Response to “What Would It Take to Prove the Resurrection?” by Michael Shermer

Easter is around the corner and that means the sceptics have once again set out to disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, the way they go about it leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Atheist sceptic and author of The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer, recently released an article on Scientific American that attempts to show what it would take to prove the resurrection of Jesus Christ was true. The article contains nothing scholars and philosophers haven’t debunked a hundred times over, but every Easter we’re inevitably met with the same arguments, so do they hold up under scrutiny?

The article begins by explaining the various types of truth claims. Truth by observation, verification, and internal validation are such examples the article gives, and with these, there can be little disagreement. The article also earns at least some respect for avoiding to accept the theory of Jesus Mythicism (i.e. the theory that Jesus never existed) by stating

“The proposition that Jesus was crucified may be true by historical validation, inasmuch as a man whom we refer to as Jesus of Nazareth probably existed….”

The article further states that most Biblical scholars hold the above as true, but I am skeptical of how much scholarship Shermer is familiar with considering the only quoted author is Bart Ehrman, a very popular agnostic scholar. Ehrman excels in some areas but falters in a few others. One has to wonder if Shermer is familiar with the works of Ben Witherington or Mike Licona. I bring this up because further along Michael takes a stance on miracles that has been refuted thoroughly in Craig Keener’s Miracles, a two-volume work that’s highly referenced in the academic community and is, at the time of writing, six years old.

Furthermore, Shermer makes a slight mistake by misinterpreting Christian theology when he states,

“The proposition that Jesus died for our sins, in contrast, is a faith-based claim with no purchase on valid knowledge.”

This interpretation of the atonement is an entirely modern construct that seems to deny any sense of human responsibility. A correction to this can be found in link 1 below. In addition to this, Shermer seems to equate a theological truth claim to that of natural law, which is a category mistake.

Shermer lays his case for miracles by stating that,

“The principle of proportionality demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.”

This quote was made famous by Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996), who was a well-known astronomer and author in his time. The claim itself carries some healthy skepticism, after all, we shouldn’t believe anything extraordinary unless we can bring forward some sufficient evidence to support its validity. The problem is the quote never defines what extraordinary evidence is or how we will even know if it’s “extraordinary.”

The quote is entirely subjective and inconsistent since we all approach evidence differently. It’s important to note the difference between deductive reasoning which is also known as a priori (prior to looking at the facts) and inductive reasoning which is called a posteriori (after seeing the evidence). Shermer’s approach to the evidence is clearly based on deductive reasoning as he claims that a miracle can never happen because they never happen. He starts at his presupposition and will deny any piece of evidence that doesn’t already agree with his position.

This view of miracles was made popular by David Hume (1711-1776), who was a Scottish philosopher and historian. Like Shermer, Hume held the position that since miracles by definition are rare, evidence for the “normal” is always more reasonable than the rare.

The fault with this approach is that it confuses probability with evidence. It doesn’t weigh the evidence individually for each event, it weighs them based on the evidence for each prior regular event. It’s not a question of whether the event is rare or not but if there’s good evidence for its truth. We can say a miraculous claim is unreasonable on the surface but we mustn’t rule it out entirely before we examine the evidence.

If this quote were a valid way to find the truth we should see it being applied to other areas, but we don’t. We don’t claim a murderer doesn’t exist because the evidence for people who aren’t murderers is far greater, we claim a murderer exists based on individual pieces of evidence. We also never see this applied to historical truths. By definition, the claim that Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world of his time is extraordinary and rare, yet, we never doubt its historicity because it was extraordinary; so why should we approach the resurrection any differently?

The claim that Jesus rose from the dead is a historical claim, therefore we need to apply the historical method to the texts in question (i.e. the Gospels). We can either falsify or prove the resurrection based on the various aspects of the historical method. The five most attested pieces of evidence proven by the majority of scholars and historians are,

  1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion.
  2. Jesus’ followers sincerely believed Jesus rose from the dead.
  3. Early eyewitness testimony to belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
  4. The conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother, James.
  5. Paul, once an enemy of the early faith, became a committed follower of Jesus the Messiah.

