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Six facts that must be explained

November 1, 2013

Several recent atheist commenters have said that they don’t believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. Now it’s fine to say this, but the key question is: does this claim best explain the data?

One of the key reasons I am not an atheist is because of the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I can see no naturalistic explanation for this event. I believe that theism (notably Christian theism) best accounts for all the data. When making a judgement on this particular topic there are (at least) six historical ‘facts’ or occurrences which must be explained. I have outlined them here in this short video of a presentation I did earlier this year:

The six facts are:

  1. Jesus’ tomb was found empty by women.
  2. Multiple people on multiple occasions were convinced they’d seen Jesus alive.
  3. The early church suddenly believed in a resurrection contrary to prevailing expectations.
  4. Sunday become the day of worship contrary to Jewish custom.
  5. The lives of the first disciples were changed in a manner consistent with such a dramatic event.
  6. Paul, the great opponent of the Christian faith, was converted.

To reject this data and suggest that miracles are impossible, therefore it didn’t happen isn’t an explanation that is particularly satisfying because it fails to actually deal with the data as presented above – it begs the question against the evidence. This position is an a priori position and not one reached on the basis of evidence based reasoning.

I’m not saying that a resurrection is likely, in fact I’d say that it is inherently unlikely (hence the need to have god intervene and raise Jesus). Yet I do think it best explains these six key facts. Any alternative explanation must explain these facts better than the case that a god raised Jesus from the dead. I’m keen to hear other explanations.

  1. You are using the word “facts”, but I really doubt that it means what you think it means. If someone told you a story that he personally did not witness, then this story cannot be called a “fact”. You only have hearsay witnesses (even worse, witnesses where the later ones clearly copied the first ones – or at least copied from the same source, called Q).

    • Thanks for your comments Atomic – always appreciate your insight.

      I’ve outlined historical ‘facts’ that require explanation regardless of who told them to me – i.e. the day of worship changing from Saturday to Sunday is a ‘fact’. Paul’s conversion is a ‘fact’, the changed lives of the disciples is a ‘fact’, the emergence of the belief in the resurrection, contrary to the evidence is a ‘fact’. Unless you’re disputing these as actually happening?

      The resurrection sources we have are unrelated to and predate Q. I’m not sure you’re quite clear on what Q actually is?

      Thanks again.


      • Sorry, almost forgot to answer… Happens if you don’t do it immediately…

        1) Paul being a believer may be a fact. Paul’s conversion is his story. Honestly, how often did I hear something like “I really didn’t want to believe it, but NOW I’m convinced and for only 59,99$ YOU can have it, too!”? It’s an old marketing trick, by claiming to have been doubtful yourself, you try to make your own testimony sound more meaningful.
        Any in any case, Paul was not an eye witness, so everything he says may have believed about the resurrection is just hearsay. And the fact that one person became a believer doesn’t make something true. Truth doesn’t depend on how many people believe in it. Billions of people are Christians. That doesn’t make it true. Billions of people are not Christian. That doesn’t make it false.

        2) For more than one century, the sabbath was kept by Christians – probably because so many of them were former Jews. So it took a hundred years to slowly lose the sabbath as a holy day. How should this be connected to the question of the resurrection happened? It’s more evidence that more and more Non-Jews were becoming Christians.

        3) Every religion, cult, sect, etc. changes the lives of its followers. That doesn’t say anything about it’s truthfulness. Scientology surely changes lives. So do you assume that Xenu existed?

        The rest… Hearsay. Wishful thinking. And, sorry to be so brutal: Lies. If someone today claims “My Guru Jamaharishna IS GOD!” – do you believe it, simply because he claimed to have been skeptic before? Simply because he stops praying on Sundays? Simply because it changed his life? Simply because some other followers who did never see the Guru themselves write a book about his miracles? No, of course not.

  2. Let consider a modern day equivalent – UFO sightings. Luckily you can actually speak to these witnesses directly as many are still alive today. You can get their testimony and facts first hand.

    Lets consider just one account as an example. The six facts are:

    1. Jo saw a light and then could not account for six hours.
    2. Multiple people were convinced that around the same time they’d seen a light in the sky.
    3 Jo and other witnesses suddenly believed they saw an alien ship contrary to their previous skepticism.
    4. Since that event more people in the area saw similar lights they could not explain and others claimed to have hours they cannot account for.
    5. The lives of the abductees were changed in a manner consistent with such a dramatic event.
    6. Considering how many witnesses keep coming forward many people now believe in aliens visiting Earth.

