• How (not) to argue about the resurrection


    About two years ago, in a post entitled How to argue about gods, I stated my intention to write a series of posts about the main arguments of natural theology – the Cosmological, Fine-Tuning, Moral, Ontological Arguments, as well as more Christian-specific arguments such as those from personal experience and from the historicity of the resurrection.  Well, life has been busier than I’d have liked (though I’ve been kept busy with good things) and I haven’t yet been able to devote the serious amounts of time I wish to give this project, though I’ve made a start on a few of the arguments – for example:

    So, although I haven’t discovered a mountain of free time, I’ve decided to bite the bullet and write a series on the resurrection.  Although I had originally planned to tackle arguments such as the fine tuning and moral arguments first (since the argument from the resurrection builds on the others, in the sense of moving from an almost deist god to the specific God of Christianity), various considerations have led me to treat the resurrection next.  Actually, it seems reasonably fitting to go straight for the resurrection as it is the arguably the heart of Christianity.  As the apostle Paul himself said:

    [I]f Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.  (1 Corinthians 15:14, NIV)

    Although it’s hard to get all Christians to agree on anything, the resurrection of Jesus is certainly a central pillar in the faith of most believers.  What’s more, quite a few of my Christian friends have told me that they are Christians because they believe there is good historical evidence for the resurrection.

    So the next few posts will be on the resurrection, and I intend to structure the series around the modern style of argument made by apologists such as William Lane Craig – see for example this post of Craig’s or this one from Gary Habermas.  You can actually get a good introduction to some of the arguments for the resurrection (and skeptical responses to them) by watching any of the many debates on the topic, and I highly recommend any of the following (featuring some of the more entertaining and well informed scholars going around):

    The modern argument for the resurrection is generally comprised of two parts:  it is argued separately that

    (1)  certain claims made in the gospels (that Jesus was crucified, that his tomb was found empty, that the disciples and others believed Jesus appeared to them after his death, and so on) can be established as historical facts, and

    (2)  these “facts” are best explained by the resurrection.

    This approach is known as the Minimal Facts approach and is utilised by a number of apologists (Craig, Habermas, Licona, etc).  I have considered the general validity of such an approach in another post, but in this series I will tackle both parts of the Minimal Facts argument head on.  Specifically, I will argue that:

    (1)’  there are good reasons to be suspicious of some of the proposed “minimal facts”, and

    (2)’  even if we grant the proposed “minimal facts”, the resurrection is not the best explanation.

    But this introductory post does not argue directly against the Minimal Facts argument.  Rather, it considers what a skeptic needs to do to deflect the Minimal Facts argument, or – more to the point – what a skeptic does not need to do.  Specifically, I want to take this opportunity to clear up a crucial (and far too common) misconception.  Consider the following words from the mouth of William Lane Craig:

    In order to explain that the resurrection is improbable, [a skeptic] needs not only to tear down all the evidence for the resurrection, but he needs to erect a positive case of his own in favour of some naturalistic alternatives.  (William Lane Craig, debate with Bart Ehrman, 2006 – transcript)

    I actually hear this kind of claim quite a lot, but it’s simply not true, and it’s very disappointing to hear someone of Craig’s reputation make it.  But since Craig and others do make it – all the time – it’s important to be clear about exactly why it’s wrong.  The problem is this: in order to explain why you think a certain event is unlikely to have happened, you don’t have to demonstrate that some other event happened instead.  You don’t even have to demonstrate that another event is more likely to have happened.  Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

    Suppose I decide to play a guessing game with my students one day.  I ask Adam to go into another room where he finds a huge barrel filled with thousands of marbles each labelled with one of the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,0.  Adam is to pick 20 marbles at random and write the sequence of  labels on a blackboard in the order he draws them from the barrel.  When he returns, I announce to the class “I claim that Adam wrote 00000000000000000000”.

    Needless to say, my students are now questioning my mathematical ability.  There are 10^20=100,000,000,000,000,000,000, or one hundred quadrillion possible sequences Adam could have written on the board, each of which is just as likely as any other – how could I expect to guess correctly?  My chances of being correct are 0.000000000000000001%.  I am almost certainly wrong.  But could my students “erect a positive case” in favour of any of the other 99,999,999,999,999,999,999 possible sequences?  Certainly not!  What reason could you possibly give to suggest that 76989331655938885021, for example, is more likely than 00000000000000000000?  All of the possible sequences are equally likely.  So, even though such a “positive case” could not possibly be “erected”, my claim is still highly unlikely to be true.  The point is not that there is some single alternative sequence that is more likely than the claimed one – it’s that there are so many other possibilities.  To assess the likelihood of my claim, we don’t compare the “all zeros” hypothesis to some specific “sequence X is on the board” hypothesis.  We compare the “all zeros” hypothesis to the “anything other than all zeros” hypothesis.

    Let me stress that I’m not claiming the resurrection is just one of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 equally possible explanations for the proposed “minimal facts”.  I’m simply explaining that one event can be exceedingly improbable even though it’s impossible to argue in favour of any rival event.  But even more can be said.  In fact, an event can be exceedingly improbable even if it is overwhelmingly more probable than any other given event.  Let me explain.

