Christian academics, like Stephen T. Davis, and William Lane Craig, have often argued that it is rational (even scientific) to believe in the resurrection of Jesus because it provides the best explanation of the available evidence (e.g., the biblical witness and the martyrdom of the apostles). In the latest issue of SHERM (Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry), the academic journal published by the GCRR (Global Center for Religious Research), Robert Cavin and Carlos Colombetti have refuted such arguments by explaining how the Standard Model of physics entails that such an event is implausible and has low explanatory power.
Their paper is brilliant and I expect it to reverberate within the academic community. The paper is highly technical, however, and as such I don’t think the general populace will have an opportunity to read and understand it. Because I think an appreciation of their conclusion is very important, it is my goal here to lay out in easy—or at least easier—to understand terms (1) why “Jesus was resurrected” is not the best explanation of the cited evidence, and (2) how such a resurrection event being contrary to the standard model of physics is relevant to establishing that is not.
To do so, I will use the method for comparing and evaluating hypotheses that I have taught to college freshmen for about 15 years: Ted Schick’s SEARCH method. State the claim. Examine the evidence for the claim. Consider Alternative hypotheses. Rate, according to the Criteria of adequacy, each Hypothesis. I will explicate each step as I do so.
Step 1: State the Claim
When stating a claim to evaluate it, one needs to be as specific and precise as possible. In the case of the resurrection, this is easy to do:
Hypothesis 1: A first century Palestinian apocalyptic preacher named Jesus was crucified and then raised from the dead via the supernatural powers of a supernatural being we now call “God.”
In other words, Jesus’ resurrection happened pretty much as the Bible described. But the next step is a bit more complicated: to state and evaluate the evidence for the hypothesis.
Step 2: Examine the Evidence for the Claim
To do this, one must state the evidence and bring to bear all the critical thinking lessons that Schick teaches in his book to determine whether it is admissible.
Of course, the first piece of evidence is the biblical account itself, and its report that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that he appeared to the apostles after his death. But the Bible is in no way a reliable historical document. For example, scholars generally agree that the Old Testament is mostly ahistorical (Abraham, Moses, and even King David, for example, likely never existed.) And even if one sets aside the (often convincing but minority) view that thatJesus never existed either, the New Testament doesn't fare much better. Most biblical scholars agree that the New Testament is not historically reliable, especially when it comes to the details of Jesus' life. For one, it’s full of historical contradictions. The two nativity stories in Luke and Matthew, for example, are impossible to reconcile historically. (See Chapter 1 of my book “The Myths that Stole Christmas” for a full rundown.) And the same is true for the different gospels’ account of Jesus’ life, including his crucifixion and resurrection.
The latter is worth elaboration. The gospels say two things about when Jesus was crucified. Mark (14:12, 15:25) says he was crucified on the day of Passover at the third hour, but John (19:14-16) says it was the day before Passover at the sixth hour. In the synoptic gospels (Mark 15:23, Matthew 27:48, Luke 23:36), Jesus refuses to drink while on the cross, but in John (19:29-30) he does. Historically, the Romans usually didn’t crucify thieves—that was for enemies of the state—but the synoptics say the men crucified with Jesus were thieves. And those that were crucified weren’t taken down and put into a grave; they were left up to rot and later thrown into a pit. The list of discrepancies is vast and numerous. And, more importantly for our purposes, many discrepancies exist in the biblical account of the resurrection. How many people saw the resurrected Jesus, for example? Paul (in 1 Cor. 15:6) says it was over 500, but the gospels never mention this crucial event. Were the women joyful or sad? Could the apostles touch Jesus, or not? Was he recognizable? Different gospels say different things, and ad hoc attempts to rectify these problems are not convincing.
This is not surprising given the fact that we now know the gospels were not written by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John right after the events happened—but instead by non-eyewitnesses more than 70 years after Jesus would have lived. (The first clue was that the gospels are written in Greek and the apostles would have been illiterate and spoken Aramaic.) Mark was written first, and whoever wrote Matthew and Luke used it as source material, but John was written independently—that’s why it's so different and contradictory. So the resurrection accounts in the gospels cannot be considered a reliable account of what happened after Jesus’ death because the people who wrote them were not around then. The gospel accounts therefore do not provide good evidence.
Of course, some have claimed that the gospels are simply written accounts of oral traditions that were started by the apostles and perfectly preserved by the Christian community. But as Bart Ehrman proves in his book “Jesus Before the Gospels,” there is no way that actually happened. Oral traditions are no different than rumors; all research suggests that they change and are added to drastically as they are passed on. Or to put it simply, I wouldn’t believe my neighbor if he said he saw someone raise the dead with his own eyes—and justifiably so. How much less should I believe non-eyewitness accounts passed through multiple languages for 2000 years?
