Response to “What Would It Take to Prove the Resurrection?” by Michael Shermer

Easter is around the corner and that means the skeptics have once again set out to disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, the way they go about it leaves a lot of room for improvement.

Atheist skeptic and author of The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer, recently released an article on Scientific American that attempts to show what it would take to prove the resurrection of Jesus Christ was true. The article contains nothing scholars and philosophers haven’t debunked a hundred times over, but every Easter we’re inevitably met with the same arguments, so do they hold up under scrutiny?

The article begins by explaining the various types of truth claims. Truth by observation, verification, and internal validation are such examples the article gives, and with these, there can be little disagreement. The article also earns at least some respect for avoiding to accept the theory of Jesus Mythicism (i.e. the theory that Jesus never existed) by stating

“The proposition that Jesus was crucified may be true by historical validation, inasmuch as a man whom we refer to as Jesus of Nazareth probably existed….”

The article further states that most Biblical scholars hold the above as true, but I am skeptical of how much scholarship Shermer is familiar with considering the only quoted author is Bart Ehrman, a very popular agnostic scholar. Ehrman excels in some areas but falters in a few others. One has to wonder if Shermer is familiar with the works of Ben Witherington or Mike Licona. I bring this up because further along Michael takes a stance on miracles that has been refuted thoroughly in Craig Keener’s Miracles, a two-volume work that’s highly referenced in the academic community and is, at the time of writing, six years old.

Furthermore, Shermer makes a slight mistake by misinterpreting Christian theology when he states,

“The proposition that Jesus died for our sins, in contrast, is a faith-based claim with no purchase on valid knowledge.”

Biblical faith isn’t something with “no purchase on valid knowledge,” it’s loyalty to one who has earned it, and that is often by providing evidence and logical reasons to be loyal to the one who deserves it. In addition to this, Shermer seems to equate a theological truth claim to that of natural/scientific law, which is a category mistake.

Shermer lays his case for miracles by stating that,

“The principle of proportionality demands extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.”

This quote was made famous by Carl Sagan (1934 – 1996), who was a well-known astronomer and author in his time. The claim itself carries some healthy skepticism, after all, we shouldn’t believe anything extraordinary unless we can bring forward some sufficient evidence to support its validity. The problem is the quote never defines what extraordinary evidence is or how we will even know if it’s “extraordinary.”

The quote is entirely subjective and inconsistent since we all approach evidence differently. It’s important to note the difference between deductive reasoning, also known as a priori (prior to looking at the facts), and inductive reasoning, also known as a posteriori (after seeing the evidence). Shermer’s approach to the evidence is clearly based on deductive reasoning as he claims that a miracle can never happen because they never happen. He starts at his presupposition and will deny any piece of evidence that doesn’t already agree with his position.

This view of miracles was made popular by David Hume (1711-1776), who was a Scottish philosopher and historian. Like Shermer, Hume held the position that since miracles by definition are rare, evidence for the “normal” is always more reasonable than the rare.

The fault with this approach is that it confuses probability with evidence. It doesn’t weigh the evidence individually for each event, it weighs them based on the evidence for each prior regular event. It’s not a question of whether the event is rare or not but if there’s good evidence for its truth.

If this quote were a valid way to find the truth we should see it being applied to other areas, but we don’t. We don’t claim a murderer doesn’t exist because the evidence for people who aren’t murderers is far greater, we claim a murderer exists based on individual pieces of evidence. We also never see this applied to historical truths. By definition, the claim that Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world of his time is extraordinary and rare, yet, we never doubt its historicity because it was extraordinary; so why should we approach the resurrection any differently?

The claim that Jesus rose from the dead is a historical claim, therefore we need to apply the historical method to the texts in question (i.e. the Gospels). We can either falsify or prove the resurrection based on the various aspects of the historical method. The five most attested pieces of evidence agreed upon by the majority of scholars and historians are,

  1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion.
  2. Jesus’ followers sincerely believed Jesus rose from the dead.
  3. Early eyewitness testimony to belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
  4. The conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother, James.
  5. Paul, once an enemy of the early faith, became a committed follower of Jesus the Messiah.

One must attempt to explain how a naturalistic theory can account for each of these five pieces of evidence in order to invalidate the physical resurrection. In addition to this, the skeptic must posit a better explanation for,

  1. Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea.
  2. The discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb.
  3. The postmortem appearances.
  4. The origin of the disciple’s belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
  5. The birth of the Messianic Movement-pre 70 A.D.

Shermer makes no attempt to explain any of these agreed-upon facts apart from relying exclusively on his Humean view of miracles. It’s not only a deficient approach to the evidence, but it’s also not taken seriously in any other field.

Shermer ends his article by stating,

“What about the eyewitnesses? Maybe they “were superstitious or credulous” and saw what they wanted to see? Shapiro suggests, “Maybe they reported only feeling Jesus ‘in spirit,’ and over the decades their testimony was altered to suggest that they saw Jesus in the flesh. Maybe accounts of the resurrection never appeared in the original gospels and were added in later centuries. Any of these explanations for the gospel descriptions of Jesus’s resurrection are far more likely than the possibility that Jesus actually returned to life after being dead for three days.”

Shermer seems oblivious to the fact that these possibilities have been examined by many scholars, which casts a massive doubt on Shermer’s authority on this subject. He ends the article by stating,

“The principle of proportionality also means we should prefer the more probable explanation over less probable ones, which these alternatives surely are.”

The irony is these explanations are highly improbable compared to the physical resurrection, but because of Shermer’s grasp on naturalism anything, no matter how improbable, is more reasonable than a physical resurrection from the dead. I’ll provide links below that address the deficiency of each explanation.

In the end, I find the skeptical camp offering nothing more than closed-minded bias far too often. The resurrection is the centrepiece of the Christian faith and a highly reasonable conclusion based on the abundance of evidence we have.

Link 1 (Biblical view of the atonement)

Link 2 (The hallucination hypothesis, also part of a larger article)

Link 3 (The spiritual resurrection hypothesis)

Link 4 (The development hypothesis)