Evidence for the Resurrection Part 4: Can Miracles Really Happen?
As we concluded Part 3 we noted that many reject the resurrection hypothesis, not on the basis of some alternative explanation of the three established facts about Jesus, but in light of the presupposition that miracles are impossible. Thus, many will claim that they do not know what happened after Jesus’ death, but it could not have been the resurrection.
But are there good reasons to think that miracles are impossible, or can miracles really happen after all, as the resurrection hypothesis entails?
David Hume’s Prejudice against Miracles
Scholars who deny the resurrection because it is a miracle often allude to David Hume, the late atheist philosopher, to conclude that we should presuppose naturalism – a view entailing that miracles are impossible – when doing history.
Hume argued that it is impossible to ever identify an event as a miracle, and that no matter how much evidence a supposed miracle has, it will always be more probable that the event in question is purely natural. Scholars of history who follow Hume will say that we should automatically rule out miraculous explanations because they are highly improbable, if not impossible, whereas naturalistic (non-miraculous) explanations will always at least be more probable than a miracle.
Hence, many scholars agree that the empty tomb, post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and disciples’ strong belief in his resurrection are historical, but nevertheless do not accept the resurrection as an explanation of these facts because it is a miracle. And this is all done despite not having a plausible naturalistic alternative.
A Response to Hume’s Prejudice
This objection to the resurrection hypothesis is unsound for two reasons.
First, regarding Hume’s claim, he only takes into account the intrinsic probability of miracles, disregarding any specific evidence for any given miracle. But while the intrinsic probability of a miracle may be very low, it may have a very high probability in light of the evidence. In this way, belief in a miracle can be justified in the same way that belief in any intrinsically improbable event is justified.
For example, the intrinsic probability that my wife is a secret CIA operative is extraordinarily low. But that probability would be outweighed by the very high probability that she does in fact work for the CIA, say, if I went home to find her credentials laying on the table, and two dozen other CIA agents looking for her and claiming that she is an operative.
In a similar way, even if the resurrection is intrinsically highly improbable, it is outweighed by its high probability in light of the three established historical facts.
Secondly and moreover, it is far from obvious that miracles are insuperably improbable or impossible, and hence that the intrinsic probability of the resurrection hypothesis is very low.
In order to have warrant for ruling out miracles, one must have some sort of proof that God does not exist (or very probably does not exist). But so as long as the existence of God is a live possibility, the possibility of him acting on history must remain open as well. And if that is possible, then the resurrection hypothesis cannot be ruled out in principle.
Furthermore, there are many good independent reasons to think that God does exist, such as evidence from the beginning of the universe, the design in the universe for intelligent life, objective moral values and duties, and so forth (Craig). This evidence taken together with the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus can provide an even more powerful case to think that God exists and has revealed himself to the world through Jesus.
It is therefore far from justified that the probability of the resurrection is insuperably low even wholly apart from the evidence surrounding it.
Completing the Case
But when the prejudice against miracles is abandoned, the historical evidence must be honestly faced. And when this is done, in the words of historians Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, it is seen that “Jesus’ resurrection is strongly attested historically and is the most plausible explanation for the facts. In fact, it is the only plausible explanation for them” (Habermas and Licona, 190).
In Part 5 we conclude our series by exploring what this historical case for the resurrection, along with the resurrection itself, mean for us today.
Many of the insights of this article were gained from the following resources:
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus – Gary Habermas and Michael Licona
Reasonable Faith – William Lane Craig
See our reviews of these books here.
Do you agree that miraculous hypotheses should be live options when assessing historical data? Why or why not? I would love to read your thoughts in the comments below!