Is the Resurrection Impossible or just Improbable?

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“Regarding eyewitness being good evidence. True, the further we go back in history, the more we have to rely on eyewitness testimony. However, the likelihood of an event occurring significantly affects the credibility of the eyewitness. If there was an eyewitness to a car crash, the car crash event itself does not diminish credibility, because those happen all the time. But if there was an eyewitness to extraterrestrials, or ghosts, or Godzilla, or someone rising from the dead, it significantly diminishes the credibility of the eyewitness testimony because the possibility that the eyewitness was mistaken or lying increases.”

—a skeptic of the Resurrection


Conservative Christian blogger:

I [now] wish to draw your focus is the list of events that the challenger believes should immediately deem the eyewitness unreliable. This list includes extraterrestrials, ghosts, Godzilla, and the resurrection (for good measure). I’m not going to address extraterrestrials or ghosts in this post, but I do want to examine Godzilla. From this inclusion of this item alone, I believe that it is safe to assume that the challenger believes that the other three are impossible. The challenger wishes to draw a conclusion from the reality that Godzilla does not exist and the fact that impossible events cannot be witnessed.

Two problems exist. The first is that the challenger is starting with the assumption that the resurrection is impossible to conclude that the eyewitnesses of the New Testament are not reliable. The conclusion has been assumed in one of the supporting premises- a fallacy in logic called “begging the question.” It does not mean that the conclusion is false, just that this is not a valid way to get to the conclusion.

The second problem is that the challenger is challenging a strawman (a misrepresentation) of the Christian claim of the resurrection. Christians and skeptics agree that the resurrection is impossible by naturalistic processes alone, and that is what the challenger is banking on. However, Christianity does not claim that Jesus resurrected naturally, God (the Father) is responsible for the resurrection. This was a super-natural event, not a natural one. If God exists (which Christianity claims that God does), then the impossibility of a natural resurrection does not mean that resurrection is impossible, only that it is impossible by natural means—super-natural means are still possible. So, the challenger cannot argue from the impossibility of the resurrection to undermine the reliability of the New Testament eyewitnesses.


As I demonstrated in my post yesterday, the position of the unidentified skeptic quoted above can be reduced to this simple statement:  The more incredible the claim, the less credible the eyewitness.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that we are labeling the eyewitness a liar.  There are many other explanations for making a sincere, but false claim.

If you claim you saw a red Camaro yesterday, most people will take your word for it.  If you claim you had tea with President Lincoln yesterday, most people will assume that you were delusional from a high fever, sleep deprived, dreaming, or that you need to see a psychiatrist.  It’s that simple.

Now let me address the Christian blogger’s above claim that skeptics assume the non-possibility of the supernatural in their discussions on the Resurrection:  This is a Strawman.  It is not the stated position of the skeptic he is quoting nor is it the position of the majority of skeptics who debate online.  Here is our position:  By definition, the supernatural is something which defies the laws of science and the standards of evidence.  It CANNOT be disproven.  It can only be shown to be very improbable in the natural world.

THAT is the position of the overwhelming majority of skeptics who debate Christians regarding the Resurrection.  If Christians insist that we skeptics accept the supernatural as reality before debating them, then the debate is over before it has begun.  Christians win.  If we all assume the supernatural exists, then all discussions of probability are pointless.  If we all agree that the supernatural exists, then, of course, resurrections are possible and equally as probable as any natural event.

Therefore, skeptics do not dismiss the supernatural, we simply argue from the position that if supernatural events occur, they are extremely rare .  That is why they are called “miracles”.  Case in point:  the Resurrection.  Even Christians admit that (to date) there has only been ONE resurrection, that of Jesus.  So resurrections are very, very, very rare events (in the natural world), even by the definition of Christians.  So IF Christians and skeptics can agree to discuss the Resurrection based on prior probability of resurrections, then we have a basis of discussion.  We skeptics can point out that there are many, much more probable explanations for an empty tomb and alleged sightings of a dead person than a once in history resurrection.

However, if Christians refuse to debate based on this fundamental principle, and insist that prior probability is null and void because a supernatural being is not bound by prior probability, then we have no basis of discussion.  And that is usually what happens in a discussion between a skeptic and a conservative Christian on the subject of the Resurrection:  one side insists on using prior probability and the other sided insists on rejecting prior probability, insisting that their supernatural being in not bound by probability.


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4 thoughts on “Is the Resurrection Impossible or just Improbable?

  1. Gary,
    There’s one massive problem with the idea of accepting supernatural explanations. We have no way to say which supernatural explanation is more likely than the alternate supernatural explanations. We would literally be accepting one simply because it sounds the best, but we have no way to test that. At least science gives us a way to falsify our hypotheses. Supernaturalism does not have any mechanism of falsification.

    Perhaps Jesus wasn’t raised by God but rather by prankster pixies. Maybe Jesus was a vampire and needed to have a wooden stake driven into his heart. Maybe Jesus was Satan and wanted to sow confusion. How do we figure out if any of these is more likely to be correct than the “God did it” hypothesis?

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  2. This was a very coherent breakdown of the problem. Debates between fundamentalists and skeptics usually aren’t terribly productive, but I do think that it’s important to counter their arguments for those on the sidelines who have seeds of doubt about it all, but don’t know good questions to ask themselves to lead them to a more rational view of the dogma they are supposed to be buying into. I

    To launch off Herald’s point above the chain of fundamentalist reasoning is without end. To claim a miracle exists which is impossible through natural means, but only slightly probable because of the existence of a being that they also can’t prove exists, other than as you say, “By definition, …defies the laws of science and the standards of evidence”, reality than becomes something that can be defined arbitrarily. I can will into existence then any miracle any God, with any personality under such standards of knowledge acquisition. There is literally nothing stopping me from claiming that I have received supernatural revelation about the nature of the universe and write it all down and claim that it’s all true. And of course people have tried to make this point like the originators of the flying spaghetti monster. This is the frustrating part of it all for me is that a particular adherent to a religion would like you to believe that their story is a real one, and all the other ones aren’t because they don’t conform to the standards of evidence that skeptic is applying to all theological stories. That hypocrisy is hard to deal with. lol


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