-Box Argument for Jesus’ Resurrection


Over the years I’ve come to believe that it is unproductive to debate about the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. There are simply too many details for those outside of the small circles of experts to responsibly juggle in a debate format. This opinion led me to look for non-evidential arguments for or against the resurrection.

My initial findings were that the Christian faces insurmountable odds in having to explain why God would (of all things) resurrect Jesus (of all people). After all, supposing that we have in our possession a sound cosmological argument, a cogent teleological argument, and, let’s say, an outstanding axiological argument, what we know about God is frankly very little, and certainly not nearly enough to make us privy to whether or not he would go and do something like resurrect someone from the dead! Moreover, there really isn’t anything non-question begging about Jesus – even by the most credulous historical standards – that would incline God to resurrect him: it’s not as if God would, in seeking to approve of the truth in Jesus’ message, and the importance of his movement, think “I better show my approval…let’s see…I could miraculously prevent his crucifixion…or if I don’t, I could miraculously resuscitate him afterwards…or if I don’t, I could just assume his body into heaven afterwards…no, no…I got it! I’ll resurrect him!” I hope my Christian friends take the point in good humor: it’s only to illustrate the fact that God could have shown his approval of Jesus in any number of ways, and nothing known about God from reason tells us how, if at all, he would do so.

While I am still of the mind that for reasons such as these, there really isn’t any good evidence to think that it was God who resurrected Jesus, I believe I may have come upon an interesting non-evidential reason to think that Jesus was nevertheless resurrected.

The argument does require an evidential consideration, unfortunately. However, it is one that few dispute: after his death, at least one of Jesus’ disciples took herself to have seen the resurrected Jesus.

To those for whom it is true that Biblical scholars are probably in a better position to know whether this claim is warranted (and I think, if we’re honest, that’s basically anyone that’s not a Biblical scholar), it need only be explained that most Biblical scholars think it is in fact warranted.

For example, on pages 372-73 of his The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Mike Licona cites no less than 20 experts on the matter who say as much, a number of whom are not even Christian and describe the claim as beyond doubt and a matter of fact. This also includes the scores who belong to the Jesus Seminar and two surveys conducted by Gary Habermas, the first of which is better known and ranges over hundreds of English, German and French scholars who’ve written on the matter since 1975 and the other lesser known recording sixty more recent critical scholars. In both cases, the results were the same: those included in the survey overwhelmingly thought the claim is warranted.

Normally, in a debate setting, proponents and opponents of Jesus’ resurrection would compete to explain the experience of this early Christian, but none would start by taking it at face value. But, why not?

Consider that we should believe things are as they are perceived to be unless and until we have good reason not to. Without this so called “principle of credulity”, we could not reasonably take any perceptual experience for granted. But, then we could not verify any given perceptual experience, since such verification will itself involve taking some perceptual experience or other for granted. I’m not sure what else to call this position but crazy.

Insofar as we do endorse the principle of credulity and we do have good evidential or deferential reason to think that at least one of Jesus’ disciples perceived him to be resurrected, it should be believed that Jesus was in fact resurrected unless and until there is good reason not to.

We may simplify the foregoing by condensing it into a premise-conclusion format:

  1. We should believe that things are as they are perceived to be unless and until we have good reason not to.
  2. Jesus was perceived to have been resurrected.
  3. Therefore, we should believe Jesus to have been resurrected unless and until we have good reason not to.

This argument, if cogent, would change the discussion in a couple of interesting ways. First, our initial attitude towards the experience of this early Christian should be one of belief, not of skepticism or agnosticism. It would therefore be inappropriate to compete explanations of this experience before we had any reason to suspect it was not veridical. Second, and as implied, we wouldn’t need any evidence that this experience was veridical in order to believe that it was: we’d only need reason to think the experience in fact occurred.

Now, I have claimed that the foregoing argument is interesting, not that it is sound or cogent. Moreover, I did not so much defend its evidential premise as I deferred to those who are best qualified to do so and have. There are many questions to ask and objections to answer, and hopefully we can delve into some of them here.

