A Naturalistic Explanation of the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus

Synopsis

In this piece I argue that the Hallucinations, Biases, and Socialisation Model (henceforth HBS model, which I outline here) provides a superior explanation for the resurrection appearances of Jesus of Nazareth than does the competing Christian explanation (i.e. that Jesus was raised by God). In making this argument, I first present an account of what I mean by an ‘explanation’, and how one explanation can be judged superior to another. I argue that an explanation has greater explanatory power to the degree to which it can explain diverse phenomena (‘explanatory scope’), and to the degree to which it does not need to introduce antecedently unknown entities (‘plausibility’).

I then argue that the HBS model is both more plausible and has wider explanatory scope than the Christian explanation. I argue that it is more plausible since it depends only on the existence of psychological and sociological processes which are known to exist, whereas the Christian explanation must make contentious and uncertain assumptions about the existence and motivations of God. I argue that is has wider scope because it is capable (with minor adjustments) of explaining a wide range of miracle claims across different religions, whereas the Christian account is specific to the Resurrection appearances only. I thus conclude by arguing that, since the HBS model provides a superior explanation for the resurrection appearances without needing to posit the divinity of Jesus, the alleged superior explanatory power of the Christian explanation (as argued by apologists like William Lane Craig or Mike Licona) cannot in fact be appealed to as a significant argument to support the probable truth of Christianity.

Explanation

What is an Explanation?

I will begin by assuming that our objective is to provide an explanatory account of the resurrection appearances, including other associated details like the empty tomb and the conversion of Paul. The first step, I think, is define what we mean by an ‘explanation’, since different people use this word in different ways. In my view, an ‘explanation’ is more than just a satisfying story, or an account that seems to ‘make sense’. An explanation needs to get at the ‘underlying truth’ of the situation; what we might call the ‘causal structure’ of what is occurring. I know words like ‘truth’ and ‘causal’ are themselves problematic, but I’m trying to gesture at a very tricky concept here by using terms that I hope people have some existing familiarity with.

In light of these considerations, let me provide what I think is a suitable first-order approximate definition which will be sufficient for our purposes here: “an explanation of some phenomena X consists of a set of events, entities, and processes, which taken together provide/entail the causes which gave rise to X”. Put simply, an explanation of X is an answer to the question “what made X be the case?”, or “why X and not something else?”

Quality of Explanations

Explanations are not all or nothing; they come in varying degrees of higher and lower quality. In assessing the relative quality of different explanations, I believe that essentially what we are doing is maximising some abstract quantity, which for the sake of argument I will call the ‘power’ of the explanation. That is, better explanations have greater ‘explanatory power’. Explanatory power is a difficult and abstract concept which eludes simple definitions. Here I propose (again for the sake of conceptual clarity and without pretence of comprehensiveness) to think of explanatory power as being the combination (in a vaguely mathematical manner, analogous to multiplication) of two additional concepts: ‘scope’ and ‘plausibility’. Let me explain each of these in turn.

Scope

Explanatory scope refers to the size and extent of the phenomena that a given explanation can explain. Thus, given a particular explanation, the more different things that are in X (the set of things which are explained), the greater is the scope of that explanation. Special Relativity has greater explanatory scope than classical Newtonian Mechanics, as the latter is only applicable when velocities are considerably lower than the speed of light, while the former is applicable with any velocities. Greater explanatory scope is to be preferred, as it means that the explanation yields a greater insight into the underlying causal processes at work; it ‘tells us more’ about what is going on. However, greater explanatory scope does not by itself mean that an explanation is a good one – for instance, conspiracy theories tend to have very large explanatory scope, as they provide causal explanations for (often) a very diverse range of social, political, and economic phenomena. Such explanations, however, generally score poorly on the criteria of plausibility, to which I will now turn.

Plausibility

The plausibility of an explanation refers to its ‘simplicity’ or (more loosely) its ‘elegance’. This is closely related to the idea of Occam’s razor, which some people state as being the principle that ‘simple explanations are to be preferred’ or ‘the simplest explanation is most likely to be correct’, however I think this is a misleading characterisation. As I believe the idea is generally understood and applied in science and elsewhere, the notion of ‘simplicity’ has little or nothing to do with how easy an explanation is to understand, or how long it takes to explain, or even how many entities or processes it needs to appeal to. Rather, the version of the razor which I prefer, and which I think is most accurately descriptive of good inferential practise, is ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’. That is, given a particular phenomena to be explained, the explanation which requires the fewest assumptions or premises that are new (that is, not known antecedently) is (all else equal) to be preferred as an explanation. Understood in this way, the value of simplicity in an explanation is that with every new assumption we introduce about something existing or some process working in a particular way, we also introduce another place where we might make a mistake or go wrong. The more of these there are in our explanation, the more likely it is that at least one of them is incorrect, and hence the less likely the explanation is to actually be true.

Explanatory Power

Now that I have outlined the notions of ‘scope’ and ‘simplicity’, I will return to articulating the concept of ‘explanatory power’. As I stated earlier, I believe that explanatory power can be profitably understood as combination (loosely speaking, like the mathematical product) of scope and plausibility. That is, an explanation is said to have greater explanatory power to the degree to which it has greater scope, and the degree to which it has greater plausibility. Explanations with greater explanatory scope are to be preferred because they tell us more about the underlying causal processes at work, and more plausible explanations are to be preferred because they are ceteris paribus less likely to introduce a false assumption or premise which would invalidate the explanation.