One must attempt to explain how a naturalistic theory can account for each of these five pieces of evidence in order to invalidate the physical resurrection. In addition to this, the skeptic must posit a better explanation for,

  1. Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea.
  2. The discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb.
  3. The postmortem appearances.
  4. The origin of the disciple’s belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
  5. The birth of the Messianic Movement-pre 70 A.D.

Shermer makes no attempt to explain any of these agreed upon facts apart from relying exclusively on his Humean view of miracles. It’s not only a deficient approach to the evidence, it’s not taken seriously in any other field.

Shermer ends his article by stating,

“What about the eyewitnesses? Maybe they “were superstitious or credulous” and saw what they wanted to see? Shapiro suggests, “Maybe they reported only feeling Jesus ‘in spirit,’ and over the decades their testimony was altered to suggest that they saw Jesus in the flesh. Maybe accounts of the resurrection never appeared in the original gospels and were added in later centuries. Any of these explanations for the gospel descriptions of Jesus’s resurrection are far more likely than the possibility that Jesus actually returned to life after being dead for three days.”

Shermer seems oblivious to the fact that these possibilites have been examined by many scholars, which casts a massive doubt on Shermer’s authority on this subject. He ends the article by stating,

“The principle of proportionality also means we should prefer the more probable explanation over less probable ones, which these alternatives surely are.”

The irony is these explanations are highly improbable compared to the physical resurrection, but because of Shermer’s grasp on naturalism anything, no matter how improbable, is more reasonable than a physical resurrection from the dead. I’ll provide links below that address the deficiency of each explanation.

In the end, I find the skeptical camp offering nothing more than closed-minded bias far too often. The resurrection is the centerpiece of the Christian faith and a highly reasonable conclusion based on the abundance of evidence we have.

Link 1 (Biblical view of the atonement)

Link 2 (The hallucination hypothesis, also part of a larger article)

Link 3 (The spiritual resurrection hypothesis)

Link 4 (The development hypothesis)



15 thoughts on “Response to “What Would It Take to Prove the Resurrection?” by Michael Shermer

  1. I believe it is a mistake for skeptics to discount the possibility of supernatural events such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Supernatural events cannot be proven to NOT occur, therefore, they should be included in any consideration of any daily event. For instance, if your neighbor claims that he was abducted by space aliens last night and flown to the planet Uranus for mind probing, you cannot discount his claim out of hand as even scientists agree that life may exist on other planets in the universe. Your neighbor’s very extraordinary tale my very well be true!

    But that is not the real issue when dealing with the historicity of the Resurrection. We should not be debating, “is it possible”, we should be debating whether or not there are plausible alternative, naturalistic explanation that are more PROBABLE to explain the un-contested evidence surrounding the death of Jesus. And therein lies a problem. If Christians assume the existence of their miracle-producing deity, Yahweh, then any miracle, including a resurrection, is VERY probable. The overwhelming majority of skeptics, on the other hand, do not believe that Yahweh exists. Some skeptics accept that a Creator may exist, but we reject the claim that Yahweh is the Creator due claims made by Yahweh in the OT that science has proven false. So the only manner in which Christians and skeptics can come to any agreement on the probable explanations for the Early Christian resurrection belief is to define what is and what is not probable based on collective human experience. In collective human experience, even Christians will agree that no resurrection has ever happened other than the alleged resurrection of Jesus. Therefore a resurrection is a very, very, very rare event (if it exists at all).

    Below is what I believe to be a plausible, naturalist explanation for the early Christian resurrection belief. Please explain why you do not believe it is plausible, and ,why you believe it is less probable than the supernatural Christian resurrection explanation, without assuming the existence of Yahweh:

    1. The entirety of your denial shows a great flaw in this one sentence,

      “…we reject the claim that Yahweh is the Creator due claims made by Yahweh in the OT that science has proven false.”

