Alternative Explanations for the Resurrection?

This is the final installment of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73. Mr. Martin's article is being reprinted this spring in a book by Prometheus Press. The entire response is also available here. The full response includes additional material which was not well-suited to an installment format.

Martin argues that it is not necessary for him to provide an alternative explanation for the historical evidence of the resurrection. But during his writing about other explanations, he placed a precise mathematical figure on the probability of alternative explanations. How is it possible to calculate an exact mathematical probability value without any given alternative theory in mind? How can anyone else assess whether that probability figure is valid? As someone I know has jokingly said, "86.7234% of all statistics are made up on the spot." Without any basis for the figures that he quotes, Martin's numbers will inevitably seem to be of this sort.

It is also necessary that those who reject the resurrection at least look at alternative theories for this very simple reason: if someone claims that some alternative explanation for the facts is more likely, that claim depends entirely on there being an alternative explanation for the facts in the first place. In the case certain types of miracles such as a mysterious healing, the facts can be explained in various ways: the fact that first someone was sick and then someone was well could lend itself to naturalistic explanation. Even in cases where no cure is known for a disease, it may yet be possible (in theory) that a naturalistic explanation exists but has not yet been discovered.

In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, the facts include that first he was dead – having been executed in public – and buried, then three days later he was alive again. Naturalistic explanations may be imagined for healing miracles, but at the point of death, nature no longer works to restore health. There is no natural process that restores the dead to life; that’s why naturalists’ insistence on opposing the resurrection is so strong. There is only one explanation of the facts that he was dead before, then alive after: he was raised from the dead. All the alternative explanations of the facts are not actually alternative explanations of the facts, but selective denial of the facts. Some alternative explanations deny that Jesus died in the first place (swoon theory). Some alternative explanations deny that he was alive afterwards (stolen body, mass hallucinations by disciples).

The evidence that Jesus was seen alive again is strong enough to prompt opponents to create theories in which Jesus never died. The evidence that the tomb was empty is strong enough to prompt opponents to create a theory of a stolen body to explain it. The evidence that many people did in fact see Jesus is strong enough to prompt opponents to create a theory of extended, shared hallucinations to explain it. All of these alternative theories have something in common: they resort to altering the facts which they are supposed to explain. As such, they do not fully count as alternative explanations of the facts, besides being very unlikely themselves. The swoon theory denies Jesus’ death; the stolen body theory denies the post-resurrection appearances; the mass-hallucination theory to explain Jesus post-resurrection appearances denies the reality of the empty tomb.

These are examples of the risk discussed earlier: when someone assumes it is always irrational to believe in a miracle, even granted that miracles are possible, then this anti-miracle view will necessarily lead to denial of facts or distortion of reality in the face of an actual miracle. Martin himself stops short of Hume's "always irrational" view of miracles, and stops short of the far-fetched theories which try to provide alternate explanations for the facts. But he does this at a cost: he has no viable alternative explanation, which is required for his assertion to stand that the hypothetical alternative explanation is far more probable than Jesus' resurrection.

Is it really possible that everyone who claimed Jesus to be dead was mistaken about it, from those who watched him breathe his last, to the guard who pierced his side to make sure of his death, to those who pried him off the cross, wrapped him in a cloth and laid him in the tomb? No, it is not; we can be certain of his death when he was buried. Is it really possible that everyone who claimed Jesus to be alive on the third day and after was mistaken about it, from the women outside the tomb to the close friends who gave him dinner the first night and then saw him come back again to show his wounds as proof to Thomas, from those same close friends who cooked broiled fish with him by the lake to Jesus’ brother who had been skeptical before but afterwards became a leader in the church? No, it is not; we can be certain of his life. There is only one explanation that explains the facts rather than denies them: Jesus rose from the dead.


I appreciate the job that Mr. Martin has done in setting out a number of different lines of thought that bear on peoples’ perceptions of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. He added much to the conversation with his acknowledgment of the importance of God’s purpose and his recognition that miracles can have value as a sign. The omissions of Mr. Martin’s article are not unique to him, and I would not wish to fault specifically him for them. It is typical that unbelievers, assessing the probability of the resurrection, do not take into account the solidness of evidence for earlier miracle claims associated with Jesus and allow any consideration of that. It is also typical that unbelievers do not take into account the unlikelihood of any given person being the founder of a major religion when considering the probability of Jesus’ resurrection; it is typically assessed no differently than the probability of my next-door-neighbor’s resurrection. Again, it is typical that unbelievers’ grasp of atonement is incomplete; it is a large subject with many aspects, and any one given explanation is almost sure to be incomplete by itself as well.

However, the historical evidence is solid, and God has clear reasons to raise Jesus from the dead as outlined previously. This puts the resurrection of Jesus on solidly trustworthy ground. While disputes will no doubt continue, it is largely a dispute waged against the evidence, fueled on the one hand by those who oppose the idea of Jesus’ uniqueness in God’s purposes, and on the other hand by those who have not yet ventured to hope that God would truly do what so many have asked all along: give a clear sign that this world is not all there is, that he has not abandoned us to the grave, and that he will raise us up at the last day. I'm concerned whether an amateur like myself has given a good enough account, but I hope I have shown why Christians hold to the certainty of Jesus' resurrection.


Anonymous said…
more power to this site.

- guy from philippines

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