    In the next lecture, I decide to play another guessing game with my students, but this time I change the rules a little.  This time, Brenda is to go into the other room where she finds the same barrel filled with the same labelled marbles.  But there is also a coin on the table.  Brenda’s instructions are as follows.  Before touching any marbles, she is to toss the coin 20 times.  If she gets 20 consecutive tails, she is to simply write 00000000000000000000 on the board.  If she gets any other sequences of heads/tails, she is to use the marbles to produce a 20 digit sequence (just like Adam did) and write this on the board.  When Brenda returns, I again announce to the class “I claim that Brenda wrote 00000000000000000000”.

    What do we make of this situation?  What are the odds that I am right?  As it turns out, there is about a 0.000095% chance that the blackboard contains an all zero sequence – worse than one in a million [the boring details of the calculation are at the end of the post].  So I’m almost certainly wrong.  Again.  That small number may sound very unimpressive.  But appearances change a little when you compare it to the odds of some other given sequence – for any other conceivable sequence (76989331655938885021, say), the chance that this is the sequence written on the board is around 0.00000000000000000099%.  Again, this doesn’t seem all that meaningful – another tiny number.  But if you divide 0.000095 by 0.00000000000000000099, you discover that an all zero sequence is around 95 trillion times more likely than any other specific sequence.  (In particular, this blows out of the water any hope that a student might “erect a positive case” in favour of some rival sequence.)  So does this mean I’m likely to be right this time?  Of course not!  Even though the “all zeros” hypothesis compares extremely well to any other specific “sequence X is on the board” hypothesis, this is not the appropriate comparison to make.  As before, we need to compare the “all zeros” hypothesis to the “anything other than all zeros” hypothesis.  And the “all zeros” hypothesis has only a 0.000095% chance of being true – worse than one in a million – while the “anything other than all zeros” hypothesis has a better than 99.99% chance of being right.  Even though my prediction is a whopping 95 trillion times more likely to be true than any other specific prediction, I am almost certainly wrong.  My claim is crushed under the combined weight of the alternatives.

    Let me stress that the above examples are not intended to be directly analogous (numerically equivalent) to the question of the resurrection.  Rather, the stories about coins and marbles, and the ludicrous numbers chosen, are simply given to illustrate the fact that an event can be exceedingly improbable even if it is more probable than any other given alternative event.  Even if we could imagine that someone somehow demonstrated that the resurrection was more likely to be true than any other specific explanation of the proposed “minimal facts” (and I should hasten to point out that this is a gigantic “if”), this would not be enough to establish the resurrection as probably true.  It still might or might not be probably true, and this would depend on several other factors, including the number of alternatives.

    Let me also stress that I am not claiming the resurrection can be disproved merely by arguing that there are a huge number of alternative explanations for the proposed “minimal facts”.  As I said above, this post is not part of an argument against the resurrection.  Its purpose is simply to point out a crucial error in a claim of several apologists.  Contrary to the assertions of people like Craig, the skeptic does not have to “erect a positive case … in favour of some naturalistic alternatives”.  As it happens, I think there are plenty of perfectly plausible naturalistic alternatives that do at least as good a job of explaining the proposed “minimal facts” as the resurrection does (more on this in subsequent posts).  But I also think it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pick a single such alternative hypothesis and argue strongly that this is really what happened way back then in the first century.

    But the burden of proof is on the apologist.  The apologist should not demand a skeptic prove some specific “non-resurrection” hypothesis.  Rather, the apologist needs to show that the “resurrection” hypothesis is more probable than the “anything but the resurrection” hypothesis.  In my opinion, no apologist has ever succeeded in doing this, and this series will outline my reasons for coming to this conclusion.


    Due to a couple of people objecting that the above examples don’t apply to the resurrection because the “alternative hypotheses” were all equally probable, I’ve posted another example that doesn’t suffer from this unfortunate distraction from the main point (which still stands) – check out Coins, marbles and the resurrection.


    Boring appendix – a little calculation

    There are two scenarios that could lead to an all zero sequence in the second “guessing game” story described above: either (i) Brenda got 20 tails in a row so the all zero sequence was chosen by the coin (so to speak), or else (ii) she got some other sequence of heads and tails but then, entirely by chance, drew 20 consecutive marbles labelled 0.  The odds of case (i) occurring are 1 in 2^20, or 1 in 1,048,576, ie, about 0.000095%.  The odds of case (ii) occurring are (2^20-1)/2^20 (the odds of getting anything other than 20 consecutive heads) multiplied by 1/100,000,000,000,000,000,000 (the odds of randomly drawing 20 consecutive marbles labelled 0), which works out to about 0.00000000000000000099%.  Adding the probabilities for outcomes (i) and (ii) yields approximately a 0.000095% chance that the board contains an all zero sequence.  For any other conceivable sequence (76989331655938885021, say), the odds that this is the sequence written on the board is also around 0.00000000000000000099%.  To get this value, we use the same argument used in case (ii) above – Brenda must first get anything other than 20 heads when she tosses the coins, and must then draw the marbles in just the right order.