      Most skeptics are reading the Biblical texts through a hermeneutic known as Concordism. This is the error of interpreting the text through the eyes of modern science. The Bible is a collection of ancient books written by people in the first century and before. When approaching an ancient text we need to ask “What did the original author intend to say and how did he understand it?” The Bible was never meant to be a work of science as God communicated His message by using terms the ancients understood. Modern scientific terms would be lost to them. The question to ask is, “Why should God aid the advantaged (us) over the disadvantaged (them)?” The irony is skeptics demand that the Bible be easier to understand for them, yet at the same time, they’re demanding that the Bible should be difficult to understand for the people it was actually written for.

      “…the only manner in which Christians and skeptics can come to any agreement on the probable explanations for the Early Christian resurrection belief is to define what is and what is not probable based on collective human experience.”

      Except this never happens. Collective human experience doesn’t support a group hallucination of 500 people at the same time, yet that’s a theory many skeptics find plausible. Indeed, even your theory denies probability based on collective experience. Why suggest this then go on to posit a theory that disregards it? I’ll look further into your theory in a moment to show how this is so.

  2. I have the explanation on my computer and tried to copy and paste it. I guess you don’t allow that. So I will try to give you a condensed version:

    Jesus is crucified and buried in Arimathea’s tomb. Saturday night after the Passover has ended, the Sanhedrin move the body of Jesus to another grave. Arimathea’s tomb was a temporary arrangement due to the time crunch of the impending Sabbath. The women come to the tomb and find it empty. They tell the disciples. The disciples believe that the tomb is empty because Jesus has risen from the dead, just as he had promised. One of the disciples, probably Simon Peter, has an hallucination. In it, Jesus appears to him in the flesh and tells him to spread the Gospel to the world. Peter tells the others. The entire group is overcome with happiness bordering on hysteria. Soon other individuals are having vivid dreams and false sightings of the risen Jesus. Groups of believers begin to claim seeing Jesus, similar to groups of people claiming to see the Virgin Mary.

    Jesus brother James, at one time a skeptic, had converted prior to the crucifixion. He was therefore caught up in the hysteria of Peter’s hallucination as a believer and had his own “experience” of Jesus. Several years later, Paul had an experience in which he “saw” the dead Jesus and thereafter received private internal transmissions (revelations) from God. Paul suffered from a thorn in the flesh: mental illness.

    And the resurrection belief spread far and wide. The disciples were emboldened by their “resurrection appearance” experiences and were willing to face terrible persecution and even death for their beliefs.

    Now, I know you don’t believe this is what happened. And I am not trying to prove that this is what happened. I am only trying to demonstrate that there are multiple plausible, naturalistic explanations for this ancient belief, and I believe that based on cumulative human experience, these explanations are much more probable than a never heard of before or since resurrection/reanimation of a dead corpse.

    1. Your entire theory rests on one action,

      “…the Sanhedrin move[d] the body of Jesus to another grave.”

      There are quite a few reasons this is false.

      1. No one would have moved the body between Friday night and Sunday morning (Sunday morning being the time the women discovered the tomb). Friday to Saturday night was the Sabbath, so Joseph of Arimathea, being a Jew, would have been forbidden to touch a corpse during this time. Furthermore, what reason would Joseph or the Sanhedrin have for moving the body so early? There is simply no reason, so we’re arguing nothing but unsupported speculation.

      2. Joseph had connections to the disciples (Matthew 27:57), so the idea that he wouldn’t tell them the body was moved and simply let them go forth believing a myth he would know to be false is absurd. This is further supported by the fact that the Sanhedrin were enemies of Christ (1 Thess 2:15-16). By keeping the moved body a secret they were essentially aiding the disciples to believe Jesus had risen. It’s simply ludicrous to believe this group would keep the moving of the body a secret. Also, If they knew where it was, they would have produced it to stop the very movement they were against.

      3. Finally, there were guards at the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). Some note they were set on Saturday, so this means there were only twelve hours Joseph or the Sanhedrin had to move the body. Since the guards were posted because the religious leaders were concerned of the disciples stealing the body, they would have notified them if they were going to move it before Sunday morning.

      The remainder of your theory is speculation based on nothing more than the moving of the body, which stretches credulity so far it reaches the realm of impossibility. It has no conjecture with the historical data.

      1. “No one would have moved the body between Friday night and Sunday morning (Sunday morning being the time the women discovered the tomb).”

