Is an Alternative, Naturalistic Explanation for the Resurrection Implausible as many Christians assert?

I am currently involved in a discussion with a Christian blogger regarding the plausibility of alternative, naturalistic explanations for the early Christian Resurrection belief.  We are attempting to agree on the definition of what is and what is not “plausible” regarding this alleged event.  To see my full hypothetical naturalistic explanation, click here.


I certainly understand if you believe that it is “unlikely” that someone moved the body of Jesus resulting in the Empty Tomb, but to say that it is “implausible” that someone moved the body means that it is “not a reasonable explanation”. In order for you to say this I believe you would need to prove that no graves in first century Palestine were ever robbed and bodies stolen. Even if there was ONE instance of a grave being robbed and the body stolen, “someone moving/stealing” the body would then be a reasonable explanation (although, I agree, unlikely explanation, since it is so rare).  I would contend that probability suggests that more than one grave was robbed in first century Palestine.

Do you see my point? That someone moved the body of Jesus may be very, very unlikely, but it is still a plausible (reasonable) explanation regardless of how unlikely it might be. What do you think?


Before I continue, let me take a moment to fairly allow that if all we had was the minimal accepted list of four facts, sitting in an otherwise vacuum of data, I would find your theory somewhat more plausible by proportion to the further lack of data, although the final point (of madmen and hysterics steadily growing a Res belief in the face of the cultural problems endemic for doing so) would still be implausible by proportion to the mental infirmities involved.

This brings us to the question of improbable implausibilities.

Gary: {{That someone moved the body of Jesus may be very, very unlikely, but it is still a plausible (reasonable) explanation regardless of how unlikely it might be. What do you think? }}

I think one of us thinks implausibilities are unlikely and that plausibilities are likely, and that there is no use in talking as though highly unlikely scenarios are plausible; while the other of us thinks plausibility means something more like logically valid so that likelihood and unlikelihood are not necessarily relevant to plausibility.

If we are talking at such radical differences in meaning about what plausibility and implausibility entails, it’s going to be difficult to have a meaningful conversation about plausibilities. But perhaps some of this difference can be set aside, as my differences in estimation concern various kinds of incoherency with data generation.

For what it’s worth, I actually pointed out that I might decide an implausible explanation was nevertheless a reasonable and even correct explanation, which is entirely consonant with implausibilities being unlikely: sometimes we must conclude that unlikely explanations are the true ones, even when nominally more likely explanations are available.

Gary: {{I must remind you that I am not trying to prove what happened.}}

So you said, and I didn’t evaluate the proposal that way.

Gary: {{I am only suggesting a possible explanation of what MIGHT have happened.}}

You were supposed to be suggesting a plausible explanation of what might have happened. Not merely a logically possible one.

But this may get back to our difference on whether plausible means only logically coherent or not. “The personal ultimate ground of all existence raised Jesus from the dead” is a technically valid explanation for what might have happened, in the sense that it isn’t a nonsense statement or self-contradictory; but I know I wouldn’t consider it a plausible explanation as an agnostic about God’s existence who is provisionally willing to allow it to be possible, much less as an atheist. I wouldn’t consider it a plausible explanation as a devout non-Christian Jew either, or several other kinds of theist. I don’t get the impression you acknowledge that as a plausible explanation either, much less as equally plausible with some number of other explanations you otherwise prefer despite allowing them equal plausibility.

If I’ve somehow misunderstood you and you do regard God raising Jesus from the dead as a plausible explanation (or even moreso, as an equally plausible explanation among alternatives you otherwise prefer despite equal plausibility with this proposal), I suppose I could try to understand that.

If you don’t regard that as a plausible explanation, I can easily understand that! — but then we would both seem not to be using plausibility to mean mere logical possibility or formal validity, but instead a meaning more directly connected to likelihood. (Except I’m being more consistent about that meaning.)

Gary: {{[The officer] would then begin eliminating each possible scenario, starting with the most plausible scenario.}}

So you aren’t actually talking about mere logical possibility when talking about relative levels of plausibility: something is logically possible or it isn’t, and the logically impossible would have already been eliminated.