    To reject this data and suggest that UFO’s are impossible, therefore it didn’t happen isn’t an explanation that is particularly satisfying because it fails to actually deal with the data as presented above. This position is an a priori position and not one reached on the basis of evidence based reasoning.

    I can see no naturalistic explanation for these events. I believe that alien visitation best accounts for all the data.

    I’m not saying that alien visitations are likely, in fact I’d say that it is inherently unlikely (hence the need to have the government intervene and keep it secret). Yet I do think it best explains these six key facts. Any alternative explanation must explain these facts better than the case that an alien abducted a number of people around the time many witnesses saw a strange light. I’m keen to hear other explanations.

    • Sounds like a pretty good case for alien abduction to me. You can’t rule it out can you? What do you think?

      • And on a spectrum i would put alien visitation above the resurrection as much more likely because we have living witnesses as well as documented examples such as video and photo.

      • As I said before, I don’t claim that a natural resurrection is a common occurrence, it has only happened once.

  3. Data? Aw, bless your heart.

      • Sorry for being opaque. The alleged historical “facts” listed in this post are at best hypotheses motivated by ancient textual accounts. Even if you believe the facts to be true, they would not usually be called “data,” since “data” refers to information that was collected in a systematic or repeatable way, preferably with some identifiable controls and variables. If you set out to compare, say 100 ancient copies of the same text, then those copies could be called data. In this post you use a sciency phrase, “does the claim fit the data?” But you’re cheating because there is no data here. As a consequence the argument appears quite naive. I wanted to encourage you to keep trying, so I used the classic southern nicety, “bless your heart.”

      • Thanks for clarifying, although your definition of ‘data’ seems to exclude any ‘historical’ data as it is not repeatable. Just wondering if you could perhaps clarify what ‘data’ you consider admissible in assessing the historical facts of Jesus? Thanks.

        In your response unfortunately you seem to overlook historical causation. Regardless of the quality of the original historical record (which I think is very strong, but that’s for another blog post) historical events cause other events. For example, at a particular point in time Americans start referring to ‘Obama as president’. Now, this effect has a likely cause – i.e. that perhaps a man called Obama was made President which ’caused’ people to start referring to him this way.

        Thus a number of the ‘facts’ I have outlined above are actually ‘effects’, i.e. the day of worship being Sunday not Saturday. The job of the historian is to describe why this change. As I said, this is part of the data set that requires explanation. Can you see how this means that regardless of the quality of the accounts, there is still an ‘effect’ that requires explanation – hence there are a number of ‘facts’ which need explaining.

        Thanks for your post – hope that this helps.

      • “In your response unfortunately you seem to overlook historical causation.”

        On the contrary, a proper model of causation must carefully distinguish “hidden facts” (things we cannot directly observe or verify) from observable evidence. “Data” is a class of observable evidence that usually implies a substantial quantity of information — like the way a phone book contains names, addresses and phone numbers. From that pile of data, you can infer things about the distribution of phone numbers, correlation of addresses and phone numbers, that sort of thing.

        When it comes to causal models, these six claims are actually hidden facts (except the one about Sunday). As hidden facts, they are possible causes for the stories we read in the New Testament. But there are other possible causes that might equally explain the existence of those stories. For example, the stories might have developed as an oral tradition that was later written down, and those oral traditions might have borrowed heavily from other mythologies that existed at that time (remember that an oral tradition can emerge, spread and evolve very rapidly). At the end of all this, the resurrection itself is just a possible cause for these possible causes. It is deeply buried beneath the ancient roots of a vast cause/effect tree, and we can only see some of the leaves and branches.

        If we want to include some true data in the analysis, we could accumulate at all the available ancient texts, their textual differences, information about where they were found, evidence indicating their age, etc. From this we could construct something like a “chain letter” model charting the history of those texts (this has been done many ways actually). Unfortunately these data don’t connect all the way back to the hidden facts you want to confirm. The available texts are pretty gappy and do not intersect much with official documents from that era. Even the gospel authors do not claim to have witnessed most of the events they were writing about. The possible data do not indicate any judgement with regard to these hidden facts, and shed even less light on the resurrection hypothesis.

      • Thankyou for now attempting to explain these six key facts. Can I just ask – why did this oral tradition begin? And how can this oral tradition explain the very early emergence of the resurrection – which can be dated at latest, only a couple of years after Jesus’ death? Any why was Paul persecuting the church?

        Completely agree with your data analysis program re: textual evidence is very good. I think you’ll actually find that the textual history is unparalleled for any ancient document.