To wrap up, let’s consider a few of the benefits this argument would have for those interested in the subject. For starters, the argument makes use of premises that those who are not already convinced of the conclusion accept. Thus, non-Christians can accept it without having to become Christian. In fact, non-theists can accept it without having to become theists! How much further could the discussion advance if that hurdle was no longer a hurdle? Secondly, such an argument could begin a new era of discussion on Jesus’ resurrection, one focused not on whether Jesus was resurrected, but by whom or what and to what end. This could clarify immensely what sort of grounds Christians have for identifying YHWH as the God that the cosmological, teleological and other such arguments conclude with. Perhaps it will prove far easier for them to show that it was YHWH who raised Jesus than that it was God. Whatever the case, I’d be interested to hear what you guys think.
(Image credit: New Art Colorz)

Steven Dillon

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Steven Dillon is a nature loving hippy who enthusiastically supports the Philosophy of Religion, and the importance of good-willed dialogue between theists and atheists.

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  • David Hardy

    However, it is one that few dispute: after his death, at least one of Jesus’ disciples took herself to have seen the resurrected Jesus.

    I see no reason to not grant this point.

    Insofar as we do endorse the principle of credulity and we do have good evidential or deferential reason to think that at least one of Jesus’ disciples
    perceived him to be resurrected, it should be believed that Jesus was in fact
    resurrected unless and until there is good reason not to.

    We have good reason to believe that eyewitnesses can be wrong, especially if they begin with a highly biased viewpoint. Any number of religious views involves people claiming miraculous events. Aum Shinrikyo members claimed their leader could levitate, read minds and heal people. Followers of Frederick Lenz claimed he could generate golden light, levitate and teleport. Unless we are willing to grant equal credibility to the witnesses of these events, then eyewitness testimony of biased followers cannot be taken to be sufficient to believe in miraculous events. The scriptures are a collection of claims from believers in Christ.

    Now, I have claimed that the foregoing argument is interesting, not that it is sound or cogent.

    Many ideas are interesting, but neither sound nor cogent. I would rank this one as being unsound, because a number of examples appear to exist that show how this line of thinking could lead a person into error.

  • Pierre Axiaq

    The Jews of the time had no idea, no belief, that anyone, let alone a man who was executed as a criminal, be raised from the dead before the final judgement. In fact, none of them believed the first eyewitnesses. Even after all the apostles told the apostle Thomas that they saw Jesus - he still did not believe until he saw with his own eyes. No one expected to see Jesus again.

    • Doug Shaver

      The Jews of the time had no idea, no belief, that anyone, let alone a man who was executed as a criminal, be raised from the dead before the final judgement.

      How do we know this? Do we have any first-century Jewish sources attesting to it?

  • Steven seems to suggest that it is widely accepted as a reasonable historical conclusion that God resurrected Jesus. I dispute that claim on the basis that I have audited two Introduction to New Testament courses, one from Yale, the other in the form of the Great Courses Series, presented by Bart Erhman. The latter is taught by a Christian and even has a lecture titled "The Historical Jesus". Nowhere in any of this is it even suggested that the belief in the resurection is warranted from an academic historical perspective. It may be from a theological perspective, but that is a very different claim based on different standards, of which I am unaware.

    I disagree that, even if it were established that one person who was alive at the time believed Jesus was resurected by God, we are reasonable to accept that this occurred. It is not reasonable to accept supernatural claims even if someone else believed they occurred. The good reason not to believe them is the overwhelming background information about supernatural claims. Compare the claim that Jesus was crucified versus that he resurrected. In the first case there is nothing implausible about crucifixion and we have good evidence that thousands of others were executed in this way. However, resurrection is impossible given our understanding of physics, and improbable, given that there is no good evidence this has ever happened before or after. Rather we have billions of examples of death and no resurrection. In this case the reasonable approach is to infer that the claim is mistaken or otherwise false, just as we view virtually every other supernatural claim. In other words, we have no convincing evidence that anything supernatural has ever occurred, none that anyone has resurrected, and lots of evidence that death is final, as well as legions of evidence of people lying, or being mistaken about supernatural claims. That is why it is not reasonable to accept supernatural claims as true because one person believed they perceived them to happen.