Many explanations in science, and I also think some in history and even philosophy, have both a wider scope and high plausibility, and so consequently have high explanatory power. Some explanations, like conspiracy theories, have wide scope but immensely low plausibility (as they must posit a very large number of people working behind the scenes, competence to avoid detection, presence of immense resources, motivations to act, and many other such things that we do not antecedently know to exist, and indeed I think often have good reason to believe do not and even cannot exist). Other explanations may lack explanatory power for the opposite reason: although they have high plausibility in the sense of not needing to posit many new entities or processes, they may be so circumscribed and restricted in the class of phenomena which they can explain, that their explanatory scope is very narrow (arguably many historical explanations are of this sort). The sort of explanations which have the least explanatory power of all are those with both narrow scope and low plausibility (I think many paranormal explanations fit into this category, as they often only apply to specific events or a small class of events, and also make reference to ghosts and other such entities which are not antecedently known to exist).

Degrees of Plausibility

Before moving on, there are two final points to make. First, when I talk about ‘positing new entities and processes that are not antecedently known to exist’, this should be interpreted properly be interpreted as also being a matter of degrees. Entities or processes are seldom known for certain to exist, but are antecedently established with varying degrees of probability. Likewise, one entity or process cannot necessarily be assumed to be equal in plausibility to another merely because they are both referred to by a single word. Positing a new type of fundamental particle, or a new Neolithic culture in some part of the world, will in general be much less ‘extravagant’, and hence much more plausible, than positing the existence of ghosts or big foot, even if the latter are capable of providing a causal account of (i.e. an explanation for) the same set of phenomena. Of course, making this determination about the relative degrees of plausibility of different entities or processes is often quite difficult, but in principle I believe this is what we ought to attempt when constructing a plausible explanation.

Consistency

Second, many people in discussing explanations make reference to the consistency of an explanation; both the consistency of the explanation with the specific events or processes to be explained, and also more generally its consistency with our existing background knowledge about the world. Personally, however, I do not think it is necessary to introduce ‘general consistency with background beliefs’ as a separate criterion in judging explanatory power (or the quality of explanations generally), as I believe the idea of an explanation being consistent with our ‘background knowledge’ about the world is already incorporated into the notion of simplicity, in the form of the number of ‘new entities’ that a proposed explanation must posit. As to the question of consistency of the explanation with the specific phenomena to be explained, I think that if the explanation is inconsistent with the phenomena to be explained, then it is simply not an explanation of those phenomena (though it may be a partial explanation of sum subset of those phenomena). This sort of specific consistency, however, is relatively easy to obtain, simply by introducing additional ad hoc auxiliary hypothesis into an explanation (e.g. in an extreme example, one could simply say the explanation works one way on Mondays and another way on Tuesdays. Obviously this has very low plausibility, but it is nonetheless consistent with the specific phenomena to be explained).

The Resurrection Appearances

The HBS Model

We are now in a position to analyse competing explanatory accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Given the above considerations, we have established that our goal is to discover or develop an explanation with the maximum amount of explanatory power. Such an explanation allows us to understand the most about why things happened as they did, at the lowest ‘cost’ in terms of introducing new, antecedently unknown entities or processes (and thus multiplying the chances for error to creep in).

I believe that my HBS model (probably with some tweaks and additions, as its only a first draft, and I’ve had much less time to work at it and expertise spent on it than have the apologists on their arguments) possess greater explanatory power as an explanation for the resurrection appearances (and related events) on both accounts: I believe it has wider scope, and also greater plausibility. I will now defend each of these claims in turn.

Scope of the HBS Model

I believe the HBS model has reasonably wide scope because, with relatively small adjustments of details, it can serve as an account for the development and propagation of many different miracle claims and other paranormal beliefs throughout history. The psychological and sociological processes that it refers to are, given their widespread documentation and repeated validation, largely universal (in broad terms, obviously specifics vary), and so can be appealed to in many different cultural and historical circumstances to explain how people’s memories are reshaped over time, and how large groups of people can come to believe very unusual things even in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As such, since it is able to provide an account of a wide range of phenomena, the HBS model has reasonably wide explanatory scope.

Plausibility of the HBS Model

I also believe the HBS model has reasonably high plausibility, as it does not require the introduction of many new entities or processes. The model is based upon known psychological and sociological phenomena which have been generally quite well documented (though more work remains to be done on many details of course), and thus are antecedently known to exist. The main posit necessary in the model is in extrapolating these processes beyond the specific environments in which they have been originally studied, and applying them in collectively to explain a particular complex event in history (i.e. the resurrection appearances). In extrapolating and applying such phenomena, there is of course a degree of uncertainty. The HBS model assumes that the processes operate in broadly the way they have been observed to in various other contexts, and also assumes that they can interact and play off each other in the way I outlined in the model. I believe that these are reasonable assumptions to make, as the processes I document are sufficiently robust, and have been observed in sufficiently many contexts, that extrapolating them in the manner in which I have done in the HBS model is reasonably plausible, and consistent with other such ‘extrapolation’ practices in science and history.

Explanatory Power of the HBS Model

Thus, taken together, I believe that the HBS model of the resurrection appearances exhibits a fairly high degree of explanatory power. Its antecedently unknown assumptions are relatively few, mostly restricted to extrapolating and applying processes which I believe are already quite well documented. As such, it has fairly high plausibility. Likewise, its explanatory scope is reasonably high, as (with some appropriate modifications of specifics) the broad account can be applied to explain many other miracles and supernatural claims throughout history.

