On the Resurrection Hypothesis, part 1 of 5: Testing Historical Explanations

“The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity.”  — Sir Antony Flew, distinguished British philosopher and renowned non-theist

Last year around this time, some of you may recall that I did a 4-part series called, “On Jesus’ Death”, followed by a fifth article titled, “On Jesus’ Burial”. (Check out this page for the links.) They came out of an old manuscript I had worked on several years before, when I was reading a lot about the case for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those first five posts serve to establish a foundation for the “resurrection hypothesis”, which, as promised, I now plan to lay out in another 5-part series over the next 2-3 weeks.

Most people these days use the “minimal facts” approach popularized by Gary Habermas, laying out the 4-6 lines of evidence that are accepted “by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.” It is a great method, eliminating as it does some of the more controversial aspects. Some of those minimal facts were already addressed in my posts about the death and burial of Jesus. The rest are included in this series, but I have also included additional helpful information, such as the bit about testing historical explanations given below. As with the earlier posts, I have summarized the source material as best I can, with a few additions of my own….


Testing Historical Explanations

justifying-historical-descriptions - cover 2To determine the best historical explanation for the evidence concerning Jesus’ resurrection, we have to use something called abductive reasoning, or “inference to the best explanation” (IBE). In a scientific setting, the scientist would choose or develop his theory and test it with various experiments. The historian, often working with much less observable or hard data, must propose a particular reconstruction of the past and test by seeing how well it elucidates the evidence.

In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy), C. Behan McCullagh lists the seven factors typically used by historians to test a historical hypothesis. The hypothesis must:

1) together with other true statements, imply further statements describing present, observable data.

2) have greater *explanatory scope* (i.e., imply a greater variety of observable data) than its rivals.

3) have greater *explanatory power* (i.e., make the observable data more probable) than its rivals.

4) be more *plausible* (i.e., be implied by a greater variety of accepted truths, and its negation implied by fewer accepted truths) than its rivals.

5) be less *ad hoc* (i.e., include fewer new suppositions about the past not already implied by existing knowledge) than its rivals.

6) be *disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs* (i.e., when conjoined with accepted truths, imply fewer false statements) than its rivals.

7) must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions (2) thru (6) that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis, after further investigation, doing a better job.

Figuring out the best explanation is still no easy task. But, McCullagh advises, if a hypothesis’ scope and power are great enough to account for a larger number and greater variety of facts than any other competitors, then it is likely true. When applying the above criteria to the Christian hypothesis of the resurrection of Jesus, McCullagh observes:

“This hypothesis is of greater explanatory scope and power than other hypotheses which try to account for the relevant evidence, but it is less plausible and more ad hoc than they are. That is why it is difficult to decide on the evidence whether it should be accepted or rejected.”

Let’s look at the issue of plausibility. McCullagh defines *degree of plausibility* as the extent that a hypothesis is implied by present, ‘accepted knowledge’. This includes *background knowledge* (i.e., all knowledge one brings to the inquiry) and the *specific relevant evidence* for the hypothesis. Naturalist and supernaturalist agree that all explanations (e.g., resurrection, stolen body, not really dead, etc.) currently have zero plausibility in regards to background information, since no one living has such knowledge about the actual events. We must then depend on the specific evidence for greater plausibility. Unfortunately, the specific evidence does not argue more strongly for either a naturalistic or resurrection explanation. In fact, historians usually consider both approaches to be made more IMplausible by the specific evidence.

Perhaps McCullagh should have said that the resurrection hypothesis is more *implausible* than its rivals. *Degree of implausibility* would then be the extent that a hypothesis is implied to be false by our present/accepted knowledge. Now, it can’t be that the specific evidence makes the resurrection hypothesis more implausible, since nothing about it implies falsity of such an explanation. So, it must be something in one’s background knowledge that causes him/her to consider the resurrection hypothesis more implausible than its rivals. In other words, everybody knows that “dead men don’t walk.” At least, so says the naturalist.

Did the resurrection really happenTrue, such a thing is not exactly common occurrence, and natural laws and processes cannot revivify anyone/thing that is truly dead. But, does this really apply when assessing the implausibility of Jesus’ resurrection? After all, the hypothesis itself says that Jesus was raised from the dead by God, not by natural means. This has about zero implausibility with respect to our background knowledge. The only way that a naturalist could be justified in considering the resurrection hypothesis implausible would be if s/he had independent reasons to believe the implausibility of God’s existence or His intervention in the world. And that is a whole ‘nother argument altogether!

The bottom line is that a position which rejects the supernatural a priori is just a philosophical bias and actually hinders a fair assessment of all the relevant evidence.

So, what about the proposition that the resurrection hypothesis is more ad hoc than other hypotheses? Well, it seems to me that the only new supposition is that God exists. What about rival theories? Any conspiracy theories require us to question the moral character of the disciples. The ‘swoon theory’ requires that some sort of drug or poison was administered and/or that either the soldier never actually pierced Jesus’ side or it was really just a superficial wound. The ‘hallucination theory’ supposes some sort of emotional and/or religious predisposition for the disciples to project visions of Jesus alive. And so on. None of these things required by rival theories is implied or substantiated by existing knowledge. Plus, anyone who is already a theist already accepts the existence of God, so there would be no new supposition for them. So, the resurrection hypothesis cannot be said to be *more* ad hoc than its rivals.

Is the resurrection hypothesis ad hoc in the sense of appealing to a sort of “God of the gaps” explanation? I don’t think so. (Big surprise.) The earliest Christian apologists, in defending the Gospel miracles, pointed out the religio-historical context in which the supposed miracles were done. A supernatural explanation of the evidences for the resurrection is not ad hoc within the context of Jesus’ extraordinary life, ministry, and personal claims. A supernatural, bodily resurrection is a fitting climax.

Also, when compared to other “miraculous” explanations, the resurrection hypothesis doesn’t seem so ad hoc — e.g., a “biological miracle” that kept Jesus from dying of His injuries on the cross or with the later addition of exposure in the tomb; or, a “psychological miracle” which caused normal people to become conspirators and liars and then willingly give their lives for the lie. Now *these* “miracles” seem to be much more ad hoc and implausible.

Alright… What, then, is the relevant evidence involved in the question of the resurrection of Jesus? It can be grouped under three main categories, which I will address in parts 2-4: 1) the empty tomb, 2) the postmortem appearances of Jesus, and 3) the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

To be continued in Part 2…

Have a Blessed Palm Sunday!

Credit where credit is due: The material for defending the historical burial & resurrection of Jesus was primarily adapted from William Lane Craig’s “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” in the book Jesus Under Fire, eds. J.P. Moreland and Michael J. Wilkins.


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