Resurrection Evidence

I am a philosophy geek in general, but there is one philosophical idea that particularly intrigues me.

In logical reasoning, there is a concept called "Inference to the best explanation", which is also called abductive reasoning.

To cut through a lot of material, this type of logical thought is not about physical causes.

Here's what it means: when two events are related by means of an observable, and testable relationship in space and time, you can say there is physical causation.

Y happened because X was observed. 

Here's a simple example: There is a broken class on the floor in front of a person. When you ask what happened, the person says "The glass broke because I dropped it." Then you see a video of the person dropping the glass, and the glass then breaking. Pretty straight forward. You can deduce that dropping the glass caused it to break, because someone involved directly in the incident is telling you that's what happened which is confirmed by an observation.

Abductive reasoning is different in that it seeks to find the best explanation based on (often) incomplete information. Assume that when you ask the person what happened, all they said was "I dropped the glass. The glass broke". If that was all the information you ever had to work with, you would need to use abductive reasoning to resolve a reasonable explanation for why the glass is broken. In one sense, you could say that the person's character is in question.

Many questions would remain. For example, is the order of the information relevant? Does this person generally lie about stuff? The answer is: we don't know for sure. The only thing we can know for sure is that the information we have is the information we have. So, there are a few possible explanations.

1. The glass broke in the person's hand, and they dropped it.
2. The person dropped the glass on the ground, and the glass subsequently broke.
3. Aliens broke the class, and placed it on the ground in front of the person and used mind tricks to make the person think they broke the glass.

Since abductive reasoning seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation for an event given (some) evidence(s), the best option available is #2 because it's reasonable to infer that the order of information was relevant, and that the person had no reason to lie. Option #1 is also reasonable, but option #2 is the most reasonable explanation.

So far so good?

We use abductive reasoning every day. People who are "street smart" are especially good with abductive reasoning - they can accurately read social situations with complete strangers consistently, without having or needing to observe physical causation. You are also likely very good at abductive reasoning with people whom you have known well for years. You don't need them to say "I'm sad" or "Something is bothering me today" or "I don't know what to do". You can simply read their facial expressions and/or body language,  or even hear the tone of their voice. Then you can access the database of information and facts about them in your mind, and you can then infer the most likely reason for their expression. Sometimes you get it wrong, but for the really important things, you almost always get it right. Abductive reasoning is also responsible for assuming the worst in people based on skewed information (i.e. gossip, a bad interaction, your own projections). So while abductive reasoning can be extremely helpful, it can also be extremely misleading if not used well.

The nature of abductive reasoning is also apparent when studying anything faith based, for faith attempts to bridge the huge gaps which exist between what we know and what we don't know. In this light, abductive reasoning is responsible both for belief and unbelief. But when it comes to history, all we have is abductive reasoning. We can't re-witness past events. We can only see the records of events as they were recorded: incomplete.

The Ancient World

In looking at evidence for events in the Ancient world, an event can therefore be considered a historical fact if it gives the best explanation for the evidence surrounding it. Again, it doesn't mean that there is physical causation. It doesn't mean there is definitive, irrefutable proof.  It simply means that given the evidence the most reasonable explanation is x, and not y or z.

Confusion arises when we assume that because we can infer the truthfulness of a claim, then this is the same as finding physical causation. It isn't. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have handily proven the fallacy of looking for physical causation for ancient world events, like the resurrection and other miraculous wonders recorded in the Bible. Christians best move on from the "irrefutable proof" camp, because the facts are that there is no irrefutable proof even for the resurrection. If you are looking for water tight arguments, you won't find them even in the Bible. However, what you will find is a watertight person: Jesus.

The fact is, the evidence we have for the resurrection is third hand information. We have no physical causation for believing in the resurrection. Belief in the resurrection is therefore a faith position just like, say, belief in science as the saving grace of humanity. You can't definitively prove or disprove either of those claims.

I recently read a great piece about a highly educated man in the late 4th Century AD name Herodotus, who wrote an account of the Persian wars. He interviewed eye witnesses and wrote their accounts. Among the accounts, eye witnesses reported that a massive flood-tide eradicated a fleet of Persian soldiers, a temple magically defended itself without human help, and a whole town witnessed the mass resurrection of cooked fish. To believe these words are true is an obvious faith position. But it's a good example of looking at evidence to find the simplest explanation for the evidence using abductive reasoning. In this case, the simplest explanation for the evidence at hand is that these things probably didn't happen. There is no precedent for cooked fish to rise from the dead, buildings don't animate themselves, and when it comes to war, people can tend to embellish their war victories.