Outside the biblical witness, proponents of the resurrection will often cite other factors—like the tradition that the apostles died as martyrs for their faith. “Why would they be willing to do that,” the argument goes, “if Jesus wasn't really raised from the dead?" But this argument fails for two reasons.
First, there is not much good evidence that the apostles died for their faith. Sean McDowell lays out the evidence in his book The Fate of the Apostles (and summarizes it here), and argues that (at best) Peter, Paul, James (son of Zebedee) and Jesus’ brother (James) were martyred. But even the evidence he mentions for their martyrdom was written down long after it would have happened—which means the stories would have been preserved by oral tradition and thus are not reliable. It’s just as likely that all such stories are church traditions that—like the story of doubting Thomas (which is only in John) and the detail about the guards in front of the tomb (more on that later)—were invented to try to convince skeptics.
Second, the disciples dying for their faith would not be evidence that Jesus had resurrected; it would only be evidence that they were wholly convince that he had. But their being convinced would not be evidence that he had indeed rose from the dead. Some people are wholly convinced Elvis still lives, and people in cults die for demonstrably false and patently ridiculous things they are wholly convinced of all the time. (Recall the Jonestown massacre.) As we shall soon see, there are many reasons the apostles could have been so convinced that Jesus rose even though he didn’t.
Something similar could be said about the “success” of Christianity. The fact that Christianity spread and is still thriving today is not a testament to the fact that Jesus indeed rose—any more than the fact that Islam is thriving today is testament to the fact that Muhamad was Allah’s prophet and rode a flying horse named Burāq up to heaven. Religions succeed or fail primarily because of historical accident (e.g., the conversion of Constantine), not because they are rooted in historical events. Besides, to think that something is true because it has been believed by a lot of people for a long time is a doubly fallacious argument: one that combines “appeal to tradition” with “appeal to the masses.”
Step 3: Consider Alternative Hypotheses
The hypothesis that Cavin and Colombetti favor is called the legend hypothesis, and could be stated like this:
Hypothesis 2: After Jesus died, a (false) legend emerged that he had been resurrected. Many people, including the apostles, believed it. This legend morphed over time and grew to include fabricated details intended to answer skeptics.
In lieu of separating this hypothesis into many that we could evaluate separately, let us simply consider multiple ways such a legend could have arisen.
For example, perhaps Jesus didn’t die on the cross to begin with. After all, it usually took most who were crucified days to die, and even those who were nailed to a cross could live up to 24 hours. (According to the biblical account Jesus was only on a cross for a few hours). Indeed, on this theory, the “spear in the side” detail (to confirm Jesus’ death) was added by the author of John (the latest and only gospel in which this crucial detail appears) to squelch such doubts because they were already being expressed by skeptics. If he did survive, Jesus could have recovered from his wounds well enough to leave the tomb. He need not even have survived long; he could have gone and died somewhere else. And an empty tomb would be enough to generate a legend of resurrection.
As evidence that this is at least possible, we could cite many stories from the modern world where even medical professionals thought someone was dead when they weren’t—like 29-year-old Gonzalo Montoya Jiménez who was declared dead by 3 separate doctors before later awakening and completely recovering (even after being in cold storage). How much more common must mistaking illness for death have been in the ancient world, and how much more unqualified to tell whether someone was really dead must the illiterate apostles have been? (According to Luke 8, and Matthew 9, it wasn't unheard of for ancient peoples to think someone was dead simply because they were sleeping while ill.) The fact that Jesus’ inerudite apostles thought Jesus had died would not be a valid reason to think that he had.
Another explanation for an empty tomb would be that Jesus’ body was stolen. Or perhaps it wasn’t empty, and his followers just wrongly guessed, never knew, or forgot where his body was laid. And if they didn’t know, perhaps other people later claimed to be the resurrected Jesus. (Apocalyptic preachers were common at the time; claiming to be Jesus could have been an easy way to gain a following—like gurus in India today often claim to be reincarnations of Vishnu.) Or perhaps Jesus had a long-lost doppelganger (or even twin) brother that people mistook for Jesus, after this death. Either of these possibilities would make sense of the story of the two apostles, on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), who didn’t quite recognize the person they were talking to "as Jesus" until after he was gone.
