David Austin looks at a couple of the main points to take away from the 7-hour marathon Resurrection between Bart Ehrman and Mike Licona.

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Recently, there was a seven-hour debate between Mike Licona (Christian) and Bart Ehrman (Agnostic), on the subject of “Did the Resurrection of Jesus Really Happen?” that had been well-anticipated by people in certain corners of the internet. The Resurrection of Jesus has been a topic of much discussion here at A Tippling Philosopher due to Pearce’s recent book on the subject.

C. B. McCullagh & “Inference to the Best Explanation”

It is not possible to detail all that occurred in this very long discussion, so I will focus on a few of the main arguments raised for and against. (There are several video analyses you can find online).

Arguing for the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection, Mike Licona referenced C. B. McCullagh’s (An Australian Philosopher of History) historical criteria relating to the “Inference to the Best Explanation” based on the known facts surrounding an event in the past. This line of argumentation has also been employed by the apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig.

Historical criteria

These now-famous criteria for establishing historical reliability are listed below:

The theory is that one is rationally justified in believing a statement to be true if the following conditions obtain:

(1) The statement, together with other statements already held to be true, must imply yet other statements describing present, observable data. (We will henceforth call the first statement ‘the hypothesis’, and statements describing observable data, ‘observation statements’.)

(2) The hypothesis must be of greater explanatory scope than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must imply a greater variety of observation statements.

(3) The hypothesis must be of greater explanatory power than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must make the observation statements it implies more probable than any other.

(4) The hypothesis must be more plausible than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must be implied to some degree by a greater variety of accepted truths than any other, and be implied more strongly than any other; and its probable negation must be implied by fewer beliefs, and implied less strongly any other.

(5) The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, it must include fewer new suppositions about the past which are not already implied to some extent by existing beliefs.

(6) It must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than any other incompatible hypothesis about the same subject; that is, when conjoined with accepted truths it must imply fewer observation statements and other statements which are believed to be false.

(7) It must exceed other incompatible hypotheses about the same subject by so much, in characteristics 2 to 6, that there is little chance of an incompatible hypothesis, after further investigation, soon exceeding it in these respects.

CB McCullagh (1984), Justifying Historical Descriptions, CUP

Licona’s “facts”

Mike Licona listed various “facts,” about Jesus’s Resurrection, which he believed were widely agreed upon by scholars both religious and secular. These “facts” were:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion
  2. Individuals had experiences that they believed were of the risen Jesus.
  3. Groups had experiences that they believed were of the risen Jesus.
  4. Paul, who once opposed Christians, had an experience that he believed was of the risen Jesus, which caused him to convert to be a follower of Jesus.
  5. The experiences were believed to be of a physical being, and not of a ghost.
  6. They believed that these experiences were “historical”; i.e., actual events that occurred at a specific time.

Mike Licona concentrated on the criteria (2) to (5) as detailed by McCullagh, namely Explanatory Scope, Explanatory Power, Plausibility, and Least ad-hoc. Mike Licona said the Resurrection hypothesis better fitted these criteria than any naturalistic explanation, especially when considering “Fact 3” (group appearances). He cited that hallucinations, which was the most common naturalistic explanation put forward by skeptics when considering appearances, had rarely been documented amongst groups of people at one and the same time with the same details.

Mike Licona conceded that because Jesus’s resurrection could not be a naturalistic event, and required a miracle, then Jesus’s physical resurrection required the “ad-hoc” assumption that “God exists.” He went on to defend this assumption, by saying there were many arguments in support of God’s existence, and thus it was also plausible that a physical resurrection had occurred given God’s likely existence. He deemed that this gave him sufficient justification to say that “proof” of Jesus’s resurrection was achieved.

Bart Ehrman laid out the situation that Mike Licona was not talking about resuscitation or an NDE (Near Death Experience) but a resurrection of a dead body back to life as an immortal body (unlike say Lazarus or Jairus’s daughter who presumably eventually died). This implies a “miraculous” event, not a naturalistic event.

Ehrman’s rebuttal

Bart Ehrman then proceeded with his rebuttal to Mike Licona’s presentation. Although he thought that most of Mike Licona’s “facts” were largely supported by scholars, he disagreed that “Fact 3” (Group appearances) was well supported by evidence. He said that there is first-hand evidence that Paul had some sort of experience of the risen Jesus (possibly a vision), and there was likely some support for appearances to the disciple Peter and possibly Mary Magdalene, but we have only stories of appearances to groups taken from the Gospels that were written at least 40 years after Jesus’s death, plus hearsay evidence from Paul. He made the observation that Mike Licona gleaned his “facts” purely from the Epistles of Paul, and ignored the Gospels. My speculation is that Mike Licona avoided using the Gospels because he knew that Bart Ehrman would attack the reliability of the Gospels from a historical perspective.

