Are you justified in believing that Jesus rose from the dead? I claim that you are not. I have a number of arguments for this thesis, which I present at length in my book The Miracle Myth: Why Belief in the Resurrection and the Supernatural is Unjustified. However, here I’ll consider just one. It is a version of Hume’s argument against miracles, which he introduced in a chapter of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1748) called “Of Miracles”. Since its original statement, Hume’s argument has generated considerable controversy, as well as a variety of interpretations, some of which borrow the technical apparatus of probability theory. In my view, the technical explications tend to obscure the intuitive force of the argument, and so in what follows I shall keep my discussion informal.
Here’s an example to get the intuitive juices flowing. Sally, who’s in first grade, is in trouble. When she returns home on a Monday afternoon, her mother tells her that the school reported her absent. “It’s true,” Sally responds. “I was abducted by aliens, who held me captive for the day, and only just now returned me.” Sally is making a claim: aliens abducted her. Are you justified in believing the truth of her claim?
The answer, according to Hume, rests on how we assess the probability of two events. The first event is that aliens actually abducted Sally. This is, of course, quite improbable given what we believe about the frequency of alien abductions, the possibility that aliens exist, that they are equipped with space ships capable of interstellar travel, that they would be interested in kidnapping first-graders, etc. The second event is that Sally – for whatever reason – is not telling the truth. Certainly there are many reasons that Sally might not be telling the truth. She could be lying. However, the explanation might be more innocent. She fell asleep and dreamt that she had been abducted. More incredibly, she was kidnapped by people dressed as aliens. I regard these three explanations for why Sally said something false as differing in probability, with the first (lying) the most probable and the last (faux alien abduction) the least.
Now to Hume’s argument. Consider any of the three explanations for Sally’s claim. I’ll focus on the least probable. In order to be justified in believing that aliens actually abducted Sally, we should think that the event of an alien abduction is more probable than the event of a faux alien abduction. I hope you agree with me that it is not. Even though a faux alien abduction is very improbable – I’ve never heard of such an event happening – surely it remains more probable than aliens actually visiting Earth, kidnapping Sally, and returning her to Earth just as the school bell rings. The lesson, stated generally, is this: When our basis for believing that E occurred rests on x’s report that E occurred, we’re justified in believing that E occurred only if the probability that E occurred is greater than the probability that x says something false. The lesson is intuitive: When our basis for believing that Sally was abducted by aliens rests on Sally’s report that she was abducted by aliens, we’re justified in believing that she was abducted by aliens only if the probability of an alien abduction is greater than the probability that Sally said something false.
Just to anticipate a common objection, consider a case where Sally reports having a winning lottery ticket even though the chance of drawing such a ticket is one in a million. Surely drawing a winning ticket is less probable than Sally saying something false, and so we shouldn’t believe her. But then we shouldn’t believe anyone who claims to possess a winning lottery ticket! Two responses: first, I don’t think we should believe Sally (or anyone else) until further evidence comes along (e.g., additional witnesses; confirmation by the lottery board, etc.). Second, if someone must win the lottery (notice, it’s not true that someone must be abducted by aliens), then Sally’s claim is credible, even if we might want additional evidence before believing it. She’s not asking us to believe something that our ordinary understanding of the world tells against.
Now to Jesus. The gospels report that Jesus died, was entombed, and then returned to life three days later. Application of Hume’s lesson yields the following: When our basis for believing that Jesus returned to life rests on the gospels’ reports that Jesus returned to life, we are justified in believing that Jesus returned to life only if the probability of Jesus returning to life is greater than the probability that the gospels say something false.
Let me first say something about the probability that the gospels say something false. We know (and I use this word in its factive sense) that they do include at least some falsehoods, because they are inconsistent. Compare, e.g., the various accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb. Christian apologists turn themselves sideways and inside out to make these different reports consistent, but historians who are not in the business of defending Christianity are uniform in thinking that the inconsistencies are irreconcilable and, given the patchwork nature of modern copies of ancient texts, not at all surprising. Granting that the gospels contain some falsehoods, we should also grant that there is some probability (and it doesn’t have to be terribly great) that the gospel accounts of Jesus’s resurrection are false.
Here’s a different kind of consideration. During Jesus’s life, buzz of an impending messiah was in the air. Some people believed that a messiah had been prophesied. Perhaps Jesus’s followers believed that he was indeed the messiah. However, suppose that after Jesus’s death, his followers waited several days for his resurrection, but Jesus never in fact returned from the dead. A select few of Jesus’s followers then decided that the disappointment of his eternal death would be too much for others to bear. Consequently, they staged the resurrection, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Or, alternatively, some decades after Jesus’s death, the authors of the gospels, who had not witnessed the actual crucifixion (this is well-established), report, falsely, that Jesus had returned to life because they had heard rumors to that effect. We know that people in the first century believed in many supernatural occurrences that have long-since been refuted. Jesus’s resurrection was simply another of these.
How probable are any of these three explanations for the falsehood of the gospel reports? Obviously, the assignment of precise values is not possible, just as it is not possible to assign a precise value to the probability of Sally’s faux kidnapping. But, it seems obvious to me that each of the three is not fantastically improbable. We know that modern copies of ancient historical sources contain falsehoods. We know that charismatic figures attract followers who, for whatever reason, perpetuate myths about their leaders. We know that people (especially those living 2000 years ago) uncritically (and mistakenly) accept the existence of supernatural phenomena, passing along rumors as if they were fact.
On the other hand, how probable is it that a human being (for that’s what Jesus was) returned from the dead? I simply cannot accept that this probability is greater than that for any of the explanations I offered above, or for many others even less probable. Of course, as some prominent Christian apologists, e.g. my friend Michael Licona, have noted, if Jesus were God, then the probability that he would return from the dead might be quite high. I can hardly disagree with this point. But, obviously, this would mean that Jesus’s resurrection is not evidence of his divinity, as it is commonly understood to be, but something more like the opposite: that Jesus’s divinity is evidence for his resurrection. A strange claim indeed.
About the Author: Larry Shapiro received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 and joined the Philosophy Department at the University of Wisconsin in 1993, where he’s been since. He’s the author of The Miracle Myth: Why Belief in the Resurrection and the Supernatural is Unjustified (Columbia, 2016). His main area of research is in philosophy of psychology, especially on topics concerning embodied cognition. He’s written several books and numerous articles on a variety of issues in the philosophy of psychology and mind. Apart from his academic interests, Shapiro is an avid cook and a runner.