Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

Resurrection and Worldview: FAQ

In this brief appendix, I’ll try to answer a few of the common objections to the arguments in favor of the Resurrection that were presented in the essay Resurrection and Worldview.  If you have other questions, please e-mail me, and I’ll try to answer them.  Your questions may even be added to this list!

1.  “This is ridiculous.  The Resurrection is just a primitive superstition.  I can’t believe that an educated, modern person would even consider that it is true.”

This is an objection that certainly carries a lot of emotional weight, but it is an appeal to worldview rather than to evidence or to reason. Implicit in this objection is the assumption that belief in the supernatural or in suspensions of the laws of nature by a supernatural cause is ‘primitive’ and ‘ridiculous’.  But what rigorous evidence do we have to make such a claim?  Again, see Bertrand Russel’s essay On Induction and the laws of nature: he concludes that there is no rigorous empirical justification for believing that the laws of nature are inviolable.  To believe so is a faith proposition just as much as a belief in the supernatural.

2.  “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  The improbability of the Resurrection is so great, that absolutely extraordinary evidence is required to compel someone to believe in it.  The kind of historical evidence that you’ve mentioned in this essay doesn’t even come close.”

This objection is quite powerful, but it runs into some serious problems when it is formulated rigorously.  The claim that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ is actually just an approximate verbal expression of Bayes’ Theorem.  Rigorously, this argument is manifested in Bayes’ theorem by the fact that P(H|E) is proportional to P(H); that is the probability of some hypothesis H being true given the observed evidence is proportional to the inherent, a priori probability of hypothesis H.  For instance, if I claim that I flipped a coin yesterday and it came out heads, the evidence for my testimony is probably sufficient to convince us because the a priori probability of the claim is fairly high: 50%.  However, if I claim that I flipped a coin one hundred times yesterday and they all came out heads, the evidence for my testimony is insufficient to convince us because the a priori probability of the claim is so low.  Instead, I would need a large amount of evidence to convince me of such an inherently improbably claim.  This objection says that the same principle applies to the Resurrection.  The massive improbability of the claim means that extraordinarily strong evidence is required to compel belief.

The problem with this claim can be seen if we partition the a priori probability of the Resurrection into two parts, PN(H) and PS(H), as we did in the essay.  This objection rightly notes that both Christians and skeptics believe that PN(H) (the probability that the Resurrection had a natural cause) is astronomically small.  However, what it fails to notice is that in order for the objection to be valid one must also assume that PS(H) (the probability that a supernatural cause (God) was responsible for the Resurrection) is also extremely small.  The question to ask in response is: what evidence do you have that PS(H) should be small? What is your evidence that God does not exist? How do you know that it is extremely improbable that God, if He exists, would not intervene miraculously in history?  Ultimately, our estimation of PS(H) will depend crucially on our beliefs about God: whether He exists and if He does exist, whether he desires to communicate his presence to humanity through the miraculous.

If you respond that God's intervention in history is an "extraordinary claim," I would have to ask you who gets to define "extraordinary"? Certainly, Christians recognize that there are natural laws; otherwise the whole concept of a miracle would be meaningless! But Christians also believe that these natural laws are dependent on and can be set aside by the God who created them. So in one sense, miracles are "extraordinary" in that they occur infrequently when compared to the operation of the normal laws of physics. But in another sense, a miracle is not "extraordinary" in that it falls well within the parameters of a Christian worldview. As a practical example, I myself have prayed many times for God to heal particular sick people of particular diseases. The fact that I and millions of other Christians pray daily for such interventions shows that there is not some default definition of "extraordinary" which all people use regardless of their worldview. An atheist has a definition of "extraordinary" which is consistent with his or her atheism and a Christian has a definition which is consistent with his or her Christianity. But there is no neutral definition of "extraordinary" that exists apart from any worldview precommitments.

3.  “The only reason that Christians believe in the Resurrection is that they fine-tune their presuppositions to make the Resurrection plausible.”

This objection follows in response to our previous answer.  The objection is that Christians artificially assume a large value for PS(H) to make the Resurrection probable.  In response, we need to realize that one does not need to be a Christian in order to have some relatively high value for PS(H).  For instance, Jews and Muslims wo uld also assign a much higher value for PS(H) than atheists because they also believe in an omnipotent creator God who can and does intervene in the world through the miraculous.  A skeptic would be right in noting that Jews and Muslims would probably have a significantly lower value than Christians; however, this difference would be due to their different beliefs about God’s character and purposes.  For instance, a Jewish historian would probably assign a lower a priori probability to Jesus’ Resurrection because Jews do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah (excluding the large number of Messianic Jews who do believe that Jesus is the Messiah); thus, they would reason that it would be highly unlikely for God to raise Jesus from the dead, giving his claims credibility.  Similarly, a Muslim historian would assign a low probability to Jesus’ Resurrection because of his belief in the validity of the Qu’ran which seems to teach that Jesus did not actually die.  Christians certainly adopt a high view of PS(H) because they hold to a Christian worldview in which God desires to communicate with and to save humanity.  But this fact does not invalidate a high value for PS(H) any more than the low value of PS(H) adopted by atheists is invalidated by their atheistic worldview.  