    Category: AtheismChristianityFeaturedHistoryJesusResurrectionTheismWilliam Lane Craig


    Article by: Reasonably Faithless

    Mathematician and former Christian
    • Matthew Kennedy

      This is a genuine question (as I’m sure you’ve watched many more of these debates than me), but Is WLC really asking people ‘to pick a single such alternative hypothesis and argue strongly that this is really what happened way back then in the first century’, and not just saying, ‘You need to demonstrate that there is at least 1 more plausible naturalistic explanation (i.e. that better accounts for ‘the facts’)’…?

      • Hi Matt, thanks for your response.

        Actually, one of the main purposes of the blog was to point out that it is still totally erroneous for Craig (or whoever) to say ‘You need to demonstrate that there is at least 1 more plausible naturalistic explanation (i.e. that better accounts for ‘the facts’)’. Indeed, stories like those above can be constructed so that there is one possible explanation than is a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times as likely as any other explanation, but still has odds of 1 in a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion of actually being true. In such a case, it would be completely impossible to demonstrate that there is a more plausible alternative, even though the original hypothesis is almost certainly wrong. (As I emphasised in the post, I’m not saying these are the kinds of numbers that apply in the resurrection, just that such stories show that the basic premise behind your alternative ‘You need to demonstrate…’ statement is false.)

        As it happens, I think there *are* more plausible naturalistic explanations, and I’ll get to them in subsequent posts.

        But to answer your question, I do think that when Craig says “[the skeptic] needs to erect a positive case of his own in favour of some naturalistic alternatives”, he is indeed asking people ‘to pick a single such alternative hypothesis and argue strongly that this is really what happened way back then in the first century’. Now, it’s *possible* that the use of the letter “s” in “alternatives” has a profound impact on whether I am right to think this. (I do actually have some thoughts about that letter “s”, but I won’t waste your time!) I think one would have to interpret Craig *very* generously to get him off the hook.


        • Matthew Kennedy

          Thanks James. I look forward to hearing the more plausible explanations… or is that explanation? : )

          I think one key difference in your examples, which you use to argue that one is not in fact required to provide a particular more plausible explanation, is that the claim of the lecturer (you, but not you : ) is disconnected from any experiences or ‘data’. It is both highly unlikely and seemingly random.
          To put it another way, the claim is unwarranted.

          The claim that Jesus is alive is made in connection with lots of ‘data’ (as you point out). Of course we may ask how solid these ‘facts’ are… etc.. the point is though that the claim is made as an explanation of experiences and other data that call forth an explanation. Thus, whilst you can deny the christian claim by simply arguing that it is too implausible to be credible, the denial has much more substance if a more plausible explanation is given… I hope that makes sense.

          • Thanks Matt. Yes, what you said makes perfect sense. I completely agree that there are major differences between the number sequence stories and the bible. The stories were included for a single point only – that “more probable than any other explanation” does not entail “most likely happened”. Actually, I deliberately picked obscenely big and small numbers to make this point even more obvious (and hopefully was clear enough that I didn’t intend to imply similar numbers are appropriate when considering the resurrection). And also I deliberately picked something as contrived but simple as picking marbles and tossing coins so there was no subjectivity when calculating probabilities – but of course this has the effect that you mentioned, which is that while explanations of the proposed “minimal facts” are not all equally likely, number sequences are – so it is important to consider the explanations of the “facts” with the mindset of a historian – but this is all coming. Thanks again, cheers!

            (And also, I should probably have said in my previous response that even if no apologist had ever asked a skeptic to argue in favour of a naturalistic explanation, or even said the watered down version you suggested, you could still take the current post as simply saying that such things are not necessary, anyway.)

          • DRC

            Matthew: “the point is though that the claim is made as an explanation of experiences and other data that call forth an explanation.”

            Just a quick clarification. I think there’s more to it than this. It is true that the claim of a resurrection is posited to explain some experiences (of the disciples and others), but we should be aware that the experiences are themselves claims! We don’t have perfect knowledge that some people actually had these experiences. Rather, we have *claims* that certain people had those experiences, and it is further claimed that those claimed experiences point to a resurrection.

            So whilst we should definitely be looking for the best explanation of the evidence, the experiences are not pieces of evidence in themselves. Rather, the evidence is a set of *claims* that people had those experiences.

            • yes, and this is exactly why the minimal facts argument is set out in the way it is. part (1) attempts to establish that the claims (eg, of an empty tomb, of post-mortem sightings of jesus, etc) are factual. and part (2) attempts to show that the items from part (1) can only really be explained by the resurrection. it’s quite possible that someone might accept (1) but not (2) or vice versa, but both parts are required for the argument to actually work.

