Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Resurrection: What Would It Take to Convince Me?

What kind of evidence would it take to convince you that Jesus bodily rose from the dead? Vocab Malone.

This is a question that is frequently asked of skeptics by Christian apologists in the blogosphere. Its purpose (as I understand it) is to expose the skeptic’s bias. The skeptic is very likely to demand very convincing evidence for the resurrection in which case the apologist will accuse him of having a double standard since he accepts other events in history with much less proof.

Even better for the apologist, the skeptic might answer that no evidence could ever convince of the historicity of the resurrection. Then the apologist can argue that the skeptic is unable to honestly evaluate the evidence since he has determined the conclusion he will reach before he starts. My usual answer is that I am unable to imagine an array of evidence that would convince me of the resurrection without denying that such an array might exist. While I believe this to be perfectly true and a perfectly valid answer, I realize that I am sidestepping the question to some extent.

Recently, I came across a skeptic who said that personally witnessing a spectacular supernatural event might be sufficient to convince him that Jesus had been raised from the dead. “This could – as an example – be a miraculous event like the stars suddenly spelling out ‘ACCEPT JESUS AS YOUR PERSONAL LORD AND SAVIOUR AND ESCAPE THE FIRES OF HELL!’ and the gates of Hell and Heaven being opened to touring visitors.” The apologist claimed that the skeptic wasn’t debating in good faith, but I don’t think it is an unreasonable answer.

The reason that I say that I can’t imagine a particular array of evidence is that five decades of observation and learning have persuaded me that resorting to supernatural explanations for the world around me is unnecessary. Christians will accuse me of having an anti-supernatural presupposition, but I don’t believe that it is a presupposition at all. I believe that methodological naturalism is an empirical conclusion. I take this approach because it has proved itself in practice.

In evaluating any supernatural claim, I have to take into account my own experiences and observations which include the following: (1) I have known people who claimed to see supernatural intervention in ordinary events; (2) I have known people who accept the supernatural claims of others and pass them along without thinking critically about them; and (3) I have known people who exaggerate the basis for supernatural claims when they pass them along. On the other hand, my own experience and knowledge do not include any verifiable supernatural miracles.

Since I am quite familiar with spurious miracle claims and I have no familiarity whatsoever with verifiable miracle claims, it is hard for me to imagine how I might be convinced that one of the latter had occurred. In evaluating any new miracle claim, I have no choice but to compare it with my previous experience with the subject. Just as I am always going to assess the likelihood that it is raining when a wet person shows up at my front door as much higher than the likelihood that there is a swimming pool in my front yard, I am always going to assess the probability of a spurious miracle claim higher than a true one.

On the other hand, if I were to witness a spectacular supernatural event myself, I might well decide to apply a different probability distribution to supernatural claims made by others. So if I were to personally witness a miracle of resurrection caliber (along with other witnesses so I can be confident I am not hallucinating), I might conclude that the bodily resurrection of Jesus in first century Palestine was likely.


  1. This seems to support Greta Christina's recurring theme: Those who espouse religion seem often to say things (like "not debating in good faith") with the purpose of ending discussion rather than supporting their own claims.

    Ironically, I have a great deal of trouble seeing how it could be a good-faith argument to call the perception of some words in the sky to be disproportionately harder to accept than somebody coming back from the dead.

  2. If God really wanted everyone to believe in him, why doesn't everyone get to see the signs and wonders? Why do first century desert tribesman who are already prone to magical thinking get the benefit of supernatural displays of power while twentieth century rationalists are left with dubious argumentation?

  3. This is a rather limited defense, but there are quite recent claims of miracles. Joseph Smith's golden tablets with the book of Mormon do date from quite recently. Darwin had already formulated a naturalistic explanation of biological variation, even as Smith was hiding in a closet with his magic spectacles.

    I think the important conclusion is not that there was an age of magical thinking (while there certainly was), but that there are still cultures of it. On the other hand, it is much harder to give them respect in this age.

  4. This is interesting.

    I am thankful for you, Vinny, because I think you (for the most part) fairly represent those you oppose - so thanks.

    As far as my intentions, I DO want to show that the atheist is debating IN faith - meaning they trust their sensory perceptions as accurate, they trust their own thoughts, they trust other people's reports about reality (such as scientific papers and historical documents).

    When I say 'bad faith', that is simply shorthand to point out the obvious - that the atheist, like everyone else, is not neutral, despite claims to the contrary.

    These things do not prove any atheist is wrong per se (or that I am right) but rather expose the atheist's built-in assumptions - assumptions which I have noticed are almost impossible for him to let go.


  5. In other words, Vocab thinks atheists are mentally ill, and will write on his blog doing so.

    And if Vocab is wiped out in a debate as I wiped him out, by quoting the lies and frauds in his Bible, he will refuse to answer further.

    Why should he answer people he thinks are mentally ill?

    Does Vocab think any Christian writer can tell a lie?

  6. Vocab,

    I think your concept of bad faith is too rigid. I don’t think that good faith in an argument requires perfect neutrality. To me, good faith involves things like avoiding fallacies to the best of one’s ability, fairly representing the evidence, fairly characterizing and an opponent’s position, and identifying and examining the basis for one’s own assumptions to the best of one’s own abilities. I think there is a lot that can be done to offset the effect of biases.

  7. Vin -

    You may be right, I will think twice about how I use that phrase.