Also, what you just described is part of a method of proving what happened, by elimination of what didn’t happen, after having already established options as relatively plausible both absolutely and compared to each other. Which is not itself the process of establishing plausibility.

{{He is aware of the burial customs of the culture and he is aware that guards were posted at some time period after the body was placed in the tomb.}}

He should be aware that simply proposing “someone moved the body” makes no sense in that situation, then. He should have been trying something more specific.

I will note here that you acknowledge guards for the body, which makes a relatively plausible body theft (by someone looking for magical reagents from a holy and/or notorious and/or magical an) somewhat more implausible again. This might be adjusted further down or back up depending on whether the purpose for the guards can be established.

To continue: your original proposal was only that someone moved the body, and what I said was that you gave no plausible reason to move it before its normal and entirely expected and explicable movement a year later (although I acknowledge I’m appealing here to historical cultural details which might be regarded as outside the minimal four facts list — as I said, I am not a big fan of Habermas and Craig’s rhetorical tactic there). Consequently, “I don’t find this [bare proposal] historically plausible as a normal operation.”

If you wish to adjust this proposal to a normal operation of grave robbery, I will reply that so far as it goes I am willing to agree that grave robbery of someone holy and/or notorious for various typical reasons, is a plausible explanation for the body going missing, so long as we are only considering the bare four facts in an otherwise historical vacuum.

I will then, however, consider it proportionately implausible that a plausible explanation which makes proportionately plausible sense in that time and place, would lead so strongly to an exotic, counter-cultural belief instead — an increasingly popular belief culturally dangerous for these powerless people to be holding and spreading.

Subsequent proposals about the expectation of the disciples strengthening a misunderstanding of what would normally be regarded as the case (i.e. someone has moved the body for some reason, “and we don’t know where they have taken it” as MaryMag tells Peter and the Beloved Disciple in GosJohn), might seem plausible on a bare four facts restriction; but then I would disagree (as I did) that proposals of disciple expectation about a resurrection plausibly lead to the shape of the resultant data as I mentioned before: where even after the women report back from the tomb, claiming to have angelic visions, the disciples reportedly dismiss them.

Still, grave robbery by random grave robbers is better than a mere claim of someone moving the body: at least it’s a claim with a plausibility that can be gauged. “Someone moved the body” is rather null for plausiblity evaluation outside a context.

Grave robbery in the cultural situation noted seems to be more plausible later after deterioration has helped break down the body, and less plausible earlier. Also, grave robbery in the cultural situation seems less plausible for the whole body and more plausible for a few parts. (Allowing that we’re talking about the general motive for going after the body itself instead of after things buried with the body; the latter of which would be more plausibly normal, but we’re talking about a blaspheming magician and/or holy man which could be expected to attract people interested in body parts.) Also, as previously noted, the presence of guards makes any kind of grave (but particularly full body) robbing intrinsically less plausible without more proposed details. And historically acknowledged details such as the motive of the guards might push body robbery plausibility lower still.

{{However, he is also aware of these known facts: 1. Some people do violate cultural customs in some situations.}}

Less plausibly when there’s less chance of them getting away with it. Such as robbing a whole body soon after death with guards around, rather than waiting a few months and robbing a few important parts which are now more easily able to be separated from the corpse, and always more easy to transport and hide, with no guards around.

{{2. The guards were not stationed at the tomb for the entire period of time.}}

Which he knows if he has acknowledged the story of the assignment of the guards as historical; in which case he has no grounds (and rather the opposite) to dismiss or ignore the purpose of the guards, which was to ascertain that the body had not been stolen yet before setting up on station. This factor thus is irrelevant: the testimony of the guards which GosMatt and his Jewish opponents are disputing about, isn’t that they got there too late and the body was already gone.