Plausibility of the Christian Explanation

I will now contrast the HBS model, with the Christian explanation of the resurrection appearances – namely that God resurrected Jesus, who then went on to appear to his various followers. First, I believe this account has relatively low plausibility. As far as I can tell, it requires three assumptions or premises which are not antecedently established: 1) that there is a God, 2) that this God desires to intervene in human affairs, and 3) that Jesus was the/a means by which this God desired to intervene in human affairs. I have chosen this tripartite division because I think it facilitates greater conceptual clarity: God could exist but not care to intervene in the world, or he could exist and be interventionist, but not be interested in resurrecting Jesus because in fact he is the Islamic God or the Hindu god (or whatever else). Of course, one could subsume all three assumptions into a single premise, for example simply “Jesus was God”, but I think this is essentially just stating the same three things in a different way. The key point is not how many sentences we write, but how many distinct conditions there are, each are separately controversial: some people believe 1) only, some believe 1) and 2), some all three, and others none.

So how plausible are propositions 1-3? I don’t know. I have argued elsewhere that our best guess for the probability of 1) is something like 10%, however I think even values north of 50% are also defensible (though not, say, 90%). The other two are considerably harder to put numbers on. Regardless, the real point is simply that I believe a Christian should agree that, antecedently to considering the resurrection, all of these three propositions are at best uncertain. They are a long way from firmly established. By contrast, I think most of the psychological and sociological processes utilized by the HBS model are quite firmly established, and the extrapolations made in applying them to the particular case of the resurrection are relatively small. This is, of course, a question of weighing up relative plausibilities, which is not easy to do. But I do think a strong case can be made that the processes and entities which the HBS model must posit in order to explain the resurrection appearances are antecedently known to exist with considerably higher confidence than the entities and processes required by the Christian account. As such, it is my view that the HBS model has greater plausibility than the Christian explanation.

Explanatory Scope of the Christian Explanation

I also think that the HBS model has greater explanatory scope than the Christian explanation. As noted before, the HBS model (with minor adjustments) can explain a diverse range of supernatural and miracle claims from all over the world, as it relies on psychological and sociological processes which (in general terms) are known or reasonably thought to operate in sufficiently similar ways across different times and cultures (there is, of course, a degree of extrapolation here as noted above, but I believe it is reasonably small). In contrast, the Christian explanation is so specific that it can only account for the Resurrection appearances, and perhaps also (with minor adjustments to extend the account to Jesus also appearing at other times and places in history) at least some subset of other Christian miracle claims throughout history. It cannot, however, provide any explanation for the many other miracles reported in Buddhist, Hindu, Mormon, Islamic, Pagan, and many other religious and spiritual traditions. As such the Christian explanation has narrower explanatory scope than the HBS model.

A Caveat

I am not saying here that a Christian worldview cannot provide an explanation for non-Christian miracle claims or paranormal occurrences. Rather, what I am saying is that the Christian account of the resurrection appearances, or any simple extrapolation thereof, does not itself provide such an explanation. Perhaps by introducing further assumptions about God appearing in other ways throughout history, or demons acting to deceive mankind, or even by appealing to some of the very same psychological and sociological mechanisms which the HBS account is based on, a Christian would be able to provide an explanation for these other miracle claims that is consistent with their worldview. But my point is precisely that this would require positing additional entities or processes (demons who can appear to people, or God choosing to reveal himself in additional ways to other peoples, etc) which are not entailed by the original explanation of the resurrection appearances itself.

Conclusions

Summing up, I have argued that the HBS model of the resurrection appearances possess greater explanatory power than does the Christian explanation. As such, I believe that we ought to prefer the HBS model over the Christian explanation, and judge that the former is more likely than the latter to be a correct, ‘true’ account of the causal processes which accounted for these sequences of events. If this is correct, it follows that the inference from the resurrection appearances to the probable divinity of Jesus (and hence the truth of Christianity) is an unsound one. Such an inference cannot validly be drawn, because in fact a more satisfactory causal account of these events can be given which does not entail the divinity of Jesus or the truth of Christianity.

It is very important to emphasise that here I am not in any way making an argument for the falsity of Christianity. Indeed, I believe a perfectly orthodox Christian could agree with my entire argument here. I am saying only that the Christian explanation for certain historical facts concerning the resurrection appearances (and related matters like the empty tomb and conversion of Paul) does not constitute by itself a strong reason to believe in the truth of Christianity, as there exists a superior explanation which does not entail this conclusion (namely, the HBS model). In spite of this, Christianity could nonetheless be true, since the HBS model does not rule out the divinity of Jesus or the reality of the resurrection accounts; it simply renders them unnecessary to explain said phenomena. Indeed, I believe (though I don’t have any firm data on this) that the majority of Christians both in the present and throughout history have not believed on the basis of this sort of historical argument. As such, I certainly don’t think that refuting this argument is a refutation of Christianity. It is merely a refutation of this particular argument in favour of Christianity.

A final point that I wish to make is that this isn’t merely some sort of intellectual game. It’s about finding the truth. If we wish to honestly seek the truth, we cannot decide on our conclusion beforehand and work out what evidence or arguments will get us there. We must examine the evidence and arguments as objectively as we can (with perfect objectively always remaining elusive), and attempt to arrive at the conclusion which is best supported by said facts and arguments. I believe that the conclusion which is best supported by the facts and arguments available, in the light of the analysis I have given, is that the resurrection appearances can be better explained naturalistically rather than supernaturally, and that as such the Christian explanation of the resurrection appearances does not constitute any substantial reason for belief in the truth of Christianity. I might be wrong about this conclusion, and so I invite everyone reading this to honestly and politely critique my arguments to expose errors or gaps in my reasoning. May we all be enriched in this joint search for the truth concerning this most important question.