Or perhaps there was never an empty tomb. Again, those the Romans crucified were almost always thrown into mass graves. If that was true of Jesus, he wouldn’t have had a tomb to begin with. On this theory, the followers of Jesus were so distraught by his death that they simply refused to believe it. Much like fans of Elvis, despite the obvious evidence they couldn’t accept his death and began to believe they saw him alive as a result. Such rumors spreading (especially among illiterate first century Palestinians) would have made “sightings” more frequent, and easily laid the groundwork for a widespread belief that Jesus was still alive. From this, the stories about an empty tomb and his subsequent appearances could have easily emerged.
Direct evidence that any of these things happened is, of course, as impossible to obtain as direct evidence that a resurrection occurred. Although—this explanation would explain nicely why the first person to write of Jesus’ resurrection (Paul) was not an eyewitness, and why those who wrote about it (a) wrote about it so much later, (b) gave the false impression that they were eyewitnesses and (c) wrote such divergent stories. Legends take time to develop, do so in different ways in different communities, and are more believable if they sound like they are coming from eyewitnesses. If Jesus really had risen from the dead, it seems more likely that an eyewitness would have written about it sooner. (And if they had, the church would have preserved that written account.)
Nevertheless, these two competing hypotheses can be evaluated and compared to one another. Indeed, this is the entire purpose of the last step of Schick’s SEARCH method.
Step 4: Rate, according to the Criteria of adequacy, each Hypothesis.
Cavin and Colombetti point out that, in his defense of the resurrection as the best explanation of the evidence, Stephen T. Davis never offers any “statement, schema, or discussion of the logic of explanatory arguments.” (p. 48) Ironically, however, Cavin and Colombetti never do either—at least not in any systematic way, although they do appeal numerous criteria that epitomize what good explanations must do. What must they do? As Schick explains, good explanations, by definition, must do five things:
be testable: make novel predictions by which the explanation can be falsified.
be fruitful: get the novel predictions it makes right.
be wide-scoping: explain a variety of phenomena without raising unanswerable questions or replacing one unexplained thing with another.
be simple/parsimonious: not make more (e.g., existential) assumptions than are necessary.
be conservative: cohere with that which we already have good reason to believe (e.g., established scientific knowledge).
Schick calls these the criteria of adequacy.
Now, a good explanation need not always be all these things. Indeed, scientific revolutions happen when non-conservative explanations become accepted. Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, was not conservative when it was first proposed because it contradicted the established theory: Newton’s laws of motion. But such theories can become accepted if (like relativity) they prove themselves to be better than their competitors by being more fruitful, wide scoping, and simple. Or take the germ theory of disease. It introduced new entities, and thus wasn’t simple; but it proved itself by successfully predicting things like the efficacy of handwashing and vaccines.
When considering competing hypotheses, however, the process is straightforward. You compare the hypotheses according to the criteria and accept the hypothesis that adheres to the most of them. By definition, that hypothesis is the best explanation. This is why the final step in Schick’s SEARCH method—and the last thing we will do to determine which of our hypotheses is the best—is to determine which is the most adequate.
When it comes to testability, neither of our hypotheses have a lot going for them—and so the same goes for their fruitfulness. There is very little in terms of novel observable predictions that either of them can successfully make. One exception, of course, is that the legend hypothesis predicts that we would discover that the gospels (which report the resurrection) were written long after the resurrection would have happened by non-eyewitnesses. (Notice that the later the gospels were written, the more reason we would have to think that they are legends.) Since their authorship is a recent discovery, relativity speaking, and that is exactly what we discovered, we can say that—while the testability of both hypotheses is limited—the legend hypothesis is more fruitful.
The simplicity of the two hypotheses is much more straightforward. The resurrection hypothesis requires the existence of a supernatural entity operating with supernatural powers. That’s two enormous assumptions that the legend hypothesis doesn’t have to make. At worst, the legend hypothesis only assumes the addition of details to the story (like the "spear in the side" and "the guards at the tomb") to convince skeptics and the existence of something like an doppelganger/twin brother—which, granted, the latter is a bit of a stretch. But there are essentially three things to say in response.
First, when it comes to the possibility of an unknown brother, as we saw above, there are other accounts of how the legend began that require nothing more than faulty memory, wishful thinking, or a misdiagnosis of death. So the unknown brother assumption is in no way necessary for the legend hypothesis. But second, and more importantly, the existence of even unknown brother is not a more grandiose assumption than the existence of supernatural entities and supernatural powers. (At least we know that doppelganger/twins can and do exist.) If Princess Diana appeared on TV tomorrow, claiming to be back from the dead, that she had a long-lost twin would be a simpler explanation than, say, “aliens resurrected her corpse with advanced technology.”