  • David Nickol

    I think when it comes to empirical matters (e.g., global warming), we take the consensus of experts very seriously (some of us, anyway!) because even if we have not studied a particular issue in depth, we know that we can indeed delve into it ourselves. The evidence is there (or at least presumed to be there) for us to examine, and so we accept the consensus of those who have studied the issue in depth.

    It seems to me (although I am sure many will disagree) that the evidence for the resurrection (the New Testament accounts) is reasonably accessible to those who are not biblical scholars, and so we are not so reliant on "experts" as we would be with many other issues.

    Now, certainly the belief in the resurrection must have started at some point in both time and geography. Clearly it began early on. But I have not seen anything that has convinced me that the belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is necessarily traceable to individuals who knew Jesus personally before his death and then encountered him physically afterward. (Paul did not know the earthly Jesus, and he gives no clear account of encountering Jesus with a resurrected, physical body.)

    I am not saying the resurrection is impossible. It just seems it is at least as possible (based on the New Testament accounts) that the appearances of Jesus in the Gospel accounts are matters of a firm belief that Jesus somehow lived on after death being affirmed by relating them as concrete events depicting a Jesus with a physical body.

  • David Nickol

    1. We should believe that things are as they are perceived to be unless and until we have good reason not to.
    2. Jesus was perceived to have been resurrected.
    3. Therefore, we should believe Jesus to have been resurrected unless and until we have good reason not to.

    I think there is a grave problem in this summary (as in the article itself). To reveal the problem, I would recast the first statement as follows:

    We should believe that things are as they are perceived to be by at least one person, who may have been hallucinating, unless and until we have good reason not to.

    The summary formulation relies on the possibly faulty perception of one person for things "as they are perceived to be."

    • Doug Shaver

      Hallucination can't be ruled out, of course. However, if all I have to explain is that somebody wrote a story about a disciple perceiving Jesus alive some days after he died, I can compare the hallucination hypothesis with the hypothesis that the story isn't historical, and I can conclude that the latter hypothesis is more probable.

  • Ron Maimon

    An ancient source reports: one day a fox came to a field and saw a large bunch of ripe purple grapes on the tree. He jumped and jumped to get the grapes, and failed to reach them. As he walked away, he said to himself "those grapes were probably sour anyway".

    Now what can we know about the historical fox? It is quite remarkable feat of thinking for an animal like a fox, and if the fox actually spoke, it would be miraculous.

    Given that it was attested that the fox jumped to get the grapes, and knowing that grapes were common in Greece, it is safe to say that the historical fox was jumping, and the goal was to get the grapes. Although some scholars dispute that the grapes were purple, as it makes more sense for the latter confusion with immature and green grapes, if the grapes were green throughout. Most scholars conclude that the report that the fox then spoke are probably exaggerated. The historical fox probably simply walked away from the grapes without saying anything, or at least without saying anything clear, so the only clue Aesop could have had to conclude that this is what the fox was thinking must have been by the manner in which the historical fox walked away. I hypothesize that the fox shook his head, and made a whimpering noise of a sort, leading Aesop to conclude that the fox was hungry, and disappointed, but rationalizing the disappointment in this way. I also hypothesize that the historical fox never ate grapes again, due to this experience. I am sure that the fox in reality did not get the grapes by the criterion of embarrassment, it is quite embarrassing to make up such a remarkable fox that is nontheless unable to get grapes from a tree.

    Why is my discussion ridiculous? Do foxes not exist? Would they not jump for grapes? It is ridiculous, because the tale is obviously not a history, it is a parable illustrating an important lesson.

    The Gospel stories are written to illustrate an even more important lesson, namely that the cultic sacrifice of Judaism has ended, and the Christian religion has salvation and immortality without a direct requirement of Jerusalem temple worship. The sacrifice of Jesus parallels the passover sacrifice and the Yom Kippur sacrifice, as explained by Carrier, and all aspects of Jesus ministry serve an allegorical purpose in describing the manner in which Christianity sets itself apart from Judaism. The death of Jesus is symbolic and meaningful, all aspects of his life are presaged in the old testament.