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How can Christians be so Certain?: Why Subjective Evidence isn’t Evidence

Synopsis

In this piece I ask the question ‘how can Christians be so confident in their beliefs’? I argue that it cannot be reasons and evidence, because the reasons and evidence available relate to matters that are too uncertain and about which we know so little that they cannot possibly justify the level of confidence that Christians have. I then turn to subjective evidence, and argue that it does not fulfill the crucial criteria of evidence, namely to distinguish true from false beliefs in some reliable way. Thus, I argue that subjective evidence cannot justify confident Christian belief. I then examine the claim that God could grant us a direct, indubitable spiritual witness if he so desired. I argue that even if God could do this, he does not, as we can see from the conflicting claims to possess such a witness from those of different faiths. I therefore conclude that, whilst Christians can adopt belief as a choice, they cannot justifiably claim high degrees of confidence in that belief.

A Motivating Anecdote

Below is a paraphrased and simplified, but accurate in essentials, outline of the final portion of an exchange I once had with a Christian:

Me: “So how do you that Christianity is true?”
Christian: “One compelling reason is all the Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfilled”
Me: “But Jews read the same Old Testament and they don’t accept that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies”
Christian: “Yes but that’s because they are blinded by their beliefs. Jesus threatens their preconceptions so they don’t want to believe”
Me: “But what about your preconceptions? How do you know you aren’t biased by your beliefs?”
Christian: “Well just look at all the prophecies in the Old Testament that Jesus fulfilled”
Me: “Yes but Jews don’t agree that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies, so how do you know you are right and they are wrong?”
Christian: “But the Jews are blinded by their beliefs. They don’t want to believe in Jesus so they reject the evidence”
Me: “But how do you know that you are not blinded in a similar way? Maybe your beliefs are causing you to reject evidence”
Christian: “The life of Jesus, the prophecies of the Old Testament that he fulfilled, its very compelling evidence”
Me: “Yes but Jews don’t accept that evidence. They read the same books and come to very different conclusions. How do you know you are right and they are wrong?”
Christian: “I see what you’re trying to do here…” *ends discussion*

Disagreement and Doubt

I am perpetually puzzled by the degree of confidence that (many?/most?) Christians have that their beliefs about Jesus, God, the Bible, etc, are definitely true, or almost certainly true, or very likely true. Where does this confidence and certainly come from? It surely cannot come from the evidence, for the evidence and arguments are highly equivocal. Fine-tuning arguments? We just don’t know enough about such matters. Cosmological arguments? So many disputed concepts and so little evidence either way. Moral arguments? Disputed concepts, many arguments, very little agreement. Historical evidence? Limited in what it could ever prove with high degrees of confidence, subject to many different interpretations of the same evidence, and unable to deal with the issue of comparably attested historical evidence for other religions. I could go on. My point here is not that the arguments for Christianity are all unsound or clearly refutable, but simply that there is a great deal of doubt and uncertainty surrounding all of them.

Christians even say this in discussions with me: “humans are limited and there is so much we don’t know”. I totally agree! But how on Earth can anyone in their wildest dreams think that the fact that “humans are limited, fallible, and feeble in our knowledge”, can possibly constitute a reason to believe in God, or a reason to be more confident in such belief, or a reason to reject reasonable doubts of such a belief? It truly baffles me that anyone can think that.

I don’t care if you call me an agnostic or an atheist (I think they are basically two words for the same thing), here’s what I am saying: we don’t know. And because we don’t know, I don’t believe. For I don’t make a habit of believing things that I don’t know enough about, nor do I think Christians should either – or at least, if they care about truth and believing accurate things, they ought not to believe things they don’t know enough about. The Christian, however, says that we do know, and that the truth is found in Jesus. But where does that confidence and certainty come from? The evidence is sparse, the arguments are equivocal, the experts (insomuch as there are any) are in disagreement, and the track record for people having accurate beliefs about any of these sorts of things is very bad indeed. So where whence the certainty?

Subjective Evidence

I think we all know where it comes from. It comes from what I will call ‘subjective evidence’. This means different things to different people, and is really a diverse category of experiences exhibiting some ‘family resemblance’, rather than any clearly defined or specific class of things. By ‘subjective evidence’ I mean things like: “God answers my prayers”, “I have a relationship with Jesus”, “I feel God’s love”, “God helps me though tough times in life”, “I really feel the power of Jesus in reading the Bible”, “I was healed by the power of the spirit”, and all the many other things of that sort. Christians might prefer to call them “spiritual witnesses” or some such thing. My argument in this piece is that I do not think such subjective evidence is of very much help at all in justifying Christian beliefs, because it is so very, very, very unreliable.