        This is an assumption. You may believe that it is unlikely that someone would move the body but you cannot prove that someone did not. The Jewish Sabbath ends at sunset Saturday evening. Again, if the placement of the body in Arimathea’s tomb was a temporary arrangement, maybe once the Sabbath was over the Sanhedrin wanted to place the body in a location unbeknownst to the disciples to prevent the followers of Jesus from turning his grave into a shrine. To prevent the followers of Jesus from watching them move the body, they moved the body under the cover of darkness.

        It is also possible that someone else moved the body. Maybe Pilate changed his mind about allowing a traitor to Caesar have a proper burial. Maybe there were no Roman guards and some of the family of Jesus took the body. Maybe followers of Jesus other than the disciples took the body. Maybe grave robbers took the body. Maybe teenagers out for a prank moved the body. See, my friend, to us skeptics, there are SO MANY plausible alternative explanations for the Empty Tomb alone. You can say that “no Jew would move a dead body” but to us that is like saying, “no Scotsman would ever go bankrupt because everyone knows that all Scotsmen are very frugal with their money”. Do you see how silly that is? There are always exceptions to every generalization. There ARE some Scotsmen who do go bankrupt, and there were most probably a few first century Jews willing to move a dead body. Again, which is more probable (without assuming the existence of your miracle-working deity): a never heard of before or since resurrection or a first century Jew moving a dead body? That is the question at hand.

        1. “You may believe that it is unlikely that someone would move the body but you cannot prove that someone did not.”

          And? We go by what is most reasonable based on the available data. We do not assume the existence of a deity from the start, we come to the conclusion because we believe it’s most reasonable.

          “See, my friend, to us skeptics, there are SO MANY plausible alternative explanations for the Empty Tomb alone.”

          It’s also plausible aliens stole the corpse, but at closer look at that isn’t reasonable. We need an explanation that can reasonably account for all the historical facts, none of those you mentioned do. Do they account for the empty tomb? They fail under scrutiny. Your theory of the Sanhedrin is fanciful but it says nothing about point 2 in my prior comment. Would the Sanhedrin rather stop a memorable shrine or an entire messianic movement born out of an unapologetic belief that He was resurrected?

        2. Is it or is not plausible that SOMEONE moved the body prior to the women arriving to the tomb on Sunday morning? If not, why not? Without assuming the existence of your miracle-producing deity, can you really state that a dead corpse coming back to life is more probable than that someone moved the body?

      2. “Finally, there were guards at the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66).”

        Your original list of “facts” did not include Matthew’s guards at the tomb. Why are you now insisting that this pericope is a fact? This is something I frequently encounter with Christians attempting to use Habermas and Licona’s Minimal Facts Approach to proving the Resurrection. They start off claiming that skeptics refuse to address the minimal facts, but when we do address these minimal facts, Christians then start adding in other claims from the Gospels as if they are facts. Matthew’s guards at the tomb is not even accepted as an historical fact by many Christian NT scholars and apologists. Habermas and Licona certainly do not include it in their list of minimal facts nor even as a majority opinion position. Therefore, for you to use this pericope to say that my hypothetical explanation is implausible seems inappropriate.

        1. “Your original list of “facts” did not include Matthew’s guards at the tomb. Why are you now insisting that this pericope is a fact?”

          Because I believe it is. Beyond the minimal facts, we need to find out if the Gospels are reliable historically, which I believe they are. If you don’t wish to include anything outside those minimal facts, however, I have no problem with that.

          Your comment that the historicity of the guards is doubted by “many” NT scholars is somewhat questionable. The guards are only mentioned by Matthew, which means Luke, Mark, and John didn’t see it as an important tradition or an integral part of the resurrection narrative. You’re saying it should be included in the list of minimal facts but avoided any reason why this should be so.

          In addition, N.T. Wright, who I would believe would be included in the “many” NT scholars you mention, addresses this point in pg 638 of his book “The resurrection of the Son of God.” Of course, this is but one well-known scholar, but your vague comment leaves much room for skepticism.

