one, two, three, four, five, and six.
Finally, how does the Christian account stack up against the naturalistic explanations of the resurrection, when evaluated by the criteria for assessing historical explanation? We have reviewed what I take to be the four strongest naturalistic candidates and found them all wanting. But does the Christian claim fare any better?
Remember, the facts that are being explained are 1. the empty tomb, 2. the appearances of Jesus after His death, and 3. the belief of Jesus’ disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The Christian explanation of these facts is that God in fact raised Jesus from the dead, and that He subsequently appeared to many of his disciples.
Like all the rest, the Christian account easily satisfies the first criteria. Regarding the second, explanatory scope, we see easily that it is broad: it is intended as an explanation of all of our facts, and it applies easily to all of them. As for explanatory power (3), this hypothesis works rather well. It provides a simple and effective explanation of all three of our facts. The tomb was empty because Jesus actually left it; no body need be accounted for. The appearances of Jesus after His death are explained because they actually happened. No appeal to conspiracy or hallucination is needed. Finally, the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection is explained, because this is what their collective experience told them was the case. Indeed, nothing other than this could have put the idea of an individual, bodily, pre-eschatological, resurrection into their minds. What they experienced violated all of their former categories. So they made a new one.
Criteria (4), plausibility, is where this explanation has the most trouble. Here it must respond to the critiques of the miraculous by folks like Hume, who maintain that miracle (e.g. resurrection) is inherently implausible. In fact, given the sum of our experience, it is the most implausible sort of thing there is.
A full treatment of such a view is far outside the scope of this post, but I’ll just say here that in order for this to be an adequate critique, one must begin with the assumption that theism is false, which is of course to beg the question. For if theism is true, then it isn’t much of a step to assume that God could intervene in His creation in a very direct way if He wanted. Also, even if something is prima facie implausible, that does not mean that one is never warranted in believing it. If sufficient evidence were provided to tip the scales toward belief, then no matter how implausible it might seem on the face of it, one might very rationally accept the truth of such a proposition. Here, that evidence comes in the form of our minimal facts, coupled with the insurmountable failure of every non-miraculous explanation. So, unless one assumes from the get-go that the Christian claim can’t be plausible, we have no reason to assume that this explanation fails the fourth criteria.
The hypothesis is not ad hoc (5), since it begins by taking seriously the claims of the historical writers. Nothing outside of their own claim is added to explain our facts. Also, the hypothesis is not disconfirmed by any accepted beliefs (6), since nothing in our intellectual history since has shown conclusively the impossibility of resurrection. Science has not done this, nor has technology or accumulated experience. On the contrary, such an explanation is strongly suggested by our increased knowledge of first century Jewish categories of thought, our better grasp of human psychology, as well as by our improved understanding of medicine and the possibility of a human surviving what Jesus endured.
Finally, the Christian hypothesis fulfills criteria (1) through (6) far better than any of its naturalistic rivals. Therefore, it is only rational to conclude that it is far and away the most likely explanation of our facts.
Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that that fact changes everything. And we have good reason.
* I owe much of the structure and content of this series to work by William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, N.T. Wright, and Greg Boyd, especially Craig's discussion in his Reasonable Faith.