A Very Brief List of Things that People Believe in on the basis of Subjective Evidence

  • Homeopathy
  • Psychokinesis
  • Neopaganism
  • Acupunture
  • The Lunar effect
  • Graphology
  • Vaccination causes autism
  • Islam
  • ESP
  • Hinduism
  • Palmistry
  • Raelism
  • Mormonism
  • Phrenology
  • Laundry balls
  • Baha’i
  • Spiritualism
  • Sikhism
  • Voodoo
  • UFOs
  • Christian Science (Baker Eddy)
  • Crystal healing
  • Scientology
  • Bigfoot
  • Reincarnation
  • Iridology
  • Dowsing
  • Buddhism
  • Pyramid power
  • Astrology
  • Atheism

The Christian Response

The common response to lists of the sort that I provide above is to point to various reasons, arguments, and evidences that Christianity is in fact more rational, more reasonable, and hence superior to these other belief systems. “All miracle claims aren’t equal, you have to look at the details”. “Hindu philosophy just doesn’t make sense”. Etc. That’s all fine. That’s exactly what the Christian should do. But the catch is when I ask my question about where the confidence comes from in the face of all the sorts of uncertainties that I mentioned above. The answer, of course, is that reason and evidence is not enough. You need to have faith as well. You need to build a relationship with God.

So here is the argument as far as I can make it out. Christians can be confident in Jesus because of the subjective evidence (spiritual witness/relationship/etc) they have. They know that this subjective evidence is valid, not mistaken like most subjective evidence is, because of the objective facts, evidences, and arguments that back it up. The reason they can be confident that such reasons, evidence, and arguments actually do lend sufficient support for their beliefs, despite the disagreement and uncertainty surrounding such matters, is because of the subjective evidence that they have. This seems to be little more than a slightly more intricate version of this argument, which (in essence), I have actually heard Christians make: “Jesus is Lord, which I know because Jesus said that Jesus is Lord, which I know because Jesus said that Jesus is Lord, which I know because…”

What Evidence is For

As I see it, evidence, reasons, and arguments serve one purpose and one purpose only: they help us to distinguish (not perfectly, but with some degree of reliability) true from false beliefs. If something does not do that, then it is not a useful or relevant evidence, reason, or argument. Subjective evidence does not help us to distinguish true from false beliefs (at least not when it comes to spiritual/worldview/philosophical type questions, as opposed to “what did I have for breakfast this morning?”), which is clear given the vast number of inconsistent and false beliefs that various people believe on the basis of subjective evidence. Therefore, subjective evidence does not constitute relevant or useful or compelling evidence either for or against Christianity. That is, it does not help us to determine whether it is true or not, and hence Christians cannot justify their confidence on the basis of such evidence. Nor does it help to argue that “it is justified by the combination of objective reasons and evidence and subjective experiences”, because the whole point of my argument is that the objective reasons, evidences, and arguments are too uncertain to do the job, and subjective experiences are too unreliable to add any justification of their own. Thus arguing that ‘together they can do it’ does not address the core criticism of my argument.

But God can do Anything

But couldn’t God give us a firm, indubitable (or at least extremely compelling) spiritual/subjective witness if he wanted to? Why couldn’t he just ‘implant’ some sort of ‘justificatoryness’ in our minds/souls directly, so that all that person need do is introspect, and they would “just know”, with full justification in that belief. After all, he is God right? Well, I think a case can be made that this is actually logically impossible, but I’m not sure that such an argument would ultimately succeed. So let me make a more modest claim: regardless of whether God could do that, he does not. (I think there are good reasons why he doesn’t – e.g. its hard to see what scope would be left for free will or faith if God merely implanted an indubitable belief in our minds/souls).

But how do I know that he doesn’t? Well, let me ask this question: is it possible for a believer (chosen at random from any religion) to determine with confidence whether or not their religion is true, merely by introspecting to determine whether or not God (or whatever they believe in exactly) has granted them a direct spiritual witness of such truth? I say the answer is obviously ‘no’, because we have people from multiple spiritual and religious traditions claiming contradictory spiritual witnesses. Yahweh and Jesus and Allah cannot all have simultaneously granted such indubitable direct spiritual witnesses to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. They are inconsistent. But none of them can tell if they are the one who is right simply by introspecting, because the others do the same and think that they are the ones who are right!

In order to overcome this, the Christian would have to believe that they have a uniquely powerful direct, indubitable spiritual witness of the truth of Christianity, and simultaneously be willing to just dismiss and reject essentially identical claims (even at times based on the same scriptures – e.g. Jews and Mormons) from other equally honest, reasonable, pious believers of other religions. If a Christian is actually willing to do that, is actually willing to reify their own subjectivity over and above all other subjective claims, including even those that come from almost the same religious tradition, and if they think that such a witness is capable of delivering certain or near-certain belief that their faith is true; if a Christian is actually willing to say this, then I think they are not really worshiping Jesus at all – they are worshiping themselves, or as I have described it elsewhere, they “worship their own ego”.

The Value of Subjective Evidence

Christians reading this might get the impression that I am saying their subjective experiences of Jesus, etc, are not real – that they are imaginary, and that they have no value. I’m not saying that. They could be completely real. They could really be from God. My point is that you cannot tell just by looking at the subjective evidence. You need other reasons, evidence, and arguments that allow you to be confident that subjective experiences are veridical. I am also not saying that subjective experiences have no value. If Christianity were true, they would be of immense value in building faith/trust in God, in building a relationship with God, in learning to rely on God, in gaining comfort, etc. What they cannot do, however, is tell you whether or not Christianity is actually true.