    Any attempt at deducing what the historical Jesus was like is simply as hopeless as deducing what Aesop's fox was like. While it is possible that there was a historical fox, it is not a bet a rational person would make, nor is it particularly possible to know what that fox was doing.

  • It's also not really a new argument. I mean, hasn't it always been that, some people say they saw him alive and walking days after death and others believed that tale?

  • Doug Shaver

    We should believe that things are as they are perceived to be unless and until we have good reason not to.

    I don't know who perceived what after Jesus was executed. I only know what was written in some documents at least a generation after his execution, and I don't think I'm justified in regarding those documents as historically reliable.

  • Peter

    "We should believe that things are as they are perceived to be unless and until we have good reason not to"

    The universe has the appearance of being, i.e. is perceived to be, designed and there is no reason for it to be anything other than how it is perceived. This implies a Designer who calibrates the laws of nature and maintains them.

    For such a Designer anything would be possible including momentarily suspending those laws to allow miracles to take place. The presence of miracles is a logical consequence of how the universe is perceived to be.

    • Doljonijiarnimorinar

      I don't share your perception. So now there is no reason for it to be anything other than how I perceive it (your words). This view doesn't imply a designer.

      I'm afraid your subjective opinion has no bearing on what the truth is, just like mine. Also, design does not imply miracles especially since there's no verification that a designer of universes and miracles occur whatsoever. You have a concept, and you reason to it instead of following where the evidence leads. And the concept of "God" is incoherent and meaningless.

      • Peter

        How do you account for the precisely-balanced low entropy conditions of the early universe, which bear all the hallmarks of design? Unless you have a more parsimonious account of how they got there, the simplest explanation is that they are what they appear to be, which is designed.

        The onus is on you to explain why the early conditions are contrary to what they appear to be. If you cannot, then they revert to their default position which is having the appearance of design.

        Second, design of the space-time of our universe implies a Designer who is not within that space-time, since a Designer cannot design himself. Such a Designer would create the laws of our space-time and transcend them, both existing outside those laws and sustaining them, possibly even to the point of occasionally suspending them to produce what we call miracles.

        • Doljonijiarnimorinar

          Precisely-balanced? For what? How is 'that' a hallmark of "design" and not just assertion? More parsimonious you say? Well, there's never been observations of universe designers.. so just about anything is simpler and doesn't make such a huge assumption to a deity, which is essentially an incoherent concept. Again, you're the one "just saying" its the perception. Well, I and many others don't. So looks like you have nothing.

          The null hypothesis is not that it's designed. Where do you come up with this stuff? The onus is on you for making the positive claim, Sport. I only disagree with your claims, didn't make my own. You're making this too easy.

          Design of the space-time, implies a designer... you realize you're just saying these things and it's not a fact, right? Right?
          Yes, and then you of course, try to imply your rabbit hole is the answer. "If this, then that.." Only you're begging the question the whole way and not even acknowledging any doubt in your statements. We both know you don't know any of this.
          Have you ever been mistaken about something, Peter? Perfect Perception Peter? What if your opinion is... wrong? Do you not allow other views to compete in your head? You want this to be the way it is, instead of dealing with reality on it's terms. Typical mistake of your ilk. How about "I don't know." Good enough answer for some of us. Your view is not probable.

          • Peter

            According to Sean Carroll, the entropy of the early universe is tuned to one part in ten to the power of 10>120. This is far greater fine-tuning than would be necessary to merely produce life here on earth, but appropriate to create an entire universe which is fertile for life.

            If and when we find signs of life on exoplanets we can conclude that the universe, and not just our solar system, is fertile for life. This means that the extreme fine-tuning of the early universe was not wildly excessive but just necessary to produce a cosmos teeming with living things.

            How do you account for the impossible fine-tuning of the early universe which leads to a universe full of life? The simplest answer is that it was purposely configured that way. And any intellect capable of creating such a configuration would also be able to intervene during its progression to produce what we call miracles.

          • Doljonijiarnimorinar

            Lawl. Again, too easy.

