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Dr. Ehrman’s Improbable Objection to the Empty Tomb

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I was wandering about the internet, as is my custom, when I suddenly came across an article on the Daily Beast titled “Do We Know if There Was Really An Empty Tomb?” by Bart Ehrman. The article began by listing the many objections apologists have towards the idea that there was no empty tomb. Ehrman even concedes that they are excellent objections. However, despite admitting that all of the alternative explanations for the empty tomb are improbable; he rejects the idea of the empty tomb all the same. Why? Well for one simple reason, as he explains below:

“But simply looking at the matter from a historical point of view, any of these views is more plausible than the claim that God raised Jesus physically from the dead. A resurrection would be a miracle and as such would defy all ‘probability.’ Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a miracle. To say that an event that defies probability is more probable than something that is simply improbable is to fly in the face of anything that involves probability.”

This passage contained so much objective wrongness in its argument that I was driven to internally rant about it for about an hour. And thus this post was born.
To be sure, the idea that a dead body could spontaneously resurrect itself is massively improbable. I agree wholeheartedly that almost any other explanation for a resurrection should be preferred over the idea that a body just happened to bring itself back to life. What is often forgotten is that God resurrecting the body is one of those preferable explanations.

Really there is no point in judging whether or not a miracle is probable until we have settled the question of whether or not God exists. If God does not exist then miracles are the most singularly improbable things imaginable. If God does exist then miracles are just as probable as any other action we can imagine an individual taking. There is a pen lying on the desk next to me. There would be very little point in me asking you “What is the probability that I will pick up that pen in the next five minutes?” The answer is that it depends on whether or not I decide to. If I decide to pick up the pen then it is an almost 100% probability that I will do so (“almost” because I may suffer a freak heart attack, or an earthquake might strike, or some similar improbable event will prevent me from doing so). If I decide to leave it alone then the probability is almost 0% that I’ll pick up the pen (though again, freak incidents could cause me to do so, such as a madman bursting in and forcing me to pick it up at gunpoint). Thus it is with the resurrection of Jesus: if God exists and chose to raise Jesus from the dead then the probability of that resurrection is 100%. If God does not exist, or exists but chose not to resurrect Jesus, then the probability of God raising Jesus from the dead is 0%. The question, naturally, is whether or not God exists, and whether he is the Christian God if he does.

This being the case I am greatly dismayed when I see individuals dismiss any and all historical evidence that seems to indicate that Jesus was resurrected out of hand because they believe that “Any explanation is more probable than a resurrection actually occurring.” This assumes that God does not exist: and how can we determine the probability of the existence of God? Probabilities are only useful for events that occur in patterns or with defined odds. There are no odds on whether God exists, and God is not an event that occurs in patterns. Better to be honest instead and say that “I believe that it is more probable that very improbable things (such as mass hallucinations, for instance) actually occurred then that God might exist and be active in our world.” At this point we can have a real conversation about why you believe God’s existence is so improbable, and why I believe otherwise. But no more of this nonsense of defining miracles as the most improbable thing imaginable and then crowing that you win the fight be default. I might as well define miracles as the most probable thing imaginable and leave it at that: it does as much good for the discussion.

But wait, you might say. Even Christians agree that miracles are something out of the ordinary and unusual. Surely if you asked most educated Christians about whether an event is likely to be a miracle (say, for instance, the image of Jesus appearing on some toast) they are likely to agree that a natural explanation is more likely. This is true, but it misses the point. I believe that it is extremely improbable that a piece of toast emblazoned with Jesus’s image is a miracle not because miracles are by definition improbable but because I think it’s highly improbable that God would decide to put his mark a random piece of burnt bread. Similarly, if I found a piece of toast that looked uncannily like my cousin Haley I would think it improbable that she deliberately messed with the wiring of my toaster and think it far more probable that it was a simple chance occurrence.