          • I think I know what you are saying about experiences or data, but the point is only about probabilities. (In the second case, I disagree that the claim is not connected to any data – knowing that the 000…000 sequence is 95 trillion times more likely is certainly a relevant piece of information.)

            And, as DRC has pointed out, we are dealing with claimed experiences – not established experiences. But even the nature of the claims is a bit murky. We know that the authors of the gospels made/repeated the claims (eg, that the tomb was empty – but also, of course, that Jesus rose from the dead). But we don’t know who originated the claims (or even that the “claims” in the gospels were not exaggerated/evolved versions of something more low key, like claims that Jesus had appeared to someone in a dream, etc). In particular, I don’t think we have any reason to think that the characters in the story (eg, the women who are said to discover the empty tomb) are the ones who originated the claims. And even if we thought there might be a reason to think they did originate the claims (another massive “if”), we would then still have to assess the claims.

            EDIT: Oh yes, I completely agree that if another explanation could be historically established, this would make for a completely decisive refutation. But, convenient as that would be to the skeptic, I somehow doubt that a single alternative explanation could be established. I do think that there are more plausible explanations, though, and will go into these in subsequent posts.

          • D Rizdek

            Ok, let’s look at the example differently. I know this detracts from the example as it was presented, but it is altered to deal with the point that the lecturer was just guessing at what the student wrote and had no ‘data.’

            Let’s say the instructor goes into the room and sees the long list of zeros written on the blackboard (fact/data) and comes back in and reports. Do the students have to provide any alternative explanation or else believe the student actually pulled the requisite number of ‘zero’ marbles from the barrel? Or can they simply respond that they think something else happened without coming up with any specific scenario? And do all the students have to agree on what the most likely ‘alternative’ scenario is?

            I’m guessing that if something like that happened in real life, they may not actually proffer an alternative explanation but simply harbor serious doubt in their minds. That is what I do in relation to the resurrection. I don’t have to depend on alternative explanations. I can simply conclude there are too many unknowns and inconsistencies to be convinced it actually happened…even IF there were reports of an empty tomb and “Jesus” sightings.

            But I do have an alternative explanation. As I read the various anecdotes of the sightings, I get the feeling all the reports were the results of a handful of recurring dreams someone had. 1) I think there were a series of dreams about some people going to a tomb. It doesn’t even need to represent a real tomb and of course it would require NO ONE actually going to any tomb, just a person dreaming some folks went to a tomb. 2) There were some sorts of dreams about Jesus appearing to a group…either in a room or in an open area. One dream perhaps had Jesus appearing before a crowd of hundreds. There doesn’t have to be hundreds of people who saw him, just a dream of hundreds of people. So what if someone later referred to these fictitious dream participants as “witnesses?” And 3) then there was a dream about him appearing to some blokes on a road. Like before, there didn’t need to be two blokes on a road, just one person dreaming about Jesus appearing to them.

            The thing that interests me about many of the reports is that at first the dream participants do not recognize it was Jesus, but then as the dream event proceeds it becomes Jesus. I’ve actually had dreams like that. I start out dreaming about someone who I don’t recognize, and as the dream progresses/shifts they become someone I do know so the dream seems to have been about that person.

            And why wouldn’t a distraught Peter have guilt ridden dreams after perhaps believing he fails Jesus in some way? And why wouldn’t he report these dreams to his friends? He, like Paul, might have been convinced the dreams meant Jesus “had” arisen. Eventually, over the years of retelling, these reported dreams began to be seen as real events that one or more folks wrote down, compiled and added to the other reports of Jesus ministry and eventually found their way into books. Even the most literal believer believes SOME events in some gospels (not the 4 in the Bible) were made up events.

            In summary in my mind, all the reported sightings and events reported as happening after Jesus was executed could have very easily been due to someone’s dreams. The students might simply assume the student sampling the marbles hallucinated pulling all zeros and wrote it on the board. They did not have the student before them to quiz him/her just as we do not have the various authors (whomever they might have been) here to quiz them about their sources for these ‘facts.’

            And, as to anyone willing to “die for a lie,” if there were any folks who actually were killed specifically because they claimed Jesus was resurrected it is just as likely that they believed the accounts they heard as them “actually seeing” the events. Paul was willing to suffer many things…beatings, imprisonment due to his visions he claimed were real evidence that Jesus was god’s son and was resurrected. He is proof positive that someone would be willing to die for his visions. Why wouldn’t others be willing to suffer because they believed the dreams and visions they and others had were real evidence of Jesus’ association with god?

            Look how folks today embrace reports of NDEs. These are essentially visions/dreams/hallucinations someone had as they were near death. But folks by the droves accept them as real evidence of the afterlife and even specific details of what the afterlife will be like. They are reported in book, articles and movies. These become ‘facts’ with which skeptics have to deal. Must we come up with specific alternative explanations to seriously doubt they represent a visit to the afterlife?

    • Tim Chavura

      Hi James,

      Here are some thoughts about your blog post. Please let me know if I’ve misunderstood your argument somewhere.