            Entropy is "tuned" ? Ehm.. no, begging the question.
            And now it's also "greater fine-tuned" ? You really like to stack the deck in your favor. The entire universe is fertile for life? I suggest you learn a few things before you keep making all these erroneous assertions. Need I bring up extinctions, no sign of life elsewhere yet, all the natural disasters, radiation? Please, get real Peter.

            When we find life.. assuming we do, that doesn't make it fertile for life because your sample of 2 planets bear it. There's more than a handful of planets, and most of them we have found are desolate and lifeless. Our solar system isn't fertile for life at all. Are you always this wrong? Seems like you're living in a fantasy. The cosmos is not teeming with living things!

            Last paragraph is more of the same drivel with no basis. Your "I say so, and think so" 'argument' is pathetic, Peter. You belong in a YouTube comment section. What a complete waste of time it is to engage with you. Trying to argue your perception has to be the truth smh.

          • Peter

            If there are 10>23 planets out there and two out of, say, two thousand properly observed are found to bear life, that would leave 10>20 life-bearing planets across the observable universe. That would qualify as a fertile universe, don't you think?

            Perhaps it is you are living with the fantasy that we are alone in a virtually limitless cosmos which is composed of identical elements and subject to identical laws.

            BTW, extinctions, natural disasters and cosmic radiation have all been factors which have furthered , not hindered, evolution.

          • Doljonijiarnimorinar

            Not sure I can follow what you're claiming at the start. You found 2 planets, out of 2000, that are suitable for life (this isn't true btw). Then you are extrapolating that there would be 10>20 with life as well? Think you missed a couple steps. If 10>20 out of 10>23 planets harbor life, sure I'd agree it's fertile. But that's not the case at the moment - so what?

            I'm not living any fantasies Peter, I wouldn't want you to be unemployed. I'm sticking to the facts, and the facts are this is the only planet for a trillion miles with life. We find life elsewhere and I'll happily embrace that we found life elsewhere. Doesn't make it fertile, doesn't imply a design. In fact the way things look, it has every hallmark of not being designed. Awful large waste of space out there. Humans will likely never leave the solar system. We're hardly special. Lucky for sure, but not 'created with intent' in any way.

            Natural evolution, right? Not intelligent design? Because I'm sorry but nothing was 'furthered' other than 'it kept working' because it's a natural process.

          • Peter

            It looks like you follow atheism-of-the-gaps. You use the current gaps in our knowledge to justify your atheism. But as those gaps narrow, so will the scope for your atheism.

          • Doljonijiarnimorinar

            Nice try. But there's no such thing. But there is a god of the gaps, and that is what you fall into.

            You just assume answers that aren't answers to mysteries yet unsolved. How can you legitmately state it any other way? I'm keeping an open mind and swatting away nonsense. You just ran out of assertions so you're trying to belittle my view, but my view is superior in that it is honest and evidenced. Sorry to break the cold reality to you, but your side is losing fast and hard. Atheism is on the rise, your beliefs are in the decline. Enjoy expending your time playing pretend, oops I meant having faith. I accept your apology for wasting both our time.

          • Peter

            Your views are evidenced by the current gaps in our knowledge. These gaps will shrink with time and so too will your evidence. Your mind is far from open if it is mired in the knowledge of yesterday and fearful of the knowledge of tomorrow.

            How can my beliefs that the universe is fertile for life be declining when more and more worlds are being found within the habitable zones of their stars? With every new planet found, there is an increasing expectation among the human race of extra-solar life.

          • Doljonijiarnimorinar

            Your first paragraph doesn't apply to me at all, so I don't know who you're talking about.

            Your second doesn't address what I said. I didn't say your beliefs about a fertile universe of life were declining. I said your theistic ones are, and they are. I hope we do find other life, single or multicellular. It doesn't really help your case, when you're trying to have your cake and eat it. Are humans not a special creation in your view? Your chosen god-thing never mentioned any other planetary life. Finding it goes a long way to showing how wrong your chosen beliefs are, and at the same time giving you a platform to proclaim against such beliefs, that it helps your case by saying the cosmos was designed for life. But your beliefs do not speak about other life, only here. Your pleading for a deity, when we both know you believe in a personal one only makes you look confused.