Ehrman noted that grief hallucinations following the death of a loved one or of a respected religious figure are well documented, and occur in “normal” people with no history of mental issues. It is quite plausible that someone like Peter would have feelings of guilt when he denied knowing Jesus, and that he fled following the arrest of Jesus. These circumstances would be sufficient to expect a hallucination by Peter.

Christians cannot “prove” that the Resurrection of Jesus occurred, any more than a non-believer can “prove” that it did not happen, but the balance of probability favors non-belief.

Ehrman also took issue with Mike Licona’s stance about saying that God’s existence was not an “ad-hoc” premise. He said that true historical investigation cannot include any consideration of the supernatural. This is because history is based on what historians consider “probably” happened in the past, and a “miracle,” by definition, is the least probable thing that can occur. This being the case, and the fact that, our background knowledge is that dead people stay dead, a resurrection is the least plausible thing to happen. Therefore, McCullagh’s criteria, when applied to Jesus’s resurrection, fail on criteria (4) and (5), and thus the resurrection as a historical hypothesis fails.

McCullagh’s concession

It is ironic to note that, even though McCullagh was a Christian, he did not believe Jesus’s resurrection could be proved by his own criteria. He stated:

Though the Christian hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead has a greater explanatory scope and power than its rivals given the observable historical data, McCullagh deemed resurrection hypothesis as less plausible and more ad hoc than its rivals (ibid 21). He argued that “The hypothesis that God exists and cared about Jesus is of questionable plausibility; the hypothesis that he wanted to raise Jesus from the dead and reveal him to the disciples and others is almost entirely ad hoc.

CB McCullagh (2012), (2012) ‘The Resurrection of Jesus: Explanation or Interpretation?’ Southeastern Theological Review Vol.3 No. 1: 46

Hector Avalos’s added assumptions

In addition, Hector Avalos (a biblical scholar), when critiquing William Lane Craig’s use of McCullagh’s criteria, noted that there was more than one “ad-hoc” assumption, apart from “God exists” namely (adapted from his article at Debunking Christianity):

1. This God must intervene in the world (i.e., not a deistic god)

2. This God must be the biblical god.

3. This God wanted to raise Jesus from the dead.

4. This God did actually raise Jesus from the dead.

5. This God did raise Jesus from the dead, but not any other people claimed to have been raised.

A further assumption would be that any miracle claim from another faith tradition must be false, and that only Christian miracles would be valid.

From a theistic perspective, it is also possibly could have been the Devil who raised Jesus to convince believers to believe in a false god to sow confusion and strife in the world.

Similarly, it might have been the Jewish god Yahweh who raised Jesus as a test for Jews to see if they would be gullible enough to convert to a new religion, and reject Judaism. Unfortunately, a lot of Jews (i.e., Jesus’s disciples, Paul, and other converts) failed the test.

These are a lot of ad-hoc assumptions that William Lane Craig and Mike Licona are ignoring when considering McCullagh’s criteria.

It should be noted that the resurrection of the dead to immortal life was not a new concept in 1st century Judaism. Pharisees believed that there would a general resurrection of the dead at some future “Judgment Day”. Paul, who was a Pharisee, seemed to believe that Jesus’s resurrection was the “First Fruits” of this general resurrection, and thus he believed “Judgment Day” was imminent.

It can therefore be understood that the disciples of Jesus (who were Jewish) would not have been resistant to the idea of his resurrection, since such beliefs were circulating in the culture of their day. If such an event were reported in today’s cultural climate, such a notion would be treated with much skepticism.

You cannot prove the resurrection

Bart Ehrman made the final point that Christians cannot “prove” that the Resurrection of Jesus occurred, any more than a non-believer can “prove” that it did not happen, but the balance of probability favors non-belief. Even when he was Christian, he knew that “proof” of the resurrection was impossible using historical methods; It was purely an “Article of Faith.” With this in mind, Ehrman counseled Christians not to take on the conviction that the Resurrection was proved absolutely, and then take actions based on that belief which were detrimental to society as a whole, thinking they had “The Truth” on their side.

As an atheist, it is impossible for me to give an unbiased view of who brought the better arguments to this debate. I think that C. B. McCullagh’s criteria are useful in determining the validity or otherwise of a hypothesis about a historical event, but they are not really applicable when considering the validity of a miraculous event, especially one that occurred 2,000 years ago, with limited data from dubious sources.

I don’t think Mike Licona’s presentation brought sufficient weight to overcome the unlikely possibility of a miraculous resurrection occurring. I thus think that Bart Ehrman’s position was the most credible.

[If you have an interest in arguments concerning the Resurrection, please take a look at Jonathan M.S. Pearce’s The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story (UK).]

David Austin is a retired Englishman now living in Australia. He is a life-long atheist who moved from being more of an apatheist when he was a guest in a church and was harangued by the pastor. He felt he needed to understand the arguments concerned that he has now studied at great length. As a former Senior Electronics Engineer working mostly in Digital Technology (with a Bachelor of Technology degree), and working in computing for so long, logic is important to his work. He is passionate about church and state separation and is active in secular groups to try to reduce the negative influences of religion in society.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...