As my friends and family would tell you, I’m a pretty trustworthy guy. If I told you I saw my colleague Bob sitting on a bench at noon, you’d have no reason to assume I made it up. Or if I told you I saw Bob standing on a balcony just after noon, you wouldn’t expect I was lying. But what if I told you that I saw Bob sitting on a bench at exactly noon (my watch beeped to tell me it had just ticked over to midday), and then the very next second (just after looking up from my beeping watch) I saw him standing on a balcony a full hundred feet away from the bench? That’s right, I say: I saw Bob teleport!
Like I said, I’m a trustworthy guy, so you’d be surprised that I made such an extraordinary claim. You’d think about the fact that I’m an outspoken skeptic, and that it would be quite a big deal for me to admit that I thought something like this was even possible. But, on a little reflection, you might weigh up the alternatives and decide I might be pulling your leg or mistaken. That’s what a normal person would do – even if you couldn’t think of an explanation for the situation, it should be deemed more likely that my story is false than true.
But what if we applied the Minimal Facts approach to the teleportation story? The story involves some supernatural elements (the claimed teleportation), but also some natural ones. You could go and locate the bench and the balcony in question – they’re real places. You can check the distances involved – yep, about a hundred feet apart. There’s no way someone could cover that distance in a second. I also claimed to have seen Bob at the bench, a person I know very well – there’s nothing wrong with my eyes, so I wouldn’t have mistaken his identity, and there’s no reason I’d just make up a story about seeing a guy I see all the time. There’s absolutely no reason to suspect I’d lie about such a mundane matter. The same goes for the claim of seeing Bob on the balcony. I certainly know how to tell the time from a watch, and I gave some pretty clear reasons why I happen to know what the time was to such a degree of accuracy. You even interview some people – a few people confirm they saw Bob at the bench and balcony at around noon (although perhaps nobody could confirm precisely how many seconds before or after noon it was).
So, after this considered thought, you decide to believe me that I saw Bob at the bench and then, only one second later, on a balcony a full hundred feet away. Given these “firmly established facts”, what are you to make of the situation? It’s obvious, right? Bob must have teleported. Even though your presuppositions about physics might cause you initially to be skeptical about the possibility, the evidence compels you to believe.
Now, is that a sensible way to approach the situation? I doubt anyone would really think so.
Think about it. Imagine I decided (for whatever reason) to try and trick you into thinking my colleague Bob had teleported. What might I tell you? Would I just say “Bob teleported – I saw him – trust me”? Of course not – why would you believe that? Rather, I would add a few details to the story to add context, make it sound more believable, and make me sound more sincere. Among other things (depending on how creative I wanted to be), I’d tell you I had seen Bob at a particular place, and then straight after I saw him somewhere else. If I didn’t include those two vital elements to the story, you wouldn’t have any reason to believe me. If I just said “I saw Bob at the balcony, so he must have teleported there”, you’d think I was mad!
The moral of the story is this. The two seemingly mundane details (the before-and-after sightings of Bob) were crucial elements to the story. Without them, nobody would even begin to consider entertaining the possibility of maybe taking me half seriously. It’s not good enough to simply say “James wouldn’t normally make up such mundane details, so he’s probably telling the truth about them”. Maybe I normally wouldn’t make up such mundane details but, on this occasion, I had a very good reason to make up those details – namely, they support my ultimate purpose – to convince you that Bob teleported.
The resurrection of Jesus
This above scenario has an important parallel in the attempts by modern theologians to prove the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Apologists such as William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas and Mike Licona have based a lot of their work on the resurrection on the so-called Minimal Facts approach. The article of Habermas I linked to above explains the method more fully (you can also see it in action in the debates of Craig vs Ehrman and Licona vs Ehrman and many others). But, simply put, the method works as follows:
The resurrection stories found in the Bible involve both natural and supernatural elements. Not everyone will be happy to accept the supernatural elements simply because the Bible says so. So, says the apologist, let’s leave those bits aside for the moment and concentrate on the natural elements. Now (supposedly, and for reasons the apologist will elaborate on – reasons I will critique in future posts), we have good reason to accept the natural elements of the story (Jesus was crucified, Jesus was buried, Jesus’ tomb was found empty, Jesus’ followers claimed to see him after his death). So, says the apologist, given these “firmly established facts”, the hypothesis that explains them most naturally is that Jesus did, in fact, rise from the dead. So we should conclude that Jesus really was resurrected.
But here we hit the same snag. Indeed, far from being innocuous little details, the sort of mundane things nobody would ever just invent, these items (the claims of the empty tomb and of post-mortem appearances, etc) are precisely the sorts of things that would need to be included if one wanted to fabricate a story about Jesus’ resurrection. As I argued in my video, Craig’s Calamitous Cock-Up, you couldn’t even consider taking a resurrection claim seriously unless it involved the sub-claims that the person had really died, was missing from his burial place, and had been seen by others after his death. If any of these details were missing from the story, why would you believe it? It would be like believing Bob had teleported because I saw him on a balcony and figured he must have got there by teleportation. In both cases, if any of these key (natural) elements were missing from the story, you would think the story teller was mad if he thought a supernatural hypothesis was the best explanation.
(From a Bayesian point of view, this is extremely important, as the fabrication hypothesis strongly predicts the existence of these natural elements.)
Could it ever work?
If the sub-claims were gathered from separate sources, each of which could be shown to have absolutely no reason to make them up, then things would be different. Imagine we had Roman records of Jesus’ crucifixion, writings of non-Christian Jews attesting that Jesus’ body had been stolen from the tomb, and claims that Jesus was subsequently sighted by people who had never before heard of him. If this was the case, and we had reason to deem the sources reliable, we’d have hardly any reason to doubt the stories – they’d arguably have had no motivation to make up the claims. We’d then have to make up our minds as to what these “firmly established facts” implied.
But, instead, the sub-claims of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, etc, all appear in each of the gospels – the very documents that make the grander claim that Jesus was resurrected. And, as I argued above, if the grander claim was to be fabricated, you’d expect the sub-claims to be present.
The natural elements of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection are exactly the kinds of natural elements that would have to be fabricated if the resurrection itself was fabricated.
I’m not claiming to know that these details were fabrications. It might be the case that Jesus’ body went missing, and it might be the case that one or more of Jesus’ disciples had some kind of vision of Jesus after his death. Maybe one or more of these details do go back to kernels of historical fact. However, I’ll argue in future posts that, even if they are all true, the resurrection is still far from the most likely explanation.
Rather, I’m claiming that we would be incredibly naïve to draw a positive conclusion regarding the resurrection based on the assumption that we can take the natural claims made in the gospels at face value.