      Tim C

      The principle drawn from the marble analogy cannot be applied to the resurrection. The reason it cannot be applied is because each possible sequence of numbers written by Adam is as
      probable as the next. One cannot erect a positive case for one sequence over another given the probability for each sequence is the equal (IE. The same).

      For this analogy to be applied to the resurrection, one would need to show that each hypothesis is equal in probability (something you acknowledge later in your post which cannot
      be done – unless I’m mistaken). The explanations for the events following the resurrection, however, are not reducible to such terms. At the very least, each hypothesis cannot be demonstrated to have the same probability as the next.

      James: “Even if we could imagine that someone somehow demonstrated that
      the resurrection was more likely to be true than any other specific explanation of the proposed “minimal facts” (and I should hasten to point out that this is a gigantic “if”), this would not be enough to establish the resurrection as probably true”

      Tim: This would only be true if the alternatives were adequate explanations of the resurrection, but they are not. The proclamation by you (as the Mathematics lecturer) that ‘you know the sequence’ is foolish because of the probability that non- 000000000000000 etc. is so much greater.

      Here, ‘00000000000’etc. represents the supernaturalistic explanation, and ‘non-0000000000’ represents the non-naturalistic explanation. In your analogies, the ‘non-000000000000000’
      scenario is so much stronger than the case for ‘00000000000’ however, this is not the case for the explanations of the resurrection.

      Ironically, the reason why one needs not to build a case for the probability of another sequence (in both of your examples) is because the point is not about another particular sequence (as it would need to be with the resurrection) but the probability of non- 0000000000000 etc.

      • Hi Tim,

        Thanks for your comments.

        Tim: “The reason it cannot be applied is because each possible sequence of numbers written by Adam is as probable as the next. One cannot erect a positive case for one sequence over another given the probability for each sequence is the equal (IE. The same).“

        Equality of the probabilities is actually irrelevant to the point I’m making. I agree that the stories I gave are simpler than the case of the resurrection, where I do realise probabilities of various rival hypotheses are different – for example, I think that P(stolen body) > P(Jesus didn’t really die) > P(Jesus didn’t even exist) > P(aliens were involved) > P(Thor was involved), and so on. But the stories I gave were simple for a very simple reason – so that we could actually work out the probabilities mathematically. The simple fact I wanted to explain was that one hypothesis could be more likely than any other particular hypothesis (maybe even EXTREMELY more likely), but still be unlikely to be true (maybe EXTREMELY unlikely).

        But if you don’t like the fact that the other hypotheses were equally likely in my stories, it would be trivial to change this. By adding extra coins, a few icosahedral dice, and a rubiks cube or two, we could create a situation where all 99,999,999,999,999,999,999 alternative hypotheses had different probabilities, but still added up to, say, 99.999999%. And still, we would have P(all zeros) being waaaaaay smaller than P(not all zeros), even though P(all zeros) might still be bigger than some given P(sequence X is on the board). Please let me know if this explanation is not clear enough – but I won’t worry about addressing your subsequent points about equal probabilities, as I believe this sorts out your objection (unless you think any of them are not adequately dealt with by this).

        James: “Even if we could imagine that someone somehow demonstrated that the resurrection was more likely to be true than any other specific explanation of the proposed “minimal facts” (and I should hasten to point out that this is a gigantic “if”), this would not be enough to establish the resurrection as probably true”

        Tim: “This would only be true if the alternatives were adequate explanations of the resurrection, but they are not. The proclamation by you (as the Mathematics lecturer) that ‘you know the sequence’ is foolish because of the probability that non- 000000000000000 etc. is so much greater.”

        I’m afraid that what I have said is just mathematically true. It is not possible to deduce “explanation H is probably true” from “explanation H is more likely than any other particular explanation” (as the stories I gave make clear). To make that deduction, you would need more information – specifically, you would also need to know exactly how many other explanations there are, and the probability of each. My examples demonstrate this (and, like I said above, if you don’t like the examples where each rival hypothesis has equal likelihood, you could easily modify it).

        But in any case, I’d like to ask: what do you mean by “adequate”? Do you mean “plausible”, or “probably true”, or something else? I agree that it is no good for a skeptic to produce a million alternative stories that are completely implausible. But, if a skeptic produces a bunch of plausible alternative stories, it doesn’t matter if you think each of them is less likely than the resurrection hypothesis – it matters if their combined probability adds up to less than the probability of the resurrection hypothesis. (But this is still ignoring the most important fact – it is up to the apologist to demonstrate that the resurrection has a high probability.)

        But after considering where this misunderstanding might have come from, I will add the word “alone” to the original post to make this clearer: “this alone would not be enough to establish the resurrection as probably true”.

        Tim: “In your analogies, the ‘non-000000000000000’ scenario is so much stronger than the case for ‘00000000000’ however, this is not the case for the explanations of the resurrection.”