        2. By the way, even if we accept Matthew’s Guards at the Tomb as historical, Matthew says there was a delay between the placing of Jesus’ body in the tomb and the arrival of the guards. It would only take a few minutes for a group of men to roll back an unsealed stone and take the body.

          So once again, without assuming the existence of your miracle-producing deity, which is more probable: the resurrection of a dead corpse or that SOMEONE moved the body.

      3. “The remainder of your theory is speculation based on nothing more than the moving of the body, which stretches credulity so far it reaches the realm of impossibility. It has no conjecture with the historical data.”

        I am not attempting to prove WHAT happened, only what MAY have happened. If I were trying to prove exactly WHAT happened, as for instance if I were an attorney presenting a legal case in front of a jury, I would need to provide evidence to support my hypothetical explanation for the Resurrection belief. But that is not my intent. What I am attempting to do would be analogous to a police detective investigating a crime that has little evidence. The police detective must consider all the possible, plausible scenarios that are congruent with the limited evidence he has. That is all I am doing. I am considering all the possible, plausible scenarios with the little UN-CONTESTED evidence that we have.

        That word “un-contested” is important. I am willing to accept ALL of Gary Habermas’ minimal facts as un-contested evidence. I am even willing to include the Empty Tomb as an un-contested fact for the purposes of this discussion (in actuality, 25% of scholars doubt its historicity). Can we agree to limit our discussion of facts to Habermas’ minimal facts plus the Empty Tomb?

  3. “….even if we accept Matthew’s Guards at the Tomb as historical, Matthew says there was a delay between the placing of Jesus’ body in the tomb and the arrival of the guards.”

    Exactly. It’s foolish to say the account isn’t historical because we would have seen the guards placed at the very beginning in order to more effectively prove his point that it wasn’t stolen. But we don’t. Furthermore, you’re making quite the assumption that the guards would not have checked the body to make sure it was still there before sealing the tomb. The probability and plausibility that it would be stolen during this time (they would have the disciples in mind) would have been an important factor. Lita Cosner states,

    “All of this is simply speculation. And it relies on the assumption that the Jewish Temple police and the high priests were too dumb to check the tomb before they sealed it. Lack of modern forensic handling of evidence or not, it stretches credulity to think they would have been that stupid.”

    If it was stolen we would expect the guards to say so, not seal the tomb up without thinking to check it. What about grave robbers or a random stealing? Firstly, if someone wanted a dead body there would have been hundreds, even thousands of graves around. Why not just dig them up? Why go through all the effort to enter a densely populated town during the most important feast of the year, roll a 1-2 ton stone, go through the guards (if it was at that time), unwrap the body and finally carry it through the town with thousand around? Not to mention it would be an ENTIRE body. If it were occultists they would have taken only a part, such as a hand or foot. It’s highly implausible that a random thief would go through all this effort to steal the body of a condemned and unholy man, so if it was stolen it would have been someone with a motive. But an empty tomb? No one was convinced of a resurrection by an empty tomb alone. Everyone would simply think it was stolen (Matthew 28:13, John 20:2). If the motive was rebellion? The body would have been shown immediately. If the motive was to get them to believe? He would need to create a conspiracy that included a detailed knowledge of Jesus’ life, the ability to perform miracles (Acts 1:2-3), multiple appearances even after an ascension, and it would have to be someone who wasn’t a disciple or else no one would believe it. And as stated, a Jew would not touch a body during the Passover, nor would he have any motive to steal the body of a condemned and unholy criminal.

    Moreover, the resurrection isn’t a random theory plucked from ignorance. Although this doesn’t prove the resurrection, the entire Biblical narrative, OT included points to its fulfillment. OT prophesies of a crucified messiah, Christ’s divine claims and prophecies of His resurrection, etc. If you’re going to posit the theory of a stolen body it would be an imposter with a motive, which as said is ludicrous if we take the other four agreed upon facts into account.

    We’re asking what may have happened, but we need to go beyond that at some point. There’s no evidence any of these “may haves” are even remotely plausible. The most reasonable conclusion and the only one supported by the evidence is that Jesus was raised from the dead. Since you’ve displayed nothing but ignorance of Jewish customs I think this discussion is over.

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