As a side note, it is interesting to consider what Jesus himself says about the a priori probability of his Resurrection.  During an encounter with his disciples on the road to Emmaus, the risen Jesus makes the following statement: “`How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).  Jesus says here the same thing that the apostles say repeatedly elsewhere in the New Testament: that the Resurrection should have been expected by anyone who accepted the validity of the Old Testament as divine revelation.  In other words, anyone who believes in the character of God and His revealed purposes for the salvation of humanity as expressed in the Old Testament should assign a very high value to PS(H).  Of course, when the gospel came to ancient Greeks or the barbarians of Europe who had never heard of the Bible, the apostles did not appeal to this argument from the Old Testament.  But it is clear from this argument that one could certainly have an extremely high a priori expectation of the Resurrection prior to any concrete evidence of its occurrence (consider the Bible’s description of the Jewish convert Apollos in Acts 18:24-28).

4.  “There are dozens of other reports of miracles workers in the ancient world, but Christians treat these claims with the same extreme skepticism as atheists.  This attitude is completely inconsistent and shows that all such claims ought to be viewed with skepticism.”

 There are several answers to this common objection.  The first is that the conclusion simply does not follow from the premise.  If Christians are being inconsistent, one possibility is that they ought to be more skeptical of the Resurrection, but the other equally valid option is that they simply ought to be less skeptical of other miracles.  Second, although this objection is often raised by skeptics, a list of the other plausible historical miracles is never provided.  To claim that Christians are inconsistently credulous of the Resurrection and incredulous of other miracles, one must provide some concrete examples of these other well-attested miracles.  In fact, the other miracles and miracle workers that are commonly alluded to like Apollonius of Tyana or Asclepius have nowhere near the historical credibility of the Resurrection.  Not until a skeptic provides as strong a historical argument for these other miracles as for the Resurrection of Jesus will this objection be valid.  Finally, the objection that Christians do not equally consider the claims of other ancient miracle workers and religious figures neglects the exclusivity of Jesus’ claims.  If Jesus is who he says he is, the unique Son of God and the only way to be reconciled to God the Father, then the similar claims of other figures are necessarily false.  Imagine that I am desperately searching all over my house for car keys.  If I find them under the sofa, is it fair to accuse me of inconsistency and hypocrisy for not continuing to look for them for the rest of the afternoon?  If Christians have concluded that the Resurrection is historical, then it follows that other mutually exclusive claims must be false. 

5.  “Belief in the Resurrection necessitates belief in every other extraordinary claim like the existence of faeries and carnivorous orcs.”

This objection neglects the nature of the biblical worldview.  The Bible teaches that God acts both miraculously through supernatural causes and providentially through natural causes.  Indeed, the Bible teaches that God is sovereignly in control of all things.  An excellent text to look at is Psalm 104.  In it, the psalmist describes the beauty of the natural order: the water from the mountains flows into the rivers and waters the valleys, the trees draw the water up, and the birds nest in their branches.  Reading his description, he clearly recognized that the rain and the rivers and the trees were following natural laws; yet throughout the psalm he also ascribes these events to God’s activity.  Because we are told in the Bible that God created the universe with order and regularity, Christians expect the laws of nature to be orderly and regular (in fact, it is less clear what grounds atheists have for assuming the order and regularity of the universe).  Where the biblical and materialist worldview differ is in the question of whether the observed regularity of nature can ever be superseded. 

Although the Bible teaches that God can and does intervene miraculously (supernaturally, independent of the natural laws) in the world, unless some particular event in the Bible (i.e. the Resurrection, Jesus' miracles) is directly ascribed to miraculous intervention, I think it is legitimate for Christians to consider whether such an event has natural causes.  For instance, let’s imagine that a man claims that angels stole his bicycle.  Both a Christian and an atheist would look for natural causes: the atheist because he believes in no others, and the Christian because there is no biblical reason to conclude that angels steal bicycles or that they did so in this case.  It is not as if Christians, by subscribing to the Resurrection, must immediately give credence to any claim in the supernatural whatsoever.

6.  “If God wanted us to believe in the Resurrection he would have given stronger evidence.  I am open to the possibility that the Resurrection happened, but the evidence is woefully insufficient to convince any rational person that it did.”

This objection needs to be considered in the light of PS(H), the probability that the Resurrection had a supernatural cause.  When you say that the evidence is ‘woefully insufficient to convince any rational person’, you are really making the claim that all rational people ought to assign a value to PS(H) that is similar to yours.  What is your justification for this claim?  Many rational people throughout history have found the evidence for the Resurrection to be very convincing.  In fact, there are many examples throughout history of skeptics who set out to disprove the Resurrection, and ended up becoming Christian after seeing the strength of the evidence (for instance, see Simon Greenleaf’s Testimony of the Evangelists or Frank Morrison’s Who Moved the Stone).  Unless you label all such people as ‘irrational’ on the tautological ground that they believe in the Resurrection, it is hard to claim that no rational person could be convinced by the evidence.

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