        What is your basis for asserting this? How would you describe the “non resurrection” hypothesis? What do you assign to the probability of the “non resurrection” hypothesis, and why? In fact, your assertion here is *precisely* the assertion that the apologist needs to demonstrate (and which I have never seen demonstrated). Or is your issue with *how big* the difference is between the “all zeros” hypothesis and the “anything but all zeros” hypothesis? I really don’t claim to know precisely how much more likely the “non-resurrection” hypothesis is than the “resurrection” hypothesis – it might be 1000000000000000000000000 times, or 10000 times, or it might be the other way around. But it is up to the person who wishes to show that the resurrection is probable to demonstrate that P(resurrection) P(anything else), not demand the skeptic to show that P(anything else)>P(resurrection).)


        • Tim Chavura

          Sorry for the formatting of this post. For some reason this site changes it when I paste it.

          James: But, if a skeptic
          produces a bunch of plausible alternative stories, it doesn’t matter if you
          think each of them is less likely than the resurrection hypothesis – it matters
          if their combined probability adds up to less than the probability of the
          resurrection hypothesis.

          Tim: Agreed. However, I can’t
          see how this could be achieved given the need for the combined alternatives to have
          internal consistency. I have not yet seen this demonstrated.

          Gerd Lüdemann
          argues for the burial of Jesus (but states it’s not clear who did it), a series
          of collective hallucinations (or as he prefers visions derived from guilt complex) leading to the misunderstanding
          of Jesus having (been) raised from the dead (not to mention another vision
          experienced by Paul roughly five(?) years after Jesus’ death.

          Looking at this theory: A series of the world’s only collective
          hallucinations (plural because there is one experienced by 500 people, another sub-series
          of experiences by eleven or more people each time, and another by individuals
          removed from Jesus entirely – Paul and the others on their way north). These
          hallucinations include eating, hearing, being taught, being rebuked, being comforted, being blinded and the
          physical touching by / of the object of the vision.

          What do you think of the
          strength of this contention? Do you agree with Lüdemann?

          Ehrman in the debate you
          quote states that he will both lay out his own case and indicate the
          problematic nature of Craig’s. He offers what he calls an improbable scenario
          (actually, an impossible one) but claims it’s more probable than Craig’s
          because Craig’s involves a miracle.

          (This is a telling weak point
          which I’m sure you’ll discuss later in your posts).

          Interestingly, Lüdemann and Ehrman
          acknowledge the need to build an alternative case to a supernatural event
          (Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Fiction, 60, Ehrman opening speech). This seems
          to work against the first post in your series. Craig’s opponents are quite
          happy to build an alternative case.

          In any case, it will
          strengthen your position if you do so too.

          I’ll look for your next posts, James.

          • Tim:
            Agreed. However, I can’t see how this could be achieved given the need for the combined alternatives to have internal consistency. I have not yet seen this demonstrated.

            Are you saying that any possible alternative is internally inconsistent? Or that the alternatives cannot all be true at the same time? The former is quite a claim indeed! And the latter would be to entirely miss the point, so I guess that isn’t what you mean. Maybe you mean something else?

            Stuff about Ludemann

            First of all, you could probably point to several scholars I would disagree with, though this is irrelevant. In fact, if any scholar claims to know what really did happen back then in the first century, I would be very skeptical – I’d read their argument with a great deal of interest, of course, but I would subject it to just as much scrutiny as I would any argument put forward by an apologist for the historicity of the resurrection.

            You seem to be saying that collective visions/hallucinations are absolutely impossible – but this is simply not true. What about the Miracle of the Sun, where tens of thousands of Portuguese people claimed to have seen the sun come down to the earth (among other things) in the early 1900s?


            Or do you think that actually happened?

            As for the rest of your discussion, you seem to be taking the details of the gospel (etc) stories (the number of supposed witnesses, the supposed activities of Jesus eating etc during the visions/appearances, and so on) as absolutely indisputable facts, and then argue that visions/hallucinations cannot account for these. I kind of agree in that sense (so if Ludemann really argues in exactly this way, then I disagree with him). It would be like taking the entire gospel, deleting the sentence “Jesus rose from the dead”, and challenging someone to insert a new sentence that made sense of *everything else*.

            But this is not what the skeptic needs to do. I think (and will argue properly in subsequent posts) that something much more mundane probably happened – such as a vision/hallucination/dream by one or more of Jesus’ followers (not a mass collective vision of exactly the same thing) and that things somehow snowballed as the story got retold and embellished by many people who wanted to believe what they said and eventually got written down by people who had not even met the originators of the story. Of course this is speculative (and there aren’t enough details for you to properly critique it – those are coming, so we should probably wait until then to discuss its merits), but as I said, it isn’t up to the skeptic to prove what really happened – the real story of what happened is almost certainly impossible to uncover. But it is easy to think of plausible alternatives. And as I stressed in this post, it is really up to the proponent of the argument (the person who thinks the resurrection can be established historically) to prove that the resurrection is more probable than all the alternatives combined.

            Stuff about Ehrman.

