This is the final installment of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73.
Mr. Martin argues that it is not necessary for him to provide an alternative explanation for the historical evidence of the resurrection. But during his writing about other explanations, he placed a precise mathematical figure on the probability of alternative explanations. How is it possible to calculate an exact mathematical probability value for another theory without having any specific alternative theory in mind? How can anyone else assess whether that probability figure is valid? As someone I know has jokingly said, "86.7234% of all statistics are made up on the spot." Without any basis for the figures that Martin quotes, his numbers will inevitably seem to be of this sort. The precise mathematical values seem hollow, if not downright misleading, when there are no supporting details given to show their basis.
It is also necessary that those who reject the resurrection at least look at alternative theories for this simple reason: if someone claims that some alternative explanation for the facts is more likely, that claim depends entirely on there being an alternative explanation for the facts in the first place. For some types of miracles such as a mysterious healing, the facts can be explained in various ways: the fact that first someone was sick, and then someone was well, could be explained by natural causes. Even in cases where no cure is known for a disease, it may yet be possible (in theory) that a naturalistic explanation exists but has not yet been discovered.
In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, the facts include that first he was dead – having been executed in public – and buried, then three days later he was alive again. Naturalistic explanations may be imagined for healing miracles, but at the point of death, nature no longer works to restore health. There is no natural process that restores the dead to life; that’s why naturalists’ insistence on opposing the resurrection is so strong.
There is only one explanation of the facts that he was dead before, then alive after: he was raised from the dead. All the alternative explanations of the facts are not actually alternative explanations of the facts, but selective denial of the facts. Some alternative explanations deny that Jesus died in the first place, such as the swoon theory. Some alternative explanations deny that he was alive afterwards, such as the stolen body theory, or the theory of mass hallucinations by the disciples.
The evidence that Jesus was seen alive again is strong enough to prompt opponents of Christianity to create theories in which Jesus never died; the skeptical community attests to the strength of the evidence for Jesus being alive whenever they argue for the swoon theory. The evidence that the tomb was empty is strong enough to prompt opponents to create a theory of a stolen body to explain it; the skeptical community attests to the strength of the evidence for the empty tomb whenever they argue for the stolen body theory. The evidence that many people did in fact see Jesus alive is strong enough to prompt opponents to create a theory of extended, shared hallucinations to explain it.
All of these alternative theories have something in common: they resort to altering the facts which they are supposed to explain. As such, they do not fully count as alternative explanations of the facts, besides being unlikely themselves. The swoon theory denies Jesus’ death; the stolen body theory denies the post-resurrection appearances; the mass-hallucination theory may explain Jesus' post-resurrection appearances but denies the reality of the empty tomb, something any of Jesus' highly-motivated opponents could have easily checked.
These are examples of the risk discussed earlier: when someone assumes it is always irrational to believe in a miracle, even granted that miracles are possible, then this anti-miracle view will necessarily lead to denial of facts or distortion of reality in the face of an actual miracle. Martin himself stops short of Hume's "always irrational" view of miracles, and stops short of the far-fetched theories which try to provide alternate explanations for the facts. But he does this at a cost: he has no viable alternative explanation, which is required for his assertion that there is a hypothetical alternative explanation that is far more probable than Jesus' resurrection. In how many arguments could someone claim that they have won because their explanation is more probable, but not have to provide that explanation? It would be like playing a poker game, and a person claims to have the winning hand; would anyone believe it if he refuses to show?
Rather than putting any hypothetical alternative explanation to the test so that someone else could evaluate his claim that it is far more probable, he wants that evaluation to be made simply on the fact that the resurrection is a miracle so something else must be considered more probable even if it happened. He wants his readers to follow his argument to deny the resurrection even if it is true, simply because it is a miracle. Granted it is a miracle; but if it is true, would you really want to deny it?
Is it really possible that everyone who claimed Jesus to be dead was mistaken about it, from those who watched him breathe his last, to the executioner who pierced his side to make sure of his death, to those who pried him off the cross, wrapped him in a cloth and laid him in the tomb? No, it is not; we can be certain of his death when he was buried. Is it really possible that everyone who claimed Jesus to be alive on the third day and after was mistaken about it, from the women outside the tomb to the close friends who gave him dinner the first night, the same who saw him come back again to show his wounds as proof to Thomas, those same close friends who cooked broiled fish with him by the lake, to Jesus’ brother who had been skeptical before but afterwards became a leader in the church? No, it is not; we can be certain of his life. There is only one explanation that explains the facts rather than denies them: Jesus rose from the dead.
I appreciate the job that Mr. Martin has done in setting out a number of different lines of thought that bear on peoples’ perceptions of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. I believe his most valuable contribution to the discussion is actually choosing a relevant topic: he gets to the heart of the matter when he asks whether it is likely, whether we can really believe it, rather than arguing about endless side issues as is sometimes done. He added much to the conversation by acknowledging the importance of God’s purpose, and by his recognition that miracles can have value as a sign.
The omissions of Mr. Martin’s article are not unique to him, and I would not wish to fault specifically him for them. It is typical that non-Christians, assessing the probability of the resurrection, do not take into account the solidness of evidence for earlier miracle claims associated with Jesus and do not consider that when thinking about the resurrection. It is also typical that non-Christians do not take into account how few people have been founders of major religions when considering the probability of Jesus’ resurrection; it is typically assessed no differently than the probability of my next-door-neighbor’s resurrection. Again, it is typical that non-Christians' grasp of atonement is incomplete, and this mainly because it is a large subject with many aspects, where any one given explanation is almost sure to be incomplete by itself.
However, the historical evidence is solid, and God has clear reasons to raise Jesus from the dead as outlined previously. This puts the resurrection of Jesus on solidly trustworthy ground. While disputes against Jesus' resurrection will no doubt continue, it is largely a dispute waged against the evidence, fueled on the one hand by those who oppose the idea of Jesus’ uniqueness in God’s purposes, and on the other hand by those who have not yet ventured to hope that God would truly do what so many have asked all along: give a clear sign that this world is not all there is, that he has not abandoned us to the grave, and that he will raise us up at the last day. I'm concerned whether an amateur like myself has given a good enough account, but I hope I have shown why Christians hold to the certainty of Jesus' resurrection.