This last week had a fair bit of talks, including mine, and they got into some issues of historical argument and explanation that I think are worthwhile. To start though, I want to look at the first talk.
Last Tuesday night I attended an event run by the college campus apologetics group, Ratio Christi, concerning how historically plausible it is that Jesus was resurrected bodily from the dead. The talk was given by one of the best of the Christian apologists on this topic, Mike Licona, who has written a large tome on the subject based on his doctoral work. Licona doesn’t have the same sort of attitude or approach that I see in other apologists such as William Lane Craig, and his presentation was very enjoyable (though he made a few digs at the state of Michigan, which was mostly safe for him doing this at Ohio State). While he has to talk about all the evidence from all the sources from the first couple of centuries of Christianity in his book, Licona focused only on the materials from the authentic letters of Paul.
Licona argued that from the facts of earliest Christianity believing that Jesus rose from the dead that the best explanation of those facts was that Jesus really was resurrected supernaturally. After the talk was Q&A, apparently the first person to ask Licona questions was Frank Zindler, one person that argues Jesus was a myth and, as was apparent from the questioning, he doubts the historicity of Paul and other early Christians. While I find the possibility of Jesus not being historical worth investigating, that case doesn’t stand up well with it comes to Paul and Peter.
Now, you will probably imagine that I didn’t find Licona’s arguments convincing, and there were plenty of things I would like to discuss with him (one point that I only touched upon in Q&A). But for here, let me focus on the plausibility arguments he made with respect to supernatural resurrection events.
When Licona brought up the methods of the historian, he talked about the points of ad hocness, how much evidence a given hypothesis can explain, etc. The last of the points was that of plausibility. Now, when addressing the evidence of the claims of Jesus being resurrected bodily from the dead, Licona stated that this is actually plausible. Wait, what? Why? Because while a resurrection may be impossible naturally, it fits perfectly supernaturally. We cannot say God was not involved, or any other supernatural entity (and we might as well include ETs with this), and since this is possible for God then the hypothesis is perfectly plausible.
Now, do you notice the mistake being made here? It is one of logic and is subtle, but figuring it out is necessary otherwise anything can be claimed to be plausible using this sort of logic (and the point of method is useless). As I noted, Licona was describing how well the actuality of the resurrection explains the evidence of the claims that Jesus rose from the dead. The claims. We don’t have direct evidence for the resurrection of Jesus (we didn’t see it ourselves or have video recordings of it), so we are asking not to explain the resurrection but the claims of resurrection. So when addressing plausibility, the question should not be about how plausible is a resurrection given God exists, but how plausible is it that the claims of resurrection are caused by an actual resurrection. And this is the sort of question that should be asked given supernatural events–that is, what sorts of things are the most likely cause of people claiming something supernatural happened.
And when we talk about this, we are really asking how often are claims such as these actually caused by the supernatural and not how consistent are apparently supernatural events with the supernatural. When we ask how often supernatural claims are truly caused by something preternatural, that sort of scientific assessment is really then what provides the prior probability of the whole thesis.
So, how often are supernatural claims best explained by an encounter with something out of this world? A skeptic would like answer it hasn’t happened yet (a probability of very near zero), and even a believer has to think that most claims out there are not likely true. I don’t think Licona believes Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse or the milk-drinking statue miracles from India. Or, at I did think that, but perhaps he is more open to these claims because of other things he mentioned in Q&A. When one of my friends was trying to get at the prior probability of supernatural resurrection, Licona talked about confirmed cases of these things, in particular, a certain Maria’s apparent near-death experience (NDE) was cited as evidence, seeing a shoe in what was claimed to be an impossible to see location unless one was out of their body, an OBE. But this story, which was only told seven years after the fact, has been investigated, and the details don’t fit the way New Agers and Christians think it does. None of the apparent claims were shown to be best explained by the supernatural. For example, it was possible to see the alleged shoe from the hospital room and did not require anyone to leave their body. The details also don’t come from the person that had the NDE (the investigators could find no record of her and presumed her dead at the time of inquiry), so we only had the wishful memories of someone else years after the fact. Perhaps then it is no wonder the claim fell apart under scrutiny.
Licona also talked about some anecdote of someone being taken to the hospital in a coma, had been that way for some time, was laying there with other comatose patients, and when that person’s family had a big prayer group get together to pray for him, then he woke up and so did all the neighboring comatose patients. One may be skeptical of the facts of this claim (and one sees from the NDE/OBE case above), and I cannot find any info on this event, but let’s also consider the logical problem of correlation to necessarily implying causation. Consider one simple point: are we to believe that no one was praying for these other patients in a religious country like the US? Chances are that they were prayer for and remained in comas for a long time. Sounds like evidence against prayer working, not for it. And such anecdotes mean little when systematic studies of the effects of prayer show no positive effect (cf. Cochrane Review). In other words, Licona is trying to argue for something scientifically disproven based on an anecdote and ignoring all background knowledge. And people wonder why skeptics find these sorts of claims dubious.
Now, part of the reason that Licona thinks that claims like these are so good (and yet not) is that he was relying on his mentor, Gary Habermas, another evangelical apologist at Liberty University (though he got his PhD from my alma mater, MSU). But I have seen that in other areas besides claims of NDEs Habermas is not a great source. For example, he still argues that the Shroud of Turin is an authentic artifact from the 1st century and the likely burial shroud of Jesus. The history of how he defended its authenticity over the decades, including after C-14 dating it to the late Middle Ages, are documented by Chris Hallquist in UFOs, Ghosts, and a Rising God. In particular, the Shroud requires the authenticity of Jesus’s letter to King Abgar of Edessa (something only heard of from ever-dubious Eusebius in the 4th century), and the Templar Knights got it from the Holy Land to Europe, very much a la Dan Brown before Brown even wrote his novel. As for the C-14 dating, these sorts of counter-arguments are rather weak, but perhaps expected from someone working at a university that says the universe is less than 10,000 years old. It may also be worth noting that if the Shroud were authentic, it would mean Jesus was microcephalic with a brain the size of a australopithecine or proto-human; on the other hand, he would appear the same as people in Gothic-style images.
So really, there is a general credulity on the part of the defenders of the faith that want to say Jesus’s supernatural resurrection wasn’t all that implausible. But to do that, it required a mistake in the logic of the methods being applied, and it required being unskeptical of claims that have been thoroughly debunked and only supported by additional suppositions or superstitions (like the resurrecting Jesus shot out light to change the carbon ratios in the cloth which just happen to fit a 14th century dating when the Shroud was first documented and looks like a fake from then).
When instead we consider how often supernatural claims turn to be caused by the unnatural, that turns out to be a low as it goes. I have yet to find a supernatural claim that stands up to scrutiny. And given that background knowledge, any anecdote is not sufficient to provide evidence for the supernatural; it is just as explicable on a person being mistaken, fooled, or trying to fool.
But if we try to actually say that this probability is low, we are getting into Bayesian reasoning, something that came up in Licona’s talk and which he dismissed for reasons that should not be convincing. But they were also things brought up in Q&A and further discussion after my talk. To which I will consider later.