            Ehrman actually makes exactly the same point I’m making. That it’s easy to think of naturalistic alternatives – he mentions a few, including one about Jesus having a twin – and he specifically says that these are all probably very unlikely. He goes further to say they are more likely than a miracle, and sure we could discuss this point (though I don’t share your assumption that this is so obviously problematic), but it will not be essential at all to my case. (On a related note, our mutual friend has formulated a very good version of this argument of Ehrman’s elsewhere, and I haven’t seen it dealt with.)

            I’m not aware of any place that Ehrman/Ludemann claim that it is necessary to build a positive case for a single alternative event to the resurrection in order to cast doubt on the claim that the resurrection most probably happened. *This* is what I talk about in this current blog post. If you can quote Ehrman or Ludemann on this, I will be interested to read it (though if they do say that, they are wrong). What I can imagine them saying is that it would be good to be able to describe some possible alternatives in order to show that the resurrection is not the only plausible explanation (as the proponents of the resurrection argument claim), and I agree, which is why I plan to do so (and I pointed out in this post, and gave a couple more details of in this comment).

            I’ll look for your next posts, James.

            Have you seen the follow-up to this one? It involves a third coin/marble scenario that takes into account your complaint (and Glenn’s) that the alternative hypotheses were all equally probable in the first two scenarios.

            • Tim Chavura

              Hi James.

              I think it’s important to wait for your subsequent posts. If I have time, I’ll take a look at your coin/marble post.

              There are some things I would like to respond to in your post here, but I need to be selective due to time 🙂


            • I hope you do find time to take a look at the coin/marble post, seeing as I wrote that whole blog to address the question you raised (about the alternatives having equal probabilities). I’m interested to know if you are satisfied with it as an answer to your objection.

    • kraut2

      can be established as historical facts, and

    • Glenn Peoples

      Thanks for posting this James (and for alerting me to it).

      You said: “in order to explain why you think a certain event is unlikely to have happened, you don’t have to demonstrate that some other event happened instead.”

      In the interest of strict fairness, it’s important to see that the section you quoted from Craig doesn’t actually say this. He is not asking people to explain why they think the resurrection is “unlikely” in that particular section. Instead, he is asking people to explain the minimal facts (and in this article you seem to grant them as facts for argument’s sake). His claim is that if you think that the best of the available explanations of the minimal facts is not the resurrection, then you need to be prepared to say what it is. Obviously there are possible explanations of the facts, each of which has a probability. Either the resurrection is the explanation that is most likely, or else something else is. If you think something else is – and this is what Bill is talking about – then what is it?

      After summarising Bill’s claim this way (which as I say is not quite right), you then go on to offer a parallel, in which ” There are 10^20=100,000,000,000,000,000,000, or one hundred quadrillion possible sequences Adam could have written on the board, each of which is just as likely as any other,” which is not going to do much to work against Craig’s claim. Why would the apologist grant that all explanations are equally probable? You say (in reply to Tim) that this is irrelevant, but it certainly doesn’t appear to be. It colours the example through and through. Indeed, this would surely beg the question by assuming that the resurrection is no more probable than any other explanation. If that is so, and this brings us back to Craig’s comment, suggest another explanation that is equally likely. Now, you say ‘Let me stress that I’m not claiming the resurrection is just one of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 equally possible explanations for the proposed “minimal facts”.’ But if you’re not saying that all the other explanations are equally likely at all, then it’s hard to see the function played by the example.

      In fact, and this is probably the main thing that stands out about your first scenario, in your first example we can demonstrate the likelihood of all possible outcomes and show that other outcomes really are just as likely as the one you predicted. So rather than refuting Craig’s claim, doesn’t this reinforce it? Isn’t this the equivalent of saying to him: “Very well, challenge accepted, here look, I am showing you that other explanations are equally plausible.”

      So I think the first example can be struck out completely. It assumes something that Craig would deny (namely that all explanations equally good or likely), and it’s not a counter example after all, since it is a scenario where you can actually show that other outcomes are equally likely.

      That leads to your second example, in which one outcome is much more likely than all others, but still very, very unlikely (the example with the dice and the marbles). This illustration, as far as I can tell, is designed to show that even if the resurrection is the best explanation, if it’s really, really improbable then we still shouldn’t favour it. I don’t know that the example is very persuasive. This is partly because you’re talking about outcomes, rather than explanations. While there may indeed be millions upon millions of possible outcomes in the scenario you describe, are there as many explanations of the outcome?And what if there were only, say, fifty possible outcomes? Is there really a hug number of possible explanations of the minimal facts? You may regard questions like these as beyond the scope of the comparison, but I hope you’ll see that the answers to these questions could potentially make the comparison much, much weaker than you think it is. It is also partly because you’ve stipulated that the probability of the most likely outcome is very, very low. Here Craig would justifiably ask why we should assume that the possibility of a miracle is automatically assumed to be more or less out of the question. If you say that I am pressing the example too far, and really the probabilities might not be that low, then again, it is difficult to see the role played by the example at all. For if the probabilities of the proposed explanations – or at least one of them – are actually worthy of consideration, then it seems perfectly reasonable to ask that rival explanations be shown to be at least equally likely.