When an event occurs that has many possible natural explanations the probability that it was a miracle seems lower, such as my example with toast. Just the other day I was run off the road by a careless driver. I slammed on my brakes, steered out of the way as best I could, and ended by fishtailing out of control until I came to a stop. Somehow, though I had lost all control over the vehicle by the end, I had managed to weave between two signs and come to a stop inches from a steel fence pole. As I got back on the road and continued on my way (the car that caused the incident had sped away without a moment’s hesitation) I thanked God that I was unharmed. I began to wonder: could this have been a miracle? Could God’s hand or an angel’s wings have brought my car to a stop just in time? I considered the possibility. I have no doubt that God is capable of intervening in such a fashion, but I also know that good people get in bad car accidents every day, accidents that God could have prevented. I also know that it is very possible that I avoided danger by purely natural means: my own quick reflexes and pure luck. With that being the case I am very hesitant to ascribe my good fortune as a miracle. It seems possible, but not necessarily probable.

The resurrection is another story altogether. There are not many plausible natural explanations for a crucified man who was stabbed with a spear, proclaimed dead, embalmed, and left in a tomb for three days suddenly showing up and walking around again. If the thing happened at all then it is certainly a far more probable candidate for a miracle than my own traffic incident, and exponentially more probable than Jesus shaped toast. The question then becomes “Did this thing happen?” This is an important question to ask, and I’ll happily discuss it with anyone. Just remember not to dismiss the possibility of miraculous resurrection out of hand due to “probability.”

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Calling on the Emperor

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I was wandering around when I came across a sentiment that I had heard before. Someone pointed out the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal from the Old Testament. The story, for those not familiar with it, is roughly as follows: Elijah was the last prophet of God in Israel during his time, with the rest of the country worshiping the god Baal instead. One day God tells Elijah to go and challenge the priests of Baal to a competition of sorts. They’ll make an alter with a sacrifice, and Elijah will make an altar with a sacrifice. Then they will each pray to their god to light the sacrifice on fire, without human intervention. This would prove which god was real and worthy of being worshipped. Long story short, Baal could not deliver and God sent a fireball down moments after Elijah asked for one.

Having recounted the tale the person in question brought up a challenge to the world in general. If God is real, and has performed such acts in the past, then why doesn’t he prove himself now? The Bible sets a precedent here for testing the legitimacy of various gods. If God is real then he should be able to prove his existence to the skeptics through a miracle. Since he hasn’t we can dismiss him as another Baal.

An excellent point, and a powerful indictment against the existence of God. But something about his argument gnawed at me. It wasn’t until later, after reflection, that I realized what it was. The problem with his argument is that none of what occurred in the story was Elijah’s idea. God told Elijah exactly what to do. He commanded Elijah to challenge the priests, laid out exactly how to build the altar (which was thoroughly doused with water until the wood was soaked, as an insurance against false positives), and promised Elijah that when he prayed the fire would come.

Now when a skeptic tells me that if God exists I should be able to replicate such a miracle the situation is entirely different. God has given me no such assurance that He will choose to answer my request. It would be one thing if I claimed to have heard from God and was assured that a miracle would occur. Then we could test my claim by observing whether the miracle in question actually happens. But if a skeptic comes and asks me out of a blue for an example of God’s power, what is a Christian to do? God is not my pet. He is not some genie who must answer my commands. He is the Lord.

Now of course I can pray and ask that God perform a miracle. But if I do and no such miracle occurs than that cannot be taken as proof that God does not exist. Imagine some faraway land that is ruled by a mighty emperor. This emperor is powerful indeed, but chooses to remain hidden in his palace most days, ruling from afar. One day a loyal subject of the emperor is confronted by a skeptic who believes the whole emperor story is a myth, and that there is no king in the castle. When the loyal subject objects, the skeptic challenges him, saying “If he exists then show him to me. Have him come before me with a grand parade of courtiers, generals, advisors, and horsemen. Show me his gilded coach and his ranks of servants. If he exists and is as grand and powerful as you claim than it would be a simple thing indeed for him to do this.” Now the loyal subject wants very much indeed to prove that the emperor is real. But could anyone blame him for being hesitant to demand that his liege drop whatever he’s doing and have a parade for his sake? Such a servant could go to the palace and ask, politely and humbly, for the emperor to hold such a procession. But if the emperor chooses not to can the loyal subject really be blamed? The argument of the skeptic fails because if such an emperor did exist we have no reason to expect him to do everything (or anything, really) we ask of him. To be sure such a grand procession would prove without a doubt (at least to that one skeptic) that the emperor exists. But the lack of one does not provide a proof that the emperor does not exist.