Concluding Remarks

I return now to my original question: whence the high degree of confidence that Christians have? I have argued that it cannot justifiably come from the reasons and evidence, for we know too little, and there is too much doubt and uncertainty surrounding such matters. I then argued that it cannot justifiably come from subjective experiences, for they do not serve the crucial task of reasons and evidence – namely to distinguish between truth and falsity. Subjective experiences are just too unreliable to do that. I therefore conclude that Christians cannot justifiably sustain their confident belief in the truth of Christianity. At most they can justify a claim of the sort “I don’t really know that its true, but I think it might be, so I’m choosing to live my life as if it is”. But I think most Christians want more than that. They want to know. They want to be confident. And they want to say things like “James, you ought to accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour”. To that, I say simply: show me something that allows me to be reasonably confident that accepting Jesus would not be a mistake based on a false belief. Evidence, reasons, and arguments would do the trick. Show me something like that which can avoid the problems of uncertainty and lack of knowledge that I discussed above. If it exists, I want to know.

‘Can a Scientist believe the Resurrection’ by John Lennox: A Critique

Synopsis

In this piece I present a critique of John Lennox’s argument in his ABC online article ‘Eliminating the Impossible: Can a Scientist believe the Resurrection?’, found here http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2014/04/16/3986403.htm. I recommend reading it first, as I assume the reader has some familiarity with its structure and broad outlines. Also, in order to keep my critique somewhat focused, I have decided to ignore Lennox’s initial remarks about Hume and the laws of nature, and focus solely on his arguments concerning the empty tomb, and the historical evidence for resurrection appearances. Please note that although I do discuss some issues relevant to broader discussions about the historical reliability of the New Testament and the likelihood of the Resurrection, that is not my primary intention here. The primary purpose of this article is to provide a critique of the specific claims and arguments made by John Lennox in this particular article.

Evidence and Superstition

“The brilliant ancient historian Luke, a doctor trained in the medical science of his day…”

Two points here. First, some non-trivial number of biblical scholars have doubts as to the authorship of Luke-Acts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorship_of_Luke-Acts). One could argue that is not central to the point here, but I think Lennox is painting a picture of excessive certainty, as if there is no doubt who the author was. I believe this is disingenuous in the context of the argument he is trying to make about the reliability of the gospel accounts, and hence he should be more careful in aligning the strength of his claim with the strength of scholarly consensus on the matter.

Second, the use of the term ‘medical science’ is very misleading, and indeed anachronistic. Medicine in the ancient world was nothing like modern scientific medicine. Indeed, the notion of ‘science’ as an empirical enterprise didn’t even really exist. Lennox here speaks as if Luke was trained in modern empirical science and related modes of critical thinking, but that is simply not the case. Roman doctors didn’t even know about such basic things as the germ theory of disease, or that that heart was a pump, and humoral theory was widely accepted. Nothing Lennox said is directly contradictory to these facts, but the point is that once again the language he is using presents a biased, misleading picture of the real situation. Luke was not trained in ‘medical science’ in any meaningful sense of the term, and to say that he was grossly misrepresents the situation.

“Luke here makes it obvious that the early Christians were not a credulous bunch, unaware of the laws of nature, and therefore prepared to believe any miraculous story, however absurd.”

Lennox draws this conclusion on the basis of a single anecdote about Zechariah and Elizabeth, though later on he also mentions a few other examples of skepticism in the NT (e.g. Thomas). But his claim here far exceeds what can be concluded from the evidence he presents. Lennox provides some examples of people expressing skepticism about miraculous claims, and then on that basis concludes that (most? all?) early Christians were ‘not a credulous bunch’. That simply doesn’t follow. I believe there is considerable evidence that the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures in which these events took place were deeply superstitious, full of magicians, rituals, magic artifacts, and miracle workers. There are numerous books on the subject, for example http://www.amazon.com/Magic-Magicians-Greco-Roman-Matthew-Dickie/dp/0415311292/ref=pd_sim_b_1?ie=UTF8&refRID=1T20P8MHD3EA73D8ZG62. Lennox just totally ignores such issues, painting a picture of widespread skepticism which simply isn’t warranted by the few anecdotes he provides as evidence.

“Christianity won its way by dint of the sheer weight of evidence that one man had actually risen from the dead.”

Again, Lennox here is just asserting his conclusion. He has not provided any reason to accept this other than his very dubious claim that most people of that time were skeptical about miraculous claims. I think there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, as I have indicated above. Even today, where literacy is widespread and access to information has never been easier, erroneous beliefs about all sorts of matters are abundant. How many people today believe in ghosts, or bigfoot, or that the moon landings were hoaxed, or that global warming is a myth… the list goes on. I argue, contra Lennox, that there is no reason at all to believe that most people in the ancient world would have required much in the way of evidence or critical evaluation before believing in supernatural miraculous claims; just as it is the case today that, despite our much greater levels of education and the influence of modern science, many people (even most in some cases, depending on the survey) quite readily believe such things.

“Most of our evidence comes from the New Testament and it may surprise many that, in comparison with many other ancient works of literature, the New Testament is by far the best-attested document from the ancient world”

True but largely beside the point. The question is whether the documentation available provides sufficient evidence for the supernatural claims being made. Arguing that the documentation is better than that available for many other events in the ancient world is simply beside the point. Many accounts from the ancient world contain a mixture of the plausible, the dubious, and the very unlikely (though scholars don’t always agree which is which of course). For example, the generally reliable Roman historian Tacitus has some rather dubious claims about Vespasian conducting miraculous healings in his court. As far as I know, no scholars argue for the likely historicity of these events, despite the fact that they are documented relatively early. The point is, one of the main things ancient historians do is sift through documents to determine which parts are likely to be historical and which parts are not. In doing so they consider a wide range of different factors, not least of which is the plausibility of the claims. Historians don’t simply say that because one event is better documented (or documented sooner afterwards) than something else, it is therefore more likely to be historical. History isn’t that simple.