What about Jesus?

Our task then is to ask the question: Is "Jesus literally rose from the dead" the best explanation for the evidence at hand? Keep in mind that physical causation for the resurrection simply isn't there (just as physical causation for science being the saving grace of humanity isn't there - both must be inferred based on evidence at hand).

There are four main things that need an explanation when it comes to the resurrection.

1. The tomb which held Jesus was discovered empty by a group of women following the crucifixion and Jesus' burial.
2. Jesus' disciples had real experiences with one whom they believed was the risen Christ
3. As a result of the preaching of these disciples, which had the resurrection at its center, the Christian church was established and grew
4. Details within the Biblical texts stop making sense if there was no resurrection, or if the resurrection was some sort of mass delusion.

The people who had the most to gain from a complete refute of the claims of Jesus' disciples were those of the Jewish leadership whom desired to rid Judaism of Jesus. Matthew 28:11-15 records that some Jewish leaders claimed that Jesus' disciples stole the body, and that's why the tomb was empty.

Why would the gospel writers bother to include such an obscure detail? It doesn't add any credibility to the story by itself. However, when you combine this detail with accounts from hostile witness such as those found in the Toledoth Jesu, a picture emerges of the fact of an empty tomb. There is no clear reason yet for the empty tomb, however I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that the tomb was empty.

Three Possibilities

One possible explanation why the tomb was empty is the gospel writers made it up. Another possible explanation is that the tomb was empty because Jesus Rose from the dead, as the gospel writers claim. A third possible explanation is that the disciples really did steal the body. To accept the first and last explanations, we would need to concede that the disciples and the gospel writers were, above all other things, bold liars.

The Bible paints a fairly comprehensive picture of the disciples. They were young, slow to understand, scared a times and full of pep and energy. They were teenagers. 

As at least people who came from under the Moasic law, and as people we can assume were at least genuine, lying on purpose for an extended period would be one of the worst things they could do. Plus, people usually lie to get ahead or protect themselves. If the gospel writers were lying, it's a lie that did not get them ahead. It got them all killed and/or persecuted, and it was like that way from the start. So why would they lie, knowing they would be hunted down for it? If they were genuine yet delusional, what would cause such a delusion? Sorrow at the death of Jesus?

In the first century, many so-called messiah movements ended with the death of the leader. What happened next is everyone would just move on, because death was it. No one expected Jesus to rise from the dead. They expected him to stay dead. Were they sad? Of course. Who wouldn't be. Death sucks. But delusional? That's a pretty big stretch.

Certainly there have been delusional people who lied to gain religious power in the past. The early Christian leadership in contrast tells the faithful to pay their taxes and live peaceably with everyone. For the first 300 or so years, Christians preached and seemed to live their message of humility and care for the poor. I think it's fair to assume the gospel writers therefore did not have bad motifs and weren't making a power play - there was literally nothing to gain in this world and everything to lose from their message. If it isn't true, it definitely has to be delusional! But I've covered that. It wasn't delusion, and it wasn't a power play.

What's left? Perhaps it's just the truth. No delusions, no power plays, no bad motifs. Plain, simple truth.

As a side note, the exception might be the circumstances by which Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Here we may have some misguidedness at play, as the circumstances of Caesar's conversion (God more or less tells him to go to war in the name of Jesus) blatantly contradicts the gospel message. It's the same kind of misguided froth you get from high profile religious and political leaders today, who claim to have heard from God. If you listen carefully,  the details often tend to contradict the gospel in one way or another.

Wrapping Up

For the first 300 years of Christianity, Christians were relentlessly hunted down and executed by the Roman Empire. This did not stop the Christian message from spreading and gaining steam. I can infer from this that there must have been something to the Christian message which was worth risking death for. Was it really delusion, or is there some meat to the claim that Jesus in fact rose from the grave in a saving act of grace? 

That's only the first of the four facts which need explanations, but for me it's the lynch pin. If the empty tomb is a reasonable truth, and if Jesus' resurrection is the most reasonable explanation for the empty tomb, then I think there is enough information to make a reasonable leap to faith in Jesus.

I started there, and let the rest fall into it's proper place at the proper time.


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