  4. Rob, This is old ground as you know.
    Human nature tells us that it is easy to believe anything if you are pre-disposed to do so.
    Plenty of people are pre-disposed to stories of alien abductions – apparently even you, if you can find no alternative plausible explanations for Dan’s prosaic account above.
    “…You can’t rule it out, can you you?…
    Well, technically, no.
    In the same way you can’t rule out time-travelling humans from the future, an Abrahamic God creating an illusion of aliens, or magical faeries at the bottom of the garden. All such claims are inherently unfalsifiable. And all of these options are ridiculously less likely than the obvious, which is that people sometimes get emotionally caught up in silly beliefs.
    If you want to adopt a belief in actual aliens, then that’s fine – believe what you want. Most of us won’t care that much (provided you don’t insist on making alien beliefs an institutionalized part of our culture).
    But skeptics tend not to use language like you can’t rule it out… when discussing the supernatural and the superstitious, because it’s generally straightforward to find more parsimonious explanations for alien abduction accounts. Again, the burden of proof is not on the skeptic, it is on the one making an outrageous claim. Hearsay and changes in peoples’ behaviour is not evidence of alien abductions. Actual evidence is evidence of alien abductions.

    Oh, BTW, keeping in mind that real evidence includes falsifiable data (ie., not hearsay or changes in peoples’ behaviour) is there any of this for the resurrection?
    [In case it’s not obvious, that’s a rhetorical question!] 🙂

    • Paul – always appreciate your comments (and I agree this is old ground, but it was something I wanted to put up for a while).

      I’m intrigued how you do rule out the existence of aliens yet claim to be a skeptic. Surely a true skeptic could never rule anything out ever? You might need to be a little more skeptical of your skepticism.

      I’m not suggesting we believe any claim, we need to believe claims for which there is evidence.

      Finally, how do you provide falsifiable evidence for an historical event?

      Surely changes of people’s behaviour still require explanation? And how can you be so certain that the resurrection accounts are completely based on hearsay?

      Thanks again for the interaction. You always keep me on my toes (which makes this blog so much better!).

      • “I’m intrigued how you do rule out the existence of aliens yet claim to be a skeptic. Surely a true skeptic could never rule anything out ever? You might need to be a little more skeptical of your skepticism…”
        Rob, I think you must have skipped over the bit where I said explicitly that I don’t rule it out.
        But the major thing you seem to be missing is the point about parsimony, and I never fail to be flabbergasted at how this basic and obvious point is continually and repeatedly avoided.
        I’ll try again with an example that might simplify it further. Three Irishmen report one morning to their local constabulary that they’ve witnessed thieving leprechauns about in the fields in the middle of the night. Each of them swear on a stack of Roman Catholic bibles soaked in holy water from the font of St Ciaran that they’ve seen leprechauns. None of them will offer nor accept an alternative explanation. After all, there is evidence: No less than three independent corroborations of the same story. One even has an injury on the top of their head from where one of the leprechauns struck him before making off with his wallet.
        The local constable is able to establish that the sightings occurred in a location known to be frequented mischievous teenagers. Furthermore, all three witnesses were known to have consumed staggering volumes of whiskey together at the local pub earlier that night.
        “I’m not suggesting we believe any claim, we need to believe claims for which there is evidence.”
        This scenario comes rich and complete with evidence: Independent testimony, missing wallets, and even an injury.
        Now technically we can’t say that these men didn’t see leprechauns. But please ask yourself if this is a true dilemma. Do we really give equal weight to the conflicting hypotheses (actual leprechauns vs. alcohol-induced illusions)? Does it really need to be spelt out what the parsimonious and most likely explanation is, in spite of the so-called evidence? Or must the Irish always live for the rest of their lives in fear of elusive and malevolent leprechauns…?

      • I must apologise for skipping over the bit that you didn’t rule it out. My sincere apologies and thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt.

        I could say a number of things, but most most importantly you have just attempted to do what I have been asking all along – provide a plausible alternative explanation that explains all the data. I think we can see from your story (I assume this is a fictional story – or do you have three real eyewitnesses? – that’s an important difference to the Jesus event) which is more likely.

        Just to say that a resurrection didn’t happen – in spite of all the evidence to the contrary – isn’t satisfactory.

        Thanks again and I look forward to looking for UFO’s with you some time! 😉

  5. Rob, BTW, talking about evidence and historical ‘facts’ isn’t really the right way to approach the question of the Biblical resurrection. If you rely on these types of arguments, which appeal to a combination of science, sociology and history, then frankly they’re doomed to fail as rational and objective arguments. You’ll only convince those that already believe in Jesus, or those too young, too ignorant, or too gullible to have a valuable opinion. (And there’s plenty of overlap in those categories, of course.)
    History provides us all sorts of unreliable and disputed testimony.
    Sociology, anthropology and other insights into human nature demonstrate how easy it is for people, and even populations, to have their psyches diverted into strange beliefs and behaviours.
    And science tells us that the resurrection is nonsense.