The Empty Tomb

“If the tomb had not been empty, the authorities would have had no difficulty in producing the body of Jesus, demonstrating conclusively that no resurrection had happened”

On what evidence does Lennox base this claim that the authorities would have had no difficulty in producing the body of Jesus had the tomb not been empty? What makes him so sure that the authorities either knew or cared where Jesus was buried? Or perhaps the body was moved and its location was lost (or at least lost to the authorities)? Even the world-class scientific organization NASA couldn’t keep track of the original footage of the Apollo 11 moon landings. More than a few famous artifacts and documents have simply gone ‘missing’, even from some of the world’s leading museums (e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/dec/10/row-british-empire-museum-artefacts). Now granted this isn’t precisely the same thing, but my point is that mistakes, screw-ups, and incompetence abound. Can we really be so sure that the ancient Jewish or Roman authorities could not possibility have encountered any difficulty that would have prevented them from producing a body?

“If they had had the slightest evidence that the tomb was empty because the disciples had removed the body, they had the authority and the forces to hunt down the disciples, arrest them and charge them with tomb-robbing”

Lennox is making a lot of assumptions here. First of all, he is assuming that the authorities cared at all about what happened to Jesus’ body or who stole it. It seems very plausible to me that, with the leader of the sect dead, neither the Romans nor the Jewish leaders had much reason to pay any attention at all to the remaining Christian movement, at least at this very early stage. Second, Lennox is assuming that the authorities had the capability to find and punish those responsible. Even today in many places in developed countries, with much greater police resources and forensic technology, the majority of murders (and other crimes) remain unsolved (e.g. http://www.timesrecordnews.com/news/2010/may/24/unsolved-homicides/). Third, how does Lennox know that the authorities didn’t arrest any of the disciples (or something like it)? Granted, we have no documentary evidence for it, but why should we? We have very little documentary evidence of anything from that period. For instance, we do not have one single example of a first century document attacking Christian beliefs (we have some from the second century but not the first, I think Celsus is among the earliest http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celsus). So how can we be so sure that exactly the sorts of things Lennox is talking about did not happen, and we simply have no record of them?

“Tomb-robbers would not have taken the corpse, and left the valuable linen and spices.”

How does Lennox know that the valuable linen and spices were left? Luke and John both mention ‘strips of linen’ being left, and John also speaks of ‘the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head’. Were these the only pieces of linen that were originally used? We don’t know, but Lennox seems to assume that they were. I don’t see any reason to share this assumption.

“How could any tomb-robber have removed the stone when the guard was there?”

Was there a guard there? Only Matthew mentions any such thing. And Matthew also, in the same passage, gives us details about a private meeting between the chief priests and elders in which they devise a plan to announce that the disciples had stolen the body. How did Matthew know about that conversation? I doubt any of the disciples were invited. For these and other reasons, a number of scholars think the the entire section about the guards is a later addition. I’m sure Lennox and others would dispute this, but the point is Lennox doesn’t even mention the issue. He just treats the presence of guards as if it is an established fact.

“But it was the way in which the grave-cloths were lying that convinced St. John of a miracle. So, could someone have taken the body and rewound the cloths deliberately to give the impression that a miracle had happened?”

Lennox here is (I presume) referring to John 20:7. I won’t quote it, because the proper translation and interpretation of this verse is quite controversial. See here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_20:7. Some translations use a phrase like ‘folded together’ or ‘rolled together’ to describe the cloths, while the NIV simply refers to the cloth ‘lying in its place’. So Lennox’s argument here is highly sensitive to the exact translation one uses, and what you think the author was originally trying to say. Personally, I think that an argument which relies on such an equivocal detail from the last of all the gospels to be written, should not be granted especially much credence.

Psychology and Hallucinations

“It was also psychologically impossible, since they were not expecting a resurrection”

Really? They weren’t expecting a Resurrection? What about Mark 8:31-33, where Jesus says “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again”. There are similar predictions in Mark 9:30-32, and Matthew 20:17-19. Now, one might argue that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant, as happens so often in the gospels. That is certainly possible, but is it not also plausible that, in the days after Jesus’ death, some of the disciples might have remembered his words about rising again on the third day, and formed expectations on that basis? I’m not claiming I can say for sure what was going on inside their heads, but Lennox seems to think that he can, even despite the fact that his claim evidently runs counter to what the NT says elsewhere.

“Hallucinations usually occur to people of a certain temperament, with a vivid imagination”

The research I have done on the matter indicates that hallucinations are fairly common (e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11166087), though I think it does depend on how one defines one’s terms and how the survey is conducted. A the very least, a citation for Lennox’s source for this claim would be nice.

“But Matthew was a hard-headed, shrewd tax-collector; Peter and some of the others, tough fishermen; Thomas, a born sceptic; and so on.”

As with his comments about Luke, Lennox’s claims greatly overreach the evidence here. As for Luke, scholars are far from united on the belief that Matthew wrote the gospel commonly attributed to him. More importantly, though he may have been a tax collector, what makes Lennox think that such an occupation has anything to do with being ‘shrewd’? Indeed, according to this survey (http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/05/psychologists-are-least-religious-of.html) accountants (the closest thing we have to the profession ‘tax-collector’ today) are among one of the most religious professions. Now of course that evidence is rather silly and not really relevant to first century palestine, but I think it is at least better than any evidence Lennox has presented for his implicit claim that being a tax-collector makes one less likely to hallucinate or form false beliefs. His remarks about Peter and Thomas should be considered equally without basis. ‘Tough fisherman’? ‘Born skeptic’? What does that even mean? Is putting an emotive and unsupported adjective in from of something supposed to constitute some kind of argument?