          • Peter

            Are you a proper atheist or merely anti-Catholic? Belittling certain aspects of Catholic belief which you mention does nothing to further your cause as an atheist, since the grounds, both philosophical and scientific, for the presence of a Creator remain completely unaddressed.

            If you want to spend your time attacking certain aspects of Catholic doctrine, while ignoring the core issues surrounding the existence of a Creator, your credentials as an anti-Catholic will be well noted as will your pretentiousness in claiming to be an atheist.

          • Doljonijiarnimorinar

            This just comes off as careless jibberish that again, has nothing to do with me nor my statements. I'm not the one who made claims, floundered and back-pedaled into a passive-aggressive tone. I don't think anyone cares what you think of them - you'll mislead if you want to because it is your nature.

            I am ignostic or igtheist.

          • Peter

            If you are ignostic or igtheist, it's pointless discussing with you because you regard everything in the world as jibberish.

          • Doljonijiarnimorinar

            Did I call it or what? "you'll mislead if you want to because it is your nature." Thanks for demonstrating your willful ignorance and dishonesty.

          • Michael Murray

            Being critical of Catholic doctrine or beliefs is not the same as being "anti-Catholic". The latter implies some prejudice towards people who are Catholics whereas the former could just be a case of "love the sinner, hate the sin" to borrow a phrase.

          • Michael Murray

            You are confusing two arguments here.

            (1) If we could find life on x planets out of a random sample of y planets then it might be reasonable (depending on how random the y planets are) to expect 10^23 (x/y) planets with life in the universe. So far we know of only 1 planet but we didn't choose it randomly so this argument has zero information in it.

            (2) You think that the processes that gave rise to life here must give rise to life elsewhere because the physics is uniform across the universe. The problem with that is you need to know p = "the probability of life arising" and so far all you have is an estimate that p = 10^{-23} as we know there is life on 1 planet out of some 10^{23} stars. If for some reason forming life is hard and p really is around about 10^{-23} then our one planet is what we would expect. You have a belief that p is a lot bigger than that. I realise that as we have been through that before.

            I could throw in Fermi's Paradox but we've done that to death before as well so I'll leave it. In case you haven't seen it you might enjoy articles and youtube interviews with Nick Bostrom in particular this one


            where he argues that it is good if we don't find life!

        • Doljonijiarnimorinar

          Remember, you never account for anything you claim either. You say, "Goddidit." That's not an explanation, Peter. It's another claim, replacing a mystery with a larger one.

          Baby steps...

  • I will post this again and I'd really like Steven to respond.

    There is a very good reason to reject the claim that Jesus resurrected, even if we accept that at least one disciple genuinely believed he had seen him resurrected. That is the prior improbability of resurrection.

    If I encounter someone who honestly believes in gnomes. That they saw supernatural gnomes levitate a giant boulder onto a road being built, does reason require us to accept this claim is true? No, because the person is making an extraordinary that defies the laws of nature and for which there is not confirmed examples in the past. There is no other evidence for gnomes. We also know that people can be mistaken, they can hallucinate, they can lie. We have excellent evidence of this happening in scores of occasions. It is reasonable to conclude that the prior improbability of gnomes and magic is not overcome by one person's honest account that they experienced it.

    It is the same with the resurrection. There is no evidence of anyone ever being resurrected previously or since. Therefore the prior probability of resurrection is extremely low. Not only that, but since it is a supernatural claim, science tells us that such an occurrence is virtually impossible. In comparison, competing explanations, of mistake, madness, interpolation, or lying (that our conclusion of honesty is actually wrong) are much more likely than an unheard of supernatural cause.

    In short it remains an extraordinary claim and requires extraordinary evidence.

  • Doug Shaver

    The argument does require an evidential consideration, unfortunately. However, it is one that few dispute: after his death, at least one of Jesus’ disciples took herself to have seen the resurrected Jesus.

    I don't know whether few or many people dispute that, but it certainly is disputable. To make the assertion presupposes that whoever wrote the canonical gospels were basing their statements on reliable sources.