      • Dammit – lost an almost finished response. The short summary is that I agree with you and Tim that the equal probabilities of the alternatives in the stories distracts from the point I’m trying to make. I think it would therefore be profitable to post a little follow-up. As I said, the stories are not meant to be numerically equivalent, only to show that it is not necessary to show a single alternative scenario/explanation is more likely than the one in question – the key point (particularly in the second example) is that the alternatives are all much less likely but their combined probabilities add up to far more than the probability of the hypothesis in question. The scenario with equal probabilities were included for simplicity of calculation, and moved from the first to second in order to introduce the simple idea and then move on to the more complicated (but more relevant) one. It seems clear I should have moved on to an even more relevant one (with non-equal alternative probabilities).

        Also, I disagree with your interpretation of Craig’s statement. If you check the transcript, Craig is talking about his fraction X/(X+Y). But, again, note that the Y term (equal to P(~R)x(P(E:~R)) incorporates *all* other possibilities, not just a small handful. And asking someone to argue in favour of one possible alternative (or several) may be completely inappropriate. It might be impossible to do so (because perhaps the resurrection *is* more likely than any other particular alternative – big “perhaps”) but for the resurrection to still be highly unlikely. It might also be the case that you could think up 10 alternatives, each of comparable likelihood to each other (setting aside their comparative likelihood to the resurrection), in which case, how could you argue for one of the 10 in preference to the other 9? Sure, it would be super convenient for the skeptic if s/he was able to argue that one particular alternative hypothesis was more likely than the resurrection, but this is not the only way that X/(X+Y) could be small.

        But, as I think I said to Matt, even if we charitably interpret Craig (and every other apologist) so that he has never said that a skeptic needs to argue in favour of an alternative explanation, this post is still useful in making sure nobody thinks the minimal facts argument can only be dealt with by arguing that some other explanation is right.

        Thanks for your feedback, btw. I’m looking forward to interacting over the course of the series. Cheers.

        • Glenn Peoples

          James, on reviewing the transcript of the debate (http://www.reasonablefaith.org/is-there-historical-evidence-for-the-resurrection-of-jesus-the-craig-ehrman) I see you’re right, Craig’s comment is about one’s attempt to make a claim about the low probability of the resurrection. He says that you can’t just say that the resurrection is unlikely, you’ve got to say something on behalf of a naturalistic alternative (or at least some alternative).

          Although in context, it is evident that Craig thinks he has just finished giving an actual argument that the sceptic does have this duty (see the section where he argues: “Specifically, Dr. Ehrman just ignores the crucial factors of the probability of the naturalistic alternatives to the resurrection [Pr(not- R/B) × Pr(E/B& not-R)]. If these are sufficiently low, they outbalance any intrinsic improbability of the resurrection hypothesis.”) Your quote seems to pick up just after Craig gives that argument. Rejecting Bill’s claim with credibility will surely depend on one’s ability to show that his argument in support of the claim is wanting.

          I look forward to the follow up!

          • Thanks Glenn. (Naturally, I don’t claim that Craig speaks for every apologist.) By the way, that comment of Craig is made with respect to an argument Ehrman makes in his books:

            “Because historians can only establish what probably happened, and a miracle of this nature is highly improbable, the historian cannot say it probably occurred.” (The Historical Jesus, pt. II, p. 50).

            rather than actually ignoring an argument that Craig had made in the debate. By this point in the debate (Craig’s first rebuttal), Craig and Ehrman have only just made their opening statements – Ehrman has given his own pre-prepared speech, and has not begun to officially reply to Craig, even though he spoke second.

            It’s actually a really interesting debate – one of my favourites – have you seen the whole thing? (I did a video response to the bits about probability – http://www.skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless/2012/09/07/craigs-calamitous-cock-up/ )

            Also, I’ve popped up a third “guessing game” scenario, as promised – http://www.skepticink.com/reasonablyfaithless/2014/10/23/coins-marbles-and-the-resurrection/

    • Posting this on behalf of a reader who emailed me (and is happy for their comment to be published) as I think it is of interest.

      Thanks for your interesting and detailed post. Some time ago I wrote an essay on the application of probability theory to religious arguments, with a particular focus on one-off events.

      Let’s examine WLC’s statement: “In order to explain that the resurrection is improbable, [a skeptic] needs…” That’s a red herring. Probability theory becomes increasingly meaningless as the sample size reduces towards 1. Either the resurrection occurred or it did not: the post hoc probability that it occurred is either unity or zero; the prior probability of it occurring is completely irrelevant to religious debates.

      Simple analogy… I roll a die and get a 3, what is the probability of that? Obviously, the probability is unity because 3 is what occurred. The prior probability was 1 in 6, but that ceases to have any relevance after the event.

      If I want to debate skeptics about basing my life on the fact that a die produced a 3, I first have to provided solid evidence for my claim that it actually produced a 3. If say “Oh, I read in an old book that the die produced a 3.” then skeptics might think that I’m a jackass.