    The more ‘logical’ approach for the Christian is to stick with philosophy and metaphor. In the same way that most educated Christians have now moved past the (ahem) ‘poetry’ of Genesis and 6-day creationism and even Noah’s Ark, contemporary Christianity might find that it will be more successful in the long term if it ditches the ridiculous bedtime stories of literal loaves and fishes and water-walking and resurrections, and re-casts these instead as metaphors for the (supposed) omnipotent and ever-lasting love and power of God and Jesus.

    FWIW, I’d rather see more philosophically interesting topics brought back here, such as moral absolutism and the laws of salvation. I still don’t understand how thoughtful Christians reconcile the latter, for example.

    • I wont speak for Rob but my impression is that he has well and truly drawn a line in the sand and believes the resurrection actually happened and if he were to change his mind he would throw the baby out with the bathwater. I forgot to ask Rob which of the four accounts that tell the story differently is he certain is correct.

      • I agree that it’s a curious dilemma for modern-day Christians, Dan, and it makes me wonder how educated and questioning Christians grappled with young-earth creationism (and various other biblical bedtime stories) once it had become clear that they couldn’t be literally true.
        Perhaps while some just lived in wilfully-ignorant denial, others were able to reconcile these parts of the Bible simply as metaphors constructed by ancient people based on their limited knowledge of nature.
        I don’t know of any specific examples, but I’d be willing to bet that there are thoughtful Christians today that do indeed treat the resurrection story as apocryphal. No doubt they can reconcile to themselves the various stories of miracles, including the resurrection, as metaphors rather than literal events, without ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ – ie., they are able to maintain their faith and practice the teachings of Jesus without having to assume that divine magic demonstrations actually occurred.

        I wasn’t aware that there were four (presumably conflicting) accounts of the resurrection! However, I don’t doubt that the apologists have ‘very convincing reasons’ to reject the three that they like the least…!

      • Paul, I can give you many illustrations of New Testament scholars who treat the resurrection as metaphor – e.g. Robert Price, John Shelby Spong, and Dominic Crossan goes very close, Bart Ehrman and there are many more.

      • The Skept, cant reply below your point so see further below i have commented.

      • Dan, you’re correct. If resurrection didn’t happen I would throw out the baby and the bathwater – for there would be no baby and the bathwater would be pretty worthless.

        In terms of the resurrection account – the one I favour is the one in 1 Cor 15 – which is earliest and claims that Jesus was actually raised from the dead (which I think the four evangelists agree with).

    • Just to clarify something which betrays your presuppositions – science tells us that a ‘natural’ resurrection is nonsense. Science can’t adjudicate on an historical event where God (the author of life) elects to raise someone from the dead.

      Also, I do think that what you’ve suggested in terms of Christianity to move to a more ‘liberal’ sphere was advocated hundreds of years ago – and that form of Christianity is dying a slow death. Further, the key problem with this for me is that a metaphor can’t save me – only a real physical person. As I’ve said to Dan before, if the resurrection didn’t happen, then I’d join the ranks of the atheists – or perhaps be a deist, but certainly not be a Christian.

      In terms of the philosophical topics – will certainly aim to bring them back – I’m planning a full scale discussion/review/critique of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape. I would really appreciate your thoughts on that one.

      • “Science can’t adjudicate on an historical event where God (the author of life) elects to raise someone from the dead…”
        In the same way tha tt science can’t adjudicate on the leprechaun accounts in the example given previously. But science can, and does, provide us with a comprehensive and rich set of facts about our world to indicate what the truth is most likely to be. That truth is that the biblical resurrection just didn’t happen, despite the dogmatic insistence of all the witnesses supposedly present that transcribed the details in immaculate detail which have managed to survive until the present day. ;-^)
        If God wants me believe it happened, then why doesn’t he provide my tiny, limited, inquisitive, skeptical human mind with a reason to believe it? Why does he favour you in this regard, and not me…?

      • Related to my previous post – ok, granted your assumption that it didn’t happen – can you explain the six key facts?

  6. The Skept, its actually quite enjoyable. Scroll down to point 17 and mouse over each account. Take your pick of which account is the best i guess because none agree with each other.

  7. Frederick permalink

    The author of this essay and associated website throughly examined at a profound depth-level all of the fictional stories and characters that are “reported” in the “New” Testament.

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