The Resurrection as Best Explanation

One of the reasons why I am a Christian is because of the truthfulness of the story told in the Scriptures. Many people doubt the story’s truthfulness, but let’s look at how and why the resurrection is the most rational explanation of certain historical facts. 12 Known Historical Facts[1]:
  1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
  2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.
  3. Soon afterwards the disciples were discouraged, bereaved and despondent, having lost hope.
  4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his interment.
  5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were the actual appearances of the risen Christ.
  6. Due to these experiences, the disciples lives were thoroughly transformed. They were even willing to die for their belief.
  7. The proclamation of the Resurrection took place very early, from the beginning of church history.
  8. The disciple’s public testimony and preaching of the Resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before.
  9. The gospel message centered on the preaching of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
  10. Sunday was the primary day of worshiping and gathering.
  11. James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic before this time, became a follower of Jesus when he believed he also saw the risen Jesus.
  12. Just a few years later, Paul became a believer, due to an experience that he also believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.
So, how does one come to a rational explanation of these twelve facts? According to historian C. Behan McCullagh, “if the scope and strength of an explanation are very great, so that it explains a large number and variety of facts, many more than any competing explanation, then it is likely to be true.”[2] Here is how the hypotheses stack up against the historical facts, with the numbers corresponding to historical facts not explained[3]: Tomb is Occupied: Unknown Tomb – fails to explain 4-12 Wrong Tomb – 5-12 Legend – 1-12 Twin (conspiracy) – 4, 11 Hallucination – 5, 11, 12 Existential Resurrection – 4, 5, 11, 12 Spiritual Resurrection – 4, 5, 11, 12 Tomb is Empty: Natural Explanation: Disciples Stole Body – 5, 6, 11, 12 Authorities Hid Body – 5-12 Swoon (Jesus didn’t die on the Cross) – 1, 6 Passover Plot (conspiracy) – 5, 6, 11, 12 Supernatural Explanation: Bodily Resurrection – None As you can see, the best explanation of the historical facts that has the greatest explanatory scope and power, is more plausible and less ad hoc than others, is the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus. Since this is the best explanation of the historical data it orders our assent to the (rationally held) belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Christ is risen!
[2] C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions, Cambridge University Press: New York (1984), pg 26.
[3] Credit to Craig Hazen for this handout which can be seen here.
Kurt Jaros is the Executive Director of Defenders Media and the host of the Veracity Hill podcast.


    wuest3141 6 years ago

    As an approach, the approach of finding a conclusion that explains the most of the facts, is good.

    But Christians should know that the language of optimality (“best” explanation) is not a universal definition. In engineering, engineers use the language of optimality for every model they put out, but almost never describe what they mean by “optimal.” There are uncountably infinite definitions of “optimal.” You need a list of things you wish to prioritize, in a sorted hierarchy. Without specifying the list of goals (values), or their sorted order (which goal trumps which other goal), there is no specification of what “optimal” means.
    In apologetics, an unbeliever has a very different list of goals to be met (explained by the conclusion). Bultmann would reject anything miraculous (so would materialistic evolutionists, in biological theory), as not possible. What is not possible, cannot be a good explanation. Most unbelievers deny their own sin, and are looking for conclusions that meet desires for status, accomplishment, personal superiority, or entertainment.

    We need to be more sensitive to the filters that unbelievers have, that eliminate from the beginning the conclusions that most Christians would think to be “reasonable.” A lot of other issues will be revealed, when you start to ask people what their criteria are for a reasonable explanation.

    You will see the end of the trend to not define language of optimality, in this postmodern culture, among engineers who all assert that their model is optimal, but do not define what optimality is, resulting in a collapse of any semblance of technical objectivity down into personal opinions (“my model is better than your model”). Postmoderns do not like to commit to absolute truth, and so will not like to commit to an absolute definition of “explanatory” or “best explanation.” Although this rhetoric is common (“reasoning to the best explanation”), there is often no shared ground to define what a best explanation is.

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