{{3. Even the best of soldiers can sleep on the job or go AWOL.}}

Less plausibly all at once on a job which they have motivation to perform correctly. This leads to why GosMatt’s opponents are willing to accept a weak story of guard testimony that the disciples stole the body while the guards were all asleep: evidently the story was originally backed, at some time in the past, by major authority which the Jewish group was willing to accept despite the story’s weakness. It isn’t too hard to figure out what that authority would be. Nor is it hard to figure out why that authority (i.e. the Sanhedrin) would quietly drop backing that testimony after a panicked first response: because it’s stupidly weak, and only seems to make sense during a panicked first response to try to get ahead of public rumor and scotch the expected tactic by the disciples.

{{5. People rob graves.}}

Basically a repeat of (1), already factored as very implausible under the acknowledged circumstances.

{{ 6. People steal dead bodies for weird purposes.}}

Basically a repeat of (1) etc.

So, actually three things the officer is aware of to gauge the plausibility of the guarded body being stolen, one of which is totally irrelevant; so actually two things, plus two repeats to make one of the two seem more plausible by repetition. Not a good sign!

Oh, and {{4. Weird things happen.}} True, but not specifically very helpful. Weird things are, as weird things do, after all, and I suspect there are levels of weird things you are not prepared to regard as plausible.

{{Bottom line: It is plausible that someone moved the body. If it were not plausible, Matthew would not have the Sanhedrin spreading the story that the disciples moved the body.}}

Bottom line: body stealing (not merely “someone moved the body”) sounds plausible at first, until fridge logic sets in on further consideration of the guards’ testimony, which is why Matthew’s opponents are talking about the disciples stealing the body with a ludicrous explanation (all the guards fell asleep and never woke up as the stone was being rolled away and the body exhumed) that wouldn’t be accepted or even worth seriously replying to unless the Sanhedrin had backed that explanation. Which Matthew and his opponents are both aware of, but which backing seems to have dropped very quickly (possibly even long before the tail end of polemic GosMatt is responding to), because no one else even bothers to talk about it.

On this theory Matthew might have invented the explanation of the Sanhedrin bribing the guards to testify publicly they all dishonorably failed their duty in a highly implausible way; but considering it isn’t plausible that the guards would voluntarily ruin themselves like this, a promise of payment and protection from formal governing prosecution is at least not a bad guess.

The adventure of the guards (even only the second half of that story, involving their testimony) leads to a significant number of other historical inferences, too. But that’s another discussion.

Let me acknowledge, though, that I don’t think implausibilities in the grave robbing part of the discussion so far, impinge directly on elements of your plausibility theory past (1); but those have their own problems. (I wouldn’t say all your elements do, just the ones I marked as implausible — to me anyway.)

Gary: {{Allowing, as we should, for the existence of the supernatural and for the existence of a Creator God, even Christians will admit that there has only been ONE resurrected dead body in all of human history (if at all). Therefore the maximum probability of a resurrection is 1 in 101,000,000,000.}}

Leaving aside as irrelevant there are other raisings from the dead we acknowledge, since statistically that would make no significant difference and besides there’s a qualitative difference we accept between resurrection and merely raising someone from the dead so in that sense we’re back to one so far… {inhale}

…there’s a category error here. Probability of the sort you’re talking about is random automatic behavior of a system; but you’re applying it to a claim not like someone rolling a total of two pips on two six-sided dice but like someone flipping both sides to six and then adding a third die with one pip showing for a total of thirteen.

You are welcome to try making a historically plausible case for each or any of the various parties you suggested; but the historical plausibility of the actions of persons within a historical context of various acknowledged facts, is not the same as a mathematic probability calculation of expected repeats of a random system fluctuation.

I suspect you realize that you don’t know of a plausible case for the body being moved, though, or you wouldn’t be disassociating plausibility from likelihood and trying to appeal to this category error to make an unlikely explanation seem plausible. The attempt is even more pointless since I’m evaluating plausibility of theories as an atheist; I’m not even comparing a question of plausibility to whether an ultimate God did it. You’ll have to make your plausibility case without appeal to God comparatively.

