Short Article 12 – Is “best explanation” a good enough apologetic for the resurrection?

In the run up to Easter I nearly posted an article on how to weigh the evidence for the resurrection of Christ. I abandoned it because I had a few others that seemed to me more interesting. In the article I suggested that in order to weigh the evidence we need to first find out what the evidence actually is, and we can do that by asking ourselves a series of questions, some of the most important being:

1. Did Jesus die on the cross?
2. Was Jesus buried in a known tomb?
3. Was Jesus’ tomb found empty a short time after his death and burial?
4. Did his followers claim to have experienced the risen Christ?
5. Did these experiences radically alter the lives of those who claimed them?

The answers we give to such questions go into an “evidential pot” – the set of things that any proposed hypothesis must explain. I don’t think such an evidential experiment is either necessary or sufficient for believing in the resurrection of Christ, but I actually do think it’s possible to do it and for the results to be favourable to the historicity of the resurrection of Christ.

However, over Easter I have been frustrated by the efforts of numerous Christian apologists in their arguments in favour of the resurrection. It seems that the most common strategy is to argue that the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation of some body of facts. But often the issue is left hanging there as if that settles it. Sadly, it doesn’t and I want to explain why.

There are several different hypotheses which are commonly discussed in resurrection debates, besides the resurrection hypothesis itself: swoon hypotheses, hallucination hypotheses, wrong tomb hypotheses, and so on. Moreover, there are numerous criteria which are used to assess these rivals. Let’s assume that the traditional apologetic line is correct: the resurrection hypothesis is indeed the best. What follows from this? Not much. I’ll explain by way of an analogy. Suppose I regularly here noises coming from my attic. Between myself and my friends we come up with a bunch of different hypotheses. As it’s happened before I suspect it’s nesting birds. Another friend – sceptical of my cleanliness – suspects it might be mice or rats. A third reckons it’s a faulty water pipe. A fourth thinks it’s a noisy neighbour. A fifth thinks it’s a ghost. So, we have 5 rival hypotheses here. Now let’s say after making sufficient checks I can rule out the presence of birds or rodents. Suppose also my plumber assures me that the water pipes are in tiptop shape. I also discover that my neighbours haven’t been around for a few weeks. It seems therefore that I’m left with the ghost hypothesis as the best available. But does this fact make me rationally obliged to accept it? Surely not. The reason is simple: the existence of ghosts strikes me as utterly implausible, and even if ghosts did exist would they not have something better to do than bang around in my attic? Since the existence of ghosts is not a live intellectual option for me I cannot accept that hypothesis.

Something similar could very easily be the case with respect to the resurrection hypothesis. An atheist could grant that it is the best hypothesis available, and yet remain well within her intellectual rights is rejecting it. As with all such matters there is always a secret option: suspend judgment until more evidence comes to light. Christian apologists should not therefore think their case for the resurrection can be based purely on it being the best explanation of some body of evidence, at least not if they seek to convince non-Christians rather than simply show that their own worldview is consistent with the evidence. In many (most?) cases there needs to be an examination of a wider scope of evidence – such as the existence of God. If someone is not convinced of the existence of God then no matter how much greater the resurrection hypothesis is in comparison to its rivals, it simply won’t be a live option for such a person. In fact, what we end up having to do is a much bigger and far more messy task: of comparing entire metaphysical systems across a broad range of evaluative criteria. Just how difficult this task is will have to wait for a different article.

Stephen J. Graham

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Filed under Apologetics, Belief, Resurrection

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