Third, the addition of details to convince skeptics is not a stretch at all. Scholars already agree that additions are readily made to such stories by those who pass them along, and that the "spear" detail (which is only in John) and the "guards at the tomb" detail (which is only in Matthew) were likely added by the authors for the purpose of convincing skeptics. Indeed, the author of Matthew (27:62-66) practically admits as much.
62 The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” 65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard. (NIV)
It seems as if the stone in front of the tomb wasn't enough to convince skeptics; people realized that eleven apostles could easily roll it away, steal the body, and then say he resurrected. (After all, in Mark, Joseph rolls the stone in front of the tomb by himself,) So Matthew invented some Roman guards to keep people from saying the apostles did exactly that.
None of this entails that the legend hypothesis is contrary to belief in God, of course. But since it doesn’t require God to exist, it is by definition simpler.
The scope of the two hypotheses is also easy to compare. The resurrection hypothesis has little scope because it invokes the inexplicable: an infinite inexplicable being who uses unknown, un-understandable, powers. As Schick might point, it's a bit like trying to explain why a bridge collapsed by saying “A mysterious gremlin zapped it with a magical ray gun.” (Notice that accepting such an explanation would not help you build a more stable bridge that wouldn't collapse again for the same reason.) To paraphrase Plato, to say “the gods did it” is not to offer an explanation. It is merely to offer up an excuse for not having one.
The legend hypothesis, however, has very wide scope because it (or something very much like it) can explain, not only the evidence cited for the resurrection, but a vast number of other phenomena—everything from Elvis and Hitler sightings, to a host of other religious beliefs about the resurrection of supposedly dead persons. It explains the contradictions in the biblical accounts of the resurrection, and why those accounts were written so much later than the events they purport to relay.
The legend hypothesis is also monumentally conservative because it conflicts with nothing that we know is true. We know that (and how and why) false beliefs, even in the face of contrary evidence, can arise—even the belief that someone who is dead is not (again, like Elvis and Hitler). It coheres with what we know about how and who the Romans crucified, how long it took those they crucified to die, and how the Romans disposed of their bodies. It aligns with what we know about how unreliable group memories and “oral traditions” are. And it aligns with perhaps one of the most established facts there is: the dead stay dead.
And this brings us to where Cavin and Colombetti ’s thesis is most relevant. They argue that, regardless of whether God exists, the resurrection hypothesis is contrary to the standard model of physics. Its laws do not allow for the reanimation of corpses (especially by supernatural means). Defenders of the resurrection, like Davis and Craig, argue that the laws come with a proviso: the laws operate as usual unless there is divine intervention. They thus argue that the resurrection is not scientifically impossible. But, as Cavin and Colombetti very skillfully point out, such a proviso is either superfluous or “renders [the] laws untestable metaphysical pseudo-science.” (p. 84) Consequently, the standard model “entails that God never supernaturally intervenes in the affairs of the universe that lie within its scope.” (p. 67) And that would include raising Jesus from the dead.
In other words, the Standard Model of physics—along with all of the research that has established it over the years—is in direct conflict with the resurrection hypothesis. The Standard Model thus entails that the resurrection did not happen. This means that the resurrection hypothesis is practically as non-conservative as a hypothesis can be—even more non-conservative than creationism, geocentrism, and the flat Earth theory. It is contrary to all of science. If the resurrection hypothesis could prove itself—by being vastly more fruitful, simpler and wider scoping than its competitor—it might have a fighting chance. But as we have seen, it is none of those things. Indeed, by its very nature, it can’t be. This, by all accounts, is its death nail—and why Cavin and Colombetti’s paper is so important (and devastating to the resurrection hypothesis).
While both hypotheses are testable to some degree, the legend hypothesis is more fruitful, wide-scoping, simpler, and more conservative. It is therefore, by definition, the better explanation of the evidence that Davis, Craig, and others cite for the resurrection hypothesis. To anyone who studies abduction—the method of reasoning known as “inference to the best explanation”—this shouldn’t be surprising. Supernatural explanations never fare well against their competitors because, by their very nature, they don’t meet the criteria of adequacy. They invoke inexplicable extra supernatural assumptions that are contrary to the laws of science and are thus, by definition, non-simple, unconservative, and have little scope. Indeed, Ted Schick has argued that (given what explanations must do) “God did it” can never be an adequate explanation of anything, and I have argued that the same is true for “a miracle occurred.” Since the resurrection would have been a miracle caused by God, it is no wonder that it fails so monumentally at being a good explanation. Belief in the resurrection is therefore not only unscientific, but fundamentally irrational.