Although, since you mention it, don’t you regard it as a little weird that earlier yesterday when we started this, you were willing to allow that “If one assumes the existence of the miracle-producing deity Yahweh, and assumes that Yahweh has predicted in Scripture that he will raise Jesus from the dead, then of course, a resurrection is the most probable explanation, and in fact, it is the only plausible explanation,” and yet recently you’re back to God being maximally improbable as the explanation regardless of how unlikely any other explanation is, even if a supernatural Creator God’s existence is true?

I mean, I appreciate the allowance earlier, but… that looks awfully inconsistent??! I can’t fathom changing my mind that radically on any topic of such complexity (or any complexity really) that quickly on apparently no basis. (I’m not even sure I, the hyper-orthodox Christian theologian, would so blithely clip off that if such and such is true then God raising Jesus must be the only plausible explanation.)


2 thoughts on “Is an Alternative, Naturalistic Explanation for the Resurrection Implausible as many Christians assert?

  1. Hi Gary, sorry, I’m not commenting directly on the post above but wanted to ask if you had read his article about Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus:

    I am surprised that anyone would lose their faith over what Bart wrote in this book. I was aware of the longer ending in Mark, the woman caught in adultery in John and other variants before I was a teenager, since the RSV copy I was given in Grade 4 by the Methodist church had lots of footnotes pointing out the options where it would make any difference to the text. I noted already as a youngster that most of the text didn’t have any of these footnotes.

    I was really hoping for a bit to chew on when I ordered that book – pre-kindle etc, I had to have it shipped down to South Africa; well, I had a friend visiting that side (can’t remember if it was the USA or UK) and bring it back in his luggage.
    But the stuff that Erhman points out was such old-hat. I seriously assumed that most people knew this stuff. I mean anyone reading a ESV, NIV or just about any modern translation can see where the translators note the variants.

    Just to begin with, Erhman needs to quote other ancient texts to prove that changes have been made. But if what he says about the Biblical text is true, how is it not true about other ancient hand-copied works? How can we know on Ehrman’s reasoning that the quotes he’s giving us are mangled copies of what the original authors said? Why are they trustworthy while the Bible (even viewed as a book that isn’t inspired) is totally untrustworthy?

    So there’s that issue.

    Then there was the issue that none of the issues Ehrman highlights are central, doctrinal issues, except, arguably, 1 John 5:7-8 (more on that in a moment).
    Jesus angry or compassionate in Mark 1? He is shown as both angry when cleansing the temple, and compassionate when feeding the 5000, how is this a major issue? “Nor the son” in Matthew 24, when there’s no dispute in Mark 13?
    Stuff like that. Really, I was disappointed, thinking I would be way more challenged in my belief that the New Testament is reliable.

    And like I said, before I was 20 I had seen the fact that 1 John 5:7-8 doesn’t talk about Father, Son and Spirit being one – it was, as I said, in the footnotes of my Bible. So I didn’t look to that verse to affirm my belief in Trinity or not.

    And then the article I posted above just puts everything together so well. Ehrman grossly overstates his case.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if you have read the article by Wallace. If not, it’s well worth reading.

    Anyway, all the best. I wrote a guest-blog about how little a role facts play in the beliefs we hold – – so yeah.

    Have a great day.


    1. For a mainstream Methodist, Ehrman’s book would be old hat, but for a fundamentalist Baptist who believed that God had preserved every jot and tittle in his Word (ie the entire Bible), it is quite shocking. You are correct, except for the Johannine Commae, none of the alterations, additions, or deletions affect any significant Christian teaching. But to me, what it does show, is that the Bible is a work of human propaganda. It is not the divine work of a god. And if it is a work of human propaganda, why should we trust what it says when we don’t know who wrote the most important books, the Gospels, and we don’t know if what they originally wrote was historically factually or simply literary/theological fiction? The fact that there are thousands of very similar copies, which contain insignificant scribal alterations, is completely irrelevant if the original story is based on a legend or theological fiction. Three day brain dead bodies do not come back to life and later fly off into outer space. It is a tall tale. It is no more true than Mohammad’s tale of riding a winged horse to heaven or Joseph Smith’s tale of receiving Golden Plates from an angel. The supernatural is not real and educated people should stop believing it is.

      Liked by 1 person

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