“Again, hallucinations tend to be of expected events. But none of the disciples was expecting to meet Jesus again. The expectation of Jesus’s resurrection was not in their minds at all.”

See my comments above. This is highly dubious given that Jesus predicted his resurrection, at least if you trust what the gospels say as generally being historical, which I understand Lennox does.

“Hallucinations usually recur over a relatively long period, either increasing or decreasing. But the appearances of Christ occurred frequently, over a period of forty days, and then abruptly ceased”

Again, a citation would be nice. I think there are plenty of other cases of unusual or miraculous events being widely reported for a brief period before ‘dying down’. Two examples I would cite are the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard and the Devil’s Footprints in Devon. One must also consider what evidence there is that the appearances ‘abruptly ceased’ after forty days. What ceases abruptly are the accounts of the gospels, not necessarily the appearances. Acts does continue the narrative, but it focuses mostly on missionary work. I don’t see any particular reason to believe that sightings of Jesus didn’t continue for long afterward, especially in the Jerusalem area. Indeed, people still claim to see Jesus today.

“Hallucinations, moreover, do not occur to groups and yet Paul claims 500 people saw Jesus at once.”

I agree that hallucinations per se do not occur in groups, but I think we have more than enough cases of groups large and small reporting seeing and experiencing very strange phenomena. I have compiled a list of such cases here https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwSqSiJGs1DPUE82QVBHcm1XM1E/edit?usp=sharing. I don’t think the Resurrection appearances are unique in this regard. At the very least, Lennox hasn’t bothered to include any sort of comparative analysis as a basis for claiming that they are unique.

Other Matters

“They clearly do not account for the empty tomb – no matter how many hallucinations the disciples had, they could never have preached the resurrection in Jerusalem, if the nearby tomb had not been empty.”

How does Lennox know this? The famous book When Prophecy Fails discusses a number of doomsday cults, and analyses how, in many cases, people continued to believe even after specific predictions about the world ending on a particular day fail to come true. Some people believe that the Holocaust didn’t happen, despite mountains of evidence that it did. I think Lennox here grossly underestimates the ability of human beings to believe things without much evidence, and even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

“To anyone who knows anything about the ancient laws regarding legal testimony, it is very striking that the first reports mentioned in the Gospels of appearances of the Risen Christ were made by women. In first-century Jewish culture, women were not normally considered to be competent witnesses”

I’ve never understood why so many apologists consider this argument to be so compelling. All that it proves is that the stories about the discovery of the empty tomb were not invented whole-cloth in order to make the Christian story sound more appealing. It does not follow at all the that stories must therefore be accurate, or probably historical, or that they could not have become changed over time or before they were written down (remember Paul doesn’t mention the women or the empty tomb, so we are talking about a period of decades until these stories were written down). I accept that the story of the women was not invented. I see no reason why it therefore follows that it is probably true, or true in all the details that Lennox et al would like us to believe.

“The explosion of Christianity out of Judaism and the testimony of millions today are inexplicable without the resurrection”

What about the testimony of millions of Muslims, and the explosion of Islam out of Arabia? What about the testimony of millions of Mormons, and the explosion of Mormonism out of New York? What about the testimony of millions of Buddhists, and the explosion of Buddhism out of Hinduism? Indeed, what of the convictions (testimony would be the wrong word but the devotion can often seem equally religious) of millions of Marxists, and the explosion of this ideology from the writings of an obscure German living in mid 19th century Britain? Lennox’s argument here seems to apply to far too many movements at far too many times in history to be supportive of his case. It seems demonstrably true that new religions or ideologies can develop and spread very quickly, even if we regard them to be substantively false.

“As Holmes said to Watson: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?””

Here is my explanation of events. The body of Jesus was moved, either stolen, or reburied by Jospeh of Arimathea, or relocated by some unknown third party. After that, the disciples had various experiences of seeing and meeting with the risen Jesus. These stories were modified over time through retelling and the foibles of memory, becoming more impressive and coherent then were the original experiences. The Christian movement, on the basis of true conviction and missionary zeal (nothing unique to Christianity, though still admirable) then spread over the course of the succeeding years and decades, just as have many other religions (there’s an interesting piece here comparing the growth rate of early Christianity with Mormonism http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=95). I don’t consider any elements of this account impossible. Unlikely? Perhaps, in some parts. But impossible? I think Lennox has not even come close to establishing that this sort of account is ‘impossible’.

Conclusion

I originally said that this piece was ‘terrible’. I stand by that claim. I contend that, at least in the part of the piece that I have reviewed, Lennox makes very few cogent arguments. He makes assertions without providing any evidence, he makes unjustified leaps of logic, he rules out alternative explanations too readily and without justification, and he is far too confident in the conclusions he draws given ambiguous and complicated evidence. Quite frankly, I think in many ways this piece is an embarrassment. Granted, it is only a short article on the ABC website, but still, I think much better was possible given the space and resources Lennox had at his disposal. My primary purpose in writing this critique was to highlight to any Christians who did find this piece compelling just how lacking in substance I found its arguments to be, and to call Christians to action (as it were) in putting forward more robust, evidence-based, carefully-considered arguments in favour of the resurrection of Jesus. The question is too important for us to simply ignore, or to be satisfied with mediocre arguments on either side.